Kipling’s Tales of the Rout at Cambrai; The Master of Belhaven Learns of the Debacle; The Darkness of Toby’s Room; Jack Martin and Edward Brittain in Italy

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is back in the swing of things, with his battery to the south and east of the Cambrai conflagration.

All day the heavy battery cannonade was kept up, and rumours were received of trenches lost and even batteries captured. Late this morning I got a situation report, and found things were worse than we had realized. The Hun had penetrated our line to a depth of 8,000 yards in places, and some batteries were lost, including A/107, which is sad, as it belongs to our division… it is the first time we have lost any of our divisional artillery.[1]

 

This is the fight that the Guards are still fighting. They have been defeated–driven back, at least, in the impossible task of holding a salient improvidently grabbed, while massively outgunned. Kipling sings the Second Irish:

The dawn of the 30th November was ushered in by single shells from a long-range gun which found them during the night. Half an hour after they had the order to move to Heudicourt and had digested a persistent rumour that the enemy were through at Gonnelieu, telegrams and orders began to pour in. The gist of them was that the line had undoubtedly cracked, and that the Brigade would move to Gouzeaucourt at once. But what the Brigade was to do, and under whose command it was to operate, were matters on which telegrams and orders most livelily conflicted…

And so it is the part of the Imperial Bard to describe a… well, an inglorious retrograde movement, perhaps, if not a rout. But then that is the benefit of choosing the size of your story: this is a British embarrassment, but still a proud day, of sorts, for the Second Irish Guards:[2]

Over the ridge between Gouzeaucourt and Metz poured gunners, carrying their sights with them, engineers, horses and infantry, all apparently bent on getting into the village where they would be a better target for artillery. The village choked; the Battalion fell in, clear of the confusion, where it best could, and set off at once in artillery formation, regardless of the stragglers, into the high and bare lands round Gouzeaucourt. There were no guns to back them, for their own were at Flesquières. As was pointed out by an observer of that curious day — “‘Tis little ye can do with gun-sights, an’ them in the arrums av men in a great haste. There was men with blankets round ’em, an’ men with loose putties wavin’ in the wind, and they told us ’twas a general retirement. We could see that. We wanted to know for why they was returnin’. We went through ’em all, fairly breastin’ our way and — we found Jerry on the next slope makin’ prisoners of a Labour Corps with picks an’ shovels. But some of that same Labour Corps they took their picks an ‘shovels and came on with us.”

They halted and fixed bayonets just outside Gouzeaucourt Wood, the Irish on the left of the line, their right on the Metz-Gouzeaucourt road, the 3rd Coldstream in the centre, the 2nd Coldstream on the right, the 2nd Grenadiers in reserve in Gouzeaucourt Wood itself. What seems to have impressed men most was the extreme nakedness of the landscape, and, at first, the absence of casualties. They were shelled as they marched to the Wood but not heavily; but when they had passed beyond it they came under machine-gun fire from the village. They topped the rise beyond the Wood near Queen’s Cross and were shelled from St. Quentin Ridge to the east. They overran the remnant of one of our trenches in which some sappers and infantry were still holding on. Dismounted cavalry appeared out of nowhere in particular, as troops will in a mixed fray, and attached themselves to the right of the thin line. As they swept down the last slope to Gouzeaucourt the machine-gun fire from the village grew hotter on their right, and the leading company, characteristically enough, made in towards it. This pulled the Battalion a little to the right, and off the road which was supposed to be their left boundary, but it indubitably helped to clear the place.

The enemy were seen to be leaving in some haste, and only a few of them were shot or bayoneted in and out among the houses. The Battalion pushed in through the village to the slope east of it under Quentin Mill, where they dug in for the night. Their left flank was all in the air for a while…

Tanks were used on the right during the action, but they do not seem to have played any material part in the Battalion’s area, and, as the light of the short and freezing November day closed, a cavalry regiment, or “some cavalry,” came up on the left flank. The actual stroke that recovered Gouzeaucourt had not taken more than an hour, but the day had cost them a hundred and thirty men killed, wounded and missing…

This is a tale that will need salting–or sweetening–with rough and ready humor, if it is not to leave a terrible taste in the mouth of any believer in the B.E.F.

A profane legend sprang up almost at once that the zeal shown by the Guards in the attack was because they knew Gouzeaucourt held the supplies of the Division which had evacuated it. The enemy had been turned out before he could take advantage of his occupation. Indeed, a couple of our supply-trains were found untouched on rail at the station, and a number of our guns were recaptured in and around the place. Also, the Divisional rum-supply was largely intact. When this fact came to light, as it did — so to say — rum-jar by rum-jar, borne joyously through the dark streets that bitter night, the Brigade was refreshed and warmed, and, men assert, felt almost grateful to the Division which had laid this extra “fatigue” on them.

But no–I’ve sold Kipling short. Or underestimated his loyalty to the twists and turns of the tale. He is a very great historian, in the old-fashioned sense,[3] and when a bitter day slews toward maniac joy and then back again, he leans into the curves…

One grim incident stays in the minds of those who survived — the sight of an enormous Irishman urging two captives, whom he had himself unearthed from a cellar, to dance before him. He demanded the jigs of his native land, and seemed to think that by giving them drink his pupils would become proficient. Men stood about and laughed till they could hardly stand; and when the fun was at its height a chance shell out of the darkness to the eastward wiped out all that tango-class before their eyes. (‘”Twas like a dhream, ye’ll understand. One minute both Jerries was dancin’ hard to oblige him, an’ then — nothin’, nothin’ — nothin’ — of the three of them! “)[4]

 

Some time ago we opened another entire European front–but then things became busy. Remember Italy? I had intended to give some of Sapper Martin‘s itinerary, as a sort of modern take on the ancient form, because nothing says “timeless military misery” better than a long, long march. But, as the narrative has been without excessively necessary details, I have been passing him over–I merely want to note, then, that his march reached 148 miles, today, a century back, at the end of its second week.[5]

 

But Martin is not our only man headed to the front lines in northern Italy. Edward Brittain was able to give his sister Vera an update today as well, on the occasion of his birthday. And, as you know, an army marches on its stomach, even in Italy…

Italy, 30 November 1917

We are fairly close to the line though not within artillery range; we expect to be closer very soon; at present it does not seem that we shall suffer from artillery anything like as much as we did in the salient… We have had some very hard marching lately but the men have stuck it wonderfully well. . . We have managed to buy a turkey for my birthday dinner to-night for the absurdly small sum of 7 liras…

In time there will be E.F. Canteens as in France, I expect, but at present we suffer from our dissimilarity in taste from the Italians. 22 seems rather old in some ways but young in others, e.g. I have only 1 subaltern younger than me.[6]

Happy Birthday, then, to twenty-two-year-old Edward Brittain.

 

And then there is fiction, which can choose many forms of escapism–or brutal realism. I mentioned Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room two days ago, and Elinor Brooke’s conviction that Sassoon’s decision to go back to the horrors of war was the only possible one. Today, her [fictional] diary describes what she herself is doing for the war effort: an art student before the war, she now assists Henry Tonks, the artist and toweringly influential teacher at the Slade, in his work. Working as artists and recorders of the war’s damage, they draw the faces of mutilated soldiers, in order to aid in pioneering attempts at reconstructive plastic surgery.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 414-5.
  2. I have taken the liberty of changing the great man's paragraphing.
  3. I.e. with the emphasis on story, on narrative, and not on any 19th century balance of facts or, still less, with any 21st century expectation of striving for unbiased perception.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 218-220.
  5. Sapper Martin, 149.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 383.
  7. Toby's Room, 233-6.

Edward Brittain Brings His Sister into the Salient; Lord Dunsany Returns to the Somme

Today we have an odd pair: two letters going the wrong way, as it were, letters written to our writers rather than from them. Ah, but there are connections! Of a sort!

First, we have a letter from Lady Dunsany dated today, a century back, thanking her husband for his recent letter from the front: “I have had many wonderful letters from you in my life but I really think the one from Amiens the best.”

