Wilfred Owen on “Militarian Subjects”–or Not; Olaf Stapledon Can’t Forget That There Are Trenches in the World

Wilfred Owen‘s letter of today, a century back, begins in a rather precious mode of poetic reverie but then quickly subsides back toward the plane of daily life. First, he tells his mother of plans to visit the school with which had been very involved during his “ergotherapy” at Edinburgh. This is a happy subject–a remembrance of good times, the pleasure and fulfillment he felt in teaching and in the admiration of the boys for the young officer come to instruct them. But while the mood stays jaunty–it almost always does, in these letters–the thread leads straight back to war. There is a shadow, even in a breezy letter from this sunny, undecorated, unheralded “major domo,” of the substance of Sassoon‘s protest–and of Owen’s determination (which may make his mother profoundly uncomfortable) to treat the suffering of the soldiers in Christian terms.

13 December 1917, Scarborough

Dearest Mother,

It is the quarter of an hour after lunch. The coffee has given me satisfaction and everybody else. (I serve coffee after lunch as well as dinner.) So I sit in the middle of my five-windowed turret, and look down upon the sea. The sun is valiant in its old age. I draw the Venetian blinds, so that the shadow of the lattices on the table gives an illusion of great heat…

Yesterday I was sent the Tynecastle School Magazine, very amusing. Mrs. Fullerton writes again this morning, reminding me how I promised to go up there for my first leave.

‘You can imagine our welcome better than I can write’ they say. Now, I find that Leave from Friday Night to Monday Night is granted every month! But Mrs. Fullerton is leaving the school for ever on the 21st. in order to be with her husband who will soon get sent out again.

There is much talk of Education for the ‘A 4’s’ of the Battalion, that is the tender younglings. I have been ‘approached’ on the subject, but I shall not consent to lecture on Militarian subjects. The scheme either comes of a desperate feeling that the race is going to perdition intellectually or else it is a Jesuitical movement to catch ’em young, & prepare them for the Eucharist of their own blood.

Dearest love from W.E.O.[1]

 

Interestingly, our other letter today is from Olaf Stapledon, the young pacifist whose entire war service has been a protest, as well as a “sacrifice” in the looser sense of something given (at great length and effort) where it might have been (selfishly) withheld. Stapledon, home on leave–in Merseyside, just across the island from Scarborough–is stewing, disgusted with the complacency and luxury which persist.

Stapledon and Owen are very different men in very different positions, but it’s tempting to consider some sort of equivalency. Stapledon, despite a period of crisis about the rights and wrongs of serving as an ambulance man (rather than as either a soldier or a pacifist abstainer, ready for the other martyrdom of prison and social ignominy) has been shielded from the full misery of the war: he has not had to fight, or sit for many hours under enemy shelling. He has been in danger and he has seen terrible things, but nothing so terrible as a long, muddy tour in front-line trenches. So is he, in late 1917, only now approaching the mild level of disgust of a 1915 or early 1916 infantryman, while Owen has gone through all that in a few short weeks at the front (and a few long months recovering) and moved beyond it, to happy forgetfulness pottering about in a base job, picking out furniture, visiting old friends, and not thinking about what comes next?

Tempting–but I should have resisted. What’s the point, after all, of a strict timeline (i.e. the whole war, day by day) if I don’t resist the temptation to validate it by twisting it in different directions? Suffice it to say that today, a century back, Stapledon–who has never doubted that fighting the war is wrong–is wondering about who and what those who are fighting are fighting for. Are those for whom the sacrifices are allegedly being made worthy of them? The logical next step is to question, again, whether taking any action that enables the continuation of the war is morally justifiable.

Annery

13 December 1917

. . . I am all adrift, all sixes and sevens and so bored, bored to tears with the war and my own stodgy self. This leave has been somehow unreal. It has largely consisted in going round talking platitudes to people about the war, and in slipping back comfortably into the artificial life that we all lead at home in our most excessive middle class luxury. Plates & dishes & knives & forks & furniture beyond the wildest need, & all so beautifully clean. Fires, hot baths, dainty food–& yet there are trenches in the world.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 516.
  2. Talking Across the World, 260.

Hugh Quigley Expects Exaltation; Wilfred Owen on Siegfried Sassoon: The Man, The Friend, The Poet

Hugh Quigley has only recently arrived in the Salient, and he has not yet experienced battle. This will change, shortly–and sharply.

Courcelles-le-Comte, 12 September, 1917

This morning the Colonel summoned the whole battalion to the concert-hall, a ruined house with a roof of yellow tarpaulin. We knew perfectly well what was coming. A fortnight’s training in bombing, firing or rifle grenades, shooting at disappearing targets, and practise of assault-formations going in waves over a hill, gave us an inkling of hot work in front of us. He told us of the traditions the division stood for, the high position it held in the regard of the Army Commander, appealed to the courage of an army which had triumphed at Messines, Vimy, Arras, and Ypres; recalled us to the German treatment of our prisoners, and of harmless Belgian and French civilians, violation, seduction, murder, until it appeared a sacred duty to die fighting in such a cause. At the last he warned us solemnly of the penalties attached to cowardice in the field. “If the Hun shells too heavily, side-step, but for God’s sake don’t go back…”

So: the motivations are to include avenging murder and rape, and yet the green men of the next division in are also reminded of the penalty–death–that their own army metes out to men who flee. I’m not sure about the carrot, but the stick is quite clear.

And yet Quigley is drawn to the idea of battle. This next bit provides a stiff reminder that not every soldier–not even in late 1917–is disillusioned or disenchanted. One may, in fact, be fully aware of two long years of failed attacks and enormous casualty tolls yet still able to conceive of battle in Romantic/Religious terms: Passchendaele may be a bloody disaster, but then again in might be a “quest,” not to be missed.

When he had finished and we went out into the clear air, into the quietly smiling sunlight, a feeling not exactly of pain or even fear overtook me: a dim sense of exaltation, as if a definite vocation in life had been assured, a definite reward, a final gathering of all forces of soul and will to answer a great call, an obliteration of every quavering and hesitation, as if the new quest was nobler than that legendary one of Parzival. This was the real thing at last, not a mere toying with life and fate. The balance would be decided between life and death–death with no lingering and in a full glory of achievement, life after a stern battling with danger and crowned with joy in the thought of courage proved. I think the real religion must be a development of that uncertain exaltation, a strange concurrence in the unseen and perhaps inevitable, a definite view of soul across a broad world of shadow, a surrender to the great power we call God…

In such a time we are all believers, cannot help it. There is a need of sympathy and sustenance, of belief in a certain mission and of reward for play with death, and that is the spirit’s will and way.[1]

 

Needless to say, it will be interesting to check in with Quigley after the battle–provided that he finds himself on the right side of the balance of life and death–or after even a spell of muddy-miserable trench warfare, bombardment, and the inevitable failure of mere “exaltation” to carry a human spirit through the shapeless, miserable, un-quest-like gantlet of attritional warfare.

Which brings us, more or less, to Wilfred Owen, who has not been the same since he was shelled for days in the deep, freezing dugouts of last winter’s front line.

But that is a long time ago, now, in one man’s experience, and he is riding hard on a much sweeter quest–life after danger, and poetry proved:

Tuesday [22] September 1917

My own dear Mother,

Many true thanks for your long letter. I have read it many times. You also find letter writing a fitter mode of intimate communication than speaking.

The enclosed came out of my Parcel of Portfolios rec’vd this evening…

Ah! The Mysterious Portfolios! Did they contain evidence of forbidden love? Hidden prodigal poetry?

We’ll never know… but probably not:

The MSS. arrived in perfect order. Did I classify them as Angels & Devils ? I meant simply; Live Ones and Duds. I have written no Barrack Room Ballads!

Alas. It was probably only bad poetry, and thus a more or less empty vault for the biographically-minded critic. The letter returns now to the most important topic of Owen’s recent letters: the mentor, Siegfried Sassoon.

You may be a little shocked by Sassoon’s language. He is of course, with W.E.O. practically the only one in the place who doesn’t swear conversationally. He is simply honest about the war.

Your questions concerning him are searching. You will do well to put them on all similar occasions.

For it is very true there are not a few whom I like, say, as a poet only, as an actor only, as a table-companion only, as a trench-mate only, as a servant only, as a statue only, as a marble idol only.

Sassoon I like equally in all the ways you mention, as a man, as a friend, as a poet.

The man is tall and noble-looking. Before I knew him I was told this and by this much only I spotted him! I quote from a publication: ‘very slim and shy, with eyes which may be blue or brown when you come to examine them closely.'[2]

He is thirty-one. Let it be thoroughly understood that I nourish no admiration for his nose or any other feature whatever.

