Olaf Stapledon Goes to Mass; Rowland Feilding Praises Courage Under Fire

There is a special pathos in following the conversation of Olaf Stapeldon and Agnes Miller, separated as it is by half the world, the long weeks it takes letters to traverse the distance, and the vagaries of wartime mail. Agnes has been having her doubts, recently, that their love can survive the long loneliness, but Olaf hasn’t learned of them yet. And before he does, her doubts have turned back to questions, which he will then have to answer.

It’s been hard (of course!) being separated for long years, with only letters to sustain them. And when Agnes sees young men going off to fight–or bright, brave young men like Olaf taking high-status roles as officers–her faith in his faith that a pacifist’s place is in the hard, humble duty of the Ambulance Corps wavers.

You see, conscription did not come here, so there was no need for him to go to prison. But just put yourself in his place in a free country like Australia. You need not go to war & you need not go to prison, but I don’t think you would be content if you lived here to go on with your daily work just as usual. I think you would have been drawn away to do Red Cross or relief work just as you have been doing. Would you not? If so I think you must be right in being there now. If you would not have gone, do you think it would have been more worthwhile to stick to your own work or to have joined the English C.O.s in their protest? Which?

This is a difficult hypothetical, and we must point out on Olaf’s behalf that he never had to make such a choice because he committed to the Friends’ Ambulance Unit long before conscription came to England, when his old classmates were joining the army in droves. And he has thought all this through, carefully, too…

But the conversation is months in arrears, and Olaf’s letter of the same day, a century back, is a colorful slice-of-life letter. And yet, like any wartime letter, it can hardly fail to address these questions of duty, suffering, principle, and motivation.

6 November 1917

It is a foggy, muddy November Sunday, and in our great rugger match this afternoon we shall get well plastered. These matches are a great institution; they give us something to talk about for a fortnight before the event and a fortnight afterwards. We discuss rugger as seriously as if it was the war. We estimate people’s respective merits. We tragically whisper that so and so is no use, you know.” We exclaim, with eyes round with adoration, that so and so is glorious. We rearrange the whole program of our work so as to enable The Team to be all off duty on the Day. In fact it is just like school…

Stapledon then tells us about a recent service at the local church. There is some condescension, here, from the well-bred English Quaker, about the ceremonies of rural French Catholicism… but as always with Stapledon, sympathy trumps whatever stiffness holds him back, and he is drawn in:

The other day was the French “Jour des Morts.” Some of us dressed up and went to church to represent the convoy. It was a little old church… packed with pale blue soldiers, and in the background were about four women in deep black. The service began in the ordinary way, and seemed lamentably unreal, insincere. The priest muttered and rang bells and waved his hands & did genuflexions, the intoning was very bad. Then came a solemn solo on some sort of hautbois, rather an improvement. Then, after more scampered chants, the band in the gallery began playing some fine stately piece or other. We all sat and listened and were rather strung up by it. Then came the sermon, a rather oratorical affair, and yet somehow sincere. He spoke very clearly, slowly, and with much gesture. He pictured the supreme sacrifice of Christ, the similar sacrifice of any man who dies avec les armes a la main, en se battant pour la France [in arms, fighting for France], or words to that effect. He described sympathetically the mud & misery of the trenches; and then urged men, if they ever felt inclined to give up the struggle, to remember devastated France who needed their help. He pictured the souls of the glorious dead enjoying heaven. And his last words were a moving summary of all the sufferings of France since the war began…

One felt as if the little church were some ship in a great storm, sweeping toward a fierce coast. One felt that the blue mariners, instead of pulling at ropes and sailing the ship, were praying to imaginary gods of the tempest. I don’t know. It was somehow terrible. One felt the awful fatal power of the world, and the littleness of men. Finally the band played Chopin’s dead march as people slowly moved out with wreaths for their friends’ graves. That nearly reduced some of us to tears, very much against our will. I can’t explain. There was something more than the obvious tragedy of human death about it, though indeed that is more than enough in itself, our blue soldiers, with their short-cropped black hair, and their matter-of-fact French faces. They had such a strange shamefaced way of crossing themselves, rather as if they suspected it was a foolish superstition but were determined to be on the safe side. They had seen hell all right but they did not know at all what heaven is…[1]

 

The only other piece today is almost a flash-forward. Rowland Feilding is neither a dreamer nor a pacifist, but he is, in another sense, what Olaf Stapledon hopes to be, namely an older married man, doing his duty, and keeping his beloved wife Edith as close as he can. Feilding has done more than any of our writers to hold to the plan of writing scrupulously honest and open letters to his wife, sparing her nothing.

But today there is a painful reversal, a vertigo at the edge of the experiential gulf: Feilding is safe in reserve, and his wife and children are in danger, in London. It’s a short letter, but it packs in love, a sort of befuddled proto-feminism, and the awkward tone of a husband/commander exhorting and commending his wife/subordinate from far away, in relative safety.[2]

I got your letter to-day, describing the air-raid, which interested me enormously and filled me with pride to think of you all joking at the bottom of the kitchen stairs.

I cannot tell you how much I admire the way in which you have handled this problem, forcing the children to look upon the air-raids as a game. It is splendid. The others will inevitably take their cue from you. Had you been a man you would have made an ideal soldier. Above all, I admire the way in which you have never woken the children till, in your opinion, the danger has become imminent. You are becoming a veteran now, and I have every faith in your leadership, and that it will carry you and the household through…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 254-6. Of all things--and allowing for the ten thousand miles separating the lovers--this scene recalls (or anticipates, rather) the Advent Evensong scene in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
  2. He is probably not in "relative" safety; London was a big place and the raids did not kill very many compared to the constant bombardment even on quiet sectors of the rear areas in France and Belgium. Nevertheless, the thought that on some nights, at least, his family is in danger and he is not is strange and destabilizing...
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 223-4.

Edward Thomas Can’t Stay to Tea; Kate Luard Plates her Moss; Bob Hermon Admires the New Knights; Covering the Retreat with Rudyard Kipling and Charles Carrington; St. Patrick’s Day in France and Revolution in England

The bad nights are spreading, a century back. From the Somme north to Arras, where Edward Thomas is roiled by nightmares.

A horrible night of bombardment, and the only time I slept I dreamt I was at home and couldn’t stay to tea… Then the most glorious bright high clear morning… A beautiful day, sunny with pale cloudless sky and W. wind, but cold in O.P. Clear nightfall with curled, cinerous cloud and then a cloudless night with pale stains in sky over where Bosh is burning a village or something…[1]

 

No, that’s not right–nightmares aren’t the real story. Most of our hardy souls are doing what they can to treat late winter as if it might be early spring. Kate Luard likes nothing better than wildflowers (especially if she can take a long walk and gather them herself), but an experienced Nursing Sister makes do.

Saturday, March 17th, and no sign of any buds out anywhere in these parts. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin…[2]

 

No, no, that’s not quite right either. Actually, many of our writers who are not yet engaged in combat are able to appreciate all that is traditional and right with the war. No need for winter or spring when chivalry abides! Any guesses whom Bob Hermon has just laid eyes on?

There’s been some wonderful air fights here today. There is a Hun who flies a bright scarlet machine & is real hot stuff. He seems to be a sort of star flyer & does most of the fighting. He is a real gallant fellow & we all admire him.[3]

The Red Baron himself.

 

But there is, of course, a ground war on. One of the reasons that Richtofen has been released to roam is that the German aircraft are getting their first crack at what will become a crucial task of tactical air power: covering the movement of infantry. Let’s step back two days (and south to the Somme) to see how the Guards are getting on with following up the German withdrawal:

Captain Alexander took our two forward companies… the German shelling was intense. They used 5.9’s and larger, as they were firing from a long way back. The trouble for the 2nd Irish Guards companies developed almost at once on their left, where their patrol was fired at by machine-guns from a German trench on the edge of the wood. Their own 1st Battalion, trying to push out of Sailly-Saillisel, was hung up, too — they heard and saw it — for the same reason. The Division could have driven through at the cost of fairly heavy casualties, but nothing was to be gained by wasting men in rushes on hidden machine-guns that can lay out thirty good lives in two minutes. The Scots Guards got on into the wood without much trouble at first, till they, too, ran on snipers between tree-stumps and up and down the defaced trenches, or opened some single machine-gun slinking from cover to cover. It was all slow “feeling,” with alternating advances at walking pace, and long checks — “something like drawing a gorse for wolves instead of foxes…”

As they worked their way more into St. Pierre Vaast Wood came the sensation, which there was no mistaking, that they were being played with by the Hun, and losing touch as he intended them to do. Certain vital trenches would be controlled by a few snipers and machine-guns; a sunk road offering shelter would be plastered with heavies, and a full company would be held in it, digging for more cover, by dead accurate long-range fire; while far and far behind the orderly German withdrawal of the main body continued in peace.

On the 17th March, for example, “we were never really in touch with the enemy’s rear-guard during the day except for one or two snipers…”

Which brings this narrative-of-a-period to today. But a little analysis of the general effectiveness of the German withdrawal is worth our while, too:

Here is the comment of the time and the place on our advance: “The German retreat was conducted very skilfully. One cannot say that we caused them to leave one position an hour before they intended. They inflicted upon us a considerable number of casualties (twenty in this battalion, while on our left the 1st Battalion lost considerably more). On the other hand, we saw no evidence that in the actual retirement we had even damaged one German. They left little or nothing behind.”

And the professional judgment is equally fair. “But of course it must be remembered that the task of the (German) regimental officers was an easy one, however difficult it may have been for the Staff. Given time, there is no difficulty in withdrawing battalions from trenches by night, for a few snipers and machine-gunners, knowing the ground, and retreating from trench to trench, can hang up an advance indefinitely unless the troops advancing have strong reserves and are prepared for heavy losses.”

