Richard Aldington’s New Directions; Carroll Carstairs’ Improbable Password

Richard Aldington has been home on leave, and busy–not so much with his new officer’s identity as with the early stages of an extramarital affair with Dorothy Yorke, a young member of the circle now centered on D.H. Lawrence and H.D., Aldington’s wife. Aldington is writing quite a bit, as well, poems which reflect not only his profound self regard and far shallower talent but also the doubly overheated atmosphere of a soldier home on leave and a man in the grips of a new sexual passion. Today, a century back, he sent some of the poems–not war poems, and not particularly modernist, but quite sexually explicit–to his American patroness and publisher, Amy Lowell. And then there is the matter of last year’s war poems, a few of which we have looked at here…

2 January 1918
44 Mecklenburgh Square,
London, England.

My dear Amy,

Hilda sent me on your charming letter this morning and I was most happy to get it. We had your cheery cable on Christmas day—I was at home—and were delighted that you had thought of us. After I passed my examinations I had nearly a month’s leave. It was a wonderful time, so much was compressed into those few weeks. It was marvellous after those other days.

I have my commission now and am expecting to be back in the trenches in a month or six weeks. So probably I’ll be gone before I can hear from you again. I will try and send you just a word before I go. Unhappily, I feel I mustn’t send you any details about my military life—the rules are very stringent and I don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t…

I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you—after the war I’ll spin you more soldier’s yarns than you’ll care to hear!

I am thinking of collecting all my war poems—I have about 60 or 70—into a book. Do you think the U.S.A. would care for them? They are not popular—I mean they are bitter, anguish-stricken, realistic, not like Brooke or Noyes or anybody like that. They are stern truth, and I have hesitated about publishing them…

There is a lot of gamesmanship here. New officers may be more inclined to follow the letter of the law, but his zealous secrecy about not much at all (he’s not even in France) should set Lowell’s eyes rolling, and his aw-shucks “hesitations” as well.

Now for the name-dropping:

I am translating Anacreon in camp—I find I can’t do really good work in a camp, so I am doing these light Greek things, just to keep the “feel” of literature. Great poetry—Shelley and Euripides and Dante—moves me so terribly that I cannot bear it. I feel choked. For this reason I had to give up those burning passionate poems of Meleager. They left me unnerved & unstrung. I am reading a little Dante, but only a very, very little each day—it exhausts me with emotion. He understands so wonderfully the piercing passion of love—the mystic exaltation which is prolonged beyond the contact of the flesh. Do you remember the two cantos towards the end of the Purgatorio where he  meets Bia after those years of absence and where Virgil leaves him? It seems to me to put most modern poetry utterly out of count. It is like Plato’s Symposium, but more tortured, more like ourselves in its bitterness & intensity.

Aldington has been very busy, and much of this–the poems as well as the translations–will soon be published. But his poems lately have been very unlike his earlier ones, at once besotted hand-wavingly dramatic in a manner not quite befitting the cerebral Modernism favored by Lowell. A single stanza of a poem written this month, a century back, should give the rough idea:

Go your ways, you women, pass and forget us,
We are sick of blood, of the taste and sight of it;
Go now to those who bleed not and to the old men,
They will give you beautiful love in answer!
But we, we are alone, we are desolate,
Thinning the blood of our brothers with weeping,
Crying for our brothers, the men we fought with,
Crying out, mourning them, alone with our dead ones;
Praying that our eyes may be blinded
Lest we go mad in a world of scarlet,
Dripping, oozing from the veins of our brothers.

Faced with this, as well as poems clearly about Aldington’s affair with Yorke, Lowell will take the unusual step of writing to H.D. (i.e. Aldington’s wife Hilda Doolittle) to ask her advice…


And after all that, here is a very strange little anecdote from Carrol Carstairs

I was left behind until the new unit had taken over the billets and found them “all correct.”

It was dark when I left for Arras. Nothing moved on the road. I had to walk—five or six or seven miles? A frequent look over my shoulder as I stumbled on revealed nothing. I moved on automatically, breathing hard and painfully. I would scarcely know when I had reached Arras. There wouldn’t be many lights. Interminable! How could anything take so long. What? Was I asleep? Where am I? Oh, yes, Arras. I must get to Arras. God, but I feel groggy.

Outlying houses, like stragglers, appeared in the gloom, and then I was in Arras itself, walking the streets of a town empty of life but for a private soldier or two. It stood only partially destroyed, but the Hotel de Ville with its fine Gothic façade and the cathedral were among the ruins. I don’t know why I thought of this as I sought Battalion Headquarters. The word periwinkle also suddenly occurred without my associating the name with its meaning.

“Periwinkle!” I said out loud. “Periwinkle!” I announced as I entered the officers’ mess.

“Periwinkle?” questioned Alec Agar-Robartes.

“Well, possibly not,” I replied. . . .[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. A Generation Missing, 148-9. According to a note on page 235, this was tonight/tomorrow, a century back.

