The Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, has so far been spared the Somme. Yesterday, they were at Méaulte, and could happily consort with friends in the rear echelon of the First Battalion. Today, a century back, reveille was at 2.30. At four they were on the road, in a thick mist that tasted of tear gas. They crossed the front line of July 1st and moved up toward Mametz Wood, through the detritus of the attack.
Suddenly the mist cleared, the sun shone down and we saw that we were among the dead of the Welsh Division. Friends were recognized, and buried in haste lest we had to move on.
But the morning is spent in frustrating inaction as conflicting reports come back from the new front near High Wood. The ever-hopeful generals keep calling off infantry assaults so “that cavalry might come up and push through: as if the Germans would not use the respite to mend any weakness of their position.”
Held up before Mametz Wood, the 2/RWF find a German gun painted to mark it as a trophy of their First Battalion, and then they find the battalion itself, which had just attacked (minus Siegfried Sassoon and a few others, left behind with the transport). Friends were again recognized, more happily this time, and the two battalions then drew apart once more.
Some of us went exploring in Mametz Wood, where the Welsh Division was so mishandled, and there were nasty sights.
Here we have another witness, Frank Richards, pre-war Regular and canny old soldier, now a signaller in the Second Battalion.
We arrived on the Somme… and early in the morning of the 15th July passed through Fricourt… The enemy had been sending over tear-gas and the valley was thick with it. It smelt like strong onions which made our eyes and noses run very badly; we were soon coughing, sneezing and cursing. We rested in shell holes the ground all around us being thick with dead of the troops who had been attacking Mametz Wood…
Dann, a young signaller named Thomas, and I, were posted to A Company. The three of us were dozing when Thomas gave a shout: a spent bullet with sufficient force to penetrate had hit him in the knee–our first casualty on the Somme. Dann said: “I don’t suppose it will be my luck to get hit with a spent bullet; it will be one at short range through the pound or a twelve-inch shell all on my own.” I replied, as usual, that he would be damned lucky if he stopped either, and that he couldn’t be able to grouse much afterwards…
We might guess where this is going. The denouement is utterly inescapable if we consider that Dann’s fate has been heavily foreshadowed in a portion of Richards’ memoir that describes a day in May or June:
During one spell in the line at Hulloch, Dann and I came out of our little dug-out, which was about fifteen yards behind the front-line trench, to clean our rifles and bayonets. We were just about to begin when there appeared, on the back of the trench we were in, the largest rat I ever saw in my life. It was jet black and was looking intently at Dann, who threw a clod of earth at it but missed, and it didn’t even attempt to dodge it. I threw a clod at it then; it sprung out of the way, but not far, and began staring at Dann again. This got on Dann’s nerves; he threw another clod but missed again, and it never even flinched. I had my bayonet fixed and made a lunge at it; it sprung out of the way of me alright, but had another intent look at Dann before it disappeared over the top. I would have shot it, for I had a round in the breach, but we were not allowed to fire over the top to the rear of us for fear of hitting men in the support trench; one or two men had been hit in this way by men shooting at rats, and orders were very strict regarding it.
Dann had gone very pale; I asked him if he was ill. He said that he wasn’t but the rat had made him feel queer. I burst out laughing. He said: “It’s alright, you laughing, but I know my number is up. You saw how that rat never even flinched when I threw at it, and I saw something besides that you didn’t see, or you wouldn’t be laughing at me. Mark my words, when I go West, that rat will be close by…”
Dann was a very brave and cheery fellow, but from that day on he was a changed man. He still did his work, the same as the rest of us, and never shirked a dangerous job, but all his former cheeriness had left him. Old soldiers who knew him well often asked me what was wrong with him. But I never told them; they might have chaffed him about it. Neither I nor Dann ever made any reference about the rat from that day on, and though we two had passed many hours together shooting at rats for sport in those trenches, especially along at Givenchy by the canal bank, he never went shooting them again…
Before this rat comes home to roost, Richards includes two interesting–or distracting–anecdotes. One involves a cowardly officer who is slightly wounded and screams uncontrollably, to the disgust of his men. The next shows the old soldier’s delight in “scrounging,” and provides for us a ghostly crossing-of-the-paths:
The majority of the Company were soon in the wood on the scrounge… Just inside the wood, which was a great tangle of broken trees and branches, was a German trench, and all around it our dead and theirs were laying. I was in luck’s way: I got two tins of Maconochies and half a loaf of bread, also two topcoats.