This last was not our situation… things had to be done as cheaply as possible…

We are generally in sure hands when Rudyard Kipling takes up the military narrative–this is a work of memorial devotion, remember, and he suppresses his polemical opinions unless he feels that they are an echo of the those of the officer corps he is writing about. But we are in excellent hands when the worst of the war must be invoked on the scale of the battalion history–neither pointillistically subordinated to a grand narrative nor awash in the subjectivities of the personal.

The advance of the Second Irish Guards

…led them into a stale hell which had once been soil of France but was now beyond grace, hope, or redemption. Most of the larger trees in St. Pierre Vaast were cut down, and the smaller ones split by shell or tooth-brushed by machine-gun fire. The ground was bog, studded with a few island-like formations of fire-trench, unrevetted, unboarded, with little dug-outs ten or twelve feet deep, all wet and filthy. There were no regular latrines. Numberless steel helmets and heaps of stick-bombs lay about under foot. The garrisons must have been deadly uncomfortable, and there was good evidence that the enemy had economised men beyond anything that we dared. The ground had been cut to bits by our fire, and in one place yawned what had been a battery position wiped out, unseeing and unseen, weeks ago, as the dead teams round it testified. Very few booby-traps were left behind. The Battalion lost only five men in all through this cause.[4]

 

After several nights in No Man’s Land as patrols pushed into the old German lines, Charles Carrington too learned, today, how successful the German withdrawal had been:

This time, the morning of the 17th March, they really had gone. My captain went forward for orders and presently sent me back word to bring the company over the top, by daylight… to the German front line.

I cannot explain the consternation caused by this order. For two years no one had raised a hand over the parapet by daylight unless in the stress of battle and covered by an artillery barrage. Tired as we were… we were exhilarated. Open fighting had come…

It had not, of course, but Carrington remembers the high mood of the next few days as they pursued the Germans east toward the new line of defenses–which the British officers all knew of, of course, even if they could not realize its strength. There was the thrill of moving and of seeing cavalry units trotting about over open country. But this was not a victory:

The main German forces had gone when we moved forward, having burnt every house, blown up every church, public building and ancient monument, broken every bridge and culvert, mined every crossroads, polluted every well. They had carried away all the able-bodied men and women into captivity, leaving the old and feeble concentrated in one or two villages; and–which seemed to distress the French most–they had even found time to ring-bark the apple-trees in the cider orchards. The country was dead, laid waste with a destructive fervour worse than anything in the Thirty Years War… When we marched into Peronne… we saw a huge notice erected on the town hall: ‘NICHT ARGERN NUR WUNDERN’, ‘Don’t be angry, only wonder!’ Indeed it puzzled us a good deal. We were not angry but delighted that so large a region of France should be liberated and if we had any astonishment left it was at the ingenuities of German barbarity. What they had not destroyed they had defiled…

The sequel is not prettier, and it is a good deal bloodier than Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards:

On the first day we lost two officers from my mess, one shot by a German sniper when leading the advance guard, the other caught by a booby trap. In a German dugout he had sat down in a chair and had drawn it up to the table, thus igniting the fuse of a concealed bomb…[5]

 

So it goes. In the strangeness of this advance, many things are forgotten. What was missing from Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards today? (Other than deadly booby traps, which surely varied by location).

It says something about the English perspective of the officers that St. Patrick’s Day went unmentioned in the history of an Irish unit. Not so with the First Inniskillings, out of the line resting near Corbie after several days of following the German withdrawal, and counting among their number the poet Francis Ledwidge:

In the morning there was an issue of shamrock to all the Irishmen. The Australians, who happened to be going into action that day, also asked for shamrock and wore it in their caps. Most of the forenoon was taken-up with a church
parade…  In the afternoon, the Inniskilling fife and drum band played in the village to the great delight of the French children, who crowded around them. The men got up a concert for themselves in the afternoon. The officers went into Corbie, that night for dinner. The rations were greatly stepped up in honour of the feast and there was a good dinner too, in the mess, after which most of the men also went into town to sample the estaminets. These kept
open very late, as they did on Christmas Day. Despite the army concessions, however, commemorating their patron saint in such a setting inevitably made the Irishmen melancholy.[6]

 

And here’s a good example of why I hardly mention (or don’t cover at all, really) grand strategy and international affairs, despite their enormous influence on the war: their immediate effects are almost never felt by fighting soldiers. But here’s a strange example, in a tale told by the officer currently narrating in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. He began a long-awaited leave today, a century back, taking a train to the coast and then a boat for England:

We had a fine crossing–to what? On debarking we were ordered to report at once to our local police, and be in readiness for any emergency.

Uniquely, the officers on leave found themselves marshaled to deal with expected unrest, as the government feared a rising in sympathy with the early stages of the Russian Revolution. There is sympathy, at first, in the officer’s voice–“the political air was sharpened” by privation and the wealth of war profiteers, by “the slaughter of the Somme.” And then much less sympathy: the conclusion, looking back from a later point in time, is that a wicked alliance of convenience has formed between armchair theorist liberals and trade unionists that will pressure the government into foolish concessions “to the serious hurt of the Army.”[7]

 

That is surely enough for today–unless you would prefer to close the day with Edward Thomas, in a quiet mood, writing a long letter to his wife Helen, and reflecting in relative tranquility on last night’s anxieties.

17 March 1917 Arras

Dearest

This has been quite a good day at the O.P. [Observation Post] and after a bad night of heavy shelling. The morning was bright and clear and all day long the sun shone and the sky has been pale and without a cloud. I have been drawing little panoramas.

Those I had done last time are more interesting now because the Old Hun has been destroying many of the buildings on the skyline. Tonight he is burning something away in that direction. The sky is lit up with two big glows beyond the crest. It hasn’t been tedious at all, and now we are installed in our dug out which hardly anything could penetrate. It is so small that if one moves the other five have to.

I am wondering if a letter has come for me at last. I think in any case I will keep this till I do hear, though Bronwen’s letter implied that there was nothing abnormal.

To cram this little room still more the men insisted on dragging in one of the box spring mattresses from the other place. They had to cut it to fit it in at all, and now three of us are sitting on it; we have a door up, a fire going, one candle alight and can only hear the rustle of a Daily Mail.

Now it is 11 p.m. I have to be awake till 12. Then I sleep until 6 unless I am wanted which I shall be unless the night is quite quiet. So far there has only been a distant roll now and then as I sat reading ‘Julius Ceasar’, warm in front because of the fire, cold behind because of a door leading up into the street.

I dreamt (almost for the first time since I left home) last night — a very feeble dream, that I was at home but did not stay to tea.

I don’t know who was there. I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea. I think Baba asked if I wouldn’t stay to tea.

Every hour the telephonist tests the line to see if it is O.K. He has just done it and there is another hour to go before I begin to lie on those very bouncy springs…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 101.
  3. For Love and Courage, 338.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 120-1.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 138-42. Carrington, writing later, is careful--I think that's an appropriate qualification--to represent the innocence/confidence that still obtained, in his experience, in 1917, and only a few paragraphs after the booby traps he is making claims once again for the effectiveness (and gloriousness) of cavalry...
  6. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 173-4.
  7. The War the Infantry Knew, 304-5.
  8. Letters to Helen, 84-7.

Henry Williamson is in the Pink; Bob Hermon is Very Fit; Edward Thomas Contrives to Enjoy Things

A pithy day, today, a century back.

First, Henry Williamson. His diary is very pithy, noting little more than that his transport section supplied his machine gun company (bringing pack mules or carts up from the reserve areas to their emplacements) with 24,000 rounds last night–though “badly crumped”–and 30,000 rounds tonight.

But Williamson also managed a letter to his mother which–ironically or no–begins with the most common cliché of them all:

Dear darling old mother,

Am in the pink, very fit & strong, & daily growing heavier…

I have got a lovely Bosche watch & will hang on to it when I get my ‘Blighty’ (ask Gerald what a ‘Blighty’ is) & give it to you. I have also seen a pair of corsets in a deep dug out her, but I am sure you don’t want. Well am tired now, for heavens sake write to me. Love—in a hurry. Willie.[1]

Charmingly naughty…

 

Bob Hermon managed a similarly brief letter to his wife (although I am, in both cases, trimming already short letters to their shortest essentials).

9th March 1917

Dans le premier ligne once more. Life rather strenuous…. I’m very fit. Weather damnable, snow falling all day in showers.

Love to you all[2]

 

Edward Thomas, not far from Hermon–they are both in the Arras area–seems, however, to be keeping his nose to the grindstone, perhaps in order to fend off the frustrations of inactivity so near the front. The diary is brief, and one sentence will do for the whole.

I am fed up sitting on my arse doing nothing that anybody couldn’t do better.  Wrote to de la Mare, Frost and Eleanor. [3]

Nevertheless, he exerted himself to write. First to de la Mare, an old friend with whom things have been more than a little cool over the last few years. Old friendships are complicated things, and something about de la Mare’s breezy inattentiveness gnaws at Thomas–not to mention de la Mare’s easy success with his pleasant but not exactly challenging verse.

Group 35 Heavy Artillery | Arras | 9 March 1917

My dear de la Mare,

I expect you had a letter from me soon after you wrote. At least I posted one about 3 weeks ago. Letters take a long time coming…

I am just moving back to my Battery after nearly 3 weeks at the Heavy Artillery Group headquarters, which has been rather an idle time but has shown me quite as much as I want to see of the way things are run. It has been idle but not exactly snug as we are only 2400 yards from the Hun and in a city which he shells daily. I think I shall prefer being shelled in a position where we are doing something direct in retaliation and not just map work. We are in a big rather pretentious modern house, with only one shell hole in it. The town hall and cathedral are all holes. It is cold…

I contrive to enjoy many things. I think I enjoy the people least of all…

The Battery is in an orchard outside the town. We may see the apple blossom, but I doubt that. Nobody is very hopeful. I think myself that things may go on at this rate for more than a year. The rate may be changed, but not if the Hun can help it and his retirement looks very inconvenient in every way.

