Rowland Feilding and the Admonitory Death of Private Mayne; A Mining Disaster in Staffordshire; Siegfried Sassoon Suspicious in Peace of Mind, C.E. Montague Melancholy at Football; Rudyard Kipling Hatches an Ode-iferous Plot

This is one of those days of discombobulated experience–but it’s hard not to feel that there is some link between all these different disasters, impression, and feelings. The war is everywhere…

Rowland Feilding‘s thoughts are dwelling on the repulse of a German raid by one of his Lewis gunners, a swift and savage burst of violence on a generally quiet front. When the action occurred, two days ago, Feilding was bracketed, here, by protesting young officers. He would never himself step away from the narrow passage of duty and make a public protest… and yet, in his letter to his wife of today, a century back, he makes it clear how much he–a middle-aged battalion commander with Regular army experience–loathes the way the higher-ups (be they no higher than Division, a mere two steps up the ladder, since he commands his own battalion) are disconnected from the experience of the soldiers. Once more the scarlet tabs of the staff officer begin to seem like a bright badge of moral cowardice…

January 12, 1918. Fillers Faucon

The incident of the morning before last had so filled me with pride of the battalion that I confess I have been aghast at receiving—instead of any acknowledgment of the successful and heroic repulse of the German raiders by Private Mayne and his companion—the following memorandum, which has been circulated in the Division.

I quote from memory:

“Another instance has occurred of an enemy patrol reaching within bombing distance of our line. This must not occur again. Our patrols must meet the enemy patrols boldly in Noman’s Land,” etc., etc., etc.

How simple and how grand it sounds! I think I can see the writer, with his scarlet tabs, seated in his nice office 7 or 8 miles behind the line, penning this pompous admonition.

So Private Mayne, it seems, will go unrecognized and unrewarded–In the meantime he has died, and I can only
say, “God rest his soul”![1]

There is a note that Private Mayne–Private Joseph Mayne, of Ardcumber, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, son of James and Mary–was mentioned posthumously in despatches. This, short of the V.C., was the most recognition a dead soldier could hope for (strange phrase, that). And a private–an Irish private–killed in a small action, on the defensive was never going to receive any major reward, even though his heroic gallantry in manning his gun after his body had been mutilated by German grenades surely saved the lives of several of his comrades.

 

And at the Podmore Hill Colliery, in Staffordshire, today, a century back, an accumulation of coal dust and “firedamp”–methane–exploded, ripping through coal seams worked by several hundred men. Rescue efforts were unavailing and the final toll will prove to be 156 miners–men and boys. This was the third deadly explosion in the mine, and the second in three years. Wilfred Owen will read of the disaster, naturally, and he will choose to write about it as well, unable not to conflate the sudden death of so many by fire and gas (and some of them very young) with the horrors of the war itself. And, by the time Miners is complete, it will be one of his most wide-open poems, in terms of historical experience and deliberate reaching toward the universal… the miners are seen not only as soldiers, but as in some sense linked even with the ancient life whose remains they are harvesting at such peril so far below the ground, and with the years to come, which they will not see.

 

News of this disaster–but what are 156 poor men against the daily toll of the war?–will spread slowly, and so we see several of our writers merely going about their business.

For Siegfried Sassoon, this business now is a numb and pleasant–suspiciously numb and pleasant–idyll. It is almost as if he is being visited by a premonition of the mining disaster, in all its frank horror and heavy symbolic weight.

January 12

Peace of mind; freedom from all care; the jollity of health and good companions. What more can one ask for? But it is a drugged peace, that will not think, dares not think. I am home again in the ranks of youth–the company of death. The barrack clock strikes eleven on a frosty night. ‘Another night; another day’.[2]

 

C.E. Montague–a man of something near to an opposite temperament from Sassoon’s–is feeling much the same way:

On January 12, Montague was back at Rollencourt. There was a pause in operations, and he played ‘a good game of football’; but was ‘intensely melancholy, these days’, over the public situation. ‘Now’, he says, ‘is the time to learn and practise fortitude, but it is hard.’[3]

 

But life persists, and pastimes persist. Montague plays football, Sassoon will go hunting when he can, and Rudyard Kipling–who, whenever he makes a brief appearance in a Great War history, is generally depicted as utterly destroyed by the death of his son–continues to bear up as best he can. He is at work–naturally–on a collaborative project involving Horace. Not to translate him, study him, or make the great Roman poet somehow applicable to Britain’s war effort, but rather to concoct a spurious, tongue-in-cheek Fifth Book of Odes. (Horace wrote four.) In Latin. Is there satirical intent? Sure. Is it, or was it ever, broadly accessible? Perhaps a bit more back then, but, really… not so much.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex
Jan 12.1918

Dear Fletcher:

I am, as you know, no scholar when it comes to the Latin but I think it’s lovely… I think this is going to be glorious larks!

…I’ve got a new Fifth Booker whereof Hankinson Ma. is preparing the translation. It came out in the Times ever so long ago under the title The Pro-Consuls but I perceive now that Horace wrote it. Rather a big effort for him
and on a higher plane than usual – unless he’d been deliberately flattering some friend in the Government. I’ll send it along.

Ever yours

Rudyard Kipling[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 246-8.
  2. Diaries, 203.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 200.
  4. Letters, IV, 479-80.

A Red-Letter Day for the Graveses; An Even Better Day Ahead for the Feildings; Siegfried Sassoon Makes a Clever Plan: Light-Hearted Stupidity

The engagement of Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson is running roughshod over all potential opposition:

Wednesday, when the Graveses were attending Kit Nicholson’s birthday party at Apple Tree Yard, Alfred was taken aside by William to discuss the proposed marriage. Since Nancy, at eighteen, was three years under age, her father’s consent was vital. He was in a highly emotional state, and told Alfred that ‘he had been in love with N[ancy] for 18 years and not slept a wink’ the night before, when he heard of the engagement, but felt they were intended for each other and both he and his wife were greatly pleased as both had high ideals which he believed they would realise together’. Nicholson also promised to consider illustrating a novel which Clarissa [Graves] had just finished writing; and A[lfred] P[ercival] G[raves, Robert’s Father] commented happily in his diary that it had been ‘Altogether a red-letter day in the Family annals’.[1]

 

And there is good news for the (Rowland) Feildings: there has been a minor bureaucratic Christmas miracle, reversing a recent decision. It will probably not seem all that minor to his young daughters.

