Edward Brittain on Victor Richardson, and What Remains; Ivor Gurney on Food and Fatalism; Patrick Shaw Stewart Lolls and Reads

First, today, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first to her since the death of Victor Richardson. There is something still clinging to this letter of the Romantic idealism that has always marked this group of friends–but not much. Edward is not in a mood to be sentimental about cruel wounds, or to fool himself about pain.

Roker, Sunderland, 11 June 1917

Dearest Vera —

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live; I have a horror of blindness, and if I were blinded myself I think I should wish to die. The idea of long years without the light of the sun and the glory of its setting and without the immortal lamp of life is so abhorrent to me — and the thought of that has been hanging over me these 2 months — that I cannot altogether deplore the opening of the gates of eternal rest to that Unconquerable Soul, although I loved him in a way that few men can love one another. I am so very glad that you were near and saw him so nearly at the end; in a way too I am glad not to have been there; it is good to remember the cheerfulness with which he faced the living of a new life fettered by the greatest misfortune known to men.

Yes, I do say Thank God he didn’t have to live it. We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again: you find me changed, I expect, more than I find you; that is perhaps the way of Life. But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother

Edward[1]

 

So life goes on, even if there is nothing but love to get down behind in the mud and push.

Ivor Gurney, today, is thinking of life–and food… and poetry… and food again… and ends.

11 June 1917

My Dear Friend: Out of the line once more, but for once, not hungry, for the Lord and the ASC have been kind to us, and liberal gentlemen have bestowed cake upon me…

Yes, the College Mag. and the TLS have arrived. I am sorry I forgot to thank you. If there are any complementary copies please send them to Mrs Chapman and Mrs Hunt…

Today there are orgies of cleaning, and men brush and polish frantically at brass and leather. The weather is beautiful, and there is plenty of water to wash with, so we are not unhappy. Also there is plenty to eat…

Gurney is writing to Marion Scott, of course, and he includes several rondels in a similarly light-hearted vein. But see the last lines–light-heartedness is a passing mood, in the trenches, and never the note of resolution.

Rondels

1. Letters

“Mail’s up”! the vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind
(His wife, his sister, or his lover.)
Mail’s up, the vast of night is over.
The grey-faced heaven Joy does cover
With love, and God once more seems kind.
“Mail’s up”! The vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind.

2. Shortage

God God! No Jam! No Bread!!
No Butter!!!
Whatever are we coming to?
O desolation, anguish utter —
Good God! No jam, no bread, no butter.
I hear the brutal soldiers mutter.
And strong men weep as children do.
Good God! No jam, no bread,
No butter!
Whatever are we coming to?

3. Paean

There’s half a loaf per man today?
O Sergeant, is it really true?
Now biscuits can be given away.
There’s half a loaf per man today;
And Peace is ever so near they say.
With tons of grub and nothing to do.
There’s Half a Loaf Per Man today!
O Sergeant is it Really True?

4. Strafe (1)

I strafe my shirt most regularly.
And frighten all the population.
Wonderful is my strategy!
I strafe my shirt most regularly;
(It sounds like distant musketry.)
And still I itch like red damnation!
I strafe my shirt most regularly
And — frighten all the population………….

5. Strafe (2)

The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute.
We crouch and wait the end of it, — or us
Just behind the trench, before, and in it.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
(O Framilode! O Maisemore’s laughing linnet!)
Here comes a monster like a motor bus.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
We crouch and wait the end of it — or us

I wonder if the proofs are with Sidgwick and Jackson yet. That will interest me, and also (when the time comes) to know what Gloucester people think. Last night I read some to a friend of mine, and was surprised to find how little I cared for them, and how remote they seemed. As for Spring 1917, it is as I thought long dull, and unvaried…

With best wishes; Yours sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Finally, today, an update from Patrick Shaw Stewart, now with the Royal Naval Division in France. It’s a discursive letter, and I’ll make some cuts to get us to the good parts… who could he be reading, now that he’s reached the Western Front at last?

…The battery commander is out, so I am lying flat on my tummy in the grass outside his habitat in the amiable sun, waiting till he comes in; one of the pleasanter phases of war. When I have written to you, and X, and Y, and Z, I will
go on with Tom Jones, which I am in the middle of and which is far and away the best book I ever read. Messrs Meredith and James are simply silly beside it, and as for the Victorians ——–. I got through Sense and Sensibility the other day, by the way, not bad, but not half as good as Pride and Prejudice, or Emma.

I did tell you about our time up the line? It was quite agreeable, good weather (though a lot of mud), and a quiet time, very few casualties. I had rather luck having a chain of posts very much advanced in a rather well-known place, so far advanced as to be clear of mud and also clear of shelling. The only trial was that I hardly got a wink of sleep—one has to re-acquire the habit of sleeping in a sitting-position on a petrol tin in the later half of the morning…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 355.
  2. War Letters, 168-70.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 198-99.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

Edwin Vaughan in Fine Fettle; Wilfred Owen a Nervous Wreck, or Possibly Almost Ready for Action; Vera Brittain Sees Victor Richardson

Two brief updates, today, before we face the meeting that has driven Vera Brittain‘s homecoming.

Wilfred Owen has been ill with a fever, and this minor illness has prevented, it seems, his being evacuated to England for treatment for a “nerve” disorder, namely (for the time being, at least) “shell shock.”

Monday, 28 May 1917

Dearest Mother,

Just a note. I was down on the list for evacuation all last week & up to last night. This morning the evacuation takes place—I and another, a Major, are crossed off the list at the last moment. It is sickening, more especially as this place becomes less and less pleasant. I suppose I shall wait for the next batch, but before that I may be turned out elsewhere—to some Line Battalion.

His frustration is understandable, but it is also remarkable: Owen seems honestly not to know whether his “nerves” have been so badly affected by his experiences that he will shortly be sent to Blighty for a long and honorable recuperation (and thus a long–and, to men more concerned with escaping mutilation and death than with being sure of their psychological condition, an intensely desirable–reprieve from the dangers of the front) or whether he is under suspicion of psychological weakness or malingering and likely to be sent straight back to the trenches as an unreliable officer needing no “cure” other than a chance to prove himself brave once again.

These are the days when last year the army was good to me. The same dreadful uncertainty overhangs me here as on that ‘Leave pending Gazette.’ Would I had to report at Witley Camp on June…

I am feeling quite well now, but I keep a sub-normal temp! Useful enough in this weather…

Your lovingest W.E.O. x[1]

 

Edwin Vaughan, now a swaggering veteran instead of a timorous new subaltern, has had a long rest. But today, a century back, his battalion is making ready to go once more up the line.

The usual ‘day-before’–inspections, returns of working strength, carting working materials back to HQ, etc. There was no excitement as we are familiar with the sector, but I believe my lads are quite pleased to be going back to the wild poppy-covered land of night patrols and daydreams. I know that there is that feeling somewhere in my mind.[2]

 

Which brings us to Vera Brittain. Last night, a century back, she “slept without thinking or dreaming.” But today, however, “the glamour of scarlet kimonos and idle cigarettes had firmly to be put aside. I had come home for a purpose and must now face up to it.”

She went, therefore, to 2nd London General Hospital.

