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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Italy, 30 November 1917

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

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

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

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

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

And that’s all we learn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want me any more?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

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

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

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

27 November 1917 Scarborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you will read through this, twice.

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Siegfried Sassoon’s Dubious Cure is Complete; The Guards Prepare to Enter Bourlon Wood

Today, a century back, is another one of those dramatic days in the literary history of the war–meaning that, even if you haven’t seen the movie (Regeneration, a.k.a Behind the Lines), it’s hard not to imagine the scene dramatically staged, with sonorous speechifying punctuated by clipped phrases. Siegfried Sassoon–decorated infantry officer, poet of protests, and previous-medical-board-cutter–comes before a Medical Board to assure them that he has not changed his mind, refuses to acknowledge that he has been ill, and nevertheless insists not just on resuming military obedience but on actively fighting–he has Rivers’s word that he will be passed fit for general service abroad, and not shunted off to a depot or desk job.

It went fine, by most accounts, and the drama dissipated. Sassoon left Craiglockhart in what must have been a mood of anticlimax–Rivers had already left, Owen was gone, and he was off to a dismal depot in Wales to see if the War Office would keep the bargain and send him back into danger.

It’s possible that Sassoon was frustrated, that he was unsettled and unhappy to be going to a place with many acquaintances who would not understand his protest, and no real friends. But I don’t see any good reason to follow his biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson in assuming that he was deeply depressed. He has sent some melodramatic letters in recent days, surely–and he is annoyed by Robert Graves‘s infatuation with Nancy Nicholson (although whether he viewed this primarily as a “defection” from a homosexual brotherhood–rather than just a male friend traducing an all-male society–is doubtful). But to assume that he “no longer cared whether he was alive or dead” (or, later on the same page, that he was “not caring much whether he lived or died”) seems unnecessary. Sassoon is prone to wallowing, but he never really manifested severe depression. His “almost complete despair” is an emotional position, rather than a psychological state. Either that or it’s a passing mood, and there are no German grenadiers near by to take him up on a temporary recklessness…[1]

In any event, his strange claims and steady demeanor got him past the board, despite his insistence that the war was still wrong and that he hasn’t changed his mind. This is true in one sense, but untrue in a more important one: he can do nothing right, or feel nothing to be right, until he is back with the troops.

And after the second board meets, naturally, the book ends. Regeneration, that is: the last scene in the novel sees Rivers completing the paperwork that sends Sassoon back to duty.

 

And none too soon–or, rather, far too late for him to see any of the worst of the 1917 fighting. The last of this will fall, as it often does, to the Guards division. We are back, now, with the American Carroll Carstairs, only just returned from leave. He found his battalion, the 3rd Grenadier Guards, a few days ago, hurrying up to the front to support the Cambrai attack.

The ’buses came at last and at 5.30 a.m. we arrived and went into huts. What was going to happen? All day we remained apprehensively at Boulencourt. I was one of so many that a sense of individual danger was lost. Death would be pure accident. No bullet be intended for me. One’s mind dodged the issue. You did not think of it. It thought of you. That was it. It considered you bodily; pinning you to earth; running you down. For we were certain—I was certain—to go into battle. What was that silly line in a story? It made me think of a battle as something so romantic as to be harmless…

It was here that British troops had so recently overrun the impregnable Hindenburg line. The tracks of the tanks that had flattened some six aprons of barbed wire could be seen. In their wake the infantry had followed. All very neatly done. No artillery preparation. Few shell holes. Little bloodshed. Many prisoners. Just a nice clean battle…

We were billeted in a deep dugout. Twenty-four steps. Very safe. In the trench a tank had been stuck, its nose
perpendicular in the air—looking a clumsy, helpless thing…

The Germans were shelling Anneux. The next day we were to take over the line in front of Anneux and facing Fontaine. Cambrai looked ridiculously within reach. Bourlon Wood, half British and half German, presented an inscrutable appearance. It was too late. We should not be used now. Again I was to miss a battle. On the way
back the moon was setting in a sky of violet…

Another day passes, and the romantic is disappointed. But he will get his battle, and he manages to describes his contradictory spirits with both jauntiness and sensitivity, seriousness and verve:

The next day was windy. The clouds had a smudged look as though a dirty finger had rubbed their edges. Towards evening the wind died out like the end of a long sigh and the day was still. Without moon and stars the night was black and threatened rain.

I had met the Battalion with the guides, but the Commanding Officer was nowhere to be seen. I found “Billy” though, who was much excited. He told me what was up, but I could not take it in. His announcement affected me physically before I had mentally grasped it. I felt it like a shock, like a blow, turning me sick. The Battalion was to
attack the following morning. Once the words had been formulated and the brain had recorded and repeated them there occurred an emotional ebb, leaving the system drained. Gradually I rallied to the fact itself, inevitable. All this within the space of a few seconds. I had morally run away, fallen, picked myself up, while remaining steadfastly on one spot.[2]

 

Carstairs is a surprisingly excellent chronicler of subjective experience. Rudyard Kipling, writing as official chronicler of the Irish Guards, is up to something different. And yet it can’t be so different: he can set the scene from behind, with the traditional “General’s Eye View” of the proceedings, but he knows the need, after tactical summary, for eyewitness testimony, however parenthetical and in dialect, to bring us into the experience of the day:

The official idea of the Brigade’s work was that, while the 3rd Grenadiers were attacking La Fontaine, the 2nd Irish Guards should sweep through Bourlon Wood and consolidate on its northern edge…

They would advance under a creeping barrage, that jumped back a hundred yards every five minutes, and they would be assisted by fourteen tanks. Above all, they were to be quick because the enemy seemed to be strong and growing stronger, both in and behind the Wood. The Battallion spent the night of the 26th working its way up to the front line, through Flesquières where bombs were issued, two per man; then to La Justice by Graincourt; and thence, cross-country, by Companies through the dark to the Bapaume—Cambrai road, where they found the guides for their relief of the Scots Guards. Just as they reached the south edge of Bourlon Wood, the enemy put down a barrage which cost forty casualties. Next it was necessary for the C.O. (Alexander) to explain the details of the coming attack to his Company Commanders, who re-explained it to their N.C.O.’s, while the Companies dressed in attack-order, bombs were detonated, and shovels issued. (‘There was not any need to tell us we were for it. We knew that, and we knew we was to be quick. But that was all we did know — except we was to go dancin’ into that great Wood in the wet, beyond the duck-boards. The ground, ye’ll understand, had been used by them that had gone before us— used and messed about; and at the back, outside Bourlon, all Jerry’s guns was rangin’ on it. A dirty an’ a noisy business was Bourlon.’[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Siegfried Sassoon, I, 424-428.
  2. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 119-22.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 156.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

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.

Rowland Feilding Pays His Respects on the Somme; Siegfried Sassoon Reads Its Subaltern; Charles Carrington’s Subaltern’s War in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Today, a century back, is another one of those days when everyone is a-doing or a-writing, or both, and more than once. In order to keep things under 5,000 words, we will catch up with Edmund Blunden‘s battalion in rest in a few days’ time, and with Ivor Gurney too, hospitalized and hypergraphic.

