Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]


Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]


True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?


I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!


References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

Wilfrid Ewart in Bourlon Wood: What They Asked Us to Do Was Impossible; Doctor Rivers in Another Doctor’s Hell

The Battle of Cambrai has seen an unprecedented advance, a failure to break through, and stiff German resistance in another torn and terrible wood. The Guards have been called in, now–on both sides.

Although Cambrai is one of the few battles not to feature in his novel Way of Revelation, it provided the most harrowing moments of Wilfrid Ewart‘s war experience. At first light, three companies of the First Scots Guards were ordered to clear Bourlon Wood.

This of course was sheer open fighting, and quite different than anything we had done before except on field days.

But it didn’t last long. Machine guns pinned down one flank of the assault, and after several hours of stationary fighting it became clear that the British were outnumbered, and the attackers withdrew.

Then orders came up that they must try again, at two o’clock.

This was at 1.15, so there was not much time to arrange it, and I had the wind up as never before, feeling certain that it was impossible to take the place owing to the machine-guns which were supposed to be rushed with the bayonet…

It is now, I think, that the poor planning of the Cambrai offensive–the first few hours markedly improved in conception and execution, the rest abandoned to foolish hopes–becomes most clear.

There was a short and quite useless machine-gun barrage, no artillery. Just after we had gone over, Tyringham tried to stop us, as the Command realized the hopelessness of it, but it was then too late.

One company was “laid out together trying to rush the machine-guns.” The two guns then turn on Ewart and two men, out in front of his platoon, only fifteen yards away. They throw themselves down behind “a young oak-tree.”

The machine-gun fired absolutely point blank, but could not quite reach us on account of the tree… two Lewis Gunners… kept firing for all they were worth…working their guns in the open until they were killed. Every man was killed one after the other…

By this Ewart probably means every man among the Lewis gunners and their support teams. He is pinned down between the Germans and his men, watching the one kill the other, helpless. Some of his platoon are able to withdraw, it seems, but the Germans now begin throwing phosphorous grenades among the wounded, “which set light to them and burnt them up.”

Ewart and the two men are soon alone, and make a desperate retreat, crawling for the rear. One makes it, then the next is hit heavily (he will die of his wound). Ewart goes last.

I waited about five minutes and then did a lightning sprint on my stomach, and by all natural laws ought to have been hit–the bullets were knocking stones up into my face… It was an experience I shall never wish to repeat… what they asked us to do was impossible.[1]

The First Scots Guards were relieved that night, and due for a longer rest; but their Battle of Cambrai was not yet over.


So goes the latest of the war’s bloody battles. But what of those who have survived the earlier battles, their bodies undestroyed and yet not intact?

A good deal of the literature of the war has focused on the question of psychological trauma–“shell-shock”–and how it was diagnosed, treated, experienced, remembered, and written. We have, first and foremost, the poetry of the surviving soldiers who struggled with “shell shock” or post-combat “neurasthenia.” These are the most primary of sources, of course, but “shell shock”–with its dramatic traumas, unstable psyches, and uncertain social reception–calls out for third party treatment, as it were. The novel remains one of the best tools we have for exploring the human mind, and especially for depicting the attempt of one mind to reach another, over particularly terrible gulfs of experience. One series of such attempts, mediated through the mind of Dr. Rivers, becomes the central subject of Pat Barker’s incomparable Regeneration trilogy.

Readers of this project may remember that Dr. Rivers–pioneering neurologist, skilled and sensitive therapist, and father-figure-hero to Siegfried Sassoon–is currently on leave in London after a staff dust-up at Craiglockhart, and working on an academic paper about his work with “war neuroses.” Today, a century back (in the novel, at least), he takes the cruelest sort of busman’s holiday, going to the National Hospital to observe the methods of of Dr. Lewis Yealland, who has boasted of a 100% cure rate for cases of hysterical war neurosis. Readers of Regeneration will certainly remember this scene–it’s awful. Yealland is the villain of the piece, but as far as I can tell it (not far at all! caveat!) Barker represents his methods more or less accurately. Yealland takes patients who have been shocked/traumatized into mutism or who exhibit physical contortions that cannot be explained by physical injuries and he shocks them–literally–back into health.

Yealland believes, as most men once did, that such symptoms are merely the result of a failure of nerve–of a sort of hysterical cowardice rather than damage that has been done to honorable and healthy human beings. So, armored with contempt–Barker portrays him as so thorough a bully that he has no idea he is, in fact, torturing war victims–Yealland uses physical pain and pressure, including electrical shocks and even cigarette burns to force men to speak or unbend their twisted limbs.

It works: they walk again, and speak; they even go back to war.

Enough summary–if this sounds bearable, then read the book. You will come to see the scene–once its horrors are half-forgotten–as a clever piece of fiction, and a major step toward what becomes the most important theme of the trilogy. Not Sassoon’s growth or the renunciation of his protest, but Rivers’ journey from mere saint to fellow martyr: he becomes a witness to the harrowing of the lost generation, one of the few older men in Britain who, through their proximity to the minds of traumatized men, sufferer the war themselves.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Scots Guard, 148-9.
  2. See Regeneration, 223-35.

Dr. Dunn, Frank Richards, and Edmund Blunden at Third Ypres: Six Men Dead by a Chance Shell, Six by Deliberate Bombs, One by a Bullet; Trauma, Murder, and Angels in the Rocket-Lit Sunset

As yesterday became today, a century back, most of the remaining 2/Royal Welch were grabbing a few hours of sleep in their makeshift line of shell-holes and captured German pillboxes. Dr. Dunn’s day will hardly be any less eventful, although some relief is given to him and to Captain Radford when one Major Kearsey arrived from the Battalion reserve to take command. Within a few hours of dawn they were back into piecemeal combat, advancing into new holes left by more recently retreated Germans. But British “bite and hold” tactics must still contend with the German “defense in depth,” and the fighting is much more reminiscent of the platoon-driven tactics of the next war than of the “lines” of infantry attacking “lines” of trenches which were the common conceptual coinage of even last year’s battles. To advance means to find and eliminate those strong points that held out yesterday, and soon the Royal Welch, pushing out from Jerk Farm, take a number of prisoners in a now-isolated pillbox.

We will hear more about these men in a moment, but Dr. Dunn’s narrative proceeds quickly toward the late afternoon. If yesterday’s narrative involved an admirable suppression of his own very active role in commanding the battalion, today concludes with an admirable confession of what the day’s combat did to him.

