Scott Moncrieff Returns to London; Alfred Hale Endures Parental Bluster; Wyn Griffith in Red Tabs with Royalty; Vera Brittain on “The Profound Freemasonry” of Those Dead Beyond the Gulf

Today, a century back, we have rather a potpourri of four updates–and none are from the trenches.

First, we witness Charles Scott Moncrieff, now back in London, returning to a familiar literary orbit.

14th June

. . . Broadway (a brother officer here) is very good and faithful to me. He comes down after breakfast in a dressing gown and again (for messages) before he goes out. He has got me this writing pad. Colin came this afternoon and brought a great armful of roses. . . . My friend Robert Ross was in before Colin—fresh from a week-end with the Asquiths—and gave me a novel and a promise of all the latest poetry and other books. I was glad to see him as I wanted an expert’s eye cast on the portraits in this room. . . . I expect a good many brother officers this week. Broadway finds them. He is more obliging than words can say. This place is doing me a lot of good and I feel better already. Our surgeon is like the young villain in Hardy’s Laodicean—he looks about 14 but is very able…[1]

Reading Hardy, depending on Ross’s taste, Asquiths at arm’s reach… and, though he doesn’t mention it in this letter, he is also being regularly visited by Ronald Knox. It’s a small world… which I believe I’ve noted before.

 

While Moncrieff is returning from the war seriously wounded, Alfred Hale is slowly headed toward France. So slowly that he is still in the adjusting-to-training-camp stage. And it turns out that even our Old Man of the Air Force has parents. Hale may live a solitary life of privilege–before conscription that is–and see camp as an ordeal rather than an adventure, but he’s only 41… and he still has parents who write him their worries, reminding us that the generational gulf is, in terms of years on this earth, relative, and not absolute…

14 June: A letter from my father. A cousin had come to see him on Draft leave. He seemed to be bored with the War, especially with the prospect of death before his time from bullets or exposure… all of which surprised and shocked my father. ‘It didn’t matter how long the War lasted, but we must have a military victory at all costs’. (This last the burden of all letters from home)…

Hale senior also tells his son that at least his work as a batman is “setting free an abler man.” But Hale isn’t so sure. “Was I really doing that? Unfortunately, I much doubted it…” Nor is Hale accepting the idea that his music “must gain” from experience. He is fairly certain, in fact, that innocence of certain things is highly preferable…[2]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith has recovered, to some extent, from the overwhelming disillusionment and horror at the murderousness of war that he felt after the death of his brother. Or perhaps he has just become more practical… and honest in his balance of emotional reaction and natural self-interest. In any event, he was very happy to be reassigned to the divisional staff a few days ago, replacing a wounded officer in an intelligence job running “an advanced information centre.” Griffith puts on his red tabs “with delight… I felt proud and important in red. Besides, I would be drawing pay at the rate of £400 a year, a tremendous jump for me.” And today, a century back, his elevated status put him in the way of royalty:

… the King and the Prince of Wales visited the headquarters on 14 June. The King shook hands with all the senior members of the corps and divisional staffs…[3]

 

A wounded young man of letters returning to the literary world, a middle-aged musician learning further humiliations, and a one-time trench fighter content to be on the staff. The war brings many changes–until the changes stop.

Vera Brittain comes to the end of the road, today, with Victor Richardson.

Five days after [his death] Victor was buried at Hove. No place on earth could have been more ironically inappropriate for a military funeral than that secure, residential town, I reflected, as I listened with rebellious anger to the calm voice of the local clergyman intoning the prayers: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all those who have died for their country…”

Eternal Rest, I reflected, had been the last thing that Victor wanted; he had told me so himself. But if, thus prematurely, he had to take it, how much I wished that fate had allowed him to lie, with other winners of the Military Cross, in one of the simple graveyards of France. I felt relieved, as I listened to the plaintive sobbing of the “Last Post” rising incongruously from amid the conventional civilian tombstones, that Edward had not been able to come to the funeral. The uncomprehending remoteness of England from the tragic, profound freemasonry of those who accepted death together overseas would have intensified beyond endurance the incommunicable grief which had thrust us apart.

But when, back in Kensington, I re-read the letter that he had written in reply to mine telling him of Victor’s death, I knew that he had never really changed towards me, and that each of us represented to the other such consolation as the future still held.

Vera then gives her brother the final words of the present chapter of her memoir, ending Edward’s fervent assurance of true brotherly love

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live…

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

Edward[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 95.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 153.
  4. Testament of Youth, 359-61.

Alfred Hale Rides the Rails… and Misses His Tea; Duff Cooper Goes for a Soldier; Charles Scott Moncrieff’s Return

Before leaving Thetford camp this morning, a century back, Alfred Hale was given a medical inspection to assure the army of his physical fitness.

This meant going into the medical tent one by one and saluting the MO seated at a table, who then asked if you were ‘All right’, and on your replying, ‘Yes thank you, Sir,’ marked your paper and off you went.

This hurdle overcome, Hale was issued with various “belts and small equipment.”

This equipment I did not know how to put on, nor how even to get the rest of my kit into marching order, which much exasperated a corporal…

With two fellow conscripts also bound for the RFC, Hale then begins a train journey through “flat, sunlit country,” and with that things suddenly improve.

I had that delightful feeling, I recollect, of being as though on an adventure into the unknown, and on such a glorious summer day, too. For the first time after getting into Khaki I felt really happy.

