Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement, “To Any Dead Officer;” Henry Williamson is Blighty Bound; Herbert Read’s Theories of Courage

Before we get to a statement–and a poem, and a memoir’s context for the two–we have two brief updates.

 

For the past week Henry Williamson has bounced about the hospitals of northern France. He believes that he has gotten a “whiff” of phosgene gas from German gas shells–but he may also just be sick, or run down. In any event, he finds it pleasant to be out of the line and hopes to be able to parlay the sick time into reassignment. In this he may well be lucky, as in the name of efficiency sick and wounded officers can no longer count on returning to their unit. Most fear and deplore this change, but Williamson (and probably his C.O. as well) would welcome it.

Dear Mother,

Please get those protectors for armpits in my new tunic at once–big ones under the lining–you probably know by this time that I am for England on the first boat which leaves any time… Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno…

This hospital is a bon place–I live on champagne and fried plaice & chicken now!!

Love Willie.[1]

Williamson, whose intestinal health has long been an issue, can look forward to a lengthy recovery in Blighty…

 

Herbert Read is in rather a more bloody-minded state, and with sharper tales to tell. Or not: restraint in what he writes to Evelyn Roff is a point of pride–Read is a very purposeful sort, and he thinks twice about describing the war without a theoretical grasp of how such war tales might fit in with his theories of Modern literature. (He seems less concerned that a policy of mentioning, but not describing, certain experiences might not help their budding relationship flourish.)

Nevertheless, he has something to say, and it is the confirming converse of Williamson’s lonely experience: what makes it all worthwhile are the men. And what defines a man’s worth is the way in which he carries himself through danger.

15.vi.17

My present location is not too bad. We are now in the third week of our period in the line… and rather terrible days they were. But you can have no desire for me to ‘paint the horrors.’ I could do so but let the one word ‘fetid’ express the very essence of our experiences. It would be a nightmare to any individual, but we create among ourselves a wonderful comradeship which I think would overcome any horror or hardship. It is this comradeship which alone makes the Army tolerable to me. To create a bond between yourself and a body of men and a bond that will hold at the critical moment, that is work worthy of any man and when done an achievement to be proud of.

Incidentally my ‘world-view’ changes some of its horizons. I begin to appreciate, to an undreamt of extent, the ‘simple soul’. He is the only man you can put your money on in a tight corner. Bombast and swank carry a man nowhere our here. In England they are everything. Nor is the intellect not a few of us used to be so proud of of much avail. It’s a pallid thing in the presence of a stout heart. Which reminds me of one psychological ‘case’ which interests me out here: to what extent does a decent philosophy of life help you in facing death? In other words: Is fear a mental or a physical phenomenon? There are cases of physical fear–‘nerves,’ ‘shell-shock,’ etc. There are also certainly cases of physical courage… and there are, I think, men who funk because they haven’t the strength of will or decency of thought to do otherwise.

But I would like to think there was still another class (and I one of them) whose capacity for not caring a damn arose not merely from a physical incapacity for feeling fear, but rather from a mental outlook on life and death sanely balanced and fearlessly followed. But perhaps I idealize…[2]

Perhaps he does. Read has a good deal of trench experience by now, but he has not suffered the same sort of trench trauma–or string of losses of friends both fond and beloved–that has overburdened “Mad Jack” Sassoon. But it is an interesting break down of different types of courage–and an intelligent one. Cursed are dullards, blessed are the philosophers, strong of will–so it’s also a flattering one. But it asks no larger questions…

 

Today’s main event is Siegfried Sassoon‘s completion of a draft of his statement against the war.

It thus happened that, about midnight on the day my portrait was finished, I sat alone in the club library with a fair copy of the ‘statement’ before me on the writing-table. The words were now solidified and unalterable. My brain was unable to scrutinize their meaning any more. They had become merely a sequence of declamatory sentences designed to let me in for what appeared to be a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top’; and, at the moment, the Hindenburg Line seemed preferable in retrospect. For the first time, I allowed myself to reflect upon the consequences of my action and to question my strength to endure them. Possibly what I disliked most was the prospect of being misunderstood and disapproved of by my fellow officers. Some of them would regard my behaviour as a disgrace to the Regiment. Others would assume that I had gone a bit crazy. How many of them, I wondered, would give me credit for having done it for the sake of the troops who were at the Front? I had never heard any of them use the word pacifist except in a contemptuous and intolerant way, and in my dispirited mood I felt that my protest would have a pretty poor reception among them. Going to a window, I looked out at the searchlights probing the dark sky. Down below, the drone of London rumbled on. The streets were full of soldiers getting what enjoyment they could out of their leave. And there, on that sheet of paper under the green-shaded lamp, were the words I had just transcribed.

‘I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’

This is the soon-to-be-famous opening of the published statement–I’ll include the rest when the newspapers get it. But Sassoon, using the privileges of the memoir writer, embeds the public breakthrough in a web of private doubt. Clean breaks and simple strong feelings are never to be his way…  Who is he doing this for, again?

To the soldiers it didn’t matter, one way or the other. They all wanted it to stop, but most of them would say that the Boches had got to be beaten somehow, and the best thing to hope for was ‘getting back to Blighty with a cushy wound’. Then I remembered that night, early in 1914, when I had been up in this room experiencing an emotional crisis in which I had felt that my life was being wasted on sport and minor poetry, and had imagined myself devoting my future to humanitarian services and nobly prophetic writings. On that occasion I had written some well-intentioned but too didactic lines, of which a fragment now recurred to me.

Destiny calls me home at last
To strive for pity’s sake;
To watch with the lonely and outcast,
And to endure their ache . . . .

Much had happened since then. Realities beyond my radius had been brought under my observation by a European War, which had led me to this point of time and that sheet of paper on the table. Was this the fulfilment of that feeble and unforeseeing stanza? . . . And somehow the workings of my mind brought me a comprehensive memory of war experience in its intense and essential humanity. It seemed that my companions of the Somme and Arras battles were around me; helmeted faces returned and receded in vision; joking voices were overheard in fragments of dug-out and billet talk. These were the dead, to whom life had been desirable, and whose sacrifice must be justified, unless the War were to go down in history as yet another Moloch of murdered youth…

I went back to the statement on the table with fortified conviction that I was doing right. Perhaps the dead were backing me up, I thought; for I was a believer in the power of spiritual presences. . . .

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

The words came into my head quite naturally. And by the time I went to bed I had written a slangy, telephonic poem of forty lines. I called it To Any Dead Officer, but it was addressed to one whom I had known during both my periods of service in France. Poignant though the subject was, I wrote it with a sense of mastery and detachment, and when it was finished I felt that it anyhow testified to the sincerity of my protest.

The dead officer is Orme/”Ormand” killed so recently in a pointless attack on the Hindenburg Line, his death described to Sassoon by Joe Cottrell. The poem, which Sassoon of the memoir would clearly prefer that we use to mark this day’s work, a century back, rather than the didactic “statement,” continues as follows:

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
  I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
  Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
  Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
  Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
  No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
  Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
  Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
  Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
  Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
  Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
  I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
   “Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
  With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
  It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
  And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
  Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
  Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 163.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 97-8.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52-4; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

The Battle of Arras Resumes: Charles Scott Moncrieff, A.P. Herbert, Geoffrey Thurlow, Alf Pollard, Frank Richards, and Kate Luard; Vera Brittain Ponders Sacrifice and Glory; Siegfried Sassoon Addresses the Warmongers

Today is St. George’s Day, Shakespeare’s birthday, the second anniversary of the death of Rupert Brooke, and the day that Billy Prior, shell-shocked and mute, came to in a Casualty Clearing Station. But that is all more than a century back, or fiction.

Today is also the beginning of the second phase of the Battle of Arras. In what will become known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe, elements of eleven divisions attacked on a nine mile front just east of Arras, from Gavrelle in the north to Croisilles in the south.

Charles Scott Moncrieff was in the first wave, leading a company of the 1st Battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who went over the top at 4:45, attacking toward Monchy-le-Preux. Scott Moncrieff was hit very shortly thereafter, and spent a harrowing day on the field and being carried back. But by this evening he will be able to write:

23rd April.

I was wounded about five o’clock this morning when leading my battalion in the attack. My left leg is broken in two places. I am now in a clearing station where I shall stay a few days. I shall be at the Base shortly and then home—and expect the leg will heal very quickly. The attack seems to have gone very well, as far as I could see and control it from the ground.[1]

What the letter does not make clear is that Moncrieff was not only leading the attack but leading it as close as possible to the “walking” barrage–and that a short-fall from this barrage–a British shell–was what nearly killed him. He is in grave danger of losing his leg.

Scott Moncrieff experienced his wound as something of a “transcendental” experience, and it will shortly push him further toward a vocation that combines his linguistic and literary talents. Drawing on Paul Claudel’s ‘Hymne à SS Agnès,’ he wrote a poem about his rescue that comes close to the once-popular angelic-intervention tales, albeit in an exalted religious-literary manner, rather than in close imitation of the popular ghost story style of Arthur Machen and others.

I, like a pailful of water thrown from a high window, fell. . . . Alone.

