The Bloody Morning Wears On

[This is the third post for today, a century back–if you have not yet read the first or second, you may wish to scroll down…]

A major theme of Henry Williamson‘s many-volumed autobiographical novel is the struggle between father and son. Two major weaknesses of the novel are Williamson’s tendency to be heavy-handed with his inter-cutting and to give in to the temptation to put his fictionalized self at every crucial moment of the war.[1] But these faults can perhaps be forgiven, today.

Around 8:00, having heard the rumble of guns in France during his morning walk on a hilltop in suburban London, Richard Maddison returns home for breakfast. He shares the news with his wife, correctly guessing that the climax of the bombardment means that the Big Push has begun. She thinks of their son–it has not occurred to Richard that Phillip may be in combat. Instead, he is grumbling about their daughter’s prolonged occupation of the bathroom. Maddison Senior is the epitome of the armchair militarist, an avid reader of all of the quick-fire military histories, upbeat “sketches,” and pro-war rants that fill the newspapers. But Saturday is still a working day: if he can’t yet look forward to his armchair, he can look forward to the reports of the Great Offensive in the afternoon papers. He feels as if the women are keeping him from his battle.

Richard went into the front room, and sat down, tense with resentment that he should have to wait to get into his own bathroom… his routine was put out… If only he had been twenty years younger, or even ten, then he might by now be in France, living a comparatively free and spacious life… the brushing of teeth, preceded by work with a rubber band to clear spaces of food, made him feel less burdened by himself, but when he walked up the gully again, into quiet air, romance was gone from the Hill.

Phillip was then lying down in no-man’s-land, with the fragments of his platoon. He had been going forward, carrying the Lewis gun which Sergeant Jones had dropped on being hit, when an apparition in coils of white smoke had run to him, screaming to be saved. It collapsed and hung to his legs. The sandbag of phosphorous grenades carried by Howells had caught fire, to close him in crackling loops and spurtings of white thick smoke. His tunic smouldered; fuming ulcers ate into his flesh; he ran to his officer for help. Phillip tried to knock away phosphorous fragments like broken nuts, which were dividing and sub-dividing on Howell’s uniform and equipment. His efforts were in vain.

Before he can kill the burning man with the Lewis gun, Phillip is hit in the leg, and falls to the ground. Howell dies in agony.

A different sort of romance soon returns to take over the story: the posh Catholic padre Father Aloysius finds Phillip and gives him not only doctrine but an apt quotation from Julian Grenfell:

Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

But it’s the bit of doctrine, whispered by the brave chaplain who has not waited in a trench for the wounded, but, like Ernest Crosse of the Devonshires, come forward to seek them, which takes us ironically back from the realm of God and destiny and eternal security and back to the Somme. The padre goes on:

…The Virgin and Child is not a symbol of what should be, but of what is Phillip. That Love is in the world always, waiting for all men. It is the love of God. Now I must go. Good luck![2]

dome 1 [1600x1200].jpg.opt610x396o0,0s610x396But the Virgin on Phillip’s mind is the presiding deity of the battle, a Virgin who seems more like a Fury fully committed to her local harrowings than any symbol of a more perfect world. This is the Golden Virgin of his book’s title, the too-ominous-to-be-good tableau that greets nearly all the men arriving in the battle sector. When will she hurl her child into the rubble beneath?

But fiction takes liberties. Phillip Maddison begins to crawl back toward the British Front Line.

 

It will be many hours before even the local commanders can grasp the strategic situation, and days before anyone in England–or the soldiers whose view is confined to what can be seen from their trenches, for that matter–can piece together the facts. We cheat just a little, then, in drawing this summary from Charles Carrington:

The Fourth Army assault was successful on the right, made some slight progress in the centre, and was a total failure on the left…

 

Suffering most acutely in this failure of the left (i.e. northern) flank of the attack were many of the “Pals” battalions of the north country. These were men who had answered Lord Kitchener’s call en masse in 1914, enlisting in large groups alongside other men from their neighborhoods or professional associations. The informal names that these numbered “Service” (i.e. Kitchener, or New Army) battalions took are evocative of that primary symbolic significance of today’s brutal toll: they are a volunteer army gone willingly into an uphill battle in which they will be outmatched and overwhelmed.

We prefer the lyric voice–the poetry of the personal–because when poets speak, in their compressed and powerful way, for multitudes, any major claims may feel political, rather than poetical. But sometimes later poets speak with authority, or just with clarity. I want to stay focused on the here and now, but when we read of the destruction of the Pals Battalions we should be reminded, at least, of Philip Larkin’s poem:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word…

Never such innocence again.

The East Yorkshire Regiment’s 10th through 13th battalions took the names “Hull Commercials,” “Hull Tradesmen,” “Hull Sportsmen,” and, wittily, “T’others;” the West Yorks fielded the Leeds, Durham, and Bradford “Pals,” and the Yorks and Lancs had two battalions of “Barnsley Pals” and the Sheffield City Battalion, or Sheffield Pals.

Will Streets, coal miner, poet, and now sergeant, served in the last of these, and his D company went over in the second wave on the extreme left, in the assault on Serre. They were supposed to pass through the rest of their battalion in the German front trenches by 7:50, but the first wave had been largely destroyed in its own trenches and in no man’s land. D Company may have taken nearly 50% casualties before they even reached their own wire, but Will Streets was not among them. Yet neither did he reach the German wire.

streets

John William Streets

Once again, a young man in his prime walks uphill into the smoke, never to return.

There are stories told afterwards to members of his family–two of Will’s brothers, RAMC men, were working today in the shadow of the golden virgin, for the big basilica in Albert had been converted into an aid post–that have Will coming back toward the lines, wounded but walking, then going back into no man’s land to help more seriously wounded men. Perhaps he did, but another survivor told one of Streets’ brothers that Will’s arm had been blown off by a shell in no man’s land.

These stories matter more than they usually do because Streets’ family will suffer the special agony of having him listed as “missing.” Like thousands of others who died between the lines, in areas that would be fought over now for months, his body was not immediately recovered.

Nearly two thirds of the men of the Sheffield City Battalion who went forward were killed or wounded, a ratio that was matched or exceeded by at least a dozen battalions on that ravaged left flank.[3]

And like so many of our writers, Streets had addressed the possibility of his death in his recent writing. He had hoped to see his poems published, but he will now join a great number of posthumous poets, the amateurs of Kitchener’s Army who will swarm the anthologies as the headstones fill the crowded new cemeteries.

Streets had written of a cemetery, recently, and of “A Soldier’s Funeral.” He knew that this was a likely fate. But perhaps the poem that can best stand sentinel here is his “An English Soldier:”

He died for love of race: because the blood
Of Northern freeman swell’d his veins: arose
True to tradition that like mountain stood
Impregnable, crown’d with its pathless snows.

When broke the call, from the sepulchred years
Strong voices urged and stirr’d his soul to life;
The call of English freeman fled his fears
And led him (their true son) into the strife.

There in the van he fought thro’ many a dawn,
Stood by the forlorn hope, knew victory;
Proud, scorning Death, fought with a purpose drawn,
Sword-edged, defiant, grand, for Liberty.
He fell: but yielded not his English soul:
That lives out there beneath the battle’s roll.

 

Not far from Streets was Donald Hankey, a platoon commander in the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment–Regulars, in the nearly all-regular-army Fourth Division. (See, once again, the map below).

somme positions 3Hankey had guessed all too well what would happen, but he, in a twist less gruesome than most, will be the master of his own fate.

His battalion was to attack in a mid-morning support wave, but after the two forward battalions were shot down and failed to gain their objectives, the advance was called off. Hankey, in any case, had been detailed to stay behind and organize the carrying parties that would resupply the fighters–it was thought that there would be an especially great need for bombs, i.e. hand grenades, given all of the fighting that would take place within the German trench system.

It’s difficult to tell if Hankey’s assignment showed the animus of higher-ups–Hankey “loathed” his company commander, and may have been despised as a former Regular officer who had left the army and then chosen to serve in the ranks at the outbreak of war–or rather just the luck of the draw.

But Hankey, who had learned of his survival, as it were, three days ago, amply demonstrates that it was not only the innocent, the bloody-minded, or the suicidal who craved the experience of a major battle.

In his diary entry for June 28th he had written:

I see myself counting ration bags while the battalion is charging with fixed bayonets; and in the evening sending up parties of weary laden carriers while I myself stay at the Dump. Damn! Damn!! Damn!!! Then I shall receive ironical congratulations on my “cushy” job.

The grim irony extended to the battalion: after having been pounded all week by German retaliatory fire, the Warwickshires, held within the British lines and–mercifully–never sent forward, suffered “only” 61 casualties, which was not much more than their average over the previous week.

And then the irony rebounds: his battalion was not needed, but his bombs still were. And so, while the proud Regulars cooled their heels and waited for tomorrow, Donald Hankey had an adventure today, a century back.

There are two accounts of what Hankey did on that day. Both of them are his, and both agree that he was ‘the only officer of my Company to set foot in a German trench’. The difference is as to the means by which this feat was achieved…

In a letter to his sister Hilda, Hankey will explain that

I have taken a very small part in a very big battle…

Siege_of_Badajoz,_by_Richard_Caton_Woodville_Jr

Richard Caton Woodville’s depiction of the storming of Badajoz–a more successful horror-story of a British assault, another century back, and duly romanticized. Is the picture in the witness’s imagination less emotionally accurate than the few bare photographs?

I was in charge of the ration and ammunition carriers, and the only part of the battle that I saw was when I had to carry bombs to a party of British who were trying to hang on to a comer of the Bosche front line. The scene was far more like one of Caton Woodville’s battle pictures than I had thought possible. An irregular mound, held by a wild mixture of men from all sorts of regiments, broken wire, dead, wounded, bomb[s], machine guns, shell holes, smoke.

As Hankey’s biographer Ross Davies suggests, this letter home implies that he was ordered forward. But his diary reveals a more personal response to the chaos of battle… and we will read it in the next post, covering the events of the afternoon and evening.[4]

 

Our other carrying-party officer is Siegfried Sassoon. Strangely, given his recent bloodthirstiness and great enthusiasm for raids, he is content to be a spectator. He had little other choice, perhaps–or perhaps this overwhelming battle does not seem the sort of spectacle that provides a place for the solitary heroisms of the Hun-hunting lyric poet.

9.30. Came back to dug-out and had a shave. 21st Division still going across the open, apparently without casualties. The sunlight flashes on bayonets as the tiny figures move quietly forward and disappear beyond mounds of trench debris. A few runners come back and ammunition parties go across. Trench mortars are knocking hell out of Sunken Road trench and the ground where the Manchesters will attack soon. Noise not so bad now and very little retaliation.

9.50. Fricourt half-hidden by clouds of drifting smoke, blue, pinkish and grey. Shrapnel bursting in small bluish-white puffs with tiny flashes. The birds seem bewildered; a lark begins to go up and then flies feebly along, thinking better of it. Others flutter above the trench with querulous cries, weak on the wing. I can see seven of our balloons, on the right…

Yes, in the midst of all this, another lark. This is bizarre, but wonderful in its own way. That is, such a scene could be seized upon by a modern mythologizer or movie-maker (as Williamson wrote a lark into his account of this morning) and turned into symbolic melodrama. Yet it’s real: this is what Sassoon saw, and wrote, these very minutes, a century back. And the lark is no more or no less true than Will Streets’ traditionally-minded poetry of sacrifice–or, for that matter, than the poetry of disillusionment that will come, now, as tens of thousands of bodies join those of Streets and his comrades out in No Man’s Land and in hasty graves.

ATTACKING LA BOISSELLE 103rd brigade

The 103rd Brigade attacking La Boisselle, one of the few photographs of troops in action today, a century back

10.5. I can see the Manchesters down in New Trench, getting ready to go over. Figures filing down the trench. Two of them have gone out to look at our wire gaps! Have just eaten my last orange….

I am staring at a sunlit picture of Hell, and still the breeze shakes the yellow weeds, and the poppies glow under Crawley Ridge where some shells fell a few minutes ago. Manchesters are sending forward some scouts. A bayonet glitters. A runner comes back across the open to their Battalion Headquarters, close here on the right.[5] 21st Division still trotting along the skyline toward La Boisselle. Barrage going strong t0 the right of Contalmaison Ridge. Heavy shelling toward Mametz.

