Today, a century back, seems to be one of those days where any strange thing could happen–and many of them did. I suppose that a vague thematic connection among our first three entries might be the growing nastiness and desperation that characterized the fighting around Ypres, but that hardly even hints at the scope of the sudden violence we’ll encounter.
The Master of Belhaven‘s story should probably come first: it’s an unlikely escapade, told with nearly breathless disbelief by a man who is exhilarated to have survived. But it happened. It was a completely new experience–the veteran artillery officer in the midst of real trench fighting–and one which, despite the suffering and death involved, he writes, from beginning to end, as an adventure yarn. He has been writing of gas, shell-shock, and madness lately–but not today. Today was
The most exciting day I have had since I came out. It brackets with the first time I shot a rhino in East Africa.
The sentiment is clear, even if that comparison has not weathered the century well. Hamilton means to evoke the manly excitement of the hunt, rather than what we might see as joy in needless killing of a rare animal… but even a century back there would have been many to point out that the analogy is troubling: these are men that Hamilton is hunting, not beasts.
At dawn this morning I got a telegram… there was another gun firing from 50 yards north of the place I knocked out. I wired back to say that it should have my personal attention.
Hamilton has been praised for his initiative and his effectiveness, and he found it thrilling to actually watch his guns’ rounds hit from a mere few hundred yards away–this is an experience he would like to repeat.
First, however, Hamilton prepares for the “shoot” with exacting care. He registers a new gun and then re-registers his entire battery, firing on known targets to confirm that his calculations are precisely in accordance with each gun’s current state. Next, he lays new wire from the Observation Point back to the battery to ensure real-time communication. Only then does he proceed to the front line to lay his eyes on the target. But, as it turns out to be not-quite-visible even from a front-line post, he asks the Company Commander on the spot–Captain Flack of the First Royal Fusiliers–if he can go even further forward. Flack agrees, since the nearby trenches are not being held in force.
I must now describe the situation in some detail in order to make intelligible what follows.
The tension builds… but I will still cut in: Hamilton’s laying of the land is too detailed and repetitive, and we are familiar (I hope) with the idea of opposing groups of infantry holding “block” or “barrier” positions along a defunct communications trench which has come to serve as a sort of No Man’s Trench between them. In the present case the British barrier is 30 yards from a right-angle in the trench, which presumably turns again (these right-angle-bends are “traverses” meant to limit the effectiveness of enemy fire) and eventually meets a lateral trench still held by the Germans.
Even beyond this traverse, however, the Germans are believed to be “a long way off.” So it is safe to take a peek. Flack accompanies Hamilton in the spirit of a local guide or proprietor.
We drew our pistols and saw that they were loaded and in good order, and then proceeded to climb over the barricade… We crept along yard by yard, holding our pistols in front of us. We got almost up to the bend in the trench, that is, 30 yards from our barricade, when I saw an old hurdle across the trench just at the bend. Flack was about 5 yards behind me at the moment. Suddenly without any warning a German, with a pork-pie cap on, jumped up from behind the hurdle where he had been lying, and without a word flung a bomb in our faces. It went over my head and burst with a crack between Flack and me. As the German rose up I threw myself forward onto my left hand, at the same time firing; at the moment I fired he had his hand above his head, having just let go the bomb. My bullet caught him in the throat; he threw up his other arm and collapsed like an ox that has been pole-axed…
The infantry captain, Flack, is wounded by the bomb. The German–rhino, ox, or human being–is dead, shot through the neck and chest by Hamilton. Our artillery battery commander has suddenly become a front line trench fighter, and, like Han Solo routing a party of storm troopers, he empties his pistol blindly around the corner to cover the retreat, as Flack’s men drag his limp body back over the barricade.
As soon as Flack had been got over, I turned and ran for it, scrambling over the barricade in record time. I knew I had been hit in the left knee, because I could feel the blood running down my leg… but I felt positively no pain at the time. I fired a parting shot just as I reached the barricade and immediately loaded a fresh magazine full of cartridges into my pistol. I was thankful I had an automatic and not an ordinary service revolver. Flack was lying in the bottom of the trench, simply covered with blood.
Hamilton takes command of the infantry detachment, orders the men nearby to prepare to defend against any German follow-up attack, and does what he can for Flack, who was “terribly wounded,” torn open in several places by the grenade’s explosion.
A few minutes later Hamilton hands over command to an infantry lieutenant and sees Flack carried to a dressing station. Captain W.G. Flack had been wounded four times and won the MC and bar, but this was his last fight–his CWGC entry indicates that he will die of these wounds in a few weeks in Étaples (among the hospitals where Vera Brittain now works).
