Alan Seeger and Henry Farnsworth Take a Hike, Together, and Seeger Capitalizes History and Chooses an Epitaph; Ford Madox Ford Issues Challenges Both Literary and Personal; Colin Mitchell’s “Hooge!”; Robert Frost Writes to a Soldier

(What could be more mulish than beginning a long, multi-hued, and unusually eventful post with a very bad poem? Skip a little!)

I have some (fairly obvious) prejudices to confess. There is a tendency here to read prose–however overtly fictional–for its “historical” value, while at the same time approaching each poem first from an aesthetic point of view and then perhaps working in toward its deeper meanings. This is, in part, because poetry rarely any longer describes specific combat events. The days of the “Light Brigade”–still less of a hundred Greek hexameters of precisely described spear penetrations–are over. Good poetry may help elucidate experience, but there’s little point in reading bad poetry that can’t really be brought to bear on historical specifics. Yet there are still old-fashioned versifiers producing poems immediate and specific enough to speak to a particular event of interest. Can the struggle to render a horrifying defeat in clunky heroic stanzas give insight into the actual experience?

So, yes, there was another aspiring poet in the Rifle Brigade during yesterday’s desperate fighting around Hooge. Colin Mitchell, of the 8th Battalion, hacked out these verses in the aftermath:

Hooge! More damned than Sodom and more bloody,
‘Twas there we faced the flames of liquid fire.
Hooge! That shambles where the flames swept ruddy:
A spume of heat and hate and omens dire;
A vision of a concrete hell from whence
Emerged satanic forms, or so it seemed
To us who, helpless, saw them hasten hence.
Scarce understood we if we waked or dreamed.

“Stand To! Stand To! The Wurtembergers come!”
Shouting vile English oaths with gutter zest.
And boastful threats to kill they voice, while some,
In uniforms of grey and scarlet dressed,
Wear flame-projectors strapped upon their backs.
How face a wall of flame? Impossible!
“Back, boys! Give way a little; take the tracks
That lead to yonder wood, and there we’ll fill
Such trenches as are dug, and face the foe,
And no Hell-fire shall move us once we’re there.
We’re out to win or die, boys; if we go
Back and yet back, leaving good strongholds bare,
We’ll save our lives, perhaps, but not our name.
There’s no one in this well-trained company
Who’d save his skin and perjure his good fame.

I won’t transcribe the whole thing, but it does continue, and Mitchell should be credited with including not just the stirring words of the brave defenders but also descriptions of the damage done by the German weaponry:

…The scarlet splash
Shows everywhere, and everywhere the maimed
Are crawling, white-lipped, to a dug-out where
The doctor in a drip of sweat seems framed,
So hard he works to hide the horrid stare
Of wounds adrip; while many pass away,
And need no lint to bind their frailty,
For God has ta’en them; ’tis their triumph day
And all their sins shall expiated be…[1]

A rather desperate turn, there, in defeat, toward theological consolations.


From the trenches of traditional poetry to the rarest airs of militarized Modernism. Ford Madox Hueffer delivered a review of Blast II today, in the form of an all-guns-blazing counter-attack against the initial critical onslaught. Many of his judgments can only provoke a little grin from we-who-are-burdened-with-the-dramatic-irony-of-the-future–yes, Fordy, indeed: others will find this odd new American T.S. Eliot to be of interest.

Much of the rest of the review is actually less about high art or Modernism or the rendering of brash artistic theory into printed practice than it is about our basic question: how is the war to affect writing? Ford finds the self-declared Vorticists to be somewhat compromised, but admirably, partially, appropriately. He approves of the fact that their work–Wyndham Lewis and all the rest of his flock–has been inflected by the mood of the war, but not changed beyond recognition. They are themselves–modernist tricksters and tub-thumpers, yet, due to the horrors and disasters and disappointments of the war, less “jaunty” about their “larks.”

Ford, as was always his wont, turns toward himself at the end of the piece. But he does so by way of a quotation from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, foremost of the modern artists who have died on the battlefield:

I have made an experiment. Two days ago I pinched from an enemy a Mauser rifle. Its heavy, unwieldy shape swamped me with a powerful image of brutality. I was in doubt for a longtime whether it pleased or not it pleased me. I found that I did not like it. I broke the butt off; with my knife I carved on it a design, through which I tried to express a gentler order of feeling, which I preferred. But I will emphasize that my design got its effect, just as the gun had, from a very simple composition of lines and effects.

