Olaf Stapledon Plays Defense; Duff Cooper Takes the Last Blow

The antipodean mails have caught up with Olaf Stapledon, leaving him to respond to two very different letters from his beloved, Agnes Miller. First the personal, then the political:

. . . In one you talked about our inevitable drifting apart in all this absence; and all that you said was wise and comforting, and rests on the solid base rock of our now-long-standing love. It will all come right when we meet. Meanwhile let us always be frank and say just what we feel, so that we may know where we are, nicht war? Naturally I also have ups and downs of feeling. Life would be unendurable if one were always at the excruciating zenith of feeling. In the absence of summer the little beasts hibernate, to save themselves for keener living when the sun returns. With us also there must needs be much hibernating of the keen spirit of “being in love.” Be sure it will wake again in full vigour when the time comes…

As for the second letter, Stapledon’s rehearsal of his motivations and justifications is especially interesting in light of Max Plowman‘s recent deliberations:

In one letter you talked about the FAU and my relations with it… As to the whole question of my being in the F.A.U. here is a summary of the matter: I joined largely because I was in a hurry to get out & do something, partly because I was nearing pacifism. (I was practically promised a commission before joining the FAU. There was not much question of pacifism at first.) My pacifism strengthened itself in the Unit, till now it is pretty firm. It is of course a compromising sort of idea in my case—simply “I’ll do all that the state commands save whatever seems utterly wrong.” If everyone were ready to do this work & no more there would be no war. That seems to me the reasonable and—what shall I say?–the gentlest course. And I do hold that reasonableness and gentleness are the qualities most needed today. Of courage and masterfulness the world has already shown itself to have a glorious sufficiency. Anyhow here I am in the middle course, the compromise, by no means contented with it, but aware that if I were to  take either of the other two courses it would be less from a sense of duty than from the longing to be out of an uncomfortable position. . . .

Haste now. Love me. I cannot change from loving you, in spite of all hibernating.

Your own

Olaf Stapledon[1]


And in London, the weight of the war comes home again. Duff Cooper‘s diary records his shrinking circle’s latest loss:

I dined at the Ritz in Lionel [Tennyson]’s sitting room. It was a bachelor party. I arrived first, then Michael. We had to wait some time for William Rawle who was the fourth. He came at last and said ‘I’m sorry I’m late. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been killed.’ I felt stunned. This is the last blow. Lionel, Michael and William were all sad but none of them could have felt what I did. I courted forgetfulness in champagne but didn’t get much comfort.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 267-8.
  2. Diaries, 63.

Horseplay with Alf Pollard; Reading and Reflection with Vera Brittain, Olaf Stapledon, Cynthia Asquith, and Edmund Blunden; Wilfred Owen Goes Out a Poet; Thomas Hardy in the Moon’s Bright Disbelief

The last day of the year, with its predictable subjects of reflection and memorable rituals, is often described even in otherwise sparsely dated accounts. So we’ve got a lot of material, and will check in today with not only most of our remaining regulars but also a half-forgotten figure or two.

One of the latter is Alf Pollard, V.C., now spared further death-defying heroics in the front line. His tale of the year’s end foreshadows important developments on the Western Front. He has been assigned to teach at a Lewis Gun school, and without the Lewis gun, a mobile light machine gun, it is extremely difficult for infantry to sustain their own advance. Moreover, many of his students are particularly innocent, fresh, and eager for the fray:

There were nineteen Americans altogether in the school. They were all picked officers who had been sent on ahead of their army to learn as much as possible about British methods. They were a quiet, studious crowd, more like a party of bank inspectors than soldiers…

Of course they had their legs pulled unmercifully…

I was guilty of organising a rag against them on New Year’s Eve… According to custom we British had a merry party to see the old year out. The Americans on the other hand carried on with their studies all the evening and retired to bed as usual at ten o’clock.. It seemed to me that they might at least have thrown aside the dignity of being the advanced guard of the American Army for one night…

Close on one o’clock in the morning, I and three other fellows entered quietly by one door.[1]

Ah, but that’s next year, already. And that’s the sort of tale told by a man who was never deeply troubled by the violence of the war. Pollard is both psychologically suited to fighting, and more or less immune to doubt. Which does not make him less honest than more sensitive writers: many men–especially men who are not at the front and not likely to see it anytime soon–spent New Year’s Eve in a spirit of holiday horseplay, deliberately forgetful of other things. Others, no less honest, will nevertheless feel constrained to write something in a mood of solemn reckoning.


