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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Italy, 30 November 1917

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

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

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

A Bad Night for Dr. Rivers; Thomas Hardy’s Blood Runs Cold; Wilfred Owen is Slightly Impolitic

After his nightmare of a day, yesterday, attending Lewis Yealland’s therapy/torture sessions, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers awoke from a nightmare in the wee hours of today, a century back. He had dreamed of the contorted men he had seen, and one had mouthed to him the words of Siegfried Sassoon‘s protest… then he himself had tortured another patient with an electrode–forcing it down his throat… until the electrode turned into a horse’s bit, and he woke up in a cold sweat.

So it went, in the novel, of course; but Pat Barker eases up on her hero in the full light of day. Rivers visits his mentor, Henry Head, and is consoled and reassured–his methods, of course, are very, very different from Yealland’s. But, then again, those gentler methods had still put the bit back in Sassoon’s mouth. And it is time for Rivers to return to Craiglockhart, now, for the second attempt at Sassoon’s Medical Board.[1]

 

Speaking of Sassoon-approved elders, here is a pertinent letter from Thomas Hardy to one J.M. Bulloch, explaining why he doesn’t have war poems to spare:

Max Gate, Dorchester, 25th. November 1917.

Dear Mr Bulloch:

I should like to write something about the War for The Graphic if I ever wrote anything in prose nowadays. But I have got out of the way of that sort of thing—I suppose because I have written nothing but verse for the last
twenty years and more…

I sent off elsewhere the only two war poems I had. If I had known I should have been pleased to let you have one. Perhaps another will come into my mind; but I don’t know. The machine-made horrors of the present war make one’s blood run cold rather than warm as a rule…

Yours sincerely,

Thomas Hardy.[2]

 

This letter from an eminence to an importunate editor is echoed by Wilfred Owen‘s letter to his perfervid but not terribly talented cousin, Leslie Gunston. I don’t think Owen means to be cruel about Gunston’s vanity-published poems, but… yikes.

Sunday, 26 November 1917 Clarence Gardens Hotel, Scarborough

My dear Leslie,

Received the Books last night, and spent an exciting few minutes looking through the poems. I congratulate you on the Binding & Type…

And from that opening the praise gets fainter (with a few bones thrown in, for pity’s sake). The interesting bit, for us, is this:

I don’t like ‘Hymn of Love to England’, naturally, at this period while I am composing ‘Hymns of Hate’…[3]

 

But we have forgotten France: it is Isaac Rosenberg‘s twenty-seventh birthday today, a century back, and he is celebrating it in hospital, where he continues to recover from a dangerous flu. Which is fortunate, as his battalion is being destroyed in Bourlon Wood.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Regeneration, 234-42.
  2. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 233.
  3. Collected Letters, 509-10.

Rowland Feilding’s Circuitous Identification; A Reprieve and a Safe Delivery for the Family Tolkien; Wilfred Owen Comes Out with a Key, and Sends “Asleep.”

Just three short notes today from (or about) three of our officers–but one gives a good excuse for us to read a poem.

The shortest comes from Rowland Feilding, who is impressively true to his commitment to tell his wife everything–horrors and fears included. But that doesn’t preclude a bit of light comedy, when such a thing presents itself.

November 16, 1917

One of my officers, in censoring his men’s letters a day or two ago, came upon the following:

“Dear Brother,–

I can’t tell you where I am, but I am at the place which I’ve left to go to the place where I’ve come from.”

I think that should baffle the censor, don’t you?[1]

 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had rather a heavier day, today, a century back, but with greater joys at the end of it.

The scheduled family medical event was another Board, which determined that his recovery from his latest bout with fever has been too slow. Tolkien was declared “20 per cent disabled,” a ruling which would have come to him as the lifting of a great weight: this classification made it very unlikely that he would ever face enemy fire again. Tolkien was sent back to the Lancashire Fusiliers depot at Thirtle Bridge, for at least two months more of “home service” before his next assessment.

And on returning to base he learned that his wife Edith had gone into labor in a Cheltenham nursing home. It will be a difficult delivery, and there are fears for her life, but Tolkien was unable to get leave to see her. It must have been a terrible day, for any husband and prospective father, but especially for one so fiercely committed to the romantic ideal of marriage.

And it ended happily: John Francis Reuel Tolkien will be born, healthy and strong, and his mother will make a relatively swift recovery.[2]

 

And finally, today, an unusually revealing–and predictably obscured–letter from Wilfred Owen. He has just spent several days visiting with his cousin Leslie Gunston, his closest friend and poetic fellow-dreamer in earlier years. But Owen had moved beyond his old friend and kinsman, and there was a new distance between the two. It’s not just that Gunston writes hackneyed verse while Owen has begun writing powerful poetry, and it’s not just his fancy new London friends. It also seems to have something to do with new honesty: emboldened by his friendship with Sassoon and Robbie Ross, Owen  seems to have made his sexual preferences clear to his cousin for the first time.

My dear Leslie,

I did not think to send back a driblet of your Ink so soon, but I have indeed carried off the key.

Had it been the key of my box I should surely have left it with you. As it was I left you the key to many of my poems, which you will guard from rust or soilure. . .

At this point the censorious editors of his letters cut in, omitting twenty-two words. It seems very likely that these announced Owen’s homosexuality as the “key” to his early poems, the love lyrics which he and Gunston would often write as parallel exercises. To “come out” even in so roundabout a fashion was courageous, and Owen must have trusted his friend and cousin, for the letter continues on as if their continued easy fellowship will not be affected by the news.