I find that a very touching and wise passage of prose. And I will ask the reader to observe that it contains the thoughts of an artist who had a mystical and beautiful mind and who had been long under fire. Is it not interesting and valuable to observe what such a mind selects? If Blast had presented us with nothing else it would have been justified of its existence.[2]

And I find this a very revealing and precise passage of prose. Ordinarily I would have to follow this up with some coy suggestions about how we must wonder whether Ford will put his money where his mouth is, whether he will risk his flesh for the greater power of his pen. But we’ve got a very handy letter to that effect, to the poet Lucy Masterman:

South Lodge
Campden Hill Road

My dear Lucy,

You may like to know that I went round to the W[ar] O[ffice] after seeing you and got thrown into a commission in under a minute—the quickest process I have ever known…

I can assure you, for what it is worth, that it is as if the peace of God had descended on me—that sounds absurd—but there it is! Man is a curious animal…[3]

Relief, and a sense of peace–as with Edward Thomas. But Ford has a commission, and more writing to do.


And, at last, high in the hills of the Franche-Comté, our two Legionnaires cross paths:

July 31

Walked up to Plancher-les-Mines with Victor Chapman; there met Farnsworth, who is in the 1er Étranger, and we all had dinner together. A dozen sous-officiers–old légionnaires–were in the room, drinking and making good cheer. These were men who had been at Arras, and the camaraderie of soldiers whose bond is that of great exploits achieved in common was of a sort which does not exist among us, and which I envied…

Alas, but that is all. There is no report from either Farnsworth or Seeger, today, on what they thought of their fellow Harvard man and aspiring writer. Seeger, instead, launches into a major philosophical statement-of-purpose:

Perhaps historic fatality has decreed that Germany shall come out of this struggle triumphant and that the German people shall dominate in the twentieth century as French, English, Spanish, and Italian have in preceding centuries. To me the matter of supreme importance is not to be on the winning side, but on the side where my sympathies lie.

Feeling no greater dignity possible for a man than that of one who makes himself the instrument of Destiny in these tremendous moments, I naturally ranged myself on the side to which I owed the greatest obligation. But let it always be understood that I never took arms out of any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but purely out of love for France. The German contribution to civilization is too large, and German ideals too generally in accord with my own, to allow me to join in the chorus of hate against a people whom I frankly admire.

It was only that the France, and especially the Paris, that I love should not cease to be the glory and the beauty that they are that I engaged. For that cause I am willing to stick to the end. But I am ready to accept the verdict of History in this case as I do, and everyone does, in the old cases between Athens and Sparta, or between Greece and Rome. Might is right and you cannot get away from it however the ephemeridae buzz. “Victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.” It may have to be the epitaph on my tomb. I can see it on some green slope of the Vosges, looking toward the East.[4]

What exactly were they drinking? This is a serious dose of fatalism, at a time when there is no very particular reason to despair. It seems very American–or, perhaps, German–to write of capital-D Destiny in such Historical terms and to choose to align oneself with some sort of beautifully-conceived disaster.

The quote, from Lucan’s Pharsalia, the maddest and most horrifying of the Latin epics, is well chosen: “the winning side pleased the gods, but the defeated pleased Cato.” This casts Germany as Caesar, the nascent emperor about to destroy the remnants of the old (very oligarchic) republic.

But there is a nearer parallel, a lost cause that has placed a prior claim on the reference: the quotation was a popular choice for Confederate memorials. An ugly association, although perhaps one unknown to Seeger.

Nevertheless, it is unusual to see such a willingness to relinquish the gods and truth and right and history. Seeger, perhaps, is prone to the dramatic gesture–recall his jealousy of Rupert Brooke–and indulging in a stock poetic fantasy of a beautiful and tragic and sacrificial death. But still: Germany’s aggression and responsibility for starting the war were broadly accepted (and have become so once again, mutatis mutandis), and, ever since the great advances of the first few months, the war in the West had been a stalemate. Why relinquish the gods to accept the role of Cato? Isn’t there a war to win?


Finally, today, Robert Frost has received Edward Thomas‘s letter of explanation:

Dear Edward:

I am within a hair of being precisely as sorry and as glad as you are.

You are doing it for the self-same reason I shall hope to do it for if my time comes and I am brave enough, namely, because there seems nothing else for a man to do.

You have let me follow your thought in almost every twist and turn toward this conclusion. I know pretty well how far down you have gone and how far off sideways. And I think the better of you for it all. Only the bravest could come to the sacrifice in this way…

I have never seen anything more exquisite than the pain you have made of it. You are a terror and I admire you. For what has a man locomotion if it isnt to take him into things he is between barely and not quite understanding…

Your last poem Aspens seem the loveliest of all. You must have a volume of poetry ready for when you come marching home.

