A Novel Premonition for Elinor Brooke; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard Under German Bombs; Vera Brittain is at War at Last; Rudyard Kipling and the Efficacy of the Mob–and Charles Sorley Sees the Blindness

As the day dawns over Sussex today, a century back, Elinor Brooke reaches a crossroads in her war.

I was trudging uphill, feeling spikes of stubble jab my ankles, and then, just as I reached the top, the sun rose–huge, molten-red–and at that moment I knew–not thought, not feared, knew–that Toby wasn’t coming back.[1]

This is Elinor’s diary entry, in Pat Barker’s novel. Elinor is fictional, but her position–from the intuition, to the death of her brother, to the long struggle she will have to learn of its circumstances and make sense of it all–is very familiar.

 

And it still goes on. Edmund Blunden is fortunate to be in reserve today.

A fairly idle day… read Leigh Hunt… There was a big bombardment again this evening. Some of our party went over I suppose–God help them in the mud. Just as we were settling down for the night, Boche came over. Our knees knocked and teeth chattered, but nothing fell on us…[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, is closer to the action–and dodging bombs from the same German raiders. 1917, as Blunden recently observed, is not 1916. In some ways it feels as if in just two short years we have come from a 19th century world beginning to be troubled by machine guns to the cusp of mid-century schrecklichkeit. All we’ll need are stronger engines and bigger bombs.

We are so much in the thick of War up here that no one talks or thinks of anything else…shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. The last are much the worst. He dropped five at dinner-time about 70 yards away, and came over with some more about 10.30 to-night and some more later. There’s no sort of cover anywhere and it is purely beastly. Shelling is nothing to it. The Sisters are extraordinarily good in it.[3]

 

Nor is Vera Brittain far from the bombs–but then again she has felt the bombs land in London, too. She writes to her mother today, a century back, from her new assignment in the great British base complex in the Pas-de-Calais.

24th General Hospital, Étaples,
France, 5 August 1917

. . . I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of a hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods. It is all huts & tents; I am working in a hut & sleeping under canvas, only not in a tent but in a kind of canvas shanty, with boarded floor & corrugated iron roof.. .The hospital is frantically busy & we were very much welcomed. . .

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases… The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, & one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings. My half-forgotten German comes in very useful, & the Sisters were so glad to know I understood it & could speak a little as half the time they don’t know what the poor things want. It gives one a chance to live up to our Motto Inter Arma Caritas, but anyhow one can hardly feel bitter towards dying men. It is incongruous, though, to think of Edward in one part of France trying to kill the same people whom in another part of France I am trying to save…

Well, Malta was an interesting experience of the world, but this is War.[4]

Rarely is the epistolary first draft–especially to Mother, rather than to one of her fellow members of the Lost Generation–better than the coming memoir, but I think that’s the case today. There is a swelling of strings as Vera finally reaches France–the place that killed Roland, Geoffrey, and Victor, and that still has Edward in its clutches–and there is an excellent evocation of the sounds of the bombardment, too, which works nicely amidst the others, here–but the effect of her description of France is less powerful than the simple antithesis she used in the letter:

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.[5]

 

Finally, there’s a remarkable letter of today, a century back, from one to another of two titans of the turn of the century: the bard of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and one of its dashing New World practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt. If not for the fact that they are not 19th century men, and that they are discussing sons (the present Kermit Roosevelt and the ever-present-through-his-absence Jack Kipling) and geopolitics… and if I didn’t despise this newly ubiquitous (at least in American pop culture) term, then I would describe this letter as a founding document of “bro” culture. Kipling’s writing has rarely been so off-putting, so ingratiatingly chummy, so eager to be brutal.

I have come a long way–through reading the man’s fiction, history, and private letters–to understanding Kipling much better than as the facile, solemn Imperialist chest-thumper of the familiar caricature… but a few paragraphs of this letter bring that old idea back with a vengeance. Kipling is full of blustery, silly talk as he updates the former president on his son’s adventures in England (Kermit Roosevelt is about to go out to Mesopotamia attached to a British Machine Gun unit); then there is unsolicited “expert” military advice (Kipling worries that the new American generals are too eager, and will fruitlessly spend their first small forces instead of building up for a “big push”), and there are helpful suggestions such as these:

I fancy that before you’ve done, in the U.S.A., you will discover as we have that the really dangerous animal is the Hun in one’s own country no matter what he pretends to be. You hold a good many hostages for his good behaviour and I sometimes wonder whether, if the U.S.A. took toll from her own unnaturalized Germans for every Hun outrage committed on the U.S. and on France, it wouldn’t have a sedative effect…

Don’t worry: Kipling is not suggesting that German Americans be killed in retribution for U-boat sinkings, only that a few officially sponsored riots in German American neighborhoods (I believe one applicable analogy would be to the pogrom) might just do the trick.

…It’s what the Hun comprehends perfectly. We have bled him badly in men, and if we can use up a decent percentage of his 1919 class this winter by exposure in the trenches as well as direct killing, he will feel it more.

But of course I’m being squeamish: anti-German-American riots were quite within the realm of possibility. And I just passed Kipling’s casual assertion of the righteousness of retributive atrocity without comment. Why? Because that describes the activities of uniformed soldiers? Because that’s different than casually advocating violent demagoguery and mob violence as strategic tools to an ally which is, ostensibly, a multi-ethnic democracy? Because my century-late outrage would be better served by letting Kipling’s endorsement of such things stand on its own rather than surrounding it with fussy complaint? “Bettered the instruction” indeed.

Worst of all, Kipling’s strategic guesstimates are accurate:

What he seems to funk more than most things is the stringency of the new blockade now that the U.S.A. is imposing it and neutrals can’t feed him as much as they used to. We’ve got another twelvemonth of trouble ahead of us I expect but it won’t be all on one side.[6]

This is the sort of letter, from one figurehead of imperial warfare to another–and from one older man willing to sacrifice his son to another–that might have re-affirmed Siegfried Sassoon‘s faith in the righteousness of his protest…

 

But back to this treatment of “Huns:” not Germans who are armed and dangerous in the trenches opposite, but German emigrants, civilians living in America, posing no threat and powerless to defend themselves. The analogy to wounded prisoners is not precise, yet it seems a coincidence worth exploring that Vera Brittain’s first encounter with helpless Germans also began today, a century back.

…when I told the Matron of my work in Malta, she remarked with an amused, friendly smile that I was “quite an old
soldier…” but… I was hardly prepared for the shock of being posted… to the acute and alarming German
ward…

Although we still, I believe, congratulate ourselves on our impartial care of our prisoners, the marquees were often
damp, and the ward was under-staffed whenever there happened to be a push — which seemed to be always — and the number of badly wounded and captured Germans became in consequence excessive. One of the things I like best to remember about the War is the nonchalance with which the Sisters and V.A.D.s in the German ward took for granted that it was they who must be overworked, rather than the prisoners neglected. At the time that I went there the ward staff had passed a self-denying ordinance with regard to half days, and only took an hour or two off when the work temporarily slackened.

From the moral high ground Vera Brittain now wields a satirist’s sword with great skill:

Before the War I had never been in Germany and had hardly met any Germans apart from the succession of German mistresses at St. Monica’s, every one of whom I had hated with a provincial schoolgirl’s pitiless distaste for foreigners. So it was somewhat disconcerting to be pitch-forked, all alone — since V.A.D.S went on duty half an hour before Sisters — into the midst of thirty representatives of the nation which, as I had repeatedly been told, had crucified Canadians, cut off the hands of babies, and subjected pure and stainless females to unmentionable “atrocities.” I didn’t think I had really believed all those stories, but I wasn’t quite sure.[7] I half expected that one or two of the patients would get out of bed and try to rape me, but I soon discovered that none of them were in a position to rape anybody, or indeed to do anything but cling with stupendous exertion to a life in which the scales were already weighted heavily against them.

At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained gauze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Attached to the ward was a small theatre, in which acute operations were performed all day by a medical officer with a swarthy skin and a rolling brown eye; he could speak German, and before the War had been in charge, I was told, of a German hospital in some tropical region of South America. During the first two weeks, he and I and the easy-going Charge-Sister worked together pleasantly enough. I often wonder how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the theatre — as we did all clay at frequent intervals — in that foetid stench, with the thermometer about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor. After the “light medicals” that I had nursed in Malta, the German ward might justly have been described as a regular baptism of blood and pus.

This is inhuman and horrible, but the point–Brittain’s point, and now mine–is that it is also deeply humane.

One tall, bearded captain would invariably stand to attention when I had re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heels together, and bow with ceremonious gravity. Another badly wounded boy — a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England — held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims — that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.

And Kipling, to some degree, had. But we’ll leave today with another voice, one which has greater personal authority than anyone who has spoken yet. The wounded Germans may be dying in English hands, but Charles Sorley had studied in Germany, and fought Germans, and been killed by Germans. In the memoir, Vera Brittain enlists the young dead poet against the cruel masters of war:

Somewhere, I remembered, I had seen a poem called “To Germany,” which put into words this struggling new
idea; it was written, I discovered afterwards, by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915 :

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Barker, Toby's Room, 85.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 78.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 137.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 268-9.
  5. Testament of Youth, 372-3.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 467-8.
  7. Which is about right. The British press ran with a great many entirely invented atrocity stories, and propaganda and myth made an ugly marriage of convenience with stories like the ones Brittain mentions. And yet there was a tendency after the war--an inevitable after-effect of government lies--to disbelieve all stories of German atrocity and assume a rough moral equivalence. There wasn't--which was at least in part due to the fact that Germany occupied enemy territory, and believed itself to be under existential threat; neither of these things were true in the same way of Britain. But German atrocities, especially during the invasion of Belgium, were very real. They should not bear on the claim to humane treatment of wounded soldiers, but even if pacifists between the wars emphasized the horror of war in general rather than of particular forms of armed aggression, it is bad history to discount the deliberate violence meted out by the German army to French and Belgian civilians.
  8. Testament of Youth, 372-77.