Good of you to send me the Lyric of Nov. 14th. I can only send my own of the same date, which came from Winchester Downs, as I crossed the long backs of the downs after leaving you. It is written as from the trenches. I could almost see the dead lying about in the hollows of the downs…

your W.E.O.[3]

Owen also gamely and loyally informs Gunston that he asked Harold Munro about Gunston’s rather awful The Nymph–although of course he could be fibbing. Even so, he does not mention doing anything specific to get The Nymph into the Poetry Bookshop, where after all it wouldn’t belong.

But if Gunston doesn’t realize how far Owen’s poetry has moved beyond their joint adolescent imitations, then perhaps he will be happy to receive drafts from his successful cousin, rather than chagrined that they are of such a different quality than his own productions…

In any event, the poem is called “Asleep,” and although it is nothing of Owen’s strongest and has quite a bit of the young man’s lyricism that drenched his pre-Sassoon work (although perhaps the erotic element will now be clear, for the first time, to the “key”-possessing Gunston), it is still the work of a veteran and a fast-developing poet:

 

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.

There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.

And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intruding lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making,
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars,
Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old,
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 225.
  2. Chronology, 102; I'm not completely sure if young Tolkien was actually born today or tomorrow, a century back.
  3. Collected Letters, 507-8. The censor is Owen's brother Harold, who ruthlessly but incompetently suppressed information about his brother's sexuality

A Mole Hill for Bed and Cake for Dinner in Jack Martin’s Trench; Kate Luard is Nearly Halfway Through Her Letters

Two nights ago, a century back, Jack Martin

felt a small strange upheaval underneath me. My first thought was of rats, but I soon discovered that it was a mole working away under the canvas on which we lie. A molehill in the middle of your spine is not conducive to comfort so I had to move myself one pace to the right…

Martin is an engineer, and so happy, apparently, to practice “live and let live” with rival tunnelers. Or perhaps he was simply biding his time, unwilling to risk conflict before the next mail call. Yesterday was Martin’s 33rd birthday, which netted him a tidy total of four parcels, leaving his tent looking “like a canteen.”

4.9.17

At 10 p.m. last night Glasspoole and I proceeded on night duty with my parcels. There was too large an assortment for us to sample everything but we started on a chocolate cake… then we tackled a bottle of preserved mixed fruits with grape nuts and condensed milk…[1]

The feast will continue…

 

But the interlude of comparative peace will not. Yesterday was a quiet day for Kate Luard, too, although her time was occupied with less agreeable correspondence.

Crowds of letters from mothers and wives who’ve only just heard from the W.O. and had no letter from me, are pouring in, and have to be answered, from my book of addresses and notes of cases; it takes up hours. I’ve managed to write 200 so far, but there are 466.

Then yesterday’s quietly devastating task led into a long and far less quiet night.

1 a.m. Another spell of hell let loose, and now brilliant moonlight, desultory banging of our heavies and occasional squeakers whining over from him. Peace for the minute overhead. Nearly all the patients are sleeping.

Later. Shells getting nearer had me back in the hospital. The last shell looked to be on the edge of 44; it was a big crash and spattered me with spent splinters. His damnable engines are now approaching in the sky – must be off.

2.30. I just got to a ward where the Sister is alone with one patient when the bomb fell and blew one of our Night Orderlies’ sleeping tents out of existence: it is one of a group of Orderlies’ and M.O.’s tents and one of the only empty ones at night. Wasn’t it wonderful? They’d all have been wiped out if they’d been in bed, but they were all on Night Duty. No other tent was touched. Just left an excited group of M.O.’s in pyjamas, and men round the hole…

Today has reminded me, strangely, of the last days of Edward Thomas. He had a birthday not long before the end, though the parcels were delayed; he also spent a morning pondering a mole, his habitat disturbed by guns and engineers; and Thomas had one long argument about the theology of ignoring artillery shells that found their mark while praising a matrix of near misses as a pattern of miraculous escapes… all of this is echoed, today, both by skeptical engineers and world-weary but conventionally religious nurses.

Conventional–but not unreflectively pious.

Tuesday morning, September 4th. Got to bed in my clothes, at 4 a.m., up at 7.30. Slept well. Brilliant morning; Archie racket in full blast. This acre of front so far bears a charmed life, but how long can it last? Shells and bombs shave us on all four sides. Mad, isn’t it? Capt. B. and Capt. P. (the all-night-duty men) are topping people. We have huge jokes in the middle of it all – no one could stick it if everybody behaved with fitting solemnity and sang hymns. There is a bit of Thank God sometimes, but praying doesn’t somehow come in, which seems funny! You can be
doing that!

Later. Orders have come for the final evacuation of the Hospital – site considered too ‘unhealthy.’ We close down to-day, evacuate the patients still here, and disperse the personnel. I stay till the last patient is fit to be moved, probably to-morrow, or next day – then probably Leave for 14 days! But don’t count on it, as you never know.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 99-100.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 155-7.

Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon Celebrate in Edinburgh; The Battalion, in Reserve, Gets on With it

Robert Graves arrived belatedly[1] at Craiglockhart War Hospital, where his “prisoner” has already settled in. Are there any hard feelings about the fact that Graves strong-armed Siegfried Sassoon into giving up his protest by means of a bluff (i.e. a blatant lie, but not one that Sassoon has yet discovered)?

Apparently not; today was Graves’s birthday, and he and Sassoon were able to take the day–Sassoon’s talk therapy with Rivers is not quite as demanding as Owen’s “ergotherapy”–to walk and talk poetry and eat. Sassoon will write to their mutual friend Robbie Ross that

It was very jolly seeing Robert Graves up here. We had great fun on his birthday, and ate enormously. R. has done some very good poems which he repeated to me. He was supposed to escort me up here, but missed the train and arrived four hours after I did!

Hope you aren’t worried about my social position.

