Rowland Feilding Belatedly Locates the Machine Guns of the Somme; John Ronald Tolkien Still Suffers from its Fevers; Ivor Gurney on the Courage of Women

Rowland Feilding has been mixing light letters about life in reserve with accounts of how he is spending his own free time (which, as a battalion commander, can be considerable), namely walking the old battlefield of the Somme and remembering what he and his men endured during the Battle of Ginchy last September 9th.

You will remember what a terrific fire we encountered when we attacked at this place. I have ever since been curious to know where that fire came from, and how so powerful a concentration of machine-guns could have complete escaped our artillery. Now I know. A well-concealed and winding trench, branching into two, and worked in conjunction with nests of shell-holes adapted as machine-gun positions! That is what we ran into, and it was a hopeless task we undertook that day…[1]

 

One of the casualties of the Somme–of its infectious diseases rather than its bullets, shrapnel, or gas–was John Ronald Tolkien. He has yet to return to full health, and, after a severe relapse which put him in the hospital for nine weeks, he went before a Medical Board today in Hull. The report was middling:

He has still not recovered his strength; he suffers from debility and pain in his arms and shins, and he looks delicate

Declared “30 per cent disabled,” Tolkien was sent back to the 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, for light duty. The board’s decision may be changed later, but for now Tolkien has some reason to hope that he has seen the last of the trenches.[2]

 

Alas for Ivor Gurney that this is not true. He remains in hospital, but with a wink and a nod: his lungs are more or less fine–it is his talented fingers which keep him there, accompanying all the would-be singers in their own recoveries.

16 October 1917

My Dear Friend: This is a most lovely morning, and I ought to be out on the hills somewhere instead of writing letters, even to you. For letter writing is work of a sort, though I like it not badly here, and in France it is often a pleasure.

There is not much to tell you, there is no masterpiece of chiselled and exquisite verse…

Is it wise of me to play music? Well, I do, but know only too well that the effort to forget will be an extra difficulty against the little serenity I shall have in France. Unless I grow stronger of soul of course, and so much stronger is unlikely. The things I should most like to write are things of beauty with a vinegary ending, something after “The Fire Kindled”. Heine I believe is famous for that sort of thing. It is best to be Shakespeare but good to be Heine — though not Thersites.

Gurney is almost always etceterative–and occasionally tremendous. What an idea–to write beautiful, vinegary things, like Heine. And Thersites is a rare reference, but an excellent one: Gurney perhaps remembers him as the one common soldier who makes a role for himself in the Iliad, where Thersites is an ugly, misshapen grumbler amongst the gleaming heroes and handsome demigods who lead the Greek army, a would be mutineer who is scorned and battered into silence by his betters. But he is, nevertheless, a common man with a voice in the great poem.

Gurney is, as usual, writing to Marion Scott, and he segues now from his own classically-cast ambition (and muted grumbling) to a consideration of women at war. It is typical of his intelligence that he takes an observation (and one which runs against the grain of all-too-typical prejudices) and proceeds without much fanfare to a sensitive (and sensible) reconsideration of a Big Concept–courage, in this case  .

…Nurses are really wonderful people to do so many things distasteful and still to smile. There is a very nice set of nurses here (have I told you?) that could hardly be better. They call this the “Ragtime Ward”, a name of envy given by men oppressed in places of female dragons and discipline. The courage of women is certainly not less than that of men. To my mind, that is. The serene performance of hateful duties, and the refusal to be depressed by them is the finest form of courage. The more sensational are the wilder forms — no higher. There are a few soldiers who go on till they are knocked out, not heeding wounds, most of these comparative few have supported their nerves only too freely beforehand. The rest may be the flower of earth, but the man who can be brotherly and crack a joke on a winter night in a shell hole has undoubted undeniable unsupported courage, which is not always certain of the spectacular gentlemen, who may be Berserk or drunk. But there! It is only my preference perhaps for serene and quiet strength rather than for the violent kind. Violence is waste of energy.

Here endeth the umptieth lesson…

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 215.
  2. Chronology, 102.
  3. War Letters, 222-4.

Kate Luard in the Slough of Despond; Rest for David Jones and Waxing Madness for the Master of Belhaven; Vera Brittain is Back on the Job; Wilfred Owen is Self-Published; Francis Ledwidge Remembered

We are all over the place once again, today: living well in Scotland, miserable in the mud of the salient, and coming to war-torn France for the first time. But we’ll begin near Ypres, where the battle is now in its fifth day.

Kate Luard keeps a “diary” in the form of letters written to be circulated amongst her many family members in England, so there is a compromise in her writing between an unvarnished honesty of expression and the recognition that what she writes will leave her hands and be read by many people, perhaps with varying opinions on the conduct of the war. She tells the truth–but she seems to think carefully of how she is presenting the suffering in her hospital.

The editors of her letters, however, have also included some private letters to individual siblings, and one of these shows that even the masterfully composed Senior Sister is struggling to keep her composure amidst the horror of Third Ypres–and willing to write more frankly of it. Or perhaps it’s the other way round: the act of writing about pain and suffering and death, every day, helps Luard keep a lid on her emotions, but writing to her sister Georgina nearly punctures the seal, letting out a torrent of grief. Nearly… but she saves it, in part, with the tried-and-true Fussell maneuver of adapting the literary heritage to new circumstances as a way of staving off the overwhelming. She’s the first of our writers to use a now-indispensable literary reference–Bunyan’s “slough of despond”–to describe the mud of the current campaign.

Sat, Aug 4, 1917

William Blake, “Christian in the Slough of Despond”

Dearest G,

Yours of Tue 31st arrived today with incredible speed. Yes, it is now chiefly ubc (utter bloody chaos) of the ghastliest and in the most midwinter conditions of night and day pouring rain and sloughs of despond underfoot–inside the wards as well as out. And all the Push a washout, literally. I think I’m getting rather tired and have got to the stage of not knowing when to stop. When I do I immediately begin to cry of all the tomfool things to do! But outside my Armstrong hut one can keep smiling. It is the dirtiness & wasted effort of War that clouds one’s vision…[1]

 

Not far away, the Master of Belhaven‘s battery enters its fifth day of continuous firing. The costs mount.

We were shelled again last night… A third man in my battery had gone off his head. I have been feeling horribly ill myself all day… It is all owing to the beastly gas… I wish I could get news of Bath. I am very worried about him.[2]

Hamilton’s concern is genuine, even to his unrealistic expectations: the hospitals are overwhelmed, and when they can send information about badly wounded or dying men, they send it homewards, rather than back to the front. But I think it is a strange sort of lifeline: with his lungs attacked by gas and his duty–as he sees it–compelling him to force broken men (those overwhelmed by “shell shock” to the point of nervous breakdown) to remain under fire, he needs to feel compassion about someone, somewhere…

 

There was relief for others, however. Today also marked the turn of David Jones and the rest of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers to slog back from the lines to reserve billets along the crowded Yser Canal. There,

they were given chocolate and cigarettes, hot food, clean clothes, and a fresh colonel, R. H. Montgomery. Here Jones heard from the survivors of the assault…what they had endured and learned who among his acquaintances had fallen. Their experience scoured his imagination differently than if he had fully shared it… He may have experienced survivor’s guilt…[3]

He surely did–I don’t think that sensitive men who survived major assaults just because they were on the right list and their friends on the wrong one ever escaped a sense of guilt. The “bureaucratic near miss” can occasion as sense of pious exaltation when the savaged unit that one was not with is a strange one–but when it is your friends and comrades that the paper-pushers have separated you from…

At some point in the next few days Jones will sketch one of his surviving comrades (at right) “writing something” in an apparent moment of repose.

 

Speaking of writing things, the section of Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room in which we are privy to Elinor Brooke’s diary continues today. Elinor is in the English countryside near Lewes, when she hears what she first believes to be the sound of thunder. But it is the roll of the guns in Flanders, where her brother Toby is serving with the infantry.[4]

 

There is something of Vera Brittain in the fictional Elinor Brooke, and–coincidentally–today, a century back saw Brittain in Boulogne, en route from London to her first posting at a hospital in France. She had abruptly left the V.A.D. in May, coming home from Malta intending to marry and care for Victor Richardson, but Victor had died soon after and her brother Edward has been sent back to France, leaving her isolated from the suffering members of her own generation. She soon decided to try to return to nursing, but, having broken her contract, had to apply for reinstatement.

Testament of Youth shares with so many young soldier’s memoirs the general expectation that all older administrative and staff types are either cold fish bureaucrats or self-righteous hypocrites–surely her misery will not be understood by officialdom.

