Robert Graves Informs Robert Nichols; Siegfried Sassoon Closes Another Loop; Ford Madox Hueffer Hymns the High-Life; Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller on a Live Wire and Mr. Britling; Richard Aldington Tells Off and Tells a Joke

February, it seems, will rival January as a cold and miserable month that nonetheless provides a great deal of interesting war writing. Poets writing to other poets! Poets reading original acenturyback sources! Tall tales of the troops that are actually funny! More Mr. Britling! Scabrous poets lashing out at all the other poets they can name!

The first piece of… several… today, comes from Robert Graves to his new friend Robert Nichols. Nichols is out of the war, we may recall, and has flatteringly asked Graves–with tongue-in-cheek preciousness–to inspire his poetry by “feeding my faun with cherries.”

2 February 1917

My dear Robert,

What a ripping letter! I wrote you one a day or two ago and though it’s a bad habit I must write another. You’re lucky, to be able to be so happy in England: I couldn’t while the war lasts…

A friendly letter, or a critical one? Mostly the former. With Graves it’s always possible that what might seem like a sharp reference to the experiential gulf–“you’re a civilian now, friend, oh-so-happy in England, while I’m a soldier”–is merely careless, and it certainly seems as if he is otherwise enthusiastic about this new relationship.

Next, Graves ups the ante by writing Nichols not prosy notes to inspire his poetry but rather a poem of his own. This is the revised version of the draft poem “To Robert Nichols” that made up much of today’s letter:

Here by a snowbound river
In scrapen holes we shiver,
And like old bitterns we
Boom to you plaintively:
Robert how can I rhyme
Verses for your desire—
Sleek fauns and cherry-time,
Vague music and green trees,
Hot sun and gentle breeze,
England in June attire,
And life born young again,
For your gay goatish brute
Drunk with warm melody
Singing on beds of thyme
With red and rolling eye,
All the Devonian plain,
Lips dark with juicy stain,
Ears hung with bobbing fruit?
Why should I keep him time?
Why in this cold and rime,
Where even to dream is pain?
No, Robert, there’s no reason:
Cherries are out of season,
Ice grips at branch and root,
And singing birds are mute.

Next, Graves presumes to preach to Nichols, affecting a frank, hale-fellow voice to knock (fairly, however) Nichols’s rather old-fashioned approach. We are Sorley‘s children, now, Robert!

Look here, Robert; I’ll risk your being annoyed, if you are you’d be no friend of mine, but nowadays one doesn’t ‘view the constellations quietly, quietly burning’, at least not after one’s left school. ‘Moral austerity’? Sorley talks of the spiky stars that shine: less luxuriant, sharper, more effective.

Call me a grandmother: I like being ragged. But oh, Robert, you’ve got all the qualities of a poet if you want, and it seems such a rotten stunt for you to sit in a kimono to view constellations quietly, quietly burning, and read Bridges. You want to get away from all that into a new method…

I don’t apologize for this. I mean it and I feel Somme trenches give me the right even to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit if I feel so inclined.

Yours affectionately


Well, there you have it, quite openly in that last paragraph. There are many bases for asserting authority in poetry. But in war poetry, there is one only–experience. Having fought in “the Somme trenches,” Graves can criticize without restraint all poetry up to and including that which is divinely inspired… and his humorous hyperbole only half-covers the fact that he is less-than-half joking.


Siegfried Sassoon, left behind in Litherland Camp and not party to this new poetic friendship, is moping about and reading. ah, but who? One young but old-fashioned poet, and one fallen soldier–each of them one of our sources. Or, rather, one of them a source I came to late in his lie=fe and should have used more, and the other more of a source-to-come.

February 2

And now reading Charles Lister‘s letters in the hut and feeling deadly tired and depressed. I suppose I’ll worry along somehow in France. How, I don’t quite know.

Wilfrid Gibson’s new poems arrived today. He seems to be laying himself out to be a sort of Crabbe (modernised on Masefield Lines). Some of it is very good, but diffuse…

Charles Lister, another of the well-born young men who swarmed into the Royal Naval Division at the start of the war, was a friend of Patrick Shaw-Stewart and Rupert Brooke, and the third of the “Argonauts” to die. Lister’s father published his son’s letters, and while these will not have anything like the influence of Charles Sorley on the younger poets, it is another early case of a feedback loop.

Sassoon is reading one of the books we might read (and have read a bit of) in order to understand the experience of the war. His writing of his own life, therefore–not just in the memoir but in the near-“real-time” of his diary–is now influenced by Great War life-writing.

To reverse chronological course and restore our sense of future-mastery, I’ll note that it’s also interesting that he’s reading Wilfrid Gibson, who is most definitely a Georgian poet, but not–not yet–a war poet. But he will be. Although this project has seen numerous young men accepted despite severe vision problems, Gibson, already in his late thirties when the war broke out, was several times refused when he attempted to volunteer. But 1917 will bring increasing demands for men, and, accordingly, a loosening of such restrictions… so even as Sassoon reads the words of an Edwardian young man now long dead, he is reading the diffuse Georgian poetry of a poet who will soon know war.


Some weeks ago we dispatched the ailing Ford Madox Hueffer to the south of France. Another one of those hospital nightmares? Oh no, my friends!

…we had lived like gentlemen. A peeress of untellable wealth and inexhaustible benevolence had taken, for us alone, all the Hôtel Cap Martin [in Menton, on the French Riviera]–staff, kitchens, chef, wine-cellars. We sat at little tables in fantastically palmed and flowering rooms and looked, from the shadows of marble walls, over a Mediterranean that blazed in the winter sunlight. We ate Tournedos Meyerbeer and drank Château Pavie, 1906. We slept in royal suites… You looked round and remembered for a second that we were all being fattened for slaughter… But we had endless automobiles at our disposal and Monte Carlo was round the corner.

Yes, fattened for the slaughter–perhaps. But having pushed hard to see actual service in France, Ford is now hoping to escape the trenches, and one imagines that others who have gotten as far as the Riviera will as well. But surely not all.

There is so much to comment on, here–and letters to go before we sleep–but let’s try to register three critical touches.

First, it’s safe to say that Ford’s gambling in Monte Carlo–he won steadily using a mathematical system devised by a brilliant friend, then got bored and gambled it away again–alongside various eccentric aristocrats puts Sassoon’s fox hunting and golf to shame as an activity unbecoming an officer who is supposed to be disabled…

Second, a comparison to George Coppard‘s birthday memory is illuminating. For an enlisted man to land at an English aristocrat’s hospital where he will be pampered for a few weeks and given free cigarettes is “dead lucky;” but for an officer and high-liver like Hueffer/Ford to be moved to a similar admission–“untellable… inexhaustible… fantastically”–it takes Monte Carlo, succulent meats, fine Bordeaux, and endless automobiles…

Third, Ford is a bit of a genius. He will write the one and only High Modernist masterpiece dealing with the war, but that, in many ways, sprung fully-formed out of his possibly exaggerated shell shock and (other) modernist commitments. As this scrap of memoir makes clear, he might have been considered instead the forerunner of the realist-absurd World War Two style, or even of Post-Modernism in its beautiful chaos phase. By which I mean Heller, and then Pynchon–who else? If some of Ford’s descriptions recall the earnest efforts of Milo Minderbinder, this transition from French beachfront merriment to hard-edged despair is something that Tyrone Slothrop might have experienced (Ford would have added a trained octopus and mysterious femme fatale if he had known he could get away with it):

…On the 2nd of February, 1917 I had stood on that platform. There had been an icy wind and snow falling. I was going up the line again. If you have asked me then whether I felt despair I should have denied it–mildly. I had been conscious of being dull and numbed in a dull, numb station. All France up to Hazebrouck in Flanders was deep in snow. I was going to Hazebrouck in Flanders.[2]


But back to earth, now, with an unlikely pair: young lovers whose warrior half is not a warrior but a pacifist medic, firmly rooted in his dreams of the stars. Half a world away, today, a century back, Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller wrote to each other. I don’t often include much from Agnes’s letters–they tell of civilian life in Australia, and often engage Olaf in philosophical discussion–but today her question (ought America to join the war?) brings in the text-of-the-moment:

…there was a little paragraph in Wells’ book “Mr. Britling Sees It Through” which made me want America not to fight. It was where the young American explained that his country will betray her trust if she allowed herself to be drawn into war. He said America was the field for humanity to make a fresh start in, to turn over a new leaf, & it would be wrong got her to go back to the old lines. Do you think that?

Up until a few weeks ago. Oh, apologies–she was asking Olaf.

It would seem that although Olaf and Agnes are half a world away, they are on the same side of that generational gap, the biggest stumbling block on the approach to the experiential gulf. Never has Agnes Miller sounded so much like Vera Brittain (the Vera Brittain of 1914 and 1915).

Have you read “Mr. Britling” yet? I want to read it again to myself. We are going to discuss it at one of the Seekers meetings this year. Hugh’s letters made me cry. Dad said after reading one very harrowing one, “Well, it’s quite understandable that the men themselves wouldn’t see beyond their own trenches. They wouldn’t take a broad view.”–& I wanted to burst out indignantly, “No & why should they? Poor men! Why should anyone see beyond all the filth of it. They were not meant to, war is not the right way. It’s all a hideous madness.”–but I couldn’t have said anything without bursting into tears, so I said naught.

And Olaf, who will receive this letter in a month or two, is writing to Agnes about a book he is reading,

about feminism and marriage and love and the evolution of a nobler kind of society. The point of it all is really very simple, namely that women… must become free & independent economically and spiritually.