The Brigadier has just rung up and said they have granted my leave for the 23rd; so I shall sail on the 24th and should be with you that evening.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon returned to his diary, today, a century back, for the first proper entry since the summer. After a sketch of his recent whereabouts, he addresses the future, and how he plans to live now that he is an ordinary officer once more.

Came to Litherland on December 11. Since then have eaten, slept, played a few rounds of golf at Formby, walked on the shore by the Mersey mouth, and am feeling healthy beyond measure. I intend to lead a life of light-hearted stupidity. I have done all I can to protest against the war and the way it is prolonged. At least I will try and be peaceful-minded for a few months–after the strain and unhappiness of the last seven months. It is the only way by which I can hope to face horrors of the front without breaking down completely. I must try to think as little as possible. And write happy poems. (Can I?)[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 189.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 245.
  3. Diaries, 197-8.

Wilfred Owen on “Militarian Subjects”–or Not; Olaf Stapledon Can’t Forget That There Are Trenches in the World

Wilfred Owen‘s letter of today, a century back, begins in a rather precious mode of poetic reverie but then quickly subsides back toward the plane of daily life. First, he tells his mother of plans to visit the school with which had been very involved during his “ergotherapy” at Edinburgh. This is a happy subject–a remembrance of good times, the pleasure and fulfillment he felt in teaching and in the admiration of the boys for the young officer come to instruct them. But while the mood stays jaunty–it almost always does, in these letters–the thread leads straight back to war. There is a shadow, even in a breezy letter from this sunny, undecorated, unheralded “major domo,” of the substance of Sassoon‘s protest–and of Owen’s determination (which may make his mother profoundly uncomfortable) to treat the suffering of the soldiers in Christian terms.

13 December 1917, Scarborough

Dearest Mother,

It is the quarter of an hour after lunch. The coffee has given me satisfaction and everybody else. (I serve coffee after lunch as well as dinner.) So I sit in the middle of my five-windowed turret, and look down upon the sea. The sun is valiant in its old age. I draw the Venetian blinds, so that the shadow of the lattices on the table gives an illusion of great heat…

Yesterday I was sent the Tynecastle School Magazine, very amusing. Mrs. Fullerton writes again this morning, reminding me how I promised to go up there for my first leave.

‘You can imagine our welcome better than I can write’ they say. Now, I find that Leave from Friday Night to Monday Night is granted every month! But Mrs. Fullerton is leaving the school for ever on the 21st. in order to be with her husband who will soon get sent out again.

There is much talk of Education for the ‘A 4’s’ of the Battalion, that is the tender younglings. I have been ‘approached’ on the subject, but I shall not consent to lecture on Militarian subjects. The scheme either comes of a desperate feeling that the race is going to perdition intellectually or else it is a Jesuitical movement to catch ’em young, & prepare them for the Eucharist of their own blood.

Dearest love from W.E.O.[1]

 

Interestingly, our other letter today is from Olaf Stapledon, the young pacifist whose entire war service has been a protest, as well as a “sacrifice” in the looser sense of something given (at great length and effort) where it might have been (selfishly) withheld. Stapledon, home on leave–in Merseyside, just across the island from Scarborough–is stewing, disgusted with the complacency and luxury which persist.

Stapledon and Owen are very different men in very different positions, but it’s tempting to consider some sort of equivalency. Stapledon, despite a period of crisis about the rights and wrongs of serving as an ambulance man (rather than as either a soldier or a pacifist abstainer, ready for the other martyrdom of prison and social ignominy) has been shielded from the full misery of the war: he has not had to fight, or sit for many hours under enemy shelling. He has been in danger and he has seen terrible things, but nothing so terrible as a long, muddy tour in front-line trenches. So is he, in late 1917, only now approaching the mild level of disgust of a 1915 or early 1916 infantryman, while Owen has gone through all that in a few short weeks at the front (and a few long months recovering) and moved beyond it, to happy forgetfulness pottering about in a base job, picking out furniture, visiting old friends, and not thinking about what comes next?

Tempting–but I should have resisted. What’s the point, after all, of a strict timeline (i.e. the whole war, day by day) if I don’t resist the temptation to validate it by twisting it in different directions? Suffice it to say that today, a century back, Stapledon–who has never doubted that fighting the war is wrong–is wondering about who and what those who are fighting are fighting for. Are those for whom the sacrifices are allegedly being made worthy of them? The logical next step is to question, again, whether taking any action that enables the continuation of the war is morally justifiable.

Annery

13 December 1917

. . . I am all adrift, all sixes and sevens and so bored, bored to tears with the war and my own stodgy self. This leave has been somehow unreal. It has largely consisted in going round talking platitudes to people about the war, and in slipping back comfortably into the artificial life that we all lead at home in our most excessive middle class luxury. Plates & dishes & knives & forks & furniture beyond the wildest need, & all so beautifully clean. Fires, hot baths, dainty food–& yet there are trenches in the world.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 516.
  2. Talking Across the World, 260.

Alfred Hale’s Indignity and Despair; A Probable Whopper from Henry Williamson; Duff Cooper and FOMO; Rowland Feilding En Famille; A Bad Dream for Siegfried Sassoon, but Thomas Hardy Doubles Down

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?[1]

 

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:

18 May

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…

19 May

…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…

20 May

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.[2]

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.[3]

 

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…[4]

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:

May 20

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.[5]

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
Th: H.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 64-9.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 153-4.
  3. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 48.
  5. Diaries, 170-1.
  6. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 214-5.

Richard Aldington’s Glad Young April Day; Siegfried Sassoon, Three Fellows, and a Four-Footed Friend, the Morning After; Ivor Gurney on Morale; Edward Thomas’s Calendrical Heresy

This is going to be a cruel month. We’ll begin with a “month poem” from one of our writers who will be on the outskirts of the worst fighting. Others will be in it: the Battle of Arras, the first intense fighting since the Somme petered out in November, is due in only a week.

I

When I rose up in the morning
In a ruined town in France,
I heard the sparrows twitter
In gardens bare and grey
And watched the sunbeams dance.