I was interviewed by a middle-aged woman with a grave face and an “official” manner, who sat before a desk  frowning over a folder containing my record. She motioned  me to sit down, and I told her that I wanted to join up
again.

“And why,” she asked peremptorily, “did you leave Malta?”

I trembled a little at the sharp inquiry. Breaches of contract were not, I knew, regarded with favour at Red Cross Headquarters, and were pardoned only on condition of a really good excuse. My own reason, which could not help sounding sentimental, was not, I felt certain, a “good excuse” at all. But I could think of no plausible alternative
to the simple truth, so I told it.

“I came home meaning to marry a man who was blinded at Arras,” I said, “but he died just after I got back.”

To my surprise, for I had long given up expecting humanity in officials, a mask seemed to drop from the tired face before me. I was suddenly looking into benevolent eyes dim with comprehension, and the voice that had addressed me so abruptly was very gentle when it spoke again.

“I’m so sorry. … You’ve had a sad time. Is there anywhere special you want to go?”

I hated England, I confessed, and did so want to serve abroad again, where there was heaps to do and no time to think. I had an only brother on the Western Front; was it possible to go to France?

It was, and she arrived yesterday. Today, typically, she is alone in observing the notable anniversary:

Our train next day did not leave until the afternoon, so I spent the morning in the English Church at Boulogne commemorating the Third Anniversary of the War. The Chaplain-General to the Forces, once Bishop of Pretoria,
preached to the packed congregation of officers and nurses a sermon to which I only half listened, but I paid more
attention to the prayers and the collects:

“Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take Thou vengeance of our sins;
spare us, good Lord, spare Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us for ever.”

A phrase from my Pass Mods, days at Oxford slipped into my mind; I had quoted it not long ago to Edward in a
letter from Malta:

“The gods are not angry for ever. . .

It came, I thought, from the Iliad and those quiet evenings spent with my Classical tutor in reading of the battles for sorrowful Troy. How like we were to the fighters of those old wars, trusting to the irresponsible caprices of an importuned God to deliver us from blunders and barbarisms for which we only were responsible, and from which we alone could deliver ourselves and our rocking civilisation!

But I did not, at the moment, allow my thoughts to pursue the subject thus far. Dreaming in the soft light that filtered through the high, stained-glass windows, I saw the congregation as a sombre rainbow, navy-blue and khaki, scarlet and grey, and by the time that the “Last Post ” — with its final questioning note which now always seemed to me to express the soul’s ceaseless inquiry of the Unseen regarding its ultimate destiny — had sounded over us as we stood in honour of the dead who could neither protest nor complain, I was as ready for sacrifices and hardships as I had ever been in the early idealistic days. This sense of renewed resolution went with me as I stepped from the shadowed quiet of the church into the wet, noisy streets of Boulogne. The dead might lie beneath their crosses on a hundred wind-swept hillsides, but for us the difficult business of continuing the War must go on in spite of their departure; the sirens would still sound as the ships brought their drafts to the harbour, and the wind would flap the pennons on the tall mast-heads.[5]

 

Two disparate notes to close a troubling day. There was triumph, of a sort, for Wilfred Owen. He “plunked” a pile of freshly-printed copies of The Hydra “outside the Breakfast Room Door” at Craiglockhart Hospital. It’s his first gig as an editor, and he has written several short pieces for the magazine as well. He’s proud–his “ergotherapy” is going well. But this isn’t just about literary success or professional rehabilitation–it’s about class, too (it usually is). Owen is not yet aware of his famous new fellow-patient, but as this anecdote suggests, he is already excited about the magazine’s providing new social opportunities.

I have had so far one poetical contribution—from a Guards Officer—which he timidly brought up to my room with his own towering person. I was trotting around the room talking to the furniture in German at the moment; but I affected what dignity I could, and tried to look as if I had 10/6 in my pocket, and fifty more contributions on my desk…[6]

 

Lastly, today, a very different sort of note to a mother. This is from Father Devas, chaplain of the First Royal Inniskillings, to the mother of Francis Ledwidge:

4th August 1917

Dear Mrs Ledwidge

I do not know how to write to you about the death of your dear son Francis. Quite apart from his wonderful gifts, he was such a lovable boy and I was so fond of him. We had many talks together and he used to read me his poems… The evening before he died he had been to Confession. On the morning of the 31st he was present at Mass and received Holy Communion. That evening while out with a working party a shell exploded quite near to them killing seven and wounding twelve. Francis was killed at once so that he suffered no pain. I like to think that God took him before the world had been able to spoil him with its praise and he has found far greater joy and beauty than ever he would have found on earth. May God comfort you and may his Holy Mother pray for you. I shall say a Mass for Francis as soon as I can.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Many thanks, as ever, to Caroline Stevens, for the text of this letter and for all her work in preserving and publishing her great aunt's legacy. See Unknown Warriors, 204-5.
  2. War Diary, 360.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 164.
  4. Toby's Room, 83.
  5. Testament of Youth, 366-9.
  6. Collected Letters, 480.
  7. Curtyane, Francis Ledwidge, 189.

Siegfried Sassoon Converses on England, and Sacrifice, with a Proper English Lady; Edwin Vaughan’s Patrol; Henry Williamson on Magazines and Mule Races; Rowland Feilding’s Scruples

Edwin Vaughan and his company commander had a minor adventure in No Man’s Land in the wee hours of last night, a century back. It left him feeling confident and accomplished… and eager to contest the ground with the Germans opposite.

At about 12 noon I woke and, while Dunham still slept, I wormed my out under the oilsheet which screened the front of our hole, and standing erect in the trench I met a fresh sweet breeze and clear, warm sunlight that made me glowing and alert in a moment.  Raising my arms in a luxurious stretch I rose on tiptoe and looked round the stretch of ground behind me–a slight valley of long coarse grass thickly strewn with poppies and dog daisies…

The calm and silence seemed as fragile, and the sky as dainty, as the picture on a Dresden plate…

What could go wrong? Vaughan visits his men in their posts as they while away the day reading, day-dreaming, or cleaning their rifles…

Not a sound could be heard but the tinkle of a button stick in the next recess, until without warning there was a mighty crash and a spray of earth and stones fell over us as we flung ourselves against the trench side.

A high-velocity shell bursting 30 yards in front had effectively broken the spell and as Wood climbed back into his recess, I hurried back to mine–not that these holes afford the slightest protection, except against small splinters, but as a rabbit seeks its burrow, so we each dash to our own hole for safety. Dunham was standing in the trench with a tin of pork and beans in his hand and a look of mingled surprise and indignation on his face.

In January this would have occasioned a day of cowering terror–but Vaughan is a tyro no longer. Mere whizz-bangs! This threat they laugh off, or wish away… and the day passes. Later, Vaughan goes out to meet Radcliffe, the company commander. They are out in the open, along a segment of the line where a rise in the ground screens them from German observation.

We were still in the open near the right post when I grabbed his arm and we stood motionless. I had heard the faint crack of a ‘grenatenwerfer’–forgotten since Biaches–and after a faint short swish the bomb burst with a sharp shattering crash and a spurt of yellow sparks–overhead!

Immediately a cold fear gripped me, for I realized instantly that there was no cover from these. It was no use lying down, for their burst was downward and they were immediately overhead. We waited for several minutes, and as the fire was not repeated I cheered myself by saying that this was only an accidental premature, and that the ground busters were quite harmless.

But this hope was soon shattered, for suddenly there came a persistent stream of them all bursting at the same height over our lines. The fragments whizzed past us and struck the ground with horrid thuds, and our nerves were terribly racked. But reaching my post we found the troops taking not the slightest notice of them, so in feigned nonchalance we strolled along, chaffing the NCOs and questioning the sentries until the ‘pineapples’ ceased–15 minutes later.

Another false alarm. Or, not so much false as… merely alarming. But the night’s business is still ahead: will they be able to assert their dominance of the wide swath of No Man’s Land, or cede it to German patrols and working parties?

Radcliffe was taking his patrol out from my right post, so I waited there while he went back to fetch them, then one by one we passed through the gap in the wire and crouched in the wet grass until the formation was complete. We advanced in jumps, Raddy and I creeping forward with a runner, scenting the ground for 50 yards at a time, and then sending the runner back for the patrol. After a while we got tired of this, so we left the patrol where it was and we two crept on alone until we reached a junction of two roads that ran across No Man’s Land. The road was sunken and as we approached we heard faint voices and, looking over the bank, there, hard at work digging a hole, were eight or ten large Boche.

