Edmund Blunden Cudgels His Brain; A Tart Thank You from Thomas Hardy; David Jones Under Fire; Edwin Vaughan in the Mire

And now for something completely different from Edmund Blunden:

Several poems of the usual quiet melancholy type have made their appearance, and two or three I have left broken off through lack of heart to go on. I had half a mind to turn Roman Catholic whilst walking round Omer Cathedral the other day, but I can’t convince myself. I don’t know what to do. Aunt Maude writes saying that I haven’t written lately–but I have. Still, tomorrow evening I will cudgel my brains for flippancies about this most damnable war ‘such as her soul loveth.’ For she seems to think that the war is merely an opportunity for us poor devils to show our courage and cheerfulness: I see in it an opportunity for battle-murder and sudden death, and ‘Good Lord, deliver us!’ But I think things have got beyond him

As with nearly all letters complaining about aunts, this one is to his mother, and even the whimsy seems a bit more wearisome–nice Anglican boys do not drop offhand hints about conversion…  but he shrugs it off, in the end:

Forgive this writing which is obviously that of a pale wretch gibbering through the iron bars of his cage at the bright unthinking people passing by…[1]

 

Thomas Hardy has a bit of a bone to pick with his old friend J.M. Barrie–but he does so delicately, once more cloaking his preferences and disinclinations with the fusty, fussy mantle of age. Although, to be fair, it is true that he is not young…

Max Gate, Dorchester
23 June 1917

My dear Barrie:

It was so kind of you to concoct the scheme for my accompanying you to the Front-or Back-in France. I thought it over carefully, as it was an attractive idea. But I have had to come to the conclusion that old men cannot be young men, & that I must content myself with the past battles of our country if I want to feel military. If I had been ten years younger I would have gone. . . .

I hope you will have a pleasant, or rather impressive, time, & the good company you will be in will be helpful all round…

Always sincerely yrs
Thomas Hardy.[2]

 

No–“pleasant” would not be the word, and the slight dig of changing “front” to “back” is a point well taken. David Jones, for instance, spent today, a century back “huddled in a dugout” throughout seven hours and fifteen minutes of continuous shelling.[3] Not pleasant at all.

 

As for Edwin Vaughan, his day was far less terrifying, beginning as it did with relief and a march to the rear. And yet it was notably unpleasant…

After a few hundred yards we turned off on to a slippery path through thick trees and after sliding and crashing down with clatter of rifles and tin hats and loud cursing, we at last spied the glow of cookers above us among the trees, and were met by Braham who was waiting to guide the troops to their bivvies. Thankfully we followed him inch by inch up a slippery bank to where the cookers stood promising hot pontoon.

I was the last to climb the greasy bank and had just reached the top when my feet slipped and down I went, rolling over and over until I was messed with sticky mud from head to foot. I cursed loudly and foully as I recovered my tin hat from a pool, and had another shot at the bank. I finished the last part on my knees, and by the time the cooks had directed me to the troops’ bivvies, they were already installed and the other officers had gone on with Braham to their quarters.

So savagely I decided to be a martyr, and I stopped to see the troops draw their pontoon. Standing by the cookers like a brown ghoul I watched the troops one after another file into the flickering light of the fire which played on their muddy clothes, the black faces and dirty ducks of the cooks and on the dripping tree trunks. Over all the rain fell with a steady swishing through the leaves.

I waited until all the Company were served, then had a mug of stew, after which I set off through the trees in the direction indicated by the cooks as the officers’ lines…

They started to jeer at me for my muddied appearance but I assumed a superior attitude as I told them that I was the only one who had remained to see the troops comfortable. Then I howled ‘Mess!’ and Martin appeared with a huge plate of stew. As I ate, Martin stood watching me and chaffing me about my ‘muddy look’. Being Martin he was allowed to do so, but when he commenced to pick bits of mud out of my hair I had to get cross and send him away…[4]

Muddy, but relieved–in both senses–Vaughan fell asleep as dawn broke.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 74-5.
  2. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 220-1.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones and the Great War, 157.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 167-9.