Edmund Blunden has been sustained through his long and relatively scatheless service by his feelings of fellowship with his battalion. But he is away from the old battalion as much as he is with it now, and this signaling course seems both endless and pointless… but it does allow Blunden, even without being on an active front, to close the year with one of its characteristic sights: the mute messages of signal flares, playing over a background noise of ordnance.

I began to be careless whether I was in the line or out of it; nothing seemed to signify except the day’s meals, and those were still substantial, despite the lean supplies of the people at home. The price of all luxuries in the shops was rising fast, but still one could manage it; why trouble about getting back to the battalion? This was the general spirit, and we did not lament when the course was lengthened and the year ended with us waving flags in unison in the snow, or rapping out ludicrous messages to the instructors’ satisfaction, or listening to muddled addresses on alternating current.

At the moment of midnight, December 31, 1917, I stood with some acquaintances in a camp finely overlooking the whole Ypres battlefield. It was bitterly cold, and the deep snow all round lay frozen. We drank healths, and stared out across the snowy miles to the line of casual flares, still rising and floating and dropping. Their writing on the night was as the earliest scribbling of children, meaningless; they answered none of the questions with which a watcher’s eyes were painfully wide. Midnight; successions of coloured lights from one point, of white ones from another, bullying salutes of guns in brief bombardment, crackling of machine guns small on the tingling air; but all round the sole answer to unspoken but importunate questions was the line of lights in much the same relation to Flanders as at midnight a year before. The year 1918 did not look promising at its birth.[2]


For the Asquiths, the old year ended with a pleasant surprise–an unexpected leave for Herbert Asquith (“Beb,” to his wife). Whether for convenience or out of courtesy–or a certain delicacy–Herbert had telegraphed ahead on the 27th to let her know that he was on his way. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Bernard Freyberg, a constant presence in Cynthia’s diary for weeks now, disappears.

Today, a century back, Cynthia and Herbert had a walk and a talk, in which she discovers how happy she is that her husband is not inclined toward the family business. Even the son of the former prime minister is aggrieved at what appears to be a callous prolongation of the war…

Beb and I walked up to the top of the New Hill and back via Coscombe. It was one of the most lovely-looking days I have ever seen. Beb is in very good form—in good, lean looks and very keen and eager—seething with indignation against the Government and the ‘hate campaign’ of the civilians. He is ashamed of the way England brutally snubs every peace feeler, and reiterates that, either we should negotiate or else fight with all our might, which he says would mean doubling our army in the field. He speaks with rage of the way we are not nearly up to strength at the Front and says it is to a large extent merely a paper army. In existing circumstances a military victory is quite out of the question until America can really take the field, which will not be for years—and he thinks all the lives now being sacrificed are being wasted, it’s like going about with a huge bleeding wound and doing nothing to bind it up. Thank God Beb isn’t in the House of Commons! I should never have the moral courage to face the reception given to the kind of speech he would make.[3]

Siegfried Sassoon may have had more allies than he knew.


