None of our writers yet know the exact date of the coming offensive–and they can assume that the terrible weather and the operational wrench tossed in the works by the German withdrawal will delay it at least a bit more–but there is a growing sense that they may be only days away from the end of a winter which, for all its miseries, has seen men killed only by the handfuls and dozens, for the most part, and not by the thousands.
Girding for battle, then, we have five writers to read today–two provide lengthy and rather weighty letters, but we also have some lighter fare along the way…
Ivor Gurney, wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back. Scott is at once his friend and benefactress; she has put his songs before an audience, published his music, lectured on his poetry, helped him at every stage, and now is in the last stages of preparing his first book of poems for the press. As the editor of those poems, she has become less and less like a patron or facilitator and more and more like a partner: Gurney’s moods are changeable, his spelling and punctuation are shaky, and his ability to focus on revising his poems while serving as an infantryman is, rather understandably, limited. He is fortunate that his friend is both skilled and willing to edit with sensitivity, cleaning up his verse without heavy-handedly blotting out his oddities–and he is wise enough (or, again, fortunate) to recognize this.
23 March 1917
My Dear Friend: Things are beginning to move, and no one knows when may come the next opportunity for writing. I have just received your letter of March 11th… Do not consult me about these things, but do as your far more experienced judgement may lead you…
A frequent topic in these letters is Scott’s ill-health. She has a number of ongoing medical problems and has been very sick two different times in recent months, and Gurney, though sympathetic, often struggles to find a way to express his sympathy. Today an obvious path is open: he can share her joy at resuming music:
And it is good news that you are able to play sonatas again, and with a sympathetic pianist. It gives me a feeling of sharing your good-fortune to read of it; may your strength increase and give you hours a day of it…
One parcel of yours I have received — not yet the other. All the letters have arrived and all given pleasure. O to return to England and my friends! Such joys are there as are dangerous to imagine at present; not all at once will my mind and body become sound, but it cannot be so very very long before Joy becomes “used to me”…
The new state of things entered upon by the German retreat may mean little letter writing. This is the reason why I hasten to reply, though never have I felt more acutely the inadequacy of words. Last night and this afternoon have been so beautiful that my mind has been filled with Blighty thoughts. But consider what a queer past I have to look back on! Either I am a great musician or a chronic neurastheniac!
That’s a line worth remarking on. Many of our writers are in a similar position in that they sense the war will be the making or breaking of their literary ambitions, and yet few have struggled mentally and emotionally as much as Gurney has. The war is an intensifier–double or nothing, death or great beauty.
There is nothing outside it, for the visible world is hardly to be seen by me unless music hallows my spirit with beauty and toughens it by the necessary work.
And yet Gurney is consistently grateful about another thing the war has done for him: throwing him among all sorts of men has cured him of much of his social awkwardness, at least among men. Suffering together has made a feeling of brotherhood possible.
You will be glad to hear however that as a personality I am rather popular in my company. It pleases me this, as so I know myself nearer Walt Whitmans perfect man; equal to shepherd and President; equal and familiar. O the joy to be able to go into a little Cotswold inn and drop into conversation with the nearest man! And that, compared with my tongue-tied shyness of 3 years ago. And if not here, then in the Shades I will be friends with men contemptuous of the fate to which some Power has doomed them, jovially drinking in some phantom pub over doubtful takes and unprintable denunciation of the Infernal NCOs.
We’ve seen something like this before (not that I can currently place it, mind)–a soldier so pleased to belong that he humorously, but with real feeling, extends the dream of post-war camaraderie even to otherworldly environs. Gurney is then once again reminded that he is neglecting a different category of friend:
You patient correspondent, though you make no complaint, how should you not be tired of the continual self-analysis which makes up the bulk of my letters! And yet those letters are the safety-valves of my discomfort. It is a cheap amusement—grumbling—pleasing the writer and leaving the reader to read or not as she pleases. I
absolve myself therefore from half the blame, take the other half if you please.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
…Goodbye and many sonatas. Unless I write very soon, more verse-books off:
Your sincere friend
Robert (Edward) Hermon’s latest letter to his wife Ethel picks up in the middle of a joint reminiscence about old holidays, but it is nevertheless overshadowed by the coming offensive.
…I fear those old days are gone for ever now… Let’s hope our next trip will be one here to see the result of the war with the Chugs.
