Angelic Voices and Parade Ground Shouts: Young Lovers at the Graves-Nicholson Wedding

Robert Graves and his best man, George Mallory,[1] left Wimbledon early for the church in Piccadilly. The rest of the family followed, as his father, A.P. Graves, recorded in his diary:

Mr. Sassoon’s invitation (declined) to the festivities. Berg Collection, NYPL

Amy [his wife, Robert’s mother] in her wedding war paint, a fine green velvet with gold trimmings and a suitable hat … then the rest of us … we taxied, 5 inside, to Apple Tree Yard and thence walked to Church. I had a new suit (grey morning) admired of all but Amy and neat bowler and gloves, and a trimmed head and beard. We were almost the first arrivals, but the Church filled up…

Robby looked fine and said his responses firmly and clearly, as did Nancy. She was in a beautiful blue check dress with veil and had a wonderful bouquet arranged by her good father. The choir boys sang beautifully and the Parson was in earnest.[2]

Well, that’s that–a fine wedding, and no dissenting opinions!

Except, of course, for Robert’s own description of the event. This comes afterward, and is marked by the same combination of comic precision, irresistibly truth-y tone, and general untrustworthiness shared by most of his writing:

Nancy and I were married in January 1918 at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, she being just eighteen, and I twenty-two. George Mallory acted as the best man. Nancy had read the marriage-service for the first time that morning, and been so disgusted that she all but refused to go through with the wedding, though I had arranged for the ceremony to be modified and reduced to the shortest possible form. Another caricature scene to look back on: myself striding up the red carpet, wearing field-boots, spurs and sword; Nancy meeting me in a blue-check silk wedding-dress, utterly furious; packed benches on either side of the church, full of relatives; aunts using handkerchiefs; the choir boys out of tune; Nancy savagely muttering the responses, myself shouting them in a parade-ground voice.[3]

See, funnier! And there being no digital record of the relative (ha!) volume of Graves’s voice or the choir’s tunefulness, these semi-objective facts are lost in the mire of history.

And isn’t that just fine? Of course the parents of the somewhat wild, troublesome boy–not so long ago reported dead–are pleased to see him wed a girl from a good family, and find euphony everywhere; and of course the young man suddenly uncertain of how exactly he and his very young, fiercely independent/feminist bride will actually manage (not least this coming evening) remembers discord, shouting, and muttering…

There were many other witnesses: school friends from Charterhouse, family friends from both sides, Robbie Ross and Eddie Marsh, a smattering of less closely-connected celebrities, including Max Beerbohm and the great architect Edwin as Lutyens. But let’s stick to our trusted–or familiar, at least–sources…


Wilfred Owen was there as well, feeling perhaps a little nervous to be at a London wedding of two scions of much-higher-up-the-middle-class artistic families. In his report to his mother he will channel, it seems, the spirit of Mrs. Elton (see the very end of Emma):

The wedding was nothing extraordinary. Not a great crowd of people, but a very mixed one. Some were dressed in the dowdiest unfashion. Possibly these were celebrities in their way? George Belcher was the greatest surprise: togged up in 1870 costume, a very striking figure.

Graves was pretty worked up, but calm. The Bride, 18 year’s old, was pretty, but nowise handsome.

Oh, but he was pleased about one thing, as another letter to his cousin Leslie (the earnest but untalented poet) confides:

Heinemann was there; and Edward Marsh, the Georgian Anthologist tho’ I did not know him as such till afterwards. I was introduced as ‘Mr. Owen, Poet’ or even ‘Owen, the poet’.[4]


Also in attendance was Charles Scott Moncrieff, a valued friend of Graves’s since his positive review of Over the Brazier and his help in getting Fairies and Fusiliers published. But Moncrieff was not particularly thrilled to be there–he had also reviewed, and far less favorably, several of Graves’s friends, including Nichols, who was there, and Sassoon, whom he might have expected to be, but, of course, wasn’t. Moncrieff, too, was still on crutches and in a leg brace–his wounded leg will never heal completely and was still giving him severe pain.

Nor had Moncrieff’s morning been free from emotional stress and personal risk. Still a serving officer recently appointed to a desk job at the War Office, and he was habitually indiscreet about his sexual preferences–which sounds like a species of criticism but is in this case evidence of considerable moral courage: Moncrieff had gone to court this morning, a century back, to try to secure the release of a friend who had been arrested for “gross indecency with a male person.” He had failed, and seen his friend was sentenced to a year in Wormwood Scrubs.

Given the anti-gay witch hunt then being stirred up by the thoroughly revolting (and somehow familiar) Noel Pemberton-Billing, a right-wing M.P, whose personal rag The Imperialist has been lately thriving on a heady mix of hate-mongering and conspiracy theories, Moncrieff was either loyal but rash or loyal and carefully calculating, i.e. that his MC and his wound would give him some protection from gay-bashing rabble-rousers. Which it might–for a little while.

So today, a century back, Moncrieff was out of sorts for many good reasons.

I was too sore… in mind and body, to regard very closely the quiet little person who stood beside me in a room from which I longed to escape…

This quiet little person was Wilfred Owen. They will meet again, this evening, at dinner and then at Robbie Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, where a lively literary discussion lasted into the wee hours. Ross, with his old fame as Oscar Wilde’s most loyal friend, is about to become the prime target of the Pemberton-Billing attack.

Owen was probably relatively unaware of the quasi-political threat facing London’s prominent semi-closeted gay intelligentsia, but it seems unlikely that there would have been no mention of the noxious cloud creeping toward Ross. Nevertheless, today, from his lunch with Ross and their arrival at the wedding together to the late night gathering, marked a sort of double arrival for Owen: he was now at the center of London gay social life, and he had arrived as a poet.

There is a marked tendency among biographers to speculate as to what was talked about all evening[5]–Owen’s poetry? the new sound effects of Owen’s Miners? French translation? Ross’s foolish decision to allow an upcoming performance of Wilde’s Salome?–but I don’t think we actually know. Still, it will soon be clear that Owen and Moncrieff did more than cross paths. They parted as “intimate” friends–an ambiguous adjective which may or may not have already (i.e. tonight, a century back) have carried a wink and a nudge.

There’s another tendency among later writers to go for a nice irony or parallelism today: Graves had flirted with homosexuality for a long time but was now, with all of his gay friends in attendance, committing to heterosexuality–meanwhile, two of his gay friends meet, and sparks are struck…  The problem is that Graves, despite his own scandal-and-sales-courting later emphasis on his schoolboy love, was never really sexually interested in men. He was passionate, prudish, and living in all-male social environments, so he fell in love with a boy and was passionate about his friendships with other young men. But when he met the strong-willed, artistic, unconventional Nancy Nicholson, he fell in love with her, and the speed of their marriage suggests not just old ways or wartime accelerations but also, probably, an interest in attaining to physical intimacy right quick.[6] Nor does Owen’s sexuality seem to have required an evening at Robbie Ross’s for confirmation: in all likelihood he has been aware of, and relatively at peace with, his own sexuality for some time. But it is hard to tell, as such topics never come up in the family letters.[7]

Nevertheless, Owen’s friendship with Moncrieff will blossom–soon, if not tonight–into something more, probably for Owen and certainly for Moncrieff. Moncrieff will accompany Owen back to his hotel around 2:00 a.m. tomorrow, a century back, and also put him in touch with an old friend living in Scarborough. Strangely, perhaps, since Owen was less sophisticated, less experienced, and four years younger, it is Moncrieff, the decorated, wounded, handsome critic who is most smitten with the quiet little poet…[8]


But let’s not forget about the rest of the heteronormative festivities, as recounted in the Groom’s suspiciously candid later reminiscences:

Then the reception. At this stage of the war, sugar could not be got except in the form of rations. There was a three-tiered wedding-cake and the Nicholsons had been saving up their sugar and butter cards for a month to make it taste like a real one; but when George Mallory lifted off the plaster-case of imitation icing, a sigh of disappointment rose from the guests. However, champagne was another scarce commodity, and the guests made a rush for the dozen bottles on the table. Nancy said: ‘Well, I’m going to get something out of this wedding, at any rate,’ and grabbed a bottle. After three or four glasses, she went off and changed back into her land-girl’s costume of breeches and smock. My mother, who had been thoroughly enjoying the proceedings, caught hold of her neighbour, E. V. Lucas, the essayist, and exclaimed: ‘Oh, dear, I wish she had not done that!’ The embarrassments of our wedding-night (Nancy and I being both virgins) were somewhat eased by an air-raid: Zeppelin bombs dropping not far off set the hotel in an uproar.[9]

Funny, my other London sources do not mention an air raid that night…


References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, that George Mallory, once Graves's teacher at Charterhouse--they had since climbed together in Wales.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 191-2.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 272.
  4. Collected Letters, 528-9.
  5. Yes, I realized belatedly, that I had just done so.
  6. This will be, for Graves, the beginning of a checkered but fervent career of extolling/pursuing the feminine, uxoriously, literalily, and otherwise...
  7. Except, perhaps, in some of the editorial elisions later performed by his brother.
  8. Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 140-3.
  9. Good-Bye to All That, 272-3.

Rowland Feilding on Cleanliness and a Brilliant Corporal; David Jones (Re-)Draws Leave

Just two days ago, a century back, Rowland Feilding wrote to his wife about the new procedures for enlisted men going on leave. There is more attention now to cleanliness–which could be seen both as a sensible public health measure and a sort of propaganda of the body, a way to censor the physical condition of the men at the front as well as their words:

They are cleaned up and fitted with good clothes before they leave, so that they do not arrive at Victoria covered with the mud of the trenches. Each man, too, has to have a certificate that he is free from vermin; so I hope they arrive sufficiently pure and spick and span, though I am sure they cannot give half so much satisfaction in the streets of London as they would if they arrived muddy.

Today’s letter is what we might call a “reserve piece,” a pleasant discourse on the pleasures of life in the rear. And yet it’s of a piece with several of our recent posts from the Passchendaele trenches that emphasized the sanity-saving effects of humor. Feilding has discovered that a bombing corporal–“and a good one too”–is  also “a buffoon of a high order.” Lance-Corporal Pierpont is a clown and a contortionist, and, on this day of battalion sports, a goalkeeper of great repute (though notable more for his incessant working of the referee than for any particular skill on the goal line) but these skills seem to shade into something of a sorcerer’s powers:

Amongst other facilities which he possesses, or is believed to possess… is that of being able to judge exactly where a trench-mortar bomb is going to fall. His friends in his platoon collect around him when the German “rum-jars” are flying about, and he advises them what to do to dodge each one as he sees it coming through the air–signalling with his arms whether to move right or left along the trench, or to stand still.[1]

There is something remarkable about this combination of abilities: the magical corporal is a prodigy of body, wit, and will, and his influence over the minds of men–the referee, the laughing comrades–may extend even to missiles. But then again interpreting the sights and sounds of those terribly slow incoming mortar bombs can in fact be an art and a science rather than a more purely mystical art–it’s a very different claim than that of the charmed man who may be immune to bullets or whizz-bangs.