I found Victor in bed in the garden, his pale fingers lethargically exploring a big book of braille. His head was still copiously bandaged, and one brown eye, impotently open, stared glassily into fathomless blackness. If I had not been looking for him I should not have known him; his face seemed to have emptied and diminished until what was visible of it was almost devoid of expression. ‘Hallo, Tah!’ I said, as casually as I could, self-consciously anxious to keep the shock of his appearance out of my voice.

He did not answer, but stiffened all over like a dog suddenly hearing its master’s call in the distance; the drooping lethargy disappeared, and his mouth curved into the old listening look of half-cynical intelligence. ‘Do you know who it is, Tah?’ I asked him, putting my hand on his.

‘Tah!’ he repeated, hesitating, expectant– and then all at once, with a ring of unmistakable joy in his voice, ‘Why–it’s Vera!’

All that afternoon we sat and talked. The world had closed in around him; he definitely discouraged the description of loveliness that he could no longer see, of activities that he could never again share, and at first seemed interested only in discussing the visits of his friends and the hospital detail of every day. But of his complete rationality there could be no question, and with time and the miraculous adaptability of the blind, the wider outlook would certainly return.

I saw no trace on that day, nor any of the successive afternoons on which I visited him, of the bitterness that Edward had mentioned; he seemed to have accepted his fate, to have embarked upon the conquest of braille, and to have compared, with a slight bias in favour of the former, the merits of an East End curacy with schoolmastering as a career for a blinded man…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 466.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 136.
  3. Testament of Youth, 354-6.

Alfred Hale Endures, as far as Thetford; Vera Brittain’s Anxieties and Victor Richardson’s Hopes

Alfred Hale “had a somewhat better night” on his second night in barracks, but his second full day as a soldier was another adventure in class distinction and social abasement. Detailed to join a labor battalion at Thetford, Hale takes the underground to Liverpool Street Station, where he is handed a piece of cake and marched longingly past the First Class passengers.

…first class compartments, the society of Deans, and the chance of partaking of an expensive luncheon on board an express train on the Great Eastern Railway were, I then supposed, henceforth to be denied to me for some time to come, even though I happened to be a shareholder of the Railway Company…

Nothing happened in the train worth recording, except that our sergeant talked a great deal with a man in the compartment, not in khaki, about the probable duration of hostilities. By doing so, and in other small ways, he somehow unintentionally made me feel even more socially inferior… than I had hitherto felt.

It gets no better at Thetford, where the camp is slow to process new arrivals. Although Hale is able to benefit from his means–he finds a cottage where they will sell him dinner–he is still alone and bewildered both my military customs and the inscrutable bureaucracy. And, for that matter, he is bewildered by any way of making headway in the world other than the narrow one he has so long pursued.

But back in camp, I must needs get into a muddle as to which dining marquee I was to sleep in. In the place where we had had tea that afternoon, on a table reposing solitarily by themselves, lay my kit-bag and other effects. Where had the others gone to? What was I to do? I felt more miserable than ever, and badly needed help and advice from someone in authority with common sense.[1]

Instead he finds an abusive sergeant. Somehow or other he figures out where to go, how to lay out his bedroll, how to locate the latrines and, eventually, how to sleep in an open tent, with a dozen strangers…

 

Vera Brittain is coming home, but it will take time. In a letter of today, a century back, to an uncle, she writes of her feelings for her brother:

Malta, 7 May 1917

…One might have surmised, but could not have anticipated, that everything that made the world worth while for Edward would be so suddenly wrecked; I can feel his need of me as strongly across all these miles as if he had actually expressed it, and as long as he is in this world his need of me will come before everything else; whether it ought to or not is beside the question. So you see how desperately anxious I am to get home before he goes back
into the vortex that has robbed him of everything…

Edward, meanwhile, was writing to Vera. We have already drawn on the condolence letters which provide details of Geoffrey Thurlow’s fate, summaries of which fill much of this letter. Harder to bear, in some ways, is the news of Victor Richardson:

…Tah was told last Wednesday that he will probably never see again, but he is marvellously cheerful. I went up. to town on Saturday and came back last night; I was with him quite a long time on Saturday evening and yesterday morning and afternoon. He is perfectly sensible in every way and I don’t think there is the very least doubt that he will live. He said that the last few days had been rather bitter. He hasn’t given up hope himself about his sight and occasionally says ‘if I get better . . . ’[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 48-52.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 352-3.

Vera Brittain’s Next Worst Day, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVIII: Geoffrey Thurlow and Safety, Vera Brittain and The Dead, and the Maimed; Alfred Hale Appeals to the Recruiter; Isaac Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump; Scott Moncrieff Adrift; Home Service for Tolkien

We’ll begin with a few May Day updates on our writers–none of them, today, in the bloom of health or fitness. Last will come Vera Brittain, who absorbs yet another blow. And with her writing we will move from the day to the month, and compare two very different poems about the new dead of this third wartime spring.

 

Alfred Hale has some tenuous connections to our regulars. He was an Oxford friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams (the idol of Ivor Gurney) and a very minor composer and arranger in the same style, and he attended Uppingham school, albeit years before Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, and Victor Richardson. Now forty-one, his life of single, artistic, privileged pottering about is not unlike what some of our young men might have aged into, but for the war… and there’s the rub. Hale is most conspicuously different from our other informants in that he was immediately and completely horrified by the idea of going to war, and has done his best to avoid it. He was glad to have failed an early physical with the Navy, and he dodged the first draft by stalling and then ageing out–but the new rules are sweeping up even disinclined forty-something non-sporting country gentlemen. Today, a century back, he does his best not to impress.

‘As to my being over age, that had been settled against me by the recent Act… the rejection… was another matter. If I could bet a rejection certificate… from the Naval authorities, well and good…. But I was advised to act quickly.’ Thus the very courteous Recruiting Officer… A very nice old recruiting sergeant was also sympathetic. I was never likely to be much good as a soldier, that he saw with half his professional eye, and he hinted as much if he did not say so.

But Hale is caught in a predictable trap: the Navy has only to remark, with raised institutional eyebrow, that his failure to measure up to its high standards is no guarantee that the Army will likewise reject him. Hale leaves the matter in the hands of his solicitor, but little hope remains.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, wounded at Arras, is still in hospital in France–and he is not well. His leg is mangled and, to judge from today’s letter, his spirit has been damaged as well.

No. 20 General Hospital, Camiers,
1st May, 1917.

In the evening I heard a great swell of hundreds of men’s voices singing some of the popular Catholic hymns—“Jesu my Lord, my God, my all”—and some others. Presently my priest came in, the one who wrote to you; he tells me they have Benediction every day of the week in one of the huts, but yesterday for a weekday must have been enormously attended. He agreed to bring me Holy Communion this morning, which I was very grateful for. At night I had not such a bad time, thinking rather than sleeping, but still feeling this awful inability to control or co-ordinate my thoughts, which is, I suppose, a result of the shell shock. I find it so hard to grasp that this great nocturnal space bounded by the four corners of my bed—and with so much always new and unknown in it—has just the one inhabitant. . . .[2]

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien went once more before a medical board. The verdict: “He is improving but requires hardening.” This will mean, in practice, an extended period of home service, in Yorkshire, with time to write and his wife nearby.[3]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary has shown hints of strain, of late–not surprising, given that she has helped to lead a hospital through several weeks of intense and emotionally draining work as the casualties of Arras passed through. But now that the most terribly wounded have died and most of the others have been moved to larger hospitals further in the rear, there is time for relaxation–and for psychological letdown.

