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

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

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

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

 

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

Le Treport, 12 October, 1917

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

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

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

After this horror, a concessive clause under absurd pressure:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

24th General, France, 12 October 1917

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

A Shell Inscribes a Line in Edward Brittain’s Hand; Hugh Quigley Girds for Battle; Herbert Read Welcomes the Conquering Heroes; Isaac Rosenberg Goes Under the Weather; Phillip Maddison Goes from Safety to the German Lines, and from the German Lines to G.H.Q.

Today, a century back, brings a welter of writing–wry, wet, windy, and ominous.

 

Hugh Quigley knows that he about to march back into the thick of things, and so he writes, to someone he loves, with the cruel candor of the soldier before battle:

I expect this will be the last letter you will get from me for at least ten days. You know what that means. I can only only hope to get out safely, or, at worst, with a comfortable wound. If the same fate happens to me as to Peter, I have done my duty, according to conventional standards. By higher and more ideal standards, it is too perverted to be called duty at all, if it does not immediately help to stop war and avoid sacrifice.

Our men are growing more confident everyday; in fact, one could almost go into battle now with a bag of provisions and a walking-stick. The rifle plays only a small part, for the enemy invariably throw up their hands when the infantry approach…

Quigley’s confidence is more than a bit overstated, but then again this is a letter home, a last letter before combat, meant to reassure. Or something along those lines. While it is true that the rifle-toting infantryman is increasingly just a pawn in an artillery war, the idea that there will not be any fighting necessary in an advance against German pillboxes is ridiculous, as we have seen so often, recently.

Regardless, Quigley is soon back in a full-blown romantic mode: he even finds a “curiously apposite” French poem on a scrap of paper.

This paper was lying beside a tombstone under the shadow of a great church. I spent an afternoon wandering round that church, sentimentalizing to my heart’s content, with no one to disturb me and no one to utter bald consolations about the price of life. The slow passage of time came to a sweetness of thought, not melancholic, not poignant, just a lingering tenderness and a faint regret, tenuous as a web of sun in the tree-shadows. High chestnuts, browning through shimmering gold, dropped solitary leaves with a faint pat on the flat stones or rustled them through the wire-enclosed wreaths hanging from grey crosses, half-ruined, green with a decay of beauty, so that the harmony of life came very close to death, reality to dream…

You will see the old sentiments cannot die… They are worth something more than this, farther and higher… Not ephemeral, but progressive and continuous on a way of perfection…

Each man prepares for the ordeal of a tour in the trenches in a different way. Quigley, it’s safe to say, complicates the stereotype of the enlisted man’s “this leaves me in the pink” letter before battle…[1]

 

And Vera Brittain, who has lost a fiancé and two close friends after letters more or less like that one, has decided that she can’t hang on every turn of the front line/reserve/rest rotation of her only brother. So Edward writes to her today, only when he is safely out of the latest mess. I include this letter mostly for how it begins:[2] with a mark made by the war, not just on a day, a century back, but in a single moment:

France, 10 October 1917

— That curious dash because a shell made me jump. This is rather a filthy place… We haven’t had a mail for 3 days owing to our sudden move and so I expect there will be a letter from you when it does come. I am very glad you have written some more poems so as to make enough for a small volume; I will ask Mrs L[eighton] about it; I believe you were thinking of Erskine Macdonald before. By the way why haven’t you sent me any of your new poems as you know I should like to have them?[3]

 

Isaac Rosenberg has just had leave–his first–and has been writing poems. But the heavy rain of the last few days has done no good for his always-problematic lungs. The weather will save him, perhaps, if it doesn’t kill him: today, a century back, he went sick with influenza, which for a man of his physique is certainly more dangerous than ordinary trench duty.[4]

 

Comfort and the fortunes of leave are also on the mind of Herbert Read, guilt-stricken at having missed his battalion’s part in the Passchendaele battle. He can make amends by preparing decent beds for them all: having been held back in reserve and appointed billeting officer, he spent a long day’s negotiation with the inhabitants of a poor northern French village–“Mais c’est la guerre, as they all say.”

10.x.17

They came in shortly after midnight, very weary and ready to drop down and sleep anywhere. It isn’t three weeks since I left them, but it was like greeting long lost friends… It isn’t only fancy that makes them seem to have aged five years and more. They have gone through what as probably the most intense shell fire since the war began.[5]

 

Finally, today, we have a date-in-a-novel, a time-stamped activity from our strangest and most carefully calendrical fictional war book. Henry Williamson himself missed the summer and Passchendaele because of a long stint recovering from symptoms that may have been simple illness or may have been worsened by gas or the psychological toll of his service in the winter and spring around Arras. But his enormous semi-autobiographical sequence on the life of Phillip Maddison elongates the author’s combat experiences, compresses his time at home, and puts the protagonist always where the action is. Phillip Maddison never misses a battle.

Today, a century back, his heroic mentor, “Westy,” has turned up again as well, and this time Phillip plunges in unlikely fashion into the German lines (as he has done several memorable times before, including during the Christmas Truce and at Loos) as a sidekick rather than as a lone ranger.

Before sending us over the top, as it were, Williamson dutifully gives us a potted military history of the “Fourth Step” of Third Ypres, a.k.a. the “Battle of Poelcappelle.” Which is all well and good,[6] but sits rather jarringly with the most Gumpish of the many Gumpish moments in the series so far. I will quote and then summarize, as best as I can.

(The whole sequence of novels is a slog, but so very interesting: there is an unprecedented devotion to raking oneself over the coals of memory while raking out the embers of traditional military history at the same time–just not well-enough written to enchant other than a devoted reader over several thousand pages.)