But back, now, to the lice…

Today, a century back, saw another of our enlisted poets go on leave. David Jones had actually been granted leave ten days ago, but he had refused it, knowing that his parents were just then moving house and not wanting “to spend his leave helping with unpacking and advising on the placement of furniture and the hanging the family pictures.” An “incredulous adjutant” and a helpful orderly-room sergeant arranged for Jones to swap places with one of the men in the next leave rotation, remarking that begging to have leave moved back was rather rare–and bad luck, in a superstitious world. But Jones survived his ten days of supererogatory duty and is now on his way to London. And, despite the precautions taken in Feilding’s battalion (not that the Royal Welch don’t also make efforts to fumigate their men) he is teeming with lice…[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 213-4.
  2. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 167.

Withdrawals and Approaches: Charles Carrington, Hugh Quigley, Edmund Blunden, and Guy Chapman near Passchendaele Ridge

Before we turn to the tribulations of Charles Carrington on the Steenbeek, we must look to our immediate rear, where we have such a build-up of memoir writers in the support lines of the Salient that poetry can pass from one to the next…


First is Hugh Quigley, soon headed back toward the front lines. A fell mood is upon him:

The Canal Bank, Ypres, 6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in the molten sky, slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream: I was lying in the hospital trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.[1]


Edmund Blunden, too, is on the way back in. His last tour had been harrowing, although of course it could have been worse. All of his unsurpassed talent for knitting together Gothic horror and pastoral idyll in close company on the page is exerted here, as he describes the withdrawal and then the time in reserve:

After the most vigorous display by the Bosch artillery that I have yet had to cast my eye upon and a narrow escape from being pulled under in a swamp on the way out (I was in such a hurry to get out of the barrage that my foot missed the dead man I was going to use as a duckboard),  we came back to this Corydonian spot for a B.E.F. rest. We feed in a barn which smells most pleasantly of hops…

Or not–not yet: this is not the studied, sumptuous memoir bur rather a contemporary letter to his school friend Hector Buck, which soon more fully embraces the usual tone of frenetic gaiety:

A bevy of milkmaids flitters about and warbles dithyrambs in the sunny air; at times they cease to warble but make a noise exactly similar by working an obese and crotchety cream separator. Since I knew they were on the go I have broken my vow and shaved; but even then my Charms are not availing.[2]

The memoir also fills us is in on how Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex were really spending their time out of the line: drilling, marching, shooing on rifle and pistol ranges, and practicing for some of the least Arcadian recourses of the war.

This next episode–gas training–makes it possible, using the Battalion War Diary, to date this description fairly securely to today, a century back:

It was even a pleasure here to see Williams, the divisional gas officer, and his same old sergeant, at their kindly, deadly work again. I forget what type of gas it was that Williams discharged upon us, leaving it to us to get our helmets on or pass out. However, I believe it was not at full strength, for some hens poking about in the stubble did not suffer. Perhaps God tempers the gas to the Ypres hen.

But here is a point of interest not only specifically to this project but to the entire genre of the war memoir. Several of our writers involved in Passchendaele have–even while describing its horrors at great length–begun to refuse to dwell firmly in their evolving historical moment. In 1917 the war has become too much to bear–or its young wager-victims have become too prematurely old to live without the melancholy shoring-up of reminiscence:

Our minds receded with actual joy to the 1916 war, and particularly that season when we were within the kindly influence of Bethune. When had we heard the word “a bon time” since? How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on, singing, toward the Somme! When we left this camp of disastered 1917, to be merged again in the slow amputation of Passchendaele, there was no singing. I think there were tears on some cheeks.

More prosaically, Blunden reports that he was passed over for promotion at this time–“the General would not hear of it, claiming that I was too young. My offences against propriety of speech and demeanour were in any case sufficient to spoil my chances…”–but also that he will be given a company nonetheless (to command as First Lieutenant, rather than a Captain).

Before that I had had a special duty to do. It was to act as “Tunnel Major” in Hedge Street Tunnels — to regulate the very limited and fiercely coveted accommodation there, and the traffic in and out. This took me back to the accursed area again, and even while I made my way there the evil nature of the place displayed itself. Going up by way of Zillebeke, I was obliged to stop. An “area shoot” began, a solid German bombardment for an hour on a chosen space, enclosing several battery positions. This shelling was so concentrated and geometrical that, leaning against the side of our old trench just beyond its limit, one was in safety. But the area covered was treated as with a titanic roller and harrow. About half an hour after this shoot began, from the very middle of the furnace two artillerymen suddenly emerged, running like demons but unwounded.

Outside the large dugout which I was to supervise a quartermaster-sergeant’s body was lying. Men were afraid to pause even a few seconds at this point and bodies were not quickly buried…

I found the tunnels crammed with soldiers on business and otherwise. The Colonel and Adjutant of the R. F.’s, who had taken our place in the Tower Hamlets sector a fortnight or so before, were occupying a new and half-finished dugout; they used me very hospitably. The Colonel remarked, pouring me out a drink, “We no longer exist.” I asked how: he explained that their casualties had been over 400.

Our experience had been only the prelude to their full symphony…[3]


Guy Chapman‘s symphony, as it happens–it was his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which greeted Blunden, though Blunden does not recall the young officer’s name.[4]

On our third evening in Hedge Street we welcomed a very young, very fair and very shy subaltern from the Royal Sussex, who were to relieve us the next day. His battalion had preceded us at Tower Hamlets and had suffered a like experience. Late that evening a 6-inch How-battery commander came in to ask for accommodation and stayed to dinner. He was a pale bald man with a near fair moustache. He thumped on the table and recited Kipling for our entertainment.

This next bit, then, would be proper to tomorrow, a century back:

On the next day I showed our incoming tenant from the Sussex over his noxious habitation. As we bade him good-bye, he shyly put a small paper-covered book into my hand. The Harbingers, ran the title, ‘Poems by E.C. Blunden.’ It went into my it along with the battered Shakespeare, the torn Evan Harrington, and Sir Thomas Browne.[5]


Finally, though, we must skip ahead, more in the geographical than the anticipatory sense. We left Charles Carrington (the “Edmonds” of A Subaltern’s War), yesterday, about to grab a few hours overnight in the A Company dugout. After two long sleepless days and nights, he was exhausted, jumpy, and not too proud to simply sleep in a place of greater safety, “a little bit of narrow trench partly covered with a sheet of iron.”

After dawn, Carrington/Edmonds continued to lay as low as he decently could.

I determined quite basely to take shelter for a few hours in C company’s pill-box, and presently plucked up courage and squattered across through the stream to it.

This pill-box was the only piece of good cover in the battalion area. Imagine a small room ten feet square and six feet high with walls of thick rough concrete. There is only one opening, the door, over which a waterproof sheet is draped. The furniture consists of four bunks made of wire stretched on wooden frames. Signallers and officers’ servants have made a little hutch under the lee of the outer wall. Inside, live Marriott and Flint, a serjeant, and as many other people as are thought to deserve refuge. During the day Newsom and Wolfe each pay a visit to get some rest. I come first and stay longest. After all, the headquarters of a front-line company make quite a good command-post for a support company commander, and Thorburn’s position is within shouting distance and full view by daylight. On such a little journey had we lost our way last night.

Flint is something in the same exhausted state as myself; Marriott, who came up from reserve with Thorburn and Wolfe after the attack, is very cheerful and doing most of the work…

Descriptions of pill-boxes will be a major feature of “Edmonds'” narrative from here on out, with loving attention both to their horribleness and their precise degree of protection against different armaments.

But war narratives can never be truly predictable: today passes pleasantly and amusingly, with a tone of light comedy, however much strained, by tension, toward hysteria:

Marriott welcomed me cordially enough, and found me the dry corner of a bed, where I tried to get an hour’s sleep, but with little success. After a time he came into the pill-box, grinning, to ask me to take away some men of mine who were creating a disturbance in his trench. I went out and found the ten ration-carriers of last night all roaring drunk. The poor devils had got lost, just like everyone else, had wandered all night, and finally decided that the company was annihilated. Not without good sense they decided not to starve. They did their best with a whole company’s rations, but a whole company’s rum defeated them. Hither they had wandered very happy and very sleepy, but rather inclined to sing themselves to sleep. We saved the rest of the food and rum, and sent over the
remains, plenty for my handful of men.

It was difficult to know what to do with these men. One or two were helpless and comatose, one or two were incurably cheerful, the others varied from one extreme to the other. To arrest them and send them down the line would bring shell-fire on them and their escort, besides weakening the outposts. I stormed at them in my severest manner, promising them all courts-martial and death sentences. Some understood me and sobered a little, but Bridgwater and two or three others only blinked and looked more amiable than ever. If I had had any laughter in me I should have burst out laughing, too. We brought most of them round to a condition soon where they could go back to the company. The hopeless cases we left to sleep it off. There were no shooting parties at dawn, after all, as a sequel to this episode.

During the rest of the day I remained almost entirely in the pill-box. The shell-fire gradually increased as it had done yesterday, but we had no direct hits, any one of which would have done for us. Marriott kept up a running fire of conversation all day, little jokes and reminiscences, sly hints about my company and the rum, comparisons of our men with the Colonials, anecdotes of the day and of old battles. He had a N.C.O. in the pill-box with him, as orderly serjeant, one of those professional humorists without whom no company could hang together. The queer turns of his dialect, and an attractive little stuttering in his speech, an acute street-arab sense of humour, combined with the
manners and deference of a gentleman, made him perhaps a perfect example of the urban soldier. The stories flowed out of him all day, his adventures with long-forgotten brigadiers, ‘madamaselles’ or serjeant-majors, his friends and their idiosyncrasies, love and war and the weather, the bitterness of things, red tape and bad language.
(I cannot refrain from quoting ‘that our armies swore terribly in Flanders.’) He could tell a tale against a staff officer always with tact enough not to scandalise the officers present. If I were Dickens and could write down what he said,
my fortune as a novelist would be made. But I’m afraid the jokes that made us reel with laughter would be flat to-day. One jumped at any excuse to be gay, and to laugh meant to forget that open door, facing the wrong way, through which a shell might come at any moment to burst in the midst of us…

But relief from anxiety through laughter is temporary–relief from the front line, by another battalion, is what they crave.