12.15. Quieter the last two hours. Manchesters still waiting. Germans putting over a few shrapnel shells. Silly if I got hit! Weather cloudless and hot. A lark singing confidently overhead.[6]

 

We will go back to the north, now, and to Charles Carrington, for an update on the progress of the battle. It begins with bracing honesty:

We could see nothing, and we knew nothing. When the bombardment slackened and the colonel and I made a tour of the line, walking about rather freely in the open with a facility that was new to me, and made me glow with satisfaction. Strange but true that it was safer to wander behind the lines in a battle when the leading troops were busy firing on one another than on a quiet day when keen-eyed snipers were searching for a target. At 11.25 the London Scottish sent us word that they were in the German trenches and held some prisoners. About the same time we reported to brigade that we could see the Germans collecting in the trenches opposite us. There was nothing we could do about it.

somme positions 3Soon after 12:00 we saw larger groups of Germans in the distance moving across country towards Gommecourt and disappearing into the communications trenches. We engaged them with rifle-fire and with the one machine-gun in our trench at over 1,500 yard range, which was worthless. I twice rang the corps artillery on a telephone that faded and finally broke, but got no reply except that it was not a target for them, but in the area of the 7th Corps, to whom we had no line. We sent a message to the Kensingtons on our left and after long delay were told that their artillery considered it was in our area.

Meanwhile, the German counter-attack was delivered and was accompanied by a crashing bombardment on the whole of our front. For the second time they scored a direct hit on our headquarters, with a heavy shell that burst on the parapet, throwing the colonel, the sergeant-major, the two leading company commanders… and me, into a heap on the floor. But shell-fire is chancy in effect and only one of us was wounded. Then calm descended on the battlefield. No news at all. A hot bright afternoon with grumblings of noise in the distance.[7]

 

In the long stretch of the attack’s center, between Carrington’s southern view and Sasson’s northern prospect (blocked by the row of spurs or little ridges hinted at on the map by the curve of the German line, which followed the top of the slope), many thousands of men are dead or dying.

Those who are wounded but still possess the will to live and the power to move have essentially three choices: they can drag themselves into a shell-hole, they can lie where they are–in either case hoping to be spared both the attentions of the German machine gunners and the random visitations of shrapnel which will continue to pound the area throughout the day, and to hope for rescue once the interminable mid-summer day ends–or they can try to drag themselves back into the Old Front Line.

 

Edward Brittain chose the third option. Not for the first time we will hear the report of the day’s action as it came to be told to the soldier’s loved ones. The history of combat is often history that never can even come as far as chronicle, can never become an unimpeachably well-ordered series of events. And then the terror-tinged memories are passed on, and transmuted by those who were left behind into especially charged stories–not simple tales of walking and running, of wounding and death, but stories, stories of heroism or sacrifice, stories that mean something, that make something out of pain.

Enough editorializing. You will recognize the writer, here:

Edward himself had to lead the first wave of his company. They were not the very first to attack, and while they were waiting to go over the parapet, whole crowds of wounded began to come in & block up the trench, & not only this, but a certain battalion got into a panic & came running back. What with the blocked trench & the sight of the wounded, the panic began to communicate itself to Edward’s men. Had it not been for him they would never have gone. Twice he had to go back to rally them. Finally he got them over the parapet. . . .

He was wounded for the first time when about 90 yards along “No Man’s Land” by a bullet through his thigh; he tried to go on but could not; he fell, & crawled into a shell hole. Quite soon a shell burst very close to him & either a bit of this or a machine-gun bullet went through his left arm above the elbow. It seemed a far worse pain than the bullet in his thigh had been; he thought his arm had been blown off, & for the first time lost his nerve & cried out. He noticed when he had lain there about an hour & a half that the hail of machine-gun bullets was getting less & thought he would try & crawl back.[8]

 

There is one more post today–I have scheduled it to go up at six in the evening, British time.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Williamson himself was in England in July 1916, but Phillip has been back out for some weeks, commanding a platoon and aiding the heroic efforts of "Spectre" West, his Somme Cassandra, to alert the high command to the dreadful shortcomings of the attack plans.
  2. Williamson, The Golden Virgin, 287-91.
  3. Piuk, A Dream Within the Dark, 78-81.
  4. Davies, A Student in Arms, 170-5.
  5. The diary includes a more precise location, for those still keen on their maps: "(I am about five hundred yards behind the front trenches, where Sandown Avenue joins Kingston Road.)"
  6. Diaries, 85ff; Complete Memoirs, 331-4.
  7. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 115.
  8. Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth (Diary), 327.

Zero Hour

[This is the second post for today, a century back–if you have not yet read the first, you may wish to scroll down…]

7:30 A.M., July 1st 1916 was the climactic moment of Britain’s war. This dramatic historic statement is actually fairly close to an objective claim. Since 1914, enormous social engineering and strategic planning had been devoted toward this year, this attack, this day, this very minute. So if there is ever a moment in the midst of this century-on reading/examination/commemoration of the war to take a moment to pause and reflect, this is it.

At 7:30 the barrage did not cease but rather “lifted,” moving off of the German front-line trenches and on to supporting positions. The first waves–variously arrayed in front-line trenches, newly-dug assembly trenches, support trenches that had become makeshift assembly points when German fire made the forward positions untenable, or lying out in no man’s land with their own artillery bursting just in front of them (and sometimes short)–now stood up under their ponderous burdens of arms, ammunition, tools, and supplies, and began to move forward. Most of the men were instructed–a fact made very familiar through retelling–to walk slowly, keeping their spacing, and not run. They must stay behind their own barrage and, after all, the German guns will have been silenced…

A very great moment in history…

 

But then of course the moment, like an archaeological artifact that cannot bear handling, crumbles apart as we try to comprehend it. Even the biggest, most sharply defined chunk of history shifts its shape once its moment is past and its place in the chronicle becomes subject to interpretation. So we will shrink from the size of it, and give way–at least for a little while–to some of the prevailing interpretative “meanings” of the First Day on the Somme.

As it happens, there was a writer not far from the epicenter. Not of the attack, per se, but of its future as vignette, stereotype, and historical parable. The moment when thousands of men came out of their trenches–expecting a walkover (though we have seen that many doubted this) but greeted instead with withering fire–has come to be viewed as the epitome of either the courageous and spirited innocence of the New Armies or the shocking ignorance and blithe wastefulness of their generals. Or both. And, while we’re at it, this moment was a necessary part of allied strategy: however badly the attack was executed, it was incumbent upon the British army to contribute, to try–before France buckled at Verdun or Russia collapsed–to break the German lines in a new section of the front.

But there is a great deal to read today–too much for us to dwell on strategy or the battle for the historiography of military strategy. And I promised a writer at an epicenter.

 

E1851.1-2

A True Relic of the Somme

A few days ago, Captain Billie Nevill came home from leave, bringing with him two footballs (some stories have four). He kept one himself and gave one to Bobby Soames, the best friend of J.R. Ackerley, another platoon commander of the 8th East Surreys. The balls were emblazoned with slogans–“The Great European Cup… East Surreys vs. Bavarians, Kick Off at Zero!” and brought forward when the battalion assembled for the attack.[1]

The idea was something like this: Nevill’s company had seen a good deal of trench warfare, but they had never walked across a battlefield before. Perhaps following a football–or competing in the race to kick multiple footballs, as the story is usually told–would help overcome the strangeness of the moment and get them across 300 yards of No Man’s Land.

This is the sort of thing that inspires both incredulous disgust and enthusiastic celebration, even emulation. In the ten-second course of locating the above image (courtesy of the National Football Museum), I stumbled upon reports of re-enactments and even of a commemorative football tournament. How thrilling to treat war like a great game! But men died while this ball was in the air!

J.R. Ackerley followed one of those balls as his platoon attempted to advance over what John Masefield will call a “bare and hideous field” from which “little could be seen but the slope up to the enemy line.” Since he was there, he gets the last word:

The air, when we at last went over the top in broad daylight, positively hummed, buzzed, and whined with what sounded like hordes of wasps and hornets but were, of course, bullets. Far from being crushed, the Germans were in full possession of senses better than our own; their smartest snipers and machine-gunners were coolly waiting for us. G.H.Q., as was afterwards realized, had handed the battle to them by snobbishly distinguishing us officers from the men, giving us revolvers instead of rifles and marking our rank plainly upon our cuffs… [The German defenders] were thus enabled to pick off the officers first, which they had been carefully instructed to do, leaving our army almost without leadership.[2]

Many of the officers in my battalion were struck down the moment they emerged into view. My company commander was shot through the heart before he had advanced a step. Neville, the battalion buffoon, who had a football for his men to dribble over to the “flattened and deserted” German lines and was then going to finish off any “gibbering imbecile” he might meet with the shock of his famous grin (he had loose dentures and could make a skull-like grimace when he smiled), was also instantly killed, and so was fat Bobby Soames, my best friend…

How far I myself got I don’t remember; not more than a couple of hundred yards is my guess. I flew over the top like a greyhound and dashed across through the wasps, bent double. Squeamish always about blood, mutilations and death, averting my gaze, so far as I could, from the litter of corpses left lying about… my special private terror was a bullet in the balls, which accounts psychologically… for the crouched up attitude in which I hurled myself at the enemy. The realization that I was making an ass of myself soon dawned; looking back I saw that my platoon was still scrambling out of the trench, and had to wait until they caught up with me. My young Norfolk servant, Willimot, who then walked at my side, fell to the ground. “I’m paralyzed, sir,” he whimpered, his face paperwhite, his large blue ox-like eyes terrified. A bullet, perhaps aimed at me with my revolver and badges, had severed his spine…

Then I felt a smack on my left upper arm. Looking down I saw a hole in the sleeve and felt the trickling of blood. Then my cap flew off. I picked it up and put it on again; there was a hole in the crown. Then there was an explosion at my side, which sent me reeling to the ground. I lay there motionless. Griffin and one of the men picked me up and put me in a deep shell-hole. Griffin then tried to unbutton my tunic to examined and perhaps dress my wound. I was not unconscious, only dazed, and I had by now a notion of what had happened. It was another instance of the credulity of the time–my company commander’s contribution–that we officers had been told to carry a bottle of whisky or tum in our haversacks for the celebration of our victory after the “walk-over.” Some missile had struck my bottle of whisky and it had exploded…

I remember perfectly well… resisting Griffin’s attempts to examine me. I lay with my eyes closed and my wounded arm clamped firmly to my wounded side so that he could not explore beneath my tunic. I did not want to know, and I did not want him to know, what had happened to me. I did not feel ill, only frightened and dazed. I could easily have got up, and if I could have got up I should have got up. But I was down and down I stayed. Though my thoughts did not formulate themselves so clearly or so crudely at the time, I had a “Blighty” one… my platoon, in which I had taken much pride, could now look after itself.

My injuries where indeed of shamefully trivial nature, a bullet had gone through the flesh of my upper arm, missing the bone, and a piece of shrapnel or bottle… had lodged beneath the skin of my side above the ribs…[3]

There are two nearly separate things to consider here. First, the bitter brilliance of Ackerley’s account of himself. Given his frankness (and the not inconsiderable fame of the book) there is little use holding to our “no spoilers” policy: this description is written later, at a time when publishers welcomed greater psychological acuity and anatomical precision. But leaving that aside (or not), Ackerley is significant for what he is willing to admit he was: terrified, human, flawed–and, again, terrified. I often refer to Paul Fussell here, and talk about how accurate war writing requires throwing over the old “elevated” diction. It does, but it also requires a willingness to dig beneath the surface: men don’t “fall,” they die; and they are not wounded and plunged into a terrible but uncomplicated physical anguish–they may also be horrified into irrationality by the sudden violation of their body.

Second, there is Ackerley’s version of what had already become a leading Story of the Somme. Other accounts differ, to say the least, but the more heroic tale told by Lt. Charles Alcock–which has Nevill reaching the German lines and beginning a grenade fight before being shot through the head–is suspect as well. Alcock included this detail in a letter to Nevill’s sister, and we know by now that this quintessentially painless death appears far too often in letters to survivors. So too do the details that a man “fell” either immediately or in glorious proximity to the enemy. Most were hit in “No Man’s Land,” that wasteland which seems by its name and nature to renounce purposeful heroism and cry out for modernism and meaninglessness.

Most of the Surreys, however, advanced through it. Although Ackerley, Soames, and Nevill never reached the German trenches, the following companies did.[4]

 

somme positions 3This happened near Carnoy (see the map at left for the relative location of the writers discussed today). Ackerley and the East Surreys were part of the 18th Division’s assault on the southernmost of the line of low ridges which dominated the center of the battlefield. They were, in a sense, at the turning point of the battle, at least as it played out. They had gentle slopes ahead of them, instead of the nasty, banked little hills and narrow valley to the north, and as the day went on it became clear that the German artillery behind that sector had been mostly eliminated by the British bombardment. The machine-gunners still shot down their hundreds, but the ruins of Mametz village were taken. On the East Surrey’s right, the 30th division swept forward and took the village of Montauban, their first day’s objective (the dotted-and-dashed line shown at right).