May Day and a dazzling day and very little doing in this Hospital. G. and I celebrated the occasion by going to the woods in the morning, starry with anemones and never a leaf to be seen, but blue sky and fresh breezes and clear sunshine. It is all a tremendous help, physically and psychically…

Some of us and Capt. B. have been having a bad fit of pessimism over them all lately, wondering what is the good of operations, nursing, rescues, or anything, when so many have died in the end. But even a few miraculous recoveries buck one up to begin again.

A Suffolk farmer boy is dying to-night…

I had a letter from a brave Glasgow mother, full of gratitude and incoherence, ending up, ‘And don’t forget to let us know how you are keeping.”[4]

This string of ups and downs–one day’s record–is not very representative of her writing style (the daily diary entries are often composed as topical letters). But it is, I think, emotionally accurate. Sister Luard is–she must be–enormously mentally tough, but the enormous suffering and the constant loss takes its toll nonetheless. It’s striking that there is no answer suggested here–no invocation of religion or patriotism. Just the increasingly common question, but especially vivid coming from a nurse so close to the front lines: what is this all for? What is the good of continuing in a policy which reduces so many men to such a state?

A fair question. But there’s nothing for it but to go on–and take whatever solace one can from the lives that can be saved.

 

And so to Vera Brittain.

May 1st

Had two cables–one to say that Victor’s eyesight was hopelessly gone, the other–an hour later–that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd…

Sat out on the rocks’ edge in front of Night Quarters & suddenly something seemed to tell me to go home. Nothing much doing in Malta–& chances of Salonika seemed further off than ever; decided to go home for Edward’s sake & Victor’s, & if he wishes it, to devote my life to the service of Victor, the only one (apart from Edward, who is different) left of the three men I loved. For I loved Geoffrey… I spent the rest of that day on the rocks, feeling all the time that I was not alone but that Geoffrey was there & if I looked up I should see him standing beside me. . . .

A letter from Geoffrey arrived the same day–“By one of those curious chances which occurred during the war with such poignant frequency,” as she will later write. Once could also see it as one more example of the war’s uncanny literariness–but perhaps we remember the cruelest ironies best.

His last letter to me–dated April 20th–arrived that evening. He told me they were going up “for a stunt” in two or three days, & said his only fear was that he should fail at the critical moment, & that he would like to do well for the School’s sake. Often, he said, he had watched the splendour of the sunset from the school-field. And then, perhaps seeing the end in sight, he turned as usual to his beloved Rupert Brooke for comfort & finished with

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

My dear dear Geoffrey!

Vera is ready with an apt–and devastatingly sad–counter-quotation. Geoffrey, before battle, quoted “Safety;” she, drawing from the same sonnet sequence that has framed these middle years of the war, quotes “The Dead:”

He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.[5]

Looking back, Brittain will remember the hours of “suspended physical animation” on the rocks as a time of almost numinous intensity, but Geoffrey’s ghostly presence will prompt a memory that makes much more concrete how she now might “serve” her surviving friend:

And all at once, as I gazed out to sea the words of the “Agony Column” advertisement, that I had cut out and sent to Roland nearly two years before, struggled back into my mind.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

I even remembered vaguely the letter in which I had commented on this notice at the time.

Yes: a great deal has changed since she wrote that letter, to Roland, which scoffed at the quaintly Victorian self-sacrifice of certain old maids.

There is one small, terrible change in her quotation of her own letter in the later memoir.[6] In the letter, she writes of “a business arrangement, with an element of self-sacrifice which redeems it from utter sordidness. Quite an idea, isn’t it!”

In retrospect, the final exclamation point becomes a question mark.

“Quite an idea, isn’t it?” Was it, Geoffrey? wasn’t it? There was nothing left in life now but Edward and the wreckage of Victor–Victor who had stood by me so often in my blackest hours. If he wanted me, surely I could stand by him in his.

She decides to try to come home.

That night–quiet as all nights were now that so few sick and wounded were coming from Salonika–I tried to keep my mind from thoughts and my eyes from tears by assiduously pasting photographs of Malta into a cardboard album. The scent of a vase of sweet-peas on the ward table reminded me of Roland’s study on Speech Day, centuries ago.

And, a century on, I suppose we must be grateful, in some aesthetically presumptive and heartless way, for the terrible things that happened to good writers.

Surely, surely there must be somewhere in which the sweet intimacies begun here may be continued and the hearts broken by this War may be healed![7]

Vera Brittain will soon begin the poem that will serve us for a first “month poem” today:

 

In Memoriam G.R.Y.T.

(Killed in Action, April 23rd, 1917)

I spoke with you but seldom, yet there lay
Some nameless glamour in your written word,
And thoughts of you rose often—longings stirred
By dear remembrance of the sad blue-grey
That dwelt within your eyes, the even sway
Of your young god-like gait, the rarely heard
But frank bright laughter, hallowed by a Day
That made of Youth Right’s offering to the sword.
So now I ponder, since your day is done,
Ere dawn was past, on all you meant to me,
And all the more you might have come to be,
And wonder if some state, beyond the sun
And shadows here, may yet completion see
Of intimacy sweet though scarce begun.

Malta, May 1917.

 

This is a good poem; also, a traditional one. A poem about an individual, a dead man remembered not for his death or its horror or pain or futility but for his life. Which is right, and good, and we should all have friends like Vera Brittain to remember us, and to draw on hopeful traditions that see a possibility of love and friendship after death.

 

But there are other ways to see the dead, and to write them. Another poem written this month, a century back, is Isaac Rosenberg‘s Dead Man’s Dump. It’s neither a short poem nor a very long one, but it’s almost too harrowing to read in its entirety. It draws on Rosenberg’s experience working in a labor battalion in the aftermath of battle. A few stanzas, then:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, 37.
  2. Diary, 128-9.
  3. Chronology, 100.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 120-1.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 340.
  6. I am relying, of course, on two different transcriptions of a hand-written letter I haven't seen...
  7. Testament of Youth, 342-46.

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.

Vera Brittain Learns the Truth of Victor Richardson’s Blindness; Robert Graves Revises for Siegfried Sassoon; Kate Luard Prepares Amidst the Thunder; Charles Scott Moncrieff and the Pipers on the Edge of a Dawn Attack

We’ll start today with Robert Graves, in pursuit of the wounded Siegfried Sassoon:

Poor Old Sassons!

Blessé pour la patrie; and according to Robbie rather too slightly to serve any useful purpose. I wrote to you in France yesterday; how stupid because it was a decent sort of letter![1]

Graves appends some quick criticisms of Sassoon’s poems, which he has acquired in proofs just before their publication. But we’ll skip those because, in several senses, Graves is just too late. Although some of the poems in the forthcoming The Old Huntsman are indeed scandalous–pushing the envelope of publishing propriety as it currently stands–the next batch are going to go much further.

