Lord Dunsany Gets Off with a Scratch–and a Jab; Patrick Shaw Stewart Thinks Big; Doctor Rivers Departs, and Just Possibly Worries About Sassoon’s Soul

Lord Dunsany‘s follow-up explains yesterday’s profuse profession: It didn’t end up being a “last letter”–but he had reason to think it might have been. In an envelope marked “Fit and Well,” Dunsany hastens to explain himself:

My Darling Mink,

It is your bad luck to get flattering expressions of devotion from me when I see something bad ahead as I thought I did last night. However, nothing bad came, though I am sick of this square peg in a round hole business, which is good for neither. I am excused all duty for forty-eight hours at least and I write this far enough from the Boche. I did not go sick but I started talking to an officer of the R.A.M.C., and before I knew where I was one of his orderlies had innoculated me in the chest with anti-tetanus serum which I enjoyed so much last time. I don’t know why unless that while crawling about I had stepped with my left hand into a coil of old barbed wire (British).

Every your loving,


So Lord Dunsany has been on either a dangerous patrol or a raid–and all is not as well with his battalion as it recently seemed to be… but he had survived, and with nothing worse than illness, a cut hand, and a needle-jabbed chest. Not something, perhaps, for a young soldier who’s an old soldier to write home about, but Dunsany, though he is nearly forty, has seen little front-line action so far, and so he did indeed write home. Which says more about the Dunsany’s marriage than anything I’ve read yet.


Speaking of younger old soldiers, Patrick Shaw Stewart is once again a battalion commander. Which he jokes about in writing to Ronald Knox:

Meanwhile, Oc Asquith has gone on leave and left me in command, by Jove! No nonsense from the junior officers, I can tell you. My first action was to put myself in for immediate promotion to Lieutenant-Commander, sound, don’t you think? My second, to place a man who has just arrived from spending three years in England, more or less, and who is senior, not only to all my company commanders, but to myself, handsomely—to place him, I say, second in command of a company.[2]

That first bit must be a joke… but the second probably isn’t. It’s all upside down in France nowadays…


Thirdly, finally, and even more off-kilter, today, a century back was Doctor Rivers’s last day at Craiglockhart. If, that is, Pat Barker’s date-in-a-novel is correct. Then again, even if this was indeed his last day, the novel indulges in some minor fudging of dates, keeping Sassoon around for a last talk with his mentor and father-figure-hero when he was in fact on his way to London for a leave-between-the-Medical-Boards. This provides an opportunity, in the novel, for a last talk between hero doctor and poet patient, in which they discuss Lady Ottoline’s recent visit. Rivers, who will return for Sassoon’s Medical Board (as well he might, considering what happened last time) sees in Sassoon’s bitter summary of his discussion with Morrell less an insight about his sexuality (Barker assumes, quite logically, that Sassoon’s homosexuality was no secret from Rivers) than a new worry, namely that Sassoon’s “peace” with the war has left him dead inside:

…perhaps he’d just given up hope. At the back of Rivers’s mind was the fear that Craiglockhart had done to Sassoon what the Somme and Arras had failed to do. And if that were so, he couldn’t escape responsibility.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147-8.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 203.
  3. Regeneration, 220-1.

The Master of Belhaven Goes Back to the Front; Edwin Vaughan is On His Way As Well; Patrick Shaw Stewart in Command

There is a bit of a lull, today, in our preparations for Third Ypres, but the preliminary bombardment continues. Only Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, has a story for us today, and if he is away from the line it is not for pleasant purposes. Last night, a century back, a clumsy dentist treated an excruciating tooth by attempting to kill the nerve. It didn’t work. What follows is something like a sick parody of the war’s planning and execution.

A nightmare of a night. Instead of getting better, my toothache was much worse by the time I went to bed, and the M.O. gave me some morphia. Then, just as I was going to sleep, a Hun ‘plane came along and dropped bombs all round the camp… The next thing I remember is someone shaking me violently and shouting “Gas attack!” and pushing my gas-helmet into my hands. I woke up just enough to realise that the tent was full of phosgene, and by instinct at once put on the gas-mask, after which I promptly went to sleep again with the thing on.

Hamilton goes to another dentist, who determines that the first one had treated the wrong tooth. He then extracts the true offender, discovering an abscess beneath. After this lovely day in the rear, Hamilton returns to his battery, stumbling over the slippery duckboards to run into his servant, Bath, “very badly shaken.” In his brief absence the German batteries have found their range, and the captain he had left in charge has been wounded by shrapnel. It is too late to move, and they must now begin the battle knowing that the German batteries know where they are…[1]


Many others are coming to the Salient, now, in order to sustain the assaults that the current front-line battalions will launch whenever the weather is deemed favorable. Edwin Vaughan and his battalion had, up until three days ago, been enjoying a nice long rest. Then came the orders for the front, and it was packing, marching, and a train journey north.

July 29, Sunday. I was in a heavy sleep—probably owing to the champagne, when Crash! Crash! Crash! and something ripped through the roof of the carriage and smashed a window. In the pale light of dawn I saw Edgerton stooping to lace his boots.

‘What was that?’ I asked, following suit.

‘Shells or bombs,’ he replied. ‘We must be somewhere near Ypres.’ The train was at a standstill and as we climbed down on to the deserted siding, a dishevelled RTO hurried along the train.

We may have seen this fellow before.

‘Poperinghe’ he said in reply to our enquiries. ‘There’s a guide waiting for you on the road; get away as soon as you like, they have been shelling us all night.’ Nothing loath, we hurried our troops on to the cobbled road and marched away before any more shells fell.[2]


Lastly, today, a century back, we check in with Patrick Shaw Stewart, who wrote to Ronald Knox with some interesting career news:

In a great hustle because Oc. has gone on leave, and Mark Egerton is going to Artillery for three days and I have to command the Hood Battalion! Lord bless my soul! I hope there won’t be any crises.

This is not as shocking as it might sound: the Hood Battalion is in a quiet sector of France, far from the Ypres Salient. Still, Shaw Stewart–though an impressive intellect, a capable man, and a standout scholar–is not yet thirty years old, has less than two years in uniform, and has been with the battalion for only a few months. And yet he now commands a force of some five to eight hundred men…

Yesterday I arose (for the second time) from a bed of very little sickness, diagnosed as mild trench-fever—even the friendliest doctor couldn’t give me a temp, of more than 100.2 the second go, and now I have no more excuse for bed. We are going into reserve for a few days, which fulfils my military ideal of No Fighting and No Training… will write properly soon.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 353-55.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 182.
  3. Patrick Shaw Stewart, 199-200.

Alf Pollard’s Enthusiasm for the Game; Isaac Rosenberg’s Aching Feet; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Summoned; Wilfred Own Describes His Longest Tour

We have four letters today, in more or less a representative distribution: two to mother, one to a patron, and one to a comrade.

But the first letter-to-mum is an unusual one, from an unusual (here, at least) writer. Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. have a lull in the action today, and he is able to fill mater in on his latest doings.

Dearest Ladybird,

Here we are again, out once more. I have had some most interesting and exciting times since last writing, including going over the top again. I am once more in charge of the Company as the man senior to me got laid out with a bullet. I shall probably be a Captain again in a day or two but one never knows as somebody else senior may be sent along. You see, the present arrangement of the government is that all promotions are by seniority irrespective of fighting qualities. So really one has no chance of being more than a Second Lieutenant whatever one does. However I don’t care a bit what rank I am.

I had a most exciting adventure in a Hun trench the other day. I cut through their wire and got into their trench thinking it was unoccupied, but soon discovered it was full of Huns and consequently had to beat a hasty retreat. I got out all right fortunately. I heard a rumour that the Brigadier has recommended me for a bar to my M.C. in consequence of this little business so if you keep your eyes glued on the paper you may shortly see my name in it. Don’t think I have been taking any unnecessary risks because I have not. I have merely done what I have been asked to do.

Well, dear old lady…

Best of spirits and having a good time. By the way, I gave killed another Hun. Hurrah!

Well, cheerioh!

This letter is one of the few Pollard takes the trouble to preserve, and he does so with an explanatory comment, namely

…because it throws such a clear light on my attitude towards war… I thoroughly enjoyed going into action… People tell me I must have a kink in my nature; that my zest to be in the forefront of the battle was unnatural. I do not agree with them…[1]

No, he assures us, he is merely very highly motivated to win the war, and believes that the British Army can, and soon. If this is a gambit to convince those horrified by enthusiasm for killing into accepting what we might term the “realism” of his statements, it’s not a very good one.

Yes, it’s a war, and it is much more deeply illogical to believe that your side is in the right and yet still hope to bring about a satisfying conclusion without violence. But this is a pacifist’s dilemma, and it doesn’t explain the enthusiasm for personal violence. Invoking the common terminology of war and sport–“keen to win”–does nothing to show that there is some moral through-line from the young officer excited to get his name in the paper for killing people and the responsible adult who seeks to defeat German militarism and liberate France and Belgium, accepting that there will be a price to pay for this, in blood.

Then there is the question of the “kink.” I don’t think a discursus into human evolutionary biology and the sociology of violence is necessary here, but it’s tempting… Briefly (and sloppily), this is indeed a “kink…” and yet it is quite natural. Most of us are by nature (as well as nurture) horrified by direct physical violence unless driven to it by some extreme emotion–terror, jealousy, even rage have some clear evolutionary benefits. But we don’t generally kill without passion–we could hardly have evolved in small, cooperative groups otherwise. And yet, some people lack this inhibition… some of them may become violent sociopaths or psychopaths, others may lead normal lives unless they are at some point given a handful of weapons and asked to go and hunt down other people, for God and for Country. Presumably their sang froid during hunting for food over the thousands of generations of Prehistory preserved their genes despite their danger to the group–after all, they win decorations and bounties get their names preserved among the valorous…

Apologies for the fast-and-loose “science” without careful hypothesis or actual evidence, which is , of course, not science at all. But I do think a glance at the animal and the “early man” beneath the recently-civilized human being yields plausible explanations… What put me in mind of this, actually, was Pollard’s choice of the phrase “forefront of the battle.” This was probably borrowed, perhaps at some remove, from translations of ancient epic: nothing could be more Homeric than the idea that the best men–those who are the leaders of contingents, those who earn fame and glory and prizes–fight literally before (i.e. “in front of”) the rest of the men in the battle, those lesser men who prefer less direct, less deadly, missile-weapon-oriented conflict.