Henry Williamson on the Shelf; Duff Cooper Closes the Office Door; Edmund Blunden of the Flashing Wit

Today a century back, two very different men have their recent hopes confirmed. Henry Williamson, ill once again–his condition perhaps aggravated by inhaling small amounts of phosgene gas–went before a Medical Board and was ruled “unfit for General Service for three months, unfit for Home Service for two months, and unfit for Light Duties for one month.” Long, long ago, he had joined the Territorials in order to escape some office drudgery and make friends, and this brought him into the bloody open warfare of the war’s early months. By now he has few consistent illusions or ambitions about the army, and he is surely overjoyed to have escaped the front for another summer.[1]

 

Duff Cooper–older and moving in much higher social circles–has stayed at his government job while so many of his friends volunteered, and fought, and were killed. Now, his way opened by the broadening pressure of conscription (and by his belated self-assertion as a volunteer), he has escaped the office at last, and may soon face the trenches for the first time.

June 22, 1917

Today I left the Foreign Office without a single regret…  I love to think of the dreary files of papers that I shall not see again. Even if I survive the war I doubt whether I shall go back to the Foreign Office. I should hate to face that monotonous routine again.[2]

 

But we’ll catch up today with Edmund Blunden. I may weary my readers with praise of his subtle, restrained, gorgeous prose… but that’s the memoir. It’s good to see him writing in a different vein to his younger school friend from Christ’s Hospital, Hector Buck–it’s a reminder that Blunden’s intelligence and coming excellence as a writer is not a guarantee of precocious wisdom.

A letter of June 9th begins in fine fettle, and in medias res (we’ll skip the Greek epithet at the beginning; but I will remind readers that Blunden was Senior Grecian before he was subaltern of infantry, and therefore it was hardly a stretch to come up with a sobriquet for a friend called “Hector”…)

Behold, yet a time again for my Indomitable Energy to foot the boards and imitate the well-rounded humours of those famous men Hy. Champion & Jas. Godden…

To my disgust and bile, it is nearly a fortnight since I had any news from anyone — for down at the Rest Camp I missed my mail, and after leaving there was sent on to this Rayless Void (Musketry School). So nothing has come from my probably exasperated Friends & Acquaintances. See to it my Son that this is altered at an Early Date…

I have been here since the evening of the 3rd; and I wrote to my battalion, with an exceeding bitter Cry, to be ransomed from this exile the day after; so I should be hearing very soon now what is happening to them and get back to them I hope.

This, in other words, will be something like a Music Hall turn. The high spirits may be due as much to the fact of having missed the danger of the Battle of Messines as to knowledge of the British success–but then again Blunden is always happier with his battalion than without.

Nevertheless, this is very much a school letter, and although Blunden jokes about how their old French master would approve of his scandalous new practical French, his questions about school and county cricket are in earnest. He betrays more anxiety about the pitch than the battlefield:

This capture of Messines is commonly called champion. I remember when I came out, there was a legend that the Guards had offered to take it if every man surviving could have a fortnight’s leave. But there was nothing doing. At that time too there was another fairy fable that any man capturing a German Very Light would in like manner receive a fortnight furlough. ‘O dream too Sweet, too Sweet, too Bitter’ (whose? why Christina Rossetti’s or some spinster). Walk march. Hop along Sister Mary, hop along.

Forbear, for I am more fool than knave, to be angry with my letter–is it not a little one? Mine’s a Malaga Mademoiselle. Alliteration alcoholic. No compris Zig-Zag. You plenty bon. How’s everyone?

Right. Since I’m not following that either, we’ll skip the part where Blunden stops doing imitation Carroll and just quotes the Jabberwock, and move on to today’s letter.

22nd June [1917]
Feast of Ancient Trulls
B.E.F.
Gaul Blimey

Sir Knight as it seems,

Gratitude be heaped on your head for your last letter to me, which came like Hy Champion on the vaudeville firmament, full of beans and grace. My feeble frame was strengthened as with Tono-Bungay. I was as
one that tasteth of the ripe October after marching from foreign parts through a Burning Heat & do not be dismayed if my answer is more like a glee party of wombats and armadillos in full cry than anything else yet devised by the wit of man…

But style is not substance. Although Blunden keeps up the jokey-referential schoolboy patter, he also goes to the heart of the matter. It sounds jolly, but this is still a letter confessing poisonous despair about the war, and suggesting the use of large doses of pastoral (or, rather, Georgic) recourses as an antidote:

I need not ‘stress’ (the Northcliffe influence) the depth of despondency to which I am permanently lowered. The ancient humour comforts me no more. I have lately taken all chances of studying Flanders farmers urging on their horses with cries reminiscent of sea-sickness perpetually threatening–I have stood for hours watching the Carnivora or whatever they are that live in farmyards, hoping to mimic the White Leghorns praising Jah [i.e. Jehovah], the Goat requesting food, the barn dog-proclaiming the moon, and the Oldest Inhabitant filling up the swine’s swill trough.