This is the very trench that David Jones and the 15th RWF passed through during the assault. Frank Richards, Welch Fusilier and Welsh Miner, will supplement his rations with the last burdens of Aneirin Lewis and his mates.
Richards and Dann then sit on the edge of the trench, Dann filling out a few Field Postcards for the folks at home.
Enemy shells were now coming over and a lot of spent machine-gun bullets were zipping about. He sat on the back of the trench writing his quick-firers when–zip!–and he rolled over, clutching his neck. Then a terrified look came in his face as he pointed one hand behind me. I turned and just behind me on the back of the trench saw the huge black rat that we had seen in Hulloch. It was looking straight past me at Dann. I was paralysed myself for a moment, and without looking at me it turned and disappeared in a shell hole behind. I turned around and instantly flattened myself on the bottom of the trench, a fraction of a second before a shell burst behind me. I picked myself up amid a shower of dirt and clods and looked at Dann, but he was dead. The spent bullet had sufficient force to penetrate his neck and touch the spinal column.
And there by his side, also dead, was the large rat; the explosion of the shell had blown it up and it had dropped by the side of him. I seized hold of its tail and swung it back in the shell hole it had been blown from. I was getting the creeps. Although Mametz Wood was, I daresay, over fifty miles as the crow flies from Hulloch, I had no doubt in my own mind that it was the same rat what we had seen in the latter place. It was the only weird experience I had during the whole War.
As a compressed horror story of the Great War this cannot be improved upon–and neither, of course, can it be verified.
We have an important writer in battle today, in a big way, but he’s getting bumped, alas: this is one of those rare periods where we can follow a relationship–face-to-face and epistolary–in real time, as the tides of war sweep two friends together, and then again apart.
Let’s pick up Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer where we left off yesterday The time frame is a bit compressed, but this day’s action, in which “George Sherston” searches for his friend “David Cromlech,” fits with the real movements of today, a century back.
First thing in the morning I hurried up the hill in hope of seeing him again. Scarcely a trace remained of the battalion which had bivouacked there, and I couldn’t so much as identify the spot where we’d sat on his ground sheet, until I discovered a scrap of silver paper which might possibly have belonged to the packet of chocolate which we had munched while he was telling me about the month’s holiday he’d had in Wales after he came out of hospital.
When I got back to our tent in the Transport Lines I found everyone in a state of excitement. Dottrell and the ration party had returned from their all-night pilgrimage with information about yesterday’s attack. The Brigade had reached its first objectives. Two of our officers had been killed and several wounded…
The reserve Echelon was an arid and irksome place to be loafing about in. Time hung heavy on our hands and we spent a lot of it lying in the tent on our outspread valises. During the sluggish mid-afternoon of that same Saturday… it happened that I emerged from a snooze to hear them discussing “that queer bird Cromlech”. Their comments reminded me, not for the first time, of the diversified impressions which David made upon his fellow Fusiliers.
At his best I’d always found him an ideal companion, although his opinions were often disconcerting. But no one was worse than he was at hitting it off with officers who distrusted cleverness and disliked unreserved utterances. In fact he was a positive expert at putting people’s backs up unintentionally. He was with our Second Battalion for a few months before they transferred him to “the First”, and during that period the Colonel was heard to remark that young Cromlech threw his tongue a hell of a lot too much, and that it was about time he gave up reading Shakespeare and took to using soap and water. He had, however, added, “I’m agreeably surprised to find that he isn’t windy in trenches”.
