This project is something of a compromise between quality and quantity, narrative coherence and daily abundance. Many figures will appear more than once over the course of the blog, yet not qualify as author-soldier-subjects–these will duly be “tagged.” Any writer–a soldier or nurse or qualifying elder–to whom I will return again and again will eventually be declared a “category.” (The best way, then, to read one person’s story is to start at the first post in their category and move forward through time.)
This page is intended to aid the memory, to be referred to especially when a daily post reintroduces a figure who has been absent for quite some time. Below is a selective list of those writers whom I find to be either most significant or most useful to the project; they are, that is, either the most valuable poets and memoir-writers discussed so far (others will be added as they reach the front) or writers who have provided a particularly interesting source for describing certain phases of the war.
I am loath to include pictures in the daily posts, both because images forcibly channel the mind’s construction of a read character and because old photographs are generally difficult to date precisely, but I have included them below, wherever I can locate an appropriate one (i.e. of secure identity and dating from the war years). It’s nice to know what people look like…
Raymond Asquith, thirty-five at the outbreak of war and the father of two daughters, enjoyed referring to himself as “middle class.” Well, he was not a nobleman, and he worked for a living, as a barrister. But he was a man of the highest society: his father was the Prime Minister; his wife, Katharine Frances Horner, was from a family of prominent arts patrons; and Raymond himself had become, after a brilliant career at Winchester and Balliol, the central figure in “The Coterie.” These were the brightest, wittiest, and occasionally most scandalous figures of the younger generation–Diana Manners was Asquith’s friend and female counterpart. Asquith joined the army soon after the declaration of war and eventually transferred to the Grenadier Guards, coming out in 1915. He was ambivalent about military service, but saw no honorable way to avoid it–and once in, he strove to stay in the trenches rather than accept the safe staff appointments which were offered. In early 1916, however, he was appointed to the Intelligence staff of General Headquarters.
Only seventeen in 1914, Edmund Blunden would soon begin his final year at Christ’s Hospital, a unique school that had been an idyll and a leg up for him. He went in a nice young middle-class boy with a somewhat troubled family past, and, well-instructed and utterly untraumatized, he had become an aspiring poet and an accomplished student, destined for Oxford–unless, turning eighteen, he chose war instead. More than perhaps any other of the war poets and memoirists, Blunden will keep the pastoral vision of England before his eyes–the fields, the flowers, the cricket players in white–even as they fall upon some of the worst scenes of the war. Blunden will arrive in France in May, 1916.
Twenty years old in 1914, Vera Brittain was fiercely determined to escape “provincial young-ladyhood,” the stuffy, just-post-Victorian world of Buxton society. For more than a year she worked diligently to prepare herself–over parental objections at the pointlessness of female higher education–for Oxford. She hoped and planned to go up this fall at the same time as her younger brother and closest confidant, Edward, as well as Edward’s friend Roland Leighton. Roland and Vera, both self-possessed young intellectuals, were very much attracted to each other. But the war threatens to wreck these plans, and Vera has begun to ponder ways in which she can sacrifice her own ambitions on behalf of the war effort. She wrote a great deal about the war, both during and after, and her letters, diaries, poems, and memoir, together with the letters she received from her brother and Roland, are a rich source for the cultural history of the war. The first disaster to befall Brittain was the agonizing death of Roland Leighton, one day after being shot through the stomach while leading his men out into no man’s land. Leighton had been scheduled to go home on leave for Christmas, and Vera learned of his death as she waited to hear that he had landed safely in England.
Turning twenty-seven as the war began, Rupert Brooke was re-establishing himself as one of the leading Georgian Poets and the premier celebrity of the small world of literary England. The golden boy of Rugby and a leader of the precious/Bohemian “apostles” at Cambridge, Brooke,” the handsomest man in England” and a talented poet, lived a dazzling social life filled with admirers of both sexes, whose affections he returned frequently but never consistently, with dramatic and often unpleasant results. A breakdown in 1912 had been followed by a long year far away from England–Tahiti, among other places–and a more or less triumphant return. Brooke, though, was always unhappy, a long-time lover (and hater?) of the love-hate relationship, the most volcanic of which was with himself. The war was to him yet another challenge in which he must struggle to meet others’ expectations of him without feeling as if he were being untrue to himself. Or something like that. He pulled all the strings available to him until he won a commission in one of the Navy’s infantry battalions.