Pollard is not insane, nor is his happy warrior pose “unnatural,” but he is very unusual: he has the mentality of a Homeric hero, someone who values glory–“winning”–so highly that the taking of lives doesn’t really enter into the moral calculus, even though they recognize that in other contexts killing is wrong. Although Pollard is capable of recognizing the brutality and sadness of war, he is also more than capable of forgetting it. He does not see the unavailing suffering of other men as detracting from the meaningfulness of glory or the positive valence of skillful, violent action–and this, now, is beginning to put him at odds with several writers more prominent in this project.[2]

But we can continue to explore this attitude in subsequent posts. Pollard’s letter is also included in the memoir at this point because he wishes to connect his realistic “attitude towards war” with his exceptional talent for it. He can’t really claim to be modest, but he can argue that what he does next is all in the service of winning (which he could have phrased as “ending”) the war…


We followed several units-with-writers during the attack of the 23rd, and of course failed to discuss many others. One of these was the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, badly mauled during the advance. Two of the remaining “Argonauts” of the Gallipoli expedition are still with the Division–Bernard Freyberg now commands a brigade, while Arthur “Oc” Asquith, Raymond‘s younger brother, commanded the Hood battalion in the assault, leading it close behind the British barrage in the assault on Gavrelle. The attack was successful, but at the cost of nearly 200 casualties, including seven officers killed outright. Today, a century back, Asquith wrote to his old comrade Patrick Shaw Stewart. Shaw Stewart had schemed successfully to leave his cushy post in the East to return to the battalion, and danger. But there has been rather a long interlude, spent largely in futile pursuit of the divine Diana, followed by a stint on a refresher course at Le Touquet. Now he is summoned directly.

My dear Patsy,

Come as soon as you can. I lost 3 Company C.O.s the day before yesterday.

Love, yrs Oc.[3]


Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother. It was his first letter in a long while, and in it he describes the longest, hardest time of his service in France (we have drawn on this letter already). The 2nd Manchesters, down on the southern part of the British line, made an assault more than two weeks ago, before Owen had rejoined from hospital. Since then they have not been in an attack, but–no doubt due to the concentration of force for the Battle of Arras–they have remained an awfully long time in front-line trenches.

25 April 1917  A. Coy., My Cellar

My own dearest Mother,

Immediately after I sent my last letter, more than a fortnight ago, we were rushed up into the Line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench…

The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole…

This we have already read–but it is worth re-reading, as Owen will be dealing with the after-effects for a long time to come.[4]


And finally, today, and we get a rare update from Isaac Rosenberg, writing to Eddie Marsh:

My Dear Marsh,

My sister wrote me you have been getting more of my ‘Moses’. It is hardy of you, indeed, to spread it about; and I certainly would be distressed if I were the cause of a war in England; seeing what warfare means here. But it greatly pleases me, none the less, that this child of my brain, should be seen and perhaps his beauties be discovered. His creator is in sadder plight; the harsh and unlovely times have made his mistress, the flighty Muse, abscond and elope with luckier rivals, but surely I shall hunt her and chase her somewhere into the summer and sweeter times. Anyway this is a strong hope; Lately I have not been very happy, being in torture with my feet again. The coldness of the weather and the weight of my boots have put my feet in a rotten state. My address is different now

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon
120th Brigade Works Coy

There is more excitement now, but though I enjoy this, my feet cause me great suffering and my strength is hardly equal to what is required.

I hear pretty often from G Bottomley and his letters are like a handshake: and passages are splendid pieces of  writing. Have you seen Trevellyans ‘Annual’ which G.B. writes me of.

Rosenberg is a strange bird, and this is a strange letter. He writes to thank Marsh for any efforts he might be making on behalf of his poetry–“Moses” is conceived of as a major work. But the affectation of ease and middle class bonhomie and faux-classicism sits oddly alongside of the infantryman’s complaints about his feet… although surely Rosenberg knows this. So what is he up to?

Perhaps not much, other than making clear a fairly obvious fact: privates in labor battalions can’t do much to improve their large-scale literary undertakings, but hope to keep up their tenuous connections to the world of literary patronage nonetheless. Alas, too, that his connection to Gordon Bottomley came so recently–the “Annual” which Rosenberg is rather obviously hoping to have sent to him is the same publication for which Eleanor Farjeon edited eighteen poems by “Edward Eastaway.”

Do write me when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 199-200.
  2. Which is not to say that Pollard wouldn't have held the more popular belief in 1917--he would have, by far. War heroes are popular; they always have been, and even if 1916 and 1917 and the Western Front were, to mangle some metaphors, the cradle of the grave of that illusion--even if skepticism about the virtues of violence will grow in the aftermath of this war, and remain higher than before it--the idea that talented warriors should be praised was many times more popular than the idea that they should protest the pointless murder they were involved in both perpetuating and risking. (And then, of course, there is Siegfried Sassoon, who wants to win a medal for just the sort of stunt Pollard describes, and also thinks that the war is pointless murder...
  3. Jebb, Edwardian Meteor, 226.
  4. Collected Letters, 452-3.
  5. Collected Works, 315-6.

Three Grenadier Lieutenants and Two Sargents: Osbert Sitwell, Bim Tennant, Harold MacMillan, Mother’s Sons All; Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton: The Written Word Never Quite Hits the Mark

Some days it’s hard to swing a cat around your head in the Pas-de-Calais without hitting a subaltern’s whose mother’s limpid, long-limbed luminously aristocratic beauty was captured by John Singer Sargent. In fact, I realize that my earlier efforts to explain exactly in what sense the Guards were an “elite” unit were rather inefficiently wordy. Please find two thousand words-worth of explanatory pictures below.

Yesterday, the ever-affectionate Bim Tennant wrote another letter to “Darling Moth’,” known to others as Lady Glenconner, one of the leading lights of the Souls.[1]


The Wyndham Sisters (Pamela, the future Lady Glenconner and beloved mother of Bim Tennant, is in the middle; Mary, the future Lady Wemyss, mother of Hugo and Ivo Charteris, is on the right). John Singer Sargent, 1899

6th September, 1915

Darling Moth’

Your precious letter made me very happy indeed. I have been thinking of old jokes also…

Yesterday, being Sunday, I played tennis with three “little thrends in pink,”—the brewer’s daughter Thérése Bellanger, Nellie and yet another Germaine, whose name I know not. We had great fun, and four very good sets. The father watched from near by, like a comatose Boer general, in a panama and a huge black beard. We then went back to a terrific tea at which we all drank toasts in champagne provided by the Brewer, of which I drank a very little so as not to appear stand-offish and to drink toasts in.

After that all the officers in the battalion played rounders, which was great fun. The Prince of Wales also came and watched for a few minutes…

Note please the casual reference to royalty. Not anything to get excited about, really, when many of one’s friends come from either considerably older branches of the English nobility or from the families that actually govern, rather than rule, Brittania. The reference to rounders does surprise, though–not cricket?

I am very sorry to see that Charles Lister is dead. I liked him very much…


Lord Ribblesdale, Charles Lister’s Father. John Singer Sargent, 1890

Bimbo is several years younger than the “Argonauts,” but his family moved in the same very tight circles–Lister’s father, Lord Ribblesdale–pictured at right (bonus Sargent!)–had married an aunt of Bimbo’s, while another aunt was Margot Tennant Asquith, the (scorned) wife of the Prime Minister and mother of Argonaut Oc, recently converted Guardsman Raymond, and Brookean pseudo-inamorata Violet.

It seems almost as if every young man of both a certain class–Bim’s father, a second-generation Scotch baronet, was a politician lately elevated to a title of his own–and a certain age–from Bim’s eighteen to Raymond Asquith’s twice that–was either already in the cavalry or the Guards or was faced with a particularly narrow version of the 1914 enlistment choice: should one go for one of the interesting, newfangled, likely-to-see-immediate-combat units, or to the Guards?

Perhaps if Bim were a year or two older he would have rushed off with Lister and Oc to join so many talented men of lesser birth–this is, actually, an excellent illustration of Raymond’s crack about his “middle class” identity–in the hip, musical, poetic, Churchillian Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division. As it was, he got a commission in the Guards and thus was “properly trained and decently treated.” And there, of course, he will find many friends and social acquaintances from Eton.

But society, for young gentlemen of Bim’s kidney, began at home, at their mothers’ knee. Julian Grenfell‘s mother, Lady Desborough, was the dominant personality in the “Souls,” and thus a sort of Regimental Sergeant Major to Bim’s mother. He would have looked up to Julian and Billy, and Julian and cousin Charles (Lister) were close friends through childhood and at Eton. There R.A. Knox and Patrick Shaw-Stewart–young men of socially decent but not exalted birth–joined their set. (And then they all trooped off to Balliol together.) Bimbo would have been an honorary little brother of the Argonauts, but he is even better-founded in the Grenadiers.

Bless you, darling Moth’, with love to Daddy from your devoted


The Sitwell Family (Osbert is in the Sailor Suit), by John Singer Sargent, 1900

The Sitwell Family, before eccentricity and scandal took their toll. Osbert, the future Grenadier, is the young fellow unprovidentially arrayed in a Sailor Suit.  John Singer Sargent, 1900

Speaking of society and friends and fellow Grenadiers, let’s get some perspective on Bimbo from a garrulous, black-sheepish member of the bunch.

