Siegfried Sassoon Packs for Palestine; Isaac Rosenberg is Sent Packing

I suppose it is neither terribly perceptive nor strikingly original to note the importance of reading to writing and, in return, the utter dependence of reading on writing. Still, there is perhaps slightly more to say here than to make small jokes about the blindingly obvious–a reminder, at least, of one of the Fussell-inspired beginning places of this project: when you come to the task of describing something frightening, emotionally intense, and both utterly unlike your previous experiences and almost literally unimaginable to your future readership, you may be thrown back in confusion on the resources of your reading. In other words, all books derive in part from the books their writers read, but war books more than others.

Siegfried Sassoon likes to play the innocent or the ingenue–he failed to take a degree, he wasn’t a serious scholar, and he finds himself to be overawed by the presence of powerful intellects. Perhaps; but he is still intelligent and serious, and growing less diffident. And he’s packing literary weight, now:

February 7

Orders to embark Southampton next Monday.

Books to take to Egypt:

Oxford Book of English Verse
Keats
Wordsworth
Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Hardy, Moments of Vision
Crabbe, The Borough
Browning, The Ring and the Book
A Shropshire Lad
Meredith, Poems
Oxford Dictionary
Hardy, The Woodlanders

Barbusse, Le Feu
Pater, Renaissance
Trollope, Barchester Towers
Surtees, Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour, Facey Romford’s Hounds
Bunyan, Holy War
Plato, Republic
Tolstoy, War and Peace (3 vols)
Scott, The Antiquary[1]

It’s quite a list: heavy on the essentials of English poetry, a few crucial “war books,” a late emphasis, perhaps, on autodidactic self-improvement, and then a few personal touchstones. The list explains where Sassoon is coming from as a poet much better than his “binary”–which is to say shaped with a heavy hand, and half-occluded–memoirs or his contemporary jottings and letters, and it is worth examining somewhat closely. Also, who doesn’t love to read a list of books?

Where do we begin? Blue-bound, of course, on India paper. The Oxford Book. Where else? This is the essential point of reference, the common ground codified and certified by the great University. And England’s poetic soil is green and fertile, if not always uncomplicatedly pleasant.

The most important poets are supplemented in their own volumes–Keats, the essential Romantic; Wordsworth, if ambition should point in that direction; Browning is perhaps a bit surprising, but he ranked quite high among the young Sassoon’s closer Romantic forebears. Crabbe, whose The Borough is a work describing everyday life in heroic couplets, is a bit of an outlier, but he might be there to strengthen Sassoon’s intention to write directly and descriptively about what the soldiers are experiencing.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, of course. Even though several are included in the Oxford Book, a lyric poet abroad might feel naked without them.

Of the later Victorians, Meredith and Hardy. Meredith, too, might be there for his unromantic emphasis on everyday life. And Thomas Hardy, Sassoon’s family friend at one remove, his more-than-polite correspondent, and something, perhaps of a poetic dream-mentor: he is becoming a Doktorvater or poetic grandsire while Rivers has become the dream father of Sassoon’s suffering soul.

But the choice of Hardy is interesting: not the enormous Satires of Circumstance, which is more essential to Sassoon’s 1916 poetry than any other examplar–and perhaps quite well remembered, by now–but the newest volume of poetry, Moments of Vision, together with The Woodlanders. Although this is one of Hardy’s later novels, it is something of a throwback to his early “Wessex” novels, treating of love in a rural setting in which, while not all goes well, to say the least, it does not end in utter calamity. It was broadly popular, too–not, in other words, one of the heavy-hitting late career novels which both sustain Hardy’s reputation to this day and helped finish him as a novelist in censorious Victorian Britain.

If there is one book that both advances the tradition of the rural English Lyric and narrows it to suit a certain sensibility–inclined to tragedy, to gently-posed but bitter irony, and toward a worship of the young male form that is at least implicitly homoerotic–it is Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The poems are good–sometimes very good–but their influence on Sassoon’s generation is out of proportion to their merit-in-a-vacuum. (Which is not a thing that actually exists, of course. See Peter Parker’s Housman Country on all this.) Housman doesn’t really stand alongside Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, and Hardy–but he does, in Sassoon’s valise.

Then there’s the Pater and the Plato–signs of an awakened intellectual appetite or ambition–bracketed by a few significant war books. Shorter, more recent, and French is Barbusse’s Le Feu (Under Fire) the first really influential realistic depiction of modern war. It’s a better book than All Quiet–which won’t be published for a decade, anyway–and should be read in its place. It’s got the horror and the intensely-lived experience, but without the heavy narrative hand on the wheel. Sassoon, Graves, and Blunden will all read this book…

It’s hard to tell whether War and Peace is there as a Modern War Essential or as a Great Book that is also a great way to spend a great deal of time in boats, trains, and dusty camps. Probably the latter, although Sassoon would have very much enjoyed Tolstoy’s own first-person fictions of warfare–the Sevastopol Sketches–had they been available.

Whether Bunyan’s second book (generally he’s a one book author, except for Protestant Allegorical or Siege Warfare completists) is there because Sassoon knows that it’s an allegory from static warfare (they all tried to use Pilgrim’s Progress when they could, but it’s a quest narrative, and they were going nowhere, so only the Slough really appealed) or whether because he just thought there might be some as-yet-untapped veins of Christian allegory in the tradition suitable for the smelting-into-satire, I am not sure. But I incline to the latter, once again.

Let’s see: then there is Trollope, and Scott, which are entertaining things; holes, perhaps, in his literary education, or middleweights to spar with before Tolstoy if he gets a bit windy.

Last, and very certainly least, are two novels by Surtees, who sits uncontested upon the throne of middlebrow Mid-Victorian fox hunting literature.

I am not going to pretend that I have read all the books on this list. However, since the point of such lists (or, at least, of publishing and then re-posting them) is to posture at imagined adversaries with pointy paper antlers, I will assert that I have read most of them, mostly, and thereby imply that those readers who haven’t have a lot of work to do.

But when I confronted my own failings in regard to Sassoon’s list, I decided that, rather than pay close attention to Meredith (or some of the other poets) or Trollope, I would read Surtees. Sassoon loves reading him–I believe he calls him his favorite author, somewhere–and perhaps this might offer a window into the meeting of the minds of the allegedly binary Sassoon: he is reading, but he’s reading about hunting. Well, I have to report… not so much. A few chapters in, Mr. Sponge is entertaining, but not memorable–kind of like Dickens arrested at the Pickwick stage, dressed in a clean waistcoat, told to mind his manners about all that social reform stuff, and rusticated. But then again I haven’t gotten to the allegedly excellent hunt scenes, which may be the missing link between Renaissance epic and cinematic car chases that I have been looking for all these years…

A preliminary conclusion, then: it’s a false lead to look for literary inspiration in the two hunting novels. Sassoon is bringing along old favorites to reread, and the very fact that they treat of the war-analogous activity of hunting in its innocent mid-Victorian days (and, more importantly, in the long moments of prewar innocence during which they were first read) suggests that he is not reading the, with any thought toward his own writing (not that that means that they won’t have any influence). The analogy is probably to modern soldiers who might bring along Ender’s Game or (closer to home, here) The Lord of the Rings.

 

This post should probably end lightheartedly, with a challenge to lay bets upon just how much he will actually read during his time in Egypt and Palestine. But we have instead a weird and ominous transition through tenuous connections. Sassoon is off to Palestine–not only the ancient homeland of his father’s people, but also rather near to the much more recent homeland of his father’s (but most especially his great-grandfather’s) family. And he is bringing books on Greece, Russia, and many an English covert.

Isaac Rosenberg, whose Jewishness is not something he could deny,[2] is now reaching actively toward it. But that’s not the real irony–the real irony is that just as Sassoon has accepted Palestine when he really wants France, Rosenberg is desperate to escape France for Palestine. He has many hopes, transfer-wise, but has begun to focus them on the Jewish battalion, which is to be sent to serve in that theater of the expanding war.

There is another much more direct connection between Sassoon and Rosenberg, but I am fairly certain that this connection–Eddie Marsh–would never have made much of it. Sassoon’s snobbery (which might, in a familiar irony, contain an anti-semitic strain) would not have appreciated being connected with the rough-edged and impassioned Jewish poet-artist from the slums, nor would their styles have been congenial.

In any event, Rosenberg is putting his hopes in Marsh. Can Churchill’s secretary save him from France and his declining health? Perhaps, but not today. Today’s transfer will get Rosenberg out of the trenches, but not out of a fighting unit destined for more combat in France. He was sent from the 11th King’s Own Lancasters, about to be disbanded in the reorganization of infantry brigades from four to three battalions, but not to any cushy billet: The 1st King’s Own may be in rest in Bernaville at the moment, but they are an old Regular battalion and part of the 4th Division, and their services will be required should the Germans attack, as they are expected to do shortly.

Rosenberg will feel the dissolution of his old unit much as David Jones did, and it will affect his writing. Perhaps because of the endless war, his separation from his old unit, the doldrums of February and the promise of an attack in March–for any of these reasons, or all, or none and simply from the nature of his mind and powerful, grim poetic gift–his writing, too is dwelling increasingly on historical suffering and destruction and on Jewish themes. Which go rather well together. When Rosenberg finishes and mails the next batch we will have a date on which to read them, but for now it is a long lonely train trip for him, and a wait for us for his poetry, undated and unrecorded as he is sent from unit to unit and task to task…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 210. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 440, reports that he abandoned some of the weightier (in a literal sense) volumes, but then bought them in Egypt--he is a man who sticks to his list, evidently.
  2. Not that Sassoon is an apostate or a traitor to his people or anything so dramatic as that. He had few memories of his father and almost no contact with traditional Judaism. He was not Jewish by any then-accepted standard, and was raised as an Anglican by his mother. But he was socially able to treat his Jewishness, such as it was, as only an exotic part of his family's past, and his extreme Englishness of manner probably made it hard for all but the truly impassioned anti-semites to hate him once they knew him. If a man writes better English poetry than you, plays better cricket than you, and rides to hounds, hurling old slurs is bound to look a little silly... Not that other forms of anti-semitism wouldn't have dragged him down in other situations, but if there were more than sneers thrown at him by other "gentlemen," he doesn't have anything to say about it.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 390-1.

Miners and a Black Book; Max Plowman Hears from Rivers; Siegfried Sassoon Rides the Emerald Isle; Isaac Rosenberg is Not Strong

Two very different publications of today, a century back, are worth noting. The Nation, one of the few periodicals willing to publish “anti-war” poetry, ran Wilfred Owen‘s poem Miners. The poem was written, despite its unusual pararhyme, in a matter of hours, promptly submitted, and is published now only two weeks after the event–a topical and quietly political work, and as such a confirmation of Owen’s complete and Sassoon-influenced departure from his youthful aestheticism.

And The Imperialist, Noel Pemberton-Billing’s histrionic nativist scandal sheet, ran an article claimingthat German intelligence held a “black book” which contained the names of 47,000 British gay men and lesbians who had been blackmailed and compromised. This might be insanity (quite literally, in the case of Pemberton-Billing’s assistant Harold Spencer), but Pemberton-Billing’s ridiculous lies played ably enough on existing hatreds for the political effects to be distressingly real. The Imperialist specialized in anti-German polemic (with virulent anti-Semitism lumped in for good measure) and was prepared to exploit not just homophobia but class resentment, using salacious allegations to get traditional folks all worked up against fancy London types and their immoral goings on, which must of course conceal deep disloyalty to a vague and negatively-defined ideal of British greatness…

So Wilfred Owen has gotten a poem in the paper–and earned two guineas for it–and on the very same day that the gay literary community he has just had the privilege of joining comes under siege.