The Friend is intensely sympathetic, with me about every vital question on the planet or off it. He keeps all effusiveness strictly within his pages. In this he is eminently English. It is so restful after the French absurdities, and after Mrs. Gray who gushes all over me. But there is no denying to myself that he is already a closer friend than, say, Leslie. Just as this assertion is not the result of having been with him so much lately, neither is it derogated by the shortness of our acquaintance-time. We have followed parallel trenches all our lives, and have more friends in common, authors I mean, than most people can boast of in a lifetime.

As for the Poet you know my judgement…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 117-119.
  2. A quote from a preface to Sassoon's parody The Daffodil Murderer.
  3. Collected Letters, 493-4.

The Battle of Langemarck: Four Seconds in the Life of Harry Patch; Edwin Vaughan in Command

Today, a century back, is another day of battle, as the British (and French) forces in the Ypres Salient surge forward once again. The Master of Belhaven is firing in support and Kate Luard will be picking up the pieces, but we will focus on two infantrymen as they attack today in the segment of Third Ypres known as the Battle of Langemarck. Neither is in the first attacking wave, but there is more than enough horror for the supporting troops and each will experience one of the most terrible days of their war.

 

At 4:45 the bombardment began, and two battalions of the 61st Brigade attacked toward Langemarck. Harry Patch, with C Company of the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was in the second wave.

I remember the names–Pilckem Ridge was one and the other was Langemarck… How were we to know that a pile of rubble was this village or that, or that a gentle slope was a particular ridge…? You only knew what was right next to you…

I have a memory of crossing a flooded stream…

This was the Steenbeck, the second waterway (after the Yser canal) that now marks the pilgrims’ progress out of Ypres and into the Slough of Despond.

Our guns’ opening bombardment had begun with an almighty clap of thunder. You can’t describe the noise, you can’t… There was an officer going down the line… He had drawn his revolver, and I got the distinct impression by the set look on his face that anybody that didn’t ‘go over’ would be shot for cowardice where they stood…

For once the British operational luck was good: the weather held (though the ground was still terribly muddy) and the German defense was disorganized due to a half-completed relief. Langemarck was swiftly taken, and by 5.45 the second wave was moving through to its attack positions.

It was absolutely sickening to see your own dead and wounded, some calling for stretcher-bearers, others semi-conscious and beyond all help… I saw one German… all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor, a horrible sight. Others were just blown to pieces; it wasn’t a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it, and there I was, only nineteen years old. I felt sick.

It got worse.

We came across a lad from A Company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ I was with him in the last seconds of his life. It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy… I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day I’ve always remember that cry and that death is not the end.

I remember that lad in particular. It is an image that has haunted me all my life…

Patch and his team soon reached the German second (support) line, where they set up their gun to fire in support of the men of their battalion just ahead, who were pushing into the German third (reserve) line.

I’d just changed a magazine… and Bob was looking elsewhere in the support line when two or three Germans came out of a trench and one of them spotted the machine gun and came straight for us with rifle and bayonet…

My right hand was free… I drew my revolver and I shot him in the right shoulder. He dropped his rifle but he came stumbling on, no doubt to kick the gun in the mud and us to pieces if he could…

I had four seconds to make my mind up. I had three rounds in that revolver. I could have killed him with my first; I was a crack shot. What should I do? Four seconds to make my mind up. That Cornishman’s ‘Mother’ was ringing in my ears and I thought, ‘No I can’t kill him’, and I gave him his life. I shot him above the ankle, and above the knee. I brought him down… for him the war was over… at the end of the war he would rejoin his family. Perhaps he was married; perhaps he had children.[1]

 

No more than two or three miles to the south, Edwin Vaughan‘s day developed more slowly, as his 8th Royal Warwickshires moved up behind several attacking waves.

August 16

At 2 a.m. a guide led us out of the camp in an easterly direction. We moved in column of route, in silence and with no smoking. I was leading with Ewing, but it was pitch dark and as our guide led us, sometimes on a hard road then on to mud then again on a sleeper track, I could not follow our direction. At last we arrived at a canal, with a steep
bank on either side and a towing path. We crossed a rough bridge and Ewing gave the order to fall out.

We were at Bridge 2A of the Yser canal, a few hundred yards north of Ypres. The air was poisoned by a terrible
stench that turned me sick. In the dim light the water appeared to be a dark-green swamp wherein lay corpses of men and bodies of horses; shafts of waggons and gun wheels protruded from the putrefying mass and after a shuddering glance I hurried along the towing path to clearer air. The bank was honeycombed with dugouts, chiefly occupied by REs. At one point I saw a fingerboard ‘To the RC Chaplain’.

Our cookers now rolled up and the cooks carried a hot meal over to our men. For my part I had lost my fear now, and in spite of the imminent attack and the fearful mass below me, I ate a hearty breakfast of sausages and bacon…

Vaughan is a commanding writer, and one who is keen both to describe the remembered scene with all the tools of the language and to record the raw emotions of the moment:[2]

…I walked along the path to where Sergeant Major Chalk was standing on the bank, silhouetted against the sky. I climbed up beside him and stood gazing across the darkness of the earth into the dawn. After a few minutes of silence he said ‘what is the time. Sir?’

‘Four forty-five’ I said, and with my words the whole earth burst into flame with one tremendous roar as hundreds of guns hurled the first round of the barrage…

Spellbound I saw a line of coloured lights shoot up from the Boche and then Chalk tugged my sleeve to indicate that our Company was lining up on the towing path…

My nervousness was gone now; trembling with excitement, but outwardly perfectly reasonable, I drank in every detail of the scene almost with eagerness. To the east we moved along the winding track between batteries of heavies that belched smoke and fire as we passed. The light grew rapidly, and the line of fire changed to a line of smoke. Around us and ahead of us was earth, nothing but earth—no houses or trees or even grass just faint shapeless humps from which the great guns hurled their iron death…

The men sing as they march up to take their positions in support.

The road had now almost disappeared and we were marching over shell-holes around which was scattered debris and wreckage at which I now dared not look. I kept my eyes fixed on the distance until we came to some low buildings—Van Heule Farm.

These were some of the concrete pillboxes of which we had heard. In front of them were six dead Germans and a disembowelled mule…

I led my platoon off to the right and we continued to move steadily across that muddy waste until I realized that we were walking into a curtain of fire. We were right on top of the German barrage when glancing round I saw Ewing give the signal to halt.

I repeated the signal to my men, and we all dived into shell-holes right on the fringe of the shell-torn zone. With my head just over the edge of my shell-hole I lay blinking into the shrieking, crashing hail of death 30 yards in front. We were too close to fear anything except a direct hit and fascinated I stared at that terrible curtain through which we soon must pass. One gun was firing regularly onto a spot only a few yards in front of me and as I watched the bursts I became aware of Private Bishop in the shell-hole in front with a thick red stream running down his back. I shouted to him ‘Are you hurt, Bishop?’ Turning round he said, ‘No Sir’ in surprise. So I leaped across the edge of the hole and found that the stream proceeded from a shrapnel wound in a carton of jam in his haversack…

Soon the order comes to occupy a more forward position. Since they are some distance to the south, the line of the Steenbeck (which runs from south east to northwest across the west-to-east oriented battlefield) is further to the east than where Patch and his battalion crossed it.

Dully I hoisted myself out of the mud and gave the signal to advance, which was answered by every man rising and stepping unhesitatingly into the barrage… we were surrounded by bursting shells and singing fragments, while above us a stream of bullets added their whining to the general pandemonium. The men were wonderful! And it was astounding that although no one ran or ducked, whilst many were blown over by shells bursting at our very feet no one was touched until we were through the thickest part of the barrage and making for the little ridge in front.

Then I saw fellows drop lifeless while others began to stagger and limp; the fragments were getting us and in front was a belt of wire. At this moment I felt my feet sink and though I struggled to get on, I was dragged down to the waist in sticky clay. The others passed on, not noticing my plight until by yelling and firing my revolver into the air I attracted the attention of Sergeant Gunn, who returned and dragged me out. I caught up the troops who were passing through a gap in the wire, and I was following Corporal Breeze when a shell burst at his feet. As I was blown backwards I saw him thrown into the air to land at my feet, a crumpled heap of torn flesh.