Moving selectively, then, through a few updates and wandering letters too interesting to postpone, we will shortly arrive at Charles Carrington‘s intense and intensely written experience of the new phase of the Passchendaele battle.

But what better way (in a measure-the-real-reach-of-memory project), to approach a new apex of intense and traumatic combat than to visit last year’s crucible of suffering and destruction?

So, before we even approach today’s battle in the Salient, we will read just a few atmospheric bits of Rowland Feilding‘s remarkable letter to his wife. Feilding had been on leave and now, returned to his regiment, has transferred to the Somme, quiet now, where–very much like Ralph Hamilton only two weeks ago–he picks over the gruesome and unsettling remains of the battlefield.

…it has been a wonderfully interesting though a melancholy day.

The notorious villages–Guillemont and Ginchy–are conspicuous by their absence. I can truthfully say I have never seen a whole brick…

Miles of devastation and deserted ruined villages and shell-holes–all grown over with weed and grass. Not a living creature but the magpies…[1]

The ground is just as it was left, thickly littered with the debris of battle. Rifles with the bayonets fixed lie as they were dropped… perforated shrapnel helmets…

A land whose loneliness is so great that it is almost frightening. A land of wooden crosses, of which, wherever you stands, you can count numbers dotted about…

After miles of this I came upon the first living human beings–parties of the Salvage Corps, working forwards from the old battle line… These are mostly coloured men, who have come from all parts of the world. The first party I saw was composed of Burmans from Mandalay, and, dressed as they were, with woolen Balaclava helmets pulled down over their heads and shoulders, cringing from the wet and cold, they looked like the ghosts of the dead.

Further back, I came upon the work of the Graves Registration Unit… Its job is to “prospect” for the dead, and, so skillful have its members become at detecting the position of a buried soldier, that their “cuttings” seldom draw blank.

After visiting one of the minor miraculous Virgins of the battle–this statue is since toppled and beheaded–Feilding searches out his comrades:

I then wandered through one of our cemeteries at Guillemont, and saw Raymond Asquith‘s grave, and those of one or two Coldstreamers I knew.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is also dwelling on the Somme–specifically, on a Subaltern on the Somme–in a letter, this time to Robert Graves, that covers  rather similar to yesterday’s (which was also to Robbie Ross).

4 October

My dear Robert,

Thanks for photograph. It is like you, except the forehead, which looks so flat and receding. I believe you
washed your face before being taken! Hope you didn’t catch cold. You might write to me when you aren’t too busy. I am reading Bill Adams’s book. If you and I had re-written and added.to it it would have been a classic; as it is it is just Bill Adams—and a very good book—expressing bis quiet kindliness to perfection. He saw a lot through those spectacles of his.

Note to self, and to writerly comrade: “Royal Welch War Memoir: promising project.” Or not–all Siegfried’s attention is to verse:

The Nation quoted my ‘syphilitic’ poem in an article on ‘Venus and Mars’ last Saturday.

I am on the way to doing a good, long poem in blank verse—sort of reminiscent of the wars, with stress on the heroism of Private Morgan-Hughes-Davies-Evans-Parry. But I can’t get a room alone, and 8-11 p.m. is my brainy time, so I am rather hung up at present. Rivers returns on Friday, I hope. He has been rather ill.

I have been playing golf every day with a chattering R.A.M.C. man who is a very fine, player—partly to try and become immensely healthy, but mainly to escape from the truly awful atmosphere of this place of wash-outs and shattered heroes. Result: go to bed every night tired and irritable, and write querulous peace-poems.

Love from S.S.[3]

There’s an answer here to a question we may not have asked yet. How does the suffering of war change the sufferer? Does he become more sympathetic to the sufferings of others?

Too broad a question, of course, and even a general affirmative answer must come with a large caveat: war traumatizes and brutalizes many of those it damages, turning them into abusers or themselves or others; in a small minority of men it seems to unleash psychopathologies that might have otherwise lain dormant. But a qualified affirmative also might be usefully clarified thus: it does make men more sympathetic to suffering, but other aspects of their personality determine how far–and to whom–they are willing to extend that sympathy. Left-leaning thinkers who pass through the war might become radiant pacifists; buttoned-up scholars might find themselves able to write movingly of love and loyalty among men from different stations; and a guarded, solipsistic man like Sassoon might find himself moved to write passionately on behalf of a class of men he would otherwise have more or less ignored–but not to extend that sympathy much further than comrades and the men under his own command.

 

And now to Ypres. C. E. Montague witnessed the battle, and wrote–desultorily, but not heartlessly–of a battle piece seen on a ridge. This can serve us as a very brief starter for today’s main course:

Oct. 4–Third Flanders push; battle of Broodseinde.

Up at five, drizzling rain. No breakfast. Out with Gibbs to near Wieltje to see battle. Fine battle-piece on S. part of Passchendaele Ridge. Our guns thick—needs care to thread way between them. Germans dropping fair number of H.E. shells our way, but no gas. Great trains of wounded and prisoners coming in, and a track of bloodstains all along the road. Some of wounded have evidently died on the way.[4]

 

This would be the “Battle of Broodseinde,” which plays a major part in Charles Carrington‘s memoirs, of which there are two. One describes his mental state as he began the battle thusly:

Always a little schizophrenic… I had now withdrawn myself altogether, leaving a Zombie in command of ‘B’ Company, the 1/5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment. I knew that my luck had turned. I felt sure that I should not survive the next battle… Meanwhile… the Zombie was a quite good company commander…[5]

But that is further retrospect. Nearer to the battle, “Charles Edmonds” described today’s action over many pages, and depicts himself as neither a zombie nor an entirely living man. The account begins, as all attacks now must, with the massing of troops and the approach to the line on the night before:

Towards dusk we marched out by platoons. Men going into action support themselves by a sort of enforced hysterical cheerfulness, but no one could be cheerful in the Third Battle of Ypres…

As always, when anticipation at last gave way to action, I found my mind clearing. The mental numbness of the last few days had given place to a numbness in the pit of the stomach. I was not now afraid, though I had a growing presentiment that I should be wounded.

The next bit of pilgrim’s progress is a review of the past two months: out through Ypres, over the canal, and toward the Steenbeck (Or Steenbeek):

As we approached St. Julien there was some confusion when platoons lost touch; mules and men and wagons crowded in the narrow way, until where the culvert passed over the Steenbeek the traffic jammed, shoulder to wheel. This was a windy moment, for on this line the Boche guns were laid and here from time to time they dropped hurricane barrages of shell-fire. Indeed, a few shells had already fallen to our right, and massacre might come at any minute; but we got through in safety. Beyond the Steenbeek there were no roads: guides led us by marked tracks among the shell-holes…

To find the way in the dark was a task worthy of Bunyan’s’ pilgrim: ‘ the pathway was here also exceeding narrow, and therefore good Christian was the more put to it; for when he sought in the dark, to shun the ditch on the one hand, he was ready to tip over into the mire on the other.’

The quotation continues for some time, as well it might. We are in the heart of what Paul Fussell called “the one book everybody knew:”

Front-line experience seemed to become available for interpretation when it was seen how closely parts of it resemble the action of Pilgrim’s Progress.