The clamour and tinsel heroics of Bayonet Fighting Instructors, the malapropisms and arm gestures of our R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant-Major], the rages and quiffs of Generals and Staffs–I have noted them all and gone away in despair. The War is a sort of slow poison to me that keeps on drugging and deadening my mind. And I can tell you that the shelling just lately is far worse than anything we have been through before except for actual attacks. The Bosch is so windy that he puts on a barrage every few hours in case we are just assembling to attack him. But as far as the battalion is concerned, we are back now for a few days’ training.
Anyway I loathe the war & the army too. To hell with same.

Not only has Blunden rounded up the usual suspects–the bayonet instructor, the staff–but he has joined the ranks of the wrathful. Sensitive port-officers have been annoyed by the outcry against the loss of civilian life for more than two years now, but it has not been Blunden’s part yet to make the sharp angry complaint.

Nor does resentful ire bring out the best in him–there is another kind of puerility here too.

Why shouldn’t coves like Merk who go on in their petty self-inflations have some of the discomforts? There was more shriek in England over several hundred casualties in a bombing raid than there has been over several hundred thousand out here reported at a steady rate in Minion type on the back page among the advertisements of sheenies and toothwash wallahs. But forgive me…

I will consider it.

Why I am so cynical and tired of life lately I don’t know; but I expect Nature; is working normally and in due time I shall be removed to Bedlam.

The last few days have been stormy and I expect your hands are not being so buffeted by erratic fast bowling, but rather pushing awry the frequent wicket and startling the dozing Umpire into giving the incredulous Batsman Out…

So off the poise I am that I read the ‘Princess’ by Tennyson the Other day. Tennyson trying to be humorous, or realistic, is like a hippopotamus in violet tights attempting to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, so I laughed Long & Loud. But afterwards I read some of In Memoriam and repented myself.

But Literature languishes as a whole in the battalion except for two books ‘Flossie’ and ‘Aphrodite’ which the Archbishop of Canterbury has probably not read. I have got my ‘John Clare’s Poems’ and often tub thump over them, claiming him as one of the best. But no one wants to agree with me.

Please get the War stopped pretty soon. Some of us are as mummies, only we still carry on the motions of breathing, swathed round with red-tape and monotony. I wish you all jolly good luck…

My best wishes to you old son.

Keep on going.

Your friend,
E. Blunden[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165.
  2. Diaries, 54.
  3. More Than a Brother, 4-9.

Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

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.

Rowland Feilding Before Messines; Jack Martin Goes up the Line; Phillip Maddison to Test his Courage; A New Brief and a Fine Old Book for C.E. Montague; A Short Life of Francis Ledwidge

Early tomorrow morning will see one of the most dramatic “shows” of the war, and the most successful British opening to date. Rowland Feilding, has been heavily involved in the preparations for the battle, organizing a last-minute raid–a “success” despite the losses involved, as a number of Germans were captured–and nearly being blinded himself when a heavy-caliber German shell fell nearby during the retaliatory bombardment. Last night, a century back, Feilding’s battalion was relieved, and will spend the battle in a supporting role, giving him time to describe much of the action in a long letter to his wife. He sets the scene for her, and for us:

The village [Wytschaete] tops the crest of the Messines Ridge, and the breastworks, which we have occupied since we came from the Somme, last September, run across the swampy fields to the west of and below it, with the hospice (or convent)—represented by a heap of bricks—standing out prominently against the skyline, beyond the Petit Bois…

That evening (June 6) we tea’d in the open, about half a mile behind the fire-trench, our artillery shooting hard over our heads all the time, but eliciting no reply from the enemy. The Brigadier called and congratulated us on the success of the raid. He was in the best of form, and indeed everybody was very cheerful and full of confidence. It was very edifying to see the almost exhilarated state every one was in, both officers and men, seeing what a colossal business lay immediately before them. Later, we had dinner in the open… The 6th Connaught Rangers were to be broken up for the battle in order to provide “mopping up” and carrying parties for the attacking battalions, thus leaving me personally with very little to do, and after dinner I moved to my Battle Headquarters—a deep mined dug-out in Rossignol Wood, above which I am now writing this letter. The wood reeked of gas shells, to which the enemy further contributed during the night.[1]

 

Jack Martin, a signaler with the 122nd brigade, will be going forward soon after midnight.