At dusk when we were all ready the orderly arrived again. Where were the Berks? we asked. Not yet come up. But he had brought instead a large rough mongrel sheep dog, trained to carry messages through fire. Marriott grew quite despondent. “I thought they were going to send up the Berkshires,” he said, “ but all we’re going to get now is barks”; at which we laughed uproariously. The Berks never did come, but before long a company of another regiment began to arrive. I collected my gear (we were in full marching order), and splashed through the stream to Thorburn, who had had another day’s shelling and felt a little neglected. We headed back a second time to the jumping-off line, where we were now to be reserve company. Marriott withdrew his men to our position in the shell-holes by the Stroombeek.

As Thorburn and I ploughed through the mud after our men, we passed one of the relieving platoons going forward. Their subaltern gripped me by the arm.

“Who are you? Where are you going? Where’s the front line? Have you seen A company?” he asked all in a rush.

“Keep straight on,” I answered jauntily, “follow the tape. Your captain’s up there. We’ve just been relieved.”

“Don’t go! ” he said. “Don’t leave us! For God’s sake, show us the way.” I had met someone more frightened than
myself. My confidence came back to me in a moment. This man was in a shivering funk.

“God damn it!” I said. “You’re all right. You’re much stronger than we were. There’s a good dugout up there—you can’t miss it.”

And I shook him off and walked on. I wonder what state that poor devil was in at the end of his tour. But I had only gained a momentary confidence, and before morning was sinking back into the same apathy of suppressed fear as before.

We took up our position on the right half of the jumping-off line, quite near headquarters. There were about twenty-seven men to organise in four sections, and place in the best shell-holes. For company headquarters Serjeant Walker, Thorburn and I found an old incomplete pill-box called on the map Cluster House. It was one of those early German efforts made of concrete on the western and of wood on the eastern side, so that in case of capture it would give no cover against German shell-fire. But it gave shelter from the rain, and here we settled. To make some amends to Thorburn for the twenty-four hours duty he had taken alone, I sent him to battalion headquarters to sleep, where they found him a corner of some kind. Walker took the top bunk in the little room, I took the lower one, but could only doze for an hour or two, in spite of the fact that I had not had eight hours’ sleep out of the last ninety. It was very cold and I was acutely aware of my wet knees.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 133-4.
  2. More Than a Brother, 12.
  3. Undertones of War, 246-9.
  4. Blunden's poetry will soon be well known; Chapman published his memoir five years after Blunden's Undertones.
  5. A Passionate Prodigality, 207.
  6. A Subaltern's War, 170-77.

Alf Pollard’s Happy Day; Edward Brittain Learns of Geoffrey Thurlow’s Death

Yesterday, Alf Pollard led an improvised, four-man counter attack that defeated a German assault and saved an entire division’s position. He writes about the morning after in two different places in his memoir. One follows immediately upon descriptions of yesterday, but it begins a new section, entitled “Book Three: Afterwards.” The other is the very beginning of the entire memoir, which begins today and then flashes back to 1914. So it is not a stretch to say that the book is built around yesterday’s heroics and today’s reward.

The morning of the 30th April, 1917, was bright and sunny. I was awakened at ten o’clock from a deep refreshing sleep by “Bun” Morphy, at that time second in command of the battalion, who burst into my tent in a state of the deepest agitation.

“Get up at once, Pollard!” he called in his rich Irish brogue.” The Divisional General wants to have a word with you!”

I rolled over in my flea-bag and smiled up at him. Bun was a favourite with all of us.

“I’m afraid he’ll have to wait,” I rejoined. “I can’t possibly get up at present. I haven’t any pyjamas on.”

It was lamentable, but it was true. We were lying under canvas at St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Arras, having only arrived from the line at three o’clock that morning after sixteen days in action. We were all dead tired. Our spell “up the line” had been particularly strenuous. In addition, I had picked up a slight dose of gas on the way down. Fritz was shelling the Arras-Douai road and I was too overjoyed at our relief to bother to don my gas-mask. The camp was a welcome end to a long march; the Mess tent a pleasing centre. Several whiskies were needed before I fully realised I was back at rest. I was a bit tiddley-boo before I retired in search of my bed.

I found my tent all right. I found my flea-bag, properly laid out for me by my servant. The devil of it was I could not find my pyjamas. Perhaps I ought to confess that my search for them was rather perfunctory. I have often wondered why I bothered to undress. I had not had my clothes off for sixteen days; one more night would have made very little difference. As it was, I stripped naked and crept in between the blankets.

Pollard’s memoir begins as a light comedy, then–and it remains a comedy, in the old technical sense. It is a story in which, though the characters are challenged, all comes right in the end.

Bun was too excited to grasp the situation.

“Never mind your pyjamas,” he declared impatiently. “The General’s waiting for you, I tell you.”

The General would have continued to wait as far as I was concerned. Fortunately he eased the situation by coming to my tent in person accompanied by Colonel Aspinall, his G.S.O.1. How should one salute a general when in the nude? King’s Regulations makes no provision for such a contingency. I merely sat upright and hugged my blankets to my chin. Bun clicked his shining spurred riding boots to attention.

“This is Pollard, sor,” he boomed.

I realised the feelings of a rare specimen at the Zoo being shown off to two interested fellows. Colonel Aspinall fitted his eyeglass to his eye. The General held out his hand.

“I’m proud to meet you, Pollard. I’ve been hearing all about what you and Haine[1] did yesterday and I want to tell you I’m recommending both of you for the Victoria Cross.”

The Victoria Cross!—the highest honour that any citizen of the British Empire can achieve. For a moment the tent whirled round me, the pole and the seams of the canvas hopelessly intermingled with khaki and field boots. In a daze I accepted the General’s hand, forgetting all about my nakedness.

The full title of the book is, naturally, Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C. 

“I—I’m sure it’s most awfully good of you, sir,” I stammered. All my life I’ve always stammered in moments of great excitement. “It’s most awfully good of you. Er—” I was at a loss for words; then I remembered. “I’m frightfully sorry I can’t stand up, sir. As a matter of fact I couldn’t find my pyjamas last night and—er——”

Major-General Lawrie was a very tactful man. He appreciated my embarrassment.

“I quite understand,” he interposed. “You’ve not had time to dress. Have your bath and we’ll have a chat later.”

He turned to leave the tent. Colonel Aspinall’s eyeglass dropped with a faint click. I felt that he was smiling. A moment later I was alone with my thoughts. The V.C.!

Had anyone told me on August Bank Holiday 1914 that I should ever receive the V.C. or even the D.C.M., or even that I should ever be a soldier, I should have roared with laughter…

But laughter is where it ends up. His subsequent account of today, a century back, notes that there was much laughing among the officers and men of the H.A.C. And why not? They had saved the day, yesterday, and today they were out of the line and safe. And two of their officers had won the Victoria Cross. Why shouldn’t they laugh?

Here is the official citation:

On 29 April 1917 at Gavrelle, France, the troops of various units had become disorganized owing to the heavy casualties from shell fire and a subsequent determined attack with very strong forces caused further confusion and retirement. Second Lieutenant Pollard realized the seriousness of the situation and with only four men he started a counter-attack with bombs, pressing it home until he had broken the enemy attack and regained all that had been lost and much ground in addition. This officer’s splendid example inspired courage into every man who saw him.

Skeptics might point out that when an attack fails (in the neighboring division), awarding rare and famous awards to two men who helped to prevent a disaster (rather than achieve an intended victory) is a good way of deflecting criticism. That’s a likely story, but it is hardly on point–pretty much any decoration may arrive through some combination of ulterior motives, but that does not necessarily detract from the valor it rewards. My complaint is more simple: The H.A.C. is now at the “climax of our fame” and proud of having protected the position without taking heavy casualties…

But Pollard does not describe what casualties they did take. I’m not sure, actually, that he mentions any casualties in his Regiment that day at all (one of the three companions in heroism–each was awarded the DCM–a soldier from the neighboring division, is killed today). There were probably few–the CWGC notes only five men of the H.A.C. killed yesterday near Arras, and perhaps none of these were in his company. But I don’t know. Nor do we hear a thing of the Germans Pollard shot and bombed–did they die immediately? Did they suffer? Were they given aid? Taken prisoner? Deliberately killed as a potential threat to the rear? I don’t know.

My point is, again, that it’s a comedy: Alf Pollard is a callow boy at the start of the war, and a hero at the end. He’s done good, and everyone who matters has a happy war–bravery, success, recognition. The people who die to make this happen do not make an impact on the narrative. Pollard will even go on to marry the girl who has spurned his advances throughout–the V.C. helped with that as well. So not only a comedy, but more, er, “proof” that there is something to the evolutionary argument for reckless aggression.

But I get ahead of myself, and that is against the rules. We will hear from Captain A.O. Pollard, V.C. a few more times, and he will continue to represent a literary style more popular than that of the vast majority of the writers we read here. Pollard, just like Sassoon or Owen, deserves to be read in context, and examined alongside (rather than condemned for) his assumptions: a general will write a forward for his book, pitching it as a how-to guide for boys, all of whom “must long to receive the Victoria Cross.” And perhaps it is. But it’s worth asking how the author of a book so staunchly enthusiastic about war might fare when the chances for such happy heroism vanish and the memories fade. And it’s also fair to ask what the literary and historical qualities might be that recommend further reading of this book for those who aspire to recognition that can be earned in more humane and less dire circumstances than the Victoria Cross.[2]


And, of course, even being able to look to the future, as Pollard can, is a gift of Providence–or an omission of Fate. Or happenstance. Edward Brittain writes to his sister Vera today, a century back, with more bad news.

Brocton Camp, Stafford, 30 April 1917

Dearest Vera —

I only heard this morning from Miss Thurlow that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd–a week ago to-day–and  I sent you a cable about noon. No details are known yet as his people only got the War office telegram on Saturday evening; I have been afraid for him for so long and yet now that he has gone it is so very hard—that prince among men with so fine an appreciation of all that was worth appreciating and so ideal a method of expression…

Always a splendid friend with a splendid heart and a man who won’t be forgotten by you or me however long or short a time we may live. Dear child, there is no more to say; we have lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained? Truly as you say has patriotism worn very very threadbare.

Victor seems to be much better; Mother will be able to tell you more about him than I can as she sees him every day. She says his voice has come back just as it was before and that he speaks quite sensibly though his memory is not yet very good. He has asked for me to come and see him again and I hope to get up next Saturday.

He doesn’t seem to realise that he is blind yet but thinks he has a bandage over his eyes; I am rather afraid of what may happen when he finds out. I will write again in a day or two as soon as I hear any more about Geoffrey. This is an unlucky place–I was here when Roland died of wounds, when Tah was blinded, and when Geoffrey was killed.

Good-night, dear child.

Your affectionate


The letter will take weeks; a telegram arrive in Malta tomorrow.