In fact, the entire assault of XIII Corps–commanded by Major General W.N. Congreve, Billy Congreve‘s father–was notably successful. If most of the rest of today’s account dwells on death and disaster, this part of the assault is perhaps a more accurate foreshadowing of the war to come. A line of German trenches could indeed be taken, but the assault troops will find themselves staring across open country toward a second complete trench system, with a third under construction behind. And the day’s successes had come at the cost of 6,000 casualties to the two victorious divisions.

 

But we get ahead of ourselves. We must move a few thousand yards to the left, where Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devonshires faced that spur of the sinuous hill which held the village of Mametz.

somme_276_mid

This photograph from Masefield’s “The Old Front Line” shows Mametz in 1916 or 1917. The white lumps of chalk show where trenches have been dug; the photograph makes it difficult to appreciate the tactical importance of the gradual rise in the ground.

John Masefield’s description of this section of the line is worth quoting:

All the way of the hill, the enemy had the stronger position. It was above us almost invisible and unguessable, except from the air, at the top of a steep climb up a clay bank, which in wet weather makes bad going even for the Somme; and though the lie of the ground made it impossible for him to see much of our position, it was impossible for us to see anything or his or to assault him. The hill is a big steep chalk hill, with contours so laid upon it that not much of it can be seen from below. By looking to the left from our trenches on its western lower slopes one can see nothing of Fricourt, for the bulge of the hill’s snout covers it. One has a fair view of the old English line on the smoothish big slope between Fricourt and Becourt, but nothing of the enemy stronghold. One might have lived in those trenches for nearly two years without seeing any enemy except the rain and mud and lice.

The Devonshires had two terrible disadvantages. The first was that they were attacking from further back, and had to go over the top on the reverse slope behind their own front line. Thus they were only just reaching their own side of the shallow valley between the lines when the German machine-gunners were recovering. The second was that the village, however thoroughly its housing stock had been destroyed, had been converted into a fortress by the German defenders, with linked cellars and fortified machine gun nests. Captain Martin had studied the lay of the land, and to him the result was far from unguessable.

…as the Devons topped the rise and moved downhill, they were in full view of any enemy who might have survived the bombardment.

mansel copse to mametz

Mansel Copse is at the center, along the blue line which indicates the British Line. Due north is the “shrine” which housed a machine gun.

A single machine-gun, built into the base of the crucifix at the edge of the village, exactly where Capt. Martin had forecast, was only 400 yards away–easy range for a competent machine gunner… scores of men went down, among them Capt. Martin, killed at the exact spot by Mansel Copse that he had predicted from his model would be where his company would be doomed.[5]

All the accounts do not match up perfectly, but the basic facts of the martyrdom of the Devonshires is not in any real dispute.

Charlotte Zeepvat adds a third factor that spelled disaster:

If the War Diary of 2nd Gordon Highlanders is correct in saying that their own advance did not begin until 7.30am, then for three minutes the 9th Devons were the only moving target near the road. They came under heavy fire
immediately from the open ground to the right…

As they drew nearer no man’s land they also came into view of the German lines just ahead and the firing increased, both from there, and in the distance from Fricourt Wood. According to the Adjutant, Lieutenant Hearse, there was also an intense artillery barrage…

But the machine guns were the worst:

…the combined effect of machine-gun fire from several directions was devastating. The Official History estimated that half of the battalion’s casualties occurred before they reached Mansel Copse.

Before, that is, they crossed their own front line. If the exact details of who saw Captain Martin’s model and who failed to act upon it may be in doubt, the details of his death are fairly secure. Private Jack Owen, a member of Hodgson’s bombing unit, remembered that

Capt. Martin was the first to fall. He had gone 15 yards when he was shot through the head above the right temple. He turned his head to the left, flung out his right arm and fell dead on his back.

Zeepvat comments that Martin was probably killed by a sniper rather than a machine gun. “Even allowing a margin of error, [this] leaves no possibility that Martin could have reached no man’s land.”

The battalion’s chaplain, Ernest Crosse, who had befriended the tight group of young subalterns and given them communion yesterday, had volunteered to come forward instead of remaining with Divisional headquarters. He watched the assault alongside the medical officer and came forward immediately to aid the wounded. In his diary, he “described finding Martin’s body on the little track road, which was invisible from the shrine but a horribly easy target from Mametz Trench.”

Martin’s death thus rises toward the classical definition of the overused and meaning-sapped “tragedy:” the prophetic warner, unheeded, is struck down by implacable fate before he can complete–or even begin–his work.

The Devonshires advanced nonetheless, but so many men went down so quickly that their commander committed his reserve company only a few minutes into the battle. Some of them penetrated all three trench lines (of the German front line trench system–no one came near the “German Second Line,” which was another multi-trench system a few miles further back) and reached Hidden Wood and their day’s objective. But not enough.

William_Noel_Hodgson_(For_Remembrance)_cropped_and_retouched(2)

Noel Hodgson

And not Noel Hodgson. The brave young bombing lieutenant, already decorated; the loving brother and new uncle who had yet to meet his niece; the erstwhile scholar who had been working through the epics in his spare hours; and the promising poet who had so recently appealed to God for help today, was shot and killed.

In one story, “he is said to have reached as far as the third German line, keeping his men supplied with bombs, ‘and was then mortally wounded, a bullet passing through his throat. His last words, addressed to his sergeant, were: “Carry on; you know what to do.'”

But that is a third-hand account, tinged with the hopeful sort of heroism that tends to dominate survivors’ accounts to grieving families. It describes Hodgson as he was during Loos, and as he should have been during a successful assault. Charlotte Zeepvat writes that

It was even comforting to think he played his part and died in the thick of battle, but other evidence tells against it. Lieutenant Colonel Storey’s initial report to brigade, hastily hand-written on 2 July, names Noel Hodgson as one of three officers to be killed right at the start in the initial barrage of machine-gun fire, with Duncan Martin and William Riddell.

Is this somehow more cruel? It seems so. Yet we can make another story of it, and one that fits better with the testimony of Hodgson’s brother officers, and of Chaplain Crosse:

‘I found his body together with that of his faithful servant, Weston, in the afternoon of the battle in what was the hottest comer of the battlefield. He was hit in the neck & leg by bullets, probably from a machine gun.’

This suggests that Noel was hit first in the leg and went down, then, as Private Weston tried to help him, a second round of bullets firing at the same height took them both. This was the account his mother, Penelope, accepted:

‘He was shot in the morning charging across with his bombers & his faithful servant was found by his side, also shot, with a half-opened bandage in his hand.’

This, as Zeepvat reminds us, is Alfred Frederick Weston, alias ‘Pearson’, who had been the subject of one of Hodgson’s sketches: “He is my servant, and if he were Commander-in-Chief the war would be over in a week. But I should get no baths, so I’m glad he isn’t.”

Noel Hodgson was certainly brave, and some of the Devonshires gained their objective this morning. But Hodgson died within minutes of “Zero,” “within the area bounded by the two arms of Mansel Copse, before he could reach the British front line, never mind the German third.”[6]

You never can know which letter–and which hot bath–will be the last. And sometimes Frodo and Sam are ridden down even before they make it out of the Shire.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.[7]

 

 

Rob Gilson, who with Ronald Tolkien and other school friends had founded the TCBS, a youthful “society” devoted to supporting each other’s creative efforts, left the trenches at 2 and a half minutes after zero–7:32:30, give or take–in his battalion’s third wave. This was a few miles to the north-northwest, where the low hills were indented by those steep, narrow little valleys.

Having watched the enormous mine go up at the Schwaben Höhe redoubt on their left, the Cambridgeshires (11th Suffolks) were to advance up “Sausage” valley, across several hundred yards of No Man’s Land, to take the German lines on the spur at the top. This was very bad ground, and the plan depended upon German defensive fire having been eliminated. It wasn’t.

sausage valley

Sausage Valley. This map–which like all similar “screen shot” detail maps that I include, comes from the invaluable archive at McMaster University–shows the July 1st trench positions, but was later in the possession of a Lt. Hayter of the Royal Engineers, who added the notes about water sources.

 

Private W. J. Senescall, one of the men on the spot interviewed years later for Martin Middlebrook’s collective chronicle, recalled the scene:

The long line of men came forward, rifles at the port as ordered. Now Gerry started. His machine guns let fly. Down they all went. I could see them dropping one after another as the gun swept along them. The officer went down at exactly the same time as the man behind him.[8]

But this officer was not Gilson. Rob Gilson survived this first advance over no man’s land, leading his men “perfectly calmly and confidently.”

Such reports and recollections, as we have seen, are impossible to correlate; their sum–or, rather, their common ground–impossible to comprehend. But both, surely, are as honest and as accurate as they can be. This sort of confusion is the nature of battle, especially this sort of battle. Timing is especially difficult to harmonize between different accounts, but the devastation of the German defensive fire, once the gunners returned to their firing positions, is not.

After some minutes–a handful, or twenty, or ninety–Gilson’s company was deep into no man’s land, probably sheltering, now, and moving forward bit by bit when possible. Machine guns, firing from the heights on both sides of the valley, trench mortars (the “sausages” of Sausage Valley), and the reawakened German artillery had brought down scores of men in the Cambridgeshires alone, and some thousands throughout the twelve battalions of the closely packed 34th division.

rqg5-2

Robert Quilter Gilson (Cambridge University Library)

They may have penetrated the German front line, and their advance may have stretched out over something like an hour and a half–the accounts differ. But sometime around nine o’clock, if not long before (the minutes proverbially stretching into experiential hours), Gilson’s batman was hit, and wounded. Then the C.O. of the company too was hit, and Gilson took over, leading the next stage of the advance.

Then, finally, Rob Gilson was hit by a shell-burst, and killed alongside the company sergeant-major. Or he was terribly wounded by the shrapnel, and managed to drag himself back toward the lines before he died. Recollections differ.

Six of the Cambridgeshires’ sixteen officers were killed; nine were wounded–over 500 men were casualties. The 34th division had one of the worst positions and took the heaviest casualties of any today, a century back–6,380.

Gilson’s last letter and his Field Service Postcard–proclaiming him to be “quite well” as of June 30th–will arrive shortly at his home in Birmingham. There, this morning, a century back, his family is now preparing for Sports Day at King Edward’s School, where the TCBS had come together and where Gilson’s father is headmaster. Gilson, like Ackerley, had chosen not to send a formal “last letter.” He told a friend that “[i]t is no use harrowing people with farewell letters… Those who survive can write all that is necessary.”

Instead, then, the letter-that-turned-out-to-be-last had talked of the beauty of gardens and of gunfire. But it did not obscure the truth of war with patriotic bromides: “It would be wonderful to be a hundred miles from the firing line once again.”

A telegram from the Army will follow that letter within the next few days.

 

Tolkien, whose own battalion is marching up now to relieve the assault troops, will have the good fortune to cross paths with his friend G.B. Smith in the coming days. Smith, too, was in the battle today, and his battalion had been mauled as it tried to hold a paltry advance some two miles to the north-east of Gilson’s battalion, in the Leipzig Salient. Smith was lucky to come through unscathed. The two will, of course, wonder about the fate of their fellow member of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society. Although Gilson’s body would be almost in sight of their positions, it will be two weeks before the news of his death filters back to them, through the printed casualty lists.[9]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, whose battalion will support the attack with carrying parties, has been hunkered down in his dugout, an advertising slogan running in his head:

…Then the bombardment lifted and lessened, our vertigo abated, and we looked at one another in dazed relief. Two Brigades of our Division were now going over the top on our right. Our Brigade was to attack ‘when the main assault had reached its final objective’. In our fortunate rôle of privileged spectators[10] Barton and I went up the stairs to see what we could from Kingston Road Trench. We left Jenkins crouching in a corner, where he remained most of the day. His haggard blinking face haunts my memory. He was an example of the paralysing effect which such an experience could produce on a nervous system sensitive to noise, for he was a good officer both before and afterwards. I felt no sympathy for him at the time, but I do now. From the support-trench, which Barton called ‘our opera box’, I observed as much of the battle as the formation of the country allowed, the rising ground on the right making it impossible to see anything of the attack towards Mametz. A small shiny black note-book contains my pencilled particulars, and nothing will be gained by embroidering them with afterthoughts. I cannot turn my field-glasses on to the past.

Perhaps not, but he does peer down through his binocular bifocals and clean up the diary a bit. I’ll quote from the memoir[11] and correct from the original diary when necessary…

First, the diary:

July 1st, 7.30 a.m.

…The air vibrates with the incessant din—the whole earth shakes and reeks and throbs–it is one continuous roar…  Attack should be starting now, but one can’t look our, as the machine-gun bullets are skimming.

Inferno–inferno–bang–smash!

And, from the memoir, a version of the battle’s first few minutes, as witnessed from a trench opposite Fricourt:

7 45. The barrage is now working to the right of Fricourt and beyond. I can see the 21st Division advancing
about three-quarters of a mile away on the left and a few Germans coming to meet them, apparently surrendering. Our men in small parties (not extended in line) go steadily on to the German front line.