This odd locution–are these singular-plural Boche beasts to be hunted?–is yet another sign of Vaughan’s new veteran’s posture.

We were neither surprised nor alarmed. We just lay watching them amusedly for a couple of minutes, then crawled off back to the patrol. I was wondering what on earth induced them to dig holes in No Man’s Land, when a figure almost upright hurried past us and was lost in the darkness behind. So we stood up then and ran back to where our lads were lying chilled, wet and fed up. Quickly we told them what we had seen, and in a moment they were alert and we set off together–out for blood.

Alas! When we reached the crossroads nothing remained of the working party but a few chalky shovels. Se we had to be content with firing a few rounds down the road after them, and then we walked back, laughing and talking, whilst four of the silly asses marched the shovels between them with great ceremony and exaggerated caution as though they were enemy prisoners

This little jaunt has left us with our tails well up, and I, for one, am very keen on No Man’s Land. I fully appreciate the truth of the maxim that was dinned into us during training–‘Fighting patrols are the finest stiffeners of morale’..[1]

Vaughan, who has been so honest about his fears and insecurities, can thus perhaps be trusted on this matter a bit farther than we might ordinarily credit a diary drafted in post-patrol exhilaration. And–while not hoping (if that makes any sense, here, a century on) for more violence–it is interesting to note that this confidence-building patrol produces neither useful intelligence nor some “positive” attritional score. It’s a riskier version of “live and let live,” and it is certainly good for morale, and/but no harm was done. So–good!

But other units would have counted the escape of these Germans on consecutive nights as a failure to be sufficiently effectively bloodthirsty.

 

We have several more writers to get to, and today’s letter from Rowland Feilding contains no similarly dramatic descriptions of military escapades. But it’s worth our time as an excellent example of what makes his letters to his wife so valuable. Their promised commitment to honesty is neither fudged for the sake of their worries nor elided for matters of convenience. This couple monitors the gulf between them with the scrupulous intensity of responsible inspectors of public works, and so keep their connection as strong as possible and maintain the future historical value of their correspondence.

May 15, 1917 – Kemmel Shelters.

I feel disappointed when I get a letter from you telling me of troubles with servants, whom war and the high wages of the munition works seem to have so thoroughly unsettled. I hate picturing you in the midst of such annoyances, especially as there is nothing I can say or do can help you. Contrariwise, this remark no doubt applies equally to my stories to you of the goings on here, and I often wonder if I am right in keeping the promise I made you when I first came out to hide nothing from you.

The very fact of my being here must cause you intense anxiety, and, as I am helpless in the case of the servant problem, so it is equally true that there is nothing you can do to deter the enemy from any villainy he may contemplate.

And I continue writing to you of all the dangers of the war, remembering that you once said that if I hid anything you
would know it, and only imagine worse things than were really happening.[2]

 

Other correspondents are less reliable, not to mention less considerate about their addressee’s feelings. Henry Williamson is in rare form once again. Yesterday, he wrote to his mother a letter that–for all that I skip the most repetitive ones–you may feel as if you had read before:

Dear Mother,

Thank you for the little letter. Of course you always pile the agony on, dont you. Why am I a hero? I tell you frankly I would rather be here than at home–because out here I cant spend money, and also I have quite as good a time. I shant be going in any more attacks–as it is proved, thank God, that a T.O. is essential to send up supplies, etc during one… Of course one may die any second by hostile shelling, but even then, one has a sporting chance of seeing the war through…

Well mother, will you please give an order to a newsagent…

Now please dont forget… For heavens sake let this be the last request for these papers. Well I cant write any more now. Love to all. Harry.

His timing is as impeccable as his deportment. Today, a century back:

My dear Mother,

Thanks for the two bundles of papers etc arrived today. By the way, you never answered my query about how many boxes of souvenirs you got–I sent two tin boxes off, then a box of helmets, then a sandbag…  what about the first box?

We are having tomorrow some sports in the Transport Section…

I am willing to wager a good deal that–provided the box of almost definitely not live souvenir grenades made it past the censors and through the post–Mrs. Williamson did away with them rather swiftly.

In any case, there’s no sign that the grenades made it into Williamson’s archive… although a program for this Transport Section sport competition did. There are twelve events listed, most of them some variation on a mule race…

Did Henry participate? Perhaps not. But in the novel Philip Maddison got second place, riding a mule named Jimmy…[3]

 

Two days ago I posed the question of whether Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in what sounds like an impossibly pleasant environment, redolent of his prewar country idylls, can possibly progress in his writing–the writing that was increasingly focused on protesting the horrors of war.

Well, yes and no…

May 15

Marvell’s poems are the best vintage for these days of tranquillity. In the morning I wake to hear a gardener whetting his scythe beyond the yew-hedges. And I know that a tree of silver blossom shakes in the morning sunshine above his head, and a blackbird sings to all the world, crying that, life is fresh and sweet and jolly.

Ye glow–worms, whose officious flame
To wandering mowers shows the way.
That in the night have lost their aim.
And after foolish fires do stray.[4]

And in the afternoon I breathe the country air blown up from weald and wood—the smell of earth after rain, the kindest smell that ever came to make me glad.

All the morning I sit under oaks and beeches in the glory of young leaves, a book on my knee—John Morley on some eighteenth-century Frenchman, the kind of book where one can read a page or two and then turn to the morning sky and the garden and the distant line of downs as infinitely preferable, like listening to a bird singing, outside the church during a dry sermon) as one watches, the shadows of leaves and wings against the coloured windows…

It would seem, then, that the only things Sassoon might be inclined to write are backsliding pastoral poems or, perhaps, a time-travel jeu d’esprit in which he falls into a fountain and emerges dripping to hold a conversation with a young Marie Antoinette.

Well, yes and no. Here’s what comes next in the notebook:

 

A Conversation

He told her how he’d been trying to make up his mind. It was all quite simple; a tale re-told in many hearts. Twice he had been to the war, and twice had come home wounded; and now his friends had half-persuaded him to take a ‘safe job’.

She listened to him, with her grey hair and tired white face, kind, aristocratic and emotionless, leaning a little forward over a piece of embroidery. She represented the patrician distinctions that he had fought for—the climbing woods and green fields that soldiers learn to love when death is over them. She was a Great Lady. And he was only a poet; but he knew that life was taking shape in his heart, and reputation a thing of small value compared with his hidden passion, for utterance and truth and beauty. For a while he thought that she understood.

He spoke without reserve of his longing for life and the task that lay before him, setting against it his mystical joy in the idea of sacrifice and the disregard of death. ‘But death is nothing’, she said, putting away her high-bred reserve like a rich cloak; ‘Life, after all, is only the beginning. And those who are killed in the war—they help us from “up there”, they are all helping us to win.’

For a moment he was struck dumb: he had forgotten that he spoke to an alien intelligence, that would not suffer the rebellious creed that was his. She was a good woman as well as a Great Lady. But her mind dwelt in another kingdom from his. He was the starry wind on the hills, arid the beast writhing in the mire, the strange traveller who had come to her gates and had been suffered to sit by the fire and rest his tired limbs. What was this ‘other world’ that she spoke of? It was a dream he had forgotten years ago–the simplicity of his childish prayers, the torment of his mocking youth that denied the God of priests, and triumphed in the God of skies and waters.

She spoke again, kind yet unrelenting, from the dais of her noble rank. ‘It isn’t as if you were an only child, with a big place to inherit. No; I can’t see any excuse for your keeping out of danger.’ And again, half-compassionate yet still tinged with the prejudice of caste, ‘But of course you can only decide a thing like that for yourself.’ And he knew she was right. He was heir to a dukedom that would never exist in the Peerage that moulded her judgements. Had he been the only son of an accredited Lord Parnassus, she would have said, in her clear firm voice: ‘The name must be preserved; it would never do for the place to go to that impossible creature in Canada.’

I suppose it would do, here, to break in and remark that, while Sassoon is no duke–and while his first actual trade publication (not that should measure Parnassian accomplishment, but still) is only days old–it is still the case that his mother owns a considerable property in Kent, that he has always been rich enough to keep horses and hunt (and never work a regular job) and that his only surviving brother is currently in Canada… A century on, with the Lords and Ladies very much faded and their estates eaten up, donated to the National Trust, or, if preserved, likely to be dwelt in by aging rock stars or financial necromancers, it’s hard to comprehend that Sassoon could have so easily assumed that the fundamental class divide is on the far side of his own status…

In any case, here in the century-back, Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in a Stately Home in Sussex, is gently, ruminatively nibbling on the hand that has been feeding him. And nibbles have been known to turn to worries… So where are we, the readers, in the satirical reception of this piece?

