Ford Madox Hueffer’s Last Prayer to Viola Hunt; Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson Are Engaged; Edward Brittain Turns to The Loom; The Master of Belhaven Wines and Dines; Patrick Shaw Stewart Visits the New Brigadier

Ford Madox Hueffer‘s not-quite-marriage to Viola Hunt is on the rocks, but that does not preclude grand Late Romantic gestures. Today is his birthday–his forty-forth–and Hunt sent him “a box of preserved fruits & some vests & plants & tablecloths.” Her did her one better, sending a “lovely” poem… and then slashed a remainder mark across the romantic gesture by assuring her that the poem is not a heartfelt communication to her, but the result of a mere poetic game of bouts rimés, in which he tosses off poetry at short order to a given rhyme scheme. This, alas, is not only rather mean of Ford, but highly probable.

So, dear reader, try not to get too weepy–it’s just a game![1]

 

One Last Prayer

Let me wait, my dear,
One more day,
Let me linger near,
Let me stay.
Do not bar the gate or draw the blind
Or lock the door that yields,
Dear, be kind!

I have only you beneath the skies
To rest my eyes
From the cruel green of the fields
And the cold, white seas
And the weary hills
And the naked trees.
I have known the hundred ills
Of the hated wars.
Do not close the bars,
Or draw the blind.
I have only you beneath the stars:
Dear, be kind!

17/12/17

 

Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson are at a much earlier stage of their romance–more first prayer than last–but today, a century back, they took a big step forward. They have been discussing their future at great length during their long weekend together, and now it is settled: they must marry. Robert’s biographer R.P. Graves explains:

…they ‘decided to get married at once’. Nancy evidently ‘attached no importance to the ceremony’, and Robert was bound to agree with her. Luckily for him, however, Nancy also said that ‘she did not want to disappoint her father’. At that stage in his life Robert very much desired the approval both of his family and his friends; and it is highly unlikely that the man who talked to Sassoon about ‘acting like a gentleman’ could have seriously contemplated ‘living in sin’ with this girl of eighteen…

But although Graves is due back in Wales to take up his military duties once again, they decided–either from some point of tactics or, perhaps, or simple pusillanimity– to wait to tell the family. Today the Graves family will celebrate… Robert’s brother Charles’s winning of a Classical Exhibition[2] to St John’s College, Oxford.[3]

 

Speaking of educated/aspirational youth, there’s a letter of today, a century back, from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera which touches on a topic that Graves has often discussed. Brittain is reading one of the big books of the year–and perhaps the most scandalous (if we are not inclined to find militarist–or pacifist–screeds scandalous on their political principles).

Italy, 17 December 1917

…We got out of the line alright and are in quite decent billets… I am trying to read The Loom of Youth which is excellent but I am only progressing slowly at present: it is a bit exaggerated but otherwise a very reasonable portrayal of the public school. Victor would have liked it immensely as it very largely expresses his opinions.[4]

What’s interesting about this is that Alec Waugh’s book is not just a critical-satirical book about Public Schools–it’s also a gay love story. But I haven’t actually read the book, and I have no idea how clear that might be to someone “progressing slowly” through it.

It’s tempting to think that Edward is trying to tell his sister something… but I doubt it. If he were, he might mention Geoffrey Thurlow, his intimate friend, rather than Victor Richardson, the school friend who later ardently courted Vera and whom she briefly planned to marry. And also, even if he were trying to hint at secret desires of his own, it would surely sail over her head. The former provincial young lady knows things now–many valuable things–that she hadn’t known before; she knows all about love and loss and what the war does to the minds and bodies of the boys who go to fight it… but she hasn’t learned much about the love that dare not speak its name.

 

All of this is very interesting, of course, but I am once again neglecting the war. Quickly, then, to the Master of Belhaven, upon whose semi-martial doings we must keep half an eye, and then on to the Naval Division.

Yesterday, a century back, Ralph Hamilton pulled off a difficult feat: giving decent entertainment to the officers of a nearby French battery. Luckily, his own officers had recently scored some new opera records in Amiens, so after a dinner for twelve, “which was rather a strain on our resources… we had a two hours’ Grand Opera concert, which was a great success.” After hypothesizing that war “must have been very dull before the days of gramophones,” Hamilton reports a return engagement for today.

Alas–the British are at a disadvantage in two crucial areas: cookery and artillery.

They did us very well… They took us to see their 75’s, and even took the whole thing to pieces to show us the mechanism… The gun is far in advance of ours, much lighter, far simpler and stronger. I have never been able to understand why we did not adopt it at the beginning of the war…

But Hamilton has talked shopped before telling us of the dinner.

…we sat down over twenty. It was a regular feast that lasted for two hours. Their cook was a chef in a French restaurant before the war…

Hamilton even managed the reciprocal speech-making, his French lubricated by “a little good red wine.” Returning home he discovered that he and five of his officers have been mentioned in dispatches– “so we have not done so badly after all.”[5]

 

This is the pleasant side of the war of attrition. But there is also discomfort.

Patrick Shaw Stewart has now found his battalion–and it is all “his,” on a temporary basis, once more–probably about as swiftly as his parting letter found Lady Desborough.[6] Today, a century back, she wrote back:

Patrick darlingest, How I loved your adorable letter from the train, and how above all I loved you. And blessed you for holding on in trust through all the frozen time–never, never fretting… How I shall miss you, how I love you.”

But Patrick was back to writing to Diana Manners, the woman he can’t give up and who is, now that all Englishwoman are equidistantly out of reach, just as reachable as any of the others. She won’t hear his proposals and protestations, but perhaps she will accept this sort of daily diary.

Today I rode again towards the front, a martyr to duty, having evolved a new system of leading my horse the first mile, thus becoming almost entirely thawed before making myself immobile… had an amusing first interview with Oc as Brigadier, in the course of which I took a very fair luncheon off him…

Alcohol and fur are the twin secrets of winter campaigning.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, Dual Life, II, 563 n31.
  2. A partial merit-based scholarship, in American parlance.
  3. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 189.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 385.
  5. War Diary, 423-4.
  6. Although I wrote about his departure and arrival yesterday, the journey must have taken about three days, so he would have left--and written from the train to the coast--on or about the 13th.
  7. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 237-8. I am not confident of the dates in Jebb, which are not supported by a critical apparatus. He lists today, a century back, as the day Asquith was wounded, but Sellers's The Hood Battalion, 282, has the 20th, and yet has his promotion to brigadier as tomorrow, when it does seem clear that he was already brigadier--or functioning as brigadier--today, a century back. My best guess is that Asquith is the brigadier now in effect, but will officially take the position tomorrow, and be wounded on the 20th, so I will mention it then.

Olaf Stapledon Need Not Worry About Parting; Robert Graves Has a More Pleasant Walk in the Snow; Cynthia Asquith and Bernard Freyberg Clash… Over Siegfried Sassoon’s Hero; The Loves and Letters of Patrick Shaw Stewart

In a few moments it will be back to the Souls/Coterie and their tangle of letters and affairs, but we’ll begin today, a century back with a lonelier–and purer–soul. Olaf Stapledon, still home, still on leave, writes again to Agnes Miller, in Australia, and he takes yet another small step toward an uncharacteristic despair.

Sunday night, the last night of leave. I go early tomorrow. This evening Mother played some Rubinstein on the piano and part of it was a “melody” that you used to play. It brought back ancient days. Father and I had such a wet walk this morning. Thurstastone was all one driving blizzard.— But what’s the use of writing you a sort of schoolboy diary? The last night of leave is a poor night. It’s bad enough for oneself but it’s worse for one’s people; and their sorrow makes one grieve far more. It’s good to talk to you tonight, for I am not on the point of leaving you—alas, partings need not worry us, for we have not yet our meeting. You are always as near as ever, and as far.[1]

That rather sets the tone, doesn’t it? Despair and sorrow and high romance–and, that, of course is the use of writing such a diary.

 

Robert Graves, however, is more fortunate: his beloved is near at hand. His biographer notes yet another visit to Nancy Nicholson–and confirms that the Merseyside weather had reached London by evening.

On Sunday, after an early lunch, he went into town again, and did not arrive back in Wimbledon until three in the morning, after walking the last last of the journey, all the way from Putney, in a driving blizzard.[2]

 

Actually, it seems that it was snowing in London throughout the day. Last night, a century back, Cynthia Asquith locked her bedroom door after (somehow!) using “purple passages” of Shakespeare to hold off the advances of Bernard Freyberg. Today the two resumed their contest of wills in a proxy battle over–wait for it!–the poetry of a certain young writer absent from–though present in verse at–a recent soirée.