Yours ever S.S.[2]

 

Happy days are here again, and so I will go to Dr. Dunn’s chronicle in another attempt at ironic juxtaposition. On the surface, this would be a failure:

July 24th.–The second day of Brigade Boxing … The Sports and the Boxing confirm the impression that the last draft, largely young South Wales miners, is much the best that has come to us for two years.[3]

Sassoon is already far out of touch–his beloved 2nd Battalion had been filled with easier-to-rhapsodize rural North Welshmen, not miners from the south. (At least one of the recent conscripts sent out from the depot to the 15th Battalion–the bard Hedd Wynn–is an authentic North Welsh farmer, however). And yet it might seem as if he is in step, somehow, with his battalion: they are in reserve, and happy enough, and making a day of it–just like himself.

But of course this should–or could, it depends so greatly upon our mood and chosen vantage point!–force us to think back to the stated reasons for Sassoon’s protest. He did it for the soldiers. (Even if we look askance at the self-dramatizing aspects of the protest, this remains essentially true.)

And, so, what of these new men of the Second Battalion? These young Welshmen are hale and hearty–perhaps there are some late, Lloyd-George-inspired volunteers as well as conscripts among them–but they have come from the mines to even more dangerous work conditions. They are being observed at boxing by eyes primarily concerned with assessing how they will fare in even more brutal and deadly combat…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Yesterday--despite some vagueness in the secondary sources I am now quite sure of this.
  2. Diary, 183.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 368.

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.

Alfred Hale is Sold into Servitude; Rowland Feilding Marches Well; Siegfried Sassoon Observes the Tragedy of Time, and Wins Timely Praise from the Author of Time’s Laughingstocks

Before we get to a poetically significant convergence of the twain, let us first commiserate with our newest conscript and congratulate one of our survivors.

Alfred Hale has spent the last ten days being of very little use to anyone. Assigned to his camp’s “Cripples Brigade,” his duties have included drill (stripped down to the command “right turn”), route marches (of several hundred yards, broken up by an elderly sergeant’s reminiscences) and picking up litter. The most signal events of his sojourn have included failing to haul beef carcases to the kitchen (too heavy) and being addressed as “sir” by a sergeant. Hale’s theories of why this last embarrassment occurred did not run toward accusations of sarcasm or cynical wit–he believes either that sergeant was polite in the mistaken belief that the “elderly” gentleman-private would end up an officer or that some reflexive, pre-military response to the obvious signs of his civilian class (he speaks like a “blooming toff” in private’s togs), triggered the polite form of address.

But today, a century back, Hale learned his fate: he was paraded in the morning and informed that he would become “an officer’s batman in the RFC.” Opinion in his tent was divided on the merits of this assignment: Hale, at least, would know how to talk to gentlemen; but then again an officer’s batman must be handy, and always on hand…[1]

 

Rowland Feilding would be most bemused by this sort of incompetence. He prides himself, rather, on the turnout of his battalion even as it moves away from the front lines, riding the rails and then marching into rest.

May 18 1917 Coulomby.

Yesterday… it took us 7 1/4 hours to do 25 miles; and we travelled—both officers and men—in goods trucks.

This morning (my birthday) we moved on again by foot, doing 15 miles—a trying march, since the day was hot and
the men were heavily loaded up, besides being too fresh from the trenches to be in a fit condition for marching. They came along splendidly, nevertheless, with the drums leading, and finished in the evening with plenty of swing at Coulomby, where many officers and men of other battalions of the Brigade stood by the road, watching them pass.

All along the route numerous inhabitants (who are not so blasé about British soldiers hereabouts as they are nearer the line) turned out to have a look at the battalion. Bevies of children ran alongside, and an old Frenchman–evidently a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War–had all his medals ready, and held them up behind his cottage window, at the same time drawing his hand across his throat in signification of his sentiments towards his quondam—and now once more his country’s enemies…[2]

 

And thence to Sussex, where Siegfried Sassoon continues his restive recuperation. His diaries make it clear that he is avoiding the war as much as he can–but he has made no mention of the fact that his book has just come out (although at some point soon he will copy snippets of the reviews into the diary).

This despite the fact that his friends are all pulling for him, working hard to get the book received positively. Robert Graves has been hassling booksellers and lining up literary uncles, and he will shortly write to Sassoon to proclaim that The Old Huntsman will “out-Rupert Rupert.” A much more important ally is Robbie Ross, who also wrote, today, to say that “[t]he tide has obviously turned.” Even though the reviews are still forthcoming it seems that the literary lights are now ready to approve angry and critical verses from a young officer.[3] There will be more literary lunches when he returns to London, but in the meantime, well, there is Chapelwood Manor, and aristocracy, and age.

May 18, 1917

Lord Brassey returned from town to-day. He discoursed during coffee and port-time about the War, while we four young soldiers sat round the table putting in a respectful word now and again.

I was next to him and had plentiful opportunities of noting the wreckage of his fine face—the head and brow are still there, and the firm nose, but the mouth is loosened and the lower lip pendulous and unhealthy-looking, like his hands. I think he is always on the verge of a ‘stroke’. He talks in carefully pompous phrases as though he were Chairman of a Meeting…

He ended by saying ‘I’m only an old dotard,’ and we tried to laugh naturally, as if it were a good joke, instead of a tragedy, to see a fine man the victim of Time, his body worn-out, his spirit undaunted.

But I won his heart with my piano-playing afterwards—and probably made him sad as well as happy (possibly sleepy!). He seems unable to lift his chin from his chest. We young men are strangers in the land of his mind. He will go out into the night, and the world will be ours.