Yes, but, well… the day dragged on. After the train and a long ride in a van to the camp where one of his fellows was deposited, Hale and another were driven off to an RFC camp still further off–several miles from anywhere, but nearest to St. Neots, Huntingdonshire. After dallying in the van and at a wayside in, it was well past tea-time when they arrived. And, therefore, disappointment:

So whereas if I had been an officer I should have had a proper late dinner, or at least an evening meal of some sort or kind had I been an NCO for instance, being only a private and a batman, the lowest and most despised being in the Royal Flying Corps, as I was soon to find out, I could only get bad coffee and penny bars of chocolate by paying for it out of my own pocket.

But the canteen hut. This was decorated, or had been decorated, apparently for the previous Christmas, with an inscription in large ornamental letters on the walls, which ran as follows: ‘The Compliments of the Season to Major Petrie and all our officers’. Well, I have no doubt Major Petrie deserved the compliments of the season at the Christmas of 1916; I have also less doubt that he ever went without anything to eat from lunch-time till the next morning while stationed at a home camp in England, or had to drink bad coffee and eat bits of stale penny chocolate bars lest he should go to bed in a starving condition…

This canteen reminded me for all the world of the descriptions in boys’ books of life in the backwoods…

And now I realized, if I had not done so before, that it would be my lot to have to shave myself next morning with the army razor issued to me, I having lost the safety razor I had specially provided myself with. The possibility of this happening I had indeed been dreading all that long afternoon since leaving Bedford. For I cannot shave myself at all with an ordinary razor; even a safety razor sometimes gives me trouble, but an ordinary razor, no; especially the sort issued to Army recruits…[1]

 

Duff Cooper is due for a medical himself. It may have just as perfunctory as Hale’s, but I’d wager it was conducted with a bit more formality. Cooper has been several years on the sidelines, but now, only two days after resolving to try for the army in the latest “comb out” of younger and less essential men in government jobs, he is, all of a sudden, in. Not that the he will lavish description on the process…

May 19th, 1917

Was medically examined for the army and passed A.

That takes care of that. Now he’ll just need to get a commission in a reputable regiment. But first things first.

Went down to Sutton with Diana by the 5.15 I had two pretty moments with Diana in the garden. She told me I must not come to her room as it was next to Lady Horner’s…

I woke at four. It was already getting light so in spite of instructions I crept to Diana’s room, a long and creaky journey. It was very beautiful when I arrived and we lay together until it was quite light and all the birds were singing, including a very monotonous and damnable cuckoo.[2]

There simply must be some clever remark to be made here about rare birds of paradise and damnable cuckoos and the pleasures of idleness and the rigors of military life… but it eludes me.

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff narrowly escaped death at Arras. Recently, he has learned that he may yet even keep his leg. Feeling, perhaps, that the hospital has become less an anteroom to hell and more a purgatory that may someday be escaped, he has begun to stave off despair and to write again. Today and tonight, a century back, these verses “came into” his head. They are strange… but seem to represent the wisdom of a soldier who did not survive, passed on now to his little brother in a mystical of visitation from the beyond.

 

The Return

The queerest thing of all now, is the way the sizes shift, Johnny;
Bracken Hill’s no height now, no height at all.
And the little dog Peter, was the weight I just could lift.
He has grown to hide high mountains, but the great dog’s starved and small.

Deep enough’s the pool to swim now, where for rocks we wouldn’t dive, Johnny,
But the river where we wouldn’t leap, ’tis no step over now;
And the wild bull’s field we wouldn’t pass the time I was alive,
I can lean across the hedge of it, and scratch his brow.

Stepmother’s so little and queer I needn’t ever cry, Johnny,
And her cruel way of talking leaves me easy in my rest;
But you I can’t see all at once, you’ve grown so high.
And that’s because the heart’s great that struggles in your breast.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 64-9.
  2. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  3. Diaries, 129-30.

Alfred Hale is Sold into Servitude; Rowland Feilding Marches Well; Siegfried Sassoon Observes the Tragedy of Time, and Wins Timely Praise from the Author of Time’s Laughingstocks

Before we get to a poetically significant convergence of the twain, let us first commiserate with our newest conscript and congratulate one of our survivors.

Alfred Hale has spent the last ten days being of very little use to anyone. Assigned to his camp’s “Cripples Brigade,” his duties have included drill (stripped down to the command “right turn”), route marches (of several hundred yards, broken up by an elderly sergeant’s reminiscences) and picking up litter. The most signal events of his sojourn have included failing to haul beef carcases to the kitchen (too heavy) and being addressed as “sir” by a sergeant. Hale’s theories of why this last embarrassment occurred did not run toward accusations of sarcasm or cynical wit–he believes either that sergeant was polite in the mistaken belief that the “elderly” gentleman-private would end up an officer or that some reflexive, pre-military response to the obvious signs of his civilian class (he speaks like a “blooming toff” in private’s togs), triggered the polite form of address.

But today, a century back, Hale learned his fate: he was paraded in the morning and informed that he would become “an officer’s batman in the RFC.” Opinion in his tent was divided on the merits of this assignment: Hale, at least, would know how to talk to gentlemen; but then again an officer’s batman must be handy, and always on hand…[1]

 

Rowland Feilding would be most bemused by this sort of incompetence. He prides himself, rather, on the turnout of his battalion even as it moves away from the front lines, riding the rails and then marching into rest.

May 18 1917 Coulomby.

Yesterday… it took us 7 1/4 hours to do 25 miles; and we travelled—both officers and men—in goods trucks.

This morning (my birthday) we moved on again by foot, doing 15 miles—a trying march, since the day was hot and
the men were heavily loaded up, besides being too fresh from the trenches to be in a fit condition for marching. They came along splendidly, nevertheless, with the drums leading, and finished in the evening with plenty of swing at Coulomby, where many officers and men of other battalions of the Brigade stood by the road, watching them pass.