Sunday, 16th December

Slept badly after agitating evening and woke to swirling snowstorm. Mary resurrected and joined us after breakfast. Freyberg inveighed against the Georgian Poets and reproached me for holding a brief for Siegfried Sassoon. I maintained that, having fully demonstrated his personal physical courage, he had earned the right to exhibit moral courage as a pacifist without laying himself open to the charge of cloaking physical cowardice under the claim of moral courage. Freyberg is very uncompromising in his condemnation and, with some justice, says it is offensive to come back and say, ‘I can’t lead men to their death any more’—it implies a monopoly of virtue, as if other officers liked doing it because they acquiesced in their duty.

Yes, “some justice”–which is what Rivers led Sassoon to see, although–and this is an important distinction–with an emphasis more on the position of the men-to-be-led-to-their-deaths than on the unfairly maligned virtue of the other officers…

But Freyberg, an Argonaut, a 1914 volunteer, a V.C., and a young brigadier, is too canny, at least, to bring only a medal to a poetry fight. He has read some of Sassoon, and he has a practical objection:

He thought the poem called ‘The Hero’ caddish, as it might destroy every mother’s faith in the report of her son’s death. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon breaks the conspiracy of silence, but sometimes I strongly feel that those at home should be made to realise the full horror, even to the incidental ugliness, as much as possible.[3]

A strange “but” in that last sentence–but it is fascinating, of course, to find a woman at home taking the side of the poets’ realism/horror while the eminent fighting soldier stands up for the non-caddishness of comforting lies. Asquith’s declaration here is very much like the intense enthusiasm of later readers of Great War Poetry: not only does she hold a brief for Sassoon, but it’s essentially the same brief that has become canonical. She would deny the experiential gulf–or, rather, she would recognize it and esteem those poets who try to write across it, and read eagerly in order to be one of the better sort of home-front people, who read in order to understand the true war…

There are several ironies here, including Sassoon’s habit (which should be apparent to Asquith if she has read his books) of expressing a casual nastiness towards both aristocratic patronesses and older women and Asquith’s scoring such high marks in our implied hierarchy of worthy readers/home front loved ones while her husband, unmentioned in these sections of her diary, is overseas, and she is embroiled in a pseudo-affair with a brother officer…

But back to the practical point: there’s a war on, and someone must write something to a million grieving mothers. Freyberg has probably written dozens–he has been both a company commander and a battalion commander. And is absolute truth always a virtue? Was he definitively wrong to strive to find some balance between truth and mercy?

Here is ‘The Hero,’ then, Sassoon’s no-holds-barred assault on the convention of the C.O.’s condolence letter. It is also, incidentally, one of the few poems to feature a female character and yet not treat her scorn–condescension, perhaps, but not contempt.

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

 

There are other Argonauts abroad in London, and they have crossed paths all too quietly.

Missing, alas, from Diana Manners and Duff Cooper‘s diaries are accounts of Patrick Shaw Stewart‘s recent leave. The most probable explanation is simple awkwardness: Shaw Stewart has seen a great deal of the war, and Cooper is only recently commissioned, so there is a great gap of experience there, and experience is an incontestable, unexchangeable currency of honor… and yet it is the new subaltern Cooper who is on the verge of–to fall into the old sexist language, here–winning the prize they both coveted, and not the brigadier with the V.C.

Diana Manners avoided Shaw Stewart, seeing him only for a few meals, even when the two were thrown together (with Duff and a number of others) last weekend at a house party in Somerset. Shaw Stewart still enjoyed the party, describing a bag of fifty pheasants as “not a bad change from the winter campaign,” but, ignored by the woman he loved (and was still doggedly pursuing, by letter when not in person), he spent much of his time and energy on his more unconventional but equally intense relationship with “Ettie,” Lady Desborough, the light of the Souls, now fifty and the mother of Shaw Stewart’s dead friends Julian and Billy Grenfell.

Strange and intertwined as all these relationships are, it’s still remarkable to note that today, a century back[4] Shaw Stewart returned from leave to take over command of his battalion from Oc Asquith (the youngest of the three brothers, now promoted brigadier) after having left Manners (the intimate friend and best epistolary sparring partner of Raymond Asquith, the eldest of the three brothers) and Cooper behind, and then been seen to the train, a few days ago, by his friend and Naval Division colleague Bernard Freyberg. That’s right: Freyberg, who has been laying siege to the matrimonial loyalty of Cynthia Asquith, wife of the middle brother, Herbert, and who has let off all his guns to deter a nuisance foray in the form of a Siegfried Sassoon poem.

Shaw Stewart used that train journey to write to Lady Desborough, playfully refuting her suggestion that he had bought notepaper in order to write to “his girl friends–“even though he does fact continue to write to Diana Manners “almost daily.”

I did buy the notepaper, but it was to write to you to tell you how infinitely I adore you and how perfect and essential you have been to me this leave. What should I do without you? You are Julian and Billy, Edward and Charles to me, and then you are yourself.

Strange and effusive, but fitting, perhaps, for a letter between one of the great melodramatic late Victorians and an “Edwardian meteor.” And however overcooked we might find their social self-celebrations, however overheated their prose, there is no denying the fact that Lady Desborough, who has lost two of her three sons, and Shaw Stewart, who has lost the four friends he names (and many others), are united by harrowing and tremendous loss.

But, once more at the front, his letters–and loves–seem to have fallen into a more predictable course. Perhaps Diana was frustratingly cold when he was in England, but now, in the trenches, where it is bitterly cold in all too unmetaphorical sense, the old habit of reaching out to her, of telling his days to her, is still of great comfort: she is completely unobtainable, but the thoughts still warm him, perhaps. Shaw Stewart, ever the classicist, makes a nice tale of an ordinary, if severe, unpleasantness of winter duty:

Church Parade at 11 am… I thoughtfully issued an order that great-coats might be worn; then, proceeding through the icy blast to put on my own–the one you know too well–I found it caked with mud and the blood of my faithful uncomplaining horse. So, mindful of Hector’s rule that “it is impossible to make prayer to Zeus, lord of the clouds, all bespattered with mud and filth,”[5] I attended without, and nearly died of cold, besides having to sing to hymns without the band…

I inherited Oc’s half-shed and succeeded in putting on first, silk pyjamas, then flannel pyjamas, and then a fur lining, and then everything else on top, and in not waking more than twice in the night feeling cold…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 261.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 188-9.
  3. Diaries, 380-1.
  4. I think; the dating is not terribly clear. Oh for uniformly prim footnoting!
  5. Iliad VI, c. 263.
  6. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 236-8.

The Master of Belhaven Aghast; George Coppard in (and out) of Danger; Jack Martin at Rest, Siegfried Sassoon in the Field, and Cynthia Asquith on the Stage

A peripatetic day, today, a century back. But first we should tidy up matters on the Western Front.

The Master of Belhaven is doomed to remain on the outskirts of the battle of Cambrai, now in what is essentially its final day.

An intense bombardment began at 5 o’clock, but I don’t know who is attacking. It is still raging now at midday…

The current action will remain opaque to Hamilton, but he meets one of his former subordinates who lost his guns in the initial German counterattack. Perhaps he should have known not to trust what he was reading in the papers when away from the front.

The disaster seems to have been much worse than we have been told… There is no doubt this is the worst reverse the British Army has ever had in France. I believe we lost about 4,000 prisoners, but it is impossible to get any reliable information.

It’s still not so easy, in such cases where entire battalions melt away and brigades are surrounded–but the real number of prisoners was probably about 6,000.

The cold is something dreadful, thick ice everywhere–I can hardly hold a pen to write.[1]

Which also explains why “major offensive operations” are over for the winter.

More irony: just as Hamilton learns that things have been wildly out of control, they are once again stabilizing. Although the German counter-attack will continue, it was essentially forestalled by Haig with the expedient decision to retire–i.e. retreat–along most of the line, falling back onto defensible positions not all that different from the start line of November 20th.

Two more days of fighting will lead to a stalemate with little net change of position. In fact, in what is as neat an irony of attrition as one could wish, the situation is probably worse for the infantry on both sides, as on one section of the line the British held early gains while on another they ceded more than a mile of territory to the Germans, resulting in a double salient. Which meant that both sides could pound the new lines with mortars and machine guns from multiple angles and closer distances.