Sick with horror I scrambled over him and stumbled down into the cutting, which was the Steenbeck Stream. Crouched in here we found the Irish Rifles, and we lined up with them. There was a padre who gave me a cheery grin and further along was a major smoking a pipe as he sat on the bank with his back to the enemy. I climbed out of the stream and saluted him, noticing out of the corner of my eye that a tank was ditched in the cutting. I sat down beside him and told him who we were, and then from the heap of flesh that had been Breeze, I saw the stump of an arm raised an inch or two. Others saw it too and before I needed to tell them, the stretcher-bearers were on their way to him. Very gently they brought him in to where I was sitting. He was terribly mutilated, both his feet had gone and one arm, his legs and trunk were torn to ribbons and his face was dreadful. But he was conscious and as I bent over him I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of mingled recognition and terror. His feeble hand clutched my equipment, and then the light faded from his eye. The shells continued to pour but we gave poor Breezy a burial in a shell-hole and the padre read a hurried prayer.

…The ground sloped up so sharply in front that I could only see for about 30 yards. Behind us was nothing but the shell-swept waste of mud and filth. So I called to Corporal Benjamin to come and talk to me. He had just made some reference to poor Breeze, when there was a clang and he staggered back, his helmet flying off into the stream. A bullet had gone through it without touching him and his comical look of amazement and indignation as he retrieved it made me shriek with laughter…

We are now at the stage of every battle where things slow down: whatever was planned so minutely has run its course, and the various units who have come “through” the attacking waves must now assess the situation, discovering just where the enemy has been destroyed or retreated, and where he is hanging on. And with every hour on the battlefield the danger increases, as the German artillery, too, discovers what territory has been held and what can now be fired upon.

At about 3 p.m. we saw two figures walking back behind us, and recognizing Radcliffe we hailed him and ran across. His right wrist had been shattered by a sniper’s bullet and he was very upset for it was a rotten sort of blighty for a Doctor of Music to get. With him was Sergeant Bell who had got a bullet in the arm from the same sniper. It was with real regret that we gripped their left hands and said goodbye—we knew for ever. We felt that this was the beginning of the break-up and we rejoined our troops in deep dejection.

Half an hour later Ewing arrived, breathless from dodging the energetic snipers, and told me that I was to take command of the Company as he was going to HQ as adjutant in place of Hoskins, who had been hit… My instructions were to move the Company at dusk straight over to the left, form up behind the Gloucesters and after dark to push forward and deal with any machine guns in front.

Vaughan has not always had the confidence of the higher-ups in his battalion, but needs must. Despite being issued vague orders to make a lateral movement across a battlefield and then attempt the sort of small-unit tactical feat that will be the stuff of hundreds of war movies to come, he seems to acquit himself well–at least at first.

Owing to the murk of battle and the misty rain, we were able to move at 6 o’clock, so stumbling and dodging round the shell-holes we followed our guide over half a mile of mud and water in front of what had been St Julien. The  snipers were very busy as we crossed, but the light was so bad that the shots sang over our heads and no one was hit.

By the time we had formed up behind the Gloucesters, it was quite dark, so I immediately sent out four small patrols to locate the enemy line. In a very few minutes machine guns opened out and sprayed bullets over our line. The patrols all returned and reported that the ground in front was a morass of mud and water, and before they had gone a hundred yards the Boche had heard them floundering about, and had opened fire. I believed them but to satisfy myself I took a couple of men and went out towards a spot where I had judged a gun to be. In five minutes we were stumbling into deep holes full of water, and the noise we made dragging our bodies through the mud caused flares to shoot up all along his line and the ground was swept by traversing guns. By the light of one flare I thought I saw a low pillbox with figures standing before it, but I was not sure. In any case it was obvious that to attempt a night attack would be madness, so I took my patrol back. On the way we stumbled into a large swamp and waded about in water for some time before striking our positions.

Vaughan’s habit of honesty about his own shortcomings as an officer is one of the most valuable aspects of his diary. He hasn’t quite refused to perform a direct order, but he has asserted his own judgment–as a second lieutenant of very limited combat experience–that the suggested attack is “madness,” and demurred. This could be interpreted–unfairly, but still–as a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to get some of his men killed in capturing an important local objective. As a company commander, Vaughan now has only the battalion’s commanding officer to answer to:

I found the CO waiting for me and I sat down in the mud beside him feeling dead beat and horribly ill. What he was saying I had no idea, for I must have fainted or gone to sleep. After what seemed a long time I heard a voice saying
unintelligible things, and I was just able to mutter, ‘I’m awfully sorry. Sir, but I haven’t the least idea what you’re saying.’ He shook me violently and said ‘Now, Vaughan, pull yourself together.’ Whereupon I was alert in a moment and he repeated his instructions. I was to form up my platoons in depth to the right of where we were then sitting. The Gloucesters were going out before dawn and the following night I was to spread out to the left and form a line joining the Ox and Bucks. Then he left me and I sat for a while staring into the darkness, realizing that we were in a hell of a place.

It was a very different attack from what I had imagined we would experience: terror and death coming from far away seemed much more ghastly than a hail of fire from people whom we could see and with whom we could come to grips. And now we were in an unknown district and must await through the long night the uncertainties of the dawn…

But they still must go forward–the uncertainties of dawn are likely to include a counter-attack, and they must prepare for this as best they can.

Chalk and I went in front… in a few moments a salvo of high-velocity shells kept us flattened out in the mud as they crashed amongst us.

Coincidentally, David Jones sketched a different British tank elsewhere in the Salient today, a century back

As we pushed on again we discerned dimly, through the rain and darkness, a derelict tank. ‘What about that for an HQ, Sir?’ said Chalk. I assented and when I had positioned the troops in front with Jimmy Harding among them, I led my staff of runners, signallers and pigeon carriers back to that spot. As we approached it, however, we were met by a filthy, overpowering stench and found that a shell had burst underneath it and it had burnt out. The charred bodies of the crew were inside or half out of the open door. So I sought the healthier atmosphere of a large crater 30 yards away and gathered my staff in neighbouring shell-holes.

I was very tired but had to stagger out at once to see that the line was unbroken and I had a rotten time dodging shells. Feeling half dead I was on my way back when I heard a voice yelling ‘Stretcher-bearers’. It was Sergeant Swingler with a chunk of shrapnel in his shoulder…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Last Fighting Tommy, 90-101. The name Harry Patch will be familiar to Great War cognoscenti and even perhaps to those with little reading in the subject, and/or an interest in alternative rock. He was not really a writer, but his story is terribly moving, and even almost hopeful: at his funeral, in 2009, soldiers from Belgium, France, and Germany accompanied his coffin--and, in strict accordance with his wishes, there were no weapons present, not even ceremonial swords. So that was Harry Patch, and it seemed a shame, in the strange logic of military history, not to include his terrible day, here, in some way. At the very least this trauma of a century back gave a renewed push to the effort to remember the Great War properly--in its full awfulness--in hte two decades leading up to the centenary. But there is a good methodological reason, too, for including him: his story, "as told to" interviewers (and, for the book, to the military historian Richard Van Emden) is the most extreme sort of counterpoint to what I generally value the most, here. Instead of a near-immediate record in a dated diary entry or letter, we have the memories of a day only after these memories have weathered eighty or nineties years in the mind of a survivor--Patch didn't start talking about the war until he was over a century old. It's a reminder of what, from another point of view, really matters, and a rebuke from a very gentle old man: the section I quote from, above, begins "I'm told we attacked on 16 August, but the date doesn't mean much to me..." and then he, in Hemingway/Fussell fashion still remembers the names, but, as the first ellipsis, above, continues "it is such a long time ago that I can't quite connect them up in my head."
  2. His diary will be extensively worked over after the fact, at least in part to achieve this effect.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193-200.

Kate Luard is Open For Business Once Again; Edwin Vaughan Heads Back to the Front; Wilfred Owen Drops his Cheek and Dreams of Vengeance

Through Kate Luard we learn today, a century back, that the offensive is lurching forward once more. Five miserable days of rain, followed by three dry days (not nearly enough to dry the mud) and then another downpour on the 8th had entirely halted the offensive. But yesterday and today were fairly clear, and better weather was in the offing. The major effort on the Gheluvelt plateau was aimed at capturing remaining objectives from July 31st–essentially the “black line” of secondary objectives rather than the furthest “green line.”

