Siegfried Sassoon Packs for Palestine; Isaac Rosenberg is Sent Packing

I suppose it is neither terribly perceptive nor strikingly original to note the importance of reading to writing and, in return, the utter dependence of reading on writing. Still, there is perhaps slightly more to say here than to make small jokes about the blindingly obvious–a reminder, at least, of one of the Fussell-inspired beginning places of this project: when you come to the task of describing something frightening, emotionally intense, and both utterly unlike your previous experiences and almost literally unimaginable to your future readership, you may be thrown back in confusion on the resources of your reading. In other words, all books derive in part from the books their writers read, but war books more than others.

Siegfried Sassoon likes to play the innocent or the ingenue–he failed to take a degree, he wasn’t a serious scholar, and he finds himself to be overawed by the presence of powerful intellects. Perhaps; but he is still intelligent and serious, and growing less diffident. And he’s packing literary weight, now:

February 7

Orders to embark Southampton next Monday.

Books to take to Egypt:

Oxford Book of English Verse
Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Hardy, Moments of Vision
Crabbe, The Borough
Browning, The Ring and the Book
A Shropshire Lad
Meredith, Poems
Oxford Dictionary
Hardy, The Woodlanders

Barbusse, Le Feu
Pater, Renaissance
Trollope, Barchester Towers
Surtees, Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour, Facey Romford’s Hounds
Bunyan, Holy War
Plato, Republic
Tolstoy, War and Peace (3 vols)
Scott, The Antiquary[1]

It’s quite a list: heavy on the essentials of English poetry, a few crucial “war books,” a late emphasis, perhaps, on autodidactic self-improvement, and then a few personal touchstones. The list explains where Sassoon is coming from as a poet much better than his “binary”–which is to say shaped with a heavy hand, and half-occluded–memoirs or his contemporary jottings and letters, and it is worth examining somewhat closely. Also, who doesn’t love to read a list of books?

Where do we begin? Blue-bound, of course, on India paper. The Oxford Book. Where else? This is the essential point of reference, the common ground codified and certified by the great University. And England’s poetic soil is green and fertile, if not always uncomplicatedly pleasant.

The most important poets are supplemented in their own volumes–Keats, the essential Romantic; Wordsworth, if ambition should point in that direction; Browning is perhaps a bit surprising, but he ranked quite high among the young Sassoon’s closer Romantic forebears. Crabbe, whose The Borough is a work describing everyday life in heroic couplets, is a bit of an outlier, but he might be there to strengthen Sassoon’s intention to write directly and descriptively about what the soldiers are experiencing.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, of course. Even though several are included in the Oxford Book, a lyric poet abroad might feel naked without them.

Of the later Victorians, Meredith and Hardy. Meredith, too, might be there for his unromantic emphasis on everyday life. And Thomas Hardy, Sassoon’s family friend at one remove, his more-than-polite correspondent, and something, perhaps of a poetic dream-mentor: he is becoming a Doktorvater or poetic grandsire while Rivers has become the dream father of Sassoon’s suffering soul.

But the choice of Hardy is interesting: not the enormous Satires of Circumstance, which is more essential to Sassoon’s 1916 poetry than any other examplar–and perhaps quite well remembered, by now–but the newest volume of poetry, Moments of Vision, together with The Woodlanders. Although this is one of Hardy’s later novels, it is something of a throwback to his early “Wessex” novels, treating of love in a rural setting in which, while not all goes well, to say the least, it does not end in utter calamity. It was broadly popular, too–not, in other words, one of the heavy-hitting late career novels which both sustain Hardy’s reputation to this day and helped finish him as a novelist in censorious Victorian Britain.

If there is one book that both advances the tradition of the rural English Lyric and narrows it to suit a certain sensibility–inclined to tragedy, to gently-posed but bitter irony, and toward a worship of the young male form that is at least implicitly homoerotic–it is Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The poems are good–sometimes very good–but their influence on Sassoon’s generation is out of proportion to their merit-in-a-vacuum. (Which is not a thing that actually exists, of course. See Peter Parker’s Housman Country on all this.) Housman doesn’t really stand alongside Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, and Hardy–but he does, in Sassoon’s valise.

Then there’s the Pater and the Plato–signs of an awakened intellectual appetite or ambition–bracketed by a few significant war books. Shorter, more recent, and French is Barbusse’s Le Feu (Under Fire) the first really influential realistic depiction of modern war. It’s a better book than All Quiet–which won’t be published for a decade, anyway–and should be read in its place. It’s got the horror and the intensely-lived experience, but without the heavy narrative hand on the wheel. Sassoon, Graves, and Blunden will all read this book…

It’s hard to tell whether War and Peace is there as a Modern War Essential or as a Great Book that is also a great way to spend a great deal of time in boats, trains, and dusty camps. Probably the latter, although Sassoon would have very much enjoyed Tolstoy’s own first-person fictions of warfare–the Sevastopol Sketches–had they been available.