It is pretty good indeed–not surprisingly, as it is one of the very few letters quoted in his biography (although with its own proper date, hence its placement here). The letter Lady Dunsany refers to must have been written a few days ago, a century back, and read today. It is a combination of the ruins-of-the-Somme description (of a piece with the Master of Belhaven‘s recent mini-masterpiece) and a tale of ironic proximity; a practical back-to-the-front piece and a bit of horror-tinged fantasy. The Vincent-Price-Reads-The-Bible tone and Romantic diction are pure Dunsany, who always likes to evoke a mood of supernatural fascination, is somewhat abashed to find that this tone/diction/mood fits the reality of what he sees so well. And, lest we be accused of insisting upon seeing a writer’s war-writing through the lens of his work in other genres, Lord Dunsany himself invokes fantasy illustrations–the greatest fantasy engraver of them all, as well as his own best illustrator–in order to indicate the effect he is striving for:

One of the blacker dreams of Sidney Sime, illustrator

What a changed town! …I came as it were as the connecting link between the battalion and the lights of London, as a missionary between the 20th century and the ancient abomination of desolation… For half my journey lay through the abomination of desolation, for the other half France smiled; and I noted that we have no way of knowing where we are, that it is autumn. Verily such a journey as I made this morning was never until recently made by man. Imagine Warerloo, Sebastopol, Ladysmith, Pompeii, Troy, Timgad, Tel el Kebir, Sodom and Gomorrah endlessly stretching one into the other; and twisted, bare, ghoulish trees leering downward at graves; and scenes very like Doré’s crucifixion and realities like the blackest dream of Sime; tanks lying with their noses pointing upwards still sniffing towards an enemy long since stiff or blown away in fragments like wounded rhinoceros’ dying. Imagine the wasted ruin of a famous hill that once dominated all this, now no more than a white mound with a few crosses on it, standing against the sky to show that Golgotha was once more with us. And over all this dreadful triumph of iron over man, and the spirit of man over iron, one feels that Nature is smiling softly to herself as she comes back with all her flowering children over villages that are no more than famous names and farms and roads and bridges that none can trace but those who remember them. At Albert in the Cathedral the desolation culminated, as though the Kaiser had knelt there before Satan to hear the Lord’s Prayer said backwards and receive the blessings of Hell, and we passed thence into happier fields like one who wakes from dark dreams on a summer morning…[1]

 

Edward Brittain, too, is picking up the thread of an earlier letter. his account of today, a century back, is the other sort of return, however: the return from the front lines to the blighted rear, which offers a contrast not with the living land of the untouched zone but with the deadly pits of the front line. The first job is to record the losses.

France, 24 October 1917

I will be a little more expansive to-day as we are a long way back from the line and I don’t think it matters my telling you whereabouts we have been. When the Bn. went into the line last time I was left behind to be O.C. Details (about 150 NCO’s and men); on the night of the 16th Lieut. J.W Jackson of C coy. was killed; on the night of the 17th Capt. Whyatt commanding C coy–one of the original officers of the battalion, he joined 3 weeks before me in 1914–was killed; on the morning of the 18th Lieut. Groves whom I mentioned to you the other day was badly wounded, 1 Sergt. and 3 men being killed by the same shell and Whittington who is also in A coy. went down with shell shock; as Clark was on leave this left Harrison by himself and only one officer in C coy, both companies being in the support line which, as you know, always gets the worst of the shelling. Consequently I got a message on the night of the 18th to go up the next morning which I did and joined Jack in a filthy bit of trench, nearly got killed the same night changing to another support fine, spent the next day in a pill-box, the night in a sap and got out safely in the morning. Jack also got out safely. Of course we lost quite a lot of men: some of them had only just joined but we might have come off worse considering that we were in the most pronounced salient just E of Polygon Wood — one of the worst bits of the whole front during the whole war…

It feels as if we’ve heard some variation on that “one of the worst bits” line about ten times in the last month…

Not long ago, in order to connect to a slightly mis-dated bit of her memoir, I skipped ahead in order to explain Vera Brittain‘s changed approach to front-line correspondence. She doesn’t want to try to correspond with her brother–the last young soldier she really loves–when he might be in the front lines. Because any delay, any ominous word… so she had told him that she couldn’t take it any more, that she doesn’t want to write letters that, in the doom-laden magical thinking of a member of the Lost Generation, mid-loss, could somehow cause him to not receive them, and her to begin fearing the post–or its absence–a few days later. As she explained that “his activities so distressed me that I seldom wrote to him at all, superstitiously believing that if I did he would certainly be dead before the letter arrived.” (Were this the early 21st century rather than 20th, some reference to Schrodinger’s Cat–either slightly inaccurate or slightly ironic–would be necessary.)

Edward, who has lost the same three close friends and no doubt sees more intense superstitions on a daily basis, doesn’t object to the irrational basis of his sister’s sudden failure as a correspondent. But neither does he accept it: he doesn’t seem to have anyone else left with whom he can discuss the truth of the war, and he needs to keep writing it. It’s not hard to imagine Edward composing lines of description to send to his sister as shells land and men around him are hit. Perhaps he believes that if his letter to her is unfinished he can’t be killed, yet.

In any case, he objects, and rather pointedly, too:

I quite understand why you didn’t write during the interval but, if possible, please don’t do it again or else I shall not tell you when I am about to face anything unpleasant and then you will not be able to help me face it…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 144-5.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 379-80.

A Brother and a Friend Lost at Ypres; Lord Dunsany Pleads for the Poets; Frederic Manning Dodges Delusion

After a long week of Ypres memoirs, all of our recent mainstays are in reserve. But the battle goes on, and if our writers aren’t in it, they can still suffer its losses. Today we have a memorial and then two new losses; this attempt to chronicle the most attritional of the war’s battles is beginning to take on the form of its object.

Lord Dunsany is back in France, on the Hindenberg Line–we know this because this is where he writes the latest and last in a series of prefaces and introductions for his protege Francis Ledwidge, whose new, posthumous collection, is entitled, inevitably, “Last Songs.” Dunsany had seen the volume into the press before he left for France only a few days ago, perhaps feeling that the preface should be written closer to the line, where Ledwidge had spent his last days. Or, perhaps, he wrote it now in order that such a very martial dateline might give his work the authority to suggests what he now does:

Writing amidst rather too much noise and squalor to do justice at all to the delicate rustic muse of Francis Ledwidge, I do not like to delay his book any longer, nor to fail in a promise long ago made to him to write this introduction. He has gone down in that vast maelstrom into which poets do well to adventure and from which their country might perhaps be wise to withhold them, but that is our Country’s affair.

This is an argument that should rile a democracy (Dunsany, of course, is a Peer of the aristocracy in this democracy). It would overturn, too, the strange situation that underlies our fascination with the war–that so many talented, privileged young men went to miserable deaths. The ironies ripple out in different directions–Ledwidge was talented, but not privileged; democracies will indeed come to find many ways, both open and underhanded, to shield the best and the brightest (and the richest and the most privileged) from the worst of future wars; and it won’t be the poets who are carefully preserved for the good of the nation, or even of poetry.

He has left behind him verses of great beauty, simple rural lyrics that may be something of an anodyne for this stricken age. If ever an age needed beautiful little songs our age needs them; and I know few songs more peaceful and happy, or better suited to soothe the scars on the mind of those who have looked on certain places, of which the prophecy in the gospels seems no more than an ominous hint when it speaks of the abomination of desolation.

He told me once that it was on one particular occasion, when walking at evening through the village of Slane in summer, that he heard a blackbird sing. The notes, he said, were very beautiful, and it is this blackbird that he tells of in three wonderful lines in his early poem called “Behind the Closed Eye,” and it is this song perhaps more than anything else that has been the inspiration of his brief life. Dynasties shook and the earth shook; and the war,
not yet described by any man, revelled and and wallowed in destruction around him; and Francis Ledwidge stayed true to his inspiration, as his homeward songs will show.

I had hoped he would have seen the fame he has well deserved; but it is hard for a poet to live to see fame even in
times of peace. In these days it is harder than ever.

Dunsany.

October 9th, 1917.

 

Lady Dorothie Feilding is still in Ireland with her new husband, so this coming news will take some time to reach her.

Her younger brother Henry, a subaltern in the Coldstream Guards, led his company today, a century back, on the northern flank of the renewed attack. This extension of Passchendaele/Third Ypres is dignified with the title of the Battle of Poelcappelle, and it went much as most of the fighting recently had gone.

First, the torrential rain stopped just in time to allow the attack to proceed, albeit over a horrible morass that made progress very difficult. Nevertheless, under a heavy barrage, the Guards, on the left of the British push, generally carried their objectives. But, of course, at great cost. This is Ypres–still a salient, still easily reached by a huge concentration of German guns–and if mud and barrage made the defender’s trenches uninhabitable, many hardened pillboxes survived long enough to pour devastating fire onto the advancing troops.