The day after the fourth step had been launched, two men, each with a long stick in his hand, were walking on one of the many duck-board tracks lying parallel to the Wieltje-Frezenberg road, alongside which was an almost continuous row of 18-pounder field-guns….  The senior of the two, whose diminutive scarlet gorget patches on the collar of his ranker’s tunic were concealed under a woolen scarf, carried, in addition, a map-case.

“I don’t see how the infantry can possibly move in this weather, Westy. Must the attacks go on?”

“If only the Chief could have had his own way, and attacked up here last May, instead of down south, as demanded by Joffre… Third Ypres was put off in 1916, and again last spring. With the results that everyone can now see–only everyone, as usual, will draw the wrong conclusions.”

Well, Westy, you didn’t really answer the question.

Now commences the aforementioned Gumpish adventure, a sort of shark-jumping in the Passchendaele mud. It’s ridiculous to find this (over and over again) in a book that is generally concerned both to represent the progress of the war from a young soldier’s point of view and to dwell on the very real push-and-pull between rashness and cowardice, confidence and self-loathing that seems to have riven Williamson’s character, as well as that of his alter ego. Ridiculous, and suited more to a pot-boiler than an attempt at literature/transmuted memoir, but nonetheless fascinating. If Williamson had a slightly steadier hand, we could even begin to make the argument that his sprawling Bildungsroman is actually an argument that the realist novel is a poor sort of form for telling war stories…

The setting is this: “Westy,” the clear-eyed, far-seeing, casually imperturbable Cassandra of the Old Contemptibles, has become a sort of minister-without-portfolio for the staff, charged to roam wherever he will and report on the “real” situation without regard for the normal channels of command. He takes Maddison forward with him into the front lines, where another assault–the “Fifth Step” of the battle–is about to take place. Commandeering a platoon of Lancashire Territorials, the two adventurers cross into no man’s land near the town of Passchendaele itself, and find a crucial hole in the German defenses.

So far, only the freelancing of Westy and Maddison is ridiculously far-fetched. There does seem to have been a disconnect–mostly environmental and unavoidable (and to some extent a product of bureaucratic awkwardness and scale management and inefficient traditions)–between the enormous effort put into planning an attack in the weeks and months before it and the failure to process any knowledge of German plans and movements during the days when the pending attack must have been obvious to them. The strategic plan must be, to a large extent, inflexible, but there is a horrible sense that while the attack could be built to respond to reports from the front in the last days–to adjust to the adjustments made by the defense–the will just isn’t there. It’s such a big bureaucracy, and the top planners are so very far from the trenches…  The British guns mass on known German positions, there are raids and counter-raids, withdrawals and new positions… and the machinery of the attack clicks slowly forward…

More or less alone in a gap in the vaunted German defenses, “Westy” writes out a dispatch, describing the tactical omission and opportunity. But while he is doing so the green subaltern of the platoon they have borrowed blows a whistle, as if he were on parade or mid-attack. Alerted, a German machine gun opens up, Westy us shot through the chest–his eighth wound–and it is left to Maddison to save the day.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Maddison–touched now by the hand of of the divine and possibly dying West–is suddenly, once again, brave and resolute, decisive and dashing. But he is also on a segment of the line where he is known to various officers, and not well liked. He has a significant reputation for both shirking and for wild immaturity, and so the perils which spring up to prevent him from getting Westy’s report to the men who must read them are not just physical obstacles like broken country and German bullets, but also the enemies of his past, among his own army.

Calm and collected, Maddison takes off, D’Artagnan-like, but find that he must explain himself to an officer who knows him from his days a misfit and lead-swinger.. He is disbelieved, disrespected, place under arrest, and then left alone with a horse and an easily-bluffed enlisted man. So Phillip Maddison, veteran of First and Third Ypres, Loos and the Somme, turns horse-thief, and gallops off to G.H.Q… and there, dropping dead with exhaustion and telling a strange tale, he is warmly listened to, fed and bedded, and made to tell his tale to the assembled mucky-mucks. There is good food and wine and cigars, but also the confident formality (of the very well-bred Englishmen). The unkempt messenger is heeded, and a better plan is put in motion… Phillip has saved day, and will have a pleasant rest at G.H.Q. before returning to his ordinary duty as a transport officer in a humble Machine Gun Company… And Henry Williamson leaves us wondering–is this a personal triumph in the face of the cold indifference of strategy? Is the implication that the Staff, with its cigars and clean clothes and expensive liquor, is nonetheless doing the best it can by men like Westy (not to mention all those thousands of platoons in the front lines? Or are the two worlds as incompatible as they feel, since the distance between the two seems to have grown greater after the unlikely gallop of our hero from one to another, rather than smaller?

I’m not sure. The simple answer, surely, is that when Williamson is writing of a time when he was abed in England, he works from a military history and indulges himself by writing a Boy’s Own Paper adventure. Whether this means that he was unable to consistently write a giant realist novel as a consistently realistic “War Book,” or simply unwilling to do so, is another matter.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 144-7.
  2. If there is an image of it available somewhere, I didn't find it with a desultory search, alas.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377.
  4. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 172.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 111.
  6. It seems a relatively clear and balanced history of the battle as seen from the decades afterwards, and didn't Tolstoy do much the same thing, after all?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

References and Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Richards:

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

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

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

Dunn remembers these rockets as well:

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

26 September 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[7]

 

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Night and Day in the Salient: The Master of Belhaven Empties his Pistol; Kate Luard Returns; Edwin Vaughan in Laughter and Terror; Ivor Gurney Finds Truth and Beauty in Siegfried Sassoon

Today, a century back, seems to be one of those days where any strange thing could happen–and many of them did. I suppose that a vague thematic connection among our first three entries might be the growing nastiness and desperation that characterized the fighting around Ypres, but that hardly even hints at the scope of the sudden violence we’ll encounter.