Whether Bunyan’s second book (generally he’s a one book author, except for Protestant Allegorical or Siege Warfare completists) is there because Sassoon knows that it’s an allegory from static warfare (they all tried to use Pilgrim’s Progress when they could, but it’s a quest narrative, and they were going nowhere, so only the Slough really appealed) or whether because he just thought there might be some as-yet-untapped veins of Christian allegory in the tradition suitable for the smelting-into-satire, I am not sure. But I incline to the latter, once again.

Let’s see: then there is Trollope, and Scott, which are entertaining things; holes, perhaps, in his literary education, or middleweights to spar with before Tolstoy if he gets a bit windy.

Last, and very certainly least, are two novels by Surtees, who sits uncontested upon the throne of middlebrow Mid-Victorian fox hunting literature.

I am not going to pretend that I have read all the books on this list. However, since the point of such lists (or, at least, of publishing and then re-posting them) is to posture at imagined adversaries with pointy paper antlers, I will assert that I have read most of them, mostly, and thereby imply that those readers who haven’t have a lot of work to do.

But when I confronted my own failings in regard to Sassoon’s list, I decided that, rather than pay close attention to Meredith (or some of the other poets) or Trollope, I would read Surtees. Sassoon loves reading him–I believe he calls him his favorite author, somewhere–and perhaps this might offer a window into the meeting of the minds of the allegedly binary Sassoon: he is reading, but he’s reading about hunting. Well, I have to report… not so much. A few chapters in, Mr. Sponge is entertaining, but not memorable–kind of like Dickens arrested at the Pickwick stage, dressed in a clean waistcoat, told to mind his manners about all that social reform stuff, and rusticated. But then again I haven’t gotten to the allegedly excellent hunt scenes, which may be the missing link between Renaissance epic and cinematic car chases that I have been looking for all these years…

A preliminary conclusion, then: it’s a false lead to look for literary inspiration in the two hunting novels. Sassoon is bringing along old favorites to reread, and the very fact that they treat of the war-analogous activity of hunting in its innocent mid-Victorian days (and, more importantly, in the long moments of prewar innocence during which they were first read) suggests that he is not reading the, with any thought toward his own writing (not that that means that they won’t have any influence). The analogy is probably to modern soldiers who might bring along Ender’s Game or (closer to home, here) The Lord of the Rings.


This post should probably end lightheartedly, with a challenge to lay bets upon just how much he will actually read during his time in Egypt and Palestine. But we have instead a weird and ominous transition through tenuous connections. Sassoon is off to Palestine–not only the ancient homeland of his father’s people, but also rather near to the much more recent homeland of his father’s (but most especially his great-grandfather’s) family. And he is bringing books on Greece, Russia, and many an English covert.

Isaac Rosenberg, whose Jewishness is not something he could deny,[2] is now reaching actively toward it. But that’s not the real irony–the real irony is that just as Sassoon has accepted Palestine when he really wants France, Rosenberg is desperate to escape France for Palestine. He has many hopes, transfer-wise, but has begun to focus them on the Jewish battalion, which is to be sent to serve in that theater of the expanding war.

There is another much more direct connection between Sassoon and Rosenberg, but I am fairly certain that this connection–Eddie Marsh–would never have made much of it. Sassoon’s snobbery (which might, in a familiar irony, contain an anti-semitic strain) would not have appreciated being connected with the rough-edged and impassioned Jewish poet-artist from the slums, nor would their styles have been congenial.

In any event, Rosenberg is putting his hopes in Marsh. Can Churchill’s secretary save him from France and his declining health? Perhaps, but not today. Today’s transfer will get Rosenberg out of the trenches, but not out of a fighting unit destined for more combat in France. He was sent from the 11th King’s Own Lancasters, about to be disbanded in the reorganization of infantry brigades from four to three battalions, but not to any cushy billet: The 1st King’s Own may be in rest in Bernaville at the moment, but they are an old Regular battalion and part of the 4th Division, and their services will be required should the Germans attack, as they are expected to do shortly.