Hamilton’s mission continues nonetheless. The idea of physically seeing the new gun position is now abandoned, of course, but he still wants to destroy any German guns that he can, and he knows approximately where they are located. Using the old vantage point and his high-powered binoculars, Hamilton discovers that–in a rather shocking lapse of tactical attention–the gun pit he destroyed a few days earlier has been reoccupied.
I could see numbers of the enemy walking about in the shade of the wood, so as soon as I got through [reaching his battery on the telephone] I turned all my guns on to it at the fastest rate of fire. The result was excellent…
This, presumably, was more like bagging pheasants than facing down a rhino.
I limped back to Battalion Headquarters, where I had a drink. They offered me food, but I could not touch anything with my hands, as they were simply caked with blood…
I went on to our Brigade Headquarters and reported the result of my day to the colonel, who was much horrified at my going out in front; however, I pointed out to him that if valuable information is to be obtained a certain amount of risk must be taken…
Hamilton has proved his courage, initiative, and–although he would not have thought much of the utility of these at the beginning of the day–his reflexes and pistol marksmanship. He has earned the rather haughty tone of his last comment about risk–and then some. I don’t know how many artillery commanders drew their pistols–let alone fired them–in order to lay eyes to local targets (they stood greater risks for longer periods of time just by being with their guns while the enemy artillery searched for them, but that was the ordinary courage expected of them) but it can’t have been many.
Hamilton did not begin the day bloodthirsty; he was merely eager to do the very most with the means available to him. Yet it still feels–have I tried too hard to inculcate the infantryman’s “live and let live” attitude?–as if the killing today was in some way unnecessary. This despite the fact that it was warfare well done, and to refrain from it would have been foolish and irresponsible in strictly military operational terms. But.. must this sudden surprise killing be recounted in the style of a Boy’s Own Paper adventure?
Well. I may not like it, but I’m not sure that my distaste has any standing–Hamilton is not a great literary stylist, but he wrote out of his own experience, both his prior reading and his emotional state in the immediate aftermath of the events themselves. So perhaps he should be forgiven the adventure yarn/hunting story/action flick style in which people died today, a century back.
Next we come to Kate Luard. Her day, yesterday, was similarly intense, but in an almost opposite way. After weeks of near misses from German artillery and aircraft, a direct hit killed one of her nurses. And after weeks of misgivings, practical arguments, praise, and reflexive chauvinism, the medical powers-that-were immediately pulled the nurses out of their forward hospital, sending them to St. Omer. Kate Luard was torn, surely, to be sent back–but she also looked forward, with frank relief now that the test was over, to the idea of leave. For a few hours.
Thursday, August 23rd. No. 10 Sta. St. Omer. I’m afraid you’ll be very disappointed, but we are to re-open on the same spot so Leave is off. The Australians are not to go back, but we are to carry on the abdominal work alone as we did before they came up…
In tracing these reversals of course, Luard describes the initial decision, yesterday, to pull out. After the deadly shells, a discussion among the ranking medical officers “on our middle duckboards” about whether and how to relocate the hospitals ends in harrowing, cinematic fashion.
At that moment Fritz tactfully landed one of his best with a long-drawn crescendoing scream and crash, just on the railway. ‘Oh,’ said the General, ‘that was rather close.’ ‘That settles it,’ said the Q.M.G. firmly; ‘all three will evacuate.’ I made off to the Wards to tell the patients they were leaving, and you should have seen their looks of joy. ‘But you Sisters don’t stop here?’ they asked everywhere with great anxiety, bless them.
In an hour all were packed into Ambulances whether fit or dying, and the Padre was burying the dead. It took us a few hours to get away ourselves and one shell came slick into the Wards of 44 (which was then cleared of patients and Sisters) and blew an Orderly’s arm and leg off and tossed the Sergeant-Major, but he came down intact. By this time Ambulances were waiting for us and our kit, and the poor C.O. was frantic to get us away.
We reached St. Omer about 10 p.m., and it took till 1 a.m. before all were housed and fed and bedded (without any beds!) on the floors of an empty house. The personnel of our three C.C.S.’s came to over 100 and was divided between various Matrons here. We were dropping with fatigue by this time…
But back they will go: once again the belief that soldiers shouldn’t die because essential medical staff are being kept back from the guns wins out over the belief that women should not be exposed to the direct fire of the enemy. But the enemy are everywhere
Of course there was a Raid that night – there would be! – and one had to tear upstairs and order them all down on to the next floor out of their beds; 10 civilians were killed and a lot wounded. We, however, looked on that as child’s play; it seemed so far off, compared to our nightly entertainments…
It is only when you leave off that you realise how done you are, but fortunately having to begin again will correct that. I’m indulging in a pestilential cold, and a toothache. Otherwise I am very fit! The 36 Sisters to a man are loyal and good and vie with each other in attentiveness! The only real worry would be if they were tiresome.