Olaf Stapledon would disagree with little of what Asquith is saying. But he is neither politician nor officer, and he is possessed of a much sunnier spirit. Sunny enough, anyway, to relate this pleasantly furry little portent of the coming year:

The other day someone in clearing out some straw came on a queer little beast hibernating. He was rather smaller than a rat and far more elegant, having a delicate brown back, a white underneath, with a black line dividing the two shades. He had a long and furry tail; in fact he was rather like a dormouse, only bigger and fatter & greyer. I saw him lying on his back in someone’s hand with his four dainty feet in the air and his tummy rising & falling ever so gently with his slumberous breath. After a while he opened his mouth and yawned but did not wake up. Some sympathetic fellow put him by the fire, the warmth of which naturally came to him as a hint of spring, so that he finally woke up and ran away. The frost must soon have induced him to find another corner in the straw and turn in again for the rest of the winter. It was very strange to see the little beast in his winter trance, so peaceful he was, almost as still as death, but without death’s stiffness. He let people wind his tail round their fingers and move his legs about and he went on heavily sleeping all the while. One kept thinking of Bergson’s elan vital, the great universal Life, that lay in him patiently awaiting the spring & the opportunity of further creativeness.

It is the last day of the year. Best wishes for the New Year to my Agnes. May there be peace. May the world begin its new and happier age. May you & I meet and marry and begin our new & happier age also. With all my love

Your own Olaf Stapledon[4]

Stapledon is a good writer, isn’t he? With ingenuous brio and a near-total absence of cynicism he takes the microcosmic beast and the whole universe, the world war and the love that carries his hope through all the horror.

And even with all the power of the internet at my disposal (for a good four minutes or so) I can’t do better on beast-identification than Stapledon. This is perhaps not surprising… Anyway… probably a dormouse!


But some of those who are away from the front prefer not to think of the war at all, as its fourth year draws to a close. Wilfred Owen, writing to his mother, is not so much solemn as pompously/mock-pompously portentous. And why not? It has been a momentous year for him: action and injury, shell shock and recovery, promotion from poetic striver to protegé-of-the-young-poets. The full effect of their help–and, more importantly, of his new confidence in his poetry–will be felt this year. He is melodramatic and self-aggrandizing, here… and correct:

31 December 1917, Scarborough

My own dear Mother,

…I am not dissatisfied with my years. Everything has been done in bouts: Bouts of awful labour at Shrewsbury & Bordeaux; bouts of amazing pleasure in the Pyrenees, and play at Craiglockhart; bouts of religion at Dunsden; bouts of horrible danger on the Somme; bouts of poetry always; of your affection always; of sympathy for the oppressed always.

I go out of this year a Poet, my dear Mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet.

I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.

Buoyant, and beautiful. But then the galleon bobs on the tide, and the lookout looks back.

I take Owen to task, in these boyish letters to his mother, for being a self-centered young man. And he is–but he is also possessed of enormous powers of sympathy.

Last year, at this time, (it is just midnight, and now is the intolerable instant of the Change) last year I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles. I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead. I thought of this present night, and whether I should indeed—whether we should indeed—whether you would indeed—but I thought neither long nor deeply, for I am a master
of elision.

But chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be in England ; nor can it be seen in any battle. But only in Étaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.

It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them.

We are sending seven officers straight out tomorrow.

I have not said what I am thinking this night, but next December I will surely do so.[5]


I wondered, on Christmas, whether Vera Brittain‘s description of that night might have run into New Year’e eve. If not, her Christmas gifts may well have: she has begun reading poetry again, including two writers who have featured slightly here. She mentions not only “an impressive poem called ‘The City of Fear’ by a certain Captain Gilbert Frankau, who had not then begun to dissipate his rather exciting talents upon the romances of cigar merchants” but also reading

some lines from E. A. Mackintosh’s “Cha Till Maccruimein,” in his volume of poems A Highland Regiment, which Roland’s mother and sister had sent me for Christmas:

And there in front of the men were marching.
With feet that made no mark.
The grey old ghosts of the ancient fighters
Come back again from the dark. . . .