References and Footnotes

  1. Haine's actions preceded Pollard's--he slept late, you may remember--and so we skipped the regiment's initial heroics.
  2. Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C., 12-21, 227.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 346.

Robert Graves’s Manic “Escape” from Hades; Max Plowman Watches Dawn Over Delville Wood

Both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves are home in England, both recuperating from lung troubles–Sassoon’s occasioned by a fever, Graves’s by a German 5.9-inch shell. And both, now, can turn their attention to poetry, and to their friendship. Today, a century back, Graves wrote to Eddie Marsh, the poetic impresario whose attentions have chivvied along both that friendship and that poetry.

Graves begins by apologizing to Marsh for not having written earlier, claiming a half-written letter, lost in the shuffle of his voluminous correspondence–doubled, after all, by his reading of all the condolence letters to his parents, plus the overjoyed follow-ups celebrating his resurrection.

Mostly rather tedious. But three lovely ones today, the first from old Siegfried… as I’m going to be able to travel in ‘a week or ten days’, the medico says, I’m going to lug him up to Harlech (I hope you liked the Harlech part of the Caucasus letter; I wrote it within 50 yards of the dead Bosche in Mametz Wood!) and we’ll have high old primmitive times together…

I never knew S.S. was in England. I’m so relieved he’s out of it.

I’ve had ridiculously little pain, the worst being when they tear the sticking plaster that holds my leg bandage in position… I’ve not had a thousandth part of what I suffered when they cut my nose about at Millbank: that made this a beanfest by contrast.

Distracted, and back onto the Lazarus theme (prompted by one–no doubt more than one–of his second raft of letters) Graves now launches a spree of desultory classical allusion:

As a matter of fact, I did die on my way down to the Field Ambulance and found myself just crossing Lethe by Ferry. I had only just time to put on my gas-helmet… To cut short a long story, old Rhadamanthus introduced himself as my judge but I refused to accept his jurisdiction. I wanted a court-martial of British officers: he was only a rotten old Greek. He shouted out: ‘Contempt of Court’ but I chucked a Mills bomb at him which scattered the millions of the mouthless dead in about two seconds…

The fantasia continues–he puts a gun to Charon’s head, escapes, dopes Cerberus with the hated ‘plum and apple’ ration jam, and comes back to himself being labeled a hopeless case by the Ambulance doctor: “(and this part of the tale is true, truer even that then rest).”

But this more than a joking letter; this is the beginning of a unique poem, as those of you who caught the allusion to Sorley (or followed the link) might have guessed. “Escape” is a poem that Elizabeth Vandiver warns us to take both seriously and humorously. If old Robert Graves can’t roll together classical allusion, violent death, and good dark humor, who could? And why not? The joy of being restored to life might very reasonably express itself in the desire to make a good joke and a meaningful poem out of the fruits of a Public School barely survived and a trench warfare education…

And if he was dead, or very nearly dead and silenced, well, no matter: he is alive now. And a live Grave is a mouthy Graves.

But before we get to the poem, I would be remiss not to include one more bit of the letter that redounds greatly to the credit of Eddie Marsh. Not only is his inbox awash in poems from Graves, Sassoon, and Rosenberg, but he is sending these foolish young men just the right sort of reading recommendations:

I’m afraid, great as is the love I bear you, Jane Austen is too hard a nut to attempt to bite at with these weak jaws. Thanks awfully tho’. I have my Sorley here: he’s my chief standby.[1]

Sorley will be of more immediate help, it’s true. But alas that young Robert is too callow, still, to find his way to the Janeites.



(August 6, 1916. Officer previously reported died of wounds, now reported wounded: Graves, Captain R., Royal Welch Fusiliers.)

    … But I was dead, an hour or more.
I woke when I’d already passed the door
That Cerberus guards, and half-way down the road
To Lethe, as an old Greek signpost showed.
Above me, on my stretcher swinging by,
I saw new stars in the subterrene sky:
A Cross, a Rose in bloom, a Cage with bars,
And a barbed Arrow feathered in fine stars.
I felt the vapours of forgetfulness
Float in my nostrils. Oh, may Heaven bless
Dear Lady Proserpine, who saw me wake,
And, stooping over me, for Henna’s sake
Cleared my poor buzzing head and sent me back
Breathless, with leaping heart along the track.
After me roared and clattered angry hosts
Of demons, heroes, and policeman-ghosts.
“Life! life! I can’t be dead! I won’t be dead!
Damned if I’ll die for any one!”[2] I said….
Cerberus stands and grins above me now,
Wearing three heads, lion, and lynx, and sow.
“Quick, a revolver! But my Webley’s gone,
Stolen!… No bombs … no knife….
The crowd swarms on,
Bellows, hurls stones…. Not even a honeyed sop …
Nothing…. Good Cerberus!… Good dog!… but stop!
Stay!… A great luminous thought … I do believe
There’s still some morphia that I bought on leave.”
Then swiftly Cerberus’ wide mouths I cram
With army biscuit smeared with ration jam;

And sleep lurks in the luscious plum and apple.
He crunches, swallows, stiffens, seems to grapple
With the all-powerful poppy … then a snore,
A crash; the beast blocks up the corridor
With monstrous hairy carcase, red and dun,
Too late! for I’ve sped through.

O Life! O Sun!

This is a very clever poem. Graves has already written his near-death, “official death,” and unofficial resurrection as a black comedy of modern war and its attendant bureaucracies. Now he writes something equally compelling, and almost as realistic–a dip into myth.

As befits a learned Carthusian, the references here are quite specific. We are familiar with the idea of the journey to the underworld, perhaps we know the Styx and Lethe–even Cerberus, Charon, and the rest. But the riffs will now come fast and furious. That ellipsis? The classical beginning in medias res. The restoring touch of Prosperine? We must remember that she is not just the kindly Queen of Hades, but also that she was a young woman stolen from sunny life amidst her mother’s fields, condemned to return again and again, youth and joy abrogated, to half-years in hell.

And that “sop” should not be lost amidst the manic inventiveness of the chase scene. We may be chuckling as Graves flickers stiffly and hurriedly across the screen with those Tartarean Keystone Cops in full cry after him; we might giggle as he haplessly tries to sooth the slavering pooch–but that “honeyed sop” is a precise reference to the Aeneid, exactly the Sibyl’s method of spiriting Aeneas past this guardian of Hell’s gate.

So is this a joke? A light-hearted dream narrative? A learned game? Sure, fine, I guess–but it’s more than just these things. Graves grates on many readers because he can play fast and loose with the truth, and because he so often chooses anecdotal sprezzatura over historical accuracy. He fibs.

A just complaint, as far as it goes, but the point–Vandiver’s point, which I am enthusiastically ratifying, here–is that this is a different case. This is poetry, not prose, and we don’t have to choose between “Graves literally believed that he descended to Hades and drugged a three-headed dog” and “the poem is a ‘dream sequence.'” Of course it’s not literally true, but the poem, for all its humor, is also true testimony from a strange middle ground. The poet’s stance, if there must be one, is “who are you to label me dead, leave me for dead, and then tell me, when I awoke from unconsciousness with a jagged hole in my lung, that I never had been dead?” He begins with an assertion–I was dead–and he does not give it up.

Graves at his worst is an intentional troublemaker, an accidental boor, an eye-rolling travesty of a self-appointed seer. But at his best, he prefigures a certain sort of clever young Briton’s nearly holy foolishness. This is the comic spirit that will begin to rise in the next generation with Spike Milligan, the same one that George Harrison will identify as passing through the Beatles and on to Monty Python. And this is no small thing: it has been a great boon to pessimists everywhere who wish, on occasion, to unclench into life-affirming giggle. That’s a bit beside the point, I suppose, but this poem should remind us of the usefulness of Graves to this project: silliness and subversion do not necessarily relinquish all claim to the representation of reality.

He was at death’s door, and Persephone sent him back, to life and sun. For some months, at least.[3]


And how is Max Plowman this morning?

Dawn over Delville Wood

Morning breaks shrouded in mist: pale pink veils in the sky above announce the coming of the sun. We shall have seemed to have lived another day before the inhabitants of England awake. These hours between dawn and noon are the longest of the twenty-four. At home we breakfast at eight and try to cram in a day’s work before six. Here we breakfast at four or five, and the clock goes round on leaden wheels over the hours of our enforced idleness: the day’s work is never begun or ended.

The shelling goes on, now heaviest over Delville Wood. We go and look down over it, from the horseshoe bend in the trench on Smalley’s right flank, as the mist begins to clear. We can only guess very roughly the lie of our own and the German trenches: not a living thing is to be seen. The wood itself is just a collection of stakes stuck upright in the ground, looking like the broken teeth of some vicious beast. Shells drop everywhere, making little Etnas as they burst, but we cannot tell which are the hits.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 58-60.
  2. Amidst all this jocular classicism, there is another influence--Nietzsche, whom Graves has become fond of quoting.
  3. See Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles, 314-21. Her commentary on the poem is so good--she suggests a Wodehouse comparison for Graves's comedy, which is very good, but also proleptic--that I felt I need to exert myself. Hence the Keystone Cops (could Graves have seen them prior to this? I think so, but I'm not sure) and that George Harrison idea, for which I do not have a reference... In any event, Vandiver's book is essential for any Great War poem with classical allusions, but it's more fun with the fun ones...
  4. A Subaltern on the Somme, 47.

Captain Graves Corrects the Times; Max Plowman, Subaltern on the Somme, Marches Through the Old Front Line

Both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves are back in England, and Graves is already in fine form, story-telling-wise. Rarely is he not–even as he lay in the hospital in Rouen he stored up anecdotes (released in his memoir) of reading the newspaper while having blood drained from his lung, of recognizing the arrival of casualties from the 1st Royal Welch by their lovely singing voices wafting up from the ambulances, and of the man in the next bed–not raving, apparently–telling him about lying wounded in High Wood and winning a pistol duel with a German officer who had been killing the Welch wounded.

But now Graves is home, in hospital in London, and we can return to the lighter regions of comedy. He has learned for the first time that he has been reported dead–that letter from his colonel has yet to reach him–and that his brolly-waving father and mother had been in an agony of doubt and grief between each successive post. And, of course, his death was duly announced in The Times.–yesterday, a century back, his mother and sister had visited him and brought the clipping. Many of Graves’s jeux d’esprit have a note of either needling nastiness or forced japery, but here we laugh along with him, laughing with life against the fussy bureaucracy that has been so helpful in normalizing mass death–a bit too helpful, in Graves’s case:

People with whom I had been on the worst terms during my life wrote the most enthusiastic condolences to my mother… I have kept a letter from The Times advertising manager, dated August 5th, 1916:

Captain Robert Graves.