In a lull not long after 5, a delusive lull, I went out to look for Mann’s body. Some Australians told me where about it was, and added that “one of our fellows is taking care of his ring…” Radford seemed to be amused at the game of I-Spy among the shell-holes that followed. Doubtless the snipers much enjoyed it, and perhaps a German artillery observer; I didn’t, much, until it was over. It was the longest quarter-hour of my life. Beginning near 6 o’clock there was half an hour’s sustained shelling of H.Q., so accurate, so concentrated, that my confidence in a new shell-hole as the safest shelter was shaken. I came to date a failure of nerve from impressions taken then.

In other words–slightly less old-fashioned words–Dunn chose to become a combatant (in violation of the laws of war) and help save his battalion from what otherwise may have been a collective failure. And in doing so, he pushed himself to the point of exhaustion and was exposed to so much trauma–“shell-shocked” by the physical facts of shelling but also psychologically affected by the experience–that he will suffer a stress reaction in the near future.


Frank Richards‘s account of today, a century back, is more detailed, and no less focused on the danger that the doctor–and he himself–faced.

Major Kearsley, the Doctor and I went out reconnoitring. We were jumping in and out of shell holes when a machine-gun opened out from somewhere in front, the bullets knocking up the dust around the shell holes we had just jumped into. They both agreed that the machine-gun had been fired from the pillbox about a hundred yards in front of us. We did some wonderful humping and hopping, making our way back to the bank. The enemy’s artillery had also opened out…

Richards also tells the tale–with obvious relish–of a timorous platoon officer (unfortunately paired with a “windy” sergeant) who has to be forced forward to take a German position. When this officer–“The Athlete”–balks in confusion and sends back for orders, Richards is sent to carry verbal instructions–an awkward task, to send a trusted, more experienced private to give orders to a young and hesitant second-lieutenant. Richards delivers the message, and then, returning from the newly-captured pillbox to the H.Q. unit, he becomes a near witness to a war crime:

The enemy were now shelling very heavily and occasionally the track was being sprayed by machine-gun bullets. I met a man of one of our companies with six German prisoners whom he told me he had to take back to a place called Clapham Junction, where he would hand them over. He then had to return and rejoin his company. The shelling was worse behind us than where we were…

I had known this man about eighteen months and he said, “Look here, Dick. About an hour ago I lost the best pal I ever had, and he was worth all these six Jerries put together. I’m not going to take them far before I put them out of mess.” Just after they passed me I saw the six dive in one large shell hole and he had a job to drive them out…

Some little time later I saw him coming back and I know it was impossible for him to have reached Clapham Junction and returned in the time… As he passed me again he said: “I done them in as I said, about two hundred yards back. Two bombs did the trick.” He had not walked twenty yards beyond me when he fell himself: a shell-splinter had gone clean through him. I had often heard some of our chaps say that they had done their prisoners in whilst taking them back, but this was the only case I could vouch for, and no doubt the loss of his pal had upset him very much.

This brutal tale is tied up too neatly. Unless, of course, that is exactly how it happened.


The day’s traumas are far from over. Richards has had a very lucky war so far: not a scratch on him and, as he is usually just behind the attack with the signallers, very little in the way of immediate deadly violence to perform. When he is hit today, it is only a spent piece of shrapnel that hammers him on a thickly-padded part of his leg, and he escapes with a painful bruise and a temporary limp. Which means that he can continue carrying messages over a most uncertain battlefield.

During the afternoon the Major handed me a message to take to A Company, which consisted of the survivors of two companies now merged into one under the command of a young platoon officer… The ground over which I had to travel had been occupied by the enemy a little while before and the Company were behind a little bank which was being heavily shelled. I slung my rifle, and after I had proceeded some way I pulled my revolver out for safety. Shells were falling here and there and I was jumping in and out of shell holes. When I was about fifty yards from the Company, in getting out of a large shell hole I saw a German pop up from another shell hole in front of me and rest his rifle on the lip of the shell hole. He was about to fire at our chaps in front who had passed him by without noticing him. He could never have heard me amidst all the din around: I expect it was some instinct made him turn around with the rifle at his shoulder. I fired first and as the rifle fell out of his hands. I fired again. I made sure he was dead before I left him…

This little affair was nothing out of the ordinary in a runner’s work when in attacks.

Returning after giving the message, Richards found Kearsey still in command and Dunn “temporarily back in the R.A.M.C.” After carrying another message to the hesitant “Athlete,” Richards is going forward once again alongside Kearsey when they are caught by a German machine gun, and the major is shot through the leg. Richards dresses the wound and helps Kearsey back to where Dunn and Radford and the H.Q. section were stationed.

The Major said that the Battalion would be relieved at dusk and he would try to stick it until then; but the Doctor warned him, if he did, that it might be the cause of him losing his leg.

He then handed over the command to Captain Radford, who said that he would much prefer the Doctor taking command, as he seemed to have a better grip of the situation than what he had. But the Major said he could not do that as the Doctor was a non-combatant, but that they could make any arrangements they liked when he had left…

Richards accompanies the Major back toward the CCS, and so misses what, precisely, those arrangements were…

Even though the battalion has acquitted itself well–it will shortly be withdrawn, with congratulations heaped upon its few remaining officers–both accounts are framed by implied criticisms of the British staff at brigade and division level (and higher).

Earlier in the day, Richards glimpsed an Australian brigadier in a shell hole, having come forward to see for himself what is happening to the men under his command.

It was the only time during the whole of the War that I saw a brigadier with the first line of attacking troops…[1]

Dunn praises the Australians as well, and in a precise parallel of Richards’ observation, he sees a medical officer from the divisional staff treating the wounded in the front line, and also notes that it was the only time he saw such an august medical personage actually treating the wounded under fire.[2]


The Royal Welch will soon be out of it, as will the 11th Royal Sussex. But they have been in the thick of it, too, only a mile or so due south (just on the other side of the chateau that was enfilading the Welsh yesterday). Edmund Blunden was a witness, not so long ago, to one of the worst direct hits we’ve seen; today, a century back–and hardly back with the battalion after a long spell of rest, training, and reserve–he was once again.

There is a special sort of terror in sitting in a pillbox that is very strong and very secure–but not strong enough, and with a door facing the wrong way.

Never (to our judgment) had such shelling fallen upon us. For what reason? The Germans had clearly no idea of letting the British advance any farther along the Menin Road. Their guns of all calibres poured their fury into our small area. Reports of casualties were the principal messages from the front line, and we had no reason to think them exaggerated, with such a perpetual rain of shells. The trenches immediately about our pillboxes were already full of bodies. One man in my headquarters died of shock from a huge shell striking just outside. We endeavoured to send off a pigeon, but the pigeon scared by the gunfire found his way into the dugout again, and presently a noise under the floorboards led to his discovery. The men thought that many shells struck the pillbox. The only question seemed to be when one would pierce it, and make an end.

