Epilogue and End for John Lucy; Siegfried Sassoon Goes a-Hunting, and Confesses Cold Feet and Tight Nerves; Wilfred Owen Buys a Nice Table

If one were to suggest that this project might be losing its way, I would protest, and on the following two grounds. First, that its “way” was always to be determined by source-dowsing, as it were, and therefore there is no true path to stray from. We follow the wanderings of the writers we decided to read. Second, I would argue that whatever collective “way” does still exist now leads deliberately away from the war, because those soldier-writers who have survived into the dying days of 1917 intentionally keep their minds as far off the war as possible. And then I would concede that, yes, we’re wandering: there is little hope that the next big push will really be the one, and very little military aspiration left in the old soldiers’ writing. They are dispirited, and hunkering down for duration. And the irony, too, is beginning to turn: they have no idea how short that will be, and the strange form it will take.

But in any case, imaginary reader, don’t worry too much: today’s post will end bloodily and in a trench. But on the way there, today, a century back, we could hardly be less warlike.

Wilfred Owen, for instance, is going antiquing:

Friday Night

Dearest Mother,

…I went to an Auction yesterday, & got an antique side table wondrous cheap. It will arrive addressed to Father at Station. A beautiful old piece—to be my Cottage sideboard. There were none but Dealers at this sale! They would double the price in their shop, I was told…

your W.E.O.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is out for blood, but in peacetime fashion:

Hunted Friday.

Good hunt from Trueleigh Osiers—forty-five minutes. Back to the Stone Staples and to Toddington. Rode Stamp’s old grey.[2]

After which he sat down to write to Robert Graves. And gradually, gradually, the war bleeds back in… until it’s everything again.

7 December

Dear Robert, I am having some leave and return to Litherland next Tuesday. I was passed General Service at Craiglockhart on November 26. The Board asked if I had changed my views on the war, and I said I hadn’t, which seemed to cause surprise. However Rivers obtained, previously, an assurance from a high quarter that no obstacles would be put in the way of my going back to the sausage machine.

I am not sure if I shall go up to this Poetry Show on Wednesday. It will be an awful bore, and means going up for the day from Liverpool. Bob Nichols came to Weirleigh for two nights and was charming. He is quite different when in town among a lot of people.

Ah, the poetry show. Despite surviving the first one, with Nichols, and despite the fact that this newly close friend is organizing the second one, Sassoon is planning to beg off. Typically, he was not direct about this to Nichols (or even explicit in this letter to Graves), who is still hoping that Sassoon will show up to play an agreeable second fiddle to himself in the “young war poets” category at what he hopes will be a notably star-studded charity reading.

Sassoon has a number of reasons for avoiding society, including shyness, laziness, paradoxical displeasure with social success,and  the awkwardness of having to explain the current status of his military career and feelings thereabout. And to come from Liverpool to London to read poetry for five minutes does indeed seem ridiculous… but it’s interesting that he couldn’t tell Nichols that. And less than surprising that Nichols might not understand: Sassoon, for all his flaws, writes to write; he writes as driven by his thoughts and passions, that is, and with a not-entirely-debauched sort of ambition. Nichols, it’s clear, has been bitten by the literary celebrity bug, and wants, unambiguously, to shine. He will be what he needs to be to do so.

Sassoon still wants to figure things out. And, to his credit, he is not willing to make peace with the war. He won’t move on and focus on a poetic career, with the war–and his relationship to it–unresolved. (He is, after all, a healthy young officer in uniform who has been insisting on going back to the front. Nichols has been discharged and Graves is in for the duration but with damaged lungs that will keep him from the front.)

But if Sassoon can’t figure everything out, then he would like, for the moment, to forget. He rides toward the war, or he rides against it.

I forgot the war to-day for fifty minutes when the hounds were running and I was taking the fences on a jolly old
grey horse.

But the safety curtain is always down and I can’t even dream about anything beyond this cursed inferno.

And then, in this letter to a trusted (more or less) friend and (more importantly) a fellow combatant, Sassoon is direct about another fear, the fear that’s always there, inseparable from that other ambition of facing the war and acquitting oneself honestly:

The air-raid on Thursday gave me an awful fright (I was at Half Moon Street). I don’t think I’ll be any good when I get to the war.

Yours S.S.[3]

 

Right–the war!

 

It would seem to be today, a century back, that brought an end to (the epilogue to) John Lucy‘s story. Still, after four days in close proximity to the Germans–sharing the same trench with only a barricade or “block” between them–he finds himself “queerly fascinated” and falls into an old soldier’s trap: trying to deter German belligerence through escalation. His men are being bombarded at close range by heavy German trench mortars–“pineapples”–to which he orders a response of “showers” of grenades.

My scheme did not work. The enemy stubbornly increased to rapid fire, and a bomb fight followed.

When his platoon runs low on ammunition, he orders a response of rifle fire, only, “So the affair simmered down.” Lucy, a responsible and practical officer, then orders a rifle inspection, because “such inspections retain a desirable normal atmosphere, and have a steadying effect.” But they also distract the platoon commanders conducting them. Lucy is telling off a man with a dirty rifle barrel when the next pineapple hits.

I saw my two feet above my head for a moment. I heard no explosion, but to myself I said: ‘This must be it.’ It was. I was benumbed, and I did not feel the slightest pain. Actually there were sixteen holes in me.

The bomb had landed behind the man Lucy was scolding, killing him. The sixteen fragments all passed through his body before wounding Lucy.

Part of my left buttock was blown away. A large lump of metal had passed through one thigh and bruised the other. Another piece was sticking in the bone of the side of my left knee. There were two wounds in my left arm, a small hole in my stomach, and my back was bleeding in a couple of places.

Only the stomach wound worries Lucy, but within a few hours an American doctor at a C.C.S. assures him not only that it is superficial but that he can rest easy in the knowledge that the American army will soon take care of the ongoing unpleasantness. With his revolver and his shredded greatcoat packed away as souvenirs, Lucy is evacuated by ambulance, next to a trembling and mute victim of “shell shock.” In the hospital, in Rouen, he will have a bed next to a man dying from a gangrenous wound in his back, and lie to him when the man asks him to look and see whether the wound is bad.

They took him out at night so that the other patients would not notice. He had died quietly. Alone.

The last dead man I saw in France.

But the writer survives. By the end of the month Lucy will be in England, out of danger, but neither out of pain or back home in Ireland. Each move opens his wounds. It’s a memoir worthy of the tired adjective “unflinching,” but it shrugs through the last pages quickly, and comes to this:

The war was over before they cured me.

I had seen the travail which God had given the sons of men to exercised therewith, and at the beginning of life it was proved to me that great calamity is man’s true touchstone.

THE END[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 515.
  2. Diaries, 197.
  3. Diaries, 196-7.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 386.

Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

Hugh Quigley Stoops Neatly For the Sun; Hail Fellow Edmund Blunden

For better or for worse–and certainly for reasons that lack proper theoretical purity–we tend to foreground experience when approach military life writing. In plain English, that is, we are particularly concerned to first get the facts that underlie a war book “right,” and only thereafter are we comfortable discussing the writerly transformations wrought upon them.

But sometimes style is all. Here is Hugh Quigley, once again. I have very little sense of who he is or what he has seen of the war (because I have been neglecting my reading!)–but how much does this matter? Here is a bare fact which leads to an attractive effusion:

Indigestion is troubling the battalion at the present hour… there has been a constant succession of fruit-patrols to all parts of the compass, each armed with a sandbag, which is always filled either with apples or pears. The child-natural element revives in war: prejudices, social veneers, little delicacies of taste and manner of life, choice actions dictated by a particular regard to decorum, become merged in a quiet comfort-seeking in the slightest gift, even a crab-tree studded with minute apples…

And we have seen sunsets, haven’t we. Does the date or position matter as much as, say, the stance?