 

The Master of Belhaven‘s story should probably come first: it’s an unlikely escapade, told with nearly breathless disbelief by a man who is exhilarated to have survived. But it happened. It was a completely new experience–the veteran artillery officer in the midst of real trench fighting–and one which, despite the suffering and death involved, he writes, from beginning to end, as an adventure yarn. He has been writing of gas, shell-shock, and madness lately–but not today. Today was

The most exciting day I have had since I came out. It brackets with the first time I shot a rhino in East Africa.

The sentiment is clear, even if that comparison has not weathered the century well. Hamilton means to evoke the manly excitement of the hunt, rather than what we might see as joy in needless killing of a rare animal… but even a century back there would have been many to point out that the analogy is troubling: these are men that Hamilton is hunting, not beasts.

At dawn this morning I got a telegram… there was another gun firing from 50 yards north of the place I knocked out. I wired back to say that it should have my personal attention.

Hamilton has been praised for his initiative and his effectiveness, and he found it thrilling to actually watch his guns’ rounds hit from a mere few hundred yards away–this is an experience he would like to repeat.

First, however, Hamilton prepares for the “shoot” with exacting care. He registers a new gun and then re-registers his entire battery, firing on known targets to confirm that his calculations are precisely in accordance with each gun’s current state. Next, he lays new wire from the Observation Point back to the battery to ensure real-time communication. Only then does he proceed to the front line to lay his eyes on the target. But, as it turns out to be not-quite-visible even from a front-line post, he asks the Company Commander on the spot–Captain Flack of the First Royal Fusiliers–if he can go even further forward. Flack agrees, since the nearby trenches are not being held in force.

I must now describe the situation in some detail in order to make intelligible what follows.

The tension builds… but I will still cut in: Hamilton’s laying of the land is too detailed and repetitive, and we are familiar (I hope) with the idea of opposing groups of infantry holding “block” or “barrier” positions along a defunct communications trench which has come to serve as a sort of No Man’s Trench between them. In the present case the British barrier is 30 yards from a right-angle in the trench, which presumably turns again (these right-angle-bends are “traverses” meant to limit the effectiveness of enemy fire) and eventually meets a lateral trench still held by the Germans.

Even beyond this traverse, however, the Germans are believed to be “a long way off.” So it is safe to take a peek. Flack accompanies Hamilton in the spirit of a local guide or proprietor.

We drew our pistols and saw that they were loaded and in good order, and then proceeded to climb over the barricade… We crept along yard by yard, holding our pistols in front of us. We got almost up to the bend in the trench, that is, 30 yards from our barricade, when I saw an old hurdle across the trench just at the bend. Flack was about 5 yards behind me at the moment. Suddenly without any warning a German, with a pork-pie cap on, jumped up from behind the hurdle where he had been lying, and without a word flung a bomb in our faces.[1] It went over my head and burst with a crack between Flack and me. As the German rose up I threw myself forward onto my left hand, at the same time firing; at the moment I fired he had his hand above his head, having just let go the bomb. My bullet caught him in the throat; he threw up his other arm and collapsed like an ox that has been pole-axed…

The infantry captain, Flack, is wounded by the bomb. The German–rhino, ox, or human being–is dead, shot through the neck and chest by Hamilton. Our artillery battery commander has suddenly become a front line trench fighter, and, like Han Solo routing a party of storm troopers, he empties his pistol blindly around the corner to cover the retreat, as Flack’s men drag his limp body back over the barricade.

As soon as Flack had been got over, I turned and ran for it, scrambling over the barricade in record time. I knew I had been hit in the left knee, because I could feel the blood running down my leg… but I felt positively no pain at the time. I fired a parting shot just as I reached the barricade and immediately loaded a fresh magazine full of cartridges into my pistol. I was thankful I had an automatic and not an ordinary service revolver. Flack was lying in the bottom of the trench, simply covered with blood.

Hamilton takes command of the infantry detachment, orders the men nearby to prepare to defend against any German follow-up attack, and does what he can for Flack, who was “terribly wounded,” torn open in several places by the grenade’s explosion.

A few minutes later Hamilton hands over command to an infantry lieutenant and sees Flack carried to a dressing station. Captain W.G. Flack had been wounded four times and won the MC and bar, but this was his last fight–his CWGC entry indicates that he will die of these wounds in a few weeks in Étaples (among the hospitals where Vera Brittain now works).

Hamilton’s mission continues nonetheless. The idea of physically seeing the new gun position is now abandoned, of course, but he still wants to destroy any German guns that he can, and he knows approximately where they are located. Using the old vantage point and his high-powered binoculars, Hamilton discovers that–in a rather shocking lapse of tactical attention–the gun pit he destroyed a few days earlier has been reoccupied.

I could see numbers of the enemy walking about in the shade of the wood, so as soon as I got through [reaching his battery on the telephone] I turned all my guns on to it at the fastest rate of fire. The result was excellent…

This, presumably, was more like bagging pheasants than facing down a rhino.

I limped back to Battalion Headquarters, where I had a drink. They offered me food, but I could not touch anything with my hands, as they were simply caked with blood…

I went on to our Brigade Headquarters and reported the result of my day to the colonel, who was much horrified at my going out in front; however, I pointed out to him that if valuable information is to be obtained a certain amount of risk must be taken…[2]

Hamilton has proved his courage, initiative, and–although he would not have thought much of the utility of these at the beginning of the day–his reflexes and pistol marksmanship. He has earned the rather haughty tone of his last comment about risk–and then some. I don’t know how many artillery commanders drew their pistols–let alone fired them–in order to lay eyes to local targets (they stood greater risks for longer periods of time just by being with their guns while the enemy artillery searched for them, but that was the ordinary courage expected of them) but it can’t have been many.