This afternoon we were all ordered to pack everything in our valises, except fighting kit, and hand them to the care of the QM… I joined the Forward Party and moved up the line.

…It was a wretched night–the strain of waiting was great–our guns were going continually–Fritz was ‘nervy’…

Crowded into a forward trench, the men now have to endure bombardment from the German artillery which, although the extent of the underground preparations seem not to have been guessed, must realize that some sort of attack is in the offing.

I was crouched down in the trench with my back to Jerry when a small shell landed almost on the parapet a matter of only inches from my head. The trench came in on top of me, and, but for the fact that it was strongly revetted, I should have been completely buried. When the smoke and dirt had cleared away, the other fellows were surprised to see me pick myself up unhurt. Aitken said, ‘That one had got your name on it, Joe,’ ‘Yes,’ I replied,’ but it was the wrong number.’ It gave me a terrible shaking but it might have been worse.[2]

 

Henry Williamson is safe behind the lines on the now-quiet Somme front, but he has sent his alter ego north, and placed him behind the lines at Messines. The talk in the transport section of Phillip Maddison’s turned somewhat morbid. Never mind that thousands of Germans were about to die and thousands of British infantry go over the top–the transport men, though currently fairly safe, have to bring up ammunition through an interdiction barrage. They too are frightened, and they begin to talk of their mothers. Phillip, even though he is so close to the place his courage failed in 1914, decides that he feels confident–because “he himself had broken away” from his mother and because he has the love of the faithful Lily: “if he hadn’t the thought of Lily to keep him going, he would be windy himself.”

With nothing to do as midnight passes and with his confidence buoyed both by the love of Lily and by his assessment–rather perceptive, this–that the German counter-barrage will be enfeebled and directed elsewhere, Phillip begins to contemplate a walk toward the front…[3]

 

One of the wonders of this project, in a small way, is the realization that even when great and terrible events are in the offing, “ordinary” life goes on for the soldiers even as it does across the experiential gulf. C.E. Montague has just received a welcome reassignment: instead of being a glorified assistant propagandist and minder of journalists (many of whom were far less skilled than he, not to mention his unusual moral and physical courage), he “was now to hold a position of some authority… better than showman-work however variegated.” He is now an ‘assistant press officer,’ and will have more freedom to choose his own course and no direct involvement in the dissemination of propaganda.

So late tonight, Montague will pack several well-known journalists into cars and head for Messines. But first he sits down to write a letter to his wife. To whom, of course, he cannot mention the coming battle, even at this late hour. Instead, he discusses what any good literary soldier does in his spare time–in this case his reading of the master of malign fate (and of brave human resistance against it) is at once exasperated and grateful:

June 6, 1917

I have gone on with The Return of the Native, admiring it more than ever. . . . I had forgotten how directly Hardy’s pessimism is declared in the description of Clym Yeobright, where he says that mankind’s enjoyment of life must decline, and the view of life as ‘a thing to be put up with’ prevail, and that we shall all cease to admire beauty of face as distinct from full expression of experiences mainly painful and disillusioning. What perversity it is. Life only seems to me to be more of a wonder and glory and ecstasy, the more I see of it, and I feel it specially when reading Hardy’s own descriptions of beautiful-natured people like his faithful lovers, and of lovely places.[4]

 

Finally, today, Francis Ledwidge is in France, far enough from Messines and surely in ignorance of tomorrow’s huge attack. But even if he knew he would still use an infantryman’s rare hours of leisure to attend to his growing poetic reputation. He wrote today an extremely long letter to Professor Lewis Chase, from which I will excerpt a few choice rambles:

B.E.F
France, 6th June 1917

Dear Sir,

Your letter of May 15th reached me this afternoon. I have to thank you for introducing my books into your University library and for the interest which you take in my poems and will endeavour to supply you with what details you require of myself and my work for the composition of your proposed lecture. You will, of course, understand that I am writing this under the most inept circumstances between my watches, for I am in the firing line and may be busy at any moment in the horrible work of war.

I am on active service since the spring of 1915, having served in the Dardanelles and the First British Expeditionary Force to Serbia… Some of the people who know me least imagine that I joined the Army because I knew men were struggling for higher ideals and great empires, and I could not sit idle to watch them make for me a more beautiful world. They are mistaken. I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions…

I am of a family who were ever soldiers and poets… I have heard my mother say many times that the Ledwidges were once a great people in the land, and she has shown me with a sweep of her hand green hills and wide valleys where sheep are folded which still bear the marks of dead industry and, once, this was all ours.