‘I declare to you, my dear fellow, that it is my profound conviction that the present ecclesiastical administrative functions are entirely, yes, entirely and undisputably inefficacious. O what worlds of dreary self-sustainment are hidden by the gaiters of our episcopal dignitaries!’

…He is a very old man: his sententious periods quavering between the querulous and the urbane. But his face is often lit up by the human tenderness that the wise years have taught him. He is a good man.

And he has never heard of Rupert Brooke! How refreshing. And Lady Brassey has never heard of Hardy’s Dynasts[4]

 

Speak of the devil! Or, rather, of the wizard, the poetic doktorvater in absentia. The parallelism here between Sassoon and the old lord and Sassoon and the old writer (Hardy is only four years younger than Lord Brassey) is too nice to disrupt with fussy commentary…

Max Gate, Dorchester, May 18, 1917

My dear Thornycroft;

I am sending this letter to young Sassoon through you, if you will be so kind as to forward it. I thought it a safer route than through a publishers office, & I don’t know where he is. As it is about his poems, I have left it open for you to read. Please fasten it up…

Always yrs
T.H.

Yes; Siegfried Sassoon lacks a Great House to inherit, his father abandoned the family, and his mother is such an embarrassment that he wrote her out of his memoirs. Ah but he does have friends–and uncles. Hamo Thornycroft, the sculptor, is his mother’s brother, and a friend of Hardy’s, who sat for a bust. He first made the connection between his young nephew and the giant of English literature. There have already been signs of approval, and so it is only bold, perhaps, rather than foolhardy to have proposed dedicating The Old Huntsman to the old master.

But will cautious optimism and frosty, family-friend permission lead to real poetic respect?

Max Gate, Dorchester, May 18, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

I write to thank you much for the gift of “The Old Huntsman” which came to me duly from the publishers. Also for the honour of the dedication. I was going to wait till I could send an elaborate letter of commentary, after a thorough reading of the poems, but I then felt that you would prefer, as I do myself, just this simple line to tell you how much I like to have them. I should say that I am not reading them rapidly. I never do read rapidly anything I care about, so I have not as yet got further than about the middle.

I would not, even if I could, enter into a cold-blooded criticism. It occurs to me to tell you however that I appreciate thoroughly, “When I’m among a blaze of lights”, & “Blighters”, & much like the grim humour of “The Tombstone Maker”, & “They”, the pathos of “The Hero”, & the reticent poignancy of “The Working Party”. How we realize that young man!

I wonder how you are getting on in Hospital. Improving surely, I hope, even if slowly. I don’t know how I should stand the suspense of this evil time if it were not for the sustaining power of poetry. May the war be over soon.

Believe me, with renewed thanks, & best wishes for your good luck,

Sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 63-4.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 176.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I 363.
  4. Diaries, 169-70.
  5. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 213-4.

Alf Pollard Summons the Band; Wilfred Owen is Possibly a Little Mad; Ivor Gurney Rates the War Poets; Vera Brittain Knows it is Very Difficult to Know What is the Right Thing to Do

The Honourable Artillery Company are back in rest, and resting on their considerable recent laurels. In Alf Pollard‘s memoirs, the mood of Boy’s Own boyishness persists. Today is his birthday and–on a dare–he requests that the Divisional Band be sent to serenade him. It is–and this being the Royal Naval Division, the Royal Marines Band arrives to play a long, formal concert. Pollard will have leave soon, so that he might disperse his high spirits elsewhere…

 

Wilfred Owen, meanwhile, remains near the line, but not in it, hospitalized due to the effects of shell shock. But it is hard to ascertain the state of his “nerves” in medical terms. His own bewilderment–manifesting in these letters as bemused confidence that everything will work out fine, soon–makes it difficult to tell whether he is under observation or suspicion. Is he still at the CCS because the doctors want to see whether he will improve away from the trenches or need further treatment Blighty, or because the fact of his being “shell-shocked” is in doubt?

4 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

My own dear Mother,

I have been expecting every day to be moved from here, but nothing happens; only a great calm happiness. We are a cheery crowd here this time, and I like everyone as a great & interesting fellow. Some of us have been sent down here as a little mad. Possibly I am among them. One man in particular is supposed to be a Brain Case. He is a Trinity College (Oxford) boy, and a nephew of Sir Frederick Treves;[1] and is going to get damages from his C.O. for libel or something of that sort; with Sir Frederick & F. E. Smith to back him up!! The chief arguments of his denouncers are (1) that he had an original Scheme for making a haul of German Prisoners, and (2) he happened to read the Bible. He is, of course, perfectly sane, but may be sent to England!

…I have no news, but that it has been splendidly hot lately, & we have been living the lounging, irresponsible life of a hydro. It will not last long for some of us…

Always your lovingest W.E.O. x[2]

 

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott today–a long, rambling, literary letter that seems intended to cheer her amidst a renewed bout of illness. And he must also thank her for a gift of books, including the most recent collection of Yeats’s poetry–a gift too precious for his state:

…this morning “Responsibilities” has turned up. It is too generous of you really, and of course far too good a book to keep out here; so that directly I think they have put me on a draft I will send it back to you. The glance at it seems to show it an immensely interesting book, obscure, and unaccountably failing and only just failing to be great poetry time after time. What will the next one be like? Is it Transition or the end of him? After the War I shall be only too pleased to resume possession, but as to taking it up the line that is not possible…

The Herrick poem is very beautiful, and makes me long for the time when after a long tramp out towards round and about Staunton and Corse — on the way to Jagged Malvern, I shall return tired and full of memories to set up singing in my mind — and then Mr Herrick, we shall collaborate to some purpose.