Hamilton did not begin the day bloodthirsty; he was merely eager to do the very most with the means available to him. Yet it still feels–have I tried too hard to inculcate the infantryman’s “live and let live” attitude?–as if the killing today was in some way unnecessary. This despite the fact that it was warfare well done, and to refrain from it would have been foolish and irresponsible in strictly military operational terms. But.. must this sudden surprise killing be recounted in the style of a Boy’s Own Paper adventure?

Well. I may not like it, but I’m not sure that my distaste has any standing–Hamilton is not a great literary stylist, but he wrote out of his own experience, both his prior reading and his emotional state in the immediate aftermath of the events themselves. So perhaps he should be forgiven the adventure yarn/hunting story/action flick style in which people died today, a century back.

 

Next we come to Kate Luard. Her day, yesterday, was similarly intense, but in an almost opposite way. After weeks of near misses from German artillery and aircraft, a direct hit killed one of her nurses. And after weeks of misgivings, practical arguments, praise, and reflexive chauvinism, the medical powers-that-were immediately pulled the nurses out of their forward hospital, sending them to St. Omer. Kate Luard was torn, surely, to be sent back–but she also looked forward, with frank relief now that the test was over, to the idea of leave. For a few hours.

Thursday, August 23rd. No. 10 Sta. St. Omer. I’m afraid you’ll be very disappointed, but we are to re-open on the same spot so Leave is off. The Australians are not to go back, but we are to carry on the abdominal work alone as we did before they came up…

In tracing these reversals of course, Luard describes the initial decision, yesterday, to pull out. After the deadly shells, a discussion among the ranking medical officers “on our middle duckboards” about whether and how to relocate the hospitals ends in harrowing, cinematic fashion.

At that moment Fritz tactfully landed one of his best with a long-drawn crescendoing scream and crash, just on the railway. ‘Oh,’ said the General, ‘that was rather close.’ ‘That settles it,’ said the Q.M.G. firmly; ‘all three will evacuate.’ I made off to the Wards to tell the patients they were leaving, and you should have seen their looks of joy. ‘But you Sisters don’t stop here?’ they asked everywhere with great anxiety, bless them.

In an hour all were packed into Ambulances whether fit or dying, and the Padre was burying the dead. It took us a few hours to get away ourselves and one shell came slick into the Wards of 44 (which was then cleared of patients and Sisters) and blew an Orderly’s arm and leg off and tossed the Sergeant-Major, but he came down intact. By this time Ambulances were waiting for us and our kit, and the poor C.O. was frantic to get us away.

We reached St. Omer about 10 p.m., and it took till 1 a.m. before all were housed and fed and bedded (without any beds!) on the floors of an empty house. The personnel of our three C.C.S.’s came to over 100 and was divided between various Matrons here. We were dropping with fatigue by this time…

But back they will go: once again the belief that soldiers shouldn’t die because essential medical staff are being kept back from the guns wins out over the belief that women should not be exposed to the direct fire of the enemy. But the enemy are everywhere

Of course there was a Raid that night – there would be! – and one had to tear upstairs and order them all down on to the next floor out of their beds; 10 civilians were killed and a lot wounded. We, however, looked on that as child’s play; it seemed so far off, compared to our nightly entertainments…

It is only when you leave off that you realise how done you are, but fortunately having to begin again will correct that. I’m indulging in a pestilential cold, and a toothache. Otherwise I am very fit! The 36 Sisters to a man are loyal and good and vie with each other in attentiveness! The only real worry would be if they were tiresome.

The older Surgeons think it’s dreadful having us there, but as the C.O. says, without us they couldn’t carry on at all, so it’s worth it.[3]

 

With Edwin Vaughan we have yet another emotional reversal. Yesterday, a century back, the constant shelling was a laughing matter:

Pepper and the doctor—Carroll—amused me mightily by feigning abject terror and fighting to stand behind a tiny sapling about five inches across, whence they leered at the reeking shell-holes while chunks of iron sang about them. Pepper is awfully good fun nowadays…

Today, however, not so much:

During the night I was awakened by half a dozen tremendous crashes, apparently close to our tent. There were no yells and I was too tired to get up, but the next morning we found that the shells had all fallen within a hundred yards of us…

I got sudden windup this morning, for no reason whatever…

Later, after a ride with a tank unit, Vaughan’s courage returns. It would seem that, even under constant fire in reserve, the battalion’s morale remains impressively high:

I went to bed at 10 p.m. and at about midnight was awakened by an unusual sound. Far in the distance was the clanging of a gas gong—a warning that was taken up and came nearer and nearer until our own gong was struck. I woke Harding and went out of the tent to find the air faintly charged with a sweet scent of peppery butterscotch. I put on my gas-mask and went round the tents to find the men wearing theirs and playing at being lions and bears. Ewing, who had his tent flaps laced, did not smell the gas, so took no notice of the warning. He was not affected and the gas had dispersed in under half an hour.[4]

 

Three deadly back-and-forths in the Salient is enough for any one day, but bear with me for one more brief post. This one is a treat–from my point of view, at least. Some of our writers are writing in safety, some are in great danger. But while Owen sweats his guts out for Sassoon‘s approval, another poet in the firing line is traversing his critical eye across the horizon of The Old Huntsman.

Ivor Gurney‘s machine gun team is now in action, and, although he is personally in support, that is nevertheless well within the range of the guns. He too, shares all the difference the chances of a day can make, in war:

…last night on fatigue I had the roughest chanciest hour I ever had. My shrapnel helmet has an interesting dent in it….

We got caught in a barrage for an hour on the fatigue, and shrapnel caught me twice — once on the blessed old tin hat, (dint and scar) and once on the belt (no mark.) Pretty hot just there.

