Isaac Rosenberg’s Daughters of War; Francis Ledwidge’s Gods of Greece; Siegfried Sassoon Declares the Death of Youth

Some days we make do with an update and a diary excerpt or two… other days three important poets are writing about their minds and their methods.

Isaac Rosenberg posted a letter to Eddie Marsh today, which probably included a draft of his difficult, sui generis, mythological poem “Daughters of War.” It also contained an attempt to allay the perplexity the poem would cause:

I am now fearfully rushed, but find energy enough to scribble this in the minute I plunder from my work. I believe I can see the obscurities in the ‘Daughters’, but hardly hope to clear them up in France… The first part, the picture of the Daughters dancing and calling to the spirits of the slain before their last ones have ceased among the boughs of the tree of life, I must still work on. In that part obscure the description of the voice of the Daughter I have not made clear, I see; I have tried to suggest the wonderful sound of her voice, spiritual and voluptuous at the same time. The end is an attempt to imagine the severance of all human relationship and the fading away of human love. Later on I will try and work on it, because I think it a pity if the ideas are to be lost for want of work. My ‘Unicorn’ play is stopped because of my increased toil… It is to be a play of terror—terror of hidden things and the fear of the supernatural. But I see no hope of doing the play while out here. I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces.[1]

Of the play, more anon, I hope. And this almost touching personal detail is a reminder of just how difficult it must be to write poetry in the trenches, especially as a private. Of course he gestures and grimaces–and many writers talk to themselves, at their leisure, in rooms of their own…

As for “Daughters of War,” the poem has been long in gestation–Rosenberg sent an early draft to Gordon Bottomley in December–and it has been growing in power. Like the ancient poets who dreamt Valkyries and Amazons–and like David Jones and his Sweet Sister Death–Rosenberg summons up female embodiments of war’s power.

Space beats the ruddy freedom of their limbs,
Their naked dances with man’s spirit naked
By the root side of the tree of life…

I saw in prophetic gleams
These mighty daughters in their dances
Beckon each soul aghast from its crimson corpse
To mix in their glittering dances :
I heard the mighty daughters’ giant sighs
In sleepless passion for the sons of valour
And envy of the days of flesh,
Barring their love with mortal boughs across–
The mortal boughs, the mortal tree of life.
The old bark burnt with iron wars
They blow to a live flame
To char the young green clays
And reach the occult soul; they have no softer lure,
No softer lure than the savage ways of death.

We were satisfied of our lords the moon and the sun
To take our wage of sleep and bread and warmth–
These maidens came–these strong everliving Amazons,
And in an easy might their wrists
Of night’s sway and noon’s sway the sceptres brake,
Clouding the wild, the soft lustres of our eyes…

 

Next to this wrenching vision, full of sex and death, the melodious prose and harmonious rhymes of Francis Ledwidge seem to come from an entirely different war, a different era. They don’t, of course–they come from the same day. These are very different sensibilities: our two poets in the ranks and out of the working classes share very little else than those three facts of their identity.

Ledwidge wrote another letter to the prominent writer Katherine Tynan today, a century back, and it begins with a strange confusion.

19.6.17

This is my birthday. I am spending it in a little red town in an orchard.

Actually, it is not his birthday. Which goes a longer way to show one of the larger cultural and social gaps among our writers than a ream of commentary about Ledwidge’s rural roots or Lord Dunsany‘s reflexive condescension towards his Irish “peasant” protégé. It seems that birthdays were little regarded in rural County Meath a century and another score of years back, and even when he enlisted Ledwidge did not know the date of his birth. His mother, flustered, confused his and his brother Joe’s, or so the story goes. Our Frank Ledwidge was born on the 19th, but of August–his twenties have two months left to run.

Again I think of how this sort of confusion might have arisen in Rosenberg’s family too, with an absent father and Yiddish-speaking mother, or how Ledwidge and his surviving siblings might have shared, like Rosenberg and his brother, the “family suit.” But for such similarities there are more striking differences. Rosenberg is a child of the London slums. And Ledwidge?[2]

There is a lovely valley just below me, and a river that goes gobbling down the fields, like turkeys coming home in Ireland… I was down here earlier in the spring, when all the valley wore its confirmation dress, and was glad to return again in the sober moments of June. Although I have a conventional residence I sleep out in the orchard, and every morning a cuckoo comes to a tree quite close, and calls out his name with a clear voice above the rest of the morning’s song, like a tender stop heard above the lower keys in a beautiful organ…

If you go to Tara, go to Rath-na-Ri and look all around you from the hills of Drumcondrath in the north to the plains of Enfield in the south, where Allan Bog begins, and remember me to every hill and wood and ruin, for my heart is there. If it is a clear day you will see Slane Hill blue and distant. Say I will come back again surely, and maybe you will hear pipes in the grass or a fairy horn and the hounds of Finn…

Ledwidge also enclosed three new poems, “The Find,” “Stanley Hill,” and “The Old Gods:”

I thought the old gods still in Greece
Making the little fates of man,
So in a secret place of Peace
I prayed as but a poet can:

And all my prayer went crying faint
Around Parnassus’ cloudy height,
And found no ear for my complaint,
And back unanswered came at night.

Ah, foolish that I was to heed
The voice of folly, or presume
To find the old gods in my need,
So far from A. E.’s little room.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon has not written in his diary since beginning to work on his “declaration.” Today, a century back, he is very much still in declaration mode, railing angrily at the waste of the war and the evil cynicism of those who prolong it.

June 19

I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as ‘an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb’. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts.

And the ancient wars on which they base their arguments did not involve such huge sacrifices as the next two or three years will demand of Europe, if this war is to be carried on to a knock-out result. Our peace-terms remain the same, ‘the destruction of Kaiserism and Prussianism’. I don’t know what aims this destruction represents.

I only know, and declare from the depths of my agony, that these empty words… mean the destruction of Youth. They mean the whole torment of waste and despair which people refuse to acknowledge or to face; from month to month they dupe themselves with hopes that ‘the war will end this year’.

And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words
convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes.