O glad young April day!

II

When I lie down this evening
In a damp cellar of France
I’ll hear the big guns booming
By bare and blasted lanes,
And watch the shrapnel dance.

O wild sad April rains!

Richard Aldington[1]

 

For Siegfried Sassoon, the month began with nothing more cruel than a hangover and a goat. Today is the last day in rest billets at the unlovely Camp 13 for the 2nd Royal Welsh, and their unwilling replacement officer is beginning to warm to his fellows.

Last night Sassoon and three comrades had gone to Amiens for a bath and a good dinner at the Godbert—-“a cheerful experience, anyhow.” This morning they[2] posed with the regimental mascot (at right). Sassoon, at right seems to have maintained his good cheer, despite having consumed

2 John Collins   1 Japanese ditto.   1 Oyster cocktail

1 Sherry and Bitters.   Pommard Eclatante, trois verres.

1 Benedictine.

In spite of hankerings for “the good old 1st Battalion…” I was now beginning to identify myself with the equally “good old 2nd Battalion.”[3]

 

Ivor Gurney, still writing regularly to Marion Scott to discuss the editing of his poetry, is also maintaining relatively good spirits.

1 April 1917

My Dear Friend: This is the right day for such a business, if it were not so bitter, and surely a fest-day should not be so dull? Well, here it is, and fatigues are over, and this queer billet echoes and reechoes with the sound of tin whistles and mouth organs, just issued; and the lilt of some Scottish tunes our crack players are rollicking through make life a little alive and worth living…

But it is not an easy life, nor is the task of maintaining morale several years into a frustrated and stagnated war a light one. Exhaustion weighs on the mind as well as the body.

We have not had so bad a time lately, nothing like trench conditions, at any rate, though hard work and not enough food (or at any rate, food not seeming enough) have made us all weak, and upset our insides. I should put this down to the peculiarities of my own stupid constitution, did not men of farming and similar trades also complain. I believe a great deal is due to the dulness of the life, which makes every one look to meals more than ordinary; but anyway they are bound to work us; it being as certain as anything that only going keeps us going. We should all relapse into neurasthenia were we not driven. Considering everything, especially the callousness to certain things such a life must develop, the men are marvellously good to one another, and surely much finer than ever they were, bless em…

The baccy parcel arived last night, and we were all most grateful; everybody was short or bankrupt; and the cigar things were most grateful to us stranded wretches. (They are singing “Annie Laurie”. O the joy of it!)

I fear I can send you no money yet, but if you would send the paper covered National Song Book, and the small, selected Browning in Walter Scotts edition they would be most useful. The latter is 1/6 I believe. I believe “The Spirit of Man” is sucked dry for me, and my thirst for good verse, and short, is very strong.

Marion Scott had also reported to Gurney on a recent performance of his songs. Without access to a piano in the trenches (pace Henry Williamson and his two pianos–but those were booby trapped anyway) he has turned from musical composition to verse. But now, amidst the ruins of the German retreat, Gurney consoles himself with his own songs.

The day has been springlike on the whole, and last nights sky was gloriously tragic; I sang “In Flanders” to myself, facing the West, alone in a lately ruined house, spoiled by that unutterable thoroughness of the German destruction; and was somewhat comforted thereby. That has all been said for me in “In Flanders”…

But for Gurney, mad north by the west country, “In Flanders” can always mean “In Gloucestershire.”

The scene of “In Flanders” is obviously Coopers Hill. O times! O saisons, O chateaux!

Goodbye for now: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[4]

 

Edward Thomas, too, begins the month in relative ease, quiet, and lengthy letter-writing.

…a beautiful serene clear morning with larks at 5.15 and blackbirds at 6… All day sat writing letters to Helen, Father and Mother by the fire and censoring men’s letters etc…[5]

To Helen, first, with a plain but absorbing tale of his night’s doings:

Arras, 1 April 1917

Dearest,

Now the night is over I will tell you all about it before I go to bed, if I do go! I feel so cheerful for several reasons of which I will give you two. Firstly, I found a letter from you waiting for me when I returned at 7 a.m. Secondly, I found the car waiting for me as soon as I was clear of B., which was most cheering to a tired and overladen officer and four telephonists still more overladen.

Well, I didn’t have much of the fire. I just waited to hear that the working party was only going to carry up the stuff, which they did, and to do the work today or some other time soon. I had to decide to let them carry the heavy stuff (too heavy for them to carry through a sticky trench) along the crest which was being swept by machine guns from time to time. Which they did and luckily came to no harm. I went off to the cellar, leaving two telephonists to take their instrument off the wire and see that the wire on to the cellar was all right. The cellar was full of smoke, except the lowest twofeet of it, so that we (the two other telephonists and I) had to crouch or lie. Then shells began to fall in the direction of the O.P. In two hours the other telephonists had not arrived. I thought they had lost their way in the moonlight among the wire and ruins andtrenches of B. or had been wounded—or perhaps the working party had had a casualty. So I sent back the other two telephonists to see if they had left the O.P. I had thought myself rather clever—or rather I was very much relieved—to find my way in the moonlight.

Then, later, after learning that the lines are cut,

…I dozed for one hour or two, dreaming of being court-martialled, till up I got and had a quiet journey. The moon had gone and left all the stars and not a cloud. I was sure of my way by the Plough. But it was dirty and tiring, for I had on vest | shirt | two waistcoats | tunic | one Tommy’s leather waistcoat | British warm | and waterproof.

Only two or three shells came over and I found the telephonists dozing and there in a clay corner we dozed and smoked till daybreak. More heavy shells arrived well away from us. They moan and then savagely stop moaning as they strike the ground with a flap. They are 5.9s or Five Nines as we call them.—I had not been wanted on the telephone so all is well. Day broke clear and white and a lark rose at 5.15. Blackbirds began to sing at 6 and a yellowhammer. I got up and slopped through the trench and looked at the view over to the Hun, a perfect simple view of three ridges, with a village and line of trees on the first, a clump on the second and clumps and lines on the furthest, all looking almost purple and brown like heather in the dawn. Easter Sunday—a lovely clear
high dawn.