But today all is well, and he has time to read. And what? Well, Marion Scott is a very good friend/editor/patron, and she has promptly sent him a recent book of poems in which he had previously declared an interest:

I hope you will send me some more Sassoon, for his touch of romance and candour I like. He is one who tries to tell Truth, though perhaps not a profound truth…

Gurney is well off into a letter about his poetic hopes and his desire for long friendly conversations when another parcel arrives. He leaps into the book and dashes off his initial reactions–Sassoon’s poetry is something that strikes Gurney, evidently, as immediate in a way other art is not. And his criteria? Truth, and beauty, of course.

My Dear Friend: Your letter with Conan Doyle’s “Guns in Sussex” arrived yesterday, and Sassoon today. Thank you so much for the trouble and patience it must have cost you to copy them. The Conan Doyle is not very good; sincere but dull. The Sassoons not so good as a whole as they might be — but true…

Wisdom‘s last line is good.
Whispered Tale. True and good.
Absolution beautiful. But — one finds in it the fault of minor poets who make beautiful lines of unmeaning or not of any particular significance.

Why is time a wind, a golden wind, why does it shake the grass? I’ll tell you; because of “pass” and because it is a good line as a whole. He was proud of it, and may have written the poem round it.

Golgotha” is strained, though true, but not poetry.

They” needed to be said, but is journalism pure and simple…

Gurney now goes line by line through Sassoon, separating the inspired and “true” from the journalistic and merely verse-smithing. But he also comments with acuity (and, yes, the authority of himself being a poet in combat) on what Sassoon’s emotional intent might be:

…you must remember that a lot of this has been written to free himself from circumstance. They are charms to magic him out of the present. Cold feet, lice, sense of fear—all these are spurs to create Joy to such as he; since Beauty is the only comfort.

Stand-to: Good Friday Morning.

Not perfect; not what he meant, but good; and the end absolutely true, save perhaps “old”…

Thank you again. These thing stimulate me and give me hope. My Anthology enlargens.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I don't like to break in to this paragraph, in the midst of describing a deadly fight only hours after it occurred, but it is interesting to note how much "genre"--by which I mean the expectations that go into Hamilton's processing of his experience between when it happens and when he writes it down--influences his account of this sudden violence. "Without any warning?" Of course not! "Without a word?" Would we expect a real life German trying to kill two armed, approaching men to take the time to shout "Gott strafe England?" But this is, to an extent, what Hamilton expected...
  2. War Diary, 375-77.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 151-3.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 215-6.
  5. War Letters, 187-190.

Francis Ledwidge Dreams of Ireland; Hedd Wyn in the Salient

We take what may be a very welcome break from the travails of Siegfried Sassoon, today, for a letter from Francis Ledwidge to Katharine Tynan, the prolific and well-connected Irish writer. Tynan has just sent Ledwidge Lord Edward: a Study in Romance, her recent book on Edward Fitzgerald, the 18th century Irish nationalist. This book must have resonated strongly for Ledwidge, so soon after the Easter Rising, and in writing his thanks Ledwidge stints nothing of his talent for the lyrical evocation of Ireland:

20th July 1917

We have just returned from the line after an unusually long time. It was very exciting this time, as we had to contend with gas, lachrymatory shells, and other devices new and horrible. It will be worse soon. The camp we are in at present might be in Tir-na-n’Og,[1] it is pitched amid such splendours. There is barley and rye just entering harvest days of gold, and meadow-sweet rippling, and where a little inn named In Den Neerloop holds its gable up to the swallows, bluebells and goldilocks swing their splendid censers. There is a wood hard by where hips glisten like little sparks, and just at the edge of it mealey leaves sway like green fire. I will hunt for a secret place in that wood to read Lord Edward. I anticipate beautiful moments.

I daresay you have left Meath and are back again in the brown wilds of Connaught. I would give £100 for two days in Ireland with nothing to do but ramble on from one delight to another. I am entitled to a leave now, but I’m afraid there are many before my name in the list. Special leaves are granted, and I have to finish a book for the autumn. But, more particularly, I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknahama. You have no idea of how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. Say a prayer that I may get this leave, and give as a condition my punctual return and sojourn till the war is over. It is midnight now and the glow-worms are out. It is quiet in camp but the far night is loud with our guns bombarding the positions we must soon fight for.[2]

This is wishful thinking, alas–but I don’t think Ledwidge really has any hope that somehow he, an ordinary infantryman, will be given special leave when his book comes out. And even if his own turn for leave is not too far off, the wistfulness of this letter is sharpened by the sure knowledge that there will be battle before there is any leave. That is the preparatory bombardment for the Third Battle of Ypres that mutters through the night…

 

A bombardment which Hedd Wyn too will soon be hearing. He has now joined the 15th Royal Welsh–the very same battalion as David Jones.[3] The 15th had been in rest but have now finished their march to the front, reaching–naturally–“Dublin Camp” on the banks of the Yser Canal…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The legendary "Land of Youth."
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 185-6.
  3. I have only just, very belatedly, realized this fact--there are so many writers and so many battalion numbers that I had been ignoring the homunculus who had been repeatedly suggesting that "15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers" was awfully familiar. It seems to be an overlooked overlapping of two sympathetic writers, unbeknownst to each other... I will write more about it in a few days.

Siegfried Sassoon Urges Robert Graves Not to Answer; Duff Cooper Restored to Paradise; Thomas Hardy Passes on Jane Austen; Max Plowman is Soul-Sick but Accepting; Ivor Gurney on Sea Chanteys and Machine Guns; Hedd Wyn on the March

Siegfried Sassoon needs his friends. Alone in a hotel in Liverpool–where his Regiment has told him to stay while awaiting a decision about his protest–Sassoon is “in a state of mind which need not be described.”[1] Technically, that state of mind belonged to George Sherston, but Sassoon himself reached out to Robert Graves, as yet unaware that Graves is currently rigging his own medical board so that he can ride to Sassoon’s rescue. (Graves has already begun working, by letter, to thwart Sassoon’s hopes for a public showdown on the matter of the war’s conduct.)