Her brother Edward, the one of her ancient fighters who has not yet failed to come back, is thinking along much the same lines as he wrote to her today, a century back:

Italy, 31 December 1917

It has been a rotten year in many ways — Geoffrey and Tah dead and we’ve seen each other about a week all told: so there’s a sob on the sea to-night. I don’t seem to be able to write decently; so often I feel tired and fed up when I’ve done my ordinary work and so waste what little spare time I have; I wish I could manage to write to you more…[6]


Often at the beginning of the month I discuss a poem that was written or published during the month (but can’t be fixed to a particular day). But this month-inaugurating habit has such a hopeful, generous cast to it, doesn’t it? Why not mention poems at the end of the month as well?

Well, in December 1917 Thomas Hardy published Moments of Vision, a tremendous collection by a great poet–an old, cranky, great poet still either disesteemed by many as a novelist of less than impeccable writerly morals or ignored as an eminent Victorian who could surely have little to say to the current moment. Well, the more fool them. But as Hardy himself predicted, the book attracted little notice, since it offered little solace and tended to make people face an uncomfortable truth and “mortify the human sense of self-importance by showing, or suggesting, that human beings are of no matter or appreciable value in this nonchalant universe.”

I don’t need the poem to bring Hardy into the end of 1917 as the voice of doom…  there are, too, several end-of-year letters that will also serve…

To James Barrie:

We wish you as good a new year as can be hoped for, & a better one than the old…

To Edmund Gosse, and picking up Owen’s nautical theme:

Just a word of Salutation to you & your house on this eve of the New Year, for which you have our best wishes as fellow passengers in this precious war-galley…

And to Henry Newbolt:

…I don’t know that I have ever parted from an old year with less reluctance than from this.

…Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy.[7]

Yes, always sincere. And what of the old man himself, tonight, a century back?

Went to bed at eleven. East wind. No bells hear. Slept in the New Year, as did also those “out there.”[8]

This, I think, is why Hardy, more than any other eminent older man of letters, will be pardoned, by the young solider poets, of all offenses related to the Experiential Gulf or the Conflict of the Generations. He thinks, in his private thoughts, of what it must be to be a soldier, cold, at the front. And when he gestures to the troubled times, he does not do so without noticing the discomforting dramatizing of just such a gesture, from an old man snug abed…

In this spirit, then, and to see out the year, one of my favorite (write it!) of Hardy’s poems from the recent book. Happy New Year!

I looked up from my writing,
And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
The moon’s full gaze on me.

Her meditative misty head
Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
“What are you doing there?”

“Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole
And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
Who has put his life-light out.

“Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
Though he has injured none.

“And now I am curious to look
Into the blinkered mind
Of one who wants to write a book
In a world of such a kind.”

Her temper overwrought me,
And I edged to shun her view,
For I felt assured she thought me
One who should drown him too.


References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 241.
  2. Undertones of War, 202-3.
  3. Diaries, 385-6.
  4. Talking Across the World, 266.
  5. Collected Letters, 520-1.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 387-8.
  7. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 236-9.
  8. The Life of Thomas Hardy, 378-9.

A Mole Hill for Bed and Cake for Dinner in Jack Martin’s Trench; Kate Luard is Nearly Halfway Through Her Letters

Two nights ago, a century back, Jack Martin

felt a small strange upheaval underneath me. My first thought was of rats, but I soon discovered that it was a mole working away under the canvas on which we lie. A molehill in the middle of your spine is not conducive to comfort so I had to move myself one pace to the right…

Martin is an engineer, and so happy, apparently, to practice “live and let live” with rival tunnelers. Or perhaps he was simply biding his time, unwilling to risk conflict before the next mail call. Yesterday was Martin’s 33rd birthday, which netted him a tidy total of four parcels, leaving his tent looking “like a canteen.”


At 10 p.m. last night Glasspoole and I proceeded on night duty with my parcels. There was too large an assortment for us to sample everything but we started on a chocolate cake… then we tackled a bottle of preserved mixed fruits with grape nuts and condensed milk…[1]

The feast will continue…


But the interlude of comparative peace will not. Yesterday was a quiet day for Kate Luard, too, although her time was occupied with less agreeable correspondence.