I have admired a fine sunrise between my legs as I bent over a shallow dish of muddy liquid to wash a grey physiognomy. If everything were cut and carved, measured out nicely for us, and arranged to suit, lethargy would overcome us (it does set in, in a most deadly fashion, and one of war’s worst hardships is to defeat it) and we would be a sorry set of lifeless automatons…[1]

 

Very nice. But Edmund Blunden will come, in time, to do this sort of thing, and better, with a delicate touch, a sure hand for the reader’s sense of identification with a well-managed youthful protagonist, and an unmatched talent for lyric beauty. With an emphasis on “in time:” today, a century back–at least when swaggering out a letter to a youthful school friend–he sounds pretty awful:

Son,

Your letter, leaving a trail of violet light and all sweet savours and virtues in its wake, crossed the vasty foaming Deep and fell into my well-pleased Hands at lunch-time today…[2]

Here’s wishes for a very fine year, to be marked this term with the white stone of Peace (Nov. 29th) – and if possible by a visit of humble me. For you know, owing to my sarcastic and frequent appeals for leave, I obtained same and that while you were at Caine – returning into this sphere of spheres on the 26th of August, (going I have no doubt with the cuckoo, as befits my limited brain). Hence, unless an application I had made for transfer to the Tanks decides to come through at last, it seems unlikely that my homeward hand will hit sundry times on your study window at dusk this side of Christmas…

The strenuous jauntiness lingers, making it more difficult than usual to empathize with news of approaching suffering and danger:

I am learning (liar!) wireless, and have the great pleasure of not ‘fighting for the eternal principles’, as some old fogey put the damned war in St. Paul’s lately, for about a fortnight more. Then the pit opens again…

Meantime we are busy all day long except Sundays. If we weren’t, the village next to us offers small opportunity for debauch, bar liqueur chocolates…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 114-5.
  2. Coincidentally, just after yesterday's discussion of Alec Waugh, Blunden also discusses in this letter the fate of a mutual friend who was expelled from Christ's Hospital for refusing to give up a close friendship with a younger boy.
  3. More Than a Brother, 9-11.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

Ivor Gurney in Perforated Good Spirits; Spring Offensive: Wilfred Owen Goes Over the Top; Siegfried Sassoon on the Effect of the Bombardment; Billy Prior’s Attack

Today is a day of blood and gore and foreboding. But we’ll start with the good news.

Pretty good news, at least: Ivor Gurney is wounded, and thus safe. There is pain, yes, but it hasn’t bought the best of news–early hopes of Blighty have faded. Gurney informs Marion Scott of his condition in a letter posted today, a century back:

My Dear Friend: Well, I am wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough; as although kind people told me it meant Blighty for me, yet here I am at Rouen marked “Tents”. I do not yet give up hopes, but very few boats have been running lately; none at all for some days; and the serious cases go first of course. It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm must underneath the shoulder—the muscles opposite the biceps, to describe them more or less accurately. It hurt badly for half an hour, but now hurts not at all…  there is no real damage done to my arm, not enough to please me.

Alas! Alas! There are hardly any books here! And the life is made up of hanging about waiting to be shifted again. Now if I could find some real hard reading to do–something to distract my mind–all might be well; or if I had some MS and a few books of verse, I would turn out something in spite of the flatness of my mind. O well, hopes
are not yet gone…

Though this Spring is cold and unclement, I cannot keep out of mind what April has meant for me in past years — Minsterworth, Framilode, and his companionship. And my sick mind holds desperately on to such memories for Beauty’s sake; and the hope of Joy…

So, if I can send you an address, please send me some small books of verse, and Tolstoi’s Cossacks (Worlds Classics – Pocket Ed.) I wonder whether at last I might try Housmans “Shropshire Lad”?

I will write again in half a shake:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

(I write with my perforated arm, so you see not much is wrong.)[1]

 

It could be much worse. Which Kate Luard can make too painfully clear:

Saturday night April 14th. I’ve never in my life seen so many aeroplanes or so many dead men or so many German prisoners; they are marched in hundreds down our road…

One Cockney boy with both arms smashed said to the Padre, ‘Sy a prayer for me, will yer? That would be nahce. Can’t yer confirm me?’ It’s the only time I’ve seen the Padre laugh. Then the boy offered to sing ‘Tooleroolerity, I want to go to Blighty–Blighty is the plice for me.’ And then he died.[2]

 

 

So. Now another strange non-convergence. Two of our poets who have been creeping toward the line come even closer today–one attacks while the other is on the edge of the action–while a third man who will come to occupy the same space as both of them, but who did not exist, suffered some portion of both of their experiences.

 

During the morning, Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters moved forward to their attack positions… and found that the staff work had been very bad indeed. First, there was a simple problem of time and distance: “It was realised by the battalion at the outset that it was impossible to cover the distance in artillery formation with the loads and paraphanalia [sic] that the private soldier is called upon to carry in the attack in the time given.” To make matters worse, the last 1,000 yards of the approach involved moving across the enemy’s front, and when the Manchesters appeared in view the Germans immediately placed a hurricane barrage on the ground to be covered. Nor did they know what they were attacking, or where the other British units in the area were. The C.O., Lt. Col. Luxmore, rode off to consult with brigade and came back at 12:20, ten minutes before the scheduled attack time, saving his battalion by ordering a postponement and a flank march to a different position.

But they still had to attack, and they still had to cross a hillside in full view of German-held St. Quentin just to reach the jumping-off point.

Though this barrage was straight in the middle of the Battalion, they moved forward through it as steadily as going on parade, each wave keeping its dressing and distance and every carrier retaining his load. By the Grace of God alone only 30 men were lost in this barrage.

This took long enough that the newly-agreed-upon assault time of 1:00 was also missed. It seems as if there had been no allowance made for the fact that this is not an assault from long-held trenches with reasonably secure telephone connections to the rear but rather an exploratory attack by a unit feeling its way through new country. If the stakes weren’t so high the image of the colonel galloping about in Napoleonic fashion as if he were his own dispatch rider would be comical.

In any event, his arrival was doubly providential, since someone needed to take tactical command on the spot and ignore whatever brigade-level plans remained. Since staying out in accurate artillery fire meant certain destruction and the German wire barriers did not seem too imposing, the Manchesters mounted a quick frontal assault on a German-held trench near their objective, through the barrage and long-range machine-gun fire. Reaching the trench, they found it to be abandoned. This was victory, of a sort, and the day’s work done, so they turned the position over to their relief and went briefly into reserve.[3]

Wilfred Owen was physically unscathed, but this was his first real attack, his first day in the open, under fire. His letter to his mother will strike a tone somewhere between exhilaration and disbelief:

Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communique; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter![4] Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open.[5]

But neither the battalion diary–which is in fact quite detailed and emotional for such a document–nor the letter do much to make us feel what it must have been like to have been there. Marching about, with no cover; uncertain of directions, of objections, of intentions–uncertain of anything except the fact that there would be no safety until some indeterminate length of shell-harrowed, bullet-swept ground was crossed.

But Owen will write it another way, in his poem “Spring Offensive,” which closes with these stanzas:

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

 

There are many facile ways to make this next transition: “As Owen’s experience opens out, as his poetry rises, Sassoon descends…” Or, perhaps: “While Owen does not deny God and heaven, he writes with biblical force and yet pointedly fails to confirm any solace or meaning to the day’s ‘inhumanities;’ meanwhile, Sassoon is becoming confirmed in his beliefs about where fault for slaughter lies.” That sort of thing. But even if we eschew easy parallels, there is a striking juxtaposition here. Siegfried Sassoon–who has been hoping for open battle, in which he knows he will either excel or be killed–will get instead a new experienced of compressed horror, and one that will push his angry poetry toward something even deeper and darker. Not above ground and into the great wide shell-swept open, but down underground, in the subterranean fastnesses of the Hindenburg line, where, safe from the shells, it will be grenade- and knife-work, and hell will be no Miltonic abstraction of fiends and flames but mappable terrain, still contested by the damned…

Tonight, a century back, Sassoon is still on the verge of this. His diary picks up late last night:

April 14

At 9 p.m. we started off to relieve the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers in Hindenburg support (Second R.W.F. being in support to the First Cameronians). It was only an hour’s walk, but our Northumberland Fusilier guides lost themselves and we didn’t arrive and complete the relief until 4 a.m. Luckily it was fine. I went to bed at 5 a.m., after patrolling our 900-yard front alone!—in a corridor of the underground communication-trench of the Hindenburg Line—a wonderful place. Got up at 9.30 after a miserable hour’s sleep—cold as hell—and started off at 10.45 with a fatigue-party, to carry up trench-mortar bombs from dump between St Martin-Cojeul and Croisilles. Got back very
wet and tired about 4.30. Rained all day—trenches like glue.