But there are more up-to-date things to read, too: our war poetry serpent now begins to nibble on its own tail. In fact, it’s a pretty big bite:

Also another kind friend has sent me “Soldier Poets”, in which there is precious little of value but much of interest. Julian Grenfell’s “Into Battle” is of course easily the best. Geoffrey Howard’s “Without Shedding of Blood,” E. MelboumesBefore Action”, “Back to Rest”. Victor Ratcliffe’s “Optimism”. Robertson’s “We shall drink”. Sorleys translation from “Faust”. The curiously alive and unequal “Charge at Neuve-Chapelle.” The last two verses of “To My People” of Wilkinson’s. (Have you seen any verse by a man named Sassoon? I remember having seen quite good stuff.)

This is a poet’s assessment, I think, not a soldier-poet’s, and still less a poet-historian’s. Gurney, humble private of the Gloucesters, is neither amazed nor offended by the war-worship of the aristocratic cavalryman, and he has kind words for other poems, both forgotten and remembered, here. Noel Hodgson–that would be “E. Melbourne”–writes a more self-consciously refined sort of verse than Gurney, but it’s not surprising his sure hand and quiet tone would appeal to him.

It’s the last name that comes as a surprising non-sequitur: Siegfried Sassoon is not in Soldier Poets, and The Old Huntsman is still days away from publication. So Gurney has seen one of the handful of recent poems that Sassoon has placed in magazines, and seen his promise immediately…

And as for his own?

You may send my things to Erskine Macdonald if you wish. The “Poetry Review” is a first rate pusher. Why cannot I write now? Dont know, but I believe after this long frowst and feed up, the line will give me beacoup ideas… In future however, I refuse absolutely to have any parcels sent. It is absurd and impossible to ask for them. And now the warm weather has come, we shall do very well.

We’ll see about that!

…O Robert Ross or whatever his name is—the Poetry Review man — is all bosh. Pope or Gray in the solidity of his good lines — ungoverned transcendability. A type of a different kind from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, but no better. Give me Walt Whitman…

It’s difficult to follow Gurney here, but one joke, at least, is on him. Robbie Ross is one of the main reasons he has had the chance to see “any verse by a man named Sassoon.” London literary connections are very important, and this Gloucestershire lad lacks them. He owes Marion Scott a very great deal indeed…

Tomorrow I start training, a good thing. You get frightfully slack doing nothing:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

Finally, today, in a letter to her mother, Vera Brittain reaffirms her new course.

Malta, 4 May 1917

When your letter Came saying how you wished I was in England to comfort Edward because of Victor, I felt rather mean in signing on again & being unable to be of use at home for 6 months at least, but when I got your cables saying that Geoffrey was killed, I knew that I must try to come home if possible, for I know that I can comfort him as no one else can. I am coming partly for your sake when he goes out again, partly because I may be of more help to Victor than any of you know, but chiefly for Edward, for I hope to get home before he goes out again . . .

Vera’s decision is complex. It’s not only a matter of what she wants to do, or even of the tug between ordinary selfish desires and what she wants to want to do–that noble, sacrificial self-image that is so important for her as for so many other Brooke-reading children of 1914. It’s also the fact that, although she may preside over the battered, shrinking cult of Roland, she is not, in her family’s eyes, a Romantic priestess… she is an unmarried young woman, with a duty to support her family. She has kicked against these restraints, but now she does not deny them:

Anyone–or no one–could take my place here, whereas nobody else could take my place with Edward or you or Victor, so after I had thought it out for a long time I felt you had the first claim. It is very difficult sometimes to know what is the right thing to do, but at least I know in this case that I am not making your need of me an excuse to go home, for since I intend to go on nursing till the War ends I would rather do it with this unit than anywhere; I love the system of this hospital, I have made many good friends… I don’t intend to leave the service for good, only for a little, time; after which I shall join up again all being well . . .

It seems terribly hard that Victor should be blinded & Geoffrey killed within a few weeks of each other; poor Edward must feel that there is no one left of his generation…

It is another case of ‘whom the Gods love’; I feel as though all the people I love are too splendid to last & that is why I lose them…

Goodbye–I hope I shall see you not long after you get this. I feel I must try to be of some use to the living since I can’t be of any use to the dead.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sir Frederick Treves (1853-1923), Sergeant-Surgeon to King Edward VII.
  2. Collected Letters, 454-5.
  3. War Letters, 159-61.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 349-50.

Edward Thomas: To Imagine England is… Impossible; A Birthday Headache for Wilfred Owen; Why, There Goes Kate Luard, Out for a Promenade!

Edward Thomas‘s letter to his wife Helen picks up today after fading out last night, a century back.

Now I am back (Sunday the 18th) from the O.P., dirty and tired… But here’s your letter and Eleanor’s parcel. Alas! the letter you wrote at Hatch never came. So I have lost at least one in this blank week.

Well, it has been a pleasant 24 hours. One of the pretty things was to drive over an old green track running straight across No Man’s Land and of course ending altogether in the trenches.

Another pretty thing is the blue silent clear water of parts of the citadel moat, fed from chalk streams, but full of skeletons of small trees–some parts of the moat are osier and ‘palm’ (sallow) and there the water is stagnant and muddy. You walk alongside under enormous old ramparts of earth faced with stone and brick. There are trees, 70 or 80 years old, growing in the moat and just reaching the top. Well, what if there are? My dearest, if it weren’t for these things I shouldn’t be really alive. Actually now I hear a lark singing above the street as well as slops splashing out. And you must not convince yourself you are merely waiting, you know. You must have often been content or happy at Ivy’s if you can think of it, and however well life goes in war or peace, one doesn’t get more than that, when you come to think of it, though of course I know you want more, and so do I…

I wonder when Easter is. I thought of Easter when yesterday was so warm…

Goodbye. Harry’s idiotic remarks were about leave; where as I told you there is no leave at all in this Army except sick leave. I don’t want leave. I would rather stay out till they don’t want me any more. I couldn’t bear to come home and return here.