Crowds of letters from mothers and wives who’ve only just heard from the W.O. and had no letter from me, are pouring in, and have to be answered, from my book of addresses and notes of cases; it takes up hours. I’ve managed to write 200 so far, but there are 466.

Then yesterday’s quietly devastating task led into a long and far less quiet night.

1 a.m. Another spell of hell let loose, and now brilliant moonlight, desultory banging of our heavies and occasional squeakers whining over from him. Peace for the minute overhead. Nearly all the patients are sleeping.

Later. Shells getting nearer had me back in the hospital. The last shell looked to be on the edge of 44; it was a big crash and spattered me with spent splinters. His damnable engines are now approaching in the sky – must be off.

2.30. I just got to a ward where the Sister is alone with one patient when the bomb fell and blew one of our Night Orderlies’ sleeping tents out of existence: it is one of a group of Orderlies’ and M.O.’s tents and one of the only empty ones at night. Wasn’t it wonderful? They’d all have been wiped out if they’d been in bed, but they were all on Night Duty. No other tent was touched. Just left an excited group of M.O.’s in pyjamas, and men round the hole…

Today has reminded me, strangely, of the last days of Edward Thomas. He had a birthday not long before the end, though the parcels were delayed; he also spent a morning pondering a mole, his habitat disturbed by guns and engineers; and Thomas had one long argument about the theology of ignoring artillery shells that found their mark while praising a matrix of near misses as a pattern of miraculous escapes… all of this is echoed, today, both by skeptical engineers and world-weary but conventionally religious nurses.

Conventional–but not unreflectively pious.

Tuesday morning, September 4th. Got to bed in my clothes, at 4 a.m., up at 7.30. Slept well. Brilliant morning; Archie racket in full blast. This acre of front so far bears a charmed life, but how long can it last? Shells and bombs shave us on all four sides. Mad, isn’t it? Capt. B. and Capt. P. (the all-night-duty men) are topping people. We have huge jokes in the middle of it all – no one could stick it if everybody behaved with fitting solemnity and sang hymns. There is a bit of Thank God sometimes, but praying doesn’t somehow come in, which seems funny! You can be
doing that!

Later. Orders have come for the final evacuation of the Hospital – site considered too ‘unhealthy.’ We close down to-day, evacuate the patients still here, and disperse the personnel. I stay till the last patient is fit to be moved, probably to-morrow, or next day – then probably Leave for 14 days! But don’t count on it, as you never know.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 99-100.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 155-7.

Vera and Roland Meet Again at Last, and Have a Thrilling, Intoxicating Walk; Edward Thomas Descends into a Dark Place; T.E. Hulme is for France

A poem from Edward Thomas and a first letter from our only legitimate philosopher. But to Vera straightaway:

Wednesday December 30th London

This has been a day of surprising realisations and developments–half ecstatic, wholly turbulent. I travelled down with Edward by the 9:50: Mother & Daddy said goodbye to him quite cheerfully, which was more than I expected. We met Aunt Belle by the Charing Cross left-luggage office. She hadn’t changed a scrap since I last saw her, nor did she make any observation on the alteration of my appearance, though I was not grown up when she last saw me.

Ah! A girlish curveball from the self-possessed Queen of the Somerville Classicists. Whyever?


The portrait Roland sent to Vera last week, along with Tess of the D’Urbervilles and four other books; Vera would later remember that “his uniform and little moustache has changed him from a boy into a man”

We met Roland at the Comedy Restaurant & had lunch. It seemed perfectly natural to see Roland in khaki, I suppose because I saw him in the Corps at Uppingham. We were perfectly incapable of saying anything to each other during lunch.