 

But we left George Coppard in a bad way, in hospital, and the operating theatre under preparation.

When I came to my senses the following morning my mother and grandmother were sitting beside the bed. There was a basket affair over my leg and I thought the leg had been amputated, but I was soon put at ease on that score. Happy though I was to see my folks I had no inclination to talk. A policeman had informed them that I was on the danger list, and had handed them free rail passes from Croydon to Birkenhead. They stayed for two days, but money was tight and they had to return home… I had discovered that getting a “Blighty one” was not always what it was cracked up to be…[2]

Coppard will suffer another major bleeding incident in a few days, but after that third loss of blood, his recovery, though slow, will proceed without major interruptions…

 

Next we check in on Jack Martin, who is enjoying the slower pace of life in Italy:

An Italian Labour Company is working in our vicinity making trenches and barbed wire entanglements, and they are making them well. It is amusing to see how they scuttle for shelter at the slightest alarm. We cannot help laughing as, compared with Ypres and the Somme, this is like being back at rest.[3]

 

But, of course, not actually like being at rest. That would be more like what Siegfried Sassoon is doing, in his own active fashion:

Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday. Monday December 3 went to Lewes and hunted with Southdown at
Offham. Poor day: very sharp frost. Stayed at Middleham.[4]

I’m glad that Sassoon, on this bit of leave which he was awarded after his four-month stay as a (healthy) hospital patient, is able to complain about the effects of the cold. Soon, no doubt, like the Master of Belhaven, he will be sharing the ill-effects of such weather with the men for whom he made that protest…

 

To London, now, and our second excerpt from the diary of Lady Cynthia Asquith, who bears (and bares) the vicissitudes of the privileged in wartime with perhaps a bit more tongue-in-cheek bravado than Sassoon. I’m not really sure, if I happened to enjoy mounted blood sports, whether I would consider a frigid and poor hunt a worse day out than what seems to be some sort of ill-conceived society fundraiser… a close call, no dout:

Monday, 3rd December

… Lunched in and had to go off to the Albert Hall for the Tombola–the worst of all the horrors of war. We, the Seven Ages of Women—Self (carrying baby) Erlanger child (flapper), Sonia Keppel (debutante), Diana (betrothed). Ruby (mother), Belgian woman (queen of the household), and Baroness D’Erlanger (old lady)—dressed and made up in the most preposterous discomfort in a curtained-off space…

Basil Gill (as Old Father Time) had to recite the most appalling doggerel verses—one for each of us—and one by one (me first, carrying that damned baby) we had to walk through columns on a stage before a dense, gaping crowd. Never have I felt so great a fool!

And then there is more silliness and naughty decadence. Or not: perhaps we should be reading this as a frightening situation of sexual aggression sanctioned by social attitudes. Asquith has admitted to an attraction to Bernard Freyberg, the comrade of her friends and relatives, but it’s unclear to what extent she is being harassed or pressured by him, in the absence of her husband.

Ava Astor drove me home. Mary Strickland, Oc, and I dined with Freyberg at Claridges. Mamma called for Mary and took her off; Oc, Freyberg, and I sat and talked—discussing marriage, and so on—then we dropped Oc at the Manners’ and Freyberg insisted on coming into the flat. I oughtn’t to have let him, but he commands me like a subaltern. I had an awfully difficult time with him. He stayed till 1.30.[5]

 

Finally, today–for those growing tired of society diaries and poetry fragments–there happens to be an old-fashioned war yarn in the short story collection Everyman at War entitled “La Vacquerie, December 3rd, 1917.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 416-7.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 131.
  3. Sapper Martin, 150.
  4. Diaries, 197.
  5. Diaries, 375-6.

Dr. Dunn on Passchendaele: Unburyable Corpses and Magical Light; George Coppard in Blighty; Phillip Maddison at Cambrai; The Master Learns the Cathedral

Today, a century back, George Coppard, shot through the leg during the battle of Cambrai, arrived at Birkenhead Borough Hospital:

It was not a fancy place, but after the turmoil of war it seemed as near to heaven as I was likely to get. Britain was still celebrating the victory of the the Third Army [at Cambrai] and the bells of the churches had rung out in praise. At that time the tank thrust was regarded as the first real turn of the tide against German might… fresh from the fray, I attracted my little share of attention from the visitors and nursing staff… but there was trouble ahead.

And not just with the strategic failures at Cambrai; Coppard’s wound, which has severed the femoral artery and been staunched by his own none-too-sterile thumb, was both too deep to easily repair and liable to infection…[1]

 

Cambraiis no victory–but at least it took us away from Passchendaele. Remember Passchendaele? Tens of thousands of infantrymen are still there, holding the miserable wasteland into the winter. Today brings one of the most striking passages in Dr. Dunn’s narrative of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers. He[2] has been on leave and, returning, is struck anew by the sheer wretchedness of the battlefield. Dunn would never make such a dramatic statement, but… only men could make such a hell.

At dawn I went with Radford round part of the line. Many scarcely recognizable dead lie about, a few of them Germans. Passchendaele is not quite levelled… Mud flows through entrances, and rain drops through the cracked cemented-brick floors roofing the cellars, on to the occupants… When the position is overlooked the men are pinned down by day, and numbed with cold by day and night… In the morning some of our planes came over in an objectless-looking way…

A rapidly filling cemetery… is a most unrestful place. It is the labour of a squad to keep the dead in their graves. A sapper officer was killed and buried in the morning; his tormented body had to be reburied twice during the day.

The next line comes as a shock. But should it?

But for all the havoc up here the effect of a glint of sunshine on the waste is magical.[3]

 

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is in Amiens, on the way back from an officers’ course in England.

Let’s see: misery, destruction, attrition, mass death… all modern and unavoidable, now. But perhaps one of the more overlooked ways in which the Great War qualifies as the first modern war is that the regular rotations of leaves and courses–and habits like tourism while on military journeys–rarely stop.

I had a good lunch there and went to see the Cathedral with an excellent guide-book. I spent an hour there and discovered all sorts of interesting things that I did not know before…

He will reach his batteries, still on a quiet sector of the Somme, after midnight…[4]

 

Finally, today, Henry Williamson is still in England on Home Service, but Phillip Maddison, his tireless alter ego, is drawing nearer to the cauldron of Cambrai. His “diary,” which fills several pages of the novel Love and the Loveless at this point, is an improbably knowledgeable (he is still, despite his brush with greatness, a mere lieutenant charged with resupplying a Machine Gun Company currently in reserve) crib from the history books, explaining all the movements of, for instance, the Guards in Bourlon Wood.

But tonight the company moves up, and Williamson writes a long scene full of many familiar elements–the confusion of a night relief, the misery of a march under fire–and some stranger ones, such as the description of horses and mules “screaming” through their gas masks. When the German counter-attack breaks through, Phillip will be, as always, on the scene.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 130.
  2. I believe it's Dunn himself; it's sometimes difficult to tell who the "speaker" is.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 417.
  4. War Diary, 414.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.

J.R. Ackerley Bids His Brother Farewell; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XVI: Ivor Gurney and the Protest of the Physical Against the Exalted Spiritual; Charles Scott Moncrieff in Amiens; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Line

It’s another one of those unexpectedly bountiful days in which a central writer is busily writing important poems while other diarists insist upon having the sort of experiences we can’t leave unrecorded…

 

Briefly then, through our first two. We find Charles Scott Moncrieff ill and in Amiens… and distinctly unimpressed. Perhaps it is the mark of the true Francophile (or, at least, the self-consciously discerning tourist) to be breezy about attractions like the great cathedral:

No. 1 N.Z. Stationary Hospital,
B.E.F., Amiens,
14th February, 1917.

. . . I went out to-day and saw the Cathedral, which certainly is very perfect and harmonious, walked the streets for a couple of hours and bought some books…[1]

 

And my own desire to forgo lengthy typing and move on to two important sonnets and a stark first-hand tale of loss and death will contribute, now, to Edwin Vaughan‘s persistent experience of anti-climax. Tonight, a century, back, he will reach the front line trenches at last, and I’ll cut down his diary by more than half…

It as a long and winding trench, which rather bewildered me, for the scattered sentry posts seemed to face in all directions… We hit the front-line trench at right angles, and almost opposite was another cellar into which Hatwell had disappeared in a moment.