I wonder if they are going to let you write to me as often as ever.




References and Footnotes

  1. Powell, A Deep Cry, 332-3.
  2. Outlook, 36 (31 July 1915), 143-4; Critical Essays, 185.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 60-1.
  4. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 139-41.
  5. Elected Friends, 86-7.

Wyndham Lewis Lets Off A Volley of New BLAST; A Quieter New Venture From Isaac Rosenberg; Classic Reminiscences from Patrick Shaw-Stewart; A Madcap Tale from Dorothie Feilding

Blast #2

Quite a second issue of Blast this month.

Of the seven names appearing in the Table of Contents, two belong to unsung-if-not-completely-forgotten women Vorticists–Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders (or Sanders). Two are Modernist bigwigs I’d prefer to avoid, nasty dominating poets forever conjoined on Desolation Row. But three are soldier-writers of the first water: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s missive from the trenches was published posthumously; Ford Madox Hueffer‘s lugubrious meditation on “The Old Houses of Flanders” marks a sort of way station on his journey from most contrarian of propagandists to unlikeliest of subalterns; and Wyndham Lewis, shooting from the hip, but not yet dreaming of the artillery, wrote most of the issue.

There are two extremes of historical writing, two shoals I try to steer a safe course between. On the one side there is the fine-grained, soldier-by-soldier history of the common man and the longe durée which can be found not only in academic histories of the last few decades but on the numerous excellent websites which present the history of the Great War from a populist/memorial point of view, in which every man’s service is honored and every story is worth telling. And on the other side are the big-idea histories which shape the story of the past around one (or a small number) of experiences, and shrink not from the principle of aesthetic judgment. Such is Paul Fussell‘s book.

So I want to be in the middle. A fair umpire. An unbiased historian. A scintillating centrist.

But let’s not kid ourselves: I’m tacking close to the latter shore. I was afraid of Julian Grenfell; I persist in disliking the 1914 sonnets even though I generally sail by Vera Brittain‘s star and she still loved them well, a century back. I fear the opprobrium of the Great War amateur history community (or would, if there were comments on acenturyback) every time I opine that a soldier’s poem is naive, derivative, or–despite his honorable service and first-hand knowledge of war and my own lack of those qualifications–just not very good at conveying the experience of war. We watch the writing of the war in part to understand it all better–but also to find the best of it.

But–saving grace?–my snobbery is not always, at least, the going academic snobbery. Because I don’t much like those Modernists neither. Ford, yes–when he gets there. Lewis-of-the-smouldering-gaze (see below)  I will reconsider when I read his memoir. But American ambulance men–no matter how hairy chested or undercapitalized–will get scant attention here.

I wear my confirmed literary favoritisms brassard-style: Hardy is the old heart of things, Edward Thomas is our man in (premature) middle age, and Charles Sorley is our man of the New Armies. These are neither Modernists nor wistful post-Victorians. They are the innovating non-rebels, the sharp-minded forward-thinkers as unembarrassed by their love for much of the tradition as by their rejection of its more sentimental of jingoist offshoots… and I much prefer them to the not-very-good writers of the trenches, however bemedalled (sorry Alf) and the blustering bourgeois-shockers still in their cafes (see, now I’m brandishing the white feather–hypocrite!)


Wyndham Lewis

But I have to admit that I’m impressed with the sagacity shown by Wyndham Lewis in this month’s Modernist rodomontade. He is responsible for a fistful of short articles which generally chart an ironic middle course of his own. In one, he remarks on the paucity of good war-inspired art and poetry, yet wonders why there should be a general expectation that war will stimulate popular art:

But as the English Public lets its artists starve in peace time, there is really nothing to be said. The war has not changed things in that respect.

He rails against–or not exactly against, that would be uncool–German brutality and laughs at the idea that it can be attributed to the influence of “the execrable ‘Neech.'” And then he goes and pokes fun at the British sporting self-image.

Then there’s less little gem, which appears to rather precisely predict both the Second World War and our current predicament:


People will no doubt have to try again in 20 or 30 years if they REALLY like or need War or not. And so on until present conditions have passed into Limbo.

Perpetual War may well be our next civilization. I personally should much prefer that, as 18 months’ disorganization every 40 years and 38½ years’ complete peace, is too anarchic except for Art squabbles. In the middle ages a War was always going on somewhere, like the playing of perpetual football teams, conducted by trained arquebussiers, etc. This permanent War of the Future would have a much more cynical and professional character.