The world could do with more such. But he’s not here because he’s a good lad and a conscientious liberal–he’s here because he’s a good writer. Here’s a lovely metaphor:

Dear, you know how an electric wire conveys a current, and how if the current is too strong for it the wire fuses–goes white hot and breaks. Well, all this poor letter writing business is our electric wire, and it is too thin a wire for the current of understanding and sympathy and love that has to pass along it, that must pass along… When we meet, girl, there will be such a lot to learn of one another… The best thing I have learnt in these years of war is the sense of the supreme worth of sincerity in human thoughts and feelings…[3]


It’s been a long day and this is perhaps too much, but in guilt–or righteous concession–over the extent to which my dislike for Richard Aldington‘s personality and fiction informs my reading of his letters, I must include this one (to F.S. Flint, as usual). Aldington is certainly warming to the task:

My brave,

I fear my letter worried & annoyed you–but you must permit me a “grouch” occasionally. “The flesh is sad, alas”–& I have no books to read. Sometimes I wish you were here. One can “wag the beard” quite freely while working & we could discuss cadence & quantity & rhythm to the sound of pick and shovel…

So the weather is cold with you? Imagine! Here it is subtropical. We live on iced champagne & salads. The R.F.A. wear nothing but their trousers & socks. It is reported that the R.S.F. have abandoned all clothing except Japanese
umbrellas & fans.

The amazing thing is that in spite of the heat my shaving and tooth brushes are stiff with ice each morning. I have to thaw my towel before it will bend, the jam in tins is covered with a “crust” of ice &…but why continue? You think I
exaggerate? Come & see!

A yarn. Quidam barbarus–a certain Hun, taken prisoner at X on the 11th of Z was asked by a Tommy how long the
war would last. “Two years more,” quoth Fritz, “then we beat you with the bayonet. You’ll only need one ship to take your lot back then.” “Ho,” said our compatriot in wrath “and your blankety blank lot’ll go ’ome in a copulating perambulator.”

This was told me by one who vowed he’d seen it. No doubt the yarn appeared last June in the Journal & last
Saturday in The Evening Standard, but it’s new to me & maybe to you. I hope you’re edified.

See, that’s funny. And the joke requires three participants: the German stooge; the earthy lower-class Briton, profane but, on his best behavior, searching for euphemism; and the well-bred ear, there to appreciate the word-substitution (which was not a new necessity among those who frequently salted their speech with the earthy latrinogrammatic first-resorts represented by “copulating,” but seems to still give a frisson to the middle classes) as well as the metrical superabundance that makes “copulating perambulator” such a joy to find in a sentence that could have been, in a less eloquent age, “screw you, buddy.”

Finally, Aldington, for all that he is an enlisted laborer, now, is a very productive writer, and not only of letters. I’ve already excised about ten literary name-drops from this one, but it now becomes clear what Aldington is up to:

I wrote an article in malicious mood on modern English poetry in which I abused decisively & praised ironically some score of our villainous pundits of the pen. Still it was a poor affair–I lack verve & venom…

What do you think? A new Dunciad in prose with Abercrombie & Kipling & all that lousy crew round Monro elegantly dished and derided.

Perhaps this is what Aldington currently believes that his lowly stance in a copulating navvying unit might help him achieve: it’s a good crouch from which to chuck heavy objects at the marble busts atop the world of poetry. Kipling, popular master of the waning empire; Abercrombie, the reigning Georgian; and Harold Monro as the portfolio-holder for the rising-unmoderns.

Or he just wants to heap invective on a major modernist who has criticized–and critically!–Aldington’s recent translations from the Greek:

…a propos, that fatted imbecile of destruction, Eliot… Slay me this imbecile with a note to ’Arriet. “The Greeks put intelligence on their tombstones” quotha. Many, and the Yanks cannot even get it into the periodicals of their intellectual élite. Consult H.D. and use information and indignation here supplied to expose this festering lunatic, this bunion on the souls of Pound, this comPound [sic], this insult to God!

If you need it borrow some money from H.D. She usually gets a “check” about the 10th” of the month. Call

Cheer up! Why I may be blown to bits to-morrow. Then you can write my biography.


Well, he sounds like he’s having a good time…


References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 65-66.
  2. War Prose, 65-7.
  3. Talking Across the World, 203-4.
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 180-2.

Charles Lister is Hit Again; Edward Thomas and Ford Madox Ford Seek Society Among the Other Ranks; Alan Seeger Describes a Circle; Roland Hefts a Happy Axe While Vera Wishes for a Blighty One

More bad news from Gallipoli. Once there were five Argonauts:[1] Patrick Shaw-Stewart is safe, for the moment, on the staff; Arthur “Oc” Asquith has recovered from his wounds and returned to the Hood Battalion. Rupert Brooke, of course, succumbed to blood poisoning in April, while Denis Browne was killed in June. That leaves Charles Lister, who has already been wounded twice during the campaign. Two days ago he wrote to his father.

Hospital Ship, August 26, 1915

Just think, I have been wounded once more, the third time. We were in a trench, observing the Turkish trenches, when suddenly they fired some shells into our trenches. I went along to see what had happened, got my people back into a bit of a trench they had had to leave, then went down the trench, thinking the show was over, and then got it, being struck in the pelvis and my bladder being deranged, and slight injuries in the legs and calves.

I have been operated on, but am sketchy as to what has been done. I am on a hospital ship, comfy enough, but feeling the motion of it a good deal, and I have to be in bed and cannot change my position. The hours go slowly, as one does not feel very much up to reading. However, I got to sleep all right. I feel this will be a longish job, and I don’t know where I shall do my cure–perhaps Alexandria. My doctor is quite happy at the way things are going. The shell that hit me killed one man and wounded the others. Forgive this scrawl, but it’s not easy to write.

There will be no cure. Lister died today, a century back.

So much writing here has been about expectation, about arrival–the poems of anticipation, the agonies of eagerness, the careful recording of each step on the journey to the line. Now, increasingly, there is a burden of survivor’s writing to take up. The diarists and the avid epistolary life-writers must become eulogists, or forget their friends.

In a few weeks time, Shaw-Stewart will write home to their mutual friend R. A. Knox:

I love always to hear from you about people I don’t get news of, but I am almost incapable of writing about Billy, Douglas, Charles. I have had to do so much of it. Balliol of our time has had, I do think, a high proportion of killed; my best friends never seem to get comfortably wounded…  I think you and I are the only ones who thoroughly realise the length and breadth of what we lose in Charles. I think from different points of view we have perhaps understood him as well as any one else, and certainly prized him as highly, and we alone have all College and all Balliol in retrospect of him. He was quite extraordinarily good out here, and supplied an example of how not to grouse, and not to appear unduly to mind being killed, not unneeded by some of the newer drafts of officers. The men, both stokers and recruits, adored him—they always called him “Lord Lister,” which conjured up delicious visions of the aged man of science as a company officer. He had really what the despatches call devotion to duty; he was all the time resisting an intrigue by the Intelligence people (fomented by me) to get him moved there, which was on the point of coming off. He was constantly doing the most reckless things, walking between the lines with his arms waving under a hot fire from both sides; but his last wound, like his others, was from a shell in a trench, and no blame could attach. I think nothing worse can happen. God and the King have both lost a protagonist, and people like you and me the most divine of men.[2]

We tend to see Shaw-Stewart in a humorous vein–he’s one of our best writers of the light-verse letter–or grandstanding a bit about his experiences. But here he is heartbroken, mourning his friend from within their circle, not praising him to those without.

The recipient of the letter is worth at least a brief mention here as well. Another brilliant Oxford classicist, Ronald Arbuthnott Knox had followed the same course as Shaw-Stewart and so many others–Eton, then Balliol. But then Knox, the son of an Anglican bishop, had chosen not business or the arts but the church. Ordained now, he was both a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and its chaplain, and swiftly establishing himself as a popular theological writer. As a man of the cloth he will not feel the same impulsion to volunteer for France, but the war will change him as well–Knox will soon convert to Catholicism, which will necessitate leaving his Oxford post. But writerly fame awaits: in addition to his religious writing we will become a genre-defining writer of crime fiction.

But back to the now. Knox was a mighty Latinist (among his first Oxford students was Harold MacMillan) and he will soon sit down to work on a contribution to the memorial book that Charles Lister’s father will assemble. Knox’s contribution will be a formal elegy–it’s available here, if your Latin is up to the task. Sic transit gloria, etc.


Edward Thomas added to his ongoing letter to Robert Frost today, a century back. It’s quite striking how much the army has changed him–for now, at least. He seems to ease off on the self-excoriating honesty, here, and to indulge in a wistful tone so unlike the hard, alert intelligence of his poetry. He complains, yes, and questions himself. But without the rough edge. It’s almost as if he’s abandoned figure studies in slanting light and given himself to the pleasant hurly-burly of genre-painting… such is the calming effect on struggling, lonely man of a sudden immersion in the necessary camaraderie of army training.

I have some time on my hands at Headquarters today & have a pile of 1000 blankets in an empty drill hall to recline in. So far it is very dull defending ones wives & mothers & sisters & daughters from the Germans…

So far I am an indigested lump in this battalion. The men I am up against are mostly clerks of some sort with intelligent newspaper opinions and an interest in their clothes & in keeping up the social standing of the corps… They don’t quite understand what I say except when I say Yes or No. The great majority are under 25.–It is a question now whether I should have been worse off say in the Welch Fusiliers with a mixture of clerks & shopmen & manual workers. Perhaps I allowed myself too easily to be persuaded I could not have stood their ways.  For though I am admittedly a superior person I am not as particular as some people. Well, I dare say any one 100 men are about he same as any other 100…

Nobody persuaded me into this. Not even myself.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Well, never mind, I suppose. Thomas is soon once again questioning his decision. And, like virtually every other Englishman socially south of a lordship, he is perpetually worried about fitting in with those “below” him. Which continues to seem an unattractive trait and an intellectual dead-end, no matter how accustomed I become to the England of a century back…


And so of course a we find similar concerns in a letter today from our other elderly-man-of-letters-newly-in-uniform, Ford Madox Hueffer of the Welsh Regiment:

To C. F. G. Masterman

3rd Bn. Welch Regt.
28 Aug. 1915

My dear C. F. G.

Here I am and hard at it—6 a.m. to 7 p.m. everyday, like any V form boy & at about the same sort of stuff. Literature seems to have died out of a world that is mostly interesting from its contours. (A contour is an imaginary line etc.) But I am really quite happy except for an absolute lack of social life. I suppose you or Lucy don’t know anyone hereabouts to whom you cd. give me an introduction?[4]

Similar, and yet different. From Thomas, the long discursive letter (I excerpted only a small portion) to his best friend across the sea. From Ford, a bon viveur and a man who is practical about his impracticalities, a short letter requesting social aid and abettance.