Brooke died of blood poisoning on April 23rd, 1915, and immediately became, together with his “War Sonnets,” a symbol of the noble sacrifices demanded by the war. His poetry (and person) would remain very popular throughout the war, even as other writers began to devalue his work and the explicitly pro-war purposes to which it, and his memory, were put.
Seventeen years old in 1914, Charles Carrington–an English boy whose father’s church career had taken the family to New Zealand–had spent the school year in England with relatives, preparing for University examinations, and was due for one more. But when the war began, Carrington became bent on volunteering and spent a frustrating August applying in person to various army depots. As an underage New Zealander without the automatic entrée of a famous public school OTC, Carrington realized that he was not going to get a commission, but in early September he convinced his parents–by telegraph–that he must enlist, and, pretending to be nineteen, found his way into a New Army battalion from Birmingham. His battalion was part of “K5”–the fifth “hundred thousand” of Kitchener’s army–and consequently near the end of the line for supplies. Training, due to the extreme shortage of arms and equipment, would be a halting affair. Carrington reached France at the beginning of 1916.
Billy Congreve was twenty-three years old in 1914, but, six foot four and very skinny, he looked quite a bit younger. The eldest of three brothers, Billy had carried on the military tradition of his family by attending Sandhurst (after Eton) and was a lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade when the war broke out. By this time one younger brother was a midshipman and his father, Walter Congreve–who had won the Victoria Cross in South Africa–was a brigadier in the same division. Billy Congreve kept a diary–against the rules but not unheard of–which is primarily a company- and battalion-level description of the fighting he saw. The diary is also a rare look into the contemporary thoughts of a young professional soldier determined not to let this great opportunity–to fight well for his country and to demonstrate his personal courage and competence–pass him by.
Sir Morgan Crofton, baronet, was from an old military family. Thirty-four in 1914, he had retired from the army just months before the war began (the result of a scandalous divorce; see cropped photo at right). He promptly returned to the active list, and by November the heavy casualties suffered by his former unit, the elite 2/Life Guards, led to an invitation to rejoin them in Belgium. He served there as a translator, a supernumerary regimental officer, and even, briefly, as the acting CO of the regiment. Crofton’s diaries are regular, detailed, voluminous, and candid–they were never intended to be read by others, and were only published a few years ago. Thus they are an excellent source, providing not only a sense of the regular rhythms of trench warfare but a long view of the building frustration among British officers, with no punches pulled. Crofton writes as a professional forced to assist at a failing operation rather than as a man aggrieved and disillusioned. Although he displays much prejudice and has little interest in introspection, he is an excellent observer, both compassionate and reflexively analytical.
Henry Weston Farnsworth
Henry Farnsworth was the son of an American businessman, his course in life well planned out: prep school, Harvard, then on to business school and father’s business… except that he veered off-course in his sophomore year, fleeing as far as an Australian sheep station before wiring home for money and rescue. Farnsworth remained restless, however–and obsessed with war. He worked as a freelance war correspondent in the Balkans and Mexico, and ran off to Europe in the fall of 1914, again foiling his father’s plans for him. He entered the French Foreign Legion in January 1915, a fall back after failing to find a way either to travel to the eastern front as a war correspondent or to join an ad hoc international cavalry unit. Farnsworth was a soldier, now but he still wanted to write about the war. His letters home include material that he intended to publish later on–perhaps as a novel. The letters are particularly interesting because of his tendency to present himself very differently to different members of his family: writing to mother, father, and sister, he is a brave lonely boy, a swaggering young man, and a dreamy scribbler, three visions of war from one pen.
Farnsworth was killed in September, 1915, during a French assault on German positions in Champagne.