Strangely, it is not Easter at all. Thomas is, somehow, off by a week in terms of the liturgical calendar. He is not a religious man–in fact he is more or less and atheist, or rather a quiet but firm non-believer–but it’s still rather odd that he’s made this mistake. Wouldn’t the battery have special arrangements for church parade? Perhaps not.

He’s a quite fellow, but surely not so insular that he won’t notice the mistake or be put right by one of his fellow officers.

After more description of the end of his all-night duty, Thomas brings the letter slowly to a close.

Now everybody has breakfasted. There has been a shower and the sun has returned but among the clouds. I am not very sleepy yet, but just enjoying having nothing to do which is supposed to be the privilege of the day after the O.P.—that is in these peaceful days. You are having a fine Easter, I hope, as we are, though not a warm one yet. I like hearing of your days with Baba and Bronwen and Joy, and of Mervyn’s ride with Ernest, and intended ride to
Jesse’s…

Rubin has set the gramophone to ‘In Cellar Cool’. But everything, gramophone or not, out here forbids memories such as you have been writing. Memories I have but they are mixed up with my thoughts and feelings in B. or when I hear the blackbirds or when the old dog bangs the table leg with his tail or lies with his brains wasting in his skull. You must not therefore expect me to say anything outright. It is not my way, is it?

No, I’m sure she doesn’t. But surely she might wish it…

Now I must write and remind Mother she has sent only the inessential part of my mapcase, the waterproof cover for it.

A happy Easter! Goodbye

Edwy

The letter to his mother is less fulsome–perhaps it is more dutiful, perhaps he wrote to Helen in the jittering excitement of having survived his long night’s journey and is now “crashing”–but it does go beyond the merely parcel-related to gently take up two opposed themes: the destruction of war, and the coming of spring flowers.

The day has kept fine on the whole and if it were a little warmer it would be good Easter weather, fresh, and bright. Only I feel cold after sitting out all night as stout as a market woman with so many clothes on. My servant is washing for me out in the yard and the clothes are blowing on the line just beside the motor car which shines in the sun. The aeroplanes are buzzing overhead and as I sit by an open wood fire it is more like a scene in a small country inn at home than anything else except that one of our guns rattles all the windows.every now and then. We get good fires here with the boards and beams of ruined houses all round us. The servants will bum anything if you let them and I have just been lecturing mine on the evil of burning things that still serve the purpose for which they were made. The waste is indescribable. It would be interesting to compare the way the Germans spend their substance. The deep dug-outs they make are far beyond ours in strength and workmanship. We make them just as much as they do but we make wretched things skimped in work and materials so far as I have seen. The thing that is to shelter us in the battle is being made now in a hurry anyhow without any expert advice except that of a thatcher from Norfolk.

I am glad you had some violets. I have not seen any, nor primroses, nor celandines, not even a dandelion . . . It will be nice to have the kind of Easter weather it is good to sow seeds in. Nice for us, too. Goodbye.Ever your loving son

Edwy[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I am pretty sure--but by no means entirely certain--that the inspirational April is this year, a century back.
  2. Sassoon writes that "Binge Owen" accompanied him, Greaves, and Conning; but the officer in the center of the picture is Coster, not Owen.
  3. Diaries, 146-7. The War the Infantry Knew, 307-8.
  4. War Letters, 150-1.
  5. War Diary (Childhood), 174.
  6. Selected Letters, 157-60.

Siegfried Sassoon and a Year Dying of Atrophy; Hermon’s Chugs and the Prayer for the Sentry; Tolkien Makes a Commitment; Edward Thomas Can’t Get Home for Christmas

We have four writers writing today, a century back. First–and at long last–Siegfried Sassoon has picked up his pen once more. His diary, dormant since August, now abruptly resumes:

December 22

Been at Litherland since December 4. Robert Graves went on leave to-day, and will be going to France quite soon. Haven’t been able to get a hunt with the Cheshire since December 9 owing to hard weather. An occasional round by myself at Formby and several expensive gorges at the Adelphi have been my only pleasures…

The only merit of this hut-life is that there are no women about. Plenty of fifth-rate officers—’Capel Sion Light Infantry’.

This is less a nasty complaint than a slur–Sassoon is referring to a couple of “savage” novels about Welsh peasants which had recently caused an outcry in Wales. Apparently the newer officers of the Royal Welch are not much to our Siegfried’s taste–but he has always been a snob. Also curious is the fact that Robert Graves does not appear on the links or at the Adelphi, but only on his way out once more…

I shall not go out till February unless I can’t help it. The long nights and cold weather are more than I can tackle. Last Christmas was at Montagne. Richardson, Edmund Dadd, Davies, Jackson, Pritchard, Thomas, Baynes, have been killed since then… I am more than twelve month’s older since then. 1916 has been a lucky year for me. This is a dreary drab flat place–smog and bleary sunsets and smoky munition-works at night with dotted lights and flares, and bugles blowing in the camp, and sirens hooting out on the Mersey mouth, and the intolerable boredom of Mess and not enough work to do, and people waiting their turn to go out again. No one is at his best here.

Did Siegfried sense a reader, just then, and muster a gesture at apology for his nastiness? Perhaps not, but he does now move toward a broader explanation of his mood:

And the men are mostly a poor lot—ill-trained truss-wearers, and wounded ones. The year is dying of atrophy as far as I am concerned, bed-fast in its December fogs. And the War is settling down on everyone—a hopeless, never-shifting burden. While newspapers and politicians yell and Brandish their arms, and the dead rot in their French graves, and the maimed hobble about the streets. And the Kaiser talks about Peace because he thinks he’s won.