The Attack began on the two corners of the Salient to-day… A lot of abdominals and some femurs are still coming in… Sir Anthony Bowlby came round to-day… A bashed-to-pieces Officer with both legs, both arms, face and back wounded, gassed, and nearly blind, saluted with one bandaged arm… (Died at 8 a.m.)[1]

In an increasingly familiar pattern, the initial gains under a well-planned barrage will be considerable, then largely lost to German counter-attacks later in the day…

 

Edwin Vaughan has missed the battle so far–his unit is in reserve and he has been on leave. But now he returns, in a cascade of inauspicious signs. There was the night at the “hateful, uncomfortable, ill-administered rest camp” near Southampton, then a crossing in “a filthy old tub,” and then this welcome to the old battalion:

When I reached Jans-ter-Biezen, I found the Battalion on the other side of the road, sharing a large field with the Brigade Trench Mortar Battery. I received a cheery welcome and we had a happy little dinner of celebration, to which we invited Sullivan who is now with the TMBs. Later a Boche plane came across and dropped a lot of bombs—fortunately into the other camps. We were untouched but the night was rent with crashes, by the screams of archies and the frantic spluttering of Lewis guns.[2]

 

Lastly today, we are once again back in Britain with a shell-shocked officer. Wilfred Owen has been flourishing at Craiglockhart, but regaining self-confidence and a sense of balance and self-mastery is not the same as forgetting or moving past the war.

Tonight’s letter to his mother is both unusual and significant. It begins ordinarily enough, however, with reports in the old intimate-conversational style on the doings of the Field Club and his upcoming appearance in a play being put on by a group of patients, some with previous professional theater experience.

Friday Night

My own dear Mother,

The Field Club went a long walk over the Pentland foot-hills this afternoon… between us we managed to observe and philosophize the country to about half the extent that say Belloc would have done, had he taken that walk.

I held my own in the matter of Water Plants, and my ancient chippings at Geology came in useful… it is very kind of the Army to provide this free-and-easy Oxford for me. It was a unique walk. We had lunch on the roadside, and tea in a cottage…

I read your letter by a waterfall. The Parcel has not yet come. Many thanks for the considerable trouble of packing it off. Where then is my green cap? So glad you thought of socks. The Expense will be refunded by the Club. I forgot to tell you this…

But it is through his mother’s report of her intended charitable work that Owen’s thoughts turn from his activities back to their looming, inescapable context. The next statement, unfortunately, also obliges us to overlook casual racism in order to see his point. It is a bad example, too–the “white man’s burden” is not the main thrust of the thought here. Instead, Owen’s rejection of Christianity as it is practiced by the belligerents moves from a diffident satiric pose toward purposeful, concerted, protest. The stock reference to the “heathen” other points us back to the culprit: Christianity, yes, but as it is embodied in what Owen sees as a deeply hypocritical “civilized” culture.

I’m overjoyed that you think of making bandages for the wounded. Leave Black Sambo ignorant of Heaven. White men are in Hell. Aye, leave him ignorant of the civilization that sends us there, and the religious men that say it is good to be in that Hell.

(Continued, because important) Send an English Testament to his Grace of Canterbury, and let it consist of that one sentence, at which he winks his eyes:

‘Ye have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’

And if his reply be ‘Most unsuitable for the present distressing moment, my dear lady! But I trust that in God’s good time . . . etc.’—then there is only one possible conclusion, that there are no more Christians at the present moment than there were at the end of the first century.

Toward protest, I think–but he is not all the way there. To act out these intentions in a fantasy in a letter to his mother is a very different thing than taking on the church–or, more generally, patriotic militarist cant–in public writing. It’s hard to tell how much Owen means this mood (indeed, he will write tomorrow that he does not trust himself to re-read the letter) but this is still more than mere maudlin sentimentality.

While I wear my star and eat my rations, I continue to take care of my Other Cheek; and, thinking of the eyes I have seen made sightless, and the bleeding lad’s cheeks I have wiped, I say: Vengeance is mine, I, Owen, will repay…

The emotion is genuine, and even if the conviction is not fully empowered to production, he’s on the cusp. Dominic Hibberd, working from the physical remains of the archive rather than the printed text, notes that “[t]he handwriting of this letter, scribbled late at night on 10 August 1917, slants awkwardly across the page, and around the phrase ‘made sightless’ there are marks that could be blots or tears.[3]

Or perspiration, or archival water damage… or tears. The last few letters might have led us to believe that Owen’s course of ergotherapy and his intense-yet-superficial bond with his mother are healing his outer self without addressing the inward–yet intellectual–revulsion stemming from his war experience. Owen still doubts whether these grand phrases and feelings can quite be trusted:

I fear I’ve written like a converted Horatio Bottomley.

And to you who need no such words.

That is why I want you not to destroy them; for I write so because I see clear at this moment. In my eye there is no mote nor beam, when I look through you across the world…[4]

And that intensity of vision will, I think, now be essential to his growth as a poet. The rhetoric is not there, but the habit of unrestrained emotional outpouring–albeit in prose, and to a completely supportive audience–has readied him to write something that, unlike Sassoon‘s tortured attempt to wrestle a gift for satire into a posture of humane protest, can transmute the suffering of the soldiers into effective, moving poetry.

All that he needs is someone to reorient his gifts and his gaze, and give him a little push…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 142.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 188-9.
  3. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 262.
  4. Collected Letters, 482-4.

Hedd Wyn’s War Begins; Francis Ledwidge to Marsh and Ypres; Hardy at a Party; Sassoon and Read and Ford Gazetted

There are many limitations placed on this project–by prudence, by the persistent finitude of time, by the scope of my interests and inclinations–and so a great many worthy writers are completely absent from it. Among the many entire classes of writers whose Great War experience has been summarily excluded are all of those not writing in English. And although this exclusion, more than most of the others (I have not fought very stiffly against the class and gender biases inherent in the traditional core of “Great War Writers,” for instance) makes a good deal of sense–I expect, sadly, only the same monolingual fluency that I possess–it still seems regrettable.

Hedd Wyn (National Library of Wales)

But then again sticking to the English language does not really exclude many important British Great War poets. In fact, it may exclude nor more than one. And it’s that very one whom I wish most to write about–so I will.

This is not only because the story of Ellis Humphrey Evans, alias Hedd Wyn, alias ‘Fleur de Lis,’ is a very interesting one. No–I  also have more sheepishly personal reasons. Today, a century on, I have planned to be in Wales, seeing the sights, trying not to be seen seeing the sights in a shallowly touristic sort of way, and even trying perhaps, to pick up a little of the language. Which is beautiful and, had the “Jingos” have taken their anti-Germanism to a logical extreme, a much more proper language for use by British soldiers fighting Saxo-Prussian imperialism. So, fellow Anglophones, forgive (and enjoy) the coming “month poem,” yn y Gymraeg.

But first, a bit about its author. Evans–a harmless shepherd in the literal as well as the figurative sense–was not eager to go. He was a chapel man and a pacifist, but, after having been drafted in 1916, he entered the army rather than pursue an uncertain course as a conscientious objector. He did this at least in part because it would preserve a possible family exemption from the draft (for doing essential food-production work) for his younger brother.

In early 1917 Ellis Evans began his training at the Royal Welsh Fusilier depot at Litherland, arriving within a few days of when Siegfried Sassoon–who would not have noticed him, in any case–was posted abroad from the same camp.

A family story has it that he overstayed a recent leave and was taken away by military police to be sent to the War. That would have been last month; by today, a century back, the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers are in Fléchin, France, training for the coming offensive.

While working as a shepherd Evans had pursued a bardic career in the Welsh tradition–his chosen name Hedd Wyn means “blessed (literally ‘white’) peace”–winning prizes at several local eisteddfodau and writing pastoral (again!) and Romantic-inflected poems. For the past few months he has been working on a lengthy ode, suitable for submission to the National Eisteddfod, and he has–or will–mail it home within a few days of today, a century back. But Yr Arwr is lengthy and not, to my knowledge, satisfactorily translated, so our month poem will be another recent poem called, appropriately enough, “war.”

 

Rhyfel

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.

 

War

Woe that I live in bitter days,
As God is setting like a sun
And in his place, as lord and slave,
Man raises forth his heinous throne.

When he thought God was gone at last
He put his brother to the sword.
Now death is roaring in our ears,
Shadowing the shanties of the poor.

The old and silenced harps are hung
On yonder willow trees again.
The bawl of boys is on the wind.
Their blood is blended in the rain.[1]

 

It is appropriate in many ways that Hedd Wyn’s first adjacent fellow poet here would be Francis Ledwidge–himself a proud Gael, and a poet of the working class conflicted about serving the English colonial master.[2] But there the similarities begin to fade. Although Ledwidge began in humble circumstances as an English-language poet from the Irish peasant class, he has risen, these last few years, with the help of a lord.

Today, a century back, Ledwidge wrote to Eddie Marsh, discussing which poems of his might appear in the next Georgian Poetry–Ledwidge is already a veteran of the second anthology. And he is a veteran soldier abroad, well-versed in keeping home in his thoughts, even in the trenches:

Just now a big strafe is worrying our dug-outs and putting out our candles but my soul is by the Boyne cutting new meadows under a thousand wings and listening to the cuckoos at Crocknaharna. They say there will be peace soon.

