Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

Ivor Gurney on Severn and Somme and Aircraft Above; Kate Luard’s Picnic Interrupted; The Master of Belhaven Bracketed; Sassoon is Free to Act… and Sit;

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back, of dog-fights and poetry.

4 June 1917

My Dear Friend:

Fritzs aeroplanes are ever so high above us, and shrapnel is bursting round them; shrapnel which never seems to fall anywhere. This is an old and stale game to us, would there were here in our place men who would be interested in such things…

As it happens, Kate Luard is. Her unit is packing up and moving to the Ypres Salient, which affords her a day of country-walk leisure to take in just such sorts of sights which, while not completely unfamiliar, are far less frequent a few miles back then they will be in the closer confines of the Ypres Salient.

Like many veterans, Luard is assiduous about finding havens of peace whenever the war gives her respite. But this is getting harder and harder, and the relative novelty of fighter planes does not change the fact that they rather spoil the country-walk feel…

June 4, 1917

Today I took a book, a cigarette, the 4 last Birch bullseyes and a sun umbrella to a green valley with a running stream where I paddled and dried my feet in the sun while Bristol fighters and tri-planes came and took photographs of them to send to HQ with their photos of German positions. Whatever lovely Peace is about you there is always War in the sky.  Now it’s blue, with larks singing in it.[1]

And if Gurney’s letter fails to mention larks–for shame!–it does bring up the pastoral (or riparian?) title that will be affixed to his coming poetry collection. His comments on this title are amusing:

The title “Severn and Somme” might sell the book a little better. It sounds like a John Bull poster, but otherwise there is nothing objectionable about it. Severn people may buy if Somme people dont: my French not being equal to translation of works so delicate of language. At present my desire is to get the thing off my chest, and my chest out of Khaki. (Please excuse dirt.)[2]

 

The Master of Belhaven, also recently reassigned ahead of the coming “push” at Messines, is also mixing peacetime riverside joys with martial realities… but in memory, only. Today was all guns…

Zillebeke, 4th June, 1917

What a 4th of June! I wonder if they are having the procession of boats at Eton today; certainly we can compete with them for fireworks; there has been nothing like it before. Our guns and the Germans’ roar night and day and never stop for a moment…

After being shelled in a staff car on the way to a Divisional conference, Hamilton decided to ride back on horseback, avoiding the roads so well known to the German gunners.

I took the new sand track and was able to canter for the first two miles without drawing rein. I could have ridden farther, but when I got into the area that is shelled at night there were so many dead horses lying on the road that my mare began to object. I don’t blame her, as she could not hold a handkerchief to her nose like I did…

On arrival at my own brigade I found that A and D had been heavily shelled whilst I was away. D had bad luck, a 5.9 shell crashing into one of their gun-pits and killing two and wounding seven men. I do not think it was meant for them at all, but was a bad shot for A Battery. The Hun has “bracketed” them with a 25 yrd. bracket, so I have warned Dallas to look out for trouble…[3]

This increase in accurate counter-battery fire is not the best of signs for the coming offensive…

 

Finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon left Chapelwood Manor, his convalescence now entering what should be it’s final stage, namely a month’s leave. But his time amidst the luxury, quiet beauty, and atmosphere of haughty insensibility to the war’s costs has done more than any miserable battle to make a radical of him.

My discontent was now simmering rebellious and had acquired an added momentum. I went up to London resolved to write something more definitely antagonistic than the satiric epigrams in The Cambridge Magazine.

This would be, among others, Base Details. But back to Sassoon:

Four weeks of independence were ahead of me and I meant to make the most of them. I would go to Garsington and investigate the war situation by talking to the Morrells and Bertrand Russell… Meanwhile I was to be in London during the next two weeks. One reason for this was that Robbie [Ross] has arranged with Glyn Philpot that he should do a drawing of me, and more than a single sitting would be needed…[4]

Glyn Philpot’s portrait of Sassoon (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

So… not to hit the issues of privilege too hard, here, but: Sassoon is preparing his protest on behalf of the troops–voiceless, politically powerless men who might be killed any day–but, while he is doing so, he will spend the better part of a fortnight sitting for Philpot and sharing sumptuous teas after each session… It’s a bargain, though: due to some combination of Ross’s influence and Sassoon’s charm, Philpot has decided to paint a portrait of Sassoon while only charging him for the originally-planned drawing–50 guineas, rather than 500 pounds.

But despite Robbie Ross’s influence–not to mention the belief of Robert Graves and other friends that Sassoon is poised to accept a safe job, perhaps training cadets at Cambridge as Graves is doing at Oxford–Sassoon is making slow and (for him) steady plans for revolt. He will stay at his club, for instance, rather than with Ross, so as to have an independent base of operations. And in addition to Russell and the Morrells, he has already taken the initiative of writing to a foremost anti-war publisher…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 204.
  2. War Letters, 165.
  3. War Diary, 299-301.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 48-9. See also Moorcroft Wilson, I, 370.

Phillip Maddison’s Off-Hand Heroics; J.R. Ackerley on the Attack

This morning, a century back, another major attack–another “phase” or renewed effort of the Battle of Arras–lurched into motion at 3:45. The objective is Bullecourt, a town on the Hindeburg Line to the south and east of Arras, and Henry Williamson‘s 208 Machine Gun Company is firing in support. Documents relating to Williamson’s participation–including the hortatory order of the day promulgated by the Divisional General two days earlier–can be seen here, in Anne Williamson’s excellent article on his service with 208 MGC.

But Henry Williamson also described the attack in his novel, once more illustrating the liminality of history and literature while at the same time intentionally blurring the line with the heel of his own writing hand, as it were.[1] Since he is with the transport of a Machine Gun Company, Williamson is several layers behind the attacking troops, amidst the supporting artillery. As is Phillip Maddison, when the barrage begins.

About 3.44 a.m., in the hush of darkness beginning to give way to a spectral pallor in which he could see the wire of the reserve line across the sunken road as a blackish mass, a lark rose in song above him. It was followed by another, and a third; and he waited, with the stillness of expectation, while the singing grew faint and shrill as the birds flew toward the paling stars. There was a great ragged orange flash, oval and instant, from the four 9.2 howitzers in the chalk quarry on his right, and while the flash went through his eyes into his mind the sky became one great raging sea of light.

It goes on, and it is rather well done, if overwrought: these mid-war larks sing on throughout the massive bombardment, “like the jingling of frailest silver chains” amidst the mixed ordnance. Edward Thomas‘s battery is somewhere nearby, contributing its four howitzers to the din.

But this is only preamble. There is, of course, a fierce German resistance, which includes accurate interdiction fire meant to prevent the British from supporting and supplying attacking troops, and to suppress any return fire when the German counterattacks come. There are many casualties among the men and mules of 208 MGC, and a comrade of Williamson’s, 2/Lt. A. C. Montford, is killed.

The attack fails–not least because the German counter-attack, coming from the down-slopes behind the Hindenburg, is quick and fierce–and Williamson’s diary has little else to say.

Thursday, 3 May: Z Day. Zero hour 3.45. Intensive barrage right up North & down to Bullecourt. Rumours of failure – prisoners in cages – walking wounded. 187 Brigade smashed up, ¾ Coy missing at evening. No shelling in rear areas. 7th Div. again attacks in evening. Montford killed.

But in fiction today becomes another moment for young Phillip Maddison to wander into heroism. There is a Montfort in the book, and he is killed, as in life. But there is also a Lt. Fenwick, who is reported lying badly wounded next to a Sergeant Butler.

One of the strange continuities of Williamson’s many-volumed novel is Maddison’s habit of going on long, improbable, unauthorized rambles through no man’s land (or even into the enemy’s rear). These seem to encapsulate Williamson/Maddison’s in-betweenness. He is neither boy nor man, neither working class enlisted man nor socially assured officer, both enthusiastic adventurer and sullen incompetent…  and he likes long walks in the country, whether in pre-war peace or mid-war pauses. In company, he is all good-will and blunders waiting to happen; but alone he can do great things…

Today’s invented action–it seems pretty clearly to be a fictional aristeia placed within a life-structured narrative, rather than a “version” of something that did occur, since Williamson, to my knowledge, mentions nothing like it–is a bit different. Maddison hears the report of the wounded men and immediately recognizes that they are lying in an area he knows well because of a previous unauthorized stroll, on a quiet day before the battle, right up to the face of the new German defenses.

This earlier brave-but-irresponsible ramble has equipped him to be unusually decisive, and once on course he is completely effective. Leaving his transport section and the excited survivors of the barrage, Maddison journeys up from his safe post in the rear, finds both wounded men in the danger zone, and brings them in under fire. He knows the map, so he goes. We get no real insight into why this petulant boy-officer is ready to exceed his duties in this way–he just goes, and does it. And just as the birds brought him up to the barrage, the birds bring him home.

From the echoing ruins of Croiselles white flashes of field-guns seemed to increase the singing of two nightingales on the hillside…

It’s a strange episode, all things considered. Williamson seems to be making the point that Phillip Maddison’s impetuosity can be a force for good as well as bad.

Certainly his sense of military propriety remains skewed–he doesn’t bother to report in that he has saved two men of the company, an MC-worthy action, even if one unlikely to be so recognized in an oft-reprimanded muleteer officer.