So much for updates–another useful summary. The next bit is striking, though: de la Mare is an old friend, and Frost and Thomas only met in 1913. But by 1914 Frost and Thomas were fast friends–“best” friends seems trivial, if accurate–and all others faded. De la Mare, thanks in no small part to Thomas a successful and eminent “Georgian” poet, has been visiting the United States, where he met with Frost, Thomas’s war- and ocean-sundered brother-in-spirit.

I wish you had said more about Frost. One is absolutely friendless here. Everybody has something to conceal and he does so by pretending to be like everybody else. All the talk is shop or worse. It is all tedious and uncomfortable except at odd moments. But then so is life anywhere, I suppose. It is all very different from the newspapers, and very much like what one would expect. Cold, dirt, fatigue, uncertainty, and the accidental beautiful or amusing thing…

I was interrupted to do a shoot and in the excitement your letter has disappeared mysteriously. I had only read it once.

And after this heavy-caliber interruption, the letter picks up poetry and publication, and becomes prosaic. Perhaps its was the shoot, but Thomas seems to have worked himself into a kinder mood by the end of the letter… perhaps, too, it is yesterday’s news that his book will be published on both sides of the Atlantic.

700 [sales] is quite good for your verse… We shall be bards together. But it is nice to be where nobody knows I am a bard…

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]

As conflicted as ever.

But this was by far the less important correspondence of the day. Thomas had begun a letter yesterday to Robert Frost, immediately after hearing from him, at long last. The most important fact about Frost’s letter is that Frost wrote to say that he has found an American publisher for Thomas’s verses–should they be published under his own name. But they are already in proofs in England, under the pen-name of “Edward Eastaway.”

Thomas seems to have drafted the letter, then put it aside as his long day drew to a close. He finished and mail it today., a century back. Did the delay involve doubts about the tone? There’s no indication… perhaps Thomas wanted to sleep and wake up with the conversation sill in progress, as it were.

My dear Robert,

So you found a publisher after all. I have just heard. Probably it is too late, but I can do nothing, & I must stick to Edward Eastaway. It would be absurd to call myself one thing here & one thing in America & here it is settled. I don’t want to change. I can’t think about it now but I just feel stubborn on that point.

This grumpy, indelicate task disposed of, Thomas softens toward his most valued friend. It’s clear that he has been brooding over the lack of letters from Frost:

How glad I was to see your writing…

You sound more hopeful than most people here. Not that they are despondent, but that they just don’t know what to think. They know the newspapers are stupid & the Hun wise; & there practically is the end of their knowledge…

Yesterday was cold & raw & I became very depressed & solitary by the evening. Very soon, I expect to have no time or room left for depression.

Thomas goes on to describe the physical particulars of his situation, observing the enemy from a row of half-smashed new houses. Much of it we have read, in similar form, but now he draws closer to expressing what these sights mean to him, and how they may affect his vocation:

…you spy out through tiles at the enemy, who knows perfectly well that you are in one of these houses & someday will batter them all down…

But it is not so much individual houses as streets. You can’t paint death living in them. –As I went to the village house today I heard a very young child  talking in another equally exposed house in the same street. Some are too poor or too helpless or what to leave even these places. But I probably am not going to describe any more except to make a living.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 93.
  2. For Love and Courage, 335.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  4. Selected Letters, 149-50.
  5. Elected Friends, 183-5.

Robert Frost’s Mountain Interval, a Darkling Edward Thomas and the Missing Thrush; Siegfried Sassoon Anticipates the Blackbirds; Ivor Gurney on His Monument and His Prisoner Pal; Rowland Feilding Bangs the Gong

If you can hold on through the moody poets and sentimental verse, today, there is a bracing bit of trench doggerel waiting at the end…

First, though, Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon continue to record their adjacent poetic vigils. Sassoon, near Rouen:

February 23

The stillness of the pine-tree’s is queer. They stand like blue-green walls fifty or sixty feet high with the white sky beyond and above. They seem to be keeping quite still, waiting for the war to end. This afternoon, off the road by the training-ground, I found an alley leading downhill to a big shuttered red house that overlooks the valley and the distant wall of hills. It was so quiet along, the paths with.green moss growing-under the pine-stems. And chiffchaffs and tits chattering; and some Frenchmen chopping timber in a brown copse down below. It might almost have been England (though I don’t know what difference that would make).

Now that’s a striking parenthesis. Doesn’t the English countryside make all the difference? It was supposed to. The first time I read this next bit I missed the slide from observation to anticipation, but that makes all the difference too, in February, in France:

I could hear a dog barking in the stable-yard, a cow lowing, and hens clucking. These homely things come strangely when one is up to the neck in camps and suchlike. And it is good to think of spring being near, and daylight at 6 o’clock soon. Blackbirds scolding among bushes in gardens, and red sunsets fading low down, and the smell of late March, and daffodils shining in the dusk and the orchard grass.[1]

 

And now Thomas, in too February a mood to summon the sights and sounds of spring:

Chaffinch sand once… Partridges twanging in fields…

For a moment, there, I thought I had made an epochal literary discovery–until I realized that chaffinches and chiff-chaffs are not, in fact, the same bird. Nowhere close! Still, the poets are making similar observations…

Thomas’s eye is drawn, next, to human things–he is inspecting the “sordid ruin of an estaminet” in which some men are billeted, and he includes a long list of the litter to be found therein. The men he hardly seems to see, although they are there, but they are natural (as it were) to the scene of a much-shelled ruin. What strikes him later is the presence–and absence–of the birds.

2 owls in garden at 6. The shelling must have slaughtered many jackdaws but has made home for many more.

So while Sassoon anticipates the absent blackbirds, Thomas notes–as we will see, in a moment–their absence only after he notes the absence of birds that, seasonally speaking, might have been there. Owls, blackbirds, jackdaws…

Thomas does not have evening duties, and so he girds himself now to write a letter that he has probably been brooding over for some time. I wondered recently how it was that he could claim not to have read Robert Frost’s “Mountain Interval.” It seems that Thomas may have been carefully correct in his statement: he read all but the final poem before he left England, so he hadn’t “read it” in the sense of having not completely finished it. Until today:

Finished Frost’s ‘Mountain Interval’. Wrote to Frost.[2]

The letter:

My dear Robert,

It is going to be harder than ever for us to talk, I suppose. I did write you a week or so back after I first went & had a look round in the trenches… Well, I have read “Snow” today & that puts me on to you. I liked it. You go in for ‘not too much’ in a different sense from Horace’s yet your ‘not too much’ is just as necessary. But I can’t read much…

Is this loyal brevity? Terse praise? Something of a slap in the face? Exhaustion preventing a decent concealment of his adverse reaction?

I don’t know. And any letter from a soldier so new to the war zone will soon turn to describing “what it’s like.” But it is still hard not to see this quick transition as carrying the force of “no time for that sort of poetry now–I am almost in action, not reflection.”

We are living in rather a palace–a very cold dark palace–about 2000 yards from the Hun, in a city which is more than half in ruins already… I woke last night thinking I heard someone knocking excitedly at a door nearby. But I am persuaded now it was only a machine gun…

But I am very anxious to go back soon to my battery. They are only 3 miles away & when I walk over to see them it is something like going home…

A wan effort, so far, and now Thomas musters some intellectual effort in order to avoid offending Frost–to send the message that he misses him, that he wishes he could write a better letter.

You know that life is in so strange that I am only half myself & the half that knows England & you is obediently asleep for a time. Do you believe me? It seems that I have sent it to sleep to make life endurable–more than endurable, really enjoyable in a way. But with the people I meet I am suppressing practically everything (without difficulty tho not without pain). I reserve all criticism just as I reserve all description. If I come back I shall boast of the book I did not write in this ruined city…

This is plaintive, a depressive writer’s twist on all the other versions of “if I should die” that are to be found in soldiers’ letters. And a little afterthought dash of humor will not sweeten the absence of the birds:

I daren’t tell a neutral more than that it is a small cathedral city. It is beautiful chalk country all round. What puzzles me is that I haven’t heard a thrush sing yet, & of course not a blackbird.

Do you write when you can to 244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France, if only because I am probably the only man in A[rras] who has read “Mountain Interval.’ My love to you all.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Sassoon imagines the blackbirds, soon; Thomas only imagines the slaughtered jackdaws…

 

One reason–though not the foremost–for the trough in the friendship between Frost and Thomas is that Thomas suspects that Frost is not exerting himself to get his (Thomas’s) book published in America. Ivor Gurney, in this way at least, is more fortunate in his friends. He writes once again to Marion Scott, who is almost solely responsible for the fact that his poems will soon be published.

Those whose interest in Gurney and his waxing poetic skills has been well-piqued should read on; others might want to skim his remarkably clear and brief poetic mission statement (the numbered list, below) and skip to the end…

23 February 1917

My Dear Friend: Soon we are to be at work again — after the Rest — that is we go into trenches; for myself there are not many regrets, for Resting is a tiring business; and though being shelled is not pleasant, yet the escape from death gives in itself some slight interest in life. Anyway, Spring’s first signs cannot be so far off now, and the cold relaxes a little…

Gurney then launches into the minutiae of proof-reading, answering Scott’s questions about his upcoming first boom of verse. But the specific leads to the general, and this major statement of purpose:

What I want to do with this book is

(1) To leave something definite behind if I am knocked out
(2) To say out what Gloucester is, and is to me; and so to make Gloucester people think about their county
(3) To have some good stuff in it, whatever one might say about the whole.
(4) To make people realise a little what the ordinary life is.