Lady Dorothie Feilding was a bit of a whirlwind. Twenty-four at the beginning of the war, one of the ten children of an old aristocratic and still very rich family (her father was an earl, who, along with two of Dorothie’s brothers and many forebears served in the Coldstream Guards), she could boast of having made her society debut before the King and Queen some six years earlier. But she probably didn’t: if you want a paragon of the “roll-up-your-sleeves and help” aristocracy, look no further. Despite having no formal training, Lady Feilding immediately threw herself into war work, and joined the highly unusual merry band of Doctor Munro’s Ambulance Corps. From Belgium and France, where she dodged artillery fire and woman-hating allied officers to rescue the wounded members of what we might call the critically under-served Belgian, French, and British armies. She learned to drive all manner of vehicles, and to serve as an orderly and emergency nurse. She also attracted a lot of attention–she was young, female, and aristocratic, and even if the Royal Army Medical Corps didn’t want young lady volunteers, the British Press surely did. Feilding’s letters home–lively and very much uncensored–show her wrestling with the demands of driving and nursing under disastrous conditions as well as the very different challenges of sexism, the inefficiency of male superiors, and the vicissitudes (and benefits) of propagandistic fame.
Turning forty-four in May of 1915, Rowland Feilding joined the Coldstream Guards in France, a reserve officer whose path into a regular battalion was perhaps smoothed by his surname: there were and had been many Feildings in the Coldstream, including his second cousin Rudolph (“Rollo,” “Tubby”) Feilding, Dorothie’s brother. Rowland was a son of younger sons, and although he had seen active service in South Africa, he was a mining engineer by profession. Much like Rowland Leighton and Vera Brittain, Feilding and his wife had solemnly agreed that he must write detailed letters that concealed nothing of his burdens, nothing of the horrors that he witnessed.
Nineteen years old when the war broke out and just finished with school, Robert Graves swiftly became one of the British army’s most unusual officers. He was a bit of an enfant terrible: bright but sloppy, principled but combative, radical and puritanical. Few officers–and he was to enter a Regular battalion by means of the Special Reserve, rather than one of the less hidebound units of Kitchener’s army–were as singular and non-conformist. A strong classical scholar and budding poet, Graves came from a literary and academic family of the highly respectable middle classes, but he hacked his own path through life. His disinterest in social norms–or in concealing either his intellectual interests, cutting opinions, or German relatives–would make fitting in with the Royal Welch fusiliers as fraught as fitting in at an English public school. Graves, though, was prone to intense friendships as well as scattershot antagonisms, and he and Siegfried Sassoon began in late 1915 to form the most important poetic friendship of the war. Poetry aside, Graves’ greatest gift will be for angry satire, which makes Good-Bye to All That essential reading–and a difficult source.
Julian Grenfell was twenty-six in 1914, an officer of the Royal Dragoons stationed in South Africa. He grew up amidst the cream of Late Victorian society, with his mother at the center of the fashionable “souls” clique and his father a living embodiment of the English Gentleman Sportsman. Although his path through life mimicked that of his class and circumstances–Eton and Oxford, where he was an athlete and socially prominent (although also a strong student and occasional poet), then a fashionable cavalry regiment–he seems to have placed himself in a sort of internal, intellectual exile. He wrote a book that lacerated the social and intellectual tenets of this society, and maintained a distant-yet-exaggeratedly-affectionate correspondence with his overwhelming mother. Bred to take his place in the world without apology, Grenfell was neither a boor nor a maniac, yet he will come to delight in war and celebrate it in verse and prose. It’s often difficult to tell if he is being frighteningly and completely honest about his enjoyment of violence, or whether he writes with unusual honesty, and yet also for effect.
Julian Grenfell died on May 26th, 1915, the result of a head wound sustained two weeks earlier.
Donald Hankey was thirty years old in 1914, an upper-middle-class Englishman who, after a brief and unhappy stint as an army officer, had spent most of the last ten years as a student of theology, mission worker, and journalist. Although his father’s money enabled a life of travel and volunteer work, Hankey is unusual among our writers in being both peripatetic and seriously committed to crossing class boundaries–for the sake of charity and spreading the gospel. By 1914 he had traveled to Australia in steerage, worked as a laborer, studied at Rugby, Charterhouse, the Royal Military Academy, and Oxford, run boys clubs and otherwise ministered to the urban poor (often while “disguised” in workingman’s clothes), written travel articles and a theology dissertation, and was increasingly certain that he felt called to the (Anglican) ministry. In August he enlisted in the ranks–despite his class background and previous service as an officer–because he believed that the experience of serving with the ordinary men would be invaluable in his future life as a pastor. He was swiftly promoted to sergeant and, even as his first book of theology came out, began writing about the experience of army life. Wounded in the summer of 1915, Hankey was pressured to accept a commission, even as he began to gain fame an essayist.