I hardly noticed the troops melting away into different directions, but suddenly found myself quite alone outside the cellar. For a quarter of an hour I sat up against the side of the trench, soaking in the atmosphere. It was quite dark and damp, around my feet the mud was six inches deep, and above me I could see only the faint outline of the parapet all jagged and broken with bricks and stumps and over it the dim silhouette of loose wire. Occasionally a huge rat would scamper past, or a couple of men would stagger by, swearing gently at their load of sandbags or stakes. All was deathly quiet except for the low voices in the dugout or the faint click of a bayonet against a steel hat.[2]

Vaughan later tours the positions on the line, finding a number of men quietly and efficiently doing their work, the sentries watching the Germans intently, all business. Returning to the dugout, Vaughan reconsiders his attitude:

 When we had been out of the line, I had despised these officers and NCOs and criticized the men, but now I realized that I was the most useless object in the Company… still confused, wondering and fearful.

I drank several whiskies and dozed for an hour or two…[3]

 

Now for poetry. Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back, continuing his new project of a counter-Brookean sonnet sequence.

14 February 1917

My Dear Miss Scott:

…The fates have been kind to me, and still leave me as canteen attendant; which means that though freezing one has time to oneself, and are off those confounded cleaning parades, which so gnaw at my life.

How are you and your influenza now? There can be little gadding about for you anyway, yet who knows what February may bring — that sometimes is so kind and smiles like Spring. Well, good luck to both of us, as I fancy cold is little good to either. And your book, tient-il? If you can sit up and refound musical literature, things will not be so bad; it would be like a Nice Blighty, which I do most heartily desire the Lord to send myself. Anyway do not get too ill to write…

This, I’ll wager, is Gurney being charmingly/winkingly, rather than obnoxiously/obliviously, self-centered.

There is more literature in this letter, but not yet. The literal translation of the pretty name of this place is The Star, and there are Earthworks all round, remains of 1870. Soon we go up again to the trouble; soon Fritz will be hurling high explosive compliments at us with gusto, and we close to the parapets. Well, tres bien, if there is no soft job, the hard one must do, but the first is better.

The title of the book I would prefer to be “Songs from Exile, or Songs from the Second Fifth” as subtitle. That is the real title, and besides, the second needs writing up to which I am unwilling to do.

This would be the first book of poems, which Scott is preparing for him. Now, then, for nos. 2 and 3 of the counter-attack on Rupert Brooke:

Home-sickness

When we go wandering the wide air’s blue spaces,
Bare, unhappy, exiled souls of men;
How will our thoughts over and over again
Return to Earth’s familiar lovely places.
Where light with shadow ever interlaces
No blanks of blue, nor ways beyond man’s ken —
Where birds are, and flowers; as violet, and wren,
Blackbird, bluebell, hedgesparrow, tiny daisies,
O tiny things, but very stuff of soul
To us . . . so frail. . . Remember what we are;
Set us not on some strange outlandish star.
But one love-responsive. Give us a Home.
There we may wait while the long ages roll
Content, unfrightened by vast Time-to-come.

The direct appeal to the reader here is striking, but perhaps not to every taste. We might dismiss it as almost maudlin, and hardly much of an improvement upon Brooke–a romanticizing of soldierly estrangement and suffering in exchange for a romanticizing of soldierly sacrifice.

So leave aside the ending, if it doesn’t suit; it’s the stuff of the appeal that matters. Until recently, Gurney has been dreamily, gauzily idealizing the countryside of his native Gloucestershire whenever he picks up his poet’s pen. Which is all very nice, but far from the war, no? But now he is bringing that loyalty to bear, mobilizing the stored energy produced by all that beauty, those lightly lovely birds and flowers, to say something about the war. We might miss it, if we didn’t have the Brookean intertext (apologies!): this isn’t about death and the harm-obscuring vision of a foreign-field-that-might-be, neatly adorned with English birds and flowers. It’s about drawing connections from a trench-that-is–a real trench, in a real corner of an actual French field–a trench that shelters living, frightened Englishmen all the way back to the memories of Home that might sustain them… These are day-dreaming, homesick men, looking for solace. They are not ghosts, yet, and they don’t seem enamored of the idea of their death, beautiful and meaningful or otherwise. Gurney is sacrificing his present comfort, his strength, his health; he’s not willing to dwell prettily on the likelihood that he will be dead soon, and call that a sacrifice as well…

If this sonnet re-connects to England in a different way, the next one–taking the sharply divided Petrarchan form–works around that new connection until it’s an unyielding grapple that forces us to confront the dreary misery of real soldiering…  before releasing us, suddenly, to remind us what the homesick man relies upon most: not thoughts of England, but other Englishmen.

 

Servitude

It it were not for England, who would bear
This heavy servitude one moment more?
To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor
Of filthiest hovels were noble to compare
With this brass-cleaning life. Now here, now there
Harried in foolishness, scanned curiously o’er
By fools made brazen by conceit, and store
Of antique witticisms thin and bare.

Only the love of comrades sweetens all.
Whose laughing spirit will not be outdone.
As night-watching men wait for the sun
To hearten them, so wait I on such boys
As neither brass nor Bosches may appall.
Nor guns, nor sergeant-major’s bluster and noise.

 

This is something new indeed. The old sonnet (Gurney’s spelling is… unusual) refurbished rather than merely dusted off. Only the love of comrades–and the brutal opposition of all things red-tabbed and unfeeling, explosive and chickenshit–could breathe new life into the form. But I should hush and let the poet explain:

These Sonnetts. For England. Pain. Homesickness. Servitude, and one other; are intended to be a sort of counterblast against “Sonnetts 1914”, which were written before the grind of the war and by an officer (or one who would have been an officer).

Thus far, Gurney’s claims are both radical and traditional. Down with the officer class and the privileged poet? Perhaps, but, so far, only on the strength of a claim to an alternate source of authority: these are the poems of a veteran, and of a soldier–one who bears the grind, and grinds no one in return.

Better, even:

They are the protest of the physical against the exalted spiritual; of the cumulative weight of small facts against the one large. Of informed opinion against uninformed (to put it coarsely and unfairly) and fill a place. Old ladies wont like them, but soldiers may, and these things are written either for soldiers or civilians as well informed as the French what “a young fresh war” means. (Or was it “frische (joyful) Krieg”. I cant remember, but something like it was written by the tame Germans in 1914.) I know perfectly well how my attitude will appear, but — They will be called “Sonnetts 1917.”

A counter-blast indeed, although a fairly restrained one, given what poetry will come. The civilians themselves are not attacked, and the sensitive among them are invited to join the side of virtue, of solidarity.

Is this, then, a “political” gesture? Not really–certainly not primarily. I don’t think these sonnets would have arrived just because Brooke’s themes–the beauty of sacrifice, the moral cleanliness of heading off to war–now feel outdated. There’s a poetic axe to grind, too.

Gurney had initially admired Brooke’s sonnets, after crossing paths with them in Edward Thomas’s review, but he had later turned rather decisively against them, writing one of his own first sonnets in a mood of resistance that both presaged this “counter-blast” and invoked Hardy.[4] As Thomas realized, as Sorley damningly pointed out, Brooke was “far too obsessed with his own sacrifice.” Gurney has come to write not of the soldier’s (i.e. the officer’s) inner beliefs but of the men who are two and a half years into shouldering a painful, nasty burden–and of his love for them.

But that’s not all, folks. Unless he misdated one or another of his letters (not unthinkable at all), Gurney received a letter from Scott and then sat down to write her another:

14 February 1917

My Dear Friend:

Thank you so much for your letter of the 5th of Feb…

…Most of the spare time till now has been in cleaning, always cleaning equipment. For anyone with more sensibility than the yokel it is a life infinitely full of pain. Whether the wind blows gales of icy needles with the temperature below zero; always the same. And no fires now, in most billets: From this, you will gather that “Rest” is merely a technical term. If you will take the trouble to copy out all those things one by one, please do so, and thank you — but dont write shorter letters because of it.

I shall be content if you attend to all matters of punctuation and merely ask my opinion on doubtful points. The name, as I have said is

Songs in Exile

or Songs from the Second-Fifth

The first poem will be To Certain Comrades; the last poems, the five sonnetts. (Perhaps an Envoi also.) Any poem you think needs correction, send on, and fear nothing…

So the sonnets are to close his first volume.

Gurney seems to wander, now, in his thoughts, but he was also discussing books in the previous letter, and it would seem now as if Scott has inquired after his reading. And who am I to delete a reference that suits my notions of Honesty and Influence in Great War Literature? After that, Gurney trails off into his post-war hopes–he is a composer too, we must remember.

