Robert Graves Makes Colorful Plans; High Quigley Gets His Blighty; Vera Brittain Learns the Meaning of Emergency

Around lunch-time, today, a century back, the Graves family’s worries were alleviated by a telegram announcing that Robert had spent the night at the Nicholsons’ home. Robert, twenty-two, is entranced by Nancy, all of eighteen, as is she with him. They are thinking of marriage, already, and of collaboration: she is a painter, and will illustrate his planned writings for children.

In Nancy, Robert had discovered a woman who shared his growing conviction that there was something better and more true in the myths and legends of childhood than in the terrible ‘reality’ of the adult world’: When Nancy showed Robert some of her paintings, which included illustrations to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, he found that ‘my child-sentiment and hers–she had a happy childhood to look back on–answered each other.

Graves spent the morning running errands, but he also dropped in on Edmund Gosse and then said an early good-bye to his family. Graves is bound for Scotland, but first he returned to Nancy, having dinner with the Nicholsons and then going with them to a revue, Graves’s first-ever experience of popular entertainment of this sort. He must have been in an excellent mood when he caught the night-train for Edinburgh, and another meeting with Siegfried Sassoon[1]

 

It’s been only two days since we heard from Hugh Quigley, portentously preparing for battle. He was right to worry about a wound–and lucky.

Le Treport, 12 October, 1917

I got that comfortable wound I mentioned in my last letter: some intuition must have told me what was going to happen. The pain is not too great, although the right leg is useless just now; the doctor says it will come in time. I am expecting to be home in two days…

Our division had the pleasing task of making a bold bid for Passchendaele: of course, the officers told us the usual tale…

But none of us knew where to go when the barrage began, whether half-right or half-left: a vague memory of following the shell-bursts as long as the smoke was black, and halting when it changed to white… I was knocked out before I left the first objective, a ghastly breast-work littered with German corpses. One sight almost sickened me before I went on: thinking the position of a helmet on a dead officer’s face rather curious, sunken down rather far on the nose, my platoon sergeant lifted it off, only to discover no upper half to the head. All above the nose had been blown to atoms, a mass of pulp, brain, bone and muscle.

After this horror, a concessive clause under absurd pressure:

Apart from that, the whole affair appeared rather good fun.

It’s a transition, in a letter, and we shouldn’t make too much of it… but this is the madness of war in one pivoting sentence. Quigley pursues the idea:

You know how excited one becomes in the midst of great danger. I forgot absolutely that shells were meant to kill and not to provide elaborate lighting effects, looked at the barrage, ours and the Germans’, as something provided for our entertainment–a mood of madness, if you like.

Well, yes, madness: he’s gotten there himself.

Next comes a detailed description of the assault, including a mad Highlander screaming at them as they move deliberately behind the walking barrage, and a comrade stopping to loot a German corpse. It is far more horrible than his breezy letter made it seem, but his claim about the uselessness of the rifle–at this stage, at least–is borne out.

We got the first objective easily, and I was leaning against the side of a shell hole, resting along with others, when an aeroplane swooped down and treated us to a shower of bullets. None of them hit. I never enjoyed anything so much in my life–flames, smoke, lights, SOS’s, drumming of guns, and swishing of bullets, appeared stage-properties to set off a great scene. From the pictorial point of view nothing could be finer or more majestic; it had a unity of colour and composition all its own, the most delicate shades of green and grey and brown fused wonderfully in the opening light of morning. When the barrage lifted and the distant ridge gleamed dark against the horizon, tree-stumps, pill-boxes, shell-holes, mine-craters, trenches, shone but faintly, fragmentary in the distant smoke. Dotted here and there, in their ghostly helmets and uniforms, and the enemy were hurrying off or coming down in batches to find their own way to the cages…

Then, going across a machine-gun barrage, I got wounded. At first I did not know where, the pain was all over, and then the gushing blood told me.

Quigley follows a German prisoner back to a dressing-station, and is then carried back over the rear areas of the torn battlefield:

…a wilderness of foul holes littered with dead men disinterred in the barrage. One sight I remember very vividly: a white-faced German prisoner tending a whiter “Cameron” who had been struck in the stomach. In spite of the fierce shelling he did not leave him, but stayed by him as long as I could see. I confess my first feeling of deadly fear arose when on the stretcher. The first excitement was wearing off and my teeth were chattering with cold.

There was a German shrapnel barrage to get through, too, which killed more than a few of the wounded and stretcher-bearers. Wounded, but carried through this secondary maelstrom safely, Quigley praises the Medical Corps very highly:

…my stretcher bearers, R.A.M.C., were good stuff, afraid of nothing, and kind-hearted, apologizing for any jolting. How they kept it up during that ghastly 10-kilometre journey is a mystery. I would rather go over the top than suffer that fatigue.[2]

 

Quigley’s curious and florid prose-style has been a welcome addition here, but many of the more experienced veterans are still professing their inability to describe the horrors of Passchendaele. (Will time tame his style?) Vera Brittain, for instance, waits at a mid-point in the lines of evacuation that begin with that German prisoner and those heroic stretcher-bearers:

24th General, France, 12 October 1917

Someday perhaps I will try to tell you what this first half of October has been like, for I cannot even attempt to describe it in a letter & of course we are still in the middle of things; the rush is by no means over yet–Three times this week we have taken in convoys & evacuated to England, & the fourth came into our ward all at the same time. Every day since this day last week has been one long doing of the impossible–or what seemed the impossible before you started. We have four of our twenty-five patients on the D.I.L. (dangerously ill list, which means their people can come over from England to see them) and any one of them would keep a nurse occupied all day but when there are only two of you for the whole lot you simply have to do the best you can. One does dressings from morning till night. I never knew anything approaching it in London, & certainly not in Malta. No one realises the meaning of emergencies who has not been in France. Nor does one know the meaning of ‘bad cases’ for they don’t get to England in the state we see them here; they either die in France or else wait to get better before they are evacuated…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183-5.
  2. Passchendaele and the Somme, 147-53.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377-8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunsany.

October 9th, 1917.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, once again, the now-familiar toll:

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

Raymond Rodakowski was one of the four officers killed outright.

 

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

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Frank Richards and Doctor Dunn on a Day of Battle for the Royal Welch: Desperate Measures under the Rockets’ Glare; Phillip Maddison Finds Balance; Ivor Gurney Overjoyed, Isaac Rosenberg to Return

The Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers is currently bereft of famous poet officers–Siegfried Sassoon is in Scotland while Robert Graves is with the depot in Wales–but two of their acquaintances are very much with the Regiment today, a century back, in one of its worst days in the Salient. It is a day of combat, and crisis, and an unusual confusion of roles. Dr. Dunn, we must remember, is both currently the battalion medical officer and subsequently the chief chronicler–but he has not been a fighting soldier for many years.

At the risk of aggravating Dunn, we’ll let Graves introduce the day’s story, even though it is not quite standard historical procedure to begin with hearsay before examining the eyewitness account. Ironically, however, Graves’s more dramatic rendering–based on reports he will get later from other members of the battalion–is probably more plainly true than the doctor’s account. Graves might self-aggrandize and take liberties with local truths, but he seems intent on giving the characters of the Regiment their due–especially when they themselves fail in to sing their own deeds quite loudly enough.

Doctor Dunn was what they call a hard-bitten man; he had served as a trooper in the South African War and won the D.C.M. He was far more than a doctor; living at battalion headquarters he became the right-hand man of three or four colonels in succession. When his advice was not taken this was usually afterwards regretted. On one occasion, in the autumn fighting of 1917, a shell burst among the headquarters staff, knocking out adjutant, colonel, and signals officer. Dunn had no hesitation in pulling off the red-cross armlets that he wore in a battle and becoming a temporary combatant officer of the Royal Welch, resigning his duties to the stretcher-bearer sergeant. He took command and kept things going. The men were rather afraid of him, but had more respect for him than for anyone else in the battalion.[1]

Today, a century back, would be that occasion. The 2/R.W.F. were in support of the second day’s push (of this new phase of Third Ypres, that is), and spent the early morning waiting as the battle raged to their east. It is only after they receive their orders, around 8.15, to attack at noon that we learn just how things are with the battalion. This is the collective account narrated by Dunn, now:

Poore called a conference of Company Commanders; the C.O. had gone on leave when we came out of rest. C and D companies were under their own commanders, Radford and Coster; but owing to leave, Battle Surplus, and the inexperience of subalterns, Moldy Williams had been transferred from C to B, and Hywel Evans from B to A., both only the previous day.[2] A shortage of maps caused some confusion to begin with…

A simplified battle plan is hammered out, and the battalion was soon marching over the Menin Road. Dunn, at this point following the battalion and tending to the wounded, saw a man desert for the rear, and noted that he was later arrested (whether he was shot for desertion is not made clear). This lone incident does more than a lengthy situation report to remind us just how hopeless and terrifying it would have felt to march over the shattered German defenses.. and toward the deep lines of still-intact German defenses…

Nevertheless, the battalion eventually reached its starting point “without serious loss.” But as they were forming up–without artillery support or a sure sense of where the enemy was–they came under machine gun fire. To some degree, their progress to this point is evidence of the success of the “Bite and Hold” tactics: it is the second or third day of an offensive, reinforcements are getting nearly intact nearly to their starting points, and the counter-attacks are not in the ascendancy.