 

Elsewhere, today, Max Plowman wrote to his close friend Hugh de Selincourt. The letter opens with an apology for not having written sooner–it runs along the lines of the “I wrote the simple letters first” excuse.

…My dear, I feel rather like a snake that has forgotten to shed its skins for the past few years & now begins the healthy business. I didn’t expect my self-assertion to have that effect particularly but it seems to be happening… I see now that preface & my Right to Live (in large measure), & those little topical verses, very much as signs of irritation the snake has with skins which did not fit it. Bitterness comes through low living & I see now that mine was all the more acute because I thought the low living inevitable…

Plowman eventually moves past this high-minded metaphorical mode and writes of reading about bellicose speeches given by leading politicians in both Germany and Britain.

And then it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t my duty to stand between men with consciences of tanned hide & try & filter the stream of lies & hypocrisy they poured at one another…

In any actual fighting for peace I feel I should now be useless… I’ve got to start more or less where I left off 3 years & more ago & work like a galley slave to catch up.

He has come to see his service as an infantry officer–as A Subaltern on the Somme, in fact–as an unbecoming interlude in the life of a politically aware pacifist. But, of course, he is still an army officer, under arrest and awaiting trial–at least in the loose and philosophical sense of the word, if not necessarily the juridical.

…What shall I tell you about my affairs? …I live in a top room of a large house… & there I have my meals brought me as I don’t want to inflict my necessarily chilling company on the “Mess”, & all day long (subject to conditions) I do just what I damned well please. And this will last I think until next Friday when I go for my ordinary Board. I expect to be put under arrest any day after that… the charge will be “Refusing to obey an order.”

What is to be done? And who might be able to help?

Oh you know I wrote to X——-? He did not reply but evidently sent my letter on to Dr ________, F.R.S. (The Camb. psychological Professor) we were both under at Edinburgh.

We know who this is. I can’t be certain, actually, that X is Sassoon, but it certainly sounds like him. In any case, Sassoon and Plowman shared a doctor who was a Cambridge professor and an FRS–W.H.R. Rivers. Thus it must be Rivers who, as we will read below, is willing to help with Plowman’s “case.” But in what way, exactly? Is this another offer to “cure” a patient by thinking him through the ramifications of his pacifism?

Plowman and Sassoon are both writers, both young officers troubled by all that they have seen. And Plowman was even quite literally shell shocked before being sent to Rivers to be treated. But as that distinction suggests, the differences in the manner and motivation of their pacifist protests are considerable.

______wrote the day I came here saying he was at Hampstead & would like to know if he could be of any use… which is extraordinarily decent of him, don’t you think? If I were to have any trouble with the Medical people he might be an excellent Court of Appeal. He says X—–has returned to duty & is quite happy in it, & of course as X——-merely acted on the question of British war aims he was to be satisfied. A queer half-way house, but I daresay it was useful…[1]

This logic is a bit hard to follow. What is “useful,” to Plowman? Does he want Rivers to help shunt his protest aside, and have it be deemed an after-effect of shell shock? I don’t think so. I think he may want the opposite–but does he imagine, then, that Rivers offers to help him to pacifist martyrdom by asserting his sanity and full recovery from shell shock?

Well, at the very least it’s clear that Plowman is not at the stage where he desires any sort of half-measure. He won’t fight any more, and his objection is not on the score of war aims, a minor detail in the monstrosity of war without end…

 

Speaking of Siegfried Sassoon, as I think we probably have been, it’s quite true that he is back on duty and “quite happy:”

January 26

Motored with two Irishmen to a place eighteen miles from Cork—Roore’s Bridge—to meet of the Muskerry Hounds. A grey, windy day, southwest wind. Rode a chestnut of J. Rohan’s—good performer. A poor day’s hunting, but very enjoyable. Fine country—along the River Lee–a wide, rain-swollen stream, flowing down long glens and reaches. The whole landscape grey-green and sad and lonely. Ireland is indeed a haunted, ancient sort of land. It goes deep into one’s heart.[2]

 

Finally, today, another writer both slightly connected to all of the turmoil of literary London–he has long been in touch with, and occasionally helped by, Eddie Marsh–and very far away from it. Isaac Rosenberg writes to remind his old patron that he still lives, however miserably, and that he still reads, and writes. After a long bout of illness, Rosenberg is back in the trenches, and it is not going well.

My dear Marsh,

I have been in topsy turveydom since I last saw you and have not been able to write. Even now it is in the extremest difficulties that Im writing this. I wanted to talk about the Georgian Book which I had sent over to me but have not had time to more than glance through. I liked J. C. Squire poem about the ‘House’ enormously and all his other poems. Turners are very beautiful and Sassoon has power. Masefield seemed rather commonplace, but please don’t take my judgment at anything because I have hardly looked at them. I am back in the trenches which are terrible now. We spend most of our time pulling each other out of the mud. I am not fit at all now and am more in the way than any use. You see I appear in excellent health and a doctor will make no distinction between health and strength. I am not strong…

Yours sincerely

I Rosenberg[3]

Rosenberg does not ask, but it is unlikely that there are any strings near enough to Marsh’s hand (through Winston Churchill’s) to pull him all the way out of the trenches…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 93-4.
  2. Diaries, 206.
  3. Collected Works, 320-1.

Siegfried Sassoon Giveth, Taketh, and Breakfasts; Cynthia Asquith’s Telling Game of Tennis

With the war falling into its winter lull, we once more have only a few, brief, England-bound notes.

Siegfried Sassoon, who has recently been sneered at (behind his back, naturally) for his “semitic” heritage in a letter by America’s most promising (and hate-filled) poet, paid that one forward by mentioning, in a very sketchy diary entry referring to yesterday, a century back, that his train journey to London marred by “Awful conversations in Pullman carriage by Jew profiteers.” Sassoon, for the record, is an Anglican with almost no personal connection to his father’s family’s identity, still less their religion. But he has a famous Jewish name, and “looks Jewish” enough to confirm many of the prejudices that are brought to bear upon him. So he is in an excellent position to both give and receive anti-semitic disdain…

Ah, but where were we?

Breakfast at 5 Raymond Buildings Sunday—with Eddie Marsh and Bob Nichols. Received copy of Georgian Poetry 1916-17 and showed E.M. my new poems. To Nuneaton after lunch.[1]

Well, Nichols didn’t need an official Breakfast With Eddie to show that he has made it, but he was surely grateful nonetheless…

 

Cynthia Asquith may have missed breakfast, but–in a brief anecdote of playing the quintessential Last Summer sport with a grumpy middle-aged man–she reminds us gently of the placid persistence of gendered and generational differences on the home front of this long war.

Sunday, 9th December

I don’t know what has come over me. My morning insomnia of so many years’ standing has given place to heavy, heavy sleepiness, reminding me of my schoolroom days. I had the utmost difficulty in leaving my bed.

Angela and I played comic tennis against Papa and Bibs. The net broke and Papa, feeling energetic and gallant on the court as he tried to mend it, said with irritation, ‘Where’s that lazy Mary?’ ‘Lazy Mary’ having left the house at seven to toil for eight hours at the Winchcomb Hospital!

…I have been revelling in the fun of Rabelais for the first time. I can’t think why I’ve never sampled it before.[2]

I do hope she doesn’t mention the Rabelais to Freyberg…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. Diary, 378.

The Battle of Pilckem Ridge: Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge; David Jones, Edmund Blunden, Phillip Maddison, Ralph Hamilton, and Kate Luard

After a difficult spring, it’s been a relatively quiet summer so far. But that’s over, today.

Looking a century back, we know that today’s attack begins the last of the truly enormous offensive disasters of the British war. After Third Ypres, that is, there is only one more disaster, and then one last offensive. But in 1917, of course, today wasn’t the last of anything, only the latest in the long series of “big pushes,” each of which has been very costly, and none of which has achieved a breakthrough into the German rear.

The reason I’m dwelling on our inevitable position of historical irony (i.e. knowing more than the writers knew then, a condition which this project usually seeks to obscure, due to the governing conceit that we are there, a century back, and know no more of the future) is that this may be the last of those days, before the end of the war, that seemingly everyone who was there (and some who weren’t) wrote about. It will be one of the last days, at least, that I will insist on exploring from many vantage points, and perhaps no day in the next fifteen months will produce so long a post. Even if the coming weeks will find the British army as miserably mired as it has ever been, for readers it may well be all downhill from here…

Which is all to say, please bear with me, today: there are several poems and several long prose extracts. It’s a terrible day.

 

We’ll begin, not entirely inappropriately, with melodramatic fiction. Henry Williamson‘s alter ego Philip Maddison never misses a battle, and there is a strange, fruitful tension between Maddison’s use as a tightly-grasped mirror onto the life-history of his creator and the plot contortions which deliver him to every major action of the British war to witness the “show.” It seems fitting to let him talk us into the opening of yet another battle, before we try to understand the experiences of the poets who were there.

Dragging clouds broke into rain on the night of July 31.[1] Some said it was due to the gunfire… Everything he had experienced in war so far was diminished by the sinister feeling all around him as he rode through the Grand Place [in Ypres], despite the almost furtive activity among the ruins, where were hidden masked batteries of guns, including a 15-inch howitzer known as ‘Clockwork Charlie’ for its regular bombardment of Passchendaele station thirteen thousand yards away.

…A psychical vacuum of lost life, old terror, and chronic hopelessness lingered in the crepuscular ruins… ahead lay nihilism… One of many hundreds of thousands who had passed that way, Phillip proceeded, nervous animation of flesh and bone on innocent horseflesh because there was no alternative, while he remained unbroken.[2]

But it will go easily with Phillip: he commands a Machine Gun Company’s transport unit[3] and will have no duties until it is time to bring ammunition up later in the day. He sleeps through the opening barrage.

 

This rose to a climax at around a quarter to 4:00 a.m., as dawn was breaking–or would have, if it were not so heavily overcast. At 3:50 the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers moved up and out. At the same time, their own 14th Battalion attcked from assembly trenches directly in front. To their left were other battalions of the 38th Division, then the Guards Division, and eventually a strong French force. To their right were the 51st and 39th Divisions, then divisions belonging to four other corps–including Canadians and Anzacs–arrayed further to the south.

A map of the area showing the precise expectations of advance. At four hours and five minutes after “Z”–7:55 A.M.–the 38th Division’s second wave should have arrived at a slight ridge line east of “Iron Cross,” often referred to as the “Green Line.”

The 15th RWF had been given the task of moving over the muddy wreckage of No Man’s Land and the German front lines, then “through” the 14th Battalion and its captured objectives near the village of Pilckem. This was accomplished with relative ease and few casualties: the enormous barrage had obliterated the lightly-held forward German positions (remember all those patrols into empty space) and it was not until the 15th were almost a mile into what had been German territory that they started taking direct fire.

The geography of Flanders favored the assault more than the Somme: the “ridge” that was the objective in this battle was only twelve or fifteen meters higher than the Yser Canal which the Royal Welch (and, just to the south, Edmund Blunden) have so frequently been crossing, so there would be no uphill advance into the muzzles of the enemy’s guns, as it were. Yet the flat terrain also meant that there would be very little cover for advancing infantry. (Worse, on the operational level, the geography of Flanders made resupply and consolidation miserable and difficult: unless there had been many days without rain, much of the area was waterlogged, and all resupply had to be through the open mud.)