Goodbye. I hope all goes well.

There are few more difficult (or more intrusive) tasks for the literary commentator than trying to see inside of a marriage–a relationship millions of words deep–through a few tired words committed to paper in one moment. But if his stark preference against leave–surely in part a forceful puncturing of any unrealistic hope that he might get leave before the coming battle–seems cruel, there is gentleness and love again in the signature. It feels more than pro forma to write

All and always yours

Edwy[1]

And to Eleanor Farjeon:

March 18

My dear Eleanor, Your parcel has come and the Hun has retired. Those are the latest things. The stupid F and M directed the parcel to me as R.F.A. so of course the Army wouldn’t hear of it, but apparently G for F did the trick.

That would be Fortnum and Mason, Royal Field Artillery, and Royal Garrison Artillery…

And it brought a letter too, which of course was what I liked best, even tho I had one the day before yesterday. Oh, and I found the one I thought I had lost. The Hun has gone back though, which of course is not really good or bad news, but pleases me because we shan’t fight the battle in a city. I dreaded that. And now I shall be in a dug-out near that ghastly village over there that I told you of

But as I say it’s a lovely day—I have at last got my old artist boots and am perfectly comfortable for the first time out here—and I have done 2 shoots and am due for a few idle hours. Now the larks shall have No Man’s Land and the pairs of magpies no longer run any risk—they didn’t know they did before. And the bat can go to sleep again in his shed till it is settled spring.

I am so glad about your cottage and garden. They sound just the perfection of what I am keeping entirely out of my mind now. It is easier to imagine our orchard restored to its orchardliness; for we shall certainly leave it and go up closer. To imagine England is as impossible as to eat your parcel on March 3…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[2]

These are, on the whole, upbeat letters; brave faces. And I will only undermine them the slightest bit with this quotation from his diary for today, a century back:

I could hear a lark till the Archies drowned it. Fired 600 rounds and got tired eyes and ears.[3]

 

Our second of three dispatches, today, a century back, is Wilfred Owen‘s tale of his tumble. Or, rather, the tale of its concussive aftermath:

My dearest Mother,

I am in a hospital bed, (for the first time in life…)

After falling into that hole (which I believe was a shell-hole in a floor, laying open a deep cellar) I felt nothing more than a headache, for 3 days; and went up to the front in the usual way—or nearly the usual way, for I felt too weak to wrestle with the mud, and sneaked along the top, snapping my fingers at a clumsy sniper. When I got back I developed a high fever, vomited strenuously, and long, and was seized with muscular pains. The night before last I was sent to a shanty a bit further back, & yesterday motored on to this Field Hospital, called Casualty Clearing Station  It is nowhere in particular that I know…

It is in the hamlet of Le Quesnoy-en-Santerre, as a footnote informs us.

…but I may be evacuated to Amiens, if my case lasts long enough. For I began to get right again immediately after getting into these sheets ‘that soon smooth away trouble.’ The physician handed me over to the surgeon. But my head is not broken or even cut in any way. My temperature etc. may not have had any relation to the knock, and the first doctor said he only hoped it had. Anyhow it was normal yesterday…

And then a snide comment about the nurses:

Sometimes a Sister blows in to this ward, and flutes a bit on a high voice, or pegs around on a high heel, but we are really attended by orderlies, who are fresh & clean, and much preferable, being not only serener and sensibler, but also private soldiers with no airs of authority about ’em. Rather the other way.

All my kit and belongings have come down with me, including 55 francs, much mud, and Pte. Heath.

Alas! I’ve had no letter for about 5 days…

…ever, Wilfred x[4]

Further evidence of Owen’s concussion is that he couldn’t remember the date–which was, in fact, his twenty-fourth birthday… I’m worried about whether the chocolates he specifically didn’t ask for may be lost now that he is away from his battalion…

 

And finally, today, a welcome calm before the storm. Kate Luard, has been very busy preparing her new CCS for the coming battle. But she is always one for a ramble–she likes the walks, the fresh air, the flowers, the interactions with the French peasants, and the semblance of grand-touristical normality–especially when that can be stretched to include her curiosity about mighty examples of ordnance. And Sister Luard is not entirely without vanity–it is good to be recognized as one of the few women skilled, persistent, and courageous enough to brave all the barriers that are meant to keep the fairer sex far from the fighting men.

Sunday, March 18th, We worked all the morning and all knocked off at lunch to-day as it was a dazzling day… It seemed a good chance to do some exploring if we’re going to be busy, so G. and R. and I armed ourselves with our identity discs and gas-helmets, and my field glasses and a map and some chocolate and biscuits (as S. and I used to do at Barlin), and set off East. We went through three villages, all packed with men doing the four days in and four days out of the trenches, and at the third village, we asked a woman if she could give us some coffee. She did, with zeal, and refused to be paid, and then came a stroke of luck I’ve been looking for all through this War. I asked her if there were any ‘Grandmothers’ about. ‘Yes,’ said little Louise of 13 eagerly, ‘there is one,’ and she took us to it. There was the painted monster with a team of R.M.A.[5] and a R.M.A. officer, who was most kind and introduced us to his little pet, with the enormous shells in a row alongside.

He told us the Germans had gone back 5 miles in the night… [and] said the cavalry were out now.

The village had been shelled until up to yesterday. We were in the region where you hear the men say after you’ve passed, ‘Why, they’re English!'[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters to Helen, 84-7. ivy is Ivy Ransome, a friend of the family (and wife of the writer Arthur Ransome) who seems to have been invaluable as Helen struggled with Edward's absence.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas...255-6.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 171.
  4. Collected Letters, 443.
  5. Royal Marine Artillery, to complete today's set.
  6. Unknown Warriors, 101.