But this is still the salient, with German artillery on three sides and German machine guns in hardened pillboxes nearly everywhere. Two officers, including Coster, were soon killed. Their maps proved to be incomplete. With McMaster University‘s archive available online, we can find their position on a map that is probably quite similar to the ones they were using. Dunn’s sketch of the tactical situation is actually a minor masterpiece of tactical clarity, and the Welch can be precisely placed, arrayed roughly north-south along the left middle of the excerpt above, in the mess of old trenches and pillboxes near Carlisle Farm (square 15) and under fire from the Polderhoek Château (bottom of 16) on their right. Pinned down and cut off from their own H.Q., the companies falling out of touch with each other and no clear objectives in sight, they continue to take casualties. The irony of Dunn’s precise record of their whereabouts is that it bears no tactical fruit. He knows–and he tells us–where he was, but confusion about the whereabouts of everyone else–including the Germans–will continue throughout the day.

Meanwhile, accurate enemy fire is constant, and no advance is possible.

When the Companies lay low the Germans held their fire, but any movement, even by one man, drew a very accurate fire. In these circumstances A and B ceased to shoot at their unseen enemy.

Several more company and platoon officers were wounded, and the Welsh lost touch with the Scottish and Australian troops around them.

At about 1.30, the doctor’s narrative returns to the first person, and the battalion’s leadership takes a direct hit.

…I, finding nothing more to do for the time being, and having had no food since last night’s dinner, was sent in the same direction to seek my servant. He and another man, with the heedless coolness which was so common, had lighted a fire on the enemy side of a pill-box, and made tea. They were about to give some to a young Australian with a bad belly wound. After stopping them I was trying to placate him when Signaller Barrett came and told me that while Colquhoun was talking to Poore and Casson, the Assistant Adjutant, a 5.9 burst along them, killing all three. That happened about 2 o’clock.

Dunn is not in command of the battalion, per se–he is permanently outside the chain of command, and quite unusual in being a doctor with combat service in a previous war. But someone needs to go forward from HQ and find the company commander who now must take over. Dunn will not explicitly acknowledge his heroism, here, but he seems to allude to the strangeness of the moment–as well as the general surrealism of prolonged battle–with this memory of the mind’s habit of recalling harmless happy moments to compare with some horrifying present vision.

Thereupon, I went to look for Radford about the Reutel road where I had seen him an hour before. On the way, two men suddenly rose into the air vertically, 15 feet perhaps, amid a spout of soil about 150 yards ahead. They rose and fell with the easy, graceful poise of acrobats. A rifle, revolving slowly, rose high above them before, still revolving, it fell. The sight recalled, even in these surroundings, a memory of boyhood: a turn that thrilled me in a travelling circus at St. Andrews…

He did not, perhaps, take time for the theatrical gesture of removing his red cross armbands. Or perhaps he did, to give the Germans a sporting chance of killing him while he considered himself a combatant, and modestly omits to tell us?

In any event, according to Dunn’s account he almost immediately found Radford, a company commander at the beginning of the day but now the senior combat officer, and stayed with him while he wrote out a report to be sent back to Brigade. Dunn does not mention Radford being in command, but he implies it… and then Radford vanishes from the narrative for some time, and the narrative slips into the passive voice.

The worst of the day is over, but there is still much consolidation to be done:

When the light failed A and B Companies were reorganized… After dark a sudden commotion was caused by D Company falling back on the Reutel road. They reported that the enemy was massing in Polygon Wood, and that they had very little ammunition left. The decision to fall back was made in consultation with the O.C. their Australian comrades…

But who made this decision with the Australian commander? It sounds like it was Dunn, as Graves suggests.

 

Let’s work back a bit, and see how Frank Richards saw this afternoon. Richards is the consummate old soldier, and not above tarting up a yarn for the benefit of his readers,[3] but he was indisputably an eyewitness to these events, serving as he did with the signallers of the battalion, and thus often alongside the headquarters contingent, or bearing messages to and fro.

Richards’s account of the terrible hour around noon is more direct and more, dare we say, cinematic:

A few minutes later Dr. Dunn temporarily resigned from the Royal Army Medical Corps. He told me to get him a rifle and bayonet and a bandolier of ammunition. I told him that he had better have a revolver, but he insisted on having what he had asked me to get. I found them for him, and slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he commenced to make his way over to the troops behind the bank. I accompanied him. Just before we reached there our chaps who were hanging on to the position in front of it started to retire back. The doctor barked at them to line up with the others. Only Captain Radford and four platoon officers were left in the Battalion and the doctor unofficially took command.

Radford’s presence is something of an embarrassment, then–why is this company commander not in active command of the battalion? And hence, perhaps, Dunn’s professional modesty is a cloak for the honor of a brother officer? But neither is there any suggestion that Radford failed to do his duty or did not fight well. It’s tempting to assume that he was momentarily overcome (as so many people would be in such a situation), but it is also possible that, given the force of Dunn’s character and his long service as a sort of consigliere to the colonel, it just seemed natural to Radford to continue commanding a consolidated line company and leave the direction of the battalion to the doctor.

In any case, no one hints that Dunn so any moral quandary in ceasing to be a healer–technically sacrosanct, even if those badges that he may or may not have removed were not often respected–and picking up a rifle and directly ordering men to wound and destroy those opposite. War is madness.

Back to Richards:

We and the Australians were all mixed up in extended order. Behind everyone had now left the standpoint and we all lined up behind the bank, which was about three feet high. We had lent a Lewis gun team to the 5th Scottish Rifles on our right, and when it began to get dark the doctor sent me with a verbal message to bring them back with me if they were still in the land of the living. When I arrived at the extreme right of our line, I asked the right hand man if he was in touch with the 5th Scottish. He replied that he had no more idea than a crow where they were, but guessed that they were somewhere in the front to the right of him. I now made my way very carefully over the ground. After I had walked some way I began to crawl. I was liable any moment to come into contact with a German post or trench. I saw someone moving in front of me, so I slid into a shell hole…

I waited in that shell hole for a while, trying to pierce the darkness in front. I resumed my journey, and, skirting one shell hole, a wounded German was shrieking aloud in agony… he must have been hit low down, but I could stop for no wounded man. But I saw two men in a shallow trench but did not know if they were the 5th Scottish or the Germans until I heard some good Glasgow English. When I got in their trench they told me that they had only just spotted me when they challenged. The Lewis-gun team were still kicking and my journey back with them was a lot easier than the outgoing one.

I reported to the Doctor that there was a gap of about 100 yards between the 5th Scottish Rifles and we; and he went himself to remedy it. The whole of the British front that night seemed to be in a semi-circle. We had sent some S O S rockets up in the air… they were only used when a situation was deemed critical, and everybody seemed to be in the same plight as ourselves…[4]

Dunn remembers these rockets as well:

Twice between dark and midnight the S O S went up in the Reutel direction, and was repeated by other units. It was a red-over-green-over-yellow parachute grenade at the time, a pleasing combination of colours hanging about the fretted outline of pines that stood in dark relief against a clear night sky. Each time the gunners on both sides opened promptly…[5]

 

These are two true stories of one battalion’s role in a major attack. We can also read, for a strange sort of leavening, Henry Williamson‘s fictional account of the attack. Williamson is still convalescing in England, but Phillip Maddison, for all that his (fictional) presence at nearly every major offensive is beginning to wear thin, witnessed the battle from his position with the supply train of a Machine Gun Company and described it in his patented “History Painting” style. Williamson is working from published histories, of course, so it is not surprising that he echoes the accounts we have just read. In fact, it’s quite useful, since Maddison consciously takes up a middle position between an army that is–in some quarters at least–beginning to despair and a propaganda machine that churns on without acknowledging the ratcheting tension of 1917.