All along the route numerous inhabitants (who are not so blasé about British soldiers hereabouts as they are nearer the line) turned out to have a look at the battalion. Bevies of children ran alongside, and an old Frenchman–evidently a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War–had all his medals ready, and held them up behind his cottage window, at the same time drawing his hand across his throat in signification of his sentiments towards his quondam—and now once more his country’s enemies…[2]

 

And thence to Sussex, where Siegfried Sassoon continues his restive recuperation. His diaries make it clear that he is avoiding the war as much as he can–but he has made no mention of the fact that his book has just come out (although at some point soon he will copy snippets of the reviews into the diary).

This despite the fact that his friends are all pulling for him, working hard to get the book received positively. Robert Graves has been hassling booksellers and lining up literary uncles, and he will shortly write to Sassoon to proclaim that The Old Huntsman will “out-Rupert Rupert.” A much more important ally is Robbie Ross, who also wrote, today, to say that “[t]he tide has obviously turned.” Even though the reviews are still forthcoming it seems that the literary lights are now ready to approve angry and critical verses from a young officer.[3] There will be more literary lunches when he returns to London, but in the meantime, well, there is Chapelwood Manor, and aristocracy, and age.

May 18, 1917

Lord Brassey returned from town to-day. He discoursed during coffee and port-time about the War, while we four young soldiers sat round the table putting in a respectful word now and again.

I was next to him and had plentiful opportunities of noting the wreckage of his fine face—the head and brow are still there, and the firm nose, but the mouth is loosened and the lower lip pendulous and unhealthy-looking, like his hands. I think he is always on the verge of a ‘stroke’. He talks in carefully pompous phrases as though he were Chairman of a Meeting…

He ended by saying ‘I’m only an old dotard,’ and we tried to laugh naturally, as if it were a good joke, instead of a tragedy, to see a fine man the victim of Time, his body worn-out, his spirit undaunted.

But I won his heart with my piano-playing afterwards—and probably made him sad as well as happy (possibly sleepy!). He seems unable to lift his chin from his chest. We young men are strangers in the land of his mind. He will go out into the night, and the world will be ours.

‘I declare to you, my dear fellow, that it is my profound conviction that the present ecclesiastical administrative functions are entirely, yes, entirely and undisputably inefficacious. O what worlds of dreary self-sustainment are hidden by the gaiters of our episcopal dignitaries!’

…He is a very old man: his sententious periods quavering between the querulous and the urbane. But his face is often lit up by the human tenderness that the wise years have taught him. He is a good man.

And he has never heard of Rupert Brooke! How refreshing. And Lady Brassey has never heard of Hardy’s Dynasts[4]

 

Speak of the devil! Or, rather, of the wizard, the poetic doktorvater in absentia. The parallelism here between Sassoon and the old lord and Sassoon and the old writer (Hardy is only four years younger than Lord Brassey) is too nice to disrupt with fussy commentary…

Max Gate, Dorchester, May 18, 1917

My dear Thornycroft;

I am sending this letter to young Sassoon through you, if you will be so kind as to forward it. I thought it a safer route than through a publishers office, & I don’t know where he is. As it is about his poems, I have left it open for you to read. Please fasten it up…

Always yrs
T.H.

Yes; Siegfried Sassoon lacks a Great House to inherit, his father abandoned the family, and his mother is such an embarrassment that he wrote her out of his memoirs. Ah but he does have friends–and uncles. Hamo Thornycroft, the sculptor, is his mother’s brother, and a friend of Hardy’s, who sat for a bust. He first made the connection between his young nephew and the giant of English literature. There have already been signs of approval, and so it is only bold, perhaps, rather than foolhardy to have proposed dedicating The Old Huntsman to the old master.

But will cautious optimism and frosty, family-friend permission lead to real poetic respect?

Max Gate, Dorchester, May 18, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

I write to thank you much for the gift of “The Old Huntsman” which came to me duly from the publishers. Also for the honour of the dedication. I was going to wait till I could send an elaborate letter of commentary, after a thorough reading of the poems, but I then felt that you would prefer, as I do myself, just this simple line to tell you how much I like to have them. I should say that I am not reading them rapidly. I never do read rapidly anything I care about, so I have not as yet got further than about the middle.

I would not, even if I could, enter into a cold-blooded criticism. It occurs to me to tell you however that I appreciate thoroughly, “When I’m among a blaze of lights”, & “Blighters”, & much like the grim humour of “The Tombstone Maker”, & “They”, the pathos of “The Hero”, & the reticent poignancy of “The Working Party”. How we realize that young man!

I wonder how you are getting on in Hospital. Improving surely, I hope, even if slowly. I don’t know how I should stand the suspense of this evil time if it were not for the sustaining power of poetry. May the war be over soon.

Believe me, with renewed thanks, & best wishes for your good luck,

Sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 63-4.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 176.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I 363.
  4. Diaries, 169-70.
  5. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 213-4.

Alfred Hale Gets Buttoned Up Right; Isaac Rosenberg Posts a Powerful Horror; Siegfried Sassoon Has a Volume of his Own; Wilfred Owen is Nervy in Limbo

Alfred Hale managed to get to sleep on his first night in camp, but he also managed to sleep with the wrong group of recruits–men of a higher fitness classification than he. He is, however, still in better shape than his poorer comrades: last night he had paid for dinner and a shave–his first correct guess at camp conditions, as the men scraping away with cold water over a tin basin at 6:30 soon discovered. One more paragraph, then, with Hale and his exquisite decline into the indignities of army life, before his memory blurs from specific mornings into the general daily tribulations of Thetford.