Brilliant sunshine and a haze of smoke drifting along the landscape. Some Yorkshires a little way below on the left, watching the show and cheering as if at a football match. The noise almost as bad as ever.[12]

 

Sassoon was able to see some of the small successes in this part of the line, but further to the north few of the British troops made progress. Those who entered the German lines were in most cases soon driven out again. Had he been a bit higher or further back he would have been able to see Rob Gilson and the Cambridgeshires in their futile run up Sausage Valley. Further to the north was the spur of La Boisselle, and beyond it “Mash Valley”–the natural complement to Sausage. Beyond that, the spur of Ovillers and Nab Valley (latterly “Blighty Valley”).

Nab Valley was assaulted by troops of the 70th Brigade. The 9th York and Lancs, who had moved forward into recently-dug assembly trenches, would be the first wave, while the 11th Sherwood Foresters would attack as a second wave later in the morning, moving through the German front lines and on toward Mouquet Farm.

But the German artillery had not been destroyed, and it had the new trenches accurately mapped and measured. By the time the 11th Sherwood Foresters–one of their platoons led by Edward Brittain–moved forward, they had to pass many dead and many wounded screaming and crying out in the assembly trenches. They could have had few doubts about what would await them as they went over the top.

 

Will Streets, of the 12th York and Lancs–in the 94th Brigade, the 31st Division, and the 8th Corps, on the left, or northern, flank of the 4th Army’s assault–faced a similar situation, but even worse. The first two companies of the battalion went over at Zero Hour, 7:30, and were immediately raked by massed machine gun and artillery fire. His D Company was slated to move up and through the first wave at Zero plus twenty, or 7:50. But the first wave had already been destroyed. Another member of the battalion remembered:

The first line all lay down and I thought they’d had different orders because we’d all been told to walk… They were just mown down like corn. Our line simply went forward and the same thing happened…. a lot of the first line were stuck on the wire, trying to get through. We didn’t get to the German wire, I didn’t get as far as our wire. Nobody did, except just a few odd ones… Only a few crept along. I lay down. We weren’t getting any orders at all; there was nobody to give any orders, because the officers were shot down.[13]

 

Charles Carrington had a very good view of this disastrous attack, aimed at Serre–until he didn’t. We’ll close this post with his description of the scene at 7:30, which illustrates both the necessity of taking a strategic view of the huge battle, and the impossibility of making any sense of it from afar:

Let us narrow our gaze to Hunter-Weston’s 8th Corps…. Twenty-nine infantry battalions, ‘went over the top’ on this narrow frontage, which is to say that the action of this corps alone was comparable to the British share of the Battle of Waterloo….  Wellington… won a decisive victory for a loss of 7,000 British killed and wounded; Hunter-Weston…. lost 15,000 men in a day, without securing a foothold in the German front at any point; and his was one of six British corps–six battles of Waterloo in a row, and four of them massive defeats.On the left, the two attacking divisions of the Third Army (56th and 46th) failed in their attempts to pinch out Gommecourt Wood, since only the right-hand claw of the pincer got a hold. It was this episode that I witnessed.

The morning of Saturday, 1st July, broke clear and fine… We stood to at 6.30 and as I left the village for our forward trench–wildly excited at actually being in the centre of a great battle–the air quivered with bombardment of a new intensity, to which the Germans gave the name of drum-fire. Gusts of shrapnel were stripping the trees of their leaves, which lay in a carpet on the ground as if it were autumn…

Ten minutes before zero I sent the code-message by landline to brigade and, half an hour after zero, reported again that the poisonous smoke-cloud was blowing steadily away. No need for us to put on gas-masks. At 7.30 someone said: “There they go!” and on our left we had glimpses of a few men of the London Scottish in their hodden-grey kilts, running forward into the smoke. That was all. That and a growing hullaballoo of noise. On the right towards Serre, no visibility. You could hear the battle but you couldn’t see it.[14]

 

Finally, here is John Masefield’s collective evocation of Zero Hour. He will write it next year, but it seems almost post-war–mournful and elegiac, if still proud. But 7:30 AM on July the First, 1916 is not a moment that a future Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom can overlook.

Our men felt that now, in a few minutes, they would see the enemy and know what lay beyond those parapets and probe the heart of that mystery. So, for the last half-hour, they watched and held themselves ready, while the screaming of the shells grew wilder and the roar of the bursts quickened into a drumming. Then as the time drew near, they looked a last look at that unknown country, now almost blotted in the fog of war, and saw the flash of our shells, breaking a little further off as the gunners “lifted,” and knew that the moment had come. Then for one wild confused moment they knew that they were running towards that unknown land, which they could still see in the dust ahead. For a moment, they saw the parapet with the wire in front of it, and began, as they ran,[15] to pick out in their minds a path through that wire. Then, too often, to many of them, the grass that they were crossing flew up in shards and sods and gleams of fire from the enemy shells, and those runners never reached the wire, but saw, perhaps, a flash, and the earth rushing nearer, and grasses against the sky, and then saw nothing more at all, for ever and for ever and for ever.[16]

 

The next post, scheduled for noon, will track several of our writers into the later morning as the battle unfolds.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This is silly, but: had group play turned out slightly differently--up the Welsh!--and had Iceland not played giant-killer, then the Eurocup might have produced an England-Germany match-up on the centennial...
  2. This fact, as well as several other elements of Ackerley's account (which was written much later) may not be accurate. Other sources report that some officers were specifically instructed to dress like their men. Nevertheless, proportional casualties among subalterns were, as throughout the war, considerably higher than among enlisted men.
  3. My Father and Myself, 76-80.
  4. See Hart, The Somme, 187.
  5. Middlebrook, The First Day, 125.
  6. Zeepvat, Before Action, 194-201.
  7. This is the last verse of Hodgson's last poem, Before Action.
  8. The First Day on the Somme, 125.
  9. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 151-6.
  10. The Epicurean perspective once again!
  11. Purely, I must admit, exhausted at this point, because I have a better-scanned copy of it...
  12. Diaries, 85; Complete Memoirs, 331-2. Amusingly, the diary lacks the "almost." Judicious...
  13. Hart, The Somme, 137-8.
  14. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 113-4.
  15. This is a romanticizing generalization: the attacking troops were told to walk, and they were too heavily laden in any case to run, over broken ground, for more than a few steps.
  16. Masefield, The Old Front Line, 25-6.

The Somme: The Calm and the Storm

Today is the worst day. The First Day on the Somme, more than any other day of the war, strains the limits of chronicle. It’s a day unlike any other–it has its own books,[1] it has a secure place as historical symbol or shorthand–the concentrated essence of the bloody futility of trench warfare–and it has its own legend. This is the day that stands both for British sacrifice–that noble, Brookean ideal of patriotic sacrifice beloved of so many of the men who will die today–and for the horrific toll that bad generalship will take on infantry.

On the one hand, then, this is a day of days for this project. On the other hand, the disastrous First of July overwhelms it. There is the nagging sense that this day “means” too much, or that it’s not really a matter of a day but a matter of hours, even of minutes–those horrible minutes when the first waves climbed out of their trenches and were mowed down in the open. But more than that there is the sense that this day overwhelms the sort of individual experiences that this blog seeks to stitch together. If we didn’t feel that the sufferings of individual men on specific days mattered, we wouldn’t read history. But when more than nineteen thousand men die and nearly twice as many are wounded, can “experience” still stretch out and keep contact with “history?”

So much happens today that it feels necessary not only to do some (relatively) careful geography but to examine the century-back war hour by hour, rather than taking the day in one glance.[2]

I’ve prepared a simple map (see below), showing the approximate position of ten of our writers (or their friends and loved ones), and I’ve decided to break up the day into four sections and follow each soldier’s story through the day, as far as it goes.

I’ve done one post each day since the start of the war, and I plan to do the same until the end. But today there will be four sequential posts. This one will go on to describe the last hours of preparation and bombardment while the next three will cover the initial attack at 7:30, the development of the battle, and the aftermath of the afternoon and evening. I usually time the posts for the British morning, but I’ve set this one to go early, the next to be posted at the moment of the assault,[3] and the following two at noon and six in the evening.[4]

 

First, let’s take stock: many of ‘our’ central writers were not in the battle: Edward Thomas spent the morning clearing out his study, reclaimed by his landlady;[5] Wilfred Owen was in barracks, still adjusting to officerhood; Robert Graves is en route to the battle, but has not yet rejoined a combat battalion in the wake of nasal surgery; Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney two poets in the ranks, are both in new battalions still being held in reserve; and the entire Guards Division–including Bim Tennant, Harold Macmillan, and Raymond Asquith–will remain in Belgium throughout the early stages of the Somme battle. Some of these men were relatively carefree today, others freighted with worry: J.R.R. Tolkien, whose 11th Lancashire Fusiliers were also in reserve, will be safe, but he had recently received what amounted to “last letters” from two of his old school friends.

somme positions 3

A map of the main assault, from Hart, “The Somme,” with authorial intrusions

Others will find themselves in direct supporting roles and witness the attack, while five young men who have appeared here before will go over the top with the first waves.

Let’s begin with Charles Carrington, teenage adjutant of the 1/5th Royal Warwickshires. Most of an adjutant’s work is clerical, and so he will have few specific duties during the battle, serving instead as his colonel’s aide. The 5th Warwickshires, part of the 48th Division, have been assigned a supporting role at one of the hinge-points of the attack, the junction of the Third and Fourth Armies (see the map, at right, top. The attack of the Third Army is intended as a diversion, and hence is omitted from most maps, including this one.)

Carrington will not himself assault the German lines, but he will have a good view of one section of the battle, and he thus chooses to take up the role of on-the-ground tactical commentator rather than personal memoir-writer. With him we can follow the progress, and regress, of the most northerly thrust of the main effort.

The colonel and I had a command post, obligingly constructed for us and ‘camouflaged’ (a new word in those days) by the divisional engineers. No sooner was it ready than the Germans scored a direct hit on it with a rather large shell at a time when, fortunately, we were not at home. Whereupon we decided to fix our battle position in an open trench behind a hedgerow from which there was a long view across country towards Serre and Bucquoy. I was much concerned with the state of the Serre road which ran through the lines, since I should have to organize the movement of our transport along it when the general advance should begin–not, we thought on the first or second day of the battle. The senior major teased me for my anxiety, assuring me that all we needed would be the officers’ mess-cart, since he had a case of champagne in store for celebrating the coming victory….

We and the 7th Battalion were to hold the line in front of Hebuterne and were to discharge a cloud of smoke and poison gas… On our right the main attack would be delivered by the Fourth Army…

Ours was thus the left-hand battalion of Hunter-Weston’s 8th corps and Rawlinson’s Fourth Army… at this difficult key-point in the battle I never received a visit from any staff officer from either army of from either corps headquarters. They stood odd at a distance and discharged preemptory orders at us.

My notebook is full of detailed instructions, largely relating to intricate traffic plans…[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, convinced that he will not survive the summer, has known for some days now that he will surely survive the initial attack: the first battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, too, are to be in support only. Yet Sassoon, like Carrington, will have an excellent view of an important junction: he is within view of the fortified village of Mametz, at the hinge between the eastward and northward sections of the attack.

Sassoon set the scene in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer:

On July the first the weather, after an early morning mist, was of the kind commonly called heavenly. Down in our frowsty cellar we breakfasted at six, unwashed and apprehensive. Our table, appropriately enough, was an empty ammunition box. At six-forty-five the final bombardment began, and there was nothing for us to do except sit round our candle until the tornado ended. For more than forty minutes the air vibrated and the earth rocked and shuddered. Through the sustained uproar the tap and rattle of machine-guns could be identified; but except for the whistle of bullets no retaliation came our way until a few 5 9 shells shook the roof of our dug-out. Barton and I sat speechless, deafened and stupefied by the seismic state of affairs, and when he lit a cigarette the match flame staggered crazily. Afterwards I asked him what he had been thinking about. His reply was “Carpet slippers and Kettle-holders”. My own mind had been working in much the same style, for during that cannonading cataclysm the following refrain was running in my head:

They come as a boon and a blessing to men,
The Something, the Owl, and the Waverley Pen.

For the life of me I couldn’t remember what the first one was called. Was it the Shakespeare? Was it the Dickens? Anyhow it was an advertisement which I’d often seen in smoky, railway stations.[7]

It was “the Pickwick,” a brand of steel nib–but then again the point is that the minds of men tense with expectation and bruised by long bombardment are neither here nor there, neither sensible nor complete.

 

Sassoon, at least, had to be primed to lead his men in various support missions–they were detailed to bring up materiel in support of the attack. Other battalions had done their work, and were entirely out of today’s fighting. This is all we’ll hear from Guy Chapman, whose 13th Royal Fusiliers were behind the lines, near Adinfer Wood.