We have already seen the finished version of this poem, based in part on a comrade’s experience, but Sassoon, despite the wounded shoulder, began drafting this, today, his first in London:

Groping along the tunnel in the gloom
He winked his tiny torch with whitening glare,
And bumped his helmet, sniffing the hateful air.
Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know.
And once, the foul, hunched mattress from a bed;
And he exploring, fifty feet below
The rosy dusk of battle overhead.
He tripped and clutched the walls; saw someone lie
Humped and asleep, half-covered with a rug;
He stooped and gave the sleeper’s arm a tug.
‘I’m looking for Headquarters’. No reply.
‘Wake up, you sod!’ (For days he’d had no sleep.)
‘I want a guide along this cursed place.’
He aimed a kick at the unanswering heap;
And flashed a beam across that livid face
Horribly glaring up, whose eyes still wore
The agony that died ten days before.
Whose bloody fingers clutched a hideous wound.
Gasping, he staggered onward till he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair,
To clammy creatures groping underground,
Hearing the boom of shells with muffled sound.
Then with the sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed with darkness to the twilight air.

April 22[2]

 

But Sassoon is safe in Blighty. In Malta, where Vera Brittain has suffered two agonizing days of suspense over the nature of Victor Richardson’s wounds, an answer arrived.

April 22nd

On Thursday I sent a cable home asking for further news of Victor. This morning the answer came from Edward “Eyesight probably gone, may live.”

So–if he lives–he will be blind–the dear splendid cynical boy, with the beautiful eyes, which make him look, as Mrs Leighton said, as if he sought the Holy Grail. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure it is not even better to be dead. And no one would ever suffer so much when helpless & dependent as he. The Three Musketeers have had more than their share of suffering. For us who cannot fight, it is a burden of debt almost more than we can bear, to feel that we owe our safety to the lives & sight & strength of such as Roland, Victor & Edward.

I am anxiously awaiting further news to know if Victor is conscious & what his future–if there is to be one–is likely to be. I feel that I would do anything–that I would give up all things I ever meant to do & be if I could but repay him a little for what he has sacrificed. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were entreating me out of Eternity to give to Victor
some of the strength & comfort He would have given him if only He had been there. Poor motherless Tah! When I remember how good he was to me after Roland s death, and how he comforted me that opening week-end of the Somme Battle, when I was so dreadfully anxious about Edward, It seems terribly hard that I should be so far away from him in the hour of his greatest need. I know how glad Roland would be if I could but be of service to his “Father Confessor”.

I had a letter from Edward to-night, written before Victor was wounded, to say that he has gone to Stafford on another course & cannot now go to the front before June 15th. So he at least will be with Victor in his darkest hours; I am very glad of this, for since Roland is dead no one could be the help & comfort to him that Edward can.[3]

So as Vera struggles with the news, she still draws strength from the old habit of interpreting every disaster in terms of their private mythology of Roland’s greatness. (It’s hard, sometimes, not to think of these five as a careful pre-Raphaelite composition, with four bright, beautiful, clear-eyed, symbolically-accoutered saints grouped below a lost savior, rising toward the top of the frame.)

After sending the telegram, Edward writes to her with further details. He does not make his father’s mistake, and spares his elder sister, now an experienced nurse, nothing:

London, 22 April 1917

It is not known yet whether Victor will die or not, but his left eye was removed in France and the specialist who saw him thinks it is almost certain that the sight of his right eye has gone too. He was brought into the 2nd London General, Chelsea–only about 2 miles from here–on Thursday afternoon, 19th. We don’t know exactly when he was hit but I should think it must have been close to our parapet when attacking on April 9th. The bullet — probably Machine gun — went in just behind the left eye and went very slightly upwards but not I’m afraid enough to clear the right eye; the bullet is not yet out though very close to the right edge of the temple; it is expected that it will work through of its own accord. I came up from Stafford on Friday night and saw Victor twice yesterday; he has never really recovered consciousness at all yet but I think he was just sensible that I was there and was just able to say ‘yes’ when ‘the sister asked him if he knew who it was. The eye that has been removed and all the upper part of the face is covered with bandages and is much swollen though the swelling was rather less when I saw him again in the evening.

He was asleep then and a good deal of blood had just come down the nose which was probably a good thing; the breathing was quite regular. The right eye was closed but when the sister lifted the eyelid it seemed to me that the eye had no sight at all.

We are told that he may remain in his present condition for a week. I don’t think he will die suddenly but of course the brain must be injured and it depends upon how bad the injury is.

All relevant information conveyed, Edward moves on without a pause to the next task–beginning to weigh the future, to try to make room in his mental world for this new extreme of suffering:

I am inclined to think it would be better that he should die; I would far rather die myself than lose all that we have most dearly loved, but I think we hardly bargained for this. Sight is really a more precious gift than life. If he should live I know that you and I and Mrs Leighton can help enormously and there is music, but as you know his people are quite inadequate for him under such circumstances. A permanent injury to the brain must of course also be considered…

I am just going to meet Mr Richardson at Victoria and we shall see Tah again this afternoon. I have to go back to Stafford to-night.

Later

There is much better news. . . . the Matron of the 2nd London telephoned to say that Victor was conscious and so Mother and I went down at once. He was much better and recognised my voice; I asked him how he was and he said ‘Right as rain’ and he caught hold of my hand and said ‘You haven’t been long’. (The sister had asked him before if he would like to see me.) Then I said ‘Your Father is coming to see you in an hour or two’. Then he made the most hopeful remark of all saying ‘What’s the betting he’s late’. Of course you know that Mr Richardson is invariably late and so that shows how much better Tah is…

Mr Richardson told me that he had just had a letter from Tah’s Colonel whose name is Porter, in which he said the battalion was attacking a redoubt called ‘the Harp’ just East of Arras; they took the first line and then came under heavy Machine Gun fire. Victor who was leading his platoon was hit in the arm but took his coat off had the wound bandaged and went on; it was at the 2nd German line that he got the bullet through his head and the Colonel himself gave him morphia because he was in pain.The Colonel in his letter after saying that he hopes he will not lose his sight ‘because sight is so much more valuable than life’ also says ‘You have good reason to be proud of him . . . he did his best and it was a good best too. I have sent his name in for the Military Cross and have no doubt that he will get it.’

The Military Cross is the same decoration that Edward Brittain himself had won, under similar circumstances. (Brittain’s was for steadfast leadership despite a wound during the attack of July 1st–a much lesser wound, but a much bigger military disaster.) While not as much of a mark of exceptional military skill (or exceptional favor with those with decorations in their gift) as the higher decorations, an MC is seen as a validation of valor. Those who win it can be confident that they have successfully met the challenge posed by mortal fear.

…Unless he has a bad relapse I think he will live. . . I don’t think Tah realises yet that he is blind. As he lies on his bed with bandages round his left eye and head and the right eyelid closed, he looks just like a picture of the Christ–the familiar expression generally shown on the Cross.

If only that right eye might have its sight!

Ever yours

Edward

We haven’t had any more news from Geoffrey since my last letter.[4]

 

And it still goes on–not only that, it is getting ready to flare into open battle once again. Kate Luard is only a few miles behind the lines on the Arras front.

Sunday, April 22nd. This continued bombardment is shaking the earth to-night; it is on the same scale as on the day before Easter Monday.

Only in wartime–when even at a distance of two weeks the dates of big attacks loom large in the calendars of history and memory–would “the day before Easter Monday” be a reasonable way to refer to Easter. But it is: that Monday was the beginning of the battle, just as today is not a day in the second week of the aftermath of Arras–it’s the day before the “second phase” of the battle begins with another major assault.