The son of an Anglican bishop, William Noel Hodgson was twenty-one at the outbreak of war, and working on his second degree at Christ Church, Oxford. A scholar, athlete, and amateur poet, Hodgson volunteered almost immediately and eventually found his way to a commission in the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire regiment. This was a unit of Kitchener’s Army in which the young officers seemed to form a particularly tight-knit group; Hodgson’s nickname was “Smiler.” The 9/Devonshires came out to France in July 1915 and Hodgson won a Military Cross for his actions as a bombing (hand-grenade) officer during the Battle of Loos in September, when he and his men held a captured trench alone for a day and a half. He kept up a lively correspondence with his sister Stella, and in 1916 she began submitting his poems and prose sketches, under the pseudonym “Edward Melbourne,” to various publications.
Ford Madox Hueffer
The writer subsequently known as Ford Madox Ford was forty madox forty years old in 1914, and a rare combination of Eccentric Englishman and Continental Man of Letters. He’s impossible to summarize briefly, but since was a pioneer of “impressionist” literary description, I’ll try: prodigious and prolific, his first book published in his teens, and fairy stories and critical essays and historical novels and his own review; a German father but a grandfather (Madox Brown) who was a major pre-Raphaelite painter; with his French and German he saw Modernism coming before most other Englishmen, and midwifed away; he collaborated with Conrad, founded an influential journal, “discovered” D.H. Lawrence and others major writers, and become one himself; if the English Modernist Novel had its own literary agent/fairy godmother he would be it. A strange combination of gentleman and bohemian; perceptive and uncultured yet shambling and outré. When the war began he was effectively, but not officially, on his second marriage–sin and decadence! Irritatingly, he will not change his name until later on. He was also working on the novel that will become The Good Soldier, and beginning to write for the propaganda bureau. Despite all this–not to mention his age and poor health–he chose to volunteer for the infantry, taking a commission in the Welsh Regiment in 1915. He will draw on his wartime experiences to produce the great Modernist novel of the war, the Parade’s End tetralogy.
Thomas Earnest Hulme hailed from a Staffordshire family of modest wealth but humble origins. Something of a math(s) prodigy, he went up to Cambridge in 1902… and down again in 1904, after having shown far more interest in drunken stunts than studies. Hulme was stubborn and fiercely intellectually independent, and he, too, wandered abroad, working as a laborer in Canada before returning to England and beginning an intensive course of self-education. In the ten years before the war he became a philosopher, critic, aesthetic theorist, and poet in his own right, and by 1910 or so it was clear that he was the primary intellectual figure of the nascent English Modernist movement. Like Pound and Eliot, who admired his poetry and took heed of his criticism, he combined a rebellious artistic temperament with political conservatism. Hulme enlisted in the Honourable Artillery Company at the outbreak of war, passing up, like many early gentleman volunteers, the chance of a commission in favor of an immediate place in the ranks. By December he was in France, where he began a “trench diary” in the form of a long serial letter sent to his family. This is an account of an infantryman’s numbing labors, but seen through the eye of an artist and mediated by the reflexive analysis of an uncompromising critic. These the first extended “trench experience” accounts by an intellectual of such caliber, our best early look at a war experienced in its brute physicality but recorded by a mind determined to resist the lure of cliche, sentimentality, and romanticism. After being wounded in the war’s first winter, Hulme returned to England and eventually took a commission in the artillery.
Francis Ledwidge was twenty-six years old at the start of the war, and the product of very different circumstances than the other men on this page. The eight of nine children, he was “of peasant stock,” and after leaving school at thirteen worked as a laborer on the roads of his native Ireland. Active in Nationalist and union politics, Ledwidge established himself as a poet and worked his way up into managerial posts. He also came to the attention of Lord Dunsany, who supported and advised him and, in 1915, saw his first book into print. Torn, like so many Irish patriots, between the Allied cause and an antipathy to fighting on behalf of England, Ledwidge decided to enlist, choosing Dunsany’s regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. In 1915, the 5th Battalion was sent to Gallipoli and then to Serbia, whence Ledwidge was evacuated, ill and exhausted. He read of the success of his poetry while recuperating in a series of hospitals in Egypt. Ledwidge returned to England in April of 1916 and was awarded convalescent leave, only to find that the Easter Rising now prevented all travel to Ireland.