But, as I say, we went on parade that morning in companies at 7.30. Owing to my mistake of the night before, I found myself among the B2 men and after the parade was over was duly drilled with them by the sergeant with the loud bullying voice whose help I had so rashly invoked the night before. Before the drill began we were inspected by an officer… He said nothing to me, but as soon as his back was turned a corporal beckoned me out of the line and buttoned an unnoticed button of my tunic up for me in a sort of awestruck way. I felt much as a small boy would feel whose mother had taken his hat off for him on entering a church.

After cutting a “figure of fun” in drill, Hale is released for breakfast, and manages to find his own proper company, under the rule of a more kindly sergeant. But he is still in the army…[1]

 

Isaac Rosenberg is an inconsistent letter-writer. Not just in terms of the flow of correspondence–that too, but a nearly penniless private will generally not write as often as a well-heeled officer–but in tone as well. A recent letter to Eddie Marsh was couched in grand terms, high-flying and allusive; today’s effort is grammatically sketchy and must be one of the few letters to end up in Marsh’s inbox that mentions, in passing, running a wagon over corpses–Rosenberg has completed a draft of Dead Man’s Dump.

My Dear Marsh,

We are camping in the woods now and are living great. My feet are almost healed now and my list of complaints has dwindled down to almost invisibility. Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I dont think what Ive written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it I’ll make it fine. Bottomley told me he had some very old poems in The Annual but of course its too bulky to send out here. Your extract from his ‘Atlantis’ is real Bottomleyian. The young Oxford poets you showed my things to Ive never come across yet, and I ll soon begin to think myself a poet if my things get admired so.

Im writing to my sister to send you the lines as she will type several copies

Yours sincerely

I R

I trust the colonial office agrees with you.[2]

It probably doesn’t, but the patron’s patron–Churchill–will be back doing war work soon enough.

So this letter is on the way, but Marsh’s thoughts today were surely with a more intimate protégé: it was today, a century back, that Siegfried Sassoon‘s The Old Huntsman was at last published.

 

Finally, there is Wilfred Owen‘s letter to his sister Mary. It begins ordinarily enough, with social banter and a list of new acquaintances. Wilfred entertains hopes of making useful publishing connections among these new friends… the 13th Casualty Clearing Station would seem to be a strange place to network, but there it is.

Two lines in the letter are of particular note. First, though Owen is at a forward hospital in France and not among “nerve” specialist, we have what I can’t help but see as an early example of a coming common theme, namely the all-powerfulness of psychiatrists.

…The Nerve Specialist is a kind of wizard, who mesmerises when he likes: a famous man. He is a friend of Dr. Keeble and the Reading Botany People!

You must not entertain the least concern about me because I am here. I certainly was shaky when I first arrived. But today Dr. Browne was hammering at my knees without any response whatever. (At first I used to execute the High Kick whenever he touched them) i.e. Reflex Actions quite normal.

So Owen believes himself to be improving. But what was the cause of his affliction?

You know it was not the Bosche that worked me up, nor the explosives, but it was living so long by poor old Cock Robin (as we used to call-2/Lt. Gaukroger), who lay not only near by, but in various places around and about, if you understand. I hope you don’t!

That would be the second weighty line. It is the same incident which he described in the long letter to his mother about his traumatic tour in the front line–but it is described with one crucial difference. At first it seemed that Lt. Gaukroger had been buried, “covered with earth,” near where Owen had to shelter. Now it would seem that his comrade’s dismembered remains had been scattered about.

I have no intimation at all about my next move.

Meanwhile I have superb weather, sociably-possible friends, great blue bowls of yellow Mayflower, baths and bed ad lib. Soon I shall have Letters from Home.

Your own W.E.O. x[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 52-4.
  2. Collected Works, 316.
  3. Collected Letters, 455-6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Malta, 7 May 1917

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Edward Thomas Bids Farewell to High Beech; Wilfred Owen Shaken by the Guns; Edwin Vaughan in a Miniature Battle

Edward Thomas‘s leave at home at High Beech continued today, a century back. Eleanor Farjeon had been invited to spend a day with the family, and counted a chaste kiss last night as her “real farewell.” But Edward Thomas doesn’t say goodbye with a kiss–it’s always a walk!

Next morning after breakfast he went part of the way to Loughton Station with me, walking down the hill through Epping Forest to the foot, where we shook hands as usual. He was returning that night to Lydd,[1] but would shortly be passing through town for the last time on his way back to Codford. ‘I might see you in London in three days’, he said as we parted. We turned once to wave to each other.[2]

Thomas walked home, and then took a long walk in the woods with his wife Helen…

 

In France, another long-delayed former cadet of the Artists’ Rifles has taken yet another step on the long journey to the line, and experienced something new: the sight and sounds of a bombardment. This approach to the line has been a hard one–no boring days of lectures, idle rides, or battalion games. The weather is terrible, the front is barely tenable, the positions and dugouts poor. It’s simple bad luck to be assigned as a replacement officer to a Battalion that is about to go in to a bad section of the line, in winter. And it is about to be Wilfred Owen‘s bad luck. From Betrancourt, today, he writes to his mother:

[9 January 1917] [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

My own dear Mother,

I forget both the day and the date. It is about the 9th. We moved further up yesterday, most of the way on ‘Buses.

I have just had your long-looked-for letter. If seems wrong that even your dear handwriting should come into such a Gehenna as this. There is a terrific Strafe on. Our artillery are doing a 48 hours bombardment.

At night it is like a stupendous thunderstorm, for the flashes are quite as bright as lightning.

When we arrived at this deserted Village last night, there had been no billets prepared for the Battalion—owing to misunderstanding.

Imagine the confusion!