Warlencourt British Cemetery

The hospital is almost empty, ready…

I took some Lent lilies to the Cemetery this evening; it is rapidly spreading over a high open field; there must be nearly 2,000 graves there now, since it began last June…

No one knows when we shall fill up again but it can’t be far off, with this din. If you could hear it for five minutes, you would never forget it.[5]

 

One of our writers who knows he will be in it is Charles Scott Moncrieff, back with his battalion and ready to go forward.

22nd April, 1917.

A great hum of life going on all around me—several regiments and long rows of motor lorries. I am lunching
at midday with my Reverend friend Milliquand. I called yesterday on M. Lequête and his daughter, very happy
and vivacious, but deploring the pillage and havoc wrought by the British troops recently massed on this front. I answered with platitudes and that Napoleon’s armies did the same, but felt awkward and ashamed. . . . To-morrow is St. George’s Day—best of all for the Armies of England. . . . I must stop now for a conference.

But Scott Moncrieff is a Scot, and among Scotsmen. In Arras itself, now, there is a festive atmosphere:

…The whole town full of life and rejoicing. Scottish troops everywhere, all the 15th Division, the Highland Territorial Division and ourselves, with the 2nd Royal Scots, 2nd Gordons, and R.S. Fusiliers, from the Line Divisions. . . . Pipe bands playing in all the squares, it was very wonderful, with notices still fresh on the walls cautioning people against walking in the streets by daylight, etc.[6]

By tonight, a century back, Scott Moncrieff and his Kings Own Scottish Borderers were marching up the hill toward Monchy-le-Preux.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 69-70.
  2. Diaries, 158.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 339-40.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 338-41.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. Diaries, 126-7.

Wilfred Owen in Agony; Max Plowman in the Clear; Edwin Vaughan in Limbo; Rudyard Kipling on the Irish Homemaker

Two days ago, a century back–it was a Friday–Wilfred Owen reached the front line for the first time. This was one of the bleak, backwards, unimproved sections of the recent Somme battlefield. The German dugouts were deep, at least, and could perhaps have been made strong with good weather and good work. But their doorways face the wrong way–directly at the German guns, which know exactly where they are–and depth is not an absolute good when the wet and broken land thaws. Owen’s letter to his mother describing his past two days holding the line is intense:

The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn’t.

Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life.

Every ten minutes on Sunday afternoon seemed an hour.

I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees.

Towards 6 o’clock, when, I suppose, you would be going to church, the shelling grew less intense and less accurate: so that I was mercifully helped to do my duty and crawl, wade, climb and flounder over No Man’s Land to visit my other post. It took me half an hour to move about 150 yards.

I was chiefly annoyed by our own machine guns from behind. The seeng-seeng-seeng of the bullets reminded me of Mary’s canary. On the whole I can support the canary better.

In the Platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing. One of these poor fellows was my first servant whom I rejected. If I had kept him he would have lived, for servants don’t do Sentry Duty. I kept my own sentries half way down the stairs during the more terrific bombardment. In spite of this one lad was blown down and, I am afraid, blinded.

This was my only casualty.[1]

It’s impossible to judge the decisions of combat officers, and almost all who experience their first real bombardment as “terrific” will later realize that it could be very much worse. But Owen has done well–he has kept calm, he has issued orders that seem wise and probably saved lives. Of course, if the bombardment had masked a German attack, he would have been guilty of a terrible misjudgment and perhaps a violation of his orders. But it was a safe bet that there would be no attack in such weather.

Owen is a changed man, and a changing writer. There is no false pride or swagger in the possessive–“my” only casualty–and the idea that he has caused the death of the man who would have been his servant is, despite its illogic, almost inescapable in the fortune-haunted necromancy that pervades an infantryman’s thinking about fate and fatality.

Nor is there unwieldy literary armature in his recognition of what it means to be a front-fighter. Looking back, he reassess the breadth of the experiential gulf by simply noting that as his mother was going to church–no doubt she would be asking God to spare her son–he was thankful for the small mercy of a lessening of the bombardment that let him “crawl, wade, climb and flounder” through thick, corpse-strewn mud to do his duty.

And then there is that one casualty. It will be some time before Owen writes “The Sentry,” which begins

We’d found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through…

But it is a poem of this moment. A later section of the poem describes the further events of today, a century back, and intensifies the horror with the uncanny power of rhyme and rhythm:

There we herded from the blast
Of whizz-bangs, but one found our door at last.
Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles.
And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping
And splashing in the flood, deluging muck —
The sentry’s body; then his rifle, handles
Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.
We dredged him up, for killed, until he whined
“O sir, my eyes — I’m blind — I’m blind, I’m blind!”
Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time he’d get all right.
“I can’t,” he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids
Watch my dreams still; but I forgot him there
In posting next for duty, and sending a scout
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and floundering about
To other posts under the shrieking air.

So there is good news for the wounded, then–the sentry will recover his eyesight. But then, of course, there is the invisible damage of the day, which the letter only begins to express.

Those other wretches, how they bled and spewed,
And one who would have drowned himself for good, —
I try not to remember these things now.
Let dread hark back for one word only: how
Half-listening to that sentry’s moans and jumps,
And the wild chattering of his broken teeth,
Renewed most horribly whenever crumps
Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath —
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
“I see your lights!” But ours had long died out

 

As Owen’s agony on the Somme deepens, Max Plowman has escaped. The best sort of near-miss is the one that leaves one not ominously unscathed but hurt in such a way that escape is not only possible but mandatory. The stereotypical “blighty one” is a nice, safe flesh wound (which may always turn out to be infected by organic matter blown into the wound, and then will have a nice, small chance of turning “septic” and leading to amputation or death). But Plowman has, in a way, been even luckier–he was only concussed, and temporarily amnesiac.

Rouen

I am in bed at Rouen No. 4 General Hospital feeling rather a fraud, for I’ve every limb intact and only a dull headache and a thick ear. I slept for two days at Bray. Then I was so stiff they carted me out and brought me here on a stretcher. There’s a colonel of the Gordon’s opposite. He is sick. We are a mixed crowd of sick and wounded.

The doctor comes round and I tell him all I know.

“People who lose their memories go home,” he replies, as if he were uttering a threat.

Home! My God! I am going home![2]

He will be here for a week, and then Le Havre, and the transport, and home… and the end of the book I wish I could’ve done more with…

 

No more than a few miles from Plowman, Edwin Vaughan has been wandering about, in something like a mirror image of Plowman’s position: inactive and uncertain, but stirred by restless energy. And headed in the opposite direction.

Assigned to the battalion he desires he is nevertheless stuck at camp outside of Rouen awaiting orders to join it. He visits a priest he knows, strolls in the city chatting up “French and Belgian officers and soldiers, English girls and French actresses and demimondaines, padres and police” and soaking up the wartime atmosphere. To Vaughan it seems remarkably carefree, but that is because he is filled with dread about his first experience of combat, and many of those he interacts with are chatting, drinking, and making love to forget what they have seen and known.