And let’s check in briefly with Alan Seeger.  When last we heard from him he was hopeful that recent troop movements presaged a glorious attack.

Plancher-Bas, August 28, 1915.

Back in Plancher-Bas again! Our march into Alsace, round which I wove so much romance, was only for the prosaic purpose of working on second line defences… We worked five days and then marched back by the same route.

Putting one and two together, it seems to me that the General Staff are at present bringing behind the lines as far as possible, as in our case, the best troops and manning the trenches with second-line formations and territorials. They are recreating a whole armée active, who are not to be put into the trenches, but will be thrown immediately into the next great offensive…[5]


Finally, today, Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain. It’s good to report that she is still always in his thoughts.

Bois de Warnimont, France, 28 August 1915

I have brought the Company out woodcutting for the R.E. [Royal Engineers] this morning, and am writing this sitting on a tree trunk in a clearing. It is a glorious morning–very hot outside; but in this world of green and brown it is a sheer delight. The wood is about 3 miles long and covers two little hills and a valley between. Someone has just begun to whistle part of the Overture to ‘William Tell’, and it sounds so appropriate here among the aisles of trees with the ring of axes as a background. And this is war!

I ought not to be sitting down writing this now really. I am supposed to be walking round seeing that the men do their work properly. Before I began this I did a little wood chopping myself, just because I felt a childish desire to & greatly to the amusement of the men, I expect.[6]

Where is the gloomy Roland of yesterday? Well, high spirits and pitching in make for good leadership.

Across the channel in Buxton, alas, we find that the soul mates are out of sync.

Saturday August 28th

To-day has been much the same as all the days–and all will be like one another, I suppose, until he is either killed or comes home again. Oh! if he could only be wounded just a little![7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Or six, if you count Bernard Freyberg, the natural soldier of the bunch. Or seven if you count Frederick Kelly, the rower and composer. And while they may have called themselves "The Argonauts," in faux-ironic-heroic style, their fellow officers in the Hood Battalion called them "The Latin Club." Nicknames, nicknames--so different when bestowed from within than without. But anyway--Freyberg and Kelly yet live.
  2. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 147-8.
  3. Elected Friends, 92-3.
  4. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 61.
  5. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 151-2.
  6. Letters of a Lost Generation, 151.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 265.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart is on the Staff and Alan Seeger is on Parade; Edward Thomas Knows What He Is Fighting For

We’ll hear from Eleanor Farjeon is just a moment, but first we check in briefly with Patrick Shaw-Stewart, in Gallipoli, and Alan Seeger, with the evolving Legion in Eastern France.

Shaw-Stewart finds himself, much like Roland Leighton, pulled into the orbit of the staff. He too is a conspicuously clever volunteer, but he is older and highly connected as well. For the moment he is happy to avoid the difficult choice between camaraderie and safety, between the old battalion and the red badges of the staff:

Of course there are obvious reasons against leaving one’s regiment, especially when it contains jolly people like Charles (who is back again after being particularly gallantly wounded for the second time), and Oc, but on the whole I am quite prepared to be passive in the matter, and do what the Corps tells me. So for the moment here I am in inglorious safety on the gilded Staff (“acting G.S.O. III.,” which ought to be paid at the rate of £400 a year), and speaking French for dear life.[1]


And Alan Seeger finds himself in limbo, today:

July 27

Pleasant days here in the rear. Morning and afternoon we generally have exercises, marches militaires, and reviews. But there is always plenty of time on each side of the morning and evening meal to rest, read, or loaf…

The country people here are interesting and agreeable. Next door I sometimes speak with the old man whom one usually finds walking up and down in his yard alone after dark. His son disappeared in the forest of Apremont in October, and has never been heard of since. It was his only son; the daughter showed me one day the photograph of her brother, a fine-looking young fellow, a corporal in one of the Belfort regiments that marched into Alsace at the beginning of the war. It is one of the thousands of similar tragedies with which France is filled these days…

Mean while our plans are completely unknown to us and to the commandement, too, probably. There is a rumor that we shall be here till the 10th of August. Quién sabe?

Who indeed. We’ll come back to Seeger in about a week, but while we’re with him today I want to glance ahead to a divisional parade in order to contrast his reaction to North African military music with Lady Feilding‘s:

Passed a splendid review the day before yesterday at Chaux-la-Chapelle…  The whole Legion was there, and we drew up in a large rectangular field, the woods on one side and a beautiful view of the near mountains at the end. Here we were joined by the rest of the division, two regiments of Tirailleurs Algériens. They filed in behind their music–the famous nouba–whose effect was most novel and émotionnant, an alternation of clairons and a number of curious wood-wind instruments, supported by bass and treble drums…[2]


And Edward Thomas was back on regular duty today, a century back. But he is still billeted on his parents and allowed a lunch break–the better sort of London regiment still does some things at a peace-time pace, apparently. Eleanor Farjeon wrote of their meeting today, and she also found occasion[3] to report Thomas’s pithiest (I won’t stoop to “earthiest”) explanation of his motivations.

So on Tuesday July 27th I lunched for the first time with Edward in uniform…  [later] I asked him the question his friends had asked him when he joined up, but I put it differently. ‘Do you know what you are fighting for?’ He stopped, and picked up a pinch of earth. ‘Literally, for this.’ He crumbled it between finger and thumb, and let it fall.[4]

This quote is inescapable–no writer on Thomas can resist it. Nor should we, as there can hardly be a more trustworthy pair of second hands than Farjeon’s. Literally for English earth. This is at once a simple, powerful, quotable statement and a small mystery. What does it really mean? A naturalist’s patriotism? An intellectual’s reversion to mystic sympathy? I don’t know.

And as for Thomas’s friendships… it hardly seems fair that far-off Robert Frost gets a long, heart-felt letter, while the ever-loyal, ever-helpful Eleanor Farjeon gets only a pinch of dust and a koan…


References and Footnotes

  1. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 143-4.
  2. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 137-40.
  3. Albeit in flash-forward to a country walk yet to take place.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 154.

Wyndham Lewis Lets Off A Volley of New BLAST; A Quieter New Venture From Isaac Rosenberg; Classic Reminiscences from Patrick Shaw-Stewart; A Madcap Tale from Dorothie Feilding

Blast #2

Quite a second issue of Blast this month.

Of the seven names appearing in the Table of Contents, two belong to unsung-if-not-completely-forgotten women Vorticists–Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders (or Sanders). Two are Modernist bigwigs I’d prefer to avoid, nasty dominating poets forever conjoined on Desolation Row. But three are soldier-writers of the first water: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s missive from the trenches was published posthumously; Ford Madox Hueffer‘s lugubrious meditation on “The Old Houses of Flanders” marks a sort of way station on his journey from most contrarian of propagandists to unlikeliest of subalterns; and Wyndham Lewis, shooting from the hip, but not yet dreaming of the artillery, wrote most of the issue.

There are two extremes of historical writing, two shoals I try to steer a safe course between. On the one side there is the fine-grained, soldier-by-soldier history of the common man and the longe durée which can be found not only in academic histories of the last few decades but on the numerous excellent websites which present the history of the Great War from a populist/memorial point of view, in which every man’s service is honored and every story is worth telling. And on the other side are the big-idea histories which shape the story of the past around one (or a small number) of experiences, and shrink not from the principle of aesthetic judgment. Such is Paul Fussell‘s book.

So I want to be in the middle. A fair umpire. An unbiased historian. A scintillating centrist.

But let’s not kid ourselves: I’m tacking close to the latter shore. I was afraid of Julian Grenfell; I persist in disliking the 1914 sonnets even though I generally sail by Vera Brittain‘s star and she still loved them well, a century back. I fear the opprobrium of the Great War amateur history community (or would, if there were comments on acenturyback) every time I opine that a soldier’s poem is naive, derivative, or–despite his honorable service and first-hand knowledge of war and my own lack of those qualifications–just not very good at conveying the experience of war. We watch the writing of the war in part to understand it all better–but also to find the best of it.

But–saving grace?–my snobbery is not always, at least, the going academic snobbery. Because I don’t much like those Modernists neither. Ford, yes–when he gets there. Lewis-of-the-smouldering-gaze (see below)  I will reconsider when I read his memoir. But American ambulance men–no matter how hairy chested or undercapitalized–will get scant attention here.

I wear my confirmed literary favoritisms brassard-style: Hardy is the old heart of things, Edward Thomas is our man in (premature) middle age, and Charles Sorley is our man of the New Armies. These are neither Modernists nor wistful post-Victorians. They are the innovating non-rebels, the sharp-minded forward-thinkers as unembarrassed by their love for much of the tradition as by their rejection of its more sentimental of jingoist offshoots… and I much prefer them to the not-very-good writers of the trenches, however bemedalled (sorry Alf) and the blustering bourgeois-shockers still in their cafes (see, now I’m brandishing the white feather–hypocrite!)


Wyndham Lewis

But I have to admit that I’m impressed with the sagacity shown by Wyndham Lewis in this month’s Modernist rodomontade. He is responsible for a fistful of short articles which generally chart an ironic middle course of his own. In one, he remarks on the paucity of good war-inspired art and poetry, yet wonders why there should be a general expectation that war will stimulate popular art:

But as the English Public lets its artists starve in peace time, there is really nothing to be said. The war has not changed things in that respect.

He rails against–or not exactly against, that would be uncool–German brutality and laughs at the idea that it can be attributed to the influence of “the execrable ‘Neech.'” And then he goes and pokes fun at the British sporting self-image.

Then there’s less little gem, which appears to rather precisely predict both the Second World War and our current predicament:


People will no doubt have to try again in 20 or 30 years if they REALLY like or need War or not. And so on until present conditions have passed into Limbo.

Perpetual War may well be our next civilization. I personally should much prefer that, as 18 months’ disorganization every 40 years and 38½ years’ complete peace, is too anarchic except for Art squabbles. In the middle ages a War was always going on somewhere, like the playing of perpetual football teams, conducted by trained arquebussiers, etc. This permanent War of the Future would have a much more cynical and professional character.