Then I found myself in a whirl of the most surprising proportions–I had mentioned during lunch, quite without thinking, that I wanted to see David Copperfield, and nothing would satisfy him but that he should take us to-morrow evening. I demurred at first but Aunt Belle–who of course would have to chaperon me–was quite ready to go & finally I consented. Then he gave me a letter from Mrs. Leighton–written in her enormous inky writing, which almost makes a hole in the paper & looks as if it were done with the end of a match–asking me to tea tomorrow at the Criterion & saying she so hoped I could come & was to answer by Roland. I told him I would go & said “I do hope you haven’t talked about me to your mother so that she won’t expect anything.”


Vera Brittain in 1914

He said “But I have,” whereupon I expressed my anxiety about her having a preconceived notion of me, & my not coming up to it. I am so shy of seeing her for the first time because from what I have heard I know she makes up her mind & judges of people at once. If she likes me, she may be an immense help in my future career–if she does not, well, I dare not think of the consequences but I know it would have a great influence on Roland’s feelings, he believes so in her judgement. Then he wanted to buy me some violets but l said l would not have any to-day as they would only die, & I trust he will have forgotten by to-morrow.

Then he wanted to take us out to lunch & I finally had to give way even to that. Aunt Belle says “Well, he likes you, & why shouldn’t he enjoy himself if he likes?” & she reminded me of what I had already thought often myself, that it might be for the last time. In this time of tragedy there can be no postponement.

I’ll break in here to say that I wish I had a facsimile: I have put in paragraph breaks to two pages–surely more in longhand–of emotional downloading (as they called it in Edwardian times) utterly without any break.

He said he would try to join some regiment soon going to the front. I said rather sadly that I did not know whether I most wished that he should go because he wanted to, or that he should not go because I did not want him to, and I said “Do you want me to want you to go?” He answered “No, I shouldn’t like you to want me to go, but I want to myself.” He then asked me why I wanted to see David Copperfield & why I liked it, & I said the character of Steerforth had always appealed to me so much. He seemed pleased and remarked that he was just about to say Steerforth was the finest character in the book. Aunt Belle & Edward had walked conveniently in front all the way.

Aunt Belle is a splendid person to go with, she is keen about everything and took a special interest in Roland, whom she liked immensely. She came to the conclusion at once that he & I were certainly fond of each other, and seemed to encourage it, saying she approved of such things & that it was perfectly right we should feel so. While she was saying this I was wondering all the time exactly what I did feel towards him.

But the evening dispelled any lingering doubts. It was just dark, and all the streets were dim, as London ever since the war began has been lighted as faintly as possible, for fear of Zeppelin raids.

It was thrilling, intoxicating, to walk down dark Regent St. amid the hurrying crowd. We often lost sight of Aunt Belle & Edward & lingered until on one occasion Edward came back to hurry us up. We dodged the traffic, he guiding me very carefully through it, & tentatively touching my arm now & then, as though he would have taken it & kept me more secure that way if I had given him permission. But I did not though I should have liked to. He told me during this walk that London was a very appropriate setting for me; I was so glad because I love it so dearly.

We had somewhat of a rush at the end to catch our trains; in fact we missed one but found another that would do. Roland raced round after me carrying my bag & umbrella while I went from one wrong booking-office to the other. Finally Edward found us a carriage & pushed us both into it just as the train was starting. So my farewell to him was curtailed, which was perhaps just as well. Farewells are mournful things, & this parting with my beloved brother, of whom I may see very little before he goes to France, is too sad to dwell upon.

Granny was very pleased to see us, but was a little disappointed to find we were going out tomorrow night instead of staying here to bring the New Year in. However Aunt Belle launched into an account of Roland & me containing far more definite assertions with regard to us than I should have thought of making before. “You know, Mother, they really like each other,” she said. Granny seemed pleased & said “Oh, if that’s the case then of course it’s alright,” & she came into my room & asked me “Do you care about Roland Leighton?” so I said tentatively “Yes”; then she insisted further & said “But I mean do you really like him?” & suddenly I made up my mind in a moment, or rather, I saw that it had been made up for a long time, & I replied “Yes, indeed I do, really.” ‘Really’ being an expressive word the meaning of which on this occasion was scarcely mistakable…[1]

Looking back, she would add that “In those days people’s emotions, for all the War’s challenge, still marched deliberately and circumspectly to their logical conclusion.”[2]


Edward Thomas wrote another poem today. Yes! Another poem! And all the notebooks survive, meticulously dated! Are you not entertained?