These stories, told at my mother’s doorstep in the owl’s light, are the first things I remember except, perhaps, the old songs which she sang to me, so full of romance, love and sacrifice. She taught me to listen and appreciate the blackbird’s song, and when I grew to love it beyond all others she said it was because I was born in a blackbird’s nest and had its blood in my veins. My father died when I was two…

The “Poet of the Blackbirds” goes on to describe his family and his early life.

There were four brothers of us and three sisters. I am the second youngest. For these my mother laboured night and day, as none of us were strong enough to provide for our own wants…

I was seven years of age when my eldest brother died, and though I had only been to school on occasional days I was able to read the tomb-stones in a neighbouring grave-yard and had written in secret several verses which still survive. About this time I was one day punished in school for crying and that punishment ever afterwards haunted the master like an evil dream, for I was only crying over Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” which an advanced class had been reading aloud.

It was in this same class that I wrote my first poem, in order to win for the school a half holiday…

Much as I would like to use the sheer bulk of the letter to enhance the slight irony of writing one’s life story on the brink of a major attack, patience dictates that we must skip the tale of Ledwidge’s early literary development. After a short and unhappy apprenticeship to a Dublin grocer, Ledwidge returns home.

I took up any old job at all with the local farmers and was happy. I set myself certain studies and these I pursued at night when I should be resting from a laborious day. I took a certificate of one hundred and twenty words a minute at Pitman’s shorthand, and soon knew Euclid as well as a man of Trinity College…  I read and studied the poets of England from the age of Chaucer to Swinburne, turning especially to the Elizabethans and the ballads that came before the great Renaissance. I thirsted for travel and adventure, and longed to see the Italy of Shelley and the Greece of Byron. But the poems of Keats and his sad life appealed to me most.

The young poet, in his own estimation at least, begins to mature:

I began to pick faults with Longfellow and Tennyson…

I burned many copybooks which contained fugitive pieces of my own because I thought it were better for them to die young and be happy than live to be reviled.

Georgian Poetry” (with my three excluded) contains, I think, the best poems of the century…

The letter continues in high good spirits, but it’s an open question whether the late switch to a torrent of unrelated anecdotes and quirks is produced because the poet is flattered to be the subject of academic interest, or because he knows that a fighting soldier who might wish to be remembered should give potential biographers as much, and as quickly, as he can.

I get more pleasure from a good line than from a big cheque. Though I love music I cannot write within earshot of any instrument. I cannot carry a watch on account of the tick, real or imaginary, and might as well try to sleep under the Bell of Bruges as in a room where a clock stands… I have written many short stories and one play which is declared a success by eminent playwrights who have read it…

The letter closes with several poems, including “Rainy Day in April,” “The Wife of Llew,” and Pan. Ledwidge assures the professor that the best is yet to come…

 

Tomorrow, the mines go up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 183-88.
  2. Sapper Martin, 70-1.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 153.
  4. C.E. Montague, 161-2, 172-3

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

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

4 June 1917

My Dear Friend:

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

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

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

June 4, 1917

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

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

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

 

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

Zillebeke, 4th June, 1917

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Edwin Vaughan Volunteers for Patrol; A Near-Run Thing for the Master of Belhaven; Kate Luard is Ypres-Bound; Henry Williamson is “No Bon”

Edwin Vaughan has lately been in reserve, serving as “escort” to an Australian artillery unit. In contrast to the usual stereotypes–and to the frequent British opinion that the Australians, while valuable soldiers, are too rough around the edges–he has found them to be well-mannered and considerate. This friendliness was thrown into relief when his own adjutant, a man with less front line experience than Vaughan, chewed him out for the minor (and probably common) lapse of asking for supplies over a telephone line without resorting to code. Vaughan, newly confident in his veteran-of-a-few-months status, gave the adjutant a piece of his mind–his trench experience meant more than the adjutant’s higher rank.

But in any event, as we learned yesterday, Vaughan’s battalion is returning to the front lines–and he is raring to go.

Everything was cleared up and I said goodbye to the Australians with real regret, thanking them from the bottom of my heart for their hospitality to me when I came, a stranger, amongst them. One of the most pathetic features of the war is this continual forming of real friendships which last a week or two, or even months, and are suddenly shattered for ever by death or division.