Rosenberg will feel the dissolution of his old unit much as David Jones did, and it will affect his writing. Perhaps because of the endless war, his separation from his old unit, the doldrums of February and the promise of an attack in March–for any of these reasons, or all, or none and simply from the nature of his mind and powerful, grim poetic gift–his writing, too is dwelling increasingly on historical suffering and destruction and on Jewish themes. Which go rather well together. When Rosenberg finishes and mails the next batch we will have a date on which to read them, but for now it is a long lonely train trip for him, and a wait for us for his poetry, undated and unrecorded as he is sent from unit to unit and task to task…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 210. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 440, reports that he abandoned some of the weightier (in a literal sense) volumes, but then bought them in Egypt--he is a man who sticks to his list, evidently.
  2. Not that Sassoon is an apostate or a traitor to his people or anything so dramatic as that. He had few memories of his father and almost no contact with traditional Judaism. He was not Jewish by any then-accepted standard, and was raised as an Anglican by his mother. But he was socially able to treat his Jewishness, such as it was, as only an exotic part of his family's past, and his extreme Englishness of manner probably made it hard for all but the truly impassioned anti-semites to hate him once they knew him. If a man writes better English poetry than you, plays better cricket than you, and rides to hounds, hurling old slurs is bound to look a little silly... Not that other forms of anti-semitism wouldn't have dragged him down in other situations, but if there were more than sneers thrown at him by other "gentlemen," he doesn't have anything to say about it.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 390-1.

Housman’s Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; Robert Graves and the Lyric Appeal of Nancy Nicholson

The historian and biographer Peter Parker, whose The Old Lie was one of the most useful secondary sources for the early days of this project,[1] recently published a well-received book on A.E. Housman and his importance to the generation that is now earning its “lost” epithet. There were so many polite, literary, privileged, dreamy English boys who went to war with Housman’s A Shropshire Lad as their companion and poetic ideal, that it has become the type specimen of literary influence on the British experience of the war.

It’s a nice little collection of verses, but its enormous popularity within this demographic can only partially be explained by what’s actually there in the poems. More important is the ambiance: Housman represented a rural England (think The Shire) that was vanishing, the barely concealed homoeroticism of some of the lyrics held a particular appeal to many of his readers, and the frequent atmosphere of youthful tragedy was not only perfect for artistically-inclined adolescents but doubly powerful those who then found themselves asked to shoulder great responsibility amidst enormous loss.

A Shropshire Lad was published eighteen years before the war, and although Housman largely devoted his life to scholarship rather than poetry, he is till kicking around. This month, a century back, looking at the mounting carnage of Third Ypres, he found himself thinking of the heroic stand at First Ypres nearly three years before, made by a very different British archetype. This short poem, written over the coming weeks, is one of the war’s most memorable–Kipling, for one, thought it the very best.


Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and the earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.


A powerful poem, but a strange and estranging one, not least for those poetic schoolboys who have grown up to command platoons and companies of very different soldiers. Our elegies, here, tend to be for Kitchener’s Army–especially its poetic schoolboy officers–or for the men of the mixed and post-idealistic armies of 1917. It’s hard to even remember the professionals who went in 1914 and died in their thousands during the chaos of that autumn. The prewar Regular army really is gone–even if Frank Richards and a few others miraculously hold on–and it merits a memorial. Yet is it really satisfying to read a hard-bitten “epitaph”–both loudly disclaiming and tacitly accepting a sentimental position–written by an older, learned man who was a stranger to the grim old army of lower-class “mercenaries?”


From one of the Shropshire-readers who did survive–though absent, in this case, half a lung, healthy “nerves,” and peace of mind–we have a far happier note. Robert Graves‘s day both began and ended with Nancy Nicholson, in pursuit of whom he had crashed a fancy-dress party yesterday evening.

He escorted Nancy back from the dance at two in the morning; and then, not feeling like sleep, he persuaded Ben Nicholson to drive him all the way to Talsarnau, where they called on some other friends of theirs.

Later on Saturday, after snatching a few hours of sleep back at Erinfa, Robert paid another visit to Llys Bach. He was away for some time, and when he returned he said nothing to his family about Nancy, but told them that he had been playing with Nancy’s younger brother Kit, and then having supper with Ben. Whatever Robert’s feelings for Nancy, he kept them to himself at this stage: wisely, perhaps, in such a large and sharp-tongued family…[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. I've also profited from his book on Ackerley.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 182-3.

Siegfried Sassoon in Arcadia/Shropshire/Picardy; Vera Brittain Plans for the Sweetest Leave

Now begins what Siegfried Sassoon will call “a peaceful interlude” for himself and the rest of the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers–eight weeks in divisional rest. He had “struck it lucky,” to finally reach the front (and not even the front front, but rather a short tour in the support trenches) and then so swiftly trade it for an unspoiled rural backwater. It is an opportunity for us as well, as we can leisurely connect the (undated) pastoral scenes of the last chapters of his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man with the more precise recollections of his diary.[1] If his lyrical accounts of the past few days have generally suggested continuity with his rural pre-war life, today’s entry makes this explicit. I was a bit premature with my “you Kent take the boy out of the Weald” comment during the march–that was just a mood. Now, surrounded by the rolling Picard landscape, which is (for good geological reasons) Sassoon feels very much more at home.