The soldiers who return home seem to be stunned by the things they have endured. They are willingly entrapped by the silent conspiracy against them. They have come back to life from the door of death, and the world is good to enjoy. They vaguely know that it is ‘bad form’ to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth about the war…

The diary continues, wandering into violent territory as Sassoon decries the bloodthirstiness of women and imagines a mob awakening to “lynch” the “dictator” who has plunged it into war.

The soldiers are fooled by the popular assumption that they are all heroes. They have a part to play, a mask to wear. They are allowed to assume a pride of superiority to the mere civilian. Are there no heroes among the civilians, men and women alike?

Of the elderly male population I can hardly trust myself to speak. Their frame of mind is, in the majority of cases, intolerable. They glory in senseless invective against the enemy… They regard the progress of the war like a game of chess, cackling about ‘attrition,’ and ‘wastage of man-power’, and ‘civilisation at stake’. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance.

Soldiers conceal their hatred of the war.
Civilians conceal their liking for it…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 375; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 359-61.
  2. See Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 183.
  3. The Years of the Shadow, 294-6.
  4. Diaries, 175-6.

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.

Ivor Gurney on Severn and Somme and Aircraft Above; Kate Luard’s Picnic Interrupted; The Master of Belhaven Bracketed; Sassoon is Free to Act… and Sit;

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back, of dog-fights and poetry.

4 June 1917

My Dear Friend:

Fritzs aeroplanes are ever so high above us, and shrapnel is bursting round them; shrapnel which never seems to fall anywhere. This is an old and stale game to us, would there were here in our place men who would be interested in such things…

As it happens, Kate Luard is. Her unit is packing up and moving to the Ypres Salient, which affords her a day of country-walk leisure to take in just such sorts of sights which, while not completely unfamiliar, are far less frequent a few miles back then they will be in the closer confines of the Ypres Salient.

Like many veterans, Luard is assiduous about finding havens of peace whenever the war gives her respite. But this is getting harder and harder, and the relative novelty of fighter planes does not change the fact that they rather spoil the country-walk feel…

June 4, 1917

Today I took a book, a cigarette, the 4 last Birch bullseyes and a sun umbrella to a green valley with a running stream where I paddled and dried my feet in the sun while Bristol fighters and tri-planes came and took photographs of them to send to HQ with their photos of German positions. Whatever lovely Peace is about you there is always War in the sky.  Now it’s blue, with larks singing in it.[1]

And if Gurney’s letter fails to mention larks–for shame!–it does bring up the pastoral (or riparian?) title that will be affixed to his coming poetry collection. His comments on this title are amusing:

The title “Severn and Somme” might sell the book a little better. It sounds like a John Bull poster, but otherwise there is nothing objectionable about it. Severn people may buy if Somme people dont: my French not being equal to translation of works so delicate of language. At present my desire is to get the thing off my chest, and my chest out of Khaki. (Please excuse dirt.)[2]

 

The Master of Belhaven, also recently reassigned ahead of the coming “push” at Messines, is also mixing peacetime riverside joys with martial realities… but in memory, only. Today was all guns…

Zillebeke, 4th June, 1917

What a 4th of June! I wonder if they are having the procession of boats at Eton today; certainly we can compete with them for fireworks; there has been nothing like it before. Our guns and the Germans’ roar night and day and never stop for a moment…

After being shelled in a staff car on the way to a Divisional conference, Hamilton decided to ride back on horseback, avoiding the roads so well known to the German gunners.

I took the new sand track and was able to canter for the first two miles without drawing rein. I could have ridden farther, but when I got into the area that is shelled at night there were so many dead horses lying on the road that my mare began to object. I don’t blame her, as she could not hold a handkerchief to her nose like I did…

On arrival at my own brigade I found that A and D had been heavily shelled whilst I was away. D had bad luck, a 5.9 shell crashing into one of their gun-pits and killing two and wounding seven men. I do not think it was meant for them at all, but was a bad shot for A Battery. The Hun has “bracketed” them with a 25 yrd. bracket, so I have warned Dallas to look out for trouble…[3]

This increase in accurate counter-battery fire is not the best of signs for the coming offensive…

 

Finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon left Chapelwood Manor, his convalescence now entering what should be it’s final stage, namely a month’s leave. But his time amidst the luxury, quiet beauty, and atmosphere of haughty insensibility to the war’s costs has done more than any miserable battle to make a radical of him.

My discontent was now simmering rebellious and had acquired an added momentum. I went up to London resolved to write something more definitely antagonistic than the satiric epigrams in The Cambridge Magazine.

This would be, among others, Base Details. But back to Sassoon:

Four weeks of independence were ahead of me and I meant to make the most of them. I would go to Garsington and investigate the war situation by talking to the Morrells and Bertrand Russell… Meanwhile I was to be in London during the next two weeks. One reason for this was that Robbie [Ross] has arranged with Glyn Philpot that he should do a drawing of me, and more than a single sitting would be needed…[4]

Glyn Philpot’s portrait of Sassoon (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

So… not to hit the issues of privilege too hard, here, but: Sassoon is preparing his protest on behalf of the troops–voiceless, politically powerless men who might be killed any day–but, while he is doing so, he will spend the better part of a fortnight sitting for Philpot and sharing sumptuous teas after each session… It’s a bargain, though: due to some combination of Ross’s influence and Sassoon’s charm, Philpot has decided to paint a portrait of Sassoon while only charging him for the originally-planned drawing–50 guineas, rather than 500 pounds.

But despite Robbie Ross’s influence–not to mention the belief of Robert Graves and other friends that Sassoon is poised to accept a safe job, perhaps training cadets at Cambridge as Graves is doing at Oxford–Sassoon is making slow and (for him) steady plans for revolt. He will stay at his club, for instance, rather than with Ross, so as to have an independent base of operations. And in addition to Russell and the Morrells, he has already taken the initiative of writing to a foremost anti-war publisher…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 204.
  2. War Letters, 165.
  3. War Diary, 299-301.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 48-9. See also Moorcroft Wilson, I, 370.