But she would pray for him with all the strength of her generous perfect-mannered soul. And when he had died of his wounds she would say: ‘He was such a good boy, I am sure he is happier ‘‘up there’’. And he did so splendidly.’

And he would rot in his shallow grave, with all his plays and poems blown away on the smoke of some senseless battle—because his name was not worth preserving, and his ‘place’ was only a little book of the songs he had made, bidding farewell to earth as he stood on the verge of his promised kingdom. For he was not even the younger son of an obscure barony; he was only a poet who used to read the Bible for the glory of the language.
But death forgives many things; and he had died for England, after all.[5]

There’s the satiric manner that all of London’s reviewers are now grappling with, anyway.

It would seem that the Great Lady of this sketch is very closely based on his hostess, Lady Brassey, who was a baroness, the sister of an earl, and the daughter of a viscount. Her serene spiritual confidence in the propriety of his getting killed seems to have rubbed Sassoon the wrong way, for some reason…  let us hope that there is less journal-thievery here than in other great houses…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 117-21.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 174-5.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 150-1; Love and the Loveless, 
  4. Andrew Marvell. ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’, according to Sassoon's note--or not; Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 567, notes that the reference is "almost certainly" to "Damon the Mower."
  5. Diaries, 164-7.

Kate Luard Prepares for Battle; Ivor Gurney Welcomes the Spring; Edward Thomas Reassures; C.E. Montague Estranged from Sacrifice

Everywhere in the British sector of Northern France there is an air of tense expectation. Kate Luard‘s Casualty Clearing Station at Warlencourt has just begun to take in large numbers of the wounded from the preliminary bombardments around Arras. She describes the “Preparation-for-Theatre” (i.e. pre-op) Ward:

Here the number of battered men, generally from 50 to 60, never seems to grow less, as although they are carried when ready to the operating Teams in the Theatre, their places are continually filled by others.

All the layers of sodden or caked stiff clothing are cut off, pyjamas or long flannel pinafore gowns put on… Hot blankets, hot-water bottles, hot drinks, subcutaneous salines and hypodermics are given them, as also in the Resuscitation Ward to which all the apparently hopeless cases are taken…

It often happens that no M.O. can be spared for this tent, so a great deal of responsibility is thrown to us…

Once when I was cutting off a split boot of a man wounded in the head, chest, and the other thigh, half his foot came off in it–a detail overlooked in the Dressing Hut and the Field Ambulance with all his other injuries…

What we have had so far is child’s play to what is to come…[1]

 

Edward Thomas is an inexperienced artillery subaltern, but he too knows that a grim test awaits. The firing plans his battery has been practicing since they arrived on the Arras front as well as the escalating bombardments of the last two days would make it abundantly clear (even if there had been total information security) that a major assault is only days away. Which is significant, but no sufficient reason to give up reading, looking for beauty, or tracking the progress of spring.

A dull morning turns misty with rain. Some 4.2s coming over at 10. Air flapping all night with great sails in strong gusty wind (with artillery)–thick misty windless air. Sods on f/c’s dugout begin to be fledged with fine green feathers of yarrow. Sun and wind drying the mud. Firing all day,… Beautiful pale hazy moonlight and the sag and flap of air. Letters to Mother and Helen. HAMLET.[2]

Thomas is reading Shakespeare, and perhaps a bit too tired to combine reading-recording with humor: the play has not destabilized his letters to his wife or mother in any noticeable way…

The letter to Helen is, in fact, notably calm. Thomas expands on the bare observations of the diary in a way that makes it clear that his primary purpose in writing is to steady and reassure:

5 April 1917
Dearest,

This is the second day, a much better day so far, beginning misty and turning warm. We have been firing faster, but I have sat in the sun at my job most of the time and got warm. I slept pretty well in the dug-out till our guns began. The other firing all night merely flapped and flapped like great sails in the heavy misty air. I woke hearing a wren sing and many blackbirds. The clods on my little hole where I work between 3 and 4 guns are getting fledged with fine green yarrow shoots all feathery.

The old dog this morning was delighted with running after Horton’s stick and bringing it back. He laid it down and started gnawing it, and then barked for it to be thrown again. His barking delighted us very much. I don’t think I had heard a dog bark in play for these three months. Then he went down into a shell-hole and drank the water in it.

The Somme pictures are absurd, compared with what I could tell you in five or six minutes and shall do someday I hope.

Goodbye. I am all and always yours Edwy.[3]

And the letter to his mother is, despite a similar calm acknowledgment that they are two days into the pre-assault bombardment, notably domestic:

5 April 1917
Dear Mother,

We are now in the thick of it, though not quite in the middle. This is the second day, and a beautiful day it is, sunny and misty, the sun sometimes failing behind the mist and coming through again quite warm, which I have enjoyed as I sat out on the bank between No. 3 and No. 4 guns while we fired. Yesterday was cold and slippery and dirty and I got clean tired out by the end when I was relieved at 9.30 p.m. after beginning at 5.30 a.m. I moved into the battery position to a dug-out I have been strengthening, because any day the Hun might see the wisdom of laying our street flat with the ground. It is a little damp in the dug-out but wonderfully quiet except when our No.1 and No.2 guns fire straight over it. All the other artillery only makes the air flap heavily all night. It is nice to wake up practically out of doors and hear the wrens in the copse. For the dug-out is dug out of a bank and not down into the ground, so that the light of day reaches it, and it has the advantage of lying across the line of fire of our own and the enemy’s guns, with the entrance not facing either.

I live for the moment in trousers concealed by rubber boots almost to the waist. This shortens the time of dressing and undressing by a quarter of an hour, as I have no boots or breeches to lace up. Otherwise I remain civilised and clean so far.

He’s a good boy, Edward is. But he returns, after this faint smile, to recent developments and the near future: his eight pseudonymous poems are being well reviewed, and the big push is only days away.

I have just seen quite a respectable review of the Annual in the Times and I hear there will be one in the New Statesman . . .

As things are at present arranged I may see exciting things within 3 or 4 days. But of course the future is obscure and we do not know what the Hun will do, or if he is where we think he is—if he is, he is having a bad time. I do not mind how bad if it helps to end the war. Goodbye . . .

Ever your loving son

Edwy[4]

 

C.E. Montague and Edward Thomas must have known each other at least in passing, English journalism being a smallish world, and they share a subject today, a century back. But whereas Thomas is reticent about his atheism and capable still of the simple hope that the latest effort will help end the war, Montague is thoroughly miserable and completely negative about the course the war has taken. He does not deny Christ–in fact he associates Christian virtue with the faithfulness of the soldiers he so admires–but that also requires aligning those who control the course of the war with the persecutors and executioners of God.

Diary
April 5, 1917 (eve of Good Friday)

…Still, we may win. The multitude of men who think of nothing but serving hard and faithfully unto death, who do not hope for distinctions or promotions, may carry the world into safety and a new life. Hundreds and thousands of them will die, after this Good Friday, more painfully than on a Cross. Our hope is that in them, as in Christ, a
worse world may die into a better, and larger life come out of death, and mankind be ennobled by losing its noblest men—the old mystery of the Cross and of evolution.

I seem to have lost my chance of thus following Christ. There seems to be no hope of getting back to my battalion. Because I am 50 I must live among the embusqués [shirkers] and not with the friends I love and honour since I came to know the depth of their courage and patience in the trenches. It is cheap even to murmur against it. It is like trying to combine my ignominious safety with a little easy aspiration after self-sacrifice. But I do mean it.

Cavalry moving up all the roads. Procession of Red Cross trains up St. Pol-Arras line. Push put off from 8th to 9th.[5]

Skeptical and disenchanted, Montague is now voicing–privately–the newer sort of protest. But despite the bitterness about the slaughter he does not consider “turning pacifist” or otherwise refusing to continue to be party to the passion of the Tommy. In fact, the key to his bitterness is his estrangement from his original unit–the same thing that so many others, in other moods, identified as the best thing about the war. Montague was too old and too sickly for the rigors of combat, and so he was denied, after short service in the trenches, what almost all of our writers crave: the unmatched intensity of the fellowship of combat infantry. To “murmur” from safety would only compound the betrayal he feels (although it was not his choice to leave). Montague, now tasked with escorting VIPs in the battle zone, even forswears what his friends all remark upon: that he seeks danger whenever his cushy job permits. He doesn’t want to play at martyrdom–it would be disloyal, almost blasphemous. And yet given how much emphasis is on “small unit cohesion” the ready paradigm–as he notes, tomorrow is Good Friday–doesn’t really fit. It’s not Christ who is going to his passion alone; it’s a whole platoon of disciples, going together at the behest of the gods of war, hundreds of times over…

 

Finally, today, Ivor Gurney‘s Gloucesters are stationed far to the south of the coming Arras attack, but they will be in action soon nonetheless. There is fighting to be done as new positions are established opposite the Hindenberg line.