An hour or two I lay and dozed…

. . . . Ah, whose mind prayed
Through mine then? Whose quiet singing heard I from my stretcher, swinging
Sorry, weary, sick, Strongly, clearly, belated back to Arras? Who dictated
Strongly, clearly, till I sung these French words with my English tongue?[2]

In a neighboring division, also largely Scottish, Captain John Eugene Crombie of the Gordon Highlanders, who had so recently written  “Easter Day 1917, The Eve of Battle,” was wounded near Roeux. Less fortunate than Scott Moncrieff, he will die of his wounds by the end of the day.[3]

On the left of the attack, the 63rd Division–The Royal Naval Division–led the attack on the village of Gavrelle. Rupert Brooke‘s old comrades in the Hood Battalion came up too quickly from reserve, through a heavy German barrage, and then pushed on into house-by-house fighting. In the neighboring brigade was the Drake battalion, pressing through the same barrage. A.P. Herbert, whose meditations on courage, cowardice, and institutional brutality will be set in the recent past but informed by this experience of battle, led his platoon while equipped with certain supererogatory liquid courage. He was soon hit:

Sub-Lieutenant Rackham saw him fling up his arms and fall. ‘He seemed to me to be in a bad way–dangerously
wounded, I thought at first.’ At a field-dressing station, jagged bits of shrapnel and hip-flask were found to be embedded deep in his left buttock; ignominious wound, honourably sustained. It was serious enough for him to be sent home again. He believed that the brandy from his flask was an effective sterilizing agent…[4]

Kate Luard received many such wounded men, and some who had fared much worse:

Monday, April 23rd, 10 p.m. Just come up to lie down for an hour before the next take-in. We have filled up twice, and they are hard at it again over the road; we come next… the earth-shaking noise this morning did its work; the wounded Germans tell me here are a great many dead. We have a splendid six-foot officer boy lying silently on his face with a broken back, high up. I hope he won’t live long…[5]

 

Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company–who are, naturally, really, a London-based militia regiment of infantry serving in a “Naval” infantry division–were in reserve on the central section of the assault.[6]

The barrage was terrific and it seemed impossible that anything could stand up against it. Nevertheless, the wire was very tenacious and… They put up an obstinate resistance.

It was not very long before we were required. A Company went first, but a few minutes later a call came for us and I moved forward. As we approached the position I could see the long lines of uncut wire with dead fusiliers hanging across it like pearls in a necklace where the Hun machine-guns had caught them. All the same some of them had penetrated through the gaps and the trench was captured. I had my usual luck and got my Company through the enemy’s counter-barrage without any casualties. My men were full of fight… There was no resistance; the few Huns we encountered surrendered instantly. At once I set about preparing the trench for the counter-attack which I knew would follow. The whole place was a shambles…

The town of Gavrelle was a few hundred yards on our right. The attacking troops had gone right through and our right consequently projected slightly beyond our left. We were the extreme left of the Divisional front. The Division on our left whose main attack was directed against Oppy Wood had failed with the result that the position was held in echelon…

The counter-attack was not launched until the following morning…[7]

A bit further south, the 10th Sherwood Foresters, part of the 17th Division, were in support of the assault just south of Monchy-le-Preux, near the town of Guémappe. Among the objectives on this front was the concentration of German artillery on the high ground in their rear. Perhaps, by the day’s end, the positions of the batteries that dueled with Edward Thomas‘s will be taken.

But not immediately; the leading battalions were held up and the 10th Sherwood Foresters were called forward, and took the first German trench. Geoffrey Thurlow, the last of Edward and Vera Brittain‘s close friends to remain unscathed, was there, and he had neither succumbed to the shell-shock that had afflicted him in 1916, nor to the fear of it. Safe in a German trench after the successful assault, he was asked once more to show his courage, and once again he didn’t let the school down. His commander will describe his actions in a letter he will write to Edward Brittain:

I sent a message to Geoffrey to push along the trench and find out if possible what was happening on the right. The trench was in a bad condition and rather congested, so he got out on the top. Unfortunately the Boche snipers were very active and he was soon hit through the lungs. Everything was done to make him as comfortable as possible, but he died lying on a stretcher about fifteen minutes later.[8]

So Geoffrey Thurlow, too, is dead.

Far away in Malta, Vera Brittain was just beginning to cope with the previous disaster to hit her tight-knit circle. In a letter which draws heavily on her diary of yesterday, she wrote to her brother:

Malta, 23 April 1917

My own dearest Edward

Your letter of the 8th has just arrived but contains no reference to the terrible news of the last day or two; it seems to be the only one that has come, so I suppose all my letters have missed the mail just when I wanted them most. It is dreadful to have to wait a week for details. That is the hardship of foreign service — not climate or distance so much as the separation by time & distance from anything that matters…

I am broken-hearted indeed about Victor. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure that it is not better to be dead.

This is not an idle question. Cruel as this is, it’s important to recognize that there is still no fundamental questioning of the meaning and the worth of all this suffering. She is not sure if Victor should wish to be dead, but she is confident that he will feel a sense of achievement at having matched his decorated school friends in military valor:

I suppose he is disfigured very much. His lovely eyes — I can’t bear to think they will never any more look ‘right into one’s soul’ as Mrs Leighton said they did. It is a terrible way to have bridged the gulf that lay between him & you — & Roland. I wish Roland were here to be with him & give him the strength he will so much need if he lives…

it is very hard to feel I can do nothing for him in return at the time of his greatest need. . . Anyhow. I know that you will make him understand, better than any letter could, my indescribable sorrow & regret–one can’t call it pity, as pity is not a sufficiently reverent feeling for one of those who ‘so marvellously overcame’. If there is anything I can do for him–anything at all–you will tell me, won’t you? It places all of us who cannot fight under a burden of debt almost more than we can bear–to feel that we owe our safety to the fives & sight & strength of such as you & Roland & him. I feel I could never repay it enough, even if trying to meant giving up practically all I ever meant to be or do. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were looking at me out of Eternity, imploring me to try to give Victor some of the comfort He would have given him if He had been here.[9]

 

We’re almost done, today, but here we have a different sort of irony of separation, of “sacrifice” and suffering and far-off emotion. Siegfried Sassoon is safely back, unaware that today is another spasm of intense violence, and that his battalion is caught up in it. It’s a particularly nasty irony that his reports from today are thus overshadowed by exactly what he now feels increasingly empowered too protest.

He has been working on another new poem, “To the Warmongers,” which begins:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss…

But the abyss is still there–and not yet taken. Two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch, in support of the 4th Suffolks, will once again move up from the Hindenburg Tunnel to attack along the Hindenburg Trench. A trench mortar barrage dropped neatly into the trench, clearing the German barricade and allowing the charging Suffolks to push back the defenders. The two companies of the 2/RWF came up and were at once employed in bringing up German prisoners from the deep dugouts. There is a long, detailed narrative of the intimate trench fighting in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle, growing grim as the two companies are held up and then located by the German trench mortar and rifle-grenade parties.

Sassoon’s friends “Binge” Owen and the pianist Ralph Greaves–both survivors of a late night in Amiens only three weeks ago–were now directing the fighting. One bomb hit a barricade and exploded next to Greaves’ right arm, mangling it. Owen was killed a few minutes later. Further attacks failed, although Captain N. H. Radford will remember hearing a Staff Captain give a fanciful heroic account of the “forcing of the barricade” only two weeks later, and remark that “that kind of myth outlives denial; it has appeared in print as fact.”[10]

The other two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch attacked later in the day, repeating a failed attack by another battalion, and with poorly coordinated artillery support. And in the open. They fared even worse. Frank Richards, a company signaler with B company, was in the assembly trench, and had a clear view of the attack:

From our parapet across to the objective our dead were laying thick, and for the first fifty yards it would have been impossible for a man to have walked three paces unless he stepped on a dead man. In the afternoon we attacked but were held up by machine-gun and rifle-fire the same as the previous battalions: not a man got further than halfway. The fortunate ones got back to their own trench, but the majority were laying where they fell… We brought our wounded in during the night, the enemy not firing a shot.[11]

 

We’ll end the day with Sassoon, in London, and trying somehow to move from personal experience to some reasonable appreciation of the “big picture:”

April 23 (In the Ward) —

Morning sunshine slants through tho many tall windows of the ward with its grey-green walls and forty white beds. Daffodils and primroses, red lilies and tulips make spots of colour…  Officers lie humped in beds smoking and reading morning papers; others drift about in dressing-gowns and slippers, going to and from the washing-room where they scrape the bristles from their contented faces. The raucous gramophone keeps grinding out popular airs…

Everyone is rather quiet. No one has the energy or the desire to begin talking war-shop till noon. Then one catches scraps of talk from round the fire-places.

‘barrage lifted at the first objective’
‘shelled us with heavy stuff’
‘couldn’t raise enough decent N.C.O.s’
‘our first wave got held up by machine-guns’
‘bombed them out of a sap’—etc etc.

There are no serious cases in this ward; only flesh-wounds and sick. No tragedies of gapped bodies and heavily bandaged faces; no groans at night, and nurses catching their breath while the surgeon deals with some ghastly gaping hole. These are the lucky ones, whom a few days of peace have washed clean of the squalor and misery and strain of ten days ago. They are lifting their faces to the sunlight: the nightmares have slunk away to haunt the sombre hearts of the maimed and shattered.[12]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 128.
  2. I've taken some supplementary information from Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 127-130, but there are some military historical errors in her account, so it's possible that some of what I have quoted is off-base; if so, sincere apologies!
  3. Powell, A Deep Cry, 241.
  4. Pound, A. P. Herbert, 153.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. I have not unraveled the exact relative positions of these different units; despite the lack of major salients it is a difficult attack to visualize... and for most of our writers, it seems, Arras was a terribly quick battle. Although Alf Pollard, as it happens, will persist and more than persist.... in any event, apologies for the less-than-thorough military history here.
  7. Fire-Eater, 212-14.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation; see also here.
  9. Letters From a Lost Generation, 341-2.
  10. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 330-38.
  11. Old Soldiers Never Die, 229-30. There is likely hyperbole here in terms of the number and the concentration of men killed.
  12. Diaries 159-60.