And so, next morning, the C.O., a socially generous and easygoing captain who has, nevertheless, frequently had cause to chew out his wayward transport officer, compliments Phillip with a touch of bemusement:

“Good effort, Sticks! You’ve got plenty of guts, to out there alone, in full view of the Boche.”

“Honestly, skipper, it was no more than going for a walk on Blackheath, on an August Bank Holiday evening…”

Phillip makes an awkward joke about women and that long ago-ago August, and just like that, the heroic episode is over.[2]

 

Just a bit to the north, and in real life, the 8th East Surreys are in the first wave of the same attack. The battalion, we may recall, includes two brother officers. It was J.R. Ackerley’s brother Peter who did not die in that February attack–he almost did, and I almost wrote it wrong. But Peter lived, and is recovering from his wound, although he did not return his brother’s watch. So today, a century back, it is the younger (though militarily senior) Ackerley’s turn:[3]

…I had to take my men over the top again, to capture the village of Cérisy[4] (what remained of it) in another sector of the line, and swapped my brother’s unreliable wrist-watch for that of my second-in-command, who was remaining in reserve. He lent it reluctantly; it was an engagement present from his fiancée. I promised to return it.

Well, ahem. But there are more ironies before we get to where we are going, today. On the march to the front, last night, Ackerley saw an old friend.

He was now a brigade major and what we contemptuously called a “Brass Hat.” Seated upon his horse by the wayside he beckoned me out of the line of march. In a low confidential voice he said he supposed that, as an old campaigner, I had no illusions about what lay ahead, and offered me an immediate job with him on brigade staff, out of harm’s way. He begged me to accept it.

Whatever the reason–and Ackerley will not obfuscate–this is quite bizarre. Even if the offer had taken place a day or two before the attack, even if it were not quite so direct, it’s hard to imagine such gross favoritism being so openly displayed–and it put Ackerley in an impossible position.

He had always been fond of me, I knew, indeed he had a crush on me, I think, for I was a pretty young man, and wanted to save me from a fate, of the prospects and hazards of which he doubtless knew far more than I, since brigade headquarters had planned it. “You’ve done your bit already,” said he gently. But I too was a mounted officer. I had a huge mare named Sally, larger than Titchy’s, the largest I had ever seen… and whenever I was perched upon her back I became more arrogant and conceited than I normally was. Titchy’s offer would certainly have attracted me if the bloody fool had made it earlier. But how could a company commander abandon his command on the very eve of battle? That would have been seen as plain cowardice, and cowardice should never be plain. Smiling down at him rather disdainfully from my superior mount, I thanked him and declined…

Ackerley’s account of the battle is, here,[5] brief and bitterly comic:

Suffice it to say here that mine was one of the only two companies to reach our first objective, the crest of a ridge. No special merit, however, should be inferred from that statement; we only ran forward, dashing from shell-hole to shell-hole; doubtless we happened to find more shell-holes than other companies involved…

This is wry sarcasm–and also reasonable tactical criticism. But although he likes to paint himself as a hapless pawn of circumstance, innocent of military knowledge or instinct, Ackerley immediately realizes that two companies can’t hold a line with their flanks in the air.

It’s instructive, perhaps, to compare everything about this account–the tactics, the role of the young Company Commander, the reaction of the Tommies, and the result–with Alf Pollard‘s recent Victoria Cross-winning gambit. The overused adverb “diametrically” comes to mind…

What to do? Heaven knew. I sent a runner back to battalion headquarters with an urgent request for reinforcements and sent my men to digging themselves in as they lay. While they were scratching away, like hens, with their trench tools, at the hard French soil, the Germans counter-attacked in considerable strength, firing from the hip as they advanced. The very sight of them was enough for my company. Rising as one man they deserted me and bolted. I bolted after, shouting “Stop!”–not that I wanted them to. The vain word may well have taken on a shriller note when a bullet struck me in the bottom, splintering my pelvis, as was discovered later, and dealing me a wound where, my father had sometimes remarked, echoing Siward, no good soldier should bear one. With a flying leap that Nureyev might have envied I landed in a shell-hole which already contained one of the things I most detested, a corpse, and was soon to harbor another wounded officer named Facer, and a man bleeding to death of a stomach wound. When dusk fell on that foolish and revolting day I was taken prisoner.[6]

Until this merciful and bathetic day’s end–no rescue and no nightingales for Ackerley–his experience was heading from an inverse-Pollard toward a recent Wilfred Owen. But there would have been nothing that even Ackerley’s penetrating irony could do about the prospect of spending a night in a shell hole among the dead and the dying.

instead, he is marched back “at bayonet point and parched,” grabbing the canteens of dead men but finding only neat rum. When he reaches the German aid station he is almost killed by a British aircraft dropping a bomb. Fittingly, then, given his attitude toward the war, Ackerley will precede Kurt Vonnecut into the exclusive club of major 20th century writers who were also allied infantryman captured by the Germans, then nearly killed by the bombs of their own side’s aircraft. Ackerley’s reminiscences will be without reliable dates, now, for some time…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There is an article comparing--no doubt with greater insight and accuracy--the fictional and the historical aspects of today in Williamson's writing, behind a pay wall at the Henry Williamson Society.
  2. Love and the Loveless, 133-9.
  3. Ackerley gets the date wrong in his memoir, recalling the date as "Two months later, on April 3," but Peter Parker's biography has the correct date, which the battalion war diary, available here, corroborates.
  4. Chérisy, not Cerisey on the Somme.
  5. He refers the reader to another book, Hindoo Holiday, for a fuller account.
  6. My Father and Myself, 95-6.

Siegfried Sassoon at the Reform; John Masefield in Mametz Wood; Rowland Feilding Risks an Irish Derby; Wilfred Owen Avoids a Breakdown

Siegfried Sassoon,continues to recover from his shoulder wound–and to take advantage of certain… advantages… of his position. Dining out from his London hospital, his old contacts with the world of literary eminence now put the heroic young poet in the way of some of the leading lights of London literature.

May 2

Lunch with Robbie Ross and Roderick at Reform. Talked to Wells and Arnold Bennett—the latter very affable… Sat in Hyde Park 3.30-4.30 in warm sun—very pleasant…[1]

 

One literary luminary that Sassoon does not know is John Masefield–which would be awkward, considering that Sassoon’s best pre-war work, “The Daffodil Murderer,” was a satire of his work. Now the prosy shoe is on the other poetic foot, and while Sassoon lunches at the Reform Club, working on his literary rolodex, Masefield is tramping about the ruined areas of the Somme, working on a war book. He is close to the scene of Sassoon’s earlier bout of heroics, but much closer, in location and tone, to David Jones.

I went today up to Mametz Wood, where a German machine gunner once had a nest in a tree. He was killed in his nest & stayed there till he fell to bits, but his nest is still there & two kestrels have built in it, & there are violets in blossom below & wood anemones. I believe every tree & nearly every bush in that big wood is dead, & the same in every wood in the battlefield; most of the big trees cut down by the fire & the rest blasted.[2]

 

Rowland Feilding is far from such horror, and yet not far enough. Any experienced commander must worry, now, that even the war’s most pleasant and convivial scenes might suddenly become killing grounds.

May 2, 1917. Birr Barracks {Locre).

The battalion has twice played football lately against battalions of the Carson (36th) Division, and I am sorry to say got beaten both times.

On the second occasion there was a big crowd of soldier spectators—certainly 2,000 or 3,000. The ground was the best that could be found, but was rather “close up,” and would not have been chosen had this large attendance
been foreseen. Moreover, the day (Sunday) was the clearest of days, as it happened.

When I arrived, the sight of the crowd, I confess, made me anxious. A hostile aeroplane overhead with wireless apparatus; a German battery behind; a sudden hurricane bombardment with shrapnel; and considerable damage might have followed. And I was the senior officer present.

But to stop a match in process of being cleanly fought before a sporting audience between the two great opposing factions of Ireland, in a spirit of friendliness which, so far as I am aware, seems unattainable on Ireland’s native soil–even though in sight (or almost in sight) of the enemy–was a serious matter; and I decided to let the game go on…[3]

 

Last and not least, today, is Wilfred Owen. He is safe, once again–but that is not to say that all is well, precisely.

2 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mother,

Here again! The Doctor suddenly was moved to forbid me to go into action next time the Battalion go, which will be in a day or two. I did not go sick or anything, but he is nervous about my nerves, and sent me down yesterday—labelled Neurasthenia. I still of course suffer from the headaches traceable to my concussion. This will mean that I shall stay here and miss the next Action Tour of Front Line; or even it may mean that I go further down & be employed for a more considerable time on Base Duty or something of the sort. I shall now try and make my French of some avail . . . having satisfied myself that, though in Action I bear a charmed life, and none of woman born can hurt me, as regards flesh and bone, yet my nerves have not come out without a scratch. Do not for a moment suppose I have had a ‘breakdown’. I am simply avoiding one.

This seems like wisdom, although we must take it only tentatively, coming as it does from a young man just diagnosed with a “nerve”–i.e., psychiatric–condition writing to his mother–and hard on the heels of a rather dramatic statement about his confidence in his own destiny.

But Owen really does not seem troubled, despite the state of his nerves. Should he be upset not to be going into action?