Ivor Gurney in a Nutshell; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon Eat, Drink, and Mock Merrily; Herbert Read the Very Model of the Modernist Company Commander

A day, today, of striking contrasts. First, Marion Scott seems to have asked Ivor Gurney for some biographical details, presumably for some task related to the publication of his Severn and Somme, which she has single-handedly seen into the press. He responded with a charmingly inexact potted bio:

26 October 1917

Details of the Life and Crimes of the private named Gurney.

Gloucester Cathedral 1900…

Head boy sometime

I have forgotten when I got the Scholarship (I have asked Mrs Hunt to tell you.)
Stanford — Composition
Mr Waddington (whom I like very much) for Counterpoint…

Also the Westminster Board.

Mr Sharpe (a good man) for Piano…

Centre-forward for Kings School

Owner of the “Dorothy” (defunct)

2nd best batting average
3rd best bowling — last term of school

crack platoon shot July 1917

Author of “Severn and Somme”
and a further unborn imbecility.

Army Feb. 9th (?) 1915

Proficiency pay. C[onfined to].B[arracks]. every now and then. Sang Widdecombe Fair
blushingly at Albert Nov: 1916

Wounded Good Friday night — or rather on the Sat:
Gassed (?) at Ypres.[1]


A few miles away in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon spent the day together. It was something of a last hurrah,[2] since Owen’s Medical Board–not to mention Sassoon’s make-up Board–is looming on the horizon. But it was a low-key last hurrah, centered on two things dear to combat soldiers: food and laughter. Owen will write, tomorrow:

I am so happy with Sassoon. Spent all day with him yesterday. Breakfast, Lunch, Tea & Dinner, chiefly at the Conservative Club…[3]

Sassoon provided the chief amusement:

After a good dinner and a bottle of noble Burgundy had put us in good spirits, I produced a volume of portentously over-elaborate verse, recently sent me by the author. From this I began to read extracts—a cursory inspection having assured me that he would find them amusing.

The extracts included bizarrely eccentric lines such as

When Captain Cook first sniff’d the wattle
And love Columbus’d Aristotle…

Which left Owen “surrendering to convulsions of mirth in a large leather-covered armchair.” Before joining Owen in this surrender, Sassoon managed to get as far as:

What cassock’d misanthrope
Hawking peace-canticles for glory-gain,
Hymns from his rostrum’d height th’epopt of Hate?

O is it true I have become
This gourd, this gothic vacuum?[4]

Very bad poetry is funny, it’s true…


Herbert Read, however, is a serious-minded Modernist, and, in today’s letter to Evelyn Roff, he writes… well, perhaps from the heart, perhaps to impress, perhaps some of both. But he certainly becomes the first poet here to quote an abstract contemporary poem in lieu of describing what his latest tour in the line was like–in lieu of Dante, Bunyan,  or the Bible. It’s also, for us, a remote crossing of paths: the poem he quotes–almost accurately–is by the important Modernist H.D., wife of Richard Aldington (and current hostess of D.H. Lawrence).

We have had a terrible time–the worst I have ever experienced (and I’m getting quite an old soldier now). Life has never seemed quite so cheap nor nature so mutilated. I won’t paint the horrors to you. Some day I think I will, generally and for the public benefit.

This casual-but-major statement of intent, with Read’s habitual mix of studied rationality stretched thin over his ambition, is especially noteworthy if we follow his train of thought. It makes very good sense, of course, to go from horror to the hope of writing to the question of what writing the war might accomplish… which would be some sort of attempt to bridge–or at least signal across–the yawning gulf that separates combat veterans from civilians. Very good sense: but I feel as if we don’t often see these two thoughts nakedly next to each other, and in this order. Sassoon feels the gulf and then writes in anger and in ways which are neither didactic nor conciliatory; Read wants to write, and then thinks of the gulf…

I was thoroughly ‘fed up’ with the attitude of most of the people I met on leave–especially the Londoners. They simply have no conception whatever of what war is really like and don’t seem concerned about it at all. They are much more troubled about a few paltry air raids. They raise a sentimental scream about one or two babies killed when every day out here hundreds of the very finest manhood ‘go west’.

…and then he comes back to the anger. This we saw as long ago as 1915, but it is getting worse.

And yet Read pulls up short again, and turns, doing an unusual sort of somersault back over the gulf. He will describe war, but he will use the words of a civilian and a woman–a woman moreover in a position analogous to the letter’s addressee: both are women in England with long experience in waiting for the next letter, and fearing the next telegram.

Of course, everyday events are apt to become rather monotonous. . . . but if the daily horror might accumulate we should have such a fund of revulsion as would make the world cry ‘enough!’ So sometimes I wonder if it is a sacred duty after all ‘to paint the horrors’. This reminds me of a poem I’ll quote–by one of our moderns and a woman at that.

Another life holds what this lacks,
a sea, unmoving, quiet—
not forcing our strength
to rise to it, beat on beat—
a stretch of sand,
no garden beyond, strangling
with its myrrhlilies—
a hill not set with black violets
but stones, stones, bare rocks,
dwarf-trees, twisted, no beauty
to distract—to crowd
madness upon madness.

Only a still place
and perhaps some outer horror
some hideousness to stamp beauty,
a mark
on our hearts.