John Bunyan’s Protestant religious “Romance” had soaked into the British cultural atmosphere long before, and it has been used as a paradigm, a crutch, and a point of entry by many war writers since at least 1915. But now it is becoming inescapable, and I find, in going back to Fussell, that he featured the above quotation, letting it run on to give a sense of why this “Romance” is so applicable: its “scenes of hazardous journeying” go on and on with no decent respect for “plot” (i.e. strategy) or the limits of human endurance such as familiarity with the novel would lead us to expect.[6]

 

And for “Edmonds” and his company, the day’s journey hasn’t even begun. They wait nervously for Zero Hour, but the wait is made terrible by the fact that a German barrage opens up on their position. It’s unclear if this is coincidence or evidence that the Germans have precisely intuited the timing of the British attack. Soon the German barrage is answered, and Carrington launches into a present-tense battle piece that aims to catch something of the ferocity and insanity of close-combat.

It is no coincidence that describing not only death but morally questionable killing in the present tense allows it to seem to slide pace the cold judgment we might wish to pass on something stated in the perfect or simple past. This war was, but it wasn’t, exactly: it is, its violence happened in an ongoing, unstoppable present that nevertheless feels faster than ordinary experience::

Suddenly the sky behind us threw up a stab of flame! A roll of thunder like the last trump itself opened with some few single blows and steadied into a throbbing roar. The shells screamed overhead so thick and fast they seemed to eclipse the sky as with an invisible roof, rumbling like earthquakes behind, crashing like a thousand cymbals before us, a pillar of fire against, the dark sky, a pillar of cloud against the dawning east—leading us on!

It was zero hour and our barrage had fallen, blotting out the German bombardment with a drumfire forty times as great; there was no more thought or feeling, no more fear or doubt; only an endless blast of sound; a flicker of flame in the sky, a roaring and howling of shells over our heads, and a smoky pall of shrapnel.

My brain cleared though my ears were singing; the plan stood in my mind like a picture: I wondered how many men were left to carry it out. We must follow hard on the barrage and be on the enemy before they had recovered from
the first shock of it. I jumped out of the trench, shouting to my little group, and together we stumbled forward towards the enemy. Behind me came Serjeant Walker, my servant Stanley, three runners, Lewis, Campbell and Greenwood, and then the signallers struggling with their gear and quickly falling behind. Looking round I can see no one else, no sign of human life or activity; but who cares? Skirting round shell-holes, and straggling over rough ground in half darkness, our group loses all order and trails after me in single file. There looms up in front a bank undercut by a row of dug-outs, familiar enough by the map. I draw my revolver, but they are smashed and empty. Over and on behind the thunder and lightning of the barrage. (Like cannon balls rolled down sheets of iron over our heads.) One is thankful for a steel helmet.

Through the tumult I isolate a distinct noise, a spitting, a crackling, like children’s fireworks. Rifle bullets! Phut! Phut! Small arms indeed! We look about vaguely. It seems to have grown already a little lighter, so that lumps loom up irregularly in front thirty yards away—half left. Heads! Three or four heads of Boches in a shell-hole shooting at us! We see them together. Stanley shouts and brandishes his bayonet. Then I see Campbell lying curled up and grey-faced at my feet. Why, he’s dead!

And by God, they’ve hit ‘Tiny’ Greenwood. He is staggering about and bellowing, his hand on his chest. Stanley catches and lowers him to the ground behind the stunted ruins of a hedgerow which gives a little cover. Crack, crack, crack, come the bullets at thirty yards’ range, aimed more distinctly every moment as the light grows and the barrage lifts ahead. The enemy are even near enough to throw a bomb, Stanley and I fumble with field-dressings. There are now only three of us and three or four Boches shooting at us from cover. At least let’s quiet this poor lad’s confounded roaring and then make a plan. Poor ‘ Tiny ’ Greenwood, the smallest man in the company and the willingest. I remember my morphine tablets and give him one, two and three till he is silent. Stanley rises and shouts again, “Come on, sir, let’s go for the swine.”

“No,” I say, “get down in this shellhole,” and I am right. There is no chance for three men to charge three over the mud and pitfalls. Stanley plucks me by the sleeve and says plaintively. “Aw, come on, sir.” Walker and I get down in the hole and begin to shoot though Stanley stands and calls us once more. “Come down, you fool,” I order him. Then he comes down, slithering on the edge of the shell-hole, dropping his rifle with a clatter. A bullet has hit him in the eye, smashing his left brow and cheek-bone into a ghastly hole. I am dumbfounded with rage and horror. They have got Stanley, best of friends and loyallest of servants, and my last orderly. Walker and I are pent up in this hole and dare not move. Stanley is dead, who has always supported me, Stanley who gave me confidence in myself.

I sat stupidly in the half-light, not looking at my servant’s body, and then vaguely imitated Walker, who was firing on the Boches when they showed their heads. I must have emptied my revolver before this time, and now picked up
Stanley’s rifle, coated with mud from fixed bayonet to stock. With difficulty I fired a round or two, wrenching at the clogged mechanism after each shot. Walker gave a cry of joy as he got one Boche through the head, but one or two more ran up from neighbouring shell-holes and made the odds still heavier against us. Still our own guns thundered overhead, and now, the German guns began to reassert themselves, dropping a few shells experimentally in their own lines, which they guessed had fallen into our hands.

The stubborn group confronting us still held their place under fire of their own artillery. Ceasing to fire at us except when we showed our heads, they sent up signal rockets to give their position to their own observers. But for the roaring of our own shrapnel two hundred yards away, there was no sign of English activity. No other Englishman could be seen or heard, and, fatal event, we had ‘lost the barrage.’ In the midst of a great battle ours was an independent duel. Down in a shell-hole where the view was restricted by towering ridges and ramps of thrown-up earth, we had the limited vision of the mole. There must have been ten thousand men hidden in the landscape, though we had not seen ten.

I began to wonder whether our attack had been destroyed and was to be the tragedy of to-morrow’s communique in the German Press. “Yesterday after intense drumfire the English attacked east of Ypres and were driven back to their lines by our gallant ‘field greys’.” Perhaps, even, my own group was the only one which had advanced, in which case we might be able to hide here all day and creep back at dusk, to the remnants of the shattered battalion. How could the day be not lost now that the shrapnel banged so far ahead and no one seemed to be advancing? As we waited in the broadening light time passed—seconds or hours, we had no conception, till we heard voices behind us, a Lewis-gun rattling, and a reserve platoon at hand. I shouted to them to support us by outflanking this group of Germans, and as we opened fire again, invisible Lewis-gunners crept closer over the mountainous shell-holes. The Boches ceased fire.