Maddison writes in his pocket diary that “there ‘were persistent rumours of hundreds of thousands killed,'” yet he spent many evenings of the battle regularly hearing optimistic reports–internal army propaganda, essentially–read out to the troops by the rear-area ammunition dumps. So the army is preaching success to its own rear elements (who may or may not know about the disturbances at Étaples) even though they can look to the East and see precisely what Dunn and Richards have been describing: the colored SOS signals going up “again and again.”

For Phillip, at least, weariness is leading toward maturity: he begins to see a balance between the alarmist rumors of total collapse and tens of thousands of men killed and the sanguine army announcements. Under the tutelage of “Westy,”–the old heroic officer whose ex post facto facts about the Passchendaele campaign are clunkingly parachuted into the narrative at this point–Maddison is starting to see the war for what it is: a grim attritional battle that, at this moment, is narrowly tilted in the allies’ favor by Plumer’s operational initiatives.[6]

 

Finally, today, three short notes. In contradistinction to the misery of the Salient, let’s spend just a moment with Ivor Gurney, who is safely out of it all, for a few weeks at least, with a blighty touch of gas.

26 September 1917

My Dear Friend: To write to you on common notepaper, white and smooth, to be in between sheets white as snow—yesterday, but I smoke in bed! — and to hear noises domestic and well known flurries and scurries about one — how sweet are all these!

And to be within 17 miles of Enbro, that old city of Scott and R.L.S.; such is my nature that this last idea in fact is sweetest of all.

Ward 24, Edinburgh War Hospital, Bangour, Scotland is my present address. Only slowly and uncertainly is the conviction leaking in through the strong covering of frost and use that I am really in Blighty…

With time on his hands, Gurney’s letters ramble even more than usual, but he returns in the end to the simple theme of a soldier’s thankfulness at being somewhere safe and quiet–and clean:

Clean sheets, clean clothes and skin; no lice; today’s papers; ordinary notepaper. . . What next?

Good bye, and all good wishes for all good things:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[7]

 

Many others will be coming to Blighty too. When Ronnie Knox converted to Catholicism last week, his father, an Anglican bishop, determined to cut off all contact with him for at least a year. But Bishop Knox will shortly be abrogating this policy in order to pass along a telegram. Ronnie’s older brother Eddie, an officer with the 2/4th Lincolns, was shot in the back today, a century back, by a German sniper somewhere east of the Menin Road, under those same SOS flares.[8]

 

And, of course, for every man that comes home, another most go back to take his place. In London, today, Isaac Rosenberg bid farewell to his family and belatedly caught a train back to the coast, his leave over. When he returns, he will be transferred from his assignment as a laborer attached to the engineers and sent back into the line.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 260-1.
  2. What would Siegfried Sassoon have thought, in his room at Craiglockhart or out on the links, or wherever he is right this moment, were he able to listen in to this conference in real time?
  3. He will have the assistance in this of the very best, namely his one time battalion superior Robert Graves.
  4. Old Soldiers Never Die, 246-251.
  5. The War the Infantry Knew, 392-400.
  6. Love and the Loveless, 286-7.
  7. War Letters, 205-6.
  8. Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 139-40. Eddie Knox was a talented satirist and frequent contributor to Punch. But he had not felt able to write amusing poems from the trenches and thus sidesteps the label of "war poet." He will survive the war, and his daughter Penelope will write the biography of him and his brothers from which this information derives--as well as several of the best 20th century British novels.
  9. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 171. His actual departure may have come two days later, after missing or being unable to take several trains. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 373.

The Battle of Langemarck: Four Seconds in the Life of Harry Patch; Edwin Vaughan in Command

Today, a century back, is another day of battle, as the British (and French) forces in the Ypres Salient surge forward once again. The Master of Belhaven is firing in support and Kate Luard will be picking up the pieces, but we will focus on two infantrymen as they attack today in the segment of Third Ypres known as the Battle of Langemarck. Neither is in the first attacking wave, but there is more than enough horror for the supporting troops and each will experience one of the most terrible days of their war.

 

At 4:45 the bombardment began, and two battalions of the 61st Brigade attacked toward Langemarck. Harry Patch, with C Company of the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was in the second wave.

I remember the names–Pilckem Ridge was one and the other was Langemarck… How were we to know that a pile of rubble was this village or that, or that a gentle slope was a particular ridge…? You only knew what was right next to you…

I have a memory of crossing a flooded stream…

This was the Steenbeck, the second waterway (after the Yser canal) that now marks the pilgrims’ progress out of Ypres and into the Slough of Despond.

Our guns’ opening bombardment had begun with an almighty clap of thunder. You can’t describe the noise, you can’t… There was an officer going down the line… He had drawn his revolver, and I got the distinct impression by the set look on his face that anybody that didn’t ‘go over’ would be shot for cowardice where they stood…

For once the British operational luck was good: the weather held (though the ground was still terribly muddy) and the German defense was disorganized due to a half-completed relief. Langemarck was swiftly taken, and by 5.45 the second wave was moving through to its attack positions.

It was absolutely sickening to see your own dead and wounded, some calling for stretcher-bearers, others semi-conscious and beyond all help… I saw one German… all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor, a horrible sight. Others were just blown to pieces; it wasn’t a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it, and there I was, only nineteen years old. I felt sick.

It got worse.

We came across a lad from A Company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ I was with him in the last seconds of his life. It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy… I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day I’ve always remember that cry and that death is not the end.

I remember that lad in particular. It is an image that has haunted me all my life…

Patch and his team soon reached the German second (support) line, where they set up their gun to fire in support of the men of their battalion just ahead, who were pushing into the German third (reserve) line.

I’d just changed a magazine… and Bob was looking elsewhere in the support line when two or three Germans came out of a trench and one of them spotted the machine gun and came straight for us with rifle and bayonet…

My right hand was free… I drew my revolver and I shot him in the right shoulder. He dropped his rifle but he came stumbling on, no doubt to kick the gun in the mud and us to pieces if he could…

I had four seconds to make my mind up. I had three rounds in that revolver. I could have killed him with my first; I was a crack shot. What should I do? Four seconds to make my mind up. That Cornishman’s ‘Mother’ was ringing in my ears and I thought, ‘No I can’t kill him’, and I gave him his life. I shot him above the ankle, and above the knee. I brought him down… for him the war was over… at the end of the war he would rejoin his family. Perhaps he was married; perhaps he had children.[1]

 

No more than two or three miles to the south, Edwin Vaughan‘s day developed more slowly, as his 8th Royal Warwickshires moved up behind several attacking waves.

August 16

At 2 a.m. a guide led us out of the camp in an easterly direction. We moved in column of route, in silence and with no smoking. I was leading with Ewing, but it was pitch dark and as our guide led us, sometimes on a hard road then on to mud then again on a sleeper track, I could not follow our direction. At last we arrived at a canal, with a steep
bank on either side and a towing path. We crossed a rough bridge and Ewing gave the order to fall out.

We were at Bridge 2A of the Yser canal, a few hundred yards north of Ypres. The air was poisoned by a terrible
stench that turned me sick. In the dim light the water appeared to be a dark-green swamp wherein lay corpses of men and bodies of horses; shafts of waggons and gun wheels protruded from the putrefying mass and after a shuddering glance I hurried along the towing path to clearer air. The bank was honeycombed with dugouts, chiefly occupied by REs. At one point I saw a fingerboard ‘To the RC Chaplain’.

Our cookers now rolled up and the cooks carried a hot meal over to our men. For my part I had lost my fear now, and in spite of the imminent attack and the fearful mass below me, I ate a hearty breakfast of sausages and bacon…

Vaughan is a commanding writer, and one who is keen both to describe the remembered scene with all the tools of the language and to record the raw emotions of the moment:[2]

…I walked along the path to where Sergeant Major Chalk was standing on the bank, silhouetted against the sky. I climbed up beside him and stood gazing across the darkness of the earth into the dawn. After a few minutes of silence he said ‘what is the time. Sir?’

‘Four forty-five’ I said, and with my words the whole earth burst into flame with one tremendous roar as hundreds of guns hurled the first round of the barrage…

Spellbound I saw a line of coloured lights shoot up from the Boche and then Chalk tugged my sleeve to indicate that our Company was lining up on the towing path…

My nervousness was gone now; trembling with excitement, but outwardly perfectly reasonable, I drank in every detail of the scene almost with eagerness. To the east we moved along the winding track between batteries of heavies that belched smoke and fire as we passed. The light grew rapidly, and the line of fire changed to a line of smoke. Around us and ahead of us was earth, nothing but earth—no houses or trees or even grass just faint shapeless humps from which the great guns hurled their iron death…

The men sing as they march up to take their positions in support.