Good guess. Sure, there’s also a lot of long-winded nonsense, Bernard Shaw-baiting, Kipling-scorning and halfhearted sniping at big fat militarist targets. But Lewis seems to have hit his stride early: he’s the foppish, lacerating enfant terrible of the avant garde, gleefully out ahead and trying his best to draw the enemy’s fire.

But while some of the posturing comes off as hollow, it is still disconcerting to come suddenly upon Gaudier-Brzeska, a flesh and blood victim in the midst of a war in words:

Gaudier Brzeska vortex

Gaudier Brzeska’s Last Contribution to the Vortex

Gaudier Brzeska vortex2Before we close the pages of BLAST, however, I must bring us to page 21. It’s Pound: would-be-wise and petty, foolish Ezra Pound, whom I would dearly love to leave by the wayside. But page 21 is too good perfect. Pound, too, is writing snide light verse, taking little shots at targets of opportunity–those poor poets unable to recognize the unstoppable rise of the Vortex. In two poems, on one page, he mocks both Rupert Brooke–mostly in a French footnote–and Laurent Tailhade, that strange mutilated old magus who had taken an unknown Englishman abroad–one Wilfred Owen–as an adept.

There’s just a touch more: in deploying his faux-antique grandiose style to mock the French “decadent,” Pound invokes a certain scenic designer:

Let us leap with ungainly leaps before a stage scene
By Leon Bakst.
Let us do this for the splendour of Tailhade.

This is that very Bakst who designed for the Ballet Russes, who made the backdrop for La Légende de Josephe before which three of our poets assembled for A Century Back’s overture.

Quite an assemblage. But one more: we have come across C.R.W. Nevinson before (not to mention H.W., his father), and his woodcut is surely the most affecting and effective combination of Vorticist angles and war time subject matter we have yet seen: Nevinson, On the Way to the Trenches

Oh what a modern war!

But not in Gallipoli; not if you’re Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who wrote to Edward Horner today, a century back:

That flower of sentimentality which buds rather unreadily in me expands childishly on classical soil. It is really delightful to me (I expect it would be to you) to bathe every day, when not in the trenches or standing by, in the Hellespont, looking straight over to Troy, to see the sun set over Samothrace, to be fighting for the command of Aegospotami…

From reveries ancient and learned to recent, and personal:

I am at present disposed to be very optimistic, partly, perhaps, because Charles and Oc have just come back and human relationships thus restarted. Do you remember just before I went to Dunkirk, when you and Julian advised me all one morning how to put on a Sam Browne, and what to pack in 35 lb.? We were young, very merry, and not war-wise (how well I could pack some young lad’s 35 lb. for him now, and how cynically I should explain that he could make it up to 70 lb. with well-timed parcels!).

That was the last time I saw Julian, and the only time for nearly two years. I have lost people who left a fresher gap, such as Rupert, or a more continuous one such as John, but never one who was once such a great friend, or who was tied up in my mind with such a solid and distinct block of Balliol life—indeed, short of you and Charles, it would be impossible.[1]


Two more, quickly.

First, a rather less celebrated publication debuted today, a century back. Isaac Rosenberg has had a great deal of time on his hands, as well as unlimited ambition and severely limited resources. He and his old friend Reuben “Crazy” Cohen had decided to start their own magazine–a monthly, to be published more frequently once the advertising and subscription money started rolling in. The two cobbled together their own works–Rosenberg’s contribution was a lecture on art he had given in South Africa–and printed the eight pages themselves, on a borrowed press.

The venture, nearly needless to say, will be a failure, and Rosenberg will once more feel tightly pinned between the uncertainty of the artist’s life and the potential stability of waged work in the nation’s only growing concern.[2]


Lastly, a letter from Lady Feilding, who gives all of our “sloppy about dates” writers a new mark to aim at:

June 31 Furnes [1 July]

Mother deah–

I am going down to Ypres this morning to see how our cars down there are getting on. I haven’t been in the old place for 3 months & am rather looking forward to a chance of getting down there, of course if I meet Fitzpatrick again I may get heaved out on the way! But I’m full of hope.

It’s before breakfast & I’m terribly sleepy, but remorseful because I didn’t write you yesterday. Night work is very late now… One gets awfully sleepy after a lot of days on end. The troops aren’t relieved until 11 pm & sometimes later now…

Last night up there 2 brancardiers [stretcher bearers] started at 10 pm to fetch a wounded man from the outposts & only got him back at ten am next morning. There is some miles of very exposed communication trench, cut zig zag of course with the result no stretcher can be taken in it & the blessé has to be slung in his blanket & carried by the other men on all fours.