Interesting. So this is war, and although prejudice generally reigns–free-thinking, ostentatious learning, and failure to meet hygienic norms will be punished–there is only one essential trait: steadiness under fire. Graves seems to his Regular Army comrades as if he should be a coward, but he isn’t, and so he is acceptable.
Courage, of course, is not a constant trait but rather a store that is constantly degraded by the stress of combat, but this fact is only beginning to be recognized and will not be universally accepted, a century back, for years. Still, some men never have the ability to remain calm in the face of deadly danger or pain–witness the cowardly officer described above by Frank Richards, who inspires vocal disgust in the men and presents a serious management and authority problem to the battalion’s officers. They might not like Graves, but he is respected by the men, and that, in war, is more important.
Sassoon ratifies these opinions of Graves, with emphasis, alas, on the less-than complimentary ones. Truth before friendship, at least at the time of writing: “David certainly was deplorably untidy, and his absent-mindedness when off duty was another propensity which made him unpopular. Also, as I have already hinted, he wasn’t good at being ‘seen but not heard.'”
Next, Sassoon once again takes advantage of the novelistic aspects of the Memoir by adopting a narrator-like vantage-point: he continues to listen in, and demonstrates for us how the measured old hands keep the peace in a combat battalion.
From the floor of the tent, Holman (a spick and span boy who had been to Sandhurst and hadn’t yet discovered that it was unwise to look down on temporary officers who “wouldn’t have been wanted in the Regiment in peace time”) was now saying, “Anyhow I was at Clitherland with him last month, and he fairly got on people’s nerves with his hot air about the Battle of Loos, and his brain-waves about who really wrote the Bible.”
Durley then philosophically observed, “Old Longneck certainly isn’t the sort of man you meet every day. I can’t always follow his theories myself, but I don’t mind betting that he’ll go a long way–provided he isn’t pushing up daisies when Peace breaks out.”
Holman (who had only been with us a few days and soon became more democratic) brushed Durley’s defense aside with “The blighter’s never satisfied unless he’s turning something upside down. I actually heard him say that Homer was a woman. Can you beat that? And if you’ll believe me he had the darned sauce to give me a sort of pi-jaw about going out with girls in Liverpool. If you ask me, I think he’s a rotten outsider, and the sooner he’s pushing up daisies the better.”
Whereupon Perrin ( a quiet man of thirty-five who was sitting in a corner writing to his wife) stopped the discussion by saying, “Oh, dry up, Holman! For all we know the poor devil may be dead by now.”
Well, if we took that as a standard for speaking no evil…
But the Memoir isn’t about the battalion, or about “David Cromlech.” It’s about the journey of “George Sherston,” and to that subject Sassoon now returns. One of the fundamental differences between the real Sassoon and his fictional doppelganger is that George Sherston is not a writer. Sassoon sometimes seems to regret this decision, and to work around into the creative/inner life by means of reading rather than writing. I’ve long cited Thomas Hardy as a sort of presiding daemon of the younger writers, and this passage goes a long way toward explaining why:
Late that night I was lying in the tent with The Return of the Native on my knee. The others were asleep, but my candle still guttered on the shell box at my elbow. No one had mumbled “For Christ’s sake put that light out”; which was lucky, for I felt very wide awake. How were things going at Bazentin, I wondered. And should I be sent for tomorrow? A sort of numb funkiness invaded me. I didn’t want to die–not before I’d finished reading The Return of the Native anyhow. “The quick-silvery glaze on the rivers and pools vanished; from broad mirrors of light they changed to lustreless sheets of lead.” The words fitted my mood; but there was more in them than that. I wanted to explore the book slowly. It made me long for England, and it made the War seem a waste of time. Ever since my existence became precarious I had realized how little I’d used my brain in peace time, and now I was always trying to keep my mind from stagnation. But it wasn’t easy to think one’s own thoughts while on active service, and the outlook of my companions was mostly mechanical; they dulled everything with commonplace chatter and made even the vividness of the War ordinary.