“Under the Greenwood Tree” is perfectly charming, and very Shakespearean in feeling I think. Hardy is a marvel…

With these beautiful days it becomes more of a loss to feel music and books so far away, and my county. And the days slipping past so quickly in which I ought to acquire technique and get rhythm into my mind. Once I get back, for a while I will simply reek songs; mere exudations; while I study hard Wagner and Rachmaninoff and the Russians; also the 3 B’s and Folk Song for pleasure; and Chopin for piano technique. But, Time, you are so slow, and hold the secrets of doubtful things not yet disclosed…

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[5]

 

Last and certainly not least, it’s a terrible day in the life or a writer whose great reputation rests far from his war writing. When we last heard from J.R. Ackerley, he was recounting his wounding during the disaster of the First Day on the Somme (he also later wrote verse about that morning). There are few dates in his memoir, and little in his written record that can fix him here, a century back. But today, well, there is.

In the meantime, Ackerley has recovered from the Somme–in body, at least–and learned to live awkwardly as an undeserving hero. And he has been promoted.

Yet so strange are we in our inconsistencies that I was not happy in Blighty and, in a few months’ time, got myself sent back to France.

So he has been enduring this brutal winter, but not alone: nearly two months ago, his brother Peter–older, but behind in his military progress due to an injury–joined him in the 8th East Surreys. So elder saluted younger, “gladly and conscientiously.” As our J.R. Ackerley–younger brother Joe–notes with cold irony, the only reason that he has obtained the rank of captain and Company Commander is because everyone else was killed on July 1st.

And then we come to today, a century back, and a very local attack to be mounted on a German position near Miraumont.

In front of my trenches, some four or five hundred yards away and slightly to the left, there was a bulge or salient in the German lines known as Point 85. It was a tiresome object, for it commanded a dangerous enfilading position down the trenches of the battalion next door.

Just the sort of thing for a quick surprise rush attack, needing only a platoon, and a likely subaltern to lead it.

We know what will happen, and Ackerley’s tone and voice erase any doubt…

…my brother got the job. Did he actually volunteer for it? It is one of the many things I am not clear about, but I fancy that he did. At any rate it is the sort of thing he would have done–and the very thing he wanted… he must have been longing to prove himself, and here was a situation which would have appealed to the actor in him, drama indeed, the lime-lit moment, himself in the leading role, all eyes on him. At all events, the result was that I had to make arrangements for him and his platoon to take off from my front line…

The stage was therefore fatefully set, and my brother bungled his entrance.

The newcomer is unaware that the jumping-off point, his brother’s dugout in Boom Ravine, is–much like the deep dugout not far away which recently sheltered Wilfred Owen–under the thumb of the German artillery. It is a German dugout, and thus deep and safe, but with its location is precisely known. So the shells never miss by much. What’s worse,

Unknown to him, the poor boy’s watch had stopped… his troops could be heard chatting, coughing, grousing, and clattering their equipment in the ravine above, all the welcome he got was a rough ticking off from Major Wightman who sent him flying back upstairs to deploy and silence his men.

I remember my brother when he returned standing before me in the candlelight, bunched up in his Burberry and equipment, loaded with hand-grenades and stuck about with a revolver, wire-cutters and Very pistol, his cap set jauntily at an angle. His visit, now that he was late, was of the briefest…

I offered him a quick drink, I remember; he said, “No thanks, I’ll take my rum with the men,” Then, could we swap watches, his own being unreliable. He would return mine afterwards, he said.  A heroic remark, and as I helped him strap on my watch, probably we both saw it unbuckled from his dead wrist. But then it was impossible to speak the most commonplace word or makes the most ordinary gesture without its at once acquiring the heavy over-emphasis of melodrama…

Then my brother’s hand thrust out to shake my own, his twisty smile, my “Good luck,” his jocular salute. “Don’t worry, sir,” said he to the Major as he left. It was his only piece of self-indulgence. His thin putteed legs retreated up the dugout steps and the sack curtain swung to behind him. I never saw him again.[6]

Ackerley doesn’t so much mask his grief as shrug his shoulders at it. What can be done?[7]

Peter Ackerley was shot during an attempt to take point 85, a tiny preliminary to a larger assault a few days hence. The battalion war diary notes that the attack began at 5:45.

5 minutes later a counter barrage opened up… Phone lines were cut immediately and runners were sent to HQ. The situation was very obscure and 2/Lt Ackerley was wounded and about 6 of his men were seen to have reached point 85.

When exactly he died is not clear… but his brother, Joe, our observer in the trench, our writer, seems certain that his brother has been killed

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 124.
  2. This is one of the many details that I find strange... are these fixed bayonets? If so, why, in the middle of the night? Or are both worn loose on a man's webbing? This section of the diary reads like stage directions for an atmospheric trench play... but then again there is all that stuff about "The Theater of War..."
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 27-30.
  4. But Gurney's opinion of Hardy wavered over time as well. These dramatic shifts in critical allegiance could--but needn't--be connected to general mental instability. It's more just, I think, to represent Gurney as a man of passionate moods, broadly construed.
  5. War Letters, 128-2.
  6. My Father and Myself, 80-4.
  7. A spoiler, for those not familiar with Ackerley: the memoir, written long after, is regarded as a masterpiece, but the war figures only for its most horrible, salient days. Immediately after the story of Peter's raid Ackerley launches into a long disquisition on the nature of history and literature. He reads his 30-year old manuscript describing today and wonders what could have been "true" then, what is "true" now, and what remains in his memory... an excellent contribution to the discussion of "binary vision," not less valuable for being brief and agnostic. I'll have more on this tomorrow; I have also edited the original post so as to do less damage to... history while still following the effect of Ackerley's literary choices.

Edward Thomas Arrives

Edward Thomas has been busy these last two weeks with the complicated business of moving a battery of four big guns–and all their crew and impedimenta–from rural England to their positions on the firing line. But they have arrived, now, and are here to stay.

…Making latrines. With Debenham of 146 to see O.P.s and what was visible from them…

What could be more evocative of military arrival than seeing to the digging of latrines? But it’s the O.P.s that make it clear that combat is near. Observation Posts are forward positions from which junior artillery officers watch their targets and direct the fire of their battery by observing the “fall of shot.” Any position from which the enemy line can be seen is a dangerous position, usually in among their own front line trenches–which explains the next observations in Thomas’s diary:

…one dead man under railway bridge. Maison brulé[e] dangerous. Map, field glass and compass over snowy broken land with posts and wires and dead trees. No infantry visible in our lines or Germans, except those we passed in trenches…[1]

Thomas doesn’t make much of this observation (apologies), but the fact that he jotted it down indicates, perhaps, sheepish surprise. Of course: with this much artillery about–not to mention the snipers who probably accounted for that first corpse–being visible is untenable. This muted diary entry is one of the lowest-key versions we have seen of the culmination of one man’s first approach to the trenches. As an artillery officer, he will not generally get closer than a forward O.P.

But the battery is not in action yet, and Thomas had time for two lengthy letters today, a century back.

Feb 10
My dear Eleanor,

Will you send me a village almanac and a portrait of Queen Victoria to hang on the walls of our billet and a Family Bible for the window table? Otherwise we lack nothing here. We have crept slowly, uncomfortably, but to me amusingly up to our fighting position, often cold, never certain of the next 24 hours, picknicking, pigging it, and arrived at last yesterday afternoon. We officers are in a farmhouse alongside a main road leading to a cathedral town 2 miles off. We are warm but have no other luxuries. We are part of the target of the German artillery 3 miles or so to the east of us; their shellholes are common behind us and the shells rattle our windows frequently, while friendly batteries shoot over our heads. We have become a fairly jolly party.

A very nice description of the approach, which Farjeon has no doubt been waiting anxiously for–the cathedral town is Arras. And having reached that frank confession of danger–his battery will be a target–he swerves away. But he will circle back.

If I sometimes portray Thomas, a powerful poet with an aura of quiet misery about him, as something of a sage–older than most new officers, immune to unreflective enthusiasm, wise beyond his years–we should remember that he is nevertheless a man facing the test of enemy fire for the first time in his life. I believed he would stand it, and he probably believed he would stand it, but one never knows until one is actually there…

The weather is continually very cold but clear and not windy and the nights are glorious.

My work has been odd jobs of selecting billets for the men (mostly barns) and putting the men in, superintending jobs, signing orders etc. till today we had to go into the trenches to examine some observation posts and see what could be seen from them. I was with an officer from another battery and did some interesting work with maps. We got disturbed by trench mortars, but were not sniped at. I am fairly pleased at not being made at all uncomfortable sitting in a ruin within easy range of the Huns.