December 7

Took the Company out at 9 to some arable ground close to the village… one can see miles away over the country all round–rolling ploughlands and dark woods; only a few villages visible, with steeples, as in England. It is a little like parts of East Kent; and the Tickham hills. The fields are unfenced, and dotted with corn-stacks. And such a sky; it dominates the earth; but it is the sky of freedom, not a death-haunted appendage as in Flanders. And here there are flocks of starlings, and men ploughing with grey horses, and the roads wind away to a horizon that is not bounded by a line of armies entrenched. But there are no young men on the farms; only boys and grey old men. And long before the orchards break into blossom and the woods are charmed again into ‘green pavilions’, we shall have marched away, back to no-man’s-land, with death in our hearts, mocked by the glory of the coloured earth–most of us blind to all but the dogged strife, the endless hardships, a few allured and heartened by the splendours of the spirit–the peace after sacrifice–and the foreknowledge of beauty disincarnate. I wonder when I shall see the wild hyacinths in the woods–‘like a skylit water stood The bluebells in the azured wood’.[2]

This is a perfect paragraph, proof that the decision to situate “Sherston’s” first experiences in France as an extended coda to his rural youth was not some publisher’s quirk or heavy-handed innocence mongering but really the truth (as true as self-reflective memory can be) of the matter.

The decisive break–which he anticipates here, in substance, while he obscures it in outmoded style–will come in 1916. Sassoon has met Graves, and had a brief taste of dangerous and difficult night work in the support lines–but it has not sunk in. Who would guess all that, from today’s reverie? His “approach to the line” has been reset, restored, so strong is his affiliation to the Weald of Youth.

So Sassoon is still an innocent, with a motley descriptive armory that he has yet to really scrutinize. There is Brookeishness in his tone here: even if “shall have marched away” recalls Hardy, that future carnage shades into “splendour” and “peace” and “sacrifice,” which are all more complicated and more difficult to attain than he now imagines. But, his heart going homeward and youthward, there’s another poet in the good earth beneath his feet.

Which book does he quote at the end? He must, of course: the last line is from the cynosure of the gentle/rural English poetic sensibility, Housman’s “Shropshire Lad.” You can take the boy out of Kent, but only, yet, so far as to land him in Arcadia, i.e. the Shropshire of the poetic soul.


Yesterday, Vera Brittain wrote to Roland Leighton in rapturous and fearful anticipation:

1st London General Hospital, 6 December 1915

It seems quite queer to think that (if you’re not ‘hit by something’ in the meantime–oh! that expression does haunt me so!) I can really count the days till I see you. Do you remember our somewhat embarrassed meeting at St Pancras? I wonder what it will be like this time–where & when! And I shall probably be in the abominable uniform (which your mother nevertheless said she liked) and you’ll wonder what sort of an object you’ve picked up, & how you or anybody else could ever possibly have thought she looked nice. . .[3]

There’s nothing else to think about, really, but the possibility of his coming leave. Today’s letter is more concerned with the details. Good news:

1st London General Hospital, 7 December 1915

Circumstances forced me into speaking about my leave this morning, and I am actually really & truly going to get a week’s leave at the same time as you get yours–a most splendid & unexpected piece of luck. How it happened was that this morning Matron sent for four other V.A.D.s & I and told us we were due for a week’s leave, to begin to-morrow. . . This information caused me great dismay as I knew if I had a week now I would not get even a day in 3 weeks’ time when you come. So I asked Matron if I could speak to her afterwards & then just stated briefly how matters were. I expected expostulation & certainly no suggestion of special leave, but to my utter surprise she smiled sweetly at me & said ‘Certainly, nurse. I’ll postpone your leave.’

I can’t think why the Powers that Be are so nice to me–unless it be that I have rather better manners than most of the V.A.D.s here, who have no conception of discipline and include some of the most impolite & tactless people I have ever met.

To think that I can really look forward now to the end of this month! If only you are safe till then! And it will be all the time this time, instead of 3 1/2 over-crowded days filled with railway-journeys. I don’t know whether I shall stay with my people or yours–half & half I suppose, but from the point of view of seeing you it really doesn’t make much difference since they are going to be so close…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Life seems quite irradiated now when I think of the sweet hours that may be ahead–when I shall see once more ‘the things I strive to capture in vain’, while the eyes you have perhaps forgotten will again make you think of Lyndall’s.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 252-3.
  2. Diaries, 24-5.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 196-7.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 197-8.