The morning of July 1st dawned in its usual heat haze. We stood down about half-past three. I had been on duty since six o’clock on the previous evening, and going to my shelter fell asleep at once. Presently there crept over me the sensation of being rocked to and fro by someone with no sense of rhythm…[8]

 

As the bombardment built toward its conclusion, several of our writers were still hours away, including Donald Hankey, his battalion scheduled to attack in a mid-morning support wave; George Coppard, detailed to support the northern subsidiary attack; and Alan Seeger, who will go forward with the French Army, far to the south, in the afternoon.

 

But Rob Gilson, J.R. Ackerley, Will Streets, Edward Brittain, and Noel Hodgson will either leave their trenches during the last minutes of the bombardment or go “over the top” when it ceases. Streets, now a sergeant with the 12th Yorks and Lancs, will attack in a second wave, at “zero plus twenty.” In preparation, he and his men crawled out into no man’s land during the final minute of the barrage.

We’ll let Charlotte Zeepvat’s reconstruction of the experience of Hodgson and his battalion–the 9th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment–stand for what the tens of thousands of first-wave troops were now feeling.

At 6.25am the bombardment became intense. The air vibrated with the sound and the ground shook.

Rowand Freeman, a platoon commander in B Company of the 9th Devons, described the last few minutes:

…we were in assembly trenches waiting to “go over”. [Hodgson] and Capt. Martin and I were watching the bombardment of Mametz village. Then we sat on the fire step and ate some sandwiches. We were all very cheery & I don’t hesitate in saying that dear old “Uncle” was the cheeriest of the lot.

Hodgson, in command of the battalion’s specialist bombing section, was apparently moved up at the last minute from one of the supporting waves to the second. He hurried off to get the rum ration issued to his bombers…

All along the British front line, zero hour was 7.30am, but the 9th Devons and 2nd Borders, with extra ground to cover, went over the top three minutes before the barrage lifted. At 7.27am, Captain Martin with two platoons of A Company and Captain Pridham with two platoons of B Company, one of which was led by Rowan Freeland, climbed out of their trenches and began to move forward. Behind them, in the second line, the other two platoons of both companies and the first of the bombing sections; in the third line, Harold Rayner leading C Company, probably flanked by the remaining bombers, all three lines going over the top and moving forward simultaneously towards Mansel Copse, across the lower slope of the hill.[9]

 

Two literary bits, now, before this post closes. The next will begin with the assault.

 

The First Day on The Somme seems to have overawed most of the writers of Great War combat fiction. It seems to generally play a subsidiary or background role, a historical crater (or, thematically, a looming peak) around which historical-fictional protagonists gingerly edge. It’s too big, too much, and, perhaps, too deadly.

But Henry Williamson climbs every mountain, and he sloshes across every mud-filled crater. His fictional alter-ego Phillip Maddison has arrived back at the front in time to set the stage for the battle’s disasters, and to join the first waves of the assault. His (fictional) battalion will attack from an assembly trench between Ovilliers and La Boiselle, apparently as part of the 8th division, and thus not far from where Edward Brittain will do the same. With admirable economy, he provides for us the inevitable symbolic prelude:

The steely light above the north-west horizon, beyond the valley of the Ancre and Athuille wood, had scarcely began to fade when a new light, as of an electrified and glowing energy, began to rise in the north-east, over the Bapaume Road and the fortress of La Boiselle. Soon larks were rising above no-man’s-land, eager to see the sun.

With the lark-song came the hot soup containers, each slung on a pole borne on the shoulders of two men. Phillip saw his sergeant, and told him to dish it out at 6 a.m.[10]

 

Lastly, to represent poetry and to see us off to the attack, Ivor Gurney. His entire division, the 61st, was in reserve, but evidently well-positioned to watch the troops assemble.

 

To England — A Note

I watched the boys of England where they went
Through mud and mire to do appointed things.
See one a stake, and one wire-netting brings.
And one comes slowly under a burden bent
Of ammunition. Though the strength be spent
They “carry on” under the shadowing wings
Of Death the ever present. And hark, one sings
Although no joy from the grey skies be lent.
Are these the heroes — these? have kept from you
The flood of German beastliness so long?
Shall break the devil’s legions? These they are,
Who do in silence what they might boast to do.
In the height of battle tell the world in Song
How they do hate and fear the face of War.

Ivor Gurney[11]

References and Footnotes

  1. Martin Middlebrook's The First Day on the Somme is an important work of collective oral history (though not without its flaws) upon which I will draw below. More recently, there is Joe Sacco's The Great War, which is in fact a sort of mute graphic novel, an "illustrated panorama" of the today's attack--it's a strange and fascinating work, not least for the fact that it shows so much detail and yet somehow seems to leave the actual mechanisms of destruction unexplained. There are also, of course, several histories of the entire battle, each with long chapters on the first day, and many studies of different angles and subjects of the war which dilate on today, a century back.
  2. This may be a mistake: just as these hours are the most exhaustively studied by British historians and enthusiasts, these few miles of ground are the most carefully curated, and many historians and battlefield guides know the lay of this land very well. I visited the battlefield once, years ago, and must depend, as always, on secondary descriptions to supplement our witness-writers. But it is more in the spirit of the thing, anyway, to do what I've been trying to do over the last few days, namely to get to know the land from the contemporary maps, and from literature: John Masefield wrote a short book--The Old Front Line--that memorializes the physical locations from which the British attacked, describing them as they appeared in the year after the battle. I had planned to use him more, but have run out of time--a few brief selections, below, will show how the book works to supplement a map (which was included as a foldout in the 1917 edition, for those who would scour the used booksellers rather than settling for the facsimile versions or the scanned version online!)
  3. Unless I have misunderstood British War Time (very possible!), the 7:30 of the attack should be British Summer Time 7:30, or GMT 6:30.
  4. Apologies to those of you who have the posts forwarded via text or twitter or some such service if this puts off the timing. Management is not responsible for third-party delivery systems...
  5. Hollis, Now All Roads, 292.
  6. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 111-112.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 331-2.
  8. A Passionate Prodigality, 89.
  9. Zeepvat, Before Action, 194-5.
  10. Williamson, The Golden Virgin, 276-7.
  11. War Letters, 79-80.

Will Streets Faces Death and Publication; River-Bathing with Patrick Shaw-Stewart

A nice contrast in two short pieces today, a century back. Will Streets, coal miner and aspiring poet, is an outlier here in terms of his social background, but right now he approaches the center of things. His battalion has been training for the Big Push, and, like so many of our writers, thoughts of impending battle spur hopes of eventual publication.

I should like to wait for many reasons before publishing the book. I should to revise some of the poems. But you little know how precarious life is out here. I am lucky enough to have come out this time, but who knows? I look death squarely in the face, but I hope to come through, if only to feel the pulse of the world when the present fever has passed and to give my message to the saddened hearts and to inspire growing youth with the great things in life.[1]

 

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was born and bred to moderate privilege and–by dint of his talents and his school-forged connections–is very close now to the social center of things. He is also a most assured writer, be it in verse or prose, Latin or English. But then again he is far from the center of the war, serving as a liaison officer in Greece.

I am under a tree which I imagine to be an alder (or possibly a tamarisk), within precisely three feet of the river Echedorus, now shrunk to an inconsiderable brook, which, however, tinkles pleasantly in the moonlight, supplies small fish, which the French cunningly catch and fry, and yields quite a respectable tub if you sit down in it and squish the basin over your head. Only the current is still brisk, and the soap rather liable to be carried downstream, resulting in an undignified chase.

Kurkut, June 20, 1916.[2]

 

And one more note: C.E. Montague was commissioned today, a century back, as a second lieutenant to be immediately detailed, after leave, for intelligence work in France.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Piuk, A Dream Within the Dark, 71-2.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 169.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 131.

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIII. THE CALL

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

IX. YOUTH’S CONSECRATION

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

A Cockney Farewell for Lord Kitchener; John Bernard Adams on a Bow at a Venture; Will Streets, An English Soldier; Rowland Feilding, Foolhardy No More; Tolkien Leaves the Lonely Isle for the Eastern Shore

The pace of the war, at least as we read it, begins to quicken, now, toward summer. There is much to get to today, a century back, and once again I beg forbearance: at the end of today’s post is a very long quotation from Adams’ Nothing of Importance–an incident of the greatest importance for his advancing understanding of the real nature of war.

 

On the 5th, Will Streets‘s battalion, the 12th Yorks and Lanks, were withdrawn from the line to the upspoiled country around Doullens. But they were still overshadowed by the Somme: their new home has been chosen for its physical resemblance to Serre, on the Somme. Tapes set out on the rolling ground represented the location of the German trenches they would now “practice” assaulting.

Nevertheless, it was a reprieve. It’s hard to keep dates on Will Streets, but today, a century back, he wrote a letter home to his mother:

For the first time since we have been at the front we are away from the sound of guns. It is certainly a blessed relief. The papers say there is a war–but who in these shining hours desires to read the papers! They disturb one’s ideas, for which of them tells you that it is Spring? It is only the kisses and faces of those ‘over there’ that we miss. But Spring is in the air and leads us to hope that soon we shall gaze upon those faces and accept those kisses, and the mother, let me tell you, that for us soldiers Spring will never end.

This is a high-spirited letter home, nothing more. But, of course, there are many ways that last line could be read. A poem written very close to this date does not avoid the issue.

An English Soldier

He died for love of race: because the blood
Of Northern freeman swell’d his veins: arose
True to tradition that like mountain stood
Impregnable, crown’d with its pathless snows.

When broke the call, from the sepulchred years
Strong voices urged and stirr’d his soul to life;
The call of English freeman fled his fears
And led him (their true son) into the strife.

There in the van he fought thro’ many a dawn,
Stood by the forlorn hope, knew victory;
Proud, scorning Death, fought with a purpose drawn,
Sword-edged, defiant, grand, for Liberty.
He fell: but yielded not his English soul:
That lives out there beneath the battle’s roll.

There is no disenchantment here, no unwillingness, in Streets’ writing persona, to be a sacrifice for his country; no bitterness from a young Derbyshire miner given so little by that country until he was asked to serve and sent out to prepare a daunting attack… And although he had to use his scant hours of leisure to scratch together something of the education that so many of our writers had handed to them–because, surely, of that conscious, aspirational investment–Streets has no interest at all in spurning traditional diction.

Streets’ letter to his mother reinforces his commitment to the undimmed ethos of Kitchener’s Army:

The English Tommy… needs not any praise, for what he does is natural and free, and wherever there is freedom of action there is freedom of spirit.[1]

It’s odd, to our ears, to hear a soldier claim “freedom of action.” But it shouldn’t be. Perhaps class–and Streets’ long-deferred dream of bettering himself through education–enters into it rather heavily here: the privileged officers who could find their way to safe billets if they were willing to risk a little social opprobrium may begin to doubt the whole enterprise, while the man who sees military service as an elevation to a larger sense of belonging is still carried forward by his initial motivations. And these are very fine, but generalized, impersonal.

Or then again perhaps not: perhaps Streets writes poetry when he writes poetry and reassures his mother when he writes to her, and perhaps he, like everyone else, is closely bound to the men of his platoon, and will fight for fear of letting them down… Even after all this reading, all we have are glimpses and guesses: do the men of Kitchener’s army really yearn to fight and win the big battle, or are they beginning to see that this war’s battles–even the hoped-for successes–are consumers of infantry more terrible than any hundred-handed monster of antiquity.

 

And speaking of Kitchener’s army, today, a century back, brought the shocking news of the sinking of the HMS Hampshire, victim of a German mine. 650 men drowned, including Field Marshal Lord Kitchener and his staff, en route to a strategic conference in Russia. The sudden demise of the Secretary of State for War–Britain’s greatest living soldier and already quite literally both the face and the namesake of its first mass army–was everywhere felt as a major loss. Or, almost everywhere.

30a_Sammlung_Eybl_Großbritannien._Alfred_Leete_(1882–1933)_Britons_(Kitchener)_wants_you_(Briten_Kitchener_braucht_Euch)._1914_(Nachdruck),_74_x_50_cm._(Slg.Nr._552)

Lord Kitchener as he appeared in one of the seminal 10th century posters

It’s not that Kitchener was such an effective administrator–famous old soldiers rarely are, and Kitchener was widely disliked by other cabinet ministers, an opinion he reciprocated. But in a constitutional monarchy whose monarchs were careful to tread quietly, Kitchener’s symbolic volume was very great.

A man–many men–died in a few terrible minutes, and then, as it happens in history, events began to be emplotted, interpreted. Kitchener died, some will say, just ahead of “his” army, like some sort of appropriately bitter and ironic twist on the Moses and Joshua story.