Anyway it was good fun, writing; and gave me something to do. “Hail and Farewell’ I think will stand; it is impossible for me to try and perfect these things, save after 6 months of life in peace and beauty…

From his book his thoughts turn to death, via Scott’s news of the death of a friend (from cancer, even in wartime) to thoughts of his own lost friend, Will Harvey, Gloucester poet, decorated front fighter, and German prisoner, and from there, well, where else but England?

I wonder how FWH has got on in his prison lately . . . My thoughts of England are first and foremost of the line of Cotswold ending with Bredon Hill, near Tewkesbury, and seen with him. Or the blue Malvems seen at a queer angle, from the hayfield, talking when War seemed imminent, and the whole air seemed charged with fateful beauty. For illness I can feel strong sympathy, but Death means not much to me. Either I do not care much, or care a great deal and am not separated…

This is one of those days where there is no way to keep up with Gurney. We’ll note these scattershot thoughts on such little matters as the Gloucestershire of the Mind which sustains him, and friendship, and the ubiquity of death in wartime…

A few more corrections and details follow, and then Gurney pauses, sniffs, and senses an omission (here, too, for I have avoided discussing the details of Gurney and Scott’s relationship; I still need to learn more).

It sometimes puzzles me what you find to interest you in my letters, since what is not verse, is either about verse or myself. You support all this very bravely, and deserve better things: but so much it means to me to cling to verse, the one interest (now cafe au lait is not possible) left to me in life, and so good to talk about it, that I fear you will have to suffer yet more.

All I can think of is — What an unholy waste of time this is, what a lot I have to learn…

As for my comrades — after the war I can be interesting about them, but not yet. Goodness knows I am fond of them — some of them; but I cling to life by deliberately trying to lose myself in my thoughts of other things; trusting to some innate pluck in me to save me at moments when pluck is wanted. This is not the way to make a soldier of oneself — just the opposite in fact; and increasing sensibility must balance the advantage gained by concentration of thought on other things. But though I were sure of saving my life if I altered, and losing it did I not, still I should be the same, having set all on the future.

Forgive all this egotism, and may your book and you progress cheerily. Continue, flourish and triumph, and put up a little longer with my cockeyed epistles. With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

Although he dates the first of these two poems “January 1917,” both were included in today’s letter to Scott. The first is strong, but sentimental–one Gloucestershire soldier’s paean to another. The second is very strange. Very charming, that is, but strange to find here.

Afterglow        to FWH

Out of the smoke and dust of the little room.
With teatalk loud and laughter of happy boys,
I passed into the dusk. Suddenly the noise
Ceased with a shock; left me alone in the gloom,
To wonder at the miracle hanging high
Tangled in twigs, the silver crescent clear —
Time passed from mind. Time died; and then we were
Once more together, in quiet, you and I.
The elms with arms of love wrapped us in shade.
That watched the ecstatic West with one desire.
One soul uprapt; and still another fire
Consumed us, and our joy yet greater made —
That Bach should sing for us; mix us in one
The joy of firelight and the sunken sun.

Praise

O Friends of mine, if men mock at my name.
Say “Children loved him”.
Since by that word you will have far removed him
From any bitter shame.[4]

I don’t doubt they did. But what children, here? I wish I knew more…

 

And finally, today, Rowland Feilding is waiting for the other shoe to drop after the failed raid and informal armistice of last week. He may even be trying to edge out from underneath that dropping shoe. In the meantime, some light verse:

February 23, 1917. Curragh Camp (Locre).

The battalion is out of the trenches for eight days. The weather has completely changed, and there is a dense fog, which is almost constant.

I have applied for twenty-one days’ leave, to which I am entitled. I feel I want a little time and opportunity to
freshen up.

I found the following poetic effort, the other day, posted up by the gas gong at S[trong].P[oint]. 10.

To H.M. Troops

If the German gas you smell.
Bang this gong like blazing hell.
Put on your helmet.
Load your gun,
And prepare to meet
The ruddy Hun.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 134-5.
  2. War Diaries, (Childhood), 163-4.
  3. Elected Friends, 179-80.
  4. War Letters, 136-9.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 157.

Some Fraternal Advice from Max Plowman; Siegfried Sassoon Cleared for Combat at Last; Missteps on the Brink of Departure for Edward Thomas

We have three writers writing today, and, as so often, they seem to harmonize. One has come back in one piece and is eager to keep his family out of harm’s way; another is dealing with the difficulties of going out for the first time, and leaving his family behind; the third, putting the occasional thought of his suffering mother from his mind, is bitterly conflicted, yet determined to return…

 

Max Plowman has survived the Somme–barely. He is now home in blighty, recovering in a London hospital from the concussion caused by a near-miss from an artillery shell. Writing to his younger brother, he has some rather pointed suggestions:

Dear J.

…I shall certainly hope to see you before you do anything. Meantime two words of advice.

  1. Don’t go into the ranks of anything.
  2. Go into anything but Infantry.

… I hope to get to Brondesbury by Monday to wait for a Medical Board… I’m nearly fit again & only hope I can squeeze a month’s leave out of them.

I most sincerely hope the damned fools don’t want you to join the Army, but I can see what is happening quite clearly. They’ve gone mad on getting everybody into Khaki & as soon as they’ve done it they’ll find they can’t afford it & tons of men will have to be fished out to keep things going… I wish to God they’d shove Northcliffe & all his rag writers & merchants into my platoon…[1]

I’ve generally gone light on politics, here–H.H. Asquith figured more as Raymond‘s father than as the prime minister or even as the symbol of the failure of an old-fashioned liberal coalition, and we only noted the downfall of his government in passing. But the new mood under Lloyd George has led several of our writers to assume either a grim redoubling of efforts or a clenched acceptance of the realities of what will soon be called (still inaccurately, at this stage, which is a mercy) “total war.”

As winter grips the war, this month, more and more of our writers assume that total conscription will eventually direct every British adult’s activities toward the war effort. Such predictions will prove to be only partly correct, and Plowman is both too sanguine and not cynical enough to think that those who are economically essential (or privileged) will be mistakenly sent into khaki… His sentiments toward the press, however, would be very widely shared among infantrymen in France…

 

Edward Thomas has had too much walking. Not only route marches with his men and additional walks to test equipment, but long cross-country tramps to get away… and all in new boots. Two days ago, he was “resting my sore ankles” and testing gun sights. Then orders came: the guns would ship out today, a century back–the men will follow two days later–and so yesterday was a miserable slog of packing, loading, and “standing out in dusty icy East wind doing nothing but getting cold and dirty.” Other complaints–yesterday was Thomas’s longest “War Diary” entry so far–included an annoying fellow officer, the sore ankles, a cold, the cold, and poor sleep. But in the end, the job was done.

Today, a century back, the guns seem to have embarked early for France without trouble, and so Thomas was at liberty. But he was not gone yet, and his home life suddenly intruded.

It would seem that Helen Thomas is struggling in her husband’s absence. He has been absent often before–and she has struggled before, relying on family and friends for financial support and childcare–but although things have been much better of late, his going with the army to France is a different sort of separation, and she is surely anxious and bereft. She may also be finding the burdens of everyday life too much to bear.

Edward Thomas received a telegram this morning, a century back, from his friends the Arthur and Ivy Ransome letting him know that Helen has sent their youngest child, Myfanwy (‘Baba’), to stay with them.[2]

27. A clear windy frost dawn, the sun like a bright coin between the knuckles of opposite hills seen from sidelong. A fox. A little office work. Telegram to say Baba was at Ransome’s so I walked over Downs by Chicklade Bottom and the Fonthills to Hatch, and blistered both feet badly. House full of ice and big fires. Sat up with Ivy till 12…[3]

Before leaving, Thomas wrote briefly to Helen, an ordinary letter in their copious correspondence–quotidian details, discussion of supplies and packing, best wishes–except for the line explaining that “I am now [unclear] to see Baba at Hatch.” (The bracketed bit might be an abbreviation of “on the way to.”)[4]

Off he went. But that hasty letter had one more passing line that shows–more clearly even than this painful tramp to see his youngest child one last time–that his mind is on the fact of departure. Will he remember? Will he write, afterwards? He asks Helen, in a non-sequitur near the end of the letter, to “Please keep these letters in my drawer.” He is leaving, yes, but he has also determined both to keep writing across the gulf that will now open and to store up written experience so that he can take up his poet’s pen when he returns.

 

We’ll finish, today, with a grim little anticlimax of a red-letter day in the military career of Siegfried Sassoon. Taken seriously ill during the summer, it would seem that his return to duty has certainly not been unduly hastened by the several medical boards that have met and kept him on leave or home service, despite his being well enough to golf and hunt all fall and winter. But Sassoon is unquestionably healthy, now, and he feels differently, too. He will go to war, on his own terms… but, inevitably, also on theirs.

As so often with Sassoon, there are two accounts of today, a century back. The diary and the memoir harmonize so closely that we might see simply unison… unless those tiny intervals between signal a dissonance more complex than any simple harmony…

First, the diary:

January 27

There were two silver-haired men in khaki uniforms sitting at a table; they peered at blue and white sheets of paper, the one with waxed moustaches half-turned as the door opened for the twentieth time that morning, and a young man came into the dreary office. ‘Feel fit to go out?’ ‘Yes, quite well, thank you.’ The pen began to move on a blue sheet: ‘Has been passed fit for General Ser… Don’t shake the table!’ (The young officer was tapping his fingers nervously.) The other colonel looked mildly up over his pince-nez. All the shaking in the world wouldn’t stop that War. Waxed-moustache had signed another death-warrant. Mine. As I went out into the grey street and the bitter east wind I felt as if a load had been lifted from my sullen heart. I’d got another chance given me to die a decent death. And a damned uncomfortable one, probably. But I can’t leave at once; it will be three or four weeks before I go away.