Siegfried Sassoon Lonely and Impassioned; Robert Graves, Well-Attended and Smug, Writes to Siegfried Sassoon; Ivor Gurney Drops a Sonnet and Plucks a Snowdrop for Gloucestershire

Just three brief bits today, a century back. The crowded posts of late are to some degree accidental–the more prolific and regular writers are on duty, these days–but also have something to do with the coming offensive. Today things are relatively quiet, and poetic: three poets writing poetry or writing about poetry, and one to another.

First, Siegfried Sassoon, still unhappy, still with the Second Battalion, still in reserve, and still trying to muster the will to write again, to resume the pursuit of poetry.

March 26

Give me the passion to re-build
Bright peaks of vision stored in vain;
That, though in fight my flesh be killed,
The noise of ruin may be stilled,
And beauty shine beyond my pain.

Also today, a century back–but before or after writing these lines, I wonder?–Sassoon hitch-hiked his way to Amiens for another night away from the battalion, and made a desultory attempt at seeking out some other kind of solace.

After dinner (alone, thank heaven) walked round the cathedral for half-an-hour in the rain. The city is pitch dark by 9 o’clock.[1]

 

While Sassoon is alone, with a muddy camp and a still-unloved battalion to go back to, the friend who was to have been his comrade (Robert Graves had preceded Sassoon to the 2/RWF this winter, but then his weak lungs sent him to blighty before Sassoon arrived) seems to have everything he lacks: literary purpose, abundant friendship, and now rural serenity.

26 March 1917

Erinfa, Harlech, North Wales

Dear old Sassons

Please forgive my not writing: it has been one of the worst symptoms of my late collapse that I haven’t been able to make up my mind to start or finish the most pressing things, and the correspondence about Goliath and David has been most exacting. Thanks awfully for all you did to edit the book. It has been a great success all round. Especially old Gosse wrote a ripping letter, which is most important.

So, yes, Graves is writing to thank his friend for his help. But he is also bragging; bragging and reveling–there is no due diligence about missing the comradeship they might have been enjoying in the same battalion. But perhaps they are each too much the old soldier for the pretense that any trenches are better than blighty. But back to the reveling and bragging–and name-dropping:

While in Oxford I saw a lot of the Garsington people [i.e. Ottoline Morrell et. al.] who were charming to me, and of the young Oxford poets, Aldous Huxley… I arranged about a job… an instructorship in No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion with its headquarters in my own college…

I have just come up to good old Cymraeg [Wales] after a very tiring week in town seeing people, especially the Half Moon Street set [i.e. Robbie Ross]: great fun.

I don’t dare tell you how jolly it is here for fear of making you envious…

These are all people that Sassoon knew first… but at least Graves can claim to be the first to have discovered their most important poetic peer/predecessor.

I sent a copy of Goliath and David to old Professor Sorley who retaliated, dear old man, by sending me the sixty-second copy (of a limited edition of sixty-six) of Letters from Germany and the Army: C. H. Sorley. They are the full context from which the ones you saw in Marlborough and Other Poems are taken…

I am most tremendously looking forward to The Old Huntsman: I don’t see why it shouldn’t be awfully successful, with all the reviewers and literary patrons squared…[2]

 

Finally, Ivor Gurney‘s letter to Marion Scott of today, a century back. This is one of a jumble of recent letters, sent haphazardly as the post and memory allowed, and mostly concerned with finalizing his poems. But it also answers a nagging question: if you, dear reader, were as concerned as I was by the loss of the thread of his counter-Brooke sonnet sequence, here, alas, is the belated tale of the fifth:

I am afraid the final sonnett does not stand a chance of getting written. The sooner the book is printed, the better I shall be pleased. In that case Sonnett 5 will stand thus

England The Mother
(then at the bottom of the page)
This sonnet will not shape itself, probably
because there is too much to say. I hope however
to say out my thoughts in music — someday.

This is to get 5 pieces corresponding to Rupert Brooke’s. It is simply not possible to screw anything out of myself at present.

I don’t think Gurney intends this, but that last sentence is a terrific rebuke to Brooke’s claim to authority as a war poet (a matter–the authority generally, not Brooke’s bona fides specifically–which is of increasing importance to Gurney). The famous young Royal Naval Division officer who has yet to leave on his Argosy can write five lovely sonnets in good time, but the fighting infantryman writes four–until a sudden strategic development means that he must march, dig, and fight, rather than write.

So there will be no fifth sonnet. But Gurney has something else to look forward to–spring. And flowers, and thoughts of home. Our second-snowdrop-plucking in as many days:

This is a barren land, of flowers, that is. Once it was rich cornland, and is not much scarred by shell holes; but O my county; what tokens of your most exquisite secretest thoughts are now appearing under the hedgerows. On the march not many days ago we passed a ruined garden, and there were snowdrops, snowdrops, the first flowers my eyes had seen for long. So I plucked one each for my friends that I so desire to see again, and one for Gloucestershire. . . .

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 145.
  2. O'Prey, ed. In Broken Images, 66-7.

Kate Luard’s Near Miss; Edwin Vaughan in a Lousy Boche Trap; Siegfried Sassoon Can Almost See England; God Amidst the Shellfire for Edward Hermon; Geoffrey Thurlow Asks Vera Brittain About the Afterlife

Kate Luard, her hospital warned that their first convoy of wounded is only days away, took what she expects to be a last day of leisure for quite some time. She wants to see the sights–and now that the German withdrawal has put the old front line well in the rear, she can tour the Somme battlefield for the first time. So she does, and runs smack into the apparent paradox that so many of our writers confront or avoid, but necessarily both confirm and deny:

…we have been over No-Man’s Land an down into the deep German dug-outs on the scene of the tragedy last July at Gommécourt. It is all indescribable. Bairnsfather has drawn it, but no one can ever, in words, make anyone realise what it is like.

As Rabbi Tarfon says, it is not incumbent upon you to finish the job; but neither are you at liberty to completely avoid it….

The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch deep down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom…

I cast Kate Luard, often enough, in the role of The Wise Woman, our Old Campaigner among the medics. Which, like any such shoehorning, is not terribly fair. She features here so often because she is a keen observer and a good writer, not because she is infallibly wise. In her own sphere, we’ve come to except extreme competence and compassion… but off for an exciting tour of the forbidden zone, she succumbs to a common and foolish enthusiasm–the search for souvenirs.

I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me…

The village we and the Germans have been shelling for 2 years made you feel dazed. But the battlefield made you feel sick. We got some snowdrop roots with the flowers out, from under a boulder at Gommécourt.

Here you get to the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad?[1]

More snowdrops! A paragraph of further description intervenes before Luard comes to tell of their long walk back to the hospital, so perhaps the uplifting irony I see in the last sentences of the day is not actually intended. But after being compelled to condemn the madness of civilization, Sister Luard and her companions, returning, are invited to tea three times on their walk back by three different groups of British N.C.O.s and officers, and then have coffee pressed upon them by a Frenchwoman.

 

Edwin Vaughan is headed in the opposite direction. He had a harrowing march up through the devastated town of Péronne and toward his battalion’s new billets in what had until recently been the German rear–harrowing, at least, for him. Other writers might have treated a near-miss and a blighty for a fellow officer with less candor: “He wasn’t a scrap disturbed by his wounds, but they made me feel faint and I had to go out for some air.”

But then several men are killed by shells accurately dropped on a well, and the survivors are grateful to take shelter in their new digs–three German dugouts.

I lay for a while on my upper berth, smoking and reading a book on trench warfare. then I began to feel itchy, and the itchiness grew, and spread so much that I was unable to concentrate on my book. So I lay on my back looking at the timber roof a foot above me, and I wondered whether the saw-marks across the beams were the work of the Boche to ensure the roof falling in when a time-mine exploded. I was distracted from this thought, with its potential horrors, by the sight of moving insects. Raising the candle I found that the place was crawling with lice. During the night I felt them dropping onto my face, and in the morning I was infested with them.[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s letter home to his wife of tonight, a century back, is a bit of a surprise. Hermon is our conventional English family man, the non-intellectual squire and kindly C.O. He’s not a great writer, but this account of church amidst a bombardment is one of the more moving ones I’ve read. Of all things (all things!) it reminds me of a scene in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Tonight I went to church in one of the church Army Huts close here & we had such a nice little service, ending with a celebration[3] for which I stayed. All the time the service was going on the Hun was throwing some very heavy shells into the village about half a mile off & what with the church being lit up & it dark outside & the whistle & crash of the shells it made the whole thing very weird & also impressive & I’m afraid that my voice was not particularly strong as I sang the third verse of hymn 322…

Then the world re-intrudes, and we are back to clocks and bunks–and men of god in their human frailties.

Well dearie mine I’m busy these days and must to bed now especially as we started summer time last night & I lost an hour of sleep, not to mention the fact that the padre, who sleeps just under me, dreamt that he saw a man cutting the rope of one of the observation balloons & jumped up shouting at the top of his voice to stop him & nearly flung me out of bed in the process, & I felt rather as tho’ a mine had gone off underneath.[4]

 

Only a day after Victor Richardson wrote to Vera Brittain, Geoffrey Thurlow–her brother’s intimate friend from training camp, and now the third of the soldiers that she cares for and corresponds with–writes to her on the same subject. But then what are the chances that two nicely brought-up young men will write about certain things not to each other but to a young woman they admire?