Of course, by now you know more about the German retirement than I do, really, as you have had one more Times than I have…
According to the papers he is retiring there so that, if any preparations have been made by us for the much-talked-about spring offensive, we may have to start again… & in the meantime his submarines will sink all our ships. However the best-laid plans often go wrong…
War is one of those delightful uncertainties that a very small thing may completely upset. It is all most awfully interesting & I hope I shall see the end. I often long for the time when one will be able to read the history of the early phases & know why he didn’t do some of the many things that he ought to have done.
I got three delightful letters from the Chugs too, today. I wish I had time to answer them. Thank dear little Mary for her nice message & her letter too. I am so pleased to hear she sat on her pony so well when it fell down!
Goodnight my darling.
Before we get to two letters from Edward Thomas–I know I have been including a great deal of his writing, but these show a different aspect of his personality–let’s do two brief bits of comic relief, one intentional and one rather by-the-way.
We haven’t heard from Jack Martin much–his diary has been sparse, as he seems to be in low spirits. I don’t know him well enough to suspect any particular mood (or mood disorder), but he seems to be suffering from the general malaise common to men who are excited to reach the front and then find not the thrill and terror of battle but the long slog of living and working in miserable winter conditions. His diary only springs to life when he can report letters from home or another test of wills with his commanding officer and sparring partner Lieutenant Buchanan. But today a bit of light comedy flutters out from an unsolicited parcel, in a moment much more redolent of 1915 and the heyday of Kitchener’s army than this tense muddy month, a century back:
Arrived at Dickebusch safely. Had a parcel from Lil containing a body belt folded up just as she had bought it. When I unfolded it a piece of paper dropped out–I picked it up and read this:
Miss Dulcie Bennett
111 Mansfield Road
Wishes the boy who receives this belt the best of luck and a safe return to Blighty. XXXX for luck
Oh, Dulcinea, I am no Don Quixote so I vulgarly displayed your missive to other eyes and there was quite a competition between several fellows as to who should have it and write to you…
And I can’t resist the beginning of Kate Luard‘s diary for today, a century back. If we often look for “found poetry” hidden in the prose of our writers, today this old campaigner provides us a found nonsense-alphabet-jingle:
The three C.O.’s of the three C.C.S’s here were summoned to 3rd Army H.Q. to-day to a Conference with the D.M.S…
Lastly, Edward Thomas, thrice. I absolve all readers not lavishly endowed with free time or particularly interested in a writer’s fine-grained choices from reading any further. It’s too much!
Or not… Well, we’ll begin with an excerpt from his diary, and then proceed to excerpts from two different letters.
Frosty clear. Ploughs going up over crest towards Beaurains. Rubin back from F. O. P. believes in God and tackles me about atheism–thinks marvellous escapes are ordained. But I say so are the marvellous escapes of certain telegraph posts, houses, etc.
Next, a letter to his old friend Gordon Bottomley which does something rather odd: Thomas reviews the salient experiences and most striking sights of recent days (many of which we’ve read about) but he does so in a hurried, unliterary fashion. Usually the letters are more considered, more elaborate than the diary, but not here.
My dear Gordon,
I will write again while I can a little. Things are moving now & we move too. I have not long come back from 24 hours in our new front line. It was dirty wet & cold & I could only stand & mark the flashes of enemy guns at night, which was my business. Afterwards I slept 16 hours for the first time in my life. It taught me several things that others knew before. It made me cease to be alarmed by shells that could not harm me, for example, though they came over 20 or 30 a minute all night. They were flying home to a village that we used to fire at till this last move, a fascinating ghostly village of stark trees & ruins which I shall probably soon be sleeping in. It was beautiful coming down to the city in sunshine & seeing the old ruined Town Hall like a thick white smoke just beginning to curl. Crossing the old No Man’s Land crowded like a race course after a race, I couldn’t take seriously the few small shells thrown at the working parties. Oh, I did eat & rest & sleep…
Yesterday it was sunny & mild. Today it is cold & snows at times…
Is this sort of rote reporting motivated only by a sense of duty to an old friend? But Thomas does work around to some more intimate issues of the sort that once sustained his letters to Bottomley.
…Fear too, I have discovered—to that point where the worst moment is when you find you have survived & that all your fear was useless. You screw yourself up for a second to bear anything & nothing comes—except a curious disappointment which I suppose is also relief. Sometimes at night I have been in this state a hundred times, but partly through inexperience, not knowing what might mean harm. Still, I shall never like the shell that flaps as it falls, or the one that suddenly bounces into hearing & in a second is bursting far off—no sooner does it open the gate than it is right in the door, or even the small one that complains & whimpers & is called a ‘pipsqueak’ or a ‘whizzbang’, & flies into that ghastly village all night long like flights of humming birds.
