Robert Graves Reaches Out to Sassoon, but Sassoon is Intent on his Quarry; David Jones Disbands

Today, a century back, was another good day for Outdoor Siegfried Sassoon.

February 6 (Limerick. Ballingrane)

A wet day, south-west wind. Found in some gorse… ran nicely back a half-circle to Nantinan, where he tried the earths… and ran us out of scent. A nice twenty minutes…  A glorious ride—very sad that we did so little…[1]

 

But Outdoor Sassoon is neglecting his indoor friends–the poets, that is. Even the recently married poet-comrades…

Dear old Sassons

I have been intending to write for so long but find it difficult: don’t know why. Was the wedding a success? ask me! It would have been more so if you had been able to attend. I am for the moment confined to my couch with a cold but in the last three days have written 45 letters, 3 new poems, recast four old ones, two of which I sent to Colour and got £ 3.3.0 by return, read two books, pasted in my press cuttings, compiled an address book and played patience, and even washed my face–no, I haven’t, but shaved once.

Is Graves joking to lighten the mood of a soldier waiting to ship out? Perhaps, but the willingness to make fun of himself in this way has just a tinge of the abject about it. I don’t think Graves is quite sure what’s he done to lose Sassoon’s approval–or he doesn’t want to admit that Sassoon is simply in a snit about his “defection” into marriage.

The letter moves on now to news of their widening circle of acquaintance among the bright young literary things: the popular poet of 1917, the scandal/success debut novelist of 1917, and perhaps the most prolific and influential young reviewer-in-uniform:

Bob Nichols is back in London since February 1st; write to him. Did I tell you Alec Waugh is an enormous admirer of your poems? I have it on the authority of Scott-Moncrieff…  He [Waugh] is producing a book of poems in the spring, Moncrieff says. I wonder will it be good? I expect not.

I hear you’re under orders for Palestine from a subaltern called Roberts whose letter just arrived from Limerick.

And thus Graves circles back to the same subject that he opened with: not weddings or postings, but why Sassoon is so out of touch about such important things. But then Graves shows–or claims–that the real reason for their estrangement is his own good fortune and being just wounded enough to be safe:

I am getting a job in No. 17 Cadet Battalion here as soon as the details leave for Ireland, so that Nancy and I can make up our minds to settle down. The contrast between you and me makes me so ashamed: that’s why I find it difficult to write. But Sassons, though I know you wanted to return to a line battalion I know it’s much better as it is; the strain in Palestine isn’t nearly so great on you and you aren’t likely, or so likely, to get killed. I’m most awfully keen on you living on because as soon as the war stops I know your nerves will get absolutely rested again and you’ll be your old self (like when you saw me here the other day only more so) again and write miraculous poetry.

Best love always,

R.[2]

 

And while these two officers of the Royal Welch write about Ireland, Palestine, and Merry Olde England, a soldier of their regiment is reduced, abandoned, and reassigned. David Jones serves the melancholy purpose, today, of reminding us of the costs of this war of attrition: each infantry brigade throughout the B.E.F is being reduced from four battalions to three, a major structural change. This is supposed to be a mere reorganization, but it’s clearly not so simple. No new brigades are coming into the line, so this is at best a shuffling of forces and an admission that reinforcements for the existing four battalions are not to be had; at worst, it’s an acknowledgement that manpower limitations mean that three men will have to do the work of four. And this with a German offensive in the offing…

But that is war on the level of the bureaucrat: from the point of view of the infantryman themselves, the worst thing is that the unlucky fourth battalion of each brigade is not to be reassigned elsewhere, but simply dissolved in place, its men going as replacements to the other three. For an army that long prided itself on Regimental Tradition and esprit de corps to simply sacrifice battalions to bureaucratic convenience was shocking, and a sore blow to many of its soldiers. What were all those football matches and parades about, if the army is simply going to play Russian roulette with each foursome of its core units of identity? What can be trusted, now, when the army mouths slogans? And how can new, sustaining relationships be formed at this late date?

David Jones, though he is a gentle soul and an artist to the core, is nevertheless an old soldier, and proud of his unit. Even those little inclined to group-think or cliquishness are driven to collective identification during the stress of combat, and, after the Somme, Jones has good reason to be proud of what the London Welsh have endured. But today, a century back, it was announced that the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers are shortly to be disbanded, and he took it hard:

As one of the few surviving members to arrive with the battalion in France, he, more than most, dreaded the end of ‘cap-badge loyalty’, an aspect of the fellowship that made military life endurable. On 6 February, the battalion was officially disbanded in a funerary ceremony for which Colonel Bell returned specially to deliver a eulogy.

After this collective death, Jones, disfellowshipped, will wait for reassignment for a week or more, and then be sent into the line near Armentieres with the 13th Battalion of the R.W.F.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 210.
  2. In Broken Images, 92.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 147.

Duff Cooper Comes into the Presence of Lady Desborough; Carroll Carstairs Goes Sick

Duff Cooper must now deal with the loss of his friend (and defeated rival for Diana Manners‘s affections) Patrick Shaw Stewart in a manner that seems (and apologies if this characterization unduly influenced by an age of entertainment which has flattened out the weird old aristocracy into the casts of dramatically predictable costume dramas, or if it seems obnoxious and unfeeling) perfectly appropriate. Duff will mourn Patrick at a weekend party at a great country house.

The weekend will be about Patrick, of course, about the loss of yet another friend, another promising and talented young man. But it is also about Ettie, Lady Desborough, who has climbed back up to the same social pinnacle she once occupied as the queen of the “Souls” by a painful new route. She is the center of the scene once again, reprising her new role as chief mourner, who suffers the lost first of sons and now special young friends, yet refuses to submit to life’s blows. Cooper will look back on this weekend and write a scene-setting introduction to what he described today in his diary.

The next day was Friday and I was due to pay a visit to Taplow Court, where Lord and Lady Desborough lived. For many years before the war their house had been a celebrated centre of entertainment, and as their children grew up it was thrown open to the younger generation, who considered it the summit of all that was delightful. Their two elder sons, Julian, brilliant athlete and memorable poet, and Billy who equalled his brother in athletics and surpassed him in scholarship, had both been killed, Patrick, who came between them in age, had been a close friend of both, and had so loved their mother, his own parents being dead, that she had counted perhaps more than anybody in his life. She had loved him too, had helped him in his career and there was no house in the country where his loss would be felt so much.[1]

So off goes Duff to Taplow.[2]

A transcript from my diary… shows how we had learnt at that time to cope with tragedy.

January 4th.

The line running in my head all day has been–‘There is nothing left remarkable. Beneath the visiting moon.’ I telegraphed the news to Diana. Michael Herbert came in the afternoon. We were going to Taplow but wondered whether to and whether Lady Desborough would have heard the news…[3]

We decided to go to Taplow and caught the 5.5. We travelled with Rosemary [Leveson-Gower], Casie [Lady Desborough’s daughter] and Diana Wyndham. They were in high spirits and obviously hadn’t heard. I told Rosemary when we got to Taplow station and she told the others. They all heard it quietly. There were no tiresome tears or exclamations.