France, 25 March 1917

Don’t you often speculate on what lies beyond the gate of Death? The after life must be particularly interesting. No chance of getting leave… Haven’t heard from Victor Richardson for a long long time–hope he is still going strong…

Tonight I walked home with Wilmot who is in a convalescent home near here. It has been a brilliant day with a fresh wind: we passed along between fields, some green and some with bright red earth recently plowed: and then came to a large forest. The wind made a delightful rustling in the trees & had it not have been for the distant continual bumping of guns War might not have existed…[5]

 

Lastly, today, Siegfried Sassoon evokes a mood of either wistful poetasting or listless carping, depending upon how you see it. But he is a dependable man for observing the landscape, after all.

After five weeks in France (and two with Second R.W.F.) I have not yet been within five miles of a German gun. Instead of getting nearer, the war has actually receded… Yesterday afternoon I got on to a lorry and went bumping
along the Corbie road for three or four miles…  Then I walked down the hill to Heilly on the Ancre, where we camped for four days early in July last year, and marched away to the line again on a hot dusty afternoon. The water still sings its deep tune by the bridge, and the narrow stream goes twinkling away past the bend, and past the garden where I used to walk when I came over from Morlancourt to the Field Cashier. About 5 o’clock I started off up the hill again with the sun setting low and red and the valley hazy and quiet, the wind blowing shrewd, and a plough-team working the ridge.

Another plow team on the ridge!  One begins to suspect a conspiracy between the English outdoor poets and the French peasantry… some sort of pay-to-plow scandal.

And is it a bit too hard on a poor diarist–who after all has a perfect right to record consecutive, incompatible moods–to take him to task for the reach toward a vision of peace, only to follow it with the bathos of one of modern life’s most hackneyed gripes?

I could imagine myself walking home to some friendly English village until the aerodromes loomed in the dusk, and I came to the main road with lines of lorries, and a brazier glowing red where the sentry stands at the cross-roads. And so down the hill to this abominable camp, and a foul dinner in the smoky hut and early to bed, too fed-up to read. And summer begins to-night—which means an hour less in bed, and absolutely nothing else.[6]

In defense of Hermon and Sassoon, the novelty of summer time (a.k.a. daylight savings time) was rather greater a century back…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 104-5.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 66-7.
  3. I.e. communion
  4. For Love and Courage, 344-5.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 325-6.
  6. Diaries, 144-5.

Ivor Gurney Absolves Himself of Half the Blame; Edward Thomas Discourses to His Son, and Friend; Edward Hermon on War’s Delightful Uncertainties; A Saucy Note for Jack Martin; Alphabet Soup with Kate Luard

None of our writers yet know the exact date of the coming offensive–and they can assume that the terrible weather and the operational wrench tossed in the works by the German withdrawal will delay it at least a bit more–but there is a growing sense that they may be only days away from the end of a winter which, for all its miseries, has seen men killed only by the handfuls and dozens, for the most part, and not by the thousands.

Girding for battle, then, we have five writers to read today–two provide lengthy and rather weighty letters, but we also have some lighter fare along the way…

 

Ivor Gurney, wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back. Scott is at once his friend and benefactress; she has put his songs before an audience, published his music, lectured on his poetry, helped him at every stage, and now is in the last stages of preparing his first book of poems for the press. As the editor of those poems, she has become less and less like a patron or facilitator and more and more like a partner: Gurney’s moods are changeable, his spelling and punctuation are shaky, and his ability to focus on revising his poems while serving as an infantryman is, rather understandably, limited. He is fortunate that his friend is both skilled and willing to edit with sensitivity, cleaning up his verse without heavy-handedly blotting out his oddities–and he is wise enough (or, again, fortunate) to recognize this.

23 March 1917

My Dear Friend: Things are beginning to move, and no one knows when may come the next opportunity for writing. I have just received your letter of March 11th… Do not consult me about these things, but do as your far more experienced judgement may lead you…

A frequent topic in these letters is Scott’s ill-health. She has a number of ongoing medical problems and has been very sick two different times in recent months, and Gurney, though sympathetic, often struggles to find a way to express his sympathy. Today an obvious path is open: he can share her joy at resuming music:

And it is good news that you are able to play sonatas again, and with a sympathetic pianist. It gives me a feeling of sharing your good-fortune to read of it; may your strength increase and give you hours a day of it…

One parcel of yours I have received — not yet the other. All the letters have arrived and all given pleasure. O to return to England and my friends! Such joys are there as are dangerous to imagine at present; not all at once will my mind and body become sound, but it cannot be so very very long before Joy becomes “used to me”…

The new state of things entered upon by the German retreat may mean little letter writing. This is the reason why I hasten to reply, though never have I felt more acutely the inadequacy of words. Last night and this afternoon have been so beautiful that my mind has been filled with Blighty thoughts. But consider what a queer past I have to look back on! Either I am a great musician or a chronic neurastheniac!

That’s a line worth remarking on. Many of our writers are in a similar position in that they sense the war will be the making or breaking of their literary ambitions, and yet few have struggled mentally and emotionally as much as Gurney has. The war is an intensifier–double or nothing, death or great beauty.

There is nothing outside it, for the visible world is hardly to be seen by me unless music hallows my spirit with  beauty and toughens it by the necessary work.

And yet Gurney is consistently grateful about another thing the war has done for him: throwing him among all sorts of men has cured him of much of his social awkwardness, at least among men. Suffering together has made a feeling of brotherhood possible.

You will be glad to hear however that as a personality I am rather popular in my company. It pleases me this, as so I know myself nearer Walt Whitmans perfect man; equal to shepherd and President; equal and familiar. O the joy to be able to go into a little Cotswold inn and drop into conversation with the nearest man! And that, compared with my tongue-tied shyness of 3 years ago. And if not here, then in the Shades I will be friends with men contemptuous of the fate to which some Power has doomed them, jovially drinking in some phantom pub over doubtful takes[1] and unprintable denunciation of the Infernal NCOs.

We’ve seen something like this before (not that I can currently place it, mind)–a soldier so pleased to belong that he humorously, but with real feeling, extends the dream of post-war camaraderie even to otherworldly environs. Gurney is then once again reminded that he is neglecting a different category of friend:

You patient correspondent, though you make no complaint, how should you not be tired of the continual self-analysis which makes up the bulk of my letters! And yet those letters are the safety-valves of my discomfort. It is a cheap amusement—grumbling—pleasing the writer and leaving the reader to read or not as she pleases. I
absolve myself therefore from half the blame, take the other half if you please.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

…Goodbye and many sonatas. Unless I write very soon, more verse-books off:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s latest letter to his wife Ethel picks up in the middle of a joint reminiscence about old holidays, but it is nevertheless overshadowed by the coming offensive.

…I fear those old days are gone for ever now… Let’s hope our next trip will be one here to see the result of the war with the Chugs.

Of course, by now you know more about the German retirement than I do, really, as you have had one more Times than I have…

According to the papers he is retiring there so that, if any preparations have been made by us for the much-talked-about spring offensive, we may have to start again… & in the meantime his submarines will sink all our ships. However the best-laid plans often go wrong…

War is one of those delightful uncertainties that a very small thing may completely upset. It is all most awfully interesting & I hope I shall see the end. I often long for the time when one will be able to read the history of the early phases & know why he didn’t do some of the many things that he ought to have done.

I got three delightful letters from the Chugs too, today. I wish I had time to answer them. Thank dear little Mary for her nice message & her letter too. I am so pleased to hear she sat on her pony so well when it fell down!

Goodnight my darling.[3]

 

Before we get to two letters from Edward Thomas–I know I have been including a great deal of his writing, but these show a different aspect of his personality–let’s do two brief bits of comic relief, one intentional and one rather by-the-way.

We haven’t heard from Jack Martin much–his diary has been sparse, as he seems to be in low spirits. I don’t know him well enough to suspect any particular mood (or mood disorder), but he seems to be suffering from the general malaise common to men who are excited to reach the front and then find not the thrill and terror of battle but the long slog of living and working in miserable winter conditions. His diary only springs to life when he can report letters from home or another test of wills with his commanding officer and sparring partner Lieutenant Buchanan. But today a bit of light comedy flutters out from an unsolicited parcel, in a moment much more redolent of 1915 and the heyday of Kitchener’s army than this tense muddy month, a century back:

23.3.17

Arrived at Dickebusch safely. Had a parcel from Lil containing a body belt folded up just as she had bought it. When I unfolded it a piece of paper dropped out–I picked it up and read this:

Miss Dulcie Bennett

111 Mansfield Road

Nottingham

Wishes the boy who receives this belt the best of luck and a safe return to Blighty. XXXX for luck

Oh, Dulcinea, I am no Don Quixote so I vulgarly displayed your missive to other eyes and there was quite a competition between several fellows as to who should have it and write to you…[4]

 

And I can’t resist the beginning of Kate Luard‘s diary for today, a century back. If we often look for “found poetry” hidden in the prose of our writers, today this old campaigner provides us a found nonsense-alphabet-jingle:

The three C.O.’s of the three C.C.S’s here were summoned to 3rd Army H.Q. to-day to a Conference with the D.M.S…[5]

 

Lastly, Edward Thomas, thrice. I absolve all readers not lavishly endowed with free time or particularly interested in a writer’s fine-grained choices from reading any further. It’s too much!

Or not… Well, we’ll begin with an excerpt from his diary, and then proceed to excerpts from two different letters.

Frosty clear. Ploughs going up over crest towards Beaurains. Rubin back from F. O. P. believes in God and tackles me about atheism–thinks marvellous escapes are ordained. But I say so are the marvellous escapes of certain telegraph posts, houses, etc.[6]

Next, a letter to his old friend Gordon Bottomley which does something rather odd: Thomas reviews the salient experiences and most striking sights of recent days (many of which we’ve read about) but he does so in a hurried, unliterary fashion. Usually the letters are more considered, more elaborate than the diary, but not here.