Wilfred Owen’s Relief; Robert Graves Hymns the Joys of Oxford to Siegfried Sassoon; Letter Bombs from Henry Williamson

Robert Graves, with impeccable timing, sat down to write a long overdue letter his erstwhile comrade Siegfried Sassoon. Those who have attained an excellent posting at Oxford ought not forget their less fortunate comrades in the trenches…

‘D’ Company
No. 4 Officer Cadet Battn
Wadham College
Oxford

21 April 1917

My dear Sassons

At last I am comfortably settled down here, and by Heaven, it’s a good game now that I’m cured of the desire to go back to France (I know I’m more use here and would only crock up if I tried a fourth time) and if it wasn’t for you being out there again I’d feel this was too good to be true. Get a cushy quick, old thing and I’ll work this sort of a job for you here. Anyhow, get sent to Somerville if you get over to Blighty at all: in time to read your reviews with me.

Events, of course, have out-paced Graves’s wishes. But Graves, who can often be rather unreasonable, has a very reasonable reason to be pleased with his new job–with bad lungs deriving in part from a serious battle wound, he has unquestionably earned the right to be safe at home. Sassoon, indeed on his way back with a blighty one, may yet heal completely–at least in body.

The letter continues with happy literary gossip–Sassoon’s book is delayed by the paper shortage, but Graves is busily setting up reviews and garnering introductions to various poets. Sassoon’s family friend Edmund Gosse has connected Graves to Masefield, and Graves’s friendship with Robert Nichols is blooming, while he continues to take advantage of Sassoon’s introduction to the pacifist hotbed of Garsington, where “Lady Utterly Immoral is such a ripper.” In his usual ingenuous/oblivious fashion Graves lists exactly what he was paid for a poem in the Nation as well as which poets (Gordon Bottomley among them) have praised his work. But he is not entirely given over to the social side of the literary world: he has also discovered the Tudor poet John Skelton and plans “a book of studies chiefly about Poetry and Children and France and things.”[1]

We’ll hear more from Graves tomorrow.

 

Is Henry Williamson doubting the wisdom of any of his recent postal actions? No!

Dear Mother,

Today, Saturday 21st, I sent off a parcel containing my boots and an orange in each–again the latter is quite empty.

Quite empty?

PS. If by any chance you find a greyish powder in any of those eggs, merely empty it in the garden NOT in the fire. There is always a millionth of a chance of a full one going in by mistake…

One hopes that no one is reading Williamson’s mail. Officers are generally immune from censorship, but then again Williamson may be under close watch as an inefficient and untrustworthy sort… this letter not only mentions sending probably non-explosive grenades but also reveals his position (Bullecourt) by means of a reference to a “Bully lad” who “courts.” Good lord…[2]

 

So much for the lighter portions of today’s work. There is one very important event I should mention that I don’t think can be fixed to one particular date. However, today, a century back, provides a terminus ante quem: Wilfred Owen‘s 2nd Manchesters had been in the line for twelve straight days, but they were relieved today. He will shortly write to his mother, describing this tour of duty:

For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank!

This concussion will have repercussions. As will the horrors that follow.

I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/Lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest will be a 9 days-Rest.

Lt. Gaukroger is listed as being killed on April 2nd, so Owen must have spent time near his temporary battlefield grave.

It can be difficult to isolate the neurological and psychological components of “shell shock,” but the experience of being blown through the air by a heavy shell and then living in close proximity to the body of a comrade can stand as a good example of the way the two come together. Owen’s “nerves” have been affected, as has his attitude toward the war: his first complaint after this experience is directed back across the gulf that separates the combat soldier from those at home:

I think that the terribly long time we stayed unrelieved was unavoidable; yet it makes us feel bitterly towards those in England who might relieve us, and will not.

We are now doing what is called a Rest, but we rise at 6.15 and work without break until about 10 p.m. for there is always a Pow-Wow for officers after dinner. And if I have not written yesterday, it is because I must have kept hundreds of Letters uncensored, and enquiries about Missing Men unanswered…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 68-9.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the Great War, 129.
  3. Collected Letters, 452-3.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Ivor Gurney in Perforated Good Spirits; Spring Offensive: Wilfred Owen Goes Over the Top; Siegfried Sassoon on the Effect of the Bombardment; Billy Prior’s Attack

Today is a day of blood and gore and foreboding. But we’ll start with the good news.

Pretty good news, at least: Ivor Gurney is wounded, and thus safe. There is pain, yes, but it hasn’t bought the best of news–early hopes of Blighty have faded. Gurney informs Marion Scott of his condition in a letter posted today, a century back:

My Dear Friend: Well, I am wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough; as although kind people told me it meant Blighty for me, yet here I am at Rouen marked “Tents”. I do not yet give up hopes, but very few boats have been running lately; none at all for some days; and the serious cases go first of course. It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm must underneath the shoulder—the muscles opposite the biceps, to describe them more or less accurately. It hurt badly for half an hour, but now hurts not at all…  there is no real damage done to my arm, not enough to please me.

Alas! Alas! There are hardly any books here! And the life is made up of hanging about waiting to be shifted again. Now if I could find some real hard reading to do–something to distract my mind–all might be well; or if I had some MS and a few books of verse, I would turn out something in spite of the flatness of my mind. O well, hopes
are not yet gone…

Though this Spring is cold and unclement, I cannot keep out of mind what April has meant for me in past years — Minsterworth, Framilode, and his companionship. And my sick mind holds desperately on to such memories for Beauty’s sake; and the hope of Joy…

So, if I can send you an address, please send me some small books of verse, and Tolstoi’s Cossacks (Worlds Classics – Pocket Ed.) I wonder whether at last I might try Housmans “Shropshire Lad”?

I will write again in half a shake:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

(I write with my perforated arm, so you see not much is wrong.)[1]

 

It could be much worse. Which Kate Luard can make too painfully clear:

Saturday night April 14th. I’ve never in my life seen so many aeroplanes or so many dead men or so many German prisoners; they are marched in hundreds down our road…

One Cockney boy with both arms smashed said to the Padre, ‘Sy a prayer for me, will yer? That would be nahce. Can’t yer confirm me?’ It’s the only time I’ve seen the Padre laugh. Then the boy offered to sing ‘Tooleroolerity, I want to go to Blighty–Blighty is the plice for me.’ And then he died.[2]

 

 

So. Now another strange non-convergence. Two of our poets who have been creeping toward the line come even closer today–one attacks while the other is on the edge of the action–while a third man who will come to occupy the same space as both of them, but who did not exist, suffered some portion of both of their experiences.

 

During the morning, Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters moved forward to their attack positions… and found that the staff work had been very bad indeed. First, there was a simple problem of time and distance: “It was realised by the battalion at the outset that it was impossible to cover the distance in artillery formation with the loads and paraphanalia [sic] that the private soldier is called upon to carry in the attack in the time given.” To make matters worse, the last 1,000 yards of the approach involved moving across the enemy’s front, and when the Manchesters appeared in view the Germans immediately placed a hurricane barrage on the ground to be covered. Nor did they know what they were attacking, or where the other British units in the area were. The C.O., Lt. Col. Luxmore, rode off to consult with brigade and came back at 12:20, ten minutes before the scheduled attack time, saving his battalion by ordering a postponement and a flank march to a different position.

But they still had to attack, and they still had to cross a hillside in full view of German-held St. Quentin just to reach the jumping-off point.

Though this barrage was straight in the middle of the Battalion, they moved forward through it as steadily as going on parade, each wave keeping its dressing and distance and every carrier retaining his load. By the Grace of God alone only 30 men were lost in this barrage.

This took long enough that the newly-agreed-upon assault time of 1:00 was also missed. It seems as if there had been no allowance made for the fact that this is not an assault from long-held trenches with reasonably secure telephone connections to the rear but rather an exploratory attack by a unit feeling its way through new country. If the stakes weren’t so high the image of the colonel galloping about in Napoleonic fashion as if he were his own dispatch rider would be comical.

In any event, his arrival was doubly providential, since someone needed to take tactical command on the spot and ignore whatever brigade-level plans remained. Since staying out in accurate artillery fire meant certain destruction and the German wire barriers did not seem too imposing, the Manchesters mounted a quick frontal assault on a German-held trench near their objective, through the barrage and long-range machine-gun fire. Reaching the trench, they found it to be abandoned. This was victory, of a sort, and the day’s work done, so they turned the position over to their relief and went briefly into reserve.[3]

Wilfred Owen was physically unscathed, but this was his first real attack, his first day in the open, under fire. His letter to his mother will strike a tone somewhere between exhilaration and disbelief:

Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communique; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter![4] Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open.[5]

But neither the battalion diary–which is in fact quite detailed and emotional for such a document–nor the letter do much to make us feel what it must have been like to have been there. Marching about, with no cover; uncertain of directions, of objections, of intentions–uncertain of anything except the fact that there would be no safety until some indeterminate length of shell-harrowed, bullet-swept ground was crossed.