So they have been saying. The next bit is probably not begun in jest–Marsh will indeed visit the front, when Churchill does, but perhaps he will not have the eyes to see the sights (or the lights, as it were) quite like Ledwidge:

If you visit the Front don’t forget to come up the line at night to watch the German rockets. They have white crests which throw a pale flame across no-man’s-land and white bursting into green and green changing into blue and blue bursting and dropping down in purple torrents. It is like the end of a beautiful world![3]

Ledwidge, with his Gamgee-esque enthusiasms intact, will soon be marching North, from a quiet French sector over clogged roads toward Ypres.

 

And now one further break with convention. I have come across (in a biography of Thomas Hardy) a literary party at the home of J.M. Barrie that will take place at some point this month. Arnold Bennett will describe it, and in doing so he puts Hardy in exactly the light I have always imagined him. The party begins with friendly conversation between the Hardys and Barrie and Bennett. Later,

When darkness had fallen, they stood outside one of the windows, watching the searchlights: then more famous authors arrived, not without arising some irony in Bennett: “The spectacle of Wells and G.B.S. talking firmly and strongly about the war, in their comparative youth, in front of this aged, fatigued and silent man–incomparably their superior as a creative artists–was very striking.”[4]

It is characteristic of mere sorcerers that they fail to recognize a true wizard brooding in their midst.

 

And what if the actual fighting writers had been there? Ah, well–we can assume that Wells and Shaw would assume more modesty before a quiet young beribbonned officer than before the quiet, old, invisibly laurelled poet. Speaking of soldier poets…

 

Herbert Read and Siegfried Sassoon–a farmer’s son from Yorkshire and a gentleman of private means from Kent–have never met. And neither one has met the great shambling broken-down smoldering runaway firework-seller’s handcart that is Ford Maddox Hueffer.[5] Nevertheless, in what surely must be my most pompous and tenuous “crossing of paths” yet, these two most successfully aggressive trench fighters in all of modern poetry’s pantheon and this shell-shocked soon-to-be-the-author-of-perhaps-the-greatest-Modern-English-Novel were published alongside each other today, a century back: although one is training for an assault in France, another is rebelling against England, and another has been quietly stashed in a training unit, all three appeared in the London Gazette, each officially promoted to full lieutenant.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I have copied a strong translation, by A.Z. Foreman, from here--the link has spoilers.
  2. An only slight less apt and perhaps more interesting point of comparison would be Isaac Rosenberg, whom I recently placed alongside Ledwidge...
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 184.
  4. Blunden, Thomas Hardy, 155-6.
  5. I have been several months behind in his biography--but I hope to being him back in shortly!
  6. I discovered these facts in three biographies: presumably the Gazette itself is somewhere to be circled in red and marked with triple exclamation marks, but I haven't checked!!!.

Duff Cooper Gets the Call; Henry Williamson is Laid Low; C.E. Montague Draws Strength From Hardy; Woolf Praises Sassoon; Francis Ledwidge Gropes Toward God; Isaac Rosenberg Lifts His Eyes to the Larks

I don’t mean to make fun of Duff Cooper–he is a capable man, and not nearly as daffy as he sounds in his journal–but, until today, all we’ve heard of his recent decision to take an Army commission is that is seemed to yield positive short-term results in his endless pursuit of Diana Manners. Ah–but has he forgotten the other woman in his life? Yes, yes he has.

In the afternoon Mother telephoned. She has found about my prospects of joining the army. She is naturally much upset–it is most awkward.[1]

 

Nor did I set out to make fun of Henry Williamson, today, but this disjunction between diary and novel is… also pretty funny:

Thursday, 31 May. Kicked on head by Tommy.

The editors add, helpfully, that “Tommy was a mule.” Which, given that Williamson is a mule-riding Transport Officer–and despite the fact that he describes stubborn men as “mules”–should probably be taken literally, and not as a slight on the stubborn character of some insubordinate “Tommy Atkins.”[2]

In the novel, instead of this misadventure, Phillip Maddison attend a conference held by Captain Hobart in which he is initiated into further tactical secrets of the coming Messines Ridge attack. There is much admiration expressed for General Plumer, the rare innovator among the British senior officers and the man most responsible for the novel use of what are essentially early modern siege warfare tactics scaled up by several orders of magnitude and undertaken over the course of many months: there will be some very big mines. Which, of course, were top secret at the time.

After the conference Phillip goes walkabout, as he so often does. Leaving his work to his sergeant, Phillip strolls past signs and organizational tapes and models and remarks on the fact that every possible preparation for the coming attack has been carefully thought out. He is then struck by the idea that if such detailed tactical information were to be passed on to the men of the Machine Gun Company, surely it would be a good thing for morale, and who better to lecture them than himself…[3]

 

But today is a busy day, and with those bits of silliness out of the way we can move toward a few more formal literary accomplishments.

First, I’d offer this definition of a worthy novel: a book that can offer intellectual and emotional support to a reader burdened by cares and mired in doubt, yet far from any easy resonance with its subject matter. We have a nomination, then, today, from C.E. Montague, writing to his wife:

May 31, 1917

A man here has got The Return of the Native and I borrowed it last night and read the first few pages again. How wonderful they are—I do believe the finest opening ever written for a novel of that kind. I shall try, at odd times, to read on. There is something massive and hill-like about Hardy which makes him good to read during this passing madness of the world—he helps one to feel what a mass of durable things in human nature as well as in other ‘nature’ are going on all right, all the time, and will be there to come back to when the evil time is overpast.[4]

 

Time in its dogged unidirectionality is a strange thing. Thomas Hardy has held out an austere kind of hope to many of our writers, and his approval meant more to Siegfried Sassoon than that of any writer… but if one were to try to sell an unacquainted reader on the merits of Sassoon’s poetry today, a more powerful endorsement might be felt to come from a review of his verses that was published today, a century back, in the Times Literary Supplement:

…the beauty in them, though fitful, is of the individual, indefinable kind which comes, we know not how, to make lines such as we read over each time with a renewed delight that after one comes the other.[5]

Thus Virginia Woolf on The Old Huntsman and Other Poems.

 

We also have a relative rarity, today: a long letter from Francis Ledwidge. Written from reserve billets in France, to Katherine Tynan, it shows Ledwidge in the thick of the action and, characteristically, able to wring beauty from the terror and violence of his surroundings.

I would have written to thank you for the sweets, only that lately we were unsettled, wandering to and fro between the firing-line and resting billets immediately behind. This letter is ante-dated by two hours, but before midnight we may be wandering in single and slow file, with the reserve line two or three hundred yards behind the fire trench. We are under an hour’s notice. Entering and leaving the line is most exciting, as we are usually but about thirty yards from the enemy, and you can scarcely understand how bright the nights are made by his rockets. These are in continual ascent and descent from dusk to dawn, making a beautiful Crescent from Switzerland to the sea. There are white lights, green, and red, and whiter, bursting into red and changing again, and blue bursting into purple drops and reds fading into green. It is all like the end of a beautiful world. It is only horrible when you remember that every colour is a signal to waiting reinforcements or artillery, and, God help us if we are caught in the open, for then up go a thousand reds, and hundreds of rifles and machine-guns are emptied against us, and all amongst us shells of every calibre are thrown, shouting destruction and death. We can do nothing but fling ourselves into the first shell-hole and wonder as we wait where we will be hit. But why all this

I am indeed glad to think you are preparing another book of verse. Will you really allow me to review it? I don’t want money for doing it. The honour would be more worth than money…

A. E. sets me thinking of things long forgotten, and Lord Dunsany of gorgeous Eastern tapestry and carpets. Do you get such impressions from the books you love? I met a traveller in Naples who told me that he never read Andrew Marvell but he remembered a dunce’s cap and a fishing-rod he had when a boy, and never could trace the train of thought far enough back to discover where the connection lay. I am writing odd things in a little book whenever I can. Just now I am engaged in a poem about the Lanawn Shee, who, you remember, is really the Irish Muse. One who sees her is doomed to sing. She is very close to you. I am writing it in the traditional style of the ‘Silk of the Kine.’

Here are the opening verses:

Powdered and perfumed the full bee
Winged heavily across the clover,
And where the hills were dim with dew,
Purple and blue the West looked over…

There is some more of this exercise in willful aestheticism, but Ledwidge also includes a finished poem in a very different vein:

 

Ascension Thursday, 1917

Lord, Thou hast left Thy footprints in the rocks,
That we may know the way to follow Thee,
But there are wide lands opened out between
Thy Olivet and my Gethsemane.