The older Surgeons think it’s dreadful having us there, but as the C.O. says, without us they couldn’t carry on at all, so it’s worth it.
With Edwin Vaughan we have yet another emotional reversal. Yesterday, a century back, the constant shelling was a laughing matter:
Pepper and the doctor—Carroll—amused me mightily by feigning abject terror and fighting to stand behind a tiny sapling about five inches across, whence they leered at the reeking shell-holes while chunks of iron sang about them. Pepper is awfully good fun nowadays…
Today, however, not so much:
During the night I was awakened by half a dozen tremendous crashes, apparently close to our tent. There were no yells and I was too tired to get up, but the next morning we found that the shells had all fallen within a hundred yards of us…
I got sudden windup this morning, for no reason whatever…
Later, after a ride with a tank unit, Vaughan’s courage returns. It would seem that, even under constant fire in reserve, the battalion’s morale remains impressively high:
I went to bed at 10 p.m. and at about midnight was awakened by an unusual sound. Far in the distance was the clanging of a gas gong—a warning that was taken up and came nearer and nearer until our own gong was struck. I woke Harding and went out of the tent to find the air faintly charged with a sweet scent of peppery butterscotch. I put on my gas-mask and went round the tents to find the men wearing theirs and playing at being lions and bears. Ewing, who had his tent flaps laced, did not smell the gas, so took no notice of the warning. He was not affected and the gas had dispersed in under half an hour.
Three deadly back-and-forths in the Salient is enough for any one day, but bear with me for one more brief post. This one is a treat–from my point of view, at least. Some of our writers are writing in safety, some are in great danger. But while Owen sweats his guts out for Sassoon‘s approval, another poet in the firing line is traversing his critical eye across the horizon of The Old Huntsman.
Ivor Gurney‘s machine gun team is now in action, and, although he is personally in support, that is nevertheless well within the range of the guns. He too, shares all the difference the chances of a day can make, in war:
…last night on fatigue I had the roughest chanciest hour I ever had. My shrapnel helmet has an interesting dent in it….
We got caught in a barrage for an hour on the fatigue, and shrapnel caught me twice — once on the blessed old tin hat, (dint and scar) and once on the belt (no mark.) Pretty hot just there.
But today all is well, and he has time to read. And what? Well, Marion Scott is a very good friend/editor/patron, and she has promptly sent him a recent book of poems in which he had previously declared an interest:
I hope you will send me some more Sassoon, for his touch of romance and candour I like. He is one who tries to tell Truth, though perhaps not a profound truth…
Gurney is well off into a letter about his poetic hopes and his desire for long friendly conversations when another parcel arrives. He leaps into the book and dashes off his initial reactions–Sassoon’s poetry is something that strikes Gurney, evidently, as immediate in a way other art is not. And his criteria? Truth, and beauty, of course.
My Dear Friend: Your letter with Conan Doyle’s “Guns in Sussex” arrived yesterday, and Sassoon today. Thank you so much for the trouble and patience it must have cost you to copy them. The Conan Doyle is not very good; sincere but dull. The Sassoons not so good as a whole as they might be — but true…
Wisdom‘s last line is good.
Whispered Tale. True and good.
Absolution beautiful. But — one finds in it the fault of minor poets who make beautiful lines of unmeaning or not of any particular significance.
Why is time a wind, a golden wind, why does it shake the grass? I’ll tell you; because of “pass” and because it is a good line as a whole. He was proud of it, and may have written the poem round it.
“Golgotha” is strained, though true, but not poetry.
“They” needed to be said, but is journalism pure and simple…
Gurney now goes line by line through Sassoon, separating the inspired and “true” from the journalistic and merely verse-smithing. But he also comments with acuity (and, yes, the authority of himself being a poet in combat) on what Sassoon’s emotional intent might be:
…you must remember that a lot of this has been written to free himself from circumstance. They are charms to magic him out of the present. Cold feet, lice, sense of fear—all these are spurs to create Joy to such as he; since Beauty is the only comfort.
Stand-to: Good Friday Morning.
Not perfect; not what he meant, but good; and the end absolutely true, save perhaps “old”…
Thank you again. These thing stimulate me and give me hope. My Anthology enlargens.
References and Footnotes
- I don't like to break in to this paragraph, in the midst of describing a deadly fight only hours after it occurred, but it is interesting to note how much "genre"--by which I mean the expectations that go into Hamilton's processing of his experience between when it happens and when he writes it down--influences his account of this sudden violence. "Without any warning?" Of course not! "Without a word?" Would we expect a real life German trying to kill two armed, approaching men to take the time to shout "Gott strafe England?" But this is, to an extent, what Hamilton expected... ↩
- War Diary, 375-77. ↩
- Unknown Warriors, 151-3. ↩
- Some Desperate Glory, 215-6. ↩
- War Letters, 187-190. ↩