But in beginning to transmute the experience to memoir, Sassoon will bring a sense of helpless victimization–of abject horror–to the fore:

Stage by stage we had marched to this monstrous region of death and disaster. From afar it had threatened us with the blink and din of its bombardments. Now we groped and stumbled along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of human havoc. The World War had got our insignificant little unit in its mouth; we were there to be munched, maimed or liberated.[6]

So not Milton–Dante. The great devil mouth churning, while little dead men run up and down the twisting trenches in his hide, hurling bombs at each other…

We will see what the morrow will bring. But this stay amidst the wreckage of the attack will yield some of the most viscerally upsetting and vividly “anti-war” of Sassoon’s poems. One example will do, I think:

 

The Effect

‘The effect of our bombardment was terrific.
One man told me he had never seen so many dead before.’
War Correspondent.

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
They sprawled in yellow daylight while he swore
And gasped and lugged his everlasting load
Of bombs along what once had been a road.
‘How peaceful are the dead.’
Who put that silly gag in some one’s head?

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
The lilting words danced up and down his brain,
While corpses jumped and capered in the rain.
No, no; he wouldn’t count them any more…
The dead have done with pain:
They’ve choked; they can’t come back to life again.

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the fire-step like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat…
‘How many dead? As many as ever you wish.
Don’t count ’em; they’re too many.
Who’ll buy my nice fresh corpses, two a penny?’

 

So a Dante, but a Dante who has lost sight of Purgatory, and knows that Paradise is impossible. This shocking turn in Sassoon’s poetry on the very day of Owen’s first attack makes an uncannily good introduction for our next subject.

Sassoon, as his diary shows, was sleepless and agitated and keyed-up, but he was not yet shocked into losing his mental equilibrium. Owen has survived his first attack and is uncertain yet what meaning he can wring out of it, or what it has wrung out of him.

Which brings us to Lt. Prior. Billy Prior is, in the literary sense, real–more real to me, having read his story several times, and seen it enacted–than many historical figures. But he’s also fictional. He began life, I think it’s fair to say, as a “composite character” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a sort of stock figure of well-researched historical fiction, well-equipped with a 20th century panoply of trauma, neurosis, and defiant energy. But then he took on a life of his own. Regeneration is the sort of book that with great modesty and intelligence–two essential characteristics, along with compassion, that it shares with its (non-fictional) hero, Dr. William Rivers–would wave off such superlatives as “the best of its kind.” But it is–the trilogy is an incomparable fictional exploration of the psychological damage wrought by the war, and Billy Prior is the most compelling fictional Great War officer I can think of.[7]

But it’s early days, and he has not yet opened out into that full fictional life. Prior will be “shell-shocked” into both amnesia and temporary mutism, and the account of the battle (read the book!) that he provides for his therapist is stubbornly matter-of-fact. In fact–and very interestingly–Prior’s memories of today, a century back, draw heavily both on Owen’s first sharp experience of walking under shell fire “as steadily as going on parade” as well as on the sort of edge-of-madness clarity that Sassoon’s poetic voice summons. This is good historical fictional practice, of course, but there are lots of good accounts of such attacks (I’ve heard there’s a blog…) and it’s interesting that Prior’s trauma borrows in such a way from two “real life” figures whose paths will cross his own, in fiction.

I’ll include now a short excerpt from Regeneration: as it fades out one might either take up the novel itself or read once more Owen’s letter and his battalion’s history.

Prior dragged on the cigarette and, momentarily, closed his eyes. He looked a bit like the boys you saw on street corners in the East End. That same air of knowing the price of everything. Rivers drew the file towards him. ‘We left you in billets at Beauvois.’

‘Yes. We were there, oh, I think about four days and then we were rushed back into the line. We attacked the morning of the night we moved up.’

‘Date?’

‘April the 14th.’

Rivers looked up. It was unusual for Prior to be so accurate.

‘St. George’s Day. The CO toasted him in the mess. I remember because it was so bloody stupid.'[8]

‘You were in the casualty clearing station on the …’ He glanced at the file. ’23rd. So that leaves us with nine days unaccounted for.’

‘Yes, and I’m afraid I can’t help you with any of them.

‘Do you remember the attack?’

‘Yes. It was exactly like any other attack.’

Rivers waited…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 153-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 113.
  3. War Diary, WO/2392/2, page 160 (of pdf).
  4. Fayet.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.
  6. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 316.
  7. I'm not sure if Christopher Tietjens should count; George Sherston probably shouldn't...
  8. St. George's Day is usually April 23rd, not April 14th, and the calendrical complexities which move it later under certain conditions shouldn't have resulted in making it the 14th in 1917. I have a very limited understanding of the liturgical calendar, but this would seem to be a simple slip, occasioned perhaps by the fact that the next day Rivers mentions--the end of the total gap in Prior's life history--is the 23rd--unless I am simply misreading the fictional conversation? Is Prior playing some game with the dates, testing Rivers in some way? I don't think we are meant to subtly infer than his amnesia is feigned... In any event, it's fiction! And I'm very pleased to have an excuse to begin considering Regeneration, the most important (ah, superlatives) of the Great War novels written by later generations, before the time of its main action (all too infrequently dateable) this summer and autumn.
  9. Regeneration, 77.

Siegfried Sassoon Between Loathing and Sacrifice; Rum Jars Aloft for Rowland Feilding; Edward Thomas is Shy Under Fire, or a Bored Dog in a Waiting Room; Henry Williamson is Safely Across; Tolkien to Yorkshire, and Hospital

Today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien came before a medical board in Lichfield. He is still wracked by “pains in his legs and occasional fever,” and the board acknowledged these symptoms, declaring him unfit for even home service for two months and sending him to an officers’ convalescent hospital in Harrogate, Yorkshire, for the next month.[1]

 

Henry Williamson, meanwhile, is returning to the fray. When we read his departure letter, he was setting up a blazingly obvious code to inform his mother of his whereabouts. Today, a century back, we get a clue about why he might be confident in such transparent ruses: this letter, duly signed by the writer on its envelope, has also been approved by “Field Censor 828.” And the censor’s counter-signature? Well, it’s identical to the author’s…

208 M.G.Coy B.E.F. France. Tuesday 27 Feb ’17

Dear mother,

Just a line to let you know we had a safe crossing… I have seen Tanks: they are wonderful things…

By the time you get this I shall be round about the place where Charlie is now…

You ought to hear the artillery here: it is one continuous quaking and heaving of the earth, with blood red flashes always before one–always, always, always. My experiences with the LRB were nothing compared with this now. Must shut up now, as am very busy. Yours with love, Harry.[2]

Cousin Charlie Boon is nowhere, now–but his remains are buried near Beaumont Hamel. Williamson is our least reliable letter-writing narrator, but there could be no more typical observation from someone in his position (a good deal of experience in and just behind the line, but not since the huge buildups of the Somme) at this point in the war: the routine daily “hates” now exceed the intensity of bombardments that, in 1914, had seemed hellishly intense.

 

Although Siegfried Sassoon and Rowland Feilding still await us below, I want to first include a good chunk of a very long letter from Edward Thomas to his wife Helen. She is so often invisible in conversations (here, not least) about his mental and artistic mind, that it’s worth paying attention to how he unburdens himself to her.

This letter is long enough that it reminds us of something that is true of even the shortest note: that it is not so much evidence of a moment in time as a transcript of a short period during which a great deal–much, much more than can ever be recorded–goes on in a writer’s mind. Thomas loves his wife, but he has not always been open with her. It is, also, no simple thing to discuss depression, and danger, and the deep and inscrutable changes that war works on a personality, especially with someone who has suffered so much in the past from the shifting, jagged edges of his personality. But he tries, and in the letter’s changes of course and pausings for second efforts we can perhaps see more of this marriage (viewed from his side) than we have hitherto:

Diary observations covered at great length in this letter:

Arras | 27 February 1917

Dearest,

Only a word now. It is a fine sunny morning, but so was yesterday and they made full use of it. The guns here covered an infantry raid and you could not hear a word for over an hour. Then German prisoners began to arrive. Later on hostile shells began to arrive but they were hardly so alarming as they didn’t make anything like the same din. In the afternoon I had to go out to see if a certain position was visible to the enemy. This was the first time I was really under fire. About four shells burst 150 yards away, little ones–and then in the street fell a shower of machine gun bullets I confess I felt shy, but I went on with my field glass and compass as far as possible as if nothing had happened. This makes the heart beat but no more than if I were going to pay a call on a stranger.

This is not much different from yesterday’s letter to his friend Bottomley. Thomas is doing his best to preserve honesty without being unduly alarming.