Next door, so to speak, the adjutant, doctor, and their helpers had a slightly worse position, more exposed to enemy observation. The Aid Post was hit, and the doctor continued to dress the wounded though with only an appearance of protection; the wounded came in great number. I went over to ask for orders and information; Lewis was in an almost smiling mood, and quizzed me about “coming to dinner.” Old Auger, the mess corporal, winked at me over the Adjutant’s shoulder, and raised a tempting bottle from his box. I returned, and presently the firing decreased. Lewis called on us to see how we were, and told me that he really meant some sort of dinner would be going soon, and I was to be there. Colonel Millward had just rejoined, from leave, and I had seen him in the headquarters just now; evidently, I thought, the news he brings is promising. A runner visited me, and went back over the fifty yards to the other pillbox — his last journey. He had arrived in the doorway there, and joined the five or six men sheltering there, including the doctor, consulting about something, when the lull in the shelling was interrupted. I was called on the telephone (we had some inexhaustible linesmen out on the wire) by Andrews at the forward station.

“I say, hasn’t something happened at your headquarters?”

“Not that I know of—all right I believe.” (The sound of shelling had long ceased to impinge.)

“Yes, I’m afraid something’s wrong: will you find out?”

My servant Shearing hurried across, and hurried back, wild-eyed, straining: “Don’t go over, sir; it’s awful. A shell came into the door.” He added more details after a moment or two. The doctor and those with him had been

Curiously, given Richards’s account of the murder of six German prisoners, six men of the Royal Sussex were killed by this shell–the doctor and five “Other Ranks.”[3]


This is the worst of the day’s narrative. And yet only a paragraph later Blunden inserts what has always been for me one of the most memorable pastoral incongruities of the whole war:

During this period my indebtedness to an Eighteenth Century poet became enormous. At every spare moment I read in Young’s Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, and I felt the benefit of this grave and intellectual voice, speaking often in metaphor which came home to one even in a pillbox. The mere amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.

We were relieved in broad daylight, under observation, but nobody refused to move. The estimate of casualties was 400, and although the real number was 280 or so, the battalion had had enough…

By the end of today, a century back, Blunden has picked up on Dunn’s theme for today: the limits of mental endurance in even the bravest men. And the bitterness of the staff’s indifference to their suffering.

The battalion assembled in the neighbourhood of a small and wiry wood called Bodmin Copse, with tumult and bullets and sometimes shells in the air around…

A steady bombardment with big shells began, and luckily most of them fell a few yards short, but the mental torture, especially when, after one had been carefully listened to in flight and explosion, another instantly followed as though from nowhere, was severe. The trench around me was slowly choked and caved in.

Maycock came up with a train of mules carrying Royal Engineers’ material and petrol cans of water to a point near Bodmin Copse, a star turn for which he earned the General’s stern reproof on account of his not obtaining a receipt for the deliveries.

But gentle Blunden cannot end on that note. No: instead, we see yesterday’s incongruous beauty once again:

The eastern sky that evening was all too brilliant with rockets, appealing for artillery assistance. Westward, the sunset was all seraphim and cherubim.[4]



References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 251-60.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 400-04.
  3. This according to the Battalion Diary; I have not tracked the men through the CWGC or ascertained whether there is a record of the adjutant being killed today.
  4. Undertones of War, 241-5.

A Novel Premonition for Elinor Brooke; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard Under German Bombs; Vera Brittain is at War at Last; Rudyard Kipling and the Efficacy of the Mob–and Charles Sorley Sees the Blindness

As the day dawns over Sussex today, a century back, Elinor Brooke reaches a crossroads in her war.

I was trudging uphill, feeling spikes of stubble jab my ankles, and then, just as I reached the top, the sun rose–huge, molten-red–and at that moment I knew–not thought, not feared, knew–that Toby wasn’t coming back.[1]

This is Elinor’s diary entry, in Pat Barker’s novel. Elinor is fictional, but her position–from the intuition, to the death of her brother, to the long struggle she will have to learn of its circumstances and make sense of it all–is very familiar.


And it still goes on. Edmund Blunden is fortunate to be in reserve today.

A fairly idle day… read Leigh Hunt… There was a big bombardment again this evening. Some of our party went over I suppose–God help them in the mud. Just as we were settling down for the night, Boche came over. Our knees knocked and teeth chattered, but nothing fell on us…[2]


Kate Luard, meanwhile, is closer to the action–and dodging bombs from the same German raiders. 1917, as Blunden recently observed, is not 1916. In some ways it feels as if in just two short years we have come from a 19th century world beginning to be troubled by machine guns to the cusp of mid-century schrecklichkeit. All we’ll need are stronger engines and bigger bombs.

We are so much in the thick of War up here that no one talks or thinks of anything else…shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. The last are much the worst. He dropped five at dinner-time about 70 yards away, and came over with some more about 10.30 to-night and some more later. There’s no sort of cover anywhere and it is purely beastly. Shelling is nothing to it. The Sisters are extraordinarily good in it.[3]


Nor is Vera Brittain far from the bombs–but then again she has felt the bombs land in London, too. She writes to her mother today, a century back, from her new assignment in the great British base complex in the Pas-de-Calais.

24th General Hospital, Étaples,
France, 5 August 1917

. . . I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of a hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods. It is all huts & tents; I am working in a hut & sleeping under canvas, only not in a tent but in a kind of canvas shanty, with boarded floor & corrugated iron roof.. .The hospital is frantically busy & we were very much welcomed. . .

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases… The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, & one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings. My half-forgotten German comes in very useful, & the Sisters were so glad to know I understood it & could speak a little as half the time they don’t know what the poor things want. It gives one a chance to live up to our Motto Inter Arma Caritas, but anyhow one can hardly feel bitter towards dying men. It is incongruous, though, to think of Edward in one part of France trying to kill the same people whom in another part of France I am trying to save…

Well, Malta was an interesting experience of the world, but this is War.[4]

Rarely is the epistolary first draft–especially to Mother, rather than to one of her fellow members of the Lost Generation–better than the coming memoir, but I think that’s the case today. There is a swelling of strings as Vera finally reaches France–the place that killed Roland, Geoffrey, and Victor, and that still has Edward in its clutches–and there is an excellent evocation of the sounds of the bombardment, too, which works nicely amidst the others, here–but the effect of her description of France is less powerful than the simple antithesis she used in the letter:

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.[5]


Finally, there’s a remarkable letter of today, a century back, from one to another of two titans of the turn of the century: the bard of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and one of its dashing New World practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt. If not for the fact that they are not 19th century men, and that they are discussing sons (the present Kermit Roosevelt and the ever-present-through-his-absence Jack Kipling) and geopolitics… and if I didn’t despise this newly ubiquitous (at least in American pop culture) term, then I would describe this letter as a founding document of “bro” culture. Kipling’s writing has rarely been so off-putting, so ingratiatingly chummy, so eager to be brutal.