Perhaps the quotation has too much of the gesture about it–“See, I read women!”–but it’s not impossible to read it as whole sincere. This is a novel way of reaching out to Roff, across the gulf, and implying that she is to be considered an honorary combatant, able to understand something of its horror and not get hysterical about “a few paltry air raids.” And even if it is working hard to emphasize their connection, it’s not a bad quotation at all: the poem, with its horror and ruinscape and madness, is quite a good fit for the Salient in 1917. Which, I suppose, could be said of a lot of Modernist poetry, especially for those readers who might find the Christian framework of the old standby descriptions of Hell or the Slough of Despond off-putting…

In any event, Read is not just the impressively intellectual and in-touch boyfriend, here: he is also, to a surprising degree, given the emphasis on accumulating horrors, a happy warrior. This is not as uncommon a combination as we might think–Sassoon is the most obvious analogue, of course, but we might also remember gentle Roland Leighton‘s thirst for a decoration–and Read should, even in a somewhat preening letter, be given credit for facing up to the apparent contradiction.

War is horrible, but he’s enjoying himself; it’s more than can be borne, but he’s bearing it quite well:

My military progress continues… I  am now commanding a company… I thoroughly enjoy my despotism… I have got a fine lot of lads though they are fastly decreasing in numbers… they are a gallant crew: we have more decorations in our company than in any other in the battalion. I got four Military Medals today out of seven for the battalion. And damn proud of it we all are…

My subalterns (notice the ‘my’–sort of possessive pride) are quite a good lot…

The day grows long, so instead of transcribing the characters-of-the-company piece which closes the letter, I will merely summarize his band of brothers. They are much what we would expect: the quiet old guy of thirty or so; the sturdy, pretty-eyed optimist; the boastful but efficient sportsman; and, most promising, the “young rake of the cockney variety”…[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 226-7.
  2. But not as much as Sassoon remembers it to be, since he seems to confuse/conflate two memories, including aspects of their next evening out in this description, or vice versa...
  3. Collected Letters, 503.
  4. Siegfried’s Journey, 64-65. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 278-9. The unfortunate author was one Aylmer Strong; Sassoon presented Owen with the volume.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 112-14.

Robert Graves in Love, D.H. Lawrence on the Run

Today we have only a few very scattered updates, and all but one of them are to some extent either dark or dismal.


In Cork, Frederic Manning was released from the hospital where he has been recovering from symptoms of a breakdown related to his alcoholism (as well as his experiences on the Somme, surely). A sympathetic Medical Board has allowed him to resume “light duty” and to keep his commission…


In a field hospital in Belgium, Henry Feilding, Lady Dorothie‘s elder brother, died of wounds sustained two days ago…


In Cornwall, the cottage of D.H. Lawrence was raided and searched by the police. As a military-age man not in uniform, (Lawrence had a medical exemption) who did not hide his contempt for the war, Lawrence was a target of scorn and suspicion. It did not help that they lived on the sea, near where U-boats had recently sunk several British ships–or that Frieda Lawrence had been born Frieda Freiin von Richthofen, a distant cousin of the Red Baron. The Lawrences and their friends behaved, on principle, like civilized, open-minded, free-spoken people, and thus fell quickly afoul of the locals. Continuing to correspond with German family and to speak against the war, despite “a mounting campaign of intimidation,” they seem to have hoped for better from an ostensibly liberal society, even in wartime.

The police will return, bearing with them “an order under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA): they had three days to leave Cornwall and must not travel to coastal or other protected (‘Class 2’) areas; within twenty-four hours of finding a new
residence, they must report to a police station. No appeal was allowed.”

The couple were “virtually penniless” and returned to London in some despair of finding a refuge from a cruelly militarized and intolerant society. After some time adrift, however, they will be taken in by Hilda Doolittle, the poet H.D., Richard Aldington‘s wife.[1]


But life goes on, and there is also young love to be celebrated, today! Another poet whose has had trouble because of his German connections (but who silenced them with combat service and wound stripes), Robert Von Ranke Graves, is currently in London–or, to be precise, in Wimbledon–spending his latest “last” leave with his family. (Graves’s Sassoon-saving interlude at the depot near Liverpool is over, and, while his damaged lung should keep him from active duty in France, he expects to be sent abroad again soon.)

Except that Graves went into London proper, today, a century back, to visit Nancy Nicholson, and missed the last train back…[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Whelpton, Poet, Soldier, Lover, 158.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183.

Edward Thomas Sails for France; Dorothie Feilding Laid Low by Winter at Last; Edmund Blunden Astonied at Ypres; D.H. Lawrence Repays in Kind; Richard Aldington: Pioneer, Bibliophile, Dreamer

We have the departure of Edward Thomas and updates from a new soldier and an increasingly experienced officer in France, today, a century back, but first, from Belgium, a post-script to Dorothie Feilding‘s winter’s tale of frigid woe. She is a past master of the letter-of-comically-deflated-complaint:

29th Jan 17
Mother dear–

My fingers are frozen absolutely stiff & I cannot write you a sparkling letter in consequence for I am much too cross.

All the canals here are frozen the most amazing thickness & I go sliding in the evenings when we come in, until the ends of my toes are all blistered.