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

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


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

France, 11 September 1915

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

My Darling Moth’,

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

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

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

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

Ever your devoted Son,


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References and Footnotes

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

Noel Hodgson Begins an Elegy; Roland Leighton Knows Nothing More Melancholy Than an Old Trench; Kipling is a War Reporter Once Again

Noel Hodgson wrote to his sister Stella today, a century back. She had sent him a piece of England:a hunk of moss from a favorite spot of his. “In other circumstances he would have treasured it as a physical link to home,” but Hodgson had just learned of the death of his close friend Nowell Oxland.

Thanks very much for the moss from the Gable, which I burned at evening in memory of Oxland who died in the Dardanelles a fortnight… ago, and was my great companion in my hill climbs. I shall miss him much; also three more school pals who were in Saturday’s list.

This impromptu gesture–part schoolboy paganism, part Romantic gesture–allayed the young poet’s grief for the moment. But his friend’s death lingered in his mind. Hodgson continued the letter to his sister two days later:

We are now in the middle of a trek, and after sleeping out in afield under a splendid autumn night, I have woken up to one of the mornings that make up for anything. Slightly misty with a bright sun shining through the mist, and a freshness in the air speaking of Autumn–a morning like the frost on a jug of iced champagne. I have had a good breakfast and altogether

“The world is none so bad
And I myself a sterling lad.”

Only I feel not quite so well when I think of those pals of mine who went out in Gallipoli.

Hodgson quotes from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, that slim volume of Victorian poetry that might as well have had its dedicated pouch on the well-educated subaltern’s Sam Browne belt. Nor is its invocation here accidental. Hodgson’s biographer Charlotte Zeepvat sees the death of Oxland as a catalyst to Hodgson’s poetry. The two friends had often discussed their plans for their literary careers, and now Hodgson will begin to feel as if his he must write for two, speaking not only for himself but for one who has been silenced. Nor, with the Autumn offensive looming, was there any time to waste.

At some point during the next few weeks Hodgson will produce these verses:

In Memory of Nowell Oxland, Killed at Suvla Bay
August 9th 1915

You were a lover of the hills, and had
From them some measure of their Roman strength;
You that are laid in hearing of the sad
Aegean waters, by a whole sea length
Severed from these: above your nameless bed
The pitiless forehead of an alien sky
For the cool peace and spaciousness that lie
Upon the slopes of your own valley-head.
So if in happier times I climb Black Sail
Over the Gable to Bowfell, and drop
By Sticks as evening comes, to Borrowdale
Often, my friend, shall I remember you
Taking your long rest on the distant shore.
And say I love my ancient hills the more
Because you wandered here & loved them too.[1]


Roland Leighton is aware that any delay in his letters will levy the tax of quick alarm. Then again, he is a platoon officer in a battalion that is preparing an offensive in difficult, rainy conditions.

France, 6 September 1915

Please forgive my not writing yesterday, but it was our day of coming back into the trenches and I had no opportunity at all. Today even I am too busy to do more than scribble a few lines…

England & you seem very far away today. I suppose it is because I always live for the present, and my present consists now of walking along miles (or what seem miles) of trenches mostly very muddy and dilapidated and intermittently giving Sunday instructions to unshaven and mud-bespattered followers with a view to the aforesaid ditches becoming ultimately more inhabitable.

I know of nothing more melancholy & depressing than an old trench, disused and overgrown with grass, with dugouts fallen in or wrecked by shells, and here and there a forgotten grave and a rusty bayonet. Of such is the glorious panoply of war!

Hm. But Roland is too serious to succumb to irony’s cloying embrace! Then again, he’s a poet and a lover both, now, and it’s autumn in the trenches…

Excuse this melancholy tone. It is only temporary; and you yourself are as much given to moods as I. Please try not to be depressed, dearest, and bitter and as cynical as when you wrote of the ‘kind condescension of a person with a Quiet Voice towards Someone he is supposed to love!’[2]

In other words: I am not overly cynical–it’s just my mood, a local defeat at the hands of ambient reality. You, however, are in England, and must be above this.

The problem, I think, is that the steady drip of sustaining solace needs a certain gravity. It must run downhill, which is all the easier if the woman providing is up on a pedestal and the man is down in the trenches. But the experiential gulf, on the other hand, will be easier to bridge if the two maintain a line of sight.

Oh, but it’s difficult to not only to connect, but to support; not only to abridge loneliness but to bridge the terrible gap between home–even home in the hospitals–and the sodden fields of Flanders.