Olaf Stapledon in 1999; Francis Ledwidge in a Fairy Ring; Siegfried Sassoon in an Underground Dressing Station

I’m always excited when we can play on the century-back conceit and take additional literary-centennial glances, either looking back a century back again, often with Hardy, or a century forward, as one of our writers ponders what two centuries may bring

But today, a century back, we go back only 77 years, and forward a mere 82: first of all, it is Thomas Hardy‘s 77th birthday… so best wishes. And then there is this strange and very charming letter by Olaf Stapledon to his fiancée Agnes Miller. It begins ordinarily enough.

Annery, 2 June 1917

My own girl,

Agnes, I have been trying to write a nice letter to your Daddy, but have not succeeded so far. I don’t want to write about pacifism, because it’s no use arguing, but I do want to write a nice letter with just a word or two about the war in it. I have tried two or three times unsuccessfully…

Olaf has time on his hands, now, at home on leave, so he included four miniature letters along with this one, each in its own envelope, marked with the year in which she was to have read it. Two were linked to moments in their past and one was marked “1917.” The last, however, was marked “1999,” with the additional directions “Open it & read it for her, dear Agnes of 1917. She, poor soul, will not be able to. Pour soul? Glorious blessed soul or nothing.”

Dearest,

It will be all over when you get this. This war will be over, & you and I will be over. What we two shall be then, I don’t know, but if we do live in some way or other, and can remember and feel, then we will be lovers still. Perhaps you smile at this letter, & perhaps I also must smile at it in 1999. But I in 1917, in the middle of all these wars and wonders, set down as a certain thing that for you & for me both then & now the main thing in all the world is that we love one another.

For ever

Your Olaf[1]

Scarcely more warlike–or less romantic, should we use the old extensive sense of the word–is this poem, written today, a century back, by Francis Ledwidge. Really, this is a day of three visions, sweet-numinous, foreboding-fantastic, and deadly-traumatic.

The Find

I took a reed and blew a tune,
And sweet it was and very clear
To be about a little thing
That only few hold dear.

Three times the cuckoo named himself,
But nothing heard him on the hill,
Where I was piping like an elf
The air was very still.

‘Twas all about a little thing
I made a mystery of sound,
I found it in a fairy ring
Upon a fairy mound.

June 2nd, 1917.

 

Will no one remember the war? Oh, Siegfried Sassoon will. As his release from Chapelwood Manor draws near he knows that he will soon have to decide (after a period of leave, naturally) whether he will really act on his growing disgust and anger with the conduct of the war. But there is no question that as his body strolls through a peaceful Sussex spring, his mind remains in the tunnels of the battle of Arras.

 

In an Underground Dressing Station

They set him quietly down. I think he tried
To grin . . . moaned . . . moved his head from side to side.

He gripped the stretcher; stiffened; glared, and screamed,
‘Oh put my leg down, doctor, do!’ (He’d got
A bullet in his ankle; and he’d been shot
Horribly through the guts’.) The surgeon seemed
So kind and gentle, sayings above that crying,
‘You must keep still.’ But he was dying . . . dying.'[2]

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 228.
  2. Diaries, 173.

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

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

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

Friday, May 25th

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

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

 

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

Ah, well. Today, the journey continued.

Friday, May 25th

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

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

 

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

 

The Hawthorn Tree

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

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

 

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

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

 

Death in the Garden

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

18 May

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

19 May

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

20 May

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

May 20, 1917 (Sunday). Coulomby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

May 20

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

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

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

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

Max Gate, May 20, 1917

My dear Friend:

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

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

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

Always yrs affectionately
Th: H.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

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

Alfred Hale Rides the Rails… and Misses His Tea; Duff Cooper Goes for a Soldier; Charles Scott Moncrieff’s Return

Before leaving Thetford camp this morning, a century back, Alfred Hale was given a medical inspection to assure the army of his physical fitness.

This meant going into the medical tent one by one and saluting the MO seated at a table, who then asked if you were ‘All right’, and on your replying, ‘Yes thank you, Sir,’ marked your paper and off you went.

This hurdle overcome, Hale was issued with various “belts and small equipment.”

This equipment I did not know how to put on, nor how even to get the rest of my kit into marching order, which much exasperated a corporal…

With two fellow conscripts also bound for the RFC, Hale then begins a train journey through “flat, sunlit country,” and with that things suddenly improve.

I had that delightful feeling, I recollect, of being as though on an adventure into the unknown, and on such a glorious summer day, too. For the first time after getting into Khaki I felt really happy.

Yes, but, well… the day dragged on. After the train and a long ride in a van to the camp where one of his fellows was deposited, Hale and another were driven off to an RFC camp still further off–several miles from anywhere, but nearest to St. Neots, Huntingdonshire. After dallying in the van and at a wayside in, it was well past tea-time when they arrived. And, therefore, disappointment:

So whereas if I had been an officer I should have had a proper late dinner, or at least an evening meal of some sort or kind had I been an NCO for instance, being only a private and a batman, the lowest and most despised being in the Royal Flying Corps, as I was soon to find out, I could only get bad coffee and penny bars of chocolate by paying for it out of my own pocket.

But the canteen hut. This was decorated, or had been decorated, apparently for the previous Christmas, with an inscription in large ornamental letters on the walls, which ran as follows: ‘The Compliments of the Season to Major Petrie and all our officers’. Well, I have no doubt Major Petrie deserved the compliments of the season at the Christmas of 1916; I have also less doubt that he ever went without anything to eat from lunch-time till the next morning while stationed at a home camp in England, or had to drink bad coffee and eat bits of stale penny chocolate bars lest he should go to bed in a starving condition…

This canteen reminded me for all the world of the descriptions in boys’ books of life in the backwoods…

And now I realized, if I had not done so before, that it would be my lot to have to shave myself next morning with the army razor issued to me, I having lost the safety razor I had specially provided myself with. The possibility of this happening I had indeed been dreading all that long afternoon since leaving Bedford. For I cannot shave myself at all with an ordinary razor; even a safety razor sometimes gives me trouble, but an ordinary razor, no; especially the sort issued to Army recruits…[1]

 

Duff Cooper is due for a medical himself. It may have just as perfunctory as Hale’s, but I’d wager it was conducted with a bit more formality. Cooper has been several years on the sidelines, but now, only two days after resolving to try for the army in the latest “comb out” of younger and less essential men in government jobs, he is, all of a sudden, in. Not that the he will lavish description on the process…

May 19th, 1917

Was medically examined for the army and passed A.