I have come a long way–through reading the man’s fiction, history, and private letters–to understanding Kipling much better than as the facile, solemn Imperialist chest-thumper of the familiar caricature… but a few paragraphs of this letter bring that old idea back with a vengeance. Kipling is full of blustery, silly talk as he updates the former president on his son’s adventures in England (Kermit Roosevelt is about to go out to Mesopotamia attached to a British Machine Gun unit); then there is unsolicited “expert” military advice (Kipling worries that the new American generals are too eager, and will fruitlessly spend their first small forces instead of building up for a “big push”), and there are helpful suggestions such as these:

I fancy that before you’ve done, in the U.S.A., you will discover as we have that the really dangerous animal is the Hun in one’s own country no matter what he pretends to be. You hold a good many hostages for his good behaviour and I sometimes wonder whether, if the U.S.A. took toll from her own unnaturalized Germans for every Hun outrage committed on the U.S. and on France, it wouldn’t have a sedative effect…

Don’t worry: Kipling is not suggesting that German Americans be killed in retribution for U-boat sinkings, only that a few officially sponsored riots in German American neighborhoods (I believe one applicable analogy would be to the pogrom) might just do the trick.

…It’s what the Hun comprehends perfectly. We have bled him badly in men, and if we can use up a decent percentage of his 1919 class this winter by exposure in the trenches as well as direct killing, he will feel it more.

But of course I’m being squeamish: anti-German-American riots were quite within the realm of possibility. And I just passed Kipling’s casual assertion of the righteousness of retributive atrocity without comment. Why? Because that describes the activities of uniformed soldiers? Because that’s different than casually advocating violent demagoguery and mob violence as strategic tools to an ally which is, ostensibly, a multi-ethnic democracy? Because my century-late outrage would be better served by letting Kipling’s endorsement of such things stand on its own rather than surrounding it with fussy complaint? “Bettered the instruction” indeed.

Worst of all, Kipling’s strategic guesstimates are accurate:

What he seems to funk more than most things is the stringency of the new blockade now that the U.S.A. is imposing it and neutrals can’t feed him as much as they used to. We’ve got another twelvemonth of trouble ahead of us I expect but it won’t be all on one side.[6]

This is the sort of letter, from one figurehead of imperial warfare to another–and from one older man willing to sacrifice his son to another–that might have re-affirmed Siegfried Sassoon‘s faith in the righteousness of his protest…


But back to this treatment of “Huns:” not Germans who are armed and dangerous in the trenches opposite, but German emigrants, civilians living in America, posing no threat and powerless to defend themselves. The analogy to wounded prisoners is not precise, yet it seems a coincidence worth exploring that Vera Brittain’s first encounter with helpless Germans also began today, a century back.

…when I told the Matron of my work in Malta, she remarked with an amused, friendly smile that I was “quite an old
soldier…” but… I was hardly prepared for the shock of being posted… to the acute and alarming German

Although we still, I believe, congratulate ourselves on our impartial care of our prisoners, the marquees were often
damp, and the ward was under-staffed whenever there happened to be a push — which seemed to be always — and the number of badly wounded and captured Germans became in consequence excessive. One of the things I like best to remember about the War is the nonchalance with which the Sisters and V.A.D.s in the German ward took for granted that it was they who must be overworked, rather than the prisoners neglected. At the time that I went there the ward staff had passed a self-denying ordinance with regard to half days, and only took an hour or two off when the work temporarily slackened.

From the moral high ground Vera Brittain now wields a satirist’s sword with great skill:

Before the War I had never been in Germany and had hardly met any Germans apart from the succession of German mistresses at St. Monica’s, every one of whom I had hated with a provincial schoolgirl’s pitiless distaste for foreigners. So it was somewhat disconcerting to be pitch-forked, all alone — since V.A.D.S went on duty half an hour before Sisters — into the midst of thirty representatives of the nation which, as I had repeatedly been told, had crucified Canadians, cut off the hands of babies, and subjected pure and stainless females to unmentionable “atrocities.” I didn’t think I had really believed all those stories, but I wasn’t quite sure.[7] I half expected that one or two of the patients would get out of bed and try to rape me, but I soon discovered that none of them were in a position to rape anybody, or indeed to do anything but cling with stupendous exertion to a life in which the scales were already weighted heavily against them.

At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained gauze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Attached to the ward was a small theatre, in which acute operations were performed all day by a medical officer with a swarthy skin and a rolling brown eye; he could speak German, and before the War had been in charge, I was told, of a German hospital in some tropical region of South America. During the first two weeks, he and I and the easy-going Charge-Sister worked together pleasantly enough. I often wonder how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the theatre — as we did all clay at frequent intervals — in that foetid stench, with the thermometer about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor. After the “light medicals” that I had nursed in Malta, the German ward might justly have been described as a regular baptism of blood and pus.

This is inhuman and horrible, but the point–Brittain’s point, and now mine–is that it is also deeply humane.

One tall, bearded captain would invariably stand to attention when I had re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heels together, and bow with ceremonious gravity. Another badly wounded boy — a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England — held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims — that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.

And Kipling, to some degree, had. But we’ll leave today with another voice, one which has greater personal authority than anyone who has spoken yet. The wounded Germans may be dying in English hands, but Charles Sorley had studied in Germany, and fought Germans, and been killed by Germans. In the memoir, Vera Brittain enlists the young dead poet against the cruel masters of war:

Somewhere, I remembered, I had seen a poem called “To Germany,” which put into words this struggling new
idea; it was written, I discovered afterwards, by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915 :

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.[8]


References and Footnotes

  1. Barker, Toby's Room, 85.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 78.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 137.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 268-9.
  5. Testament of Youth, 372-3.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 467-8.
  7. Which is about right. The British press ran with a great many entirely invented atrocity stories, and propaganda and myth made an ugly marriage of convenience with stories like the ones Brittain mentions. And yet there was a tendency after the war--an inevitable after-effect of government lies--to disbelieve all stories of German atrocity and assume a rough moral equivalence. There wasn't--which was at least in part due to the fact that Germany occupied enemy territory, and believed itself to be under existential threat; neither of these things were true in the same way of Britain. But German atrocities, especially during the invasion of Belgium, were very real. They should not bear on the claim to humane treatment of wounded soldiers, but even if pacifists between the wars emphasized the horror of war in general rather than of particular forms of armed aggression, it is bad history to discount the deliberate violence meted out by the German army to French and Belgian civilians.
  8. Testament of Youth, 372-77.