The historians of the Guards (we will read the account of a different battalion, below) give the general impression that their success turned to disaster due to the failure of a Newfoundland battalion of the 29th Division on their right. Held up by rain and mud, they were late in starting and driven back by the occupants of several pillboxes, whose machine guns were now able to take the Guards in flank.

Henry Feilding’s 2nd Coldstreams had led the assault at 5.20. His commanding officer will write, in the unmistakable, stilted prose of a letter of condolence, that

He was commanding the company on the right of the assault and got into a heavy German barrage. I cannot tell you what a loss he is both as a friend and a soldier. It was the first time that he commanded a company in action, and he was doing so well. He was full of enthusiasm for this first attack and I only wish he could have seen the successful ending of such a great day for the regiment, but all the officers of his company fell wounded before reaching the final objective.[1]

Once again, “all the officers” were hit. Henry Feilding was carried from the field and will die in a field hospital in two days, aged twenty-three. Dorothie’s elder brother Hugh died last year at Jutland, while the eldest of her siblings and the last of her brothers (there were seven sisters, Dorothie is fourth of ten), Rudolph, Viscount Feilding, remains with the Coldstreams.

 

An hour behind the 2nd Coldstreams were the 1st Irish Guards. Captain Raymond Rodakowski, mentioned several times in Kipling’s chronicle of the battalion, was the second-in-command of No. 1 Company, which waded through the muddy, waist-high Broembeek and spent two hours in drawing even with the first wave ahead of them.

Rodakowski had been Robert Graves‘s first school friend, the “first Carthusian to whom I had been able to talk humanly.” Humanly, and supportively: Rodakowski also told him that he was “a good poet, and a good person”–(“I loved him for that”)–and encouraged Graves to take up boxing. This put an end, eventually, to the worst bullying and helped Graves find his own idiosyncratic path through Charterhouse.[2]

After the long slog through the exhausted Grenadiers ahead of them, the Irish Guards now prepared to carry on the assault, attacking Houthulst Forest:

The companies deployed for attack on the new lines necessitated by the altered German system of defense — mopping-up sections in rear of the leading companies, with Lewis-gun sections, and a mopping-up platoon busy behind all.

Meantime, the troops on the Battalion’s right had been delayed in coming up, and their delay was more marked from the second objective onward. This did not check the Guards’ advance, but it exposed the Battalion’s right to a cruel flanking fire from snipers among the shell-holes on the uncleared ground by the Ypres-Staden line. There were pill-boxes of concrete in front; there was a fortified farm buried in sandbags, Egypt House, to be reduced; there were nests of machine-guns on the right which the troops on the right had not yet overrun, and there was an almost separate and independent fight in and round some brick-fields, which, in turn, were covered by the fire of snipers from the fringes of the forest. Enemy aircraft skimming low gave the German artillery every help in their power, and the enemy’s shelling was accurate accordingly. The only thing that lacked in the fight was the bayonet.

The affair resolved itself into a series of splashing rushes, from one shell-hole to the next, terrier-work round the pill-boxes, incessant demands for the Lewis-guns (rifle-grenades, but no bombs, were employed except by the regular bombing sections and moppers-up who cleared the underground shelters), and the hardest sort of personal attention from the officers and N.C.O.’s. All four companies reached the final objective mixed up together and since their right was well in the air, by the reason of the delay of the flanking troops, they had to make a defensive flank to connect with a battalion of the next division that came up later. It was then that they were worst sniped from the shell-holes, and the casualties among the officers, who had to superintend the forming of the flank, were heaviest. There was not much shelling through the day. They waited, were sniped, and expected a counter-attack which did not come off, though in the evening the enemy was seen to be advancing and the troops on the Battalion’s right fell back for a while,  leaving their flank once more exposed. Their position at the time was in a somewhat awkward salient, and they readjusted themselves — always under sniping-fire — dug in again as much as wet ground allowed, and managed in the dark to establish connection with a battalion of Hampshires that had come up on their right.[3]

Kipling, with admirable economy, explains why it is that these battles continue to take such a high toll of the officers: unlike the waves-and-trenches battles of 1915 and 1916 (where officers were killed in high numbers because they were in front, and dressed distinctively) these “affairs” are tactically complex. And difficult to write about, given that few diary-keepers survive unscathed…

More than most, the advance on Houthulst Forest had been an officer’s battle; for their work had been broken up, by the nature of the ground and the position of the German pill-boxes, into detached parties dealing with separate strong points, who had to be collected and formed again after each bout had ended. But this work, conceived and carried out on the spur of the moment, under the wings of death, leaves few historians.

So, once again, the now-familiar toll:

Every Company Commander had been killed or wounded during the day… The battle, which counted as “a successful minor operation” in the great schemes of the Third Battle of Ypres, had cost them four officers killed in action on the 9th, one died of wounds on the 11th, seven officers and their doctor wounded in the two days forty-seven other ranks killed; one hundred and fifty-eight wounded, and ten missing among the horrors of the swampy pitted ground.

Raymond Rodakowski was one of the four officers killed outright.

 

The tenuous Irish theme continues, today, as it was in Cork that Frederic Manning‘s career as an officer received yet another check: once again his alcoholism had led to serious problems, in this case some sort of breakdown and hospitalization. At today’s “’confidential”Medical Board, however, he seems to have escaped a more serious embroilment, perhaps in both the medical and bureaucratic senses: the doctors ruled that Manning was almost fit to resume light duty; moreover

Crossed out in their report was another diagnosis, “delusional insanity”… Manning, probably with some
official encouragement, decided to salvage what honour he could.[4]

 

Another coincidence can serve as the segue to a last brief note. Manning was Australian, although serving with an English unit in Ireland. And it was not the Irish Guards or the Inniskillings that mounted a raid on “Celtic Wood” this morning, a century back, but an Australian battalion. This distinct set-piece of today’s bloodletting a few miles away on the southern flank of the battle has a whole short book of its own, Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith’s The Anatomy of a Raid. The raid-in-force was a bloody disaster: 85 Australians, leaving trenches near Polygon Wood, attacked the Germans in Celtic Wood at dawn. 14 returned, and the rest were never heard from again. The “Anatomy” is a careful inquiry into what happened–and to why no inquiry into this one-disaster-among-many had taken place before.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 220.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 43.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 211-13.
  4. Marwil, Frederic Manning, an Unfinished Life, 184-5.

Siegfried Sassoon Whets his Waterman; Carroll Carstairs Re-Treads the Military Road; Hugh Quigley Among the Corpses, Old and New

Before we march alongside one writer into the lurid atmosphere of the Salient and thrash through its horrors and terrors with another, we will begin with a friendly and pleasingly literary letter. Siegfried Sassoon wrote to Robbie Ross today, and the letter makes it clear that he has already received Robert Graves’s recent missive. Sassoon is in good spirits–complimentary and confident, and apparently willing to forgive Graves’s decision to dedicate his next book to the Regiment rather than to Sassoon:

17 September, Craiglockkart

My dear Robbie,

Robert sent me his proofs: His new poems are delightful, and the whole book is a wonderful expression of him. I hope you are feeling refreshed by your country visits.

I have got about 300 lines of verse for you to inspect; but am too lazy to copy it out…

I was rejoicing in my luck in getting a room to myself—my late companion having gone–but after two days a man of forty-five with iron-grey hair, an eyeglass and an aquiline nose has floated in.

This is the man Sassoon will describe in Sherston’s Progress–memorably and amusingly–as “The Theosophist.”

There follows an obscure reference to the book of Job–meaning, apparently, that he talks war shop or swaggers with his comrades–and a clever ratification of the fact that Sassoon, like Owen before him, is finding the writing life at Craiglockhart to be good for his nerves (whatever ails them–or doesn’t).

…I play golf every day, and say ‘Ha ha,’ among the captains. But in the dusk I whet my trusty Waterman and slay them all with songs!

Yours ever S.S.[1]

 

Others will have a harder time finding a quiet evening to write. Judging from the War Diary of the Grenadier Guards, the following night relief described by the American officer Carroll Carstairs took place tonight, a century back:

It was dusk. The men were falling in. The evening was quiet, The night sinister and sombre. The men looked ominous, set and serious—a visual translation of my own sensations. I listened to the simple words of command and read in them an added meaning and a new significance.

“Slope arms—move to the right in fours—form fours—right—by the left, quick march.” We stepped out while some gunners watched with admiration those slightly supermen—the Guards.

“We’re givin’ ’em socks to-night,” said one.