That takes care of that. Now he’ll just need to get a commission in a reputable regiment. But first things first.

Went down to Sutton with Diana by the 5.15 I had two pretty moments with Diana in the garden. She told me I must not come to her room as it was next to Lady Horner’s…

I woke at four. It was already getting light so in spite of instructions I crept to Diana’s room, a long and creaky journey. It was very beautiful when I arrived and we lay together until it was quite light and all the birds were singing, including a very monotonous and damnable cuckoo.[2]

There simply must be some clever remark to be made here about rare birds of paradise and damnable cuckoos and the pleasures of idleness and the rigors of military life… but it eludes me.

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff narrowly escaped death at Arras. Recently, he has learned that he may yet even keep his leg. Feeling, perhaps, that the hospital has become less an anteroom to hell and more a purgatory that may someday be escaped, he has begun to stave off despair and to write again. Today and tonight, a century back, these verses “came into” his head. They are strange… but seem to represent the wisdom of a soldier who did not survive, passed on now to his little brother in a mystical of visitation from the beyond.

 

The Return

The queerest thing of all now, is the way the sizes shift, Johnny;
Bracken Hill’s no height now, no height at all.
And the little dog Peter, was the weight I just could lift.
He has grown to hide high mountains, but the great dog’s starved and small.

Deep enough’s the pool to swim now, where for rocks we wouldn’t dive, Johnny,
But the river where we wouldn’t leap, ’tis no step over now;
And the wild bull’s field we wouldn’t pass the time I was alive,
I can lean across the hedge of it, and scratch his brow.

Stepmother’s so little and queer I needn’t ever cry, Johnny,
And her cruel way of talking leaves me easy in my rest;
But you I can’t see all at once, you’ve grown so high.
And that’s because the heart’s great that struggles in your breast.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 64-9.
  2. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  3. Diaries, 129-30.

Siegfried Sassoon Converses on England, and Sacrifice, with a Proper English Lady; Edwin Vaughan’s Patrol; Henry Williamson on Magazines and Mule Races; Rowland Feilding’s Scruples

Edwin Vaughan and his company commander had a minor adventure in No Man’s Land in the wee hours of last night, a century back. It left him feeling confident and accomplished… and eager to contest the ground with the Germans opposite.

At about 12 noon I woke and, while Dunham still slept, I wormed my out under the oilsheet which screened the front of our hole, and standing erect in the trench I met a fresh sweet breeze and clear, warm sunlight that made me glowing and alert in a moment.  Raising my arms in a luxurious stretch I rose on tiptoe and looked round the stretch of ground behind me–a slight valley of long coarse grass thickly strewn with poppies and dog daisies…

The calm and silence seemed as fragile, and the sky as dainty, as the picture on a Dresden plate…

What could go wrong? Vaughan visits his men in their posts as they while away the day reading, day-dreaming, or cleaning their rifles…

Not a sound could be heard but the tinkle of a button stick in the next recess, until without warning there was a mighty crash and a spray of earth and stones fell over us as we flung ourselves against the trench side.

A high-velocity shell bursting 30 yards in front had effectively broken the spell and as Wood climbed back into his recess, I hurried back to mine–not that these holes afford the slightest protection, except against small splinters, but as a rabbit seeks its burrow, so we each dash to our own hole for safety. Dunham was standing in the trench with a tin of pork and beans in his hand and a look of mingled surprise and indignation on his face.

In January this would have occasioned a day of cowering terror–but Vaughan is a tyro no longer. Mere whizz-bangs! This threat they laugh off, or wish away… and the day passes. Later, Vaughan goes out to meet Radcliffe, the company commander. They are out in the open, along a segment of the line where a rise in the ground screens them from German observation.

We were still in the open near the right post when I grabbed his arm and we stood motionless. I had heard the faint crack of a ‘grenatenwerfer’–forgotten since Biaches–and after a faint short swish the bomb burst with a sharp shattering crash and a spurt of yellow sparks–overhead!

Immediately a cold fear gripped me, for I realized instantly that there was no cover from these. It was no use lying down, for their burst was downward and they were immediately overhead. We waited for several minutes, and as the fire was not repeated I cheered myself by saying that this was only an accidental premature, and that the ground busters were quite harmless.

But this hope was soon shattered, for suddenly there came a persistent stream of them all bursting at the same height over our lines. The fragments whizzed past us and struck the ground with horrid thuds, and our nerves were terribly racked. But reaching my post we found the troops taking not the slightest notice of them, so in feigned nonchalance we strolled along, chaffing the NCOs and questioning the sentries until the ‘pineapples’ ceased–15 minutes later.

Another false alarm. Or, not so much false as… merely alarming. But the night’s business is still ahead: will they be able to assert their dominance of the wide swath of No Man’s Land, or cede it to German patrols and working parties?

Radcliffe was taking his patrol out from my right post, so I waited there while he went back to fetch them, then one by one we passed through the gap in the wire and crouched in the wet grass until the formation was complete. We advanced in jumps, Raddy and I creeping forward with a runner, scenting the ground for 50 yards at a time, and then sending the runner back for the patrol. After a while we got tired of this, so we left the patrol where it was and we two crept on alone until we reached a junction of two roads that ran across No Man’s Land. The road was sunken and as we approached we heard faint voices and, looking over the bank, there, hard at work digging a hole, were eight or ten large Boche.

This odd locution–are these singular-plural Boche beasts to be hunted?–is yet another sign of Vaughan’s new veteran’s posture.

We were neither surprised nor alarmed. We just lay watching them amusedly for a couple of minutes, then crawled off back to the patrol. I was wondering what on earth induced them to dig holes in No Man’s Land, when a figure almost upright hurried past us and was lost in the darkness behind. So we stood up then and ran back to where our lads were lying chilled, wet and fed up. Quickly we told them what we had seen, and in a moment they were alert and we set off together–out for blood.