Sunday night [15 July 1917] Exchange Hotel, Liverpool

Dearest Robert,

No doubt you are worrying about me. I came here on Friday, and walked into the Orderly Room feeling like nothing on earth, but probably looking fairly self-possessed. Found ‘Floods’ there (the C.O. away on holiday).

Of course I was prepared for the emergency (and Tony Pryce had also been told). F. was nicer than anything you could imagine, and made me feel an utter brute. But he has a kind heart. They have consulted the General, who is consulting God—or someone like that. Meanwhile I am staying at the Exchange, having sworn not to run away to the Caucasus.

Their friendship is now strained, as Sassoon must realize, for through all of Graves’s inconsistencies and caprices, he has been very proud to serve in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and has had a hard climb toward acceptance by his fellow officers. There would be a bitter irony in this, perhaps lurking under the surface of his exasperated but loyal response: Sassoon, whose easygoing manners, social fitness (he rode and hunted), and obvious courage (Graves was brave too, but this came as a surprise to his comrades) had won him immediate popularity in the regiment, is throwing it away now, and might even harm Graves’s hard-won position through their association.

Sassoon does not guess just how much their relationship will be transformed by his protest, but he is working hard here both to connect and to reassure (himself as much as Graves). There is the note of kindness, the sharp humor (“God–or someone like that”) and, most of all, the rather touching (or artful? Surely both!) reference to Graves’s lilting, friend-besotted poem of last summer. No, their planned jaunt to foreign parts is as far away as ever–and no word on whether Sassoon has a acquired a piccolo.

Then the letter continues with a reaffirmation of purpose: it’s as if Sassoon changes his mind, mid-letter, about whether he hopes Graves will interfere–before, of course, in the final line, seeming to demand that he doesn’t.

No doubt I shall in time persuade them to be nasty about it. I don’t think they realise that my performances will soon be very well known. I hate the whole thing more than ever—and more than ever I know that I’m right, and shall never repent of it.

Things look better in Germany, but Lloyd George will probably say it’s ‘a plot’. These politicians seem incapable of behaving like human beings. Don’t answer this.

S.S.[2]

Siegfried doth protest too much. (Ha!)

It’s hard to read between the lines of century-old letters, and hard to resist the pull of ex post facto historical knowledge… but it’s still almost impossible not to see this as an indication of Sassoon’s continued willingness to have his course shaped–and now corrected–by his friends. Graves recently wondered if “S.S. will let them hush it up”–but this letter seems to be written from a just-subconscious instinct to, at the very least, entertain the motion…

 

Following in Sassoon’s turbulent wake, a hodgepodge of notes and updates. First, Max Plowman, on his own journey from trench-fighting toward anti-war activism (although in his case the pre-trench phrase was also pacifist, rather than fox hunting), writes to his friend Hugh de Selincourt.

…I have come to think the Army has had all the useful service it will ever get out of me. –I don’t quite know how it has happened–whether the biff on the head has had little or much to do with it–but I know I shall never be anymore use in the Army. I’m too tired of it–too entirely soul sick of it. And the physical weariness is merely a reflex. –I’m sorry, in a way, because I should like to have stuck it out to the bitter end & this sometimes seems to me the fruit of a kind of moral cowardice or at least vacillation[3]

Plowman, who has just had a course of conversation with Dr. Rivers, is convinced that the war is wrong and yet driven to “see it out” and to take his chances. So far so much like Sassoon. But Plowman is also willing, at this stage, to acknowledge the state of his health and he shows little interest in attempting to make a public show of his war-weariness. Just like Sassoon–except without the fashionable friends and grandiose gestures toward political poet-martyrdom. But neither is Plowman, even with the excellent medical care and his own steady good sense, able to shake the feeling that to be worn down and finished with war is a kind of defeat…

 

In a lighter vein, it would appear that one of the war’s lesser-known casualties was a Thomas Hardy essay on Jane Austen:

July 15, 1917

Dear Symons:

I am sorry to tell you that some jobs other than literary that I have in hand prevent my writing anything about Jane Austen, even if I could add to the good things that have been said about her by so many. However you can do well enough without me…

Sincerely yours,

Ths Hardy[4]

 

And Ivor Gurney, writing once again to Marion Scott, has music on his mind even though his mood is not as high as it usually is when he discusses his first artistic love. Today, a century back, he answers her request for a melody.

My Dear Friend:

…I am sorry you are sick again, but hope this will be the final lookback and a short one, on your journey toward health…

Tomorrow “The Old Bold Mate” will come to you. It has been a grind to write it, please excuse the writing so scrappy and obviously hurried. The whole thing was more distasteful to me as it might have been the writing of something I loved, and even then I find it hard to settle all the details, which is the real meaning of setting stuff on
paper.

A grind to write it out for Scott, perhaps–and there is something in Gurney’s tone which suggest that it is not the song but rather his spirits which are difficult to conquer–but the song itself was written long ago. Early in his time in the Gloucesters, Gurney had composed a melody for a short lyric of John Masefield’s (properly known as “Captain Stratton’s Fancy”). Even now, a century back, Gurney’s air is being sung in German prisoner of war camps, the tune taught to his fellow inmates by Will Harvey. It’s a lighthearted song, a latter-day sea chantey good for male fellowship and the clouding over of present tedium with imagined adventure. But like all good songs of high-living, it’s not without its regrets: the penultimate line of Masefield’s poem is “So I’m for drinking honestly, and dying in my boots.”

But this is one of those days where we can watch mood and melody change almost in “real time.” Gurney’s luck changes in a matter of minutes, and he picks up his pen once again:

My Dear Friend: They have attached me but 5 minutes agone to 184 MGC; that’s my address for a bit, probably permanently, unless I turn out a dud.

This is a far, far better thing than I have ev — er done, and when one thinks of the Winter . . . .