At the first Ambulance I arrived at in the Car, a Corporal came up to me with a staid air of sleepy dignity that seemed somehow familiar. And when he began to enter in a Note Book my name & age, we knew each other. It was old Hartop of the Technical! Bystanding Tommies were astounded at our fraternity. For the Good old Sort brought back in an instant all the days of study in Shrewsbury, and the years that were better than these, or any years to come… He was reading the same old books that we ‘did’ there. I was jolly glad to see them again, & to borrow…

Reading material thus acquired, Owen does work back to the subject of his current status. He seems to be reassuring himself–and his mother–that his hospitalization for nerves is a war wound honestly come by. It is, of course, as we have learned–he is suffering from posttraumatic stress, an after-effect of both physical concussion and emotional trauma. But there was little consensus on this matter, then, and Owen can’t help but think of what he is experiencing in terms of the more desirably incontrovertible bullet wound:

If I haven’t got a Blighty in this war, I will take good care not to get a Blight, as many have done, even from this Regiment. I should certainly have got a bullet wound, if I had not used the utmost caution in wriggling along the ground on one occasion. There was a party of Germans in a wood about 200 yds behind us, and his trench which we had just taken was only a foot deep in places, & I was obliged to keep passing up & down it. As a matter of fact I rather enjoyed the evening after the Stunt, being only a few hundred yds. from the Town, as you knew, and having come through the fire so miraculously; and being, moreover, well fed on the Bosche’s untouched repast!!

The next line is a good one, especially for us: Owen is startled by what we might term the historical immediacy of the written word:

It was curious and troubling to pick up his letters where he had left off writing in the middle of a word! If we had gone down from the line next day all would have been very well, but we were kept up (in another part of the line) for 9 days after it: under incessant shelling…

Your last Parcel has arrived, and I enjoyed the Munchoc right well. I had some compensation for lost parcels in being given a parcel sent to an officer who was wounded the first day he joined us. It is a regimental custom never to send Food Stuffs back after Officers who go down to Hospital! I shall soon want some more Players. Nothing else yet!—Don’t omit to address C.C.S. 13…

How strange that the fact that I am in Hospital means that all cause of uneasiness about me is removed from you!

Do not hawk this letter about! Nay, I would rather you told no one I am a Casual again!

Your very own Wilfred[4]

We will keep a close eye on Owen and his nerves.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 163.
  2. Letters From France, 268.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 169-70.
  4. Collected Letters, 453-4.

A Troubled, Quiet Morning for Edward Thomas; Jack Martin Finds a Crocus; Another Month for Tolkien; Wilfred Owen is More Impressed with the Sister than the Saint

Today, a century back, seems to have been a quiet, thoughtful day. We had several writers grumbling about the calendar’s  first day of spring, but Jack Martin opens his diary to record the genuine excitement of seeing nature’s confirmation:

Looking across the moat into the Farm Garden I noticed some crocuses in bloom. Called out all the dugout to see them and we nearly went barmy with excitement for they are the first flowers we have seen since we left Eecke on 25 October last.[1]

 

Edward Thomas, however, is in a low mood today. But he’s melancholy, really, rather than dangerously depressed. Which means that he is still open to the ambiguous beauties that surround him.

Frosty and clear and some blackbirds singing at Agny Château in the quiet of exhausted battery… all very still and clear: but these mornings always very misleading and disappearing so that one might almost think afterwards they were illusive. Planes humming. In high white cloud aeroplanes leave tracks curving like rough wheel tracks in snow–I had a dream this morning that I have forgot but Mother was in distress. All day loading shells from old position–sat doing nothing till I got damned philosophical and sad…[2]

 

Wilfred Owen is pleasantly surprised to find himself still (nominally) hospitalized for a relatively slight concussion. Although he can’t know this, his CCS–on the quiet Somme front, instead of behind Arras like Kate Luard‘s–is under much less pressure to clear the lightly wounded than those a bit further to the north.

Wed. Mng., 28 March 1917 [13] Casualty Clearing Station

My own dear Mother,

They still keep me here, though I go out every afternoon. I have no letters, but have been able to get a few books from a small town where I motored on Sunday. I also got a cheap watch…

Owen now takes one of the essential pilgrimages of the aesthetic subaltern on the Western Front. “C” is apparently[3] a private code for Amiens.

At C. I went into the great Gothic Church, and listened under the nave, as Belloc says, for the voice of the Middle Ages. All I could hear was a voice very much beyond the middle age. However I stayed to vespers; and after leaning my hat and stick up against a piece of the true Cross, I sat and regarded the plants (with their paper flowers wired on them), and St. John in bathing costume looking ruefully at another saint in a gold dressing-gown; and the scarlet urchins holding candles…

Writing to mother, Wilfred makes a joke of the thing–these are Catholics, and French Catholics after all, and the Middle Ages are a laughing matter suitably remote from the cultural affiliations of Victorian Anglicans like Susan Owen… and yet there is a tinge of discomfort, too. Religious awe is a serious matter, even for a no-longer devout soldier.

But cathedrals are not just about God. If Owen tried, like Sassoon only days ago, to raise an aesthetic response from the great building, he does not write of it here. Instead, the letter returns with him to the horrors of the hospital. He thinks better of the nurses, now.

We have two cases, pilot & observer, who are terribly smashed. They will both recover, but the pilot has both arms broken, abdominal injuries, both eyes contused, nose cut, teeth knocked in, and skull fractured. It makes me ashamed to be here. But I help to look after him at night. The sister has a wonderful way with him. I like her very much. Constitutionally I am better able to do Service in a hospital than in the trenches. But I suppose we all think that. Yours as ever W.E.O.[4]

 

And back in England, John Ronald Tolkien was examined by a Medical Board at Furness Auxiliary Hospital. Despite improvement, some of the symptoms of his “trench fever” remain, including severe joint pain. Tolkien is given another month of sick leave, followed by a recommendation for light duty…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 54-5.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 173.
  3. According to the editor of his correspondence; I'm not sure why it couldn't be a grand church in a town beginning with a "C"--but he will soon pick up a post-card of Notre-Dame D'Amiens, which is certainly good circumstantial evidence...
  4. Collected Letters, 447-8.
  5. Chronology, 99.

Wilfred Owen’s Sonnet on the Unknown Soldier; Edwin Vaughan Meets a Madman; Victor Richardson to Vera Brittain: a Boy No More; Edward Thomas’s Most Beautiful Letter

We have a frightening short scrap on shell shock, today, and three letters from soldiers. Each of the two longer letters, different in tone but oddly parallel, will find a space for unvoiced love and for the repurposing of poetry–both Victor Richardson and, even yet, Edward Thomas, write themselves into a new light. As does Wilfred Owen, with verse of his own.

Since Owen’s is a lighter sort of new light, let’s start with him.

Perhaps it’s the concussion; perhaps it’s the leisure time in bed, but Owen is once again writing to a sibling about his bucolic post-war dreams:

24 March, 13th Casualty Clearing Station

My dear Colin,

In my walk this afternoon, considering at leisure the sunshine and the appearance of peace (I don’t mean from the news) I determined what I should do after the war.

I determined to keep pigs.

It occurred to me that after five years development of one pig-stye in a careful & sanitary manner, a very considerable farm would establish itself.

I should like to take a cottage and orchard in Kent, Surrey or Sussex, and give my afternoons to the care of pigs. The hired labour would be very cheap, 2 boys could tend 50 pigs. And it would be the abruptest possible change from my morning’s work…

This, young Colin Owen must be thinking, is madness, a result of that knock on the head. After all, big brother Wilfred has been raised to be a young gentleman, and considers himself an aspiring highbrow poet-aesthete!

Perhaps you will think me clean mad and translated by my knock on the head. How shall I prove that my old form of madness has in no way changed? I will send you my last Sonnet, which I started yesterday. I think I will address it to you.

Adieu, mon petit. Je t’embrasse. W.E.O.

SONNET—with an Identity Disc

If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the Heart of London; unsurpassed
By Time forever; and the fugitive, Fame,
There taking a long sanctuary at last,
—I’ll better that! Yea, now, I think with shame
How once I wished it hidd’n from its defeats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That mourn around the quiet place of Keats.
Now rather let’s be thankful there’s no risk
Of gravers scoring it with hideous screed.
For let my gravestone be this body-disc
Which was my yoke. Inscribe no date, nor deed.
But let thy heart-beat kiss it night & day . . .
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

This is private.
I stickle that a sonnet must contain at least 3 clever turns to be good.
This has only two.[1]

That’s about right–the yoke, the deed/screed rhyme… but perhaps by the time we come to the lips wearing away the inscription on the identity disk the joke has been too fully-sprung. But it is clever, and a good sign–this is no renunciation of Keats, or of love poetry in the best Romantic mode. Despite the jokes and the self-deprecation this is a love sonnet which takes up an ironic condition of the front line soldier-poet–the desire for fame, the likelihood of an unknown grave–and makes a lovely-sounding thing out of hope and fear.

 

While Owen is making clever jokes in the leisure of his concussion, Edwin Vaughan is coming to know how prolonged, repeated, unbearable concussions can affect a man. A group of replacements has reached his battalion, including a man named Corbett.