I try to console myself by reflecting that you cannot escape either by running or by standing still. There is no safe place and consequently why worry? And I don’t worry. What did disturb me was an English 18 pounder firing when I had only gone 3 yards past the muzzle. They do that sort of thing. The order comes to fire and they fire, damn them. But I slept very well last night.

And that, briskly, is the record of a crucial, successful trial. Thomas has been tested by gunfire and found that he can handle it well, without any immediate crumbling of self-confidence or sanity. I really think that he had been fairly certain that he would weather the guns well enough, perhaps on the ironic assumption that a man who makes heavy weather of ordinary life may shrug off mortal peril better than men otherwise untested…

This morning is quiet again, though it is beautifully fine.

I haven’t settled to my fate here yet. I shall wait for a good opportunity of letting the Colonel know I want to get back. They are trying to drive an English plane back with shrapnel just overhead. It looks dangerous but neither the Huns nor we hit a plane once in 10,000 rounds, I believe. I’ve nothing to do this morning except try to settle a billeting question for 244…

They are a nice lot of officers here, better than 244’s, only I being temporary or uncertain I don’t get on as well as if I were going (for all I know) to remain. Still no thrushes singing here only chaffinches.

I’ve rather a rotten servant here, never has hot water, has a watch that is sometimes half an hour wrong, and never understands anything I say.

I have only once heard from Mother. Her parcel has not arrived. I wonder does she worry much. I I hope not.

You have had Eleanor there by this time and lost her too.

This wandering train of thoughts has taken an unfortunate series of switches: from his own domestic position, to servants, to mother, wife, and Eleanor Farjeon, the ever-helpful friend…  at this Thomas checks up, and makes an effort to assess his position.

But it becomes harder for me to think about things at home and somehow, although this life does not absorb me, I think, yet, I can’t think of anything else. I don’t hanker after anything I don’t miss anything. I am not even conscious of waiting. I am just quietly in exile, a sort of half or quarter man—at Romford I was half or three quarter man. Only sometimes I hear the things I really care for, far off as if at the end of a telephone. What I really should like is more hard physical exercise. I am rather often bored though and for fairly long periods. I am rather like a dog doing what it doesn’t want to do—as Belloc said of me years ago when I was going about with him on various errands of his before we could settle down to lunch together. The fact is it is a sort of interval in reality, a protracted railway waiting room. Yet of course not always merely that…

I have just walked up to 244 and found no one in but letters from you and Irene both written after she had been to see you. I don’t think I will write much more. I have just seen an English plane shot down and set afire by a German; another fell near here almost at the same time and also one yesterday. The machine gun bullets came down and cut a telephone wire close by. It has turned dull and chilly and I feel damnably like early spring. The pilot of the plane managed to right it soon and came down in a spiral, though flopping—I did not go to see his fate—he was well within our lines, so was the other.

He sounds tired, doesn’t he? Has he just seen a man die, or not? He’s not certain. It sounds like depression. Often Thomas plans his letters, or writes with the easy command of a man who has long written less-than-perfectly, but always cogently, and on a deadline. But not this letter–he once again piles into a blind alley that he should have seen coming. And when he gets going again it is easy to see the mental connection he omits. This war is going nowhere, fast, and their son will soon be old enough to fight.

I hope Mervyn will join an OTC. It could be a good thing in many ways. The war isn’t over yet even if the Germans are evacuating some dirty ground,[3] and Mervyn would be much more likely to get a commission if he had been to an OTC.

But I am depressed. Lots of food and too little exercise and spring. Tea will do me good and they will make some soon, if the others don’t come in.

We were sitting round the fire this evening talking about the way things are done in the Army, and I was saying we should suddenly have to signal (?) important orders to the batteries to fire instead of preparing them for probable targets—when in comes an urgent message ordering 244 and also another battery we know nothing about to open fire tomorrow. Good Lord, I hope we win the war. It will prove God is on our side…

All is well really.

All and always yours | Edwy[4]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, stuck in Rouen base camp with the measles, may have made an early foray into prose fiction, today.[5] It would be a bit too much to post the entire sketch “Reinforcements at Rouen”–the first of three sketches–but here is a telling excerpt. See if you can identify the protagonist:

Meanwhile this discerning young officer watched the crowd and tried to fit things together. He had loathed the business of coming out again, had talked wildly to his pacifist friends about the cruel imbecility of the war and the uselessness of going on with it. He came out with his  angry heart, resolved to hate the whole show, and write his hatred down in words of burning criticism and satire. Now he is losing all that; he has been drawn back into the Machine; he has no more need to worry. ‘Nothing matters now.’ He must trust to fate: the responsibility of life has been taken from him. He must just go on until something happens to him. And through his dull acquiescence in it all, he is conscious of the same spirit that brought him serenely through it last year; the feeling of sacrifice…

The man knows where he is going. There are two more sketches in the diary, but these likely date a few days hence–Sassoon did not always use the diary pages sequentially. Each will give rise to a very different poem, one a lacerating satire, the other a religious-romantic reverie…

 

Finally, Rowland Feilding, still unsure whether punishment awaits for permitting fraternization, once more reminds us that there is a war going on. He is diligent, and evidently concerned to prove that my decision to give “trench mortars” their own “tag” was a sound one.

February 27, 1917. Curragh Camp (Locre).

I have written to you much of the staying powers of the men—how they have stood night after night and day after
day in the wettest or most Arctic weather, behind these flimsy breastworks. You cannot dig trenches in this locality because you get drowned out. So you bank up sandbags and stand behind them. And the enemy flattens these every day or two with his “rum-jars” ; and we do the same to his.

“Rum-jar” is the soldiers’ name for the German canister which is their simplest form of heavy trench-mortar bomb. Picture a cylindrical oil-drum, 15 inches long and about 11 inches in diameter, flat at both ends, and filled with high explosive. That is the “rum-jar.” In the dark if you spot it coming, you can just distinguish it in the air, by the fizzling of the fuse.

But it arrives silently, and is not easy to detect, till it lands with a mighty bang. I once spoke slightingly of these things, but I spoke foolishly. It is true that, as a rule, they do little if any damage, because the effect is very local;  but if one happens to hit a man or a collection of men it blows them to bits. And these things come in hundreds, and are a perpetual menace to the men in the front line, day and night, often for four days and nights together, and more.

The material effect, as I have said, is small, but the constant stress is tiring to the morale, as it is intended to be, and, added to the other strains of trench life—the artillery strafes and the mines and other horrors which the poor infantry have to undergo, is very tiring to them. Yet, through it all, they stand, frozen and half-paralysed by the cold and wet, with no individual power of retaliation beyond the rifle which each man carries, and which is about as much use against the weapons by which he is tormented as a pop-gun.[6]

Feilding closes with two light amusements, tales of the disconnect between fighting units and their generals that are more in the nature of drawing room comedy than deadly and barely-concealed opposition. In one, a deserving sergeant gets a made-up citation and his officers get caught out; in another, a brigadier reconciles himself to his lot in life. But this has been a long day, and Feilding’s book is well worth seeking out…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 99.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 88.
  3. See the note two days back on the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.
  4. Selected Letters, 141-44.
  5. I originally assumed that he had, based on the way the diary was subsequently published--but working a head a few days it became clear that some of or even all of these experiences may date to next Sunday, a century back...
  6. War Letters to a Wife, 159-60.

J.R. Ackerley’s Brother Returns; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Lines, and Face to Face with a Spectre; Ivor Gurney Conjures Three, and Thanks Several Handfuls; Rowland Feilding is Witness to an Execution; Seventeen Letters for Edward Thomas; Siegfried Sassoon Curses Fate, and Departs

It’s another busy day, a century back, with one small sad action in the line and poetry behind it from Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, who today leaves for the front once again.

But first, I did something odd in yesterday’s post. J.R. Ackerley writes the section of his memoir leading up to his brother’s role in the assault on Boom Ravine with heavy, ominous foreshadowing. The exchanged watches, the vision of unstrapping the watch from a dead wrist. Reading it, I was sure Pete Ackerley would die, so I wrote it up that way.