I shall have to give over for a day or two. It annoys me when I slide 10 yds & sit down hard to see a tiny Flam in vast sabots slide some 500 yds all out.

Lots of love


Edward Thomas acquired his blisters in more conventional fashion, visiting his youngest child one last time, in borrowed shoes. Now his road leads straight to France, via Southampton and the Mona Queen.

Up at 5. Very cold. Off at 6.30, men marching in frosty dark to the station singing ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag’. The rotten song in the still dark brought one tear… Southampton at 9.30 and there had to wait till dusk, walking up and down, watching ice-scattered water, gulls and dark wood beyond, or London Scottish playing improvised Rugger, or men dancing to concertina, in a great shed between railway and water… sailed at 7… I’m in 2nd officer’s cabin with Capt. and Horton, the men outside laughing and joking and saying fucking… Remember the entirely serious and decorous writing in urinal whitewash–name, address, unit, and date of sailing. A tumbling crossing, but rested.[2]

“Remember–” so the diary as well as the letters will serve as an aide-memoire to future writing.


Edmund Blunden is an old soldier by now, but almost all of his service has been on the Somme. Today, a century back, was his first acquaintance with Ypres, the great ruined city (large medieval town, that is) of the northern part of the British sector.

The battalion, being relieved from Potijze breastworks, occupied various billets of less or more insecurity in Ypres. Though many cellars existed in the town, most of them were battered in and waterlogged, and the Ramparts were overcrowded. Our principal shelter was the Convent, now the husk of a building, but concealing a many-chambered underground lodging for a considerable number of men, who might parade for working or carrying parties in its courtyard; that cobbled yard will ever be to me the stage on which Maycock stands glaring at the round white moon, and shaking his fist at her, and crying: “It’s that bloody old witch — until she changes we’ll keep being frozen.” At one corner was the entrance to a garden the paths of which had been adorned by some patient enthusiasts of the autumn before with their regimental badges done in coloured glass; and passing that way, as one would do, one had the choice of admiring their workmanship, or the sweet simplicity of the pigeons curving and glinting round the Cathedral’s tattered tower, or the fact that the German gunners were shooting high explosive to burst in the air innocuously round that aiming-mark of theirs.

Over the sepulchral, catacombed city airplanes flew and fought in the cold winter sun. Sentries blew their whistles in warning from broken archways; the brass shell cases used for gas gongs gleamed with a meaning beside them; and all of a sudden flights of shells came sliding into the town. Few people were seen on the streets, and it is difficult to recall in realistic sensation one’s compulsory walks in Ypres. The flimsy red post office, a blue poster for Sunlight Zeep, a similar advertisement for Singer’s Naaimaschinen, the noble fragment of a gateway to St. Martin’s Cathedral, interior walls with paintings of swans on green ponds, the rusty mass of ironware belonging to some small factory with an undestroyed chimney, ancient church music nobly inscribed on noble parchment, wicker chairs in the roadway outside St. Jacques, a scaffolded white building in the Place (the relic of a soon disillusioned optimist), a pinnacle, a railing, a gilded ceiling — those details one received, but without vivacity. One set out to arrive at a destination in Ypres, and even in quiet times one was not quiet. As if by some fantastic dream, the flush and abundance of life and memorial and achievement, such as blend into the great spirit harmony of the cities in that part of Europe, stole suddenly and faintly over the mind; then departed. This city had been like St. Omer, like Amiens. How obvious, and how impossible![3]


Before we get to Richard Aldington, we observe an oblique crossing of paths. Not long ago, on the same day an accused coward was shot, an accused pacifist defended himself. Today, a century back, D.H. Lawrence wrote again to Eddie Marsh, central node of all literary favor-asking. And look whose poetry he compliments in the post-script…

Monday 29 Jan. 1917

Thank you very much for your note and the green form. I hope they will let us go away.

Have I showed any public pacifist activity? …At any rate I am not a pacifist.

I have come to the conclusion that mankind is not one web and fabric, with one common being. That veil is rent for me. I know that for those who make war, war is undeniably right, it is even their vindication of their being. I know also, that for me, war, at least this war, is utterly wrong, a ghastly and unthinkable falsity. And there it is. One’s old great belief in the oneness and wholeness of humanity is torn clean across, for ever…

Well, amen to that. But note the rather more limited place to which the broad statement leads:

So how should I be a pacifist? I can only feel that every man must fulfil his own activity, however contrary
and nullifying it may be to mine.

Duckworth refused the novel…

Aha. But Marsh has apparently provided with a form that may enable emigration. What does he get in return?

I am getting ready another book of poems. My last and best. Perhaps I shall never have another book of poems to publish: or at least, for many years. Would you like to see this MS., when I have done it? Then, if there should happen to be anything you would like for Georgian Poetry, ever, you can take it. . . .

If I go to America, and can make any money, I shall give you back what you lent me. I do not forget it.