I seem to be acquiring the reputation of a bon viveur—the result of melting fivers at the Adelphi. Some man said in Mess to-night: ‘These new regulations for food will tax your ingenuity in ordering a dinner!’ And the result is a disordered liver, and cynical poetry. I wrote a beastly thing about a butcher’s shop to-day. I don’t suppose it’s any good either. I wonder whether my boat will ever touch the shores of beauty again. Those garden-dawns seem a very long way off now. And nothing before me but red dawns flaring over Ypres and Bapaume. And people still say the War is splendid, damn their eyes. And the Army in France can contemplate a patched-up peace because it is so weary of the Ways of death.[1]

 

The December doldrums spread from the outskirts of Liverpool to Sassoon’s home territory of Kent. At “Tintown,” in Lydd, a new camp order of today, a century back, confirmed what Edward Thomas had feared–or, at least, expected. There would be no Christmas leave. In his letter informing his wife Helen he included a depressingly practical list of possible Christmas presents: an overcoat, “arctic socks,” a periscope, and a pocket sextant… At home in High Beech, Helen Thomas had been preparing for a Christmas without her husband for some weeks. At a party with her daughter, she only heard the words of his letter:

The sentence ‘And Helen, I can’t get home for Christmas’ thumped out a sort of tune in my head, and though with my ears I heard ‘How lovely Myfanwy looks,’ ‘How cleverly you have made the frock,’ I listened with all my being to ‘And Helen, I can’t get home for Christmas’.

Today’s news seemed to remove all hope that she would see her husband before he was sent to France.[2]

 

Edward “Robert” Hermon, more than two years into his war, also wrote to his wife today, a century back.

22nd December 1916–No 48 answering 55–Rue Marle

I went to bed last night feeling an awful worm & not at all pleased with the idea of having to take my Battalion some miles today to be reviewed by my late brother officer, in the most beastly cold wind. I liked it even less when the day was simply pouring with rain & I got all my knees wet en route.

However, the rain stopped soon after we got to the place of parade & it cheered up & the sun shone & was quite nice. D.H. recognized me alright and I rode along with him while he passed my Battalion & he was most complimentary & very pleased with their turnout.

So the former brother officer is none other than Haig himself, the commander of the B.E.F. But this positive review is the good news. Our bluff former regular and confident Battalion Commanding Officer is a far cry from Edward Thomas–but he too will be away from home for Christmas.

Dearie mine I very much doubt if I get home for some time now. Today they have put all C.O.s & staff officers on the ordinary leave roster, & not supernumerary to it as they used to be. The consequence is that I come a long way down the list now…

This bureaucratic change is actually quite significant. Either the army can no longer tolerate so many leaves for its staff officers and battalion commanders, or there is a growing awareness that when enlisted men get only a few days of leave in a year and subalterns perhaps two or three slightly longer leaves, the higher-ups can’t be jaunting home whenever convenient. It’s almost as if the army is adjusting to the realities of a long war of attrition in which maintaining the goodwill of a conscript army will be as much of a challenge as driving the Germans from France and Belgium…

Darling mine there’s a prayer in the little book I should like you to teach the kids. It’s one that starts about ‘the sentry on watch this night, those who command that they etc. There are a couple of lines in the middle that you might eliminate.

This would be the prayer in question:

O GOD, who never sleepest, and art never weary, have mercy upon those who watch to-night: on the sentry, that he may be alert; on those who command, that they may be strengthened with counsel; on the sick, that they may obtain sleep; on the wounded, that they may find ease; on the faint-hearted, that they may hope again; on the light-hearted, lest they forget Thee; on the dying, that they may find peace; on the sinful, that they may turn again. And save us, good Lord. Amen.

It would be the part about death, then, that Hermon would eliminate. I leave it to the reader, I suppose, to guess to what extent this request is a gesture of connection–a wishful thought from a father who is prevented by circumstance from, among many other things, seeing to his children’s religious education–and to what extent it is a hope for intercessory prayer.

I would love to think that the kids were saying it, or had said it when I go round the front lines at midnight & it appeals to me awfully as I see so much of the sentry & know what he has to go through… He wants all the help one can give him. Well my love, good night.[3]

But why parse such a letter? It is, even for the skeptical reader a century hence, a war-of-attrition-style Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude.

 

And yet all is fair in love and loss in war–especially in strictly calendrical projects arising therefrom. I would prefer to end on that sweet and uplifting note, but there’s one more letter to cover today, and not a hopeful one. Geoffrey Bache Smith‘s mother wrote to his close friend John Ronald Tolkien today, in response to his letter and “with details of her son’s last days.” And yet, if it ended there, we’d have less to read. Mrs. Smith also asked Tolkien for his help in seeing her son’s verses published, and “upon receipt of her letter, Tolkien replies at once.” And he will see the project through.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 104-5. I have not been able to figure out the "beastly thing about a butcher's shop--" perhaps he abandoned it.
  2. Hollis, Now All Roads, 307, which seems to place Helen's letter today; but the context of World Without End, 163 (whence the quote) puts it a few weeks ago, when Thomas was first at Lydd.
  3. For Love and Courage, 316-8.
  4. Chronology, 97.

Robert Hermon Among the Old Etonians; Lady Feilding, Plus One, Plan for Leave

Edward “Robert” Hermon, long frustrated by odd-jobs and deputy positions, has recently taken command of a New Army battalion. Which is all very well, but it leaves a fellow, when out of the line, with only two choices about the manner in which he dines: either he presides over subordinates, or he travels to be among equals.

I’m going to have a covered car tonight & I’m going off to an Old Etonian dinner in the hopes that I’ll meet someone I like better than myself.

So this not introspective self-hatred, but awkwardly phrased comedy: a battalion CO is often socially isolated in his own unit, hence traveling to dine with old schoolfellows instead of keeping one’s own counsel.

The weather is still damnable, cold & cheerless…

And the dinner? This from Hermon’s letter of tomorrow, again to his wife Ethel.

Well, I… had a really very pleasant evening…  The first soul I saw in the room was Wally & I was so pleased to see him & I sat next to him & on my other side was an Eton master who knew Dick. He had a staff job somewhere & was a Grenadier Guardsman…

There were 73 of us sat down at dinner but very few folk that I knew. My circle of acquaintances being a few folk met hereabouts and Wally & old Rotter Carter!! The later was the oldest Etonian present, having gone there in 1869!! …General Plumer was in the chair…[1]

Alas that I do not have at my fingertips any more information about old “Rotter” Carter, Eton boy of a century and a half back.

 

Instead, one more note, today–or, rather, two–from Dorothie Feilding to her mother. Things are quiet enough in Belgium for Lady Feilding to be able to count on a Christmas leave, so she has begun to plan the details, right down to the days on which she anticipates sufficient discomfort to make a favorite winter pastime–riding to hounds–less than ideal. I’ll back up a few days, in part so that she can describe another behind-the-lines dinner–one that can rival even a gathering of 73 Old Etonians in its essential Englishness.