We reached White Hope Corner, and then that inevitable halt. I watched the huddled remnant of Boesinghe Wood tremble to an occasional flare. The men talked in whispers or were silent. Silent mostly. No smoking allowed, of course, just when one most needed a cigarette.

After what seemed an interminable time we moved on, halted again, moved, halted—it tried one’s nerves. At last we struck the duckboards—Clarges Street, with enemy shells falling well to our right.

“Good old Military Road again,” I thought. “That old road is certainly living up to its name.”

Now and then we were threatened as a shell dropped close, and once I tripped and fell flat on my face.

Can anything be slower than these night reliefs, whose speed is controlled by the darkness, the difficult way and the responsibility each man had for the man behind him?

We approached Cannes Farm while it was a target for enemy shelling and a party of Scots Guards scattered from it and among us, and to avoid a mix up we proceeded straight into the zone of fire.

The men were seen into shallow slits where they were packed as tight as sardines in boxes. No trench system there; dig down until you strike water, which was at a depth of about three feet, and get what protection you could.

The officers were better off in a tiny pillbox, a new entrance to which had been made by a British shell, so narrow that to get inside you had to take off all your equipment.

After a time I made a tour of our lines. We were “Company in support.” Two companies were in the front line and the fourth in reserve. The night was dark as pitch and threatened rain. I tripped on some loose strands of barbed wire and cut my hand. Although there was a certain amount of shelling, we had so far escaped casualties.

The night passed…[2]

 

Hugh Quigley, though not far away from Carstairs, is much further along in his experience of Third Ypres–he is enduring, in fact, what Sassoon’s statement had been intended to protest. We move, now, from a jaunty letter and an atmospheric narrative to one of the most characteristic types of Great War pieces, namely an attempt to describe the indescribable that soon breaks down into a catalogue of horrors.

Vlamertinghe, 17 September, 1917

You will have read of Belgium in every newspaper dispatch and every book written on war. The best I can do is simply to tell you what I experienced–and suffered more or less patiently. The country resembles a sewage-heap more than anything else, pitted with shell-holes of every conceivable size, and filled to the brim with green, slimy water, above which a blackened arm or leg might project. It becomes a matter of great skill picking a way across such a network of death-traps…

Quigley’s experiences of the Salient also includes this encounter, from earlier in the week:

…we dug out a new trench. While plying the spade, I encountered what looked like a branch sticking out of the sand. I hacked and hacked at it until it fell severed, and I was picking it up prior to throwing it over the parapet when a sickness, or rather nausea, came over me. It was a human arm.

It gets worse:

…we set out on patrol, but had to take refuge in a deserted pill-box in No Man’s and because the enemy had sighted us. This pill-box had been used at one time as a a charnel-house; it smelt strongly of one and the floor was deep with human bones. From there we watched the Very lights flickering outside, and, casting a weird light through the doorway, the red flash of bursting shells. Occasionally a direct hit shook us to the very soul. While sitting there, the odour overcame me and I fainted. Waking up an hour afterwards, I found myself alone, without the faintest idea of my whereabouts, uncertain where the enemy’s lines were or my own. Some authors practise the description of fear, but nothing they could do could even faintly realize my state. It went beyond fear, beyond consciousness, a grovelling of the soul itself.

Quigley eventually calms down and saves himself; but this letter continues to be densely populated with horrifying corpses. Stumbling back to his own trench that morning he falls, and finds his “hands clutching at a dead man’s face.” And then there is this:

Our road to Company H.Q. from Ypres is shown in places by dead men in various postures, here three men lying together, there a dead “Jock” lying across a trench, the only possible bridge, and we had to step on him to get across.[3] The old German front-line… must be the most dreadful thing in existence, whether in reality or imagination, a stretch of slimy wicker-work bordering a noisome canal of brown water, where dead men float and fragments of bodies and limbs project hideously, as if in pickle. The remembrance of one attitude will always haunt me, a German doubled up with knees under his chin and hand clutching hair above a face of the ghastliest terror.

But this is only horror. The dead, rather than death, decay rather than suffering.

…my first experience of death was worse than this. Our battalion had entrained almost as far as Ypres, and we rested beside the railway…

Where they are spotted by German observers. The very first rounds from the heavy artillery are on target:

…our two companies had just got over when I heard a scream of a shell. Instantly we got on our noses: I looked up cautiously, just in time to see it explode in a thick mass of other companies on the railway. The scream of despair and agony was dreadful to hear, men shell-shocked out of reason and others dying of frightful wounds. That shell caused fifty casualties and shook the whole battalion for several days… That cry of dying men will ring in my ears a long time after everything else will be forgotten.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 186.
  2. A Generation Missing, 97-99.
  3. Why, one wonders, couldn't they remove this body?
  4. Passchendaele and the Somme, 120-5.

Isaac Rosenberg in London; Eddie Marsh Sees the Sights; Agnes Miller Cries in the Dark

After two days in transit, Isaac Rosenberg reached London today, a century back, on his first leave since his service in the B.E.F. began. Before he even reached home he was among friends, and in high spirits: on the bus from Victoria Station he saw Joseph Leftwich and jumped off to greet him looking “well and fit… more boisterously happy than I had ever seen him.”

Isaac Rosenberg (seated) with his younger brother Elkon

Over the next ten days Rosenberg will spend much time with his family, but he will also go in search of art and literature, revisiting old haunts such as the Slade and heading to the Café Royal, his poems in his pockets. but he will miss his two most important patrons–Sidney Schiff and Eddie Marsh (on whom see below)–but he probably saw both Anetta Raphael and Sonia Cohen, whom he had painted most memorably (and probably loved, unrequitedly, before losing her to a doomed relationship with John Rodker).

In any case Rosenberg’s poetry will reflect both a surge in personal confidence and a reconsideration of past loves. Strikingly, for a sickly and fragile man who had gone for a soldier more out of poverty than out of any Romantic belief in war’s exalting or transformative powers, he has been, if not exalted, than at least positively transformed by some aspects of his experience. He might hate the war, but being in London he feels empowered in some way: the war may be awful, but it is still intense, and returning to the scene of his prior life probably made that life seem “‘pallid’… and unexciting” by contrast.

It is difficult to track Rosenberg’s next few days, but at some point he and his brother Elkon went to sit for a photograph. Elkon is nine years younger and a newly minted soldier rather than a veteran of the trenches, but here he looks the hale and protective elder brother.[1]

 

It seems typical of Rosenberg’s luck that the one patron best positioned to help him in matters literary, artistic, and military had been in London for years–and now is touring Belgium and France. Eddie Marsh’s diary for today, a century back, begins with a clever allusion suitable for dutiful tourism.

These V.I.P.s can really get their sight-seeing done quickly, especially when they begin their tour from the right spot, namely Amiens, the capital of behind-the-lines-of-the-British-Sector-of-the-Somme:

Saturday Sept. 16th

Like Mrs. Micawber, I felt that ‘having come so far, it would be rash not to see the Cathedral’—so I rushed round before breakfast. I had only 5 minutes there, but in a sense it was enough. I hadn’t for a long time seen anything of that kind—of that majestic and overwhelming beauty—and it was ‘a bit much.’

We started at 10.15 for Arras. There was nothing much to notice (except German prisoners working by the roadside—and farther on some native labour contingents) till we got to Albert—but from the moment I caught sight of the Virgin in her arrested fall, the day was a succession of thrills. The Virgin is curiously moving. She’s nothing in herself, the battered church is a hideous and vulgar building, and she gives the tower the shape of a fool’s cockscomb. Yet her position is so evidently a miracle—the edge of her pedestal has somehow just caught in the parapet, and there she stays month in and month out in the very act of her headlong dive—one feels it must be an omen.

Here is an experienced and not-easily-impressed man greatly impressed by ominous coincidence–by strange chance amidst the drama of war.

Next, with Marsh’s fresh eyes we see once again the road to the front.