Or, from a victorious general, he became a sort of cabinet-level Rupert Brooke, an image of strength (or beauty) suddenly refigured as a sacrifice–but a “sacrifice” that doesn’t quite work. Is this death glorious? Nothing was accomplished by it, nothing furthered–Brooke died before he landed, and Kitchener’s mission ended in horrific mischance when it had hardly begun. Neither poetry nor strategy were furthered by these “sacrificial” deaths. But perhaps the paradigm lists away from the Christian story of redemptive sacrifice toward the old pagan practices: you can burn all you want on the altars of the pagan gods, and they may or may not accept your sacrifice… Try as they might to make this a sort of devotio (the ritual in which a Roman general charges the enemy alone, trading his life for the divine favor of victory), contemporary realists must try to understand that this was a military bureaucrat done in by a mine… nothing more.

So what did our writers make of it? We’ll hear a few, today and in coming days.

Vera Brittain remembers how her own happiness–her brother Edward is home on leave–was knocked awry by the loss of Lord Kitchener:

The afternoon of his return to London stands out very clearly in my recollection, for on that day the news came through of Kitchener’s death in the Hampshire. The words “KITCHENER DROWNED” seemed more startling, more dreadful, than the tidings of Jutland…

For a few moments during that day, almost everyone in England must have dropped his occupation to stare, blank and incredulous, into the shocked eyes of his neighbour. In the evening, Edward and our mother and I walked up and down, almost without a word beside the river at Westminster… So great had been the authority over our imagination of that half-legendary figure, that we felt as dismayed as though the ship of state itself had foundered in the raging North Sea.[2]

A pall cast over his short leave, brother and sister say goodbye in Piccadilly Service as she goes to work. The ship of state may have swamped there, for a moment, but Vera Brittain’s war–like everyone’s, really–is more about her people, her young men. And whatever Kitchener wrought, he is out of it now–and Edward is headed for the heart of it.

I climbed the steps of the ‘bus with a sinking heart, for I knew very well how many were the chances against our meeting again.[2]

 

Back to Kitchener, here, for some good soldierly black humor. Did all of Britain’s subjects meet the passing of the great warlord with such gravity? Not according to David Jones:

On 2 June the battalion returned to the familiar Richebourg sector, and made for the front-line trench near Moated Grange. While they moved along a communication trench towards the line, someone coming from the rear announced that Kitchener had been drowned at sea. Jones was passing a wet and weary Cockney who paused in his work to say, ‘Oh, ’e ’as, ’as ’e. Well roll on fuckin Duration.’’

To these men, no man’s death was important news.[4]

Rowland Feilding writes to his wife today, a century back, to continue their conversation (one sided, alas) on duty, honor, and pushing to put one’s self back in harm’s way. Two days ago he wrote to say that “it looks as if I shall have some difficulty in getting back to my battalion.” So that’s that–he will stay with the entrenching battalion rather than the a front line battalion, for the time being. Any regrets? Well, yes:

June 6, 1916, Bois des Tailles

I have been thinking things over to-day, and I feel I should not have worried you by telling you I was bored here, and wanted to get back to my battalion. I ought to have thought more of you and been contented to stay here. Anyhow, my efforts to get away have failed so far, and I shall not renew them. I shall wait until they send for me, though, if I see a chance of getting some more interesting job, I shall still take that.

This is interesting: most officers struggle continually with the balance between obedience and showing eagerness and aggression (or between safety and honor), so why a swift and complete reversal?

But my anxiety to get a more dangerous job is over. I had a walk with my C.O. yesterday, and he told me—more or less plainly—that he had heard I was too chancy. Anyhow, that is over for good and all. I can say, before God, that I have never risked a man’s life unless I was ordered, or thought it necessary: and I have never asked an officer or man to do a thing which I was not prepared to do myself.

He was good enough to say that I was too brave (meaning, I suppose, foolhardy); but, never mind, I won’t be brave in future. I shall hate it, but I will take any safe billet they may offer me.

When they say these things it makes me feel I have been unfair to you. But I have tried to act as I have thought you would like me to act. Besides, my inclinations are to be in the swim.

You must be most careful about yourself. Don’t tire yourself, and you need not worry about me, because I am absolutely safe here.[5]

I wish we knew more about Mrs. Feilding. But here at least is a combination of a regimental realization, as it were–there’s a fine line between brave and foolhardy, and he has been overstepping it–with a soldier’s acknowledgment of the constant buzzing fear that never leaves a wife on the other side of that yawning gulf. These men came out like young warriors, with that schoolboy (or, if we want to do the anthropological deep-dive, that tribal war-band) motivation to excel, to match and exceed their striving peers…

But now they have realized two things. First, that they fight not for a war band but as part of a ponderous bureaucracy that can be trusted neither to give the best the best opportunities nor to ask too much of some while rewarding others for giving less. Second, that they are neither schoolboys nor young unmade men, out to make their names–they have wives, already, and children. Even the Romans of the middle Republic–those paragons of virtuous Victorian aspiration–but the old experienced warriors in the third line.

So Rowland Feilding, like Edward (“Robert”) Hermon, now says, essentially, “I have risked myself, and proven to myself and others that I am willing. But now I won’t seek danger, and as long as I am here in this safe job, rest assured that no deadly telegram will reach you…”

 

Before we get to the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers, a brief update on one John Ronald Tolkien. Today, a century back, he crossed the channel and made his way to Étaples. I’ll let the authors of the authorized authorial chronology takes us from certainty to speculation:

Equipment he had bought–including a camp bed, sleeping bag, mattress, and spare boots–having failed to arrive, he begs, borrows, or buys replacements. Possibly on this date he writes or begins to write a poem expressing his feelings for the land he has left, ending with ‘O lonely sparkling isle, farewell.’ The earliest, undated version has the Qenya title Tol Eressëa, but later the poem will be called The Lonely Isle (a literal translation from the Qenya) and will bear the dedication ‘For England’.

A weak mandate! Possibly, he began a poem. Ah, well, but here it is:

The Lonely Isle

O glimmering island set sea-girdled and alone –
A gleam of white rock through a sunny haze ;
O all ye hoary caverns ringing with the moan
Of long green waters in the southern bays ;
Ye murmurous never-ceasing voices of the tide ;
Ye plumèd foams wherein the shore and spirits ride ;
Ye white birds flying from the whispering coast
And wailing conclaves of the silver shore,
Sea-voiced, sea-wingèd, lamentable host
Who cry about unharboured beaches evermore,
Who sadly whistling skim these waters grey
And wheel about my lonely outward way –

For me for ever they forbidden marge appears
A gleam of white rock over sundering seas,
And thou art crowned in glory through a mist of tears,
Thy shores all full of music, and thy lands of ease –
Old haunts of many children robed in flowers,
Until the sun pace down his arch of hours,
When in the silence fairies with a wistful heart
Dance to soft airs their harps and viols weave.
Down the great wastes and in gloom apart
I long for thee and thy fair citadel.
Where echoing through the lighted elms at eve
In a high inland tower there peals a bell :
O lonely, sparkling isle, farewell!

Tolkien seems pretty committed to old-fashioned diction too, doesn’t he? And yet he is doing something strange and new, mapping a mythological world over his own. The citadel, as we have seen, is Warwick, and the isle is England. But no, they are Kortition, and Tol Eressëa, no simple island but a stepping stone carefully placed between the fallen world and an earthly heaven…[6]

 

Alas, after all this, that there are trenches to visit, and shells still to fall. Two days ago, Siegfried Sassoon reported on the spread of the “latest fashion:

Two raids are fixed for to-night, by the Division on our left…  in the swift glare of bursting shells can be seen the floating smoke and little clouds from shrapnel-bursts. Sometimes the glare is almost ruddy—suggesting burning cities and ruin and all horrors and confusion.

And somewhere a mile or two away the raiding parties are waiting till it’s time to go across–men with blackened faces and grim clubs and axes and bombs–men with knocking hearts, stifling the yawns of nervousness–wondering if our shells have cut the German wire–knowing that the enemy are ready for them–knowing they will probably be killed or wounded or caught like rats. O this bloody war! It will be my turn to go on a raid soon, I suppose.

The diary continues:

June 5

A heavy bombardment along, by La Boiselle, two miles to our left…

It was a battle seen in miniature against a black screen of midnight. Men were invisible: it was a struggle of giants hurling thunderbolts. Star-lights and flares, red and white, kept curving up from both lines…

The glare of the high explosive bursting was a fearful sight. One couldn’t imagine anything living in that hell. Orme and Morris were hit on Sunday night when up with the working-party.

June 6

The clouds are like giants tumbling and striving and leaping round the edge pf the clear blue sky. They are smoky-white and grey and golden-white. They strike huge attitudes and are blown shapeless again. I see colossal faces of Socrates and Diogenes—bearded sages–and slowly they lose their features.[7] The evening sun strikes the glinting wings of an aeroplane forging away westward—and it is a tiny speck of gold glinting high up. Swallows, skim above the long grass that almost hides the low wire in front of trenches; they are companions of light breezes, close to earth they sail, heedless of rifle-grenades.[8]

 

Finally today, we stay with the very same battalion, stepping only a few hours ahead in time from Sassoon’s diary as we return to John Bernard Adams. The next few days we will linger with this episodic memoir for the sake of an awful new episode. It has been nearly two months since disaster struck the officers of the 1/Royal Welch, and he has sketched in the period with a few undated topical sketches. But now, well–this chapter is worth reading.

“A Certain Man Drew a Bow at a Venture”

maple redoubt

Maple Redoubt is at center

It was ten o’clock as I came in from the wiring-party in front of Rue Albert, and at that moment our guns began. We were in Maple Redoubt. The moon had just set, and it was a still summer night in early June.

“Come and have a look,” I called to Owen, who had just entered the dug-out. I could see him standing with his back to the candlelight reading a letter or something.

He came out, and together we looked across the valley at the shoulder of down that was silhouetted by the continuous light of gun-flickers. Our guns had commenced a two hours’ bombardment.

“No answer from the Boche yet,” I said.

“They ‘re firing on C 2, down by the cemetery.”

“Yes, I hardly noticed it; our guns make such a row. By Jove, it’s magnificent.”

We gazed fascinated for a long time, and then went into the dug-out where Edwards and Paul were snoring rhythmically. I read for half an hour, but the dug-out was stuffy, and the smell of sand-bags and the flickering of the candle annoyed me for some reason or other. Somehow “Derelicts” by W. J. Locke failed to grip my attention. Owing to our bombardment, there were no working-parties, in case the Germans should take it into their head to retaliate vigorously. But at present there was no sign of that.

I went outside again, and walked along Park Lane until I came to the Lewis-gun position just this side of the comer of Watling Street. The sentry was standing up, with his elbows on the ground level (there was no parapet) gazing alert and interested at the continuous flicker of our shells bursting along the enemy’s trenches. Lance-Corporal Allan looked out of the dug-out, and, seeing me, came out and stood by us. And together we watched, all three of us, in silence. Overhead was the continual griding, screeching, whistling of the shells as they passed over, with- out pause or cessation; behind was a chain of gun-flickers the other side of the ridge; and in front was another chain of flashes, and a succession of bump, bump, bumps, as the shells burst relentlessly in the German trenches. And where we stood, under the noisy arch, was a steady calm.

“This is all right, sir,” said Lance-Corporal Allan. He was the N.C.O. in charge of this Lewis-gun team.

“Yes.” said I. “The artillery are not on short rations to-night.”

For always, through the last four months, the artillery had been more or less confined to so many shells a day. The officers used to tell us they had any amount of ammunition, yet no sooner were they given a free hand to retaliate as much as we wanted, than an order came cancelling this privilege. To-night at any rate there was no curtailment.

“I believe this is the beginning of a new order of things,” I said, half musing, to myself; “that is, I believe the Boche is going to get lots and lots of this now.”

“About time, sir,” said the sentry.

”Is there a push coming off?” said Lance-Corporal Allan.

“I don’t know,”  I replied. “But I expect we shall be doing something soon. It’s quite certain we’re going to get our three weeks’ rest after this turn in. The Brigade Major told me so.”

Corporal Allan smiled, and as he did so the flashes lit up his face. He was quite a boy, only eighteen, I believe, but an excellent N.C.O. He had a very beautiful though sensuous face that used to remind me sometimes of the ”Satyr” of Praxiteles. His only fault was an inclination to sulkiness at times, which was perhaps due to a little streak of vanity. It was no wonder the maidens of Morlancourt made eyes at him, and a little girl who lived next door to the Lewis-gunner’s billet was said to have lost her heart long ago. To-night I felt a pang as I saw him smile.