Katherine Evelyn Luard, whose diary of 1914-1915 was published during the war, was an experienced and indefatigable nurse, one of the few English nurses who managed to get herself near the front with the RAMC during the war’s first autumn. This was due no doubt to her skill and her apparent imperturbability Her diary combines the immediacy of the best letters and diaries with the insightful observation and consistently calm and hopeful tone of the few good early-war “reports” (it is tempting, if a little facile, to see the personality of the valued nurse in the valuable writer), and is one of the best sources for the war’s first few months. She travels all over northern France with the ambulance trains that evacuate the wounded, recording the polite thanks and the agony of wounded and dying soldiers from France, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and India. She also provides a good sense of the nurse’s life–she reports on when she can sneak in exercise or grab a bath, and she is assiduous about visiting all of the Gothic churches–but as the diary goes in she seems to become more and more invested in speaking for the broken bodies which she cares for. She is among the first of the writers here to write repeatedly of her horror at the suffering of all the war’s victims–British and German, soldier and non-combatant. Her later letters, recently republished as Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, continue the story, and solidify her place as one of the most consistently perceptive and interesting writers from “just behind” the lines.
John Lucy and his brother Denis enlisted in the Royal Irish Rifles in 1912. There is some confusion about their exact age upon enlistment (like many others, they “exaggerated”), but John was still a teenager and his brother was certainly underage. From a respectable working class rural Irish background, both boys had had some schooling, and once they became familiar with the rigid army hierarchy they sought to rise through the ranks. When war broke out, both were corporals, leading a section of about eight men. Lucy wrote a vivid memoir that focuses on the 1914 campaign, in which his battalion saw a great deal of action. His brother Denis was killed on September 15th, 1914, during the the battle of the Aisne. Lucy’s account–There’s a Devil in the Drum–is a straightforward narrative mixed with backward-looking criticism and analysis, a valuable report on the experience of enlisted men in the first days of the war.
Wilfred Owen was twenty-one in 1914, the beloved eldest son of a family clinging to the lower slopes of middle-class respectability. Money had been too scarce, and Wilfred–who was more of a grind than a natural academic star–had had to work as a pupil-teacher and later as a parish assistant in order to keep his University dreams alive. His upbringing had been evangelical and fervent, but Wilfred began to question his faith and had by now redirected his fervor toward poetry. In the spring of 1914 he had swallowed his academic ambitions for the time being and traveled to the south of France to work as a teacher of English. There he met and was befriended by Laurent Tailhade, a well-known (and notorious) “decadent” poet. In mid-1915, Owen returned to England and joined the Artists’ Rifles, hoping for a smooth and not necessarily swift path to a commission. Wilfred had a very intense relationship with his mother, and wrote her many letters during the war; the letters, although expurgated, give some insight into his swift and uneven development from a callow and self-important young man and tiresome, derivative poet into a good officer and the author of the devastatingly effective war poetry.
Alf Pollard was a middle-class Londoner, a restless clerk of twenty-one years when the war began. He promptly enlisted in the Honourable Artillery Company and, before the war’s first week was out, he had moved into the Armoury House barracks, thrilling with the prospect of adventure. His account of his experiences is bluff and direct, and places him–in retrospect–with that less-celebrated cohort of Great War writers who neither rejected the values of their fathers’ generation nor protested their conduct of the war. Pollard, a self-styled “Fire-Eater,” was eager for battle and remained so even after his first experiences of combat in late 1914. While he does not shrink from describing the horrors of war, his frequently expressed opinion is that these are necessary evils, given the righteousness of the cause. Rising in rank as his abilities were recognized, Pollard explains his exceptional performance as motivated by this belief in justice, by pride, and by his desire to excel in order to win the heart of the woman he loves.
Herbert Read, twenty-one years old in 1914, hailed from rural Yorkshire. He had begun life as the son of a wealthy farmer, but hard times following his father’s death led first to an unpleasant boarding school and then a stint as a clerk. At the outbreak of the war he was a student–of economics, but with great and growing interest in avant-garde art and politics–at the University of Leeds. Despite his anarchist inclinations, only his mother’s ill-health kept him from volunteering at the beginning of the war. Soon he will be in uniform, fighting avidly yet writing poetry that is usually seen as anti-war. He will also write a series of letters and short narratives that both document his experiences on a tactical level and explore his evolving view of war and battle, literature and art.