For a few minutes beyond Albert the country is still country—I saw an untouched bend of the Ancre, flowing through grass meadows among poplars and willows. Then comes a sudden change—the land becomes featureless and unmeaning, like the face of a leper—(a leper with smallpox as well, for it’s all pitted with shell-holes). Coarse grass and weeds have sprung up everywhere, so the unimaginable desolation one used to read about has passed off—but there are still the fines of bare tree trunks with their stumps of boughs—and everywhere the tiny nameless white crosses, single or in clusters, ‘like snowdrops’ as Winston said—and here and there a regular cemetery with larger named crosses. Of the smaller villages, such as Pozières, not a trace remains (just a fragment of wall, 4 feet high, which was once the Chateau de Pozieres). We passed the crater of La Boisselle, where the German fines began—and the white mound of the Butte de Warlencourt—and then came to Bapaume, which looks as if some one had crumpled it up and torn it into little bits, meaning to throw it into the waste-paper-basket…

Then, near Lens, Marsh comes upon the truly empty battlefield:

The whole countryside is covered with red towns, Liévin, Salournies, etc.—as thickly almost as the parts round Manchester (Loos was just hidden by Hill 70). Nowhere a trace of humanity, except one or two Tommies walking
about in the Bois des Hirondelles round a battery which the Boches were trying to shell…

After about half an hour Neville and I went back to H.Q., where we found Winston lunching with the Generals, in a tunnel-shaped tin hut. W. then started on foot to visit his old Regiment, the R.S.F., who were close by, and Neville and I motored into Arras. The Cathedral there makes a fine ruin no doubt it’s better now than before, as it was an uninteresting classical building, but the broken masses are fine…

The sightseeing will exceed its allotted time–or, rather, time will tarry long enough for Churchill’s party to try and get themselves into a bombardment.

We went back to H.Q., where Winston joined us at 4.15, so we were already about two hours late in starting. And
we hadn’t gone far before he was attracted by the sight of shells bursting in the distance. This, we were told, was a
daylight raid on Chérizy—irresistible!—out we got, put on our steel helmets, hung our gas-masks round our necks, and walked for half an hour towards the firing—there was a great noise, shells whistling over our heads, and some fine bursts in the distance—but we seemed to get no nearer, and the firing died down, so we went back after another hour’s delay. W.’s disregard of time, when there is anything he wants to do, is sublime—he firmly believes that it waits for him.

We drove back on the same road as far as Bapaume, and then straight on through Le Transloy, Sailly-Saillisel (of
which not a trace remains)—to Péronne, which must have been a lovely little place. The sunset light, when we got there soon after six, was the loveliest I’ve ever seen and the ruins, softened and glowing in its warmth and sweetness, were unutterably pathetic…[2]

 

Finally, today, as a counterpoint to the military gourmandise of Churchill-amidst-the-ruins, we have a faint sigh escaping from halfway across the world. Agnes Miller pines–nobly, and demurely–for Olaf Stapledon. What good would it do to complain about her fate, as she waits for him, in Australia, to complete a service that is arduous and dangerous, but not, in the eyes of her friends and family, glorious? No good at all… their marriage will have to wait for duration.

But sometimes it’s hard–especially when a friend and her beau plan to tie the knot. In a letter of today, a century back, Agnes allows herself a confession of low spirits, a brief reversal of the frequent soldier’s decision to put the principle of honesty-across-the-gulf before that of adding nothing unnecessary to the loved one’s worries:

Do you know their engagement was just about as different from ours as it could possibly have been. We discussed ours for about 2 1/2 years & then became engaged. They discussed theirs for about 2 1/2 hours & became engaged there & then…

They told me about it that Sunday night [9 September] when I first began this letter. I was dead tired, & it was after 10. They were boiling eggs hard for a picnic breakfast for the morrow. I sat on one table swinging my legs & they sat together opposite me on the other table swinging their long legs. They told me in answer to my question that until that famous night, a week ago, they had never said anything to each other which the world might not have heard! So evidently they had been going along their ways & had drawn nearer & nearer together without saying a word until suddenly they found they were both on the same path. How lovely that must have been, must it not? No wonder the dear kids are happy with their so newly found treasure. I disgraced myself that evening. I was so tired. We stopped talking & mused. Lionel took Rosie’s hand & they looked so comfy & happy. I thought of you away there & me here on the kitchen table & the tears would not be kept back & I had to make a dive for my bedroom & have a good old cry in the dark.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 169-71; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 371.
  2. A Number of People, 257-9.
  3. Talking Across the World, 249.

Wilfred Owen on the Next War; Hugh Quigley Confronts the Landscape; Kate Luard Allows a Late Night; Herbert Read’s Mock(ing) Letter

Today, a century back, presents us with a broad range of experience in four snippets.

Wilfred Owen is still writing copiously: this time it is a long, poetry-enclosing letter to his mother, which begins in the old style of detailed reports on his doings, in this case a long description of a visit to the home of some decidedly fashionable Edinburgh householders. But he is soon on to his new topic–Siegfried Sassoon.

Many thanks for Father’s Views (of Aberystwyth). Wish I had his views of S.S. I will copy out one or two of my recent efforts in Sassoon’s manner.

Even without such a clue, identifying poems such as “The Next War” as being heavily influenced by Sassoon is shooting critical finish in the biographical barrel. Or, given the quotation that heads the poem, simply being handed a dead fish.

 

The Next War

War’s a joke for me and you,
Wile we know such dreams are true.
– Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,–
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,–
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for Life; not men, for flags.

If this poem still feels somehow light, despite the subject matter, it’s for a promising reason: Owen’s lyrical apprenticeship has left him ready to write fluid and pleasant verse, his prosodic skill a tool that may have surprising applications. Owen’s letter continues:

…I find it well received by the public and praised by Sassoon with no patronizing manner but as a musical achievement not possible to him. He is sending copies of the Hydra to Personages!

Last night I had a consultation with Dr. Brock from 11 to midnight!

I asked him (for the first time) when he meant to have me boarded. He said there were no instructions given to him yet; and wasn’t I quite happy where I am? Very well . . .

I still have disastrous dreams, but they are taking on a more civilian character, motor accidents and so on.[1]

He is on his way to recovery–and therefore the current slow course is judged to be best. This is very lucky for Owen, but one wonders exactly what these nightmares were like. He doesn’t tell his mother, of course, and he didn’t tell Sassoon. Is his sleep merely “disturbed,” as we would say? Or does he wake screaming, terrified, every night, several times, as was common at Craiglockhart? It’s hard to wangle a clear explanation of trauma, isn’t it…

 

Herbert Read, writing to–and to impress–Evelyn Roff, strikes another pose today, this time the sarcastically self-aware world-weary officer in repose. Well, no, not repose, exactly…

2.ix.17

We are now ‘enjoying’ a rest! That blessed word ‘rest’. It has terrors for us almost equal to any the line can produce. It means a constant scrubbing and polishing… a continual state of qui vive, for safety releases all kinds of horrors upon us: fellows with red hats and monocles who seldom molest us in our natural haunt…

And then there are the tasks, which Read writes with the same strenuous jauntiness, of drilling the troops, both slovenly veterans and raw recruits, back up to the standards of non-combat duty and, worse, of reading their letters:

…two or three weary subalterns have to wade through two or three hundred uninteresting letters every day. Comme ci: ‘Dear old pal–Just a line hoping as how you are in the pink of condition as this leaves me at present. Well, old pal, we are out of the line just now in a ruined village. The beer is rotten. With good luck we shall be over the top in a week or two, which means a gold stripe in Blighty or a landowner in France. Well, they say it’s all for little Belgium, so cheer up, says I: but wait till I gets hold of little Belgium.

From your old pal, Bill.

And so on…[2]

 

Kate Luard, too, has been enjoying a rest–or, at least, a few days without dire trouble. But this phase of the war presents very little of interest to a working nurse on an afternoon at liberty.

I went with P. for a walk and saw a great many Tanks in their lair; hideous frights they are – named Ethel, Effie, Ernest, etc.

With her own preferred leisure activities so curtailed, will she soften her administrative heart to others? Yes, of course–and with ulterior motives, too.

Sunday, September 2nd.

The weather has not cleared up enough yet for Active Operations, so we are still slack. General S. told me to-day the exact drop in the numbers of daily casualties, and it is a big one. We have a piano in our Mess salved from 44. It brings the M.O.’s and their friends in every evening about 9 p.m., which is really bed-time, but one mustn’t be too much of a Dragon in these hard times. And last night I let them keep it up till 10.30, as it was a good and cheery cover for some rather nasty shelling that was going on, and had been all day – on both sides and beyond us (behind us as we face the line). It went on all night too, and lots of casualties were brought in; 6 died here, besides the killed in the Camps. Of course in one interval he must needs turn up overhead too. I only slept about an hour all night.[3]

 

Finally, today, our second reading of Hugh Quigley, and the second one in which we must be led through the analysis of an experience without having read the details. But we are familiar, I think, with the war in general, and judging from that, this all seems to make very good sense indeed:

One can never decide definitely about anything there; there is not time, even, for decent thinking; always on the move should be our war-cry. I have seen a vast chunk of France now and I don’t feel inclined to enthuse about its beauty. The same monotony of streamless plains. A new brand of nostalgia enters the system: one longs for a purling brook, a clear lake, and a whole village. I have seen enough ruins to send our feather-brained sentimentalists into the last stages of delirium.