Private Gurney is still uncertain of the date of the coming attack (he is uncertain even of today‘s date), but he is nevertheless certain of some things: art, beauty, and Gloucestershire. He writes, as so often, to Marion Scott.

April 4 or 5th

I thought we were going over the top tonight, but it has been postponed — a state of things which will inevitably lead to souloutpourings. My state of mind is — fed up to the eyes; fear of not living to write music for England; no fear at all of death. Yesterday we had a little affair with a German patrol, which made me interested for 5 minutes; after which I lapsed into the usual horrid state of boredom. O that the Nice Blighty may come soon! I do not bear pain and cold well, but do not grumble too much; so I reckon that cancels out. One cannot expect to have everything, or to make one’s nature strong in a week. It snowed like anything yesterday, but today has been quite beautiful, and I have strolled about chatting of Maisemore Wood and such-like things of beauty…

My dear friend, it has been very kind of you to write to my friends as you have, and I know they are grateful. It is something to know that my father realises his trouble and sacrifice have not been all wasted. He has been only too good always; especially considering the difference of our temperaments, and my long wasted time. Surely my life must lead to something. Surely the apprenticeship has almost passed?

I am afraid there are no poems again. The conditions are against it…

Here we are called up.

Goodbye: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

Ah, but that was only April 4th, and he has lived to fight, at least, another day.

Next day

…This morning was beautifully sunny, and daisies are poking their heads out here and there — without steel helmets! O the Spring, the Spring! Come late or early, you must give hope ever to the dwellers in the house of flesh…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 108-9.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  3. Letters to Helen, 94.
  4. Selected Letters, 162-3.
  5. C.E. Montague, 167-8.
  6. War Letters, 152-3.

Edward Thomas Wanders Off and Reads Eastaway; Siegfried Sassoon Inspects the Feet; Vera Brittain is Bitter and Rebellious; The Death of Arthur West

Edward Thomas is still confused about the liturgical calendar. He began a letter to Eleanor Farjeon today, a century back, under the impression that Easter had occurred a week earlier than it will have:

April 3

My dear Eleanor I didn’t discover the Egg till Easter Monday, because I was taking apples out one by one from a corner I had nibbled out. So now I must write again to thank you for an Easter Egg. It was such a lovely morning Easter Monday, though I can’t praise it so well today when the ground is snow slush and the wind very cold though not colder than my feet…[1]

And there the letter trails off… has he been called to the guns? To some reminder that Easter is still nearly a week off?

Thomas also wrote to Gordon Bottomley, but the date of Easter does not arise. It’s clear that Thomas’s rush has everything to do with expectation: he knows that the battle will begin soon.

My dear Gordon,

Your letter of the 28th of March has just come…  think I had better write back now as this is the eve, & I can’t help realizing that I may not have another opportunity. It is the end of a beautiful sunny day that began cold with snow. The air has been full of aeroplanes & shells & yet there have been clothes hanging up to dry in the sun outside my window which has glass in it, though whether it will tomorrow not even the Hun knows. The servants are chatting outside in their shirtsleeves & war is not for the moment dirty or ugly—as it was this morning, when I was well in front & the shining sun made ruins & rusty barbed wire & dead horses & deep filthy mud uglier than they are in the stormy weather or in the pale cold dawn…

Between beauty and ugliness, violence and idleness, time to talk poetry. Eight poems by “Edward Eastaway” have just been published.

I have not seen the Annual yet but by the same post as your letter came The Times review which I was quite pleased with. I don’t mind now being called inhuman & being told by a reviewer now that April’s here—in England now—that I am blind to the ‘tremendous life of these 3 years’. It would be the one consolation in finishing up out here to provide such reviewers with a conundrum, except that I know they would invent an answer if they saw that it was a conundrum.

This is a cold, wry assessment. Thomas was a powerful and precise poetry critic long before he was a poet, and these skills have not deserted him just because he is the poet in question. He knows that his poetry is too assured to fit neatly into any prefabricated category, and that, just as new poems by a pseudonymous author are criticized for not being overtly about the war, they would, if he were to be killed, inevitably come to be considered the work of a war poet. And both of these certainties are amusingly short-sighted. Being a powerful poet who chose not to address what he hadn’t yet experienced, he both is and isn’t a “war poet.” He’s a poet, and there’s a war on, and the weight of it sinks into any good poetry the way the stench of decay unavoidably permeates the cloth of uniforms worn in trenches.

And, since few critics are capable of knowing competent poetry from great poetry without external hints (the praise of others; a famous name) few suspect who this new, strangely assured poet “Edward Eastaway” might be. Should they be sniffing harder, to smell the war? Should they slow down and read the poetry and understand what it is, and why it might be published without a recognizable name?

Why do the idiots accuse me of using my eyes? Must I only use them with field-glasses & must I see only Huns in these beautiful hills eastwards & only hostile flashes in the night skies when I am at the Observation Post?

…No don’t tell anybody about Eastaway tho naturally I want people to want to know who he is…

Goodbye. Yours ever & Emily’s

Edward Thomas[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is marching toward the coming battle. But slowly enough for his diary to run the gamut–and include a poem too.

April 3

Left Corbie 9 a.m… Woman in our billet says that troops have been coming through (going toward Doullens and Arras) for fifteen days, never staying more than one night. The movements of our (33rd) Division are nebulous… Our billet is adorned with mouldy stuffed birds, with spread wings; a jay, a small hawk over the fireplace, and a seagull slowly revolving in draughts, hung from a string in the ceiling. Also two squirrels and a stork.

Feeling much better since we started moving, except for usual cold in head and throat. Same old ‘point-to-point’ feeling about going into the show—the ‘happy warrior’ stunt cropping up as usual. Letters from Robert Graves and Julian Dadd yesterday which cheered me no end. R.G. at Harlech—lucky devil…

The Second R.W.F. are gradually taking me to their bosom. It will be best for me to stay here now and try to become a hero…

No sign of my book yet. I do want to see it before I get killed (if death is the dose which April means me to swallow).
First Battalion are up at Croisilles; having a rough passage, I am afraid.

FOOT INSPECTION

The twilight barn was chinked with gleams; I saw
Soldiers with naked feet stretched on the straw.
Stiff-limbed from the long muddy, march we’d done.
And ruddy-faced with April wind and sun.
With pity and stabbing tenderness I see
Those stupid, trustful eyes stare up at me.
Yet, while I stoop to Morgan’s blistered toes
And ask about his boots, he never knows
How glad I’d be to die, if dying could set him free
From battles. Shyly grinning at my joke.
He pulls his grimy socks on; lights a smoke.
And thinks ‘Our officer’s a decent bloke’.

April 3[3]

The diary is the old familiar Siegfried–moody, self-involved and preoccupied with his demise (and, on the way thither, his heroism) in the Brookean fashion, yet also punctuated by striking observations. The squirrel!

But the poetry is another major step in his recent new direction. It’s not so much the “realism”–it’s still too prettily written to succeed in being gritty, too didactic to feel natural–as it is simply the subject matter. The soldiers are being condescended to, it’s true, but at least they (and not “glory” or “England” or “the fray”) are front and center, and they speak, and they begin to be fleshed out. It’s an observational poem: they are marching, after a few easy weeks, and their feet must be attended to. This is practical, but it’s a pointed observation: these are not hearty soldier lads ready for sacrifice, but rather tired men, with sore feet. And if the officer/poet is still operating in a register of theoretical sacrifice, well… perhaps that will be the next change.

 

Briefly, before a difficult last entry, we will hear from Vera Brittain, writing to her brother Edward. This letter reminds us that one of the goals of this project is to measure the passage of “real” time by maintaining the precise historical distance of one hundred years. Vera is reacting today to mail that we read weeks ago, but is just now reaching her.

