Alfred Hale‘s first day in his new job as an RFC batman was… not good. But whether a say like this reads as unmitigated disaster or bitter farce has much to do with how much time has elapsed before one comes to contemplate it.
Hale has been assigned to look after the comforts of officers, and yet, even though he feels his own toilet to be essential both to his sense of well-being and his self-worth, he is incapable even of shaving himself. There are no barbers to be found, and his safety razor has been stolen. Hence this scene of military bathos:
The more I dipped my razor in the collapsible cup, the more it acted up to its name, till I had hard work to keep what little water I could in its bottom portion, so to speak. And my face? Well, the more I tried to get my beard off, the more my chin bled, till I was forced to stop. Yes, that army razor could cut fast enough, and no mistake…
Further humiliation awaited on the parade ground. Hale did not yet know that, as a batman, he could skip morning drill, during which both his incompetence and his butchered face drew the attention of the NCO in charge. And it got worse. Hale was then interviewed by a Captain Ross, and Hale–too bitter and focused a writer to refrain from shriving himself even as he is ground down by an antagonist–bungles it.
I was asked if I had ever been anything in the shape of a domestic servant, and on my replying in the negative, was told off to be a batman. But that was not before I had made an utter ass of myself by whining out that I had had a Public School education, and would like something clerical to do. This very foolish remark brought down on me a withering look from Ross, and I subsequently came to the conclusion that I had far better have stood silently on my dignity, without a word, and thrown the whole responsibility involved in giving me unsuitable work to do on Ross and those in authority behind him…
But standing on my dignity alas, was the last thing I was capable of that morning…
If all this occurred on the Sunday morning, 20 May, it was little wonder that I was well-night abandoning myself to despair that evening out for a walk at the crossroads, and when leaning over the gate leading into the wood, and that it seemed about the limit of things when I was met on my return to camp by Bailey and Lloyd and accused of staying out too long..
Hale’s first description of this despairing walk, given before a full accounting of the morning’s humiliations, sounds even worse: “I had some pretty bad moments, needing all the philosophical courage I could muster to overcome them.” Is this a self-pitying and melodramatic account of desperation and misery, or is Hale telling us that he was nearly suicidal?
Henry Williamson is an irresistible point of comparison, since so much is so different about the two men and yet this central dynamic of misfitting, embarrassment, and intense writing of their own humiliations is so similar. Williamson is, for all his three years in the military, still so young, while Hale seems much older than his forty-two years. Williamson’s social background is quite humble for an officer while Hale is extremely unusual in being a Public School enlisted man (the days of the Public Schools Battalion being long gone)–the world is turned upside down.
Then there is the sharp difference in personality: Williamson the impulsive clown, full of bluster and manic energy, while Hale is steady but so inward that he must seem irretrievably obtuse. They will never fit in; they will constantly put their feet in it. And they will write about it in shame and wonder…
One thing does separate them, though, in a temporary rather than an absolute way. Hale is an innocent while Williamson is an experienced army man. He saw a good deal of combat, in 1914 and 1915, but he has lately managed the system very well. Through illness, promotion, retraining, and transport work, Williamson has strung together several years out of the actual trenches. And this string of excerpts from different letters shows his proudly practical approach to his own war service:
Dear Mother, Am awfully tired… last night we ran into a barrage of tear and phosgene shells… my eyes are very painful and for the moment Im fed up…
…Well this is my fourth month and not a sign of leave yet–oh my hat I am bored stiff–I love the life (except the strafes of course)… Thank God I’m a transport officer & dont go up again to the awful slaughter they call our front line–with the Bosche grinning 1000 yds away…
Am going down the line a bit for 5 weeks to do a Signalling Course–why I dont know–I am very fed up with losing my Transport job but don’t worry–they won’t get me in the infantry…
And then something very strange enters the letters. Given Williamson’s penchant for dishonesty and his inability to resist expanding upon his military exploits (good practice for his formal fictionalization of war experience, later on) we must assume that this is a very tall tale:
I have just returned from special duty in London.
Huh? Why would a lieutenant commanding the transport section of a machine gun company near the front lines be sent all the way to London? Williamson will make another reference to going to the War Office, as if someone had made him a special courier of secret information. But this is extremely unlikely, especially since his diary shows no absence from France. If he really did go on “special duty” he would have to have been there and back in a day. Anne Williamson notes that there is no confirmation of this extraordinary fact, and it seems to seal the case that Henry Williamson doesn’t write anything else about such a trip other than the two bare mentions in the letters. About nearly everything else that happens he repeatedly brags, in his letters, or elaborates, in his fiction.
So Williamson must be making this up, presumably to obscure the real reason that he has been sent on a signalling course–and that reason, roughly, must be his superiors’ unhappiness with his incompetence as a transport officer, and perhaps also his strange and socially unacceptable behavior.
From two achingly awkward men, then, to one of the smoothest. But Duff Cooper, even as he uses his decision to join the army to dramatic effect in his relentlessly dramatic affair with Diana Manners, is not going to lie to himself (or his love, or his diary) about his motivations.
The following account is consistent with his private reasoning, and very believable: what makes a century back different from our own, in social terms, is not so much the power of the Fear Of Missing Out (a new acronym, but not a new phenomenon, as we will see) as its deadliness, particularly to the upper classes, who no longer do much dying for their country.