The road had now almost disappeared and we were marching over shell-holes around which was scattered debris and wreckage at which I now dared not look. I kept my eyes fixed on the distance until we came to some low buildings—Van Heule Farm.

These were some of the concrete pillboxes of which we had heard. In front of them were six dead Germans and a disembowelled mule…

I led my platoon off to the right and we continued to move steadily across that muddy waste until I realized that we were walking into a curtain of fire. We were right on top of the German barrage when glancing round I saw Ewing give the signal to halt.

I repeated the signal to my men, and we all dived into shell-holes right on the fringe of the shell-torn zone. With my head just over the edge of my shell-hole I lay blinking into the shrieking, crashing hail of death 30 yards in front. We were too close to fear anything except a direct hit and fascinated I stared at that terrible curtain through which we soon must pass. One gun was firing regularly onto a spot only a few yards in front of me and as I watched the bursts I became aware of Private Bishop in the shell-hole in front with a thick red stream running down his back. I shouted to him ‘Are you hurt, Bishop?’ Turning round he said, ‘No Sir’ in surprise. So I leaped across the edge of the hole and found that the stream proceeded from a shrapnel wound in a carton of jam in his haversack…

Soon the order comes to occupy a more forward position. Since they are some distance to the south, the line of the Steenbeck (which runs from south east to northwest across the west-to-east oriented battlefield) is further to the east than where Patch and his battalion crossed it.

Dully I hoisted myself out of the mud and gave the signal to advance, which was answered by every man rising and stepping unhesitatingly into the barrage… we were surrounded by bursting shells and singing fragments, while above us a stream of bullets added their whining to the general pandemonium. The men were wonderful! And it was astounding that although no one ran or ducked, whilst many were blown over by shells bursting at our very feet no one was touched until we were through the thickest part of the barrage and making for the little ridge in front.

Then I saw fellows drop lifeless while others began to stagger and limp; the fragments were getting us and in front was a belt of wire. At this moment I felt my feet sink and though I struggled to get on, I was dragged down to the waist in sticky clay. The others passed on, not noticing my plight until by yelling and firing my revolver into the air I attracted the attention of Sergeant Gunn, who returned and dragged me out. I caught up the troops who were passing through a gap in the wire, and I was following Corporal Breeze when a shell burst at his feet. As I was blown backwards I saw him thrown into the air to land at my feet, a crumpled heap of torn flesh.

Sick with horror I scrambled over him and stumbled down into the cutting, which was the Steenbeck Stream. Crouched in here we found the Irish Rifles, and we lined up with them. There was a padre who gave me a cheery grin and further along was a major smoking a pipe as he sat on the bank with his back to the enemy. I climbed out of the stream and saluted him, noticing out of the corner of my eye that a tank was ditched in the cutting. I sat down beside him and told him who we were, and then from the heap of flesh that had been Breeze, I saw the stump of an arm raised an inch or two. Others saw it too and before I needed to tell them, the stretcher-bearers were on their way to him. Very gently they brought him in to where I was sitting. He was terribly mutilated, both his feet had gone and one arm, his legs and trunk were torn to ribbons and his face was dreadful. But he was conscious and as I bent over him I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of mingled recognition and terror. His feeble hand clutched my equipment, and then the light faded from his eye. The shells continued to pour but we gave poor Breezy a burial in a shell-hole and the padre read a hurried prayer.

…The ground sloped up so sharply in front that I could only see for about 30 yards. Behind us was nothing but the shell-swept waste of mud and filth. So I called to Corporal Benjamin to come and talk to me. He had just made some reference to poor Breeze, when there was a clang and he staggered back, his helmet flying off into the stream. A bullet had gone through it without touching him and his comical look of amazement and indignation as he retrieved it made me shriek with laughter…

We are now at the stage of every battle where things slow down: whatever was planned so minutely has run its course, and the various units who have come “through” the attacking waves must now assess the situation, discovering just where the enemy has been destroyed or retreated, and where he is hanging on. And with every hour on the battlefield the danger increases, as the German artillery, too, discovers what territory has been held and what can now be fired upon.

At about 3 p.m. we saw two figures walking back behind us, and recognizing Radcliffe we hailed him and ran across. His right wrist had been shattered by a sniper’s bullet and he was very upset for it was a rotten sort of blighty for a Doctor of Music to get. With him was Sergeant Bell who had got a bullet in the arm from the same sniper. It was with real regret that we gripped their left hands and said goodbye—we knew for ever. We felt that this was the beginning of the break-up and we rejoined our troops in deep dejection.

Half an hour later Ewing arrived, breathless from dodging the energetic snipers, and told me that I was to take command of the Company as he was going to HQ as adjutant in place of Hoskins, who had been hit… My instructions were to move the Company at dusk straight over to the left, form up behind the Gloucesters and after dark to push forward and deal with any machine guns in front.

Vaughan has not always had the confidence of the higher-ups in his battalion, but needs must. Despite being issued vague orders to make a lateral movement across a battlefield and then attempt the sort of small-unit tactical feat that will be the stuff of hundreds of war movies to come, he seems to acquit himself well–at least at first.

Owing to the murk of battle and the misty rain, we were able to move at 6 o’clock, so stumbling and dodging round the shell-holes we followed our guide over half a mile of mud and water in front of what had been St Julien. The  snipers were very busy as we crossed, but the light was so bad that the shots sang over our heads and no one was hit.

By the time we had formed up behind the Gloucesters, it was quite dark, so I immediately sent out four small patrols to locate the enemy line. In a very few minutes machine guns opened out and sprayed bullets over our line. The patrols all returned and reported that the ground in front was a morass of mud and water, and before they had gone a hundred yards the Boche had heard them floundering about, and had opened fire. I believed them but to satisfy myself I took a couple of men and went out towards a spot where I had judged a gun to be. In five minutes we were stumbling into deep holes full of water, and the noise we made dragging our bodies through the mud caused flares to shoot up all along his line and the ground was swept by traversing guns. By the light of one flare I thought I saw a low pillbox with figures standing before it, but I was not sure. In any case it was obvious that to attempt a night attack would be madness, so I took my patrol back. On the way we stumbled into a large swamp and waded about in water for some time before striking our positions.

Vaughan’s habit of honesty about his own shortcomings as an officer is one of the most valuable aspects of his diary. He hasn’t quite refused to perform a direct order, but he has asserted his own judgment–as a second lieutenant of very limited combat experience–that the suggested attack is “madness,” and demurred. This could be interpreted–unfairly, but still–as a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to get some of his men killed in capturing an important local objective. As a company commander, Vaughan now has only the battalion’s commanding officer to answer to:

I found the CO waiting for me and I sat down in the mud beside him feeling dead beat and horribly ill. What he was saying I had no idea, for I must have fainted or gone to sleep. After what seemed a long time I heard a voice saying
unintelligible things, and I was just able to mutter, ‘I’m awfully sorry. Sir, but I haven’t the least idea what you’re saying.’ He shook me violently and said ‘Now, Vaughan, pull yourself together.’ Whereupon I was alert in a moment and he repeated his instructions. I was to form up my platoons in depth to the right of where we were then sitting. The Gloucesters were going out before dawn and the following night I was to spread out to the left and form a line joining the Ox and Bucks. Then he left me and I sat for a while staring into the darkness, realizing that we were in a hell of a place.

It was a very different attack from what I had imagined we would experience: terror and death coming from far away seemed much more ghastly than a hail of fire from people whom we could see and with whom we could come to grips. And now we were in an unknown district and must await through the long night the uncertainties of the dawn…

But they still must go forward–the uncertainties of dawn are likely to include a counter-attack, and they must prepare for this as best they can.

Chalk and I went in front… in a few moments a salvo of high-velocity shells kept us flattened out in the mud as they crashed amongst us.

Coincidentally, David Jones sketched a different British tank elsewhere in the Salient today, a century back

As we pushed on again we discerned dimly, through the rain and darkness, a derelict tank. ‘What about that for an HQ, Sir?’ said Chalk. I assented and when I had positioned the troops in front with Jimmy Harding among them, I led my staff of runners, signallers and pigeon carriers back to that spot. As we approached it, however, we were met by a filthy, overpowering stench and found that a shell had burst underneath it and it had burnt out. The charred bodies of the crew were inside or half out of the open door. So I sought the healthier atmosphere of a large crater 30 yards away and gathered my staff in neighbouring shell-holes.