And here’s a new one, an apparent “shell shock” case described in the very best charming/alarming Lady Feilding style:

Yesterday we had an awful time with a tame Zouave lunatic they very kindly gave ‘Mees’ at Nieuport to take away. He was just cheerfully barmy rather like Neb when tight, & was very funny. He had hotly accused his lieutenant of having cut his wife into little bits with his scissors, which just gave his bright pals the clue he might be queer, wonderful how observant these men get you know, so the patient alternately took me for the lieutenant, the wife, the scissors, his best friend, & something most unpleasant & kept trying to climb out at the back when we weren’t looking…

Well I must run now Mrs Ma. Goodbye & God bless you – yr loving



References and Footnotes

  1. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 142-3.
  2. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 120.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 83-4.

Chorus: War!

August 4th, 1914[1]

So today is the big day: As Germany invades Belgium, Britain declares war.

Rather than presenting any lengthy, informative, or thoughtful excerpts, today–everyone was too excited for solid information or deep thought, anyway–I thought a panoramic post might be in order. So, let’s check briefly in on the memories and whereabouts of many different writers–such an archive it will be when we fondly look back!

Ford Madox Ford–then and throughout the war still known as Ford Madox Hueffer–was at a “literary country-house party” in the north of England, hobnobbing with Wyndham Lewis and E.M. Forster, among others.[2] He was, in fact, quite near the Berwick-on-Tweed station from which his heroic/shambolic alter-ego, Christopher Tietjens, had departed yesterday, shepherding the perfidious Mrs. Duchemin through the “rout” to London… Ford himself would soon hustle back to the capital and turn his prolific pen to war-writing…

Francis and Riversdale Grenfell were together at Tidworth, where Francis–the career officer–was stationed. Rivy, whose financial career had recently ended in disaster, immediately moved to get his reserve commission transferred into his twin’s unit, the 9th Lancers.[3]

Cousin Julian was with his regiment in South Africa, but his mother, Lady Desborough, was dining in London, and–lest we think that the Great Soul was losing her touch, none other than Lord Kitchener dropped by to say hello, on his way to Whitehall to be made Minister of War.[4]

Edward Thomas was sitting with Robert Frost “on an orchard stile near Little Iddens when word came that the firing had started. They wondered whether they might be able to hear the guns from their corner of Gloucestershire…

At Cley-next-the-Sea on the north coast of Norfolk, Rupert Brooke woke from a nightmare about impending war to find that it had begun,” while deep in the Pyrenees, Wilfred Owen “climbed to the top of a hill and gazed both north to where he supposed the fighting might be, and south over the Pyrenees[5] to the safety of Spain, wondering in which direction his future lay.”[6]

Our bellwether of aged literary wisdom, Thomas Hardy, was discussing the rumours of war over lunch at Athelhampton Hall, Dorsetshire

when a telegram came announcing the rumour to be fact. A discussion arose about food, and there was almost a panic at the table, nobody having any stock… The whole news and what it involved burst upon Hardy’s mind next morning, for though most people were saying the war would be over by Christmas he felt it might be a matter of years and untold disaster.[7]

George Bernard Shaw, who will remain a voice of liberal/socialist/international reason (or nauseating pro-German treasonous rot, depending on your point of view) gave the traces a reassuringly firm kick by wiring his German translator: “you and I at war [;] can absurdity go further [;] my friendliest wishes go with you under all circumstances.”[8]

That same afternoon, Charles Carrington took a long Hampshire walk with his uncle,

round by Crondall and Crookham to discuss my future in a mood of great unreality. Presently a sweating soldier on a bicycle stopped us to ask the way to Colonel So-and-So’s house, and told us outright that he was carrying the mobilization order, an announcement that seemed fatal to our conversation. Late that night, after my usual bedtime, I rode down to the village street for news, to find three or four people staring blankly at a notice in the window of the post office: ‘War declared.'[9]

We have yet to meet Alfred Hale, the greatest of Paul Fussell’s discoveries (and we will not get to know him well for years, as he dodges service until 1917) but his monumentally aggrieved and solipsistically woeful memoir–a fascinating book most unlike any other–hits full stride in four sentences:

Rake. Night of 4 August, 1914. Out in the garden of my house at 11pm, listening to what I imagined to be a War signal : a gun fired at Portsmouth, very faint in the distance, the whole thing a climax to my various personal troubles. These troubles had chiefly to do with domestic servants. I had engaged a housekeeper…[10]