But Owen will write it another way, in his poem “Spring Offensive,” which closes with these stanzas:

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

 

There are many facile ways to make this next transition: “As Owen’s experience opens out, as his poetry rises, Sassoon descends…” Or, perhaps: “While Owen does not deny God and heaven, he writes with biblical force and yet pointedly fails to confirm any solace or meaning to the day’s ‘inhumanities;’ meanwhile, Sassoon is becoming confirmed in his beliefs about where fault for slaughter lies.” That sort of thing. But even if we eschew easy parallels, there is a striking juxtaposition here. Siegfried Sassoon–who has been hoping for open battle, in which he knows he will either excel or be killed–will get instead a new experienced of compressed horror, and one that will push his angry poetry toward something even deeper and darker. Not above ground and into the great wide shell-swept open, but down underground, in the subterranean fastnesses of the Hindenburg line, where, safe from the shells, it will be grenade- and knife-work, and hell will be no Miltonic abstraction of fiends and flames but mappable terrain, still contested by the damned…

Tonight, a century back, Sassoon is still on the verge of this. His diary picks up late last night:

April 14

At 9 p.m. we started off to relieve the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers in Hindenburg support (Second R.W.F. being in support to the First Cameronians). It was only an hour’s walk, but our Northumberland Fusilier guides lost themselves and we didn’t arrive and complete the relief until 4 a.m. Luckily it was fine. I went to bed at 5 a.m., after patrolling our 900-yard front alone!—in a corridor of the underground communication-trench of the Hindenburg Line—a wonderful place. Got up at 9.30 after a miserable hour’s sleep—cold as hell—and started off at 10.45 with a fatigue-party, to carry up trench-mortar bombs from dump between St Martin-Cojeul and Croisilles. Got back very
wet and tired about 4.30. Rained all day—trenches like glue.

But in beginning to transmute the experience to memoir, Sassoon will bring a sense of helpless victimization–of abject horror–to the fore:

Stage by stage we had marched to this monstrous region of death and disaster. From afar it had threatened us with the blink and din of its bombardments. Now we groped and stumbled along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of human havoc. The World War had got our insignificant little unit in its mouth; we were there to be munched, maimed or liberated.[6]

So not Milton–Dante. The great devil mouth churning, while little dead men run up and down the twisting trenches in his hide, hurling bombs at each other…

We will see what the morrow will bring. But this stay amidst the wreckage of the attack will yield some of the most viscerally upsetting and vividly “anti-war” of Sassoon’s poems. One example will do, I think:

 

The Effect

‘The effect of our bombardment was terrific.
One man told me he had never seen so many dead before.’
War Correspondent.

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
They sprawled in yellow daylight while he swore
And gasped and lugged his everlasting load
Of bombs along what once had been a road.
‘How peaceful are the dead.’
Who put that silly gag in some one’s head?

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
The lilting words danced up and down his brain,
While corpses jumped and capered in the rain.
No, no; he wouldn’t count them any more…
The dead have done with pain:
They’ve choked; they can’t come back to life again.

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the fire-step like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat…
‘How many dead? As many as ever you wish.
Don’t count ’em; they’re too many.
Who’ll buy my nice fresh corpses, two a penny?’

 

So a Dante, but a Dante who has lost sight of Purgatory, and knows that Paradise is impossible. This shocking turn in Sassoon’s poetry on the very day of Owen’s first attack makes an uncannily good introduction for our next subject.

Sassoon, as his diary shows, was sleepless and agitated and keyed-up, but he was not yet shocked into losing his mental equilibrium. Owen has survived his first attack and is uncertain yet what meaning he can wring out of it, or what it has wrung out of him.

Which brings us to Lt. Prior. Billy Prior is, in the literary sense, real–more real to me, having read his story several times, and seen it enacted–than many historical figures. But he’s also fictional. He began life, I think it’s fair to say, as a “composite character” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a sort of stock figure of well-researched historical fiction, well-equipped with a 20th century panoply of trauma, neurosis, and defiant energy. But then he took on a life of his own. Regeneration is the sort of book that with great modesty and intelligence–two essential characteristics, along with compassion, that it shares with its (non-fictional) hero, Dr. William Rivers–would wave off such superlatives as “the best of its kind.” But it is–the trilogy is an incomparable fictional exploration of the psychological damage wrought by the war, and Billy Prior is the most compelling fictional Great War officer I can think of.[7]

But it’s early days, and he has not yet opened out into that full fictional life. Prior will be “shell-shocked” into both amnesia and temporary mutism, and the account of the battle (read the book!) that he provides for his therapist is stubbornly matter-of-fact. In fact–and very interestingly–Prior’s memories of today, a century back, draw heavily both on Owen’s first sharp experience of walking under shell fire “as steadily as going on parade” as well as on the sort of edge-of-madness clarity that Sassoon’s poetic voice summons. This is good historical fictional practice, of course, but there are lots of good accounts of such attacks (I’ve heard there’s a blog…) and it’s interesting that Prior’s trauma borrows in such a way from two “real life” figures whose paths will cross his own, in fiction.

I’ll include now a short excerpt from Regeneration: as it fades out one might either take up the novel itself or read once more Owen’s letter and his battalion’s history.

Prior dragged on the cigarette and, momentarily, closed his eyes. He looked a bit like the boys you saw on street corners in the East End. That same air of knowing the price of everything. Rivers drew the file towards him. ‘We left you in billets at Beauvois.’

‘Yes. We were there, oh, I think about four days and then we were rushed back into the line. We attacked the morning of the night we moved up.’

‘Date?’

‘April the 14th.’

Rivers looked up. It was unusual for Prior to be so accurate.

‘St. George’s Day. The CO toasted him in the mess. I remember because it was so bloody stupid.'[8]

‘You were in the casualty clearing station on the …’ He glanced at the file. ’23rd. So that leaves us with nine days unaccounted for.’

‘Yes, and I’m afraid I can’t help you with any of them.

‘Do you remember the attack?’

‘Yes. It was exactly like any other attack.’

Rivers waited…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 153-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 113.
  3. War Diary, WO/2392/2, page 160 (of pdf).
  4. Fayet.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.
  6. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 316.
  7. I'm not sure if Christopher Tietjens should count; George Sherston probably shouldn't...
  8. St. George's Day is usually April 23rd, not April 14th, and the calendrical complexities which move it later under certain conditions shouldn't have resulted in making it the 14th in 1917. I have a very limited understanding of the liturgical calendar, but this would seem to be a simple slip, occasioned perhaps by the fact that the next day Rivers mentions--the end of the total gap in Prior's life history--is the 23rd--unless I am simply misreading the fictional conversation? Is Prior playing some game with the dates, testing Rivers in some way? I don't think we are meant to subtly infer than his amnesia is feigned... In any event, it's fiction! And I'm very pleased to have an excuse to begin considering Regeneration, the most important (ah, superlatives) of the Great War novels written by later generations, before the time of its main action (all too infrequently dateable) this summer and autumn.
  9. Regeneration, 77.

Good Friday in Missouri; Ivor Gurney is Wounded; Edward Thomas Tunnels Onward; Siegfried Sassoon Marches Toward Spring–and the Guns

It is Good Friday, today, a century back, and a signal day in the war’s history: the United States has declared war. This fact seems to overshadow the coming assault at Arras. It’s hard, that is, with our short-sighted hindsight, not to begin treating the war as essentially all but over. After all, the Central Powers are nearly exhausted, they are blockaded, and now fresh armies will be on their way to bolster the Allies. But the German strategists are not fools, and they will gamble on ending the war before the United States’ contribution can be decisive–a gamble they will nearly win, especially after Russia’s collapse. From the cold and murderous point of view of Grand Strategy, another costly British effort to smash through their lines is surely welcome… a fact which will not help the men under the bombardment, or the men due to follow behind the curtain of shells on Monday morning.

But what, as the troublesome youngster asks, does this mean to me? To us, that is, steeped in the books and letters and diaries and poetry of British volunteers of 1914 and 1915. Well, I don’t know. There may well be more American voices here next year, although I’m not certain how much of a national shift will take place–perhaps very little.

In fact, I will begin with a curveball (or a changeup, perhaps–but I don’t expect too much criticism of my baseball metaphors, even today). In order to remind us that the U.S. will now be going through a sort of condensed-but-less-intense version of Britain’s 1914-15, with a long delay before the volunteers appear in large numbers in France–and also in order to sneak in a recommendation for one of the most perfect novels I’ve ever read–I’ll take as our first text today John Williams’s Stoner, a novel about the quiet life of a southern American academic. Many Americans will volunteer (and fight, and die) in the war, but many others will choose not to–this will never be an American war in the same way it was a British war (not to mention French or German, and not to speak of the East). About all we need to know is that the titular William Stoner is a doctoral student and instructor in the English department at the University of Missouri.

War was declared on a Friday, and although classes remained scheduled the following week, few students or professors made a pretense of meeting them. They milled about in the halls and gathered in small groups, murmuring in hushed voices… Once there was a brief-lived demonstration against one of the professors, an old and bearded teacher of Germanic languages, who had been born in Munich and who as a youth had attended the University of Berlin. But when the professor met the angry and flushed little group of students, blinked in bewilderment, and held out his thin, shaking hands to them, they disbanded in sullen confusion.

During those first days after the declaration of war Stoner also suffered a confusion, but it was profoundly different from that which gripped most of the others on the campus. Though he had talked about the war in Europe with the older students and instructors, he had never quite believed in it; and now that it was upon him, upon them all, he discovered within himself a vast reserve of indifference. He resented the disruption which the war forced upon the University; but he could find in himself no very strong feelings of patriotism, and he could not bring himself to hate the Germans.

But the Germans were there to be hated. Once Stoner came upon Gordon Finch talking to a group of older faculty members; Finch’s face was twisted, and he was speaking of the “Huns” as if he were spitting on the floor. Later, when he approached Stoner in the large office which half a dozen of the younger instructors shared, Finch’s mood had shifted; feverishly jovial, he clapped Stoner on the shoulder.