2nd Dec [1916]

Mother dear–

I would rather cross on the 12th because Tonks[2] will be with me next day, as I have clo’ to get in London I don’t mind his coming shopping & doing gadgets with me, whereas I should be awfully bored if he came to stay in the middle of my time at home to interfere with a golden letter day of a hunt! Of course it’s very selfish to want to hunt, but I am just aching for one. I missed them all last year & am feeling depraved at this moment & panting for one!

We had 2 generals to supper here last night: the corps & div French Gen. Nice old birds both. They enjoyed themselves muchly & the old boy Balfourier brought us some heavenly carnations & mimosa which give a most depraved look to the ‘salon’ in Flanders, war time & all!

It really is very simple being English out here. If French people ask Gens to dinner & make them fetch the soup & wash their spoons between the soup & the pudding it is rude! If you’re English it is ‘original et amusant’…

My own car took 106 men during the month of Nov from N about the same as the month before…

 

And then today, a century back:

6th Dec

Ma dear–

…I am awfully bucked. Burbidge is on leave & hunting & has practically bought another gee to bring out here for the Navy. If he does so, instead of taking it back on the 11th with him, he offers to lend it me to hunt while I am home. I am thrilled to the teeth as you can imagine. Have asked the Heaths if they will let me stable the gee with them as a ‘paying guest’…

So it would seem that Lady Dorothie’s guilt about wanting to hunt does not extend to avoiding the expense and trouble of bringing a horse from Belgium to England…

Panting to hear if they will, otherwise I shall have to bring it & keep it in my bed at NP. As my bed is generally your bed on leave, I expect you to take a great interest in the Heaths’ decision.

…I am glad you are fed up with Mrs K’s book as I think it’s a rotten shame on all other women working out here, as it will tar them all with the same brush. Winkie is learning to type so I am suggesting she practice on you. She’s getting quite excited because she can address an envelope now in under 25 minutes…

Yr loving

Diddles

It’s so nice to see you all soon[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 312-3.
  2. A family pet name (or perhaps "code name" would be the better term) for pain--in this case, at least, it would seem to indicate menstrual pain. In a letter of Nov. 23rd, also planning ahead for this visit, Feildling calculates the days to come and writes that "Tonks doesn’t like hunts & I do!"
  3. Lady Under Fire, 165-7.

A Parcel for Frank Richards; A Conversation and a Moonlit Crossing for Olaf Stapledon

Not far away from where Edmund Blunden and his battalion just marched out of the line, Frank Richards and the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers are marching back in.

On November 4th, 1916, we went back in the line, Paddy taking his turn with B Echelon, which consisted of the transport and a small number of officers and men who were left out of the line when the Battalion went in…  We were only going in for forty-eight hours, and it was decided not to send the mail up for that period. I instructed Paddy that if anything happened to me he was to do what he liked with a parcel I was expecting, and to give the tobacco away to a pipe smoker.

It is nice, sometimes, to have the foreboding anecdote in the first person.

About an hour before we moved off, one of our planes brought a German plane crashing to the ground about half a mile in front of us and on the edge of a sunken road which we knew we would have to pass. I had seen it happen once or twice that when a German plane had been shot down just behind our front line some time later the enemy would do their level best to blow it to pieces. This plane was about a mile behind our front. I had been posted to Battalion Headquarters and it was dark when we were passing the plane, which was now being shelled. We had a few casualties and one of the killed was the Regimental Sergeant-Major’s batman, who was carrying a lovely bag of rations. One of our old signallers picked it up. During the following day each one of us put on a little weight and the RSM lost a little. There were more rations in that bag than what the whole of the signallers had, put together.

Today, at least, Richards is not only safe but unusually well-fed–is this a new sort of near-miss, then?

We stayed in an old German dug-out. Two steps below us in another dug-out stayed the Colonel and Adjutant. All communication with our front line was by runners. We had lines running back to Brigade, which were very weak and we had difficulty in receiving Morse or speaking to them.[1]

 

Olaf Stapledon is headed back to Belgium after a stretch of leave, driving a new ambulance. But England–like all things–reminds him mostly of Agnes, his Australian cousin and fiancée, with whom he first fell in love when she visited England as a child.

…Just fancy being at Oxford! You once stayed at this hotel. Oh no, of course you were in rooms. Two dear little girls in fawn coloured silk frocks lying in a punt gliding up the Cherwell and one of them, all unconscious, was being piloted by her future “young man.” Do you remember running along the bank watching eights? A good number of all those eager oarsmen are dead by now…

Remarkably, in this crossing-of-paths-in-memory, one of those fellow-oarsmen was Julian Grenfell.

The whole place is military. Balliol is a headquarters for cadet corps, and so are many other colleges. The streets are crowded with soldiers of all sorts and the characteristic Oxford girls, who are enjoying themselves no end these days!

Then, yesterday, a century back, in a familiar journey of return, Olaf has reached the channel once more.

Royal Pavilion Hotel
Folkestone
3 November 1916

Agnes best beloved,

This is a huge and luxurious hotel full of officers and their women-folk. It is blowing great guns outside, and I am glad I am not crossing tonight. . . . Well, dear, here am I, your mere motor driver, on the brink of going back to that supreme boredom, the war. Fifteen months ago I stayed here with Father and Mother and wondered what it would
be like on the other side. Guess I’m sadder & wiser now, and rather horribly sober and dry and disillusioned both about patriotism, militarism, and about consciences. I believe there is much self-deception on each side, much pharisaism and also failure to realise the situation, but on the whole I am clearly on the side of the conscience people, because they alone are guardians of the future, and all the fighting and smashing and hating only proves again and again that they are right.

But there is one thing I am not sober & disillusioned about, and that is you. I have grown to know you so much better in these fifteen months. You were the most real thing during all that time, more real than all the daily realities. And now at the end of this chapter of history here am I without any honours or distinctions or merit even, yet loving and loved by Agnes. And again & again I must needs swear to myself that this great good fortune shall result not only in personal joy but in good work for the world and in—children. Truly I think often of that future tangible expression of our loving. Do you? . . .