When we arrived we found that Lady Desborough was in her room and had already heard. Patrick’s sister had telegraphed to her. She adored Patrick. I went to see her after tea. She was sitting by the fire, almost in the dark. She has been ill. She kissed me and I couldn’t help crying a little. We sat and talked about Patrick until dinner. She is the most wonderful woman in the world, and the bravest. She didn’t come to dinner that evening. . .[4]

 

In France, Carroll Carstairs happens upon the surest way to survive a brutal winter in the line. After just two days in the freezing trenches, his battalion rotates out, but his body has had enough.

The next morning the Battalion went into the line; fine, deep, well-made trenches. On our left the Germans were shelling a large pond frozen over. The crash of the shell was followed by an immense splitting of the ice. Quite a magnificent sound. That night on lying down in the dugout I started to take off a boot.

“You can’t take your boots off.” It was the Commanding Officer who had spoken.

I looked up. “Why, of course not.” He observed me closely. “You had better go sick to-morrow morning.” All night in the dugout I tossed and coughed. I had a high fever…

I tried to appear sorry to be leaving when I said good-bye to “Bulgy” in the morning, but each step on the duckboards of the long communication trench was sheer joy in spite of the pain in my side. . . .

But I am ill all right. A temperature of 104—not so bad. I am pleased my going sick has been justified. How cool these sheets and how warm these blankets. And my service jacket on the chair over there. I must get a ribbon sewn on it as soon as possible. A Military Cross won at Cambrai. What for? I don’t know, but I’m glad to have got it. It’s such a pretty ribbon. If only I were on the staff I could get a lot of medals! And no risk involved! I am lucky. They have pinned a blue paper to the blanket on my bed. This means England. . . .[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Cooper, Old Men Forget, 71-2.
  2. Having set the scene in his much later memoir, he now quotes his as yet unpublished diary, but he cleans it up as he goes--it is no "transcript." Therefore, I have generally used the later published version of the diary... and the ellipses make a mess of it anyway. But it's all done in good faith, you know...
  3. The version of the diary quoted in the memoir and the subsequently published version differ in minor respects; I'm not sure which to trust. The quotation is from act of V of Antony and Cleopatra, just after Antony's death.
  4. Diaries, 63-4; Old Men Forget, 71-2.
  5. A Generation Missing, 148-50.

Christmas 1917: Melancholy Milestone, Vicarious Joy, and Less Unhappy Than I Thought

It’s a complicated Christmas, 1917. Several of our writers–including Cynthia Asquith, with whom we’ll start, and Vera Brittain, whose long, sad day will come last–will dwell on the same themes of unsettled traditions and mixed memories.

It’s not simply the quandary of being caught between an instinct for celebration and the need to use a family occasion to grieve and lament for those who have been lost, but also a problem that has grown with this long, static war: if Christmas used to be a trigger for happy memories and the balm of reenacting old joys, there are now three Christmases for which the boys have not been home; three Christmases tinged with that same sickly feeling of mixed emotions, and the fear that absent loved ones may at any moment turn out to be permanently absent. For those who have lost brothers, lovers, sons, or husbands, Christmas may now provoke sharp memories of painful and bereft Christmases past.

 

It’s a very complicated Christmas at the Asquiths. Cynthia Asquith learned last night from her father-in-law, the former Prime Minister, that his son “Oc”–her husband’s sole surviving brother–has been dangerously wounded.

What bad luck! And it sounds bad, too—compound fracture of both bones above the ankle: P.M. wrote, ‘However, they hope to be able to save his foot’. I do hope he won’t lose it.

I packed up parcels after tea, and after dinner we had the usual bedroom marauding parties, but none of us had the heart for any of the time-honoured stocking jokes . . . once the old passage seemed so impregnated with darling Ego and Yvo.

Yes, if she sounds less than horrified about the serious wound to her brother-in-law, that might be because she is in her mother’s house, and both her brothers are dead.

Christmas has become a melancholy milestone for us, but luckily the men of this house-party (who are all under six years) take a glorious joy in all the old rites. Michael was the most satisfactory Christmas child imaginable: he refused to have the fire in his bedroom lit because he was afraid Father Christmas might bum his toes coming down the chimney. Bibs was wonderful with her presents—one for every servant and all beautifully done up in fancy paper and labelled. She kept putting the wrong parcels in the various stockings, so our labours lasted far into the night. I had a sad little hair-combing with Letty. She has been so valiant this year—no breakdown like last Christmas Eve and energising all day over the house decorations. My heart aches for my little John: one turns for salvation to the nursery and that is ‘the most unkindest cut of all’.

And this morning?

Tuesday, 25th December

Nurse called me at 7.30 to see Michael opening his parcels: the vicarious enjoyment was very great. Most of the family went to early service. I joined them at a late breakfast. Found a gorgeous enamel fountain pen from Freyberg. Great excitement over an anonymous present to Bibs—a lovely, and very costly-looking star-sapphire Grenadier badge brooch…[1]

And where is papa? With the artillery in Flanders:

The Major asked what the men would like for their Christmas dinner: we had expected that they would choose either geese or turkeys, but we were completely wrong; our sergeant-major reported that there was a very strong feeling in favour of sucking pigs, and a party was sent out from the wagon line to search the farms of Flanders for a sufficient supply of these delectable animals.[2]

 

Let’s take a quick tour of some of our main characters, now:

 

Robert Graves took a short leave for Christmas, and was able to be with his intended: the Nicholsons were at their house in Wales, near Harlech, and only a few hours’ journey from Rhyl. The wedding is now planned for about a month hence…[3]

 

Rowland Feilding is home, with Edith and their four daughters, aged about one to thirteen–there will be no need to write a war letter to his wife today.

And a very blurry picture of Blunden at the signal school at Mont des Cats

 

 

Edmund Blunden is away from his beloved battalion, a home away from home. He is on a less-than-thrilling signal course, tramping around in the snow and learning about German wireless procedures.

 

 

Wilfred Owen, quite busy with a hotel-full of reserve officers, will tell his sister–while thanking her for her gift and apologizing for not yet sending one to her–that he had

a very mopish Christmas. The C.O. held an orderly Room for punishments in the morning—a thing forbidden in King’s Regulations on Christmas Day—and strafed right & left, above & below…[4]

 

As for Siegfried Sassoon, he has been mopish for a while now, but he enjoys moping more than most. At least, he doesn’t sound too displeased with his Christmas:

Christmas Day (Litherland)

Alone in the hut, after a day of golf at Formby, in fine, cold weather; dine to-night with Colonel Jones Williams and family at Crosby.[5]

 

Back, then, to the front, where the Master of Belhaven is (tremendously) better prepared than he was yesterday:

Our fourth War Christmas, and a typical Christmas Day, snow everywhere…  The men on my H.Q. had a tremendous dinner with six turkeys and a bottle of stout a man, which I provided… We had a tremendous dinner with five French officers; it was really overpowering, as I had only four of my own… the doctor and I had to do all the talking…[6]

 

Carroll Carstairs will recall a similar scene in the mess of the 3rd Grenadier Guards:

Christmas night. Champagne was drunk by the Battalion Headquarters mess. We became flushed and merry—purely artificially so—all very jolly.[7]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary-in-letters has lapsed during her posting to a new hospital, but a Christmas letter to her father survives:

My darling father,

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own troupe and the rivalry is keen. We three sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers. We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3[rd] D[ragoon] G[uard]s and 2nd Black Watch & others. Each concert party has its ‘Star Girl’ marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall. Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely stockings & high heels![8]

 

As for Jack Martin, Christmas came early, and so today, in the line, he was grateful for a faint echo of the famous truce of yesteryear:

Today has been beautiful and very quiet. Our guns have fired a few rounds but the Italians and Austrians have religiously abstained from any act of warfare…[9]

 

Olaf Stapledon surely wrote something to Agnes Miller, but the letter seems not to have survived. But Agnes herself isn’t pulling any punches: it may be Christmas, but it’s still only a few days after the vote on conscription.