So the outdoor Sassoon will be out there once more. And what of his indoor pursuits? Here’s a bit of serendipitous timing:

Got the first lot of proof-sheets of my book this morning. ‘The Old Huntsman’ looks first-class in print.

Fierce and fatalistic, and then pleased as punch. And then Sassoon closes the diary not with new verse of his own but with quotation:

EPITAPH

If I should ever be in England’s thought
After I die.
Say, ‘There were many things he might have bought.
And did not buy.
Unhonoured by his fellows, he grew old.
And trod the path to hell.
But there were many things he might have sold.
And did not sell.’

(T. W. H. Crosland)

It was a dark freezing day, and all the officers in the waiting-room looked as if they wanted to feel their worst for the occasion…[5]

A strange reversal, or perhaps a gentle irony: reworking today’s scene for his novelized memoirs, Sassoon adapts his diary nearly word for word, but translates the third person voice (seldom used in his diary) into first person in order to refer to “George Sherston’s” experience… but that hair stays silver, and those mustaches most definitely stay waxed. Never mind that he misses war and wants to go back–these old men are going to send him…

There were two silver-haired Army doctors sitting at a table, poring over blue and white documents. One, with a waxed moustache, eyed me wearily when I came into the office. With a jerk of the head he indicated a chair by the table. “Feel fit to go out again?” “Yes; quite well, thank you.” His pen began to move across the blue paper. “Has been passed fit for General Ser…” He looked up irritably. “Don’t shake the table!” (I was tapping it with my fingers.) The other Colonel gazed mildly at me over his pince-nez. Waxed moustache grunted and went on writing. Shaking the table wouldn’t stop that pen of his![6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 62.
  2. The fact of the telegram, rather than a letter, indicates that this is a surprise to Edward, and surely prompted his decision to visit. It's difficult to figure out exactly what is going on, but I'm following Hollis (p314) in assuming that sending Myfanwy away at such time is a signal that Helen is under distress. Arthur Ransome, a good friend of Edward Thomas, will go on to write the Swallows and Amazons series.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 157.
  4. Hollis, Now All Roads, 314, errs in asserting about the visit to Myfanwy that "he mentioned nothing of it to Helen in his letters."
  5. Diaries, 127.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 395.

Wilfred Owen in Front of the Line; Edmund Blunden’s Theatrical Interlude is Over; Edwin Vaughan’s Drastic Disillusionment

We have another full day, today, with excerpts from Edmund Blunden and Edwin Vaughan that each get at one (or more) of the core questions of how wartime experiences are transformed into literature. But first, today, we should begin by finishing with Wilfred Owen‘s first combat experience. Lasting from the 12th to the 15th, that nightmarish slog-and-cower affair is over–but today, a century back, Owen wrote the letter to his mother that described it. I’ll omit most of what we have already read, but the beginning and end of the letter itself make it clear why this letter really is the foundation of his war-writing.

Tues. 16 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

My own sweet Mother,

I am sorry you have had about 5 days letterless. I hope you had my two letters ‘posted’ since you wrote your last, which I received tonight.

I am bitterly disappointed that I never got one of yours.

I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.

I held an advanced post, that is, a ‘dug-out’ in the middle of No Man’s Land…

The narrative of the days in the line follows. When Owen begins his conclusion by criticizing the performance of other officers it is clear that he is not being snarky but rather expressing a sense of great relief: tere but for the grace of God he would have gone…

The officer of the left Platoon has come out completely prostrated and is in hospital.

I am now as well, I suppose, as ever.

I allow myself to tell you all these things because I am never going back to this awful post. It is the worst the Manchesters have ever held, and we are going back for a rest.

I hear that the officer who relieved me left his 5 Lewis Guns behind when he came out. (He had only 24 hours in). He will be court-martialled…

Don’t pass round these sheets but have portions typed for Leslie etc…

Your very own Wilfred x[1]

There were moments in this letter when it felt like straight, unfiltered reportage. “Downloading,” as we like to call it. But of course this is never perfectly true–our minds don’t work like that. The letter begins with grand dramatic statements, and if it proceeds through an intense and fairly unadorned description of horror, it ends with an awareness of itself. With, that is, the letter as a sensitive (in several senses) record of what has been experienced.

 

Now from a war-poet a-borning to the middle of the war’s most beautiful and harrowing memoir. When we last read Edmund Blunden it was not long after his Ypres Christmastime. Early in the new year he saw the town itself, and was shocked by the reality of this battered crucible of the war in Belgium.

I had longed to see Ypres, under the old faith that things are always described in blacker colours than they deserve; but this view was a tribute to the soldier’s philosophy. The bleakness of time had found its proper theatre. The sun could surely never shine on such a simulacrum of divine aberration.

“Theatre,” as a matter of fact, crops up in the title of this chapter of the memoir–“Theatre of War”–and thence to Paul Fussell‘s book, where it did the same duty. Today, a century back, a new act opened as his battalion went back into the line:

The new year was yet very young when the battalion filed through Ypres to take over trenches at Potijze, which we came to know very well. It was not the worst place in the Salient. I had seen it already, and its arrangement was simple — a breastwork front line, running from the Zonnebeke road to a railway bank on the south; a support line; two good (or not too bad) communication trenches — Haymarket and Piccadilly. Battalion headquarters dugout was at Potijze Chateau, beside the road. It boasted a handsome cheval-glass and a harmonium, but not a satisfactory roof.

This headquarters also enjoyed a kind of Arcadian environment, for the late owner had constructed two or three ponds in the grounds with white airy bridges spanning them, weeping willows at their marges, and there were even statues of Venus and other amorous deities, although I did not examine them closely. The chateau itself, much injured as it was, was not destroyed, and in the upper story my observers gazed through a telescope on a dubious landscape; lucky these, whose day could not begin before eight and ended at four with the thickening of what little light there had been. Littered on the floor beside them were old maps of parts of the estate, some of great age, and registers of the number of woodcock, hares, rabbits, and I forget what, formerly laid low by shooting parties of this fine house. At least we had not done that![2]

No huntsman he. But note, too, “Arcadian–” a second Fussell chapter title. This should remind us that, although we lost many good men and good writers in 1916–and though in many ways the stereotypical or shorthand view of the British experience of the war is essentially that of 1916, remembering the Somme and forgetting much of what came after–some of the most essential writers still have much of their war still ahead of them. The spring of 1917 will be eventful, the autumn as awful as anything on the Somme.

 

Finally, today, our newest diarist completes his approach to the line. Edwin Vaughan‘s big day was yesterday, a century back. He left camp outside Rouen, bound for the front line trenches–or so he thought.

As I drove down in the rattling, bone-shaking old taxi, I tried hard to convince myself that the moment I had lived for had arrived and that I was now a real Service man. But this was difficult: there was no band playing, no regiment bearing the old colours into the fray, only little me…

As the semi-official truck-train jerked out of Rouen, it began to snow hard, and the bare truck wherein I, the only passenger on the train, sat on my rolled up valise, was soon full of whistling snow…

And yesterday brought neither relief, resolution, nor rest. Left on a bare platform for his 1 a.m. connection to a branch line, Vaughan spent several hours walking to keep warm.

The cold was intense, and in addition I was wet through, beastly hungry and over the boots in snow.[3]

Today proper began with another slow, freezing train journey, this time not alone but in a compartment Vaughan shared with a wordless, whimpering Hussar and two fighting rats.

Once again I am struck not just by the novelistic writing style but with the extreme compliance of the accidents of his experience with the expectations of the form. Vaughan, that is, seems both ready to write a “war book” and fortunate to be readily experiencing numerous “set pieces” that fit the bill. Part of this, at least, is a good reminder for us: it’s 1917, and while the “war book” is not as strongly constructed or familiar an idea as it will be next year (not to mention 1929), it’s quite possible now for men to come to the front full not of Tennyson, Malory, Newbolt, and Brooke, but of Barbusse, Sorley, and the letters and word-of-mouth experiences of disillusioned officers (though Vaughan has shown no direct influence of these, as of yet).[4]

The other side of the equation are Vaughan’s intentions: more than most, this diary is akin to a novelistic memoir. What will he focus on? What will he choose to omit?

In any case he is unusually aware of the way in which his expectations dominate his experience, and his writing is very much colored by the disappointment of those expectations. He writes, in other words, in a strongly ironic mode.

Today’s entry continues at some length. By 6 a.m. a small station and breakfast, then a journey by lorry up to division HQ “beside a driver who annoyed me by regarding this journey up the line as a matter of no especial importance.”

As we drove out of Sénapont on to the main road, I began to question the driver about the line, picturing the Battalion in the midst of fire and smoke. He told me about the locality in which they were stationed, and I, with my eyes prepared to meet a scene of wire entanglements, shell bursts and trenches, was confused by his references to the estaminets the men frequented, the girls they met, and the cushy time they were having. Finally I discovered that we were just outside of Abbeville and many many miles from the line! It was a drastic disillusionment and I did not know whether to be annoyed or relieved.