Dear Sir,

We have to acknowledge receipt of your letter with reference to the announcement contradicting the report of your death from wounds… we have much pleasure in enclosing herewith cutting of same.

Yours, etc.

The cutting read:

Captain Robert Graves, Royal Welch Fusiliers, officially reported died of wounds, wishes to inform his friends that he is recovering from his wounds at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Highgate, N.

Sometimes nemesis turns her back on the ironists, and unaccountably leaves them to flourish. That was that: Graves is raised from the dead, and his only remaining problem–the lung and his damaged finger are healing well–is that Cox’s bank will not honor his cheques for some time. (Graves would have relished the agonies of modern-day identity theft and computerized bureaucratic accident.)[1]


Max Plowman has arrived. His memoir, published under a pseudonym and stripped of most names and all dates except for the month, is probably the best of those books which is a personal chronicle not so much of a life or a war but rather a particular campaign, a few weeks or months of combat. We had John Adams over the winter and Wyn Griffith up through Mametz, and now we will have Plowman with us for a while, appearing as often as I can connect the events described in A Subaltern on the Somme with the dates of Plowman’s actual experience.[2] On the first, Plowman wrote from Dernancourt, near Albert; today, a century back, he wrote to his parents from even closer to the line.

Here we are for instance in what is known as divisional reserve, about 3 or 4 miles back. And we are entertaining ourselves in what rather more than a month ago was a German Redoubt.

He is, we know, in Pommiers Redoubt, which rather less than a month ago sheltered Wyn Griffith. Plowman’s letter goes on for some time, cheerily describing the “remains of battle here–tons of brass shell cases, piles of contorted barbed wire, unexploded shells, all manner of unexploded bombs… a German cemetry half blown away & all the ground, almost every foot of it, littered with some kind of equipment…”

Much of the rest of the letter is devoted to somewhat opaque references to the course of decisions that brought Plowman to this point. He was a pacifist who later decided that he must come out and fight… and here he is. There is an odd combination of jaunty confidence and fumbling reassurance–if he is killed, he writes, he would like his father to carry on his work.

Well. I’ll go instead to the memoir, which reworks the same experience into a proper “approaching the line” narrative:

The old front line

Hardy and I are off to Pommiers Redoubt, Mametz, where we are to report that the battalion will arrive this evening. We descend the long hill leading to Fricourt, dodging about the stream of traffic that stirs the dust of the road to a thick haze. Near the bottom of the hill we come upon the old front line of July 1st. The country here is stricken waste: the trees that formed an avenue to the road are now torn and broken stumps, some still holding unexploded shells in their shattered trunks, others looped about with useless telegraph-wire. The earth on both sides of the road is churned up into a crumbling mass, and so tossed and scarred is the ground that the actual line of the front trenches is hardly distinguishable. On the far side, in the face of a steep rise, we see the remains of what were deep German dug-outs; but everything needs pointing out, for the general impression is of a wilderness without verdure or growth of any kind. To our right we notice a ruined cemetery. It looks as if it might have heard the Last Trump. Graves are opened and monuments of stone and beaded wire lie smashed and piled in heaps.

Plowman is writing a memoir, and the experiences are his own. Although there are allusion to the earlier fighting when he joins the unit in mid-July, he doesn’t mention here that some of the men under his command must have been survivors of the July 1st attack themselves. But not many–the 10th West Yorkshires had suffered heavily.

In any event, Plowman’s first approach to the line seems to be written as if he is more ready to take his place among the writers of the Somme than among its current platoon officers: as he goes up he will lay eyes on the graves of several men we have discussed here. This is eerie, in that it seems to review for us much of our reading, but it’s not all that much of a coincidence–there are few ways to the front, now, that don’t pass through last month’s wrecked battlefields. Today, then, we pass by the final resting place of Noel Hodgson, and close by the spilled blood of David Jones and Watcyn Griffith.

Now, as we near Mametz, we come upon guns hidden under the banks of the roadside and camouflaged above by netting. The road through Mametz is still under enemy observation; so we turn sharply to the right to go round the back of the rising ground that faces us. All that remains of the village of Fricourt is a pile of bricks; there appear to be just about enough to build one house; and Mametz Wood is nothing more than a small collection of thin tree-trunks standing as if a forest fire had just swept over them. On the right of the sunken road we have now taken is a mound of sinking freshly-turned earth. It marks the grave of the Devons who died in the capture of Montauban. A little farther on we come upon all that remains of a German field cemetery: two or three painted triangular wooden crosses; the other graves will now go unmarked for ever. Here we leave the road and begin to climb over the forsaken trenches. Barbed wire, bombs, bully-beef tins, broken rifles, rounds of ammunition, unexploded shells, mess-tins, bits of leather and webbing equipment, British and German battered steel helmets, iron stakes, and all the refuse of a battlefield, still litter the mazy ground. I come across a skull, white and clean as if it had lain in the desert.

We can only move slowly over this confusion of forsaken trenches running in every direction, but at last we are clear of them and mount the hill which is our objective. It broadens out to a wide plateau. Little holes are cut in the ground just big enough to shelter one or two men and presumably give them cover from observation. The large old German dug-outs are not at first visible. We report at one of them and return along the hot road by the way we came.[3]

Tomorrow, a century back, Plowman will man trenches for the first time.


References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 226-27. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 157.
  2. A Subaltern on the Somme, first published under the pseudonym "Mark VII," moves chronologically and seems very trustworthy on the details... we'll see. Plowman's letters can usually be (have been, that is) dated and placed, and although I don't have access to the Battalion war diary (10th West Yorkshires), I'm hopeful that I can work backwards and forwards from the letters to find good dates to share the best bits of the book....
  3. A Subaltern on the Somme, 39-41, available here.

Three Writers Down; The Royal Welch Fusiliers Before High Wood: Frank Richards a Runner and Robert Graves in Mid-Stride; A Letter from Harold Macmillan and a Phone Call for General Congreve

The Battle of the Somme continues, with the British forces near the center of the initial assault pushing north into the German second line. This phase is usually called the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, and the map below will help situate us: the contour lines the snake over the north of the map show the height of the ridge–and of the aptly named High Wood. Mametz Wood, now securely in the rear, is just to the south of the western section of this map.

As of this morning, the British have been driven out of High Wood, and the line generally runs across the central and southern reaches of this map. Elements of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers are moving up toward the Cemetery (between the 8 and 9, left center) in support of another assault of the Wood, while South African troops have made their name in bloody fighting at Longueval and Delville Wood (in the lower right of the map). Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch will await their turn to enter High Wood, while elements of Billy Congreve‘s 76th Brigade will attempt to secure the rest of Longueval.bazeintin ridge







Robert Graves preserved and published this battalion order, still in its signalling grid, that he received just after midnight, i.e. at the very beginning of today, a century back. He has now–that politically unfortunate Special Reserve seniority of his–been given command of B Company:

To O.C. B Co. 2nd R.W.F. 20.7.16.

Companies will move as under
to same positions in S14b
as were to have been
taken over from Cameronians aaa
A Coy. 12.30 a.m.
B Coy, 12.45 a.m.
C Coy. 1 a.m.
D Coy. 1.15 a.m. aaa
At 2 a.m. Company Commanders
will meet C.O. at X
Roads S14b 99. aaa
Men will lie down and
get under cover but equipment
will not be taken off
s14b99, bazentin

A lesson in map-reading from Robert Graves. A detail of the above map, we can find square 14, quarter-square “b” (always the top-right quarter-square), and the crossroads in the very top corner (9, 9 on the x and y axes). Amusingly, we’ve got the maps available online and Graves evidently didn’t have his handy when he was working from the battalion order: the crossroads is not near the churchyard. See the next map, below.

Graves continues:

S 14b 99 was a map reference for Bazentin churchyard. We lay here on the reverse slope of a slight ridge about half a mile from the wood. I attended the meeting of company commanders; the colonel told us the plan. He said: “Look here, you fellows, we’re in reserve for this attack. The Cameronians are going up to the wood first, then the Fifth Scottish Rifles; that’s at five a.m. The Public Schools Battalion are in support if anything goes wrong. I don’t know if we shall be called on; if we are, it will mean that the Jocks have legged it. As usual,” he added. This was an appeal to prejudice. “The Public Schools Battalion is, well, what we know, so if we are called for, that means it will be the end of us.” He said this with a laugh and we all laughed. We were sitting on the ground protected by the road-bank; a battery of French 75’s was firing rapid over our heads about twenty yards away.[1] There was a very great concentration of guns in Happy Valley now. We could hardly hear what he was saying. He told us that if we did get orders to reinforce, we were to shake out in artillery formation; once in the wood we were to hang on like death. Then he said good-bye and good luck and we rejoined our companies.

At this juncture the usual inappropriate message came through from Division. Division could always be trusted to send through a warning about verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches, or being polite to our allies, or some other triviality, when an attack was in progress. This time it was an order for a private in C Company to report immediately to the assistant provost-marshal back at Albert, under escort of a lance-corporal. He was for a court-martial. A sergeant of the company was also ordered to report as a witness in the case. The private was charged with the murder of a French civilian in an estaminet at Béthune about a month previously. Apparently there had been a good deal of brandy going and the French civilian, who had a grudge against the British (it was about his wife), started to tease the private. He was reported, somewhat improbably, as having said: “English no bon, Allmand très bon. War fineesh, napoo the English. Allmand win.” The private had immediately drawn his bayonet and run the man through. At the court-martial the private was exculpated; the French civil representative commended him for having “energetically repressed local defeatism.” So he and the two N.C.O.’s missed the battle.

It is very like Robert Graves to seize on this story of triplicate absurdity–bureaucracy’s impervious shamble, pointless violence and exculpatory cant–and insert it here between build-up and disaster. And yet: given what we know of Graves’s punctilious preference for the yarn over the whole cloth of the truth–and given what we will read of the difficulty of getting any message to the advanced battalions today, this must be, at the very least, an anecdote-out-of-time.

But the Royal Welch were in a bad position. They had moved forward (from the crossroads of the meeting into or near Bazentin Cemetery) but then waited for hours in an area devoid of real cover–an area, moreover, which was constantly searched by German artillery, firing against the nearby British batteries or seeking to drop shells on the routes used by reinforcements and carrying parties. By about 10 o’clock, the battalion had taken something like 100 casualties. When the barrage increased, Graves ordered B company to move slightly back, and as they did so, a German “crump”–a large-caliber shell–exploded among them.

I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: “I’ve been hit.” Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietsche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:

Non, tu ne peux pas me tuer.[2]

It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him. (This copy of Nietsche, by the way, had contributed to the suspicions about me as a spy. Nietsche was execrated in the papers as the philosopher of German militarism; he was more popularly interpreted as a William le Queux mystery-man–the sinister figure behind the Kaiser.)[3]

One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.