…A Happy Christmas to you, dear, in your far away village or barns or car, wherever you are.

If only you were here! …this is the fourth Christmas… without you… It surely must be the last…

It seems that everything works up all through the year towards Christmas & one counts the waiting of all the past year at Christmas & the sum of it is very great. . . .

The result of the Referendum has left many a tear of desperation in train. I forget the figures, but the main fact is that there is a very much larger majority for no than there was last year. I feel a terrible outsider because I cannot take it to heart like all my friends…

The sad part about it is that those gaps will be filled by men who are not the right ones to go—married men, & boys & families who have already done their bit—the willing ones. That is the wicked part about not having conscription. They may bring it in compulsorily yet—but then the fat will be in the fire!

…You would have voted against it, would you not? Your ‘no’ would have been the outcome of very different thinkings to the no of 99 per cent of the Victors in our Referendum, but the result is the same. There is the pity of it. The Quakers stuck to their no. Mother is one of their black sheep.[10]

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain. There is an evocative and deeply sad section of her memoir, Testament of Youth, set at Christmas, 1917. But after reading it over several times, it seems a bit fishy, in terms of the exact timing. I’m not alleging any malfeasance greater than the “telescoping” that many memoir writers indulge in, but if it’s done for effect, and if we care about the day-to-day timing of “history,” then we might well ask–and why, then, are these changes made? And for what effect?

Except for the weather it didn’t seem much like Christmas, with no Roland or Victor or Geoffrey to buy presents for, and Edward so far away that the chance of anything reaching him within a week of the proper time was discouragingly remote. Wartime Christmases anyhow had long lost their novelty, but Mary and I got up early all the same and made shopping expeditions to the village, walking back in pitch darkness through the frozen mud laden with fruit and sweets and gaudy decorations. Christmas Day itself was less unhappy than I had expected, for after a tea-party with the men in my ward, I spent the evening warmly and sleepily at a concert given by the convalescents from the two next-door huts, of which Hope Milroy was now in charge by day.

My own tea-party had to be brief because of another Corporal Smith — though of a type very different from that of the first mortally ill man that I had seen at the Devonshire Hospital — who was rapidly dying of phthisis.

Thus the transition from a melancholy but warm Christmas day to a dismal night of suffering and death. But note the lack of chronological specificity in the transition. That is, she doesn’t say that her own tea party was also to take place Christmas night, but rather implies it… does she telescope all the way to New Year’s Day?

Soon, in any case, Corporal Smith will die:

The traditional only son of a widow, who had been sent for from England, he was one of those grateful, sweet-tempered patients whom it was torture to be unable to save. As he and 1917 ebbed away together, I couldn’t rest even though the surviving gassed cases had gone to England and the convoys had suddenly ceased, but hovered ail night between the stove and the foot of his bed, waiting for the inevitable dawn which would steal greyly around the folded screens. Only once, for ten minutes, did I forsake the self-imposed futility of watching the losing struggle, when Edward’s Christmas letter, written on December 22nd, came out of a snowstorm to remind me that love still existed, quick and warm, in a world dominated by winter and death.

So here is the real Christmas gift. And yet it can hardly have arrived on Christmas. Three days would be good time–but quite reasonable–for a letter from the trenches in France to England. But from the new Italian front to a hospital in France? And she has just commented that she would expect it to take a week for her letter to get to him…

But here in her chronology–whether she remembers it as Christmas or she knows that it must have been a few days later and she is merely prolonging the “scene” for effect–comes Edward’s fond, but distant greetings…

“To-night I owe you a long letter… I am so thankful for your letters — they are now as before the greatest help in the whole world. . . . I don’t know whether I am glad to be here or not — it sounds strange but it’s quite true; I was glad to leave the unpleasant region we were in not far from you and the novelty was good for a time but yet in a way it is all the same because there is no known future and the end is not yet, though, on the face of things at present, there is perhaps more chance of return…

“It seems so much more than two years ago since Roland was killed — to-morrow and Monday I will think of you whenever I can and our love of him may lessen the miles between us.”

And that is how the strange, syncopated blow falls on the reader. I almost missed it: it has been two years since Roland died–two years and two days, for us–but the reader of the memoir would pass from then to there in an hour, or else in a few days of casual reading. Vera Brittain has seen fit to let the anniversary of the worst Christmas pass by unremembered, until she reads the letter.

She includes one more line from her brother’s letter, before bringing us back to the here and now (whenever, precisely, that is):

“What a long war this is! It seems wonderful to have lived so long through it when everyone else is dead.

“Good night, dear dear child.”

It must have been very soon afterwards that Corporal Smith died. His mother, a little woman in rusty black, wept quietly and controlledly beside him when the final struggle for breath began; she gave us no trouble even when Mary replied “Yes, quite sure,” to her final piteous inquiry. After I had taken her through the bitter, snowy darkness to the night superintendent’s bunk, Mary and I laid out the boy’s wasted body. His rapid death had been due, we were told, to an over-conscientious determination to endure; he had refused to complain until too late.

There, and none too subtle, is the message: another year, another day, another death–and why do we not complain, why do we not protest? Whence (and wherefore) any help for our plight?

And then, softly, Brittain turns back to a much more traditional Christmas, a moment out of Dickens, with a slight uncanny tinge of Rilke.

When the orderlies had carried him away, we sat shivering over the stove and discussed in whispers the prospect of a future life; that old discussion, the answer to which three of the four with whom I had most often shared it had now discovered for themselves — or not, as the case might be. But on night-duty many things appeared possible which were quite improbable by day; there seemed, that midnight, to be strange whispers in the snow-laden silence, and the beating of invisible wings about us in the dimly lighted ward.[11]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 384.
  2. Moments of Memory, 310.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 190.
  4. Collected Letters, 519.
  5. Diaries, 198.
  6. War Diary, 422-7.
  7. A Generation Missing, 146-7.
  8. Unknown Warriors, 205.
  9. Sapper Martin, 156.
  10. Talking Across the World, 263-4.
  11. Testament of Youth, 396-9.