At some time around 8:00, after resting briefly, the battalion launched its attack from near Pilckem village toward its own objectives to the east. They were now in the sights of the slightly elevated German machine guns, encased in concrete pillboxes, many of which had survived the opening barrage. The next few minutes are the sort of experience that defy description, and the Battalion War Diary perhaps wisely opts for simple elision.

Considerable opposition was met with at BATTERY COPSE & by this time there were but few officers remaining.

In other words, the battalion, though continuing to move forward, was met with murderous fire from nearby strong points, fell behind the carefully timed “walking” support barrage, and was stopped by that mysterious combination of moral failure, confusion, exhaustion, and physical depletion that leads to historians of battles using metaphors of physical force. They had done well, penetrating much further into the German lines than most of the units on the southern part of the assault, but still not quite as well as the ever-optimistic planners had hoped. And that planning was everything: there was no possibility of getting messages back over a mile of broken ground to the the telephones that could contact the artillery. There was no possibility of bringing up heavy weapons to address the German pill boxes. The ridge was held, by the German Third Guards, and when the barrage lifted they came up and fought. There was nothing for the Royal Welch to do but rush whatever German positions could be rushed, until they were… halted, pushed back, forced to a halt, and dug in.

The Diary remained matter-of-fact:

… the smoke barrage… tended to confuse the men… Lt. Col. C.C. Norman[4]… was wounded and ordered the Bn. to consolidate on the IRON CROSS ridge. As no officer remained, the Bn. was handed over to the R.S.M. Jones who saw to the consolidation which was being carried out some way in rear of the GREEN LINE giving a greater task to the 115 bde who were passing through us.

It is striking, even on such a day, that the battalion’s ranking member, only a few hours into the battle is the Regimental Sergeant Major: there should have been between twelve and twenty officers at the start, but all of those who went forward have been wounded or killed.

And many of the men, including Ellis Humphrey Evans, the Welsh shepherd and bard better known as Hedd Wyn.

Not long after the 15th Welsh began to advance from Pilckem he was hit, probably by a large piece of shrapnel from a German shell. The shell struck him in the stomach, or the back–a great wound would have been visible, in any case, on both sides of his body. He fell, somewhere near a crossroads on the road to Langemarck, and lay there for around three hours. Perhaps he was in shock at first, probably in terrible agony thereafter. At some time around midday, stretcher bearers found him, and struggled back through the thickening mud to an advanced dressing station.

Hedd Wyn–Private Ellis Humphrey Evans–died on a stretcher not long after arriving at the dressing station. There is a mention of his receiving morphia before the end (which we might fervently hope, even a century on, to be true) and unreliable accounts of last words.[5]

Evans–Hedd Wyn–will be buried nearby, with a chaplain reading the burial service in Welsh. His last letters and his last great poem–an ode written for the upcoming National Eisteddfod–will find their way slowly back to Britain over the next days and weeks. For many officers the telegram is sent within a day or two, but not to the far-off farming family of an enlisted man, living their lives in a language other than English. Hedd Wyn’s parents and siblings will have to wait through weeks of dire rumor before the War Office confirms his death.

 

This is one stanza from the ode that Hedd Wyn sent, only a few weeks ago, for adjudication at the National Eisteddfod:

Y macwy heulog, paham y ciliodd?                       Why did he depart, this radiant youngster?

Ba ryw hud anwel o’m bro a’i denodd?                  What drew him from me, what unseen power?

Ei oed a’i eiriau dorrodd, – ac o’i drig                Breaking his word and pledge together–then he

Ddiofal unig efe ddiflannodd                            In his carefree home was seen no longer.[6]

 

 

Onward. It seems that David Jones never met Hedd Wyn. He surely laid eyes on him, over the past two weeks, but I can find no record of anyone making Jones aware that he had “fought alongside,” however briefly, a true Welsh bard.[7] But he did not fight alongside him on his last day.

Yesterday, a century back, David Jones learned that he would be kept back from the attack along with a small cadre of officers[8] and men.

Jones was assigned to ‘battalion nuclear reserve’ — a group from which the already depleted battalion could be reconstituted if it were wiped out during the assault. Upon receiving his assignment, he asked the adjutant to be removed from the list so he could take part in the attack. Although he wanted merely to remain with his friends, he argued that he ought to trade places with a married man. The adjutant furiously berated him for ‘pretending to wish to be a bloody hero’ while knowing full well that men detailed had no choice in the matter. Simmering down, he told Jones that there would be plenty of other opportunities, that the nucleus was likely to be called upon anyway, and that he only wished he had been assigned to it. Feeling foolish, Jones tried to explain that he had not meant it that way. He was forced to endure the ignominy of relative safety…

Thomas Dilworth’s account of the battalion’s advance emphasizes their success in meeting and defeating German opposition between Pilckem village and the not-quite-obtained “Green Line,” even after the loss of so many officers.

Keeping in formation, the remainder struggled in deep mud past Pilckem village and concrete machine-gun emplacements, which they outflanked, compelling their garrisons to surrender. In reserve, listening to the gunfire, Jones worried about his friends and bitterly regretted his separation from them.[9]

Jones will nevertheless write their advance, presumably drawing on his comrades’ memories, in the thick description and black comic mood of the “Balaam’s Ass” section of The Sleeping Lord. The section about the openness of the advance, as the men contemplate their coming exposure to German machine guns, is frightening. Jones draws thorny little historical-personal sketches of the men of the unit, alternating several of these with sardonic and tragic descriptions of the landscape, or lack thereof:

It’s as level as Barking and as bare as your palm…

All the fine fiery waters in Headquarter’s larder won’t raise a mole-hill for Lieutenant Fairy on that open plain…

not a bush, no brick-bat, not any accidental & advantageous fold, no lie of dead ground the length of a body…

Not a rock to cleft for, not a spare drift of soil for the living pounds of all their poor bodies drowned in the dun sea…

Nor yet was there aid or covering wing, or upright, or linden hedge or agger or paraduct or mothering skirt for a frightened last-born, or gunnal for the evil swell; or anything drawn to mask or shadow…

The list of men, and the lack of cover that will kill them, goes on for pages before Jones, in an echo of the medieval Welsh “Triads,” names “the three who escaped.” And then the poem ends:

But for all the rest there was no help on that open plain.[10]

 

There were more than three survivors, in prose, and Jones will join them later on, where they hold their muddy positions near what had been the German second line and their “Black Line–“the penultimate line of intended advance. But the tone of tomorrow may be different than the tone of today: the survivors of the battalion took pride in its success, and celebrated it.

And so it is a curious fact that the one image I have found which links the material facts of this day to the work of one of our writers is about as traditionally triumphal as 1917 art could get: it is Jones’s sketch of a German howitzer–proof that they fought through the infantry and reached the artillery–captiured today, a century back, and drawn soon after.

 

By now it should be clear–to us if not to all the contemporary generals–that, as a matter of strategy, the front line positions on a Great War “battlefield” matter very little. They will change hands as counter-attacks and second efforts are launched, and the place where a battered battalion went to ground may not turn out to be defensible. What matters, really, is whether the newly occupied territory can be connected to the arteries of warfare in the rear. If reinforcements can be brought up quickly, if the cavalry can follow the infantry and the guns can get to new positions with vantage points over the enemy rear, then the offensive can be sustained.

These are deep battles, therefore, and when attacking waves of infantry face little in the way of enemy shellfire it is both because they are being left for the machine guns to deal with and because the artillery may also have “lifted” in order to focus on the interdiction of reserves. The infantry in the immediate rear, whether working or moving up in support, are the most vulnerable targets of shrapnel, gas, and high explosive as the day wears on.

The 1st Royal Inniskillings, therefore, had drawn a less dangerous assignment than leading the attack, but it is now far from a safe job. A few miles south-east of the Royal Welch, they have detailed to build the forward-area infrastructure that the offensive would depend upon.

Francis Ledwidge‘s biographer puts us with the men of his battalion, in support, questioning the only British soldiers they see who are likely to have some sense of how the battle is progressing.

All during the morning… the tide of wounded flowed back from the front line. Once again the stretcher-bearers had to raise their burdens shoulder-high as they sloshed along. Questioned how the day went, there was not much they could tell… All they could say was that the German front line of shell-craters was quickly taken, as it was manned by only scattered outposts. But immediately they found themselves in an inferno of gunfire as wave after wave of Germans came out against them, fighting like tigers.

Francis Ledwidge

Ledwidge and his comrades in reserve had been toiling since early morning at road-making…

There was a violent rainstorm in the afternoon, shrouding the region in a grey monochrome… Road-work could not be suspended, however, as the tracks were in use as fast as they were laid down. Tea was issued to the men and, drenched to the skin, they stopped to swallow it. A shell exploded beside Ledwidge and he was instantly killed.

There is no doubt about Ledwidge’s fate; the shell killed six other men and wounded many more. The battalion chaplain, Father Devas, was nearby, but still far too far away for last rites. He performed the burial service soon afterwards, and will write in his diary, tonight:

Ledwidge killed, blown to bits; at Confession yesterday and Mass and Holy Communion this morning. R.I.P.[11]

 

It was a battlefield burial, and not much like the one Ledwidge had described in “A Soldier’s Grave.”

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death,
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

 

Within a few miles and a few hours, Wales and Ireland lost their foremost war poets. Hedd Wyn was 30; Ledwidge, born half a year later, would have turned 30 in August. Both came from Celtic “peasant stock” and humble circumstances: Evans was one of nine children who survived infancy and left school at around the age of fourteen; Ledwidge, too, was one of nine children and left school perhaps a year earlier. Hedd Wyn stayed at home until conscription, but Ledwidge traveled–and only he crossed over into the language of the conquerors and received a lord‘s patronage and wide publication while he lived.

Each worked with their hands while working on their verse, and each will receive a posthumous epithet which confines their work even as it helps hold their place in collective memory: they were the Shepherd Poet and the Poet of the Blackbirds.

Each was looking forward to the reception of his latest work–Ledwidge’s second book, Hedd Wyn’s awdl for the Eisteddfod. Ledwidge, who had lost Ellie, wrote a last letter to Lizzie; Hedd Wyn, who had lost Lizzie, wrote a last letter to Jini. Both are buried, now, in Artillery Wood Cemetery.

Francis Ledwidge, who did not turn his poet’s pen toward the worst of the war, wrote these verses in February:

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

 

And Hedd Wyn wrote these lines about one of his friends who had gone before him to the war. It could have been for Ledwidge, almost, or, now, for himself:

Ceraist ti grwydro gwlwdydd pellenig,—             You loved to roam the distant lands
Y gwlwdydd sy ‘mhell tros y don;                           The countries beyond the sea,
Weithiau dychwelit i’th gartre mynyddig              Sometimes you’d return to your highland home,
A’th galon yn ysgafn a llon.                                    And so light of heart you’d be.

Gwelsom di ennyd cyn dychwel ohonot              We saw you awhile before you returned
I’r rhyfel sy’n crynu y byd;                                       To the war that makes the world quake,
Nodau y gwlatgar a’r beiddgar oedd ynot,           Bearing the marks so dearly bought
Y nodau sy’n costio mor ddrud.                              For your country and bravery’s sake.