I am beginning to overcome the lice nuisance…

Quigley goes on to discuss his reading–Conrad–and to weigh the best philosophical approaches to a soldier’s life:

The Epicurean idea is the best: make the most of a good thing when you have it and let the future go to the devil. In fact, a Stoic-Epiucurean would have a glorious time just now, and the old Cynic antagonist fill the trenches to every one’s satisfaction; but the doubt arises, would he do for fighting? Too canny, perhaps; too bald in his perception of facts. The barbarian is the darkest fighter after all; he goes right at it…

On a roll, now, Quigley discusses H.G. Wells, wartime sunsets, memorial language, Corot, and, memorably, his impressions of the battlefield around Achiet-le-Petit:

…not a tree was visible anywhere, yet such a perfect gradation of soft greys from rose to pale blue as I have never seen or even dreamt. We seemed to enter a dim world of fairy, grey warriors going into a new Valhalla, where all harshness and ruggedness had been smoothed down into quiet loveliness, and a peaceful contentment taken the place of violent action; where the spirit could forget yearning and find its faintest desires broaden out into a graciousness as if heaven were earth, and earth a kindlier God. It was morning, morning in full summer, when we went there, and a veil of rose lay over the earth, touching a far town–Achiet-le-Grand–to a golden mystery of wall and tree, and outlining with silver the broad road that led from it in the direction of Bapaume.[4]

But now, I think, we can with rare precision discuss absence as well as presence. We can, that is, gather something of what Quigley has not read. He goes on to claim that he has “lost all taste for pure landscape”–yet still he describes it. He hasn’t seen the worst of war, but it is still striking to note what his description of the road to Bapaume lacks. We might compare it to Sassoon’s “Blighters,” the very poem which Vivian de Sola Pinto, himself approaching the line in France, had recently committed to memory :

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
“We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”
I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,”
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 490.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 107-8.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 155.
  4. Passchendaele and the Somme, 105-112.

Toward Langemarck: More Gas for the Master of Belhaven; Kate Luard’s Saddest Sight; Harry Patch and Edwin Vaughan Arm for Battle

Today, a century back, was another eve of battle in the Ypres Salient. We begin with the Master of Belhaven, as the German artillery, surely aware of the new preparations, fire gas shells into the British support areas.

We were badly gassed last night. About midnight the Huns started off and we had to wear our gas-helmets for four consecutive hours. He is not content with firing .77 gas-shells, but is sending the gas over in 5.9 shells now. This is simply horrid, as the amount of gas liberated from one shell is so great that it is still highly concentrated at a considerable distance from where the shell burst. By bad luck the very first gas-shell that arrived last night burst just outside our dug-out. We were asleep at the time but woke at the crash and with the debris falling on the roof. In less than ten seconds the place was filled with concentrated phosgene. The first mouthful simply seized me by throat like a swallowing a spoonful of cayenne pepper. In the dark I was rather slow getting my gas mask on, and could not get the nose-clip to go on right. The result was that I got quite a lot of the horrible stuff. Within ten minutes I was feeling pretty bad–great difficulty in breathing and a dreadful sinking pain in the heart; the latter going rather fast and every now and then missing out a beat, which gave the sensation of sinking through the floor. This morning I am feeling very sick with a dull aching around the heart that is very uncomfortable. The bombardment is becoming intense again…[1]

 

Ypres is a cozy place, and if the smaller guns can’t reach the hospitals a few miles back, the big guns can–and so too the bombers, as Kate Luard reports. Few people can have had as much experience with the pathos of death from wounds as she has, but new situations can still bring home the depths of suffering which ripple outward from each of these torn bodies. Usually her duties as a nurse include easing the death of hopelessly wounded young men, and then providing what comfort she can to their parents–but not at the same time.

Wednesday, August 15th, 11.30p.m. This has been a horrid day. He bombed a lot of men near by and all who weren’t killed came to us. Some are still alive but about half died here. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is happening to-night. An officer boy is dying with his father (a Colonel) sitting holding his hand. The father happened to meet the Ambulance bringing him in, and the boy’s servant stopped him and told him his son was inside. He’s staying here to-night, and has just been pacing the duckboards with me, saying, ‘The other boy is a darling, but this one is the apple of our eye. I knew it must happen.’

…The Colonel’s boy died at 12.30.[2]

 

Going forward now are thousands of men from fresh divisions that have rotated into the line since the battle’s terrible first week. Edwin Vaughan now commands a platoon of the 8th Royal Warwickshires, the143rd Brigade, 48th (South Midland) Division. They are slated to support the new attack in the northern bulge of the Salient, near Saint-Julien, just south of Langemarck.

August 15

I could not sleep, but lay awake thinking and wondering about the attack, fancying myself blown to bits, or lying out on the wire with a terrible wound. It was not until dawn that I dozed off and slept fitfully until 9 a.m. The whole day we were busy, examining gas-masks, rifles, Lewis guns, field dressings, iron rations, identity discs, etc, and trying to joke with the troops despite the gnawing apprehension that was numbing our minds. Early in the evening I changed into Tommy’s uniform and tried to prepare for every contingency—spare laces and string in one pocket, spare pencils in another, scissors in my field dressing pochette, rations and cigarettes in my haversack with my maps, small message maps stuffed into my respirator satchel, and a pocketful of revolver ammunition. I also saw that my rosary was sewn into my tunic with the sovereign that Marie had given me for luck, and that my holy medals were firmly attached with my identity discs to my braces. We handed our money and decent cigarette cases over to CQMS Braham so that if anything happened to us Jerry would not have them. Then we mingled with the troops and talked lightly of tomorrow’s excitement.[3]

 

The 20th (Light) Division has recently taken the place of the 38th (Welsh) Division, so the 7th Duke of Connaught’s Light Infantry–among them a nineteen-year-old infantryman named Harry Patch–are assembling tonight in the area overrun by the comrades of David Jones and Hedd Wyn on the battle’s opening day. After taking up their burdens–as part of a Lewis gun team, Patch was issued a large amount of ammunition to carry along with the gun’s spare parts, his personal equipment, rations, water, and revolver–they crossed the Yser Canal at around 11:00 p.m.and headed toward the Steenbeck to take up positions for their early morning assault. [4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 367.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 144-5.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193.
  4. The Last Fighting Tommy, 89.

Edwin Vaughan in Slaughter Wood; Jack Martin in the Noxious Saps; Lord Dunsany Remembers Francis Ledwidge

Edwin Vaughan is almost there:

August 12 Sunday. We had sudden orders in the forenoon to move up nearer the line, and after a hurried packing we marched off at 2.30 p.m. Straight up to Pop and out on the Ypres road with my nerves tingling, unable to talk for excitement and drinking in the real atmosphere of war. We were part of the never-ending stream now, welling up into the great reservoir behind Ypres which was swelling and deepening until the dam should be loosed and all the men and guns and shells should pour out on to the enemy lines…

But the eve of battle is not battle–and it is predictably shabby. Their home for the next few days will be

…a nondescript camp consisting of bivouacs, tents, huts and tarpaulin shelters into which we stowed the troops as best we could. For our combined mess and bedroom we had a small hut with a table and a couple of forms. It was a baleful place for the shell-holes and shattered trees bore testimony to the attentions of the German gunners. Amongst the trees was a great concentration of tanks—and the name of the camp was Slaughter Wood![1]

 

Jack Martin‘s experience has been somewhat difficult to integrate with the rest, here. But he is a rare voice from the ranks and our only engineer, and in this capacity his diary sometimes takes us to new depths, as it were. He and the rest of his company of sappers live, now, like moles in their tunnels, working by day and sleeping by night–or the other way around. This has always been unpleasant and dangerous, but the new German technique of firing different gas shells at all hours has made it even more dangerous–and unimaginably unpleasant.