Good guess. Sure, there’s also a lot of long-winded nonsense, Bernard Shaw-baiting, Kipling-scorning and halfhearted sniping at big fat militarist targets. But Lewis seems to have hit his stride early: he’s the foppish, lacerating enfant terrible of the avant garde, gleefully out ahead and trying his best to draw the enemy’s fire.

But while some of the posturing comes off as hollow, it is still disconcerting to come suddenly upon Gaudier-Brzeska, a flesh and blood victim in the midst of a war in words:

Gaudier Brzeska vortex

Gaudier Brzeska’s Last Contribution to the Vortex

Gaudier Brzeska vortex2Before we close the pages of BLAST, however, I must bring us to page 21. It’s Pound: would-be-wise and petty, foolish Ezra Pound, whom I would dearly love to leave by the wayside. But page 21 is too good perfect. Pound, too, is writing snide light verse, taking little shots at targets of opportunity–those poor poets unable to recognize the unstoppable rise of the Vortex. In two poems, on one page, he mocks both Rupert Brooke–mostly in a French footnote–and Laurent Tailhade, that strange mutilated old magus who had taken an unknown Englishman abroad–one Wilfred Owen–as an adept.

There’s just a touch more: in deploying his faux-antique grandiose style to mock the French “decadent,” Pound invokes a certain scenic designer:

Let us leap with ungainly leaps before a stage scene
By Leon Bakst.
Let us do this for the splendour of Tailhade.

This is that very Bakst who designed for the Ballet Russes, who made the backdrop for La Légende de Josephe before which three of our poets assembled for A Century Back’s overture.

Quite an assemblage. But one more: we have come across C.R.W. Nevinson before (not to mention H.W., his father), and his woodcut is surely the most affecting and effective combination of Vorticist angles and war time subject matter we have yet seen: Nevinson, On the Way to the Trenches

Oh what a modern war!

But not in Gallipoli; not if you’re Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who wrote to Edward Horner today, a century back:

That flower of sentimentality which buds rather unreadily in me expands childishly on classical soil. It is really delightful to me (I expect it would be to you) to bathe every day, when not in the trenches or standing by, in the Hellespont, looking straight over to Troy, to see the sun set over Samothrace, to be fighting for the command of Aegospotami…

From reveries ancient and learned to recent, and personal:

I am at present disposed to be very optimistic, partly, perhaps, because Charles and Oc have just come back and human relationships thus restarted. Do you remember just before I went to Dunkirk, when you and Julian advised me all one morning how to put on a Sam Browne, and what to pack in 35 lb.? We were young, very merry, and not war-wise (how well I could pack some young lad’s 35 lb. for him now, and how cynically I should explain that he could make it up to 70 lb. with well-timed parcels!).

That was the last time I saw Julian, and the only time for nearly two years. I have lost people who left a fresher gap, such as Rupert, or a more continuous one such as John, but never one who was once such a great friend, or who was tied up in my mind with such a solid and distinct block of Balliol life—indeed, short of you and Charles, it would be impossible.[1]


Two more, quickly.

First, a rather less celebrated publication debuted today, a century back. Isaac Rosenberg has had a great deal of time on his hands, as well as unlimited ambition and severely limited resources. He and his old friend Reuben “Crazy” Cohen had decided to start their own magazine–a monthly, to be published more frequently once the advertising and subscription money started rolling in. The two cobbled together their own works–Rosenberg’s contribution was a lecture on art he had given in South Africa–and printed the eight pages themselves, on a borrowed press.

The venture, nearly needless to say, will be a failure, and Rosenberg will once more feel tightly pinned between the uncertainty of the artist’s life and the potential stability of waged work in the nation’s only growing concern.[2]


Lastly, a letter from Lady Feilding, who gives all of our “sloppy about dates” writers a new mark to aim at:

June 31 Furnes [1 July]

Mother deah–

I am going down to Ypres this morning to see how our cars down there are getting on. I haven’t been in the old place for 3 months & am rather looking forward to a chance of getting down there, of course if I meet Fitzpatrick again I may get heaved out on the way! But I’m full of hope.

It’s before breakfast & I’m terribly sleepy, but remorseful because I didn’t write you yesterday. Night work is very late now… One gets awfully sleepy after a lot of days on end. The troops aren’t relieved until 11 pm & sometimes later now…

Last night up there 2 brancardiers [stretcher bearers] started at 10 pm to fetch a wounded man from the outposts & only got him back at ten am next morning. There is some miles of very exposed communication trench, cut zig zag of course with the result no stretcher can be taken in it & the blessé has to be slung in his blanket & carried by the other men on all fours.

And here’s a new one, an apparent “shell shock” case described in the very best charming/alarming Lady Feilding style:

Yesterday we had an awful time with a tame Zouave lunatic they very kindly gave ‘Mees’ at Nieuport to take away. He was just cheerfully barmy rather like Neb when tight, & was very funny. He had hotly accused his lieutenant of having cut his wife into little bits with his scissors, which just gave his bright pals the clue he might be queer, wonderful how observant these men get you know, so the patient alternately took me for the lieutenant, the wife, the scissors, his best friend, & something most unpleasant & kept trying to climb out at the back when we weren’t looking…

Well I must run now Mrs Ma. Goodbye & God bless you – yr loving



References and Footnotes

  1. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 142-3.
  2. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 120.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 83-4.

A Violent Crossing of Paths at ‘Bomb School;’ Wilfred Owen, A Poet Born, May Yet Return a Gentleman; Lord Crawford on Women in His Place; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Forgets He’s a Soldier, For a Day; Tolkien Passes Yet Another Exam

I almost missed this one!

Working a few days ahead, I came across a familiar name in a footnote to one of Lady Feilding‘s letters. And just in the nick of time, for you, dear reader.

The name–E.W. Hermon–was familiar because, while drafting this very post, I had passed over a note to include him in the project on the occasion of a bombing lesson gone awry. Perhaps I was right to think that “there’s enough to discuss today, so let’s leave off introducing a new ‘character,’ even if there’s an Event of Accumulating Interest.” So I moved on…

But how can I pass up the chance to note the centennial of another hand grenade accident in which one writer injures another writer’s brother? This is broad spectrum micro-history at its finest, no?

E.W. Hermon had been a regular officer in the cavalry until his retirement several years before the war. He had apparently enjoyed life in the army, but did not want to go abroad with his regiment for many years and be separated from his young family. As a compromise he had joined King Edward’s Horse, a once-rather-irregular unit of “colonial” (i.e. white Englishmen with colonial associations) cavalry that had become first a unit of the Yeomanry (i.e. the cavalry of the Territorial Army), until it was absorbed into the Special Reserve in 1913. Incidentally, Hermon commanded the Oxford and Cambridge squadrons of King Edward’s Horse–mounted versions of OTC units–during the  Regiment’s Territorial phase… which means that he was young Tolkien’s commanding officer during his first stint of semi-military service in his first year at Oxford.

Thirty-six at the outbreak of war, married and the father of four, Hermon was one of those mobilized during their annual summer training camps. He spent several frenetic months training with his “part-time” unit before eventually being deployed this spring as a major in command of an independent troop of cavalry–to serve, as all other cavalry were at this point, in the reserve. The Hermons were sufficiently wealthy (Eton, Christ Church; socializing with Grenfells and Feildings of our acquaintance) that Edward brought several of his own horses to war with him, to say nothing of both a manservant, Gordon Buxton, and a groom, Harry Parsons, who enlisted in order to continue to serve their master.

Like many devoted husbands, Hermon promised to write regularly to his wife Ethel. Unlike many others, he did–almost 600 times–and the letters were carefully saved, the bundles unwrapped by his grand-daughter in 1991, and published in 2007. So we will be hearing from Major Hermon from time to time now.

On June 18th he was appointed commander of the 47th Division’s Bomb School, in Hesdigneul. And would you like an anecdotal reminder of the state of the art of grenade warfare at the time? Well: his first letter after the appointment asked for two lacrosse sticks to be sent out–to aid in removing unwanted live grenades from trenches…

30th June 1915

I am sorry to say I has a nasty accident at my bomb school today. I had just started my first lecture with the officers & I always have some perfectly harmless dummy bombs made up fro demonstrations. Somehow one bomb made up with a detonator had been put in my demonstration box with the result when showing the class how it was lit it exploded in my hand. Part of it flew into a box of detonators, 20 of them, & exploded the lot…

The efficient Mills Bomb (which looks like one would expect a hand grenade to look–pin and lever, etc.) is still not being produced in sufficient quantities–hence these ancient bombs which must be lit by hand. The silver lining, in this case, is that they are also ineffectual.

I had a marvellous escape, & why I wasn’t blinded I don’t know. When I lit the bomb it was in my hand & not 12 inches in front of my face…

Hermon escaped with just a few superficial cuts–“the blow to my pride is far worse than the trifling skin rub”–but the young officer on his left, attached to K.E.H. from the Coldstream Guards, “got it a good deal worse.”

This, as it happens, was Dorothie Feilding‘s younger brother Henry.

Two other officers were injured, one in the eye, and Feilding was cut in the face and the wrist, and sent to hospital. His watch, however, seemed to have stopped the largest fragment, shielding his wrist from serious damage. Thus:

I want you to buy me a really good silver wristwatch, which must have luminous hands or figures, as I want to give it to Henry. Have his initials put on it. H.S.F. from E.W.H. June 1915 & I will pay up to £5 for it…

I am off bombing again in the morning…

Paths crossed. Frightening tally of grenade accidents augmented. And now we know the price of a “sorry, old chap, that my error almost blinded you” replacement watch.[1]


Young Wilfred Owen is swaggering verbosely toward a certain decision:

Wednesday, 30 June 1915, Bordeaux

My dearest Mother,

Your letters are very dear to me; but these are days when my side of correspondence languisheth like a leaf in fiery June. I cannot exaggerate the painful feelings I experienced in the first day of my change of air; but at the same time I repeat I have nothing to grumble about here, and am therefore of an untumultuous spirit; whatever I may have of England to regret. But as the School Term seems to start about Sept. 21st, there
is really a mere wisp of time to be consumed before the Return to England…

Ah, the capitalized “Return.” So it has dawned on Owen what this will most likely mean. The forefront of his mind is generally occupied by his aspirations toward poetry–and, indeed, in just a moment he will broach the subject of the war via more thoughts about poetic destiny. But he is writing to his mother, now, and their joint project–since even before his birth–has been the restoration of their (i.e. her) family to a state of gentility. It cannot be for a moment lost to either of them that a very large percentage of the young “gentlemen” have gone for officers and that the swift expansion of the army has created a fortuitous path to the recognition of one’s gentlemanly status.