I wish we could hear more from Osbert Sitwell–he rarely fails to entertain, after all. He just fails to date his reminiscences, even for long stretches at the front. The son of very strange and troubled parents–his father was a crazed baronet, his mother a victim/perpetrator of fraud who was jailed this year, to the prurient fascination of society–Sitwell moved in much the same circles. He and Bim Tennant were already friendly, but it seems as if their time together this month was the foundation for a more intense friendship. Sitwell had been in the trenches over the winter, then had a long spell in London, which, after all, served as garrison town for the Guards. Now he has returned to France, where the Grenadier Guards have been concentrated together in their own Division. In a few short weeks Sitwell will be transferred from the second battalion to Tennant’s, the fourth–and into his very company. Sitwell, a prickly and rebellious sort, nevertheless loved the mother-pleasing, poetically flirtatious Tennant:

Bimbo was a compact of energy as a firecracker. To be in his company was like having an electric battery in the room, invigorating without being in the least tiring. Literary expression was as easy to him as talk to other people…

This is a young man seen from the same level, by an admiring peer. Sitwell, of course, is very much aware that a child writing to a parent is a different being than a friend remembered:

His conduct always delighted–though it may have dismayed–his friends; for we belonged to the same epoch, that strongest of all links: whereas the members of the circle–rather precious, it may be, though many of them were truly distinguished in mind–which surrounded his mother, Lady Glenconner, belonged to an earlier age, were dyed in the wool with pale pre-Raphaelite colors.

Although he himself will come to frequent Lady Glenconner’s house, Sitwell can’t resist taking another shot at the aesthetic old guard–we first met Osbert at the Ballets Russesremember, and he will not stand for what, from a Modernist point of view, is not only old-fashioned by a lamentable divagation of English artistic energies. Lady Glenconner’s salon often contained, Sitwell cracks, amongst “various relics of pre-Raphaelitism,” the not-quite-elderly son of Edward Burne-Jones, most prominent of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

All of this is a comment on personality and memory, but it’s also a reminder of Sitwell’s artistic commitments. Being painted by Sargent is, perhaps, acceptable, but even though the pre-Raphaelites remain for so many of our writers an ideal of English craftsmanship and aesthetic achievement, Sitwell is keen to cast them as old-fashioned, prettily irrelevant, and, essentially, foolish. The beautiful Sargent mothers he will still compliment, but not the artists who would have immortalized their mothers. (Although, come to think of it, the pre-Raphaelite beauties are not long and languid society women but fleshier, earthier types from other social realms–the lovers of the painters, not their patrons. Perhaps there is a social foundation to Sitwell’s aesthetic snobbery…)

More to the point of our commentary on Tennant’s remarkably effusive letters is another telling aside of Sitwell’s–this one on what we might term Lady Glenconner’s “parenting style:”

(She loved them, it seemed to me, in a French and not an English way: she wished to be with her children throughout the day–the last thing, as a rule, that an English parent of her kind would desire–and to regulate absolutely their lives.)

There’s a brief comment to conjure with.


And it brings us at last to today, a century back, when Bim Tennant wrote to his “exquisitely pretty sister, Clare.”[2] And look who turns up:

Tuesday, 7th September, 1915

My Darling Clare,

Thank you so much for your delightful letter which I loved getting…

Last night I rode over and had dinner with George Villiers at Wizernes, where the 1st Battalion are. Harold Macmillan came with me, he rides much better than I do.

Which, of course, is unusual, because Tennant is to the manor born and Macmillan is nouveau riche–the great-grandson of a Scottish crofter, the grandson of the founder of the eponymous publishing house. Macmillan’s mother was–would you believe it?–born in Indiana. Still, they had overlapped at Eton (before Macmillan left due to ill health, to be tutored by R.A. Knox) and now renewed their friendship.

It is about three miles away and it was in the dark both ways, we couldn’t get horses at first, so were rather late, as we had to get transport horses. We expected to find snorting Generals and Majors cursing us for being late and were consequently delighted to find only George Villiers, all the rest of his Company being on leave in England! We had a delightful evening a trois and had one good laugh after another, being all blessed with the same sense of humour, and unhampered by any shadow of militarism. I suppose we shall start fighting soon. I’m very contented to stay here, but I want to get the first hooroosh over, as I expect I shall be very frightened…

So, yes, fear and bon-bons. In a letter to his father Tennant reported “rumours of an Allied attack involving over a million men at the beginning of next week,” but when writing to his mother he does tend to make France with the Grenadiers sound like a combination of scouting and a weekend in the country.

With Macmillan it could hardly be more different. His mother, too, was an artist and a socialite, with enough wealth and influence to have maneuvered her son out of the Royal Rifles and into the Grenadier Guards. (But, still–not a Soul, not a Sargent.) But her son’s epistolary endearments are restrained, and his subject matter as down to earth as possible.

macmillan trench map

Macmillan’s map from a practice attack, sent home with today’s letter (From Downing Street to the Trenches)

I spent the morning with No. 3 Coy. in a practice attack. My duty was to organise (or devise rather) a system for bringing up parties of bomb-throwers in a frontal attack.

They are to come (I think) in the second line. In the fourth or fifth line (after the trench is taken come men with sand-bags (empty) and shovels.

The attack will then be something like in the diagram [at right]. We did it today with one platoon at a time (The bombers going with the second platoon. Only the frontage of one platoon is attacked…)

When the bombers get in to the trench, they must immediately begin to work, each party separately. One party goes along the main fire trench to the right, one to the left. Others go down the communication trenches leading to the enemy second line…

The idea is that the main body of the infantry will thus be able unmolested to consolidate the line which has been won. When night comes, a communication trench (or several trenches) would be dug back to the line A-B, so that we can next safely bring up reinforcements of men and ammunition.

Macmillan continues on for several more paragraphs before checking himself slightly. As the editor of this correspondence, Mike Webb, points out, these are less private letters to mum than letters for the family, intended to be passed on to his brother, who might be presumed (presumptuously, but with reasonable confidence) to have a greater interest in bombing tactics. Still, it seems safe to conclude that Nellie Belles Macmillan is rather different from Lady Glenconner.[3]


So that’s the Guards. Briefly, then, today, the sensitive middle classes:

France, 7 September 1915

I hope it is not a sign of too volatile a temperament to be much affected by one’s immediate surroundings. I am very much so. The places I happen to be in, the clothes I am wearing, whether the day is wet or fine; these are the things that regulate my moods.

There are some people who would say that, not being a woman, I have no business to have moods: but let that pass.

That, I believe, was a feminist statement? This is Roland Leighton, of course, struggling against himself. Let it go! Reach for the pastoral!

This afternoon is glowing with the languorous warmth of the dying Summer; the sun is a shield of burnished gold in a sea of turquoise; the bees are in the clover that overhangs the trench–and my superficial, beauty-loving self is condescending to be very conscious of the joy of living. It is a pity to kill people on a day like this. In a way,
I suppose, it is a pity to kill people on any kind of day, but opinions–even my own–differ on this subject.

Oh, very good! Cleverly cynical–but his heart is not in it. Inevitably, Roland begins quoting from The Story of An African Farm.

Like Waldo I love to sit in the sun, and like him I have no Lyndall to sit with. But it was the last verse of his poem: it is only the first of mine.

For, hand in hand just as we used to do,
We two shall live our passionate poem through
On some serene tomorrow

I wonder sometimes which I am born to be, a man of action with lapses into the artistic, or an artist with military sympathies. Mother has asked me once or twice lately whether I should like to go into the Regular Army as a profession. I say no because I foresee the atrophy of my artistic side. On the other hand a literary life would give no scope for the adventurous & administrative facet of my temperament. What am I to do? …

Roland has been in this sort of mood for a few days–which means that Vera Brittain‘s letter to him, today, reads like part of the same conversation. Just think if these two could have stayed up late chatting on the phone, from billets to home…

Buxton, 7 September 1915

I remember well enough the letter you complain of as ‘icy & cynical’. I was feeling very bitter that afternoon, but why you
should get the benefit of it I don’t know. I am sorry; I always feel very repentant after sending anything like that. You are right that in such a case conversation is better than correspondence. Some things can be said quite easily which are better not written. The written word never quite hits the mark; it always implies so much more or so much less than you really mean. And there is of course a certain amount of what I might almost call ‘anachronism’ in a close correspondence in which each letter takes 2 or 3 days to come. I may come across something in a letter you have written in a ‘perverse’ mood which rouses me into icy & cynical remarks, and you may happen (as in this case) to get this outburst of frigidity just after you have sent me the most delightful letter in the world. The only remedy, I suppose,
would be to write nothing either cynical or perverse. But all the same… We can’t help being ourselves–at any rate in

Do these letters really mean so much? . . . For me too it means so much to hear at least something every day…

Yes, we are more like our real selves in letters. I at any rate am so foolishly reserved & ‘difficile’ when I meet you, that it is a physical, let alone mental, impossibility to say & do the things I want to say & do. And afterwards, when You have gone away, and I think to myself that I may never get the chance to say & do those things again, I feel so angry with myself, and so impatient. . .

Mother says our entire intimacy is one of correspondence. I don’t quite think that; there must have been something to start the correspondence and to inspire the keeping of it! But whenever we do meet it is never long enough to give us time to get used to each other properly . . . it is all so tantalising.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Although not the leading light, which would be Julian Grenfell's mother, Lady Desborough, who, despite her steely grip on high society, did not, perhaps, at least at the turn of the century, have Sargent-level money.
  2. Laughter in the Next Room, 108-10.
  3. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 23-24, 133-4.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 161-3.

Charles Lister is Hit Again; Edward Thomas and Ford Madox Ford Seek Society Among the Other Ranks; Alan Seeger Describes a Circle; Roland Hefts a Happy Axe While Vera Wishes for a Blighty One

More bad news from Gallipoli. Once there were five Argonauts:[1] Patrick Shaw-Stewart is safe, for the moment, on the staff; Arthur “Oc” Asquith has recovered from his wounds and returned to the Hood Battalion. Rupert Brooke, of course, succumbed to blood poisoning in April, while Denis Browne was killed in June. That leaves Charles Lister, who has already been wounded twice during the campaign. Two days ago he wrote to his father.