For my part I discovered, or rather my new chosen and faithful Servant discovered a fine little hut, with a chair in it! A four-legged chair! The Roof is waterproof, and there is a Stove. There is only one slight disadvantage: there is a Howitzer just 70 or 80 yards away; firing over the top every minute or so. I can’t tell you how glad I am you got me the ear-defenders. I have to wear them at night. Every time No. 2 (the nearest gun) fires, all my pharmacopaeia, all my boots, candle, and nerves take a smart jump upwards. This phenomena is immediately followed by a fine, rain of particles from the roof. I keep blowing them off the page.

From time to time the Village is shelled but just now nothing is coming over. Anyhow there is a good cellar close to. I am Orderly Officer today and stamp all the Battalion’s letters. This has taken an age, and I have only a minute or two before I must despatch the Post.

I chose to spend an hour today behind the guns (to get used to them). The Major commanding the Battery was very pleasant indeed. He took me to his H.Q. and gave me a book of Poems to read as if it were the natural thing to do!!

But all night I shall be hearing the fellow’s voice:

Number Two—FIRE!

Please send the compass: 2 Manchester Regt. B.E.F. I also need 5p Players Cigarettes & some plain chocolate.  There is nothing in all this inferno but mud and thunder.

I am quite incapable of reading anything but your letters; and as you see nearly incapable of writing. Tell me every detail about Colin & Harold that you can; and of course, I long to know everything that happens—or does not happen—at home…

But it will lull shortly. I am quite well, and have plenty to eat.

I get more and more used to the cold and wet.

Dearest love, my sweet Mother, from your Wilfred

I want a large, soft sleeping helmet and refills for the lamp.

s.v.p.[3]

This is the second letter that prompts the sense that we have been set up: a year’s worth of preening and silly letters to mother have softened us up for the full effect of a very young man (twenty-three) going alone–in an emotional sense–into new danger and hardship, and bringing his mother with him every step of the way. He always noticed things outside himself but preferred to discuss himself… now the proportions are threatening, and shifting, and gripping…

But it was not a set up, of course, but only the arc of experience. It’s the war that is changing the man, and the shift in the letters–the endearments and jokey descriptions are so much the same, but the emotions, both those expressed and those restrained, are so different as the real war bears down and the trenches draw near–is so very noticeable because it’s not some new diary or war-book that has begun, but, rather, an old established literary production (those letters to mother, so familiar to us) that strains and stretches as it takes on the new weight.

 

And let’s round out the unbeknonst-to-each-other trio of Hare Hall Camp, winter 1916, with an update on Edwin Vaughan. When we last heard from this nineteen-year-old subaltern he was feeling exhilarated and “very fit” as his transport ship crossed the channel.

That was January 4th. By the 5th, “Already the glory of war seems to have faded somewhat, now that… duty and routine are toning the great adventure down into commonplace.”

The next day found Campion cutting lectures at the Rouen “Bull Ring” after being rattled by “a graphic account of a mine eruption in which the narrator had been blown up.” And the next–“Sunday. Very tiring day” (here the memoir takes on a slight pre-echo of The Very Hungry Caterpillar)–involved a comically mishandled manhunt for escaped prisoners. An especially dark comedy, as these were Australian soldier-criminals on a rampage rather than bedraggled “Hun” prisoners of war.

There is much emphasis, needless to say, on the chaos and swollen inefficiency of life in an enormous base camp. Vaughan is an innocent, yes, but the war is no longer a place of innocence–the pilgrims do not progress, encased in their illusions, until the shock of combat lays bare a new world, as they did in 1914 and 1915. No: now they lower themselves through striated layers of bureaucratic sloth, impersonal war-machinery, official hypocrisy, rear-echelon knavery, and progressive hardship until they come–inexperienced but no longer innocent–to the real war.

Yesterday was of greater moment for Vaughan, as he was officially assigned to a battalion. Luckily, this was the 1/8th Warwicks, the unit he wanted. But he made his own luck: “I lied heartily” about already belonging to the battalion and, instead of being punished for this unwarranted assertion, was allowed to bribe his way awkwardly onto the right list:

I pleaded so piteously that they admitted that there was one vacancy at that unit and that they would give it to me on condition that I did the paying out of the whole depot on pay parade…

Note that there is no logic here, no explanation of who the “they” of this powerful Orderly Room were, and no interest in finding some logical way to fit a man to his preferred unit. But he washes dishes for an afternoon (actually handing out French money to hundreds of troops), sparing the all-powerful bureaucrats from a tedious task–a small price to pay!–and he is on his way.

Today, a century back, Vaughan is assigned but still in the camp and, despite my protestations above, still showing his innocence–no, no, his inexperience. The instructors are good enough to organize a mock trench raid with real, albeit low-powered explosives:

Miniature battle today: quite a good effort too! There are two opposing trench systems… We had just time to get into shelter when a whirring and thumping told us that the ‘artillery’ barrage had commenced.

Dozens of bombs in the shape of jam tins were hurled from catapults and rifles and crashed into the trenches with loud explosions…

After a few minutes, and before we had time to get back to our positions, the instructors were amongst us, with bombs made of detonators wrapped in clay. These exploded but could do no harm. Of course we were hopelessly licked but it was an interesting and instructive show…

Did the instructors enjoy this? Most would, I imagine. It seems much more useful than fatigues and drills–even if no such practice could do much to draw the sting from troops’ first combat experience–and much more diverting than leading them. Alf Pollard–currently just such a “bombing instructor”–would have loved it…[4]

 

One final note for today, a century back: Edward Hermon‘s persistent illness had finally wrested him from France. Enjoying a prerogative (apparently) of field-grade officers, he will have several weeks to recuperate at home, with his wife and family. Illness is illness, but to miss several weeks of very cold trench duty and recuperate at home is a rare blessing for a serving soldier…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Actually, it will be to London, for one day of errands and one night with his brothers and parents, then back to High Beech, then to London, then to Lydd...
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 242.
  3. Collected Letters, 423-4.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 2-5.