D. H. Lawrence.

P.S. Don’t you think H.D.—Mrs. Aldington—writes some good poetry? I do—really very good.’[4]

She does. And what about the man who cheated on her not long after a miscarriage, but then generously suggested that his friend might procure for her while he was at the wars? Mr. Aldington writes again to F.S. Flint:

29′” January 1917

My good, (to be as French as we can!),

I have well receive [sic] your letter so fair and blackguardly… It’s no good! I need the fantasies of language of Huysmans & Rabelais to write well in a letter. I can’t handle the epistolary style in English somehow.

…Dear boy, oh for one hour in either of our dens, with books & wine & smokes and the talk half French, half English, rolling from the latest Parisian poetaster to Meleager & from Marinetti to Folgore da San Gemignano!

Apropos, H.D. has sent Bubb my translation of Folgore–the best Italian work I’ve done – as well as the Konallis poems. So with the Imagist anthology & a possible small collection of prose poems, 1917 won’t be altogether a blank for me. Every day in which one begins nothing, every year in which one publishes nothing, is lost! How I yearn for the dear, musty smell of old vellum & the crisp rustle–like unto banknotes, yet how much more precious!–of those unreadable Aldines I collected with such gusto…

When oh when this armed strife is o’er I shall retire to Rome for a season, grow hyacinths in my shrapnel helmet–which I intend to purchase or abduct as a “souveneet” [s/c]–and mess about in the Vatican library. Also wander about that city with H.D. whose gusto for antiquities fits in gloriously with mine. There is a little church on the Aventine, dedicated to Santa Sabina, where I hope to sit one whole morning & listen to the silence. It has some fine Byzantine mosaics if I remember rightly, but hang them! Can you imagine the pleasure of listening to the silence, while the sunlight runs over the worn flag stones? What a place to think in! Perhaps you will abandon respectability & a government job & come with me. There’s nothing like vagabondage, freedom, the arts, starving & feasting together as luck turns. Then life has a tang where it is now insipid. Then one can dream great things besides one’s best friend–you know whom I mean–& be content if the year ends with nothing done…

I don’t like Aldington–I’ve read a good deal of what he writes–and I haven’t hidden that, here. I could ding him, too, for putting on his Old Soldier airs (although, in fairness, he did much more of that in other recent letters; old soldiers don’t wax rhapsodic about old books) without realizing either that a true veteran of the trenches would be ashamed to think of buying a souvenir or that such a figure would never “abduct” but rather “win” it.

But never mind. That above paragraph is the best “après la guerre” daydream I’ve read since Graves hymned Sassoon. And Aldington is including his wife in the reverie–how nice. I wonder if the post script will explain why he talks of her so much more fondly in this letter than in letters previous…

But I should give him some impartial credit for high spirits, in a pioneer battalion, in winter. It’s clearly rooted in self-regard, but hey–morale is morale.

One’s art, looked at selfishly, is less important for what it produces for others, than for what it adds to one’s own life making things poignant & strange & beautiful where otherwise they would be “just ordinary.”

Never feel angry or grieved about me–a prophet is not without honour!–and whatever happens I have something
that cannot be destroyed. I had a talk with a fieldmouse in the trenches the other day–we got on splendidly! And there are hawks & crows & chaffinches & sparrows & owls & starlings & grey crows to look at & understand. They are so delightfully unorganised, such vagabonds! So you see I have found friends.

Au revoir, dear boy; forgive all this babble. But my mind is becoming vegetable through disuse.


P.S. I’ve forgotten your address so must send this via H.D. Couldn’t send Almanac–against regulations. Send your
poem when finished.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 197.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 157-58.
  3. Undertones of War, 144-5.
  4. A Number of People, 232.
  5. Imagist Dialogues, 173-5.

Edwin Dyett is Shot at Dawn; D.H. Lawrence Yearns to Escape; Edward Thomas is Ready to be Judged Simply; Ford Madox Hueffer is a Bit Dotty

Can you picture that final scene? The prisoner tied to a stake; there was no need–he faced death fearlessly, but the cords cut him and he protested–his eyes bandaged, his identification disc suspended just over his left breast. The firing party, half-hidden in a trench. No time is wasted…

‘Well, boys, good-by! For God’s sake, shoot straight.’

Usually when a man dies, here, he moves forward out of the written realm, and comes back in pieces, reported or reconstructed by friends, comrades, or dutiful commanders. It’s not that different, then, with Dyett. It’s the deliberation of the thing that’s shocking–his last letter, written in full knowledge that he will be judicially murdered, by fellow British soldiers, in the morning. And then they did it. Dyett was twenty-one, and one of the last men to die as a direct result of the Battle of the Somme.

There were–there will be, in total–305 others killed in this way, but only a handful of them officers. Recent discussions of Dyett’s execution make much of the fact that Field Marshal Haig had become aware of “discontent” in the ranks about the fact that proportionally many more enlisted men were executed for desertion. But there is no evidence linking this to his decision to confirm Dyett’s sentence, nor that Dyett was a scapegoat for broad problems rather than a victim of local ill-will, happenstance, and his own failure not only to reach the front lines that day but to explain himself afterwards. And no matter what we might think of Haig, it seems far-fetched to imagine that he would imagine that many British soldiers would be pleased or placated to learn that an officer was shot just for being a poor officer. But somewhere in this there is vindictiveness, and cruelty, and violence applied as a crushing tourniquet to the wounds caused by prior violence.