And for some hours, yesterday, a century back, Joe Ackerley seems to have believed that his brother was indeed dead. Then late reports came in that Pete was wounded, but Joe could do nothing. What was one wounded subaltern? The senior officers around him were busy attending to the tactical problems raised by the little raid,

And my brother was lying out wounded in no man’s land, and might have been the merest litter left about after a riotous party, for all the interest the Brigadier, the Colonel, or the Major evinced in his fate. And I did nothing either…

For several hours–and several pages–Ackerley wrestles with the question of what to do. His memory of this horrible time is so patchy that it is almost blank. Did he bravely go out into the open to look for his brother? Were the callous senior officers trying to allow him unofficially, heroically, to rescue his wounded brother? He’s not sure. Was he about to be a hero, or was he being a humbug?

Ackerley is not even sure if he was there, when his brother, finally, crawled back into the trench, wounded in the leg, not dangerously, hoping for another crack at the Huns. Pete Ackerley was sent back with a nice Blighty one, and spoke well of his brother at home. Joe Ackerley concludes the episode–written as the certain loss of a brother undone almost after the fact by a carelessly non-ruinous fate–by noting that “whatever happened I never recovered my watch.”

 

Hard on the heels of this strange account–but there’s a lot I want to cover, today–we have another trench baptism. Late last night, hours after coming up into the front line for the first time, Edwin Vaughan had toured the trenches with another officer, watching the men at work. There–and not for the first time–Vaughan’s anxiety washed over and eroded his heaped-up contempt, leaving him chastened. He may despise the officers and men when in billets, but he was impressed with their professionalism amidst the dangers of the fire trenches at night. Early this morning, after a fitful, drink-induced nap, he took his first turn on duty.

…as my sergeant did not arrive, I went out alone into the trench, where the eerie influences of the night descended up on me. It was deathly still, the mud, the smell of earth, the ragged sandbags, the gruesome litter numbed my brain; a cold fear chilled my spine and set my teeth chattering. I stood shaking and gazing horrified into the darkness, thinking: ‘this is war! and I am in the firing line!’ Then in a panic I set off down the trench. Reaching the first corner I drew back sharply and my heart stood still, for under the trenchboard bridge I saw a dark form pressed against the side of the trench.

In horror I glued my eyes upon it; the light was growing stronger, and it was quite distinct. And now I thought I saw a stealthy movement. Drawing my revolver and with just my head round the bend, I challenged it in a low voice. There was no reply… with my gun well forward I advanced and prodded–an old greatcoat hung on the trench side.

My relief at this anticlimax cheered me somewhat…

Anticlimax–as well as a suspiciously dense conglomeration of typical trench incidents–is Vaughan’s hallmark. But there is a different sort of anticlimax at 8 a.m., when his loathed Company Commander, Hatwell, wakes him under pretext of seeing the lovely morning but really “because he was jealous of my being asleep.”

And right after the beautiful morning? Hatwell gives Vaughan an ugly task: seeing to the burial of several nearby corpses.

Lying flat on their backs, with marble faces rigid and calm, their khaki lightly covered with frost, some with no wound visible, some with blood clotted on their clothes, one with a perfectly black face, they lay at attention staring up into the heavens. This was my first sight of dead men and I was surprised that it didn’t upset me. Only the one with the black face has stayed with me.[1] The thick, slightly curled lips, fleshy acquiline nose, cap-comforter pulled well down over his head and the big glassy eyes have become stamped on my brain.

In the afternoon, Vaughan experiences his first bombardment, rather confusingly described. Although he is in a deep dugout, he sees “the trench wall opposite” blow up and then a dud shell land “on the parados,” which would usually be directly over his head as he shelters in a dugout. These are trench mortars, as he explains:

…very destructive projectiles… their effect is so devastating and demoralizing that whenever they are used we inform our artillery who plaster the enemy lines heavily in retaliation. The idea is that their infantry will know that every time the mortars are used, they will catch out for it…

Vaughan’s first full day in the line is completed by a near miss from a German sniper–“my slip was an act of Providence–” and a failed attempt, after dark, to bury the nearby corpses. The ground is frozen, and they are left under a blanket…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers, is an excellent correspondent both because he has pledged to tell his wife everything and because, despite his responsibilities, he is a sharp observer, and his anecdotes are pointed. Some small tragedies need little elaboration.

February 15, 1917. Facing Spanbroekmolen (Fort Victoria).

Here we are in the trenches again.

This morning, in daylight, a German came running across Noman’s Land with his hands up, and was shot by his own people just as he reached our wire. We shall get his body in to-night.

Ivan Garvey, who commands the Company holding the line at the point where it happened, says that three of his men immediately came rushing along the trench to tell him, and that when he went to the spot he found the platoon gazing over the parapet at the dead German. Some of them wanted to go and fetch him in then and there, but Garvey naturally did not allow that.[3]

 

Edward Thomas has been reading the letters written by his men, working to set up the battery, practicing. Today there was a training “shoot,” then more preparatory work in the afternoon. For several days his comrades have been grating on him, and he has seemed to take solace in his observations of the natural world:  “Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw, lovely white puffs of shrapnel round planes high up…” Well, then: not so much nature reigning alone, but nature in her new context: “Dead campion umbels and grass rustling on my helmet through trenches.”

But this evening, a century back, brought relief and connection: the first post delivery since the battery embarked for France.

Letters arrived at 6. We sorted them and then spent an hour silently reading. 750 letters for me; 17 for me–from Helen, the children, father, mother, Eleanor, Freeman, Mrs. Freeman, Guthrie, Vernon and Haines.[4]

 

And Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back. He lays the counter-Brookean sonnet sequence aside in order to address her requests for material for his first book of poetry, which she is preparing. The preface is rather fulsome, and shows one side of Gurney’s personality in full effect: he is effusive, generous, taking delight in being comically expansive.

15 February 1917 (P)

Preface

This book stands dedicated to one only of my friends, but there are many others to whom I would willingly dedicate singly and in state, if that did not mean the writing of 40 books of verse and dedications; a terrible thing for all concerned . . . So that under the single name and sign of homage and affection, I would desire such readers as come to me to add also—To my Father and Mother; F W Harvey, (also a Gloucestershire Lad;) Miss Marion Scott, whose criticism has been so useful, and she so kind; in spite of my continued refusal to alter a word of anything. The Vicar of Twigworth; H.N. Howells, (and this is not the last time you will hear of him;) Mr Hilaire Belloc, whose “Path to Rome” has been my trench companion, with the “Spirit of Man” ; Mr Wilfred Gibson, author of “Friends” , a great little book; many others also; including Shakespeare and Bach, both friends of mine; and last but not least — 5 Platoon, B Co, 2/5 Glosters; who so often have wondered whether I were crazy or not. Let them draw their own conclusions now, for the writing pf this book it was that so distracted me. . . . This is a long list, and even now does not include old Mrs Poyner that was so jolly and long-suffering; not my boat “Dorothy” now idle in the mud; though a poet sung of her full of glory at Framilode.

Even as I write the list becomes fuller, further extended, yet a soldier must face pain and so it remains shorter by far than might be. I fear that those who buy the book (or, even, borrow) to get information about the Second-Fifth will be disappointed. Most of the book is concerned with a person named Myself, and the rest with my county, Gloucester, that whether I die or live stays always with me; — being so beautiful in itself, so full of memories;  whose people are so good to be friends with, so easy-going and so frank.

Some of the aforementioned people I have never had good fortune enough to meet in the flesh, but that was not my fault. I hope they will forgive my using their names without permission. Ah, would they only retaliate in kind! That is however not likely, as I never was famous, and a Common Private makes but little show. All the verses were written in France, and in sound of the guns, save only two or three earlier pieces. May well be indulgent to one who thought of them so often, and whose images of beauty in the mind were always of Gloucester, county of Cotswold and Severn, and a plain rich blossomy and sweet of air — as the wise Romans knew, that made their homes in exile by the brown river, watching the further bank for signs of war.

And that’s not all, folks–Gurney has a ballad in him, today:

Compree. Ballad also
Ballad of the Three Spectres

As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee.
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.

The first said, “Heres a right brave soldier
That walks the darky unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher.
And laughing at a Nice Blighty.

The second, “Read his face, old comrade.
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow.
Then look his last on Picardie.

Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
“He’ll stay untouched till the War’s last dawning.
Then live one hour of agony.

Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one — two — three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.

Not so bad eh?