My encounter with David Cromlech–after three months’ separation–had reawakened my relish for liveliness and originality. But I had no assurance of ever seeing him again, or of meeting anyone who could stir up my dormant apprehensions as he did. Was it a mistake, I wondered, to try and keep intelligence alive when I could no longer call my life my own? In the brown twilight of the tent I sat pondering with my one golden candle flame beside me. Last night’s talk with David now assumed a somewhat ghostlike character. The sky had been starless and clouded and the air so still that a lighted match needed no hand to shield it. Ghosts don’t strike matches, of course; and I knew that I’d smoked my pipe, and watched David’s face–salIow, crooked, and whimsical–when he lit a cigarette. There must have been the usual noises going on; but they were as much a part of our surroundings as the weather, and it was easy to imagine that the silence had been unbroken by the banging of field batteries and the remote tack-tack of rifles and machine-guns. Had that somber episode been some premonition of our both getting killed? For the country had loomed limitless and strange and sullenly imbued with the Stygian significance of the War. And the soldiers who slept around us in their hundreds–were they not like the dead, among whom in some dim region where time survived in ghostly remembrances, we two could still cheat ourselves with hopes and forecasts of a future exempt from antagonisms and perplexities?
On some such sonorous cadence as this my thoughts halted. Well, poor old David was up in the battle; perhaps my mind was somehow in touch with his (though he would have disparaged my “fine-style,” I thought). More rationally reflective, I looked at my companions, rolled in their blankets, their faces turned to the earth or hidden by the folds. I thought of the doom that was always near them now, and how I might see them lying dead, with all their jollity silenced, and their talk, which had made me impatient, ended for ever. I looked at gallant young Fernby; and Durley, that kind and sensitive soul; and my own despondency and discontent released me. I couldn’t save them, but at least I could share the dangers and discomforts they endured. “Outside in the gloom the guns are shaking the hills and making lurid flashes along the valleys. Inevitably, the War blunders on; but among the snoring sleepers I have had my little moment of magnanimity. What I feel is no more than the candle which makes tottering shadows in the tent. Yet it is something, perhaps, that one man can be awake there, though he can find no meaning in the immense destruction which he blindly accepts as part of some hidden purpose.” . . . Thus (rather portentously, perhaps) I recorded in my diary the outcome of my ruminations.
And Robert Graves? He, remember, is not in combat, but spending the day in and around Mametz Wood–waiting, watching, touring the gore… and writing. There is a very specific sub-genre that we might call the “what-we’ll-do-if-we-survive letter.” One sub-sub-genre is written from combatant to beloved, and the other is sent between two comrades, neither one yet out of the woods. Of these, today’s–in verse no less–is the very best:
Letter to S.S. From Mametz Wood
I never dreamed we’d meet that day
In our old haunts down Fricourt way,
Plotting such marvellous journeys there
For jolly old “Apres-la-guerre.”
Well, when it’s over, first we’ll meet
At Gweithdy Bach, my country seat
In Wales, a curious little shop
With two rooms and a roof on top,
A sort of Morlancourt-ish billet
That never needs a crowd to fill it.
But oh, the country round about!
The sort of view that makes you shout
For want of any better way
Of praising God: there’s a blue bay
Shining in front, and on the right
Snowden and Hebog capped with white,
And lots of other jolly peaks
That you could wonder at for weeks,
With jag and spur and hump and cleft.
There’s a grey castle on the left,
And back in the high Hinterland
You’ll see the grave of Shawn Knarlbrand,
Who slew the savage Buffaloon
By the Nant-col one night in June,
And won his surname from the horn
Of this prodigious unicorn.
Beyond, where the two Rhinogs tower,
Rhinog Fach and Rhinog Fawr,
Close there after a four years’ chase
From Thessaly and the woods of Thrace,
The beaten Dog-cat stood at bay
And growled and fought and passed away.
You’ll see where mountain conies grapple
With prayer and creed in their rock chapel
Which Ben and Claire once built for them;
They call it Soear Bethlehem.