April 3rd

My mail was depressing to-day; as well as your news about being passed fit there was a letter from Father in the usual strain — German retirement at the wrong time for us and therefore anything but an advantage (of course you say this too & I always suspected it) — Russia internally rotten & likely to sue for a separate peace — conditions dreadful at home — end no nearer in sight etc etc. This sort of letter is so much more depressing out here than at home; for it is long before you get another to remove the impression. Victor too sends me a letter half cynical, half hopelessly resigned; apparently he was on the verge of an attack, for he spoke of perhaps never writing to me again, & says — as you said to him before July 1st — that it is time to say a long long adieu. This too leaves me anxiously & very sadly wondering how long it will be before I hear any more of him & what it will be when I do. I think I would rather have had an attitude of open resentment & rebellion in the face of death than this sort of stifled
bitterness…

Had a delightfully vigorous & colourful letter from Geoffrey–though he longs for leave.[4]

A strange course, that letter takes, to append the news of Geoffrey Thurlow’s letter after she has taken her deepest swing toward disenchantment in some time. But letters to intimates are like that, unloading the mind’s concerns without too much concern for order or priority. I think it’s fair to note that while Vera Brittain takes delight in letters, the central fact of her non-working life is, now, anxiety for the soldiers she loves and cares for. Edward Brittain has been passed fit, at last recovered from his wounds; Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson are both in France, and liable to join in the coming battle. And she will only learn of whatever happens weeks afterwards–unless the news is so bad that someone takes the time and expense to try and get a telegram through. She is far closer to the war than most provincial young ladies will ever get, and further away from the worst of France.

And what could she mean by “open resentment & rebellion?”

 

Finally, today, a century back, Arthur Graeme West was killed by a German sniper. He was twenty-five. To write about him now, today, is disheartening, for a number of tangled reasons.

First, of course, because another bright young man and talented writer has been killed, pointlessly. But I’m also feeling an obscure sort of guilt because it proved to be impossible to properly include West in this project. On the most superficial level, it was hard to draw on a book entitled Diary of a Dead Officer without infringing upon the rules of being strictly a-century-back from the current date. For another thing, West’s writing–some decent poetry, a diary that veers between confessional and angry, initial enthusiasm curdled by the army’s stupidity and the war’s brutality–compares in many ways to Siegfried Sassoon‘s… but it’s not as good. To quote him often would have been duplication, in a sense, and since the thread of West’s story is much more difficult to follow, it might have confused more than enlightened us.

And that tangled thread is the biggest reason that I ended up hardly using his work: it was heavily edited, after his death, to shape it into a particular form. West was certainly disillusioned, even “disenchanted:” he was angry at the war and the army, he was afraid, and he regretted joining. In 1916 he had considered objecting to the war on pacifist principles and even wrote a letter of resignation. But he didn’t send it. Instead he returned to France. In his last few months, back in the line, West wrote very little.

But none of that is disqualifying: the problem is that these aspects of West’s character, his beliefs, are heavily emphasized in the posthumous publication while much else–how much else, and what it was, I don’t know–was cut out. The published Diary is, essentially, a work of anti-war propaganda, carefully constructed by West’s school friend Cyril Joad, who was a committed pacifist. West doesn’t seem to have had the same beliefs, and so he has suffered a particularly ironic sort of violence: his feelings were, after the fact, suppressed and misrepresented, a sort of negative echo of the way in which his decision to join the army (he was no pacifist then; instead he was very typical of our Public School and Oxford boys) controlled his body. There is a lot of interesting material in the Diary, which is why I read it and made some use of it here. But while we can track someone like Sassoon in his changeable moods, our access to West’s mind is not only partially blocked but carefully channeled, and his words stripped of their original context… and that didn’t feel right.

So Arthur Graeme West is dead, and he will have some posthumous recognition as a sort of pacifist martyr–but he wasn’t. He was a young man who came to hate the war and wanted out, but went back anyway, out of duty and out of fear and into fear and terrible danger, and to his death.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 264.
  2. Letters to Edward Thomas From Gordon Bottommley, 281-3.
  3. Diaries, 148-9.
  4. Letters From A Lost Generation, 331-2.

C.E. Montague Behind the Old Lines; Siegfried Sassoon Drugs Himself With Dreams; Edward Thomas Knows Love

C.E. Montague‘s diary has only been published in widely-spaced fragments, so it is difficult to get a sense of his day-to-day life as a professional optimist concealing a private fury. But he, too, takes joy in the German retreat–the relative uncertainty of semi-open warfare is good news for a man who likes to “accidentally” roam too close to the line when he is supposed to be keeping his V.I.P. guests safe. Today, a century back, he finds there a sight that emphasizes the essential commonality of experience of all fighting soldiers:

March 27

By car, with Lance-Corporal Bonafoux, to . . . Boiry Becquerelle, our last village eastwards here. No trench, soldier, or line visible from here, but Hénin-sur-Cojeul, in German hands, visible a mile away to the N.E. One of our snipers busy a few hundred yards to the N. We walk E.S.E. through a washed garden of yews, box-edging, and fruit-trees, and beyond, in a corner of an orchard behind a hedge, I am challenged by a corporal in command of a sentry group of two men. I ask him where is our front line.

He says, ‘Well, Sir, I’m our most advanced post here. We had one up the road on the right, but it was scuppered the other night.’ I see the ‘road on the right’, a sunk road, sloping obliquely up a little rise towards Croisilles, an enemy strong point less than two miles away.

It looks sunny and peaceful and tempts me to reconnoitre it and see the lost post, if empty of Germans. Bonafoux and I go up the road, and in 300 yards come to two little shelters under the east bank of the sunken road. The captured men’s messing tins and waterproof sheets are lying about and the hay in the shelters is still moulded like a bird’s nest with the pressure of their bodies where those off duty rested. Fifty yards beyond the derelict post the explanation of its capture is made clear. A German communication trench, coming from the direction of Croisilles, debouches on the road, out of its north-eastern rising bank. Clearly the enemy, at night, streamed down this trench overpowered the little post and carried them off prisoners.

On right of road, near Boisieux-au-Mont, a German military cemetery, an extension of a French village cemetery. Near the entrance-gate a well-kept grave, with ivy and some sort of primulous flowers planted on it, and inscribed

Hier ruht in Gott
der englische Soldat
C. M. Cross
9 King’s L—pool Regt
gef. an 7.4.16.

Other well-kept and planted graves of English and French soldiers beside the road further on.[1]

 

Edward Thomas has also moved forward, into new positions from which they will now fire the big guns. Being closer to the German guns, however, will take some getting used to.

Rain and sleet and sun, getting guns camouflaged… Sat till 11 writing letters. As I was falling asleep great blasts shook the house and windows, whether from our own firing or enemy bursts near, I could not tell in my drowse, but I did not doubt my heart thumped so that if they had come closer together it might have stopped… Letters to Helen and Eleanor.[2]

Let’s read the one to Eleanor Farjeon, which confirms an unsurprising illogic: Thomas writes better, more thoughtful, more feeling letters when he is exhausted and close to the guns than when he is in reserve or doing office work behind the lines.

Rather than breaking in to comment, I’m just going to insert paragraph breaks into the flow of the letter. This, I think, will more gently underline the way Thomas links so many apparently disparate thoughts–thanks and ginger, friendship and death, expectation and anxiety–in one snaking but unbroken chain.

March 27
My dear Eleanor

As everybody is sleepier than I and I am alone I am going to drink hot brandy and water with you for a quarter of an hour. The gramophone (and Raymond Jeremy) is silent, and the guns are mostly half a mile off or more, and nothing is coming over. But these are busy times. Again the battle is promised us and we long to be into it, I suppose because then it will be nearer over.

We are up late and down early. We do all kinds of things. Today I solemnly took 10 men and an N.C.O. and a trench cart to steal a small truck for carrying shells on rails. I had to guide them and stand by officially as if it were an official act while they loaded the cart and marched off. The other things I did were more technical, and in doing them I dashed about over copse and made extra paths that the Hun will photograph. Just for 5 minutes Thorburn and I looked for primroses—in vain among the moss and ashtrees. We have to cut off 10 feet from the tops of the prettiest birchtrees, because they are dangerously in our way. Not one shell—touch wood—has fallen into the copse yet, though a quarter of a mile off they crack every day.

Yet we have pleasant and even merry hours and moments. We are kind to one another often. And we do eat well, in spite of the loss of that parcel, for the one that came from F. & M. was certainly not the one you spoke of. It contained sweets and muscatels and almonds and tinned paste and soup tablets. It contained also the wrapper of the originally misdirected parcel to explain the delay. You send what you like. Muscatels and almonds are what I like best, and fruit fresh or dried of any kind. Best of all is to have my pockets fat with your letters as they are now.