I was very tired but had to stagger out at once to see that the line was unbroken and I had a rotten time dodging shells. Feeling half dead I was on my way back when I heard a voice yelling ‘Stretcher-bearers’. It was Sergeant Swingler with a chunk of shrapnel in his shoulder…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Last Fighting Tommy, 90-101. The name Harry Patch will be familiar to Great War cognoscenti and even perhaps to those with little reading in the subject, and/or an interest in alternative rock. He was not really a writer, but his story is terribly moving, and even almost hopeful: at his funeral, in 2009, soldiers from Belgium, France, and Germany accompanied his coffin--and, in strict accordance with his wishes, there were no weapons present, not even ceremonial swords. So that was Harry Patch, and it seemed a shame, in the strange logic of military history, not to include his terrible day, here, in some way. At the very least this trauma of a century back gave a renewed push to the effort to remember the Great War properly--in its full awfulness--in hte two decades leading up to the centenary. But there is a good methodological reason, too, for including him: his story, "as told to" interviewers (and, for the book, to the military historian Richard Van Emden) is the most extreme sort of counterpoint to what I generally value the most, here. Instead of a near-immediate record in a dated diary entry or letter, we have the memories of a day only after these memories have weathered eighty or nineties years in the mind of a survivor--Patch didn't start talking about the war until he was over a century old. It's a reminder of what, from another point of view, really matters, and a rebuke from a very gentle old man: the section I quote from, above, begins "I'm told we attacked on 16 August, but the date doesn't mean much to me..." and then he, in Hemingway/Fussell fashion still remembers the names, but, as the first ellipsis, above, continues "it is such a long time ago that I can't quite connect them up in my head."
  2. His diary will be extensively worked over after the fact, at least in part to achieve this effect.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193-200.

The Death of a Slender Gallant; Edward Brittain Survives an Awful Time; Henry Williamson Breaks New Ground

We have seen Basil Blackwood–Lord Ian Basil Gawaine Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood–only once before… and I didn’t even mentioned his prewar work as an illustrator (for shame). It was near Messines, as it happens–but not recently. Way back in October of 1914, after being badly wounded during what was not yet known as “First Ypres,” we glimpsed Blackwood lying on the stretcher adjacent to Francis Grenfell, who had himself just been wounded.

If many of the “Kitchener” volunteers now see themselves as surrounded by the ghosts of 1915 and 1916, the few aristocrats of the 1914 army who have neither been killed nor promoted and transferred to safer jobs must have felt lonely indeed.

Blackwood needed years to recover from that wound, but he did, and recently transferred from the posh 9th Lancers to the posh Grenadier Guards, where he became a 46-year-old subaltern of infantry. Tonight, a century back, he was killed while leading a patrol near Boesinghe, a few miles across the salient from where he had been wounded.

Blackwood was a friend of John Buchan‘s, and from him he will receive a notable eulogy, an exemplar of fulsome Edwardian-style praise for the fallen “New Elizabethan.”

The phrase ‘Elizabethan…’ can be used with truth of Basil. He was of the same breed as the slender gallants who singed the beard of the King of Spain and, like Essex, tossed their plumed hats into the sea in joy of the enterprise, or who sold their swords to whatever cause had daylight and honour in it. His like had left their bones in farther spaces than any race on earth, and from their uncharted wanderings our empire was born. He did not seek to do things so much as to see them, to be among them and to live in the atmosphere of wonder and gay achievement…

If spirits return into human shape perhaps his once belonged to a young grandee of the Lisbon court who stormed with Albuquerque the citadels of the Indies and died in the quest for Prester John. He had the streak of Ariel in him, and his fancy had always wings… In a pedestrian world he held to the old cavalier grace, and wherever romance called he followed with careless gallantry.[1]

 

Happily, despite being thrown directly from England into the fighting line the night before a battle, Edward Brittain has escaped a similar fate. About the time that his sister Vera will be receiving his “last letter” proclaiming his love for her, he wrote this retraction:

Billets, France, 3 July 1917

It’s alright. I am so sorry to have worried you.

But this was no happy return.

All the same we have had an awful time. When I reported my arrival on Saturday night having only left Etaples in the morning, I was told that I was to go up with the company and that they were going to attack in the early morning.The whole thing was a complete fiasco; first of all the guide which was to lead us to our position went wrong and lost the way completely. I must tell you that the battalion had never been in the section before and nobody knew the way at all.

Then my company commander got lost and so there was only one other officer besides myself and he didn’t know the way. The organisation of the whole thing was shocking as of course the position ought to have been reconnoitred before and it is obviously impossible for anyone who has never even seen the ground before to attack in the dark. After wandering through interminable trenches I eventually found myself with only five men in an unknown place at the time when our barrage opened. It was clearly no use attempting to do anything and so I found a small bit of trench and waited there till it got light. Then I found one of our front posts (there was no proper front line) and there we had to stop till we were relieved last night. As you can imagine we had a pretty rotten time altogether. I don’t think that I and the other officer who reported with me ought to have been rushed into the show like that after a tiring 2 days travelling and not knowing the map etc etc. However we are likely to be out for a few days now and I may have an opportunity of getting to know the officers and men here.[2]

So “good staff work” has not, it would seem, become universal…

 

Henry Williamson is about as far from Ypres and Lens as a Briton can be. He is summering on the Cornish coast, recovering from exhaustion and illness–possibly exaggerated, unless he really has been close to a complete breakdown. In recovering, as if on a self-guided version of Wilfred Owen‘s ergotherapry, he will now be turning his hand to something new. Williamson’s many periods of leave, convalescence, and training have generally featured strenuous efforts to have fun–with motorcycles, with girls, even with his prewar pursuits of country walking. But today, a century back he wrote two words in his diary “began story.”

There were “no reasons given for this most dramatic step.” And yet wasn’t really all that dramatic: Williamson has been a fabulist and a story-teller for as long as we have known him. Now, it seems, he is thinking of his life in more conventional fictional terms. If this is indeed the day he began the novelization of his life–the day that Phillip Maddison was conceived–it would mark the biggest undertaking yet… undertaken… by any of our writers…[3]

 

And finally, today, a brief note. Let readers of Philip Ziegler’s biography of Osbert Sitwell beware: today, a century back, cannot have been the date of a certain letter from Sassoon to Sitwell…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Pilgrim's Way, 103-4.
  2. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 363.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165-7. Henry Williamson's A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight will eventually run to fifteen volumes.
  4. The letter from Sassoon is cited in Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 76. The date of July 3rd is impossible, given the acquaintance between the two men which it mentions. Nor does it seem to refer to "his new book--presumably The Old Huntsman," but rather to subsequent poetry. Presumably, rather, the letter was misdated (by Sassoon, perhaps, but more likely by Sitwell or later scholars) and belongs to the autumn...

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

Vera Brittain and the Troop Train, then London and the War Unreal; A Disastrous Day for the Second Royal Welch

Vera Brittain‘s homeward journey has been, for the last few days, something like a maniacally condensed version of the Grand Tour. But she left Paris late last night; and today, a century back, she is back in the war.

May 27th

Woke up at 5.0 when train stopped at Amiens. Seething crowd of British and French officers and soldiers, most of them in a trench-state. Thought of Roland, Edward and Geoffrey as having been here; don’t think Victor ever was. Felt very near the war…

Brittain and the young nurses in the Red Cross train are cheered by young British troops, headed for the front–an experience which will shortly give rise to a poem:

The Troop Train

(France, 1917)

As we came down from Amiens,
And they went up the line,
They waved their careless hands to us,
And cheered the Red Cross sign.

And often I have wondered since,
Repicturing that train,
How many of those laughing souls
Came down the line again.

 

A predictable–which is to say irresistible–spark for the Romantic imagination. Or the realist, really–what else is there to think of, knowing what she knows and having seen what she has seen of soldiers’ bodies, as she passes so briefly through the central rail junction of the British Western Front?

A few hours later, after detraining and embarking in Boulogne, she is disorientingly far from the war once again:

…The white cliffs seemed to appear very quickly; it seemed like a dream to be seeing them again, or else a dream that I had ever left them…

One more quick train and she was in her parents’ new London flat by supper-time.