“Can’t let them get away with it, Bill,” he said rapidly. A film of sweat like oil glistened on his round face, and his thin blond hair lay in lank strands over his skull. “No, sir. I’m going to join up. I’ve already talked to old Sloane about it, and he said to go ahead. I’m going down to St. Louis tomorrow and sign up.” For an instant he managed to compose his features into a semblance of gravity. “We’ve all got to do our part.” Then he grinned and clapped Stoner’s shoulder again. “You better come along with me.”

“Me?” Stoner said, and said again, incredulously, “Me?”

Finch laughed. “Sure. Everybody’s signing up. I just talked to Dave–he’s coming with me.”

Stoner shook his head as if dazed. “Dave Masters?”

“Sure. Old Dave talks kind of funny sometimes, but when the chips are down he’s no different from anybody else; hell do his part. Just like you’ll do yours, Bill.” Finch punched him on the arm. “Just like you’ll do yours.”

Stoner was silent for a moment. “I hadn’t thought about it,” he said. ‘It all seems to have happened so quickly. I’ll have to talk to Sloane. I’ll let you know.”

“Sure,” Finch said. “You’ll do your part.” His voice thickened with feeling. “We’re all in this together now, Bill; we’re all in it together.”[1]

Stoner doesn’t go; he gets a post at the University instead, since jobs open up as other men volunteer. The smarmy Gordon Finch becomes an officer but remains in the United States, safe in training camps and still able to advance his own academic career. Stoner’s easygoing friend Dave Masters will be killed at Château-Thierry.

 

With the literary aspects of the U.S.’s contribution to the war effort thus entirely taken care of, we can turn our attention back to France.

Before we go to Arras, a sharp reminder that everyday attacks are still being carried out along other sections of the line. During one of these attacks, this evening, a century back, Ivor Gurney was shot in the arm. Despite being a few inches away from death, this wound was a good one–“clean through the right arm just underneath the shoulder.”

In fact, it may be too good a wound. Gurney was evacuated, but the wound was slight (and only briefly painful) and his first reaction after the immediate shock had worn off was fear that he might not make it all the way to Blighty. Soon afterwards, he remembered to be worried that he would be cut off from his lifeline to Blighty–it will take some time for the post to find a wounded soldier.[2]

 

Just outside of Arras, Edward Thomas, three days into the bombardment of the German positions that will be assaulted on Easter Monday, writes once again to reassure Helen. He would prefer to be calm and reassuring, describing what beauty he sees and maintaining the old connections between them by means of safe home-like gossip and natural description–to potter about the bridge over the experiential gulf without looking down.

But Helen’s most recent letter evidently pressed him to write more about his state of mind, and so Edward reluctantly ventures to explain how he intends to safeguard his inner self during the coming ordeal.

Beaurains
6 April
1917

There wasn’t a letter . . . but I will add a little more.—the pace is slackening today.

Still not a thrush—but many blackbirds.

My dear, you must not ask me to say much more. I know that you must say much more because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just as it were tunnelling underground and something sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun. At the end of the tunnel there is the sun. Honestly this is not the result of thinking; it is just an explanation of my state of mind which is really so entirely preoccupied with getting on through the tunnel that you might say I had forgotten there was a sun at either end, before or after this business. This will perhaps induce you to call me inhuman like the newspapers, just because for a time I have had my ears stopped—mind you I have not done it myself—to all but distant echoes of home and friends and England. If I could respond as you would like me to to your feelings I should be unable to go on with this job in ignorance whether it is to last weeks or months or years…

We have such fine moonlight nights now, pale hazy moonlight. Yesterday too we had a coloured sunset lingering in the sky and after that at intervals a bright brassy glare where they were burning waste cartridges. The sky of course winks with broad flashes almost all round at night and the air sags and flaps all night.

I expect there will be a letter today. Never think I can do without one any more than you can dearest. Kiss the children for me.

All and always yours

Edwy[3]

 

As Siegfried Sassoon marches toward the sound of the guns–four of them directed, at times, by Edward Thomas–he seems to be in a solid and stable mood… but he is by no means able to resist the lure of bundling together the dawning spring, the coming battle, and some of the religious overtones of Eastertide.

April 6 (Good Friday)

Woke with sunshine streaming through the door, and broad Scots being shouted in the next huts by some Scottish Rifles. We remain here to-day…

I don’t think battle-nightmares haunt many of us. There isn’t time for thinking. We are ‘for it’—that’s enough for most of us. The wind is gone round to the east and we can hear the huge firing up at Arras.

I saw a signpost last evening with Arras 32 kilometres. I suppose that’s about the nearest point where hell begins… And I was walking, with nice old Major Poore, and talking about cricket and hunting.

And everywhere spring is not quite ready to break out in a sudden glory of flowers and leaves. The big woods round here are brown and sombre; in a fortnight they’ll be flashing and quivering, bowers of beech-trees, cages full of sunbeams, swaying alleys of Paradise.

Last night I went and stood in the moonlight, watching the stems and leafless branches, against the sky, and dreaming of summer dawns, till the startled birds rustled overhead, and something went plunging blindly through the undergrowth—it might have been Pan, or a roebuck, or a mule escaped from the Transport lines.[4] This morning romance had fled. Soldiers were practising on bugles and bagpipes at the wood’s edge.[5]

 

Finally, a poem–but not the sort of poem we might expect, after Sassoon’s pleasant pastoral fantasy. Sassoon is a country-loving English poetaster, sure, but he is a bit of an outlier–most men do not feel cheerful on the edge of battle, and praise the spring in the same voice that must shout over the guns.

Hamish Mann is a poet we read only very infrequently. But he, too, is waiting to see what the coming battle will bring. He writes, however, not of its present incongruous spring atmosphere, but of what battle has done in the past.

 

The Great Dead

Some lie in graves beside the crowded dead
In village churchyards; others shell holes keep,
Their bodies gaping, all their splendour sped.
Peace, O my soul… A Mother’s part to weep.

Say: do they watch with keen all-seeing eyes
My own endeavours in the whirling hell?
Ah, God! how great, how grand the sacrifice.
Ah, God! the manhood of you men who fell!

And this is War… Blood and a woman’s tears,
Brave memories adown the quaking years.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Williams, Stoner, New York Review Books, 33-4.
  2. War Letters, 153-4.
  3. Selected Letters, 163-4.
  4. I will lay even money that, with all of France to lose a mule in, Henry Williamson is somehow responsible for this.
  5. Diaries, 150.
  6. Powell, A Deep Cry, 240.

Kate Luard Prepares for Battle; Ivor Gurney Welcomes the Spring; Edward Thomas Reassures; C.E. Montague Estranged from Sacrifice

Everywhere in the British sector of Northern France there is an air of tense expectation. Kate Luard‘s Casualty Clearing Station at Warlencourt has just begun to take in large numbers of the wounded from the preliminary bombardments around Arras. She describes the “Preparation-for-Theatre” (i.e. pre-op) Ward:

Here the number of battered men, generally from 50 to 60, never seems to grow less, as although they are carried when ready to the operating Teams in the Theatre, their places are continually filled by others.

All the layers of sodden or caked stiff clothing are cut off, pyjamas or long flannel pinafore gowns put on… Hot blankets, hot-water bottles, hot drinks, subcutaneous salines and hypodermics are given them, as also in the Resuscitation Ward to which all the apparently hopeless cases are taken…

It often happens that no M.O. can be spared for this tent, so a great deal of responsibility is thrown to us…

Once when I was cutting off a split boot of a man wounded in the head, chest, and the other thigh, half his foot came off in it–a detail overlooked in the Dressing Hut and the Field Ambulance with all his other injuries…

What we have had so far is child’s play to what is to come…[1]

 

Edward Thomas is an inexperienced artillery subaltern, but he too knows that a grim test awaits. The firing plans his battery has been practicing since they arrived on the Arras front as well as the escalating bombardments of the last two days would make it abundantly clear (even if there had been total information security) that a major assault is only days away. Which is significant, but no sufficient reason to give up reading, looking for beauty, or tracking the progress of spring.

A dull morning turns misty with rain. Some 4.2s coming over at 10. Air flapping all night with great sails in strong gusty wind (with artillery)–thick misty windless air. Sods on f/c’s dugout begin to be fledged with fine green feathers of yarrow. Sun and wind drying the mud. Firing all day,… Beautiful pale hazy moonlight and the sag and flap of air. Letters to Mother and Helen. HAMLET.[2]

Thomas is reading Shakespeare, and perhaps a bit too tired to combine reading-recording with humor: the play has not destabilized his letters to his wife or mother in any noticeable way…

The letter to Helen is, in fact, notably calm. Thomas expands on the bare observations of the diary in a way that makes it clear that his primary purpose in writing is to steady and reassure:

5 April 1917
Dearest,

This is the second day, a much better day so far, beginning misty and turning warm. We have been firing faster, but I have sat in the sun at my job most of the time and got warm. I slept pretty well in the dug-out till our guns began. The other firing all night merely flapped and flapped like great sails in the heavy misty air. I woke hearing a wren sing and many blackbirds. The clods on my little hole where I work between 3 and 4 guns are getting fledged with fine green yarrow shoots all feathery.

The old dog this morning was delighted with running after Horton’s stick and bringing it back. He laid it down and started gnawing it, and then barked for it to be thrown again. His barking delighted us very much. I don’t think I had heard a dog bark in play for these three months. Then he went down into a shell-hole and drank the water in it.