He it appears was a splendid NCO until he was badly wounded on the Somme in 1916, after which he went quite silly. Whenever he goes into the line he goes mad, though he never shows fear. At one time he secured a dugout, and if any stranger or undesirable visitor entered it, he hammered the fuse of a dud 9.2″ shell with an entrenching tool, until he was again alone…[2]

 

We’ll close with another letter from Edward Thomas, but first, I want to spend a little time on one of the letters written to Vera Brittain. She is far away in Malta, but the three young soldiers she cares for are all once more heading toward battle. Her brother, Edward–wounded on the first day of the Somme–is the safest, still working on training courses and yet to rejoin a fighting battalion. Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson, however, are in infantry battalions in France, preparing for the offensive. Victor Richardson, the sturdy, smiling Third Musketeer of Uppingham Days, has been an officer in the trenches for quite some time now–and he doesn’t write, any longer, from a subordinate or suppliant position. This is the first letter to Vera, I think, in which he assumes intellectual equality and writes as if they were essentially the same age.

France, 24 March 1917

My dear Vera,

Mrs Leighton has just sent me Rhymes of a Red Cross Man. They are indeed excellent, but their vivid realism is oppressive at least I find it so just now. With regard to ‘Pilgrims’ it is true in part. It is true that none of us would wish those we love to do other than ‘smile and be happy again’. But none of us wish to die… I venture to say that there is not one officer, warrant officer, N.C.O., or rifleman who looks on death as ‘The Splendid Release’. That is the phrase of ‘a Red Cross Man’ and not of a member of a fighting unit.

So Victor is no longer willing to accept uncritically the views that surround him. Vera has tended patronize him–he’s the fondly regarded lesser light, never as bright or as high-flying as Roland or her brother. But although she is by now “accustomed… to the sudden tragic maturities of trench life” she is surprised to see the sweet boy she remembers write now like tough-minded officer, too wise for easy answers. Victor, sounding more like Roland than he ever has, continues:

I often wonder why we are all here. Mainly I think, as far as I am concerned, to prevent the repetition in England of what happened in Belgium in August 1914. Still more perhaps because one’s friends are here. Perhaps too, ‘heroism in the abstract’ has a share in it all.

Victor Richardson believes, now, that “the attitude of 90% of the British Expeditionary Force” is one of cheerful resignation, as typified in “a marching song to the tune of Auld Lang Syne that the little old men have been heard to sing:

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here.”

And “here” is France, with the Spring Offensive growing ever nearer.

But not near enough for his taste:

The situation as far as we are concerned is at present only slightly changed, but I hope that on the day of the hunt it will alter considerably. You speak of being anxious about Geoffrey Thurlow. At the present moment I would gladly change places with him. He is probably well away and over the country by now, and open warfare has none of the terrors of breaking new ground…

Edward doesn’t seem to enjoy his Musketry Course. Just as I did he is taking it far too seriously. I can’t define exactly how he has changed since July 1st. In that one day I think he aged ten years. I wonder if I shall be the same: I don’t think so somehow or other, but it is quite impossible to say.

I can quite understand your desire to wander further. I am a restless spirit myself–in fact you yourself once accused me of being a rolling stone.

Well, Vera, I may not write again–one can never tell–and so, as Edward wrote to me, ‘it is time to take a long long adieu’.

Ever yours

ah[3]

This “valedictory resignation” will make Vera Brittain feel, when she reads this letter, that Malta and France–with more and more U-boats between them–are impossibly far apart. The old romantic idea that fierce feelings of closeness can stave off separation is getting harder to sustain.[4]

 

Finally, today, Edward Thomas wrote to his wife, Helen.

Arras
24 March 1917

Dearest,

I was in that ghastly village today. The Major and I went up at 7.30 to observe; through the village was the quickest way. I never thought it would be so bad. It is nothing but dunes of piled up brick and stone with here and there a jagged piece of wall, except that the little summerhouse placed under the trees that I told Baba about is more or less perfect. The only place one could recognize was the churchyard. Scores of tombstones were quite  undamaged.

Now is this Thomas’s writerly restraint, or the fact that he is unwilling to–or simply not interested in–frightening his wife with grim visions. If scores of tombstones were quite undamaged, others surely, were wrecked, and graves were damaged… and few of our writers avoid such horrific bounty as the irony and horror of ancient graves disturbed by modern war. Thomas would seem to prefer this–and yet, as his narrative moves on, he avoids neither destruction nor death.

All the trees were splintered and snapped and dead until you got to the outskirts… No Man’s Land below the village was simply churned up dead filthy ground with tangled rusty barbed wire over it… On the way we saw a Bosh fight two of our planes. He set one on fire and chased the other off. The one on fire had a great red tail of flame, yet the pilot kept it under control for a minute or more till I suppose he was on fire and then suddenly it reeled and dropped in a string of tawdry fragments.

Our new position—fancy—was an old chalk pit in which a young copse of birch, hazel etc. has established itself.

Fancy–why? This turns out to be a complicated question. Edward Thomas is something of a chalk-pit enthusiast, and he described and considered the symbolism of several chalk pits in his prose, and then in his poem “The Chalk-Pit.” This is a poetic dialogue (the form heavily influenced by Frost) in which two speakers discuss the resonances of an empty chalk pit–a man-made dell now overgrown with trees.

Then two more figures are invoked: a “man of forty” remembering coming there with “a girl of twenty with… hair brown as a thrush.” So it would seem as if Thomas is not just recalling any one of the chalk pits in the English countryside which they may have walked by in recent years, but the time of his long-ago courtship with Helen. The poem may also–although this would imply a strange sort of deceit–remember Thomas’s infatuation, some nine years before, with a teenage girl he met while away from home working on a book.[5]

But all that is rather too much, and it’s not certain that Thomas is even thinking of his poem. But a chalk pit is an evocative place, an old work of man that has been reclaimed by nature and thus “can be admired without misanthropy,” a most characteristic line. The chalk pit and its trees are Thomas’s ideal context:

…a silent place that once rang loud,
And trees and us–imperfect friends, we men
And trees since time began; and nevertheless
Between us we still breed a mystery.

And now–fancy–he will be living in one while he assists in bombarding the new German positions east of Arras.

Our dug out is already here, dug by the battery we are evicting. It is almost a beautiful spot still and I am sitting warm in the sun on a heap of chalk with my back to the wall of the pit which is large and shallow. Fancy, an old chalk pit with moss and even a rabbit left in spite of the paths trodden almost all over it. It is beautiful and sunny and warm though cold in the shade. The chalk is dazzling. The sallow catkins are soft dark white.

What quotidian concern could cast a pall over this lovely scene?

All I have to do is to see that the men prepare the gun platforms in the right way, and put two men on to digging a latrine.—I am always devilish particular about that.

This is a rambling letter to a wife, I know–it’s not a gripping account of modern war. But it’s all one song, as another sage once said, and it means something–something important–that Thomas writes so much, here, and so beautifully. Their marriage has been a troubled one, and if Helen is close to his heart theirs is not an intimate intellectual relationship; he rarely writes his poetry with or to her. But now he nearly is–this is as close to verse as he has gotten, since he came to France.

There are a few long large white clouds mostly low in the sky and several sausage balloons up and still some of our planes peppered all round with black Bosh smoke bursts. I ate some oatcakes for lunch just now. They were delicious, hard and sweet.

And it’s not just this sort of prose, and the chalk-pit and the trees–we have a thrush, too, and our sudden bloom of snowdrops to carry on. Am I overselling it? Probably. I’ll need an ellipsis for the paragraphs that keep track of parcels and acquaintances…

The writing pads were quite all right, though no longer so necessary after Oscar had sent me half a dozen…

…this particular place has never been shelled yet, so though I hear a big shell every now and then flop 200 or 300 yards away it feels entirely peaceful. But I can’t get over the fact that there is no thrush singing in it. There is only a robin. I don’t hear thrush ever. All the bright pale or ruddy stems in the copse and the moss underneath and the chalk showing through reminds me of Hampshire…

The wheat is very green in some of the fields a little behind us and they are ploughing near our orchard. I hope the old woman will get back to her cottage and apple trees and currant bushes and snowdrops and aconites and live happily ever after.

It is very idle of me to sit here writing, but the men are all at work and I can’t help them except by appearing at intervals and suggesting something obvious that ought to be done…

Now I have had tea and oatcakes and honey and also a cake from Burzard’s Mrs Freeman sent me. I am having an agreeably idle evening, but then I am up with the lark tomorrow for 24 hours at the O.P. No letters today and tomorrow I shan’t get them if there are any. Never mind. All is well.

I am all and always yours

Edwy

A timeless letter, a brave sally against loneliness, and the gulf, and misanthropy. A long moment of peace and love stolen from the war, and a record of coincidence between poetry and life… but with a post-script:

The latest is that perhaps we shan’t go in to the chalk pit. The general is always changing his mind.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 446.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 64.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 326-8.
  4. Testament of Youth, 334-6.
  5. Longley, Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 236-9.
  6. Selected Letters, 153-5.

Edward Thomas Can’t Stay to Tea; Kate Luard Plates her Moss; Bob Hermon Admires the New Knights; Covering the Retreat with Rudyard Kipling and Charles Carrington; St. Patrick’s Day in France and Revolution in England

The bad nights are spreading, a century back. From the Somme north to Arras, where Edward Thomas is roiled by nightmares.

A horrible night of bombardment, and the only time I slept I dreamt I was at home and couldn’t stay to tea… Then the most glorious bright high clear morning… A beautiful day, sunny with pale cloudless sky and W. wind, but cold in O.P. Clear nightfall with curled, cinerous cloud and then a cloudless night with pale stains in sky over where Bosh is burning a village or something…[1]

 

No, that’s not right–nightmares aren’t the real story. Most of our hardy souls are doing what they can to treat late winter as if it might be early spring. Kate Luard likes nothing better than wildflowers (especially if she can take a long walk and gather them herself), but an experienced Nursing Sister makes do.