Hospital Ship, August 26, 1915

Just think, I have been wounded once more, the third time. We were in a trench, observing the Turkish trenches, when suddenly they fired some shells into our trenches. I went along to see what had happened, got my people back into a bit of a trench they had had to leave, then went down the trench, thinking the show was over, and then got it, being struck in the pelvis and my bladder being deranged, and slight injuries in the legs and calves.

I have been operated on, but am sketchy as to what has been done. I am on a hospital ship, comfy enough, but feeling the motion of it a good deal, and I have to be in bed and cannot change my position. The hours go slowly, as one does not feel very much up to reading. However, I got to sleep all right. I feel this will be a longish job, and I don’t know where I shall do my cure–perhaps Alexandria. My doctor is quite happy at the way things are going. The shell that hit me killed one man and wounded the others. Forgive this scrawl, but it’s not easy to write.

There will be no cure. Lister died today, a century back.

So much writing here has been about expectation, about arrival–the poems of anticipation, the agonies of eagerness, the careful recording of each step on the journey to the line. Now, increasingly, there is a burden of survivor’s writing to take up. The diarists and the avid epistolary life-writers must become eulogists, or forget their friends.

In a few weeks time, Shaw-Stewart will write home to their mutual friend R. A. Knox:

I love always to hear from you about people I don’t get news of, but I am almost incapable of writing about Billy, Douglas, Charles. I have had to do so much of it. Balliol of our time has had, I do think, a high proportion of killed; my best friends never seem to get comfortably wounded…  I think you and I are the only ones who thoroughly realise the length and breadth of what we lose in Charles. I think from different points of view we have perhaps understood him as well as any one else, and certainly prized him as highly, and we alone have all College and all Balliol in retrospect of him. He was quite extraordinarily good out here, and supplied an example of how not to grouse, and not to appear unduly to mind being killed, not unneeded by some of the newer drafts of officers. The men, both stokers and recruits, adored him—they always called him “Lord Lister,” which conjured up delicious visions of the aged man of science as a company officer. He had really what the despatches call devotion to duty; he was all the time resisting an intrigue by the Intelligence people (fomented by me) to get him moved there, which was on the point of coming off. He was constantly doing the most reckless things, walking between the lines with his arms waving under a hot fire from both sides; but his last wound, like his others, was from a shell in a trench, and no blame could attach. I think nothing worse can happen. God and the King have both lost a protagonist, and people like you and me the most divine of men.[2]

We tend to see Shaw-Stewart in a humorous vein–he’s one of our best writers of the light-verse letter–or grandstanding a bit about his experiences. But here he is heartbroken, mourning his friend from within their circle, not praising him to those without.

The recipient of the letter is worth at least a brief mention here as well. Another brilliant Oxford classicist, Ronald Arbuthnott Knox had followed the same course as Shaw-Stewart and so many others–Eton, then Balliol. But then Knox, the son of an Anglican bishop, had chosen not business or the arts but the church. Ordained now, he was both a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and its chaplain, and swiftly establishing himself as a popular theological writer. As a man of the cloth he will not feel the same impulsion to volunteer for France, but the war will change him as well–Knox will soon convert to Catholicism, which will necessitate leaving his Oxford post. But writerly fame awaits: in addition to his religious writing we will become a genre-defining writer of crime fiction.

But back to the now. Knox was a mighty Latinist (among his first Oxford students was Harold MacMillan) and he will soon sit down to work on a contribution to the memorial book that Charles Lister’s father will assemble. Knox’s contribution will be a formal elegy–it’s available here, if your Latin is up to the task. Sic transit gloria, etc.


Edward Thomas added to his ongoing letter to Robert Frost today, a century back. It’s quite striking how much the army has changed him–for now, at least. He seems to ease off on the self-excoriating honesty, here, and to indulge in a wistful tone so unlike the hard, alert intelligence of his poetry. He complains, yes, and questions himself. But without the rough edge. It’s almost as if he’s abandoned figure studies in slanting light and given himself to the pleasant hurly-burly of genre-painting… such is the calming effect on struggling, lonely man of a sudden immersion in the necessary camaraderie of army training.

I have some time on my hands at Headquarters today & have a pile of 1000 blankets in an empty drill hall to recline in. So far it is very dull defending ones wives & mothers & sisters & daughters from the Germans…

So far I am an indigested lump in this battalion. The men I am up against are mostly clerks of some sort with intelligent newspaper opinions and an interest in their clothes & in keeping up the social standing of the corps… They don’t quite understand what I say except when I say Yes or No. The great majority are under 25.–It is a question now whether I should have been worse off say in the Welch Fusiliers with a mixture of clerks & shopmen & manual workers. Perhaps I allowed myself too easily to be persuaded I could not have stood their ways.  For though I am admittedly a superior person I am not as particular as some people. Well, I dare say any one 100 men are about he same as any other 100…

Nobody persuaded me into this. Not even myself.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Well, never mind, I suppose. Thomas is soon once again questioning his decision. And, like virtually every other Englishman socially south of a lordship, he is perpetually worried about fitting in with those “below” him. Which continues to seem an unattractive trait and an intellectual dead-end, no matter how accustomed I become to the England of a century back…


And so of course a we find similar concerns in a letter today from our other elderly-man-of-letters-newly-in-uniform, Ford Madox Hueffer of the Welsh Regiment:

To C. F. G. Masterman

3rd Bn. Welch Regt.
28 Aug. 1915

My dear C. F. G.

Here I am and hard at it—6 a.m. to 7 p.m. everyday, like any V form boy & at about the same sort of stuff. Literature seems to have died out of a world that is mostly interesting from its contours. (A contour is an imaginary line etc.) But I am really quite happy except for an absolute lack of social life. I suppose you or Lucy don’t know anyone hereabouts to whom you cd. give me an introduction?[4]

Similar, and yet different. From Thomas, the long discursive letter (I excerpted only a small portion) to his best friend across the sea. From Ford, a bon viveur and a man who is practical about his impracticalities, a short letter requesting social aid and abettance.


And let’s check in briefly with Alan Seeger.  When last we heard from him he was hopeful that recent troop movements presaged a glorious attack.

Plancher-Bas, August 28, 1915.

Back in Plancher-Bas again! Our march into Alsace, round which I wove so much romance, was only for the prosaic purpose of working on second line defences… We worked five days and then marched back by the same route.

Putting one and two together, it seems to me that the General Staff are at present bringing behind the lines as far as possible, as in our case, the best troops and manning the trenches with second-line formations and territorials. They are recreating a whole armée active, who are not to be put into the trenches, but will be thrown immediately into the next great offensive…[5]


Finally, today, Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain. It’s good to report that she is still always in his thoughts.

Bois de Warnimont, France, 28 August 1915

I have brought the Company out woodcutting for the R.E. [Royal Engineers] this morning, and am writing this sitting on a tree trunk in a clearing. It is a glorious morning–very hot outside; but in this world of green and brown it is a sheer delight. The wood is about 3 miles long and covers two little hills and a valley between. Someone has just begun to whistle part of the Overture to ‘William Tell’, and it sounds so appropriate here among the aisles of trees with the ring of axes as a background. And this is war!

I ought not to be sitting down writing this now really. I am supposed to be walking round seeing that the men do their work properly. Before I began this I did a little wood chopping myself, just because I felt a childish desire to & greatly to the amusement of the men, I expect.[6]

Where is the gloomy Roland of yesterday? Well, high spirits and pitching in make for good leadership.

Across the channel in Buxton, alas, we find that the soul mates are out of sync.

Saturday August 28th

To-day has been much the same as all the days–and all will be like one another, I suppose, until he is either killed or comes home again. Oh! if he could only be wounded just a little![7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Or six, if you count Bernard Freyberg, the natural soldier of the bunch. Or seven if you count Frederick Kelly, the rower and composer. And while they may have called themselves "The Argonauts," in faux-ironic-heroic style, their fellow officers in the Hood Battalion called them "The Latin Club." Nicknames, nicknames--so different when bestowed from within than without. But anyway--Freyberg and Kelly yet live.
  2. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 147-8.
  3. Elected Friends, 92-3.
  4. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 61.
  5. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 151-2.
  6. Letters of a Lost Generation, 151.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 265.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart is on the Staff and Alan Seeger is on Parade; Edward Thomas Knows What He Is Fighting For

We’ll hear from Eleanor Farjeon is just a moment, but first we check in briefly with Patrick Shaw-Stewart, in Gallipoli, and Alan Seeger, with the evolving Legion in Eastern France.

Shaw-Stewart finds himself, much like Roland Leighton, pulled into the orbit of the staff. He too is a conspicuously clever volunteer, but he is older and highly connected as well. For the moment he is happy to avoid the difficult choice between camaraderie and safety, between the old battalion and the red badges of the staff:

Of course there are obvious reasons against leaving one’s regiment, especially when it contains jolly people like Charles (who is back again after being particularly gallantly wounded for the second time), and Oc, but on the whole I am quite prepared to be passive in the matter, and do what the Corps tells me. So for the moment here I am in inglorious safety on the gilded Staff (“acting G.S.O. III.,” which ought to be paid at the rate of £400 a year), and speaking French for dear life.[1]


And Alan Seeger finds himself in limbo, today:

July 27

Pleasant days here in the rear. Morning and afternoon we generally have exercises, marches militaires, and reviews. But there is always plenty of time on each side of the morning and evening meal to rest, read, or loaf…

The country people here are interesting and agreeable. Next door I sometimes speak with the old man whom one usually finds walking up and down in his yard alone after dark. His son disappeared in the forest of Apremont in October, and has never been heard of since. It was his only son; the daughter showed me one day the photograph of her brother, a fine-looking young fellow, a corporal in one of the Belfort regiments that marched into Alsace at the beginning of the war. It is one of the thousands of similar tragedies with which France is filled these days…

Mean while our plans are completely unknown to us and to the commandement, too, probably. There is a rumor that we shall be here till the 10th of August. Quién sabe?