Alas! When we reached the crossroads nothing remained of the working party but a few chalky shovels. Se we had to be content with firing a few rounds down the road after them, and then we walked back, laughing and talking, whilst four of the silly asses marched the shovels between them with great ceremony and exaggerated caution as though they were enemy prisoners

This little jaunt has left us with our tails well up, and I, for one, am very keen on No Man’s Land. I fully appreciate the truth of the maxim that was dinned into us during training–‘Fighting patrols are the finest stiffeners of morale’..[1]

Vaughan, who has been so honest about his fears and insecurities, can thus perhaps be trusted on this matter a bit farther than we might ordinarily credit a diary drafted in post-patrol exhilaration. And–while not hoping (if that makes any sense, here, a century on) for more violence–it is interesting to note that this confidence-building patrol produces neither useful intelligence nor some “positive” attritional score. It’s a riskier version of “live and let live,” and it is certainly good for morale, and/but no harm was done. So–good!

But other units would have counted the escape of these Germans on consecutive nights as a failure to be sufficiently effectively bloodthirsty.

 

We have several more writers to get to, and today’s letter from Rowland Feilding contains no similarly dramatic descriptions of military escapades. But it’s worth our time as an excellent example of what makes his letters to his wife so valuable. Their promised commitment to honesty is neither fudged for the sake of their worries nor elided for matters of convenience. This couple monitors the gulf between them with the scrupulous intensity of responsible inspectors of public works, and so keep their connection as strong as possible and maintain the future historical value of their correspondence.

May 15, 1917 – Kemmel Shelters.

I feel disappointed when I get a letter from you telling me of troubles with servants, whom war and the high wages of the munition works seem to have so thoroughly unsettled. I hate picturing you in the midst of such annoyances, especially as there is nothing I can say or do can help you. Contrariwise, this remark no doubt applies equally to my stories to you of the goings on here, and I often wonder if I am right in keeping the promise I made you when I first came out to hide nothing from you.

The very fact of my being here must cause you intense anxiety, and, as I am helpless in the case of the servant problem, so it is equally true that there is nothing you can do to deter the enemy from any villainy he may contemplate.

And I continue writing to you of all the dangers of the war, remembering that you once said that if I hid anything you
would know it, and only imagine worse things than were really happening.[2]

 

Other correspondents are less reliable, not to mention less considerate about their addressee’s feelings. Henry Williamson is in rare form once again. Yesterday, he wrote to his mother a letter that–for all that I skip the most repetitive ones–you may feel as if you had read before:

Dear Mother,

Thank you for the little letter. Of course you always pile the agony on, dont you. Why am I a hero? I tell you frankly I would rather be here than at home–because out here I cant spend money, and also I have quite as good a time. I shant be going in any more attacks–as it is proved, thank God, that a T.O. is essential to send up supplies, etc during one… Of course one may die any second by hostile shelling, but even then, one has a sporting chance of seeing the war through…

Well mother, will you please give an order to a newsagent…

Now please dont forget… For heavens sake let this be the last request for these papers. Well I cant write any more now. Love to all. Harry.

His timing is as impeccable as his deportment. Today, a century back:

My dear Mother,

Thanks for the two bundles of papers etc arrived today. By the way, you never answered my query about how many boxes of souvenirs you got–I sent two tin boxes off, then a box of helmets, then a sandbag…  what about the first box?

We are having tomorrow some sports in the Transport Section…

I am willing to wager a good deal that–provided the box of almost definitely not live souvenir grenades made it past the censors and through the post–Mrs. Williamson did away with them rather swiftly.

In any case, there’s no sign that the grenades made it into Williamson’s archive… although a program for this Transport Section sport competition did. There are twelve events listed, most of them some variation on a mule race…

Did Henry participate? Perhaps not. But in the novel Philip Maddison got second place, riding a mule named Jimmy…[3]

 

Two days ago I posed the question of whether Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in what sounds like an impossibly pleasant environment, redolent of his prewar country idylls, can possibly progress in his writing–the writing that was increasingly focused on protesting the horrors of war.

Well, yes and no…

May 15

Marvell’s poems are the best vintage for these days of tranquillity. In the morning I wake to hear a gardener whetting his scythe beyond the yew-hedges. And I know that a tree of silver blossom shakes in the morning sunshine above his head, and a blackbird sings to all the world, crying that, life is fresh and sweet and jolly.

Ye glow–worms, whose officious flame
To wandering mowers shows the way.
That in the night have lost their aim.
And after foolish fires do stray.[4]

And in the afternoon I breathe the country air blown up from weald and wood—the smell of earth after rain, the kindest smell that ever came to make me glad.

All the morning I sit under oaks and beeches in the glory of young leaves, a book on my knee—John Morley on some eighteenth-century Frenchman, the kind of book where one can read a page or two and then turn to the morning sky and the garden and the distant line of downs as infinitely preferable, like listening to a bird singing, outside the church during a dry sermon) as one watches, the shadows of leaves and wings against the coloured windows…

It would seem, then, that the only things Sassoon might be inclined to write are backsliding pastoral poems or, perhaps, a time-travel jeu d’esprit in which he falls into a fountain and emerges dripping to hold a conversation with a young Marie Antoinette.

Well, yes and no. Here’s what comes next in the notebook:

 

A Conversation

He told her how he’d been trying to make up his mind. It was all quite simple; a tale re-told in many hearts. Twice he had been to the war, and twice had come home wounded; and now his friends had half-persuaded him to take a ‘safe job’.

She listened to him, with her grey hair and tired white face, kind, aristocratic and emotionless, leaning a little forward over a piece of embroidery. She represented the patrician distinctions that he had fought for—the climbing woods and green fields that soldiers learn to love when death is over them. She was a Great Lady. And he was only a poet; but he knew that life was taking shape in his heart, and reputation a thing of small value compared with his hidden passion, for utterance and truth and beauty. For a while he thought that she understood.