You’ll see where in old Roman days,
Before Revivals changed our ways,
The Virgin ‘scaped the Devil’s grab,
Printing her foot on a stone slab
With five clear toe-marks; and you’ll find
The fiendish thumbprint close behind.
You’ll see where Math, Mathonwy’s son,
Spoke with the wizard Gwydion
And bad him from South Wales set out
To steal that creature with the snout,
That new-discovered grunting beast
Divinely flavoured for the feast.
No traveller yet has hit upon
A wilder land than Meirion,
For desolate hills and tumbling stones,
Bogland and melody and old bones.
Fairies and ghosts are here galore,
And poetry most splendid, more
Than can be written with the pen
Or understood by common men.
In Gweithdy Bach we’ll rest awhile,
We’ll dress our wounds and learn to smile
With easier lips; we’ll stretch our legs,
And live on bilberry tart and eggs,
And store up solar energy,
Basking in sunshine by the sea,
Until we feel a match once more
For anything but another war.
So then we’ll kiss our families,
And sail across the seas
(The God of Song protecting us)
To the great hills of Caucasus.
Robert will learn the local bat
For billeting and things like that,
If Siegfried learns the piccolo
To charm the people as we go.
The jolly peasants clad in furs
Will greet the Welch-ski officers
With open arms, and ere we pass
Will make us vocal with Kavasse.
In old Bagdad we’ll call a halt
At the Sashuns’ ancestral vault;
We’ll catch the Persian rose-flowers’ scent,
And understand what Omar meant.
Bitlis and Mush will know our faces,
Tiflis and Tomsk, and all such places.
Perhaps eventually we’ll get
Among the Tartars of Thibet.
Hobnobbing with the Chungs and Mings,
And doing wild, tremendous things
In free adventure, quest and fight,
And God! what poetry we’ll write!
And that’s that.
This post should end here–and it almost will. But I want to apologize, first, to Charles Carrington. He has the misfortune (from this particular point of view) of writing only one of the top ten or fifteen most interesting memoirs, and of getting crowded out on the busy Somme by the more famous–and, to do us some justice, the more literary–writers of the Royal Welch.
The other reason why I won’t be including his first-hand account of the assault on Ovillers is a simple problem of scale: his story for this day and the next two is too good, too long. Carrington jotted down his impressions shortly after the battle and then wrote them up at great length–eighty pages!–as the central incident in his (first) memoir, A Subaltern’s War, published under the pseudonym Charles Edmonds. We could spend thousands of words finding every move on the map, tracing the Germans opposite, etc., but it does seem necessary to choose discretion over his valor.
His book is very much worth reading, especially for those who prize accounts of the platoon-level interplay between psychology and tactics. The attack on Ovillers was tactically daring–a long advance without undue artillery preparation, a flanking movement–and successful. By the time Carrington and his surviving men–desperately thirsty, thrilled to drink all the petrol-laced water left behind by panicking support troops–return to the rear two days hence, the German garrison of Ovillers had surrendered. And during these two days Carrington leads an assault, throws grenades, directs fire, explores the famously deep German dugouts, sees a German soldier hit in the face with a Mills bomb, Germans respond with their own new “egg” grenade, and the man beside him shot in the face by a sniper. There is fear, courage, panic, and recovery: Carrington, himself a teenager, is called to the side of a hysterically frightened soldier who claims, as they prepare to attack, that he is really sixteen. Over they go, and a little while later our 19-year-old subaltern is the most advanced British soldier on his section of the front, exchanging fire with the far-famed Prussian Guard, cut off from the other arms of the British assault. It’s a major trench-warfare “battle piece…”
Also in the first phases of that assault on Ovillers in the early morning hours of today, a century back, were A and B Companies of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. Their part was far less successful, and their Signals Officer, John Ronald Tolkien, would have spent the night in a dug-out trying to maintain communications with the rear. In the morning, the battalion withdrew to reserve trenches in La Boisselle, and watched as other troops were thrown into the attack around Ovillers. They are not done with the place yet.