…pausing only to learn that Victor was still alive and still progressing, I threw off my dilapidated garments and jumped into a hot bath…

After supper I settled down luxuriously to smoke–a new habit originally acquired as a means of defence against the insect life in Malta–and to talk to my father about the hazards and adventures of my journey home. My parents took a gratifying pleasure in my assumption of worldly wisdom and the sophistication of the lighted cigarette…

Sitting before the open French windows of the big drawing-room, I looked out upon the peaceful, darkening square with a sense of unbelievable repose. Between the flats and the turmoil of London lay a long unspoilt area of wooded parkland; the great trees stretched eastward as far as I could see. Hidden by the cool green of their new spring foliage, innumerable birds twittered softly on the topmost branches. The War with its guns and submarines, its death and grief and cruel mutilations, might have been as innocuous and unreal as time and the smooth, patriotic selections of school history-books had made the Napoleonic campaigns of a century ago.[1]

A challenge to literature, then… and to the history-book-compilers of the future.

And naturally I can’t resist picking up on the “century ago.” So, a century from Waterloo to the Western Front–how much progress have we made? Since this whole project is, in a sense, an attempt to address the broader question of writing about war, it doesn’t make much sense to attempt an answer here. And on the narrower question of history textbooks I have little to add. The average American school child learns precious little about World War One, given the shorter participation of the United States and the war’s location in between the Civil War (about which the American schoolchild may still learn lies and obfuscations, especially about the racial terror of its aftermath) and the ever-fascinating and morally unambiguous Second World War.

Still, it is surely correct to say that the history books are aware that making war “innocuous” is a disservice to, among other capitalizable abstractions, History, Humanity, and Truth, and that, compared to the books of a century back, there is less knee-jerk glorification of all things warlike and far more attention to the human costs of war. And it is also correct to say that this has something to do with the efforts of Vera Brittain, Siegfried Sassoon and the rest…

But are we doing well enough? Will any aged eminences send satisfactory praise for our rendering of all that is cruel and despicable about what we have done in the past?

Well, well. But Vera Brittain didn’t come home to muse on the ironic dislocations of physical and temporal proximity–she came home to help her family, and to be with Victor. Visiting hours begin tomorrow.

 

That troop train was too far from the front–by a day’s military logistics or so–for the Tommies waving to the Red Cross nurses to be thrown into the meat grinder today. So it’s a poetic near-miss, as it were, for a crossing of the paths of Vera Brittain and the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were already at the front and bound for the offensive, today, on a stubborn sector of the Hindenburg Line.

Siegfried Sassoon‘s day, though he can’t know it, is nevertheless wracked by a particularly vicious irony of proximity. He is in green and pleasant environs, not only unspoilt by the war but far from any direct reminders of it. And not so very far away, many of his comrades are being shot down in another futile attack.

It was on 1.55 on what was a beautiful, sunny Whitsun in Picardie, with “the fallow” of No Man’s Land “gay with yellow and gold,” that the barrage opened up. The assault was impossibly well-named for a descent from pastoral sweetness into military disaster: A and C companies of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers attacked from “Plum Lane” toward a section of “Tunnel Trench.”

C Company’s commander, T.R. Conning, led the assault. He “chaffed the stiff-limbed and the laggards, and gave some of them a hand to climb out.” But the wire was thicker than expected and barrage lifted too quickly–and without doing significant damage to the Germans in Tunnel Trench or the machine guns supporting them. Within minutes, 165 men of the 2nd Royal Welch were hit. About half of these were killed, and ten of the 11 officers who had gone over the top were casualties. The dead included both Conning and E.L. Orme (“Dunning” and “Ormand” in the memoir), both particular friends of Siegfried Sassoon.[2]

Sassoon is in Sussex, lolling uneasily about Chapelwood Manor, and thus in ignorance of the planned attack.

There were times when I felt perversely indignant at the “cushiness” of my convalescent existence. These reactions were mostly caused by the few letters which came to me from the front. One of Joe Dottrell’s hastily pencilled notes could make me unreasonably hostile… and inarticulately unfriendly.

Dottrell/Cottrell, the quartermaster, had written to Sassoon recently about the death of “Young Brock,” i.e. Lt. Brocklebank, his hunting friend, and he will shortly write again about today’s slaughter, spurring a deeper bitterness with his details of this “hopeless failure” and its cost.[3]

For Frank Richards–who adds the detail, unreported in Dunn’s chronicle, that Dr. Dunn himself spent the afternoon “wandering about No Man’s Land” under fire,aiding the wounded–this “disastrous day for all concerned” provided a retrospective irony rather than a simultaneous one. Captain Radford, the only officer in the attack still alive and unwounded, saw Richards that evening and remarked “Well, Richards, only you, Sergeant Owens and I are left out of that tug-of-war team of the day before yesterday.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 353-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the infantry Knew, 349-54.
  3. Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, 468.
  4. It was actually three days earlier, an error of Richards' memory. Old Soldiers Never Die, 238.

Kate Luard on Flowers and Horrors; Vera Brittain Misses Rome; Two Verses from Siegfried Sassoon on Quiet Gardens and the Far-Off Dead

I hope that there are still occasional surprises, here, even with our old familiar regulars–after all, if “real-time military history” doesn’t demonstrate how often expectation and routine are upended by events, then surely there is a double failure to represent the contingency of real life in subsequent life-writing. And yet I have felt myself falling into certain patterns, allotting certain roles to certain writers… which is all well and good as long as it does not unduly influence the choice of excerpts from their writings.

In any case, it has become Kate Luard‘s duty to juxtapose a quintessentially English interest in country walks and wildflowers with compassionate description of the war’s human wreckage.

Friday, May 25th

Dazzling weather and very little doing. The woods are full of bluebells and bugloss and stitchwort, and the fields of buttercups and sorrel. Our wards and own huts and tents are a mass of spring.

There is a boy in with his spinal cord exposed, lying on his face, who was wounded on Sunday and not picked up till Thursday morning. He was in a shell-hole crying to four other wounded in it the first night. They took no notice and in the morning he saw they had all died.[1]

 

Yesterday, a century back, Vera Brittain went through Rome on her way from Malta back to England. And what did the young Englishwoman do with a few hours to spare in the eternal city? “Had tea in an English restaurant; after tea drove to English quarter and wandered around curio shops.”

Ah, well. Today, the journey continued.

Friday, May 25th

Woke to find we were all among mountains, just going into Pisa. Saw Leaning Tower of Pisa from train. Glorious mountain scenery; mountain-sides covered with thick trees, cypresses and pines standing out among them…

At Modane Vera and her companions changed to the Paris express, which she described as the “most splendid train I have ever been in; seats very large and comfortable; got a corner. Had a most excellent dinner…”[2]

 

And Siegfried Sassoon has been writing verse again–two poems can be dated to today, a century back. The first is an uncharacteristically restrained sort of war poem, something that might remind us of Edward Thomas‘s work, except with still that hint of reflexively “poetic” diction or prettiness of sound, and less of Thomas’s unflinching gaze. Nevertheless, this is skilled work, and it makes sense to assume that Sassoon can hardly resist juxtaposing the loveliness of Chapelwood Manor (well provided with hawthorns) with his feelings of deep connection with the men who remain in France.

 

The Hawthorn Tree

Not much to me is yonder lane
Where I go every day;
But when there’s been a shower of rain
And hedge-birds whistle gay,
I know my lad that’s out in France,
With fearsome things to see,
Would give his eyes for just one glance
At our white hawthorn-tree.

Not much to me is yonder lane
Where he so longs to tread:
But when there’s been a shower of rain
I think I’ll never weep again
Until I’ve heard he’s dead.

 

This might be a slight poem, or then again it might make a “deep impression through its very restraint and understatement.” Still, if it is “reminiscent of Hardy,” it is Hardy’s earlier, generally more gentle Wessex work.

Not so the next, a similar juxtaposition but much more forceful, charging in like a veritable Satire of Circumstance. Once more we find ourselves in peace in an English pastoral setting, and thinking of Zero Hour.

 

Death in the Garden

I never thought to see him; but he came
When the first strangeness of the dawn was grey.
He stood before me, a remembered name,
A twilight face, poor lonely ghost astray.
Flowers glimmered in the garden where I stood
And yet no more than darkness was the green.
Then the wind stirred; and dawn came up the wood;
Add he was gone away: or had I seen
That figure in my brain? for he was dead;
I knew that he was killed when I awoke.
At zero-hour they shot him through the head
Far off in France, before the morning broke.[3]

 

This poem may memorialize a particular man, Ralph Brocklebank–“Brock” in the Memoirs–whom Sassoon had befriended at Litherland. Brocklebank, like Sassoon an enthusiastic hunter, had been killed in France on the 15th, news which Sassoon had just learned in a letter from Joe Cottrell. Brocklebank was nineteen. But the details are not quite right, and it makes more sense to say that the poem is about loss and a feeling of double exile: just as it may be about the gardens of Chapelwood and the death of Brocklebank, it may also touch on the death of Sassoon’s brother Hamo, and the garden at home in Kent in which the brothers once played and that Sassoon has since been avoiding. In either case, there is much still to be written, even with old unfussy rhymed pentameters, even with simple end-rhymes, like “dead.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 126.
  2. Testament of Youth, 350-1.
  3. Diaries, 172.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 365-7.