At that moment Walker leaped up with a shout and began to shoot in a new direction. Following his aim I saw straight to the front and a hundred yards away a crowd of men running towards us in grey uniforms. Picking up another rifle I joined him in pouring rapid fire into this counterattack. We saw one at least drop, to Walker’s rifle I think, then noticed that they were running with their hands held up. Laughing, we emptied our magazines at them in spite of that, but at this point one of my favourite N.C.O.s, Corporal Fell, came tumbling into the shell-hole, hit through both thighs and bearing the pain with no more than a grunt or two. While I was trying to bandage his four wounds with one field dressing, and he to explain how his Lewis-gun had appeared to save us, I forgot the crowd of ‘ Kamerads.’ Just as I was telling him to crawl home as best he could, twenty or thirty Germans came running up with that shambling gait and bucolic manner I had always noticed in them, emphasised by the awkward gesture of their raised hands. The nearest had not seen me in the shell-hole, and as he approached, noticing a red cross on his arm I reached up and pulled him up short by the skirt of his greatcoat with a jerk that frightened him out of his wits.

“Ambulance,” I said, pointing to the wounded corporal. Then hardly stopping to see more. Walker and I rose, collected the Lewis-gun and its team and continued our advance. The surrendering Germans carried back our wounded men and we barely noticed in the excitement that the four snipers who had held us up so long slipped into the crowd of captives and went away with them. We should certainly not have given them quarter if we had thought of it in time…

Carrington’s honesty is not, I think, tinged with either shame or braggadocio. Shortly thereafter–this is the part of the battle-day, now, which involves memorable incidents rather than unforgettable, intensities crowded into swift, endless minutes after Z Hour–this curious reunion takes place:

I halted to write a report and mark up a situation map; then leaving my Lewis-gun with the serjeants I continued to advance with Serjeant Walker and two or three men. On our right were Colonial troops attacking in much greater strength than ours, so that my own front looked empty but theirs crowded with men, and before long one of their platoons came straying across my front. It suddenly struck me that the platoon commander was a friend whom I had not seen since I was a child; I seized him by the hand and introduced myself. As we exchanged civilities I became aware that we were under machine-gun fire. I was explaining that he had gone astray when this diversion occurred in his proper direction, and hastily clapping him on the back, I sent him off with his men to strafe the machine-gun, an order which he willingly obeyed. This odd incident, evidence of the unreal state of mind engendered by the excitement of battle, passed from my memory, to drift up again into my consciousness a few days later, blurred like the remembrance of a dream so that I have never been able to recall my old friend’s face and do not know who he was. At least the machine-gun shortly ceased to fire.

Carrington’s company now moves onto this section of the map, from the lower left toward the upper right, across the line of the Steenbeek. The most striking thing about Carrington’s tale of terror and death is, perhaps, that it is describing a tactical success:

Crossing the bridge we deployed half left and advanced up a slope towards some wreckage which we took to be Albatross or Wellington Farm. Under heavy shell-fire and some distant machine-gun fire we skirmished up the slope from hole to hole, till Flint reached the ruin and dugout that we thought was Wellington; but to our surprise it was already in English hands. It had been taken by a platoon of A.Co. who were delighted at having captured a German anti-tank gun. For the last few minutes the battle had really been proceeding according to plan. Still like a man in a dream I had been commanding and even manoeuvring considerable bodies of men, mostly, it must be admitted, of neighbouring companies. The advance was orderly and regular, and recorded in formal written messages which I sent back at intervals to headquarters; and we were near our objective…

We selected a large shell-hole under the lee of the broken pill-box of Winchester for my few men and those of the 16th, and settled down to resist the probable counter-attack. Soon Hesketh, an officer of the 16th, arrived with a Reserve platoon and my handful became an insignificant detail of the defence…

There was very little for me to do except to send even Serjeant Walker away to look for any more of my company. We were disappointed to find that a large party of men moving up in artillery formation was not our second wave but D company, all of whose officers were hit and who were now lost. Then a trench mortar battery came forward to take up a position near us; but no third wave passed through to follow the barrage which now fell three hundred yards ahead.

The morning wore on. Attackers and defenders at this point had spent their force. We had got our objective and were too ludicrously weak to move again. A few shells were coming over and a persistent sniper fired occasionally, his bullets crashing into the ruins of the pill-box beside us…

Towards midday, the enemy shelling really began. Black shrapnels crashed overhead and huge crumps burst round us among the ruins. We all crouched down in our one huge shellhole, which I began to regret, as a single shell in it would kill us all. One or two men were hit; especially, I remember, one who was standing up with his sleeves rolled up, when a shrapnel burst right above us. A sliver of steel came down and hit him lengthwise, on the bare forearm, making a clean cut three inches long between the two bones, as if his arm had been slit with a knife. To my horror the wound gaped open like a freshly cut shoulder of mutton. Though this was as ‘cushy’ a wound as man could desire, the sight of it cured me of hoping for a ‘blighty one.’ The victim agreed with me, for he danced and cried out with the pain.

My Lewis-gunners were now in position close by, and it seemed that the best way to reduce the crowd in the shell-hole was to go away myself. Hesketh didn’t want me and showed it; goodness knows, I didn’t want to stay there; so, by agreement with the major who passed that way again, I decided to leave my Lewis Gun section with Hesketh while Serjeant Walker and I withdrew to Stroppe Farm to pick up stragglers, and reorganise. So Walker, Bridgwater and I turned back down the hill through very heavy shell-fire, across the Stroombeek, and over the plain, now scattered with grey drifting clouds of smoke from high-explosive shells. Hardly out of the swamp we ran into Lance-Corporal Reese of No. 7 platoon with a few men and another gun. They were all that was left of the platoon, and had dug in, satisfied that they had reached their objective.

At last we got back to Stanley’s body, where I stopped not without a shudder to remove my glasses, all spattered with brains and blood, from his shoulder; I had to leave the strap, which was too gruesome to carry. Then we found our company stretcher-bearers performing prodigies of work, in spite, they were convinced, of being under deliberate German shell-fire, and using the little trench where I had visited one of my platoons last night as a rendezvous…

After taking stock of his company, Carrington decides to report in person to Battalion Headquarters.

Always very nervous when alone under shellfire, and badly shaken after the day’s experiences and the bombardment at Winchester, I found the walk of two or three hundred yards to Victoria Farm terrifying. Shells seemed to pursue me up the slope, and catch me when no deep shellhole was near. I floundered in oceans of kneedeep mud and flung myself flat, when one shell fell close, on what looked like fairly solid ground, but turned out to be as thin as half-cooked porridge. So the whole front of me from the chest down was soaked through and coated with slime. At last I struggled up to the little half-broken pill-box called Victoria and went in. The Colonel and Adjutant were plainly very pleased to see me. From their account I was able at last to get some sort of general picture of the battle. All our objectives had been reached and a hundred and fifty Germans taken prisoner, but at a cost in casualties which had shattered the battalion. All the severest fighting had been in the first few minutes, which had seen a score of petty duels like my own, group against group among the shell-holes. Most of our officers and N.C.O.s were hit, and until I came they had counted me too a casualty, all the messages which I had proudly composed in such careful military form having gone astray.

They gave me the good news that Thorburn, my reserve officer, had been sent for and would join me to-night, and the bad news, too, that, casualties or no casualties, we were not to be relieved for three days. The Colonel suggested that when Thorburn arrived I should come and join them in the dugout to get some sleep. Then he came out with me and we returned to the remnants of my company.