Fe chwyth y corwynt tros fryniau Trawsfynydd    The storm rages over Trawsfynydd’s hills
O’th ôl fel yn athrist ei gainc;                                   After you, as if it would weep;
Tithau yng nghymni’r fataliwn ddi-hysbydd          You, who with numberless battalions in France
Sy’n cysgu’n ddi‑freuddwyd yn Ffrainc                   Lie there in a dreamless sleep.[12]

 

 

Does this strange practice of following a number of lives faithfully through their day-to-day progress, even to their deaths, help us see a perhaps-too-familiar war in a new light? Sometimes it doesn’t quite seem worth the effort. But on other days, even on sad days like this one, it does seem to intensify historical experience. And, yes, often in that familiar, bitterly ironic way.

What is to be done? Why are thoughtful young men from the green and pleasant hills of England’s first colonies (to say nothing of the thousands who came from England’s more recent and farther-flung colonies, essentially invisible in this project, or the English boys themselves) dying in Flanders? What good is it doing?

In England, the same papers that carried the news of the opening of the offensive at Pilckem Ridge carried news of yesterday‘s parliamentary questions about a certain unruly officer. Sassoon’s protest has fallen entirely between two battles. Inspired by Arras, it has lapsed during a quiet summer, and only the wake’s last mild ripple laps up against Passchendaele.

Robert Graves, now back at the Royal Welsh depot at Litherland, seems somewhat jealous of his friend’s publicity, however negative it is. (Only two newspapers will come out in support of Sassoon; others will mock him, dismiss him, or publish would-be exposés of his family history.)

My dear Sassons

…Well you are notorious throughout England now you silly old thing! Everybody here who’s been to France agrees with your point of view, but those that don’t know you think it was not quite a gentlemanly course to take: the ‘quixotic-English-sportsman’ class especially.’ But you have accomplished something I suppose… What a ridiculous business! I hope it won’t injure your poetry: and that old Gosse won’t think better of celebrating his protégé in the Edinburgh Review. I’m longing to get my Sorley back. Hurry up with it…

Poor devils at Pilkem![13]

 

Yes, the poor devils. Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge would perhaps have written verse about the battle, if they had lived. Hedd Wyn surely would have; his war verse was very strong even before he had seen the war. But what could they have written about the attack itself? This war is beginning to produce great literature–small recompense for the suffering, but there is no way out of that moral-aesthetic fact–but it has yet to produce many good accounts of a major offensive. This is not surprising: it has always been very difficult first to make any sense of a battle and then represent it in words, let alone in verse. And it’s not getting any easier.

But Edmund Blunden, who is here and who will survive the day, will try. He wrote a poem (“Third Ypres”), a story (“Over the Sacks”), and he addressed the ongoing battle in the most harrowing chapter of his memoirs.

The story we will pass over (a page of the manuscript is at right, and it can be read in full at the First World War Poetry Digital Archive). And the poem is none of his best, not least because Blunden tries to describe the progress of the war, blow by blow. This is no wartime lyric, but an attempt, as it were, at a fragment of descriptive epic, something to fall between Vergil and Lucan.

It begins with the realization among the men of the writer’s battalion that the early stages of the attack are going well.

Triumph! How strange, how strong had triumph come
On weary hate of foul and endless war
When from its grey gravecloths awoke anew
The summer day. Among the tumbled wreck
Of fascined lines and mounds the light was peering,
Half-smiling upon us, and our newfound pride;
The terror of the waiting night outlived,
The time too crowded for the heart to count
All the sharp cost in friends killed on the assault.
No hook of all the octopus had held us,[14]
Here stood we trampling down the ancient tyrant.
So shouting dug we among the monstrous pits.

Amazing quiet fell upon the waste,
Quiet intolerable to those who felt
The hurrying batteries beyond the masking hills…

The War would end, the Line was on the move,
And at a bound the impassable was passed.
We lay and waited with extravagant joy.

This is verse, but it’s also historical witness. This is how the day went, for many of the battalions involved. The first waves did well, but the effort was impossible to sustain.

Now dulls the day and chills; comes there no word
From those who swept through our new lines to flood
The lines beyond? but little comes, and so
Sure as a runner time himself’s accosted.
And the slow moments shake their heavy heads,
And croak, “They’re done, they’ll none of them get through,
They’re done, they’ve all died on the entanglements,
The wire stood up like an unplashed hedge and thorned
With giant spikes — and there they’ve paid the bill.”

Then comes the black assurance, then the sky’s
Mute misery lapses into trickling rain,
That wreathes and swims and soon shuts in our world.

The rain happened that way too. Although the attack had been held back in the hopes that August would be drier than July, it began raining this afternoon and rained almost steadily for most of the next week. This rain was more than symbolic, but less than strategically decisive: the attack had failed to break through, so no matter how many Germans were killed, no matter how many guns were captured, it was already doomed to failure on the strategic level. The only remaining question is not strategic or tactical but attritional: there will be no breakthrough, but will one army or the other break?

Neither will collapse, yet, but no one could have known that for certain. Nevertheless, they could have guessed with more intelligence, or good sense, or pity. Instead, Haig and his staff will long press the question, on into an autumn of mud and misery and death.

Blunden’s account of today in Undertones of War begins with the Staff–but those who command the battle have already become irrelevant to its progress by the time it begins; another familiar irony. He improves on the poem in many ways, not least in allowing the generalized vision of battle to focus briefly–if distantly–on actual people. The runner is joined by captains and churls; the Thersites of the Royal Sussex and some of the far-off Captains of Contingents.

The hour of attack had been fixed by the staff much earlier than the infantry wanted or thought suitable. The night had passed as such nights often do, shelling being less than was anticipated, silent altogether at times. I suppose it was about 3:00 when I shook hands with Colonel Millward, mounted the black-oozing steps of battle headquarters in the burrows below Bilge Street, and got into the assembly ditch (Hornby Trench) with my signallers. It was thick darkness and slippery going, but we used an old road part of the way. Where we lay, there were in the darkness several tall tree stumps above, and it felt like a friendly ghost that watched the proceedings.

At 3:50, if I am right, shortly after Vidler had passed me growling epigrams at some recent shellburst which had covered him with mud, the British guns began; a flooded Amazon of steel flowed roaring, immensely fast, over our heads, and the machine-gun bullets made a pattern of sharper sound and maniac language against that diluvian rush. Flaring lights, small ones, great ones, went spinning sideways in the cloud of night; one’s eyes seemed not quick enough; one heard nothing from one’s shouting neighbour, and only by the quality of the noise and flame did I know that the German shells crashing among the tree stumpswere big ones and practically on top of us. We moved ahead, found No Man’s Land a comparatively good  surface, were amazed at the puny tags and rags of once multiplicative German wire, and blundered over the once-feared trench behind them without seeing it. Good men as they were, my party were almost all half-stunned by the unearthliness of our own barrage, and when two were wounded it was left to me to bandage them in my ineffective way. The dark began to be diluted with day, and as we went on we saw concrete emplacements, apparently unattended to as yet, which had to be treated with care and suspicion; I was well satisfied to find them empty. And indeed the whole area seemed to be deserted. German dead, so obvious at every yard of a 1916 battlefield, were not to be seen. We still went ahead, and the mist whitened into dawn; through it came running a number of Germans — a momentary doubt; no — “Prisoners!” shouted my batman. A minute more, and my advanced guard of signallers had come into touch with the companies, digging in along their captured objective. Meanwhile, I went ahead to see all the mist allowed; there were troops of our brigade advancing through the lines of men consolidating shell holes, and with map before me I could recognize some of the places which we had certainly captured. It seemed marvellous, for the moment! All ours — all these German trenches. Caliban Support, Calf Avenue, Calf Reserve. But, stay — even now a pity looks one in the face, for these trenches are mostlymere hedges of brushwood, hurdles, work for a sheep-fold, with a shallow ditch behind; and they have been taking our weeks of gunfire in these!

The sympathy actually occurred to me, but was soon obliterated by the day’s work and an increase in the German gunfire upon us. The passage of the tanks through our position was thought to be the reason, for as these machines wheeled aside from the pits where our men were digging, heavy shells came down with formidable accuracy. Besides, the enemy must have captured our operation maps with all the stages of advance displayed. I remember that I was talking with somebody about one “Charlie” Aston, an officer’s servant, who had been running here and there to collect watches from German dead. He had just returned to his chosen shell hole, with several
fine specimens, when a huge shell burst in the very place. But not much notice was taken, or elegy uttered, for everywhere the same destruction threatened. And Tice and Collyer were already killed—news as yet failing to have its full painfulness in the thick of things.

The battalion headquarters soon advanced from the old British front line, still conspicuous with the tall tree stumps, and crushed itself into a little concrete dugout with a cupola over it, formerly used for a perfect survey of the British defences. Road-making parties had lost no time and, strung out among the shellbursts, were shovelling and pummelling tracks across old No Man’s Land.

These men might be Ledwidge and his companions–except that they are in a neighboring division. The road they’ve made allow the staff–not the Olympian General Staff but its least august and most local branch office–to see the battle.

And then the brigade headquarters came, beautiful to look upon, and their red tabs glowed out of several shell holes. This was more than the German observers could endure, and in a short time there was such a shower of high explosive on that small area that the brains of the brigade withdrew, a trifle disillusioned, to the old British trenches. Another shower, and a more serious and incontestable one, was now creeping on miserably over the whole field. It was one of the many which caused the legend, not altogether dismissed even by junior officers, that the Germans could make it rain when they wanted to. Now, too, we were half aware that the attack had failed farther on, and one more brilliant hope, expressed a few hours before in shouts of joy, sank into the mud.[15]

This is life-history, or personal prose–but it seems to fit the battle. Or, at least, what the battle will become.

 

But that too is taking liberties with historiography. It was not raining in the morning, and the Germans did not make it rain–nor were all the staff’s objectives impossible to obtain. Can one attempt more traditional battlefield historiography, on a day like today?

Just to the left of the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ 38th Division were the Guards, including the Second Irish Guards, whose official historian, already on the job a century back, was Rudyard Kipling.

July 31st opened, at 3.30 a. m., with a barrage of full diapason along the army front, followed on the Guards sector by three minutes of “a carefully prepared hate,” during which two special companies projected oil-drums throwing flame a hundred yards around, with thermit that burned everything it touched. The enemy had first shown us how to employ these scientific aids, and we had bettered the instruction.

His barrage in reply fell for nearly an hour on the east bank of the canal. Our creeping barrage was supposed to lift at 4 a. m. and let the two leading battalions (2nd Irish Guards and 1st Scots Guards) get away; but it was not till nearly a quarter of an hour later that the attack moved forward in waves behind it. Twelve minutes later, Nos. 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion had reached the first objective (Cariboo and Cannon trenches) “with only one dead
German encountered”; for the enemy’s withdrawal to his selected line had been thorough. The remaining companies followed, and behind them came the 1st Coldstream, all according to schedule; till by 5.20 a. m. the whole of the first objective had been taken and was being consolidated, with very small loss…

About half-past five, Colonel Greer, while standing outside advanced Battalion Headquarters dug-out in the first objective line, was killed instantly by shrapnel or bullet. It was his devoted work, his arrangement and foresight that had brought every man to his proper place so far without waste of time or direction. He had literally made the Battalion for this battle as a steeple-chaser is made for a given line of country. Men and officers together adored him for his justice, which was exemplary and swift; for the human natural fun of the man; for his knowledge of war and the material under his hand, and for his gift of making hard life a thing delightful. He fell on the threshold of the
day ere he could see how amply his work had been rewarded…

No Greek heroes here, but a Moses out of the grimmer warfare of the Hebrew Bible–they did it first, and we will do it more ruthlessly and competently. And he falls within sight of the promised land.