Edwin Dyett’s Last Letter; Siegfried Sassoon Poses a New Question; Wilfred Owen on French Mud; We Meet Edwin Vaughan

Edwin Dyett, though nominally under arrest, was playing cards with two fellow officers today, a century back, when a letter arrived from the provost marshal’s office. It was read out: the recommendations for mercy have been ignored. He will be shot in the morning.

Dyett then spent an hour with a chaplain, who took charge of his mortal soul as he will later take charge of Dyett’s burial, and his last letter.

France January 4, 1917

Dearest Mother Mine,

I hope by now you will have had the news. Dearest, I am leaving you now because He has willed it. My sorrow tonight is for the trouble I have caused you and dad.

Please excuse any mistakes, but if it were not for the kind support of the Rev W.C. —– who is with me tonight, I should not be able to write myself…

Give dear Dad my love and wish him luck. I feel for you so much and I am sorry for bringing dishonour upon you all. Give —– my love. She will, I expect, understand–and give her back the presents, photos, cards, etc., she has sent me, poor girl.

So now dearest Mother, I must close. May God bless and protect you all now and for evermore. Amen.[1]

 

There were many soldiers executed in the First World War, but because of Dyett’s literary connection (on which more tomorrow) his story is the only one that I’m writing about here. And I find it hard to do. Of course; but why trouble over transitions from this particular act of brutality to another piece of writing when so many such acts (and thus so many such transitions) are required? And yet, being in an uncertain and apologetic mood, I want to make excuses for an uncanny coincidence that I have only just realized: as Edwin Dyett’s life is about to end–as he composed his last letter to his mother–another young man with the same Christian name was composing the first entry in a new diary. One man’s last full day on earth is the other’s first full day on his way to the war.

I have never read Edwin Vaughan’s war diary–published in 1981 as Some Desperate Glory, a title borrowed from a poem that will soon be written by an adjacent officer–but it is highly praised for its literary qualities, and I hope that as I make good this glaring omission in my own reading of Great War memoirs it will add significantly to our experience, here, of grim 1917. Since the usual chatty style feels inappropriate with this century-back execution hanging unresolved until the morning–and since I know so little of Vaughan–I will just borrow a bit from the editorial introduction (by Robert Cowley) and then briefly excerpt his first entry.

Edwin Campion Vaughan, a middle-class Catholic boy from the midlands, had joined the army in late 1915 or early 1916 after finishing school. He was a cadet of the Artists’ Rifles at Hare Hall Camp at the same time as Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen, and then sent on to the infantry. Today, a century back, just nineteen, he is a subaltern in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, on his way to war at last. Although this diary reads like a memoir–like, that is, a novelistic, retrospect-enriched “binary” reflection on his experience–it was, apparently, composed on or near the dates indicated and remained in manuscript form for many years. If it was heavily edited or even drafted and rewritten on the day in question I know nothing of it–but in any case the fluid and thoughtful quality of the writing, although composed so very close to the day’s immediate experience, is remarkable.

January 4

I had expected that on leaving for France I would be overcome by grief, for I knew that I would not see my home again for many, many months–and possibly not again. But when the moment came the excitement of the venture into the dreamed of but unrealized land of war, eclipsed the sorrow of parting, and I know now how much harder it is for those who lose us, than for us who go.

It was an incredible moment–long dreamed of–when the train steamed slowly out of Waterloo, a long triple row of happy, excited faces protruding from carriage windows, passing those which bravely tried to smile back at us–we were wrapped in the sense of adventure to come, they could look forward only to loneliness…

…as we raced through bushy parks and razing fields my mind was filled with a confusion of Boer War and other martial pictures, behind which loomed vaguely the strained brave faces I had last seen, so that with all the excitement of my brain, I felt a horrible aching at my heart, and I was forced to bury myself in my magazines to avoid being foolish.

At Southampton… We embarked at 4 p.m. and having with great skill evaded the lynx-eyed red-hat who was allotting duties, I managed to snuggle down in the hold, with no weight on my mind but the fear of sickness–and a much less formidable fear of submarines.

The crossing was very rough indeed…

Vaughan, however, does not get sick, and instead spends an exhilarating night on deck, until dawn revealed the escort flotilla around his transport.

They lent a wonderful sense of power and security, and I stood watching them until we were close on to the French coast, when I went down to breakfast, soaked to the skin with spray and feeling very fit.[2]

This much we know:  Vaughan is a talented writer; he is willing to be candid–to his diary, at least–about his fears; and he is not entirely strict about dating his diary: is this the dawn and breakfast of tomorrow, January 5th, or did his journey begin on the 3rd, and the entry is dated by when he wrote rather than when (most of) it occurred? I imagine that this will become clear in time…

 

Vaughan’s erstwhile camp-mate Wilfred Owen (there is no indication that they knew one another) is only a few days further into in his own first journey up the line. I have carped quite a bit throughout his long year-plus of training about the blithe self-regard and faked worldliness that can make Owen’s letters to his mother tiresome reading, but… well, we have no such letters from Vaughan that might leave us pleasantly surprised by the maturity of his writing once he is really headed for war, and, by the same token, here is Owen, in France, suddenly making good on some of that ginned-up brio, with a letter that succeeds and sharp description and seems more witty than simply effortful. Perhaps having new experiences to record has done his pen some good. At last: expectation, comparison, and inevitable shortfall… so, therefore, irony. Humorous, harmless irony, as of yet…

 

4 January 1917                          Address. 2nd Manchester Regt B.E.F.

My own dear Mother,

I have joined the Regiment; who are just at the end of six weeks’ rest.