The Somme pictures are absurd, compared with what I could tell you in five or six minutes and shall do someday I hope.

Goodbye. I am all and always yours Edwy.[3]

And the letter to his mother is, despite a similar calm acknowledgment that they are two days into the pre-assault bombardment, notably domestic:

5 April 1917
Dear Mother,

We are now in the thick of it, though not quite in the middle. This is the second day, and a beautiful day it is, sunny and misty, the sun sometimes failing behind the mist and coming through again quite warm, which I have enjoyed as I sat out on the bank between No. 3 and No. 4 guns while we fired. Yesterday was cold and slippery and dirty and I got clean tired out by the end when I was relieved at 9.30 p.m. after beginning at 5.30 a.m. I moved into the battery position to a dug-out I have been strengthening, because any day the Hun might see the wisdom of laying our street flat with the ground. It is a little damp in the dug-out but wonderfully quiet except when our No.1 and No.2 guns fire straight over it. All the other artillery only makes the air flap heavily all night. It is nice to wake up practically out of doors and hear the wrens in the copse. For the dug-out is dug out of a bank and not down into the ground, so that the light of day reaches it, and it has the advantage of lying across the line of fire of our own and the enemy’s guns, with the entrance not facing either.

I live for the moment in trousers concealed by rubber boots almost to the waist. This shortens the time of dressing and undressing by a quarter of an hour, as I have no boots or breeches to lace up. Otherwise I remain civilised and clean so far.

He’s a good boy, Edward is. But he returns, after this faint smile, to recent developments and the near future: his eight pseudonymous poems are being well reviewed, and the big push is only days away.

I have just seen quite a respectable review of the Annual in the Times and I hear there will be one in the New Statesman . . .

As things are at present arranged I may see exciting things within 3 or 4 days. But of course the future is obscure and we do not know what the Hun will do, or if he is where we think he is—if he is, he is having a bad time. I do not mind how bad if it helps to end the war. Goodbye . . .

Ever your loving son

Edwy[4]

 

C.E. Montague and Edward Thomas must have known each other at least in passing, English journalism being a smallish world, and they share a subject today, a century back. But whereas Thomas is reticent about his atheism and capable still of the simple hope that the latest effort will help end the war, Montague is thoroughly miserable and completely negative about the course the war has taken. He does not deny Christ–in fact he associates Christian virtue with the faithfulness of the soldiers he so admires–but that also requires aligning those who control the course of the war with the persecutors and executioners of God.

Diary
April 5, 1917 (eve of Good Friday)

…Still, we may win. The multitude of men who think of nothing but serving hard and faithfully unto death, who do not hope for distinctions or promotions, may carry the world into safety and a new life. Hundreds and thousands of them will die, after this Good Friday, more painfully than on a Cross. Our hope is that in them, as in Christ, a
worse world may die into a better, and larger life come out of death, and mankind be ennobled by losing its noblest men—the old mystery of the Cross and of evolution.

I seem to have lost my chance of thus following Christ. There seems to be no hope of getting back to my battalion. Because I am 50 I must live among the embusqués [shirkers] and not with the friends I love and honour since I came to know the depth of their courage and patience in the trenches. It is cheap even to murmur against it. It is like trying to combine my ignominious safety with a little easy aspiration after self-sacrifice. But I do mean it.

Cavalry moving up all the roads. Procession of Red Cross trains up St. Pol-Arras line. Push put off from 8th to 9th.[5]

Skeptical and disenchanted, Montague is now voicing–privately–the newer sort of protest. But despite the bitterness about the slaughter he does not consider “turning pacifist” or otherwise refusing to continue to be party to the passion of the Tommy. In fact, the key to his bitterness is his estrangement from his original unit–the same thing that so many others, in other moods, identified as the best thing about the war. Montague was too old and too sickly for the rigors of combat, and so he was denied, after short service in the trenches, what almost all of our writers crave: the unmatched intensity of the fellowship of combat infantry. To “murmur” from safety would only compound the betrayal he feels (although it was not his choice to leave). Montague, now tasked with escorting VIPs in the battle zone, even forswears what his friends all remark upon: that he seeks danger whenever his cushy job permits. He doesn’t want to play at martyrdom–it would be disloyal, almost blasphemous. And yet given how much emphasis is on “small unit cohesion” the ready paradigm–as he notes, tomorrow is Good Friday–doesn’t really fit. It’s not Christ who is going to his passion alone; it’s a whole platoon of disciples, going together at the behest of the gods of war, hundreds of times over…

 

Finally, today, Ivor Gurney‘s Gloucesters are stationed far to the south of the coming Arras attack, but they will be in action soon nonetheless. There is fighting to be done as new positions are established opposite the Hindenberg line.

Private Gurney is still uncertain of the date of the coming attack (he is uncertain even of today‘s date), but he is nevertheless certain of some things: art, beauty, and Gloucestershire. He writes, as so often, to Marion Scott.

April 4 or 5th

I thought we were going over the top tonight, but it has been postponed — a state of things which will inevitably lead to souloutpourings. My state of mind is — fed up to the eyes; fear of not living to write music for England; no fear at all of death. Yesterday we had a little affair with a German patrol, which made me interested for 5 minutes; after which I lapsed into the usual horrid state of boredom. O that the Nice Blighty may come soon! I do not bear pain and cold well, but do not grumble too much; so I reckon that cancels out. One cannot expect to have everything, or to make one’s nature strong in a week. It snowed like anything yesterday, but today has been quite beautiful, and I have strolled about chatting of Maisemore Wood and such-like things of beauty…

My dear friend, it has been very kind of you to write to my friends as you have, and I know they are grateful. It is something to know that my father realises his trouble and sacrifice have not been all wasted. He has been only too good always; especially considering the difference of our temperaments, and my long wasted time. Surely my life must lead to something. Surely the apprenticeship has almost passed?

I am afraid there are no poems again. The conditions are against it…

Here we are called up.

Goodbye: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

Ah, but that was only April 4th, and he has lived to fight, at least, another day.

Next day

…This morning was beautifully sunny, and daisies are poking their heads out here and there — without steel helmets! O the Spring, the Spring! Come late or early, you must give hope ever to the dwellers in the house of flesh…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 108-9.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  3. Letters to Helen, 94.
  4. Selected Letters, 162-3.
  5. C.E. Montague, 167-8.
  6. War Letters, 152-3.

Kate Luard’s Near Miss; Edwin Vaughan in a Lousy Boche Trap; Siegfried Sassoon Can Almost See England; God Amidst the Shellfire for Edward Hermon; Geoffrey Thurlow Asks Vera Brittain About the Afterlife

Kate Luard, her hospital warned that their first convoy of wounded is only days away, took what she expects to be a last day of leisure for quite some time. She wants to see the sights–and now that the German withdrawal has put the old front line well in the rear, she can tour the Somme battlefield for the first time. So she does, and runs smack into the apparent paradox that so many of our writers confront or avoid, but necessarily both confirm and deny:

…we have been over No-Man’s Land an down into the deep German dug-outs on the scene of the tragedy last July at Gommécourt. It is all indescribable. Bairnsfather has drawn it, but no one can ever, in words, make anyone realise what it is like.

As Rabbi Tarfon says, it is not incumbent upon you to finish the job; but neither are you at liberty to completely avoid it….

The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch deep down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom…

I cast Kate Luard, often enough, in the role of The Wise Woman, our Old Campaigner among the medics. Which, like any such shoehorning, is not terribly fair. She features here so often because she is a keen observer and a good writer, not because she is infallibly wise. In her own sphere, we’ve come to except extreme competence and compassion… but off for an exciting tour of the forbidden zone, she succumbs to a common and foolish enthusiasm–the search for souvenirs.

I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me…

The village we and the Germans have been shelling for 2 years made you feel dazed. But the battlefield made you feel sick. We got some snowdrop roots with the flowers out, from under a boulder at Gommécourt.

Here you get to the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad?[1]

More snowdrops! A paragraph of further description intervenes before Luard comes to tell of their long walk back to the hospital, so perhaps the uplifting irony I see in the last sentences of the day is not actually intended. But after being compelled to condemn the madness of civilization, Sister Luard and her companions, returning, are invited to tea three times on their walk back by three different groups of British N.C.O.s and officers, and then have coffee pressed upon them by a Frenchwoman.

 

Edwin Vaughan is headed in the opposite direction. He had a harrowing march up through the devastated town of Péronne and toward his battalion’s new billets in what had until recently been the German rear–harrowing, at least, for him. Other writers might have treated a near-miss and a blighty for a fellow officer with less candor: “He wasn’t a scrap disturbed by his wounds, but they made me feel faint and I had to go out for some air.”

But then several men are killed by shells accurately dropped on a well, and the survivors are grateful to take shelter in their new digs–three German dugouts.

I lay for a while on my upper berth, smoking and reading a book on trench warfare. then I began to feel itchy, and the itchiness grew, and spread so much that I was unable to concentrate on my book. So I lay on my back looking at the timber roof a foot above me, and I wondered whether the saw-marks across the beams were the work of the Boche to ensure the roof falling in when a time-mine exploded. I was distracted from this thought, with its potential horrors, by the sight of moving insects. Raising the candle I found that the place was crawling with lice. During the night I felt them dropping onto my face, and in the morning I was infested with them.[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s letter home to his wife of tonight, a century back, is a bit of a surprise. Hermon is our conventional English family man, the non-intellectual squire and kindly C.O. He’s not a great writer, but this account of church amidst a bombardment is one of the more moving ones I’ve read. Of all things (all things!) it reminds me of a scene in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Tonight I went to church in one of the church Army Huts close here & we had such a nice little service, ending with a celebration[3] for which I stayed. All the time the service was going on the Hun was throwing some very heavy shells into the village about half a mile off & what with the church being lit up & it dark outside & the whistle & crash of the shells it made the whole thing very weird & also impressive & I’m afraid that my voice was not particularly strong as I sang the third verse of hymn 322…

Then the world re-intrudes, and we are back to clocks and bunks–and men of god in their human frailties.