I was nearly forgetting to thank you for more ginger and several kinds of sweets. They were very good. I ate some of them in the sun at lunch in the O.P. the other day, sitting on some wooden steps till I suppose the Hun got envious and shelled me away. It is walking up to or among ruined houses—gable ends all big holes and piles of masonry round and splintered walnut—that I dislike most, with a lowering sky like this evening’s.

I keep feeling that I should enjoy it more if I knew I would survive it. I can’t help allowing it to trouble me, but it doesn’t prey on me and I have no real foreboding, only occasional trepidation and anxiety. The men are better but then they are comrades and I am usually alone or with them. I wish that what is coming would be more than an incident—the battle of——. Still I can’t wait a great while, though of course what is coming is to be worse than anything I know so far. It is worse for you and for Helen and Mother, I know. I wish I could keep back more of what I feel, but you mustn’t think it is often fear or ever dread for more than a moment.

You will be in your cottage by the time this arrives with all your pretty things. I wish I could like more pretty things—the only one I like is that gavotte from Ambrose Thomas’s ‘Mignon’. I shall get it played now and go to bed. Good night. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Thomas is in most ways a good man–as good as he can be–and he has a talent for friendship, even if he finds it frustrated among the men of an artillery battery. But love is another matter, and kindness, for him, can be an effort. This is especially true for those who intrude upon his solitude and misery by loving him. He has always been… inconsistent in mustering the strength to be generous and compassionate with those who love him most.

But now, writing to a dear and loyal friend on something almost like the eve of battle, he does her a quiet sort of honor and a very great kindness: by counting Eleanor with his mother and his wife among those always always for word of him–those whose lives are to a great degree suspended while he remains in danger–he recognizes in a formal, almost courtly way, a fact that is plain to them both–she loves him, and he knows it.

 

It is a burden to be loved, and a great thing to be free–but lovers are not supposed to feel burdened and free men are free to feel burdened. Siegfried Sassoon doesn’t think enough of his mother–the embarrassing, slightly batty figure who has already lost a son and has yet to endure the indignity of being translated into “George Sherston”‘s “Aunt Evelyn.” And not thinking of her there is no one else, really–there are many friends, but no one so firmly committed to him that he or she waits only for a line about Siegfried.

Instead, the prospect of his death remains, primarily, an item of philosophical contention between himself and… well, whoever. The establishment, the generals, the Germans, the phonies, the tension of an uncertain life, his inchoate opinions, his transubstantiating muse. Where shall (personal) peace be found? How about that rainy cathedral walk last night? What is there to live for?

We expect to be at Camp 13 until the end of this week; then probably go to St Pol, before proceeding to the battle—whatever that may mean. I felt last night (after a bottle of decent wine) that I would gladly die to guard Amiens Cathedral from destruction, but one can’t feel like that in the light of day.

Anyhow, I would rather be in a battle than at Camp 13. It would be interesting, though uncomfortable; and there would always be the possibility of release, to Blighty, or Elysian-fields.

In these days I drug myself with dreams. I have seen the Spectator for March 17, in which Heinemann advertises my book as ‘ready shortly’: Being about ten days behind the civilised world of London, I suppose I’m published by now![4]

He is not–these things go slowly! Battle will come in April, The Old Huntsman in May.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C. E. Montague, 157-8.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 172.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 257-9.
  4. Diaries, 145-6.

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

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

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

March 26

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

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

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

 

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

26 March 1917

Erinfa, Harlech, North Wales

Dear old Sassons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

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.

Francis Ledwidge Remembers Spring; F.S. Flint Dines With the Inimitable Ford, Who “Still Invents His Life, Rather;” Dirty Rhymes from Siegfried Sassoon; Good News Brings No Relief to Edward Thomas; Bob Hermon Arrives in Arras

We’ll open today with Francis Ledwidge, minding poetry’s seasonal business. Is it spring, yet, in France? No; but it is Spring at home, in a sense:

Spring

Sweet by the river’s noisy brink
The water-lily bursts her crown,
The kingfisher comes down to drink
Like rainbow jewels falling down.

And when the blue and grey entwine
The daisy shuts her golden eye,
And peace wraps all those hills of mine
Safe in my dearest memory.

France,
March 8th, 1917.

 

Next comes an amusing letter to Richard Aldington from his friend, fellow Imagist, and frequent correspondent F.S. Flint. Aldington, I often forget, was once private secretary to Ford Madox Hueffer:

…I had a telephone call yesterday, and a voice said. Is that you, Flint. I’m Ford Madox Hueffer! Good god, I cried. Yes, can you come and dine with me to-night? –Rather, where can I meet you? So I met him at 5.30 outside Shipwrights, the barber’s, in Coventry Street. We walked to his lodging in the Y.M.C.A. bungalow at Victoria, thence by way of the R.C. Cathedral to the Authors’ Club, where we had a sherry and bitters… we proceeded by way of the tube to the Rendezvous in Soho, where Ford spend [sic] 16/6 on a dinner consisting of Chambertin (I think), hors d’oeuvres varies, salmon and turkey, large helpings of each, to keep within the three course limit. Thence we returned in a taxi to the Authors’ Club, where I took down a list of the poems Ford wants collected in a volume which he wants me to look after.

He had already asked me from France to do this, but I like a churl refused in beautiful French and sent him Poverty. I repented in a few days… and sent him another letter begging his pardon, and accepting the job. He had had neither of these letters. Ford is very quiet, some great change has taken place in him. He says he is going to stay in the Army and not write another book. He laughed when I chaffed him and pointed out the inconsistency of this declaration with his wanting me to pilot a book of poems for him. But he is changed. He is no longer the fat man he was, and he is uglier, and there is another look in his eyes. He still invents his life rather, but I felt that he was rather down and out. Here is a poem I have written as a result of our meeting. It has not come off, but I feel that if I concentrate on it again, it will come out all right…[1]

No, the poem does not quite come off. But what a description of Ford! Changed, and yet unchanged in his total changeability–gorging himself, but on a budget; forswearing art but pushing his war poems. The down-and-outness seems just right, and the propensity for fabulation is something we have been tracing ever since Ford started writing of his experiences in France last summer. And yet can Flint, loyal modernist of the younger generation, have any idea that Ford’s tendency to mythologize his own life will lead to a great fat brilliant beast of a war novel?

 

Things with Edward Thomas could be better–he’s stuck doing office work away from his battery, where he might be doing something to alleviate the feelings of uselessness and loneliness that have been tugging him down toward depression. But things could also be much worse: he’s had a walk, and a good word from across the pond.

Snow blizzard—fine snow and fierce wind… but suddenly a blue sky and soft white cloud through the last of the snow… I liked the walk. Letters from Helen, Eleanor, Oscar and Frost (saying he had got an American publisher for my verses). [2]

Thomas wrote back to Eleanor Farjeon the same day–but there is little of the good cheer we might have hoped for:

March 8

My dear Eleanor, Another letter from you today. I think I already owed you one, but was waiting for the Fortnum and Mason to arrive. It hasn’t done so yet, so I won’t wait any longer, though I doubt if I can do much tonight. I have become rather fed up by this job. It has meant a lot of idle cold hours indoors, a lot of dissatisfaction with myself and some with other people. The Colonel here, though a charming and often entertaining man, is very tyrannical and I have done many trivial things that annoyed me to have to do. Also the nights have been disturbing. I must expect that, but of course artillery in a city is exceptionally noisy. As a matter of fact though I fall asleep very quickly both on putting out my candle and after being wakened up by the fear of God. You mustn’t joke about leave. There is no leave for anyone in this army, neither for men who have been out 9 months nor for men whose wives are dying. If I come back it will be wounded or at the end of the war, I don’t mind which…

This is a poor letter for you. I hope it will find you in fine weather in your cottage garden and able to imagine me much better off than in this belated frost.

Can this be a peevish sort of joke? (The “frost,” I mean, not this early-onset hope for a blighty one.)

…I have heard from Frost—or Helen did, saying he had found a pushbike, but too late, I suspect.[3]

 

The bad mood would seem to be general, though manifesting very differently in our different poets. Siegfried Sassoon wrote to Robbie Ross today, a century back, including in the letter satiric verse both unusual and unsettling. In “The Optimist,” Sassoon has a dull-witted officer spout clichés about soundly beating the Germans–the usual skewering of safe staff officers, at least until it is revealed that the speaker has suffered a head wound… The poem will be published soon, but Sassoon will regret this… it’s not a very satisfactory satire.