My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: “Old Gravy’s got it, all right.”

Dr. Dunn came up indeed, and treated what he called “a bad chest wound of the kind that few recover from,” and then sent Graves on to the dressing station near Mametz Wood. This was at present overwhelmed with casualties coming back from the bungled attack in front. So, following standard procedure, Graves, unconscious with a sucking chest wound, was left to die while medics focused on helping those who could be saved.


But it still goes on. Colonel “Tibs” Crawshay[4] was by now frustrated nearly to distraction. His battalion is being destroyed, deedless, waiting to be committed to an attack that is obviously failing (the wounded of other battalions in the brigade are streaming back), by a command structure so far back that it can’t possibly do the right thing soon enough.

The passage of messages… between front and rear was always a difficulty, and a vexation at both ends. Before the action Radford had been asked for by Brigade to be employed as a Forward Liaison Officer. He was detailed with some signallers to use Bazentin-le-Petit Windmill, 200 yards east of the Cemetery, as the forward post of a relay system.

bazentin to high wood

The Churchyard, the Windmill, and High Wood

(On the map at right we can see the ground covered between Graves’s crossroads and the churchyard. Each of the smaller squares (i.e. quarters of the numbered squares) is 500 yards long and wide, so they had moved by about that much. The crossroads can be seen at center, bottom, and the cemetery and the windmill are at 8b-c and 9a-b, respectively; High Wood is some 1400 yards away to the northeast, in the upper right.)

Captain Radford, seconded to the Brigade for signalling, describes the problem of communications, the heart of “command and control:”

At the beginning of the morning attack the enemy barrage cut the wires. The barrage smoke made lamp signalling impossible… the wireless set provided was for transmission only, so it was not known if messages were being received… Brigade was in poor quarters… in… Mametz Wood, nearly two miles from High Wood, although deep and roomy dug-outs made for a German division were in Bazentin-le-Petit within a few yards of screened view-points from which the face of High Wood and the Flers road could be seen. Advanced Brigade, so-called, in the quarry by the Cemetery roadside, was a mere relay post. This remoteness was laid down in a General Routine Order issued because of casualties earlier in the War. The Order was circumvented by Brigadiers who know when and how to do it, but times without number it warranted the utter negation of Command when prompt and authoritative decision was needed, especially if more than one unit was concerned. Prompt decision and action were essential this day, ‘yet none of our Brigade Staff came within hundreds of yards of its dissolving units.’ The cost in all the lower ranks of preserving some General of brigade and division, and some members of their Staffs, is beyond reckoning, but must be stupendous.


Frank Richards‘s account of this attack is fascinating. A trained signaller, he was one of the men sent forward under Captain Radford and took up a position in the mill. Briefly, then:

We had a good view of everything from here, but we also found that when we were exchanging messages with the wood, the enemy would have an equally good view of us, especially when we were flag-waving… by 10 a.m. they had put up one of the worst barrages that I was ever under.

Richards has set up this moment well. A day or two before, a fierce barrage had left a man mortally wounded–Richards uses the transparent euphemism “hit low down”–and his buddies contemplating killing him to stop his agony. As they deliberated, a stretcher-bearer “went mad and started to undress himself. He was uttering horrible screams and we had to fight with him and overpower him before he could be got to the Aid Post.” The man died before any action was taken, but then Richards’s pal Duffy is also hit “low down.”

…it was a bad wound and I knew his case was hopeless; but he was conscious…

As Richards and three men carry him back, a shell splinter narrowly misses Richards’s foot.

Although Duffy was dying on the stretcher he noticed it as he hung his head over the side and said “Hard lines, Dick! If a youngster had been in your place he would have had a beautiful Blighty wound through the foot. We old ones aren’t lucky enough to stop one that way. We generally stop one the way I have done.”

Duffy dies not long after reaching the aid post, and Richards returns to action. Today, then, his parting words hang heavily. As the shelling picks up pace, five of the men in the brigade signalling post on the hilltop retreat to a shell-hole “absolutely useless and terror-stricken.” Richards has to summon a runner to write down a message as he reads it.

When I was about halfway through it, he gave a shout; I turned round and found him groaning on the ground. A shell splinter which must have passed high up between my legs had hit him in the thigh. It was a nasty wound…

Near-emasculation has become a strangely persistent theme, perhaps to counterbalance the fact that these of all wounds were impossible to introduce into polite company in 1916…

Nor does the message that nearly killed Richards get through. After the advanced signalling team is hit by shellfire, the flags are abandoned and Richards is ordered to run messages–literally run, since no more swift or more advanced form of communications is working–between brigade headquarters and the brigade’s advanced battalions in High Wood. He sees terrible things passing through the debatable valley. On one run he passes a trench full of men as he goes toward the wood, then re-passes it minutes later and sees that it is full of corpses and scattered body parts.

Richards has seen a lot, but today moved him to a rare note of protest:

I have often wondered since them, if all the leading statesmen and generals of the warring countries had been threatened to be put under the barrage during the day of the 20th July, 1916, and were told that if they survived it they would be forced to be under a similar one in a week’s time, whether they would have all met together and signed a peace treaty before the week was up.

Then, true to his “old soldier” persona, Richards ends the chapter on a different note. The Royal Welch took heavy casualties, but the well-born men of the Public Schools Battalion suffered even more.

It was the custom that all parcels that arrived for men who were casualties should be distributed among the survivors. The Commanding Officer of the Public Schools Battalion kindly sent a number of mailbags full of parcels for distribution among our men. We lived on luxuries for the next few days.[5]


Back, now, to Captain Radford’s account:

The supply of runners was soon exhausted and was not replaced. At noon I went to Brigade to report the futility of it all…

Ironically, as he left his post to protest its futility an earlier order from Brigade finally reached some of the forward battalions. It was hours late, and in urging reinforcements into the Wood it referred to an earlier stage of the attack, but it nevertheless gave Colonel Crawshay of the Royal Welch the excuse he needed to move forward. The battalion had been at roughly half-strength when it came up, then suffered many casualties and detached a good number of men for carrying parties and duties such as Richards’s signalling station. Only a few hundred men formed up. By the time they had organized, covered the shell-strewn near-mile to High Wood, and fallen out into attack formation, it was nearly 2 o’clock.

The 2nd Royal Welch entered High Wood in something like replay of the 15th entering Mametz Wood. Thick foliage, fallen trees, enfilade fire and bursting shells, confusion, no real sense of where the Germans were, the shattered panicky remnants of the earlier units… but the 2nd Battalion was a highly experienced battalion built around a core of prideful Regulars, and they cleared much of the wood in a furious “bush-mêlée” that the chronicle essentially cannot describe. Furious, and incredibly costly: there were 150 casualties in the batalion, perhaps more than half of the men engaged in the fight. Every single officer who entered the Wood was either killed or wounded.

And then, crippling anti-climax. The Welch and the other battalions of the brigade are now ordered to fall back because the farthest parts of the Wood are untenable due to German machine gun fire. But these machine guns had never been addressed by any part of the attack plan. So have they been sent, twice, to assault a position, at great cost, when it was never thought to be worth holding? Or is the staff at Division and Corps level so callous and foolhardy that they are willing to spend hundreds of lives to take a place and only then decide if it is worth the taking?

The interloper from the Divisional Staff who arrived in the early evening had no satisfactory answer.

Nothing, however, was so maddening as his parting remark, “the General has the situation in hand”–spoken with a straight face. The situation never was grasped. Fumbling fingers far away had trifled with opportunity for hours…[6]

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle is woven from the words of career soldiers, regulars of a proud regiment not given to undue carping about the higher-ups (and supplemented, too, by a few temporary officers and tough old soldiers and non-coms). These are not the disillusioned volunteers crying out against chateau generals. And yet their history, today, is one of foolish attack plans, horribly wasteful standing orders, poor management, and craven overconfidence–it’s not the chateau generals that did for their plan of attack, but rather the remote brigadier and the indifferent, ignorant, map-besotted divisional general–their few miles over hill and dale is more than enough for complete incomprehension.

The fog of war is to a certain extent inevitable, but there is no excuse for generals who believe that they can collate fragmentary and out-of-date reports, glance at the map, and know the truth. Decisive action in effective ignorance is worse than resignation, especially when there are capable officers actually on the scene. These generals are fraudulent seers and cold-eyed killer kings in one person, and all the worse if, in telling themselves that it’s tough job and someone has to do it, they don’t even realize what they are doing.


Apologies for the outburst. It’s a century gone, no? Anyway, this concludes today’s entry as far as the Royal Welch go. There is much more to come, of course–we will not leave Robert Graves lying on that stretcher under the eaves of Mametz Wood. But there was much fighting elsewhere on the Somme, and two more of our writers have been hit.


Amidst the staccato beat of calamity and notification, there is a more hopeful stroke, today. Harold Macmillan, too, has been wounded on the Somme:

I don’t know whether my postcard has reached you. I hope it didn’t frighten you. I wrote it as soon as I got down to the Bn. dressing station and had seen the Doctor.

Both my wounds are luckily very slight…

Macmillan had volunteered for a patrol, either last night or the night before, to ascertain the location of nearby German positions.

I said I would go, and I took 2 men, both of whom I knew and trusted.

We got out a good way and I think we obtained all the information that we wanted. Unfortunately, just as were were going to come home, about 2.30 a.m. we were spotted by a German bombing post in a sap. They challenged us, but we cd. not see them to shoot, and of course they were entrenched while we were in the” open. So I motioned to my men to lie quite still in the long grass. Then they began throwing bombs at us at random. The first, unluckily, hit
me in the face and back and stunned me for the moment… the men never moved or ran till I gave the word… A lot of flares were fired, and when each flare went up, we flopped own in the grass and waited till it had died down…

…I was able to master myself, and it was not till I got back in the trench that I found I was also hit just above the left temple, close to the eye. The pair of spectacles which I was wearing must have been blown off by the force of the explosion, for I never saw them again. Very luckily they were not smashed and driven into my eye…[7]

The rest of Macmillan’s letter–which omits the grim details of his men returning fire and killing at least one German at close range–is concerned with letting his family down easy. These are slight wounds, and he would only be sent to England if it so happened that the hospitals in France were still filled with the more seriously wounded. His duty, he explains, is to find a way to stay in France and return to his duties as soon as may be…


Finally, today, and worse, we have a family that won’t be notified in the usual way.

Billy Congreve was a conscientious Brigade Major, and when his brigade’s attack on Longeuval (see the first map, above) was held up, he went up himself to investigate. From a former German gun-pit he observed the front line and the German positions now under attack, ignoring warnings of nearby snipers. Exhausted after several days with little sleep and much movement around the battle zone–including multiple trips to bring in the wounded after failed attacks–Congreve seemed to the men around him to be depressed. He may have become incautious. And he was very tall.