That’s enough quotation for today, but the let-down will continue: from taxi to train to train to lorry to mess cart, and from base to division to actual combat unit Vaughan finally meets the officers of his battalion, billeted in an old hotel in Arraines-sur-Somme. He is greeted generally with either rudeness or indifference, and of course the first person he meets is the standard-issue useless major who is being kept from interfering with the unit’s actual operations…

The clouds clear briefly when Vaughan “chummed up with a fellow called Hawkins,” and then settle again definitively when the hostesses–“vile hag”–stumbles in, straight out of Victor Hugo, except that in this case both of the little girls who work for her are starved and overworked… Vaughan has pulled off a minor masterpiece of approaching-the-line bathos.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 427-8. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209-217.
  2. Undertones of War, 136.
  3. Once again it is clear that Vaughan's diary is carefully dated, but not always composed on the day indicated.
  4. The term "disillusion" will appear, below... and I should add that my sense that the diary was not merely "transcribed" much later on but actually, to some significant degree, rewritten, is growing. As far as I know it is impossible to know what "belongs" to the date, what was written within a few days, and what may have been added or altered long after...
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 6-8.

Francis Ledwidge in France, but Preferring Fairyland; Edward Thomas Out in the Dark in the Snow with Myfanwy

Another quiet day, today, a century back–and another brace of poems. First, Francis Ledwidge, who couldn’t write an unpretty thing if he tried, is recently back in France and now looking ahead, rather than back. But, of course, still looking to spring-as-spring. Others might be more inclined, by now, to look at spring as “the season when offensives resume, despite the mud.”

Ceol Sidhe

When May is here, and every morn
Is dappled with pied bells,
And dewdrops glance along the thorn
And wings flash in the dells,
I take my pipe and play a tune
Of dreams, a whispered melody,
For feet that dance beneath the moon
In fairy jollity.

And when the pastoral hills are grey
And the dim stars are spread,
A scamper fills the grass like play
Of feet where fairies tread.
And many a little whispering thing
Is calling to the Shee.
The dewy bells of evening ring,
And all is melody.

France,
December 29th, 1916.

 

This would surely suit Ledwidge’s patron, the fantasist Lord Dunsany.

Edward Thomas, however, is writing to a somewhat different audience. Instead of to a Lord and all Ireland, he wrote today, a century back, and back in the artillery camp at Lydd, to his younger daughter, Myfanwy (a.k.a Baba.) Although Thomas was often a distant father, in both senses, he was a loving father, too, and the family had had three idyllic days of singing and working together, of story-telling, and presents. And so he wrote his daughter a sweet letter (available here, but I can’t seem to get the archival image to paste into wordpress) that paid close attention to her concerns–a tooth due to be extracted, the wonderful time they had at Christmas, etc.

And yet there were some other comments which make for rather odd confidences to a six-year-old:

I do hope peace won’t come just yet. I should not know what to do, especially if it came before I had really been a soldier. I wonder if you want peace, and if you can remember when there was no war.[1]

Apart from this odd note there is no mention (and how could there be, even assuming that the letter was meant to be read by Helen Thomas as well?) of either the joy or the tension of the visit? With a few miles and a few days between Thomas and his family there is much less joy, of course… but there is also a palpable relief, at least from Edward.

And he has written a poem to Myfanwy–indeed, one which seems to see the world through her eyes. He wrote it at home, actually, and sent a copy to Eleabor Farjeon the day he returned to camp, which shows that he regards it as a serious poem to be collected and hopefully published. And it is lovely:

 

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound.
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And I and star and wind and deer.
Are in the dark together,–near,
Yet far,–and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light.
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

References and Footnotes

  1. See Hollis, Now All Roads, 307-8.

Christmas in Belgium with Rowland Feilding and Edmund Blunden; in France with Phillip Maddison and Richard Aldington and Kipling’s Irish Guards; Frederic Manning Returns; David Jones Reflects on the Year; Christmas Day with Edward Thomas and Family

Christmas is a busy day, here: not only is it a major holiday whose traditionally-associated sentiments take on heavy overtones in wartime, but the shadow of the first year’s Christmas truce will continue to cast a shadow either hopeful, dismal, or bitterly ironic over any thoughts of peace or Christian fellowship. Also, it’s a major holiday with a fixed date, so everyone remembers where they were, and my cup runneth over. We’ll work our way back from the front, more or less, beginning in the front-line trenches of the Salient and ending with the Thomas family, in Essex.

 

First, then, is Rowland Feilding: whose activities today–as a commanding officer, a host, a listener at a thunderous Christmas concert, an officer in a devoutly Catholic regiment, and an English gentleman with time and a gun on his hands–pretty much run the gamut:

Christmas Day, 1916.

Facing Messines— Wytschaete Ridge (Cooker Farm).

…Though this is Christmas Day, things have not been as quiet as they might have been, and though we have not suffered, I fancy the battalion on our right has done so to some extent. In fact, as I passed along their fire-trench, I saw them at work, digging out some poor fellows who had been buried by a trench-mortar bomb.

This evening since dark, for a couple of hours, the Germans have been bombarding some place behind us with
heavy shells. The battery from which the fire is coming is so far away that I cannot even faintly hear the report of the guns while I am in the open trench, though, from the dug-out from which I now write, I can just distinguish it,
transmitted through the medium of the ground. I hear the shells at a great altitude overhead rushing through the air. The sound of each continues for nearly a minute, the noise increasing to its maximum, then dying away, till I hear the dull muffled thud of the burst some miles behind our line. The shells are passing over at the rate of more
than one a minute.

This morning I was first visited by the Brigadier, who went on to wish the men in the fire-trench “as happy a
Christmas as possible under the circumstances.” Then the Divisional Commander came, accompanied by his A.D.C., who was carrying round the General’s visiting book for signature. This contained many interesting names. I
also had several other visitors.

When I had finished with my callers I went out with my little 45 gun to see if I could kill a pheasant. I got one, which we had for lunch. My servant Glover acts keeper on these occasions. I need scarcely say that I cannot spare time for shooting pheasants, and to-day was my first attempt, but the other officers go out, especially one—a stout Dublin lawyer in private life—who is a very good shot. He went out yesterday, and before starting consulted Glover, who at once brightened up, and said: “If you want a couple of birds for your Christmas dinner, sir, I can put you on to a certainty, if you don’t get shot yourself.” He took him and they got two. To-day, Glover took me to the same place:—but it turned out to be no spot to linger in:—a medley of unhealthily new shell-holes, under full view of the Germans. Certainly a good place for pheasants: but imagine what correspondence and courts-martial there would be if a casualty took place under such circumstances, and it became known!

I have now put that locality out of bounds, pheasants or no pheasants.

The Chaplain came up and said Mass for the men this morning. I was prevented from going at the last moment by the Divisional Commander’s visit, but it must have been an impressive sight. . The men manning the fire-trench of course could not attend, but it was not a case of driving the rest;—rather indeed of keeping them away. The intensity of their religion is something quite remarkable, and I had under-estimated it.

The service was held in the open—not more than 500 yards from the German line, in a depression in the ground
below the skeleton buildings known as Shamus Farm. Though the place is concealed from the enemy by an intervening ridge, promiscuous bits do come over, and I debated within my mind for some time whether to allow it. In the end, expecting perhaps a hundred men, I consented. But though, like most soldiers, and many others, they will shirk fatigues if they get the chance, these men will not shirk what they consider to be their religious duties, and about 300 turned up.

However, with the exception of a German shrapnel which burst harmlessly about a hundred yards away during the service, all went well…

In the evening I went round and wished the men—scarcely a Merry Christmas, but good luck in the New Year, and may they never have to spend another Christmas in the front line! This meant much repetition on my part, passing from one fire-bay to another, but I was amply rewarded. It is a treat to hear these men open out, and their manners are always perfect…

They are all going to have their Christmas dinner on the 30th, after we get out.[1]

 

From Edmund Blunden, whose battalion is in reserve rather than the front line, we get two accounts of the day’s festivities. The first, from a letter to his mother, radiates bluff good cheer:

We had Church on Christmas morning and dealt with the usual hymns in the best style. The Swains’ Vigil, or While Shepherds Watched, was favourably received–especially at the back part of the room. After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day–truly Gargantuan scenes were witnessed.[2]

And the second, worked over for memoir, well… it has basically the same facts and much the same spirit:

To our pleasure, we were back in a camp in the woods by Elverdinghe to celebrate Christmas. The snow was crystal-clean, the trees filigreed and golden. It was a place that retained its boorish loneliness though hundreds were there: it had the suggestion of Teniers. Harrison’s Christmas was appreciated by his followers perhaps more than by himself. He held a Church Parade and, while officiating, reading a Lesson or so, was interrupted by the band, which somehow mistook its cue. The Colonel is thought to have said: “Hold your b——- noise ” on this contretemps, which did not damp the ardour of the congregation, especially the back part of the room, as they thundered out “While Shepherds Watched.” After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day, and the Colonel visited all the men at their Christmas dinner. At each hut he was required by tradition to perfect the joy of his stalwarts by drinking some specially and cunningly provided liquid, varying with each company, and “in a mug.” He got round, but it was almost as much as intrepidity could accomplish.[3]

 

Neither of these witnesses has much to say about the food, good or bad. But in fiction, as in our recent reports from the home front, it remains a prominent theme.

In Richard Aldington‘s absolutely-no-spoilers-in-the-title novel, the protagonist, Winterbourne, has just reached France–in lockstep with his creator, as often happens in these first-war-novels. It will be hard to track Winterbourne’s progress once he (and Aldington) begin the enlisted man’s slog in and out of the line, in which days and dates are rarely remembered. But today, well…

They passed Christmas Day at the Base. The English newspapers, which they easily obtained a day or two late, were filled with glowing accounts of the efforts and expense made to give the troops a real hearty Christmas dinner. The men had looked forward to this. They ate their meals in huts which were decorated with holly for the occasion. The Christmas dinner turned out to be stewed bully beef and about two square inches of cold Christmas pudding per man. The other men in Winterbourne’s tent were furious. Their perpetual grumbling annoyed him and he attacked them:

‘Why fuss so much over a little charity? Why let them salve their consciences so easily? In any case, they probably meant well. Can’t you see that drafts at the Base are nobody’s children? The stuff’s gone to the men in the line, who deserve it far more than we do. We haven’t done anything yet. Or it’s been embezzled. Anyway, what does it matter? You didn’t join the Army for a bit of pudding and a Christmas cracker, did you?’