More tragedies! While I was away Whitworth had been sitting above the trench talking. In the dusk he was suddenly silent. No one had noticed a shell splinter from some far-away burst fly over and hit him in the head. He was breathing when we arrived, but, the stretcher-bearers said, as good as dead already. Nevertheless, they took him down to the dressing-station. The poor devils were beat after saving lives all day.

Then I settled down in the little trench, about twelve feet long and six feet deep and wonderfully dry, to wait for Thorburn who arrived with a runner about eight o’clock very cheery…  We agreed that our conversation a week before had proved prophetic: the battalion had taken a  nasty knock this time. Leaving him in charge I returned to Victoria, where the C.O. shared a tin of hot food with me, my first square meal that day.

The day ends with another tale of death. Carrington has lost friends, and he has seen scores of men killed, deliberately and by the great impersonal scythe of the artillery. But this strange and terrible story, hung all the way at the end, is deeply unsettling, like a reminder that even those who survive will have come too close to madness:

Armstrong, the intelligence officer, took me in hand with an endless story about himself, the C.O. and a wounded Boche.

“When I was going round with the C.O. this morning after you’d gone over we found a wounded Boche lying in the mud—down there by the Stroombeek where you couldn’t get him out. He was dying, I should think.”

“Yes,” said I sleepily, “there were hundreds.”

“Well, this one,” Armstrong continued, “he was done for, squirming, the poor devil was, and anyhow there was no chance of getting him down to a dressing-station from there. Best to put him out of his misery, you’d say, wouldn’t
you, Edmonds?”

“Yes, I suppose so; let’s get some sleep.”

“Oh, well,” said Armstrong, “just wait. Damn funny it was. We found this Boche; there was the C.O. and me and a runner; and the C.O. said to the runner, ‘You’d best shoot the poor fellow,’ and the Boche just lay there and groaned. He knew. But, you know, the runner couldn’t do it. He unslung his rifle and fingered the trigger and just couldn’t do it. So the C.O. turned to me and when it came to the point no more could I: so the C.O. drew his gun himself and went up to the Boche and looked fierce, and the Boche squirmed and I’m damned if the C.O. didn’t weaken too. Damn funny, wasn’t it? And we just left him there, so I suppose he’ll die in the mud to-night.”

But by this time I was asleep, having found a quiet corner. It was luxury for five of us to lie down on a concrete floor in a cellar only fifteen feet square and with no door, that chilly autumn evening.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. So few are our references to birds, these days!
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 208-10.
  3. Diaries, 188-9.
  4. C.E. Montague, 191.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 191.
  6. The Great War and Modern Memory, 135-41.
  7. "Edmonds" (Carrington), A Subaltern's War, 132-55.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Diary remained matter-of-fact:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Francis Ledwidge

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

My dear Sassons

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

Poor devils at Pilkem![13]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Successful, yet still costly:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

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.

David Jones: The Fusilier Sentry and the Charming Prince; Edwin Vaughan in No Man’s Land; Kate Luard Among the Ruins; Charles Moncrieff’s Troublesome Leg; Wilfred Owen in Rare Form

We have several reports to get to, and we don’t even have a terribly good fix on the activities of David Jones precisely today, a century back. Nevertheless, I’d like to start with him. With the unhappy experiment of putting his artistic talents to dubious use as a military observer now ended, he is once more in the line with the battalion–an ordinary rifleman, subject to the ordinary chances of the line. His battalion has been spared major fighting, but neither is it on one of the increasingly mythical “quiet sectors.” The last eight days have been particularly bad.

On May 6th, an enemy raiding party entered the lines of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers, killing two men and taking three prisoners. Jones helped to repel the raid, but this would have been a significant “black eye” for the battalion. Then, later the same day, his particular friend Reggie Allen was killed by a trench mortar bomb. This was a blow that Jones took some time to get over–he will dedicate his war epic to many men, but ‘especially’ to ‘PTE. R. A. LEWIS-GUNNER FROM NEWPORT MONMOUTHSHIRE.’

But there was no rest for the weary, or the grieving. The battalion was “heavily shelled” almost daily. Then, today, a century back, the bombardment began again, but did not end as usual. When the artillery did cease, the “unmistakable crackle” of rifle fire meant that an attack was in progress. It was another large-scale raid, which Jones helped fight off, this time without prisoners, although eight men were killed. Our gentle Anglo-Welsh poet will remember the experience as “exhilarating.”

Into this grab-bag of a week must go one other incident. As Jones was shaving in a communication trench not far from the front line,

A pleasant voice from around a revetment said, ‘Good morning’. Turning his head, [Jones] was astonished to see the Prince of Wales, wearing a short ‘British Warm’ and light woollen scarf.

‘Do you happen to know’, Edward asked, ‘which of these trenches leads directly to… the forward trench?’

Embarrassed, with lather on his face and wearing a tattered waistcoat, Jones indicated the trench and advised the Prince to be careful by a certain trench-sign ‘as it’s exposed, sir’.

Edward said, ‘Thanks, can’t have a fag with you–an awful hurry’, and disappeared.

A few minutes later, a red-faced colonel, puffing to catch his breath, stuck his head round the revetment and asked, ‘Have you seen Wales?’ Jones said yes and that he had directed him to the forward trench. ‘Why didn’t you stop him?’ asked the colonel, and, as the colonel ran off, Jones said, ‘How could I, sir?’ (The Prince was not supposed to be alone in areas subject, as this was, to violent bursts of fire.)

Jones’s biographer goes on to remind us that–despite both men’s tenuous connections to the actual country of Wales–Jones was impressed with the young prince. He was very pleased to have seen him so close to the line, evidently giving his minders the slip. This was precisely the sort of informal and (mildly) dangerous royal behavior that gave heart to ordinary troops. (As the phrase goes; David Jones was an unremarkable soldier but surely a very remarkable man, more so than the polite, electively–and thus selectively–brave young aristocrat in a soldier’s coat.)

Edward’s courtesy and courage stirred in Jones the affection that most infantrymen felt for him. In some respects this was an encounter of the sort that might have occurred in one of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, of which Jones was sometimes reminded while on sentry duty, scanning the local wonderland through a periscope’s looking-glass.

Young Wales will even make it into In Parenthesis, in a isolated, humorous cameo:

‘A young man in a British warm… enquired if anyone had seen the Liaison Officer from Corps, as one who asks of the Tube-lift man at Westminster the whereabouts of the Third Sea Lord’.[1]

 

Last night, a century back, Edwin Vaughan‘s company relieved another unit in the front line. In the early morning hours, his platoon now in position, Vaughan and his company commander, Radcliffe, explored the wide expanse of No Man’s Land in front of their new position.

I felt awfully frightened and my heart beat very high as for the first time I passed through the wire into the silence and mystery of the unknown ground. The moon was giving a faint light through the clouds, which enabled us to see dimly for about 50 yards.

For about a hundred yards we walked slowly forward, seeing nothing but grass and occasionally a shell-hole. Then suddenly Radcliffe grasped my arm and pulled me quietly but quickly down into the long grass. Holding my breath I heard a faint but distinct rustle of knees ploughing through clover and then dimly in front I saw a small party of men approaching us. They halted 40 yards away and I lay frozen with fear and excitement. But Radcliffe was gurgling with laughter. I punched him in the ribs but he breathed gurglingly, ‘They didn’t reckon on my trench club!’ and he shoved forward the thin swishy cane he had brought with him.