Frank Richards–or Francis Phillip Woodruff (he began using “Richards” after being orphaned and adopted)–was thirty-one in 1914, a reservist with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Called up immediately, he volunteered to rejoin the second battalion and was in France within weeks. He had first joined the Royal Welch as a teenager in 1901 in order to see the world–and also to see less of the coal mines of southern Wales, in which he had been working for several years. After his seven years with the colors, mostly in India, he had again taken up work in the mines. Richards remained in the ranks for the remained of the war, making his memoir–published with the help (and, many suspect, the heavy-handed editing) of Robert Graves–the only one by a tried-and-true enlisted man of the regular army. Old Soldiers Never Die is full of good tales, many of them tall, and provides a wealth of material that can help fill in the blanks of our officer-heavy collective history of the 2/Royal Welch.
Born to a struggling Jewish immigrant family in London’s slums, Rosenberg–twenty-four in 1914–left school early and was apprenticed to an engraver. After a chance encounter earned him the patronage of a wealthy woman he was able to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. An omnivorous reader, talented painter, and burgeoning poet, Rosenberg was struggling to make ends meet in 1914, and in poor health as well. In the spring he left for South Africa, where he hoped to recuperate while painting and lecturing. So far away from it all at the beginning of the war, he initially had no intention of enlisting. But he did have one connection, tenuous but tenacious, with the world of London culture: Eddie Marsh, secretary to Winston Churchill, sidekick to Rupert Brooke, and voice of encouragement to Siegfried Sassoon, had bought one of Rosenberg’s paintings and remained in touch with him. Rosenberg came back to England in late 1914, but there was little work to be had, and in late 1915 he joined the army, finding a place in a “bantam battalion” for undersized men.
Twenty-eight in 1914, Siegfried Sassoon was a diffident and poetical country gentleman from Kent. Despite the literary promise seen by Eddie Marsh and others, his “flowery” and “dreamy” (these are always the adjectives) early verse was going nowhere. He was an avid sportsman, with cricket and hunting filling much of the year, but, although he had the income (family money) to avoid having to work, he did not have enough to keep the horses that a real fox-hunting man required. An attempt at leading a diligent literary and social life in London in the spring and summer of 1914 failed and, out of money, he retreated to his childhood home and his mother’s society. Sassoon reacted to news of the coming war with a selfish sort of relief–now he had something to do. He joined the yeomanry just before the declaration of war, although an injury in training and a transfer between units will delay his first trip to the front. In late 1915 Sassoon reached France, joining the First Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, where he met Robert Graves. The death of his friend David Thomas in March 1916 wrought a swift change in his view of the war. Sassoon will write a great deal about the war, in prose and verse, in memoirs both lightly fictionalized and in propria persona.
Alan Seeger, like Henry Farnsworth, was a privileged young American (Harvard, ’10) drawn to war, to Europe, and to the challenges and hardships of the French Foreign Legion. But the differences are notable as well: Seeger had been content for several post-college years to live a bohemian life in Greenwich Village and the Latin Quarter, “working” on his poetry, and he set out to experience the war rather than write it, enlisting in the Foreign Legion without delay. And yet Seeger was soon writing the war, keeping a diary and devoting much time to long, impressionistic letters written both to his family and expressly for publication in American newspapers. These show little interest in the personalities of war and only intermittent attention to strategy or tactics. Seeger instead strives for a sort of sensory completism, writing panoramic descriptions of the sights and sounds of war along the French sectors of the line, South and East of our many British informants. His war is intensely impressionistic–vivid, intensely-colored, even painterly.
Charles Sorley, nineteen years old in 1914, was a precocious scholar. The son of a Cambridge professor, he had finished Marlborough in December of 1913 and won a scholarship to Oxford. Like most public school boys, he had taken part in the school Officers’ Training Corps and played several sports, yet Sorley had a strong independent streak. He was an avid reader of novels and poetry in several languages, and often chose long solitary walks over more social activities. The spring and early summer of 1914 were spent in Germany, where Sorley learned the language and studied philosophy and German literature, describing his experiences in letters to friends and family. He found much to admire in German culture and much to be wary of, notably the drunken and violent antics of the student cadet corps. Arrested by the local police on August 2nd, Sorley was lucky to be released, and crossed the frontier just before the British declaration of war. He returned home to Cambridge and obtained a commission in a Kitchener’s Army battalion in September. Sorley spent much of 1915 in the trenches and fought in the Battle of Loos, continuing to write both poetry and letters even as the horror of war began to sink in.