A.P. Herbert at Zero Hour; Siegfried Sassoon is Satisfied with Praise; Wilfred Owen Contemplates a Wound Stripe

A.P. Herbert, finds–exactly as Siegfried Sassoon did, three days ago–that no matter how far from the trenches he might be, his thoughts are inevitably drawn home. Well, that’s not quite right. They are drawn, geographically speaking, away from what had been home and out toward the old battalion, fighting a foreign war. Soldiers in the trenches long for Blighty, but, once there, they realize that it is hard to leave their band of brothers without feeling some guilt of survival and abandonment. Is home a place, or a community? The experiential gulf casts this old question into new and troubling relief.

And so Herbert finds himself thinking of those brothers in arms, out there, waiting to attack. But Herbert writes for Punch, and the style is very different from Sassoon’s. Caught between a serious subject and a humorous style, this comes perilously close to doggerel.

 

Zero

(“Zero-hour”—commonly known as ” Zero “—is the hour fixed for the opening of an Infantry attack.)

I woke at dawn and flung the window wide.
Behind the hedge the lazy river ran;
The dusky barges idled down the tide;
In the laburnum tree the birds began;
And it was May, and half the world in flower;
I saw the sun creep over an Eastward brow,
And thought, “It may be, this is Zero-hour;
Somewhere the lads are ‘going over’ now.”

Somewhere the guns speak sudden on the height.
And build for miles their battlement of fire;
Somewhere the men that shivered all the night
Peer anxious forth and scramble through the wire,
Swarm slowly out to where the Maxims bark.
And green and red the panic rockets rise;
And Hell is loosed, and shyly sings a lark,
And the red sun climbs sadly up the skies…

Yes, there’s the lark, uncomfortably rhymed with a machine gun’s noise. The description of the fight in the next several stanzas reads as semi-parodic, and is fairly clunky, so we’ll skip it. But the doggerel can still drive home one of the increasingly obvious truths of the literature of this war, namely that no description, no matter how skillful, can both describe and situate its experience. It doesn’t take a Hemingway to figure out that proper names wield special power in a static war, and when Herbert rhymes “Gavrelle” with hell, the former is more compelling. He doesn’t quite have the poetic power to pull this off, but he’s made a decent run at a powerful theme.

I see it all. I see the same brave souls
To-night, to-morrow, though the half be gone,
Deafened and dazed, and hunted from their holes.
Helpless and hunger-sick, but holding on
I shall be happy all to-morrow here,
But not till night shall they go up the steep.
And, nervous now because the end is near.
Totter at last to quietness and to sleep.

And men who find it easier to forget
In England here, among the daffodils,
That Eastward there are fields unflowered yet.
And murderous May-days on the unlovely hills–
Let them go walking where the land is fair.
And watch the breaking of a morn in May,
And think, “It may be Zero over there,
But here is Peace” — and kneel awhile, and pray.

And speaking of Sassoon, if there is one word of praise that matters most to him, and one friendly rival he is most likely to crow to about it, well: Sassoon wrote today to Robert Graves, confiding that “Hardy of Wessex” praised a number of his poems, which he then lists. After that, some delicious understatement. This praise…

…is satisfactory. I did not expect him to be very excited, but to appreciate the grim humour which he is so capable of judging.[1]

Satisfactory! Sassoon is at work, too, on the poem “Supreme Sacrifice,” which will scathingly contrast the opinions of his hosts, “aged Earls and Countesses, who have outlived their austere emotions,” and the grim fates of young fighters.

Finally, today, Wilfred Owen is very put out, but only because he has not yet been put out. The 13th Casualty Clearing Station has disappeared, and in its place the 41st Stationary Hospital has arisen–but both, it seems, were intended to specialize in the treatment of what is variously being described as war neurosis, neurasthenia, or shell shock. This is clear enough in the letter, but it’s notable, still, that Owen avoids directly mentioning it.

23 May 1917

41st Stationary Hospital

Dearest Mother,

I wondered why it was such an effort to write the short notes of a day or two ago. I have discovered that I had a temperature of 102.9, so it was not surprising. I am still feverish but on the right side of 100°. I suppose it is Trench Fever, which has been incubating all this time, but they don’t say what it is and I don’t think they know.

I have had a wretched enough time, not from the fever in myself but from the stew that the whole hospital has got into. A completely new staff from England has taken over. The old people cleared off bag and baggage, bed & bedding, before even the new things arrived. They did put us in some sort of beds, but otherwise they stripped the ward stark, taking even the drugs. There was not left one chair, one mug, one teapot, one rug, one screen. ‘They took the very ashtrays to which indeed they were welcome, for they are not worth a farthing, and I don’t smoke.

No, I could no more smoke a cigarette than any unborn chicken…

A smoke screen of complaint thus laid, Owen rather contrarily girds himself and plows right through it. What follows is his most concerted attempt yet to face–and to prepare his mother to face–the fact that he is suffering from a psychological wound. With raised eyebrow he airily tries out some weighty arguments. We know, of course, that he is not wrong. But not all that many would have agreed, in 1917.

It is quite likely that I shall appear in the Casualty List, as Neurasthenia is marked W(ound) not S(ick)—not wrongly I think. I know that Capt. Sorrel was mentioned for Shock, and that some persons wear gold stripes for neurasthenia!

Many more are worn for bullet grazes which did not more harm than a needle-scratch…

Yours ever W.E.O. X

The new staff of the hospital will no doubt start unpacking today. But I shall never get over my indignation at the manner of the Relief![2]

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 359.
  2. Collected Letters, 462-3.

Alfred Hale’s Indignity and Despair; A Probable Whopper from Henry Williamson; Duff Cooper and FOMO; Rowland Feilding En Famille; A Bad Dream for Siegfried Sassoon, but Thomas Hardy Doubles Down

Alfred Hale‘s first day in his new job as an RFC batman was… not good. But whether a say like this reads as unmitigated disaster or bitter farce has much to do with how much time has elapsed before one comes to contemplate it.

Hale has been assigned to look after the comforts of officers, and yet, even though he feels his own toilet to be essential both to his sense of well-being and his self-worth, he is incapable even of shaving himself. There are no barbers to be found, and his safety razor has been stolen. Hence this scene of military bathos:

The more I dipped my razor in the collapsible cup, the more it acted up to its name, till I had hard work to keep what little water I could in its bottom portion, so to speak. And my face? Well, the more I tried to get my beard off, the more my chin bled, till I was forced to stop. Yes, that army razor could cut fast enough, and no mistake…

Further humiliation awaited on the parade ground. Hale did not yet know that, as a batman, he could skip morning drill, during which both his incompetence and his butchered face drew the attention of the NCO in charge. And it got worse. Hale was then interviewed by a Captain Ross, and Hale–too bitter and focused a writer to refrain from shriving himself even as he is ground down by an antagonist–bungles it.

I was asked if I had ever been anything in the shape of a domestic servant, and on my replying in the negative, was told off to be a batman. But that was not before I had made an utter ass of myself by whining out that I had had a Public School education, and would like something clerical to do. This very foolish remark brought down on me a withering look from Ross, and I subsequently came to the conclusion that I had far better have stood silently on my dignity, without a word, and thrown the whole responsibility involved in giving me unsuitable work to do on Ross and those in authority behind him…

But standing on my dignity alas, was the last thing I was capable of that morning…

If all this occurred on the Sunday morning, 20 May, it was little wonder that I was well-night abandoning myself to despair that evening out for a walk at the crossroads, and when leaning over the gate leading into the wood, and that it seemed about the limit of things when I was met on my return to camp by Bailey and Lloyd and accused of staying out too long..