What part of this is pure courage and what part nervous hilarity is difficult to say–but now, at least, we know the precise difference between a “fighting patrol” and an “officer’s patrol.”

The two officers crawl back and don’t fire–the German patrol is passing, and they are only two men. And yet it is interesting to note that they are perfectly happy to let the Australians on their left deal with the migrating German patrol, rather than send their own men after it. Whatever their sense of the need for supremacy in No Man’s Land, it does not include a doctrinaire insistence on all possible violence.

And this sort of exploit does settle the nerves wonderfully:

I was so pleased at having broken the ice that I felt quite anxious to get out again with a fighting patrol behind me.[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, used a lull in the carnage to make an informative visit to another hospital. It seems a safe guess that she is equally pleased to be gaining useful medical knowledge, to have a day out amongst the greenery (such as it is), and to manage to get herself even closer to the front lines.

…Sister G. and I set off in a Motor Ambulance to visit the Abdominal Centre higher up. The driver had not the dimmest notion of the name of the place or how to get there, but I headed him off from various attempts at all other points of the compass with the help of my map, and eventually we got there.

It was Gommécourt over again but in newly sprung green this time. I think it made the little hilly, curly orchards and wooded villages look sadder than ever to see the blossom among the ruins, and the mangled woods struggling to put their green clothes on to their distorted spikes. And in that country every tree along each side of every road was neatly cut through about three feet from the ground, and lying by its stump. It was a weird sight…[3]

 

And while Sister Luard handles the theme of Spring amidst the ruins, Charles Scott Moncrieff will speak for the wounded left behind. He is still recovering at a base hospital from the severe wound he suffered at Arras.

14th May.

Yesterday’s bulletin was that I may perhaps keep my leg, and shall be here a month longer. . . . There is a little crane at the foot with a sandbag hanging from it into which so many people bumped that I got into a state of chronic terror when anyone passed up or down the ward—which happens perhaps a thousand times a day. Finally, last night a fat old parson who crusades round these wards, ran full tilt into it. “Look out,” I said. He turned to see what he had done and said blandly, “Aha, you stick out too much.” After this I could stand no more, and got my bed shifted across the ward.[4]

 

And finally, today, a very long and very strange letter from Wilfred Owen to his younger brother Colin. Owen, though still in a forward hospital with “nerve” issues, is once more in a buoyant mood.

14 May 1917 [13th Casualty Clearing Station]
Dearest Colin,

Here is some Loot, from a Pocket-which I rifled on the Field. I was thinking of you when I was unbuckling the Bugle from the equipment, and being then in a particularly noble frame of mind, meant to present it to you some day. But now I have got too fond of the thing to part with it!

After this opening, the letter moves to Owen’s most elaborate description of his one “attack” so far. As he will explain, the attack (a local action) ended up being successful without being bloody–the Germans had withdrawn. So it is not necessary to wonder why his description of the exhilaration (our word of the day, evidently) doesn’t tip over into horror. Interestingly, however, Pat Barker will draw upon this letter for exactly that purpose, giving some of these words to Billy Prior, to describe an attack that did become intensely traumatic.

The sensations of going over the top are about as exhilarating as those dreams of falling over a precipice, when you see the rocks at the bottom surging up to you. I woke up without being squashed. Some didn’t. There was an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly.

There was no bugle and no drum for which I was very sorry. I kept up a kind of chanting sing-song:

Keep the Line straight!
Not so fast on the left!
Steady on the Left!
Not so fast!

Then we were caught in a Tornado of Shells. The various ‘waves’ were all broken up and we carried on like a crowd moving off a cricket-field. When I looked back and saw the ground all crawling and wormy with wounded bodies, I felt no horror at all but only an immense exultation at having got through the Barrage.[5] We were more than an hour moving over the open and by the time we came to the German Trench every Bosche had fled. But a party of them had remained lying low in a wood close behind us, and they gave us a very bad time for the next four hours.

More insight, too, into the tenuousness of any moral state among men in such a tense and unusual situation:

When we were marching along a sunken road, we got the wind up once. We knew we must have passed the German outposts somewhere on our left rear. All at once the cry rang down ‘Line the Bank’. There was a tremendous scurry of fixing bayonets, tugging off breach-covers & opening pouches, but when we peeped over, behold one solitary German, haring along towards us, with his head down and his arms stretched in front of him, as if he were going to take a high dive through the earth (which I have no doubt he would like to have done). Nobody
offered to shoot him, he looked too funny; that was our only prisoner that day!

The letter now turns to less intense experiences, and Wilfred begins to quiz Colin about his work on a farm. Once he is started on the idea of agriculture as a post war calling, the letter then turns into a sort of Georgic reverie and biblical pastiche:

…he departed unto Some Area, and seeing a tree, he also pruned it that it might bring forth more fruit.

After that the tree died also, and he lay down, and slept under the shadow thereof forty days and forty nights; and gathered in his ears in due season, the mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds, yet brought forth ten fold, fifty fold, and an hundred fold.

And with the price thereof he bought a field, which is called the Potter’s Field, because he pottered there day and night and wrought nothing.

But dined sumptuously every day of locusts and wild asses’ milk.

And it came to pass that a woman besought him saying ‘Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink.’ Instead of water he gave her the milk. And the same woman was bent double for eighteen years. And went out sorrowful, and wept by the river of Babylon. And all fish that were in the river died…

It goes on like this for several pages. I’m not sure what to make of it, but presumably this is not an Important Milestone in his Poetic Development, but, rather, evidence that Owen is desperate to distract himself from daily life during a long stay at the 13th CCS.

…And he shook the dust off his feet, and they were all smitten with blindness, because of the things that fell upon the earth.

And he went on his way, rejoicing, and grinning like a dog that licketh the crumbs that the swine would fain have eaten.

And the ass leaped like the hills, even the hill of Basan, which is an high hill. Selah.

CUM PRIVILEGIO.

You can send this to Harold: to be returned to me! I have let my imagination run riot. You must not show these sheets at home. But I hope you will get an innocent laugh out of ’em. I have. It has passed an afternoon very well.

Best love, dear boy. W.E.O. x[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 155-6; In Parenthesis, 97.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 115-7.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 124-5.
  4. Diaries, 129.
  5. This sight will be addressed in verse.
  6. Collected Letters, 457-60.

Alf Pollard’s Finest Hour; Max Plowman Meets an Interesting Man; Siegfried Sassoon Between Cussedness and Martyrdom; Beauty and Ugliness From Olaf Stapledon; Edwin Vaughan in Amiens

For two days, now, Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company have been back in the line near Gavrelle, on the Arras front.

I was in support to the First Battalion Royal Marines and did not anticipate that I should have anything to do at all. Consequently I disposed the whole of my Company in dug-outs and, retiring to my own, relaxed into much needed slumber.

I slept right through the barrage and the initial onslaught…

Of course he did, and with good classical precedent! Alexander the Great and many other heroes demonstrated their perfect confidence by sleeping late on the day of battle. But Pollard is awoken with a message ordering him to form a flank defense:

It was obvious that something had gone wrong. I must act at once.