“We’ll see,” I said. “Anyway it’s going to be a good show giving the Boche these sort of pleasant dreams…”

We might skip a bit–but only a bit. For the pastoral interlude is, naturally, not to be missed:

The scene was one of the most perfect peace. The sun was not up, but by now the light was firm and strong; night had melted away. I went back and walked a little way along Park Lane until I came to a gap in the newly erected sand-bag parados. I went through the gap and into a little graveyard that had not been used now for several months. And there I stood in the open, completely hidden from the enemy, on the reverse slope of the hill. Below me were the dug-outs of 71 North, and away to the left those of the Citadel. Already I could see smoke curling up from the cookers. There was a faint mist still hanging about over the road there, that the strong light would soon dispel. On the hill-side opposite lay the familiar tracery of Redoubt A, and the white zigzag mark of Maidstone Avenue climbing up well to the left of it, until it disappeared over the ridge. Close to my feet the meadow was full of buttercups and blue veronica, with occasional daisies starring the grass. And below, above, everywhere, it seemed, was the tremulous song of countless larks, rising, growing, swelling, till the air seemed full to breaking point.

And there was not a sound of war. Who could desecrate such a perfect June morning! I felt a mad impulse to run up and across into No Man’s Land and cry out that such a day was made for lovers; that we were all enmeshed in a mad nightmare, that needed but a bold man’s laugh to free us from its clutches! Surely this most exquisite morning could not be the birth of another day of pain? Yet I felt how vain and hopeless was the longing, as I turned at last and saw the first slant rays of sunlight touch the white sand-bags into life.

“What time’s this working-party?” asked Paul at four o’clock that afternoon.

“I told the sergeant-major to get the men out as soon as they’d finished tea,” I replied. “About a quarter to five they ought to be ready. He will let you know all right.”

“Hullo!” said Paul.

“What are you ‘hulloing’ about?” I asked.

Paul did not answer. Faintly I heard a “wheeoo, wheeoo, wheeoo,” that grew louder and louder and ended in a swishing roar like a big wave breaking against an esplanade — and then “wump — wump — wump — wump” four 4.2’s exploded beyond the parados of Park Lane.

“Well over,” said Edwards.

“I expected this,” I answered. “They’ve been too d—d quiet all day—especially after the pounding we gave them last night.”

“There they are again,” I added. This time I had heard the four distant thuds, and we all waited.

“Wump, wump—CRUMP.” There was a colossal din, the two candles went out, and there was a shaking and jarring in the blackness. Then followed the sound of falling stuff, and I felt a few patters of earth all over me. Gradually it got lighter, and through the smoke-filled doorway the square of daylight reappeared.

“Je ne l’aime pas,” said I, as we all waited, without speaking. Then Edwards struck a match and lit the candles; all the table, floor, and beds were sprinkled with dust and earth. Then Davies burst in.

“Are you all right?” we asked.

“Yessir. Are you?”

“Oh, we’re all right, Davies,” said I. “But there’s a job for Lewis cleaning this butter up.”

At length we went outside, stepping over a heap of loose yielding earth, mixed up with lumps of chalk and bits of frayed sand-bags. Outside, the trench was blocked with debris of a similar kind. Already two men had crossed it, and several men were about to do so. It was old already. There was still a smell of gunpowder in the air, and a lot of chalk dust that irritated your nose.

“I think I’ll tell the sergeant-major not to get the working-party out just yet,”  I said to Paul. “They often start like that and then put lots more over about a quarter of an hour later.” And I sped along Park Lane quickly.

As I returned I heard footsteps behind me. I looked round, but the men were hidden by a traverse. And then came tragedy, sudden, and terrible. I have seen many bad sights—every man killed is a tragedy—but one avoids and hides away the hideousness as soon as possible. But never, save once perhaps, have I seen the thing so vile as now.

“Look out!” I heard a voice from behind. And as I heard the shell screaming down, I tumbled into the nearest dug-out. The shell burst with a huge “crump,” but not so close as the one that had darkened our dug-out ten minutes before. Then again another four shells burst together, but some forty or fifty yards away. I waited one, two minutes. And then I heard men running in the trench.

As I sprang up the dug-out steps, I saw two stretcher-bearers standing looking round the traverse. And then there was the faint whistling overhead and they pushed me back as they almost fell down the dug-out steps.

“Is there a man hurt?” I asked. “We can’t leave him.”

“He’s dead,” said one. And as he spoke there were three more explosions a little to the left

“Are you sure?”

“Aye,” said the stretcher-bearer and closed his eyes tight.

“He’s past our help,” said the other man.

At last, after a minute’s calm, we stepped out into the sunshine. I went round the traverse, following the two stretcher-bearers. And looking between them, as they stood gazing, this is what I saw.

In the trench, half buried in rags of sand-bag and loose chalk, lay what had been a man. His head was nearest to me, and at that I gazed fascinated; for the shell had cut it clean in half, and the face lay like a mask, its features unmarred at all, a full foot away from the rest of the head. The flesh was grey, that was all; the open eyes, the nose, the mouth were not even twisted awry. It was like the fragment of a sculpture. All the rest of the body was a mangled mass of flesh and khaki.

“Who is it?” whispered a stretcher-bearer, bending his head down to look sideways at that mask.

“Find his identity-disc,” said the other.

“It is Lance-Corporal Allan,” said I.

Then up came the regimental sergeant-major, and Owen followed him. They too gazed in horror for a moment. The sergeant-major was the first to recover.

“Hi! you fellows,” he called to two men.” Get a waterproof sheet.”

“Come away, old man,” said I to Owen.

Adams’ book is a different creature than the converted diaries or autobiographical memoirs. It’s a record of some months, but it foregrounds and focuses on the major traumas, of which this was one. I hope, if you have read this far, that you don’t begrudge him (or me) the time. If there is something heavy-handed about going back to the sudden, terrible death of a man and casting it in symbolic terms–the beautiful boy, the classical sculpture come to life, only to be instantaneously ended, reft and ruined–well, who is to say that that was the later hand of the writer? The mind of the witness has to do such things too, to cope with sudden death and the gruesome revelation of the body’s frailty and beauty’s uncertain duration. Either way, it’s a desperate attempt to make meaning of death.

In any event, I think Adams has earned his philosophizing and his biblical references by now. He goes to the bible to express the unbearable helplessness of living under artillery fire–to reject, in a sense, the very instinct he has just indulged, namely to tell a meaningful story about the one shell that happened to cut a man’s head in half.

In silence we walked back to the dug-out. But my brain was whirling. “A certain man drew a bow at a venture,” I thought again. That was how it was possible. No man could keep on killing, if he could see the men he killed. Who had fired that howitzer shell? A German gunner somewhere right away in Mametz Wood probably. He would never see his handiwork, never know what he had done to-day. He would never see; that was the point. Had he known, he would have rejoiced that there was one Englishman less in the world. It was not his fault. We were just the same. What of last night’s bombardment? (The memory of Lance-Corporal Allan up by his gun-position gave me a quick sharp pang.) Had we not watched with glittering eyes the magnificent shooting of our own gunners? This afternoon’s strafe was but a puny retaliation.

Slowly it came back to me, the half-formed picture that had arisen in my mind the night of Davidson’s death. “A certain man drew a bow at a venture,” expressed it perfectly. It was splendid twanging the bow, feeling the fingers grip the polished wood, watching the bow-string stretch and strain, and then letting the arrow fly. That was the fascinating, the deadly fascinating side of war. That was what made it possible to “carry on.” I remembered my joy in calling up the artillery in revenge for Thompson’s death. And then again, whenever we put a mine up, how exhilarating was the spectacle! Throwing a bomb, firing a Lewis gun, all these things were pleasant. It was like the joy of throwing stone over a barn and hearing them splash into a pond; like driving a cricket ball out of the field.

But the arrows fell somewhere. That was the other side of war. The dying king leant on his chariot, propped up until the sun went down. The man who had fired the bolt never knew he had killed a king. That was the other side of war; that was the side that counted. What I had just seen was war.

I leaned my face on my arm against the parados. Oh, this unutterable tragedy! Had there ever been such a thing before? Why was this thing so terrible? Why did I have this feeling of battering against some relentless power? Death. There were worse things than death. There were sights, such as I had just come from, as terrible in everyday life, in any factory explosion or railway accident. There was nothing new in death. Vaguely my mind felt out for something to express this thing so far more terrible than mere death. And then I saw it. Vividly I saw the secret of war.

What made war so cruel, was the force that compelled you to go on. After a factory explosion you cleared up things and then took every precaution to prevent its recurrence; but in war you did the opposite, you used all your energies to make more explosions. You killed and went on killing ; you saw men die around you, and you deliberately went on with the thing that would cause more of your friends to die. You were placed in an arena, and made to fight the beasts; and if you killed one beast, there were more waiting, and more and more. And above the arena, out of it, secure, looked down the glittering eyes of the men who had placed you there; cruel, relentless eyes, that went on glittering while the mouths expressed admiration for your impossible struggles, and pity for your fate!

“Oh God! I shall go mad!” I thought, in the agony of my mind. I saw into that strange empty chamber which is called madness: I knew what it would be like to go mad. And even as I saw, came the thought again of those glittering eyes, and the ruthless answer to my soul’s cry: “The war is utterly indifferent whether you go mad or not.”

Owen was standing waiting for me. I grew calm again, and tamed and put my hand on his shoulder. Together we reached the door of the dug-out.

“Oh, Bill,” he said, “have you ever seen anything more awful?”

“Only once. No, not more awful: more beastly. Nothing could be more awful.”

We told the others.

“Not Allan?” said Edwards. He was Lewis-gun officer, and Allan was his best man.

*Not Allan!*’ he repeated. “Oh, how will they tell his little girl in Morlancourt? What will she say when she learns she will never see him again?”

“Thank God she never saw him as we saw him just now,” I said, “and thank God his mother never saw him.”

“If women were in this war, there would be no war,” said Edwards.

“I wonder,” said I.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Dream Within the Dark, 68-9.
  2. Testament of Youth, 272-3.
  3. Testament of Youth, 272-3.
  4. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 97.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 78-9.
  6. Chronology, 80-1.
  7. This reminds me of the greatest English language historical novel of mid-19th century siege warfare--Ballard's Siege of Krishnapur (of course). There the dreamy clouds are made flesh--or, rather, stone--and the beleaguered colonialist actually fire these heads of the Western Canon from their (Western) cannon at the mutinous sepoys... Except in that case I think it's Plato and Socrates...
  8. Diaries, 72-3.
  9. Nothing of Importance, 256/267, 272-85.

Will Streets’ “Shelley in the Trenches;” Robert Graves in Wales; Ivor Gurney on Shakespeare and Shoe Polish

I’m glad to get the chance to include a poem by Will Streets–Sergt. J. W. Streets, in his full dignity–since very few of his poems are dated. This is a fortunate happenstance, since I enjoy including every Romantic shout-out to a lark that I can…

 

Shelley in the Trenches

Impressions are like winds; you feel their cool
Swift kiss upon the brow, yet know not where
They sprang to birth: so like a pool
Rippled by winds from out their forest lair
My soul was stir’d to life; its twilight fled;
There passed across its solitude a dream
That wing’d with supreme ecstasy did seem;
That gave the kiss of life to long-lost dead.

A lark trill’d in the blue: and suddenly
Upon the wings of his immortal ode
My soul rushed singing to the ether sky
And found in visions, dreams, its real abode—
I fled with Shelley, with the lark afar.
Unto the realms where the eternal are.

May 2nd, 1916.[1]

 

And while we’re including neglected poets, here is Ivor Gurney, to his friend Herbert Howells.

2 May 1916
Pte Gurney, B Company, 215 Bat., Glosters,
Park House, Salisbury.

Dear Howler:

Today is a perfect Spring day, and so I must think of Glostershire and Shakespeare, and envy those who may look on our county’s radiant green and joyful blossoming. O the richness in the ride from Gloster to Newnham! Someday, someday . . . .

What have you been writing this term? Something clear and English I hope. Does the war still obsess you? If so, you are, perhaps, less fortunate than your comrades in the Army, whose mind is full of pack and rifle, buttons and boots.

When you get back to London, ask Miss Scott for the two books of poems I lent her; you will probably find something to suit you. How I envy you the chance of seeing Shakespeare, a desire that is very strong in me. O to see “Antony” and to be thrilled once again by Antony’s passion and the proud defiances of the great queen.

If I must die think only this of me, that I sincerely wish that what rag of a mantle I possess should descend on you, and inspire you someday to turn your thoughts to an Antony symphony.

This, of course, is a dig at Rupert Brooke, and not Gurney’s first. And it’s nicely done: if I should die, perhaps you could remember me in art, and carry on the work of my mind, rather than declaring me an imperial sacrifice, sanctifying some foreign ground with the remains of my body.