And oftentimes I make the night afraid,
Crying for lost hands when the dark is deep,
And strive to reach the sheltering of Thy love
Where Thou art herd among Thy folded sheep.

Thou wilt not ever thus, O Lord, allow
My feet to wander when the sun is set,
But through the darkness, let me still behold
The stony bye-ways up to Olivet.

 

Yet neither Sassoon nor Ledwidge can lay claim to the most important poetic reference point of today. Isaac Rosenberg wrote recently to Gordon Bottomley (the letter was posted today, a century back) about a number of things, including his new work alongside the Royal Engineers, putting out barbed wire at night. The letter mentions both Dead Man’s Dump and Daughters of War, and also seems to indicate that he has completed “Returning, We Hear the Larks,” a poem which can speak for itself, about many things, not least that a poet walking in the shadow of the valley of death who chooses not to look to God might also look to nature–even here–and then, through nature’s verse-entwined messengers, to poetry.

Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl’s dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 54.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 157.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 144-5.
  4. C. E. Montague, 161.
  5. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 360.
  6. I'm not entirely convinced by Moorcroft Wilson's dating of the poem to May 1917, but it seems plausible... and this is a poem that can't be left to slip through the cracks entirely...

Siegfried Sassoon a Country Wanderer Once More; Wilfred Owen’s Faith Shifts: Christ is Literally in No Man’s Land; John Buchan in the Halls of the Great; Ralph Hamilton is Reassigned

Is the once and future thriller-writer Lt. Col. John Buchan taking to his role as head of the Information Office? He is. In France in April to win the acquiescence of Haig in his propaganda efforts, he is now working hand in glove with even more august personages.

16 May 1917. I was working till all hours yesterday. I had to go to the Palace this morning, for I have a shocking amount to do with Royalties these days. Then I had the War Cabinet in the afternoon and a long time with the Prime Minister; and after that correspondents and secret-service agents till all hours.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon remains ensconced in the charming, subtly galling precincts of Chapelwood Manor, Sussex. It’s the precincts that charm, however, and the priestess who galls–so today’s entry, heavy on countryside and light on human interaction, is a happy one.

May 16

For a while I am shaking off the furies that pursued me. I am an Orestes freed from the tyranny of doom. The War is a vague trouble that one reads about in the morning paper. The communiqués are almost insignificant. I no longer visualise the torment and wretchedness there.

The world is just a leafy labyrinth with clouds floating above the silence of vivid green woods and clean meadows bright with cowslips and purple orchis. My thoughts have the voices of the tiny brook that runs along the woodland, slipping and twisting over mossy stones, and bubbling out into a rushy field to gurgle merrily in its narrow bubbling channel.

I am a country wanderer once more—climbing gates and staring through tangled hedges at the mossy boughs of apple-trees laden with blossom, while the sun comes out after a passing shower. I roam the narrow lanes, light-hearted as a lambkin, emotionless as a wise gander. I desire nothing more than to stop and discuss.the weather with an old gaffer mending the gaps in a hedgerow. I could almost praise the Apostles Creed to the village parson if I chanced to meet him in the road, or saw him leaning over his garden gate as I passed. And the Sunsets are
yellow and serene—never dyed with crimson or hung with banners of war.[2]

This is too much, and Sassoon realizes it, of course. Hence the tongue-in-cheek gamboling: it’s so overdone that it becomes unsettling, as if some sort of overdecorated 18th century French baroque painting is being foisted onto unassuming, blooming Sussex. The landscape might pass with unaffected appreciation, but all these sun-drenched rosy-cheeked swains on swings, paradoxically, seem to remind us of the absent war, and the invisible, mud-caked, sallow-cheeked subalterns.

And this encounter with a wise old gaffer during a ruminative walk in the English countryside… it’s exactly like something Edward Thomas would write about. And yet nothing about the way it is written is anything like Thomas… Sassoon laughs, but bitterly, and he writes his country walk at a sharp angle…

 

This undated letter of Wilfred Owen‘s was probably written today–and if he seems confused, it is the fault of the bureaucracy: the 13th Casualty Clearing Station seems to have been reorganized around him, and shortly he will be in the same bed, but in a new Stationary Hospital… And yet perhaps he would be grateful for the metaphor: as he will explain in the letter, he has not altered in his Christian faith, but he feels the bureaucracy of his belief system shifting around him…

My own dear Mother,

Just had yours of Sat. Evening and was astonished to apprehend that the Great Shadow is creeping on towards Colin. What will he be next birthday, seventeen?

I wrote him a wholesome bit of realism in that last letter, as well as a fantasy in the language of the Auth: Ver: of 1611. I have changed my mind and see no reason why you should not have that letter and that fantasia…

I did it without any reference to the Book, of course; and without any more detraction from reverence, than, say, is the case when a bishop uses modem slang to relate a biblical story. I simply employed seventeenth century English, and was carried away with it.

Incidentally, I think the big number of texts which jogged up in my mind in half-an-hour bears witness to a goodly store of them in my being. It is indeed so; and I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom. Already I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill. It may be a chimerical and an ignominious principle, but there it is. It can only be ignored: and I think pulpit professionals are ignoring it very skilfully and successfully indeed.

The letter rambles on into some stern criticism of institutional religion, both high church and evangelical. At first this reads rather as if Wilfred is concerned mainly to allay an sense of gross impiety that the letter to Colin may have imparted. He is not messing around with the Bible, he implies, but, rather, thinking seriously about how its precepts might apply. He is working up to a religious argument that rests on his own authority, as well:

Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear His voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life—for a friend.

Is it spoken in English only and French?

I do not believe so.

Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism. I am glad you sent that cutting from Wells’ Book.

This would be The Soul of a Bishop, just out.[3]

I hope you understood it. I did not. Not a word of it can I make sense of. I would rather we did not read this Book. Now The Passionate Friends I found astounding in its realism but like all the great terrible books it is impossible to take sides. It is not meant to be a comfortable book; it is discussional; it refuses to ignore the unpleasant.

(This practice of selective ignorance is, as I have pointed out, one cause of the War. Christians have deliberately cut some of the main teachings of their code.)

Just as I was going to speculate that Owen is trying to disguise the reasonably radical (if logically irrefutable) opinion that pure patriotism and pure Christianity are incompatible by moving on to discuss secular literature, Own returns to his criticism. He blithely tacks away again into a discussion of his other reading material, but the point is made, and I do not think that his mother would consider it a light one, especially because it rests on that new source of authority: clergymen fulminating at home against the Germans do not understand what Christ might be like in the trenches, but Owen does. The experiential gulf has theological implications, now…

At present I am deep in a marvellous work of Hugo’s The Laughing Man. By the same post as your letter came two books from Leslie by O. Henry.

So I am well set up.

I am marked for the next Evacuation!!

…Many thanks for Punch, Yes Colin has been very good in writing to me. Keep him up to it. It will do him good, don’t-you-know! And as for me: they bring me Shropshire, even as yours bring me Home.

Expect me—before Christmas.

Your—one and only—Wilfred x[4]

 

Finally, a brief update on Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven. Hamilton began work today, a century back, in command of a new battery, part of the 106th Brigade, near Cassel. The transfer, he believes, is because he will shortly be promoted to command a brigade. The journey over the last two days was quite arduous, owing both to confusion about the location of the units and sub-standard railway porting–“I have got a lot of stuff… Bath and I… had to carry it ourselves”–but Hamilton made use of the day to get to know his new subordinates. The next task, of course, will be to announce his presence with authority…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Smith, John Buchan, 204.
  2. Diaries, 167.
  3. In two days' time, Patrick Shaw Stewart will mention to Ronald Knox, future clergyman and popular writer, that "[b]y the way, I have of course ordered [Wells's] new book about God, and we shall probably disagree violently about it.’ Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 197.
  4. Collected Letters, 460-2.
  5. War Diary, 285-6.

Robert Frost on Edward Thomas: It Was Beautiful as He Did It; Vera Brittain Recommits; Kate Luard on Kindness and Courage

Vera Brittain‘s recent thoughts about her future–and about Victor Richardson–are not yet settled. It occurred to her almost immediately that she might come home in order to turn her service into a more personal form of sacrifice–but she is not yet ready to give up her service with the V.A.D. In a letter of today, a century back, to her brother Edward she reacts to new details of Victor’s wounding, but we also learn that she has recommitted to her nursing job.