23 March
My dear Gordon,

I will write again while I can a little. Things are moving now & we move too. I have not long come back from 24 hours in our new front line. It was dirty wet & cold & I could only stand & mark the flashes of enemy guns at night, which was my business. Afterwards I slept 16 hours for the first time in my life. It taught me several things that others knew before. It made me cease to be alarmed by shells that could not harm me, for example, though they came over 20 or 30 a minute all night. They were flying home to a village that we used to fire at till this last move, a fascinating ghostly village of stark trees & ruins which I shall probably soon be sleeping in. It was beautiful coming down to the city in sunshine & seeing the old ruined Town Hall like a thick white smoke just beginning to curl. Crossing the old No Man’s Land crowded like a race course after a race, I couldn’t take seriously the few small shells thrown at the working parties. Oh, I did eat & rest & sleep…

Yesterday it was sunny & mild. Today it is cold & snows at times…

Is this sort of rote reporting motivated only by a sense of duty to an old friend? But Thomas does work around to some more intimate issues of the sort that once sustained his letters to Bottomley.

…Fear too, I have discovered—to that point where the worst moment is when you find you have survived & that all your fear was useless. You screw yourself up for a second to bear anything & nothing comes—except a curious disappointment which I suppose is also relief. Sometimes at night I have been in this state a hundred times, but partly through inexperience, not knowing what might mean harm. Still, I shall never like the shell that flaps as it falls, or the one that suddenly bounces into hearing & in a second is bursting far off—no sooner does it open the gate than it is right in the door, or even the small one that complains & whimpers & is called a ‘pipsqueak’ or a ‘whizzbang’, & flies into that ghastly village all night long like flights of humming birds.

Ah–and he is working on refining his descriptions of the shells. Through music, next, and friendship, the letter finally turns to his poetry–only to dodge, at the end, from success back toward despair.

…I conclude I don’t quite want friends here. I should be too introspective or too happy to meet the circumstance. And yet all sorts of things do make me happy—villages, the city in ruins, the larks in the bloody dirty dawn, the partridges, the magpies floating about among shellfire & once a bat, & a hundred different houses, in city, suburb, & village.

I hear now that America wants my verses & Poetry has taken some. Frost wants me to surrender my pseudonymity but I am not doing so. Of course I can’t think of writing here & only keep the briefest of diaries…

I haven’t met anybody out here yet who connected me with home. I don’t think of home. I never did have pictures on the wall since I was 1.

Goodbye. My love to Emily. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[7]

 

Last, today, Thomas’s letter to his son, Merfyn, now a teenager but working full time as an apprentice at a bus works. Is it his age that accounts for the formality of the letter, or the gaps in his relationship with his father, so often depressed or working away. And yes, he misspells his son’s name, sort of–the name is Welsh, so the “f” sounds as a “v,” anyway:

244 Siege Battery, 23 March 1917

My dear Mervyn,

I brought back a letter from you in the mail bags today and also a new battery for my torch. Thank you very much… It is most useful in crossing this dark street when crowded with lorries or columns of horses and limbers and on all sorts of occasions.

I was so glad to hear from you and how much you were earning for Mother as well as yourself. At the same time I am more anxious for you to learn than to earn at present and I hope you will soon be moved to a new shop.

But Merfyn will soon be eighteen, and in England, a century back, work is no longer the thing that most defines a man’s estate.

You haven’t found an O.T.C. yet, have you? I wish you could, though I hope you will not have to go further than that for a long time. I don’t think war would trouble you. I see lots of infantrymen no bigger or older than you. There was one machine gunner doing duty over the parapet the other night when I was in the very very front trench. He had to stand up there behind his gun watching for an hour. Then he was relieved and made some tea for me and himself and turned into his comic little shanty and slept till the next relief. He looked ever so much older as well as dirtier when morning came. He was a very nice bright Scotch boy. Well, I expect you could do just the same. His officer was the same age and very much like him so that I think he had to look unduly severe to show the distinction…

These, of course, are new thoughts, different thoughts, experiences filtered–and this is very rare, in what we read of Thomas–through the lens of fatherhood. But very strangely, Thomas segues from this paternal mode into a comparison of himself and his son. He had recently faced the task of climbing an enormous chimney for observation purposes, and backed down. Now he wonders if his boy could have done better.

I wonder could you climb that chimney? There were iron rings all the way up and I knew one was loose, but I didn’t know which. One bad feature was that you were always hanging out a bit, because the chimney tapered. It has been hit three times but only with small stuff. Now I suppose it is likely to survive as the enemy is farther off.

Even more strangely, he takes what might seem an offhand (to anyone not risking shellfire on a daily basis) approach to a completely fundamental question:

The crossroads round it became known as Windy Comer because everybody ‘got the wind up’ as he came near it. Thousands had to go that way and yet very few were injured and only about two killed. Isn’t it wonderful how some men get hit and some don’t. But it is the same with trees and houses, so that I don’t see why it makes some people ‘believe in God’. It is a good thing to believe. I think brave people all believe something and I daresay they are not so likely to be killed as those who don’t believe and are not so brave…

But then the formality–a certain awkwardness, at least–creeps back in, and Thomas begins to deluge his son with questions:

…It is going to be Spring soon. Are you glad? Are you often happy and usually contented, and if not contented, not often in despair? Try never to let despair at any rate make you idle or careless; But be as idle and careless as you can when you are happy and the chance comes. If you are troubled, remember that you can do what perhaps nobody else will be able to do for Mother and Bronwen and Baba: only don’t let that make you anxious either. All will come well if you keep honest and kind.Upon my word, this sounds like a sermon and I do hate sermons, of which it is not true to say that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is more easy to give a sermon than to receive.

Which is why, perhaps, he decides to close by giving something not every father can give–this sort of evocative, quietly emotional writing:

Do you have time to read now? I only read for ten minutes in bed, Shakespeare’s sonnets, with a pipe which I smoke about a quarter through and then put out the light and forget the flash of guns across the street and the rattle of the windows, everything except the thud of a shell in the marsh behind, but that seems to have stopped now. Goodnight.

Ever your loving

Daddy[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. As printed, but surely "tales" is intended?
  2. War Letters, 144-5.
  3. For Love and Courage, 342-3.
  4. Sapper Martin, 53-4.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 103.
  6. War Diary (Childhood), 172.
  7. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 278-280.
  8. Selected Letters, 151-3.

Siegfried Sassoon Makes a Hardy Request, and We Look A Century Back and Two Hundred Years After; Wilfred Owen Exposed, and Emboldened

A momentous day, today, a century back, in Great War Writing-Land. Or, rather, an overture to an important new movement, a bridging of the gulf, an act of loyal defection in the conflict of the generations.

Why has Siegfried Sassoon been so unconcerned about his friend’s new poetic friendship–about the fact that Robert Graves will be a dedicatee of Robert Nichols‘s new book?  (And if Sassoon knew Edward Thomas–he does not!–there would be Thomas’s upcoming dedication to Frost to be worried about too. But these are different circles…)

And it’s not just friendships. What about posturing? Why hasn’t Sassoon, like Richard Aldington, gotten those old-fashioned poets firmly in his sights? If he isn’t arrayed against some poetic malefactor(s), how is he to make a successful modern poet of himself?

Well, well: because he’s been working another angle. His respect and admiration for Thomas Hardy is sincere, but it is no doubt useful that Sassoon’s uncle is a friend of Hardy’s, and has carved a bust of him. That introduction paved a way for a first reading, and then for a request which Sassoon must have made right about the time that Graves departed for France. Here is Hardy’s reply:

Max Gate, Dorchester. February 4, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

I am pleased that you should care to inscribe your coming book of poems to me, which of course you have my permission to do—if you think it worth while!

Many thanks for enclosing the proof of the little one about Corbie Ridge (I don’t know where that is.)

I hope the weather will be milder before you go back to France, & that you may have good luck over there.

Sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy[1]

There is something amusingly fussy about Hardy’s parenthetical remark. Well, of course he doesn’t know where Corbie Ridge is, and while a century on he might peck it into the search bar one key at a time and then be instantaneously better informed (and be able to affect knowingness about all the place-names of the Western Front in his reply) he’s not about to hustle down to the library and page through back issues just to discover what part of the line Sassoon is referring to.

But let that be. What about the poem, and the gesture of dedication? Sassoon has not been dwelling on Hardy, lately, but he is certainly more than just a conveniently famous family friend. He’s a great poet… and yet his only comment is to note his ignorance about Corbie Ridge? No kind words on the poem itself? Is there evidence of the craftsman’s promise, here?

But Hardy says nothing encouraging. And it was a well-chosen poem, too. Neither one of Sassoon’s older-fashioned pretty laments, nor one of his sharp new satires, Sassoon had sent a most Hardy-like poem. It is Sassoon-like as well, with the mud and the long retrospect, but is it too obviously an apprentice Satire of Circumstance?

 

Two Hundred Years After

Trudging by Corbie Ridge one winter’s night,
(Unless old hearsay memories tricked his sight)
Along the pallid edge of the quiet sky
He watched a nosing lorry grinding on,
And straggling files of men; when these were gone,
A double limber and six mules went by,
Hauling the rations up through ruts and mud
To trench-lines digged two hundred years ago.
Then darkness hid them with a rainy scud,
And soon he saw the village lights below.

But when he’d told his tale, an old man said
That he’d seen soldiers pass along that hill;
‘Poor silent things, they were the English dead
Who came to fight in France and got their fill.’

 

Read in this fashion, in this context, it’s a fair bet that Hardy saw the poem and worried that he might have a fawning imitator on his hands. Sassoon is promising–his verse is always smooth. But this scene, first imagined in June–the setting out on the cold downs, the trudging mules and hunched men and fatalistic rain (never mind the lorry!)–and then the reveal, in the final quatrain, that they are ghosts, futile ghosts, and that their war will never end–this scene could be titled “A Soldier’s Post-Script to Mr. Thomas Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance.” So Hardy, I think, is wary.