How is Benjamin? Tell him, as a friend I send a blessing; as a lootenant nothing but kicks. Floreat Armae Brittannicae, et exerciti[2] whose motto is Fed Up. Fed Up:

Yours ever

I.B.G.[3]

 

Finally, today, Robert Graves has reached the self-promised land. Before returning to France to see if he will now not suffocate in gas masks, he will now enjoy a long recuperation in the hills near Harlech, on the Welsh coast. Graves will stay with his sister Clarissa in the large family home–the site of many previous holidays–but he is looking for a place of his own, to sit solitary, and write.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Undying Splendour, 49.
  2. Long live the arms and army of Brittain
  3. War Letters, 61.
  4. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 146.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensible prose. And here’s the poetry:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

April 23 (Easter Sunday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

23 April 1916

My Angel

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Two Poems from a Fire Trench; Henry Farnsworth Yearns for Home; Vera Sets Her Sights on Nursing, While Roland Sees the Front Line for the First Time; Will Streets Imagines Gallipoli

Lieutenant Walter Scott Stuart Lyon of the 9th Royal Scots–a Scottish fellow, wouldn’t you know–was a regular officer and former barrister who had arrived in Belgium in February. Today, a century back, he finished two poems which he had been working on over the past few days, writing in his front-line dugout.

They are very different: the one a dour, rhymed meditation on resurrection in the midst of destruction, the other an awkward blank verse scene that strives for–and partially succeeds in obtaining–some of the sickening tension of night in a front-line trench.

 

Easter at Ypres, 1915

The sacred Head was bound and diapered,
The sacred Body wrapped in charnel shroud,
And hearts were breaking, hopes that towered were bowed,
And life died quite when died the living Word.
So lies this ruined city. She hath heard
The rush of foes brutal and strong and proud,
And felt their bolted fury. She is ploughed
With fire and steel, and all her grace is blurred.

But with the third sun rose the Light indeed,
Calm and victorious though with brows yet marred
By Hell’s red flame so lately visited.
Nor less for thee, sweet city, better starred
Than this grim hour portends, new times succeed;
And thou shalt reawake, though aye be scarred.

Lines Written in a Fire Trench

Tis midnight, and above the hollow trench,
Seen through a gaunt wood’s battle-blasted trunks
And the stark rafters of a shattered grange,
The quiet sky hangs huge and thick with stars.
And through the vast gloom, murdering its peace,
Guns bellow and their shells rush swishing ere
They burst in death and thunder, or they fling
Wild jangling spirals round the screaming air.
Bullets whine by, and Maxims drub like drums,
And through the heaped confusion of all sounds
One great gun drives its single vibrant “Broum,”
And scarce five score of paces from the wall
Of piled sandbags and barb-toothed nets of wire,
(So near and yet what thousand leagues away!)
The unseen foe both adds and listens to
The self-same discord, eyed by the same stars.
Deep darkness hides the desolated land,
Save where a sudden flare sails up and bursts
In whitest glare above the wilderness,
And for one instant lights with lurid pallor
The tense, packed faces in the black redoubt.[1]

 

The prosody is tough here–it’s hard to read it right the first time through, without hitches and halts. And there’s a bit too much of a bit too much, in the grand old style–“the unseen foe” and “discord” and all that. But at the same time there is a move in the direction of what we will recognize as the new war poetry.

It’s a static scene, first of all, not meant to rouse martial ardor (or arouse pity, or any other active emotion) or to celebrate any military virtue or achievement. He seems to be striving to communicate the core of the experience of trench duty at night. These are words in the service of the senses–those flares, the onomatopoeia of the guns–and then he rather skilfully directs our attention from the spectacle back to the men at its mercy, from the flares to the “tense, packed faces,” a phrase which you wouldn’t find in a 19th century song of war. It’s a step away from “my turn to write a heroic war poem” and toward the poetry of “no–this is what it’s like.”

 

A busy day at the pen for Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. She has received a letter, writes in return, and confides a secret hope to her diary; Roland, meanwhile, pens another.

Vera first:

Buxton, 11 April 1915

So far I have received your first two letters & the postcard from Cassel. Of course I looked it up on the map; it seems uncomfortably near the places where most of the fighting has been so far. I am glad to know that letters can mean so much, as I see by your few lines that they do. I can imagine a little what it must be to get them, as I expect in spite of the responsibility & work & concentration of mind required of you, you must at times feel very much alone. I will write as often & as fully as I can…

Somerville College has been requisitioned by the War Office for the duration of the war… The majority of us are going into part of Oriel College—the St Mary Hall Quadrangle—which has been lent us by them. Can’t you imagine the indignation of the remaining undergraduates at this feminine invasion of their hallowed precincts!

I haven’t charged Vera Brittain with selfishness lately–she’s been very much devoted to that slight-but-significant enlargement of profound selfishness which is devotion-to-the-significant-other. But this next line strikes a rather jarring note. Devoted she might be, but just for a second here her enthusiasm to be of use seems ghoulish, and sketches a strange triangle between her, the plans of the general staff, and her subaltern beloved:

…Since coming home I have heard that they are expecting a great many wounded in the summer & will probably want all the extra nurses they can get. They say they will be almost sure to need me, not merely to darn socks as I am doing now, but to do the usual probationers work. It will mean a pretty strenuous time but I think I can manage it, & shall probably do that. It is better to do work where one is less skilled but more needed than where one is more skilled but less needed—especially as I believe that an intellectual person is able to master every experience with varying degrees of effort…

So if you must get wounded, try & postpone it till about August, by which time I might be efficient enough to help to look after you. Just think of that!

Or, as she put it to her diary, “that is one dream of mine–that he should come home wounded not too seriously, & that I should have had a little practice in nursing first, & be able to look after him & thoroughly spoil him.[2]

And so the fantasy of the blighty wound crosses the channel. Actually, that’s not right–this is a romantic dream, but it’s still a practical one. Well, not completely practical–chaste and inexperienced girlfriends would not in reality be the best trauma nurses for their wounded boyfriends–but at least within the frame of reality-as-it-was-then-given-them. If she is not to lose him, she should probably hope that he is lightly wounded. If she wants to be active, of use, of service, then she should learn to be a nurse, and then it’s only the idea of putting the two together that must remain a dream, not something to re-examine in the cold light of logic.

Meanwhile, in France, we come to the end of the “first approach” narrative:

France, 11 April 1915

We arrived here last night at about 6.30 p.m. at — [Armentieres], a large town on the border of France and Belgium. I am now actually in the firing line and am to take my platoon into the trenches this evening at 7 o’clock.The trenches run right into the town on one side and I could hear the rifle fire last night as I lay in bed. Our guns are a little way back, I think, and fire over our heads.The Germans started shelling the town again the day before yesterday but so far I have only heard & not seen the shells with the exception of one shrapnel one that burst some distance off on our right as we marched in last night…

The town itself is rather cleaner than might be expected… it seems delightfully incongruous that there should be good shops and fine buildings and comfortable beds less than half an hour’s walk from the trenches. We go in tonight and are to be relieved on Tuesday evening — 48 hours in all. An inexperienced regiment is not left to hold part of the fine on its own at first…

I wonder if I shall be afraid when I first get under fire.

Best of love
Yours always
R.[3]

 

Will Streets, poet, coal miner, and newly minted lance-corporal in the Sheffield City Battalion (12/Yorks and Lancs) had a poem published today, in the Times. Streets is still in England, training, and as yet knows nothing of the fighting. He’s an autodidact and a traditionalist, and this is not a soldier’s poem so much as a realization of aspiration, the young worker who has with great effort schooled himself to write in the best (although, of course, now dated) manner. “Gallipoli” sure sounds heroic:

Upon the margin of a rugged shore
There is a spot now barren, desolate,
A place of graves, sodden with human gore
That Time will hallow, Memory consecrate.

There lie the ashes of the mighty dead,
The youth who lit with flame Obscurity,
Fought true for Freedom, won thro’ rain of lead
Undying fame, their immortality.

The stranger wand’ring when the war is over,
The ploughman there driving his coulter deep,
The husbandman who golden harvests reap-
From hill and ravine, from each plain and cover
Will hear a shout, see phantoms on the marge,
See men again making a deathless charge.

 

Finally, a brief check-in with Henry Farnsworth, who wrote to his mother today. After several paragraphs of ordinary reportage, he breaks the fourth wall of the placid letter home and reaches out to her.

I have so much to say that I really lack courage to begin… I am not sick of the war, and burn to see some real fighting; but yet, I long with a steady yearning to be home again with you and the Da and Ellen. It is a Sunday morning and a little church bell is ringing, and cocks are crowing on the dung-heap. As far as the war is concerned, I might as well be in Dedham. I hope that before long we will be upon the firing line again. Your letters are a comfort. Love to all. Henry[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Acknowledgements are due to Anne Powell, whose research provides so many shortcuts to poetry and once hard-to-find personal information. The most useful book, for me--A Deep Cry--is also a compendium of "spoilers," since it includes only the work of poets who were killed in the war.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 172-3.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 75-7.
  4. The Letters of Henry Weston Farnsworth, 144. This letter is dated April 10th, but the reference to a Sunday morning would place this section, at least, on he 11th.

Will Streets Marches for Camp; Morgan Crofton Writes of Mud, Death, and Rumor

The Sheffield City Battalion, formally the 12th Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, with coal miner/poet Will Streets in the ranks, marched out of Sheffield today for newly-built Redmires Camp, a desolate place on a high moor. This New Army (or “Kitchener’s Army”) battalion had been drilling in city parks for weeks, at first in civvies and with broom-handles, later in surplus post office uniforms of an unmilitary blue (khaki being in short supply) and with obsolete rifles.

Like the obsolete rifles and inglorious uniforms, the camp was, at least in terms of efficiency, an improvement on living at home. And yet it would be a fairly miserable situation, hardly conducive to a feeling of smart soldierliness. Such was the lot of the lower-priority Kitchener battalions.[1]

 

Meanwhile, in Belgium, Captain Crofton records the routine misery of the trenches. His cheerful demeanor? Present, but perhaps a bit diminished. His battalion, the 2nd Life Guards are now in reserve, where, like any smart unit, they spend their time not merely resting but busy with inspections, training marches, and–a new feature of the static war that will become extremely prominent in the coming years–at their lessons.

Saturday, December 5

Been at Eecke a fortnight today. Woke at 7, pouring and sleeting outside. Route march postponed from 10.30 to 2 pm. Had a rifle inspection at 11. At 11.15 day cleared up completely into one of brilliant sunshine. Decide not to go home yet as I shouldn’t get home later when I really want to go… so write my views to George Arthur.

An engineer officer is coming on Monday to instruct us in the art of building an ‘ideal trench’. Instruction that is badly needed…

The suspense! Is he or isn’t he going to become an Assistant Narrative Writer? Back now to the day to day, where bad tidings await.

Heard today that Corporal Backhouse died. He was hit near me in the trench on the 17th by splinters of a shell. He crawled along the communication trench to some dugouts behind and lay there, people doing what they could for him. After he had been there about an hour another shell burst near his dugout and covered everyone with mud and sand. His wounds filled with sand and filth. This caused his death, as it was impossible for several hours to cleanse the wound.

The sun coming out at 11.15 deluded Torrie into supposing that the day was going to be fine, and he ordered the Regiment to parade for the much talked-of route march at 12 o’clock. We had no sooner mounted and ridden down the main street when a fine driving rain began. We were however committed to this outing and personally being equipped with mackintosh and india rubber boots, I didn’t care twopence if it rained red ink. We fetched a compass of about 3 miles, and trotting all the way returned to our billets very wet outside at 1 o’clock.

Crofton next considers the good news from the southern Russian front. Although news of the devastating defeat of the Russian army by the Germans at Tannenberg has not properly sunk in the West, many of our writers were buoyed by news in recent days of Russia’s advances into Austro-Hungarian Poland. Alas for the allies, this was only a matter of the second least efficient old Imperial army driving back the very worst of all. But Crofton has a strategic insight–correct, if not pursued to the logical extreme–about all this:

The day of the fortress is over. High explosive shells filled with a ton or more of devastating material dropping like a bolt from the blue, will pulverise any fortifications yet devised by the wit of man. This is the first great lesson of this war.

Right–but, given those guns, how will infantry move? How will they exploit local successes?

Well. It feels like it’s been ages since we’ve had a Churchill spotting at the front, doesn’t it?

Archie Sinclair got a note from Winston Churchill who is now at Bailleul asking him to go over and see him. Churchill told Sinclair, when he was here on leave last week, that the aviator Briggs who threw the bomb on Friedrichshafen last week had entirely destroyed the hydrogen plant there, and also the framework of a new Zeppelin…

This is all we have from Winnie at this point: mere rumors of the striking successes of some makeshift early air-raids. Which is perfect, actually, since air power continued in a Churchillian vein for most of the war: although it was most useful in direct support of artillery on the front, it got the most attention–from both sides–for these sorts of long-range exploits, which were terrifying to civilians, but a poor use of military resources and negligible in their strategic impact.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Dream Within the Dark, 28.
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 54-5.