The reason Dyett–who was not a writer of note–appears here is that he is the figure most responsible for the creation of Harry Penrose, the hero of A.P. Herbert’s novel The Secret Battle. Herbert, currently on leave in England, “may not have known personally that victim of shatteringly cruel circumstances,” but he will learn of the verdict and its execution when he returns to the Hawke Battalion of the Royal Naval Division in a few weeks and be “shaken… to the heart’s core.”

Herbert, hitherto best known as a writer for his contributions to Punch, will learn, from the “subdued talk about the case in the Division,” that there are more sides to the story, and that some officers, at least, considered the actions of the witnesses for the prosecution in Dyett’s court martial to have been vindictive, dishonorable, and cruel. What could have been done differently? Execution renders that question moot, but Herbert’s “distress of mind” will eventually lead to a probing and insightful work of fiction.[1].

But Dyett also left a family, the mother to whom he wrote, and his father, a naval officer, who was, naturally, shocked by the news of his son’s execution. But he did not go quietly into pain and shame–and just as Dyett was a rare officer executed, his father was a rare officer and gentleman bereaved. He could move the levers of British social power much better than most parents of executed men. One direct result of Dyett father’s efforts to clear his name will be the articles in John Bull, published next spring, that first brought public attention to these executions.

It is this ex-post-facto, muckraking newspaper report which I have quoted above. It also included the statement, gathered from a witness long after the events, that Dyett also said “Yes I can face this, but I couldn’t face the Boche.”

Did he? Or is this the “shot at dawn” version of the typical “he went bravely forward, and was killed instantly, and knew no pain” claim in so many letters of condolence. I am at a loss as to how to weigh such accounts, or what to make of Dyett’s awful, sad story. Given that Herbert’s novel does not closely follow his life and contains few dates, there will be few opportunities, if any, to take up Dyett’s afterlife in journalism and fiction. (The Secret Battle mixes, more than most, a story “based on” one man with the author’s own experiences, and Herbert sets the act of debatable cowardice later in the war.) There is a workmanlike book on his life and death which I have relied upon for these posts, and there is Herbert’s novel, written mostly in 1918, which I very much recommend. Without directly taking on the dire question of the “needs” of the military bureaucracy or the viciousness of any capital case, Herbert makes a more convincing argument for seeing a “cowardly” break-down as a symptom of very great courage pushed beyond its limits than any tribunal or careful historical reconsideration could.

And as for today, a century back, and the written scraps of the end of Dyett’s life, all we have are the Padre’s letter to his parents and a doctor’s note on the death warrant. Very different sorts of writing, really.

“His mind was as clear and thoughtful as anyone could wish; not a tremor or moment of fear” wrote the man who sat with him “for an hour” after his sentence was read out, and whom Dyett thanked in that last letter. And the doctor merely appended a note to the death warrant, after the affirmation that the sentence was “duly carried out at St. Firmin at 7.30am,” asserting, naturally, that “death was instantaneous.”

The War Diary of the Nelson Battalion makes no mention of the execution of one of its officers.[2]


Well. Courage–what it once meant, and what it might mean now–will continue to be a very prominent subject this year, one which Sassoon, Owen, Edwin Vaughan and others will return to again and again.


Oddly, today–but perhaps this is palliative happenstance–there are three notably undramatic letters from writers, each telling something different of their humdrum, stressful existence in wartime, yet away from guns fired in anger (or, more to the point, at people).

First, D.H. Lawrence wrote to Eddie Marsh from his pacifist’s retreat in Cornwall. Lawrence isn’t really a war writer at all, and yet his experience is broadly relevant to “our” writers, at least as a comparandum… so I will excerpt briefly from it, as a sort of flying reminder that some very significant writers sat out the war entirely, and dealt with the consequences.

5 Jan. 1917.

Dear Eddie—

It now behoves me to bestir myself, lest I find myself merely an ignominious dependent, so I come to you for advice. You know I finished a novel, “Women in Love,” which I know is a masterpiece;—but it seems it will not find a publisher. It is no good, I cannot get a single thing I write published in England…

I know it is no good writing for England any more. England wants soothing pap, and nothing else, for its literature; sweet innocent babe of a Britannia! Therefore I have got to get out some way or other. Do you think they would let me get to New York? I know I could make a living there…

As for the War, I don’t want even to mention it, it is such a nausea in my soul. We both want something new, not to have to do with this old mess at all.

I have got enough money to take us to America, if we could go fairly soon. You know they gave me total exemption from military service on score of health. Or do you think I might get some little job, away off in one of the Pacific Islands, where we could both live in peace? I don’t want to have anything to do whatsoever with quarrelling nations. If I could have some little peaceful job to do, I would do it and be thankful. But not in England—I couldn’t stand it.

Perhaps you will think this all vague and foolish. I merely want you to tell me if you think I could carry it out at all.


D. H. Lawrence.[3]


And Edward Thomas, a man with dependents, less money, health problems that could probably have disqualified him, and a healthy loathing for war and militarism… has overcome all these obstacles to become a willing–even, by some accounts, a proud–officer in the Royal Artillery. He reports on his circumstances, today, to his old friend Gordon Bottomley.