“Not… at all uncomfortable.” This is wryly quiet, as is the next bit. Why has Thomas come to war, when he could have avoided it at so many turnings? In part, of course, to see what he could see. He’s a man after all, and a poet. So?

I could not see a living thing, only snow, posts and barbed wire, a dark shadowline marking the enemy trench, a line of trees and houses along a road behind. The only men we saw were around corners of the trenches as we passed, and there was one dead man lying like a monument covered with sacking.

I enjoyed the exercise, the work with map and fieldglass, the scene, the weather, and the sense of being able to do a new job. I am going again tomorrow and then I shall have to take our own officers round. I foresee I shall be let in for a good deal of this kind of work.

Altogether I have never seen or done anything out of doors more exciting or interesting and not much more pleasant.

But Nobody has had a letter or parcel since leaving England and I believe I am trying harder than I know not to be impatient.

Give my love to your Mother and Bertie and Joan and Maitland.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas

To Farjeon, this letter “shows clearly” how well-suited Thomas was to the work he will now do. Can this be true? Yes, but only if one averts one’s eyes just a bit–just a crucial bit–from (to paraphrase John Keegan) what an artillery officer is there for. Edward Thomas has escaped depression, and found a form of service where he is useful and well-liked and reasonably happy in his minute-to-minute activities because he is meaningfully employed and efficient.

But this efficiency, viewed head-on, is directed toward only one thing: achieving the violent death of other men a few miles away.

The view from Farjeon’s averted gaze otherwise makes sense: he was “fitted for it by years spent in the open air on all roads in all weathers, of field-work and observation, of mixing naturally with uncomplicated people, of doing practical things in the elements…” Yes; it is easy to understand what can make us happy in our day’s work, and hard to imagine how we ever came to this.[2]

 

Thomas also wrote to his parents today, in a considerably different voice. Even an elderly sage (he’s thirty-eight) can’t write home to his mother without minimizing danger and asking for cake…

Dainville | 10 February 1917

Dear Father and Mother,

We have reached our position. It has been by such easy stages that now the real thing is no worse than Codford. Our actual billets are a mile from the guns and they are really comfortable and warm. My servant, a country carpenter from Oxford, is very handy and zealous and we have–or I have—nothing to complain of. I have just had a day in the trenches looking from Observation Posts and examining the country with map, compass and fieldglass. I found the work interesting and I could tumble to it easily. Nor did I mind being in dangerous places. In fact I just had a good day in beautiful cold weather and was privately very pleased to have done my first day of the real thing.

We are on a main road at the edge of a village on fairly high ground close to a cathedral town. We are being shelled, but not in very great danger. The noise of shells arriving (or departing from our own batteries) does not trouble me and I am really contented with everything except the entire absence of letters. So far no letters have reached 244 Battery since it left Codford. Now that we are settled we ought to get them soon.

I am sorry to say the men are never warm at night and nothing can be done to improve their condition. Also the food is not very abundant and is practically just meat and bread and tea. They say everything at present is sacrificed to ammunition. Even bread is scarce and the men have mostly hard biscuit—which suits-me personally very well. The other officers mostly want a lot of extras and unfortunately the expense is borne equally by all. There is nothing I want except that I wish you would order The Times to be sent to ‘244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France’. If you do send a parcel please include tracing paper or better still some blue tracing linen.

If you send any eatables I should like cake and butter.

All is well. This part of the line is not very busy at present—chiefly artillery work. I saw only one dead man, killed by a sniper to-day. The infantry are doing nothing.

I wish I knew you were all well. My love to every one

Edwy[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 161.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 247-8.
  3. Selected Letters, 135-6.

Siegfried Sassoon Makes a Hardy Request, and We Look A Century Back and Two Hundred Years After; Wilfred Owen Exposed, and Emboldened

A momentous day, today, a century back, in Great War Writing-Land. Or, rather, an overture to an important new movement, a bridging of the gulf, an act of loyal defection in the conflict of the generations.

Why has Siegfried Sassoon been so unconcerned about his friend’s new poetic friendship–about the fact that Robert Graves will be a dedicatee of Robert Nichols‘s new book?  (And if Sassoon knew Edward Thomas–he does not!–there would be Thomas’s upcoming dedication to Frost to be worried about too. But these are different circles…)

And it’s not just friendships. What about posturing? Why hasn’t Sassoon, like Richard Aldington, gotten those old-fashioned poets firmly in his sights? If he isn’t arrayed against some poetic malefactor(s), how is he to make a successful modern poet of himself?

Well, well: because he’s been working another angle. His respect and admiration for Thomas Hardy is sincere, but it is no doubt useful that Sassoon’s uncle is a friend of Hardy’s, and has carved a bust of him. That introduction paved a way for a first reading, and then for a request which Sassoon must have made right about the time that Graves departed for France. Here is Hardy’s reply:

Max Gate, Dorchester. February 4, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

I am pleased that you should care to inscribe your coming book of poems to me, which of course you have my permission to do—if you think it worth while!

Many thanks for enclosing the proof of the little one about Corbie Ridge (I don’t know where that is.)

I hope the weather will be milder before you go back to France, & that you may have good luck over there.

Sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy[1]

There is something amusingly fussy about Hardy’s parenthetical remark. Well, of course he doesn’t know where Corbie Ridge is, and while a century on he might peck it into the search bar one key at a time and then be instantaneously better informed (and be able to affect knowingness about all the place-names of the Western Front in his reply) he’s not about to hustle down to the library and page through back issues just to discover what part of the line Sassoon is referring to.

But let that be. What about the poem, and the gesture of dedication? Sassoon has not been dwelling on Hardy, lately, but he is certainly more than just a conveniently famous family friend. He’s a great poet… and yet his only comment is to note his ignorance about Corbie Ridge? No kind words on the poem itself? Is there evidence of the craftsman’s promise, here?

But Hardy says nothing encouraging. And it was a well-chosen poem, too. Neither one of Sassoon’s older-fashioned pretty laments, nor one of his sharp new satires, Sassoon had sent a most Hardy-like poem. It is Sassoon-like as well, with the mud and the long retrospect, but is it too obviously an apprentice Satire of Circumstance?

 

Two Hundred Years After

Trudging by Corbie Ridge one winter’s night,
(Unless old hearsay memories tricked his sight)
Along the pallid edge of the quiet sky
He watched a nosing lorry grinding on,
And straggling files of men; when these were gone,
A double limber and six mules went by,
Hauling the rations up through ruts and mud
To trench-lines digged two hundred years ago.
Then darkness hid them with a rainy scud,
And soon he saw the village lights below.

But when he’d told his tale, an old man said
That he’d seen soldiers pass along that hill;
‘Poor silent things, they were the English dead
Who came to fight in France and got their fill.’

 

Read in this fashion, in this context, it’s a fair bet that Hardy saw the poem and worried that he might have a fawning imitator on his hands. Sassoon is promising–his verse is always smooth. But this scene, first imagined in June–the setting out on the cold downs, the trudging mules and hunched men and fatalistic rain (never mind the lorry!)–and then the reveal, in the final quatrain, that they are ghosts, futile ghosts, and that their war will never end–this scene could be titled “A Soldier’s Post-Script to Mr. Thomas Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance.” So Hardy, I think, is wary.

But how could we not be pleased? We must be. It is only a slight bit of imaginative hyperbole (two hundred years?!?!) that keeps this poem from being something like a joint standard-bearer (a tent-pole? an optio? the column at the other end of the pediment?) for A Century Back. Our namesake poem is Hardy’s At Lulworth Cove a Century Back, with its poets and ghosts and time-travel… if Sassoon had opted for the relatively restrained future-contemplation of a single century, then the parallel would be irresistible.

As things stand, in Dorset and Litherland, young Sassoon is on probation, I think–the twain are in mutual regard, but not convergence. And yet Sassoon’s forthcoming book is cleared to carry a dedication to the greatest living angry-fatalist poet…

 

We take one more step back down the chain of connection, now, to another even younger poet who is yet to converge with any of our other writers. But Wilfred Owen is making great strides nonetheless. In today’s letter to his mother winter hardships are the seeds of a poem, and percolating thoughts of that poem lead Owen closer toward a major statement against the war.

Sunday, 4 February 1917 [Advanced Horse Transport Depot]

My own dear Mother,

…since my last letter I have had another, strong dose of the advanced Front Line.