Victory and Atrocity Near Hooge; Alan Seeger Climbs the Highest Heights in the Vosges, While Aubrey Herbert Sees the Lowest Lows on the Beaches of Gallipoli; Lady Feilding Merits a Medal

We must credit Dorothie Feilding with an admirable consistency to her inconsistency. She has been recognized for her bravery before–presented a medal by the King of the Belgians himeself–and laughed it off. Today she was presented with anther medal, the French Croix de Guerre, a significant honor. But she will forget to mention it in her next letter to her mother, adding a hasty post-script (and a ribbon-cutting) about her friend the Admiral Ronarc’h’s Gallic kisses as he presented her with “rather a nice bronze medal.” And a few days after that she will play it down even further in a letter to her father–rather coyly, as the old soldier will recognize the honor for what it is:

I am glad you liked the photo too of me & the Admiral. You know the old dear presented me with a damn fine tin cross the other day. The French ‘Croix de Guerre’, a sort of Military Cross minor to the Medal
Militaire. The Admiral said some very nice & touching things to me when he gave it me, & said it was the one gave him most pleasure to give of them all because it was genuinely deserved. Nice of him wasn’t it? I enclose you a bit of the ribbon so that you can see what it’s like. The cross is a nice little bronze one with crossed swords & not gaudy like the Belgian order.[1]

Never mind: enclosing snippets of ribbon to both parents would suggest, wouldn’t it, that the gay and girlish Lady Feilding is sensible of the honor, and proud of being recognized for her undoubted courage.


A family reunion today on the ramparts of Ypres, to discuss the successful re-unstraightening of the line near Hooge. Billy Congreve‘s 3rd Division had been involved in the initial seizure, while elements of the 41st Brigade–including Donald Hankey, who was wounded, and Billy Grenfell, who was killed–bore the brunt of the German counter-attack. Just two nights ago it was the Sixth Division, commanded by Billy’s father, Sir Walter Congreve, which retook the battered bit of ground.

congreve july 19 1915crop10th August

Went in early to the ramparts and saw Dads who told me all the news. They hold a line (I think) from the crater to somewhere near Bull Farm and then down to the Marsh Houses, then back to Zouave Wood. This is a strong line which denies Hooge to the Boche, but I think that they will have to shove forward a bit when things get quieter. At present we do not hold the stables.

They killed a lot of Boches during the attack. The Durhams were especially fierce owing to Hartlepool (the Zepp was it, or the cruiser shelling?). About fifty Boche were found hiding in the crater and they were all dealt with most unmercifully. Dads told me a nice (?) story…[2]

The story–with comical dialogue in dialect–involves an old soldier of the Durham Light Infantry telling General Congreve about how he took a pratfall into a trench atop a “poor old white-bearded Boche,” whom he then kills with his bayonet. The implication is that the fifty Germans captured in the crater were killed. Is this true?

And what about this suggestion that the Durhams are motivated to atrocity by the memory of a German attack on civilians, in December? Plausible, and to some extent familiar… but haven’t we learned that the “Remember the ______” formulation belongs to the purple press and not to the fighting soldier? Hasn’t Roland Leighton, who hails from the same stretch of coastline (more or less) already made it clear that soldiers in constant danger are aggrieved at the idea that they should take great offense at occasional civilian suffering?

This is a rumor–an easy, if ugly, rumor–passed on at second or third hand to an officer who wasn’t there. But then again it’s Billy Congreve, an officer who has seen much, and much of the worst, and whose diary generally seems careful and truthful. Did the Durhams really do it? And if so, why?


At Anzac Cove, on the Gallipoli peninsula, things were going from bad to worse. Aubrey Herbert, who had no actual military assignment and had won the distrust of the high command with his attempts at negotiating local truces, now did what seemed to him the only decent thing, and addressed himself to the most wretched element of the terrible situation–the wounded.

August 10th

At the hospital no one knew who was chief since poor Manders had been killed. The doctor on the beach said he could not keep the wounded there longer, he was losing them and his men from rifle fire…

Herbert then led an impromptu evacuation–but he was the only one among the British who could understand the pleas of those left behind:

The wounded Turks were left. They called to me pitifully in the night and at dawn. Later I went back and gave them a drink and shifted them into the shade, when they all grew pathetically cheerful…

The condition of the wounded is indescribable. They lie in the sand in rows upon rows, their faces caked with sand and blood; one murmurs for water; no shelter from the sun; many of them in saps with men passing all the time, scattering more dust on them. There is hardly any possibility of transporting them.

We did all we could but amongst the many it was impossible. There was enough water for all, but wounded men without cover in that sun would have drunk a river dry, I did my best for the Turks… An order had come that they were not to be evacuated before all our own men had gone; this is natural but was of course an order of lingering death. However I kept them alive with water…[3]


Finally, today, Alan Seeger turns a route march in the Alps into a Romantic nature walk.


The Ballon de Servance, seen from the Ballon d’Alsace

August 10.–Yesterday the whole brigade marched up to the top of the Ballon de Servance… It was one of the finest and most memorable walks I have ever taken. This was largely due to the weather. After weeks of rain (it is raining now again this morning) it was our luck to hit on a day of unbroken sunshine, not a cloud in the sky of almost tropic blue. After leaving Plancher-les-Mines the road was extremely pretty up the deep, wooded valley of the Rahin. Then came the long climb up the military road. The summit of the mountain is cleared and covered with grass. Here, favored by the fine weather of one day in a hundred, the most wonderful view spread out before us. Southward, 236 kilometers away, Mont-Blanc rose in isolated grandeur above the chain of the Jura. Further east stretched the whole snowy line of the Alps–the Jungfrau, the Wetterhorn, the beautiful mountains that I first saw at Berne a little over a year ago with André–even more romantic and more enchanting now for their great distance.