Epilogue and End for John Lucy; Siegfried Sassoon Goes a-Hunting, and Confesses Cold Feet and Tight Nerves; Wilfred Owen Buys a Nice Table

If one were to suggest that this project might be losing its way, I would protest, and on the following two grounds. First, that its “way” was always to be determined by source-dowsing, as it were, and therefore there is no true path to stray from. We follow the wanderings of the writers we decided to read. Second, I would argue that whatever collective “way” does still exist now leads deliberately away from the war, because those soldier-writers who have survived into the dying days of 1917 intentionally keep their minds as far off the war as possible. And then I would concede that, yes, we’re wandering: there is little hope that the next big push will really be the one, and very little military aspiration left in the old soldiers’ writing. They are dispirited, and hunkering down for duration. And the irony, too, is beginning to turn: they have no idea how short that will be, and the strange form it will take.

But in any case, imaginary reader, don’t worry too much: today’s post will end bloodily and in a trench. But on the way there, today, a century back, we could hardly be less warlike.

Wilfred Owen, for instance, is going antiquing:

Friday Night

Dearest Mother,

…I went to an Auction yesterday, & got an antique side table wondrous cheap. It will arrive addressed to Father at Station. A beautiful old piece—to be my Cottage sideboard. There were none but Dealers at this sale! They would double the price in their shop, I was told…

your W.E.O.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is out for blood, but in peacetime fashion:

Hunted Friday.

Good hunt from Trueleigh Osiers—forty-five minutes. Back to the Stone Staples and to Toddington. Rode Stamp’s old grey.[2]

After which he sat down to write to Robert Graves. And gradually, gradually, the war bleeds back in… until it’s everything again.

7 December

Dear Robert, I am having some leave and return to Litherland next Tuesday. I was passed General Service at Craiglockhart on November 26. The Board asked if I had changed my views on the war, and I said I hadn’t, which seemed to cause surprise. However Rivers obtained, previously, an assurance from a high quarter that no obstacles would be put in the way of my going back to the sausage machine.

I am not sure if I shall go up to this Poetry Show on Wednesday. It will be an awful bore, and means going up for the day from Liverpool. Bob Nichols came to Weirleigh for two nights and was charming. He is quite different when in town among a lot of people.

Ah, the poetry show. Despite surviving the first one, with Nichols, and despite the fact that this newly close friend is organizing the second one, Sassoon is planning to beg off. Typically, he was not direct about this to Nichols (or even explicit in this letter to Graves), who is still hoping that Sassoon will show up to play an agreeable second fiddle to himself in the “young war poets” category at what he hopes will be a notably star-studded charity reading.

Sassoon has a number of reasons for avoiding society, including shyness, laziness, paradoxical displeasure with social success,and  the awkwardness of having to explain the current status of his military career and feelings thereabout. And to come from Liverpool to London to read poetry for five minutes does indeed seem ridiculous… but it’s interesting that he couldn’t tell Nichols that. And less than surprising that Nichols might not understand: Sassoon, for all his flaws, writes to write; he writes as driven by his thoughts and passions, that is, and with a not-entirely-debauched sort of ambition. Nichols, it’s clear, has been bitten by the literary celebrity bug, and wants, unambiguously, to shine. He will be what he needs to be to do so.

Sassoon still wants to figure things out. And, to his credit, he is not willing to make peace with the war. He won’t move on and focus on a poetic career, with the war–and his relationship to it–unresolved. (He is, after all, a healthy young officer in uniform who has been insisting on going back to the front. Nichols has been discharged and Graves is in for the duration but with damaged lungs that will keep him from the front.)

But if Sassoon can’t figure everything out, then he would like, for the moment, to forget. He rides toward the war, or he rides against it.

I forgot the war to-day for fifty minutes when the hounds were running and I was taking the fences on a jolly old
grey horse.

But the safety curtain is always down and I can’t even dream about anything beyond this cursed inferno.

And then, in this letter to a trusted (more or less) friend and (more importantly) a fellow combatant, Sassoon is direct about another fear, the fear that’s always there, inseparable from that other ambition of facing the war and acquitting oneself honestly:

The air-raid on Thursday gave me an awful fright (I was at Half Moon Street). I don’t think I’ll be any good when I get to the war.

Yours S.S.[3]

 

Right–the war!

 

It would seem to be today, a century back, that brought an end to (the epilogue to) John Lucy‘s story. Still, after four days in close proximity to the Germans–sharing the same trench with only a barricade or “block” between them–he finds himself “queerly fascinated” and falls into an old soldier’s trap: trying to deter German belligerence through escalation. His men are being bombarded at close range by heavy German trench mortars–“pineapples”–to which he orders a response of “showers” of grenades.

My scheme did not work. The enemy stubbornly increased to rapid fire, and a bomb fight followed.

When his platoon runs low on ammunition, he orders a response of rifle fire, only, “So the affair simmered down.” Lucy, a responsible and practical officer, then orders a rifle inspection, because “such inspections retain a desirable normal atmosphere, and have a steadying effect.” But they also distract the platoon commanders conducting them. Lucy is telling off a man with a dirty rifle barrel when the next pineapple hits.

I saw my two feet above my head for a moment. I heard no explosion, but to myself I said: ‘This must be it.’ It was. I was benumbed, and I did not feel the slightest pain. Actually there were sixteen holes in me.

The bomb had landed behind the man Lucy was scolding, killing him. The sixteen fragments all passed through his body before wounding Lucy.

Part of my left buttock was blown away. A large lump of metal had passed through one thigh and bruised the other. Another piece was sticking in the bone of the side of my left knee. There were two wounds in my left arm, a small hole in my stomach, and my back was bleeding in a couple of places.

Only the stomach wound worries Lucy, but within a few hours an American doctor at a C.C.S. assures him not only that it is superficial but that he can rest easy in the knowledge that the American army will soon take care of the ongoing unpleasantness. With his revolver and his shredded greatcoat packed away as souvenirs, Lucy is evacuated by ambulance, next to a trembling and mute victim of “shell shock.” In the hospital, in Rouen, he will have a bed next to a man dying from a gangrenous wound in his back, and lie to him when the man asks him to look and see whether the wound is bad.

They took him out at night so that the other patients would not notice. He had died quietly. Alone.

The last dead man I saw in France.

But the writer survives. By the end of the month Lucy will be in England, out of danger, but neither out of pain or back home in Ireland. Each move opens his wounds. It’s a memoir worthy of the tired adjective “unflinching,” but it shrugs through the last pages quickly, and comes to this:

The war was over before they cured me.

I had seen the travail which God had given the sons of men to exercised therewith, and at the beginning of life it was proved to me that great calamity is man’s true touchstone.

THE END[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 515.
  2. Diaries, 197.
  3. Diaries, 196-7.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 386.

The Master of Belhaven Aghast; George Coppard in (and out) of Danger; Jack Martin at Rest, Siegfried Sassoon in the Field, and Cynthia Asquith on the Stage

A peripatetic day, today, a century back. But first we should tidy up matters on the Western Front.

The Master of Belhaven is doomed to remain on the outskirts of the battle of Cambrai, now in what is essentially its final day.