And here’s a strange if superficial coincidence: on a day when the Sassoon family is being dragged through the tabloids (Siegfried, though he was baptized and raised as an Anglican and identified with his maternal family–the eminently English Thornycrofts–descended from a prominent Sephardic Jewish mercantile clan) in search of their scion’s wretched anti-militarism, a half second cousin, Reginald Ellice Sassoon, is credited with speeding an important advance.

Lieutenant Sassoon, commanding No. 3, got his Lewis-gun to cover a flank attack on the machine-gun that was doing the damage, took it with seven German dead and five wounded prisoners, and so freed the advance for the Scots Guards and his own company. As the latter moved forward they caught it in the rear from another machine-gun which had been overlooked, or hidden itself in the cleaning-up of Hey Wood.

Sassoon sent back a couple of sections to put this thing out of action (which they did) and pushed on No. 4 Company, which was getting much the same allowance from concrete emplacements covering machine-guns outside Artillery Wood…

All in all, the Irish Guards had been quite successful.

Indeed, they admitted among themselves — which is where criticism is fiercest — that they had pulled the scheme off rather neatly, in spite of their own barrages, and that the map and model study had done the trick. By ten o’clock of the morning their work was substantially complete. They had made and occupied the strong points linking up between their advanced companies and the final objectives, which it was the business of the other brigades to secure. As they put it, “everything had clicked…”

Successful, yet still costly:

…At three o’clock Father Knapp appeared at Battalion Headquarters — that most insanitary place — and proposed to stay there. It was pointed out to him that the shelling was heavy, accommodation, as he could see, limited, and he had better go to the safer advanced dressing-station outside Boesinghe and deal with the spiritual needs of his wounded as they were sent in. The request had to be changed to a reasonably direct order ere he managed to catch it; for, where his office was concerned, the good Father lacked something of that obedience he preached. And a few hours after he had gone down to what, with any other man, would have been reasonable security, news arrived that he had been mortally wounded while tending cases “as they came out” of the dressing-station. He must have noticed that the accommodation there was cramped, too, and have exposed himself to make shelter for others…

The toll is taken: three officers, including the C.O. (but not the chaplain) killed, and three wounded. More paths cross here: Lady Dorothie Feilding‘s brother “Peter” (Henry) was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and she will spend much of the rest of her honeymoon seeking news of him before finally learning that he is safe, for the moment–his battalion was in reserve. But as they use “their contacts in Flanders” to try to get news by letter and telegraph, her new husband, late of the Irish Guards, will learn that “his 3 best friends” were all killed today, a century back–Sir John Dyer, Col. Greer, and “Father Knapps who was to have married us.”[16]

Casualties in other ranks came to 280, a large part due to machine-gun fire. It was a steadying balance-sheet and, after an undecided action, would have been fair excuse for a little pause and reconstruction. But a clean-cut all-
out affair, such as Boesinghe, was different, though it had been saddened by the loss of an unselfish priest who feared nothing created, and a commanding officer as unselfish and as fearless as he…

Greer’s insistence that the men should know the model of the ground, and their officers the aeroplane maps of it, and his arrangements whereby all units could report lucidly at any moment where they were, had brought them success. So, with 50 per cent, of their strength gone, and the dismal wet soaking the stiff survivors to the bone, they hobbled about, saying, “If he were only here now to see how he has pulled this off!”[17]

Pilckem ridge, a bloody, partial success–or at least a qualified failure–is over. But the larger monstrosity known as Third Ypres has only begun; Passchendaele is coming…

 

We’ll close today with two more participants–our two most assiduous diarists–both in the British rear. Kate Luard, ready and waiting for the first torn bodies, wrote in her diary at the beginning and the end of the day.

4.15 a.m. …We crept out on to the duckboards and saw. It was more wonderful and stupendous than horrible…

6.30 a.m. We have just begun taking in the first cases…

Same day, 11 p.m. We have been working in the roar of battle every minute since I last wrote… Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he began putting over high explosive. Everyone had to put on tin-hats and carry on… no direct hits but streams of shrapnel, which were quite hot when you picked them up… we were so frantically busy that it was easier to pay less attention to it.

It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again…[18]

Luard’s forward hospital dealt with hundreds of abdominal wounds, saving many, perhaps, who would have died on the way to the usual Casualty Clearing Stations. If Hedd Wyn’s wound had only been a little less severe, if it had only been possible for the overburdened stretcher bearers to go farther and faster…

 

But just as Luard worked all day to save the broken bodies, the Master of Belhaven worked all day to break more. That’s in the nature of artillery work.

We… have fired without stopping all day… we have not got as far as was intended just here, I have only seen about a couple of hundred German prisoners, but I believe a great many have been taken. They have no doubt gone back by a different route. On the other hand, I believe we have done very well up to the North…

This is true–both the French advance and the near-achievement of the “Green Line” goal by the Guards and the 38th Division were accounted successes. But ground gained still must be weighed against the flesh and blood it cost. Hamilton summarizes the reports filtering back from the wounded infantry: “I am afraid our casualties have been very heavy.” As for his own batteries, it will not be a one-sided battle for long.

Very few shells have come over us to-day as we expected. During the actual attack the hostile artillery devote themselves to the infantry. Our hard time will come to-morrow.[19]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. By which he means the night of July 30-31st; and he's jumping the gun just a bit on the rain...
  2. Love and the Loveless, 218-19.
  3. As Williamson did, until he went sick and was sent to Cornwall to recuperate.
  4. The cool old officer whom David Jones had so recently glimpsed striding the parapet.
  5. Llwyd, The Story of Hedd Wyn, 93-115. Alan Llwyd has weighed the various testimonies about Hedd Wyn's death, and I follow his reconstruction of the most probable sequence of events.
  6. Trans. Howard Huws.
  7. It's more than possible that I have just missed this. If not--if no one figured this out during Jones's long life and told him about it--then it's a striking and somewhat sad slipped stitch in the patchwork of Great War literature. Jones worked for years to learn enough Welsh to integrate its myths and history into his war epic, and even if he would not, perhaps, have been unduly impressed by the mere coincidence of proximity in space and time, he might, if he had known that a chaired bard had been killed in his own battalion, have thought more about contemporary Welsh poetry and its place in a British accounting of France and Flanders. Or not--there are many things I do not understand about Welsh-language culture a century back--and now--and about the political and cultural complexities of translation. Do Welsh poets claim David Jones--or, rather, do they honor his application for honorary membership in their ranks--for his ancestry, artistry, and benign intent? Does the resurgence of Welsh culture after devolution mean that Hedd Wyn has been annexed, to some degree, away from some more pure bardic/local identity and flattened into a "heritage" figure, half Welsh Rupert Brooke and half Welsh Wilfred Owen? I wish I had started on this particular thread a bit earlier...
  8. This also accounts for all officers becoming casualties--a disproportionate number would have been held back. but still...
  9. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-63.
  10. The Sleeping Lord, 100-111.
  11. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 188.
  12. Trans. Howard Huws
  13. In Broken Images, 80.
  14. This line recalls--or rather foreshadows--the closing lines of Undertones of War.
  15. Undertones of War, chapter 21.
  16. Lady Under Fire, 219. The misspelling--"Knapps"--is presumably Lady Dorothie's.
  17. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 193-8.
  18. Unknown Warriors, 133-4.
  19. War Diary, 356-7.

Henry Williamson on the Shelf; Duff Cooper Closes the Office Door; Edmund Blunden of the Flashing Wit

Today a century back, two very different men have their recent hopes confirmed. Henry Williamson, ill once again–his condition perhaps aggravated by inhaling small amounts of phosgene gas–went before a Medical Board and was ruled “unfit for General Service for three months, unfit for Home Service for two months, and unfit for Light Duties for one month.” Long, long ago, he had joined the Territorials in order to escape some office drudgery and make friends, and this brought him into the bloody open warfare of the war’s early months. By now he has few consistent illusions or ambitions about the army, and he is surely overjoyed to have escaped the front for another summer.[1]

 

Duff Cooper–older and moving in much higher social circles–has stayed at his government job while so many of his friends volunteered, and fought, and were killed. Now, his way opened by the broadening pressure of conscription (and by his belated self-assertion as a volunteer), he has escaped the office at last, and may soon face the trenches for the first time.

June 22, 1917

Today I left the Foreign Office without a single regret…  I love to think of the dreary files of papers that I shall not see again. Even if I survive the war I doubt whether I shall go back to the Foreign Office. I should hate to face that monotonous routine again.[2]

 

But we’ll catch up today with Edmund Blunden. I may weary my readers with praise of his subtle, restrained, gorgeous prose… but that’s the memoir. It’s good to see him writing in a different vein to his younger school friend from Christ’s Hospital, Hector Buck–it’s a reminder that Blunden’s intelligence and coming excellence as a writer is not a guarantee of precocious wisdom.

A letter of June 9th begins in fine fettle, and in medias res (we’ll skip the Greek epithet at the beginning; but I will remind readers that Blunden was Senior Grecian before he was subaltern of infantry, and therefore it was hardly a stretch to come up with a sobriquet for a friend called “Hector”…)

Behold, yet a time again for my Indomitable Energy to foot the boards and imitate the well-rounded humours of those famous men Hy. Champion & Jas. Godden…

To my disgust and bile, it is nearly a fortnight since I had any news from anyone — for down at the Rest Camp I missed my mail, and after leaving there was sent on to this Rayless Void (Musketry School). So nothing has come from my probably exasperated Friends & Acquaintances. See to it my Son that this is altered at an Early Date…

I have been here since the evening of the 3rd; and I wrote to my battalion, with an exceeding bitter Cry, to be ransomed from this exile the day after; so I should be hearing very soon now what is happening to them and get back to them I hope.

This, in other words, will be something like a Music Hall turn. The high spirits may be due as much to the fact of having missed the danger of the Battle of Messines as to knowledge of the British success–but then again Blunden is always happier with his battalion than without.

Nevertheless, this is very much a school letter, and although Blunden jokes about how their old French master would approve of his scandalous new practical French, his questions about school and county cricket are in earnest. He betrays more anxiety about the pitch than the battlefield:

This capture of Messines is commonly called champion. I remember when I came out, there was a legend that the Guards had offered to take it if every man surviving could have a fortnight’s leave. But there was nothing doing. At that time too there was another fairy fable that any man capturing a German Very Light would in like manner receive a fortnight furlough. ‘O dream too Sweet, too Sweet, too Bitter’ (whose? why Christina Rossetti’s or some spinster). Walk march. Hop along Sister Mary, hop along.

Forbear, for I am more fool than knave, to be angry with my letter–is it not a little one? Mine’s a Malaga Mademoiselle. Alliteration alcoholic. No compris Zig-Zag. You plenty bon. How’s everyone?

Right. Since I’m not following that either, we’ll skip the part where Blunden stops doing imitation Carroll and just quotes the Jabberwock, and move on to today’s letter.