The Huns have made some fierce counter-attacks on our left today… This evening we have heard that we are to be relieved tomorrow. Thank God. Although we have spent most of our time in the comparative security of the saps, this period in the line has been most trying and exhausting. By day and night the Hun has kept up a continual harassing fire, mainly of HEs and gas shells. The entrances to the saps are covered at night with double gas curtains which are daily saturated with some mixture intended to neutralise the poison…

Owing to the gas curtains being kept down at night and the ventilation shaft being shut, the air in the tunnels becomes most fetid. Seventy or eighty men crowd in one of these galleries, mainly with wet clothes, and all in a filthy dirty condition, breathing the same air over and over again, their bodies stewing in the close, damp atmosphere and exuding all manner of noxious odours–this alone is sufficient to make us ill. It is positively choking to enter the tunnel in the early morning… you choke and splutter and gasp for breath… But foul air is better than poison gas, and dugouts are to be preferred to shell holes.[2]

 

Lastly, today, a century back, was a Sunday. It seems to have been the Sunday on which Father Devas, chaplain of the First Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, kept his vow of saying a funeral mass for Francis Ledwidge–Frank, to his friends–thirteen days after he was killed by a shell while road-making on the first day of the battle.[3] It must have been around now, too, that Ledwidge’s patron, Lord Dunsany, an officer of the same regiment serving on garrison duty, learned of his protegé’s death. Dunsany will see Ledwidge’s second book through to publication, but he is also at work on a volume of his own, a collection of slight, lightly fantastic war-themed short stories. These generally feature lightly drawn every-soldier characters–the book is full of soft-focus celebrations of British steadfastness and gentle wish fulfillment. But one soldier, at least, is drawn from life.

 

The Road

The battery Sergeant-Major was practically asleep. He was all worn out by the continuous roar of bombardments that had been shaking the dugouts and dazing his brains for weeks. He was pretty well fed up.

The officer commanding the battery, a young man in a very neat uniform and of particularly high birth, came up and spat in his face. The Sergeant-Major sprang to attention, received an order, and took a stick at once and beat up the tired men. For a message had come to the battery that some English (God punish them!) were making a road at X.

The gun was fired. It was one of those unlucky shots that come on days when our luck is out. The shell, a 5.9, lit in the midst of the British working party. It did the Germans little good. It did not stop the deluge of shells that was breaking up their guns and was driving misery down like a wedge into their spirits. It did not improve the temper of the officer commanding the battery, so that the men suffered as acutely as ever under the Sergeant-Major. But it stopped the road for that day.

I seemed to see that road going on in a dream.

Another working party came along next day, with clay pipes and got to work; and next day and the day after. Shells came, but went short or over; the shell holes were neatly patched up; the road went on. Here and there a tree had to be cut, but not often, not many of them were left; it was mostly digging and grubbing up roots, and pushing wheelbarrows along planks and duck-boards, and filling up with stones. Sometimes the engineers would come: that was when streams were crossed. The engineers made their bridges, and the infantry working party went on with the digging and laying down stones. It was monotonous work. Contours altered, soil altered, even the rock beneath it, but the desolation never; they always worked in desolation and thunder. And so the road went on.

They came to a wide river. They went through a great forest. They passed the ruins of what must have been quite fine towns, big prosperous towns with universities in them. I saw the infantry working party with their stumpy clay pipes, in my dream, a long way on from where that shell had lit, which stopped the road for a day. And behind them curious changes came over the road at X. You saw the infantry going up to the trenches, and going back along it into reserve. They marched at first, but in a few days they were going up in motors, grey busses with shuttered windows. And then the guns came along it, miles and miles of guns, following after the thunder which was further off over the hills. And then one day the cavalry came by. Then stores in wagons, the thunder muttering further and further away. I saw farm-carts going down the road at X. And then one day all manner of horses and traps and laughing people, farmers and women and boys all going by to X. There was going to be a fair.

And far away the road was growing longer and longer amidst, as always, desolation and thunder. And one day far away from X the road grew very fine indeed. It was going proudly through a mighty city, sweeping in like a river; you would not think that it ever remembered duck-boards. There were great palaces there, with huge armorial eagles blazoned in stone, and all along each side of the road was a row of statues of kings. And going down the road towards the palace, past the statues of the kings, a tired procession was riding, full of the flags of the Allies. And I looked at the flags in my dream, out of national pride to see whether we led, or whether France or America. America went before us, but I could not see the Union Jack in the van nor the Tricolour either, nor the Stars and Stripes: Belgium led and then Serbia, they that had suffered most.

And before the flags, and before the generals, I saw marching along on foot the ghosts of the working party that were killed at X, gazing about them in admiration as they went, at the great city and at the palaces. And one man, wondering at the Sièges Allée, turned round to the Lance Corporal in charge of the party: “That is a fine road that we made, Frank,” he said.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 190.
  2. Sapper Martin, 93.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 189.

Edmund Blunden Marches Back to the Line–Through Gas and Failed Patrols–and Has a Tooth Out; The Master of Belhaven Walks Back from the Firing Line, Through Searching Gas Shells, and Has a Tooth Out

We seem to be converging upon the coming battle in space, time, and experiential theme. Edmund Blunden, too, will go forward on the first day of Third Ypres, and several of the tales he tells about the days before chime closely with others we’ve heard. These are among the more powerful sections of his memoir, as his steady, dreamy, innocent style must put its head down and trudge forward into a muddy, deathly tide, a literary enactment of the effect of attrition on young minds.

It’s difficult to match his vague chronology, here, with the bare details of his Battalion Diary, but I believe that either the patrol described below or the march to the front line that follows took place today, a century back.

He begins on the foul Yser Canal, a notable landmark–and logistical obstacle–between Ypres itself and the front lines.

The Yser Canal had been drastically rearranged. New bridges crossed it, powerful works, carrying real roadways. On the far side, the old bank which alone afforded cover from view and splinters had been hewn through for the roadways and other tracks. Great heaps of warlike material stood up naked and unashamed; batteries glinted and bellowed in transparent air. These gay grimaces had not failed to upset the enemy, who was tearing up the old ground and venerable shelters with long-range guns. The best bridge, No. 4, was a ferocious target, but at the Ypres end the new solid crossing was swollen with dead mules tipped on the wayside. The water below, foul yellow and brown, was strewn with full-sized eels, bream, and jack, seething and bulged in death. Gases of several kinds oozed from the crumbled banks and shapeless ditches, souring the air. One needed no occult gift to notice the shadow of death on the bread and cheese in one’s hand, on the discoloured tepid water in one’s bottle.

Ypres in the late summer of 1917 will in many ways be the most horrible place yet: there is more gas, more water and mud, and still that terrible crowding that comes from the holding of a small “salient” and taking fire from three sides.

And the German troops are alert and efficient. This next episode sounds almost exactly like what has just happened to the 15th Royal Welch, although Blunden’s 11th Royal Sussex are further to the south:

On one of the preliminary evenings our new colonel, with his usual bad luck, sent forward from C Camp an officer fresh from England, and one or two men with him, to patrol the land over which our assault was intended, giving a special eye to the enemy’s concern with some ancient gunpits there. This officer took with him his set of the maps, panoramas, photographs, and instructions which had been served round with such generosity for this battle.[1] He never returned. The next night a seasoned officer from another battalion, patrolling the same ground, disappeared.

It was believed that these had been taken prisoner, but I was not much inclined to that view when, the third night, I was sent up with one or two old hands to see what I could see. We reached the very sketchy front line before it was quite dark, soon afterward crawled over the top, and were carefully making our way through our own wire — not that its puny tendrils needed much care! — when with a crash and flame on all sides at once a barrage began. Shells struck so fast that we seemed to be one shell hole away, and no more, from the latest, and as we dodged and measured our length in wild disorder, we drifted a long way into No Man’s Land. The barrage followed our direction and when it stopped, as we lay panting and muttering in the smell of explosive mixed with that of the dewy weeds and broken clods, I saw that we were a few yards from a sap, and I heard stealthy movement in that sap. This might have been the secret of my predecessors’ misfortune. After the shelling we were not much good for observation or offence, and found out no more…

Blunden was lucky to escape, as it seems that the lightly-held German front line has become an entrapment ground for British patrols–either this was a terrible coincidence or the German positions are held in such a way that they can spot enemy patrols, call in effective barrages, and possibly sally forth to kill or capture the survivors.

And Blunden’s long night wasn’t over yet.

I determined that we must rest the few hours till day in the Canal Bank. In order to save us a weary search among blown-in dugouts, and others specially allotted already, I called upon the Canal Bank Major, who was supposed to be in control of the accommodations. No sooner was I inside the sandbag porch than a shell knocked the porch in and some more of my nerve system with it…  There is a hypocritical tunelessness about a gas shell in flight and in explosion. With that, there was the thought of being pitched bleeding into the gummy filths and mortifications below. At last we were in a “small elephant” dugout, and I stretched myself on the dusty boards. I woke with a stiff neck in slightly gasiferous sunlight, mechanically receiving a mug of lurid tea with a dash of petrol from one of my invincibles.