Hale’s first description of this despairing walk, given before a full accounting of the morning’s humiliations, sounds even worse: “I had some pretty bad moments, needing all the philosophical courage I could muster to overcome them.” Is this a self-pitying and melodramatic account of desperation and misery, or is Hale telling us that he was nearly suicidal?[1]

 

Henry Williamson is an irresistible point of comparison, since so much is so different about the two men and yet this central dynamic of misfitting, embarrassment, and intense writing of their own humiliations is so similar. Williamson is, for all his three years in the military, still so young, while Hale seems much older than his forty-two years. Williamson’s social background is quite humble for an officer while Hale is extremely unusual in being a Public School enlisted man (the days of the Public Schools Battalion being long gone)–the world is turned upside down.

Then there is the sharp difference in personality: Williamson the impulsive clown, full of bluster and manic energy, while Hale is steady but so inward that he must seem irretrievably obtuse. They will never fit in; they will constantly put their feet in it. And they will write about it in shame and wonder…

One thing does separate them, though, in a temporary rather than an absolute way. Hale is an innocent while Williamson is an experienced army man. He saw a good deal of combat, in 1914 and 1915, but he has lately managed the system very well. Through illness, promotion, retraining, and transport work, Williamson has strung together several years out of the actual trenches. And this string of excerpts from different letters shows his proudly practical approach to his own war service:

18 May

Dear Mother, Am awfully tired… last night we ran into a barrage of tear and phosgene shells… my eyes are very painful and for the moment Im fed up…

19 May

…Well this is my fourth month and not a sign of leave yet–oh my hat I am bored stiff–I love the life (except the strafes of course)… Thank God I’m a transport officer & dont go up again to the awful slaughter they call our front line–with the Bosche grinning 1000 yds away…

20 May

Am going down the line a bit for 5 weeks to do a Signalling Course–why I dont know–I am very fed up with losing my Transport job but don’t worry–they won’t get me in the infantry…

And then something very strange enters the letters. Given Williamson’s penchant for dishonesty and his inability to resist expanding upon his military exploits (good practice for his formal fictionalization of war experience, later on) we must assume that this is a very tall tale:

I have just returned from special duty in London.[2]

Huh? Why would a lieutenant commanding the transport section of a machine gun company near the front lines be sent all the way to London? Williamson will make another reference to going to the War Office, as if someone had made him a special courier of secret information. But this is extremely unlikely, especially since his diary shows no absence from France. If he really did go on “special duty” he would have to have been there and back in a day. Anne Williamson notes that there is no confirmation of this extraordinary fact, and it seems to seal the case that Henry Williamson doesn’t write anything else about such a trip other than the two bare mentions in the letters. About nearly everything else that happens he repeatedly brags, in his letters, or elaborates, in his fiction.

So Williamson must be making this up, presumably to obscure the real reason that he has been sent on a signalling course–and that reason, roughly, must be his superiors’ unhappiness with his incompetence as a transport officer, and perhaps also his strange and socially unacceptable behavior.

 

From two achingly awkward men, then, to one of the smoothest. But Duff Cooper, even as he uses his decision to join the army to dramatic effect in his relentlessly dramatic affair with Diana Manners, is not going to lie to himself (or his love, or his diary) about his motivations.

The following account is consistent with his private reasoning, and very believable: what makes a century back different from our own, in social terms, is not so much the power of the Fear Of Missing Out (a new acronym, but not a new phenomenon, as we will see) as its deadliness, particularly to the upper classes, who no longer do much dying for their country.

Tonight the same took place as last night… I confessed to her that I was really glad to join the army which made her cry–she was so white and darling and pathetic. I explained to her that it was no nonsense about dying for my country or beating the Germans that made me glad to join, but simply the feeling I have had for so long that I am missing something, the vague regret that one feels when not invited to a ball even though it be a ball that one hardly would have hoped to enjoy.[3]

 

Penultimately–Siegfried Sasson still awaits us in Sussex–we have Rowland Feilding among old friends. This has been a long war, and I had no memory of reading of Feilding’s time billeted with this particular French family. But there’s a link below, happily…

May 20, 1917 (Sunday). Coulomby.

The rest is already beginning to work marvels with the men, and although we have so far had only two days of it, the cheered-up look and the renewed freshness in the battalion is surprising to see.

We had a football match this afternoon, and won it: and this morning (Sunday) we had Church Parade in an orchard. I must say I felt very proud of the battalion. The men had all groomed themselves up like new pins. The mud of the trenches had entirely disappeared…

This afternoon I rode with Booth, my Adjutant, to Lumbres, and called on the Avots. About five seconds after I had rung the bell the door was opened by Madame Avot herself. She recognized me at once and gave me such a welcome. She called for her husband, and Jean (who used to follow me about on his bicycle), and the little girl. There was a rush along the passage as they all came bounding out to meet me. I might have been the head of the
house returning from the war. It was indeed most touching. The last time I had seen them was on that night when they all waited in the road to say good-bye as we marched past their gate on our way to Loos. Jean and his sister were small children then. To-day Jean is dressed like a man, and both he and Edith are as tall as myself…

I was skurried into the drawing-room. Madame Avot began asking me all sorts of questions—about you, and about the children. She remembered everything about all of you. We started in broken French. Then we got into broken English. She asked, “How is the cheeky one?’’—referring to a description I had once given her of A—— . I had forgotten the episode till she reminded me. I had tried to describe the three children, and incidentally had said that one of them was a cheeky little thing. She did not understand, and I searched for a word, but could not find any appropriate translation for the word “cheeky.” She has since then learned to use the word herself.

While we sat in the drawing-room the little—now big —girl (what a long time the war must have lasted for her
to have grown like this) handed round chocolates…

It all reminded me of that evening in August, 1915, when she did these same things, and her husband, whose English was very, very limited in those days, edged up to me and kept saying, “Am I not lucky to have such a wife?”

It’s not often that we hear Feilding mention his children, but who could resist, in the circumstances? And he is true to form here in bringing the subject back to the excellence of wives…

 

Siegfried Sassoon is having a fine old time, outwardly. At Chapelwood Manor, in Sussex, he is recovering from his shoulder wound in an atmosphere of privileged leisure.

All possible kindness had been showered on me, every opportunity was there for healthy contentment and mental relaxation, and the fine early summer weather made the place an earthly paradise. But somehow or other I had only achieved superficial felicity, for the contrast between this luxurious and delightful existence and my lurid experiences on the Arras battlefield had been with me all the time. My mind dwelt continually on the battalion with which had been serving. Since I left it, ten officers had been killed and fourteen wounded. It wasn’t surprising that this undermined my complacency about my own good fortune…[4]

That would be Sassoon looking back, and the retrospective balance is salutary. But here is how it felt in the moment, today, a century back:

May 20

When I woke early this morning to hear the bird-voices, so rich and shrill in the grey misty dawn, piping hoarse and sweet from the quiet fragrance of the wet garden and from the green dripping, woods far off—lying in my clean white bed, drowsy and contented, I suddenly remembered ‘At zero the infantry will attack’—Operation Orders! Men were attacking while I lay in bed and listened to the heavenly choruses of birds. Men were blundering about in a looming twilight of hell lit by livid flashes of guns and hideous with the malignant invective of machine-gun fire. Men were dying, fifty yards from their trench—failing to reach the objective—held up.

And to-night the rain is hushing the darkness, steady, whispering rain—the voice of peace among summer foliage. And men are cursing the downpour that drenches and chills them, while the guns roar out their challenge.[5]

This is a man who is not a peace with himself. And why should he be, with the war going on? And what should he do?

Well, he should write. A letter from a literary hero is on its way to Sassoon, with praise that may either confirm him in his sense that it is his duty to satirize the war with as sharp a pen as possible, or, cross-grained as he is, may prod him to write something more, something different. And lest we think that Thomas Hardy‘s praise of Sassoon’s verse was merely politesse or kindness to an old friend’s nephew, he mentions Sassoon in passing in a letter of today to another old friend, Florence Henniker.

Max Gate, May 20, 1917

My dear Friend:

…People are in strangely irritable moods I fancy. I said very harmlessly in a poem (sonnet) entitled “The Pity of It” that the Germans were a “kin folk, kin tongued” (which is indisputable) & letters attacking me appeared, denying it! The fact of their being our enemies does not alter their race…

The young poets you allude to—I imagine you mean the “Georgians” (an absurd name, as if the Georgians were not Shelley Scott, Byron, &c.)—are I think or some of them, on a wrong track. They seem to forget that poetry must have symmetry in its form, & meaning in its content.

I have read young Sassoon’s book dedicated to me. I think the poems show much promise…

Always yrs affectionately
Th: H.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 64-9.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 153-4.
  3. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 48.
  5. Diaries, 170-1.
  6. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 214-5.