Well dearie mine I’m busy these days and must to bed now especially as we started summer time last night & I lost an hour of sleep, not to mention the fact that the padre, who sleeps just under me, dreamt that he saw a man cutting the rope of one of the observation balloons & jumped up shouting at the top of his voice to stop him & nearly flung me out of bed in the process, & I felt rather as tho’ a mine had gone off underneath.[4]

 

Only a day after Victor Richardson wrote to Vera Brittain, Geoffrey Thurlow–her brother’s intimate friend from training camp, and now the third of the soldiers that she cares for and corresponds with–writes to her on the same subject. But then what are the chances that two nicely brought-up young men will write about certain things not to each other but to a young woman they admire?

France, 25 March 1917

Don’t you often speculate on what lies beyond the gate of Death? The after life must be particularly interesting. No chance of getting leave… Haven’t heard from Victor Richardson for a long long time–hope he is still going strong…

Tonight I walked home with Wilmot who is in a convalescent home near here. It has been a brilliant day with a fresh wind: we passed along between fields, some green and some with bright red earth recently plowed: and then came to a large forest. The wind made a delightful rustling in the trees & had it not have been for the distant continual bumping of guns War might not have existed…[5]

 

Lastly, today, Siegfried Sassoon evokes a mood of either wistful poetasting or listless carping, depending upon how you see it. But he is a dependable man for observing the landscape, after all.

After five weeks in France (and two with Second R.W.F.) I have not yet been within five miles of a German gun. Instead of getting nearer, the war has actually receded… Yesterday afternoon I got on to a lorry and went bumping
along the Corbie road for three or four miles…  Then I walked down the hill to Heilly on the Ancre, where we camped for four days early in July last year, and marched away to the line again on a hot dusty afternoon. The water still sings its deep tune by the bridge, and the narrow stream goes twinkling away past the bend, and past the garden where I used to walk when I came over from Morlancourt to the Field Cashier. About 5 o’clock I started off up the hill again with the sun setting low and red and the valley hazy and quiet, the wind blowing shrewd, and a plough-team working the ridge.

Another plow team on the ridge!  One begins to suspect a conspiracy between the English outdoor poets and the French peasantry… some sort of pay-to-plow scandal.

And is it a bit too hard on a poor diarist–who after all has a perfect right to record consecutive, incompatible moods–to take him to task for the reach toward a vision of peace, only to follow it with the bathos of one of modern life’s most hackneyed gripes?

I could imagine myself walking home to some friendly English village until the aerodromes loomed in the dusk, and I came to the main road with lines of lorries, and a brazier glowing red where the sentry stands at the cross-roads. And so down the hill to this abominable camp, and a foul dinner in the smoky hut and early to bed, too fed-up to read. And summer begins to-night—which means an hour less in bed, and absolutely nothing else.[6]

In defense of Hermon and Sassoon, the novelty of summer time (a.k.a. daylight savings time) was rather greater a century back…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 104-5.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 66-7.
  3. I.e. communion
  4. For Love and Courage, 344-5.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 325-6.
  6. Diaries, 144-5.

Blackbirds for Edward Thomas; A Bad Report and a Chiff-Chaffing for Henry Williamson; A Gruesome Shortfall for Edwin Vaughan’s Warwickshires

Before we continue with Edwin Vaughan’s harrowing tour in the line we will catch up with Henry Williamson’s latest effort at self-sabotage… but before that, we should begin with Edward Thomas‘s early spring bird count. Yesterday, a century back, Thomas saw rooks nesting and heard partridges and “pipsqueaks.” Today, it was a

Blackbird trying to sing early in dull marsh. A dull cold day… I was in position all day.[1]

It seems an ominous addition after the uplifting larks, but then again, I suppose, nature is indifferent to its poetic resonances…

 

When we last saw Henry Williamson, on the night of the 10th, he was dining with Canadian officers–and overindulging. Whether by coincidence or unusually swift action, he was in hot water by the next afternoon.

His diary entry for the 11th:

Note from G.O.C. Brigade to attend at 4 oclock. Saw damning report from Capt. King ‘incompetent, useless etc’ Road shelled a bit.

The next day–we’re up to yesterday, a century back, now–he pleaded his case before a more sympathetic tribunal:

Dear Mother,

Am quite well and fit, but a rather unhappy as I fear I will lose my job—there has been trouble, but anyhow I don’t think I shall lose much, it is all work and no pay. So don’t be astonished if I go to the artillery or the A[rmy]S[ervice]C[orps]—I have had more during the last week than I got in 4 months in the Flemish sector. By God, it’s awful—we are shelled day & night—the roads are barraged and 12 inch How[itzer]s knock hell into us all day & night, but our guns knock the Bosche to hell & back…

Well I am just going along a  —– awful road with a little river along it (the only one here) & expect to get a blighty one… Well Cheero dear old thing…

This is a strange, almost recklessly cruel letter. He makes it clear that he has blundered and may lose his job; then he emphasizes (and probably exaggerates) his nightly danger, and then he shares a presentiment that he will be… safely wounded?

So is he dramatizing in order to give his mother relief in his next letter–a sort of manipulation that both the real Henry and the fictional Phillip are very prone to–or is he glossing over something like a suicidal mood?

His diary seems to demonstrate the latter:

Artillery ominously quiet early morning… Am taking Ammunition through Miraumont tonight. Have a presentiment…

But nothing happened, last night, except for (once more?) bungling his job:

Took 16 mules thro Miraumont. Got lost. Lost 2 mules. Arrived back at 3 o’clock dead beat…

So what will he tell his mother, today, hard on the heels of a letter that hinted at dejection and a shell with his name on it?

Dear mother,

Please send me April magazines. Have seen the March ones. The mud is awful—3 mules drowned in shell craters last night, it is terrible. Men lie down in the mud & ask to be allowed to die they are so exhausted & beat, it takes one 7 hours to go 4000 yards cross country. The Ger has an 8.2 armour piercing shell here… & has already killed ½ my drivers & mules & destroyed nearly all my waggons damn him. Love William. Don’t forget 1. Sweets (caramels etc) 2. Magazines (including Motor Cycle & Motorcycling) 3. 1 pair pyjamas. 4. Sox.

It’s a day-to-day life on the line, and in Williamson’s mind.

On the back of this letter is a (terrible) poem, containing–as a representative example–the line “are you weaving dreams of glory tinged with fames effulgent glow?”[2]

Evidently, he has entirely forgotten his baleful presentiment of a day before…

His diary for today adds little—another resupply trip, tonight—but it provides one important contextual fact: the Germans are now withdrawing in this sector, too, and this event allows us to find our place in Williamson’s enormous novel. In Love and the Loveless Phillip Maddison goes forward past happy British soldiers, and is given a copy of the Corps Summary of Intelligence—“Comic Cuts” to the sardonic troops—which is quoted at length. So instead of a letter to mother, his fiction reproduces an official document… strange.

But I’m more interested, naturally speaking, in two observations which surround the quotation:

Before going to sleep, he wrote in his Charles Lett’ Self-Opening Pocket Diary and Note Book for 1917 by candle-light, Heard a chiff-chaff in Miraumont, among some willows.

He didn’t–or, that is, this is fiction, an addition to the novel that is not based on the contemporary diary or his letters home. Williamson is a strange bird, but he always was a birder and a rambler and an amateur naturalist (one thing he very much shares with Edward Thomas, so different though they otherwise are). And after he quoted intelligence report, more birds–and no more writerly subtlety:

Then through the moonless dark came the cries of flighting mallard, flying west to the peaceful marshes of the Ancre. They would be nesting soon, he thought. For birds, the spring meant love–for men, the spring offensive, and the kiss of bullets.[3]

 

Between the contortions of Williamson and the horror that is to come, let’s have a bit of nearly-fatal slapstick. In the middle of the night, a century back, Wilfred Owen “was going round through pitch darkness to see a man in a dangerous state of exhaustion.” He then “fell into a kind of well, only about 15 ft.” but hit his head “on the way down.”

I am formally obligated to leave us in some suspense as to the outcome of his tumble, but even my cleverness in omitting the first person pronoun will probably not conceal the fact that he will live to tell the tale.

 

Now to darker doings. Edwin Vaughan has been back from a course for only a few days, but already he has been nearly killed, hastily buried four men, and almost cracked up when he mistakes another man for the risen dead. Today, at least, is the last day of their tour in the front line, and it passes pleasantly enough. Almost.

…we were to be relieved at 7 p.m., a thought which made us very bright and cheerful throughout the day.

At 5 p.m., as we sat in our dugout, a message in Playfair code was handed up by a signaller. It took some time to decipher and it was 5.15 p.m. when Holmes read out the following message: ‘Our heavy artillery will bombard enemy front lines, commencing 5.20 p.m. Withdraw advanced posts.’

Of course it was impossible to withdraw our posts, which were half an hour’s crawl away…

A few minutes later, Vaughan’s section of the line is bracketed by their own guns, firing short.

…Now they rained upon us; all along the trench we could hear them falling, as we sat with fixed grins upon our faces, trembling in every limb… a louder, fierce screech swooped upon us and a terrific crash flung us in all directions and into darkness.