Pollard emerges into a “curious hush,”  like the calm before the storm. But–he is a natural warrior, you see–his heart is pounding and his instincts tell him that he is in danger. The Marines have advanced up ahead, but Pollard’s is the last company on the Division’s left, and it would seem that the next Division over had failed in its attack and now a German counter-attack is threatening the unnamed unit directly to Pollard’s left.

I was at the limit of my own trench, which was the extreme left of the Divisional front, wondering what I should do next. Suddenly a bombing attack started from the direction of Oppy Wood. Bang! Bang! Zunk! Zunk! I could see the smoke from the explosions nearly a mile away. Fritz was attacking down the trench.

A few minutes later, Pollard sees the British troops resisting the counter-attack suddenly break and run.

Panic! Sheer unaccountable panic! …The sort of thing the greatest psychologist in the world could not explain; a sudden terror which affected the whole force simultaneously. It was a sight I hope I never see again. For a brief moment it had its effect on me.

For “what seemed like some minutes,” Pollard relates, he remained “shaking” and indecisive. But it was really only a few seconds: the Germans could now turn the flank of his own division, and something must be done.

Then the curious feeling came to me… that I was no longer acting under my own volition. Something outside myself, greater than I, seemed to take charge of me. Already under this mysterious influence I ran forward.

Pollard takes control of the strange troops and orders them to spread out and fire their rifles, more to regain their confidence than to hit anything. Then, leaving both these leaderless and recently panicked troops (he is confident that “The British Tommy does not do that sort of thing twice in a morning”) and his own company–his own command–behind, he explores down the trench the Germans had been attacking, followed by his runner and one more man, an ad hoc volunteer. They push up the trench away from his defensive line, and are joined by one more man. Pollard’s orders are simply to hurl their few bombs around the next traverse whenever he fires his pistol. For two hundred yards the trench is empty.

Then suddenly, as I entered one end of a stretch of trench between two traverses, a big Hun entered the other, rifle and bayonet in his hand. I fired; he dropped his rifle and clapped both hands to his stomach. Almost instantaneously with my shot I heard the whizz of Reggie’s bomb as it passed over my head. A second man appeared behind the first. I fired again and he dropped like a stone. Bang! Bang! The two other bombs thrown by my followers exploded one after the other.

The third man saw the fate of his predecessors and turned to go back. Those behind, not knowing what had happened tried to come forward. I fired again. Bang!  Zunk! went the remaining bombs of our small store. That was enough. The next instant the Hun attack was in full retreat.

This is an excellent example of several things. First, of the importance of on-the-spot tactical leadership–even irresponsible, desperately chancy leadership, so long as it seizes the initiative. Second, of the continued importance, albeit in a (literally) narrow category of actions (fighting along a trench, rather than “over the top”) of old-fashioned reckless aggression, a.k.a valor. (The charging maniac routing a timid multitude in a narrow space is a tired trope of action movies, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.)

And if we examine those two points we realize that this action is important because it is exceptional–it’s a brave, reckless gamble, and very successful. But Pollard is not leading a storming party against a key gate or a forlorn hope against a breach; he is not inspiring the rest of the men who can see him as he charges across an open battlefield. He is winning a local action fought below ground level; at most he is stabilizing a front of a few hundred yards in a several-hundred-mile trench system. It’s a reminder that even exceptional valor can’t win wars anymore.

The valor is the same; it just doesn’t apply. Pollard isn’t just exceptionally good at fighting–he is also, necessarily, fortunate. In the good old days, half the potential Achilleses of the army weren’t killed by the artillery before they got into hand-weapon range. But Pollard has to first be lucky not to have been killed by weapons aimed in his general direction by calm men hundreds of yards or even a few miles away; only then can he begin being heroic in a convenient bit of trench.

Finally, this is an excellent example of what John Keegan will call “Zap-Blatt-BanzaiGott im Himmel-Bayonet in the Guts” history. Except Pollard’s Huns don’t even get to say that much.

In other words, this is an exciting tale, but I don’t think we can blithely accept its unspoken premise: that since the terms of the fight–kill or be killed, in essence–are set, we need give no further thought to the consequences of all this shooting and bomb-hurling. And what happens next–the four men press on without any bombs (grenades) but are able to collect enemy and grenades during a fortuitous lull in enemy action, then continue fighting by dodging around corners–is uncannily like a video game. Which is not to condemn video games for being violent: it’s to condemn true stories in which deadly violence goes completely unquestioned.

I’ll paraphrase the rest of the tale. Pollard and his three-man army press on into German territory though he proudly confesses that “discretion had gone to the winds”–a pointed word-choice given discretion’s proverbial counterpart. Why this recklessness?

…my blood was up. I felt a thrill only comparable to running through the opposition at Rugger to score a try.

He leaves one man with a collection of rifles by a barricade–this reminds him of Robinson Crusoe’s fantasy of solo defense–and, with the other two, makes ready to defend their gains with bombs. They do; soon “the air was thick with bombs” and though they throw nearly all they have, Pollard will not retreat. Then, providentially, the German attack breaks off, when one of Pollard’s friends–“Sammy,” a junior officer who seems to have figured out, without orders, that he should go up in support of his vanished company commander–arrives with the company and a large supply of bombs and ammunition. A more determined German attack is driven off, there are short digressions on different sorts of grenades and on Sammy’s coolness under fire (connected, surprisingly, to his descent from “the fighting tribes of Israel”), and then that’s that–Pollard has saved the day. He is eventually ordered to assume command of the position, then relieved after nightfall.

Pollard’s memoir is self-serving and self-aggrandizing–but that’s obvious, and so the notes of humility are, well, worth noting. They are either little nods to convention–“I should take the occasional breath while blowing my own horn,” “I wouldn’t want to court nemesis through hubris”–or, just possibly, symptoms of a much larger madness. We have seen Pollard note that “his blood was up,” admit that to press on was illogical, and mention in passing that he left his own command without clear orders in order to push on alone, to be followed by only three willing men.

That all seems plausible–but it read very differently when Siegfried Sassoon did a very similar thing. Why? Perhaps if Sassoon were to have been given a high military honor (he wasn’t, in part because the Royal Welch tried not to ask for honors for non-professional soldiers, in part because no high-level officers were near the spot, and in part because the position wasn’t held after he left it) he would have written a more heroic account. (Or perhaps not; Sassoon has been disillusioned for some time; Pollard, never.)

But that’s not the real difference. Pollard ends the chapter by noting that he has “often wondered what would have happened had Fritz come over the top instead of sticking to the trench.” It’s obvious: “Fritz” would have killed or captured him, and he would hen have been blamed for abandoning his men to go gallivanting into enemy territory. But though Pollard “wonders,” I don’t think he really believes it might have happened: just as he portrays his courage, modestly, as a force that overtakes him without his volition (after a humanizing, but brief, struggle with fear he becomes a “natural” or “inspired” warrior), he seems to trust completely in Providence. He can humbly acknowledge that he was fortunate to get the opportunity for heroism that he did–because he does not doubt that, on some level, he deserved it.[1]

 

And I too trust in provvy–that lesser Tyche that attends the scriveners of Clio. What I mean is: Pollard is a war hero, and I don’t mean to suggest that there is any point in denying or protesting that. But I don’t like the way he chose to write about the war, the way he elides death and suffering. So I would hope that reading and research would provide some apt rejoinders from today, a century back. And we are indeed fortunate–all two and a half of our regular pacifists have shown up for duty.