Next Day. Saturday 4th Nov. 1916. l am crossing this afternoon on a chilly grey windy day, worse luck. They are going to rob me of all my petrol, so I shall be nicely stranded at Boulogne with perhaps no means of getting petrol without my documents, and my documents 40 miles off. What a muddle.

But cross he did, and his next letter is a wonderfully rounded vignette, almost a perfect short-story.

It’s the story of a voyage that is only a part of a greater voyage–it has neither a true beginning nor an end, for it’s the trenches that are the real frontier, not the mere seashore. This night’s voyage is just one stage of a long journey in the middle of a long war, and although the story is almost entirely lacking in action–certainly in conclusive action–it signifies a great deal.

I really didn’t that the Stapledon the effusive dreamer was capable of doing the quietly devastating miniature, but for some reason I find this letter more effective than many others that are so much more eventful or shocking. Here he unflinchingly lays bare the terrible sadness that undergirds and overwhelms all of the war’s other emotions.

France
Agnes, 4 November 1916

I am the other side now. I last wrote to you at three o’clock this afternoon. It is now half past ten, and I am staying here the night and driving to HQ tomorrow. I’ll tell you about the crossing. My clean grey car was slung aboard and I sat in her for the voyage. The boat was very crowded, as usual. I asked the nearest people to come & sit in the car, and the one who came and sat by me was an Australian. He and his mate had a swig from a flask of rum, I having nobly refused that hospitality. We then began yarning… He came from Sydney. Says I, “I hope to go there after the war to marry a girl.” Says he, “An Australian girl? I married an Australian girl. . . . It’s two years since I saw my wife.”
Pause, after which he wriggled himself into a comfortable position and said, “It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it! And there seems no end to it.” To which I grunted profound assent.

The moon showed dimly through light cloud. Our ship was without lights. The deck was crowded with all kinds of soldiers, lying, standing, sitting, all wearing life belts, all very quiet, many trying to sleep. Some kept talking about the late channel raid, but mostly what talk there was seemed to be about home. A fellow standing near me was talking in a matter of fact voice. I overheard bits, such as, “She was just on the point of bursting into tears all the time, but she kept it back; she had to keep tight hold of herself.” Meanwhile my companion, after discussing the war in terms that would be censurable and in a tone of voice still more censurable, settled down with his coat over his face and went to sleep. And now here am I in a hotel on my way to join the convoy. And all those men are likewise on their way to join their various units. I overheard one say, “Ay, before one went on leave one always had leave to look forward to, but now one has been, and there’s nothing to look forward to. I suppose one will settle down to the old routine.” When we were all pressing up to a door to go through formalities, the doorkeeper said, “Is there anyone here visiting wounded?” A grave voice said “Yes,” and three poorly dressed civilian men struggled through the crowd toward the door. Leave is only given to relations to cross when the wounded man is not going to live.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 210-11.
  2. Talking Across the World, 183-5.

Raymond Asquith on Prettiness, Shaw, and a Woman’s Place; Robert Graves is Released at Last

Raymond Asquith and the Guards Division are back in billets. Two days and a century back, he reported to his wife Katherine on the move, and on his prospects:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
24 August 1916

…I can’t tell you the joy of getting into a house at last after this life of trenches and dug-outs, huts and tents and bivouacs. Last night we had an absolutely bloody camp, the worst I have seen yet. All the officers slept together in a hut with a canvas roof, through which the rain poured in on a floor of hard mud littered with the leavings of poultry, and just as I was going to bed a mole ran out from under my pillow and then ran in again.

Eglise vignacourt

Saint-Firmin de Vignacourt

We had to get up at 4 a.m. in the dark and wet and marched off–the whole division together–at 7. The weather cleared and we had a fine and fairly cool march of 12 miles or so pretty nearly due South through a very comely bit of country with bills and woods and fields of undulating com. About noon we finished up in a biggish rather pretty village with an oldish rather pretty church.[1]

Sloper and I found an excellent billet in a cottage with a charming little garden full of pansies and dahlias and delightfully clean rooms where we have just had lunch. We are out of the sound of the guns and the countryside is smiling and peaceful…

You would think it impossible on our limited front to cover as much ground as we have done during the last month. We never stop moving and yet we never seem to arrive anywhere, which is perhaps as well . . .

I am now reading the prefaces to Shaw’s plays which I find stimulating. He has the gift of never being quite right about anything. No one who wears jaeger and disbelieves in vaccination ever could be.

How very topical!

But he always says a number of true things in a very telling way. How right, e.g. to wipe off the slate those stale and senseless controversies about the exact date of the gospels and the authenticity of the miracles. And how true that beliefs are a matter of taste and taste a matter of fashion. This gets rid at once of the old trouble about so many clever men being Xians and the newer one of so many clever men not being Xians.

So Asquith is reading Shaw. And who else, praytell?

I should like Ford’s plays if you can get hold of a small (and cheap) edition, and you might also send me (if you can get a French version of it) Mafarka Le Futuriste by Marinetti…

The first, alas, is not Ford Madox (he is still “Hueffer,” anyway) but rather John. So, yes: Raymond Asquith, while marching to and fro across France and Belgium, making nasty comments about various people all the while, would also like to read both Futurist poetry and Jacobean tragedy.

 

That was two days ago. But Asquith has an unerring instinct for the alternation of attractive and repulsive qualities and opinions. Now that I have praised him for the breadth of his interests, today, a century back, he comes down heavily on the question of what women–or at least his woman–should do to aid the war effort. It’s not accidental that Asquith segues from a discussion of their three children to his opinion of his wife’s new (potential) interest:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
26 August 1916

. . . I have your letter of Tuesday; It is bad news about Helen being musical, but I am glad she can ride. I think it would be a great mistake for you to become a nurse (unless of course you are driven to it by sheer boredom). After all charity begins at home and you will contribute much more to the commonwealth by suckling Trim and teaching him how to attract women and Helen and Perdita how to attract men, than by muddling about with compound fractures and spiral bandages. Also what would happen to me if I ever did come home on leave?[2]

What indeed. So, if we’re keeping score, Asquith is an anti-anti-vaxxer and a lactivist. How enlightened! And, also, he would like his wife to be waiting at home for him, presumably to supervise the staff that will cook him his dinner and get him his slippers and perform any other necessary services…

Or perhaps his obnoxiousness has raised my hackles. It would be rather late for an untrained nurse to learn enough to be useful, and–theoretically at least–the care of their infant son and young daughters would have to be taken up by someone else, which hardly strengthens the British wartime work force…

 

And what has become of Robert Graves? Well, it turned out that taking shrapnel through the chest required more than a week in hospital. But today, a century back, Graves was at last released, and made immediately for his beloved Wales, ‘crying all the way.”[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Now I regret omitting, yesterday, Rowland Feilding's assessment of the same church: "It is a beautiful church—inside and out;—I think almost the prettiest small church I have seen in France."
  2. Life and Letters, 288-9.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves The Assault Heroic, 159.