By Gum, what will All the Good People of Gloster think of the Ugly Duckling they have hatched? There will be Some Surprise, what with one thing and another if the Tome appears. Roll on that time as soon as possible. Good luck with the Flu:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[5]

It’s difficult with Gurney, moody (i.e. mentally unstable) as he is–sometimes his letters seem to lay bare his suffering, to be uncertain records of his uncertain emotional terrain. But it’s reductive to insist that everything is about his mental state. He is a very good writer, and that requires–of course–embodying multiplicity, even contradiction. Or, simply, complexity–there’s nothing impossible or contradictory about what he has written. He is excited at the prospect of his first book, and he has, lately, found a new way to speak for the common soldiers… and yet he lives always under the grim little open end of his spectral “ballad:” for every death he dodges, many more possible deaths await, every day of the war, all the way until that last day’s dawning–and then a few hours more.

 

Finally, today, our foremost Fusilier is going back to the front. After an unhappy few months in camp near Liverpool and a whirlwind last few days of leave in London, Siegfried Sassoon began the freighted journey once more. Today, a century back, he left London for a base depot in France–and he described the experience, we will not be surprised to learn, more than once:

On February 15th I was at Waterloo for the noontide leave train (or, to be exact, the leave train the wrong way round). My mother was there to see the last of me, and Robbie had shepherded me to the station. My one desire was to have no feelings about anything. As we paced the platform I remarked to Robbie that the train was quite an old friend as this was the fourth time I had travelled by it. When it at length began to move, their faces kept up the usual forlorn pretence of looking bright. With the egotism of youth I couldn’t help wondering what they said to one another about me after they had turned away from the vanishing train…[6]

Ah but that is all retrospect. Here is the day’s diary, and a poem–with all thoughts forward and not a mention of mother or mentor bereft on the platform:

15 February

Left Waterloo 12 noon. Irish Hussar in carriage. Sunshine at Southampton…

Left London feeling nervous and rattled; but the worried feeling wears off once aboard the Archangel.

And as it does, Sassoon settles from the personal into the observational.

People seem to become happy in a bovine way as soon as they are relieved of all responsibility for the future. Soldiers going to the War are beasts of burden, probably condemned to death. They are not their own masters in any way except in their unconquerable souls.

Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear ‘they begin to ‘buck’ themselves up’. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way out of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles—nay, rewards them for their acquiescence with actual money and medals. But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market.[7] Hence their happiness. They have no worries because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight–of the enemy. They are not ‘going out’ to do things, but to have things done to them.

Not to make too much of one line, but this is the essence of Sassoon’s change of heart about the war, and it will be reflected in the change in the poetry as well. War, and poetry, once celebrated deeds. Now, in a latter-day phrase, men don’t do deeds, they are drafted into the galleys, shipped out like cabbages to become the subjects of passive suffering…

Finally, there is a poem of today’s journey which takes a step down the angry road that Sassoon has just sketched out:

Life-Belts (Southampton to Havre)

The Boat begins to throb; the Docks slide past;
And soldiers stop their chattering; mute and grave;
Doomed to the Push, they think ‘We’re off at last!’
Then, like the wash and welter of a wave,
Comfortless War breaks into each blind brain.
Swamping the hopes they’ve hugged to carry abroad;
And half-recovering, they must grope again
For some girl-face, or guess what pay they’ll hoard
To start a home with, while they’re out in France.
For, after all, each lad has got his chance
Of seeing the end. Like life-belts in a wreck,
They clutch at gentle plans—pathetic schemes
For peace next year. Meanwhile I pace the deck
And curse the Fate that lours above their dreams.[8]

Sassoon is speaking against “comfortless war,” now, and emphasizing the helplessness of these soldiers to influence the chances of their own survival.

A step toward protest, perhaps, but one expressed in a fairly traditional idiom. Any soldier–any human being–from any era may curse fate and still feel themselves to possess a fairly free hand for heroic self-fashioning. If this sort of poem is going to shock its readers out of the assumption that this war is, if not Great, at least generally noble and worthwhile, that hand of fate–in the person of British staff plans and German bombardments–will have to do more than merely lour

References and Footnotes

  1. Another indication that this "diary" is (re-)written after the fact.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 30-34.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 150.
  4. War Letters (Childhood), 162.
  5. War Letters, 133-5.
  6. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  7. A phrase he took up in the memoir, moving it backwards a few days into a conversation with Lady Ottoline Morrell.
  8. Diaries, 131-2.

Edward Thomas is Home Once More; Francis Ledwidge on Fame and Fairy Dances; Siegfried Sassoon Goes A-Hunting, and Dreams a Peacemaking Smile in Hades

No sooner have I introduced Jack Martin and Edwin Vaughan–regular diarists who I expect to become mainstays in the coming months–than every poet on our active duty roster is suddenly scurrying and scribbling about. Today we have an update on Edward Thomas and poems from Francis Ledwidge and Siegfried Sassoon… so Vaughan, Martin, and the others will have to gird their loins and wait a few days.

 

Edward Thomas is once more at home in High Beech: “All well,” he notes in his new pocket diary, the “war diary” that he began with the new year. This leave is anticlimactic, at least for us, after reading of the miraculous Christmas leave, but for the army it is business as usual. Thomas’s battery will embark for France before the end of the month, and the officers take it in turns to have a few days of “mobilization leave–” which is also called “embarkation leave” but most often referred to by the leavers themselves as “last leave.”

 

Francis Ledwidge has made a striking amount of progress. Unknown before the war, his first collection of poetry cleverly billed him as something like an Irish John Clare, a natural poet sprung from the masses. His origins were humble, and he was a soldier rather than an officer, but then again his working life had been varied and his influential connections included the patronage of Lord Dunsany. His war service–Gallipoli, the Macedonian borderlands, illness and injury, a return to a rebellion-torn Ireland–has not been easy, but his reputation, based on Songs of the Fields, has been growing all the while.

Today, back in France, but finding free time even in a combat infantryman’s laborious day (he is presumably in reserve), he wrote both a poem and a letter. The letter takes up a new friendship: Ledwidge had recently received a good review and a friendly note from Katharine Tynan, prolific poet, novelist, journalist and major Irish literary figure (which is to say “close associate of Yeats”). Writing back, he addresses the “legacy” issue head-on:

If I survive the war, I have great hopes of writing something that will live. If not, I trust to be remembered in my own land for one or two things which its long sorrow inspired. My book has had a greater reception in England, Ireland and America than I had ever dreamt of, but I never feel that my name should be mentioned in the same breath with my contemporaries.

You ask me what I am doing. I am a unit in the Great War, doing and suffering, admiring great endeavour and condemning great dishonour, I may be dead before this reaches you, but I will have done my part. Death is as interesting to me as life. I have seen so much of it from Suvla to Serbia and now in France. I am always homesick.
I hear the roads calling, and the hills, and the rivers wondering where I am. It is terrible to be always homesick.[1]

There is a bit of awkward self-mythologizing in that letter, perhaps: a poet taking a deep breath before swelling out to meet a grand new expectation. But the homesickness is surely heartfelt–he yearns for the real roads of Ireland, and for the nodding rushes, and for the dreamy dance in the fairy rath as well:

 

The Rushes

The rushes nod by the river
As the winds on the loud waves go,
And the things they nod of are many,
For it’s many the secret they know.

And I think they are wise as the fairies
Who lived ere the hills were high.
They nod so grave by the river
To everyone passing by.

If they would tell me their secrets
I would go by a hidden way,
To the rath when the moon retiring
Dips dim horns into the gray.

And a fairy-girl out of Leinster
In a long dance I should meet,
My heart to her heart beating,
My feet in rhyme with her feet.

France,
January 6th, 1917.

 

Siegfried Sassoon will come to write at great length of the strangely disjointed “indoor” and “outdoor” personalities that coexisted in his youthful self. After, of course, he writes a three volume memoir, lightly fictionalized, that, while embodying a most indoorsy pursuit (namely extensive and intensive autobiographical effort) focuses entirely on the outdoor “fox hunting” and grenade-throwing half: “George Sherston” is very much like Siegfried Sassoon… except that he’s not a writer.

In Sassoon’s diary for today, a century back, the day’s description, proper, comes first. And then a poem… And, well, it’s hard not to agree with Sassoon that these personalities should be split apart and considered separately and in turn–it hardly takes much prying to do so, and it’s bewildering to see them side by side and attempt a binocular reading.

Another way to put it would be this: how would we stitch these two adjacent writings, written by the same hand on the same day (by these two co-adjacent personalities), into a seamless whole?