Wilfred works around to it:

Another thing: was it not Belloc’s great forefinger which pointed out to me this passage of De Vigny: If any man despairs of becoming a Poet, let him carry his pack and march in the ranks.

Now I don’t despair of becoming a Poet: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ so to speak…

In other words, there may be poetry in war, and war may be the making of a poet. But I, you see, mother, I am a poet by nature and birthright. The war has other applications:

Will you set about finding the address of the ‘Artists’ Rifles’, as this is the Corps which offers commissions to ‘gentlemen returning from abroad…’

Yours ever and ever—Wilfred[2]


Private Lord Crawford gets into one of his favorite subjects, today: women! Can’t live with ’em, might seem to be in need of their help, so that more wounded men don’t die without ’em… be that as it may, they are distinctly troublesome creatures…

By why settle for misogynist paraphrase?

Wednesday, 30 June 1915

At No. 2 hospital most of the day. The colonel, a man of energy and decision, means to make the officers’ section a marked success. Let us hope he may–there is some scepticism as to whether our personnel will be adequate.

Two nurses arrived to the horror of the unit which intensely dislikes the nurses at this stage of the firing line. Further back and when the wounded men are convalescent and anxious to gossip, the help of nurses is invaluable–but at the earliest stage after being wounded, the patient doesn’t want to have to be on good behaviour. Orderlies and men alike dislike nurses and from all accounts with good cause.

The latter-day editor of Crawford’s letters, Christopher Arnander, breaks in at this point to note that “the feeling may have been mutual–Nurse Jentie Paterson of No. 5 CCS commented in a letter home that ‘orderlies to my mind are all very well, but they can never take the place of women nurses… they lack education, perception, and conscience… being of a different social status… ideas of cleanliness differ…”[3]

This is hardly the point, and it is doubly strange to quote a particularly snobbish bit from a nurse when Lord Crawford is by leaps and bounds the most socially elevated orderly in France. Nasty nurses hardly undo Crawford’s knee-jerk woman-hating, and I would urge the reader to continue to read Crawford’s diary alongside Lady Feilding–and indeed, now Vera Brittain–and to judge for herself whether there is any reason to praise or condemn either gender-category of amateur medical volunteers.

Prejudice: fine, alright, we expected that. But it is passing silly to assess the way in which the medical services have been drastically expanded by passing along “all accounts” fantasies of gossiping prima donna nurses or dirt-caked village idiot orderlies.


So let’s clear the palate with Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who wrote a delectable classicist/orientalist revery to his sister, today, a century back.

Imbros was delicious. It is a prettier island than Lemnos, and with nicer villages, Panagia and Kastro. And the simple joy of being out of shellfire after two months of it was considerable. To live in a tent (they are too conspicuous to be allowed here) instead of a dug-out was also jolly, and as I was temporarily commanding a company I had one to myself. I went over as often as I could from our camp at Kephalos on the east to Panagia over the central ridge and Kastro on the west, where there was delicious coffee and beer and eggs and mullets and marvellous mulberries that dropped into your mouth and covered you all over with blood-red stains that turned blue-black, and you could forget for a day that you were a damned soldier, and talk as best as you could to the amiable Greeks. One of them said to me, “Turkoi skotountai polu?” which I boldly guessed to mean “ Are the Turks being much whacked? ” and I said, “ Yes, rather,” and, in case there should be any doubt, added that we had killed 50,000 and taken 5000 prisoners—so it’s not my fault if Imbros doesn’t come in…

But most of the time we had to parade and drill—you see, you can never parade here or speak to more than six men at a time, for fear of shells, which is bad for their souls—and that was tiring. I’m now second in command of “D” Company (mostly stokers, though not my old ones), having been relieved in command by Ock, who is three days senior to me! Fortunately I have not violent military ambitions and am delighted to have him back, also Charles;[4] they both came the same day.’[5]

Shaw-Stewart can almost make Gallipoli sound like a stop on the Grand Tour, when the mood is upon him.


As the brunt of the war begins to be shouldered by the men of the new armies, Donald Hankey‘s 7th/Rifle Brigade now took their first turn in trenches on one of the line’s most active sectors. We’ve been here before: just yesterday Hankey’s battalion entered the front line between Hooge crater and Bellewaarde Farm, site of the recent one day battle. Today his company suffered its first deaths, as two men were killed, apparently by the German artillery which regularly probed the forward trenches. Tomorrow more shells will be coming over, and by Friday Hankey will take up his pen…[6]

And, in a last glimpse of Oxford, we note that John Ronald Tolkien was passed fit today, a century back, removing the last potential obstacle to army service.


References and Footnotes

  1. Nason, ed., For Love and Courage, xi-xii, 44, 57-8; the watch is currently in the possession of a ten-year-old Feilding descendent...
  2. Collected Letters, 342-3.
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 17.
  4. These would be Arthur "Oc" Asquith and Charles Lister, original "argonauts" and companions of Rupert Brooke.
  5. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 140-1.
  6. Kissane, Without Parade, 143.

Another Argonaut is Killed; Henry Farnsworth Rhapsodizes the Legion; Donald Hankey Gets a Whiff of No Man’s Land

Today, a century back, might as well mark the end of the Argonauts, that self-nicknamed band of variously talented and high-spirited temporary naval officers serving together in the Hood Batallion of the Royal Naval Division. Charles Lister and Oc Asquith had already been wounded in the fighting at Gallipoli, and Rupert Brooke had died en route. Only Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who had recently been promoted to brigade staff, was unscathed, and he had a safe vantage point this morning when the Hood Battalion was selected to lead a local attack, storming a Turkish trench.

The charge was successful and the Hoods took the trench–“with the bayonet” as the popular and almost always misleading phrase[1] has it. But there was another trench behind it, of course, and–since the defenders had the advantage of the high ground–the Turkish troops holding it could fire and throw grenades down upon the British sailors.

Charles Lister, soon to rejoin the battalion, heard the grim reports of wounded survivors as they met in hospital:

The Hood Battalion was finished on June 4th… we lost heavily, and did not get supports enough to go on. Out of nine officers who went with the charge, six were killed and three wounded.[2]

One of those six was Denis Browne, the young musician and composer who had been a close friend of Rupert Brooke’s since their school days at Rugby. He was hit several times while in the exposed trench, and mortally wounded.

I want to make something of Browne’s death here in part because he is another good example of a promising artist whose connections–Eddie Marsh, of course, and his direct line to Churchill’s Naval Division–got him swiftly into death’s embrace. And also because he is someone so overshadowed by the more famous dead that it is really only Marsh who remembers Browne, and then literally as a footnote to his hagiographic memoir of Brooke:

I may here briefly commemorate William Denis Browne, whose death at 26 left no monument of his powers, except a few songs of great beauty. He was a musician of rare promise and complete equipment; and I have high authority for saying that his grasp of the foundations and tendencies of modern music was unique. I cannot here describe the singular charm of his character and personality. Enough that he never failed in honour, or in kindness, or in good sense, or in humour; and there were many who loved him.

He was a friend of Rupert’s at Rugby, at Cambridge, and in London; last, his brother-in-arms; and he cared for him, as will be told, in his mortal illness. Six weeks afterwards, on the 4th of June, he followed him, fighting with high gallantry in the attack on the Turkish trenches before Krithia.[3]

And yet there is a bit of a mystery about Browne’s death, and one which will probably never be quite solved.[4]

The first bit of the mystery concerns the date of his death–but of this I’m fairly satisfied. Many sources have listed the 7th, but it is certain that he was hit today, and–as his body has no known grave–unlikely that he ever made it back to the British lines after the trench was lost. So he must have died today, a century back, in that briefly captured trench, but the paperwork listing him as missing was, in the confusion of Gallipoli, incorrectly dated three days later.

The second mystery concerns the manner of his death. Several secondary sources have a suspiciously unsourced and melodramatic account of Browne, badly wounded, pressing his wallet (“pocket-book”) on a petty officer and uttering a version of the classic “I’m done for–save yourselves!” order. Something like this happened, because his effects did make it back. Eddie Marsh received a letter, perhaps written just before the attack, that hewed to another melodramatic-but-true convention:

My dear,

I’ve gone now too; not too badly I hope. I’m luckier than Rupert, because I’ve fought. But there’s no one to bury me as I buried him, so perhaps he’s best off in the long run…

Good-bye, my dear, & bless you always for your goodness to me.


I’ve used the word literally literally in this post, so I might as well use the word tragically almost literally. This is very sad… it’s tragic, really. How could Browne be so right about the manner of his death and burial? He fought, but he has been more or less forgotten, and there was no one to bury him, except perhaps a fatigue party of the enemy, interring him in the trench where he lay or tossing his body into a nearby mass grave. But the note anticipates something else, too–the hero’s hopes for his last battle. Or, perhaps, his fears.

Did he in fact go “not too badly?”

There is a strange ellipsis in the published letters of Patrick Shaw-Stewart. The first ellipsis is mine, below, but the the second is either his or his editor’s:

…having taken a Turkish trench we had to abandon it again, our right being exposed and the line enfiladed, and as you will see the losses were very heavy. Denis Browne was killed…[6]

And then there is this abrupt statement in a letter from Charles Lister:

I heard a bad account of Denis Browne.[7]

It doesn’t seem likely that “bad” means “sad,” here… One elision does not a conspiracy of silence make. But two?


Meanwhile, in France, Henry Farnsworth wrote to his mother.