The second bit of verse he included was never intended for publication. We have seen the unfortunate conjoining of Sassoon’s snobbery and prudery descend upon the young Welsh officers out for the first time–really, the Sassoon who bemoans the murder of youth should be in sympathy with them. But not if they are speaking with uncouth accents and patronizing the local prostitutes. Hoping to entertain the “unshockable” Robbie Ross, Sassoon archly pities the “poor harlots… how tired they must be of the Welsh dialect and the Lloyd George embrace!”

But the verse is even worse:

She met me on the stairs in her chemise;
I grinned and offered her a five franc note;
Poor girl, no doubt she did her best to please;
But I’d have been far happier with a goat.

This is obnoxious, but one could choose to read it as merely a juvenile rhyme, a nasty private joke. The Royal Welch, after all, have a regimental goat, and such jokes… But that would be to deny that this, too, might be a window into Sassoon’s conflicted character, “a particularly virulent manifestation of Sassoon’s distaste for heterosexual activity.”[4] Perhaps–but Robert Graves, in principle and later practice an enthusiastic heterosexual–was just as snobbish/prudish and cutting about the sordid business of young soldiers and military brothels.

 

We’ll end with a sharp turn back toward traditional family values then, and check in with Bob Hermon:

My darling,

Your letter about the lovely weather is most encouraging but as I happen to be sitting in a house without any glass in the windows & as it is snowing hard, I fail to see it! I am in the big town close handy to were I was…

I rode down here yesterday in the most biting cold wind I ever remember…[5]

The big town is Arras–Hermon’s battalion, too, is being moved into position for the next big push…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Imagist Dialogues. 196-7.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas... 254-5.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 325-7.
  5. For Love and Courage, 334-5.

Edward Thomas Writes Wearily to Robert Frost; Siegfried Sassoon Is Happily Alone; Kipling’s Irish Guards Blaze Away

Applying the idle speculations of sports fans to any non-sporting (or any not-actually-suitable-for-direct-competition) field of human expression is an activity to be looked upon with deep suspicion and only tentative toleration. List and lineups and grudge matches between thinkers and artists have been done well. But anyone who shares this interest in the hundreds of writers packed into this war-describing scrum has probably found him or herself arraying a skirmish line of the most effective poets or nominating winners for Best Ode, Pithiest Mud Piece, etc… so I will say that I am pleased when such arrangements fall neatly together out of my date-oriented dragnet.

Today we have three of the greatest of our two-way writers (each a poet and a master of at least one sort of prose) each struggling with the central relationship in his war writing. Which shall prove to be the master of his own deepest influence, and closest foe?

For Edward Thomas, this is Robert Frost, his great friend and the friendly goad to his muse. Thomas’s diary for the day is uneventful–except for the larks. And those other, noisy, ground-nesting dawn-climbers…

Bright and clear early and all day and warm at 1. Walked over to 244’s position with Colonel… listened to larks and watched aeroplane fights. 2 planes down, one in flames, a Hun. Sometimes 10 of our planes together very high. Shells into Arras in afternoon.[1]

Such a day left time for another letter. Thomas has long been hoping to hear from Frost, but, mired in what seems to be a depression of mild to middling severity, the sweetness of expectation has drained away. Will Frost’s state of mind seem bombastic and detached, now that Thomas is a fighting officer, a gunner on the front? Will Frost have succeeded in helping place “Edward Eastaway”‘s poems with an American publisher? Will he ever write?

Arras            6 March 1917

My dear Robert,

I still don’t hear from you, but I had better write when I can. One never knows. I have now been living 2 weeks in a city that is only 2400 yds from the enemy, is shelled every day and night and is likely to be heavily bombarded some day. Of course the number of shells that fall is larger than the number of casualties although the place is crowded and falling masonry helps the shells, but this does not really appeal to anything but the brains that may be knocked out by them. Nor is it consoling to know that the enemy has put shells into the orchard where the battery is and all round it without injuring anybody. However it may console those who are not out here…

Ouch. Did he mean it? If so, he is sorry, and lunges for a beautiful report from the front. Visiting observation posts has given him

a view of No Man’s Land like a broad river very clear and close…

We wept out yesterday morning to see the Gordons cross to raid the enemy but it was snowing and we only saw snow and something moving and countless shell bursts beyond. Our artillery made a roof over our heads of shells singing and shuffling along in shoals.—I return to the battery, a mile away, very soon now.

But why hide his mood? Or, rather, can he?

I have not a great deal to do as a rule. Long hours of waiting, nothing that has to be done and yet not free to do what I want, in fact not consciously wanting anything except, I suppose, the end.

Wisdom perhaps trickles in, perhaps not. There is nobody I like much, that is the worst of it. I don’t want friends. I don’t think I should like to have friends out here. I am sure I shouldn’t. But I want companions and I hardly expect to find them…

I have time to spare but I can’t talk. You don’t answer, and I am inhibiting introspection except when I wake up and hear the shelling and wonder whether I ought to move my bed away from the window to the inner side where there is more, masonry—more to resist and more to fall on me. But it is no use thinking like this. I am half awake when I do…

I hear my book is coming out soon. Did the duplicate verses ever reach you? You have never said so. But don’t think I mind. I should like to be a poet, just as I should like to live, but I know as much about my chances in either case, and I don’t really trouble about either. Only I want to come back more or less complete.

Goodbye. My dearest love to you all.,

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[2]

 

I have nothing to add to that harrowing last paragraph… except that I regret my flippant introduction to this post. And that I hope companionship awaits Thomas when he returns to his battery.

 

Siegfried Sassoon‘s most important relationship? Well, there was David Thomas; there’s Robert Graves, and there are other brother officers and a handful of older literary friends. He is lucky in his profusion of friends and admirers. But his most intense literary relationship is, of course, with himself. He is the master of binary vision, at once poet and life-writer, indoor Siegfried and outdoor Siegfried, effortlessly popular hale-fellow fighter and cynical loner, pacifist and mad jack, literary Sassoon and the carefully refracted, horsey “Sherston.” No one else in the war spends as much time writing about themselves from a position slightly to the side, and yet within, themselves.

Today, a century back, Sassoon watches himself watching the trees, contemplating the rain.

March 6th

It was raining to-night. I went out about 10, leaving the bridge-playing officers in their smoky hut—oh such a dreary lot of people! The pine-trees stood up dark and peaceful, looming against the pale sky where the moon was hid by clouds. The rain (that Sorley loved) was dripping quietly down, and there was the endless murmur of the wood like surf miles away. And the guns still rumbling at their damned bombardment. There’s a line of beeches by the path to the camp. They are silent, they’ve no night-music like the pines. They’re waiting to sing their April lyric of young leaves. Waiting to dress, themselves in their glory of green and luminous yellow. Trees are friendly things.

And I am very lucky to be able to find happiness so quickly. A few hundred yards and I am alone with the trees and the rain. So all is well. It is my evening prayer. And the war is of no importance as long as there are some trees left standing upright, with a clean wind to shake their branches. Beside these things, how grotesque and dull and licentious human nature appears. That mysterious life of growing things doesn’t seem to have any significance for it. A few slang phrases, war-shop, a woman, a plate of food, a glass of beer and a smoke, is that really all? I
can’t believe it.[3]

 

And for Rudyard Kipling that one driving relationship is with his boy Jack, dead, now, for well over a year, but fiercely, if tacitly, remembered through the work of writing his regiment’s history. Kipling is fine on the big battles, sure, but he is better on the daily life of proud men doing dangerous work.

On the 6th March, in snow and frost, they took over from the 1st Coldstream a new and unappetizing piece of front… It consisted of a line of “about twelve so-called posts which were practically little more than shell-holes.” The Coldstream had worked like beavers to get them into some sort of shape, but their predecessors had given the local snipers far too much their head; and the long flat-topped ridge where, under an almost full moon, every moving man offended the sky-line, was as unwholesome as could be desired. The Coldstream had lost six men sniped the night before their relief, and it was impossible to reach two of the posts at all. Another post was practically untenable, as the enemy had direct observation on to it, and one sniper who specialized in this neighbourhood had accounted for fourteen men in one tour. The Battalion settled down, therefore, to fire generously at anything that fired. It was noisy and, maybe, wasteful, but it kept the snipers’ heads down.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  2. Selected Letters, 145-6.
  3. Diaries, 142-3.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 118.