I will not describe the awful vicissitudes of the journey here. I arrived at Folkestone, and put up at the best hotel. It was a place of luxury—inconceivable now—carpets as deep as the mud here—golden flunkeys; pages who must have been melted into their clothes and expanded since; even the porters had clean hands. Even the dogs that licked up the crumbs had clean teeth.

Since I set foot on Calais quays I have not had dry feet.

No one knew anything about us on this side, and we might have taken weeks to get here, and must have, but for fighting our way here.

I spent something like a pound in getting my Baggage carried from trains to trains.

At the Base, as I said, it was not so bad…

After those two days, we were let down, gently, into the real thing. Mud.

It has penetrated now into that Sanctuary my sleeping bag, and that holy of holies my pyjamas. For I sleep on a stone floor and the servant squashed mud on all my belongings; I suppose by way of baptism. We are 3 officers in this ‘Room’, the rest of the house is occupied by servants and the band; the roughest set of knaves I have ever been herded with. Even now their vile language is shaking the flimsy door between the rooms.

I chose a servant for myself yesterday, not for his profile, nor yet his clean hands, but.for his excellence in bayonet work. For the servant is always at the side of his officer in the charge and is therefore worth a dozen nurses. Alas, he of the Bayonet is in the Bombing Section, and it is against Regulations to employ such as a servant. I makeshift with another.

Everything is makeshift. The English seem to have fallen into the French unhappy-go-lucky non-system. There are  scarcely any houses here… We are never dry, and never ‘off duty’.

On all the officers’ faces there is a harassed look that I have never seen before, and which in England, never will be seen—out of jails. The men are just as Bairnsfather has them—expressionless lumps.

We feel the weight of them hanging on us. I have found not a few of the old Fleetwood Musketry party here. They seemed glad to see me, as far as the set doggedness of their features would admit.

I censored hundreds of letters yesterday, and the hope of peace was in every one…

I am perfectly well and strong, but unthinkably dirty and squalid.

I scarcely dare to wash.

Pass on as much of this happy news as may interest people.

The favourite song of the men is

‘The Roses round the door
Makes me love Mother more.’

They sing this everlastingly.

I don’t disagree. Your very own W.E.O.  x[3]

 

And Siegfried Sassoon, long recovered from the illness that sent him home from France, is still cooling his heels at Litherland Camp, near Liverpool. But he is beginning to see the war in a different light:

January 4

Coming out of the dreary hour-and-a-half of Mess and utter boredom, there was a cold north wind blowing, and a bright, high moon, and enormous clouds moving toward Liverpool, dark clouds with broad white-shining edges and crowns, piled halfway up the sky—one making a huge canopy for the lights and shuttered smoky glare and muffled din of the munition-works Out at Knowsley all day, in the wind and scudding showers and cold hastening sunshine, we did a silly attack on a brown ferny hill with a statue on the top.

A Copenhagen paper (December 2) says, ‘The sons of Europe are being crucified in the barbed wire enclosures because the misguided masses are shouting for it. They do not know what they do, and the statesmen wash their hands. They dare not deliver them from their martyr’s death.’ Is this true?[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Death for Desertion, 77; the text of the letter comes from the 1918 coverage of Dyett's case in Horatio Bottomley's John Bull, whence (I'm assuming) the decision to remove the names.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 2-3.
  3. Collected Letters, 421-3.
  4. Diaries, 115.

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.

Kipling Larks in the Deadly Mud; Edward Thomas is in Every Way Ready to Go

One informal measure of the misery that the Somme has inflicted, here, is the fact that, since August, we have had only a single mention of the lark–that passerine ground-nester, and soaring, dawn-symbolizing, quintessentially tuneful avian songster. And that was in a posthumous appreciation (and the one before that expressed only hatred for the poor bird) of pre-Somme poetry. The poets have seen no need, these last few months, to refer to one of the readiest images of uplift.

Nor today. Instead we go “mud-larking,” as none other than Rudyard Kipling weighs in with another mud piece describing the travails of the Second Irish Guards. It’s short, but to the point.

The Battalion was not in position till the 11th December, when it relieved the 2nd Grenadiers after three or four days’ rain which wiped out what communication-trenches had been attempted, and pulped the front line. As to the back-breaking nature of the work — “Though the first company (on relief) passed Haie Wood about 4 p. m. it was 11.30 before they had floundered the intervening 3000 yards.” One of the grenadiers whom they relieved had been stuck in the mud for forty-three hours. Unless the men in the trenches, already worn out with mud-wrestling to get there, kept moving like hens on hot plates, they sank and stuck. (“It is funny, maybe, to talk about now, that mud- larking of ours; but to sink, sink, sink in the dark and you not sure whether they saw ye or could hear you, puts the wind up a man worse than anything under Heaven. Fear? Fear is not the word. ‘Twas the Somme that broke our hearts. Back, knees, loins, acrost your chest — you was dragged to pieces dragging your own carcase out of the mud. ‘Twas like red-hot wires afterwards — and all to begin it again.”)[1]

 

We also have an update today, a century back, from Tintown. Did I presume to suggest that Edward Thomas was being needlessly perverse in praising the place? Perhaps Eleanor Farjeon did as well.

R.A. Mess,
Tintown, Lydd.