Tonight the same took place as last night… I confessed to her that I was really glad to join the army which made her cry–she was so white and darling and pathetic. I explained to her that it was no nonsense about dying for my country or beating the Germans that made me glad to join, but simply the feeling I have had for so long that I am missing something, the vague regret that one feels when not invited to a ball even though it be a ball that one hardly would have hoped to enjoy.
Penultimately–Siegfried Sasson still awaits us in Sussex–we have Rowland Feilding among old friends. This has been a long war, and I had no memory of reading of Feilding’s time billeted with this particular French family. But there’s a link below, happily…
May 20, 1917 (Sunday). Coulomby.
The rest is already beginning to work marvels with the men, and although we have so far had only two days of it, the cheered-up look and the renewed freshness in the battalion is surprising to see.
We had a football match this afternoon, and won it: and this morning (Sunday) we had Church Parade in an orchard. I must say I felt very proud of the battalion. The men had all groomed themselves up like new pins. The mud of the trenches had entirely disappeared…
This afternoon I rode with Booth, my Adjutant, to Lumbres, and called on the Avots. About five seconds after I had rung the bell the door was opened by Madame Avot herself. She recognized me at once and gave me such a welcome. She called for her husband, and Jean (who used to follow me about on his bicycle), and the little girl. There was a rush along the passage as they all came bounding out to meet me. I might have been the head of the
house returning from the war. It was indeed most touching. The last time I had seen them was on that night when they all waited in the road to say good-bye as we marched past their gate on our way to Loos. Jean and his sister were small children then. To-day Jean is dressed like a man, and both he and Edith are as tall as myself…
I was skurried into the drawing-room. Madame Avot began asking me all sorts of questions—about you, and about the children. She remembered everything about all of you. We started in broken French. Then we got into broken English. She asked, “How is the cheeky one?’’—referring to a description I had once given her of A—— . I had forgotten the episode till she reminded me. I had tried to describe the three children, and incidentally had said that one of them was a cheeky little thing. She did not understand, and I searched for a word, but could not find any appropriate translation for the word “cheeky.” She has since then learned to use the word herself.
While we sat in the drawing-room the little—now big —girl (what a long time the war must have lasted for her
to have grown like this) handed round chocolates…
It all reminded me of that evening in August, 1915, when she did these same things, and her husband, whose English was very, very limited in those days, edged up to me and kept saying, “Am I not lucky to have such a wife?”
It’s not often that we hear Feilding mention his children, but who could resist, in the circumstances? And he is true to form here in bringing the subject back to the excellence of wives…
Siegfried Sassoon is having a fine old time, outwardly. At Chapelwood Manor, in Sussex, he is recovering from his shoulder wound in an atmosphere of privileged leisure.
All possible kindness had been showered on me, every opportunity was there for healthy contentment and mental relaxation, and the fine early summer weather made the place an earthly paradise. But somehow or other I had only achieved superficial felicity, for the contrast between this luxurious and delightful existence and my lurid experiences on the Arras battlefield had been with me all the time. My mind dwelt continually on the battalion with which had been serving. Since I left it, ten officers had been killed and fourteen wounded. It wasn’t surprising that this undermined my complacency about my own good fortune…
That would be Sassoon looking back, and the retrospective balance is salutary. But here is how it felt in the moment, today, a century back:
When I woke early this morning to hear the bird-voices, so rich and shrill in the grey misty dawn, piping hoarse and sweet from the quiet fragrance of the wet garden and from the green dripping, woods far off—lying in my clean white bed, drowsy and contented, I suddenly remembered ‘At zero the infantry will attack’—Operation Orders! Men were attacking while I lay in bed and listened to the heavenly choruses of birds. Men were blundering about in a looming twilight of hell lit by livid flashes of guns and hideous with the malignant invective of machine-gun fire. Men were dying, fifty yards from their trench—failing to reach the objective—held up.
And to-night the rain is hushing the darkness, steady, whispering rain—the voice of peace among summer foliage. And men are cursing the downpour that drenches and chills them, while the guns roar out their challenge.
This is a man who is not a peace with himself. And why should he be, with the war going on? And what should he do?
Well, he should write. A letter from a literary hero is on its way to Sassoon, with praise that may either confirm him in his sense that it is his duty to satirize the war with as sharp a pen as possible, or, cross-grained as he is, may prod him to write something more, something different. And lest we think that Thomas Hardy‘s praise of Sassoon’s verse was merely politesse or kindness to an old friend’s nephew, he mentions Sassoon in passing in a letter of today to another old friend, Florence Henniker.
Max Gate, May 20, 1917
My dear Friend:
…People are in strangely irritable moods I fancy. I said very harmlessly in a poem (sonnet) entitled “The Pity of It” that the Germans were a “kin folk, kin tongued” (which is indisputable) & letters attacking me appeared, denying it! The fact of their being our enemies does not alter their race…
The young poets you allude to—I imagine you mean the “Georgians” (an absurd name, as if the Georgians were not Shelley Scott, Byron, &c.)—are I think or some of them, on a wrong track. They seem to forget that poetry must have symmetry in its form, & meaning in its content.
I have read young Sassoon’s book dedicated to me. I think the poems show much promise…
Always yrs affectionately