Saturday, March 17th, and no sign of any buds out anywhere in these parts. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin…[2]

 

No, no, that’s not quite right either. Actually, many of our writers who are not yet engaged in combat are able to appreciate all that is traditional and right with the war. No need for winter or spring when chivalry abides! Any guesses whom Bob Hermon has just laid eyes on?

There’s been some wonderful air fights here today. There is a Hun who flies a bright scarlet machine & is real hot stuff. He seems to be a sort of star flyer & does most of the fighting. He is a real gallant fellow & we all admire him.[3]

The Red Baron himself.

 

But there is, of course, a ground war on. One of the reasons that Richtofen has been released to roam is that the German aircraft are getting their first crack at what will become a crucial task of tactical air power: covering the movement of infantry. Let’s step back two days (and south to the Somme) to see how the Guards are getting on with following up the German withdrawal:

Captain Alexander took our two forward companies… the German shelling was intense. They used 5.9’s and larger, as they were firing from a long way back. The trouble for the 2nd Irish Guards companies developed almost at once on their left, where their patrol was fired at by machine-guns from a German trench on the edge of the wood. Their own 1st Battalion, trying to push out of Sailly-Saillisel, was hung up, too — they heard and saw it — for the same reason. The Division could have driven through at the cost of fairly heavy casualties, but nothing was to be gained by wasting men in rushes on hidden machine-guns that can lay out thirty good lives in two minutes. The Scots Guards got on into the wood without much trouble at first, till they, too, ran on snipers between tree-stumps and up and down the defaced trenches, or opened some single machine-gun slinking from cover to cover. It was all slow “feeling,” with alternating advances at walking pace, and long checks — “something like drawing a gorse for wolves instead of foxes…”

As they worked their way more into St. Pierre Vaast Wood came the sensation, which there was no mistaking, that they were being played with by the Hun, and losing touch as he intended them to do. Certain vital trenches would be controlled by a few snipers and machine-guns; a sunk road offering shelter would be plastered with heavies, and a full company would be held in it, digging for more cover, by dead accurate long-range fire; while far and far behind the orderly German withdrawal of the main body continued in peace.

On the 17th March, for example, “we were never really in touch with the enemy’s rear-guard during the day except for one or two snipers…”

Which brings this narrative-of-a-period to today. But a little analysis of the general effectiveness of the German withdrawal is worth our while, too:

Here is the comment of the time and the place on our advance: “The German retreat was conducted very skilfully. One cannot say that we caused them to leave one position an hour before they intended. They inflicted upon us a considerable number of casualties (twenty in this battalion, while on our left the 1st Battalion lost considerably more). On the other hand, we saw no evidence that in the actual retirement we had even damaged one German. They left little or nothing behind.”

And the professional judgment is equally fair. “But of course it must be remembered that the task of the (German) regimental officers was an easy one, however difficult it may have been for the Staff. Given time, there is no difficulty in withdrawing battalions from trenches by night, for a few snipers and machine-gunners, knowing the ground, and retreating from trench to trench, can hang up an advance indefinitely unless the troops advancing have strong reserves and are prepared for heavy losses.”

This last was not our situation… things had to be done as cheaply as possible…

We are generally in sure hands when Rudyard Kipling takes up the military narrative–this is a work of memorial devotion, remember, and he suppresses his polemical opinions unless he feels that they are an echo of the those of the officer corps he is writing about. But we are in excellent hands when the worst of the war must be invoked on the scale of the battalion history–neither pointillistically subordinated to a grand narrative nor awash in the subjectivities of the personal.

The advance of the Second Irish Guards

…led them into a stale hell which had once been soil of France but was now beyond grace, hope, or redemption. Most of the larger trees in St. Pierre Vaast were cut down, and the smaller ones split by shell or tooth-brushed by machine-gun fire. The ground was bog, studded with a few island-like formations of fire-trench, unrevetted, unboarded, with little dug-outs ten or twelve feet deep, all wet and filthy. There were no regular latrines. Numberless steel helmets and heaps of stick-bombs lay about under foot. The garrisons must have been deadly uncomfortable, and there was good evidence that the enemy had economised men beyond anything that we dared. The ground had been cut to bits by our fire, and in one place yawned what had been a battery position wiped out, unseeing and unseen, weeks ago, as the dead teams round it testified. Very few booby-traps were left behind. The Battalion lost only five men in all through this cause.[4]

 

After several nights in No Man’s Land as patrols pushed into the old German lines, Charles Carrington too learned, today, how successful the German withdrawal had been:

This time, the morning of the 17th March, they really had gone. My captain went forward for orders and presently sent me back word to bring the company over the top, by daylight… to the German front line.

I cannot explain the consternation caused by this order. For two years no one had raised a hand over the parapet by daylight unless in the stress of battle and covered by an artillery barrage. Tired as we were… we were exhilarated. Open fighting had come…

It had not, of course, but Carrington remembers the high mood of the next few days as they pursued the Germans east toward the new line of defenses–which the British officers all knew of, of course, even if they could not realize its strength. There was the thrill of moving and of seeing cavalry units trotting about over open country. But this was not a victory:

The main German forces had gone when we moved forward, having burnt every house, blown up every church, public building and ancient monument, broken every bridge and culvert, mined every crossroads, polluted every well. They had carried away all the able-bodied men and women into captivity, leaving the old and feeble concentrated in one or two villages; and–which seemed to distress the French most–they had even found time to ring-bark the apple-trees in the cider orchards. The country was dead, laid waste with a destructive fervour worse than anything in the Thirty Years War… When we marched into Peronne… we saw a huge notice erected on the town hall: ‘NICHT ARGERN NUR WUNDERN’, ‘Don’t be angry, only wonder!’ Indeed it puzzled us a good deal. We were not angry but delighted that so large a region of France should be liberated and if we had any astonishment left it was at the ingenuities of German barbarity. What they had not destroyed they had defiled…

The sequel is not prettier, and it is a good deal bloodier than Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards:

On the first day we lost two officers from my mess, one shot by a German sniper when leading the advance guard, the other caught by a booby trap. In a German dugout he had sat down in a chair and had drawn it up to the table, thus igniting the fuse of a concealed bomb…[5]

 

So it goes. In the strangeness of this advance, many things are forgotten. What was missing from Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards today? (Other than deadly booby traps, which surely varied by location).

It says something about the English perspective of the officers that St. Patrick’s Day went unmentioned in the history of an Irish unit. Not so with the First Inniskillings, out of the line resting near Corbie after several days of following the German withdrawal, and counting among their number the poet Francis Ledwidge:

In the morning there was an issue of shamrock to all the Irishmen. The Australians, who happened to be going into action that day, also asked for shamrock and wore it in their caps. Most of the forenoon was taken-up with a church
parade…  In the afternoon, the Inniskilling fife and drum band played in the village to the great delight of the French children, who crowded around them. The men got up a concert for themselves in the afternoon. The officers went into Corbie, that night for dinner. The rations were greatly stepped up in honour of the feast and there was a good dinner too, in the mess, after which most of the men also went into town to sample the estaminets. These kept
open very late, as they did on Christmas Day. Despite the army concessions, however, commemorating their patron saint in such a setting inevitably made the Irishmen melancholy.[6]

 

And here’s a good example of why I hardly mention (or don’t cover at all, really) grand strategy and international affairs, despite their enormous influence on the war: their immediate effects are almost never felt by fighting soldiers. But here’s a strange example, in a tale told by the officer currently narrating in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. He began a long-awaited leave today, a century back, taking a train to the coast and then a boat for England:

We had a fine crossing–to what? On debarking we were ordered to report at once to our local police, and be in readiness for any emergency.

Uniquely, the officers on leave found themselves marshaled to deal with expected unrest, as the government feared a rising in sympathy with the early stages of the Russian Revolution. There is sympathy, at first, in the officer’s voice–“the political air was sharpened” by privation and the wealth of war profiteers, by “the slaughter of the Somme.” And then much less sympathy: the conclusion, looking back from a later point in time, is that a wicked alliance of convenience has formed between armchair theorist liberals and trade unionists that will pressure the government into foolish concessions “to the serious hurt of the Army.”[7]

 

That is surely enough for today–unless you would prefer to close the day with Edward Thomas, in a quiet mood, writing a long letter to his wife Helen, and reflecting in relative tranquility on last night’s anxieties.

17 March 1917 Arras

Dearest

This has been quite a good day at the O.P. [Observation Post] and after a bad night of heavy shelling. The morning was bright and clear and all day long the sun shone and the sky has been pale and without a cloud. I have been drawing little panoramas.

Those I had done last time are more interesting now because the Old Hun has been destroying many of the buildings on the skyline. Tonight he is burning something away in that direction. The sky is lit up with two big glows beyond the crest. It hasn’t been tedious at all, and now we are installed in our dug out which hardly anything could penetrate. It is so small that if one moves the other five have to.

I am wondering if a letter has come for me at last. I think in any case I will keep this till I do hear, though Bronwen’s letter implied that there was nothing abnormal.

To cram this little room still more the men insisted on dragging in one of the box spring mattresses from the other place. They had to cut it to fit it in at all, and now three of us are sitting on it; we have a door up, a fire going, one candle alight and can only hear the rustle of a Daily Mail.