They were silent, unable to understand his contempt. Of course, he was unjust. They were simply grown children, angry at being defrauded of a promised treat. They could not understand his deeper rage. Any more than they could have understood his emotion each night when ‘Last Post’ was blown. The bugler was an artist and produced the most wonderful effect of melancholy as he blew the call–which in the Army serves for sleep and death–over the immense silent camp. Forty thousand men lying down to sleep–and in six months how many would be alive? The bugler seemed to know it, and prolonged the shrill, melancholy notes–‘last post! last post!’–with an extraordinary effect of pathos. ‘Last post! Last post!’ Winterbourne listened for it each night. Sometimes the melancholy was almost soothing, sometimes it was intolerable…[4]

 

Speaking of fictional protagonists, Phillip Maddison is back in France. While his alter ego, Henry Williamson, remains in England, Phillip’s training as a transport officer with a Machine Gun Company (supplying this quintessentially 20th-century weapon with ammunition requires a great deal of timeless expertise with mules) has been completed, and he was in the line on the Ancre by mid-December. Williamson then writes up this fete:

The company came out of the line on Christmas Eve, reaching Colincamps in the small hours of Christmas Day. There had been talk of an extra special Christmas dinner for the men; really good rations were to be issued this year, said the A.S.C., with a surprise for each man. The good ration turned out to be frozen pork and dried vegetables. These, boiled up together, were followed by a small slice of gritty Christmas pudding, and then the surprise–a ration cracker bonbon for each man, containing a paper cap.

Thus 1916 closes, at least in this novel–cold, gritty, and mean. (Aldington would do the same, but his story is too close to the beginning. There is innocence yet, with Winterbourne utterly acquainted with the line and therefore still amenable to romantic notions such as melancholy, or the indulgent belief that his “deeper” rage is really any different from that of his less sensitive comrades…)

But Williamson rarely misses a chance for symbolic site-citing, so Phillip Maddison takes one more ride on the Somme front.

In the afternoon Phillip rode down to Albert. The leaning Virgin upon the Campanile of the ruined red-brick basilica brought many memories… and helped him to see life clearly against a background of death. But O, how lonely was life after all…

It goes downhill from here. (Metaphorically. If the ground sloped down east of Albert things would have gone differently.) Phillip rides out to the Old Front Line of July 1st (when he was wounded–in reality, Williamson missed the battle of the Somme) and then heads up Mash Valley, amongst the relics.

A brass buckle; fragment of leather; skull with curls matted upon it… everywhere the dead merged with the ground… he was lost, helplessly, in chalky waste… Was this litter of burst and broken sandbags, collapsed and spilled, the trench where he had clambered out on that summer morning? This the wicker pigeon cage carried by Pimm, lying near a scatter of ribs, and, immediately by the handle, a cluster of tiny white finger and knuckle bones? … Was that his pelvis bone, in which three small coins, a franc and two 10-centime pieces, had been embedded by the shell explosion?. He felt the scar in his buttock tingling as he stood beside what was left of Pimm; and closing his eyes, gave the emptiness of himself to prayer…

Anguish rose in him… His mother’s face came to him, while he thought that the spirit of a million unhappy homes and found its final devastation in this land of the loveless. He went back the way he had come…[5]

 

Rarely does Henry Williamson fall into line with Rudyard Kipling. And yet today they are almost of a mood. Kipling, in his role as Official Chronicler of the Second Battalion Irish Guards, reports on the Christmas festivities with the grim frankness of an old soldier rather than the lofty perspective of a Bard of Empire.

Whether this was the vilest of all their War Christmases for the Battalion is an open question. There was nothing to do except put out chilly wire and carry stuff. A couple of men were killed that day and one wounded by shells, and another laying sand-bags round the shaft of a dug-out tripped on a telephone wire, fell down the shaft and broke his neck. Accidents in the front line always carry more weight than any three legitimate casualties, for the absurd, but quite comprehensible, reason that they might have happened in civilian life — are outrages, as it were, by the Domestic Fates instead of by the God of War.

This would be a decidedly unmiraculous Christmas, then. But the peripatetic following paragraph goes a long way toward recovering the diversity of experience of even one day on one sector of the front.

The growing quiet on the sector for days past had led people to expect attempts at fraternization on Christmas. Two “short but very severe bombardments ” by our Artillery on Christmas morning cauterized that idea; but a Hun officer, with the methodical stupidity of his breed, needs must choose the top of his own front-line parapet on Christmas Day whence to sketch our trench, thus combining religious principles with reconnaissance, and — a single stiff figure exposed from head to foot — was shot. So passed Christmas of ’16 for the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards. It had opened with Captain Young of No. 1 Company finding, when he woke in his dug-out, “a stocking stuffed with sweets and the like, a present from the N.C.O.’s and the men of his Company.”[6]

 

Back in London, another novelist of combat, Frederic Manning, is going in the opposite direction as Aldington. Like his protagonist, Bourne, he is a lance-corporal who has been recommended for a commission. Unlike Bourne, he is alive; he is also concealing a checkered past, including a blown first chance at a commission.

On Christmas day 1916 Manning, now a lance corporal, arrived in London on leave. He had applied for a commission in November and was awaiting orders to go to an Officers Cadet Battalion. It was in this application that he had altered his age and his religion. He also stated that he had “now outgrown the asthma” which had afflicted him as a youth. This too was untrue…  Included in Manning’s application was an affidavit from his mother agreeing to the false birth date and stating (wrongly) that “although my son was born in Australia he has been living in England for the past 18 years’’…

But he’s an educated man, who finished a long stint as a private and corporal without dishonor. An officer he will be…[7]

 

Penultimately, we have a letter from David Jones, who will become the author of the formidable In Parenthesis but has not yet found anything like that complex, intense, bewildering voice. Looking back on 1916, he is at once a veteran infantryman, with a wound and Mametz Wood behind him, and a very young man writing a self-consciously old-soldiery letter (to his vicar, although it will later be edited by his father and published).

This Christmas 1916 completed my first year of ‘life in Flanders’. A year ago I was just beginning to enter into the full realization of what war means to the ‘foot-slogger’–the common-place private of the infantry of the Line. The beginning of 1916 was, I think, a time of hope and looking forward to all of us, military and civil–both in Flanders and Britain. We all talked with great confidence and enthusiasm of the ‘Great Push’. We thought, at least most of us, that most likely 1916 would see the triumph of the Entente over the war lords of Odin. I remember quite well sitting in a very wet and particularly bad trench in the noted Richebourg sector with a chum. We were both very cold and very wet; our rations, such as they were, had unfortunately been dropped into the mud in the communication trench, so that, on the whole, the situation was far from what the official report would call ‘satisfactory’. After reviewing the situation with as much philosophy and as little pessimism as was possible, we both decided that the war could not possibly last another winter…

Ah, but are we downhearted?

Nearly a year has rolled by… although the Bosch [sic] is very far from being completely smashed, we have shown him in every way that he is, as a Tommy would say, ‘up against it’…

Jones then wanders into descriptions of behind-the-lines life, going for the comfortable genre-painting picture (see Blunden’s reference to Teniers, above) of British bonhomie in snug billets… it is almost as if he has forgotten the worst. But he hasn’t… he’s just not that writer yet…

Well of course one could go on writing for ever about life out here, but I think I must really finish here for the present. Give my kindest regards to everybody whom I know. Like yourselves at home, we have to live in hope that 1917 may see the end of the struggle–but of course to discuss the ‘duration of the war’ is worse than futile. So au revoir.

Yours very sincerely,

David Jones[8]

 

Rarely is there a good opportunity to get a child’s perspective on the war. But today we have the memories of Myfanwy Thomas–“Baba,” to friends and family–written down long after. Baba is six, this Christmas, the morning after her father, Edward Thomas, unexpectedly came home.

An almost unbearable suspense and excitement–should I ever get to sleep that Christmas Eve? Because if Father Christmas found me awake, there would be an empty stocking. Sleep must have come, for I awoke in the white darkness of the early morning and crept from the cosy warmth to the foot of the bed to feel the glorious bulging stocking hanging there, with a trumpet lolling over the top. Daddy was already downstairs, greatcoat over pyjamas, brewing tea; and when he carried up the tray of steaming cups, Bronwen, Merfyn and I all squeezed into their big bed to open our treasures. Stockings never had the proper presents in them, but exciting little oddments, all done up in crisp tissue paper, a painting book, crayons, bags of sweets, white sugar mice with pink eyes and string tails, a Russian lady of bright painted wood, containing a smaller and she a smaller still until there were five Russian ladies and one tiny Russian baby at the end…  Merfyn’s stocking had… a mouth organ. Besides the mouth organ was an assortment of BDV cigarettes with their beautiful silk ‘cards’, shaving soap, a comb for his springy-curls, which I so much envied and loved to brush, and to see the curls spring back again. Bronwen’s stocking had delicious grownup things like tiny bottles of scent, emery boards for her nails, sketch pad and Venus pencils, hair ribbons and lacey hankie. This year Merfyn immediately played ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ and ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’. I still had a doll’s tiny feeding bottle to unwrap, and a grey clockwork mouse which Daddy wound up. Mother, and we girls obligingly screamed as it scurried over the floor. Second cups of tea were brought and then we dressed hurriedly and ate a quick breakfast, for there on chairs and stools were our five piles of ‘proper’ presents in their brown paper or Christmas wrappings. Mother had dressed me a doll and had made several outfits, including a schoolgirl’s with gym tunic, white blouse and tie. I hastily admired the tiny trousseau, undid the buttons and fastenings, and dressed the doll in an old baby dress of mine. Wrapping her up in a grubby shawl, I tucked her up in the doll’s bed which I found inside another parcel.