Ever so slightly less inclined to whingeing was Frank Richards, reservist of the Royal Welsh and current timberman’s assistant in a Welsh mine. Richards spent the evening of the fourth in Blaina, Monmouthshire, “having a drink at the Castle Hotel with a few of my cronies, all old soldiers and the majority of them reservists” and telling tall tales of their exploits as colonial soldiers when news came that “the Sergeant of Police was hanging up a notice by the post office, calling all reservists to the Colours. This caused a bit of excitement and language, but it was too late in the evening for any of us to proceed to our depots so we kept on drinking and yarning until stop-tap.”[11] Richards will be in France within the week.

Osbert Sitwell “arrived in London at six in the morning, and reported to the Reserve Battalion, already in course of formation. In the afternoon I went to say good-by to many friends, who, as it happened, were never to return to England. Two or three of the most confident I heard instructing their servants to pack their evening clothes, since they would need them in a week or two in Berlin…” later, near the palace, he “heard the great crowd roar for its own death. It cheered and cried and howled…”[12] By the evening he was moving between private clubs, and writing to his father of the big news.[13]

As word of the ultimatum and the likelihood of a declaration of war late in the day spread through the capital, thousands converged on Buckingham Palace, where the King and Queen and Prince of Wales appeared on the balcony to acknowledge the cheers of their subjects. I don’t know if any of our writers were in the crowd, but Henry Williamson’s Phillip Maddison was.[14]

A mile away, in Piccadilly, the modernist poet and philosopher T.E. Hulme was “sitting in the Café Royal with David Bromberg when news broke of the declaration of war on Germany…”[15]

Lady Diana Manners (Cooper) (i.e., née Manners, but best known as Lady Cooper, following a post-war marriage), a central figure of the “Coterie” and sister of the once-beloved of Julian Grenfell, was at The Woodhose, Rowsley, “playing the war game, then very much in fashion, elaborated by Winston Churchill into a pastime for strategists and involving hundreds of tin soldiers.” While the young men played on with their tin soldiers, she began to consider the mildly rebellious step of becoming a nurse.[16]

As for fictional future propaganda, Lord Dunsany’s Boer War veteran remains steadfast to his (dis)inclination: “Then came August 4th, and England true to her destiny, and then Lord Kitchener’s appeal for men. Sergeant Cane had a family to look after and a nice little house: he had left the army ten years…”[17]

Now, one of several exceptions to the Standard of Recruitment for this project’s protagonists–we generally follow writers prolific or professional who (will) either see active service or treat the recently wounded–is that I’ve admitted some interesting non-combatant writers provided that they 1) are active in war writing during the war; 2) are too old to fight themselves; and 3) have sons in uniform. One writer-you-may-have heard-of who fits this profile is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, aged 55 and semi-retired (from Holmes, at least, save that Last Bow) in Sussex.

On August 4, when war seemed assured, I had a note from Mr Goldsmith, a plumber in the village: “There is a feeling in Crowborough, that something should be done.” This made me laugh at first, but presently I thought more seriously of it. After all, Crowborough was one of a thousand villages, and we might be planning and acting for all. Therefore I had notices rapidly printed. I distributed them and put them at road corners, and the same evening (August 4) we held a village meeting, and started the Volunteers…[18]

The old gents would continue to drill for some time–even in Britain, with its semi-official Eccentric Amateur mascot, the War Office was a bit bemused about what to do with such middle-aged enthusiasm. But they could get into little trouble marching around Sussex and being very proud of themselves… thank God for the Royal Navy.

Receiving the same exemption in order to appear here will be Rudyard Kipling, the prolific and polarizing semi-unofficial Storyteller-in-Chief of the British Empire. Today he was brief, writing three words in his wife Carrie’s diary, and choosing, we should note, the same Biblical noun that Vera Brittain had deployed yesterday: “Incidentally armageddon begins.”[19]


But let’s finish in Buxton, which Vera Brittain has made the indispensable check-point of the Last Summer. Her teenaged brother, Edward, had a sense of what the British army might need that was markedly more realistic than Doyle’s–and he even guessed, a bit, at what it might come to demand. Vera stayed up late to write at great length in her diary:

Tuesday August 4th

Late as it is & almost too excited to write as I am, I must make some effort to chronicle the stupendous events of this remarkable day. The situation is absolutely unparalleled in the history of the world. Never before has the war strength of each individual nation been of such great extent, even though all the nations of Europe, the dominant continent, have been armed before. It is estimated that when the war begins 14 millions of men will be engaged in the conflict. Attack is possible by earth, water & air, & the destruction attainable by the modern war machines used by the armies is unthinkable & past imagination.