Who indeed. We’ll come back to Seeger in about a week, but while we’re with him today I want to glance ahead to a divisional parade in order to contrast his reaction to North African military music with Lady Feilding‘s:

Passed a splendid review the day before yesterday at Chaux-la-Chapelle…  The whole Legion was there, and we drew up in a large rectangular field, the woods on one side and a beautiful view of the near mountains at the end. Here we were joined by the rest of the division, two regiments of Tirailleurs Algériens. They filed in behind their music–the famous nouba–whose effect was most novel and émotionnant, an alternation of clairons and a number of curious wood-wind instruments, supported by bass and treble drums…[2]


And Edward Thomas was back on regular duty today, a century back. But he is still billeted on his parents and allowed a lunch break–the better sort of London regiment still does some things at a peace-time pace, apparently. Eleanor Farjeon wrote of their meeting today, and she also found occasion[3] to report Thomas’s pithiest (I won’t stoop to “earthiest”) explanation of his motivations.

So on Tuesday July 27th I lunched for the first time with Edward in uniform…  [later] I asked him the question his friends had asked him when he joined up, but I put it differently. ‘Do you know what you are fighting for?’ He stopped, and picked up a pinch of earth. ‘Literally, for this.’ He crumbled it between finger and thumb, and let it fall.[4]

This quote is inescapable–no writer on Thomas can resist it. Nor should we, as there can hardly be a more trustworthy pair of second hands than Farjeon’s. Literally for English earth. This is at once a simple, powerful, quotable statement and a small mystery. What does it really mean? A naturalist’s patriotism? An intellectual’s reversion to mystic sympathy? I don’t know.

And as for Thomas’s friendships… it hardly seems fair that far-off Robert Frost gets a long, heart-felt letter, while the ever-loyal, ever-helpful Eleanor Farjeon gets only a pinch of dust and a koan…


References and Footnotes

  1. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 143-4.
  2. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 137-40.
  3. Albeit in flash-forward to a country walk yet to take place.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 154.

Wyndham Lewis Lets Off A Volley of New BLAST; A Quieter New Venture From Isaac Rosenberg; Classic Reminiscences from Patrick Shaw-Stewart; A Madcap Tale from Dorothie Feilding

Blast #2

Quite a second issue of Blast this month.

Of the seven names appearing in the Table of Contents, two belong to unsung-if-not-completely-forgotten women Vorticists–Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders (or Sanders). Two are Modernist bigwigs I’d prefer to avoid, nasty dominating poets forever conjoined on Desolation Row. But three are soldier-writers of the first water: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s missive from the trenches was published posthumously; Ford Madox Hueffer‘s lugubrious meditation on “The Old Houses of Flanders” marks a sort of way station on his journey from most contrarian of propagandists to unlikeliest of subalterns; and Wyndham Lewis, shooting from the hip, but not yet dreaming of the artillery, wrote most of the issue.

There are two extremes of historical writing, two shoals I try to steer a safe course between. On the one side there is the fine-grained, soldier-by-soldier history of the common man and the longe durée which can be found not only in academic histories of the last few decades but on the numerous excellent websites which present the history of the Great War from a populist/memorial point of view, in which every man’s service is honored and every story is worth telling. And on the other side are the big-idea histories which shape the story of the past around one (or a small number) of experiences, and shrink not from the principle of aesthetic judgment. Such is Paul Fussell‘s book.

So I want to be in the middle. A fair umpire. An unbiased historian. A scintillating centrist.

But let’s not kid ourselves: I’m tacking close to the latter shore. I was afraid of Julian Grenfell; I persist in disliking the 1914 sonnets even though I generally sail by Vera Brittain‘s star and she still loved them well, a century back. I fear the opprobrium of the Great War amateur history community (or would, if there were comments on acenturyback) every time I opine that a soldier’s poem is naive, derivative, or–despite his honorable service and first-hand knowledge of war and my own lack of those qualifications–just not very good at conveying the experience of war. We watch the writing of the war in part to understand it all better–but also to find the best of it.

But–saving grace?–my snobbery is not always, at least, the going academic snobbery. Because I don’t much like those Modernists neither. Ford, yes–when he gets there. Lewis-of-the-smouldering-gaze (see below)  I will reconsider when I read his memoir. But American ambulance men–no matter how hairy chested or undercapitalized–will get scant attention here.

I wear my confirmed literary favoritisms brassard-style: Hardy is the old heart of things, Edward Thomas is our man in (premature) middle age, and Charles Sorley is our man of the New Armies. These are neither Modernists nor wistful post-Victorians. They are the innovating non-rebels, the sharp-minded forward-thinkers as unembarrassed by their love for much of the tradition as by their rejection of its more sentimental of jingoist offshoots… and I much prefer them to the not-very-good writers of the trenches, however bemedalled (sorry Alf) and the blustering bourgeois-shockers still in their cafes (see, now I’m brandishing the white feather–hypocrite!)


Wyndham Lewis

But I have to admit that I’m impressed with the sagacity shown by Wyndham Lewis in this month’s Modernist rodomontade. He is responsible for a fistful of short articles which generally chart an ironic middle course of his own. In one, he remarks on the paucity of good war-inspired art and poetry, yet wonders why there should be a general expectation that war will stimulate popular art:

But as the English Public lets its artists starve in peace time, there is really nothing to be said. The war has not changed things in that respect.

He rails against–or not exactly against, that would be uncool–German brutality and laughs at the idea that it can be attributed to the influence of “the execrable ‘Neech.'” And then he goes and pokes fun at the British sporting self-image.

Then there’s less little gem, which appears to rather precisely predict both the Second World War and our current predicament:


People will no doubt have to try again in 20 or 30 years if they REALLY like or need War or not. And so on until present conditions have passed into Limbo.

Perpetual War may well be our next civilization. I personally should much prefer that, as 18 months’ disorganization every 40 years and 38½ years’ complete peace, is too anarchic except for Art squabbles. In the middle ages a War was always going on somewhere, like the playing of perpetual football teams, conducted by trained arquebussiers, etc. This permanent War of the Future would have a much more cynical and professional character.

Good guess. Sure, there’s also a lot of long-winded nonsense, Bernard Shaw-baiting, Kipling-scorning and halfhearted sniping at big fat militarist targets. But Lewis seems to have hit his stride early: he’s the foppish, lacerating enfant terrible of the avant garde, gleefully out ahead and trying his best to draw the enemy’s fire.

But while some of the posturing comes off as hollow, it is still disconcerting to come suddenly upon Gaudier-Brzeska, a flesh and blood victim in the midst of a war in words:

Gaudier Brzeska vortex

Gaudier Brzeska’s Last Contribution to the Vortex

Gaudier Brzeska vortex2Before we close the pages of BLAST, however, I must bring us to page 21. It’s Pound: would-be-wise and petty, foolish Ezra Pound, whom I would dearly love to leave by the wayside. But page 21 is too good perfect. Pound, too, is writing snide light verse, taking little shots at targets of opportunity–those poor poets unable to recognize the unstoppable rise of the Vortex. In two poems, on one page, he mocks both Rupert Brooke–mostly in a French footnote–and Laurent Tailhade, that strange mutilated old magus who had taken an unknown Englishman abroad–one Wilfred Owen–as an adept.

There’s just a touch more: in deploying his faux-antique grandiose style to mock the French “decadent,” Pound invokes a certain scenic designer:

Let us leap with ungainly leaps before a stage scene
By Leon Bakst.
Let us do this for the splendour of Tailhade.

This is that very Bakst who designed for the Ballet Russes, who made the backdrop for La Légende de Josephe before which three of our poets assembled for A Century Back’s overture.

Quite an assemblage. But one more: we have come across C.R.W. Nevinson before (not to mention H.W., his father), and his woodcut is surely the most affecting and effective combination of Vorticist angles and war time subject matter we have yet seen: Nevinson, On the Way to the Trenches

Oh what a modern war!

But not in Gallipoli; not if you’re Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who wrote to Edward Horner today, a century back:

That flower of sentimentality which buds rather unreadily in me expands childishly on classical soil. It is really delightful to me (I expect it would be to you) to bathe every day, when not in the trenches or standing by, in the Hellespont, looking straight over to Troy, to see the sun set over Samothrace, to be fighting for the command of Aegospotami…

From reveries ancient and learned to recent, and personal:

I am at present disposed to be very optimistic, partly, perhaps, because Charles and Oc have just come back and human relationships thus restarted. Do you remember just before I went to Dunkirk, when you and Julian advised me all one morning how to put on a Sam Browne, and what to pack in 35 lb.? We were young, very merry, and not war-wise (how well I could pack some young lad’s 35 lb. for him now, and how cynically I should explain that he could make it up to 70 lb. with well-timed parcels!).

That was the last time I saw Julian, and the only time for nearly two years. I have lost people who left a fresher gap, such as Rupert, or a more continuous one such as John, but never one who was once such a great friend, or who was tied up in my mind with such a solid and distinct block of Balliol life—indeed, short of you and Charles, it would be impossible.[1]


Two more, quickly.

First, a rather less celebrated publication debuted today, a century back. Isaac Rosenberg has had a great deal of time on his hands, as well as unlimited ambition and severely limited resources. He and his old friend Reuben “Crazy” Cohen had decided to start their own magazine–a monthly, to be published more frequently once the advertising and subscription money started rolling in. The two cobbled together their own works–Rosenberg’s contribution was a lecture on art he had given in South Africa–and printed the eight pages themselves, on a borrowed press.