He spoke without reserve of his longing for life and the task that lay before him, setting against it his mystical joy in the idea of sacrifice and the disregard of death. ‘But death is nothing’, she said, putting away her high-bred reserve like a rich cloak; ‘Life, after all, is only the beginning. And those who are killed in the war—they help us from “up there”, they are all helping us to win.’

For a moment he was struck dumb: he had forgotten that he spoke to an alien intelligence, that would not suffer the rebellious creed that was his. She was a good woman as well as a Great Lady. But her mind dwelt in another kingdom from his. He was the starry wind on the hills, arid the beast writhing in the mire, the strange traveller who had come to her gates and had been suffered to sit by the fire and rest his tired limbs. What was this ‘other world’ that she spoke of? It was a dream he had forgotten years ago–the simplicity of his childish prayers, the torment of his mocking youth that denied the God of priests, and triumphed in the God of skies and waters.

She spoke again, kind yet unrelenting, from the dais of her noble rank. ‘It isn’t as if you were an only child, with a big place to inherit. No; I can’t see any excuse for your keeping out of danger.’ And again, half-compassionate yet still tinged with the prejudice of caste, ‘But of course you can only decide a thing like that for yourself.’ And he knew she was right. He was heir to a dukedom that would never exist in the Peerage that moulded her judgements. Had he been the only son of an accredited Lord Parnassus, she would have said, in her clear firm voice: ‘The name must be preserved; it would never do for the place to go to that impossible creature in Canada.’

I suppose it would do, here, to break in and remark that, while Sassoon is no duke–and while his first actual trade publication (not that should measure Parnassian accomplishment, but still) is only days old–it is still the case that his mother owns a considerable property in Kent, that he has always been rich enough to keep horses and hunt (and never work a regular job) and that his only surviving brother is currently in Canada… A century on, with the Lords and Ladies very much faded and their estates eaten up, donated to the National Trust, or, if preserved, likely to be dwelt in by aging rock stars or financial necromancers, it’s hard to comprehend that Sassoon could have so easily assumed that the fundamental class divide is on the far side of his own status…

In any case, here in the century-back, Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in a Stately Home in Sussex, is gently, ruminatively nibbling on the hand that has been feeding him. And nibbles have been known to turn to worries… So where are we, the readers, in the satirical reception of this piece?

But she would pray for him with all the strength of her generous perfect-mannered soul. And when he had died of his wounds she would say: ‘He was such a good boy, I am sure he is happier ‘‘up there’’. And he did so splendidly.’

And he would rot in his shallow grave, with all his plays and poems blown away on the smoke of some senseless battle—because his name was not worth preserving, and his ‘place’ was only a little book of the songs he had made, bidding farewell to earth as he stood on the verge of his promised kingdom. For he was not even the younger son of an obscure barony; he was only a poet who used to read the Bible for the glory of the language.
But death forgives many things; and he had died for England, after all.[5]

There’s the satiric manner that all of London’s reviewers are now grappling with, anyway.

It would seem that the Great Lady of this sketch is very closely based on his hostess, Lady Brassey, who was a baroness, the sister of an earl, and the daughter of a viscount. Her serene spiritual confidence in the propriety of his getting killed seems to have rubbed Sassoon the wrong way, for some reason…  let us hope that there is less journal-thievery here than in other great houses…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 117-21.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 174-5.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 150-1; Love and the Loveless, 
  4. Andrew Marvell. ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’, according to Sassoon's note--or not; Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 567, notes that the reference is "almost certainly" to "Damon the Mower."
  5. Diaries, 164-7.

Edwin Vaughan is Back in the Trenches; Siegfried Sassoon is Back in the English Countryside

Edwin Vaughan‘s spring has been a quiet one so far. But tonight, a century back, he writes a tidy little “back to the front” piece which gives us a good, detailed reminder of what ordinary trench-holding–specifically the “relief” of one unit by another–involved.

Yesterday, there had been a cricket match and tea shared with rear-echelon troops. Today, packing and the issue of new maps. The approach march halted until dusk fell, waiting beyond the limit of German observation. Then, in the dark, they began their march toward Cambrai.

For an hour we marched in perfect quiet and then far ahead was a flash followed by the boom of one of our guns. Almost at the same moment we had to spread out to avoid a shell-hole. From there on the shell-holes became more frequent and the road was littered with large, loose cobbles…

The rain–of course–had started, and things seemed pretty miserable to me as I lay in the wet grass in full pack with the front line half a mile off. Pushing on we moved across a faint track and had just climbed on to an open plain when the order ‘Gas Alert’ was passed back. We got our gas-masks ready but save for a slight smell of pineapple there was no development.

Presently guides arrived and we were led away to the right whilst the rest of the Battalion carried on…

At the trench wherein we learnt was the Company HQ dugout, we picked up one guide per platoon, and took our separate paths to the front line…

A gradual downward slope of 200 yards brought us to a trench barely 20 yards long. Here an officer greeted me and climbed up on top. I dropped Dunham, Sergeant Jowett and the reserve section and the remainder of us went forward to the line of posts in front…

Having posted these sections we returned to the trench behind and climbed down the slippery earth steps. A small cubby-hole had been scooped into the front of the trench, and into this we crawled. There was just room for us to lie full length on the straw, with a candle stuck between us on a piece of stick jabbed into the side. Here I signed for the stores of bombs, Very lights, ammunition and petrol tins which I had checked, and I asked the officer if he had any tips to give me about the trench. He told me that everything was very quiet but that no one could move by day. At night Jerry had strong patrols out in No Man’s Land, but his line was a thousand yards away.[1]

So they have arrived, and mastered the trench. But now there is No Man’s Land to be dealt with.

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, has been enjoying the social aspects of a London recovery from a less than dangerous wound. But, in another highly suggestive quirk of medical bureaucracy, he is sent out of London just as his book (its merits trumpeted by his many well-connected friends) is starting to make an impact. Sassoon has arrived for a stay at Chapelwood Manor, in Sussex, the seat of Lord and Lady Brassey, who have graciously made it into a convalescent home for officers. Although Sassoon is not thinking much about his book–so far as we can see from his diary, at least–he is writing again. It would seem that London is always an interlude, while the more perfect contrast of country-house recovery with the misery of the trenches stimulates reflection.