II xii 16

My dear Eleanor, Not much news yet…  5 men of my class suddenly went too today, before the end of the course. But it seems quite likely I shall go, with a man I have got on with quite well, to a Battery not yet fully trained. If I do I may stay on here with no leave or at most just Sunday, so that I can’t promise to go to Bertie’s on Sunday. If I do have leave I might see you for a moment on Saturday afternoon. But then I shall not know till the last moment whether I can come or by what train. So it is not much use. But if I do feel sure I will suggest something.

Of course TINTOWN means a town of tin, just tin huts and not nearly as ugly as you might think—in fact not at all…

The marsh is lovely in the rain. You can see so far to the hills and every tree is fine, but especially the Lydd trees and the church sticking up through the top. I had been inoculated again so I couldn’t walk much.

I can imagine Clifford’s party. I am so glad, though, that I never actually saw it. I am sure I am more at home at Tintown…

In every way one gets to feel nearer the real thing here. Not only the sound of the guns at the ranges either…

This, from Edward Thomas, uncompromisingly strict about how observation is freighted with meaning, is a telling choice of words. I don’t think he means “real thing” to appear thus in scare quotes (i.e. inverted commas). That is, I don’t believe he is making use of a common phrase without any intention of drawing attention to it. We’re justified in reading into this a bit, and taking him to mean “the war is real, and other things less so.”

It’s natural, of course, to look ahead to the thing which, even if it isn’t the only “real” thing, is undeniably the “big thing,” the thing he has been thinking about for two and a half years. Still, it’s less that he’s looking ahead than he is already looking back to his uncertain and often unhappy family life, poised to spring across the experiential gulf at long last. Poor Eleanor, poor Helen, poor Mervyn and and Bronwen and Myfanwy. Poor poetry.

Goodbye. You are seeing Mother soon aren’t you? I don’t know when I shall, but I shall try to on Saturday for a moment.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas.[2]

 

Strangely–or perhaps not–a letter to Gordon Bottomley of today, a century back, has a more restrained, more balanced casting of the nature of “over there.”

11 December 1916 R.A. Mess, Tin Town, Lydd, Kent

My dear Gordon,

…Yes I am commissioned now. In fact I am in every way ready to go. I wonder will it be Salonica. But it is a worse gamble than ever now everywhere. My love to Emily & please thank her for her letter.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

So it’s the real deal, and also a bad gamble…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 106-7.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 232-3.
  3. Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley,  276.

Scattered Thoughts for Wilfred Owen; New Digs for C.E. Montague

With Edward Thomas now at Lydd camp and presumably only weeks from a battery in France, Wilfred Owen takes over the title as the slowest-progressing former cadet of the Artists’ Rifles. I have omitted a number of letters from Wilfred to his mother Susan over the past few months, but we luxuriate now in the oddly disjointed style of this correspondence. First mother is confidante, in loco diario; then she is a best mate, an audience for Wilfred’s swaggering style; then she is a nurturing mother, whom he misses–and then back through again. Is the etceterative quality here feigned brio, or high spirits?

Monday [9 December 1916] Queen’s Hotel, Southport

We all came down on Sunday Morning. I am back at the Queen’s in a rather poor little room at the-top.

I am stuck on the new Musketry Party, firing at Crossens, where we march out every morning, about 5 miles, starting at 7.15 . It is a bitter change from the good times at Fleetwood. Major Eaton is not our Commandant, but Major Melville, a snotty, acid, scot, impatient, irritated wretch. Nothing will run smoothly while his voice files the
air. He is Melville’s Scotch Whiskey.

On Sunday I was very miserable for some reason, but I went round to Averys’ to tea: and amused myself not badly with their pianola. It is an amusing toy, but not worth a street fiddle for melody.

Mrs. Avery is the type of woman who interests herself in the amatory welfare of her young friends. She has by her own suggestion entirely, arranged a meeting with two girls on Thursday.

All Leave except under exceptional circumstances is stopped by the Brigade until further notice. It may mean a move of the Brigade . . . .  abroad??

There is also a rumour of 7 days work a week. Sickening!

Really, you might, some of you come up here for a week-end. Considering how little you are deterred by travelling expenses, the one nuisance with most People, I can’t understand why you don’t. Stay at the Averys’, hospitable folk! ’Sno good, I can’t come.

I have Pharyngitis again to a ticklish extent, tho’ my throat is not in any way painful or ‘swollen’. I am to have it cauterised.

I am sad these days for some reason.

Am I getting fed up with England?

I was today!

Saw Col. Ridge yesterday. He was very nice, and is going to mention the R.F.C. Transfer to the Brigadier.

I knew Father would strafe me about the mutilated Case. I can get a new Revolver at that Rogue’s price, in my own Armoury.

Dearest loves to all. Your W.E.O.[1]

So, intimacies for mother, while father looms only as a problem-figure to whom accounts are due, especially for damages. And the dream of flying–“the R.F.C. Transfer”–is not dead, but it remains impractical.

This letter is all over the place, another warning against taking a sentence here or there from a scatterbrained pen and elevating it to the dignity of true historical experience in the moment…

 

And one more note today, a century back: C.E. Montague and his small Intelligence/Propaganda/Battlefield Tourism unit transferred today to the town of Rollencourt, “just under the low wall of hill dividing the river system of N.W. France from that of Flanders.” There he will take his meals–along with a crew of journalists, former colleagues whom he now chaperones–at the Château de Rollencourt, “a fine house, with a park that must be beautiful at other seasons.”

But while the important journalists–including friends of Montague’s from his prewar days–were lodged in “state bedrooms with a pre-Revolution air,” our humble Lieutenant of the Intelligence was quartered first in a cramped billet with the village notary, and then in a Nissen hut built on the grounds of the Château.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 417.
  2. Elton, C.E. Montague, 151-2.