Peaks of the Swiss Alps Seen from the Ballon d’Alsace

After lunch I strolled away alone and found just the right point of view, where the grassy summit sheered off precipitously into the deep valley-head, dark with pine forests and full of the murmur of the stream. A sunny haze covered the plains of upper Alsace. Two captive balloons were all the signs of war that were visible. They hung there, little specks in the distance, a good deal lower than my perch on the mountain top. I sat about an hour absorbed in the beauty of that far view of the Alps that filled me with nostalgia and love of the loveliness of Earth. Strange that the last time I looked on the Jungfrau was in the company of Count von Liebermann, lieutenant in the 5th Regiment of the Prussian Guard. This was on the Thunnensee in Switzerland. I wonder where he is now… [4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 101
  2. Armageddon Road, 165.
  3. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 166.
  4. The Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 144-6.

Tolkien Paints a Bright New World, While the Real One Grows Grey With Lies; The Wounded of Aubers Ridge Reach the Nursing Sister; Vera Brittain Gives Notice; Julian Grenfell Has High Hopes; Alan Seeger Scorns the Lusitania Victims

The Shores of Faery

“The Shores of Faery”

John Ronald Tolkien broke out the watercolors today, a century back, and painted an image of “The Shores of Faery.” It seem to show the Elvish city of Kôr, but placed now in a new cosmological context. Framing the world of “Faery” are two trees. From one grows a sun, from the other a crescent moon. These would seem to be the earliest ancestors of the two trees that will play such a large role in his invented mythologies.


Yesterday Vera Brittain had a brief but profound scare. I’ve written before (but I can’t find the post! bad tagging!) about how the paradigmatic experience of the women left at home is the spasm of fear brought by the approach of the postman or, worse, the telegram boy. It’s a terrible moment, the sudden intensification of all the pent-up fear. Bad news has arrived, and time is about to be wrenched sideways, the recent pass overturned: perhaps those last few days of anxiety-no-more-pronounced-than-usual are really now days during which a beloved boy has been screaming in agony, or silenced.

This might be suffered every day, or even more. So perhaps even worse is when the little clutch of letters actually proves to contain something unexpected: an unfamiliar envelope, the wrong handwriting–whatever the tell-tale may be. So when Vera recognized the handwriting of Roland‘s mother,

I felt quite sick… because I suddenly thought that if he were killed or wounded she might have written instead of telegraphing. She said very little but the Leighton family have a habit of writing so that one can read between the lines, & she is obviously in a very great state about him…

As the soldier fears a sudden bombardment or the silent patience of a sniper, so the woman who loves him fears these letters. The sniper is a bad analogy, actually, because of the speed of his bullet. But some of the bigger guns you can hear coming, and there is that same moment in which the ear of the soldier triangulates and assesses his chance for survival and the fingers of the mother, wife, or sweetheart tear open the envelope to see whether death is within.

At the very end of the very best novel of an Englishwoman and an English officer in love there’s a phrase worth remembering: “the tax of quick alarm.” I can’t help but think of this when I think of these letters.

But that book (readers, it is Persuasion) was another century back, and there has been some progress. Vera Brittain has a few more options than Anne Elliot.

So today, a century back,  Vera took her first step away from Oxford, and what she is coming to see as an unacceptably passive and uninvolved life. She went to notify an administrator that she might give “provisional notice” of suspending her studies.

She was very kind and sympathetic & asked me at once if it was for Red Cross work. I said it was; that it was really very unlikely that I should have to go down & I certainly didn’t want to have to, but I rather felt I ought to. She said that was of course a question everyone had to decide for themselves, & that decision was very difficult for everyone just now. She quite understood all the reasons for my indecision. But I need do nothing till the middle of July, & a great deal may have happened by then–oh! so much!

It is time for another letter from Roland. I have been suffering to-day from one of my frantic desires to see him & speak to him again. Oh! for the hour which blots out wisdom, sweet with the sweetness of life & bitter with the bitterness of death.”[1]


Vera Brittain did not, as she often does, relay the day’s war news to her diary today. If she had, she would have seen a new horror salaciously reported in The Times:

Last week a large number of Canadian soldiers wounded in the fighting round Ypres arrived at the base hospital at Versailles. They all told the story of how one of their officers had been crucified by the Germans. He had been pinned to a wall by bayonets thrust through his hands and feet, another bayonet had then been driven through his throat, and, finally, he was riddled with bullets. The wounded Canadians said that the Dublin Fusiliers had seen this done with their own eyes, and that they had heard the officers of the Dublin Fusiliers talking about it.

Stories such as this had been circulating since early autumn. They were not true, and had surely been greeted with healthy skepticism. But this is The Times, and the rest of the world picked the story up and ran with it.

The fact that the alleged crucifixion of a Canadian soldier in April 1915 immediately became headline news around the world stands as compelling evidence that it was actively promoted–and probably invented–by official sources as a military counterpart to the Lusitania tragedy.[2]

This is dastardly and dishonorable–and effective. It’s a new tool (and, after all, a bloodless one) of the emerging scrum of “total war.” Or an old one, well-amplified. A gentleman shouldn’t fight deceitfully… but, well, then again, stoking anti-German feeling in the United States is crucial to the Allies’ hopes of victory. Let the propagandists strike while the iron of unrestricted submarine warfare is hot…

The consequences–for history–of unrestricted propagandistic invention are serious. Obvious lies can eventually be debunked, but backlash complicates everything. For years after the war the widespread disgust–especially among combatants–at the fabrication of German atrocities by propagandists led to the discounting of the crimes the German Army did in fact commit, especially against Belgian civilians.


So we’ve had a pretty painting, a brief terror, and an ugly lie. And yesterday the British army was, again-and-not-for-the-last-time, thrown forward against unbroken wire and undamaged machine gun nests. None of our writers went forward in this attack, but the rumors sped up the line. Julian Grenfell is hopeful for battle:

Monday 10th. Brielen. Rations arrived 2.15 a.m. Too cold to sleep. 75’s [howitzers] in field next us. German shells not very close. Dug dug-outs for ourselves in morning in case of shell fire. Heard of French v. successful attack at Arras, our unsuccessful attack at Aubers Ridge, our Ypres troops going back slowly but holding Huns, 5 Hun attacks yesterday. Aeroplanes all day. Huns better than ours. How we lie. 2nd Cav Brigade sent up to trenches for counter-attack. Good omen. Cav shd be used like that.[3]


And as for Aubers Ridge, the Nursing Sister describes its aftermath:

Monday, May 10th, 9.30 a.m.—We have had a night of it. Every Field Ambulance, barge, Clearing Hospital, and train are blocked with them. The M[edical].O[fficers].’s [i.e. doctors] neither eat nor sleep. I got up early yesterday and went down to the barge to see if they wanted any extra help (as the other two were coping with the wounded officers), and had a grim afternoon and evening there. One M.O., no Sisters, four trained orderlies, and some other men were there. It was packed with all the worst cases—dying and bleeding and groaning. After five hours we had three-fourths of them out of their blood-soaked clothes, dressed, fed, hæmorrhage stopped, hands and faces washed, and some asleep. Two died, and more were dying. They all worked like bricks. The M.O., and another from the other barge which hadn’t filled up, sent up to the O.D.S., when my hour for night duty there came, to ask if I could stay, and got leave. At 11 p.m. four Sisters arrived (I don’t know how—they’d been wired for), two for each barge; so I handed over to them and went to the O.D.S. to relieve the other two there for night duty. The place was unrecognisable: every corner of every floor filled with wounded officers—some sitting up and some all over wounds, and three dying and others critical; and they still kept coming in…

4 p.m.—In bed. It seems quiet to-day; there are so few guns to be heard, and not so many ambulances coming. All except the hopeless cases will have been evacuated by now from all the Field Hospitals. There was a block last night, and none could be sent on. The Clearing Hospitals were full, and no trains in.[4]


Finally, we check in with Alan Seeger, one of our Americans in the Foreign Legion, who wrote to his mother today, a century back, with thoughts about the meaning of the Lusitania disaster. Here is a soldier less than sympathetic to the outrage of/about non-combatants:

May 10, 1915

We all had our third typhoid inoculation yesterday and every one is laid up, weak and feverish. There is a big bombardment going on up the river at Berry-au-Bac and we are all hoping not to have an alert, for it would be
hard to do any work under such conditions. I do not imagine we shall have anything doing here, however, for the main operations seem to be in Flanders.

Summer has come here almost without any spring at all. The valley is very beautiful, all the orchards in bloom. Up in the woods the birds sing all day and I love to listen to the cuckoos, particularly in the early dawn at the outpost.

We have all been very excited about the news of the Lusitania. I suppose American public sentiment is terribly wrought up, but I have no hope that Washington will do anything and I was not surprised to see that Ambassador Gerard had been instructed to ask for an official report, on the basis of which a new note will be drawn up. Why in the name of all dignity does not the American government act or shut up, for the Gazette de Cologne explicitly states that all indignant protestations will be received with absolute coldness?

I cannot understand the American state of mind, nor why Americans have the temerity to venture into a declared war-zone, much less let their wives and children go there, when any one with a grain of sense might have foreseen what has happened. They might just as well come over here and go out Maying in front of our barbed wire…[5]

Other solder-writers will express similar sentiments about the Lusitania. It’s hard-hearted. But practical, the product of straight-line thinking, quick and no complications. Which is how experienced fighters think and feel.

It is true that the Germans had declared their intentions to sink ships sailing near Britain and warned potential neutral passengers on the Lusitania, true that its sinking is hardly more despicable (though much more shocking, in immediate news-impact) than Britain’s blockade of Germany or indeed the indiscriminate shelling and bombing that has been going on for months, and true that the Lusitania was carrying munitions…

Ooh, but “Maying in front of our barbed wire!” This is an image worthy of Vonnegut, but stripped of his unfailing humanism. It will be a long war yet…


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 193-4.
  2. Hayward, Trench Myths, 101-2.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 296.
  4. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  5. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, available here.

Rupert Brooke is Dull as Ditchwater; The Nursing Sister on One Wounded Walk

Rupert Brooke, still whiling away the winter in camp with no definite prospect of action before the spring, writes an overdue thank-you note to Violet Asquith–his (possibly naughty) nurse during his recent epic cold.

18 February 1915

My dear Violet,

We’re ‘standing off’ this morning, to ‘mark and mend’. So, you see, I’ve time to write.

I’m incredibly healthy. You were an angel to me. I’ve never so much enjoyed being ill. Those last three days at Walmer were heavenly. Did you like them? It was such a moment of peace, against the pleasant excitement of London, and the remoter background of this dream-like war. It seemed a divine and Paradisal interlude, somehow, where hour flowed into hour unmarked by bugler, and never bringing one nearer anything, or farther away from anything.

Now I’m three days gone in reality—or this different dream. I come with quite a zest for it, I find with astonishment Even yesterday—Winston’s visit—barely damped me. What a day! Perhaps you’ll have heard of it. A real Blandford day of the milder kind, mud rain and a hurricane. First old Paris’ put the review off, because of the weather (but that was after we’d stood out a battalion of Lears, in the pitiless storm for half an hour).

Then Winston turned up and demanded something. We were hurried out to an extemporized performance, plunging through rivers and morasses. It was like a dream. At one point I emerged from the mud, with my platoon, under the wheels of a car, in the midst of a waste. And in the car were what I thought were two children, jumping about clapping their hands whistling and pointing. It was Eddie and Clemmie…

That, for those of us keeping count, is the third deployment of the dream simile/analogy. Lazy writing? Poetic commitment?

What odd eyebrows!

…Eddie came to luncheon… He told us all the jokes from the Times, and all the atrocity stories: things we never hear. The wardroom was fascinated by him, and said in chorus, when he left ‘what odd eyebrows’.

It is rumoured Winston was ‘pleased’, and impressed by our (2nd Brigade) superiority to the other Brigades: and that we shall go out as a Brigade.

This is the letter of a sub-lieutenant—as dull as ditchwater. I wish I had even my civilian bright little interest in anything. I’m a machine, a clod, a platoon officer, a Jim Barnes, a title, an omicron, a jelly, a dry anatomy, a less-than-protoplasm…  Oc is well. I am well. Quilter is roaring-well. There’s a fine sun and a clean wind. When are you coming near, or to. Camp? Come and view my buffalo-like health, your handiwork.


Oh, thanks for the mess-tin covers.[1]


Dreadful weather, what? Oh Sister, what is the weather like in France?

Thursday, February 18th.

…A sergeant of the D.C.L.I. had a fearful shell wound in his thigh, which has gone wrong, and as the trouble is too high for amputation they will have their work cut out to save his life. They were getting out of the trench for a bayonet charge, and he had just collected his men when he was hit; so the officer “shook hands with him” and went on with the charge, leaving him and another man, wounded in the leg, in the trench.

They stayed there several hours with no dressings on, sinking into the mud (can you wonder it has gone wrong?), until another man turned up and helped them out; then they walked to the Regimental Aid Post, 200 yards away, helped by the sound man. There they were dressed and had the anti-tetanus serum injection, and were taken by stretcher-bearers to the next Dressing Station, and thence by horse ambulance to the Field Ambulance, and then by motor ambulance to where we picked them up…[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 663-4.
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.