This morning at breakfast we learnt that war is formally declared between France & Germany…

All day long rumours kept coming that a naval engagement had been fought off the coast of Yorkshire. I went up to the tennis club this afternoon, more to see if I could hear anything than to play, as it kept on pouring with rain. No one knew any further definite news, but we all discussed the situation. I mentioned Edward’s & Maurice’s keenness to do something definite & Bertram Spafford said they ought either to apply to Mr Heathcote or Mr Goodman, who were the chief Territorials here, or to go to the Territorial headquarters in Manchester. I told him yesterday that the fact of a strong healthy man like himself being absolutely ignorant of military tactics was a proof that our military system was at fault somewhere. He said that at the Manchester Grammar School, where he went, they had no corps, & that many men were in the same case as himself.

The war will alter everything &, even if I pass my exam., there would probably be no means to send both Edward & me to Oxford at the same time. There is nothing to do now but wait. When I got in I found Edward had procured an evening paper with the startling news that England had sent an ultimatum to Germany, to expire at midnight to-night, demanding the immediate withdrawal of her troops from Belgium…

Immediately after dinner I had to go to a meeting of the University Extension Lectures Committee. Small groups of people, especially men, were standing about talking, & in front of the Town Hall was quite a large crowd, as on the door was posted up the mobilisation order, in large black letters, ordering all army recruits to take up the colours & all Territorials to go to their headquarters. Edward has been reading the papers carefully & says that at present only the trained army & the Territorials are wanted & there is no demand for untrained volunteers. Though anxious to fight he says he will wait until he hears that people like himself are needed; he is of course very young & not overexperienced…

Stupendous events come so thick & fast after one another that it is impossible to realise to any extent their full import. One feels as if one were dreaming, or reading a chapter out of one of H. G. Wells’ books like The War of the Worlds. To me, who have never known the meaning of war, as I can scarcely remember the South African even, it is incredible to think that there can be fighting off the coast of Yorkshire…

To sum up the situation in any way is impossible, every hour brings fresh & momentous events & one must stand still & await catastrophes each even more terrible than the last. All the nations of this continent are ready with their swords drawn…[20]

References and Footnotes

  1. "The Fourth of August" is also the title of a poem by Binyon which does an excellent job of representing the cliched thoughts, images, and vocabulary of heroic war poetry at the war's outset. In twenty-eight lines we get splendour, purification, dilating hearts, "the grandeur of our fate," the glorious dead, nobility, heritage, immortal stars, hope, seed, flower, purgation, and divine suffering. It sounds old fashioned now, but then again that is (one of) the whole point(s) of this project: it will take time to find a way to write what war is really like, especially in verse.
  2. Ford, War Prose, 2.
  3. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell,187.
  4. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 235.
  5. Not through the mountains, but over? A penetrating, or rather a lofty, arcing poetic vision?
  6. Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 151-2. Hollis cites Hassall for the Brooke information, and a 1917 letter to mum for Owen's romantic whereabouts (which sounds a little different in Hibberd's reference to it, but anyway; you can't see through the Pyrenees, and mountainous as Bagnères-de-Bigorre is, it's a valley town--the start of climbs to the border passes and not within any easy hike of Spanish vistas. Brooke, incidentally, was staying with Frances Cornford, whose poem Charles Sorley recently misattributed to Laurence Housman! Small world! Good times!
  7. E.H. Hardy, The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 365.
  8. McLeod, The Last Summer, 111, 134.
  9. Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning, 47. Almost identical, not-interestingly-enough, to his earlier account in A Subaltern's War, 16. What is the significance of the first memoir's "roasting afternoon" and the later account's "sultry afternoon?" Dissertation to follow.
  10. Fussell, ed., The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 27.
  11. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 9.
  12. Sitwell, Great Morning, 327; both ellipses are his...
  13. Philip Ziegler, Obsert Sitwell, 51-3, has Osbert packing evening clothes as well, although on what additional evidence I'm not sure. It would be like Osbert to pack evening clothes and mention that "friends" did so, and also like a biographer to slew the "friends" detail back into Osbert without perfect authority. And why is he writing chatty letters to dad? Tune in tomorrow.
  14. Williamson, How Dear Is Life, 135.
  15. Another spoiling book title...  Ferguson, The Short, Sharp Life of T.E. Hulme, 182.
  16. Cooper, Autobiography, 113. I'm not sure what this game is--perhaps the H.G. Wells thing? Well, Churchill had other fish to fry that weekend.
  17. Dunsany, Tales of War, 92.
  18. This quote, from chapter 27 of Doyle's autobiography, I have shamelessly cribbed from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War website--an admirably thorough site with details on many authors that I don't have the resources to include here... do check it out, especially if your literary interests shade fantastic.
  19. Carrington, Rudyard Kipling, 492. Hundreds of others, no doubt, wrote of Armageddon. But this is not a bad time to note that a century changes the emphasis of a word even if its meaning stays more or less fixed. Indeed, "armageddon" may be a weak example of a common phenomenon, in which this war introduces specific phrases into a general associative meaning. American footballers, surely, did not labor "in the trenches" yet, and "lousy" was an insectiform reference. Armageddon will come to mean "disastrous conflict," but Vera and Rudyard were, if I may address my readership with statistical generalities and all apologies to individual outliers, better and more frequent bible readers than you. That unholy meaning was then, therefore, very much more to the fore. Of course, by tomorrow it will also be an ill-timed jest...
  20. Chronicle of Youth, 85-7.