January 6

Cheshire: Peckforton Gap. Found in the Gardens at Cholmondeley but lost him as soon as he went away. Found at Bar Mere about 12.50 (a brace) and went away toward Bickley and back past the cover and toward Norbury Common and right-handed ring to Marbury, where he got in a big earth. About fifty minutes: they ran nicely at times. Had another slow hunt round the same country and lost him. Got back to Tilston about 5. Best day I’ve had with the Cheshire, but nothing wonderful. Very little wire about.

So, fox-hunting. A good day in the saddle, hopping fences amidst the chase, duly recorded but not reflected upon–I think even the mention of wire (a fox hunter’s enemy, an infantryman’s constant companion) is “straight” rather than fetchingly ironic. This is sport, and any aggravated farmers–or small, terrified mammals–are not much to the point.

And then, straightaway, this poem:

 

Enemies

He stood alone in some queer sunless place
Where the dead soldiers go: perhaps he longed
For what he’d lost with life; but his quiet face
Gazed out untroubled; and suddenly there thronged
Round him the hulking Germans that I shot
When my mad anger for his death was hot.
He stared at them unmoved and grave; and then
They told him that I’d killed them for his sake;
Those patient, stupid, sullen ghosts of men;
And still there was no answer he could make.
At last he turned and smiled; and all was well.
Because his face could lead them out of hell.[2]

That’s tantalizing, that “all was well–” the same phrase that Edward Thomas, a care-burdened older family man, used for his last arrival before the trial of war. And Sassoon–younger in years and more so in spirit, yet a decorated veteran now brooding on the many comrades he has lost–is dreaming of a beautiful subaltern beyond the grave, who might make peace among the shades of those “enemies” who have killed, and been killed in vengeance.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 170.
  2. Diaries, 116.
  3. Here's a funny thing: if Sassoon really "shot" German soldiers, up close and personal, during his vengeful heroics after the death of David Thomas, shouldn't I remember that? He went out, I know, and threw grenades and fired his weapon, but--should I remember men unquestionably killed? Well, well: in either case, I should not attribute to the poet's claims the lived reality of the writer... what a rookie fallacy that would be...

Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves Reunited (Again): The Poet as Hero, Literary Critic, and Golfer; Another Trial For Tolkien’s Tea Club

By today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon‘s long convalescent leave was over–he rejoined Robert Graves (as well as several other friends and acquaintances from the regiment) at the Royal Welch depot at Litherland, near Liverpool.[1] Coincidentally, his poem “The Poet as Hero” appeared today in the Cambridge Magazine:

You’ve heard me, scornful, harsh, and discontented,
   Mocking and loathing War: you’ve asked me why
Of my old, silly sweetness I’ve repented—
   My ecstasies changed to an ugly cry.

 

You are aware that once I sought the Grail,
   Riding in armour bright, serene and strong;
And it was told that through my infant wail
   There rose immortal semblances of song.

 

But now I’ve said good-bye to Galahad,
   And am no more the knight of dreams and show:
For lust and senseless hatred make me glad,
   And my killed friends are with me where I go.
Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs;
And there is absolution in my songs.

 

Now, where does that leave us? For one thing, it leaves us with an “indoor” Sassoon very much in transition. The old diction is rejected, but then wielded ironically: he has exchanged the happy warrior for the scarred and melodramatically vengeful “Mad Jack” character that he seemed to create for himself last summer half out of idle curiosity and half out of a military transmogrification of his hunting persona. So it would seem that the “outdoor” Sassoon, driven to show dash and aggression before his comrades until he finds himself alone in a German trench, has infiltrated his poetry… But this poem is a raid, a testing assault on the morale of the foe rather than a proper attack that might hold new ground. I think we can count on Mad Jack tossing a few such grenades and falling back.

So who is Sassoon, these days? Still, I think, a soul in very polite, presentable turmoil. A person in-between.

As Graves remembers this period–they shared a hut at Litherland, and went about much together–Sassoon was still voicing a certain sort of aggression, but his motivations seem to have changed…

Siegfried said that we must ‘keep up the good reputation of the poets’–as men of courage. Our proper place would be back in France, away from the more shameless madness of home-service. There, our function would not be to kill Germans, though that might happen, but to make things easier for the men under our command.

So, in other words, Sassoon believes that the poet should indeed be a hero, just a hero of a new sort: an unostentatiously heroic officer, a servant to his men. Surprisingly, perhaps, since he is notably self-absorbed in several different ways, it would seem that Sassoon was exactly this–a good, valued small-unit leader, respected by his men as well as his fellow officers. So says, at least, the often jealous and intermittently unreliable Graves, who writes as if he is well aware that he looked up to Sassoon, just now, for just these qualities.

These are beliefs that will be put to the test next yer. But for the time being the seriousness of the war is somewhat masked by the triviality of their surroundings. This is the depot, and while officers must be tremendously brave under fire, they are not expected to be other than tremendously idle when at home.

Officers of the Royal Welch were honorary members of the Formby golf club. Siegfried and I went there often. He played golf seriously, while I hit a ball alongside him. I had once played at Harlech as a junior member of the Royal St. David’s, but resigned when I found it bad for my temper. Afraid of taking the game up again seriously, I now limited myself to a single iron. My mis-hits did not matter. I played the fool and purposely put Siegfried off his game…[2]

This anecdote we may, perhaps, trust without either verification of qualm.

Still, things do look a little bit different when they are fictionalized for the memoirs of “George Sherston.” “Cromlech” is Graves–and see if you can spot Litherland’s clever disguise…

Clitherland camp had acquired a look of coercive stability; but this was only natural, since for more than eighteen months it had been manufacturing Flintshire Fusiliers…

The third winter of the War had settled down on the lines of huts with calamitous drabness; fog-bleared sunsets were succeeded by cavernous and dispiriting nights when there was nothing to do and nowhere to do it…

But I shared my hut with David Cromlech, who was well enough to be able to play an energetic game of football, in spite of having had a bit of shell through his right lung…

Sherston’s memories now drift toward the old rituals of the regimental mess, with the sharp divide between the young men who will go out to France and grave danger as soon as they are needed and the collection of “good-natured easy-going” old majors who fill various jobs on the base, pottering about in pre-war routines.

These convivial characters were ostensibly directing the interior economy of the Camp… the training of recruits was left to sergeant-instructors… hard-worked men who were on their legs from morning to night, and strict because they had to be strict. The raw material to be trained was growing steadily worse. Most of those came in now had joined the Army unwillingly, and there was no reason why they should find military service tolerable. The War had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman. What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims. I was just beginning to be aware of this.

There will be few memorable high jinks from these two, this month, in an atmosphere like this. But of course the growing grasp of a new historical reality is no guide to daily events. No, it was camp routine, hunting, and golf, with less-than-yawning gaps between the recollections of the two friends.

Sassoon remembers playing golf largely alone–evidence that he had a talented for blocking out Graves’s more annoying habits–and hunting most Saturdays. Which, of course, enhances his status with the old Regular officers of the battalion… but what of Graves/Cromlech, who cares about regimental tradition more than Sassoon does but seems perversely bent on remaining socially difficult? We hit a spot, now, where the differences between the two memoirs seem less a matter of contention, failures of memory, or deliberate falsification of the past and more complementary. Here are two young men who admire each other, for different reasons, and that which they admire comes to loom larger in their memories of the friendship. From Graves we see Sassoon’s social ease, his athletic skill, and the status his Military Cross gives him. From Sassoon, the indolent country gentleman who never took a degree, we see Graves’s intellectual firepower and wide reading.

Although he was nine years younger than I was, I often found myself reversing our ages, since he know so much more than I did about almost everything except fox-hunting… he once fairly took my breath away by pooh-poohing Paradise Lost as “that moribund academic concoction.” I hadn’t realized that it was possible to speak disrespectfully about Milton…[3]

Come what may, this is a wry acknowledgment that this was a most useful friendship.

 

And yet, context: all this is a disguise of the continued grinding of the mechanical and inhuman machine.

Today, a century back, in Birmingham, John Ronald Tolkien was examined by a Medical Board at the 1st Southern General Hospital. His fever is gone, but he is still symptomatic, weak and wracked with pains. Accordingly, he is granted six weeks convalescent leave.