Also today, a century back, the first of Rudyard Kipling‘s articles based on his tour of the war zone in France was published. It’s entitled “On the Frontier of Civilisation” and, along with the rest of the articles, is collected here.


References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 113, 137-8.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 160.

Robert Graves Has Had a Good Day Out; Julian Grenfell Panics; Edward Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon Make Plans

Robert Graves is endeavoring to turn over a new leaf. This is not so much, in his case, a matter of simply shifting gears from slack to driven, but of pausing for a moment and taking some care to turn over the right leaf. He had had another leave in late January and early February, which he had spent at his family’s Welsh country property, now inhabited by many Belgian refugees. Their harrowing tales of the summer invasion may have reminded him that he joined the army not to continue to defy convention (or to avoid Oxford, although he will also claim that motivation) but to succor and/or avenge Belgium. Which one can’t very well do when stuck at home because your regimental officers don’t approve of you. Hence the new leaf.

When he returned to Wrexham and the tiresome routine of the Royal Welch depot, Graves took advantage of the fact that  the adjutant had fallen ill and demonstrated his efficiency by marching a large party of trainee Welch “a good distance” without mishap. This fact, reported to his father (who noted it in his diary for today, a century back), also reached the ears of the ailing adjutant, “Tibs” Crawshay. So Crawshay promised the young warrior his reward: a place in one of the drafts for France, planned for April.[1]


Julian Grenfell does not seem the type for either black humor–his dark moods are too serious, too guarded–or self-deprecation. A strong sense of self–of the self alone against the world–has always been necessary for him, not just to succeed amidst the aristocrats of Eton and the intellectuals of Oxford but to fend off the dominating personality of his mother.

And yet here are black humor and self-deprecation both. These strange diary jottings are, word for word, some of the most introspective things I’ve read so far.

Tuesday, 16 February: Bath–7 days beard off. Even 5 days (not fighting) a great strain. Even the moderate Estaminet civilisation a wonderful change. People who like being dirty best take being clean best. Although I like trenches, I love getting back. Slept 9 am-6 pm. NB Night when I heard noise of bomb dropping on top of dug out. Petrified. Lost self control–lay still clenching my hands, for 20 secs. Asked what it was. “Rum jar thrown away”.[2]

Eerily, this compressed note of a bomb-that-wasn’t is more harrowing than his larkish retailing of a near-miss story in letters home, in which a man is almost killed–and surely terrified–by a real bomb.


Lastly, a more quotidien letter from Edward Thomas to Eleanor Farjeon:

[Postmarked “Feb 16”]

My dear Eleanor

…could you meet me at the entrance to the Reading Room [of the British Museum] at 5 on Tuesday and we’ll have tea? Or if by 5 the galleries are closed I will look for you at the gate. Don’t answer if this is agreed.

…Mervyn went off happily, but I guess Helen didn’t come back so. And I haven’t got the Frosts’ address…

A.E. Housman can’t let me use him in my anthology because he has always said No to anthologists but he atoned by praising my Swinburne, which is the highest compliment I have had yet. You see I care more than 2 pins about myself![3]

It will be at this meeting, perhaps, that Eleanor, who had “established friendly relations with old William Blackwood” will get from Thomas the four poems that she will submit to Blackwood’s Magazine on his behalf. And the praise for “my Swinburne,” is, alas, directed at Thomas’s earlier critical monograph, and not a poetical homage…


References and Footnotes

  1. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 121.
  2. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 29.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 118.

Phillip Maddison Is Tested, And Fails; John Lucy Has a Confession to Make and An Army Of Mercenaries to Bury; Kipling Tells a Tale

Yesterday the “London Highlanders” made their fictional advance in the footsteps of the London Scottish. After twice being stopped by German fire, they were sent up again, under a low Hallowe’en moon, to join the 6th Dragoon Guards in their trenches.

Then the Germans attacked, their movements starting a flight of quail from the fields of no man’s land just as the Highlanders had earlier driven a hare, maddened by the guns, before them. (Henry Williamson, even then an avid birder and amateur naturalist, is a big fan of the juxtaposition-of-mechanical-war-and-nature trope that will become a staple of all genres of war writing.)

Firing next to the cool, professional dragoons Phillip helps drive off the inevitable German night assault, shooting so long and so often that his wrist blisters from the heat of the barrel.[1]

Williamson tracks time by the moon,[2] and a nearly full moon high in the sky should indicate midnight, more or less–the point at which last night, a century back, became today.[3]

Prone to precipitous mood swings at the best of times, it’s hardly surprising that Phillip goes from feeling “wildly exalted,” wanting “to laugh, to sing” at the defeat of the German attack, to shivering under the high moon and high explosive shell fire, “exposed to his own frail aloneness.”