Malta, 27 April 1917

…I am so longing to hear more details about Victor, whether he is soon likely to be out of danger & whether his eyesight can be saved. Some member of the family sent me a cable after yours to say ‘Head wound improving. Recommended Military Cross.’ It would be so splendid if he could get the latter — some small compensation for all that he has lost. He will indeed have bridged that gulf between you which made him so miserable; do you remember that evening when we all dined at the Coventry Restaurant & he would hardly speak because he felt the difference between you so acutely. I always thought he would rise to the occasion in the end; when nervous & sensitive people can once make up their minds to a thing they usually do it supremely well; the fear is only beforehand. I feel a little  sad, perhaps, to think that Roland, the bravest of the brave, alone of you three has no decoration, & lies beneath His Cross instead of wearing it. But He would have been the last to grudge them to you, & after all His courage
needed no guarantees.

… None of you have mentioned at all anything about [Victor’s] reason being affected, so I am hoping it is not, though unfortunately it is a characteristic of so many head wounds, though sometimes only temporally…

I do wish I could see & talk to him, but am afraid it is not likely yet (though in this world of vicissitudes anything may happen) as I have just signed on again to-day. Now that I have served so long I feel very unwilling to break my service even for a little time, as continuous service in these days, when so many people who started nursing got bored & left it off, is an honourable & in many ways an advantageous thing, & of course even the least little interval breaks it, spoiling one’s record & cancelling the past. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one can’t come to England for a little time without breaking it. There may be ways & means in the future of managing that…[1]

To these reasons–honor, service, and the possibility of losing her accumulated seniority–she will add that she suspects that exciting things will be happening in the Mediterranean…

 

I did promise that I would return to Kate Luard‘s diary in part to let her respond, as it were, to my complaints that unstinting praise of stoic suffering is in some way loosely aligned with the censorship of wartime dissent.

This is a little oblique, but more or less on point: suffering can also stimulate a humanity that ignores the very lines that define the war.

…In one ward there’s hardly a man with two legs; and when one Boche made a noise when he was being dressed, there was a chorus of encouragement from the British beds: ‘Hold on, Fritz, soon be done–be all right in a minute,’ regardless of any difficulty in language!

Or perhaps this scene is more fraught than it seems: would these men have no qualms about going out and doing to each other what they have already done, the same violence that landed them together in this hospital?

Next, Luard writes about the particularly “glorious boy” who is paralyzed. There seems to be some confusion or uncertainty about what X-rays might accomplish. It is painful to think that after being kept in the dark about his condition (as Victor Richardson has been), however briefly,  the paralyzed young officer is being offered false hope of recovery:

…The 6 ft. boy wounded in the spine with total paralysis below the chest was safely taken to the train this evening. When I told him he was going down to be X-rayed, he said, ‘That’ll be better than lying on my back all my life,’ and his eyes filled with tears. All these days he has never said one word of complaint or self-pity, though he knew his probable fate from the second day.

And finally, a pen portrait we might wish a little longer:

An Orderly who has been running the Marquee of 50 stretcher-cases without a Sister, has gone sick with trench fever. He leads one of the most Christlike lives I’ve ever seen; there is no other word for his selfless devotion, though he is comic beyond words in speech and appearance![2]

 

Finally, today, a few excerpts from Robert Frost’s letter to Helen Thomas.

Amherst Mass
April 27 1917

Dear Helen:

…People have been praised for self-possession in danger. I have heard Edward doubt if he was as brave as the bravest. But who was ever so completely himself right up to the verge of destruction, so sure of his thought, so sure of his word? He was the bravest and best and dearest man you and I have ever known…

I want to see him to tell him something. I want to tell him, what I think he liked to hear from me, that he was a poet…

It was beautiful as he did it, And I don’t suppose there is anything for us to do to show our admiration but to love him forever.

Robert[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 343-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 118-9.
  3. Elected Friends, 189-90.

Vera Brittain Learns the Truth of Victor Richardson’s Blindness; Robert Graves Revises for Siegfried Sassoon; Kate Luard Prepares Amidst the Thunder; Charles Scott Moncrieff and the Pipers on the Edge of a Dawn Attack

We’ll start today with Robert Graves, in pursuit of the wounded Siegfried Sassoon:

Poor Old Sassons!

Blessé pour la patrie; and according to Robbie rather too slightly to serve any useful purpose. I wrote to you in France yesterday; how stupid because it was a decent sort of letter![1]

Graves appends some quick criticisms of Sassoon’s poems, which he has acquired in proofs just before their publication. But we’ll skip those because, in several senses, Graves is just too late. Although some of the poems in the forthcoming The Old Huntsman are indeed scandalous–pushing the envelope of publishing propriety as it currently stands–the next batch are going to go much further.

We have already seen the finished version of this poem, based in part on a comrade’s experience, but Sassoon, despite the wounded shoulder, began drafting this, today, his first in London:

Groping along the tunnel in the gloom
He winked his tiny torch with whitening glare,
And bumped his helmet, sniffing the hateful air.
Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know.
And once, the foul, hunched mattress from a bed;
And he exploring, fifty feet below
The rosy dusk of battle overhead.
He tripped and clutched the walls; saw someone lie
Humped and asleep, half-covered with a rug;
He stooped and gave the sleeper’s arm a tug.
‘I’m looking for Headquarters’. No reply.
‘Wake up, you sod!’ (For days he’d had no sleep.)
‘I want a guide along this cursed place.’
He aimed a kick at the unanswering heap;
And flashed a beam across that livid face
Horribly glaring up, whose eyes still wore
The agony that died ten days before.
Whose bloody fingers clutched a hideous wound.
Gasping, he staggered onward till he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair,
To clammy creatures groping underground,
Hearing the boom of shells with muffled sound.
Then with the sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed with darkness to the twilight air.

April 22[2]

 

But Sassoon is safe in Blighty. In Malta, where Vera Brittain has suffered two agonizing days of suspense over the nature of Victor Richardson’s wounds, an answer arrived.

April 22nd

On Thursday I sent a cable home asking for further news of Victor. This morning the answer came from Edward “Eyesight probably gone, may live.”

So–if he lives–he will be blind–the dear splendid cynical boy, with the beautiful eyes, which make him look, as Mrs Leighton said, as if he sought the Holy Grail. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure it is not even better to be dead. And no one would ever suffer so much when helpless & dependent as he. The Three Musketeers have had more than their share of suffering. For us who cannot fight, it is a burden of debt almost more than we can bear, to feel that we owe our safety to the lives & sight & strength of such as Roland, Victor & Edward.

I am anxiously awaiting further news to know if Victor is conscious & what his future–if there is to be one–is likely to be. I feel that I would do anything–that I would give up all things I ever meant to do & be if I could but repay him a little for what he has sacrificed. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were entreating me out of Eternity to give to Victor
some of the strength & comfort He would have given him if only He had been there. Poor motherless Tah! When I remember how good he was to me after Roland s death, and how he comforted me that opening week-end of the Somme Battle, when I was so dreadfully anxious about Edward, It seems terribly hard that I should be so far away from him in the hour of his greatest need. I know how glad Roland would be if I could but be of service to his “Father Confessor”.

I had a letter from Edward to-night, written before Victor was wounded, to say that he has gone to Stafford on another course & cannot now go to the front before June 15th. So he at least will be with Victor in his darkest hours; I am very glad of this, for since Roland is dead no one could be the help & comfort to him that Edward can.[3]

So as Vera struggles with the news, she still draws strength from the old habit of interpreting every disaster in terms of their private mythology of Roland’s greatness. (It’s hard, sometimes, not to think of these five as a careful pre-Raphaelite composition, with four bright, beautiful, clear-eyed, symbolically-accoutered saints grouped below a lost savior, rising toward the top of the frame.)

After sending the telegram, Edward writes to her with further details. He does not make his father’s mistake, and spares his elder sister, now an experienced nurse, nothing:

London, 22 April 1917

It is not known yet whether Victor will die or not, but his left eye was removed in France and the specialist who saw him thinks it is almost certain that the sight of his right eye has gone too. He was brought into the 2nd London General, Chelsea–only about 2 miles from here–on Thursday afternoon, 19th. We don’t know exactly when he was hit but I should think it must have been close to our parapet when attacking on April 9th. The bullet — probably Machine gun — went in just behind the left eye and went very slightly upwards but not I’m afraid enough to clear the right eye; the bullet is not yet out though very close to the right edge of the temple; it is expected that it will work through of its own accord. I came up from Stafford on Friday night and saw Victor twice yesterday; he has never really recovered consciousness at all yet but I think he was just sensible that I was there and was just able to say ‘yes’ when ‘the sister asked him if he knew who it was. The eye that has been removed and all the upper part of the face is covered with bandages and is much swollen though the swelling was rather less when I saw him again in the evening.

He was asleep then and a good deal of blood had just come down the nose which was probably a good thing; the breathing was quite regular. The right eye was closed but when the sister lifted the eyelid it seemed to me that the eye had no sight at all.