 

Max Plowman wrote to his friend Janet Upcott today, a century back, from the Bowhill Auxiliary Hospital for Officers. He is physically sound… but the after-effects of shell-shock may linger. At least, he feels healthy enough, yet he has been in one hospital or another for three months, now.

…Tell me Jane–honest, candid, sober, true… what your idea of this place is–or rather was before you got this? Did you think it was a sort of private lunatic asylum? My only reason for thinking it may be is that from asylums, I believe, the question that recurs to me is heard more often than from anywhere else. “Why do they still keep me?” –As a matter of fact I asked that so long ago that I’ve got tired of asking it, & now I’m beginning to get settled here for the duration I suppose I really shall soon be turfed out. I think the Doctor here has decided that normally I should have the hide of a rhinoceros & the nerves of a hauser, so if I’m really going to wait for that unhappy state to transpire, I’m sure the next time I leave here will be about 1947 in a long black box.

Still of course I don’t complain so far. The Ducal Mansion is perhaps preferable to snow on Vimy Ridge & I have no doubt that I have missed a good deal worth missing when I see that all my old company officers are now back or dead.

The letter continues, rambling and ruminating about the conduct of the war, the cynical way in which the vested interests seem disinterested in peace, and the foolish criticisms of military operations by those who have never fought in the trenches. Like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is at once aghast at the waste of the war and the complacency of the high command and yet keenly interested in the new tactics that had showed promise at Arras. And like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is working on his first collection of poetry–in that endeavor he’s a bit behind, but in another matter he takes precedence.

I met one rather interesting man up here. a Dr ______ who’s a professor of Psychology at Cambridge. He’s at Craiglockhart Edinburgh from which this place is an offshoot. I was talking to him about Freud’s book on dreams & he lent me Hart’s Psychology of Insanity as an introduction to it…

This would be Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, and thus our second prefiguring of Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Rivers is real, and he’s a remarkable man, combining in his modest person the Victorian adventurism of the heroic age of science, 20th century psychoanalytic healing, and timeless humanity and courage. Those who are interested in learning a bit more about this man–Cambridge professor, Freudian, South Pacific anthropologist, pioneering neurologist, and shell-shock-doctor-to-the-writers–can seek out more information easily enough, or read Barker’s historical fiction trilogy.

Amusingly, even though Plowman is our first writer to meet Rivers and be struck by his unique charisma (after all, he is the only person Plowman wants to discuss), and although he will be far from the best poet to do so, his initial reaction to the good doctor is to take offense at Rivers’s disinterest in poetry:

But I gave him up when he said he could no longer read poetry; not, really, because I wanted to inflict mine on him, but because now & from henceforth & for evermore I will not trust a mind which has become so divorced from nature it cannot appreciate poetry. The more you think either of words or the amoeba–either of material, mind, matter or Mumbo Jumbo the more amazing it becomes to here a confessedly learned man admit & say: “You know I can’t appreciate poetry now–my appreciation of the exact use of words is too great…” The sight of an exact word is the worst nightmare I can think of so far…

Yours ever

Max.[2]

 

Another officer with experience bombing more or less alone up an enemy trench, with pacifist or anti-war opinions (he would he the “half-pacifist,” in my dubious math, above), and with a future in medical care for a condition… let’s say “associated with” shell shock is, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, now recovering in London after being shot through the shoulder.

April 29

A lovely morning after a sleepless night. The trees outside have become misty with green since last night. I am just emerging from the usual beautiful dream about ‘not going back’–‘war over in the autumn’—‘getting a job in England’, etc. These ideas always emanate from one’s friends in:England, and one’s own feeble state of mind when ill, and fed up, arid amazed at being back in comfort and safety.

Things must take their course; and I know I shall be sent out again to go through it all over again with added refinements of torture. I am no good anywhere else: all I can do is to go there and set an example. Thank heaven I’ve got something to live up to. But surely they’ll manage to kill me next time! Something in me keeps driving me on: I must go on till I am killed. Is it cussedness (because so many people want me to survive the war)–or is it the old spirit of martyrdom—’ripe men of martyrdom’, as Crashaw says?[3]

This question–or this tangled skein of questions–will occupy us quite a bit over the coming months…

 

It’s been a long day, but I still feel that reading Olaf Stapledon is well worthwhile. This is a young man who rowed with Julian Grenfell, who could easily have spent much of the last few years enthusiastically killing Germans until they killed him–but he had chosen only to risk the latter, while trying instead to save the wounded victims of the war.

A few ago, a century back, he had appended to a previous letter a description of “a pretty dance with three cars that got stuck in a badly shelled spot.” This may be Olaf’s most explicit description of personal danger in his letters to Agnes, and it underscores how infrequently–though he agonizes about different types of pacifist commitment and often discusses the political and philosophical underpinnings of his actions–he mentions the mortal risks ambulance crews take.

One of them had to repairs done to it before it could be moved. We were four hours at it, alternately working & seeking cover as the bombardment varied in seriousness. All the cars were badly peppered by we got them all away without serious harm to them & no damage to ourselves, though we had some quite narrow escapes. The convoy has been “cited,” which means that we paint the croix de guerre on each car.

Then, today, there is the happier news that the ambulance unit is in rest–or, rather, “repos–” their first full-unit rest in eight months.

Our last day at the front was rather eventful because they bombarded our village with some success and the main street was literally strewn with dead and wounded… One shell accounted for about twenty men… It was an ugly business…

Next day we left with our division for repos, and just after we had cleared out a shell fell in the yard where we kept most of our cars. It would have done much damage had we been there, and probably would have killed a good number of us. So our departure was lucky…

Our present spot is very peaceful and the spring weather has come. Yesterday in memory of ancient days with you I wore a celandine in my buttonhole. That is a little spring rite with me…

There is no sound of war at all, but much singing of birds and bleating of sheep. And yesterday we heard the cuckoo and saw him lazily flap across a little glade. Oh  Agnes, there is such a lovely lovers’ walk down a little narrow valley…

There are cowslips and periwinkles, violets and wood anemones. We revel in all such things after months of winter, and after a surfeit of war…[4]

 

Finally, today, I would be courting Nemesis myself if I omitted a visit to the cathedral. With his battalion still in rest billets, Edwin Vaughan has been taking his ease in Amiens, still close to the front lines on the now quiescent Somme. Yesterday it was a bath at the Hôtel Belfort and lunch at the Hôtel du Rhin; today, breakfast in bed and late mass in the Cathedral… and nothing to say about it. Lunch at ‘L’Universe,’ ices, “luxurious haircuts and shampoos,” dinner at the Hôtel du France, and a late night–not a bad little war, altogether.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 217-24.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 63-5.
  3. Diaries, 162. Richard Crashaw is a metaphysical poet of the 17th century.
  4. Talking Across the World, 221-3.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 105.