Perhaps because he is getting “windy” under the bombardment, he is sent back for ammunition. This becomes a different sort of ordeal, since his only companion is Martin, a man so frightened that he is, apparently, shamming injury. Phillip is, without quite realizing it, buoyed by this sight–every coward fears he is the worst coward of all.

When Martin collapses on the way back to the front with the ammunition, Phillip is forced to fend for himself, with two heavy ammunition boxes.

It’s hard not to think here of Francis Grenfell’s calm, brave, shrug-and-leap quandary-resolving of yesterday.  Introspection is a terrible burden when one is forced to make decisions under fire.

Phillip is between the support line and the front line, effectively alone, heaving bandoliers onto his shoulders to carry forward, when the next attack comes.

[S]houting had spread across the whole of the front, from Messines on the right to Wytschaete on the left. As he listened, the thin wire drawn tight within, the shouting took on an ominous note: a deeper, roaring sound, overcoming the thudding of the rifle-fire at ground-level from the ground in front. There were glints in the moonlight; there were noises of running feet: isolated yells; and then a deep growling aa-aa-ah, like the back-wash of a wave rolling shingle down a beach.

Phillip is paralyzed, then he recovers himself enough to try to bring the injured/overwhelmed man with him. He won’t move, even when Phillip hits him. Phillip breaks:

…he ran, mouth open, blindly the way he had come. Behind the farmhouse, between retching attempts to get his voice, “They’ve broken through! Bayonet charge!”

He is guessing, but he’s not wrong–the “Highlanders” are now, as were the London Scottish, driven back from their trenches, with great loss of life.

When daylight comes, Phillip wanders about among the survivors, checking on his acquaintances. It’s here that the size and scope of Williamson’s novel both deepens our sense of the losses and becomes something of a hindrance. Phillips comes upon news of several characters who are not just quickly-sketched army buddies, but prominent in previous volumes, men who were the boys against whom Phillip had measured himself. And so now he is able to measure his own failure of nerve against long-familiar standards.

He learns that Cousin Bertie voluntarily went forward from the transport to join his company in the line, then led a counter-attack–he is presumed dead. So too is Phillip’s school-friend Peter, last seen in hand-to-hand combat after going to the rescue of a wounded man.

There was no doubt of his own cowardice… If he had not been sent back for ammunition, he would have been bayoneted with the others in the trench. He had slipped away…

The whirl of thoughts continues. Williamson shows us the changeable, selfish habits of mind we have come to know over several novels, distorted even further by the terrible pressure of having survived–but failed–the long-awaited “test” of battle. Phillip will have more trouble than ever escaping a strain of self-hatred.

But then comes another revelation: recalling the sounds of the the wounded Germans lying before their trenches.

[T]he cries of Mutter-Mutter-Mutter among the wounded were the same as Mother-Mother-Mother heard from the Iron Colonel’s grey lips… It was a terrible though, that the Germans were like themselves: a thought that he could not bear to think of, at all, even to himself.[4]

This thought will become something of a rope thrown to a drowning boy. His cowardice he will still need to face, even if it might destroy him. But this other piece of hard, real soldier’s knowledge–that the infantryman is a victim, no matter which side he is on–comes early enough to give him another source of authority, a truth with which he can shore up his self-esteem and assert himself, against the Hun-haters at home, as a man in the know.


And it was really like this. An officer who saw a group of the survivors of the London Scottish mustering for a meager role call, this morning, a century back, described them as looking “like sailors being photographed on a shore within sight of their wreck.”[5]


And from John Lucy a sad coda and a historiographically disturbing confession:

We marched again on 1st November to Locre. Two hundred more men had now joined us. We did not know most of them, and we were not greatly interested…

In the reorganization following the arrival of these fresh men we lost to a great degree our quality of being old regulars, though the spirit and the tradition of the regiment never died… [His new men] had not the smartness of the Regulars, and I could not take them rapidly to my heart. Their habits were unsoldierly, and repellent to me.

My own morale, by this time not high, ebbed further. I was lonely for many missing friends. Cheerful faces now gone, and the memory of deeds of rough kindness haunted me. In a brief fit of renunciation and despair I burned my diary, the writing of which, though destroyed, helped me to remember most of what I have recorded here. A certain loss of interest dogged me from this time. I offer this in excuse for any errors in dates, or other lapses in the concluding part of my story.[6]

Does this read as a shocking revelation? It should and shouldn’t be. The keeping of diaries was against military regulations, and while many still did so, a large proportion of these were lost or destroyed.