I mention The Combe in part because it’s a pretty terrific poem and in part because it balances/reclaims/redeems the schmaltzy Manor Farm. A combe, or coombe–as almost everyone who has fetched a dictionary during the description of Helm’s Deep knows–is a little ravine or steep-sided valley. Thus, in much-managed rural England, a combe is place not of rural prosperity or Christmas card picturesqueness but rather a pocket wilderness:

The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark./ Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn, and briar;
Ancient and dark: there is something elemental here, a hint of pre-Christian Britain, of a thing so fundamental–no, so earthy–that it is not going to answer to the Latinate names of our learned men. And dark is easy–yet ambiguous: is this darkness unenlightened and animal, the sort of tough old shade that can resist sunlight-signifying-change… or is it evil?
It’s a gnarly little poem, only a dozen lines long, and deeply gloomy. In short order the “ever” is annulled: the combe is violated; nature is torn up, for the hunt–that sport so many of our soldiers love–of a curious animal, stolid and wise and much-beloved of a certain sort of English writer, the sort that (like Thomas, like Tolkien, like Farjeon and Milne and many others) writes children’s stories and beast fables and nature stories without setting aside the matters dearest to his or her writer’s heart:
But far more ancient and dark
The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,
Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,
That most ancient Briton of English beasts.
Dark times for England’s heart.

We haven’t heard much from T.E. Hulme since his August enlistment in the Honorable Artillery Company. The austere philosopher/modernist gadfly/theorist of art is one of the many intellectuals–and the not inconsiderable number of radical modernists, for Hulme was by some accounts the brains of the whole Blast/Vorticist movement–who found themselves more or less unwilling to consider not fighting. Even though Hulme made it into the H.A.C., rather than a New Army unit, it was weeks before the regiment could clothe or house or equip him, and well into the fall before training began in earnest. Now, however, he has been haphazardly transformed from intellectual civilian to a soldier of a standard high enough to serve as a winter replacement.

Like many soldiers who obeyed the restriction against diary-keeping yet wished to maintain a record of their whereabouts and perceptions, Hulme settled on the expedient of sending a long series of detailed letter home. These, then, form his “war diary,” and today, a century back, marks the first installment:

Dec, 30th, 1914

We left Southampton about 4 p.m., after marching down the principal street, all out of step, and all the girls waving from the windows. (On the way down on Sunday, people waved to us from the back windows; all the troops go down that line so they have formed a habit.)

We had a very smooth crossing, 700 of us in a tramp steamer which was fitted out to carry cattle or horses… It sounds dreadful but it’s really all right…

We marched then, with all our equipment up a fearful hill about 4 miles to what is called a Rest Camp, a fearful place, deep in mud, where we have to sleep in tents which makes me very depressed. I hope we shan’t stay here long. All my clothes are wet through with sweat.

I am writing this in a little cafe, by the camp. Crammed full of Tommies of all sorts, where we are eating tremendously. We are all dreading the night for we are 12 in one tent and it looks like rain. The town seems absolutely empty but for the soldiers in red trousers, of all ages.

I thoroughly enjoy all events, like being seen off at the dock, except that there were only about 10 people to cheer us as the ship left the side, but it’s all very amusing–and the girls at the windows…

Send the first part of this letter to my Aunt. Ask her to send me a large pair of chauffeur’s gloves, lined with felt. (Any socks must be long in the leg). Also a piece of soap and a night light each week.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 134-6.
  2. Testament of Youth, 114.
  3. Ferguson, The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 185-6.