June 4, 1915

Dear Mamma:

This afternoon we go up to the trenches; hence, peace and time to write in the morning. It is a dull, gray, hot morning, and I am sitting on a big pile of freshly cut clover that smells of pastoral ease. Your so-called hero is for the moment “very calm.” In the distance we can hear the clarions practising a march tune, but not even the distant thunder of big guns speaks of war…

It does not seem as though there were any way of ending this rabbit-warren war. Nevertheless, I have an inward conviction that it will end in September or October. It does not seem credible that humanity will go through another winter campaign…

It seems likely that Mrs. Farnsworth had heard of other Americans transferring out of the rough-and-tumble Foreign Legion–Henry mentions one such, but then provides a defense of remaining as he is:

There are obvious drawbacks to being a soldier of second class, but I was always a runner after the picturesque, and in good weather am not one who troubles much where I sleep, or when, and the picturesque is ever with us. It so happened that the Captain was pleased with our bringing the papers to the Germans and gave the seven of us  20 francs to prepare a little fete. What an unforgettable supper!

I was going to cut the following lyrical run-down of the characters of his platoon as irrelevant to our Anglophile mission here… but… it’s pretty good stuff:

There was the Sergeant, Zampanedes, a freak of classic type, who won his spurs at Zanina and his stripes in the Bulgarian campaign. Since, he has been a medical student in Paris; that to please his family, for his heart runs in different channels, and he studies music and draws in his spare time. (From the amount he knows, I should judge that “spare” time predominated.) We first fell into sympathy over the Acropolis, and cemented a true friendship over Turkish war songs and Byzantine chants, which he sings with a mournful romanticism that I never heard before. Then there was Nicolet, the Company Clarion, serving his twelfth year in the Legion, an incredible little Swiss, tougher than the drums of the fore and aft, and wise as Nestor in the futile ruses of the regiment. The Corporal, Mortens, a legionary wounded during the winter and cited for bravery in the order of the army. He was a commercial traveller in his native grand duchy of Luxemburg, but decided some five years ago to leave his debts and troubles behind him and become a Petit Zephyr de la Legion Etrangere. Sudic, a butcher from the same grand duchy, a man of iron physically and morally, and mentally unimportant. Covalieros, a Greek of Smyrna, who might have spread his silks and laces at the feet of a feudal princess and charmed her with his shining eyes and wild gestures into buying beyond her means. He also has been cited for reckless gallantry. Sukuna and myself brought up the list…

Some of us drank as deep as Socrates, and we ate a mammoth salad under the stars. Nicolet and Mortens talked of the battalion in the Sahara, and Zampanedes sang his Eastern songs, and even Sukuna was moved to Tongan chants. Like iEneas on Polyphemus’ isle, I feel that some years hence, well out of tune with all my surroundings, I shall be longing for the long warm summer days in northern France, when we slept like birds under the stars, among congenial friends, when no man ever thought of the morrow, and you changed horizons with each new conversation…

With love to the Da,

Your son, Henry[8]


And finally, today, a letter from Donald Hankey to “Mrs. L,” the wife of a farming couple with whom he had stayed in Australia. It contains an odd combination of bluff black humor and diffident religious faith:

At present, sitting in a trench with the bullets pattering round, and the possibilities of mines and bombs and things, one feels that it is rather rash to talk about “after the war,” and one has an odd feeling that, after all, one only has a sort of reversionary interest in one’s own life! However, it doesn’t worry me much. If there is another life, it is under the same management as this, and if there is not well, there are worse things than oblivion. Though I do believe there is a future life. I remember “father” saying in one of his letters that he would rather “rot in a trench than rust in a furrow”; but that was a very selfish sentiment, for to rot in the neighbourhood of a trench, as so many poor chaps are doing, makes it very smelly for the rest![9]


References and Footnotes

  1. Well--"with the bayonet" in the sense that they had bayonets affixed to their rifles. But bayonet wounds were seldom sustained, and really never could be considered the decisive weapon in an attack. Morale/human psychology does not very often permit a mass duel with hand-to-hand weapons, especially once a highly-motivated charge has overcome the more significant obstacle of defensive gunfire. If the attackers get close--close enough to throw their grenades--then the defenders will probably either lose their nerve or make a tactical retreat (and how clearly can the difference be perceived?), fleeing around traverses or down communication trenches. It looks like a bayonet victory, it feels like a bayonet victory--but few if any defenders are actually stabbed to death with bayonets. Reading between the lines of such descriptions at least partially confirms this general truth, while our growing knowledge of the way in which reports of intense experiences like combat are misremembered and misreported will, I hope, help to convince readers accustomed to hearing about all of these deadly, but scantily detailed, charges...
  2. Charles Lister, Letters and Recollections, 191-5.
  3. Marsh, Rupert Brooke, A Memoir, 147-8.
  4. Unless it has been puzzled out by any number of researchers on Gallipoli, virtually none of whose work I have read--I would be very happy to have my hubris corrected here.
  5. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 688.
  6. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 137.
  7. Charles Lister, Letters and Recollections, 193.
  8. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 156-60.
  9. Letters of Donald Hankey, 293.

Roland Leighton Bares All for the Government; The Afterlives of Julian Grenfell III: A Letter from Charles Lister; Edward Thomas Frets Over Zeppelins, Sieges, and American Libraries

Roland Leighton wrote to Vera Brittain today, a century back, with uncharacteristic wistfulness–and then a slightly comical tale. Believe it or not, this will certainly not be our last “young subaltern hobnobs with the elite in the bath” anecdote:

In the Trenches, Flanders, 3 June 1915

April, May, June–my third month out here. I wonder if I shall still be Somewhere in Flanders when July comes, and memories of Speech Day 1914, and all that I had hoped of Oxford. Do you remember the Sunday that we walked up and down Fairfield Garden together and wouldn’t come in out of the rain? …It all seems so very far away now. I sometimes think I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s…

Roland enclosed a second brief letter in the same envelope:

The Prime Minister, of all persons, was responsible for the abrupt ending of my last letter. He was brought along to have an informal look at us, and it was arranged that he should see the men while they were having a bath in the vats I told you of before. We only had about had an hour’s notice and had to rush off and make arrangements for the ‘accidental’ visit. I and two other subalterns being at the moment in a mischievous mood decided to have a bath at the same time, and successfully timed it so that we all three welcomed Asquith dressed only in an identity disc… He looked old and rather haggard, I thought…[1]


For Lady Desborough, her eldest son Julian now dead and buried, this was a period in which “she alternated between her resolute cheerfulness, and despair.” Many letters of condolence began to come in–conventional missives but also unusual ones from those who knew Ettie Desborough and her rigid posture of Panglossian positivity. You cannot condole or commiserate if you suspect that the bereaved mother will express her belief that her son’s death was a triumph.

It was a commonplace, apparently, that this mother of a Greek tragedy-quoting son reminded her friends of the heroines of those tragedies. And, as Raymond Asquith, eldest son of the “old and rather haggard” prime minister, put it, “one does not offer consolation to heroines of Greek Tragedy.”[2]


Charles Lister, a school friend of Julian’s and latterly a comrade of Rupert Brooke (therefore one of the handful of men now mourning both of the early war’s famous poets), is recuperating from wounds received at Gallipoli. Today he put his hand to just that task, writing to Lady Desborough with a mixture of condolence and wild praise.

Blue Sisters Convent, Malta, June 3, 1915

I can’t write what I feel about dear Julian. The void is so terrible for me and the thought of it quite unmans me. I’d so few ties with the life I left when I went abroad–so few, that is to say, that I wanted to keep, and I always felt as sure of Julian’s love as he did of mine, and so certain of seeing his dear old smile just the same. We did not often write of anything of that sort just for that reason, and now the whole thing has gone. How much worse it must be for you and yours. All of us loved him so, and I’m sure if I were back with father and Diana we should be in the depths and feel almost worse than I do now that one of our nearest and dearest has gone. I suppose that if death meant wholly loss, all recollections would be wholly bitter; but the consciousness that we are recalling memories of one who may still be near us makes recollection precious, an abiding realization of what is, and not a mere regret for what has ceased to be. I suppose everybody noticed dear Julian’s vitality, but I don’t think they were so conscious of that great tenderness of heart that underlay it. He always showed it most with you…

This, then, is a new window into the strange soul of Julian Grenfell. It’s a new perspective–a friend who long knew and loved him–and yet not as clear a view as we would like. Lister is writing, after all, both to the formidable heroine and to the mother of his friend. This is far from the unfiltered thought of an intimate.

In any case, the very personal tone changes now, and Lister begins to write a fervent paean to a more familiar Julian Grenfell. This is the Homeric hero as Englishman: brave, unswerving, living by a code of his own–and entirely disinterested in the rights and feelings of others, especially those he imagines to be beneath him.

I don’t suppose many people knew of the ardent love he had for honesty of purpose and intellectual honesty, and what sacrifices he made for them, and sacrifices of peace of mind abhorrent to most Englishmen. The Englishman is a base seeker after happiness, and he will make most sacrifices of principle and admit any number of lies into his soul to secure this dear object of his. It is want of courage on its negative side, this quality–and swinish greed on its positive side–the man in his search for truth and in his search for what he believed to be his true self caused himself no end of worry and unhappiness, and was a martyr who lit his own fires with unflinching nerve. Out stalking he always wanted to do his own work, and he was just the same in his inner life…

God, it is glorious to think of a soul so wholly devoid of the pettiness and humbug, the cynicism and dishonesty, of so much that we see…

Julian from the time I knew him had flung away his idols and had met God. His intense moral courage distinguished him even more than his physical bravery from the run of common men–and his physical bravery was remarkable enough, whether he was hunting, boxing, or whatever he was at.

I think he found his true self on what we all knew would be the scene of his glory, and it is some melancholy satisfaction that his services received recognition. What must make you still happier must be the glorious glowing tone of those letters of his, and the knowledge that his last few months were crowded hours of glorious life, stronger than death in that they abide…

This is the sunny side of violent heroism, with the social cost unconsidered. But this is also a condolence letter, a sort of private eulogoy. And speaking of letters, Lister–though perhaps not aware of the stir that Into Battle is generating–also considers Julian Grenfell the writer.