22nd June [1917]
Feast of Ancient Trulls
B.E.F.
Gaul Blimey

Sir Knight as it seems,

Gratitude be heaped on your head for your last letter to me, which came like Hy Champion on the vaudeville firmament, full of beans and grace. My feeble frame was strengthened as with Tono-Bungay. I was as
one that tasteth of the ripe October after marching from foreign parts through a Burning Heat & do not be dismayed if my answer is more like a glee party of wombats and armadillos in full cry than anything else yet devised by the wit of man…

But style is not substance. Although Blunden keeps up the jokey-referential schoolboy patter, he also goes to the heart of the matter. It sounds jolly, but this is still a letter confessing poisonous despair about the war, and suggesting the use of large doses of pastoral (or, rather, Georgic) recourses as an antidote:

I need not ‘stress’ (the Northcliffe influence) the depth of despondency to which I am permanently lowered. The ancient humour comforts me no more. I have lately taken all chances of studying Flanders farmers urging on their horses with cries reminiscent of sea-sickness perpetually threatening–I have stood for hours watching the Carnivora or whatever they are that live in farmyards, hoping to mimic the White Leghorns praising Jah [i.e. Jehovah], the Goat requesting food, the barn dog-proclaiming the moon, and the Oldest Inhabitant filling up the swine’s swill trough.

The clamour and tinsel heroics of Bayonet Fighting Instructors, the malapropisms and arm gestures of our R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant-Major], the rages and quiffs of Generals and Staffs–I have noted them all and gone away in despair. The War is a sort of slow poison to me that keeps on drugging and deadening my mind. And I can tell you that the shelling just lately is far worse than anything we have been through before except for actual attacks. The Bosch is so windy that he puts on a barrage every few hours in case we are just assembling to attack him. But as far as the battalion is concerned, we are back now for a few days’ training.
Anyway I loathe the war & the army too. To hell with same.

Not only has Blunden rounded up the usual suspects–the bayonet instructor, the staff–but he has joined the ranks of the wrathful. Sensitive port-officers have been annoyed by the outcry against the loss of civilian life for more than two years now, but it has not been Blunden’s part yet to make the sharp angry complaint.

Nor does resentful ire bring out the best in him–there is another kind of puerility here too.

Why shouldn’t coves like Merk who go on in their petty self-inflations have some of the discomforts? There was more shriek in England over several hundred casualties in a bombing raid than there has been over several hundred thousand out here reported at a steady rate in Minion type on the back page among the advertisements of sheenies and toothwash wallahs. But forgive me…

I will consider it.

Why I am so cynical and tired of life lately I don’t know; but I expect Nature; is working normally and in due time I shall be removed to Bedlam.

The last few days have been stormy and I expect your hands are not being so buffeted by erratic fast bowling, but rather pushing awry the frequent wicket and startling the dozing Umpire into giving the incredulous Batsman Out…

So off the poise I am that I read the ‘Princess’ by Tennyson the Other day. Tennyson trying to be humorous, or realistic, is like a hippopotamus in violet tights attempting to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, so I laughed Long & Loud. But afterwards I read some of In Memoriam and repented myself.

But Literature languishes as a whole in the battalion except for two books ‘Flossie’ and ‘Aphrodite’ which the Archbishop of Canterbury has probably not read. I have got my ‘John Clare’s Poems’ and often tub thump over them, claiming him as one of the best. But no one wants to agree with me.

Please get the War stopped pretty soon. Some of us are as mummies, only we still carry on the motions of breathing, swathed round with red-tape and monotony. I wish you all jolly good luck…

My best wishes to you old son.

Keep on going.

Your friend,
E. Blunden[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165.
  2. Diaries, 54.
  3. More Than a Brother, 4-9.

The Legend of C.E. Montague; Siegfried Sassoon on Elgar, Poetry, Spiritualism, Loss, and the Turning of the Plow; Edward Thomas Reads Frost; Tolkien is Boarded

Is the little anti-Semitic outburst of yesterday still hanging on the mind of Siegfried Sassoon? Probably not. It’s probably a coincidence, probably just the music, and not any lingering need to assert his English identity by addressing the Christian story…

Elgar’s Violin Concerto… made me glorious with dreams to-night. Elgar always moves me deeply, because his is the melody of an average Englishman (and I suppose I am more or less the same)…

 

The Elgar Violin Concerto

I have seen Christ, when music wove
Exulting vision; storms of prayer
Deep-voiced within me marched and strove.
The sorrows of the world were there.
A God for beauty shamed and wronged?
A sign where faith and ruin meet.
In glooms of vanquished glory thronged
By spirits blinded with defeat?
His head forever bowed with pain.
In all my dreams he looms above
The violin that speaks in vain—
The crowned humility of love.
O music undeterred by death.
And darkness closing on your flame,
Christ whispers in your dying breath,
And haunts you with his tragic name.

This poem of religious intensity is awkwardly followed, in the diary, by a note on a recent and unusually divisive publication.

A bitter attack on Oliver Lodge’s spook book in the Daily Mail. Stuff like Raymond repels me utterly. Having discovered the fatuity of it in my own case, and watched that pathetic, foolish clinging to the dead which goes on among so many women who (like my own mother) have nothing else to distract their minds from war and wretchedness. It is the worst confession of weakness—a ridiculous hiding of one’s head in a stuffy cupboard, when there is the whole visible earth outside the windows.

If I am killed, no doubt my [Page torn out].

Well that tears it–these must be surgical strikes. Let it not be said that Sassoon was either a negligent or a subtle self-editor. The most offensive pages have gone…

When the diary resumes, Sassoon is more angered by spiritualism than he is inspired by music. So he then tries to walk it off.

Shrivelled by icy blasts, I went an hour’s footpath-walk among starved, colourless fields and cowering, straggly thorn-hedges; skirting chimney-pots and the factories whose thin smokestreamers flew with the sunless, bitter north wind. Once I watched a scattering of gulls that followed the newly-turned furrows; their harsh wrangle mingling with the faint creak and rattle of the plough, as they swung and settled like enormous grey snow-flakes. While the team halted at the hedge, and the man was turning, with a grumble at the wretchedness of the afternoon, they all sat still like some cloaked, attentive congregation, yet their bills were busy at the soil: then the big steady horses moved forward again, with a confusion of dull-silvery wings flickering in the wake of the toilers, as the queer procession
began another journey across the stubble…

There is a striking similarity, here, to one of Edward Thomas’s most important poems. It’s an accident, I suppose: it’s still an old agricultural world, for the most part, and the plowing is there to be observed by any poetical passer-by. And who could fail to be moved by the sight of the team turning at the end of the furrow… there is labor, cyclic imagery, ancient line and habits, and raucous nature attendant on man. Good stuff!

The rain has ceased. Broken clouds drift slowly from the west, glorious with fringes of evening colour. On a hillside I am alone with my happiness, hearing everywhere the faint drip and rustle of summer green: there is a stirring in the grass; each flower has a message to give me. All sounds are small and distinct, as though they expressed the liquid clarity of the air. The country is now properly arrayed in a sort of rich calm, shining and yet subdued and gracious.

I was about to impose an ellipsis… but no. Pure observation yields, now, to introspection. Sassoon has walked out his anger and into his memory. The subject of his brother Hamo does not often come up in his writing:

The roofs and stacks of the farm among its trees below the hill, the farm-house chimney with its wisp of smoke, a bird winging out across the valley-orchards, and the sound of a train going steadily on, miles away—all are as I would have them, as I would keep them remembered. I am back in childhood; home with my kind dreams; soon I shall hear my brother’s voice along the garden, where moths will be fluttering like flowers that are free from their hot parades in sunshine, free to go where they will among the dimness of quiet alleys. O brother, tell me what you have seen to-day, what have you done?

He will not answer, for he is dead. And I am far from the garden, far from the summer that is past. I am alone in this bitter winter of unending war.

It is curious, always, to watch the mind zig and zag, dart and dive–can we, like Holmes watching Watson’s eyes, anticipate the next direction his thoughts will take? No? Poetry.

I don’t think purely descriptive verse should be rhymed, but should sometimes give a feeling of rhyme-endings (a sort of ‘singing-touch’ effect).

But that’s it for technical discussion–and it will be some time before he realizes this idea, and passes it on to another poet who will do even greater things with it. The rest of the diary entry grumpily complains of how difficult it is to write poetry when one is constantly interrupted by friendly fellow-officer roommates…[1]

 

The legend of C.E. Montague is a legend forestalled. He dyed his hair, he joined the ranks, and he did the trenches as a sergeant… and then he fell ill, and fell from the grace of dangerous service–and the rarefied sense of companionship that brings–into a commission and an Intelligence job. Now he spends his days touring dignitaries behind the lines and his evenings sitting among staff officers and journalists and other anteroom-of-hell-as-far-as-the-infantry-are-concerned types in the Château de Rollencourt.

But friends of his among the writers who assembled there to be led on safe tours of the rear and spoon-fed optimistic reports remembered what Montague was like at this time. Despite the bitter cold and the bitterer knowledge that “mediocrities promoted to importance by the war” could order him about–a fifty-year-old writer of wide sympathies and great skill–he did his duty with brisk, reserved professionalism. H.M. Tomlinson, a prominent journalist, understood this reserve to be an expression of his continuing solidarity with those he had briefly been among: “If he could not have the trenches, then at least he would sit in an uncomfortable chair.” Montague made certain to be a good officer, a loyal cog in the claptrap propaganda machine, yet he was becoming thoroughly disenchanted, and one evening he unbent so far as to admit that “he wanted to do one good book before he died.”

He will. But despite being sent down from the trenches (the irony that men who had served longer than he could only long for such a reprieve would not have escaped him) Montague is no idle writer yet. Today, a century back, he was sent with a dispatch to General Haig himself:

I find the C.-in-C. knows about my various conducting expeditions, and is very friendly. Says, ‘I hear you’re a terrible fellow at going along the trenches’.

So Montague is not immune to a well-placed compliment (and highly-placed complimentor). But around this time he also showed a less sanguine mood:

If we were a band of brothers for one month, I believe we should have won the war. If we could all forget decorations and promotions for six months, it would be over too. If we, outside the trenches, bore what men in the trenches do, it would be over too. If all these miracles happened together, it would be over at once.

Ferreting about for themselves in this soft cheeselike world of fecklessness and self-seeking and public spiritlessness are the sturdy maggots like ————, intimidating all the little timid professional soldiers and corrupting the discipline of the army. Can we win still, in spite of it all, or is it to be the end of freedom and joy
for us all?

But back to that “terrible fellow” business. One of the luminaries he shepherded about within the sound of the guns was George Bernard Shaw:

At the chateau where the Army entertained the rather mixed lot who, being nondescript, were classified as Distinguished Visitors, I met Montague. Finding him just the sort of man I like and get on with, I was glad to learn that he was to be my bear-leader on my excursions…

The standing joke about Montague was his craze for being under fire, and his tendency to lead the distinguished
visitors, who did not necessarily share this taste (rare at the front), into warm corners. Like most standing jokes it was inaccurate, but had something in it. War is fascinating even to those who, like Montague, have no illusions about it, and are not imposed on by its boasting, its bugaboo, its desperate attempts to make up for the shortage of capable officers by sticking tabs and brass hats on duffers, its holocausts of common men for nothing, its pretences of strategy and tactics where there is only bewilderment and blundering, its vermin and dirt and butchery and terror and foul-mouthed boredom. None of these things were lost on a man so critical as Montague any more than they were lost on me. But neither of us ever asked the other ‘And what the devil are you doing in this galley?’ Both of
us felt that, being there, we were wasting our time when we were not within range of the guns. We had come to the theatre to see the play, not to enjoy the intervals between the acts like fashionable people at the opera.