An intense bombardment began at 5 o’clock, but I don’t know who is attacking. It is still raging now at midday…

The current action will remain opaque to Hamilton, but he meets one of his former subordinates who lost his guns in the initial German counterattack. Perhaps he should have known not to trust what he was reading in the papers when away from the front.

The disaster seems to have been much worse than we have been told… There is no doubt this is the worst reverse the British Army has ever had in France. I believe we lost about 4,000 prisoners, but it is impossible to get any reliable information.

It’s still not so easy, in such cases where entire battalions melt away and brigades are surrounded–but the real number of prisoners was probably about 6,000.

The cold is something dreadful, thick ice everywhere–I can hardly hold a pen to write.[1]

Which also explains why “major offensive operations” are over for the winter.

More irony: just as Hamilton learns that things have been wildly out of control, they are once again stabilizing. Although the German counter-attack will continue, it was essentially forestalled by Haig with the expedient decision to retire–i.e. retreat–along most of the line, falling back onto defensible positions not all that different from the start line of November 20th.

Two more days of fighting will lead to a stalemate with little net change of position. In fact, in what is as neat an irony of attrition as one could wish, the situation is probably worse for the infantry on both sides, as on one section of the line the British held early gains while on another they ceded more than a mile of territory to the Germans, resulting in a double salient. Which meant that both sides could pound the new lines with mortars and machine guns from multiple angles and closer distances.

 

But we left George Coppard in a bad way, in hospital, and the operating theatre under preparation.

When I came to my senses the following morning my mother and grandmother were sitting beside the bed. There was a basket affair over my leg and I thought the leg had been amputated, but I was soon put at ease on that score. Happy though I was to see my folks I had no inclination to talk. A policeman had informed them that I was on the danger list, and had handed them free rail passes from Croydon to Birkenhead. They stayed for two days, but money was tight and they had to return home… I had discovered that getting a “Blighty one” was not always what it was cracked up to be…[2]

Coppard will suffer another major bleeding incident in a few days, but after that third loss of blood, his recovery, though slow, will proceed without major interruptions…

 

Next we check in on Jack Martin, who is enjoying the slower pace of life in Italy:

An Italian Labour Company is working in our vicinity making trenches and barbed wire entanglements, and they are making them well. It is amusing to see how they scuttle for shelter at the slightest alarm. We cannot help laughing as, compared with Ypres and the Somme, this is like being back at rest.[3]

 

But, of course, not actually like being at rest. That would be more like what Siegfried Sassoon is doing, in his own active fashion:

Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday. Monday December 3 went to Lewes and hunted with Southdown at
Offham. Poor day: very sharp frost. Stayed at Middleham.[4]

I’m glad that Sassoon, on this bit of leave which he was awarded after his four-month stay as a (healthy) hospital patient, is able to complain about the effects of the cold. Soon, no doubt, like the Master of Belhaven, he will be sharing the ill-effects of such weather with the men for whom he made that protest…

 

To London, now, and our second excerpt from the diary of Lady Cynthia Asquith, who bears (and bares) the vicissitudes of the privileged in wartime with perhaps a bit more tongue-in-cheek bravado than Sassoon. I’m not really sure, if I happened to enjoy mounted blood sports, whether I would consider a frigid and poor hunt a worse day out than what seems to be some sort of ill-conceived society fundraiser… a close call, no dout:

Monday, 3rd December

… Lunched in and had to go off to the Albert Hall for the Tombola–the worst of all the horrors of war. We, the Seven Ages of Women—Self (carrying baby) Erlanger child (flapper), Sonia Keppel (debutante), Diana (betrothed). Ruby (mother), Belgian woman (queen of the household), and Baroness D’Erlanger (old lady)—dressed and made up in the most preposterous discomfort in a curtained-off space…

Basil Gill (as Old Father Time) had to recite the most appalling doggerel verses—one for each of us—and one by one (me first, carrying that damned baby) we had to walk through columns on a stage before a dense, gaping crowd. Never have I felt so great a fool!

And then there is more silliness and naughty decadence. Or not: perhaps we should be reading this as a frightening situation of sexual aggression sanctioned by social attitudes. Asquith has admitted to an attraction to Bernard Freyberg, the comrade of her friends and relatives, but it’s unclear to what extent she is being harassed or pressured by him, in the absence of her husband.

Ava Astor drove me home. Mary Strickland, Oc, and I dined with Freyberg at Claridges. Mamma called for Mary and took her off; Oc, Freyberg, and I sat and talked—discussing marriage, and so on—then we dropped Oc at the Manners’ and Freyberg insisted on coming into the flat. I oughtn’t to have let him, but he commands me like a subaltern. I had an awfully difficult time with him. He stayed till 1.30.[5]

 

Finally, today–for those growing tired of society diaries and poetry fragments–there happens to be an old-fashioned war yarn in the short story collection Everyman at War entitled “La Vacquerie, December 3rd, 1917.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 416-7.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 131.
  3. Sapper Martin, 150.
  4. Diaries, 197.
  5. Diaries, 375-6.

Robert Graves Responds to Siegfried Sassoon’s Latest Provocation, and Writes of Courage, Mutiny, and Fairy Teas; Vivian de Sola Pinto Gets a Blighty After a Bangalore; Frederic Manning’s Last Bender Begins

Siegfried Sassoon is still, technically, supposed to be recuperating from… some sort of mental or neurological condition related to outspokenness. But as he awaits a second chance at pleading himself fit for duty and putting his protest behind him, he seems to spend a great deal of time managing his friendships. Which would be easier if he didn’t have a habit of turning about face and writing cutting letters.

Robert Graves, who can often seem grandiose, unreasonable, and unreliable when telling his own story, comes off as measured, rational, and steadying when he writes to Sassoon.

My dear Sassons,

I don’t remember if I told you that I’ve managed to get struck off the Gibraltar draft and am now waiting orders for Egypt which may come in any time, and then I’ll still be a fortnight in England before going out–then once in Egypt I get a medical board and so on to the land of Canaan. My book is due this week or next…

Graves next passes on an interesting bit of gossip: he has just heard, by word of mouth from an old comrade, about the mutiny at Étaples. So the censorship holds. Graves–here’s an interesting twist on Regimental esprit de corps–is both sympathetic to the mutiny–“(you know how badly they are treated at the Bull Ring)”–and proud that the Royal Welch Fusiliers were considered steady enough to be called in to quell it:

Rather a compliment for the First Battalion being chosen, but rather a rotten job. . . .

Don’t be silly about being dotty: of course you’re sane. The only trouble is you’re too sane which is a great crime as bring dotty and much more difficult to deal with. That’s the meaning of an anti-war complex. You see what other folk don’t see about the rights and wrongs of the show. Personally I think you see too much.

One imagines Graves taking a deep breath before continuing his response to Sassoon’s letter.