No one wrote of the war like that or talked of it that way, and so many went from leave or after healing wounds as a duty, but without joy. Julian, apart from the physical delight he had in combat, felt keenly, I am sure, that he was doing something worth while, the thing most worth while in the world, and looked on death and the passing beyond as a final burst into glory. He was rather Franciscan in his love of all things that are, and in his absence of fear of all God’s creatures–death included.

He stood for something very precious to me–for an England of my dreams made of honest, brave, and tender men, and his life and death have surely done something towards the realization of that England. Julian had so many friends who felt for him as they felt for no one else, and a fierce light still beats on the scene of his passing, and others are left to whom he may leave his sword and a portion of his skill. You must have known all this splendour of Julian’s life far better than I did, so I don’t know why I should write all this. But I am so sad myself that I must say something to you, and because you knew how very fond I was of Julian. One can seek comfort at this time in the consciousness of the greatness of our dead, and the work they have left behind them, and the love we have borne them: and such comfort is surely yours, apart from any larger hope.[3]


Finally, a brief check-in with Edward Thomas, who wrote today to Eleanor Farjeon, his friend and part-time amanuensis. I include the letter because it updates us on his writing and his agonizing, but also because it reminds us of a new fact of life in the age of total war–the first Zeppelin bombing raids on London have begun.

5 vi 15 Petersfield

My dear Eleanor,

Thank you for your letter. I could have wished it came a day later to let me know you have not been attacked by aircraft. We know nothing here. Perhaps you know no more. But you might send a line…

I am sending you some lines I contrived to write 10 days ago when I took a day’s liberty. Are they the worse for Marlborough?

…I do think Blackwood [i.e. the publisher] must be doting if he really thinks he sees Puckishness in me, but I hope he isn’t and takes you instead. You mustn’t lead these forlorn hopes any more…

A rather violent analogy for Farjeon’s efforts on behalf of the poetry of “Edward Eastaway:” the “forlorn hope” was the party of volunteers expected to be destroyed in the storming of a fortress, drawing down the fire of the defenders so that others behind could come up while they reloaded. Yikes! But then again Thomas is elbow deep in a biography of Marlborough, a general who conducted twenty-six sieges…  Thomas turns now to the subject of his next step in life, or what to do when his poetry fails (as it must) to earn him significant money. Robert Frost has taken Thomas’s son Mervyn to America…  will he follow?

We had a cheerful letter again from Mervyn and one from Frost saying he is on the edge of taking a farm he likes with a mountain view. He is very brief and evidently engrossed but cheerful. It will become necessary soon to decide whether I can really go out there—with the idea of getting literary work mainly. If I thought could try and might succeed probably I ought to go. And that is as near certainty as l can get.

Marlborough thickens, and I shall probably sit on here till it is done and then mount a bicycle if I still can. But should I come to town I will let you, know.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters from a Lost Generation, 117.
  2. Mosely, Julian Grenfell, 265.
  3. Letters and Recollections, 186-8.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 143.

C. E. Montague on the Beauty of Innocence, the Brim of Confidence, and the Glorious Camp Life of the New Armies; Kipling and Lister Write of Julian Grenfell; Morgan Crofton Stays at Peace

may 29 desborough diary

Lady Desborough’s Diary. Julian’s dying exclamation “Phoebus Apollo!” is at left. Today records a visit from Billy, training nearby with his battalion, and the lower right space is filled with a quotation from Hamlet, ending “the readiness is all.”

Rudyard Kipling, also father of a boy in uniform in France, wrote to Lord Desborough, Julian Grenfell‘s father, today, a century back:

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex / May 29, 1915

My dear Desborough
We saw the news yesterday–side by side with the poem that rounded out that splendid young life. No words can mean anything to you now, nor even the knowledge that we all lie under the shadow of a similar loss sooner or later: but we both send our love and our sorrow and our  sympathy to you two.

Ever most sincerely,

Rudyard Kipling


Charles Lister, wounded at Gallipoli and recovering on Malta, wrote to his father today, a century back. We’ve seen Lister as a companion of Rupert Brooke, but he had known Julian Grenfell longer–since Eton. It will take him another five days to find the words to write to Lady Desborough.

Blue Sisters Convent

May 29, 1915.

God! how sad it is about Julian. It’s the bitterest blow I have had since this war and am likely to have.

You must not make reservation about the “ultimately satisfactory issue.” [i.e. of the war.” I’d sooner spend my life in trenches than have any other issue…[1]


We’ll be hearing a bit from Morgan Crofton in the coming days, before the sweeping changes overtake him as well. So a brief status check today: and we find him once again exempted from the worst duty, although it seems that in his over-officered regiment he is hardly alone.

Saturday May 29

Another glorious day. It was lovely waking up in my nice room, and looking out of the windows across the park. The War seems miles away. For the first time for seven months I hardly hear any cannonading going on. What a relief. It is quite like staying in a nice country house at home. One feels one ought to get into tennis shoes and flannels instead of this shabby and dirty khaki.

Torrie gave me orders to stay behind and look after the horses while the Regiment was in the trenches. Only 3 Officers per squadron were to go up, and Gurney and l and about 10 others are to stay herd…

But at breakfast today, orders came that we were to relieve the 3rd Hussars in the front line trenches near Hooge, to the E of Ypres. We shall be anxious about them while they are up there, and anxiously watch the wind to see if it is favourable for gas.[2]


I’ve been making a big deal lately about how the end of May, 1915 seems to be a transition zone, a sort of geological boundary layer between the early days of the war–high hopes, aggressive tactics and more aggressive verse, the death of so many dashing aristocratic officers of the dashing but over-matched old Regular army–and the grim war of mass attrition (and strangely wonderful writing) that is to come.

Now, the very best book written about the collective experience of the war (i.e. one that takes a broader view than a typical memoir) by one of its participants is surely C.E. Montague‘s Disenchantment.[3] And there’s the spoiler right in the title. It’s a smart, precise, angry book,and one which dwells on the disasters and disappointments of the later phases of the war.

But bitter experience must be preceded by innocence, and old man Montague summons in the early pages of his masterwork a beautiful vision of the enchanted camp days of the volunteers. This is the essence of the early-war experience of the volunteers, the great days of fellowship before they went out to the horrors–and, well, yes, the disenchantments–of the trenches.

Last spring was England’s Last Spring. And so is this one.

Forgive me if I quote Montague at some length:

The mental peace, the physical joy, the divinely simplified sense of having one clear aim, the remoteness from all the rest of the world, all favoured a tropical growth of illusion. A man, says Tennyson, “imputes himself.” If he be decent he readily thinks other people are decent. Here were hundreds of thousands of quite commonplace persons
rendered, by comradeship in an enthusiasm, self-denying, cheerful, unexacting, sanely exalted, substantially good. To get the more fit to be quickly used men would give up even the little darling vices which are nearest to many simple hearts. Men who had entertained an almost reasoned passion for whisky, men who in civil life had messed up careers for it and left all and followed it, would cut off their whisky lest it should spoil their marching. Little white, prim clerks from Putney—men whose souls were saturated with the consciousness of class—would abdicate freely and wholeheartedly their sense of the wide, unplumbed, estranging seas that ought to roar between themselves and Covent Garden market porters. Many men who had never been dangerous rivals to St. Anthony kept an unwonted hold on themselves during the months when hundreds of reputable women and girls round every camp seemed to have been suddenly smitten with a Bacchantic frenzy. Real, constitutional lazy fellows would buy little cram-books of drill out of their pay and sweat them up at night…

Men warned for a guard next day would agree among themselves to get up an hour before the pre-dawn winter Reveille to practise among themselves the beautiful symbolic ritual of mounting guard in the hope of approaching the far-off, longed-for ideal of smartness, the passport to France… How could they not have the illusion that the whole nation’s sense of comradeship went as far as their own?

Who of all those who were in camp at that time, and still are alive, will not remember until he dies the second boyhood that he had in the late frosts and then in the swiftly filling and bursting spring and early summer of 1915?

The awakening birdnotes of Reveille at dawn, the two-mile run through auroral mists breaking over a still inviolate England…  the long, intent morning parades under the gummy shine of chestnut buds in the deepening meadows; the peace of the tranquil hours on guard at some sequestered post, alone with the Sylvester midnight, the wheeling stars and the quiet breathing of the earth in its sleep…  and then jocund days of marching and digging trenches in the sun; the silly little songs on the road that seemed, then, to have tunes most human, pretty, and jolly…

When you think of the youth that you have lost, the times when it seems to you now that life was most poignantly good may not be the ones when everything seemed at the time to go well with your plans, and the world, as they say, to be at your feet; rather some few unaccountable moments when nothing took place that was out of the way and yet some word of a friend’s, or a look on the face of the sky, the taste of a glass of spring water, the plash of laughter and oars heard across midsummer meadows at night raised the soul of enjoyment within you to strangely higher powers of itself. That spirit bloweth and is still: it will not rise for our whistling nor keep a time-table…  for a moment some intervening darkness had thinned and we were seeing further than we can see now into the heart of life.

Montague, who famously dyed his hair upon enlistment and was now a happily vigorous non-commissioned officer, generally combines historical commentary with memoir. The reverie gets personal, now:

To one recollection at least it has seemed that the New Army’s spring-tide of faith and joyous illusion came to its height on a night late in the most beautiful May of 1915, in a hut where thirty men slept near a forest in Essex. Nothing particular happened; the night was like others. Yet in the times that came after, when half of the thirty were dead and most of the others jaded and soured, the feel of that night would come back with the strange distinctness of those picked, remembered mornings and evenings of boyhood when everything that there was became everlastingly memorable as though it had been the morning or evening of the first day. Ten o’clock came and Lights Out, but a kind of luminous bloom still on the air and a bugle blowing Last Post in some far-away camp that kept worse hours than we…

I’m not sure if this particular passage is particularly celebrated, but it oughta be. It strikes me now that this is like a prose “Adlestrop.”[4] “No one left and no one came–” “Nothing particular happened. And now the blackbird and the bugle:

I believe the whole hut held its breath to hear the notes better. Who wouldn’t, to listen to that most lovely and melancholy of calls, the noble death of each day’s life, a sound moving about hither and thither, like a veiled figure…

Poetry compresses, of course, and Edward Thomas made the brilliant decision to include the station’s name–only the name–thus hitting early upon the ways in which conventional lyric (and, indeed, most literary forms) will fail to describe the war and be forced to fall back upon “the concrete names of villages.”