Yesterday, a century back, he “cut parade and walked about the forest in the pouring rain,” then went into Rouen and dined with a friend before bumping into–quite literally–an officer of the Gloucesters. Amusingly, since Vaughan has been in France for only a week and the same day’s entry dwells on his own inexperience (“…hard to imagine it… ‘going up’ is treated like going into mess or on parade”) Vaughan then plays the old soldier and jokes with the flustered newcomer. But it turns out that the man is in Vaughan’s brother Frank’s battalion, and a few hours later the brothers are reunited.

They arranged to meet today in camp and attend mass together, but Frank turned out to be on duty. Edwin Vaughan is certain, then, to miss his brother, as he spent the rest of today, a century back, drawing equipment for his imminent move up the line.[3]

 

Finally, today, a wry update on the doings of the Second Irish Guards from their recently-appointed historian, Rudyard Kipling. This paragraph shows him at his best–seeming to write with the troops rather than about them, and acknowledging privation and the difficulty of a war often mismanaged largely as a sort of impudent challenge to the moral, efficiency, and resourcefulness of the battalion. But many others, too, affirm the connections between morale, performance in actual battle, and taking pride in the management of “housemaking” during the quieter periods of trench warfare. Also, socks!

By the time that the 1st Coldstream relieved them on the 14th January, the Battalion had fenced their private No Man’s Land and about six hundred yards of the line outside the posts, all under the come-and-go of shell-fire; had duckboarded tracks connecting some of the posts; systematised their ration- and water-supply, and captured a multitude of army socks whereby companies coming down from their turn could change and be dry. Dull as all such detail sounds, it is beyond question that the arrangement and prevision of domestic works appeals to certain temperaments, not only among the officers but men. They positively relish the handling and disposition of stores, the fitting of one job into the next, the race against time, the devising of tricks and gadgets for their own poor comforts, and all the mixture of housemaking and keeping (in which, whatever may be said, the male animal excels) on the edge of war.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 425-7. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 212-215.
  2. A Subaltern on the Somme, 227-8.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 5-6.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 112-3.

George Coppard’s Friendly Fire Incident; Dorothie Feilding Loses a Peacock; J.R.R. Tolkien Gets a Map

After ten days in the front lines, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers are finally relieved, today, dropping back company by company to support trenches near Mouquet Farm, and then on back to Ovillers. Battalion Signals Officer Tolkien spent the night in a dugout there, a century back, and probably learned then the reason for their withdrawal: a new attack is being planned. (But we guessed that.) The map issued to Tolkien for the intended assault on Regina Trench apparently exists, with his notes, but I have not so far laid eyes upon it…[1]

 

We have an update, too, from Lady Dorothie Feilding. She is in daily danger, and works very hard–driving primitive ambulances over the roads of a mud-infested war zone is no joke–but she remains our most reliable letter-writing genre-painter. Whatever her troubles may be, Lady Feilding and her fellows in the Munro Ambulance Corps always seem to be having a gay old time:

17 Oct
Mother honey–

We have been pretty busy these last weeks somehow. My own Fido Fiat has transported 56 people alone since the 1st Oct. One of our new men just come out is as blind as a bat, & we will have to return him on account of his eyesight which is a bore. If you hear of a good driver to suit us let me know…

I dined with the sailors last night. The 1st time for a long long while & we had a pleasant peaceful evening all sat round with our feet in the fire & ate chocolates & were nice & truly at peace with the world & nearly forgot there was a war on. Burbidge has added a tame fox to his menagerie–it gets skittish at night & tears round the mess rolling over & over with the dogs…

Caractacus the peacock has been stolen, frightful sorrow but no sign of him, I fear he was boiled in some Frenchman’s stock pot, Burbidge swears he has gone over to the enemy lines & was a spy all the time!!

…I haven’t yet heard what GHQ told Teck about Da coming out, but fear the odds are against — all hope not dead yet we must just hope for the best.

Yr very loving
DoDo[2]

 

Such is life in the war zone–one night may be merry, but one never knows what accident might lurk around the next corner. Today, a century back George Coppard was the victim of painful, fortunate, suspicious happenstance, at the hands of a comrade:

And now I come to a totally unexpected turning-point in my story, one of those things you could bank on never happening but which do. It was nearly 2 pm on 17 October and we were about to parade for revolver inspection before returning to the line at Gueudecourt. A whistle blew, and as ‘A’ Section moved out of the hut for parade I was shot through the left foot by a .45 bullet from Snowy’s revolver. The bullet tore between two bones in front of the ankle, went out through the instep of my boot and buried itself in the ground. With his revolver pointing downwards, and not realising that it was loaded, Snowy had casually pulled the trigger and Wham!

It will take Coppard–an earnest lad, it would seem–some time to realize that such an accident doesn’t look good.

It occurs to me (rather belatedly) that the suspicion that falls upon the victims of accidental wounds may be another reason why grenade accidents so often produce gruesome, intensely courageous acts of self-sacrifice. With grenades there can be little question that the accident was the act of a broken or cowardly man seeking to avoid further combat–the injuries are too gruesome, the blast too hard to predict. Any man who falls on a British grenade has sacrificed himself to save his fellows… But a bullet wound in an extremity, sustained in the rear, (and in the foot) and close to medical attention? Such may be a man’s attempt to save himself from his fellows’ coming ordeal…

There was pandemonium for a few moments as I hobbled about in pain, and then I found myself on the back of a comrade named Grigg, who carried me to a field dressing station close by. Poor Snowy was put under arrest pending an enquiry… After many months of shot and shell from the enemy, with every missile carrying possible death or mutilation, it was shattering to find myself hors de combat through the unwitting agency of my best pal.

Coppard begins his journey back along with several other wounded men.

The further I went, the more my spirits rose, as it gradually dawned on me that I was surely the luckiest Tommy in the whole of France. My hopes soared at the prospect of getting to Blighty, and I felt immense relief as I moved from the danger zone.

I was puzzled, on being transferred to an ambulance car, to find myself the only casualty in it. Finally I arrived at the 39th Casualty Clearing Station.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 92-3. It is reproduced in the Bodleian's Tollkien: Life and Legend,
  2. Lady Under Fire, 171-2.
  3. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 102-3.

John Bernard Adams on David Pritchard’s Last Bombardment; Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon Together at a Burial

Yesterday‘s calamity in the First Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers continues to play out in three officers’ writings. Reading Robert Graves, we might have thought that David Pritchard had “gone West” yesterday with his comrades Mervyn Richardson and David Thomas. But no–he lives yet, and he went to whatever meager rest a front-line officer can claim exulting in the vengeance he had taken with his trench mortars. Vengeance–and then some. He fired six final shots even after he had been advised to cease fire.

John Bernard Adams–“Bill,” commander of C company–was the one who gave that advice. He is also, of our three informants, perhaps the closest to Pritchard. (Pritchard was also a friend of Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, but he is overshadowed in their books by David Thomas.)

Adams takes up the tale where he left it yesterday. In his memoir–in which Pritchard is called “Davidson”–a new chapter now begins.

As I write I feel inclined to throw the whole book in the fire. It seems a desecration to tell of these things. Do I not seem to be exulting in the tragedy? Should not he who feels deeply keep silent? Sometimes I think so. And yet it is the truth, word for word the truth; so I must write it…

This compelled writing is painstaking and punishingly thorough. Adams describes every aspect of his morning–the work, the casual chat with “Davidson” and the other trench mortar (a.k.a. “Stokes Gun”) officer; their sadness at the news of the death of Captain Richardson, from last night’s wounds. And, most of all, his pervasive uneasiness.