It felt quite pleasant to be dead…

Reader, he has not died. Coughing out a mouthful of dust, Vaughan and his comrades in the company command dugout learn that they have

had a miraculous escape, for the shell had hit the corner of the cellar and blown it in… no one had been touched except Browne–Holmes’ servant–who had been hit in the back by a flying brick.

Our guns had now ceased fire, but we could hear them receiving a few shells from the Germans. I now found that during the few seconds when I had believed myself dead, I had closed my note book, snapped round the elastic and returned the pencil to its socket.

The command dugout now prepares for their relief, and while Browne is sent to alert the NCOs nearby, Vaughan begins piling sandbags over the hole in their roof.

After a few minutes Browne returned, rather white in the face, saying that he could not find the NCO’s dugout. This was only ten yards away… Holmes guessed that Brown was shaken up by the shelling, so he laughed and said, ‘Come on then, I’ll help you to search for it, perhaps someone’s pinched it.’ And they set off together down the muddy trench.

I was just finishing off the roof, when Browne came tumbling in moaning and laughing hysterically. He stared at me screaming ‘Oh God! It is. It is.’ Then we slung him in a chair, gave him a tot of rum, and ran off down the trench to the mine shaft which had been occupied by Sergeant Phillips, Sergeant Bennett, Corporal Everett and Corporal Hollins.

They are all dead, killed by their own artillery. And my guesswork work yesterday turns out not to have been very accurate: I erred in assuming that the Corporal Bennett who was killed yesterday is the Lance-Sergeant Bennett listed in the CWGC database as being killed today. He’s not: he’s his brother.

The last task before withdrawing to reserve then, will be the exhuming and reburial of the four men.

We started at once to pull away the wreckage of the entrance, and had just come to Sergeant Phillips, when Jerry started his “blue pigeon” strafe…

As we worked down the sides, we realized (in the darkness) that the beams and sides were splashed with blood and flesh. The stench of lyddite and fresh blood was ghastly, and the foulness of our groping in the dark cannot be described. At last we could stand it no longer, and regardless of consequences, we lit a candle and commenced working by its shaded light. This evoked a showed of ‘pineapples’ and bullets which continued to fall until we had cleared the shaft.

Of Corporal Everett we found no trace; he must have been struck by the shell and blown to atoms. Bennett was badly shattered and most of his head was gone, whilst Hollins, who had been sitting with his rifle between his knees, was unrecognizable and the twisted rifle was buried in front of his body.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 93-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 117-8.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 42-8. The only discrepancy between this account and the records is that it is Bennett who is missing while Everett was buried. Perhaps Vaughan and his men mistook one mangled body for another, or perhaps one identity disc was lost while another was found. I'm not sure why Corporal Bennett, who was killed yesterday, is not mentioned. I suppose there is the barest possibility that Vaughan, working back over his diary notes of a traumatic few days, made some sort of mistake and assigned the same surname to two memories, thus creating a story of two brothers killed within a day of each other. But, although I do suspect Vaughan of heavily editing his story after the fact to achieve various effects without indicating where and why he is doing so (of making a "diary" into a "memoir," that is), it seems extremely far-fetched to imagine that he would run so far away with a confusion--the story continues, tomorrow--and even more improbable that he would consciously invent something like this. It is much more sensible to assume that he is correct, and that there has been a record-keeping error at some point after Corporal Bennett's death and up through my desultory searches of the CWGC database...

Henry Williamson is in the Pink; Bob Hermon is Very Fit; Edward Thomas Contrives to Enjoy Things

A pithy day, today, a century back.

First, Henry Williamson. His diary is very pithy, noting little more than that his transport section supplied his machine gun company (bringing pack mules or carts up from the reserve areas to their emplacements) with 24,000 rounds last night–though “badly crumped”–and 30,000 rounds tonight.

But Williamson also managed a letter to his mother which–ironically or no–begins with the most common cliché of them all:

Dear darling old mother,

Am in the pink, very fit & strong, & daily growing heavier…

I have got a lovely Bosche watch & will hang on to it when I get my ‘Blighty’ (ask Gerald what a ‘Blighty’ is) & give it to you. I have also seen a pair of corsets in a deep dug out her, but I am sure you don’t want. Well am tired now, for heavens sake write to me. Love—in a hurry. Willie.[1]

Charmingly naughty…

 

Bob Hermon managed a similarly brief letter to his wife (although I am, in both cases, trimming already short letters to their shortest essentials).

9th March 1917

Dans le premier ligne once more. Life rather strenuous…. I’m very fit. Weather damnable, snow falling all day in showers.

Love to you all[2]

 

Edward Thomas, not far from Hermon–they are both in the Arras area–seems, however, to be keeping his nose to the grindstone, perhaps in order to fend off the frustrations of inactivity so near the front. The diary is brief, and one sentence will do for the whole.

I am fed up sitting on my arse doing nothing that anybody couldn’t do better.  Wrote to de la Mare, Frost and Eleanor. [3]

Nevertheless, he exerted himself to write. First to de la Mare, an old friend with whom things have been more than a little cool over the last few years. Old friendships are complicated things, and something about de la Mare’s breezy inattentiveness gnaws at Thomas–not to mention de la Mare’s easy success with his pleasant but not exactly challenging verse.

Group 35 Heavy Artillery | Arras | 9 March 1917

My dear de la Mare,

I expect you had a letter from me soon after you wrote. At least I posted one about 3 weeks ago. Letters take a long time coming…

I am just moving back to my Battery after nearly 3 weeks at the Heavy Artillery Group headquarters, which has been rather an idle time but has shown me quite as much as I want to see of the way things are run. It has been idle but not exactly snug as we are only 2400 yards from the Hun and in a city which he shells daily. I think I shall prefer being shelled in a position where we are doing something direct in retaliation and not just map work. We are in a big rather pretentious modern house, with only one shell hole in it. The town hall and cathedral are all holes. It is cold…

I contrive to enjoy many things. I think I enjoy the people least of all…

The Battery is in an orchard outside the town. We may see the apple blossom, but I doubt that. Nobody is very hopeful. I think myself that things may go on at this rate for more than a year. The rate may be changed, but not if the Hun can help it and his retirement looks very inconvenient in every way.

So much for updates–another useful summary. The next bit is striking, though: de la Mare is an old friend, and Frost and Thomas only met in 1913. But by 1914 Frost and Thomas were fast friends–“best” friends seems trivial, if accurate–and all others faded. De la Mare, thanks in no small part to Thomas a successful and eminent “Georgian” poet, has been visiting the United States, where he met with Frost, Thomas’s war- and ocean-sundered brother-in-spirit.

I wish you had said more about Frost. One is absolutely friendless here. Everybody has something to conceal and he does so by pretending to be like everybody else. All the talk is shop or worse. It is all tedious and uncomfortable except at odd moments. But then so is life anywhere, I suppose. It is all very different from the newspapers, and very much like what one would expect. Cold, dirt, fatigue, uncertainty, and the accidental beautiful or amusing thing…

I was interrupted to do a shoot and in the excitement your letter has disappeared mysteriously. I had only read it once.

And after this heavy-caliber interruption, the letter picks up poetry and publication, and becomes prosaic. Perhaps its was the shoot, but Thomas seems to have worked himself into a kinder mood by the end of the letter… perhaps, too, it is yesterday’s news that his book will be published on both sides of the Atlantic.

700 [sales] is quite good for your verse… We shall be bards together. But it is nice to be where nobody knows I am a bard…

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]

As conflicted as ever.

But this was by far the less important correspondence of the day. Thomas had begun a letter yesterday to Robert Frost, immediately after hearing from him, at long last. The most important fact about Frost’s letter is that Frost wrote to say that he has found an American publisher for Thomas’s verses–should they be published under his own name. But they are already in proofs in England, under the pen-name of “Edward Eastaway.”

Thomas seems to have drafted the letter, then put it aside as his long day drew to a close. He finished and mail it today., a century back. Did the delay involve doubts about the tone? There’s no indication… perhaps Thomas wanted to sleep and wake up with the conversation sill in progress, as it were.

My dear Robert,

So you found a publisher after all. I have just heard. Probably it is too late, but I can do nothing, & I must stick to Edward Eastaway. It would be absurd to call myself one thing here & one thing in America & here it is settled. I don’t want to change. I can’t think about it now but I just feel stubborn on that point.

This grumpy, indelicate task disposed of, Thomas softens toward his most valued friend. It’s clear that he has been brooding over the lack of letters from Frost:

How glad I was to see your writing…

You sound more hopeful than most people here. Not that they are despondent, but that they just don’t know what to think. They know the newspapers are stupid & the Hun wise; & there practically is the end of their knowledge…

Yesterday was cold & raw & I became very depressed & solitary by the evening. Very soon, I expect to have no time or room left for depression.

Thomas goes on to describe the physical particulars of his situation, observing the enemy from a row of half-smashed new houses. Much of it we have read, in similar form, but now he draws closer to expressing what these sights mean to him, and how they may affect his vocation:

…you spy out through tiles at the enemy, who knows perfectly well that you are in one of these houses & someday will batter them all down…

But it is not so much individual houses as streets. You can’t paint death living in them. –As I went to the village house today I heard a very young child  talking in another equally exposed house in the same street. Some are too poor or too helpless or what to leave even these places. But I probably am not going to describe any more except to make a living.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 93.
  2. For Love and Courage, 335.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  4. Selected Letters, 149-50.
  5. Elected Friends, 183-5.