A Blast in the Future

 June 20th, 1914


A blast from the future today, lit-erally: despite the publication date on the title page, this issue did not in fact come out until July 2nd. But two of our most important 1914 correspondents are slated for that day, and they would be a little shocked to be expected to consort with Wyndham Lewis’s Magenta monstrousity.

And Blast was self-consciously (figuratively) violent and futurist, or, at least, heavily influenced by the Italian futurists. Wyndham Lewis, the most-still-celebrated-as-an-English-modernist of those who really fought in the war, will come into our story, even as his big movement, Vorticism, will have relatively little impact on post-war literature and even less on the core group of (literarily conservative) war poets. Nevertheless, this too is a publication of the Last Summer–it’s what the sneering cool kids were up to in the comfy world Before the Storm, a world that some of them would fight for, some would die for, in a war that would drive some of them away from any belief in the saving graces of muscular modernity and confirm others in the belief that the only way forward was, well, forward. Among writers who we will be looking  at (although only very briefly, for the first two) Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Rebecca West, and Ford Madox Hueffer (soon to be Ford) wrote for this first issue.[1].

Our heart is not really with the modernists. (Although, in addition to those mentioned above, T.E. Hulme and Herbert Read saw significant service in France and so will represent the sleeping giants [or objecting giants, or giants merely laying so very low] of modernism in our motley literary cavalcade [check that: it’s an infantry parade, the days of mounted literary celebrations drawing now short]). And our heart is not with the Vorticists at all, unless I decide to try to wrestle through Wyndham Lewis’s not-conspicuously-date-heavy memoir. So back, soon, to the budding poets and the handful of serving officers who will be our more constant companions come autumn.

Nevertheless, two quick observations. First, it seems to be mandatory, when citing the first issue of Blast, to quote from the amusingly wacky manifesto. Since there are more than enough wincing ironies and/or strange foreshadowings to make it worth our while, here we go:


1. Beyond Action and Reaction we would establish ourselves.
2. We start from opposite statements of a chosen world. Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes.
3. We discharge ourselves on both sides.
4. We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours.
5. Mercenaries were always the best troops.
6. We are primitive Mercenaries in the Modern World.
7. Our Cause is NO-MAN’S.
8. We set Humour at Humour’s throat. Stir up Civil War among peaceful apes.
9. We only want Humour if it has fought like Tragedy.
10. We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb.

It goes on like this for some time.

Second, it’s also worth mentioning that the influential surgeon and teacher of drawing at the Slade School of Fine Art Henry Tonks is, um, worth mentioning here, since he is the only figure to be both “blasted” and “blessed” in the Manifesto’s subsequent lists–and he is now appearing here for the third time, I believe, having taught Rosenberg as well as Lewis, and visiting Renishaw to paint Sir George Sitwell. Worth mentioning?

Anyway. Here’s the very first page of Vorticism. It takes either great courage in an unfree society or very slight courage and great, unexamined confidence in a more or less free society (very free, by historical standards, if not quite by ours) to write this kind of energetic silliness:














Well, destruction there would be. But this is an artifact of the Last Summer, not of the empty battlefield of literary high Modernism.


References and Footnotes

  1. There would be only one more, before the war effectively finished Vorticism--Pound was involved, but the other Big Canonical Modernists for the most part waited out the war, both artistically and militarily. For much more than I can even half-accurately summarize, see especially (from whence these page images) or