All that day I felt that there was in me something which by all rights should have ”given”: these two deaths should have made me feel different: and yet I was just the same. As I went round the trench, with Davies at my heels, talking to platoon-sergeants, examining wire through my periscope, all in the ordinary way exactly as before, I forgot all about Tommy and Robertson. Even when I came to the place where Robertson had been hit, and saw the blood on the fire-step, and some scraps of cotton wool lying about, I looked at it as you might look at a smashed egg on the pavement, curiously, and then passed on. “Am I indifferent to these things, then?” I asked myself. I had not realized yet that violent emotion very rarely comes close upon the heels of death, that there is a numbness, a blunting of the spirit, that is an anodyne to pain. I was ashamed of my indifference; yet I soon saw that it was no uncommon thing. Besides, one had to “carry on” just the same. There was always a silence among the men, when a pal “goes west”; so now Edwards and I did not talk much, except to discuss the ordinary routine.

I did not get much rest that day. In the afternoon came up a message from the adjutant that we were exploding a mine opposite the Matterhorn at 6.30…

As I came back along 78 Street, I met Davidson again. He was looking for a new site for his gun, so as to be able to get a good fire to bear on the German lines opposite the Matterhom. I went with him, and together we found a place behind the big mine-dump to the left of 78 Street, and close to one of our rifle-grenade batteries. As he went off to get his corporal and team to bring the gun over and fix it in position, he said something in a rather low voice.

“What?” I shouted. “Couldn’t hear.”

He came back and repeated it.

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. Yes, all right I expect I’ll hear from the Adjutant. Thanks.”

What he said was that there would be a funeral that night at nine o’clock. Thompson and Robertson[1] were being buried together. He thought I would like to know.

It was close on half-past six, and getting dark. The trenches were cleared, and I was waiting at the head of two platoons that strung out along 78 Street and behind the Loop. Rifles had been inspected; the men had the S.A.A. (small arms ammunition) and the bomb boxes with them, ready to take back into the trench as soon as the mine had gone up. I looked at my watch.

“Another minute,” I said.

Then, as I spoke, the earth shook; there was a pause, and a great black cloud burst into the air, followed by a roar of flames. I got up on the fire-step to see it better. It is a good show, a mine. There was the sound of falling earth, and then silence.

“Come on,” I said, and we hurried back into the trench. Weird and eerie it looked in the half-light; its emptiness might have been years old. It was undamaged, as we had expected; only there was loose earth scattered all over the parapet and fire-step.

Then hell broke loose, a crashing banging, flashing hell that concentrated on the German front line directly opposite. It seemed like stir- ring up an ant’s nest, and then spraying them with boiling water as they ran about in confusion!

“Bang — bang — bang — bang — bang,” barked Davidson’s gun.

“Thud,” muttered the football-thrower…

The bombardment continues, and Adams is busy arraying his company until about 7:30, when he returns to the command post at Trafalgar Square.

Davidson looked in on his way down to Maple Redoubt.

“I say, your Stokes were busting top-hole. We had a splendid view.”

“They weren’t going short, were they?” he asked.

“No. Just right. The fellows were awfully bucked with it.”

“Oh, good…”

Then I saw that he was tired out.

“Rather a hot shop?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said in his casual way. “They were all round us. Well, cheero! I shan’t be up till about ten, I expect, unless there’s anything wanted.”

“Cheero!”

“It’s no joke firing that gun with the Boche potting at you hard with canisters,” I said to Edwards, as Davidson’s footsteps died away.

“He’s the bravest fellow in the regiment,” said Edwards, and we talked of the time when the gun burst in his face as he was firing it, and he told his men that it had been hit by a canister, to prevent their losing confidence in it. I saw him just afterwards: his face was bleeding. It was no joke being Stokes’ officer; the Germans hated those vicious snapping bolts that spat upon them “One, two, three, four, five” and always concentrated their fire against his gun. But they had not got him.

“No, he’s inside,” I heard Edwards saying.

“Bill. Telephone message.”

The telephone orderly handed me a pink form. Edwards was outside, just about to go on trench duty. It was eight. I went outside. It was bright moonlight again. Grimly, I thought of last night.

“Look here,” I said. “There’s this funeral at nine o’clock. I’ve just got this message. One officer from each company may go. Will you go? I can’t very well go as O[fficer].C[ommanding]. Company.” And I handed him the pink form to see.

So we rearranged the night duties, and Edwards went off till half-past eight, while I finished my dinner. Lewis was hovering about with toasted cheese and café au lait. As I swallowed these glutinous concoctions, the candle flickered and went out. I pushed open the door: the moonlight flooded in, and I did not trouble to call for another candle. Then I heard the sergeant-major’s voice, and went out. We stood talking at Trafalgar Square.

“Shan’t be sorry to get relieved tomorrow,” I said. I was tired, and I wondered how long the night would take to pass.

Suddenly, up the Old Kent Road I heard a man running. My heart stopped. I hate the sound of running in a trench, and last night they had run for stretcher-bearers when Robertson was hit. I looked at the sergeant-major, who was biting his lip, his ears cocked. Round the comer a man bolted, out of breath, excited. I stopped him; he nearly knocked into us.

“Hang you,” said I. “Stop! Where the devil . . .?”

“Mr. Davidson, sir. . . Mr. Davidson is killed.”

“Rot!” I said, impatiently. “Pull yourself together, man. He’s all right. I saw him only half an hour ago.”

But as I spoke, something broke inside me. It was as if I were straining, beating against something relentless. As though by words, by the cry “impossible” I could beat back the flood of conviction that the man’s words brought over me. Dead! I knew he was dead.

“Impossible, corporal,” I said. “What do you mean?” For I saw now that it was Davidson’s corporal who stood gazing at me with fright in his eyes.

He pulled himself together at last.

“Killed, sir. It came between us as we were talking. A whizz-bang, sir.”

“My God!” I cried. “Where?”

“Just at the bottom, sir”—the man jerked his hand back down Old Kent Road. “We were just talking, sir. My leave has come through, and he was joking, and saying his would be through soon, when . . . oh, Jesus . . . I was half blinded . . . I’ve not got over it yet, sir.” And the man was all trembling as he spoke.

“He was killed instantly?”

“Ach!” said the man. He made a gesture with his hands. “It burst right on him.”

“Poor fellow,” I said. God knows what I meant.

“Send a man with him, sergeant-major,” I added, and plunged up 76 Street. “Davidson,” I cried. “Davidson dead!”

It was close on midnight, as I stood outside the Straw Palace. Lewis brought me a cup of cocoa. I drank it in silence, and ate a piece of cake. I told the man to go to bed. Then, when he had disappeared, I climbed up out of the trench, and sat, my legs dangling down into it. Down in the trench the moon cast deep black shadows. I looked around. All was bathed in pale, shimmery moonlight There was a great silence, save for distant machine-guns popping down in the Fricourt valley, and the very distant sound of guns, guns, guns—the sound that never stops day and night. I pressed on my right hand and with a quick turn was up on my feet out of the trench, on the hill-side; for I was just over the brow on the reverse slope; and out of sight of the enemy lines. I took off my steel helmet and put it on the ground, while I stretched out my arms and clenched my hands.