And in France, his dear friend G.B. Smith’s shrapnel wounds–which appeared at first to be good blighty ones–have turned gangrenous.[4]

 

Finally, today, a correction of a recent and eminently silly mistake. (My thanks to reader Tracy Kellock who pointed this out.) I garbled my notes for November 30th and included an “it’s my twenty-first birthday!” note written by Edward Brittain as if it had been written by his sister Vera, who in fact turns 23 next month. So a belated happy birthday to Edward, with apologies for the total lack of fact-checking…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 310-11, sleuthing from various evidence. In his diary Sassoon will note later in the month that he returned on the 4th, but it would not be surprising if he were indeed mistaken.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 233-4.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 381-4.
  4. Chronology, 96.

E.A. Mackintosh Keens for the Highland Division; C.E. Montague’s Standards of Horribleness; Max Plowman is a Subaltern on the Somme, Where It’s Just Ordinary & Sickening

The Somme has now been grinding on for a month, with no end in sight–indeed, with many of the first day’s objectives still in sight, and still in German hands. Much of August will find our attentions still fixed on these few shattered and bloodied miles of Picardy, and so it seems fitting that, as we resume the custom of the “month poem,” today’s bears a subtitle that spans two months. It was written–it will be shortly written, a century back, that is–by E.A. Mackintosh of the 5th Seaforths, who has just been wounded and is even now headed back to Blighty, bloodied and traumatized. The 51st Division is also know as the “Highland Division,” and although Mackintosh is out of the line, his Scottish countryman are very much in it, and facing the still-unconquered High Wood.

To The 51st Division

High Wood: July-August 1916

Oh gay were we in spirit
In the hours of the night
When we lay in rest by Albert
And waited for the fight
Gay and gallant were we
On the day that we set forth,
But broken, broken, broken
Is the valour of the North.

The wild warpipes were calling,
Our hearts were blithe and free
When we went up the valley
To the death we could not see.
Clear lay the wood before us
In the clear summer weather,
But broken, broken, broken
Are the sons of the heather.

In the cold of the morning,
In the burning of the day,
The thin lines stumbled forward,
The dead and dying lay.
By the unseen death that caught us
By the bullets’ raging hail
Broken, broken, broken
Is the pride of the Gael.

Such a poem more or less violates our rule against foreshadowing, but it is the collective breaking of the pride of the Gael that the poem anticipates–I have not peered into Mackintosh’s personal future any further than the consequences of his wound–and it reading it now enables a comparison of this unflinching poem of noble disaster with the stiff-upper-lip-pride-of-the-regiment tone of “Into the Wood.

I am not well-versed in Scottish martial poetry, but it seems impossible that this poem could not be an echo of Scott’s Coronach. Which is to say, then, that we shouldn’t classify this as a step on the road from dull-witted pro-war bombast toward the poetry of protest, disillusionment, and anti-military despair. (I am exaggerating this axis, anyway–there is no worthwhile poetry so pure in its politics.) This poem is very much in and of the tradition (at least the Scots tradition), but it is still significant that the poet chooses to write a dirge–indeed, a “coronach” of sorts–rather than the now-very-common poems that place losses in the context of “sacrifice.” And sacrifices are made to achieve things: a sacrifice must imply either victory, or divine neglect. Since the latter is publicly unthinkable, this poem acknowledges, in its attention to the “breaking” of the Highland Division, the strategic failure of the Somme.

August will see a different cast of characters come to the fore, here. Both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves are headed home, now, having had a near-crossing of paths in Rouen: Sassoon spent the night in one base hospital, last night, but could not know that his “dead” comrade was recovering in another. Graves awaits an operation before he can be sent home, but today, a century back, Sassoon, although already “feeling better,” was placed on a hospital ship bound for Southampton. Not only has he missed the worst of the fighting due to his CO’s decision to place him with the reserves, but he will now surely miss the next phase while convalescing from a less-than-dire illness. He is aware of his good fortune:

Get to London this evening? Think I deserve a holiday, but feel rotten at forsaking the Battalion, when I could have been fit for work in three or four weeks. But fate is kind-to-me as usual.[1]

 

And as our two most famous poetic comrades prepare to exit stage right–for the time being–another writer ambles down from the deepest upstage reaches. If I can match enough of his fictionalized book to dated records, Max Plowman may soon take and hold center-stage for quite some time. Today, a century back, he wrote to his brother from “a hill-side at Dernancourt, near Albert.”

“C” Company, 10th West Yorkshire Regt., B.E.F., France.
4 P.M. Tuesday 1 Aug. 1916.

Dear J.,

…Yes, we came “up” a week ago yesterday morning, but not nearer than 8 or 10 miles from the Front & here we’ve stayed though we are due to move nearer almost immediately–in fact I think we are going to-night. They usually put you in “Reserve” first (where you pay for your comparative safety by getting everybody else’s dirty work) then push you up into “Support” & finally into the Firing Line…

Plowman’s first long letter will not fail to include a description of his first bombardment.

I wish you’d been here the night we arrived. I fancy the Germans were counter-attacking, & from the top of the hill we are bivouacing on you could see & hear what was going on. If you imagine continuous thunder & the final act at Brock’s Benefit going on for about 5 hours you have a bit of an idea what it was like–great mouth-like flashes lighting up the whole sky, green, red, & white Roman candles going up & seeming to stay up, every now & then the earth heaving & a sinister-looking ring of smoke following & gradually forming itself into a cloud which remained in the sky for 20 minutes, showing that somebody had exploded a mine. The long red glows in the sky showing where they used liquid fire. I’ve never looked on such a hell in my life… I was prepared for an inferno but it beat my expectations.

Plowman is a good writer, but he has not hit his stride yet. (I can’t really object, although it is a brand new hobby-horse, to the predictable deployment of “hell” as a metaphor for bombardment.) We were expecting a description of his first bombardment, surely, but what about his “approaching the line” narrative? What about some lavish praise of the beauties of the countryside?

Alas, there is no proper “approach.” Plowman merely mentions a few bits of it, notably the “slow filthy trains.” But he does come around to a nice bit of landscape description.

It’s rather pretty undulating chalk country. We’re on one side of a chalk down looking across a wide river bed with a road railway & small river hidden by poplars in it.

This must be the Ancre. Now for the very best part of this first letter:

To our left blue murder–to our right ripe corn fields & bright blue cornflowers & poppies & peace ineffable. You takes your money & you pays for your choice.

Plowman was a pacifist, once, but decided that to serve in the Ambulance Corps was too much of a half-measure, so he transferred to the infantry. Now he is a cog in the machine, and ready to pay for his choice. He is eager to demonstrate, that is, that he has chosen, but not blindly, and not from some state of foolish innocence. This next declaration would read as an excellent rebuke of the innocent subaltern of yesterday–if Plowman knew him, and if he were not dead.

…Lord the whole thing’s a bloody fool’s travesty of life & excitement. Mechanism has knocked all the spice out of it, even for the blood-thirstiest adventurer. There’s just the same feeling about it as there would be about walking through London during a violent earthquake–practically no more. An individual infantryman has pretty much the same control over his fate…  Nowadays there’s not enough adventure in it to redeem the overwhelming mass of bloodiness & sickness & disappointment & sheer idiot luck. There’s really no sport about getting buried alive or blown to nothing by machinery 5 miles away, or for that matter, as our fellows were, mown down in long lines by machine guns. It’s just ordinary & sickening. No doubt it’s an interesting game for opposing artillery & airmen but for the rest of course it’s simply enduring comparative degrees of hell. It’s too stupid to be engaging for a sound mind.[2]

This would be a fairly comprehensive and immediate refusal of the Public Schools/Sporting/Romantic/1914 spirit. Where, then, will he go from here?

 

Finally, today, C.E. Montague, erstwhile elderly sergeant of infantry, has settled into his new gig: writing propaganda and escorting the high and mighty. His time in the line was short and not especially traumatic, but his frank testimony about his reversion to a sort of middle-distance attitude about the war–the quick revision of his “standard of horribleness”–is very interesting.

Aug. 1 1916

It is an odd, varied life to be doing this [writing for print] one day and on another visiting, perhaps, a wood where the dead are littering all the ground under the trees, or where, a few days later, only a few heads and feet and odd disjecta membra, too incomplete to call for prompt burial, are going bad in the sun. It’s curious how one’s standard of horribleness changes with circumstances. I have never seen anything out here, either in the trenches or on the great battlefield, that has seemed to me so distressing as the civilian that I saw some months ago in Fallowfield who had been run over by a a motor car and had his skill fractured. It seemed such an outrage that he should be all messed with blood and mud, whereas dead and mangled soldiers seem to have a kind of naturalness, like people in a hospital.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 100.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 43-4.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 142.