May 13 3.30 a.m. (in a white bedroom at Chapelwood Manor)

This notebook began not many miles from Arras in the bloody month of April, when guns began to bellow. And now my disciplined wanderings have sent me to a very pleasant country house, where perfect good taste prevails, and nobody sleeps in the clothes he wore last week and this.

It is a grey-timbered and many-gabled house, built twelve years ago. Dark yew-hedges and formal gardens are round it. And its windows look across Sussex toward Lewes and Beachy Head—all woods and sloping meadows and hedges in their young green, and growing wheat, with clumps of daffodils in the field beyond the gardens.

Sleepless, I am waiting for the dawn and the first English birds I have heard sing out their maytime madrigals since 1915. The gables of the house begin to show distinct against a clear, starry sky, Cocks are crowing; an owl hooting away in the woods; and the busy clock ticks on the mantelpiece. I feel as if I were soon to get up and dress for a cub-hunt—swallow my cocoa and boiled eggs, and then hear the horses’ feet trampling the gravel outside.

All this is a long way from Arras and the battles. I am back in the years before battles were invented or Rolls of Honour thought about at all. As I lie on my bed with a yellow-shaded electric lamp shining (on my pink pyjamas) I can see the sky through the open, uncurtained window. The sky is a wonderful deep-blue colour, as I see it. When I turn out the light the window is a patch of greyish white on the darkness, with treetops standing up, very shadowy and still. It is the quietest of mornings; not a breath of wind.

I hear a cuckoo a long way off. Then a blackbird goes scolding along the garden trees. Soon the chorus will begin. Put out the light.[2]

Lovely stuff. But time travel is only a mood, and even Sassoon can only bear so much of this intense Brit-Lit atmosphere. And what comes next? Once the birdsong fades out and the Sussex sun climbs high, will the poet-half-reborn really take up his pen and head grimly back down the Hindenburg Tunnel, to finish what he started?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 114-15.
  2. Diaries, 163-4.

Phillip Maddison’s Off-Hand Heroics; J.R. Ackerley on the Attack

This morning, a century back, another major attack–another “phase” or renewed effort of the Battle of Arras–lurched into motion at 3:45. The objective is Bullecourt, a town on the Hindeburg Line to the south and east of Arras, and Henry Williamson‘s 208 Machine Gun Company is firing in support. Documents relating to Williamson’s participation–including the hortatory order of the day promulgated by the Divisional General two days earlier–can be seen here, in Anne Williamson’s excellent article on his service with 208 MGC.

But Henry Williamson also described the attack in his novel, once more illustrating the liminality of history and literature while at the same time intentionally blurring the line with the heel of his own writing hand, as it were.[1] Since he is with the transport of a Machine Gun Company, Williamson is several layers behind the attacking troops, amidst the supporting artillery. As is Phillip Maddison, when the barrage begins.

About 3.44 a.m., in the hush of darkness beginning to give way to a spectral pallor in which he could see the wire of the reserve line across the sunken road as a blackish mass, a lark rose in song above him. It was followed by another, and a third; and he waited, with the stillness of expectation, while the singing grew faint and shrill as the birds flew toward the paling stars. There was a great ragged orange flash, oval and instant, from the four 9.2 howitzers in the chalk quarry on his right, and while the flash went through his eyes into his mind the sky became one great raging sea of light.

It goes on, and it is rather well done, if overwrought: these mid-war larks sing on throughout the massive bombardment, “like the jingling of frailest silver chains” amidst the mixed ordnance. Edward Thomas‘s battery is somewhere nearby, contributing its four howitzers to the din.

But this is only preamble. There is, of course, a fierce German resistance, which includes accurate interdiction fire meant to prevent the British from supporting and supplying attacking troops, and to suppress any return fire when the German counterattacks come. There are many casualties among the men and mules of 208 MGC, and a comrade of Williamson’s, 2/Lt. A. C. Montford, is killed.

The attack fails–not least because the German counter-attack, coming from the down-slopes behind the Hindenburg, is quick and fierce–and Williamson’s diary has little else to say.

Thursday, 3 May: Z Day. Zero hour 3.45. Intensive barrage right up North & down to Bullecourt. Rumours of failure – prisoners in cages – walking wounded. 187 Brigade smashed up, ¾ Coy missing at evening. No shelling in rear areas. 7th Div. again attacks in evening. Montford killed.

But in fiction today becomes another moment for young Phillip Maddison to wander into heroism. There is a Montfort in the book, and he is killed, as in life. But there is also a Lt. Fenwick, who is reported lying badly wounded next to a Sergeant Butler.

One of the strange continuities of Williamson’s many-volumed novel is Maddison’s habit of going on long, improbable, unauthorized rambles through no man’s land (or even into the enemy’s rear). These seem to encapsulate Williamson/Maddison’s in-betweenness. He is neither boy nor man, neither working class enlisted man nor socially assured officer, both enthusiastic adventurer and sullen incompetent…  and he likes long walks in the country, whether in pre-war peace or mid-war pauses. In company, he is all good-will and blunders waiting to happen; but alone he can do great things…

Today’s invented action–it seems pretty clearly to be a fictional aristeia placed within a life-structured narrative, rather than a “version” of something that did occur, since Williamson, to my knowledge, mentions nothing like it–is a bit different. Maddison hears the report of the wounded men and immediately recognizes that they are lying in an area he knows well because of a previous unauthorized stroll, on a quiet day before the battle, right up to the face of the new German defenses.

This earlier brave-but-irresponsible ramble has equipped him to be unusually decisive, and once on course he is completely effective. Leaving his transport section and the excited survivors of the barrage, Maddison journeys up from his safe post in the rear, finds both wounded men in the danger zone, and brings them in under fire. He knows the map, so he goes. We get no real insight into why this petulant boy-officer is ready to exceed his duties in this way–he just goes, and does it. And just as the birds brought him up to the barrage, the birds bring him home.