Charles Sorley was killed on October 13th, 1915, while leading his men in an assault on German positions near the Hohenzollern Redoubt. The sonnet When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead was found on his body. Sorley’s death was a great loss for English literature, an irreparable loss that was nonetheless muted to some degree by the swift publication, by his parents, of his poetry. By early 1916, he was being avidly read by surviving poets of similar background, and similar prospects.
Olaf Stapledon, a youthful twenty-eight at the outbreak of war, was a graduate of Balliol who had taken a rather different path from his one-time fellow-oarsmen Julian Grenfell. After working as a teacher and a clerk, he took a job with the Workers’ Educational Association, which seemed to fit both his scholarly and political leanings. After the war broke out, he demonstrated the courage of his pacifist convictions by joining the Friends’ Ambulance Corps, serving from 1915 in France, often under fire. At once a scientific and philosophical enthusiast and a committed romantic, Stapledon’s emotional life was centered on Agnes Miller, the Australian cousin whom he had met in childhood and fallen in love with. They were engaged in the autumn of 1915, and their letters, often taking months to circle the globe are at once love letters, reports on the war in France, and philosophical explorations. Stapledon may spend his days driving ambulances along mud-fouled paths, but his gaze is ever on the stars.
Bimbo Tennant is the latest thing in cheerful aristocrats. The son of a baron and a Sargent-painted doyenne of the Souls, Bim was only seventeen in August of 1914, but he had finished school (Winchester) and immediately volunteered. His extreme youth kept him in London for a year, but when the Grenadier Guards expanded to four battalions he was sent out, in the summer of 1915, a teenage lieutenant and platoon commander. Tennant wrote poetry, enjoyed singing, and befriended the odd-and-outrageous Osbert Sitwell, a sign that his overwhelming bonhomie was ntirely in earnest. Tennant saw only limited action in 1915 and, after several leaves, found his way onto the brigade staff. His experiences in France have been chronicled in a volume of letters–most of them exceedingly affectionate and enthusiastic missives to his mother–which he himself edited for publication.
Thirty-seven in 1914, Edward Thomas was a well-established and very productive writer. He was a critic, literary journalist, and author of books on travel, rural England, and literature. In his many friends he was very fortunate–it was his new friendship with Robert Frost that led to a rebirth of his own poetic impulse–and he managed the difficult trick of being both a social hub for poets and men of letters and an uncompromising critic. Thomas had long struggled with depression, and the tensions of a difficult marriage and the responsibility to provide–solely with freelance writing–for his wife and three children were often difficult to bear. Thomas scrambled to get ahead of the suddenly-shifting literary market as the war began, but it was clear that it might be difficult to continue to survive as a writer. In the fall of 1914, as many of his friends–especially younger men without families–began to train as soldiers, he started to think seriously about the balance of his responsibilities. How should he respond to the widening war–as a writer, but also as an Englishman? By the summer of 1915, the choice was made, and Thomas joined the Artists’ Rifles.
Eighteen in 1914, Henry Williamson was a sensitive and immature young Londoner, a junior clerk at an insurance office and an aspiring naturalist. From the solid suburban lower middle class, Williamson seems to have spent his late adolescence struggling manfully to fit in, yet remaining on the margins and constantly bearing his vulnerabilities to his mother, which greatly frustrated his father). So, in an effort to follow the other chaps into what seemed like a sort of club and to impress his father–and to earn an enlistment bonus that would pay for a new suit–Williamson had joined a London battalion of the Territorial Army in early 1914. Like National Guard units, the Territorials could expect to drill on occasional evenings and weekends and at an extended camp during the summer. But before his first Territorial camp could take place, Williamson and the rest of his battalion were mobilized for war. Young Henry saw action in the grim battles of late 1914 and in 1915 was commissioned, beginning a long period of home service and training assignments. Many of Williamson’s letters survive, and he drew upon them for an enormous (fifteen volume!) novel that follows the path of his life, yet consistently puts the fictional protagonist near the war’s greatest events. We can, then, track the differences between the experiences of Williamson and his protagonist Phillip Maddison, and closely observe the transmutation of traumatic experience into literature.