Siegfried Sassoon Goes to Town, and Writes of Base Details and Lofty Imaginings; Also: Tolkien Encouraged; Henry Williamson on the Somme; Moncrieff in the Cathedral; Thomas Hardy on Prisoners; Edward Thomas Queries the Incoming

On the most martial day in the calendar–“March Forth!”–Siegfried Sassoon, a century back, did. In verse. In body he was lolling about, still stuck in Rouen’s massive base, released from hospital but moldering, deedless, without any responsibilities, awaiting assignment to a line battalion. So he did what any angry young man might do, and got the best luncheon he could, at the Hôtel de la Poste, and thought nasty thoughts about the other diners.

I was a bit tentative when I first discussed Sassoon’s prose sketches at Rouen–and a good thing, too. I’m not sure how to read Jean Moorcroft-Wilson’s suggested dating of lunch, prose description, and poem[1]–but I don’t think we can know for certain since Sassoon evidently flipped around in his pocket notebook (beautifully scanned by the University of Cambridge), using different sections for notes, sketches, poem drafts, and the chronological diary. But I would hazard a guess that he did not write “Lunch on Sunday in Rouen” until today, a century back. The published diary prints the sketches immediately after the February 27th entry, but it makes more sense to assume that the luncheon took place today, when the dated diary entry confirms that Sassoon left the camp for a day in Rouen proper. Even if the lunch was earlier, today’s trip to Rouen certainly gave rise to at least one poem (about church-going–see below), and it seems likely that Sassoon lunched, saw the church, went for a walk, returned to camp, wrote the sketches, and then, afterward, the two poems. Sassoon, at least, dates both poems “March 4th,” then again this might be a smoking gun of autobiographical fallicizing: he could be dating the poetry not by its writing but by its conception in his life experience…

In any case, we have two experiences which give rise to much writing and which are linked by the figure of a “stout Staff Major.” The protagonist of “In the Cathedral” is reflecting on the inspirational beauty of the church of Saint-Ouen (not, in fact, the famous Rouen cathedral but rather a smaller church similarly equipped with magnificent Gothic windows) but when he comes away he runs into the major, who seems to personify the loss of his elevated mood. Our tentatively religious but gallopingly aesthetic officer concludes that nothing really matters and that “the War went on, pitiless, threatening to continue for ever.” But the fat major really belongs, thematically, to the next piece, “Lunch on Sunday in Rouen,” in which the now-cynical poet’s-view officer inwardly curses the contented staff officers he finds gorging themselves over luncheon.

But Sassoon had a considerable poetic gift for compressed, nasty fits of pique. Some stories are worth telling at great length, in prose, twice, but others work best in verse. Other than borrowing a favorite phrase–“scarlet majors”–from Robbie Ross, “Base Details” draws directly on the language of the prose piece, and to great effect.

 

Base Details

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well.
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war was done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

 

This is a great leap forward in invective, and it begins with the “scarlet majors,” a damning term freighted with allusion. First, the rank of major has become an important symbol of military bureaucracy: it’s the lowest rank that is not usually in command of an actual unit of men (captains get companies, lieutenant-colonels get battalions), and for that reason it is most likely to contain indifferent career soldiers and middle-aged New Army nonentities,men who can order about even the most heroic small-unit leader. Heller’s Major Major Major is not far off. Second, “scarlet” does yoeman’s work, two-syllable proof of all that poetic compression can accomplish. It’s a flowery adjective, a romantic word, and yet it connotes sin and hints at various other emotional states: are these majors sinful? are they prone to livid screaming? flushed with drink? Finally, it points to the red badges worn on cap and uniform tabs by members of the staff–scarlet, the color of the old British Army, and laughably ill-suited to being anywhere within actual sight of the enemy. They are safe, they are well-fed, they are inconsequential (turning on the generals and the politicians would require taking a different tack), and their jobs are, indeed, to speed young heroes up the line, to whatever awaits them there.

Then there’s all that good work with onomatopoeia as the contented staff officers tear at their rich food, the excellent mimicry of a certain sort of self-satisfied utterance… there’s the irresistible “up the line to death,” which will make this poem not only an anthology stalwart but an anthology title… and there’s the hammer-blow of the last couplet (“toddle” was a late improvement on “waddle”). This isn’t a protest against the war, exactly, but it is a heavy blow against its conduct, almost unforgettable in its slamming conclusion. It will do more than any other poem to draw the conceptual line between aggrieved, disillusioned young combatants and the older/safer/staffier cohort who are no longer worthy of their respect–or, the poem argues, ours.

So, has Siegfried Sassoon made a full conversion to rage? Not exactly.

 

March 4

One of the medieval Rosaces of Saint-Ouen; the lancet window Sassoon describes I have not yet found

Half-an-hour in the glorious Eglise de St. Ouen, with soft notes of the organ and chanting voices, and burning blossoms of colour in the high windows; one was a narrow arch of green and silver with touches of topaz and pale orange—most delicate and saintly. Below was the huddle of black-cloaked and bonneted women and grey-headed men, with a few soldiers, French and English, and children.

Then a train hurried me up the hill to Bois Guillaume… woods with a chilly wind soughing in the branches of beech and oak, and a grey sky overhead, and a carpet, of dry beech-leaves underfoot. And one thrush singing a long way off, singing as if he did not yet quite believe in the end of winter.