True, it is a pity to lose so many good friends, but I console myself by thinking how many of those would have jumped at the chance. Thank you for the papers, very much:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

The hope, here, is that the work in the Machine Gun Company will be lighter–and survivable. Gurney will elaborate, soon, explaining that a machine-gun crewman is “better fed… does not do fatigues… usually gets a dug out in Winter; does not go into the front posts… as I have said or hinted, [the Machine Gun Corps] is a safer service, on the whole.”[5]

 

Which should remind us that sensations of comfort and discomfort are as relative as anything else in human history.

No sooner has Duff Cooper recounted his daily travails as a cadet–all that drill and army food hardly leaves a fellow with the energy to play tennis of an afternoon!–then he receives yet another leave. Having hied himself to London without delay, Cooper gets to spend today, a century back, amidst luxury and comfort, love and beauty.

Oh the joy of waking in soft sheets and turning over to sleep again. At 9:30 I was called with tea and toast, at 10 a man came to cut my hair and shave me after which I returned to bed and book. These details, once the regular routine of my life, now seem rich luxuries and noteworthy. I got up slowly and had finished by half past 12 very soon after which Diana came to me, fresh and lovely as the morning which just before her arrival has been freshened and cleaned by a short, sharp storm with thunder…[6]

 

And today, a century back, Hedd Wyn and the 15th R.W.F. left Fléchin, France and marched toward Flanders, where they will receive advanced assault training in camps closer to the front lines.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 505.
  2. Diaries, 181.
  3. Bridge into the Future, 68-69.
  4. Collected Letters, V, 221.
  5. War Letters, 175-7.
  6. Diaries, 56-7.

Peace Under the Stars for Ivor Gurney; A Box Barrage for the Irish Guards

The recent protagonists are all quiet today. Instead we have two brief and sharply contrasting bits: a moment of peace and the worst of the war’s “hate.”

Ivor Gurney will write, tomorrow to Marion Scott, describing an evening of quiet beauty:

Last night there was a pure colourless October Sunlight, and I could smell apples in the Minsterworth orchards and feel for a moment that soon we should go in and company with Bach, to talk of books and things of peace. How later I should go swiftly under the night towards Orion, home; there to smoke and read myself sleepy, and not to go upstairs till just this side of unconsciousness.[1]

 

The Irish Guards had a different sort of evening, and their Regimental historian–Rudyard Kipling–makes it stand in for all the nastiest experiences of the war of attrition, in this its late phase of intense and highly accurate artillery fire.

On the 14th of July there was a German raid, preceded by an hour’s “box” barrage of trench mortars, .77’s, and machine-guns, on two platoons of No. 4 Company then in the front line behind the canal. A shrapnel-barrage fell also on the supports. A “box” barrage is a square horror of descending fire cutting off all help, and ranks high among demoralising experiences. Luckily, the line was lightly held, and the men had more or less of cover in dug-outs and tunnels in the canal bank. A Lewis-gun post in a covered emplacement, almost on the bed of the canal itself, was first aware, through the infernal racket, of Germans crossing the canal, and fired at them straight down the line of its bed. They broke and disappeared in the rank weed-growth, but there was another rush over the parapet of the line between two sentry groups in the firing bays. The trenches were alive by then with scattered parties stumbling through the black dark, and mistaking each other for friends or enemies, and the ruin of the works added to the confusion. As far as can be made out, one officer, Lieutenant H. J. B. Eyre, coming along what was left of a trench, ran literally into a party of the enemy. His steel helmet and revolver, all chambers fired, were found afterwards near the wreck of a firing-bay, but there was no other trace. It was learned later that he had been mortally wounded and died that evening. In trench-raids, when life, death, or capture often turn on a step to the left or the right, the marvel was that such accidents were not more frequent.

A wounded German was captured. He had no marks of identification, but said he belonged to a Schleswig regiment, and that the strength of the raid was intended to be two hundred. It did not, as the men said, “feel” anything like so many, though the wild lights of explosion that lit the scene showed large enemy parties waiting either in the bed of the canal or on the opposite bank. These, too, vanished into the dark after their comrades in the trenches had been turned out. Probably, it was but an identification fray backed by a far-reaching artillery “hate” that troubled all the back-areas even up to Elverdinghe.

Our front-line casualties in the affair were but one officer and one man missing and one wounded. Yet the barrage blew the men about like withered leaves, covered them with mud, plastered them with bits of sand-bags, and gapped, as it seemed, fathoms of trench at a stroke, while enemy machine-guns scissored back and forth over each gap. The companies in the support-line who watched the affair and expected very few to come out of it alive, suffered much more severely from the shrapnel-barrage which fell to their share.[2]

So only a few men died, or were torn by all this airborne metal. But Kipling makes it clear that helpless terror takes a heavy toll even on those who are physically untouched.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 175.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 198-9.

Hedd Wyn’s War Begins; Francis Ledwidge to Marsh and Ypres; Hardy at a Party; Sassoon and Read and Ford Gazetted

There are many limitations placed on this project–by prudence, by the persistent finitude of time, by the scope of my interests and inclinations–and so a great many worthy writers are completely absent from it. Among the many entire classes of writers whose Great War experience has been summarily excluded are all of those not writing in English. And although this exclusion, more than most of the others (I have not fought very stiffly against the class and gender biases inherent in the traditional core of “Great War Writers,” for instance) makes a good deal of sense–I expect, sadly, only the same monolingual fluency that I possess–it still seems regrettable.

Hedd Wyn (National Library of Wales)

But then again sticking to the English language does not really exclude many important British Great War poets. In fact, it may exclude nor more than one. And it’s that very one whom I wish most to write about–so I will.