About ‘good form’ and ‘acting like a gentleman’. You are purposely perverse in attributing those things to my lips. What I said was ‘The Bobbies and Tommies and so on, who are the exact people whom you wish to influence and save by all your powers, are just the people whose feelings you are going to hurt most by turning round in the middle of the war, after having made a definite contract, and saying “I’ve changed my mind…”

You can only command their respect by sharing all their miseries as far as you possibly can, being ready for pride’s sake to finish your contract whatever it costs you, yet all the time denouncing the principles you are being compelled to further. God know you have ‘done your bit’ as they say, but I believe in giving everything…

‘If you had real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce as you do.’ Sorry you think that of me–I should hate to think I’m a coward. I believe though in keeping to agreements…

It’s quite a letter. Graves segues to more news–the casualties in the 2nd Battalion at Polygon Wood (which Sassoon has learned of from Cotterill)–and then draws a line across the letter.

Below the line comes literary gossip, an awkward “thanks awfully”–a twenty-pound loan seems to have come along with Sassoon’s insulting letter–and a final bit of news that is impossibly unwarlike:

This afternoon, after a busy morning with the Fusiliers, I am going down to Rhyl for the Fairies, not the fairies with rouged lips and peroxide hair but the real fairies: the colonel’s kids have invited me to a special nursery tea and tiddlywinks. It’s going to be great fun. They call me Georgy Giraffe and consider that I must be a damn sight finer fellow than their father who is only 5′ 6″ tall.

Goodbye

God bless you

Robert[1]

 

After such a letter between two of our central figures, updates on two peripheral ones will seem an anticlimax. But the war goes on, and any night in the war of attrition can be a turning point for those on the spot of a bombardment or a raid.

Vivian de Sola Pinto has been in the line near Gouzeaucourt for a month, now, with a Kitchener’s Army battalion of the R.W.F., and he has just been given a dicey task. A “Bangalore Torpedo”–a “new toy” of the “Brass Hats” (which gives us a fair idea of where this is heading!)–has been dropped in No Man’s Land, and Pinto is ordered to take a patrol out to retrieve it. The “torpedo” is a long explosive-filled pipe designed to blow a deep tunnel-like opening into the enemy’s wire obstacles. It is, like so many new toys, dangerous and unwieldy.

But Pinto, fortunately, will not even get as far as being blown up mid-salvage:

…shortly after 10 p.m. (in army language 2200) I crawled into no-man’s-land with a dozen men, including one of our sergeants and a corporal from the party which had dumped the torpedo It was a very dark mild night and a little soft rain was falling. Corporal Jenkins had just whispered to me, ‘I think it was somewhere about here,’ when a German flare went up and heavy machine-gun fire opened on us from several directions. We flung ourselves on our faces and I felt a sharp stab in my right forearm. It was clear that Jerry knew where we were and that the immediate task before me was to get my party out of the trap before they were all killed or captured…. three of our men were dead and most of the rest were wounded. Amid a hail of bullets we managed somehow to get the whole party back to our wire. This was a nightmare experience as we had to make several journeys to carry the dead men and help the wounded…

My right arm was now bleeding profusely, but I tied my handkerchief round it and did my best to help with my left. At last I found myself sitting exhausted on the fire-step in our front line and trying to tell Captain B—— what had happened. Then I lost consciousness and knew nothing till I was awakened by a severe jolting and realized that once more I was on a stretcher and being carried to an advanced dressing station. There they… extracted the bullet from my arm.

When I awoke I found my arm in a sling, was told that the bone was splintered and that I had a nice Blighty…[2]

Pinto will reach Camberwell General just in time for the next Zeppelin raid…

 

And, finally–though this occurred in the evening, well before Pinto’s bloody patrol–Frederic Manning was absent from his battalion’s mess tonight, a century back, in Cork. Given his recent drinking bouts and near-total collapse, this was rather worrisome to his commander, one Major E.F. Milner…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 85-6.
  2. The City That Shone, 208-9.
  3. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Le Treport, 12 October, 1917

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

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

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

After this horror, a concessive clause under absurd pressure:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

24th General, France, 12 October 1917

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Withdrawals and Approaches: Charles Carrington, Hugh Quigley, Edmund Blunden, and Guy Chapman near Passchendaele Ridge

Before we turn to the tribulations of Charles Carrington on the Steenbeek, we must look to our immediate rear, where we have such a build-up of memoir writers in the support lines of the Salient that poetry can pass from one to the next…

 

First is Hugh Quigley, soon headed back toward the front lines. A fell mood is upon him:

The Canal Bank, Ypres, 6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in the molten sky, slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream: I was lying in the hospital trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, too, is on the way back in. His last tour had been harrowing, although of course it could have been worse. All of his unsurpassed talent for knitting together Gothic horror and pastoral idyll in close company on the page is exerted here, as he describes the withdrawal and then the time in reserve:

After the most vigorous display by the Bosch artillery that I have yet had to cast my eye upon and a narrow escape from being pulled under in a swamp on the way out (I was in such a hurry to get out of the barrage that my foot missed the dead man I was going to use as a duckboard),  we came back to this Corydonian spot for a B.E.F. rest. We feed in a barn which smells most pleasantly of hops…

Or not–not yet: this is not the studied, sumptuous memoir bur rather a contemporary letter to his school friend Hector Buck, which soon more fully embraces the usual tone of frenetic gaiety:

A bevy of milkmaids flitters about and warbles dithyrambs in the sunny air; at times they cease to warble but make a noise exactly similar by working an obese and crotchety cream separator. Since I knew they were on the go I have broken my vow and shaved; but even then my Charms are not availing.[2]

The memoir also fills us is in on how Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex were really spending their time out of the line: drilling, marching, shooing on rifle and pistol ranges, and practicing for some of the least Arcadian recourses of the war.

This next episode–gas training–makes it possible, using the Battalion War Diary, to date this description fairly securely to today, a century back:

It was even a pleasure here to see Williams, the divisional gas officer, and his same old sergeant, at their kindly, deadly work again. I forget what type of gas it was that Williams discharged upon us, leaving it to us to get our helmets on or pass out. However, I believe it was not at full strength, for some hens poking about in the stubble did not suffer. Perhaps God tempers the gas to the Ypres hen.

But here is a point of interest not only specifically to this project but to the entire genre of the war memoir. Several of our writers involved in Passchendaele have–even while describing its horrors at great length–begun to refuse to dwell firmly in their evolving historical moment. In 1917 the war has become too much to bear–or its young wager-victims have become too prematurely old to live without the melancholy shoring-up of reminiscence:

Our minds receded with actual joy to the 1916 war, and particularly that season when we were within the kindly influence of Bethune. When had we heard the word “a bon time” since? How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on, singing, toward the Somme! When we left this camp of disastered 1917, to be merged again in the slow amputation of Passchendaele, there was no singing. I think there were tears on some cheeks.

More prosaically, Blunden reports that he was passed over for promotion at this time–“the General would not hear of it, claiming that I was too young. My offences against propriety of speech and demeanour were in any case sufficient to spoil my chances…”–but also that he will be given a company nonetheless (to command as First Lieutenant, rather than a Captain).