Ah–and he is working on refining his descriptions of the shells. Through music, next, and friendship, the letter finally turns to his poetry–only to dodge, at the end, from success back toward despair.
…I conclude I don’t quite want friends here. I should be too introspective or too happy to meet the circumstance. And yet all sorts of things do make me happy—villages, the city in ruins, the larks in the bloody dirty dawn, the partridges, the magpies floating about among shellfire & once a bat, & a hundred different houses, in city, suburb, & village.
I hear now that America wants my verses & Poetry has taken some. Frost wants me to surrender my pseudonymity but I am not doing so. Of course I can’t think of writing here & only keep the briefest of diaries…
I haven’t met anybody out here yet who connected me with home. I don’t think of home. I never did have pictures on the wall since I was 1.
Goodbye. My love to Emily. Yours ever
Last, today, Thomas’s letter to his son, Merfyn, now a teenager but working full time as an apprentice at a bus works. Is it his age that accounts for the formality of the letter, or the gaps in his relationship with his father, so often depressed or working away. And yes, he misspells his son’s name, sort of–the name is Welsh, so the “f” sounds as a “v,” anyway:
244 Siege Battery, 23 March 1917
My dear Mervyn,
I brought back a letter from you in the mail bags today and also a new battery for my torch. Thank you very much… It is most useful in crossing this dark street when crowded with lorries or columns of horses and limbers and on all sorts of occasions.
I was so glad to hear from you and how much you were earning for Mother as well as yourself. At the same time I am more anxious for you to learn than to earn at present and I hope you will soon be moved to a new shop.
But Merfyn will soon be eighteen, and in England, a century back, work is no longer the thing that most defines a man’s estate.
You haven’t found an O.T.C. yet, have you? I wish you could, though I hope you will not have to go further than that for a long time. I don’t think war would trouble you. I see lots of infantrymen no bigger or older than you. There was one machine gunner doing duty over the parapet the other night when I was in the very very front trench. He had to stand up there behind his gun watching for an hour. Then he was relieved and made some tea for me and himself and turned into his comic little shanty and slept till the next relief. He looked ever so much older as well as dirtier when morning came. He was a very nice bright Scotch boy. Well, I expect you could do just the same. His officer was the same age and very much like him so that I think he had to look unduly severe to show the distinction…
These, of course, are new thoughts, different thoughts, experiences filtered–and this is very rare, in what we read of Thomas–through the lens of fatherhood. But very strangely, Thomas segues from this paternal mode into a comparison of himself and his son. He had recently faced the task of climbing an enormous chimney for observation purposes, and backed down. Now he wonders if his boy could have done better.
I wonder could you climb that chimney? There were iron rings all the way up and I knew one was loose, but I didn’t know which. One bad feature was that you were always hanging out a bit, because the chimney tapered. It has been hit three times but only with small stuff. Now I suppose it is likely to survive as the enemy is farther off.
Even more strangely, he takes what might seem an offhand (to anyone not risking shellfire on a daily basis) approach to a completely fundamental question:
The crossroads round it became known as Windy Comer because everybody ‘got the wind up’ as he came near it. Thousands had to go that way and yet very few were injured and only about two killed. Isn’t it wonderful how some men get hit and some don’t. But it is the same with trees and houses, so that I don’t see why it makes some people ‘believe in God’. It is a good thing to believe. I think brave people all believe something and I daresay they are not so likely to be killed as those who don’t believe and are not so brave…
But then the formality–a certain awkwardness, at least–creeps back in, and Thomas begins to deluge his son with questions:
…It is going to be Spring soon. Are you glad? Are you often happy and usually contented, and if not contented, not often in despair? Try never to let despair at any rate make you idle or careless; But be as idle and careless as you can when you are happy and the chance comes. If you are troubled, remember that you can do what perhaps nobody else will be able to do for Mother and Bronwen and Baba: only don’t let that make you anxious either. All will come well if you keep honest and kind.Upon my word, this sounds like a sermon and I do hate sermons, of which it is not true to say that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is more easy to give a sermon than to receive.
Which is why, perhaps, he decides to close by giving something not every father can give–this sort of evocative, quietly emotional writing:
Do you have time to read now? I only read for ten minutes in bed, Shakespeare’s sonnets, with a pipe which I smoke about a quarter through and then put out the light and forget the flash of guns across the street and the rattle of the windows, everything except the thud of a shell in the marsh behind, but that seems to have stopped now. Goodnight.
Ever your loving