Only minutes after Robert Graves was hit, a mile or two to the west, apparently killed but actually at the first stage of an excruciating odyssey, Congreve stepped down from the gun-pit into the main trench, and was shot through the neck. A sergeant standing next to him saw the bullet hit.

He stood for half a second and then collapsed. He never moved or spoke, and he was dead in a few seconds.


It’s unfortunate that this death reads here almost like a lost detail, a swallowed anti-climax of the already endlessly brutal Somme. This is not intentional, and it’s mostly unavoidable: Congreve had lost a volume of his diary, and if he began keeping another one it seems not to have made it home. So he fell silent, here, months before he was silenced.


Major Billy Congreve, VC

Congreve was a formidable soldier. Boyishly handsome and gangly, he was cool-headed and brave and had seized the opportunity of the war to swiftly advance the career he had just begun. A twenty-five-year-old (brevet) major, he had twice been decorated for gallantry, and his performance in the extreme situation of the last few days will soon earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for valor. This award had also been won by his father, W.N. Congreve.

And so the passing of the most terrible news began not with the usual grim race between the bureaucracy’s telegram and the notes of fellow-officers, but with a telephone call from 76th Brigade back to 3rd Division, and then across to XIII Corps Headquarters. A Brigadier General Greenly gave the news to General Congreve:

It was at a very important and critical moment, when the Corps were on the point of carrying out a very important and very daring operation, and where the direction of the corps commander was of the greatest importance. When I told him what had happened he was absolutely calm to all outward appearance and, after a few seconds of silence, said quite calmly, ‘He was a good soldier.'[8]

Billy Congreve was married to Pamela Maude on June 1st, and there was a brief honeymoon, but he parted from his wife in mid-June to return for the planning of the Somme Offensive. I don’t know this for certain, but it seems unlikely that he could have known, then, that he would become a father, in March. When the little girl is born, her father will be eight months dead.


References and Footnotes

  1. The very battery that Rowland Feilding admired yesterday. It would seem, however, that the valleys on both sides of Mametz Wood have attracted the same black comedic nickname... Or perhaps I am confused: in any event, this "Happy Valley" is north of the wood, not the "Death Valley" south of it...
  2. "No, you cannot kill me."
  3. This is not the oft-trotted-out "that which does not kill us" quote, but rather an oddly off French translation of a line in "Unter Feinden," which reads "Sterben? Sterben kann ich nicht!" or "Die? I can't die!" Suffice it to say that Nietzsche's complex and contradictory writings are just about the last thing that can, or will, get a fair shake in the British Army of the Great War. Which is why, of course, Graves is into them...
  4. If General Blackader anticipates Atkinson, surely this is a Monty Python name, avant la lettre.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 186-92.
  6. The War the Infantry Knew, 229-41.
  7. From Downing Street to the Trenches, 207-9.
  8. Armageddon Road, 193-4.

Alan Seeger Prepares for A Battle Without Precedent; Robert Graves Hears the Footsteps of Doom; Phillip Maddison and Edward Hermon Lug the Canisters Sinister; Bimbo Tennant Prepares for Battle

Robert Graves rejoined the 2/Royal Welsh today, at Cambrin, after a week’s leave spent with his family in Wales. With typical brio, he manages to get two stories out of the day–light comedy and mock-tragic emplotment in consecutive vignettes.

When I got back to France, ‘The Actor’, a regular officer in ‘A’ Company, asked me: ‘Had a good time on leave?’


‘Go to many dances?’

‘Not one.’

‘What shows did you go to?’

‘I didn’t go to any shows.’



‘Sleep with any nice girls?’

‘No, I didn’t. Sorry to disappoint you.’

‘What the hell did you do, then?’

‘Oh, I just walked about on some hills.’

‘Good God,’ he said, ‘chaps like you don’t deserve leave.'[1]

And yet he’s back, now. And he’s been here before.

As I led my platoon into the line, I recognized with some disgust the same machine-gun shelter where I had seen the suicide on my first night in trenches. It seemed ominous. This was by far the heaviest bombardment from our own guns that we had yet seen. The trenches shook properly, and a great cloud of drifting shell-smoke obscured the German line. Shells went over our heads in a steady stream; we had to shout to make our neighbours hear. Dying down a little at night, the racket began again every morning at dawn, a little louder each time. ‘Damn it,’ we said, ‘there can’t be a living soul left in those trenches.’ But still it went on…[2]

Graves has often been accused–and with good reason–of over-fictioning his tasty pudding of a memoir (although we do know that the date for today is correct). Henry Williamson,[3] on the other hand, is writing fiction, and even freer to foreshadow.

On the night of the 9th of September, while a slight breeze was blowing from the German lines, the boxes of cylinders were loaded onto G.S. wagons, and taken to the forward dump. The feet of the horses had been enwound with sacking… the wheels were muffled, too. Extra care for silence was taken lest enemy shelling destroy the loads. The British shelling had slowed down, as though in sudden anxiety about realisation.

Without incident the wagons unloaded and went back quicker than they came, the horses needing no encouragement to return to the picket line, where a string-bag of hay and fifteen pounds of oats was their daily ration. The box-lids were unscrewed, the cylinders removed, and slung on poles, each to be carried up the front line, via communication trenches, by two fatigue men from the infantry.[4]


So much for fictional gas-lugging. But Edward Hermon was actually doing it. The war diary of King Edward’s Horse confirms Williamson’s details of the muffled wagons and harness–and adds that the boxes containing gas cylinders were marked “Bacon.” Last night and tonight, a century back, C Squadron, under Hermon, escorted 36 heavily laden wagons up to the trenches. Hermon will write tomorrow, with a nod and a wink to secrecy:

Well we had our nights, last night & the night before, at our special job & everything worked like clockwork. We were very lucky as we got through without any kind of mishap…[5]


Shall we catch up on Bim Tennant‘s correspondence? It’s not all to mother. This one, for instance, is to the Foreign Secretary:

16th September, 1915
Dear Sir Edward,

I was awfully pleased to get your letter the other day when we were digging trenches about nine miles away from our billets. We did two days’ work, marching each way and digging eight hours a day. The billets were bad, mostly barns and strawlofts, crawling with hen-lice…

We expect to start off some time next week, and probably to Bethune. I am glad, because I am tired of staying at this little town where I have been for over four weeks, and have only heard very distant gunning. It has been a very happy month, and I have never been fitter in my life. For I have been asleep before eleven (and often earlier) every night, almost, and as I don’t get up before seven I get eight hours every night. The weather has been glorious except for four days’ rain…

Osbert Sitwell is with our 2nd Battalion sixteen miles away. I wish he were with us. I have just been out learning to ride, at which I am not an adept…

I fear my letter is rather dull, but I am living the life of a cabbage, and have little news. I’ll write a better screed when I have a few grim notches on the butt of my revolver, and a captured Junker or two in tow!

Ah, the high spirits of clean, honest boys: careful to mention loyalty to their socially disgraced friends, lighthearted about their hopes for coming kills.

And today, a century back, Bimbo to his mother. All our Grenadier Guards together in the same batch of letters–so nice!

Sunday, about 4.15
19th September, 1915

Darling Moth,

You will be interested to know that a great friend of mine in this Battalion, Harold Macmillan, was saved by Uncle George when his horse ran away in the park thirteen years ago… Macmillan is a great admirer of Uncle George, and is a very clever fellow, having been president of the ” Union ” at Oxford.

I saw Ivo [Charteris, Tennant’s cousin, and another scion of the Souls] at the inspection of the 3rd Guards Brigade by Lord Cavan on Friday, though only in the distance; he is with our 1st Battalion and I think I’ll try and go over to tea with him to-day.

Darling Moth’, I realize how splendid it is to have a mother like you so strongly, when your splendidly regular letters come and my butterfly friends’ letters get scarcer and scarcer I thought that is not possible, it makes me love you more than ever, for you never stop thinking of Kit and me all day long. I have been away just five weeks today, but it feels a long time. Please send me a box of chocolate…

A sweet boy, Bim Tennant. And no one (other than perhaps Lady Feilding) is like to write jauntier descriptions of violent happenings. Still, this may be slightly subtle: he is plugging the coming assault, but he is also reminding his mother, perhaps unwisely, how to correlate what she might read in the newspapers with his own proximity to combat.

We are waiting for this colossal attack which is going to take place any day next week very probably, and for which the French have made preparations on quite a different scale to any ever made before…

My Battalion is in the 3rd Guards Brigade, in the Guards Division in the XIth Army Corps, in the first Army: these are commanded respectively by Brigadier General Hayworth, General Lord Cavan, General Haking, and Haig at the head of the list. They are all very fine generals and I could wish for no one else.

When this great advance starts, it is pretty certain to succeed at first, and we shall be popped into the hole they make and shall try to carry the success on across the Rhine. It sounds a big job and I expect it will prove so, but I think it will succeed. Of course, if the first steps of the advance fail, we are not made use of at all, and it all fizzles out, which would be very flat…

My fondest love to all of you, and may I soon be back with you.
Ever your devoted Son,



The French, too, are building up for the big attack. The night before last, Alan Seeger and the rest of his regiment of the Foreign Legion spent the entire night digging a new communications trench to facilitate the movement of reserves to the front.

September 19

Went up and worked again last night. Beautiful starry night; bright moonlight. A pleasure walking up, but the work was tiring and the road long. A violent artillery duel. Our advanced batteries of heavy guns fired continually. The Germans replied less frequently, but when their heavy shells fell by twos and fours the explosions were terrific beyond any thing I have heard before on the front. They covered the lines with smoke, through which the fusees glimmered, blurred and reddened. The smell of powder was heavy in the air. It was daybreak when we returned. . . . Today at rapport the captain read the order from Joffre announcing to the troops the great general attack. The company drew close around him, and he spoke to us of our reasons for confidence in success and a victory that would drive the enemy definitely out of France. The German positions are to be overwhelmed with a hurricane of artillery fire and then great assaults will be delivered all along the line. The chances for success are good. It will be a battle without precedent in history.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 142-3; R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 135.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 143.
  3. Who--spoiler alert--seems, based on what I've read of what comes next, to have drawn on Graves's book for this account of Loos.
  4. There's a Fox Under My Cloak, 276-7.
  5. For Love and Courage, 95-6.
  6. Letters, 21-7.
  7. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 158-9.