Before that I had had a special duty to do. It was to act as “Tunnel Major” in Hedge Street Tunnels — to regulate the very limited and fiercely coveted accommodation there, and the traffic in and out. This took me back to the accursed area again, and even while I made my way there the evil nature of the place displayed itself. Going up by way of Zillebeke, I was obliged to stop. An “area shoot” began, a solid German bombardment for an hour on a chosen space, enclosing several battery positions. This shelling was so concentrated and geometrical that, leaning against the side of our old trench just beyond its limit, one was in safety. But the area covered was treated as with a titanic roller and harrow. About half an hour after this shoot began, from the very middle of the furnace two artillerymen suddenly emerged, running like demons but unwounded.

Outside the large dugout which I was to supervise a quartermaster-sergeant’s body was lying. Men were afraid to pause even a few seconds at this point and bodies were not quickly buried…

I found the tunnels crammed with soldiers on business and otherwise. The Colonel and Adjutant of the R. F.’s, who had taken our place in the Tower Hamlets sector a fortnight or so before, were occupying a new and half-finished dugout; they used me very hospitably. The Colonel remarked, pouring me out a drink, “We no longer exist.” I asked how: he explained that their casualties had been over 400.

Our experience had been only the prelude to their full symphony…[3]

 

Guy Chapman‘s symphony, as it happens–it was his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which greeted Blunden, though Blunden does not recall the young officer’s name.[4]

On our third evening in Hedge Street we welcomed a very young, very fair and very shy subaltern from the Royal Sussex, who were to relieve us the next day. His battalion had preceded us at Tower Hamlets and had suffered a like experience. Late that evening a 6-inch How-battery commander came in to ask for accommodation and stayed to dinner. He was a pale bald man with a near fair moustache. He thumped on the table and recited Kipling for our entertainment.

This next bit, then, would be proper to tomorrow, a century back:

On the next day I showed our incoming tenant from the Sussex over his noxious habitation. As we bade him good-bye, he shyly put a small paper-covered book into my hand. The Harbingers, ran the title, ‘Poems by E.C. Blunden.’ It went into my it along with the battered Shakespeare, the torn Evan Harrington, and Sir Thomas Browne.[5]

 

Finally, though, we must skip ahead, more in the geographical than the anticipatory sense. We left Charles Carrington (the “Edmonds” of A Subaltern’s War), yesterday, about to grab a few hours overnight in the A Company dugout. After two long sleepless days and nights, he was exhausted, jumpy, and not too proud to simply sleep in a place of greater safety, “a little bit of narrow trench partly covered with a sheet of iron.”

After dawn, Carrington/Edmonds continued to lay as low as he decently could.

I determined quite basely to take shelter for a few hours in C company’s pill-box, and presently plucked up courage and squattered across through the stream to it.

This pill-box was the only piece of good cover in the battalion area. Imagine a small room ten feet square and six feet high with walls of thick rough concrete. There is only one opening, the door, over which a waterproof sheet is draped. The furniture consists of four bunks made of wire stretched on wooden frames. Signallers and officers’ servants have made a little hutch under the lee of the outer wall. Inside, live Marriott and Flint, a serjeant, and as many other people as are thought to deserve refuge. During the day Newsom and Wolfe each pay a visit to get some rest. I come first and stay longest. After all, the headquarters of a front-line company make quite a good command-post for a support company commander, and Thorburn’s position is within shouting distance and full view by daylight. On such a little journey had we lost our way last night.

Flint is something in the same exhausted state as myself; Marriott, who came up from reserve with Thorburn and Wolfe after the attack, is very cheerful and doing most of the work…

Descriptions of pill-boxes will be a major feature of “Edmonds'” narrative from here on out, with loving attention both to their horribleness and their precise degree of protection against different armaments.

But war narratives can never be truly predictable: today passes pleasantly and amusingly, with a tone of light comedy, however much strained, by tension, toward hysteria:

Marriott welcomed me cordially enough, and found me the dry corner of a bed, where I tried to get an hour’s sleep, but with little success. After a time he came into the pill-box, grinning, to ask me to take away some men of mine who were creating a disturbance in his trench. I went out and found the ten ration-carriers of last night all roaring drunk. The poor devils had got lost, just like everyone else, had wandered all night, and finally decided that the company was annihilated. Not without good sense they decided not to starve. They did their best with a whole company’s rations, but a whole company’s rum defeated them. Hither they had wandered very happy and very sleepy, but rather inclined to sing themselves to sleep. We saved the rest of the food and rum, and sent over the
remains, plenty for my handful of men.

It was difficult to know what to do with these men. One or two were helpless and comatose, one or two were incurably cheerful, the others varied from one extreme to the other. To arrest them and send them down the line would bring shell-fire on them and their escort, besides weakening the outposts. I stormed at them in my severest manner, promising them all courts-martial and death sentences. Some understood me and sobered a little, but Bridgwater and two or three others only blinked and looked more amiable than ever. If I had had any laughter in me I should have burst out laughing, too. We brought most of them round to a condition soon where they could go back to the company. The hopeless cases we left to sleep it off. There were no shooting parties at dawn, after all, as a sequel to this episode.

During the rest of the day I remained almost entirely in the pill-box. The shell-fire gradually increased as it had done yesterday, but we had no direct hits, any one of which would have done for us. Marriott kept up a running fire of conversation all day, little jokes and reminiscences, sly hints about my company and the rum, comparisons of our men with the Colonials, anecdotes of the day and of old battles. He had a N.C.O. in the pill-box with him, as orderly serjeant, one of those professional humorists without whom no company could hang together. The queer turns of his dialect, and an attractive little stuttering in his speech, an acute street-arab sense of humour, combined with the
manners and deference of a gentleman, made him perhaps a perfect example of the urban soldier. The stories flowed out of him all day, his adventures with long-forgotten brigadiers, ‘madamaselles’ or serjeant-majors, his friends and their idiosyncrasies, love and war and the weather, the bitterness of things, red tape and bad language.
(I cannot refrain from quoting ‘that our armies swore terribly in Flanders.’) He could tell a tale against a staff officer always with tact enough not to scandalise the officers present. If I were Dickens and could write down what he said,
my fortune as a novelist would be made. But I’m afraid the jokes that made us reel with laughter would be flat to-day. One jumped at any excuse to be gay, and to laugh meant to forget that open door, facing the wrong way, through which a shell might come at any moment to burst in the midst of us…

But relief from anxiety through laughter is temporary–relief from the front line, by another battalion, is what they crave.

At dusk when we were all ready the orderly arrived again. Where were the Berks? we asked. Not yet come up. But he had brought instead a large rough mongrel sheep dog, trained to carry messages through fire. Marriott grew quite despondent. “I thought they were going to send up the Berkshires,” he said, “ but all we’re going to get now is barks”; at which we laughed uproariously. The Berks never did come, but before long a company of another regiment began to arrive. I collected my gear (we were in full marching order), and splashed through the stream to Thorburn, who had had another day’s shelling and felt a little neglected. We headed back a second time to the jumping-off line, where we were now to be reserve company. Marriott withdrew his men to our position in the shell-holes by the Stroombeek.

As Thorburn and I ploughed through the mud after our men, we passed one of the relieving platoons going forward. Their subaltern gripped me by the arm.

“Who are you? Where are you going? Where’s the front line? Have you seen A company?” he asked all in a rush.