In a huge parcel of presents beautifully wrapped in pretty paper and with tinselled ribbon, Eleanor Farjeon had sent Edward a large box of crystallized fruits, for he had an insatiable sweet tooth; but alas, they all–pears, apricots, greengages and cherries–tasted strongly of varnish…  Bronwen crouched over the fire, crunching nuts and reading Girl of the Limberlost. While I was helping Mother to lay the tea in the kitchen, with crackers by each plate, there was a sudden quiet in the little parlour and when it was time to call the others to tea, there was a Christmas tree, its coloured candles lit, and decorated with the most wonderful things I had ever seen: tinsel and spun glass ornaments glittering in the candle-light, and at the top a beautiful fairy, sparkling and smiling and waving her wand. What a Christmas! Never before had I seen a Christmas tree. Merfyn had dug it up from the forest some days before, and it had been carefully hidden in the wood-shed.

After I had been allowed to blow out the red, green and white stubs of the candles, and the lamp was lit in the sitting room, the fire made up with wood collected from the forest, the family contentedly reading, crunching nuts or peeling oranges…  Mother read me several poems from The Golden Staircase, the fat anthology given to me by my father; and then I sat on his knee while he sang my favourite Welsh song, ‘Gweneth gwyn’, and romping ones he had sung in camp and which were easy to learn. Now I stood on a chair by the window, the curtains not yet drawn, feeling the magic of Christmas, my father’s large, strong hand on my shoulder, looking out into the white, still forest, straining with my short-sighted eyes behind the small spectacles, hoping to see perhaps the deer with antlered heads and pricked ears, and whispering ‘Shall we see any? Are they out there? Are they cold and frightened? I wish I could see some,’ or even just one. ’ The cosy lamplight, the rising flames of the fire, my father’s hand: safe, warm and content…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 136-9.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 69.
  3. Undertones of War, 132.
  4. Death of a Hero, 236-7.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 103-4.
  6. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 108-9.
  7. Marwil, Frederic Manning, 177; see also Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 126.
  8. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 141-4.
  9. Under Storm's Wing, 292-5.

Vera Brittain on the Beauties and Defects of Naples, While Geoffrey Thurlow Faces a Bayonet Charge; Dorothie Feilding on Pigsties and Defensive Lines

We can pass over the fact that gentle souls like J.R.R. Tolkien and Edmund Blunden are enduring the nastiness of trench life around Thiepval today, a century back, and amble southwards in order to recapture a sense of romance and adventure. Our provincial young lady is enjoying an abbreviated grand tour: the Britannic, bringing her to Malta by a roundabout route, has put in at Naples. This is Vera Brittain‘s first taste of Italy.

The transhipping rumour was a false alarm, and at midday on Friday we were all allowed on shore in small parties. Stella & I & some others were taken around by a Sister who lived in Venice before the War & knew Italian. We spent a long & happy time wandering round the streets; everything was a blaze of colour. In every little piazza there seemed to be an enclosed green space where various kinds of palms & cactus grew. & every available bit of grass was covered with crimson and scarlet salvia. Even the beggars, who of course crowded round, were dressed in faded gay colours; nearly all seemed to be in some way halt, maimed, blind or diseased, & to exhibit their defects almost with pride. Italy is a corrupt country, no doubt.”[1]

No doubt, no doubt. Ah, well. Anyway: Malta is a small island that is becoming an enormous hospital base, and the work there will be hardly more beautiful than it was in Camberwell. But this is the journey, and it is new and exciting…

In France, it takes more mental effort to find excitement or beauty. Blunden is writing poetry and dreaming of libraries, Tolkien is working–when he has time–on another world.

Geoffrey Thurlow, the best training-camp-friend of Vera’s brother Edward, came out earlier than either. He has been wounded, and–in Vera’s estimation, for she befriended Thurlow and spent much time with him in London–is struggling with the psychological aftereffects of what he has seen and endured. He has found, in his friend’s sister–the intellectual, the nurse, the would-be perfect-care-giver–a friend to rely on. These boys have grown up with a code of stoicism and reserve, and to find a young woman who is sympathetic, and safe, and serious, and pretty much as close as a young woman can be to the edge of the experiential gulf that divides them… well, it seems invaluable. If they don’t talk about loneliness and terror then at least, perhaps, they can leave silences around these things that she might understand. There is Edward Brittain himself, so close to his big sister; there is clumsy and sweet Victor Richardson, the third musketeer of school days with the martyred Roland, and now the nervous Geoffrey… three young officers who depend upon her.

Is there romance in this? Well, not as such. Vera still carries the torch for Roland, and she seems to think of Victor as a little dull and Geoffrey as skittish and damaged. But in any case I meant to discuss ro-MANCE, the adventure of travel and discovery, not RO-mance. Geoffrey Thurlow has little of that as he waits his turn in the Somme’s last effort. But he will try to entertain, at least:

France, 29 September 1916

Edward’s letter yesterday told me that you were sailing on the 24th so I expect you will have been in Malta some time before this note reaches you…

Tho’ we are some way behind the line sounds of a great battle can be distinctly heard. We are doing very intensive training…  And then up into the breach again…

This afternoon we were suddenly attacked on bayonet parade (Officers & NCO’s only) by 4 valiant little Frenchman ages from 4-6 each carrying a long stick with an apple attached to its end. When within 20 yds they opened fire by dropping the sticks behind their heads & then swishing them forward quickly & enroute the apple shot off but didn’t hit its mark! They were jolly little men but one was a lunatic I think. However we laughed at them till we wept!

…Some of our officers have seen the new ‘tanks’ but I haven’t yet. I hope I do so before we leave this place.[2]

 

For Dorothie Feilding, the romance of the war is somewhat attenuated after more than two years–but she, too, does her best. She is not in grave, daily danger now that Belgium has become a “quiet” section of the front, and her mother has loved ones in greater danger–a brother with the Guards, another brother killed at Jutland–not to mention a husband “dug out” into active service. But it should be clear by now both that Lady Dorothie’s effervescence cannot possibly be entirely feigned and that, nevertheless, she makes an effort to infuse even more bubbles into her letters.

The family has all gone to war, and lightly amusing stories make the best letters home:

29th Sept 16
Mother dear

I had a fat head today & feeling a bit grubby so took a day off at no 14.I am being lazy & having brekker in bed…

No 14 is now very beautiful. The Canadians offered to build me a fireplace in the sitting room, as we haven’t one in the whole house, only a dirty little stove. The trouble was how to get a barrel of cement, half a ton of bricks & several immense Canadians into the house without the old patron next door, who owns 14, bulling in & raising hell, as he always does if he even hears you driving a nail in the wall.

Of course he came in like a Jack in a box the moment they arrived, but Hélène informed him gravely we were making a ‘trou-de-cochon’ or pigsty in the back garden. He quite believed it & asked what we were going to feed
them on?

Thus the fireplace was well under way & a nice large hole knocked in his ceiling before he could interfere & we are the proud possessors of a nice open fireplace. The only trouble is that there is now hardly any room left to sit in, but you can’t have everything can you?

That Lady Dorothie is, by this point, a true veteran shows not only in her eagerness to scrounge and win basic winter comforts in advance but also in her smooth pivot to a serious and well-balanced appreciation of the news from the Somme:

…I hear our losses this last 10 days good advance have been wonderfully few considering, & far less than in the earlier stages. The artillery preparation seems to have been stupendous. I have seen several people these last days who have just left there. The French have only a little over a quarter of our losses from last July. I have this from the old boy you & Squeaker stayed with out here, partly due to their more efficient artillery preparation & to a great deal because the Germans have massed many more troops in front of the English; they would rather go back 10 miles in front of the French than in front of us as everyone knows. But everything seems going really well now & generally optimistic about Fritz being made to draw back in the S to his 2nd line before the winter. I’m afraid no earthly chance of that here. The coast is too precious to them, & they will have to be very beat indeed before they will let go of it.

Goodbye Mother mine & much love
DoDo[3]

This is all correct: the progress on the Somme is indeed is due to the scale of the British effort, improved artillery tactics, and the German willingness–having resisted stubbornly throughout the summer–to effect an operational withdrawal on the eve of winter. And, not least, the final implication: that the British “victory” to which the Germans have acquiesced has little strategic significance–the line has bent and bulged a little, but not moved in any crucial way…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 329-330.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 277.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 165-6.

Frank Richards and a Monstrous Rat; Carrington and Tolkien and the Assault on Ovillers; Sassoon Shows Graves’s Unpopularity and Proclaims Awakened Hopes, While Graves Sings the Glorious Future: “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 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.[1]

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.[2]

As a compressed horror story of the Great War this cannot be improved upon–and neither, of course, can it be verified.[3]

 

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.[4]

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.[5]

 

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…”[6]

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.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 225.
  2. Old Soldiers Never Die, 157-8, 181-3.
  3. The CWGC doesn't have a Royal Welch Fusilier named Dann, but it is quite possible that Richards simply changed the name. And the rat, well...
  4. Although he also borrows from his diary of two days ago.
  5. Complete Memoirs, 355-9--this is not, in fact, a quotation from his diary, but rather freely adapted/fictionalized...
  6. A Subaltern's War, 32-113.
  7. Chronology, 84; Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 165-7.