The venture, nearly needless to say, will be a failure, and Rosenberg will once more feel tightly pinned between the uncertainty of the artist’s life and the potential stability of waged work in the nation’s only growing concern.[2]


Lastly, a letter from Lady Feilding, who gives all of our “sloppy about dates” writers a new mark to aim at:

June 31 Furnes [1 July]

Mother deah–

I am going down to Ypres this morning to see how our cars down there are getting on. I haven’t been in the old place for 3 months & am rather looking forward to a chance of getting down there, of course if I meet Fitzpatrick again I may get heaved out on the way! But I’m full of hope.

It’s before breakfast & I’m terribly sleepy, but remorseful because I didn’t write you yesterday. Night work is very late now… One gets awfully sleepy after a lot of days on end. The troops aren’t relieved until 11 pm & sometimes later now…

Last night up there 2 brancardiers [stretcher bearers] started at 10 pm to fetch a wounded man from the outposts & only got him back at ten am next morning. There is some miles of very exposed communication trench, cut zig zag of course with the result no stretcher can be taken in it & the blessé has to be slung in his blanket & carried by the other men on all fours.

And here’s a new one, an apparent “shell shock” case described in the very best charming/alarming Lady Feilding style:

Yesterday we had an awful time with a tame Zouave lunatic they very kindly gave ‘Mees’ at Nieuport to take away. He was just cheerfully barmy rather like Neb when tight, & was very funny. He had hotly accused his lieutenant of having cut his wife into little bits with his scissors, which just gave his bright pals the clue he might be queer, wonderful how observant these men get you know, so the patient alternately took me for the lieutenant, the wife, the scissors, his best friend, & something most unpleasant & kept trying to climb out at the back when we weren’t looking…

Well I must run now Mrs Ma. Goodbye & God bless you – yr loving



References and Footnotes

  1. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 142-3.
  2. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 120.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 83-4.

A Violent Crossing of Paths at ‘Bomb School;’ Wilfred Owen, A Poet Born, May Yet Return a Gentleman; Lord Crawford on Women in His Place; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Forgets He’s a Soldier, For a Day; Tolkien Passes Yet Another Exam

I almost missed this one!

Working a few days ahead, I came across a familiar name in a footnote to one of Lady Feilding‘s letters. And just in the nick of time, for you, dear reader.

The name–E.W. Hermon–was familiar because, while drafting this very post, I had passed over a note to include him in the project on the occasion of a bombing lesson gone awry. Perhaps I was right to think that “there’s enough to discuss today, so let’s leave off introducing a new ‘character,’ even if there’s an Event of Accumulating Interest.” So I moved on…

But how can I pass up the chance to note the centennial of another hand grenade accident in which one writer injures another writer’s brother? This is broad spectrum micro-history at its finest, no?

E.W. Hermon had been a regular officer in the cavalry until his retirement several years before the war. He had apparently enjoyed life in the army, but did not want to go abroad with his regiment for many years and be separated from his young family. As a compromise he had joined King Edward’s Horse, a once-rather-irregular unit of “colonial” (i.e. white Englishmen with colonial associations) cavalry that had become first a unit of the Yeomanry (i.e. the cavalry of the Territorial Army), until it was absorbed into the Special Reserve in 1913. Incidentally, Hermon commanded the Oxford and Cambridge squadrons of King Edward’s Horse–mounted versions of OTC units–during the  Regiment’s Territorial phase… which means that he was young Tolkien’s commanding officer during his first stint of semi-military service in his first year at Oxford.

Thirty-six at the outbreak of war, married and the father of four, Hermon was one of those mobilized during their annual summer training camps. He spent several frenetic months training with his “part-time” unit before eventually being deployed this spring as a major in command of an independent troop of cavalry–to serve, as all other cavalry were at this point, in the reserve. The Hermons were sufficiently wealthy (Eton, Christ Church; socializing with Grenfells and Feildings of our acquaintance) that Edward brought several of his own horses to war with him, to say nothing of both a manservant, Gordon Buxton, and a groom, Harry Parsons, who enlisted in order to continue to serve their master.

Like many devoted husbands, Hermon promised to write regularly to his wife Ethel. Unlike many others, he did–almost 600 times–and the letters were carefully saved, the bundles unwrapped by his grand-daughter in 1991, and published in 2007. So we will be hearing from Major Hermon from time to time now.

On June 18th he was appointed commander of the 47th Division’s Bomb School, in Hesdigneul. And would you like an anecdotal reminder of the state of the art of grenade warfare at the time? Well: his first letter after the appointment asked for two lacrosse sticks to be sent out–to aid in removing unwanted live grenades from trenches…

30th June 1915

I am sorry to say I has a nasty accident at my bomb school today. I had just started my first lecture with the officers & I always have some perfectly harmless dummy bombs made up fro demonstrations. Somehow one bomb made up with a detonator had been put in my demonstration box with the result when showing the class how it was lit it exploded in my hand. Part of it flew into a box of detonators, 20 of them, & exploded the lot…

The efficient Mills Bomb (which looks like one would expect a hand grenade to look–pin and lever, etc.) is still not being produced in sufficient quantities–hence these ancient bombs which must be lit by hand. The silver lining, in this case, is that they are also ineffectual.

I had a marvellous escape, & why I wasn’t blinded I don’t know. When I lit the bomb it was in my hand & not 12 inches in front of my face…

Hermon escaped with just a few superficial cuts–“the blow to my pride is far worse than the trifling skin rub”–but the young officer on his left, attached to K.E.H. from the Coldstream Guards, “got it a good deal worse.”

This, as it happens, was Dorothie Feilding‘s younger brother Henry.

Two other officers were injured, one in the eye, and Feilding was cut in the face and the wrist, and sent to hospital. His watch, however, seemed to have stopped the largest fragment, shielding his wrist from serious damage. Thus:

I want you to buy me a really good silver wristwatch, which must have luminous hands or figures, as I want to give it to Henry. Have his initials put on it. H.S.F. from E.W.H. June 1915 & I will pay up to £5 for it…

I am off bombing again in the morning…

Paths crossed. Frightening tally of grenade accidents augmented. And now we know the price of a “sorry, old chap, that my error almost blinded you” replacement watch.[1]


Young Wilfred Owen is swaggering verbosely toward a certain decision:

Wednesday, 30 June 1915, Bordeaux

My dearest Mother,

Your letters are very dear to me; but these are days when my side of correspondence languisheth like a leaf in fiery June. I cannot exaggerate the painful feelings I experienced in the first day of my change of air; but at the same time I repeat I have nothing to grumble about here, and am therefore of an untumultuous spirit; whatever I may have of England to regret. But as the School Term seems to start about Sept. 21st, there
is really a mere wisp of time to be consumed before the Return to England…

Ah, the capitalized “Return.” So it has dawned on Owen what this will most likely mean. The forefront of his mind is generally occupied by his aspirations toward poetry–and, indeed, in just a moment he will broach the subject of the war via more thoughts about poetic destiny. But he is writing to his mother, now, and their joint project–since even before his birth–has been the restoration of their (i.e. her) family to a state of gentility. It cannot be for a moment lost to either of them that a very large percentage of the young “gentlemen” have gone for officers and that the swift expansion of the army has created a fortuitous path to the recognition of one’s gentlemanly status.

Wilfred works around to it:

Another thing: was it not Belloc’s great forefinger which pointed out to me this passage of De Vigny: If any man despairs of becoming a Poet, let him carry his pack and march in the ranks.

Now I don’t despair of becoming a Poet: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ so to speak…

In other words, there may be poetry in war, and war may be the making of a poet. But I, you see, mother, I am a poet by nature and birthright. The war has other applications:

Will you set about finding the address of the ‘Artists’ Rifles’, as this is the Corps which offers commissions to ‘gentlemen returning from abroad…’

Yours ever and ever—Wilfred[2]


Private Lord Crawford gets into one of his favorite subjects, today: women! Can’t live with ’em, might seem to be in need of their help, so that more wounded men don’t die without ’em… be that as it may, they are distinctly troublesome creatures…

By why settle for misogynist paraphrase?

Wednesday, 30 June 1915

At No. 2 hospital most of the day. The colonel, a man of energy and decision, means to make the officers’ section a marked success. Let us hope he may–there is some scepticism as to whether our personnel will be adequate.

Two nurses arrived to the horror of the unit which intensely dislikes the nurses at this stage of the firing line. Further back and when the wounded men are convalescent and anxious to gossip, the help of nurses is invaluable–but at the earliest stage after being wounded, the patient doesn’t want to have to be on good behaviour. Orderlies and men alike dislike nurses and from all accounts with good cause.

The latter-day editor of Crawford’s letters, Christopher Arnander, breaks in at this point to note that “the feeling may have been mutual–Nurse Jentie Paterson of No. 5 CCS commented in a letter home that ‘orderlies to my mind are all very well, but they can never take the place of women nurses… they lack education, perception, and conscience… being of a different social status… ideas of cleanliness differ…”[3]

This is hardly the point, and it is doubly strange to quote a particularly snobbish bit from a nurse when Lord Crawford is by leaps and bounds the most socially elevated orderly in France. Nasty nurses hardly undo Crawford’s knee-jerk woman-hating, and I would urge the reader to continue to read Crawford’s diary alongside Lady Feilding–and indeed, now Vera Brittain–and to judge for herself whether there is any reason to praise or condemn either gender-category of amateur medical volunteers.

Prejudice: fine, alright, we expected that. But it is passing silly to assess the way in which the medical services have been drastically expanded by passing along “all accounts” fantasies of gossiping prima donna nurses or dirt-caked village idiot orderlies.


So let’s clear the palate with Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who wrote a delectable classicist/orientalist revery to his sister, today, a century back.