To begin with, I have come out quite unhurt, except for a touch of dysentery, which is now passed, and a severe cold and cough which keep me in bed today.

I have no mind to describe all the horrors of this last Tour. But it was almost wusser than the first, because in this place my Platoon had no Dug-Outs, but had to lie in the snow under the deadly wind. By day it was impossible to stand up or even crawl about because we were behind only a little ridge screening us from the Bosches periscope.

The bit of baby talk–“wusser” for “worse”–is discordant now where it wouldn’t have been a few weeks ago. Wilfred continues to write home to mum, and to complain, but this letter includes deep misery and death, and he is already mulling over the meaning of it all.

We had 5 Tommy’s cookers between the Platoon, but they did not suffice to melt the ice in the water-cans. So we suffered cruelly from thirst.

The marvel is that we did not all die of cold. As a matter of fact, only one of my party actually froze to death before he could be got back but I am not able to tell how many have ended in hospital. I had no real casualties from shelling, though for 10 minutes every hour, whizz-bangs fell a few yards short of us. Showers of soil rained on us, but no fragments of shell could find us.

Owen now waxes almost mystical:

I had lost my gloves in a dug-out, but I found 1 mitten on the Field; I had my Trench Coat (without lining but with a Jerkin, underneath.) My feet ached until they could ache no more, and so they temporarily died. I was kept warm by the ardour of Life within me. I forgot hunger in the hunger for Life. The intensity of your Love reached me and kept me living. I thought of you and Mary without a break all the time. I cannot say I felt any fear. We were all half-crazed by the buffetting of the High Explosives, I think the most unpleasant reflection that weighed on me was the impossibility of getting back any wounded, a total impossibility all day, and frightfully difficult by night.

We were marooned on a frozen desert.

There is not a sign of life on the horizon and a thousand signs of death. Not a blade of grass, not an insect; once or twice a day the shadow of big hawk, scenting carrion.

This is quite dramatic. Not that the misery and fear of holding such a line in such weather doesn’t merit such drama… it just seems as if he is straining for effect. It will feel very different, however, in verse. Owen may have begun working on the poem that would come to be “Exposure” within a day or two of today, a century back.

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
       But nothing happens.
The poem, the first in which Owen sets out to portray something of the range of trench experience in verse, will also be the first in which he directly addresses, in apostrophe, his swift disillusionment:

 

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
       What are we doing here?

 

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .

We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
       But nothing happens.

 

Needless to say, perhaps, but this is more than just a dawn recorded. Dawn is for poets–full of hope, full of meaning, pregnant with larks straining at the muse’s leash, ready to leap to the sky. “But nothing happens.”
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
       But nothing happens.

 

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
       —Is it that we are dying?

 

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
       We turn back to our dying.

 

Well, so, there is melodrama, too, with that blackbird nattering out any hope. There is something not quite right here, a serious problem of tone. He affects to speak for all of his men–“we… we… our… our…”–but if he is to succeed in that, he will need a different sort of voice. Not the gruff or cheerful or stoic Bairnsfathery voice, but something much farther away from lyrical narcissism. This poem begins to bring some notes of wartime experience over into literature, but the voice is still innocent, if only because it is so self-regarding. Unconsciously, perhaps, we read “I” for all this “we.”
I don’t understand the force of the religious appeal in the penultimate stanza, but the last paragraph, despite the poem’s flaws, has real emotional power. As we will see, when we return to the letter, his sense of outrage–of a distaste or disgust, of a horror that not only merits but demands action–has outpaced his style.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
       For love of God seems dying.

 

Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
       But nothing happens.
Although its roots are in this last frigid tour, the poem itself is in the near future. Today, the rest of the letter remains, and it contains a common piece of irony: if a terrible experience is to lead to a poem, then there must also be a respite from terrible experience in which the inspiration can actually be written.
By degrees, day by day, we worked back through the reserve & support lines to the crazy village where the Battalion takes breath…

 

At last I got to the village, & found all your dear precious letters, and the parcel of good and precious things. The Lamp is perfect your Helmet is perfect, everything was perfect.

But he hasn’t just survived a tour in the trenches–he has won an unexpected reprieve.

Then I had the heavenly-dictated order to proceed on a Transport Course. Me in Transports? Aren’t you? When I departed, the gloom among the rest of the Subs, and even among Captains, was a darkness that could be felt. They can’t understand my luck…

The Course should last 1 month!!

Fondest love to all, & thanks for all their letters.

Your own Wilfred x

So Owen will be safe, now, for some time, in Abbeville.

We’ll close with a telling little post-script. Wilfred has been almost rapturous in writing to his mother; but it would be different, wouldn’t it, with his stern and doubting father?

P.S. I don’t at all deserve the spirited approbation which Father gives me. Though I confess I like to have his kind letters immensely. I shall read them less shamefacedly in dug-outs and trenches, than I do here in this pleasant peaceful town.

And the post-script goes on and on, leading, perhaps, to the mood in which the poem will begin.

Quite 10 years ago I made a study of this town & Cathedral, in the Treasury. It is all familiar now!

…I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious. But to sit with them all day, all night . . . and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there, in motionless groups, THAT is what saps the ‘soldierly spirit’ . . .[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 201.
  2. Collected Letters, 430-2.

Ivor Gurney: New Bard of the Barracks-Room; Francis Ledwidge Is In France and Isn’t; Edwin Vaughan Knows Fear and Grows Venturesome

Francis Ledwidge is enduring his first winter in the trenches France, and he faces the task like a true poet. A true poet of one particular, fiercely rooted sort. Tell us, Francis, about your experiences, and about the trenches:

In France

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

February 3rd, 1917.

Before we get to Ivor Gurney‘s letter, we should catch up with Edwin Vaughan, prodigy of bathos. Since he joined his battalion while it was in rest, he still awaits his first trip up the line. Yesterday, a century back, he prepared for this momentous step:

Although the morning was spent in final packing, I did not feel at all excited; I think it was the long waiting that calmed me down, for we did not parade until 5 p.m…

But fate had another anticlimax in store, although one that Vaughan did not protest too much. While the battalion was indeed going into trenches, he learned that his company would be the one in reserve, in charge of rations and unlikely to face hostile action. Anticlimax, yes, but at least a gentle immersion into danger.

With little chance of being killed–or of discovering that he isn’t mentally tough enough for the ordeal of bombardment–Vaughan’s diary fills once again with lesser evils. Hatwell, the company commander Vaughan has quickly learned to detest, is quick to turn their simple supply mission into a fiasco. He goes up with the ration party, but fails to issue contingent orders to his platoon commanders, and there is complete confusion as elements of the party get lost, run into frightened French soldiers they can hardly communicate with, argue with them about their duties, get lost again, and then learn, once Hatwell returns, that their quarters had been moved and thus there is more marching ahead.

I was too utterly lost in bewilderment at my first night in the trenches. It was so eerie and dull, no lights, no shots or shells, no raids or mines–just darkness, duckboards and rations…

At the end of the long night there is little to be done:

I issued rum to the troops, then to myself, and turned in–still marveling at the ridiculous attempt at warfare I had just witnessed.

That was last night. Today, however, a century back, Vaughan is disconcerted to be reminded of his status as a newcomer.

On comparing notes with the others, I found that I was the only one who had been at all at a loss the night before…

And tonight it will be Vaughan’s turn to go up to the line himslef. His honesty and careful attention to detail in his diary make him a very fine writer–as far along in the recording of experience as he is short of actual experience.

At 6 p.m. Thomas and I set out with the Company to carry the rations up the line… as I walked beside Thomas I had no qualms of fear, when he said in a low voice, ‘If they start shelling, we will have to split up….’

At that, my teeth started to chatter, and I had to stop talking, for my voice trembled so. I don’t think I was really frightened physically, but there was a curious dread of the unknown and an excitement of the imagination. As we marched down the exposed lonely road to the communication trench, I heard in the far distance a curious musical moan which with a gradually changing key came nearer and nearer until, immediately overhead, it made a noise like an emptying drain and then died away. I asked Tommy what that was and he replied ‘Oh! Just one for the back areas.’ ‘One what?; ‘Shell, of course!’ So I had heard my first shell, and it was quite pretty…

At first I was afraid to leave the vicinity of the trench lest any danger should catch me in the open, but after a while I grew more venturesome and went across with Johnny to a belt of broken wire around which the snow was uneven, with scattered rubbish. Here we found the grave of a Frenchman, with the equipment lying beside it, from which I collected the rapier-bayonet as a souvenir. Then we played about in the snow, exploring dumps and shell-holes and graves until an hour later when the troops returned and we marched back…[1]

It remains for us to guess: is this the absurd–but natural–combination of fear and exhilaration which rules front-line life, as tightening fear and careless abandon slosh in turn through the stressed nervous system, or is it another literary anticipation of an ironic twist?