But how could we not be pleased? We must be. It is only a slight bit of imaginative hyperbole (two hundred years?!?!) that keeps this poem from being something like a joint standard-bearer (a tent-pole? an optio? the column at the other end of the pediment?) for A Century Back. Our namesake poem is Hardy’s At Lulworth Cove a Century Back, with its poets and ghosts and time-travel… if Sassoon had opted for the relatively restrained future-contemplation of a single century, then the parallel would be irresistible.

As things stand, in Dorset and Litherland, young Sassoon is on probation, I think–the twain are in mutual regard, but not convergence. And yet Sassoon’s forthcoming book is cleared to carry a dedication to the greatest living angry-fatalist poet…

 

We take one more step back down the chain of connection, now, to another even younger poet who is yet to converge with any of our other writers. But Wilfred Owen is making great strides nonetheless. In today’s letter to his mother winter hardships are the seeds of a poem, and percolating thoughts of that poem lead Owen closer toward a major statement against the war.

Sunday, 4 February 1917 [Advanced Horse Transport Depot]

My own dear Mother,

…since my last letter I have had another, strong dose of the advanced Front Line.

To begin with, I have come out quite unhurt, except for a touch of dysentery, which is now passed, and a severe cold and cough which keep me in bed today.

I have no mind to describe all the horrors of this last Tour. But it was almost wusser than the first, because in this place my Platoon had no Dug-Outs, but had to lie in the snow under the deadly wind. By day it was impossible to stand up or even crawl about because we were behind only a little ridge screening us from the Bosches periscope.

The bit of baby talk–“wusser” for “worse”–is discordant now where it wouldn’t have been a few weeks ago. Wilfred continues to write home to mum, and to complain, but this letter includes deep misery and death, and he is already mulling over the meaning of it all.

We had 5 Tommy’s cookers between the Platoon, but they did not suffice to melt the ice in the water-cans. So we suffered cruelly from thirst.

The marvel is that we did not all die of cold. As a matter of fact, only one of my party actually froze to death before he could be got back but I am not able to tell how many have ended in hospital. I had no real casualties from shelling, though for 10 minutes every hour, whizz-bangs fell a few yards short of us. Showers of soil rained on us, but no fragments of shell could find us.

Owen now waxes almost mystical:

I had lost my gloves in a dug-out, but I found 1 mitten on the Field; I had my Trench Coat (without lining but with a Jerkin, underneath.) My feet ached until they could ache no more, and so they temporarily died. I was kept warm by the ardour of Life within me. I forgot hunger in the hunger for Life. The intensity of your Love reached me and kept me living. I thought of you and Mary without a break all the time. I cannot say I felt any fear. We were all half-crazed by the buffetting of the High Explosives, I think the most unpleasant reflection that weighed on me was the impossibility of getting back any wounded, a total impossibility all day, and frightfully difficult by night.

We were marooned on a frozen desert.

There is not a sign of life on the horizon and a thousand signs of death. Not a blade of grass, not an insect; once or twice a day the shadow of big hawk, scenting carrion.

This is quite dramatic. Not that the misery and fear of holding such a line in such weather doesn’t merit such drama… it just seems as if he is straining for effect. It will feel very different, however, in verse. Owen may have begun working on the poem that would come to be “Exposure” within a day or two of today, a century back.

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
       But nothing happens.
The poem, the first in which Owen sets out to portray something of the range of trench experience in verse, will also be the first in which he directly addresses, in apostrophe, his swift disillusionment:

 

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
       What are we doing here?

 

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .

We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
       But nothing happens.

 

Needless to say, perhaps, but this is more than just a dawn recorded. Dawn is for poets–full of hope, full of meaning, pregnant with larks straining at the muse’s leash, ready to leap to the sky. “But nothing happens.”
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
       But nothing happens.

 

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
       —Is it that we are dying?

 

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
       We turn back to our dying.

 

Well, so, there is melodrama, too, with that blackbird nattering out any hope. There is something not quite right here, a serious problem of tone. He affects to speak for all of his men–“we… we… our… our…”–but if he is to succeed in that, he will need a different sort of voice. Not the gruff or cheerful or stoic Bairnsfathery voice, but something much farther away from lyrical narcissism. This poem begins to bring some notes of wartime experience over into literature, but the voice is still innocent, if only because it is so self-regarding. Unconsciously, perhaps, we read “I” for all this “we.”
I don’t understand the force of the religious appeal in the penultimate stanza, but the last paragraph, despite the poem’s flaws, has real emotional power. As we will see, when we return to the letter, his sense of outrage–of a distaste or disgust, of a horror that not only merits but demands action–has outpaced his style.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
       For love of God seems dying.

 

Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
       But nothing happens.
Although its roots are in this last frigid tour, the poem itself is in the near future. Today, the rest of the letter remains, and it contains a common piece of irony: if a terrible experience is to lead to a poem, then there must also be a respite from terrible experience in which the inspiration can actually be written.
By degrees, day by day, we worked back through the reserve & support lines to the crazy village where the Battalion takes breath…

 

At last I got to the village, & found all your dear precious letters, and the parcel of good and precious things. The Lamp is perfect your Helmet is perfect, everything was perfect.

But he hasn’t just survived a tour in the trenches–he has won an unexpected reprieve.

Then I had the heavenly-dictated order to proceed on a Transport Course. Me in Transports? Aren’t you? When I departed, the gloom among the rest of the Subs, and even among Captains, was a darkness that could be felt. They can’t understand my luck…

The Course should last 1 month!!

Fondest love to all, & thanks for all their letters.

Your own Wilfred x

So Owen will be safe, now, for some time, in Abbeville.

We’ll close with a telling little post-script. Wilfred has been almost rapturous in writing to his mother; but it would be different, wouldn’t it, with his stern and doubting father?

P.S. I don’t at all deserve the spirited approbation which Father gives me. Though I confess I like to have his kind letters immensely. I shall read them less shamefacedly in dug-outs and trenches, than I do here in this pleasant peaceful town.

And the post-script goes on and on, leading, perhaps, to the mood in which the poem will begin.

Quite 10 years ago I made a study of this town & Cathedral, in the Treasury. It is all familiar now!

…I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious. But to sit with them all day, all night . . . and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there, in motionless groups, THAT is what saps the ‘soldierly spirit’ . . .[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 201.
  2. Collected Letters, 430-2.

Edward Thomas is Home Once More; Francis Ledwidge on Fame and Fairy Dances; Siegfried Sassoon Goes A-Hunting, and Dreams a Peacemaking Smile in Hades

No sooner have I introduced Jack Martin and Edwin Vaughan–regular diarists who I expect to become mainstays in the coming months–than every poet on our active duty roster is suddenly scurrying and scribbling about. Today we have an update on Edward Thomas and poems from Francis Ledwidge and Siegfried Sassoon… so Vaughan, Martin, and the others will have to gird their loins and wait a few days.

 

Edward Thomas is once more at home in High Beech: “All well,” he notes in his new pocket diary, the “war diary” that he began with the new year. This leave is anticlimactic, at least for us, after reading of the miraculous Christmas leave, but for the army it is business as usual. Thomas’s battery will embark for France before the end of the month, and the officers take it in turns to have a few days of “mobilization leave–” which is also called “embarkation leave” but most often referred to by the leavers themselves as “last leave.”

 

Francis Ledwidge has made a striking amount of progress. Unknown before the war, his first collection of poetry cleverly billed him as something like an Irish John Clare, a natural poet sprung from the masses. His origins were humble, and he was a soldier rather than an officer, but then again his working life had been varied and his influential connections included the patronage of Lord Dunsany. His war service–Gallipoli, the Macedonian borderlands, illness and injury, a return to a rebellion-torn Ireland–has not been easy, but his reputation, based on Songs of the Fields, has been growing all the while.

Today, back in France, but finding free time even in a combat infantryman’s laborious day (he is presumably in reserve), he wrote both a poem and a letter. The letter takes up a new friendship: Ledwidge had recently received a good review and a friendly note from Katharine Tynan, prolific poet, novelist, journalist and major Irish literary figure (which is to say “close associate of Yeats”). Writing back, he addresses the “legacy” issue head-on:

If I survive the war, I have great hopes of writing something that will live. If not, I trust to be remembered in my own land for one or two things which its long sorrow inspired. My book has had a greater reception in England, Ireland and America than I had ever dreamt of, but I never feel that my name should be mentioned in the same breath with my contemporaries.

You ask me what I am doing. I am a unit in the Great War, doing and suffering, admiring great endeavour and condemning great dishonour, I may be dead before this reaches you, but I will have done my part. Death is as interesting to me as life. I have seen so much of it from Suvla to Serbia and now in France. I am always homesick.
I hear the roads calling, and the hills, and the rivers wondering where I am. It is terrible to be always homesick.[1]

There is a bit of awkward self-mythologizing in that letter, perhaps: a poet taking a deep breath before swelling out to meet a grand new expectation. But the homesickness is surely heartfelt–he yearns for the real roads of Ireland, and for the nodding rushes, and for the dreamy dance in the fairy rath as well:

 

The Rushes

The rushes nod by the river
As the winds on the loud waves go,
And the things they nod of are many,
For it’s many the secret they know.

And I think they are wise as the fairies
Who lived ere the hills were high.
They nod so grave by the river
To everyone passing by.

If they would tell me their secrets
I would go by a hidden way,
To the rath when the moon retiring
Dips dim horns into the gray.

And a fairy-girl out of Leinster
In a long dance I should meet,
My heart to her heart beating,
My feet in rhyme with her feet.

France,
January 6th, 1917.

 

Siegfried Sassoon will come to write at great length of the strangely disjointed “indoor” and “outdoor” personalities that coexisted in his youthful self. After, of course, he writes a three volume memoir, lightly fictionalized, that, while embodying a most indoorsy pursuit (namely extensive and intensive autobiographical effort) focuses entirely on the outdoor “fox hunting” and grenade-throwing half: “George Sherston” is very much like Siegfried Sassoon… except that he’s not a writer.