5 January 1917 244 Siege Battery, Tin Town, Lydd, Kent

My dear Gordon,

I haven’t long to wait. We go out at the end of the month with six-inch howitzers & I am just going home for my last leave. Then tomorrow week we leave here for Codford on Salisbury Plain to get our guns & stores.

Well, there is not much to say except that I hope we shall often meet again & after a not very long interval. We have done our shooting & except for the critical audience I did not mind it at all. It is amusing to be a ‘Young Officer’ hauled over the coals by the Commandant for a quite imaginary offence. It will be a change to be in France & be judged simply by what one does or doesn’t do. I have a good pair of field glasses & my ears can stand the racket, so I can only fail because I couldn’t succeed. I have practically no chance of promotion.

I shall first handle a Section of two guns & take it in turns to go to the trenches to observe.

Give my love to Emily.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas 2nd Lieut.[4]

Thomas will head from Lydd to London, spending the first night of his mobilization leave with his parents in London.


Thomas is alone in looking forward to his next experience–and in asking nothing of his influential friend. Third and last of the great English writers writing, today, is Ford Madox Hueffer, to his old pal (and national propaganda chief) C.F.G. Masterman:

No. II Red X Hospital
Rouen, BEF, 5.1.17

My dear C. F. G.,

I haven’t written before, partly because of unsettlement & partly because I have been too ill for some time to write cheerfully—& I am tired of writing uncheerfully.

I got to the base camp & was greeted with the news that I was re-attached to the IX Welch—wh., I am informed, was meant amiably!—But it did not seem to me to be very tactful; for, if that particular C. O. didn’t want me, I still more actively didn’t want that C. O. So I protested rather vigourously, though unofficially. En attendant they—I don’t really know who, as things are confused here—gave me various polyglot jobs that rather amused me—writing proclamations in French about thefts of rations issued to H. B. M.’s forces & mounting guards over German sick. In the meantime my lungs intervened, wh. is not to be wondered at as what I was doing meant getting wet thro’ & coming in to write for a couple of hours in a stifling room, often getting wet through some more & then sleeping in a dripping hut. So, when it came to being really examined my lungs were found to be in a devil of a way…

The lungs are almost certainly bad enough, as he asserts. Ford is in poor shape physically, but he has a strange (given the rest of his personality) and very great pride in his presence at France. Not that he is not looking forward to a rest cure in the south of France, where sand and casinos replace mud and bombardments.

And yet I think we can trust Ford a certain way, too, on his other more or less disabling problem: the psychological after-effects of bombardment. His “hell of a funk,” below, is increasingly recognized as shell shock–a serious condition rather than a short-term indication of nervous damage or, worse, weakness. In another generation it will be “combat fatigue,” and then PTSD. Here it is in its literary infancy, as it were…

Such is my short & simple story: I think I shall be sent to Menton pretty soon & I shd. be fairly contented if I didn’t chafe at the inactivity. But of course I couldn’t very well be active even at writing proclamations because all day I am as stupid as an owl & all night I lie awake & perceive the ward full of Huns of forbidding aspect—except when they give me a sleeping draft.

I am in short rather ill still & sometimes doubt my own sanity–indeed, quite frequently I do. I suppose that, really, the Somme was a pretty severe ordeal, though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time. Now, however, I find myself suddenly waking up in a hell of a funk—& going on being in a hell of a funk till morning. And that is pretty well the condition of a number of men here. I wonder what the effect of it will be on us all, after the war–& on national life and the like. I fancy amenity of manners will suffer a good deal–for most of us who were once civil spoken enough have become arrogant fit intolerant…

If I only had a pen & could still use it & it wasn’t war time & I wasn’t a bit dotty, I wd. shew you, my dear, what I cd. do as a political writer!

…Well, God bless you, mon vieux! May MCMXVII give you all you want. Give my love to Lucy fit thank her, will you, for her p.c. What nice kids! I wish I had a son.


Hm. Someone should write a thumping great modernist novel on this sort of theme, with, let’s say, a brilliant, corpulent, shell-shocked officer (and, naturally, a beautiful and brilliant younger woman) at its heart.


References and Footnotes

  1. Pound, A. P. Herbert, 53.
  2. Death for Desertion, 77-81.
  3. A Number of People, 230-1.
  4. Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 276-77.
  5. Letters, 81-3.

Herbert Read Pontificates on Immortality; Edward Thomas Limps Along; Wilfred Owen’s Lofty Dreams; Raymond Asquith’s Wide Sympathies

Herbert Read is a difficult man… a difficult man to keep tabs on and, it would seem, to love.


Rugeley Camp, Staffordshire

I find our differences crystallized in one sentence of your last letter–‘And though one must agree that man is not a constituent of the divine (who has said he is?) surely you agree that the divine is one of the constituents of man?’ I don’t agree anything of the sort. Man is a constituent of the divine. The divine is not a constituent of man. There you have my creed plain enough. Read, mark, and learn: and call yourself a pessimist.