We are told that he may remain in his present condition for a week. I don’t think he will die suddenly but of course the brain must be injured and it depends upon how bad the injury is.

All relevant information conveyed, Edward moves on without a pause to the next task–beginning to weigh the future, to try to make room in his mental world for this new extreme of suffering:

I am inclined to think it would be better that he should die; I would far rather die myself than lose all that we have most dearly loved, but I think we hardly bargained for this. Sight is really a more precious gift than life. If he should live I know that you and I and Mrs Leighton can help enormously and there is music, but as you know his people are quite inadequate for him under such circumstances. A permanent injury to the brain must of course also be considered…

I am just going to meet Mr Richardson at Victoria and we shall see Tah again this afternoon. I have to go back to Stafford to-night.

Later

There is much better news. . . . the Matron of the 2nd London telephoned to say that Victor was conscious and so Mother and I went down at once. He was much better and recognised my voice; I asked him how he was and he said ‘Right as rain’ and he caught hold of my hand and said ‘You haven’t been long’. (The sister had asked him before if he would like to see me.) Then I said ‘Your Father is coming to see you in an hour or two’. Then he made the most hopeful remark of all saying ‘What’s the betting he’s late’. Of course you know that Mr Richardson is invariably late and so that shows how much better Tah is…

Mr Richardson told me that he had just had a letter from Tah’s Colonel whose name is Porter, in which he said the battalion was attacking a redoubt called ‘the Harp’ just East of Arras; they took the first line and then came under heavy Machine Gun fire. Victor who was leading his platoon was hit in the arm but took his coat off had the wound bandaged and went on; it was at the 2nd German line that he got the bullet through his head and the Colonel himself gave him morphia because he was in pain.The Colonel in his letter after saying that he hopes he will not lose his sight ‘because sight is so much more valuable than life’ also says ‘You have good reason to be proud of him . . . he did his best and it was a good best too. I have sent his name in for the Military Cross and have no doubt that he will get it.’

The Military Cross is the same decoration that Edward Brittain himself had won, under similar circumstances. (Brittain’s was for steadfast leadership despite a wound during the attack of July 1st–a much lesser wound, but a much bigger military disaster.) While not as much of a mark of exceptional military skill (or exceptional favor with those with decorations in their gift) as the higher decorations, an MC is seen as a validation of valor. Those who win it can be confident that they have successfully met the challenge posed by mortal fear.

…Unless he has a bad relapse I think he will live. . . I don’t think Tah realises yet that he is blind. As he lies on his bed with bandages round his left eye and head and the right eyelid closed, he looks just like a picture of the Christ–the familiar expression generally shown on the Cross.

If only that right eye might have its sight!

Ever yours

Edward

We haven’t had any more news from Geoffrey since my last letter.[4]

 

And it still goes on–not only that, it is getting ready to flare into open battle once again. Kate Luard is only a few miles behind the lines on the Arras front.

Sunday, April 22nd. This continued bombardment is shaking the earth to-night; it is on the same scale as on the day before Easter Monday.

Only in wartime–when even at a distance of two weeks the dates of big attacks loom large in the calendars of history and memory–would “the day before Easter Monday” be a reasonable way to refer to Easter. But it is: that Monday was the beginning of the battle, just as today is not a day in the second week of the aftermath of Arras–it’s the day before the “second phase” of the battle begins with another major assault.

Warlencourt British Cemetery

The hospital is almost empty, ready…

I took some Lent lilies to the Cemetery this evening; it is rapidly spreading over a high open field; there must be nearly 2,000 graves there now, since it began last June…

No one knows when we shall fill up again but it can’t be far off, with this din. If you could hear it for five minutes, you would never forget it.[5]

 

One of our writers who knows he will be in it is Charles Scott Moncrieff, back with his battalion and ready to go forward.

22nd April, 1917.

A great hum of life going on all around me—several regiments and long rows of motor lorries. I am lunching
at midday with my Reverend friend Milliquand. I called yesterday on M. Lequête and his daughter, very happy
and vivacious, but deploring the pillage and havoc wrought by the British troops recently massed on this front. I answered with platitudes and that Napoleon’s armies did the same, but felt awkward and ashamed. . . . To-morrow is St. George’s Day—best of all for the Armies of England. . . . I must stop now for a conference.

But Scott Moncrieff is a Scot, and among Scotsmen. In Arras itself, now, there is a festive atmosphere:

…The whole town full of life and rejoicing. Scottish troops everywhere, all the 15th Division, the Highland Territorial Division and ourselves, with the 2nd Royal Scots, 2nd Gordons, and R.S. Fusiliers, from the Line Divisions. . . . Pipe bands playing in all the squares, it was very wonderful, with notices still fresh on the walls cautioning people against walking in the streets by daylight, etc.[6]

By tonight, a century back, Scott Moncrieff and his Kings Own Scottish Borderers were marching up the hill toward Monchy-le-Preux.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 69-70.
  2. Diaries, 158.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 339-40.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 338-41.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. Diaries, 126-7.

Easter Sunday 1917: The Eve of Battle; Edward Thomas: Sunshine and Wind and This is the Eve

It’s Easter Sunday, a century back, and the eve of the Battle of Arras. All along a fourteen-mile front, infantry are moving up to their assault positions, while the artillery bombardment intensifies. For the regular writers here who will be involved in the battle there is little to add–they are very busy. Gone are the days when the night before a battle was a quiet time on a moonlit field, good for making one’s peace with God or fate and for writing last letters and testaments.

We’ll open, instead, with a poet we haven’t read here before. Captain John Eugene Crombie, the son of a Scottish M.P., took a commission in the Gordon Highlanders near the beginning of the war, straight from Winchester. Badly wounded in 1915, he has only been back with his battalion since November. Today, a century back, he wrote a poem that can stand very well for the mood of the moment among the remnants of this type of soldier: the young, well-born, classically educated, poetically-minded, aesthetically conservative infantry officer. There is high hope here, and no disillusionment, but the inescapable themes–spring and its promise of rebirth; Easter, and the promise of resurrection–are included without being insisted upon. It’s not a revolutionary poem, but it’s still a poem of 1917–there’s no real hope for anything but a brief respite.

 

Easter Day 1917, The Eve of Battle

I rose and watched the eternal giant of fire
Renew his struggle with the grey monk Dawn,
Slowly supreme, though broadening streaks of blood
Besmirch the threadbare cloak, and pour his flood
Of life and strength on our yet sleeping choir,
As I went out to church on Easter morn.

Returning with the song of bids and men
Acclaiming victory of throbbing life
I saw the fairies of the morning shower
Giving to drink each waking blade and flower,
I saw the new world take Communion then–
And now ’tis night and we return to strife.[1]

 

Edward Thomas added a quick post-script to yesterday’s letter to his wife Helen. Battle is imminent, and every day’s safety that he can add to the tally she will be keeping at home will alleviate a tiny fraction of her terror.

Sunday. I slept jolly well and now it is sunshine and wind and we are in for a long day and I must post this when I can.

All and always yours Edwy

ref]Selected Letters, 165.[/ref]

But he also wrote to Eleanor Farjeon, the dear friend that he knows to be living every day in love and fear for his safety… and whom he has neglected slightly in this busy week of bombardment and “practice” barrages. Picking up the penciled letter of five days ago, he added a post-script in pen:

…Well, this is the eve, and a beautiful sunny day after a night of cold and snow. I am sorting out my things to get together just what I must have to live with over at the battery or wherever I am to be during the next 4 or 5 days. It will be safer there and also we shall be on duty all the time. The clear sunny day is giving the Hun every chance of seeing what is doing about here and he may pay us particular attention. Still I should like many such days to dry up the mud and keep our dug-out free from dripdrip. I have been strengthening it so that unless it gets something very heavy right on top it will be safe. I doubt if I can tell you much more. So goodbye. May I have a letter before long.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas.[2]

What Thomas doesn’t share with either of the women who love him is how close he came to death today, a century back. What must surely seem, to a soldier, as the powerful good luck of a near miss might play differently at home.

…I had to go over to battery at 3 for a practice barrage, skirting the danger zone, but we were twice interrupted. A 5.9 fell 2 yards from me as I stood by the f/c post. One burst down the back of the office and a piece of dust scratched my neck…[3]

 

Edward Hermon‘s 24th Northumberland Fusiliers left their billets in Arras at about the same time that Edward Thomas was nearly killed by the dud 5.9, making their way toward their assembly trenches. They will be among the leading battalions in tomorrow’s assault; zero hour is 5:30 a.m.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Powell, A Deep Cry, 240.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 265.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  4. For Love and Courage, 350.