Now it is 11 p.m. I have to be awake till 12. Then I sleep until 6 unless I am wanted which I shall be unless the night is quite quiet. So far there has only been a distant roll now and then as I sat reading ‘Julius Ceasar’, warm in front because of the fire, cold behind because of a door leading up into the street.

I dreamt (almost for the first time since I left home) last night — a very feeble dream, that I was at home but did not stay to tea.

I don’t know who was there. I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea. I think Baba asked if I wouldn’t stay to tea.

Every hour the telephonist tests the line to see if it is O.K. He has just done it and there is another hour to go before I begin to lie on those very bouncy springs…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 101.
  3. For Love and Courage, 338.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 120-1.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 138-42. Carrington, writing later, is careful--I think that's an appropriate qualification--to represent the innocence/confidence that still obtained, in his experience, in 1917, and only a few paragraphs after the booby traps he is making claims once again for the effectiveness (and gloriousness) of cavalry...
  6. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 173-4.
  7. The War the Infantry Knew, 304-5.
  8. Letters to Helen, 84-7.

Panpipes from Francis Ledwidge; Lark Song from Edward Thomas; Wilfred Owen Does Not Want Chocolate; Edwin Vaughan Returns Through Fire and Mud; Edward Hermon Loses His Padre

We begin in a light pastoral mood, today, with Francis Ledwidge… and then work quickly through a series of increasingly violent incidents.

Pan

He knows the safe ways and unsafe
And he will lead the lambs to fold,
Gathering them with his merry pipe,
The gentle and the overbold.

He counts them over one by one,
And leads them back by cliff and steep.
To grassy hills where dawn is wide,
And they may run and skip and leap.

And just because he loves the lambs
He settles them for rest at noon,
And plays them on his oaten pipe
The very wonder of a tune.

France,
March 11th, 1917.

 

The very wonder. But will there be divine music to lead the sheep safely through this coming spring? Ledwidge is never harsh, really, but I wonder if there is some gentle irony behind this idea of a shepherd god carefully numbering his sheep as he watches over them…

 

Before the guns arrive to drown them out, the song of the larks is spreading. From the diary of Edward Thomas:

Out at 8.30 to Tonville O.P. and studied the ground from Beaurains N. Larks singing over No Man’s Land—trench  mortars. We were bombarding their front line: they were shooting at Arras.

Later Ronville heavily shelled and we retired to dugout. At 6.15 all quiet and heard blackbirds chinking. Scene peaceful, desolate like Dunwich moors except sprinkling of white chalk on the rough brown ground… [1]

 

Wilfred Owen, it seems, is stuck in the middle. Neither tentatively exulting in spring nor in the war’s worst grips, he writes to give his mother an update on his whereabouts:

Another Place
More Deserted Village
11 March

No sooner had I set out my Kit and done a page for you, than I was boosted back nearer the Line on a special job; in charge of a party of Dug-Out Diggers. It is a soft job. I take the men up sometimes by day, sometimes by night, so that (as today) I lie snug in my blankets until lunchtime. We are 4 officers living in this cellar; our servants cook for us. It is a relief to be away from the Battalion for a while. How I hope it will last. It may spin out 3 weeks…

I have just been sweating along a dangerous road to a factory where there is a shower bath. There was no water today! I sweated some more coming back. (Methinks I am becoming something crude in my speech.) Tis a crude, vagabondage of a life…

And downright unbearable if one runs out of good books and is forced to fall back upon the press:

I am able to read here, but have nothing left now… do you think, now, that I am going to read the war-impressions of home-editors?  If, here & there, you get a true version of the business—so much the more unreadable. Punch, on the other hand takes humour too seriously. From Punch you would take a Sentry to be the laughingstock of Europe.

Spleen!

No, I still tipple Punch as hilariously as ever. But don’t send any, for some one or other is bound to have one.

What I should like would be a current Poetry Review.

Please don’t send anything special for my Birthday. You have sent so many specialities lately. For instance, expensive chocolate!

I hope to be able to write again tomorrow…

Longing unspeakably to see you, dear Mother, I look forward to Leave in about 3 more months!!

Your own Wilfred xx[2]

“Please don’t send anything, particularly not expensive chocolate for my birthday” has got to be one of the all-time disingenuinities of wartime soldier-maternal correspondence…

 

We are rejoined today by Edwin Vaughan, who, despite being fairly fresh from training, has just spent two and a half weeks at a refresher course at Amiens. There he “paid many visits to the Cathedral, which is very beautiful and dignified.” He returned to the battalion’s billets on the 10th. On the way back he saw a German airplane shoot down an observation balloon. The two observers jumped clear but the balloon, burning, caught up with their descending parachutes, burning them to death.

Today, coming up from reserve into the line, Vaughan and the other returning men were shelled by light trench mortars:

As we loosened ourselves in the mud, to continue our round, there was a faint ‘pop’ in the distance like a blank cartridge, followed by a rapid whistle and the sharp crack and flash of a bomb bursting about five yards away. Even as we ducked, there was another ‘pop’ and another bomb burst in the same place.

As we crouched low in the mud, they continued to fall about us, and Hughes whispered that they were grenatenwerfers–called by us ‘blue pigeons’ or ‘pineapples’. He said that the sounds of our squelching through the mud was perfectly audible in Jerry’s line, and he would follow us with these bombs until we reached our right post, when he would open with a machine gun…

Accidentally banging his ‘tin hat’ on an old iron pump, Vaughan attracts more fire:

…an angry burst of machine gun fire swept over our heads whilst a perfect hurricane of bombs fell about us. Several of them fell within two yards of us, but owing to the mud we were unhurt, one dud actually falling between us, and a few inches from where our faces were pressed into the side of the trench…[3]

This tour will not be an easy one for Vaughan, but so far it is nothing worse than a near miss.

 

Not so for Edward “Bob” Hermon. Now commanding the the 24th Northumberland Fusiliers, he is much burdened by the organizational and physical challenges of work just behind the Arras front. He strives to keep up his end of his voluminous correspondence with his wife, and he can’t really hide the fact that everyone in his part of the world is in danger.

11th March 1917

I’m very weary old dear & so you must excuse a somewhat short letter tonight. I’ve had an awful lot to do lately & life is pretty strenuous…

Nevertheless, Hermon musters the strength to comment—endearingly—on the pictures he has been sent of his daughters at their riding lessons. One daughter’s position is “good enough to print in the Cavalry drill book” while another must “keep her heels down a bit more.”  Tiny details, but the effort is not a negligible one.

Darling mine I can’t write you any more I’m too tired & must be up at 4 a.m. I’m rather in the dumps tonight as I’ve lost a few men these last few days & my friend Duncan the Padre was killed today. He was actually conducting a service at the time & a shell came in & killed him.

My love to you my darling.[4]

This is an unusual disaster, but not an isolated one. Any huge concentration of troops–necessary for any major attack–means that thousands of men who are not actually holding the line will still be going about their daily business well within the range of the enemy heavy artillery. The Rev. Edward Francis Duncan, MC went to the aid of men wounded by such a shell bursting just outside his makeshift church–a second shell from the same battery killed him.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  2. Collected Letters, 442.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 36-40.
  4. For Love and Courage, 334-5.

Thomas Hardy’s Call to National Service; Edward Thomas Gives Two Views of Bombardments, and an Otherworldly Ruin; St. David’s Day Hallowed by the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but not Poor David Jones

Thomas Hardy is no jingoist. In fact, his refusal to be enthusiastic about the bloody business of the war and his loathing of the very idea that a political disaster should lead one group of people to hate another notably similar group of people set him apart from the majority of Britain’s older writers.

In his emotional or poetic stance he is something very close to a dissident, the honorary colonel of the swelling regiment of the poets of protest and disillusionment. And yet he is still a patriot, still willing to entertain the (reasonable!) expectation that a great effort must be made to finish the terrible task that England began. And that criticism of the government’s conduct, of the principles by which the war is being raised is loyal, right, patriotic, and proper.

This month, a century back, Hardy put out this call, notable as much for its grim tone as for its familiar sentiments.

A Call to National Service

Up and be doing, all who have a hand
To lift, a back to bend. It must not be
In times like these that vaguely linger we
To air our vaunts and hopes; and leave our land

Untended as a wild of weeds and sand.
–Say, then, “I come!” and go, O women and men
Of palace, ploughshare, easel, counter, pen;
That scareless, scathless, England still may stand.

Would years but let me stir as once I stirred
At many a dawn to take the forward track,
And with a stride plunged on to enterprize,

I now would speed like yester wind that whirred
Through yielding pines; and serve with never a slack,
So loud for promptness all around outcries!

 

In Arras, Edward Thomas sat down to another lengthy letter, today, a century back, to his wife Helen. This is one of those cases in which what will be a brief note in his diary is fleshed out in the letter into a vivid vignette, a picture that constitutes writerly exercise as much as relationship maintenance. Thomas is in no hurry, as the younger men tossed into the trenches so often are, to emphasize the depth and breadth of the experiential gulf–he writes to share, and, simply, to write–loved ones are easier to face across a sheet of paper than his exacting muse.

And I must wonder, looking ahead into the letter: is Thomas precise or indelicate in his aviation simile?