Imbros was delicious. It is a prettier island than Lemnos, and with nicer villages, Panagia and Kastro. And the simple joy of being out of shellfire after two months of it was considerable. To live in a tent (they are too conspicuous to be allowed here) instead of a dug-out was also jolly, and as I was temporarily commanding a company I had one to myself. I went over as often as I could from our camp at Kephalos on the east to Panagia over the central ridge and Kastro on the west, where there was delicious coffee and beer and eggs and mullets and marvellous mulberries that dropped into your mouth and covered you all over with blood-red stains that turned blue-black, and you could forget for a day that you were a damned soldier, and talk as best as you could to the amiable Greeks. One of them said to me, “Turkoi skotountai polu?” which I boldly guessed to mean “ Are the Turks being much whacked? ” and I said, “ Yes, rather,” and, in case there should be any doubt, added that we had killed 50,000 and taken 5000 prisoners—so it’s not my fault if Imbros doesn’t come in…

But most of the time we had to parade and drill—you see, you can never parade here or speak to more than six men at a time, for fear of shells, which is bad for their souls—and that was tiring. I’m now second in command of “D” Company (mostly stokers, though not my old ones), having been relieved in command by Ock, who is three days senior to me! Fortunately I have not violent military ambitions and am delighted to have him back, also Charles;[4] they both came the same day.’[5]

Shaw-Stewart can almost make Gallipoli sound like a stop on the Grand Tour, when the mood is upon him.


As the brunt of the war begins to be shouldered by the men of the new armies, Donald Hankey‘s 7th/Rifle Brigade now took their first turn in trenches on one of the line’s most active sectors. We’ve been here before: just yesterday Hankey’s battalion entered the front line between Hooge crater and Bellewaarde Farm, site of the recent one day battle. Today his company suffered its first deaths, as two men were killed, apparently by the German artillery which regularly probed the forward trenches. Tomorrow more shells will be coming over, and by Friday Hankey will take up his pen…[6]

And, in a last glimpse of Oxford, we note that John Ronald Tolkien was passed fit today, a century back, removing the last potential obstacle to army service.


References and Footnotes

  1. Nason, ed., For Love and Courage, xi-xii, 44, 57-8; the watch is currently in the possession of a ten-year-old Feilding descendent...
  2. Collected Letters, 342-3.
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 17.
  4. These would be Arthur "Oc" Asquith and Charles Lister, original "argonauts" and companions of Rupert Brooke.
  5. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 140-1.
  6. Kissane, Without Parade, 143.

Another Argonaut is Killed; Henry Farnsworth Rhapsodizes the Legion; Donald Hankey Gets a Whiff of No Man’s Land

Today, a century back, might as well mark the end of the Argonauts, that self-nicknamed band of variously talented and high-spirited temporary naval officers serving together in the Hood Batallion of the Royal Naval Division. Charles Lister and Oc Asquith had already been wounded in the fighting at Gallipoli, and Rupert Brooke had died en route. Only Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who had recently been promoted to brigade staff, was unscathed, and he had a safe vantage point this morning when the Hood Battalion was selected to lead a local attack, storming a Turkish trench.

The charge was successful and the Hoods took the trench–“with the bayonet” as the popular and almost always misleading phrase[1] has it. But there was another trench behind it, of course, and–since the defenders had the advantage of the high ground–the Turkish troops holding it could fire and throw grenades down upon the British sailors.

Charles Lister, soon to rejoin the battalion, heard the grim reports of wounded survivors as they met in hospital:

The Hood Battalion was finished on June 4th… we lost heavily, and did not get supports enough to go on. Out of nine officers who went with the charge, six were killed and three wounded.[2]

One of those six was Denis Browne, the young musician and composer who had been a close friend of Rupert Brooke’s since their school days at Rugby. He was hit several times while in the exposed trench, and mortally wounded.

I want to make something of Browne’s death here in part because he is another good example of a promising artist whose connections–Eddie Marsh, of course, and his direct line to Churchill’s Naval Division–got him swiftly into death’s embrace. And also because he is someone so overshadowed by the more famous dead that it is really only Marsh who remembers Browne, and then literally as a footnote to his hagiographic memoir of Brooke:

I may here briefly commemorate William Denis Browne, whose death at 26 left no monument of his powers, except a few songs of great beauty. He was a musician of rare promise and complete equipment; and I have high authority for saying that his grasp of the foundations and tendencies of modern music was unique. I cannot here describe the singular charm of his character and personality. Enough that he never failed in honour, or in kindness, or in good sense, or in humour; and there were many who loved him.

He was a friend of Rupert’s at Rugby, at Cambridge, and in London; last, his brother-in-arms; and he cared for him, as will be told, in his mortal illness. Six weeks afterwards, on the 4th of June, he followed him, fighting with high gallantry in the attack on the Turkish trenches before Krithia.[3]

And yet there is a bit of a mystery about Browne’s death, and one which will probably never be quite solved.[4]

The first bit of the mystery concerns the date of his death–but of this I’m fairly satisfied. Many sources have listed the 7th, but it is certain that he was hit today, and–as his body has no known grave–unlikely that he ever made it back to the British lines after the trench was lost. So he must have died today, a century back, in that briefly captured trench, but the paperwork listing him as missing was, in the confusion of Gallipoli, incorrectly dated three days later.

The second mystery concerns the manner of his death. Several secondary sources have a suspiciously unsourced and melodramatic account of Browne, badly wounded, pressing his wallet (“pocket-book”) on a petty officer and uttering a version of the classic “I’m done for–save yourselves!” order. Something like this happened, because his effects did make it back. Eddie Marsh received a letter, perhaps written just before the attack, that hewed to another melodramatic-but-true convention:

My dear,

I’ve gone now too; not too badly I hope. I’m luckier than Rupert, because I’ve fought. But there’s no one to bury me as I buried him, so perhaps he’s best off in the long run…

Good-bye, my dear, & bless you always for your goodness to me.


I’ve used the word literally literally in this post, so I might as well use the word tragically almost literally. This is very sad… it’s tragic, really. How could Browne be so right about the manner of his death and burial? He fought, but he has been more or less forgotten, and there was no one to bury him, except perhaps a fatigue party of the enemy, interring him in the trench where he lay or tossing his body into a nearby mass grave. But the note anticipates something else, too–the hero’s hopes for his last battle. Or, perhaps, his fears.

Did he in fact go “not too badly?”

There is a strange ellipsis in the published letters of Patrick Shaw-Stewart. The first ellipsis is mine, below, but the the second is either his or his editor’s:

…having taken a Turkish trench we had to abandon it again, our right being exposed and the line enfiladed, and as you will see the losses were very heavy. Denis Browne was killed…[6]

And then there is this abrupt statement in a letter from Charles Lister:

I heard a bad account of Denis Browne.[7]

It doesn’t seem likely that “bad” means “sad,” here… One elision does not a conspiracy of silence make. But two?


Meanwhile, in France, Henry Farnsworth wrote to his mother.

June 4, 1915

Dear Mamma:

This afternoon we go up to the trenches; hence, peace and time to write in the morning. It is a dull, gray, hot morning, and I am sitting on a big pile of freshly cut clover that smells of pastoral ease. Your so-called hero is for the moment “very calm.” In the distance we can hear the clarions practising a march tune, but not even the distant thunder of big guns speaks of war…

It does not seem as though there were any way of ending this rabbit-warren war. Nevertheless, I have an inward conviction that it will end in September or October. It does not seem credible that humanity will go through another winter campaign…

It seems likely that Mrs. Farnsworth had heard of other Americans transferring out of the rough-and-tumble Foreign Legion–Henry mentions one such, but then provides a defense of remaining as he is:

There are obvious drawbacks to being a soldier of second class, but I was always a runner after the picturesque, and in good weather am not one who troubles much where I sleep, or when, and the picturesque is ever with us. It so happened that the Captain was pleased with our bringing the papers to the Germans and gave the seven of us  20 francs to prepare a little fete. What an unforgettable supper!

I was going to cut the following lyrical run-down of the characters of his platoon as irrelevant to our Anglophile mission here… but… it’s pretty good stuff:

There was the Sergeant, Zampanedes, a freak of classic type, who won his spurs at Zanina and his stripes in the Bulgarian campaign. Since, he has been a medical student in Paris; that to please his family, for his heart runs in different channels, and he studies music and draws in his spare time. (From the amount he knows, I should judge that “spare” time predominated.) We first fell into sympathy over the Acropolis, and cemented a true friendship over Turkish war songs and Byzantine chants, which he sings with a mournful romanticism that I never heard before. Then there was Nicolet, the Company Clarion, serving his twelfth year in the Legion, an incredible little Swiss, tougher than the drums of the fore and aft, and wise as Nestor in the futile ruses of the regiment. The Corporal, Mortens, a legionary wounded during the winter and cited for bravery in the order of the army. He was a commercial traveller in his native grand duchy of Luxemburg, but decided some five years ago to leave his debts and troubles behind him and become a Petit Zephyr de la Legion Etrangere. Sudic, a butcher from the same grand duchy, a man of iron physically and morally, and mentally unimportant. Covalieros, a Greek of Smyrna, who might have spread his silks and laces at the feet of a feudal princess and charmed her with his shining eyes and wild gestures into buying beyond her means. He also has been cited for reckless gallantry. Sukuna and myself brought up the list…

Some of us drank as deep as Socrates, and we ate a mammoth salad under the stars. Nicolet and Mortens talked of the battalion in the Sahara, and Zampanedes sang his Eastern songs, and even Sukuna was moved to Tongan chants. Like iEneas on Polyphemus’ isle, I feel that some years hence, well out of tune with all my surroundings, I shall be longing for the long warm summer days in northern France, when we slept like birds under the stars, among congenial friends, when no man ever thought of the morrow, and you changed horizons with each new conversation…

With love to the Da,

Your son, Henry[8]


And finally, today, a letter from Donald Hankey to “Mrs. L,” the wife of a farming couple with whom he had stayed in Australia. It contains an odd combination of bluff black humor and diffident religious faith:

At present, sitting in a trench with the bullets pattering round, and the possibilities of mines and bombs and things, one feels that it is rather rash to talk about “after the war,” and one has an odd feeling that, after all, one only has a sort of reversionary interest in one’s own life! However, it doesn’t worry me much. If there is another life, it is under the same management as this, and if there is not well, there are worse things than oblivion. Though I do believe there is a future life. I remember “father” saying in one of his letters that he would rather “rot in a trench than rust in a furrow”; but that was a very selfish sentiment, for to rot in the neighbourhood of a trench, as so many poor chaps are doing, makes it very smelly for the rest![9]


References and Footnotes

  1. Well--"with the bayonet" in the sense that they had bayonets affixed to their rifles. But bayonet wounds were seldom sustained, and really never could be considered the decisive weapon in an attack. Morale/human psychology does not very often permit a mass duel with hand-to-hand weapons, especially once a highly-motivated charge has overcome the more significant obstacle of defensive gunfire. If the attackers get close--close enough to throw their grenades--then the defenders will probably either lose their nerve or make a tactical retreat (and how clearly can the difference be perceived?), fleeing around traverses or down communication trenches. It looks like a bayonet victory, it feels like a bayonet victory--but few if any defenders are actually stabbed to death with bayonets. Reading between the lines of such descriptions at least partially confirms this general truth, while our growing knowledge of the way in which reports of intense experiences like combat are misremembered and misreported will, I hope, help to convince readers accustomed to hearing about all of these deadly, but scantily detailed, charges...
  2. Charles Lister, Letters and Recollections, 191-5.
  3. Marsh, Rupert Brooke, A Memoir, 147-8.
  4. Unless it has been puzzled out by any number of researchers on Gallipoli, virtually none of whose work I have read--I would be very happy to have my hubris corrected here.
  5. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 688.
  6. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 137.
  7. Charles Lister, Letters and Recollections, 193.
  8. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 156-60.
  9. Letters of Donald Hankey, 293.

Francis and Julian Grenfell Move Up to the Front Lines at Ypres; Robert Graves Leaves for France; We Meet Private Lord Crawford; Vera Brittain Dreams of Roland Leighton and Rupert Brooke

It was a tense morning, a century back. The British First Army has temporarily suspended its assaults on Aubers Ridge as it recovers and reinforces. But in the support lines around Ypres, Julian Grenfell, more or less ignorant of the true state of affairs even a few thousand feet further east, wonders if he will soon get to fight again. The Germans have not broken through, but the signs are not good:

Wednesday 12th. Wandering infantry. Say that front trenches shelled v. badly. Hardly any of our guns fire up here.[1]

A letter was winging toward him today from his mother, however, with the news that, despite “unspeakable difficulty” she and Lord Desborough have gotten permission to visit their daughter Monica (Casie) in Wimereux (near Boulogne), where she is serving as a nurse. Lady Desborough also told Julian about her efforts to get “Into Battle” published and passed along news of several friends. Lord Desborough had just dined with Lord Kitchener and Lady Desborough with the Prime Minister, and with contacts like these one learns things ahead of the newspapers: Julian’s good friend Charles Lister, and the Prime Minister’s son, “Oc” Asquith, have both been wounded at Gallipoli. She hopes, of course, that Julian can manage a day’s leave while they are in France…


But things can change quickly. We have three forward (or war-ward) movements, today. Two of our more curious characters are finally leaving England, and we will get to them below. But Julian Grenfell, as a matter of fact, is also getting closer to the action. The orders must have come after he wrote today’s entry, but his Royal Dragoons, part of the 3rd Cavalry Division, were sent into the line today (or tonight–the move, below, is described as being completed only “late on the evening of the 12th”). Somewhere nearby was his cousin Francis, whose 9th Lancers were in the 1st Cavalry Division:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d9/MountSorrel1916.jpg/300px-MountSorrel1916.jpgOn 3rd May the British line had been shortened, and on the 12th it was possible to relieve the 28th Division, which had been fighting continuously for twenty days. Its place was taken by a cavalry detachment–the 1st and 3rd Cavalry Divisions under De Lisle. Their front ran from the Frezenberg ridge southward across the Roulers railway to the Bellewaarde Lake north of Hooge.

Francis, who had been uneasy waiting behind the line, welcomed the change. “Here we are,”
he had written,” sitting peacefully behind like
the next man to go in to a fast bowler. You don’t
want to go in, and yet you would like to be knocking about the bowling.” His brigade took up position in the front line late on the evening of the 12th. The trenches had been much damaged, and it was necessary to reconstruct the parapets and traverses.[2]

So the “iron ration,” the trusted reserves of pre-war professional cavalrymen, have been thrown into the line. If Ypres is to survive, they must hold it. And if Britain is to persevere, there must be a long chain of ready reserves stretching back from the support lines now vacated by the two cavalry divisions all the way to the depots of England.



Robert Graves in 1915; given that he is wearing a sword, this photo probably dates from before his first trip to the front…

And so the Telemachiad of Young Robert Graves is almost at an end. He had been able to enter the Royal Welch Fusiliers in August, obtaining a Regular commission through the “militia back door.” And then his progress stalled. He was an impossible young officer: gangly, uncouth, oblivious to the fact that conformity in dress and manners was an absolute requirement of the peacetime Regular army–and all of the officers running the show at the Fusilier depot in Wrexham, Wales, were old Regulars, including the all-important adjutant, “Tibs” Crawshay. Graves had a bad tailor, and he had volunteered to remain on duty so that other officers could attend the Grand National. Not a sportsman. They were snobs, of course, but in general they were acting with a reasonable amount of rationality: this officer didn’t fit in, and seemed to make no effort to do so. He was bright and unconventional, but subalterns were required to be brave, deferential, and obedient. He didn’t seem to be the latter two things, and it seemed a bad bet to assume that this overgrown Public School poet would turn out to be be courageous under fire.

Until Graves, who had boxed in school in order to assert himself and put an end to bullying, stepped into the ring in an exhibition with a Royal Welch sergeant who was also a professional welter-weight.

Pretending to know nothing of boxing, I led off with my right and moved clumsily. Basham saw a chance of getting another laugh; he dropped his guard and danced about with a you-can’t-hit-me-challenge. I caught him off his balance, and knocked him across the ring. He recovered and went for me, but I managed to keep on my feet. When I laughed at him, he laughed too. We had three very brisk rounds, and he very decently made me seem a much better boxer than I was, by accommodating his pace to mine. As soon as Crawshay heard the story, he rang me up at my billet and told me that he had learned with pleasure of my performance; that for an officer to box like that was a great encouragement for the men; that he was mistaken about my sportsmanship; and that, to show his appreciation, he would put me down for a draft to France in a week’s time.[3]

Boxing: for Julian Grenfell the next best thing to combat; for Robert Graves, his ticket to the combat zone. The boxing exhibition was a week ago, a century back, and Graves continued to spar with Basham, who last night went on to win a coveted belt. This morning a telegram arrived at the Graves residence in Wimbledon:

Starting France today Don’t worry Best love, Robbie[4]



Lord Crawford, Earl, former-MP, and RAMC private

And a new figure here; too odd to do much with yet, too wonderful to omit. Lord Crawford–David Alexander Edward Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford & Balcarres–was “the premier earl of Scotland,” a forty-three-year old businessman with eighteen years as a conservative MP (before his father’s death had inopportunely kicked him upstairs, in 1913, to the newly obsolescent House of Lords), seven children, and a pregnant wife. So he hadn’t thought, in the summer of 1914, that he was likely to get either a useful political job or a new army commission. (This may have been a miscalculation–plenty of overage eccentrics made it to France as officers, whether by playing dress-up like Aubrey Herbert, dying their hair like C.E. Montague, or begging, borrowing, string-pulling, and eye-exam fudging like hundreds of others.)

So Lord Crawford played the part of Lord Crawford–harrying the Lords, going to recruitment meetings (where his willingness to describe the horrors of war was not welcomed) all until the battle of Neuve Chapelle. Devastated by the British failure, he considered suicide and decided instead (in early April) to enlist as a private in the RAMC–the medical corps. He saw this as an unquestionably noble calling–he followed, in fact, four of his gardeners into the RAMC–and seems not to have been troubled by the general expectation that lords should be officers. Today, a century back, Private Lord Crawford

set sail for France with his unit, CCS number 12. He then resumed his life-long practice of keeping a diary which he had abandoned because of depression induced by the disastrous Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March.

Wednesday, 12 May 1915

Left Aldershot at 8am after two hours packing hospital stores. Noted as singular that our officers never visited or inspected us during this heavy work. Difficulty of combining military and medical duties exemplified in deplorable
waste of men’s time at Aldershot. After school of instruction is finished, men on draft attend incessant parades, at which they have stood at ease over two hours a day, for three days in succession–it should be practical continuation of stretcher drill and bandaging.[5]


And finally, today, Oxford and war gently blend together. Vera Brittain and her friend Marjorie have the “immense privilege” of being invited into their tutor Miss Darbishire’s rooms after dinner, to talk of Blake and Milton.

Then she read us, at my request, five sonnets by Rupert Brooke, the most promising poet of the younger generation, who enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out & died at Lemnos a week or two ago–to the great loss & mourning of all modern writers & literature. The sonnets are all sad & moving, in spite of their spirit of courage & hope, & through them all ran a strangely prophetic note, a premonition of early death.

I should not have asked her to read them if I had known, they were so sad that I could scarcely keep back tears from my eyes. I believe she noticed something was up, too. She gave me the impression all the time that she wanted to speak seriously & couldn’t come to the point. After the sonnets she showed us her facsimiles of Milton’s manuscripts. When we retired to bed–I sorrowful & heavy-laden with the thoughts of Roland & Rupert Brooke’s sonnets mingled in my mind.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 296. 
  2. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 229.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 73-4.
  4. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, 122.
  5. Private Lord Crawford's Great War Diaries, 1-3.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 195.