The remainder of the Company came up to us an hour before dusk, and we led them on, Ewing walking with me in front. He was in high humour and consequently quite communicative… As we marched Ewing told me that an order had been circulated emphasizing the need for offensive patrols, in accordance with which each of our platoons was to carry out an all-night patrol in turn. I had a sudden inspiration and asked if I and my platoon might monopolize the honour and do them all. He jumped at the idea…[1]

This sounds unhinged, but Vaughan’s men have enjoyed recent patrols–they would rather be out doing, apparently, than sitting tight–and a big part of the appeal is that men who are out at night are allowed to rest from fatigues during the day. But the last tour had little in the way of bombardment, and the German infantry opposite disinterested in midnight skirmishes–will this remain the case?

 

And well might the artillery might spare the poor infantryman, if it is too intent in its search for the British artillery. Up near Ypres, the Master of Belhaven, new battery firmly in hand, is facing more than his share.

We had a dreadful night, as we were heavily shelled, and we have no head cover beyond a tarpaulin. I got no sleep till dawn, and then only an hour…

All the afternoon they had been registering on Bedford House, a ruined château not far from me. I noticed that they were firing guns of all calibres, first one and then another. This made me suspicious, and I was not surprised when, at 9 o’clock, a perfect hurricane of shells arrived, large and small mixed. They kept it up for half an hour or more, but they were nearly all two or three hundred yards over me. Suddenly they stopped and began a creeping barrage right across the flank of my battery and on my mess. Franklyn, the doctor, Bath, and I rushed out and threw ourselves down flat in a little trench outside. It was only 18 in. deep and the same width.The hurricane of shells lasted about five minutes, mostly shrapnel bursting in air and 4.2’s bursting on impact. There must have been dozens bursting at the same moment, all round and over us. I have never seen anything like it before, except our own barrages on the Somme. We were covered with earth and sods that were being flung up, and the shrapnel bullets fell on the ground all round just like a hailstorm. Suddenly there was a tremendous roar and the whole country was lit up like day… one of my ammunition dumps had blown up. The concussion set off another dump near it, but, instead of blowing up, it started burning, the H.E. shells going over in dozens just like a Chinese cracker, only each crack was an 18 lb. shell…

We were 200 yards from the battery and it was absolutely necessary to get back to the men. Franlkyn and I agreed to risk it and ran as hard as we could past the burning ammunition to the battery. How we got across alive I don’t know; neither of us had the smallest hope of surviving…[2]

 

Kate Luard has always been eager to get as close as possible to the shells that keep her hospitals in business. Soon she will be stationed closer still.

Tuesday, May 29th

…The C.O. had another message to-day to ‘prepare to move to another Area…’ He has told me in a whisper where it probably is; of course it is just the exact part I’ve always longed (and intended!) to go to if anything was doing there…[3]

She is not a woman for quiet sectors, evidently. Ypres it will be, and soon…

 

Lastly, today, we have Henry Williamson. After telling a strange tall tale about his assignment to a signalling course, he now must tell his mother that he has been sent back. He seems to see, if he hadn’t before, that the writing is on the wall for him with the 208th Machine Gun Company. But his failure on the signalling course he will insist on viewing as a minor setback, and bluster off on another tack:

Dear mother,

Am quite well. I was sent back from the Signal School as no bon… I am transferring by the way, to another Coy–at least I have applied for it–I could never agree with my C.O. and now he’s back again…

But he knows he doesn’t have the power to transfer himself, bon or no bon. And, breezy though he may be, his thoughts alight on what he likely fears most: a return to the infantry.

…Occasionally one gets fed up–but on transport there is just enough danger (e.g. tonight–a few crumps over, & gas shells, & an unlucky hit will finish us, mules & all, but really the risk is not one millionth what the infantry, poor devils, run!) Well give my love to everyone…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 136-7.
  2. War Diary, 293-4.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 127.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 156-7.

Charles Scott Moncrief is Decorated; Henry Williamson is Sacked; Vera Brittain Sees the Sights; Olaf Stapledon is Fed Up

We have three brief updates today–one good, one bad, and one in transit–before a very unusual letter from Olaf Stapledon.

First, Charles Scott Moncrieff, still abed with a badly mangled leg, has good news, which he receives with proper, and perhaps even unfeigned, modesty.