The other surviving medieval rosace at Saint-Ouen

The delicate, aspiring, grey pillars of St.Ouen are noble, and the rich colours there do not change, except when darkness falls outside. There will be such beauty in these woods at the end of April as no Mediaeval builder could imitate. But they had the idea in their heads, when they lifted up that miracle of stone and crystal, and crowned it with deep-toned bells, calling down the peace of God to comfort the good citizens of Rouen.

 

In the Church of St. Ouen

Time makes me a soldier; but I know
That had I lived six hundred years ago,
I might have tried to build within my heart
A church like this; where I could dwell apart,
With chanting peace; my spirit longs for prayer,
And, lost to God, I seek him everywhere.
Here, while the windows, burn and bloom like flowers,
And sunlight falls and fades with tranquil hours,
I could be half a saint, for like a rose
In heart-shaped stone the glory of Heaven glows.
But where I stand, desiring yet to stay,
Hearing rich music at the close of day
The Spring Offensive (Easter is its date)
Calls me. And that’s the music I await.

March 4

An entirely different poem–one so lush (“purple”) that Sassoon, faintly embarrassed, will not offer it for publication. Entirely different–a religious sonnet, a sincere paean to beauty, a dream without cynicism, a thing belonging to a world of quiet contemplation…  until the last couplet, when the war returns with a thump. See here, and throughout the diary for more of Sassoon’s notes on St. Ouen, including several sketches…

I’m displeased that he doesn’t see the date-pun (or perhaps he does, and lets it lie very quietly here, to march 4th to the Spring Offensive) but clearly Sassoon is of two minds–one furious, the other exalted/tragic. I also need not point out, surely, that dating the coming offensive to Easter is less a subaltern divulging crucial strategic details to his poetry notebook than a non-religious poet, standing in the glory of a rosace, and diffidently taking up the fabulously rich cultural tradition that delivers to him in the appointed hour a narrative of suffering, violent death at the hands of imperial soldiers, and–if I remember correctly–redemption.

Complexity? Negative capability? The containing of multitudes? Near madness? Sassoon, in the next but in his diary, opts for the last:

This will never do…  Now to be a saint one must suffer. And I am more qualified for the job after six months in the front line than after sixty years in a cathedral cloister. Religious feeling is a snare set by one’s emotional weakness. Religion is a very stern master, who promises nothing and demands all.

The distant rumble of guns can be heard from the line… There is a sort of unreasoning, inhuman gaiety in the air which is beyond description… I sometimes feel that everyone (even the Base-Colonels) will suddenly go stark mad arid begin shooting one another instead of the Germans. The whole business is so monstrously implacable to all human tenderness. We creep about like swarms of insects. And all the while there is the spectacle of Youth being murdered.[2]

 

Phew. Well, Sassoon’s stagnation has produced some strong writing; will the trenches be as kind to his seething muse?

The rest of our business today can be quickly accomplished:

First, a near-miss. Charles Scott Moncrieff, too, is church-going in Rouen. He and Sassoon might have passed on the street, although they attended different churches. This letter of tomorrow describes today, a century back:

5th March, 1917.

Left hospital yesterday—Sunday, as I had done a fortnight earlier. Went down to the Cathedral, and was surprised and rather pleased to find a very splendid young Cardinal—I think the new Archbishop of Rouen—who made a fine figure in the usually empty throne. I was outside the grille of the choir just opposite him. When he stood up to give the Benediction his voice at once filled the huge, hollow, cold and empty building. . . .[3]

 

And Henry Williamson began a new diary today, a century back–and visited the Somme battlefield.

Weather clearing. Went to Beaumont Hamel. Saw Y Ravine. Terrible place. Deep dugouts. Artillery moving forward. Strafe tonight. Coy. goes in line Tuesday.[4]

The visit may have been part pilgrimage, to look for the grave of his cousin Charlie Boon. But Williamson is an inveterate wanderer, and he will make use of this mid-war bit of battlefield tourism when he comes to place his alter ego in the thick of the Somme battle. The deep dugouts, in fact, become a major fixation of his fictional account of June, 1916.

 

Back in Dorset, a letter from Thomas Hardy–the least scarlet of all old men–shows his persistently humane and tragic view of the war, even in a time of calls for national service.

Max Gate, Dorchester, March 4: 1917

We are living uneventful lives here (if the news of war events are not reckoned) feeling no enterprize for going about & seeing people while the issue of the great conflict is in the balance—& I fear that by the time the issue is  reached I shall be too far on to old age to care to do so. The actual reminder in this house that the struggle is going on is that I have some German prisoners at work in the garden, cutting down some trees, & clearing the ground for more potato-room. They are amiable young fellows, & it does fill one with indignation that thousands of such are led to slaughter by the ambitions of Courts & Dynasties. If only there were no monarchies in the world, what a chance for its amelioration![5]

 

Christopher Wiseman sent a letter today, a century back to the only fellow survivor of the four core members of the T.C.B.S. The letter is both elegiac and hortatory: Tolkien must carry on, both with publishing G.B. Smith’s poems and with developing his own work:

The reason why I want you to write the epic is because I want you to connect all these [poems and tales] up properly, & make their meaning & context tolerably clear. [6]

 

Finally, Edward Thomas. Yesterday was a less than ideal birthday. Today his presents arrived, but his mind is elsewhere–and not in a good place.

Shelling at 5.30. I don’t like it. I wonder where I shall be hit as in bed I wonder if it is better to be on the window or outer side of room or on the chimney on inner side, whether better to be upstairs where you may fall or on the ground floor where you may be worse crushed. Birthday parcels from home.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Moorcroft-Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 325-6.
  2. Diaries, 139-42.
  3. Diaries, 125-6.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 91.
  5. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 204.
  6. Chronology, 99.
  7. War Diary (Childhood), 167.