We had, nevertheless, no great excitements…

Shaw can write. But Montague’s book will be a slim milestone, a durable landmark in the interpretation and expression of the war.

Montague was a typical daredevil; that is, a quiet, modest-looking, rather shy elderly man with nothing of the soldier about him except his uniform. He would have been a hopeless failure on the stage as Captain Matamore. He had something of the Tolstoyan bitterness and disillusion that war produces at close quarters, less by its horrors, perhaps, than by its wastes and futilities. But to this he gave no intentional expression: his conversation and manner were entirely kindly. He said nothing of the exploits for which he was mentioned in despatches. . .[2]

 

And two brief notes to close. Yesterday, a century back, Edward Thomas went to “Gloster” (i.e. Gloucester, I assume) to see his friend Jack Haines, and sat up past midnight “gossiping about Frost, de la Mare, and the army, marching songs etc.” Haines had a present for him: Frost’s new book, Mountain Interval.

Today Thomas spent the morning with the Haines family, then read most of Mountain Interval on the train back to camp. There is less than a week to go, now, before embarkation, but the strange mix of business and idleness, of focused expectation and open-ended waiting, seems not to trouble Thomas unduly. Not so all of his comrades: one of the officers Thomas shared quarters with had “a screaming nightmare” last night.[3]

 

Finally, today, John Ronald Tolkien went before a medical board at 1st Southern General Hospital in Birmingham. As we have seen in the past, although the army is loath to send soldiers home from France unless they are really quite ill, it also seems to be generous with convalescent leave, allowing officers to recuperate their strength before returning to duty. Tolkien is no longer ill, but he is “still pale and weak” and liable to recurrences of fever and other symptoms. Accordingly, the medical board granted him a further month of leave, with at least one more month of home service after that.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 124-6.
  2. Elton, C.E. Montague, 152-64.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 156.
  4. Chronology, 99.

Robert Graves Triumphantly Off to War… with Mum Coming Up Behind; Siegfried Sassoon Shares with the Class; Richard Aldington Instructs the Bored Wives and Idle Poets of England

Despite the mutually supporting accounts of Graves and Sassoon eliding London from the equation, it would seem that Robert Graves left today, a century back, from Waterloo station, to which he was accompanied not by ten lecherous and naive officers but rather by his parents and an uncle. He may have been traveling light by design–an old soldier, now–but, it would seem, he traveled too light: discovering that he had left his money and papers at home in another tunic pocket, Graves sent his mother back to retrieve them, and she ended up following him to Southampton on the next train…[1]

 

And as for Siegfried Sassoon… no, actually, we’ll skip his diary for today, a century back. Explaining the knee-jerk anti-Semitism of the English Squirearchy–e.g. “Lieutenant X is a nasty, cheap thing. A cheap-gilt Jew. Why are such Jews born, when the soul of Jesus was so beautiful?”–is tiresome enough, and it’s heavier going when the anti-Semite in question is the scion of a famous Jewish family, the Anglican son of a father, born Jewish, who left the family. Not that he should get a pass, just that it’s a bit too complex to discuss without biographical spade work…[2]

 

Our other matter today is catching up with Richard Aldington, who has been writing amusing letters to F.S. Flint ever since he (Aldington) left for France at the end of December.

A letter of January 3rd begins, in typical jaunty-Francophile fashion,

Sale type,

J ’attends toujours un lettre de toi, mais cela n’arrive jamais

The letter rattles on into a surprisingly non-downhearted (for Aldington) report on his doings in the reserve areas of France. He even breaks into English–his native tongue and Flint’s–to relay the current marching songs:

Marching, marching, marching.
Always bloody well marching
From Reveille to Tat[t]oo;
When the war is over
We shall be marching still.

Aldington shares, too, the popular call and response–“Are we down-hearted?” ‘No!” “Shall we win?” “Yes!” “Shall we have a good dinner?” “No!–before admitting that they are actually eating fairly well.

The next letter, of the 13th, thanks Flint for writing to him and shares two most shocking bits of intelligence. First, Aldington has been transferred to a pioneer battalion, which one might expect to be bad news for a poet with no particular interest in manual labor. And yet:

I am really getting on quite well–am in a good battalion, get plenty of grub, not too much work, and fairly good billets. So, as the saying is. I’ve “clicked”!

And the second development?

…It is rather annoying but it appears to be an order that one must not use French in letters. That robs me of half my rhetoric & all my pornography, so you’ll only get dull letters from me. But write in French yourself…

The letter goes on to take a shot at Aldington’s poetic fellow-traveler Ezra Pound–well-deserved of course, as all shots at Pound are. But we must hasten on to today, a century back.

22nd January 1917
Dear Franky,

…By the way, you remember some time ago the Times issued a series of pamphlets for soldiers, extracts from English classics? I wish you’d get hold of some for me–I’d like something to read & chuck away.

To speak the honest truth: I worry very little about all these literary squabbles–how can one trouble in the face
of so much human misery?

Here is a real Bairnsfather incident that happened the other night. We were going through a village wh. has been absolutely battered out of existence by bombardment. We were passing what had once been a row of shops.  Everyone was tired & trudging along in silence; even the guns were silent; then a broad midland voice remarked: “Bill, business don’t see[m] to be very brisk in these parts.” Perhaps it doesn’t sound so very funny, but it seemed so to us…

Aldington’s high spirits lead him to take up the role of jocularly supportive friend. Never mind all the miserable letters he has sent Flint, wallowing in his plight as a despised conscript–he is an overseas soldier, now, and enjoying himself. He can condescend to mere civilians…

Are you writing anything? Your literary idleness is really a disgrace… For Heaven’s sake do something! Are we all to be “wash-outs”? You are too comfortable. Try sleeping on the floor with two blankets & an overcoat, or spend a frosty night in a hole in the back garden with your wife letting off Roman candles & lanthe throwing bricks at you! You might hire de Bosschere to knock a hammer rapidly on a table (like Marinetti) for a machine-gun, & if you make the hole over a drain you can wear an anti-gas helmet! That would stir you up a bit…

Oh but softly, friend Richard. You have been in France for three weeks, and never yet in the line.

In an allied but rather rarer mood of high self-confidence, the letter continues into an unlikely–or perhaps I should say Modern–passage on marriage and separation. H.D. is Aldington’s wife, the poet Hilda Doolittle:

You dear people seem tremendously far away, like demi-gods in a smoky Elysium. For the Lord’s sake don’t interrupt H.D. if she is having a good time with any one–when I said “look after H.D.” I meant help her to have a good time & not bother about me. I didn’t want to make you a kind of Argus! Take H.D. out, if you can, to theatres, & get her to meet new & amusing people. And if you can devise any sort of an “affairepour passer le temps, so much the better. She’ll be a grass widow a while longer yet..

Thine
R.[3]

What could go wrong?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 168.
  2. Diaries, 122-3.
  3. Imagist Dialogues, 162-173.

Marching Orders and “Leave-Taking” for Richard Aldington; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Tours Monastir

Richard Aldington is no stranger to self-dramatization. In fact he is a prodigy of the self-centered lament. But the more baroque his complaints have become about the indignities, stupidities, and excrescences of a recruit’s life in the training camps, the less we are inclined to believe that his experience is anything out of the ordinary. He’s just a good writer inclined to complain–which makes him a good complainer.

But today’s letter to F.S. Flint contains actual, solid, heavyweight news: they are off. He and one camp friend are being sent to a strange regiment in France–and they don’t know where, or even which battalion, or whether they will serve as noncoms or private soldiers. This may not be a disaster, but it’s not exactly good luck either–and yet, now that it’s happening, there’s no drama about it.

Portland
20/12/16
Dear Frankie,

Off to France to-morrow (Thursday) to the Leicesters. My new number 36179. I don’t know wh. battalion, so can’t tell you address. Also don’t know whether I drop the “stripe” or not–I rather fancy I do.

Look after H.D. won’t you?

Well, over we go and the best of luck.

Ever yours,
R.[1]

So Aldington will see the war at last, and he’s worried still about his wife. Although a one-line request to a friend is hardly indicative of careful and concerned preparation for the inevitable. Yet, like several other writers here, his poetry has served an internship, as it were, in the training camps, to learn some of the demands of war poetry. This highbrow Imagist will have to change at least some of his stripes to become a war poet–and this he seems to be doing. Sometime recently, I believe, he wrote the following poem:

 

Leave-Taking

Will the world still live for you
When I am gone?

Will the straight garden poppy
Still spout blood from its green throat
Before your feet?
Will the five cleft petals of the campion
Still be rose-coloured.
Like five murdered senses, for you?

Will your trees still live.
Thrust metallic bosses of leafage
From the hillside in the summer light;
Will the leaves sway and grow darker.
Rustle, swirl in the gales;
Decay into gold and orange.
Crinkle and shrivel.
And fall silently at last
On to frosty grass?
Will there be sun for you;
The line of near hills
Cut as in thin blue steel
Against red haze?

Will there be silence?

Will not even the clean acrid sea
Turn stale upon your lips?

Will the world die for you
As it dies for me?[2]

 

We can certainly read “you” as H.D., his wife and fellow poet. But it seems more natural to see this as a poem addressed to poetry. It’s very far from a 1914 poem–but Aldington was in the vanguard in 1914, and there is no easy solving of an equation that must reduce both war experience and artistic ideology to a single position on some line of progress.

“Leave-Taking” seems, in fact, to fit well with the slowing emerging, tentatively anti-war poetry of 1916–it expects no glory and is concerned with war’s damage. And yet it is in another sense utterly traditional, despite its unusual form: a poet about to go on a dangerous journey is worried less about the threat to himself than about the threat to his sensibility, his emotional senses, his art.

 

Our only other entry for today, a century back, is a humorous travelogue from a far-flung correspondent: Patrick Shaw-Stewart, still underemployed in Macedonia as a liaison to the French, does some sightseeing.

Monastir

I spent a week in Monastir the other day. The chief difficulty was getting there: I tried to go by Ford car, but  (encouraged by a Serb captain) I drove straight into a lake which at one point had invaded the road, and my chauffeur, my servant, and I, had to take off practically all our clothes, tuck up our shirts under our arms, and shove first 1000 yards forward and then (as it only got deeper) turn the car by manual labour and shove about 300
yards back again, an indecent spectacle loudly cheered by the Italian army. The car having failed, I had to go that night by the French “trolley,” a small open truck propelled by a sort of motor that runs along the railway. It started at one in the morning and took about 10 hours. It was one of the coldest things I ever did: but it was fun waking up in the dawn at Ostrovo and seeing the sun hit Kaimakchalan through the mist: all the country from there on to the Monastir plain is lovely, and the greatest change from Salonica, The Frenchman, Leblois, now commanding the Army up there, was an old friend of mine and was very nice to me. I stayed there four days, and did about half the
things I wanted to. Monastir is a jolly-looking town in a lovely situation, with a liberal supply of minarets and broad, infamously cobbled streets.