1 March 1917 Arras [Group H.Q.]

Dearest

This afternoon I had nothing in particular to do and Berringtond the Signals Officer of the Group, asked me to go along with him just to see how his telephone wires were being laid alongside the marsh at the edge of the city to our batteries (including 244). So I got the colonel to give me a little job to do on the way and we went out. It was sunny and warm with a fresh wind. I did what I had to do and while I was doing it Herrington sat down on the bank and smoked, which made him more or less forget what he had meant to do. Then we strolled on till a German plane came over and the alarm was blown and we sat down and smoked while the Anti-Aircraft sent scores of  shells singing past us and spotted the plane with white puffs. The German had been going quite low over the city, taking photographs no doubt, but he rose up till he was as small as a lark and wasn’t touched…

Thomas next describes desultory German shelling near their position and the first rounds fired in response by his own battery. But the more striking sight is across no man’s land:

…the day was very clear and we could see the German lines and the ghastly village of ruined houses and dead trees that was my first sight of the enemy country a fortnight ago. At first I couldn’t believe it, it looked so near. Yet the line of dead tall straight trees against the sky was quite unmistakeable…

Thomas describes the rest of the ramble that eventually took him back to Group HQ–but more on that below.

I have often made reference to the gaps and rough patches in Edward and Helen Thomas’s marriage. But under the strain–and separation–of war, the marriage seems to be, if we might take an unromantic and practical point of view, doing its job. He is lonely, and he reaches out to his wife, taking some comfort from the one-sided conversation…

Now it is 5.50 p.m. Everybody is out except the Colonel who has another Colonel with him in the office, so I am alone in the dusk, and now this moment they have closed the shutters so that it seems night. It seems I am not escaping at once as the Colonel is having some difficulty in getting hold of the man who was to succeed me.

I have had a lot of Mother’s cake and a lot of tea and my ears are burning. I should like to talk to someone as I can’t write.[1]

The letter continues tomorrow… and yet Thomas’s writing for the day isn’t done. He also wrote a very different sort of letter to Eleanor Farjeon. Thomas, proud of his Welsh descent, acknowledges the date, the festival of the patron saint of Wales.

March 1    St David’s Day

My dear Eleanor, The ginger came. All of 244 had a good dip into it and there was still some left in the tin. It was very good and it was still more good of you to send it. Thank you. Next day Helen wrote to say you really were coming to High Beech at last. I am expecting to hear now that you did.

Well, I expect to return to 244 in a day or two. They know I don’t want to stay here and a successor is being interviewed today, so that I shall soon cease to be a glorified lacky or humble adjutant to an old Indian colonel perplexed in the extreme. It has been a useful experience. I have got used to the telephone and I have seen how things are done and not done at Headquarters.

With Farjeon, Thomas takes another tack on the experience of being shelled. He has weathered it, yes–but his imagination is not insensitive to the appalling mystery of bombardment: with weapons so massive, even the smallest adjustment would spell destruction.

Incidentally too I have been in the midst of quite a noisy artillery give and take. You can’t imagine the noise this makes in a city. I don’t pretend I liked it. Sometimes I found myself fancying that if only the enemy pointed the gun like this ——– instead of like this ______ he would land a shell on the dinner table and send us to a quieter place. However he didn’t. 244 is just going into action with its own guns and I wish I were there. Soon I believe I shall be…

I cut down Thomas’s description of the sight across no man’s land in his letter to Helen because it is more vivid in this one–nor is it the last such description.

With Farjeon, Thomas is a little more willing to show himself horrified, to allude to the dark places in his imagination that cannot but be stimulated by the new sights of war. He has been here for several weeks, but the sight of empty towns and the ruins of recently thriving habitations still shock him. As they should… but he is not the sort of writer who uses the phrase “another world” lightly.

We are wondering now if the enemy is going to retire from this front. It will be strange walking about in the ghastly village which was the first I saw of the enemy’s ground, a silent still village of ruined houses and closegrown tall trees stark and dark lining a road above the trenches. It was worse than any deserted brickworks or mine. It looked in another world from ours, even from the scarred world in which I stood. In a curious way its very name now always calls up the thing I saw and the way I felt as I saw it.

The name resembles a name in Malory, especially in its English pronunciation and this also gives a certain tone to the effect it had. I see it lining the brow of a gradual hill halfway up which is the English line with the German above it. The houses and trees dense and then to right and left only trees growing thinner till at last the ridge sweeping away is bare for some miles. But this is E. T.’s vein. Goodbye. Keep well and write soon.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[2]

This must be the village of Beaurains, just south and east of Arras on the German lines, and remembering Sir Gareth “Beaumains” form Malory.

Oh, that Edward Thomas would write a dark twisted fantasy of the middle ages behind the ruined Arras of the 20th century…

 

In honor of Dewi Sant, we close with our favorite Welsh unit and then our most determinedly Cymrophile London Welshman. First, the celebration of the Royal Welch Fusiliers–the third of the war (follow the links for 1915 and 1916).

March 1st, St. David’s Day. A genial, almost windless day ending in a crisp, starlit night. With times of rawness the weather was generally fine during this week. Fritz is said to have withdrawn from Gommecourt. When last we were in the line he blew a mine in the road that crossed No Man’s Land on our left front. As he is expected to withdraw on this front any day now, we, being on an hour’s notice, have had little to do since coming here.

It was nearing noon before there was any assurance that the officers St. David’s Day Dinner could be held. Provisional plans had been made, and leeks had been bought for the Battalion. Yates, Mann, Mess-servants, Pioneers and defaulters, all pulled together. A very scratch kitchen was fitted up in a broken and dismantled shrine, to the scandal of some French details; a hut built on to it, and used as a chapel during the French occupation, was repaired and enlarged. Timber had been got from the Engineers. Tables and benches were run up by the Pioneer Sergeant, “Daisy” Horton.

The merit of a plain menu was Parry’s excellent cooking: soup, lobster mayonnaise, stew, steam-pudding–the sauce was the thing, Scotch woodcock, dessert; whisky, port, champagne cup; coffee. Roger Poore, transferred from the Hants Yeomanry and recently posted as Second-in-Command, presided; the C.O. was on leave.

We had a jolly night. None of the traditional ritual was wanting, and there were many to eat the leek. A German howitzer shell-case, which had been used by the French as a gas-gong, served as loving-cup. It was to have been sent home after being inscribed and decorated by Sergeant-Shoemaker Johnson, a remarkably good artist in metal, but it was lost before Poore could make up his mind about the wording.[3]

 

And finally, an inauspicious St. David’s Day for his London Welsh namesake, Jones-the-Artist. David Jones had been sent to work with a unit of the engineers in the hopes that his draughtsmanship might be put to military use. Alas,

As a flash-spotter Jones was unsuccessful. Sometimes flash followed flash so quickly that he had to mark the second while reporting the first and he was unable to do two things at once. The mill swayed in the wind. In the dark he sometimes had difficulty finding the speaking end of the telephone. When reaching for the phone, he sometimes jogged the theodolite, moving its dial. Having lost the bearing, he made up the figures–not, he realised, a useful thing to do. By the end of February, he was discharged from the Survey Company on the trumped-up charge of not having had his hair cut. ‘My association with the Engineers’, he later remembered, ‘was shameful and brief.’’

On the morning of 1 March 1917 he trudged several miles under full pack to a railhead to catch a train back to his battalion north of Ypres. Despite his protests, a transport officer insisted on putting him on a train going south-west. That afternoon he arrived at a camp on a hill above Rouen, where he was detained for nearly a month, awaiting confirmation from his battalion…[4]

He could have run across Siegfried Sassoon there, and talked poetry! Or not, for Jones was a shy enlisted autodidact in a Kitchener battalion, and even if the rigidities of military hierarchy had not separated them, Jones’s diffidence and Sassoon’s snobbery would have done the job… Jones, alone, will head into the same sort of limbo that Sassoon has been enduring but in an even worse place: he will soon go to the “Bull Ring” at Étaples, to be shouted at by the very worst sort of over-enthusiastic drill sergeants…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters to Helen, 82-83.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 252-3.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 300-1.
  4. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 146-7.

Siegfried Sassoon Between Loathing and Sacrifice; Rum Jars Aloft for Rowland Feilding; Edward Thomas is Shy Under Fire, or a Bored Dog in a Waiting Room; Henry Williamson is Safely Across; Tolkien to Yorkshire, and Hospital

Today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien came before a medical board in Lichfield. He is still wracked by “pains in his legs and occasional fever,” and the board acknowledged these symptoms, declaring him unfit for even home service for two months and sending him to an officers’ convalescent hospital in Harrogate, Yorkshire, for the next month.[1]

 

Henry Williamson, meanwhile, is returning to the fray. When we read his departure letter, he was setting up a blazingly obvious code to inform his mother of his whereabouts. Today, a century back, we get a clue about why he might be confident in such transparent ruses: this letter, duly signed by the writer on its envelope, has also been approved by “Field Censor 828.” And the censor’s counter-signature? Well, it’s identical to the author’s…

208 M.G.Coy B.E.F. France. Tuesday 27 Feb ’17

Dear mother,

Just a line to let you know we had a safe crossing… I have seen Tanks: they are wonderful things…

By the time you get this I shall be round about the place where Charlie is now…

You ought to hear the artillery here: it is one continuous quaking and heaving of the earth, with blood red flashes always before one–always, always, always. My experiences with the LRB were nothing compared with this now. Must shut up now, as am very busy. Yours with love, Harry.[2]

Cousin Charlie Boon is nowhere, now–but his remains are buried near Beaumont Hamel. Williamson is our least reliable letter-writing narrator, but there could be no more typical observation from someone in his position (a good deal of experience in and just behind the line, but not since the huge buildups of the Somme) at this point in the war: the routine daily “hates” now exceed the intensity of bombardments that, in 1914, had seemed hellishly intense.