Siegfried Sassoon Contemplative, and Gathering Primitive Weapons; Raymond Asquith on Boredom, Fear, and the Boring Fear of Growing Old

It’s once again time to check in with Raymond Asquith, and see how the regimental life is suiting him. We’ll go back five days, as far as a letter to Diana Manners

25 May 1916

. . . We came out to this utterly bloody camp where we now are on Sunday night, marching between fields of deep cool green corn in the early morning. It was wonderfully like what coming home from a ball through Covent-Garden ought to be, but, as we know, isn’t–leaving behind one the flash and clatter of machine guns and pressing one’s brow against the dewy peace of the vegetable world…

That, it must be said, is an unexpected metaphor.

Katherine writes that you have been an angel to her which I like to hear, and also that you are utterly stagestruck which I like less. Tell me when you next write, about the stage and why you like it. It makes me think that you might like Ypres…

A brutal orderly has come for the post while I still had much more to say. Write as much as you can without putting a burden on yourself.

And to Katherine, his wife:

25 May 1916
. . . I spent yesterday from 8.30 a.m.-4.30 p.m. in a wood near here with Ham. We took 100 men to put up wooden huts there and spent quite a pleasant and restful day lying on our backs on the moss drinking whisky, listening to the song of the nightingales and reading aloud to one another a book by Ouida called Chandos which we both thought very funny.

Never mind the decadent drinking and reading while the enlisted men labor: is Asquith surrendering, at long last, to the lazy siren song of the pastoral?

It was a fine warm day and the only trouble was that we were harassed incessantly by midges and mosquitoes . . .

Nope. Two days back, now, a more serious letter.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
28 May 1916

I notice a distinct change in the morale of this battalion since I was last with them–the officers I mean. They are more tired of the war, more frightened of shells and talk more constantly about the prospects of peace. I think it is almost entirely boredom which produces this effect, because it is absurd to pretend, as some people do, that there is anything in the nature of continuous nervous strain in this war. Shelling certainly has a cumulative effect, but even in the Salient there is hardly more than 1 day a month when it is bad enough to cause real distress.

This is an odd conclusion, but one we might have expected: boredom is Asquith’s bête noire and he has a rather expansive sense of it. So we might try to bend his words to fit the idea that prolonged inaction under intermittent shellfire… but no, he goes right out and says that he does not believe that ordinary service in the trenches should cause “cumulative strain.”

There are many opinions about this, and Asquith is surely entitled to his, but then again he hasn’t been in a major bombardment, he has just had a nice long break at G.H.Q., and he is likely to be seeing the reflection of his own experience and mistaking it for others’. He loathes boredom and it saps his morale, so others… but still, it’s odd that he will acknowledge the “cumulative” nature of nervous strain but deny that it may be happening to others. Asquith is, needless to say, on the wrong side of history (or, rather, military historiography) on this one.

Finally, a letter of today, a century back, in which Asquith recovers his equilibrium with a virtuoso performance of the finding of lemons and the making of delightfully tarter lemons.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
30 May 1916

Last night we had an open air concert in the dusk, a long succession of super-sentimental songs, about people being married for 40 years and still playing the same old tune on the piano and so on. I wondered what we should be like in 40 years; and came to the conclusion that you would still be very sweet indeed, though poor Trim [their infant son] would be just developing the “middle-aged spread”. What a terrible place the world is. Even in war time one can’t help having more apprehensions about living to be old than about being cut off in the flower of one’s youth–if indeed one can still call it that…[1]

 

More youthful by some eight years, and recently very much both in flower and in peril, Siegfried Sassoon is still coming back to the good green French earth after the excitement of the failed raid.

May 30, 6.30 p.m.

Sitting on a milestone which says ‘Amiens 29.7k.’ Pérorine 22.9k’. A cloudless white evening—the tall green wheat shaking in a light southerly breeze. A steam-roller puffing and crunching a couple of hundred yards down the road toward Corbie (12.3k. Bray-sur-Somme 4.4k).

Well, that’s a nice one for the next project: traveling around France and Flanders affixing hand-hewn stone plaques to the precise locations of Great War literature.

Some guns thudding a few miles away; and the long dark green line of the Bois de Taille (full of Devons and Border Regiment) with telegraph-poles standing in the foreground. Rode over to Corbie this morning and saw Stansfield at the clearing hospital there. He is out of danger. A nice ride–with our cheery Medical Officer—in cool grey weather after a rainy night.

This is good news, since Stansfield’s injuries were thought to be severe. And so have we finished with the Great Raid of the Royal Welch? No–the hero is lingering upon the field.

Had a narrow squeak on Friday night when I went out to try and collect the debris of the raid: a bomb (from a catapult) fell about a yard from me, but I was lying flat, so everything passed over me, and I was only half-deafened by the noise. Got three axes and a knobkerrie, but I don’t think if was worthwhile. Still, my luck seems to hold. Name been sent in for M.C. (so rumour says). Lord, how pleased everyone will be if I get it.

Worthwhile? No, risking one’s life to pick up simple tools is generally not. Note too what Sassoon does not mention: the dead. Not Corporal O’Brien, killed in the raid; and not David Thomas. Has action changed him?

Walking home, there was an acre of thick wet clover, deep-red and tipped with paler pink, and in those lush tangles were a few small scarlet poppies. And the sun was low above delicate, watery-green landscapes tufted with trees; and Morlancourt in the basin with smoke going up looked very peaceful: and brown bees were in the clover-patch, and the sun went down like a poppy.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 263-5.
  2. Diaries, 65-7.