In Sassoon’s diary for today, a century back, the day’s description, proper, comes first. And then a poem… And, well, it’s hard not to agree with Sassoon that these personalities should be split apart and considered separately and in turn–it hardly takes much prying to do so, and it’s bewildering to see them side by side and attempt a binocular reading.

Another way to put it would be this: how would we stitch these two adjacent writings, written by the same hand on the same day (by these two co-adjacent personalities), into a seamless whole?

January 6

Cheshire: Peckforton Gap. Found in the Gardens at Cholmondeley but lost him as soon as he went away. Found at Bar Mere about 12.50 (a brace) and went away toward Bickley and back past the cover and toward Norbury Common and right-handed ring to Marbury, where he got in a big earth. About fifty minutes: they ran nicely at times. Had another slow hunt round the same country and lost him. Got back to Tilston about 5. Best day I’ve had with the Cheshire, but nothing wonderful. Very little wire about.

So, fox-hunting. A good day in the saddle, hopping fences amidst the chase, duly recorded but not reflected upon–I think even the mention of wire (a fox hunter’s enemy, an infantryman’s constant companion) is “straight” rather than fetchingly ironic. This is sport, and any aggravated farmers–or small, terrified mammals–are not much to the point.

And then, straightaway, this poem:

 

Enemies

He stood alone in some queer sunless place
Where the dead soldiers go: perhaps he longed
For what he’d lost with life; but his quiet face
Gazed out untroubled; and suddenly there thronged
Round him the hulking Germans that I shot
When my mad anger for his death was hot.
He stared at them unmoved and grave; and then
They told him that I’d killed them for his sake;
Those patient, stupid, sullen ghosts of men;
And still there was no answer he could make.
At last he turned and smiled; and all was well.
Because his face could lead them out of hell.[2]

That’s tantalizing, that “all was well–” the same phrase that Edward Thomas, a care-burdened older family man, used for his last arrival before the trial of war. And Sassoon–younger in years and more so in spirit, yet a decorated veteran now brooding on the many comrades he has lost–is dreaming of a beautiful subaltern beyond the grave, who might make peace among the shades of those “enemies” who have killed, and been killed in vengeance.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 170.
  2. Diaries, 116.
  3. Here's a funny thing: if Sassoon really "shot" German soldiers, up close and personal, during his vengeful heroics after the death of David Thomas, shouldn't I remember that? He went out, I know, and threw grenades and fired his weapon, but--should I remember men unquestionably killed? Well, well: in either case, I should not attribute to the poet's claims the lived reality of the writer... what a rookie fallacy that would be...

Vera Brittain and the Two Musketeers: Stars for Roland Leighton; A Fable and an Argument from Olaf Stapledon

This is one of those days on which the literary coincidences are somewhat uncanny. Our most ardent lover, these days, is Olaf Stapledon, the dreamy pacifist ambulance driver whose pen can turn anything–even found fairy tales–into love letters, full of the promise that as soon as this little annoyance of the war is out of the way, he and Agnes will begin a long and wonderful life together. So first, today, Olaf’s letter to his love-across-the-world; then Vera’s anniversary of crushing loss.

SSA 13
23 December 1916

Agnes,

There is an old, old, very old woman who lives near us and goes out into the forest to gather sticks. Sometimes she goes by herself, sometimes a little girl goes with her. Many times a day the old woman passes the place where we keep our cars, and each time that she is coming back with her load she is bent so low that her face is on a level with her hips and it is only with difficulty that she can raise her eyes to see before her. Her steps are very slow and unsteady, and her burden is always so unwieldy that the mere swinging of it nearly upsets her. She carries it in a curious way over one hip, so that her whole body is twisted like the face of a flat-fish. As she is passing one sees her ancient face, withered and very placid. Because of her very great stoop no one ever sees her face full, but only in profile. She never looks at anyone, but goes plodding on with her eyes to the ground. When she has passed one looks after her and sees her as a great moving bush of twigs and branches, with one mighty gnarled hand spread queerly over the waist of her bundle, holding it to her back. The girl also carries a bundle, but her going is in swift staggering stages, each followed by a long rest while the old woman comes up and passes her with never a pause. The girl is fresh to look at–fair-haired, blue-eyed. The labour is irksome to her. She looks round for things of interest, jerks her bundle into a more comfortable position and at last drops it with a sigh, her whole body stretching with the relief of the sudden freedom. But the old woman creeps on as steadily as the hand of a clock, and almost as imperceptibly. She wears a funny old dirty white sunbonnet, and on her feet wooden shoes that look loose. One expects them to clatter on her bony ankles. There is something weird about her. She is like a witch, but too serene.  She is like some ancient woman in an ancient myth. There is something classic about her, something inevitable, and a divine calm. She has none of the childlike joy of the old woman in the picture “Words of Comfort.’’ She is too wise to accept comfort. She has found out the world and she has no more dreams about it, nor about any other world. Yet she is not sad, still less bitter. She has seen the vanity of life; but she seems strangely content, as if all the while she held some great and solemn secret that was deeper than the vain world of pain-dreaders and joy-desirers, of little self-seekers and inflated idealists. I thought at first that she was like old, bent France, carrying load after load of sticks to the fire of war. But now I think she is the Wise Woman who takes whatever she chooses from the forest that is mankind to keep alight her magic hearth fire. And what purpose she has, and what good or evil potions she brews in her cauldron, no man knows, but only she. . . .

Last night as I was going to bed (first time), there was a great discussion. Picture: a dark but starry night, a line of cars in a forest glade, one car a tourer with hood up, and in it arranging his rugs and strapping himself in by the light of a little petrol lamp, Olaf; outside, prowling round the car. Big Smell [Routh Smeal], sometimes poking his head in, the better to talk, sometimes listening and watching the stars. The discussion was the usual that takes place between us. The gist of it was, on Smeal’s part, “Nothing is any good really. There’s no point about living. What is the object of it all? Goodness? Beauty? What are they for? What are they?” And on my part, “Why, Good Heavens, man alive, you seem to forget that you can’t get right to the bottom by pure reason, simply because
reason is only a guide, and must begin on some initial feeling. You can’t explain the feeling. The world is very beautiful. Why? Good God, man, I don’t know why; but it just is. What more do you want? If you care for a person you don’t dissect the feeling & explain it all away and then say, ‘What’s the use of it?’ You just love, & act accordingly… after much talk and much fumbling with rugs on my part, and prowling about on his, he said slowly in his deep voice, “I think I see what you mean.” Then there was a long silence a stillness. Then he said, “Well, I’ll be going to bed.” Smeal is a seeker after reality. No fairy tales for him, no comfortable self deceptions. And what he thinks, he lives. He thinks cynically, so he talks & acts cynically. But he wants to grasp some more worthy truth…

Bed time now. Perhaps there will be a letter from you tomorrow. Christmas Eve, or on the day itself. It won’t be Christmas without a letter from you. One more Christmas with the globe between us, but this will be the last, I do hope.[1]

 

A year ago–and a century back–Roland Leighton, after being shot while leading a patrol, died.

December 23rd

The anniversary of Roland’s death—and for me farewell to the best thing in my life. I am glad I am far from Keymer–far from London; I could not have borne the associations of either. And now I am in Malta, working hard to try & make other people happy for their Christmas in exile, & in so doing, happier than I have been for months. Yes, even on this foreign service I dreaded so much, on which I told Him I would go if He died. I wonder where He is–and if He is at all; I wonder if He sees me writing this now. It is absurd to say time makes one forget; I miss Him
as much now as ever I did. One recovers from the shock, just as one gradually would get used to managing with one’s left hand if one has lost one’s right, but one never gets over the loss, for one is never the same after it. I have got used to facing the long empty years ahead of me if I survive the war, but I have always before me the realisation of how empty they are and will be, since He will never be there again. One can only live through them as fully and as nobly as one can, and pray from the depths of one’s lonely heart that

Hand in hand, just as we used to do,
We two shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow.[2]

It is not surprising that Vera Brittain would solemnly mark this anniversary. Nor that she would open her diary for the first time in a month and once again confront unresolved religious questions–and reaffirm that certain questions of eternal love and devotion very much resolved, not least by quoting a fragment of verse by Roland that had served as a sort of shorthand representation of their love. But how–other than fulfilling her promise to see dangerous and difficult service of her own–she will fulfill the vow to live “as fully and as nobly as one can” is something of an open question.

And if anyone would question whether we can really take the measure of a man from his fiancée’s profession of loss, there are also resounding ratifications from his friends. Both of the surviving “Three Musketeers” of Uppingham, though weighted with their own cares as young infantry officers, remembered the date and wrote to Vera about it–and one even addressed the same question with the very same quotation.

Edward Brittain Vera’s brother, will write:

Dearest, I know it is just a year, and you are thinking of Him and His terrible death, and of what might have been, even as I am too. This year has, I think, made him seem very far off but yet all the more unforgettable. His life was like a guiding star which left this firmament when he died and went to some other one where it still shines as brightly, but so far away. I know you will in a way live through last year’s tragedy again but may it bring still greater
hopes for ‘the last and brightest Easter day’ which you and I can barely conceive let alone understand, when

‘We too shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow’.

How happy I would be to see you meet again!

 

And Victor Richardson will write to Vera a few days hence. The capitalization of Roland’s pronoun is common to all of their letters.

We came out of trenches on the anniversary of the day on which He was mortally wounded. That afternoon was the most glorious sunset I have seen out here. Only a coincidence of course, but it appealed to me. I have felt His loss more in the last three months than ever before. I feel that He would have been able to banish all my doubts and fears for the future.[3]

I don’t have Vera’s reply to Victor, but although she sometimes condescends when writing about him, I would imagine that she would approve of these sentiments. Roland is an inspiration, still, and despite Victor’s formal profession of skepticism–i.e. the notable sunset as “coincidence”–he joins fully in the ratification of Roland’s special status as their dearly departed but eternal leader.