Blunden escapes to return to his unit, but almost as soon as he is back they are marching up toward the front-line positions from which they will attack. First, though, a more quotidian experience of courage for pain:

I could dilate upon other drama that occurred toward July 31, 1917; there was, for instance, that tooth of mine, which our Irish doctor painfully extracted for me by muscular Christianity in the wood, surely the last afternoon there; all my signallers off duty stood round with a hideous pleasure, and one or two begged to offer their compliments on so great a fortitude! But the battle cannot be postponed longer. I had to thrust aside my Cambridge Magazine with Siegfried Sassoon‘s splendid war on the war in it; sent my valise along to the dump; and fell in, wondering how Sassoon could pass one or two technical imperfections (as I thought them) in his fine verse.

This, I think, is something other than irony. But it is very striking indeed: while Sassoon is beginning his long sojourn of self-discovery in the safety of Scotland, a young poet about to be ordered forward into the glutinous mud of Flanders is reading “To Any Dead Officer” and “The Redeemer.”

In the latter–written after nightmarish night work in the autumn of 1915–a Christ-like soldier is weighed down by his load, under fire, as he trudges through the mud. The poem ends with this couplet:

And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!’

“To Any Dead Officer,” which connects the death of his friend Orme this May with the poet’s decision to protest the war, ends with the line.

I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

It’s striking, and awful: the endings of the two poems perfectly foreshadow Passchendaele, which will include both the war’s worst mud and an increasing awareness of the miseries of death in failed attritional “pushes” are beginning to overwhelm traditional means of glorifying military sacrifice…

Back, for a moment, to Blunden:

The spirit of battle was not rampant among us that turgid, thirsty night; our route was complicated by design and accident, and the companionship of numbers of tanks and other troops confused us. The unfamiliar way was now narrow as a lane, now broad and undefined as a football ground, sometimes dark, then lit whitely to a distance. At last we occupied trenches on the scene of our proposed business.[2]

He’s ready, then, not for the “show,” but for the next bad deal.

 

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven has been serving his guns steadily not far behind our Salient infantry, preparing to aid them in the great assault. In another strange coincidence, he too is suffering dental agonies today, a century back, and he too must risk the German gas shells–but then again the Salient is a very small place.

…It is always the same thing–one works out everything in good time, and then at the last moment the programme is altered. I am suffering excruciating agony with my tooth. I could not even lie down last night, and have had absolutely no sleep whatsoever. We commenced the barrage at 5.15 this morning, and have been making a dreadful noise. It was really just like the Somme…

On the way to meet his colonel for a ride to the dentist, Hamilton, walking alone in the rear, is twice knocked down by near misses from a German 5.9. Picking himself up, he runs into the colonel, who is himself trying to nonchalantly dodge the shells.

It was really extremely funny; as we walked (very fast) down the road, a gas-shell fell 50 yards behind us, and this happened four times in about two hundred yards. These gas-shells make very little noise arriving, and burst on the ground with a little “pop” like pulling the cork out of a bottle… There was no smoke, either black or white; just the dust thrown up by the shell striking the dry ground, and a small cloud of yellow green vapour–much the colour of jade…

The comedy ends with the artillery, however, as Hamilton will now meet up with a ‘very rough-handed’ and incompetent dentist…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This is a serious breach of protocol, naturally.
  2. Undertones of War, 214-9.
  3. War Diary, 352-3.

Edwin Vaughan Volunteers for Patrol; A Near-Run Thing for the Master of Belhaven; Kate Luard is Ypres-Bound; Henry Williamson is “No Bon”

Edwin Vaughan has lately been in reserve, serving as “escort” to an Australian artillery unit. In contrast to the usual stereotypes–and to the frequent British opinion that the Australians, while valuable soldiers, are too rough around the edges–he has found them to be well-mannered and considerate. This friendliness was thrown into relief when his own adjutant, a man with less front line experience than Vaughan, chewed him out for the minor (and probably common) lapse of asking for supplies over a telephone line without resorting to code. Vaughan, newly confident in his veteran-of-a-few-months status, gave the adjutant a piece of his mind–his trench experience meant more than the adjutant’s higher rank.

But in any event, as we learned yesterday, Vaughan’s battalion is returning to the front lines–and he is raring to go.

Everything was cleared up and I said goodbye to the Australians with real regret, thanking them from the bottom of my heart for their hospitality to me when I came, a stranger, amongst them. One of the most pathetic features of the war is this continual forming of real friendships which last a week or two, or even months, and are suddenly shattered for ever by death or division.

The remainder of the Company came up to us an hour before dusk, and we led them on, Ewing walking with me in front. He was in high humour and consequently quite communicative… As we marched Ewing told me that an order had been circulated emphasizing the need for offensive patrols, in accordance with which each of our platoons was to carry out an all-night patrol in turn. I had a sudden inspiration and asked if I and my platoon might monopolize the honour and do them all. He jumped at the idea…[1]

This sounds unhinged, but Vaughan’s men have enjoyed recent patrols–they would rather be out doing, apparently, than sitting tight–and a big part of the appeal is that men who are out at night are allowed to rest from fatigues during the day. But the last tour had little in the way of bombardment, and the German infantry opposite disinterested in midnight skirmishes–will this remain the case?

 

And well might the artillery might spare the poor infantryman, if it is too intent in its search for the British artillery. Up near Ypres, the Master of Belhaven, new battery firmly in hand, is facing more than his share.

We had a dreadful night, as we were heavily shelled, and we have no head cover beyond a tarpaulin. I got no sleep till dawn, and then only an hour…

All the afternoon they had been registering on Bedford House, a ruined château not far from me. I noticed that they were firing guns of all calibres, first one and then another. This made me suspicious, and I was not surprised when, at 9 o’clock, a perfect hurricane of shells arrived, large and small mixed. They kept it up for half an hour or more, but they were nearly all two or three hundred yards over me. Suddenly they stopped and began a creeping barrage right across the flank of my battery and on my mess. Franklyn, the doctor, Bath, and I rushed out and threw ourselves down flat in a little trench outside. It was only 18 in. deep and the same width.The hurricane of shells lasted about five minutes, mostly shrapnel bursting in air and 4.2’s bursting on impact. There must have been dozens bursting at the same moment, all round and over us. I have never seen anything like it before, except our own barrages on the Somme. We were covered with earth and sods that were being flung up, and the shrapnel bullets fell on the ground all round just like a hailstorm. Suddenly there was a tremendous roar and the whole country was lit up like day… one of my ammunition dumps had blown up. The concussion set off another dump near it, but, instead of blowing up, it started burning, the H.E. shells going over in dozens just like a Chinese cracker, only each crack was an 18 lb. shell…

We were 200 yards from the battery and it was absolutely necessary to get back to the men. Franlkyn and I agreed to risk it and ran as hard as we could past the burning ammunition to the battery. How we got across alive I don’t know; neither of us had the smallest hope of surviving…[2]

 

Kate Luard has always been eager to get as close as possible to the shells that keep her hospitals in business. Soon she will be stationed closer still.

Tuesday, May 29th

…The C.O. had another message to-day to ‘prepare to move to another Area…’ He has told me in a whisper where it probably is; of course it is just the exact part I’ve always longed (and intended!) to go to if anything was doing there…[3]

She is not a woman for quiet sectors, evidently. Ypres it will be, and soon…

 

Lastly, today, we have Henry Williamson. After telling a strange tall tale about his assignment to a signalling course, he now must tell his mother that he has been sent back. He seems to see, if he hadn’t before, that the writing is on the wall for him with the 208th Machine Gun Company. But his failure on the signalling course he will insist on viewing as a minor setback, and bluster off on another tack:

Dear mother,

Am quite well. I was sent back from the Signal School as no bon… I am transferring by the way, to another Coy–at least I have applied for it–I could never agree with my C.O. and now he’s back again…

But he knows he doesn’t have the power to transfer himself, bon or no bon. And, breezy though he may be, his thoughts alight on what he likely fears most: a return to the infantry.

…Occasionally one gets fed up–but on transport there is just enough danger (e.g. tonight–a few crumps over, & gas shells, & an unlucky hit will finish us, mules & all, but really the risk is not one millionth what the infantry, poor devils, run!) Well give my love to everyone…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 136-7.
  2. War Diary, 293-4.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 127.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 156-7.