And is it similarly twisted, on my part, to be more worried for Vaughan when he is larking about in the snow than when he is creeping up toward the line–or is it merely the product of long reading in these sorts of books?

 

Finally today, just a bit more from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott, enlarging on his quick pen-portraits of the men in his section–enlarging, most agreeably, into verse:

3 February 1917

My Dear Friend: The boys are nearly all asleep — eight of us in a room, say, 14 feet by ten, with a large stack of wood, a fireplace and equipment. Outside it is bitterly cold; in here, not so bad; and good companionship hides many things. A miner, an engineer, a drapers assistant, a grocer, an Inland Revenuist, and a musician among
them…

Firelight

Silent, bathed in firelight, in dusky light and gloom
The boys squeeze together in the smoky dirty room.
Crowded around the fireplace, a thing of bricks and tin
They watch the shifting embers, till the good dreams enter in

That fill the low hovel with blossoms fresh with dew
And blue sky and white cloud that sail the clear air through.
They talk of daffodillies and the blue bells skiey beds
Till silence thrills with music at the things they have said.

And yet, they have no skill of words, whose eyes glow so deep.
They wait for night and silence and the strange power of Sleep,
To light them and drift them like sea birds over the sea
Where some day I shall walk again, and they walk with me.

The letter gets even better:

But O, cleaning up! I suppose I get as much Hell as any one in the army; and although I give the same time to rubbing and polishing as any of the others, the results — I will freely confess it — are not all they might be. Today there was an inspection by the Colonel. I waited trembling, knowing that there was six weeks of hospital and soft-job dirt and rust not yet all off; no, not by a long way. I stood there, a sheep among the goats (no, vice versa) and waited the bolt and thunder. Round came He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Looked at me, hesitated, looked again, hesitated, and was called off by the R.S.M.[2] who was afterwards heard telling the Colonel (a few paces away from me) “A Good man, sir, quite all right. Quite a good man, sir, but he’s a musician, and doesn’t seem able to get himself clean.” When the aforesaid RSM came round for a back view, he chuckled, and said “Ah Gurney, I am afraid we shall never make a soldier of you.”

It is a good thing they are being converted to this way of thought at last; it has taken a long time. Anyway the R.S.M. is a brick, and deserves a Triolet.

He backed me up once;
I shall never forget it.
I’m a fool and a dunce
He backed me up once
If theres rust I shall get it
Your soul, you may bet it
Yes, all sorts [and in?] tons. . . .
He backed me up once
I shall never forget it.

(Triolet form quite forgotten. Please let me have it.)

…Fire went out long ago, while I was hammering out “Firelight”. It is too cold to think, write or read. Then sleep. O if I could but dream such things as would mean escape for me. But I never dream, one way or the other; Please excuse writing:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

If Gurney can be a little frightening in his more extreme emotional states, he is really very winning as a lovable “parade’s despair,” playing the role of a hapless but well-looked-after private even while demonstrating how prolific and unusual he is: he can toss off verse–light verse, yes, but what of it?–and sharp, funny little vignettes with great facility and a graceful but nonetheless thoroughgoing empathy. So here’s to the kind RSM, and the deep-eyed, silent men of the infantry…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 21-22.
  2. Regimental Sergeant Major--an enlisted man of the highest rank, his dignity, as opposed to that of a private soldier, utterly Olympian.
  3. War Letters, 125-7.

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

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

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

2 February 1917

My dear Robert,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours affectionately

Robert[1]

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

 

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

February 2

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

My brave,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thine
R.[4]

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

People Watching with Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney

February never really dawns prettily, does it? It is perhaps not war’s cruelest month, but it may be the bleakest. As the month begins, Northern France and Belgium are in the midst of a long, hard cold snap. And if it were December or January there might be a reasonable hope, at least, for some mild weather and a period of relatively quiet winter duty. But it’s February, and any thaw might signal not just the exchange of ice for cold mud, but the possibility that the mud will give way, in only weeks, to major operations.

I don’t have a good “month poem” for February–most of our our poets are either poetically quiescent (which usually means they are on active duty) or doing an admirable job of dating their work, so there poems can be read on the day they were inspired or composed. But here, instead, is a suitably atmospheric sketch by David Jones, of a mill near the Scherpenberg, south of the Ypres Salient.[1]

But cruel accident keeps no monthly calendar, and we wouldn’t want to miss a grenade accident. This one is from Kipling‘s chronicle of the Irish Guards:

From the close of the month till the 19th of February they were in divisional reserve, all together at Ville in unbroken frost. While there (February 1), Lieutenant F. St. L. Greer, one of the best of officers and the most popular of comrades, was wounded in a bombing accident and died the next day.[2]

 

Edward Thomas will give us several new perspectives on the war in France. For one thing, he’s in the artillery; for another, he is poor. It must be difficult to be an officer who knows that any expenses he incurs will weigh on his children’s comfort, at home. But then again an officer’s mess provides a reasonably warm and inexpensive venue for one of the penniless writer’s great consolations–observing others in society.

Freezing and overcast… Battery on route march. I arrange to eat midday ration in tent to save lunch in Mess (2f.50). Guns and stores not here yet. Other officers mostly in Havre but my ankle prevents me. Down in lorry to Ordnance Store for field boots. Snow. Route march, but not for me. I write and censor letters. No fire in the mess till 3 p.m. Guns are coming today. Detachments reorganized.–Mess fills up.–Cockney rankers with two stars come in and drink standing and talk of Singapore and Pekin and duration officers look up. Some rapacious and sneering, some gentle. Read Sonnets.[3]

“Cockney rankers:” that is, pre-war enlisted men, from London, whose accents and references betray their origins. But they have two stars–they are full lieutenants–and thus outrank any new officers (ensigns or second-lieutenants), who have nearly all come from higher social classes and have been only a year or two in the army…  and let’s take “Read Sonnets” as a present imperative, not an abbreviated past statement…

 

We’ll close today with another letter from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott.

1 February 1917

My Dear Miss Scott: Yes, back with the Batt; and doing the old dreary work, purposely designed to the breaking of hearts that the mud could not break. God reward the old sweats who run Army training in some suitable fashion of agony!

…this is a permanent stay, I think, for some weeks. The Black Prince did some stunt not far away, but one is too fed up in the Batt: to take walks for historys sake. By Jingo but it is cold! The cocoa dregs freeze in the messtins in
this old house, and most of us sleep almost in full kit…

But we know it’s cold! Something more writerly, please, Ivor. Ah yes, good: here’s a sketch of the men in his unit.

…There are six Gloucester-or-near and one Northerner, and on the whole despite the appalling language things go very smoothly with the crowd of us.

There is Ozzy, who has the sweetness of an angel, the Stretcherbearer corporal; certainly of Welsh blood, and certainly one of the nicest of men.

There is Don, never depressed, a corporal who mocks at all things military, and keeps his place because of his pluck, and would certainly have no stripes in the first B E F (Old Sweats Gang.)

Ac Emma, who is Brigade Bomb Store keeper — a lance corporal of extremely great powers of profanity.

Jem — who is really a nut. An old schoolmate of mine. Rather like Dick Swiveller in talk, and most india-rubbery as to feature. There is always laughter where Jem is, and usually at the Army.

Joe who is a lance corporal and Military Medallist. Also a bore, and the cleanest, most willing burnisher and brusher up in all the Company. (Curse him!) but a good sort.

And Dicky, a small Northern corporal of terrific energy and pluck, with the most wonderful eyes. His face shines with courage and chivalry, but as an old pit hand, his language. . . . is not to be taken seriously.

O, a good lot. And it will be nice to meet them in the after days, and talk over our past miseries together.

There is no Literary Supplement this week. Too much cleaning has dessicated my poetic vein…

Ah, but this sunlight, this cold, and these elms remind me so vividly of Minsterworth, and are so sharply different to the present business that I cannot get used to them. They and I are out of place.

Goodbye and all good wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This sentence was changed after a reader pointed out an egregious error on my part! Wrong Scherpenberg!
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 115.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.
  4. War Letters, 124-5.