Going in from the South is rather grim, dead horses and enormous shell-holes: that is the end the enemy plug, for the benefit of the station and the road. (They also plug one of the other ends for the benefit of the French artillery, and they speeded it up rather while I was there, but you couldn’t say they were exactly bombarding the town.) The
population left is about a quarter of the peace time numbers; mostly Turks, and Jews, and nearly all the women are veiled. (In contradistinction I saw one French cocotte in full panoply walking down a dilapidated street, very odd-looking.) The Jews, who have stayed to look after their shops, are very neutral; they have barred and bolted their doors heavily, and occasionally one peers through a grating; they are obviously more afraid of being pillaged by us than sacked by the enemy![3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Copp, Imagist Dialogues, 160.
  2. Copp, An Imagist at War, 65-6.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 183-5.

Siegfried Sassoon Waxes Lyrical About the Countryside–and the Quarter-Master; Bim Tennant Trails Off

Yesterday and today, a century back, have afforded Siegfried Sassoon plenty of time for lyrical reverie:

March 16

If anyone were to ask me how I remember Morlancourt, I should say that it is a village resting among the folds of long slopes and ridges of naked ploughland; where five roads meet, and the houses begin where each road descends a different part of the hills; at each end of the village is a church, and in the hollow centre of the place is a congregation of buildings with a sort of small square, or wide space, with a pond on one side of it. Looking down on Morlancourt, one sees a confusion of slate roofs and tiled ones, with touches of white and drab and ochre which are the walls of cottages and farm-buildings, a number of trees, slender and leafless, mingling with the houses. Then the eye roves beyond the village to meet the long line of the hills all round, with a few straggling trees, a team of greys ploughing or dredging, some horsemen, trotting outlined along the white edge of the sky, or a hooded farm-cart, or a limber.

There! A limber–a two-wheeled conveyance for artillery ammunition. Up until that word this scene has been entirely peaceful–or, rather, war-less. But hark, we must go back for the larks:

There are strips of green wheat, and acres of drab fallow, mingled with the bright brown of the newly-ploughed land. And there are high banks where thorn-bushes grow, a cage for flitting birds that swing on the thorny twigs. The wind pipes across the open, soughing in the isolated trees, plane, willow or aspen. The open sky is full of lark-songs, as is proper for such places. And always the guns boom a few miles away, and the aeroplanes drone high up, looking down on the seams of unseen trench-lines with their tangle of wires and posts.

So, yes, unseen–but present. Sassoon doesn’t have the knack of being this subtle in his versified juxtapositions. But then again this isn’t so much a prose vs. poetry distinction as an essay in observation vs. an exercise of imagination. Sassoon is in the transport lines, in the unspoiled countryside of a Somme as-yet-un-fought-over. This is what he sees…

It is a country of expansive skies and delicate miniatures… The sunlight sweeps across it in a noble progress of wind and cloud… sunset brings it colour and mystery and sadness; and the night brings out the stars to watch over it, the hills fade, deep-hued and austere, and the whole region becomes an interminable dusk of looming slopes, with lights of village and bivouac, picked out here and there, sparks in the loneliness and serenity of time.

Sassoon follows this up with an odd, brief little dialogue, apparently written today, a century back. Odd, but significant. The “transport officer,” Sassoon himself, rants about the “selfish hogs” in England who have made no sacrifices, believe the baldest propaganda, and idly damn the “huns.” The “Quarter-master” replies by opining that the war is being fought exclusively by the “upper tenth” and the lower tenth, the “blue-bloods” and the down-and-outs. Everyone else are shirkers and profiteers.

A cynical view, but not an uncommon one. The quarter-master–he who will now be described in verse–is a real life character named Joe Cotterill,[1] an old soldier who seems to have cut quite a figure. Quarter-masters were generally promoted from the ranks–an otherwise rare occurrence in the pre-war army, and thus they not also straddled class identities but tended to loom large in their regiments as keepers of the collective memory. Sassoon, certainly, was impressed.

 

The Quarter-Master
cottrill

The Quarter-Master, in Earlier Days (Royal Welsh Museum)

Bad stations and good liquor and long-service
Have aged his looks beyond their forty-five
For eight and twenty years he’s been a soldier
And nineteen months of war have made him thrive.
He’s got a face to match his breast of medals
All stained and veined with purple and deep red.
His heart is somewhat bigger than his body,
And there’s a holy anger in his head.
See where he sits before the evening embers,
Warming his knotted fingers at the blaze,
The man whose life is in the old battalion
And all its battles in his gleaming gaze…

He’s chanced his arm with fate and found his glory
He’s swung the lead with many a roaring lad:
Good luck to him; good luck to all his kindred!
It’s meeting men like him that makes me glad.

 

It’s clear, I think, that this is self-consciously boyish verse. Sassoon is submitting to the urge to portray a man–to put it with minimal romance, a co-worker whom he outranks–as a hero from a boy’s own story. The verse is adroitly late-Victorian, eminently Kipling-esque.

So we can reassure ourselves–this is light verse! He Sassoon knows what he is doing! And yet, still, it’s writing poems like this that makes him glad.

 

And a brief note. Due to the vagaries of survival–not of men, but of letters–we won’t be hearing from Bim Tennant for a while. He wrote to his mother today, a century back, in the usual fawning and chatty tone. Our Bim is spoiled–very, very spoiled, and unpleasantly so: he lists a number of debts, asks his parents for money (and “two plucked and trussed fowls per week”), and then apologies for “the Hebraic note of this letter.” Charming.[2]

I will keep tabs on Bimbo as best I can during this epistolary lapse…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. He pops up in various sources as Cottrell or Cottrill, and I have yet to sort out which spelling is authoritative.
  2. Letters, 132-4.

Ford Madox Hueffer is Under Attack; T. E. Hulme on an Army of Conscripts, and Incompetents; Wilfred Owen Volunteers an Unwillingness to Volunteer

Late last year the redoubtable Ford Madox Hueffer (morte Ford, but not just yet) and his partner Violet Hunt had released a book of stories. Today, a century back, he suffered “the most vicious personal attack ever made in print” against him. Which, given his outspokenness, pushy Modernism, and general delight in provocation, is saying something. So let’s quote from the review by one J.K. Prothero, writing in The New Witness:

Mr. Ford Madox Hueffer has written a series of stories under the title of Zeppelin Nights; and Miss Violet Hunt has collaborated with him. There are flashes of Miss Hunt’s genius dispersed throughout the volume, and one is sensible that she has made a heroic attempt to leaven the mass of Mr. Hueffer’s dull offensiveness. But the fugitive gleams of patriotism supplied by the lady are not sufficient to redeem the ponderous panic of the co-author. It is generally supposed that Mr. Hueffer is not exactly of pure European extraction, and this book certainly tends to confirm such impression. The following lines, descriptive of London cowering in the throes of Zeppelinitis, seem to indicate that the writer’s fear of bodily hurt is more acute than one associates with men of our blood…

Yes, the reviewer is insinuating that Ford Madox Hueffer is a poltroon and a coward, and that this fact is due to his Jewish blood. Even in 1916, as we will see, there was a general perplexity about whether to respond first to the errors of fact, extrapolation, or interpretation.

One could point out that Hueffer is not Jewish, but rather of Christian English and German “extraction.” Or one could ask why an English writer’s interest in Continental writing (Hueffer, unusually, read several languages, and had not only lived in Germany and France but collaborated with Conrad–a Pole, by Jove!) should lead, as it apparently does, to an attempt to slander him as “not exactly of pure European extraction.” Or one could query the leap from the action or atmosphere of a book to an attack on the personal courage of its author. But this would be the most hopeless course, surely–is this reviewer someone with whom we would want to take up the critical question of distinguishing an author and his work? No, and not least because he does a hilariously bad job of it.

After a long quotation and a lengthier disquisition on the shamefulness of Hueffer’s portrayal of Londoners–he shows them expressing a fear of death-by-Zeppelin rather than totally committed to demonstrating their sang froid–Prothero lets us in on the author’s secret: Hueffer’s familiarity with the “non-European” sections of London has taught him what true cravenness is, and thus enabled him to pull of the authorial feat of traducing honest (fictional) Englishmen… such committed bigotry needs more skillful expression if it’s not going to simply look silly.

But the next bit is sillier. Prothero turns to the identity of the character “Serapion Hunter…” and somehow digs himself into a deeper hole:

The end of the book, however, shows us Serapion Hunter, the teller of these tales–devised, according to Mr. Hueffer, to find ‘mental rest… just as the inhabitants of that old Italian city of Florence found refuge in the dreary institution of the Decameron,’ grown tired of living in a cellar garnis; and having decided that death is by no means the most terrible thing in life, shaking off his paralysis forthwith enlists–possibly under the influence of Miss Hunt. This is quite obviously the European view of things. The view, which is quite as clearly un-European, insists that the horror of the ‘Night Hag’ ‘slowly upspreads from its nodus on the panting human breast where she squats and crouches… until moon and stars and all clarity of thought and vision are blotted out under the loathsome burden. . . . We lay helpless and could only long in our bitter abjection, for the dispelling crow of the cock, for the gay noises of dawn.’

For this condition which Mr. Hueffer aptly describes as ‘abjection,’ there is only one cure.[1]

Right. Or, no–wrong, and idiotic, and disgusting. But still, right: “Serapion Hunter” is an obvious authorial stand-in. But not for Miss Hunt.

Ford shepherded the book press-ward but left Hunt to see it published. He, despite being unmilitary, overweight, and much older than most subalterns (he’s forty-two) has accepted a commission in an infantry line regiment.

Rarely has a hatchet job seemed so perfectly miscalculated. It’s a slip and a fall and a thunk and a quiver in a nearby door, et voila, the targeted adversary can lay his hand on a most convenient weapon, and return fire…

 

After all that, the pugnacious political philosophy of T.E. Hulme is almost weak tea. But he was at it again, today, in the New Age, writing both as “North Staffs” and under his own initials. In the former piece–both are available here–he rather acidly makes a united discussion of the incompetence of the British army (specifically in the Dardanelles campaign), the unwillingness of the political leadership to shake up the old institution for the sake of greater efficiency, and the recent decision to begin conscription. Hulme takes the peevish, principled, and practical point of view that it is unfair to both suddenly introduce conscription where it has never existed before and to expect these new soldiers-by-compulsion to serve in a hidebound 19th century army, swollen to monstrous size. Then, ten pages later, the insubordinate subaltern is more openly discussing G.E. Moore, Husserl, and the possibility of a “Neo-Realist” middle path in philosophy…

 

Finally, today, Wilfred Owen. Who, come to think of it, stands in somewhat amusing juxtaposition to the non-poltroon subaltern of the Welsh Regiment and the ex-grunt of the Royal Artillery Company–perhaps our two most heavy-hitting writers currently in uniform, and two who could very easily have escaped the combat they have endured and/or will endure.

Owen, whose relatively late decision to volunteer now must seem like a near-run thing (for all those who enlist now will be viewed as trying to escape the looming ignominy of the just-passed conscription law), is still not eager to go.  This is one of the first times we’ve heard of one of our young officers seeking a middle ground–not between Nominalism and Platonic Idealism but between their personal military analogues: an absolute avoidance of war or an earnest quest for the quickest route to the greatest danger. Owen, rather reasonably, objects that he would prefer to learn his trade before beginning it:

Thurs. [Postmark 6 January 1916] [Postmark Romford]

…You may be surprised to know that I had a Commission offered to me today. Are you yet more surprised to know that I refused it: Lancashire Fusiliers, just going into Fighting Line. And I haven’t fired my Musketry Course. I can tell you no more. A list of names was read out, and we said Yes or No according to our feelings!

…Your W.E.O[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Ford Madox Ford, The Critical Heritage, I 122-4.
  2. Collected Letters, 375.