From the echoing ruins of Croiselles white flashes of field-guns seemed to increase the singing of two nightingales on the hillside…

It’s a strange episode, all things considered. Williamson seems to be making the point that Phillip Maddison’s impetuosity can be a force for good as well as bad.

Certainly his sense of military propriety remains skewed–he doesn’t bother to report in that he has saved two men of the company, an MC-worthy action, even if one unlikely to be so recognized in an oft-reprimanded muleteer officer.

And so, next morning, the C.O., a socially generous and easygoing captain who has, nevertheless, frequently had cause to chew out his wayward transport officer, compliments Phillip with a touch of bemusement:

“Good effort, Sticks! You’ve got plenty of guts, to out there alone, in full view of the Boche.”

“Honestly, skipper, it was no more than going for a walk on Blackheath, on an August Bank Holiday evening…”

Phillip makes an awkward joke about women and that long ago-ago August, and just like that, the heroic episode is over.[2]

 

Just a bit to the north, and in real life, the 8th East Surreys are in the first wave of the same attack. The battalion, we may recall, includes two brother officers. It was J.R. Ackerley’s brother Peter who did not die in that February attack–he almost did, and I almost wrote it wrong. But Peter lived, and is recovering from his wound, although he did not return his brother’s watch. So today, a century back, it is the younger (though militarily senior) Ackerley’s turn:[3]

…I had to take my men over the top again, to capture the village of Cérisy[4] (what remained of it) in another sector of the line, and swapped my brother’s unreliable wrist-watch for that of my second-in-command, who was remaining in reserve. He lent it reluctantly; it was an engagement present from his fiancée. I promised to return it.

Well, ahem. But there are more ironies before we get to where we are going, today. On the march to the front, last night, Ackerley saw an old friend.

He was now a brigade major and what we contemptuously called a “Brass Hat.” Seated upon his horse by the wayside he beckoned me out of the line of march. In a low confidential voice he said he supposed that, as an old campaigner, I had no illusions about what lay ahead, and offered me an immediate job with him on brigade staff, out of harm’s way. He begged me to accept it.

Whatever the reason–and Ackerley will not obfuscate–this is quite bizarre. Even if the offer had taken place a day or two before the attack, even if it were not quite so direct, it’s hard to imagine such gross favoritism being so openly displayed–and it put Ackerley in an impossible position.

He had always been fond of me, I knew, indeed he had a crush on me, I think, for I was a pretty young man, and wanted to save me from a fate, of the prospects and hazards of which he doubtless knew far more than I, since brigade headquarters had planned it. “You’ve done your bit already,” said he gently. But I too was a mounted officer. I had a huge mare named Sally, larger than Titchy’s, the largest I had ever seen… and whenever I was perched upon her back I became more arrogant and conceited than I normally was. Titchy’s offer would certainly have attracted me if the bloody fool had made it earlier. But how could a company commander abandon his command on the very eve of battle? That would have been seen as plain cowardice, and cowardice should never be plain. Smiling down at him rather disdainfully from my superior mount, I thanked him and declined…

Ackerley’s account of the battle is, here,[5] brief and bitterly comic:

Suffice it to say here that mine was one of the only two companies to reach our first objective, the crest of a ridge. No special merit, however, should be inferred from that statement; we only ran forward, dashing from shell-hole to shell-hole; doubtless we happened to find more shell-holes than other companies involved…

This is wry sarcasm–and also reasonable tactical criticism. But although he likes to paint himself as a hapless pawn of circumstance, innocent of military knowledge or instinct, Ackerley immediately realizes that two companies can’t hold a line with their flanks in the air.

It’s instructive, perhaps, to compare everything about this account–the tactics, the role of the young Company Commander, the reaction of the Tommies, and the result–with Alf Pollard‘s recent Victoria Cross-winning gambit. The overused adverb “diametrically” comes to mind…

What to do? Heaven knew. I sent a runner back to battalion headquarters with an urgent request for reinforcements and sent my men to digging themselves in as they lay. While they were scratching away, like hens, with their trench tools, at the hard French soil, the Germans counter-attacked in considerable strength, firing from the hip as they advanced. The very sight of them was enough for my company. Rising as one man they deserted me and bolted. I bolted after, shouting “Stop!”–not that I wanted them to. The vain word may well have taken on a shriller note when a bullet struck me in the bottom, splintering my pelvis, as was discovered later, and dealing me a wound where, my father had sometimes remarked, echoing Siward, no good soldier should bear one. With a flying leap that Nureyev might have envied I landed in a shell-hole which already contained one of the things I most detested, a corpse, and was soon to harbor another wounded officer named Facer, and a man bleeding to death of a stomach wound. When dusk fell on that foolish and revolting day I was taken prisoner.[6]

Until this merciful and bathetic day’s end–no rescue and no nightingales for Ackerley–his experience was heading from an inverse-Pollard toward a recent Wilfred Owen. But there would have been nothing that even Ackerley’s penetrating irony could do about the prospect of spending a night in a shell hole among the dead and the dying.

instead, he is marched back “at bayonet point and parched,” grabbing the canteens of dead men but finding only neat rum. When he reaches the German aid station he is almost killed by a British aircraft dropping a bomb. Fittingly, then, given his attitude toward the war, Ackerley will precede Kurt Vonnecut into the exclusive club of major 20th century writers who were also allied infantryman captured by the Germans, then nearly killed by the bombs of their own side’s aircraft. Ackerley’s reminiscences will be without reliable dates, now, for some time…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There is an article comparing--no doubt with greater insight and accuracy--the fictional and the historical aspects of today in Williamson's writing, behind a pay wall at the Henry Williamson Society.
  2. Love and the Loveless, 133-9.
  3. Ackerley gets the date wrong in his memoir, recalling the date as "Two months later, on April 3," but Peter Parker's biography has the correct date, which the battalion war diary, available here, corroborates.
  4. Chérisy, not Cerisey on the Somme.
  5. He refers the reader to another book, Hindoo Holiday, for a fuller account.
  6. My Father and Myself, 95-6.