Vera will receive her brother’s letter next week, and in writing back to him she will tell him about tonight. From France to Malta the sky tonight is numinous and significant, and Vera’s adherence to reason and skepticism–again, “just coincidence of course”–feels more tenuous even than Victor’s.

It seems rather curious that on the night of Dec. 23rd I was kneeling by my bed in the dark thinking about Him & that night last year when suddenly just before 11.0 at the very hour of His death the whole sky was suddenly lighted up & everything outside became queerly & startlingly visible. At first I thought it was just lightning, which is very frequent at night here, but when the light remained & did not flash away again I felt quite uncanny & afraid & hid my face in my hands for two or three minutes. When I looked up again the light had gone; I went to the window but could see nothing at all to account for the sudden brilliant glow.

A day or two after I heard that there had been a most extraordinary shooting-star which had lit up the whole sky for two or three minutes before it had fallen to earth. Shooting stars also are common here, or rather, there is so much less atmosphere between us & the stars than there is in England that we can see them much more clearly; but this was quite an extraordinary star; of course they never light up the sky like that one did. (Someone suggested it was the Star of Bethlehem fallen to earth because it could no longer shine in the dark horror of War.) Just coincidence of course, but strange from my point of view that it should have happened at that hour. I remember one day last winter how Clare pointed out to me a star, which shone very brightly among the others & said ‘Wouldn’t it be strange if that star were Roland’…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 193-6.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 336.
  3. Letter From a Lost Generation, 307.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 307-11.

The Afterlife of Donald Hankey: Forever the Student in Arms

Donald Hankey was killed on October 12th of this year. His family learned the news a few days later, and before the end of the month The Spectator had begun republishing articles by “A Student in Arms.” Hankey’s relationship with his editor, John St. Loe Strachey, had become strained during the early phases of the Somme battle when Hankey–though no radical, and certainly no disillusionist–decided that he needed to write more directly about war’s horrors. They patched things up, but it is probably correct to say that when he died, Donald Hankey had yet to resolve how a writer with his priorities–theological seriousness, a pastoral as well as patriotic sense of duty, a devotion to the downtrodden, be they the poor in their slums or the infantry in their trenches–could tell the truth and find a way to support the war effort. He was uncomfortable being the quietly inspirational “Student in Arms,” and he needed a new way forward.

But he is dead, and as that became known to his readership his minor fame grew–with inspirational writers as well as poets, sacrifice moves volumes. A book edition of his musings for The Spectator will go swiftly through several printings, and throughout the fall he has been given prominent placement in the paper. Few writers can escape their first book, their initial public persona, and none, of course, of those who not only die prematurely but cannot escape the manner of their death from becoming am inescapable interpretive coda to their work.

Today, a century back, a collection of Hankey’s–or “A Student’s”–aphorisms appeared. They are largely of the sort of religion-lite genre that has come to overspread our remaining bookstores like a cloyingly pungent, voracious fungus. Which is not to say that Hankey’s insights are mistaken, or that these observations of a serious student of theology have much in common with modern vapidities. But he was a serious man, and his resistance to doing what almost everyone else does here–foreground their own experience in their writing about the war–was breaking down. These not the last words he should have had…

THE WISDOM OF “A STUDENT IN ARMS.”

It is no good trying to fathom “things” to the bottom; they have not got one.

Knowledge is always descriptive, and never fundamental. We can describe the appearance and conditions of a process; but not the way of it.

Agnosticism is a fundamental fact. It is the starting point of the wise man who has discovered that it needs eternity to study infinity.

Agnosticism, however, is no excuse for indolence. Because we cannot know all, we need not therefore be totally ignorant.

The true wisdom is that in which all knowledge is subordinate to practical aims, and blended into a working philosophy of life.

The true wisdom is that it is not what a man does, or has, or says that matters; but what he is.

This must be the aim of practical philosophy—to make a man be somewhat.

The world judges a man by his station, inherited or acquired. God judges by his character. To be our best we must share God’s viewpoint.

To the world death is always a tragedy; to the Christian it is never a tragedy unless a man has been a contemptible character.

Religion is the widening of a man’s horizon so as to include God. It is in the nature of a speculation, but its returns are immediate. True religion means betting one’s life that there is a God.

Its immediate fruits are courage, stability, calm, unselfishness, friendship, generosity, humility, and hope.

Religion is the only possible basis of optimism.

Optimism is the essential condition of progress.

One is what one believes oneself to be. If one believes oneself to be an animal one becomes bestial ; if one believes oneself spiritual one becomes Divine.

Faith is an effective force whose measure has never yet been taken.

Man is the creature of heredity and environment. He can only rise superior to circumstances by bringing God into environment of which he is conscious.

The recognition of God’s presence upsets the balance of a man’s environment, and means a new birth into a new life.

The faculties which perceive God increase with use like any other perceptive faculties. Belief in God may be an illusion; but it is an illusion that pays.

If belief in God is illusion, happy is he who is deluded! He gains this world and thinks he will gain the next.

The disbeliever loses this world, and risks losing the next.

To be the centre of one’s universe is misery. To have one’s universe centred in God is the peace that passeth understanding.

Greatness is founded on inward peace.

Energy is only effective when it springs from deep calm.

The pleasure of life lies in contrasts; the fear of contrasts is a chain that binds most men.

In the hour of danger a man is proven. The boaster hides, and the egotist trembles. He whose care is for others forgets to be afraid.

Men live for eating and drinking, passion and wealth. They die for honour.

Blessed is he of whom it has been said that he so loved giving that he even gave his own life.

No: these not the last words he should have had. The aphorisms, as edited, seem to wind up with a definitive emphasis on honor and sacrifice. This is not fair. Hankey died bravely, by all accounts, a good man and a good officer. But he did not die entirely committed to the 1914 ideal of meaningful sacrifice. If there is one point to be made about the transformation of military morale in the 20th century it is that the old ideals–God and country, above all–did not suffice, for such wars. Men tended to stick it out because they could not bear to fail their comrades.

This was Hankey’s ideal, above all others–excepting, perhaps, the ideal of not failing a truly worthy leader–and I won’t commit the blunder (“sin,” I almost wrote) of rejecting one editorial interpretation only to provide my own. But if there are sins against literature then putting definitive ideas in the head of a dead man is a mortal one.

Carefully, then: if there is meaning in the death of a man who wanted to be a minister after the war, who tried to serve in the ranks and even when his class forced him to take a commission made nothing of the family connections that could have won him a safer job, then this meaning cannot take the form of some generalized sense of “honour” or an apolitical, uncomplaining “giving.” The Somme was changing A Student in Arms, and the war had made him a platoon commander, a leader who could not simply be a humble shepherd.

Who is to say he gave his life willingly? But he was there and he let the war come and take it, and if he was partly motivated by honor, charity, and careful ethical deliberation–not to mention the expectations imposed upon his gender, class, rank, etc.–he was driven, above all, by love and consideration for his men.

Bimbo Tennant’s Shoot-Out in Gas Alley

gas-alleycrop

The scrap of nowhere, northeast of Delville Wood, where Bim Tennant died. “Gas Alley” is the trench that runs across the center of the map, from southwest (where the transition from blue to red marks the ownership of the trench as of a few days ago) to the northeast.

The Somme battle was in a lull between major attacks today, a century back. The 4th Grenadiers had been sent up yesterday to help prepare the way for the next stab at the third German line. North of Ginchy, between Longueval toward Flers, there was a tangle of trenches where an earlier push had entered the German lines and then been halted.

The Grenadiers did not go “over the top” yesterday as Bimbo Tennant had expected, but found more painstaking work before them. They had to fight sideways through a trench system, up communications trenches that had been blocked by the German defenders, who then withdrew and lay in ambush.

This was work for Grenadiers indeed. But when Tennant’s friend and company commander Captain Spencer-Churchill[1] went over to try to connect “Gas Alley” with the next bit of trench, he was hit by snipers and wounded.

Tennant, cropped

Edward Wyndham Tennant, by John Singer Sargent, 1915

 

Bim Tennant was less fortunate. Left behind in Gas Alley, he took it upon himself to respond to the short-range Germans sniping, and “occupied his time in shooting at the enemy. Apparently, there was some movement by the Germans which led him to shoot with his revolver, and a moment later he fell dead, shot through the head by one of the enemy’s snipers.”[2]

 

Lady Glenconner (née Pamela Wyndham), was a much-beloved mother. We have so many of Bim’s letters to her, with her loving commentary, and the two seem to have been the best of friends. If there was ever a cross word, it was not preserved.

It seems cruel, in any case, to speculate: Lady Glenconner is a mother of dead children. In the spring she lost an infant far too young to speak, and in the beginning of Autumn, now, she has lost her eldest, all of nineteen years old, the boy who always wrote so sweetly of his love for her.

She will publish his poems and his letters, a continuation of their joint effort, in life. And more: the Sargent drawing Bim had wanted for the frontispiece of a little volume of poems will now be the frontispiece of his mother’s Memoir of his brief life. Productive in grief, Lady Glenconner will also publish many of Bim’s earliest poems and letters to her–overpoweringly sentimental and desperately sad proof of a little boy’s love for his beautiful, loving mother.

I have written before about the difficulty of integrating the writing of grief-stricken parents into this polyphonic project–grief-stricken mothers, for the most part. Lady Glenconner, however, writes sparingly in her own voice, and says much of what she would say in quotation–of young Bim above all. She means to show not only his love of her, but his love of life–both not to be doubted–and also, with some of the poems, his claim to poetic talent.

I’m not sure what to do but include some of what she preserved, here and over the coming days. It’s heartbreaking and, I hope, raw. I’ll close with something of hers, of his (if that makes sense).