 

Although Siegfried Sassoon and Rowland Feilding still await us below, I want to first include a good chunk of a very long letter from Edward Thomas to his wife Helen. She is so often invisible in conversations (here, not least) about his mental and artistic mind, that it’s worth paying attention to how he unburdens himself to her.

This letter is long enough that it reminds us of something that is true of even the shortest note: that it is not so much evidence of a moment in time as a transcript of a short period during which a great deal–much, much more than can ever be recorded–goes on in a writer’s mind. Thomas loves his wife, but he has not always been open with her. It is, also, no simple thing to discuss depression, and danger, and the deep and inscrutable changes that war works on a personality, especially with someone who has suffered so much in the past from the shifting, jagged edges of his personality. But he tries, and in the letter’s changes of course and pausings for second efforts we can perhaps see more of this marriage (viewed from his side) than we have hitherto:

Diary observations covered at great length in this letter:

Arras | 27 February 1917

Dearest,

Only a word now. It is a fine sunny morning, but so was yesterday and they made full use of it. The guns here covered an infantry raid and you could not hear a word for over an hour. Then German prisoners began to arrive. Later on hostile shells began to arrive but they were hardly so alarming as they didn’t make anything like the same din. In the afternoon I had to go out to see if a certain position was visible to the enemy. This was the first time I was really under fire. About four shells burst 150 yards away, little ones–and then in the street fell a shower of machine gun bullets I confess I felt shy, but I went on with my field glass and compass as far as possible as if nothing had happened. This makes the heart beat but no more than if I were going to pay a call on a stranger.

This is not much different from yesterday’s letter to his friend Bottomley. Thomas is doing his best to preserve honesty without being unduly alarming.

I try to console myself by reflecting that you cannot escape either by running or by standing still. There is no safe place and consequently why worry? And I don’t worry. What did disturb me was an English 18 pounder firing when I had only gone 3 yards past the muzzle. They do that sort of thing. The order comes to fire and they fire, damn them. But I slept very well last night.

And that, briskly, is the record of a crucial, successful trial. Thomas has been tested by gunfire and found that he can handle it well, without any immediate crumbling of self-confidence or sanity. I really think that he had been fairly certain that he would weather the guns well enough, perhaps on the ironic assumption that a man who makes heavy weather of ordinary life may shrug off mortal peril better than men otherwise untested…

This morning is quiet again, though it is beautifully fine.

I haven’t settled to my fate here yet. I shall wait for a good opportunity of letting the Colonel know I want to get back. They are trying to drive an English plane back with shrapnel just overhead. It looks dangerous but neither the Huns nor we hit a plane once in 10,000 rounds, I believe. I’ve nothing to do this morning except try to settle a billeting question for 244…

They are a nice lot of officers here, better than 244’s, only I being temporary or uncertain I don’t get on as well as if I were going (for all I know) to remain. Still no thrushes singing here only chaffinches.

I’ve rather a rotten servant here, never has hot water, has a watch that is sometimes half an hour wrong, and never understands anything I say.

I have only once heard from Mother. Her parcel has not arrived. I wonder does she worry much. I I hope not.

You have had Eleanor there by this time and lost her too.

This wandering train of thoughts has taken an unfortunate series of switches: from his own domestic position, to servants, to mother, wife, and Eleanor Farjeon, the ever-helpful friend…  at this Thomas checks up, and makes an effort to assess his position.

But it becomes harder for me to think about things at home and somehow, although this life does not absorb me, I think, yet, I can’t think of anything else. I don’t hanker after anything I don’t miss anything. I am not even conscious of waiting. I am just quietly in exile, a sort of half or quarter man—at Romford I was half or three quarter man. Only sometimes I hear the things I really care for, far off as if at the end of a telephone. What I really should like is more hard physical exercise. I am rather often bored though and for fairly long periods. I am rather like a dog doing what it doesn’t want to do—as Belloc said of me years ago when I was going about with him on various errands of his before we could settle down to lunch together. The fact is it is a sort of interval in reality, a protracted railway waiting room. Yet of course not always merely that…

I have just walked up to 244 and found no one in but letters from you and Irene both written after she had been to see you. I don’t think I will write much more. I have just seen an English plane shot down and set afire by a German; another fell near here almost at the same time and also one yesterday. The machine gun bullets came down and cut a telephone wire close by. It has turned dull and chilly and I feel damnably like early spring. The pilot of the plane managed to right it soon and came down in a spiral, though flopping—I did not go to see his fate—he was well within our lines, so was the other.

He sounds tired, doesn’t he? Has he just seen a man die, or not? He’s not certain. It sounds like depression. Often Thomas plans his letters, or writes with the easy command of a man who has long written less-than-perfectly, but always cogently, and on a deadline. But not this letter–he once again piles into a blind alley that he should have seen coming. And when he gets going again it is easy to see the mental connection he omits. This war is going nowhere, fast, and their son will soon be old enough to fight.

I hope Mervyn will join an OTC. It could be a good thing in many ways. The war isn’t over yet even if the Germans are evacuating some dirty ground,[3] and Mervyn would be much more likely to get a commission if he had been to an OTC.

But I am depressed. Lots of food and too little exercise and spring. Tea will do me good and they will make some soon, if the others don’t come in.

We were sitting round the fire this evening talking about the way things are done in the Army, and I was saying we should suddenly have to signal (?) important orders to the batteries to fire instead of preparing them for probable targets—when in comes an urgent message ordering 244 and also another battery we know nothing about to open fire tomorrow. Good Lord, I hope we win the war. It will prove God is on our side…

All is well really.

All and always yours | Edwy[4]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, stuck in Rouen base camp with the measles, may have made an early foray into prose fiction, today.[5] It would be a bit too much to post the entire sketch “Reinforcements at Rouen”–the first of three sketches–but here is a telling excerpt. See if you can identify the protagonist:

Meanwhile this discerning young officer watched the crowd and tried to fit things together. He had loathed the business of coming out again, had talked wildly to his pacifist friends about the cruel imbecility of the war and the uselessness of going on with it. He came out with his  angry heart, resolved to hate the whole show, and write his hatred down in words of burning criticism and satire. Now he is losing all that; he has been drawn back into the Machine; he has no more need to worry. ‘Nothing matters now.’ He must trust to fate: the responsibility of life has been taken from him. He must just go on until something happens to him. And through his dull acquiescence in it all, he is conscious of the same spirit that brought him serenely through it last year; the feeling of sacrifice…

The man knows where he is going. There are two more sketches in the diary, but these likely date a few days hence–Sassoon did not always use the diary pages sequentially. Each will give rise to a very different poem, one a lacerating satire, the other a religious-romantic reverie…

 

Finally, Rowland Feilding, still unsure whether punishment awaits for permitting fraternization, once more reminds us that there is a war going on. He is diligent, and evidently concerned to prove that my decision to give “trench mortars” their own “tag” was a sound one.

February 27, 1917. Curragh Camp (Locre).

I have written to you much of the staying powers of the men—how they have stood night after night and day after
day in the wettest or most Arctic weather, behind these flimsy breastworks. You cannot dig trenches in this locality because you get drowned out. So you bank up sandbags and stand behind them. And the enemy flattens these every day or two with his “rum-jars” ; and we do the same to his.

“Rum-jar” is the soldiers’ name for the German canister which is their simplest form of heavy trench-mortar bomb. Picture a cylindrical oil-drum, 15 inches long and about 11 inches in diameter, flat at both ends, and filled with high explosive. That is the “rum-jar.” In the dark if you spot it coming, you can just distinguish it in the air, by the fizzling of the fuse.

But it arrives silently, and is not easy to detect, till it lands with a mighty bang. I once spoke slightingly of these things, but I spoke foolishly. It is true that, as a rule, they do little if any damage, because the effect is very local;  but if one happens to hit a man or a collection of men it blows them to bits. And these things come in hundreds, and are a perpetual menace to the men in the front line, day and night, often for four days and nights together, and more.

The material effect, as I have said, is small, but the constant stress is tiring to the morale, as it is intended to be, and, added to the other strains of trench life—the artillery strafes and the mines and other horrors which the poor infantry have to undergo, is very tiring to them. Yet, through it all, they stand, frozen and half-paralysed by the cold and wet, with no individual power of retaliation beyond the rifle which each man carries, and which is about as much use against the weapons by which he is tormented as a pop-gun.[6]

Feilding closes with two light amusements, tales of the disconnect between fighting units and their generals that are more in the nature of drawing room comedy than deadly and barely-concealed opposition. In one, a deserving sergeant gets a made-up citation and his officers get caught out; in another, a brigadier reconciles himself to his lot in life. But this has been a long day, and Feilding’s book is well worth seeking out…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 99.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 88.
  3. See the note two days back on the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.
  4. Selected Letters, 141-44.
  5. I originally assumed that he had, based on the way the diary was subsequently published--but working a head a few days it became clear that some of or even all of these experiences may date to next Sunday, a century back...
  6. War Letters to a Wife, 159-60.