Lucy is not entirely clear here: he can’t be asserting that, years after the war, he remembers the exact date of many actions, and may only have made a mistake here or there. Can he? It seems more likely that he used some official sources of factual information as a framework for his memory. A later editor/introducer of the book complains about discrepancies between official records and Lucy’s dates in the pre-war sections of the narrative–but perhaps this bolsters the idea that, when it came to his participation in famous incidents such as the Battle of La Bassée,[7] he checked his dates, and only didn’t bother to do so when it came to pre-war soldiering.

In any case, two things are true: his account fits well enough with the facts, but must be believed or mistrusted on its own merits–all the names are pseudonyms and there are no other platoon-level accounts from his battalion. And there is certainly something to the claim that writing something down once fixes an otherwise ephemeral memory, allowing it to be better retrieved even if the writing is destroyed…

Also worth noting is the way in which Lucy connects–in the act and in its recording–the destruction of the old battalion and of his diary. Something is gone forever. Not just his brother, but, in a way, the fellowship that they had aspired to when they joined the army in the first place. However disappointing life in the ignorant brutality of the pre-war army might have turned out to be, now that it has been destroyed it feels–to one or both of the John Lucy’s in question (the one burning his diary a century back and the older one writing his memoir)–like a vanished fellowship, a society that, all at once and suddenly, has vanished.

Lucy tries to show something of this world, to capture something of its spirit. But, while he while he tries to reflect the life of the men around him (which is why I have referred to the book as a sort of precursor of the squad- or platoon- focused war movie) it’s clear that he is only really confident about relaying his own feelings. These he places against the background of the unfolding campaign, and the other characters are essentially extras, grouped around the edges of the frame.

And so w have arrived at one of the major historical themes of 1914, at least for the British: the small, tough, aristocrats-and-street-rats army (an exaggeration rather than a fantasy) they went to war with has been spent. The Territorials will help fill the gaps, and then the New Army will shoulder the weight of the rest of the war. The professionals will never be more than a bit of leavening mixed into an entirely new sort of force. We will come back to this transformation and view it from a number of angles, but–happily for our other purposes–it is best encapsulated in a well-known poem by A.E. Housman.

Housman, a formidable and influential classical scholar, is most important to the generation of war poets as the author of A Shropshire Lad, the index fossil of wistful Late Victorian pastoral poetry. We will come back to this book often, but I mention it now because Lucy chooses from it the epigraph for his book:

I sought them far and found them,
The sure, the straight, the brave,
The hearts I lost my own to,
The souls I could not save.
They braced their belts about them,
They crossed in ships the sea,
They sought and found six feet of ground,
And there they died for me.

Appropriate. But not really. Lucy does not include the first stanza or the title–“When I Would Muse In Boyhood”–which complicate, shall we say, the application of the poem to real, grown men who have died for, with, and around him in France.

Lucy might not have wanted to revise or complicate this account of boyhood musing–it works well enough for the purpose–but Housman did. A Shropshire Lad is a Victorian document. When he read of the carnage at First Ypres Housman wrote a 20th century poem:

“Epitaph on Army of Mercenaries”

These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and the earth’s foundations stay;
When God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.


Would you be surprised to learn that Kipling, in his capacity as battalion historian to the Irish Guards, gives voice to one of those very “mercenaries” on this very day? This was their last great day, the “disastrous” day in which the Guards were shelled all day and then driven from their trenches by a German attack, falling back to the last reserve trench, where they were joined by “every cook, orderly and man who could stand.” And held on.

Kipling finds room, actually,both for the praise of their brigadier–“those of them that were left made history… and showed that the Irish Guards must be reckoned with, however hard hit”–and for the wistful reminiscence of an unidentified enlisted man: “Twas like a football scrum. Every one was somebody, ye’ll understand. If he dropped there was no one to take his place. Great days!”


References and Footnotes

  1. A self-appointed mentor-for-the-moment, a tough lower-class soldier bemused to be beside a politely-spoken, incompetent middle class youth, had given Phillip a carbine from a dead comrade, a weapon which was compatible with the ammunition they had been issued.
  2. Wrist watches were to become a trench fashion that then caught on more widely. The best sort, though, had both luminous dials and a cover.
  3. This project, of course, is synched to the solar anniversary, so daylight time measurements will be more accurate. Alas. For those of you keeping track, something like 1,237 moons have spun by since Phillip saw this one, but, naturally we're still a few days off, and Halloween assaults only had a quarter moon.
  4. How Dear is Life, 272-79.
  5. The officer was Paul Maze; quoted in Hastings, Catastrophe, 486.
  6. There's a Devil in the Drum, 267.
  7. And Ypres--through which he marched today, a century back. Despite the finality of the quotation above, the book will continue.