But first, one mourner to begin the condoling: Osbert Sitwell, a friend and comrade who had made himself a family friend, is perhaps best positioned to call across the unfathomable gulf that now separates Bim and his mother,

I, though I only have known Bim for two years, feel a gap which can never be filled; I shall always feel the gratitude for his friendship. I am sure he faced death with the marvellous vitality, courage, and love of beautiful ideas and things that always actuated him. His only sorrow in death would be your sorrow, and that of those who loved him. You were always his one thought, and he would never even smoke, because he had promised you, once, not to. He was convinced of a future life. I am sure that a vitality such as his can never be wasted.

It was this same note–Christian, gentle, uplifting–that Lady Glenconner used when it came time for the abrupt transition from the letters of the living boy to the memorials of the dead officer.

The posthumous chapter begins with this epigraph:

“‘Out on thee, Death,’ Justice and Pity said,
‘Why take the young, and let the old go free?’
‘Religion is the worship of the dead,’
Death answered, ‘know ye not? more foolish ye.
How could Below look upward to Above
Did not these die, whom Gods and Mothers love?'”

F. W. Bain

Then there is a brief quotation from Tennyson–“That death whose truer nature is Onward. . . “–and Lady Glenconner’s brief confirmation of what every reader must already know:

On the 22nd September, 1916, Bim went on.[3]

But what could be as sad as this?bimbo-tennants-dedication-to-moth

References and Footnotes

  1. Edward George, I believe, a cousin at some distance to Winston.
  2. The Grenadier Guards in the Great War, II, 137.
  3. Memoir, 237-9.

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XII: Siegfried Sassoon Goes Hun-Hunting with Poetry in Mind; An April Medieval Fantasy from Bimbo Tennant; Ralph Mottram’s Original Crime; Charles Scott Moncrieff on the Shelf

Our poem for April is a salutary reminder that literature neither moves in a straight line nor in unison. Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon, for instance, have lately been pushing toward new ways of writing about the war.

And Bimbo Tennant? Less new. Here’s a poem he composed this month, a century back.

 

The Knight and the Russet Palmer

“Give you good day, Sir Knight,
And whither may you be bound?
Methinks I could read your hand,
Sir Knight, As sure as the world is round.”

“What do you lack, you Palmer old?
And what would you have wi’ me?
Will you give me word of my true-love
That sails across the sea?”

Skip a bit, brother! It goes on like this for many a stanza, and the pseudo-Medievalism (the influences, I suppose, are Tennyson and Morris) gets thicker.

“And where was my love when the storm was high,
You palsied heavy-eyed Sage?”
“I wot she brewed a draught, Sir Knight,
And conned a runic page…”

Long story short, the good Sir Knight oughtn’t to have put his faith in that lady. The poem is signed “Poperinghe, April, 1916,” and is adequate proof on its own that an inclination to verse may be completely distinct from an inclination to writing about the real experiences war.[1]

 

But better and more forward-looking writers await.

April 1916 was the cruelest month, at least when it came to the off-handed desecration of an outdoor shrine in the rear areas of the British sector in Flanders. The plot of Ralph Mottram‘s Spanish Farm Trilogy, which is probably the best long novel by an officer about the war (rather than the sharper, narrower experience of fighting in the trenches), turns on the fictional (or fictionalized) “crime”[2] that was committed this month. A soldier with the transport section of a battalion in reserve broke into the shrine, in the corner of a pasture of a large farm, in order to shelter his mules from the elements. The farm family–led by the formidable Madeleine Vanderlynden, who also played host to the officers billeted in the farmhouse–complained, and forms were filed.

The rest was history–or, rather, bureaucracy. Mottram’s three novels, which are difficult to discuss here owing to the absence of precise dates, circle around this event in several different ways. There is a sort of 19th century French novel involving Madeleine’s dramatic affair with an aristocratic French officer; there is another novel centered on Skene, a very Mottram-like New Army officer billeted in the farmhouse and later involved with its inhabitants and the seminal “crime;” and the whole thing takes on–with remarkable success–a time and place in which an enormous-yet-piddling bureaucracy worthy of Heller or Pynchon (or Kafka or Welles) coexists with a little world of stubborn, unchanging peasants… all of whom were brought together by the casual vandalism of a tired muleteer of Kitchener’s army, this month, a century back.[3]

 

Changing gears now, we have two bits of writing dated specifically to today, a century back. Charles Scott Moncrieff is something of an old soldier, a reservist with 1914 experience and many months in a Regular regiment. He is relatively rare, then, in being both a highly educated, literary sort of chap and an officer who has come by his old army prejudices honestly. He’s not impressed with the New Army:

1st April, 1916

…I am homesick here to be back with my company, or at least with our own 13th Field Ambulance, where I
should have Father Evans to talk to me. I can’t be bothered to beat up a Kitchener’s Army atmosphere among these people, and their different standards annoy me, e.g., their genuine keenness to get away from their regiments in the field. Also I left my company on the verge of a crisis, as my Sergeant-major is at last getting a commission, and my Quartermaster Sergeant came down here with pleurisy a few days before me, so that an extra responsibility devolves on the young shoulders of Machin, who only came back last Sunday from a fortnight in command of another company…[4]

Scott-Moncrieff, though young, is one of many whose constitution will prove unequal to the damp, cold, pestilential trenches. This fever will stay with him and soon send him home for a months-long spell of sick leave, light duty or home duty (i.e. training new troops). I’ve enjoyed bringing his chatty style and keen literary eye into the discussion, but like so many of our writers his letters cease when he’s near home, and so it will be quite a while before we hear from him again.

 

And finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon is taking matters into his own hands once again. Today he casts aside the coy passive voice: he has decided to go looking for Germans to kill, and he is not shy about writing it.

April 1

Got back to Morlancourt by 1 o’clock on a bright day—east wind, glare and dust. Got through last night all right.  About 9.30 I started creeping along the old sap which leads out to the crater where they put a fresh mine up in the afternoon; about forty yards from our parapet (it didn’t explode properly). Our sentry had seen two men go down into the crater at dusk—covering-party, I expect—while the others worked on the lip. After crawling about forty yards I got to the edge of the crater and could hear them working about twenty-five yards away. Couldn’t make out where the covering-party were, and was in mortal funk lest someone would shoot me. Crept back, and returned with Private Gwynne and four Mills bombs; we threw the bombs, I think with effect; a flare went up and I could see someone about five yards away, below me; fired six shots out of the revolver; and fled.

Gwynne was very steady, but I wish it had been O’Brien. Crawling out the first time was very jumpy work. Went out again at 8.30 this morning, and had a look, but could see no signs of work (or slaughtered Bosches).

I used to say I couldn’t kill anyone in this war; but since they shot Tommy I would gladly stick a bayonet into a German by daylight. Someone told me a year ago that love, sorrow, and hate were things I had never known (things which every poet should know!). Now I’ve known love for Bobbie and Tommy, and grief for Hamo and Tommy, and hate has come also, and the lust to kill. Rupert Brooke was miraculously right when he said ‘Safe shall be my going. Secretly armed against all death’s endeavour; Safe though all safety’s lost’. He described the true soldier-spirit…[5]

I don’t think much need be added to this, although it is sorely tempting to go into heavy analytical mode. It’s clear, anyway, that Sassoon is now “on a mission,” although but more in the hackneyed war movie sense than the literal. Are there any orders to go and chuck grenades at the German working party? Not really–it’s too early for his little actions to be construed as preparation for the coming offensive. It would seem, rather, that there is some sort of tacit, standing permission from the fire-eating Colonel Stockwell to mix things up, to display to the Germans opposite the bloody-minded confidence of the Royal Welch. Whether there are practical benefits to this approach is very doubtful, but it also seems clear that the Colonel is willing to use the aroused and angry sentiments of his grieving subaltern to serve this (questionable) military end. It would be good to hinder German works on their trenches–but won’t such actions just bring down artillery retribution or attract more German attention to their own work?

It’s hard to say…and the tactical debate will not be definitively decided. (My prejudices toward “live and let live” are, I think, honestly drawn from a wide reading of trench memoirs. Which can always be riposted by a careful explanation of the tactical and moral benefits of “dominating no-man’s land”–in this little debate, as in so many other Great War controversies, one’s position is probably more a matter of prior commitments–to the hard logic of military necessity or to the experience of war by men suffering in fear–than a priori reasoning about the situation presented.)

Leaving tactics aside, the question at hand, then, is not whether this sort of aggression works, but rather how one should describe it, at both first and second hand. Summary risks collapsing into cliché: Sassoon seems to be raging like Achilles after the death of Patroklos, crawling forward with murder in his mind to hurl grenades at unsuspecting German workers (or, perhaps, Germans even then tunneling toward him with evil intention). “It’s personal now,” Sassoon must be muttering… so, yes, cliché.

But Sassoon gives us something different, doesn’t he? He does an excellent job of pegging this night’s action to the general spirit of the war by citing Rupert Brooke‘s “miraculous” poetry. It’s strange–and yet not that strange–that a new-ish subaltern newly come to killing adopts the tone of Brooke’s last months. Whatever we think about Brooke’s poetry, it was a remarkably accurate guess–a very sensitive poetic anticipation–of what new soldiers steeped in old poetry would want to be thinking as they headed into combat. Brooke, who never saw real combat, had the wit to write a step ahead of his own experience.

But two steps? After that soldier’s spirit has been been worn away by unyielding attrition?

There will be changes, and changes again. But for now, the poet kills.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Available here, with spoilers nearby.
  2. Readers may remember that the army term embraces an extremely wide category of enlisted misdeeds, rather than merely actions that would be criminal in a civilian context.
  3. Spanish Farm Trilogy, 363, 677.
  4. Memories & Letters, 119-120.
  5. Diaries, 51-2.