“So this is War,” I thought. I realised that my teeth were set, and my mouth hard, and my eyes, though full of sleep, wide open: silently I took in the great experience, the death of those well-loved. For of all men in the battalion I loved Davidson best. Not that I knew him so wonderfully well—but . . . well, one always had to smile when he came in; he was so good-natured, so young, so delightfully imperturbable. He used to come in and stroke your hair if you were bad-tempered. Somehow he reminded me of a cat purring; and perhaps his hair and his smile had something to do with it? Oh, who can define what they love in those they love?

And then my mind went back over all the incidents of the last few hours. Together we had been through it all: together we had discussed death: and last of all I thought how he had told me of the funeral that was to be at 9 o’clock. And now he lay beside them. All three had been buried at nine o’clock.

“Dead. Dead,” said a voice within me. And still I did not move. Still that numbness, that dulness, that tightening across the brain and senses…

“War,” I cried. “How can my will batter against war?” I thought of Davidson’s smiling face; and then I thought of the blind clumsy canister. And I felt unutterably weak and powerless. What did it matter what I thought or did, whether I was weak or strong? What power had I against this irresistible impersonal machine, this war? And I remembered how an hour or so ago the trench-mortar officer had asked me whether I wanted him to fire or not, and I had answered, “Good God! Do as you d–d well like.” What did it matter what he did? Yet, last night it had seemed to matter everything.

Adams now resorts to a concept–and a biblical quote (1 Kings 22:34; 2 Chronicles 18:33)–that gets to the heart of the matter. The helplessness of will; the blindness and dumbness and bluntness of the fatal shells: whether it is invoked as chance, fate, or the cruelty of war there is an impersonal and overwhelming power here. And Adams does not shy from the implication: they had “avenged” their comrades with mortar fire last night–and six extra for good measure. And now, nemesis. Or fate, or war’s implacable maliciousness: whatever you call it, it not only kills and destroys but it also killing rage and destructiveness from once-ordinary men.

Slowly there came into my mind that picture that later has come to mean to me the true expression of war. Only slowly it came now, a half-formed image of what my spirit alone understood.

“A certain man drew a bow at a venture,”I thought. What of those shells that I had called down, last night, at my bidding, standing like a god, intoxicated with power, and crying “Retaliate. More retaliation.” Where did they fall? Were other men lying as Davidson lay to-night? Had I called down death? Had I stricken families? Probably. Nay, more than probably. Certainly. Death. Blind death. That was it. Blind death.

And all the time above me was the white moon. I looked at the shadows of my arms as I held them out. Such shadows belonged to summer nights in England . . in Kent . . . Oh why was everything so silent? Could nothing stop this utter folly, this cruel madness, this clumsy death?

And then, at last, the strain gave a little, and my muscles relaxed. I went back and took up my helmet “Dead,” the voice repeated within me. And this time my spirit found utterance:

“Damn!” I said. “Oh damn! damn! Damn!”[2]

 

Back a few hours now, to the triple burial of Richardson, Thomas, and, now, Pritchard. For Siegfried Sassoon, David Thomas was the best beloved. He too must write (twice) this crushing blow–and he must react. First, the polished, fictionalized memoir.

This is how gentle “George Sherston,” friend and lover, horse-fancier and transport officer, came up for the funeral of the Patroklos that would make of him a temporary, belated Achilles.

The sky was angry with a red smoky sunset when we rode up with the rations. Later on, when it was dark, we stood on the bare slope just above the ration dump while the Brigade chaplain went through his words; a flag covered all that we were there for; only the white stripes on the flag made any impression on the dimness of the night. Once the chaplain’s words were obliterated by a prolonged burst of machine-gun fire; when he had finished a trench-mortar ‘cannister’ fell a few hundred yards away, spouting the earth up with a crash. . .  A sack was lowered into a hole in the ground. The sack was Dick. I knew Death then.

A few days later, when the battalion was back at Morlancourt, and Kinjack[3] was having a look round the Transport lines, he remarked that he wasn’t sure that I wasn’t rather wasted as Transport Officer. “I’d much rather be with ‘C’ Company, sir.” Some sort of anger surged up inside me as I said it… He agreed. No doubt he had intended me to return to my platoon.[4]

“Some sort of anger” is, some would say, an opportunity missed. Here’s how Graves put it:

I felt David’s death worse than any other since I had been in France, but it did not anger me as it did Siegfried. He was Acting Transport Officer and every evening now, when he came up with the rations, went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill.[5]

Exaggeration? Yes–and another compression of historical time. The transformation of gentle “George Sherston” into “Mad Jack” will have to wait a few days, at least.

So much for after-the-fact retrospection. Here is most of Sassoon’s diary for today, a century back (the earlier section he drew directly upon when composing the “memoir,” as excerpted above):

This morning came the evil news from the trenches–first that ‘Tracker’ Richardson, had died of wounds after being knocked over by a shell last night in front of the trenches; this was bad. But they came afterwards and told that my little Tommy had been hit by a stray bullet and died last night. When last I saw him, two nights ago,[6] he had his notebook in his hand, reading my last poem. And I said good night to him in the moonlit trenches.Had I known! The old, human weak cry. Now he comes back to me in memories, like an angel, with the light in his yellow hair, and I think of him at Cambridge last August when we lived together four weeks in Pembroke College in rooms where the previous occupant’s name, Paradise, was written above the door.

So, after lunch, I escaped to the woods above Sailly-Laurette, and grief had, its way with me in the sultry thicket while the mare champed her bit and stamped her feet, tethered to a tree: and the little shrill notes of birds came piping down the hazels, and magpies flew overhead, and all was peace, except for the distant mutter and boom of guns. And I lay there under the smooth bole of a beech-tree, wondering, and longing for the bodily presence that was so fair.

Grief can be beautiful, when we find something worthy to be mourned. To-day I knew what it means to find the soul washed pure with tears, and the load of death was lifted from my heart. So I wrote his name in chalk, on the beech-tree stem, and left a rough garland of ivy there, and a yellow primrose for his yellow hair and kind grey eyes, my dear, my dear.

As striking as this devastating romantic tirade of grief is, it pivots, without a line or paragraph break, into this spare and powerful description of the funeral.

And to-night I saw his shrouded form laid in the earth with his two companions (young Pritchard was killed this evening, also). In the half-clouded moonlight the parson stood above the graves, and everything was dim but the striped flag laid across them. Robert Graves, beside me, with his white whimsical face twisted and grieving. Once we could not hear the solemn words for the noise of a machine-gun along the line; and when all was finished a canister fell a few hundred yards away to burst with a crash. So Tommy left us, a gentle soldier, perfect and without stain. And so he will always remain in my heart, fresh and happy and brave.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. David Thomas and Mervyn Richardson
  2. Nothing of Importance, 181-194/194-206.
  3. Stockwell, the tough new colonel of the 1/Royal Welch.
  4. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, 273-4.
  5. Good-Bye to All That, 197-198.
  6. This, by the by, answers a question from yesterday about Sassoon's compression of time: rather than show the poetry reading--"George Sherston," after all, differs from Siegfried Sassoon primarily in that he is not a writer--he moves up the date of his return from leave and replaces the poem with a package of smoked salmon, of all things...
  7. Diaries, 44-45.