But Montague is doing something different. Remember that he has already mentioned how strong the memories of these halcyon days must be–for those still living. Many are not, and Montague has written neither a lyric poem–individual and universal–nor a solipsistic memoir, but a moment of collective memoir, tinged with elegy. A whole platoon remembers, and with them the readers.

…among the dim thoughts that we have about death the approaching extinguisher—resignation and sadness and unfulfilment and triumph all coming back to the overbearing sense of extinction in those two recurrent notes of “Lights Out”? One listens as if with bowed mind, as though saying “Yes; out, out, brief candle.”

A moment’s silence to let it sink in and the chaffing and laughter broke out like a splash of cool water in summer again. That hut always went to bed laughing and chaffing all round…

That is where I should break off, if prose and memory were our only subject here. But history. But irony:

…It made life seem too wonderful to end; such were the untold reserves that we had in this nation of men with a hold on themselves, of hardly uprightness…  What, then, must be the unused stores of greedless and fearless straightness in others above us, generals and statesmen, men in whom, as in bank-porters, character is three parts of the trade! The world seemed clean that night; such a lovely unreason of optimist faith was astir in us all, We felt for that time ravish ‘d above earth And possess’d joys not promised at our birth.

It seemed hardly credible now, in this soured and quarrelsome country and time, that so many men of different classes and kinds, thrown together at random, should ever have been so simply and happily friendly, trustful, and keen. But they were, and they imagined that all their betters were too. That was the paradise that the bottom fell out of.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Recollections, 185-6.
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 255-6.
  3. I do loathe the misuse of superlatives--I am carving out space for Disenchantment here while remaining able both to declare The Great War and Modern Memory to be the best book about the war, hands down (non-participant writer!), and also to lavish a spread of superlatives on one or another of the self-centered traditional memoirs...
  4. Find the poem here--but 'ware spoilers in the comments.
  5. Disenchantment, 7-14.

Francis and Julian Grenfell Move Up to the Front Lines at Ypres; Robert Graves Leaves for France; We Meet Private Lord Crawford; Vera Brittain Dreams of Roland Leighton and Rupert Brooke

It was a tense morning, a century back. The British First Army has temporarily suspended its assaults on Aubers Ridge as it recovers and reinforces. But in the support lines around Ypres, Julian Grenfell, more or less ignorant of the true state of affairs even a few thousand feet further east, wonders if he will soon get to fight again. The Germans have not broken through, but the signs are not good:

Wednesday 12th. Wandering infantry. Say that front trenches shelled v. badly. Hardly any of our guns fire up here.[1]

A letter was winging toward him today from his mother, however, with the news that, despite “unspeakable difficulty” she and Lord Desborough have gotten permission to visit their daughter Monica (Casie) in Wimereux (near Boulogne), where she is serving as a nurse. Lady Desborough also told Julian about her efforts to get “Into Battle” published and passed along news of several friends. Lord Desborough had just dined with Lord Kitchener and Lady Desborough with the Prime Minister, and with contacts like these one learns things ahead of the newspapers: Julian’s good friend Charles Lister, and the Prime Minister’s son, “Oc” Asquith, have both been wounded at Gallipoli. She hopes, of course, that Julian can manage a day’s leave while they are in France…


But things can change quickly. We have three forward (or war-ward) movements, today. Two of our more curious characters are finally leaving England, and we will get to them below. But Julian Grenfell, as a matter of fact, is also getting closer to the action. The orders must have come after he wrote today’s entry, but his Royal Dragoons, part of the 3rd Cavalry Division, were sent into the line today (or tonight–the move, below, is described as being completed only “late on the evening of the 12th”). Somewhere nearby was his cousin Francis, whose 9th Lancers were in the 1st Cavalry Division: 3rd May the British line had been shortened, and on the 12th it was possible to relieve the 28th Division, which had been fighting continuously for twenty days. Its place was taken by a cavalry detachment–the 1st and 3rd Cavalry Divisions under De Lisle. Their front ran from the Frezenberg ridge southward across the Roulers railway to the Bellewaarde Lake north of Hooge.

Francis, who had been uneasy waiting behind the line, welcomed the change. “Here we are,”
he had written,” sitting peacefully behind like
the next man to go in to a fast bowler. You don’t
want to go in, and yet you would like to be knocking about the bowling.” His brigade took up position in the front line late on the evening of the 12th. The trenches had been much damaged, and it was necessary to reconstruct the parapets and traverses.[2]

So the “iron ration,” the trusted reserves of pre-war professional cavalrymen, have been thrown into the line. If Ypres is to survive, they must hold it. And if Britain is to persevere, there must be a long chain of ready reserves stretching back from the support lines now vacated by the two cavalry divisions all the way to the depots of England.



Robert Graves in 1915; given that he is wearing a sword, this photo probably dates from before his first trip to the front…

And so the Telemachiad of Young Robert Graves is almost at an end. He had been able to enter the Royal Welch Fusiliers in August, obtaining a Regular commission through the “militia back door.” And then his progress stalled. He was an impossible young officer: gangly, uncouth, oblivious to the fact that conformity in dress and manners was an absolute requirement of the peacetime Regular army–and all of the officers running the show at the Fusilier depot in Wrexham, Wales, were old Regulars, including the all-important adjutant, “Tibs” Crawshay. Graves had a bad tailor, and he had volunteered to remain on duty so that other officers could attend the Grand National. Not a sportsman. They were snobs, of course, but in general they were acting with a reasonable amount of rationality: this officer didn’t fit in, and seemed to make no effort to do so. He was bright and unconventional, but subalterns were required to be brave, deferential, and obedient. He didn’t seem to be the latter two things, and it seemed a bad bet to assume that this overgrown Public School poet would turn out to be be courageous under fire.

Until Graves, who had boxed in school in order to assert himself and put an end to bullying, stepped into the ring in an exhibition with a Royal Welch sergeant who was also a professional welter-weight.

Pretending to know nothing of boxing, I led off with my right and moved clumsily. Basham saw a chance of getting another laugh; he dropped his guard and danced about with a you-can’t-hit-me-challenge. I caught him off his balance, and knocked him across the ring. He recovered and went for me, but I managed to keep on my feet. When I laughed at him, he laughed too. We had three very brisk rounds, and he very decently made me seem a much better boxer than I was, by accommodating his pace to mine. As soon as Crawshay heard the story, he rang me up at my billet and told me that he had learned with pleasure of my performance; that for an officer to box like that was a great encouragement for the men; that he was mistaken about my sportsmanship; and that, to show his appreciation, he would put me down for a draft to France in a week’s time.[3]

Boxing: for Julian Grenfell the next best thing to combat; for Robert Graves, his ticket to the combat zone. The boxing exhibition was a week ago, a century back, and Graves continued to spar with Basham, who last night went on to win a coveted belt. This morning a telegram arrived at the Graves residence in Wimbledon:

Starting France today Don’t worry Best love, Robbie[4]



Lord Crawford, Earl, former-MP, and RAMC private

And a new figure here; too odd to do much with yet, too wonderful to omit. Lord Crawford–David Alexander Edward Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford & Balcarres–was “the premier earl of Scotland,” a forty-three-year old businessman with eighteen years as a conservative MP (before his father’s death had inopportunely kicked him upstairs, in 1913, to the newly obsolescent House of Lords), seven children, and a pregnant wife. So he hadn’t thought, in the summer of 1914, that he was likely to get either a useful political job or a new army commission. (This may have been a miscalculation–plenty of overage eccentrics made it to France as officers, whether by playing dress-up like Aubrey Herbert, dying their hair like C.E. Montague, or begging, borrowing, string-pulling, and eye-exam fudging like hundreds of others.)

So Lord Crawford played the part of Lord Crawford–harrying the Lords, going to recruitment meetings (where his willingness to describe the horrors of war was not welcomed) all until the battle of Neuve Chapelle. Devastated by the British failure, he considered suicide and decided instead (in early April) to enlist as a private in the RAMC–the medical corps. He saw this as an unquestionably noble calling–he followed, in fact, four of his gardeners into the RAMC–and seems not to have been troubled by the general expectation that lords should be officers. Today, a century back, Private Lord Crawford

set sail for France with his unit, CCS number 12. He then resumed his life-long practice of keeping a diary which he had abandoned because of depression induced by the disastrous Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March.

Wednesday, 12 May 1915

Left Aldershot at 8am after two hours packing hospital stores. Noted as singular that our officers never visited or inspected us during this heavy work. Difficulty of combining military and medical duties exemplified in deplorable
waste of men’s time at Aldershot. After school of instruction is finished, men on draft attend incessant parades, at which they have stood at ease over two hours a day, for three days in succession–it should be practical continuation of stretcher drill and bandaging.[5]


And finally, today, Oxford and war gently blend together. Vera Brittain and her friend Marjorie have the “immense privilege” of being invited into their tutor Miss Darbishire’s rooms after dinner, to talk of Blake and Milton.

Then she read us, at my request, five sonnets by Rupert Brooke, the most promising poet of the younger generation, who enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out & died at Lemnos a week or two ago–to the great loss & mourning of all modern writers & literature. The sonnets are all sad & moving, in spite of their spirit of courage & hope, & through them all ran a strangely prophetic note, a premonition of early death.

I should not have asked her to read them if I had known, they were so sad that I could scarcely keep back tears from my eyes. I believe she noticed something was up, too. She gave me the impression all the time that she wanted to speak seriously & couldn’t come to the point. After the sonnets she showed us her facsimiles of Milton’s manuscripts. When we retired to bed–I sorrowful & heavy-laden with the thoughts of Roland & Rupert Brooke’s sonnets mingled in my mind.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 296. 
  2. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 229.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 73-4.
  4. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, 122.
  5. Private Lord Crawford's Great War Diaries, 1-3.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 195.