I have been given one of the fourteen Military Crosses allotted to the 29th Division. No one else in the Regiment, I’m sorry to say, for most of them deserve it more than I do…

Perhaps, but Moncrieff is a brave officer, with a record of consistent leadership and courage–if he hadn’t been so often ill, he would surely be dead by now. Nevertheless, he scorned the decoration, and will try to refuse it–his wound, he will point out, was caused by his own barrage, which is not a terribly heroic fact. But his commander will object to this objection, effectively forcing Moncrieff to accept the MC:

Captain C. K. Scott Moncrieff is an officer with a distinct temperament, and of an intelligence far above the average… whatever he says to the contrary, I shall remained convinced that, not only on the date in question, but on one or two previous occasions also, he thoroughly earned the award which His Majesty has been pleased to bestow.[1]

 

Henry Williamson is doing less well. He has been “strafed” several times recently about timeliness and the proper care of his mules, and although he tried to present his assignment to a signals course as some sort of inside-track “staff” appointment wangled on a super-secret journey, it seems likely that he was selected for the course in the hopes that his unit could thus be rid of him. It didn’t take.

Sent back from the Signalling Course. Good. Very rotten report however. Strafed by G.O.C.[2]

 

And Vera Brittain, on her way home from Malta, will visit her second great capital in three days:

May 26th–Were approaching Paris when we woke up; typical French scenery so often described by Roland–thin sentinel trees and straight white roads. Thought very much about Roland and Geoffrey, for this was their country, now…

It is. British cemeteries are already, and will ever after be a major part of the landscape along the Somme and around Ypres. But Paris is still Paris, and many visitors can claim it. Vera, something of a minor sophisticate in this particular context, guided two of her companions for the afternoon.

After lunch … I took them round to look at some of the sights. Took them to Notre-Dame, the Madeleine and along the most important streets… Afterwards did a little shopping…[3]

 

Last night, a century back, Olaf Stapledon began a letter to his beloved, Agnes Miller, on the occasion of her birthday. But he is home on leave and “bed is a luxury not to be missed,” so the letter trailed off. Today he picked it up, and “with uncharacteristic sarcasm” (as the editor of his letters puts it), gave Agnes an account of his doings in the disastrous recent Nivelle Offensive.

It’s fine to see a six horse limber going down a road at breakneck speed with the driver urging and lashing and the other men hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and shells crashing all round, nearer & nearer it seems, till at last one makes a direct hit, kills five horses and two men on the spot, while the other horse goes a bit down the road till it drops and the third man crawls out of the wreckage into the ditch. It’s fine to see four or five cars all charging down the same bit of road until one of them has to jam on all brakes to avoid crashing into the limber the second after it is hit, and then has to creep gingerly round between the dead horses and ditch while a shell bursts alongside it, breaks in its windows and pierces its body work with steel splinters. Once free, and away dashes the old Vulcan like a mad thing down the road with the poor devils inside crying out at the jolts, swinging, bumping, crashing across the railway line, past the sentry box where someone has propped the dead sentry up against his box for some reason unknown. Meanwhile the next car spots the wounded man in the ditch, draws up to take him on board, but the egregious idiot of a lieutenant who happens to be on board forbids the driver to stop under shellfire, so that (think of it!) the car goes on, leaving the man wriggling…

Oh it’s all very fine & we deserve far more of it. But, ye gods what a damned silly thing is war! Fed up, FED UP!

This from a young man who has spent several years at the front with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and hitherto been unfailing and unflinching in both his disapproval of the war and his dreamy insistence on seeing better things, in the stars, to come.

But whether back in England or among Germans, Stapledon is far from alone in feeling fed up.

…A meeting of British soldiers, being asked to give a message to people at home, cried “We’re fed up with the war,” and again & again they persistently cried it. As for the bosches… we had some Germans helping to load the carts, & they did it well; especially one smiling, kindly chap with whom the French stretcher bearers soon became very friendly. Of course there is really a lot of blind hatred & hostility, but less than of old. It’s the miserable diplomatists that have not the courage to talk about peace…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 131; Chasing Lost Time, 131.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 155.
  3. Testament of Youth, 351-2.
  4. Talking Across the World, 225-6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

May 15, 1917 – Kemmel Shelters.

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

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

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

 

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

Dear Mother,

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

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

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

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

My dear Mother,

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

We are having tomorrow some sports in the Transport Section…

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

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

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

 

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

Well, yes and no…

May 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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