Dorothie Feilding Flees a Bombardment and Craves a Hunt; Roland Leighton Fumes; The Irish Guards Bathe; Julian Grenfell Chuckles at Mortars; Edward Thomas Sees the Spring

Lady Dorothie Feilding wrote home today–and this will be the last letter for a while. She’s off soon to attend the wedding of her sister Mary (“Moll”).

Feb 15th

…Well all ye little Denbighs & Feildings–That’s grand, I shall try & get off for a few days on the 25th to see Moll kick off. I am longing for a few days mental peace more than I have ever since the beginning of the war I think. I shall probably try & cross on the 24th & then try & stay on a few days afterwards when the wedding cake is sitting hard on everyone’s chest. And then–I can have a hunt! –ooer.

Yes: “ooer!” There are some sad shortcomings to my word-hoard, and early Georgian Aristocrat’s Cant is one of the blank spots. Perhaps this is a Feilding expression (and perhaps I should simply tap into a browser and be enlightened), but it does make Lady Dorothie sound more like a cockney hooligan than an Earl’s daughter hoping to get some galloping-after-hounds in on the heels of a winter wedding.

If it’s anything like as wet as it’s here it will be about the limit.  Everything is a sea of mud. I was out till midnight last night getting blessés at ________! & I got so cold & wet. But we got the blessés too which was the great thing poor things. Yesterday they shelled_______again badly & I was in there trying to save the washing of mine that got left behind. The Germs [sic] started shelling like fun & I grabbed my washing–tied it up in a red hankerchief & fled with it up the street like a stag for shelter at the hospital. You would have laughed to see me. There always that to be said wherever you are most frit [a variant or dialect form of “frightened”] there is nearly always something especially ludicrous that happens that makes one laugh.

That’s providence I suppose…

Much love dears. See you soon I hope–I am so longing to be back for 2 or 3 days somehow–more than I have ever wanted ever since the war started.

Yr loving Diddles[1]


From our flightiest correspondent to our most sober. Roland Leighton knows that he has a reputation for arrogance, and at times he would have Vera help him cut himself down to size.

But not today. He knows what he wants, and he is witheringly undiplomatic–arrogant, one might even say–about people he deems to be playing roles other than the one he has chosen for himself.

Esplanade Hotel, Lowestoft, 15 February 1915

Have you forgiven me for keeping you letterless so long? It seems to me ages since I wrote to you last. Everything here is always the same. The same khaki-clad civilians do the same uninspiring things as complacently as ever. They are still surprised that any one should be mad enough to want to go from this comfort to an unknown discomfort — to a place where men are, and do not merely play at being, soldiers.

O.K., beyond undiplomatic–this is petulance and pique. Civilians? Surely many of the men he is applying to–adjutants being, at this stage in the war, invariably Regular officers–had served for years already when he was in short pants. And the idea that anyone not trying to be transferred away from further training either fears discomfort, is unmanly, or is nothing but a toy soldier… well, spoken aloud all this would probably start a brawl. And it gets worse in a bit.

Roland is very clever, but he seems blind to the fact that he is pushing to get to the front of the line, demanding more paperwork from bureaucrats, and generally upsetting the apple cart to get what he wants. Which isn’t ideal gentlemanly (or officer-ly) behavior. And do some of these polite demurrals from majors and colonels have something to do with his terrible eyesight, or with a healthy suspicion of the maturity-in-leadership of a young man, however strapping and smart, who is so desperate to try himself in battle?

I am writing this in front of an open casement window overlooking the sea. The sky is cloudless, and the russet sails of the fishing smacks flame in the sun. It is summer — but it is not war; and I dare not look at it. It only makes me angry, angry with myself for being here, and with the others for being content to be here.

When men whom I have once despised as effeminate are sent back wounded from the front, when nearly everyone I know is either going or has gone, can I think of this with anything but rage and shame?

It must seem to you rather futile, if not ridiculous, for me never to have anything to tell you except what I have not succeeded in doing…[2]

This is a little unsettling, more than the now nearly blog-wide February doldrums. The nearly hysterical tone is a departure for Roland, and he is being unreasonable. Even the smartest human being is often lousy at extrapolating big numbers from small. So, sure: there have been a number of casualties among August volunteers, especially among Public School types who got themselves into Reserve units or replacement drafts for Regular units at the beginning. But the vast majority of the new soldiers–most of whom would be regarded by any Regular as boys playing at being soldiers (no matter Roland’s cadet credentials)–have yet to see action. Roland is obsessed, and his self-regard seems to warping his understanding not only of how big armies work but of motivations of other individuals…


So, what is he missing? Great tests of manhood? Decisive battles?


South of the salient, near the brickstacks of Cuinchy, the 1/Irish Guards have rotated into reserve, where, today “more than half the Battalion had hot baths “for the first time since January.'” Which isn’t so bad, considering. There was mud, and the job of improving the trenches in an area much fought over in the fall–which meant that occasionally they would find an old trench which had incorporated “an enemy corpse, which the sliding mud would deliver hideously into the arms” of the diggers. Then again, there were bricks everywhere, and the new trenches, once the bodies were brought out, could be lined and kept fairly dry.[3]


Julian Grenfell has a trench update for us today–or rather for Lady Desborough–which touches upon the same hideous, sliding subject. The trenches he has mentioned in his diary appear here in a different light. Perhaps this, then, is what Roland feels he is missing?

Very good trenches, with the German trenches 15 yds off at one or two places, and generally about 50 yds. The drawback to our trenches was that in odd places in the parapet there were buried very shallow, poor dead Huns and French & English, whose bodies were periodically resurrected by the rain and bombs and bullets.

Is the “resurrection” bit black humor in mummy’s “souls” style, or is it a small calculated effrontery? Probably the former:

One afternoon they fired 5 bombs at us, out of a trench mortar. I was off duty, and asleep, when they first arrived. I did not know what in Hell it was. I rushed out with your macintosh bed-roll round my feet, like a man in a sack race, and found the men all roaring with laughter, because the bomb had landed near old Sammy Smith’s dug-out, and had pretty near buried Old Sammy. Old Sammy was pulled out from the debris by the feet, uninjured except in self-respect…

Then I got our rifle bombs… I shot 3 at them, and I must have been on my lucky day, because I burst all three slap into their trench…

Ooer! But I wish that Julian and Lady Dorothie had been pals…

The nights were the best–flares going up from each side all the time, and lighting up the pines like a wood in a pantomime…

Grenfell then includes a drawing of his favorite part of the trenches–a sniper’s loophole, in cross-section. Grenfell 2 15 15…It was very good to get an experience of this sedentary non-aggressive fighting; but what nonsense it is. I want to talk lots about it to you.

I’ve got one letter from you, a very good one; also the glorious handkerchiefs, which have been a great godsend. No more cakes arrived, and no more cherry jam. The cakes were awfully good…

Goodbye & all love J.

You should have seen our men setting out from here for the trenches–absolutely radiant with excitement and joy to be getting back to fight again. I do love fighting–even sedentary fighting. I wish I was a footslogger now.[4]

Tomorrow we will see a physically similar anecdote recorded to very different effect. It will prove, at least, what any knowledge of human nature insists must be the case: unless his is a mind very badly damaged indeed, there must be something other than jollity evoked by the proximity of fear and death.

This is not to try and triangulate the “true” Julian Grenfell take on the trenches–that’s a mug’s game, and it would be a very low, broad triangle in any case, with much happy warrior and very little fear and doubt–but to insist on remembering him in different moments. The stub pencil in the trench does record fear, while the letter to mother crafts the jolly comedic episode… but he does love fighting. On this he is consistent.

For a gentleman cavalryman to wish–even idly–for transfer to the infantry is saying something indeed…


Strange to say, Edward Thomas is in a sunny mood. The poem he began today–to be titled, eventually, May 23–celebrates beautiful spring weather. Sunny, sun-kissed, and marked by the appearance of a character that had long fascinated him. The figure of a tramp/watercress seller named Jack appeared in several earlier prose works, and was apparently closely based on a man who visited the house at Steep.The Annotated Collected Poems of Edward Thomas." id="return-note-3172-5" href="#note-3172-5">[5]Today his very transience seems a promise of good things to come, the cowslips and cresses of May remembered from the February gloom…


References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 52-3.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation,55-56.
  3. Kipling, The Irish Guards in the Great War, 82-3.
  4. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 257-9.
  5. See Longley, ed., The Annotated Collected Poems of Edward Thomas.

A Four-Legged Fusilier is Hit (No, Not the Regimental Goat)

The Royal Welch Fusiliers, who had been living on cold rations for days, faced a further diminution in their food supply today, a century back.

November 8th–The heavy shelling was resumed, but only one man was wounded. Stockwell’s cow was killed–‘damned nuisance.'[1]

Good battalion diary humor. But we’d prefer an old soldier’s yarn, no?

One morning the officers were about to have breakfast… One of the officers’ servants, whose duty it was to milk the cow so that the officers could have milk in their tea, reported that the cow had broken loose and that they would have to do without milk that morning. Buffalo Bill jumped to his feet, revolved out, and roared at the man: “My God, you’ll catch that cow and milk her or I’ll blow your ruddy brains out!” The cow was grazing about twenty yards away where there was a dip in the ground. The man ran after her, the cow ran up the slope in the rear, the man following; if they kept on they would soon be in full view of the enemy. Buffalo Bill saw the danger the man would soon be in. He shouted: “Come back, you ruddy fool, and never mind the cow!” The man evidently did not hear him, but kept on. One or two bullets hit up the dirt around him. The enemy had been sending over a few light shells that morning, and now they sent over one or two more. One burst quite close to the cow. The cow got killed and the man received a nice wound in the leg which took him back to Blighty. I expect when he got home he blessed Buffalo Bill, also the cow and the German who shot him…[2]

See: keystone cop-ish antics, threatening officers, dead cows, and–happy ending–blighty wounds. War’s a picnic!

“Blighty,” I should explain for the uninitiated, is the single most essential piece of Great War soldier’s slang. Like much surviving pre-war slang it derives from the army’s Indian experience.” Blighty” is mangled Hindi for “home,” and during the war it came to signify not just Britain itself but any wound severe enough to require evacuation all the way thither. As the war went on, this sort of wound became a more and more desirable thing. Small flesh wounds and chronic problems would be treated at a base hospital in France, and you would be quickly sent back to the line–no good. A man might still hope to survive the war, and to do so without being maimed. But there were precious few other ways to escape the drudgery, hardship, danger, and more or less inevitable psychological deterioration of life in the trenches–officers got somewhat regular leave but enlisted men very little, even in calmer periods than this.

Richards acknowledges that this is a well-known phenomenon of the later periods of the war, but asserts that even then the troops–old soldiers all–recognized a nice medium-sized flesh wound as a piece of luck.


References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War The Infantry Knew, 91.
  2. Old Soldiers Never Die, 49-50.