The Nursing Sister Debates for England; Henry Williamson Returns to Her Shores; Rupert Brooke Plans the Entertainment for a Worsening Cold; Vera Pulls Out of Her Funk

We haven’t heard from the Nursing Sister in a while. Although she did manage to scrape together a short leave (in France–she seems not to have been able to get a long enough leave to make going to England worthwhile) she has generally been the most consistent writer, cheerful even amidst her too consistent existence. For months now it’s been back and forth, bringing the shredded and feverish bodies of the soldiers down to the coastal hospitals and then back up for a new load. And the consistency can be… a little depressing.

But today she reports on an unusual meeting. After, of course, the requisite church tour.

Tuesday, 26th January.

A dazzling blue spring day. As we were not going in to load at Rouen till 3 P.M., we went for the most glorious walk in this country. We crossed the ferry over the Seine to the foot of the steep high line of hills which eventually overlooks Rouen, and climbed up to the top by a lovely winding woody path in the sun… “Who said War?” said P. while we were waiting on the shingle for the boat; it did seem very remote. At the top we got to the Church of Le Bon Secours, which is in a very fine position with a marvellous view. We had some lovely cider in a very clean pub with a garden, and then took the tram down a very steep track into Rouen… the view… was dazzling, with the spires and the river and the bridges…

9.30 P.M.–On way to Havre. I was just going to say that from the Seine to Le Havre there is nothing to report, when I came across a young educated German in my wards with his left leg off from the hip, and his right from below the knee, and a bad shell wound in his arm, all healed now, done at Ypres on 24th October. And I had an hour’s most thrilling and heated conversation with him in German. He was very down on the English Sisters in hospital, because he says they hated him and didn’t treat him like the rest. I said that was because they couldn’t forget what his regiment (Bavarians) had done to the Belgian women and children and old men, and the French. And he said he couldn’t forget how the Belgian women had put out the eyes of the German wounded at Liège and thrown boiling water on them. I said they were driven to it. I asked him a lot of straight questions about Germany and the War, and he answered equally straight. He said they had food in Germany for ten years, and that they had ten million men, and that all the present students would be in the Army later on, and that practically the supply could never stop. And I said that however long they could go on, in the end there would be no more Germany because she was up against five nations. He said no man has any fear of a Russian soldier, and that though they were slow over it they would get Paris, but not London except by Zeppelins; he admitted that it would be sehr schwer (very hard) to land troops in England, and that our Navy was the best, but we had so few soldiers, they hardly counted! He got very excited over the Zeppelins. I asked why the Germans hated the English, and he said, “In Berlin we do not speak of the English at all(!!!); it is the French and the Russians we hate.”

These last two points have the most truth to them: Germany will not be able to invade England, and early in the war German feeling towards England was a mixture of indignation (that a fellow Germanic, enlightened, mostly Protestant nation would side with its old French foes and the savage Russians) and indifference–the British army was indeed very small. As for the rest, well: both disputants are influenced by propaganda, but all cheating is not equal–Belgian civilians did not torture and maim German soldiers at Liege.

He said the Turks were no good zu helfen (to help), and Austria not much better. He was very down on Belgium for resisting in the first place! and said the Schuld (fault) was with France and Russia. They were very much astonished when England didn’t remain neutral! He had the cheek to say that three German soldiers were as good as twenty English, so I assured him that five English could do for fifty Germans, and went on explaining carefully to him how there could be no more Germany in the end because the right must win! and he said, “So you say in England, but we know otherwise in Deutschland, and I am a German.” So as I am an English we had to agree to differ. His faith in his Vaterland nearly made him cry and must have given him a temperature. I felt quite used up afterwards. He is fast asleep now.[1]


Rupert Brooke wrote to Eddie Marsh today, a century back, and he seems to be repenting of his urge to “come and die” so immediately, at least not without the best sort of people around him:

I rather agree it’d be nicer to go out with a clash in April or May, than to slink out to the mud now. Though I do share the impatience. The only doing is, the longer we stay, the more our officers seem to fade away…  I hope the
authorities’ll (1) block any good officers going off to other things, Naval or Army, (2) get decent people for the new officers. I’m sure if they got hold of the Artists or the Inns of Court or a University, they could get a good lot of young officers, & decent people. We get a very chance lot as it is: some good & some rotten, scratched up anyhow…

Is it true Winston’s coming next Tuesday? We–A Company–are going to a village 17 miles away to billet for the week-end: returning Monday. I don’t yet know if I shall go. I’ve a bloody cold in my head. If it lasts, or if my temperature goes up, I shall be sent out of camp. We’ve found that bad colds take ages to get better in camp. Shall I go to Rugby or London?

It does seem to be a bad cold, but then Brooke is both a bit of a hypochondriac and has legitimate immune system issues, so it’s tough to tell. Worse than Roland Leighton‘s “incipient flu?” Not as bad as Henry Williamson/Phillip Maddison’s “enteritis?”

It’s amusing–but not surprising–to discover how much easier it is for an officer in England to go and recover in pleasant circumstances than for an enlisted man in France. Where shall it be? London? Eddie’s Place?

I don’t know if Raymond Buildings’ld be a good place to lie up in (I shouldn’t be infectious). I’d get more amusing visitors there than at Rugby…[2]

He’ll end up in London, but not chez Eddie.


And speaking of sickly enlisted men, Henry Williamson has reached blighty. Although his gastrointestinal and podiatric issues are not extremely serious, they were bad enough to merit–in this time of relatively few actual combat wounds to trump mere sick cases–evacuation to England. Thin and weak, Henry will placed on a train for Birmingham today, but end up in Manchester instead. After a short stay at a hospital there he will spend almost a month at a rest home nearby, and then be granted three weeks’ leave before re-assignment.[3]

The slowness of the process by which soldiers were returned to the front was another reason that wounds–or illness–just bad enough for evacuation were considered to be a very happy place for Fortune’s wheel to alight…

In any event, no writing from the time of his convalescence survives, so we will next check in with Henry in March, when he receives leave to visit home before reassignment.


Things are looking up for Vera Brittain:

Tuesday January 26th

This morning, for no reason whatever, I felt happy for the first time since coming back here. The early exuberance evaporated a little during the day; still I have proved that in spite of the war, & of many uncongenial people, & not quite suitable surroundings, the feeling is possible–& the infrequent moments worth living for…[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  2. Letters of Rupert Brooke, 656-7.
  3. A. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 56.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 150.