“Keep straight on,” I answered jauntily, “follow the tape. Your captain’s up there. We’ve just been relieved.”

“Don’t go! ” he said. “Don’t leave us! For God’s sake, show us the way.” I had met someone more frightened than
myself. My confidence came back to me in a moment. This man was in a shivering funk.

“God damn it!” I said. “You’re all right. You’re much stronger than we were. There’s a good dugout up there—you can’t miss it.”

And I shook him off and walked on. I wonder what state that poor devil was in at the end of his tour. But I had only gained a momentary confidence, and before morning was sinking back into the same apathy of suppressed fear as before.

We took up our position on the right half of the jumping-off line, quite near headquarters. There were about twenty-seven men to organise in four sections, and place in the best shell-holes. For company headquarters Serjeant Walker, Thorburn and I found an old incomplete pill-box called on the map Cluster House. It was one of those early German efforts made of concrete on the western and of wood on the eastern side, so that in case of capture it would give no cover against German shell-fire. But it gave shelter from the rain, and here we settled. To make some amends to Thorburn for the twenty-four hours duty he had taken alone, I sent him to battalion headquarters to sleep, where they found him a corner of some kind. Walker took the top bunk in the little room, I took the lower one, but could only doze for an hour or two, in spite of the fact that I had not had eight hours’ sleep out of the last ninety. It was very cold and I was acutely aware of my wet knees.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 133-4.
  2. More Than a Brother, 12.
  3. Undertones of War, 246-9.
  4. Blunden's poetry will soon be well known; Chapman published his memoir five years after Blunden's Undertones.
  5. A Passionate Prodigality, 207.
  6. A Subaltern's War, 170-77.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

4 October

My dear Robert,

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

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

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

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

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

Love from S.S.[3]

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Wilfred Owen on the Next War; Ivor Gurney on Blighty Ones and Souvenirs

Not all that very long ago, Wilfred Owen was overjoyed to be part of something as polished and literary as The Hydra, Craiglockhart Hospital’s in-house literary magazine. But he has come far in recent weeks, not least in his own estimation. Two days ago, a century back, he wrote to his mother in long-suffering-editor mode.

Thursday, 10 p.m.
My own dear Mother,

Glad to have your reproach this morning & to think my letter could not arrive long after your posting. The Result of the Board has not been officially announced, but before it Dr. Brock said I should be kept on. In a few minutes I must go down to a special meeting about the Magazine. We have a new House President now, who is willing to lay out more money for it. At last, moreover, there seem to be people capable of helping to it. Sassoon is too much the great man to be bothered with it, and I wish I had back again the time I have wasted on it. I was cajoled into promising to act in the next big play, but had the fortitude to get out of it again.

I think one of the most humanly useful things I am doing now is the teaching at Tynecastle School…[1]

 

Owen will now do his utmost to get out of any further editing duties, but he was responsible for the issue of The Hydra which hit the breakfast room at Craiglockhart today, a century back. It included one of his latest poems, a naked homage to Sassoon, published anonymously:

 

The Next War

War’s a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.

 

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death, —
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, —
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, —
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, — knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.

 

In another hospital only a few miles away, Ivor Gurney, is writing his own verse–but he is not pleased with it. Nevertheless, like Owen, he wishes that his cure might take just a little while longer…

29 September 1917
Hospital, Bangour.
Ward 24, Edinburgh Military

My Dear Friend: I have just turned over a page, just finished writing a most unsatisfactory piece of verse with which I shall not trouble you.

And would you really be polite enough to ask how I am getting on? Then you shall learn that the will of the doctor still keeps me in bed and on Light Diet; as that does not include bully-beef and biscuits I am not unsatisfied altogether, but it does mean Lightness, and that is not good. And the little baccy I have is of the most distressing; cigarettes are no companions like a pipe, and one tires of them. They do not care for classical music much here; my head is thick; my fingers stiff; the weather dull; there is nothing worth reading.

So there you are out of my grumbles. For to lie between clean linen in a light room is no small thing; nor to be able to buy todays papers a small blessing. It is good to wander surreptitiously from ones own room to another and listen to Scots tales of battle and winter hardship — if one does not look forward. Rest is good, and for the present that is all my business. Would to God I had a cough — a cough! What can a gassed man do without something hoarse or rattly? My chances are small, for my chest betrays me, of staying peacefully “in silk and scented down”.

Gurney then makes a black comedic allusion–he has no doubt that Marion Scott will catch it–to Alan Seeger:

I have a rendezvous with Fritz
By some disputed barricade”
and that before long.

Gurney, released from the strictures of censorship, then sketches all his movements–with the real place-names–and some of his actions. Frustratingly, when he now could tell us everything that has happened to him, he only distractedly sketches a few scenes and hints at a few notably horrible moments.

This next bit, however, is remarkable. Does he have any regrets about his time just behind the front lines?

O the souvenirs I might have had! But only officers have any real good chance of souvenirs, since only they can get them off. The men find things, and people who live in dugouts will hang them up and brag of great deeds in that old time. But the men, who could not carry very well, and had no place to store things and hardly a leave, will be empty-handed. You see, if one finds something interesting, it may be in a hot comer, and how is one to carry it, for the haversack is full… And if a wound comes all your stuff is lost. A man found a quartermasters stores at Omiecourt, near Chartres, with hundreds of brand new helmets, but all that could be done was a little traffic with officers. I had two books and some papers for you, all lost at Vermand. Men hang on to revolvers and badges, watches and compasses etc, all that can be easily carried. There is too much sniping for the fighters to get  souvenirs, the salvage and burial parties get them. (Will this letter interest you? And if so, why?)

Of course it will: from the far side of the experiential gulf it feels like a privilege to identify with the humble fighting soldiers–and against the knaves and R.E.M.F.’s who cheat them of their booty… and this is poetry:

People unfitted for the line, lunatics, funks, bosseyed idiots and such like, from whom an officer with 50 francs may make himself rich with booty — and reputation, the ASC do well, for they have room to store. R.T. officers, with Real Homes. Brass Hats can get what they would. Only the poor fool who goes over the top — and under the bottom — seems to be without anything at all. It is only fair to say that he is easily contented—with bare life, warmth, and food he must be counted rich; so by all means load weights of discipline on to him till he cares not whether he is in Rest or in the Line. And doesnt care a ha’peny obscenity about souvenirs save in his leg or arm; marketable, magic-carpet-like, transmuting talismans as they are. What an ode Bums would write to a Piece of Shrapnel! I hope for a letter from you very soon:

Your sincere friend – Ivor Gurney[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 496-7. Coincidentally, (Owen's soon-to-be intimate friend) Charles Scott Moncrieff published, on the same day as this letter, a review of Alec Waugh's novel of adolescent love, writing wryly that "If I had been given the alternatives--to lie about in Flanders and, in mid-August, occupy Langemarck, or to return to England, about the same time, criticise 'The Loom of Youth', I know not which of these adventures, alike so arduous and so gratifying, I should have chosen. But I had no choice..." See Chasing Lost Time, 137.
  2. War Letters, 208-210.