This is not only because the story of Ellis Humphrey Evans, alias Hedd Wyn, alias ‘Fleur de Lis,’ is a very interesting one. No–I  also have more sheepishly personal reasons. Today, a century on, I have planned to be in Wales, seeing the sights, trying not to be seen seeing the sights in a shallowly touristic sort of way, and even trying perhaps, to pick up a little of the language. Which is beautiful and, had the “Jingos” have taken their anti-Germanism to a logical extreme, a much more proper language for use by British soldiers fighting Saxo-Prussian imperialism. So, fellow Anglophones, forgive (and enjoy) the coming “month poem,” yn y Gymraeg.

But first, a bit about its author. Evans–a harmless shepherd in the literal as well as the figurative sense–was not eager to go. He was a chapel man and a pacifist, but, after having been drafted in 1916, he entered the army rather than pursue an uncertain course as a conscientious objector. He did this at least in part because it would preserve a possible family exemption from the draft (for doing essential food-production work) for his younger brother.

In early 1917 Ellis Evans began his training at the Royal Welsh Fusilier depot at Litherland, arriving within a few days of when Siegfried Sassoon–who would not have noticed him, in any case–was posted abroad from the same camp.

A family story has it that he overstayed a recent leave and was taken away by military police to be sent to the War. That would have been last month; by today, a century back, the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers are in Fléchin, France, training for the coming offensive.

While working as a shepherd Evans had pursued a bardic career in the Welsh tradition–his chosen name Hedd Wyn means “blessed (literally ‘white’) peace”–winning prizes at several local eisteddfodau and writing pastoral (again!) and Romantic-inflected poems. For the past few months he has been working on a lengthy ode, suitable for submission to the National Eisteddfod, and he has–or will–mail it home within a few days of today, a century back. But Yr Arwr is lengthy and not, to my knowledge, satisfactorily translated, so our month poem will be another recent poem called, appropriately enough, “war.”

 

Rhyfel

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.

 

War

Woe that I live in bitter days,
As God is setting like a sun
And in his place, as lord and slave,
Man raises forth his heinous throne.

When he thought God was gone at last
He put his brother to the sword.
Now death is roaring in our ears,
Shadowing the shanties of the poor.

The old and silenced harps are hung
On yonder willow trees again.
The bawl of boys is on the wind.
Their blood is blended in the rain.[1]

 

It is appropriate in many ways that Hedd Wyn’s first adjacent fellow poet here would be Francis Ledwidge–himself a proud Gael, and a poet of the working class conflicted about serving the English colonial master.[2] But there the similarities begin to fade. Although Ledwidge began in humble circumstances as an English-language poet from the Irish peasant class, he has risen, these last few years, with the help of a lord.

Today, a century back, Ledwidge wrote to Eddie Marsh, discussing which poems of his might appear in the next Georgian Poetry–Ledwidge is already a veteran of the second anthology. And he is a veteran soldier abroad, well-versed in keeping home in his thoughts, even in the trenches:

Just now a big strafe is worrying our dug-outs and putting out our candles but my soul is by the Boyne cutting new meadows under a thousand wings and listening to the cuckoos at Crocknaharna. They say there will be peace soon.

So they have been saying. The next bit is probably not begun in jest–Marsh will indeed visit the front, when Churchill does, but perhaps he will not have the eyes to see the sights (or the lights, as it were) quite like Ledwidge:

If you visit the Front don’t forget to come up the line at night to watch the German rockets. They have white crests which throw a pale flame across no-man’s-land and white bursting into green and green changing into blue and blue bursting and dropping down in purple torrents. It is like the end of a beautiful world![3]

Ledwidge, with his Gamgee-esque enthusiasms intact, will soon be marching North, from a quiet French sector over clogged roads toward Ypres.

 

And now one further break with convention. I have come across (in a biography of Thomas Hardy) a literary party at the home of J.M. Barrie that will take place at some point this month. Arnold Bennett will describe it, and in doing so he puts Hardy in exactly the light I have always imagined him. The party begins with friendly conversation between the Hardys and Barrie and Bennett. Later,

When darkness had fallen, they stood outside one of the windows, watching the searchlights: then more famous authors arrived, not without arising some irony in Bennett: “The spectacle of Wells and G.B.S. talking firmly and strongly about the war, in their comparative youth, in front of this aged, fatigued and silent man–incomparably their superior as a creative artists–was very striking.”[4]

It is characteristic of mere sorcerers that they fail to recognize a true wizard brooding in their midst.

 

And what if the actual fighting writers had been there? Ah, well–we can assume that Wells and Shaw would assume more modesty before a quiet young beribbonned officer than before the quiet, old, invisibly laurelled poet. Speaking of soldier poets…

 

Herbert Read and Siegfried Sassoon–a farmer’s son from Yorkshire and a gentleman of private means from Kent–have never met. And neither one has met the great shambling broken-down smoldering runaway firework-seller’s handcart that is Ford Maddox Hueffer.[5] Nevertheless, in what surely must be my most pompous and tenuous “crossing of paths” yet, these two most successfully aggressive trench fighters in all of modern poetry’s pantheon and this shell-shocked soon-to-be-the-author-of-perhaps-the-greatest-Modern-English-Novel were published alongside each other today, a century back: although one is training for an assault in France, another is rebelling against England, and another has been quietly stashed in a training unit, all three appeared in the London Gazette, each officially promoted to full lieutenant.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I have copied a strong translation, by A.Z. Foreman, from here--the link has spoilers.
  2. An only slight less apt and perhaps more interesting point of comparison would be Isaac Rosenberg, whom I recently placed alongside Ledwidge...
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 184.
  4. Blunden, Thomas Hardy, 155-6.
  5. I have been several months behind in his biography--but I hope to being him back in shortly!
  6. I discovered these facts in three biographies: presumably the Gazette itself is somewhere to be circled in red and marked with triple exclamation marks, but I haven't checked!!!.

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.