Evelyn Roff shared Herbert Read’s interest in philosophy–if not in pre-marital sex–but surely the tone of these letters was not… congenial. We’ve seen many attempts at bridging the gap, at strengthening relationships stretched by the long separations and by the parts of a soldier’s life that a wife or girlfriend can’t spare. But Read seems to believe that formal intellectual sparring will do the trick…

Apart from names I believe I have as much zest for life as you. I regard it as a great heroic fight–a challenge to be accepted with laughter and song. Besides which there is all the intense joy in the beauty of things and in the love of persons. And I can live untroubled by the thoughts of an “After…’ The only immortality that troubles me is the immortality to be created in ‘things of beauty, joys for ever’…

I am a happy exultant Pessimist!

…I’ve got a wonderful little book–The Freudian Wish–the pathology of thought, etc. Also a fine volume of poems by D.H. Lawrence.[1]



From one relationship that bodes well but doesn’t sound right to one that cannot go anywhere, yet seems to do wonderfully. Alas for Eleanor Farjeon, whose friendship with Edward Thomas is burdened by occasional condescension, awkward praise, unrequited love and, now, their mothers as well. “Granny Thomas” is actually Edward’s mother, and she takes up the pen for her son, who has an abscess in his hand. (Thomas’s propensity for such maladies lends support to his belief that he was suffering from diabetes.)

13 Rusham Rd.
Balham S W
Aug. 25. 1916

Dear Eleanor,

How good you are to me, and how well you write. I read your last letter all myself, and without any discomfort, so you see I really am getting better, though I am not supposed to do much, and the field of visible things is still very dark to me…

Perhaps you know that Edward left the Romford Camp on Tuesday, and has to report at St. John’s Wood this afternoon. Poor boy, he is not at all well and has a bad abscess on his right hand, and ought to have a few more days for rest, and I should love to have him, but in these days the powers that be show no mercy, tho’ I am not without hope he may return tomorrow. Now he asks if he may add a postscript and of course I agree knowing well it will make my letter less dull.

This is all I can say dear and so Goodbye and happy days be yours.

With love from


Farjeon seems pleased by “Granny’s” affection. Edward’s post-script was to ask a favor, of course: for months now, Thomas, training in London, has been billeted on his parents. Now he hopes to live more conveniently with Farjeon’s mother.

…Am I impudent in asking whether, if I am to be billeted out, I might possibly be billeted at 137 without inconvenience? I don’t know what the billet money would be but it might be enough to cover the cost of my living (minus the champagne). You will tell me as directly as I ask, won’t you?

If I am any good I will call and see your Mother tomorrow. But my poisoned hand has simply left me a wreck, good for nothing at all, in spite of 3 days rest here.

The champagne is a joke, the billeting money decent, and Farjeon’s mother would have no problem putting up the lonely, married soldier-poet she loves–or so Farjeon writes. But in the two days that have elapsed since this letter, all the plans have changed again. Thomas, it seems, is now officially an artillery cadet, and boarding in. Still, he will lean on loyal Eleanor…

From Cadet P. E. Thomas
Royal Artillery School
Handel St
27 viii 16

My dear Eleanor,

If I possibly can and I think I can, I will come round immediately after I am dismissed at 6 tomorrow. Then we can have dinner out or in as you like. You see I am not at St John’s Wood. All the R.G.A. men are here. It is too far off for me to sleep out, but I hope I can work at your house sometimes. There will be a great deal to do. Thank goodness my hand is mending fast, and so am I. I have been resting yesterday and today at Rusham Rd. We get practically every week end. The result is I got tired of logarithms and wrote 8 verses which you see before you. When I come I should like to borrow about the last 12 things I have written. I want to send them to the prospective publisher I told you about, with these if they are good enough…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas.[2]

I’m not sure which verses these are, but the progress toward a volume of poetry is significant. As is Farjeon’s role in it, not only as typist but as first reader and critic.


Wilfred Owen, meanwhile, has big plans. While his erstwhile fellow Artists’ Rifles’ cadet is finding his way toward the artillery, Owen is beginning to aim higher than the infantry. In a letter of four days ago to his brother Colin he raised a new hope:

There are changes happening daily, but I remain. Briggs went this morning to be attached to another Regiment; no choice of his. One or two are trying for the R. Flying Corps. Shall I? I think so.

Of the last Draught that went out, men I had helped to train, some are already fallen…

That letter then soars into a blizzard of half-self-aware pontification (word of the day, apparently) for his young brother. But today, a century back, his eyes are still on the skies:

Sunday 27 August
Manchester Regiment, 5th Battalion

My dearest Mother,

…The C.O. himself told me on Thursday that he was putting me down for the New Battalion, so that I am not being kicked out of the Manchesters, whatever happens. The C.O. appears to have found my work—or my person—not too offensive to him.

There is only one other of the Artist Batch now left…

I was on the point of sending in an application for the R. Flying Corps, when, at tea, the C.O. spoke to me about being kept on. I said ‘I thank you, sir’, being an Englishman.

But I still have a big idea of turning to Flight.

It is not quite a determination, or I might say it would certainly come about. There are ways and means, and I will work them, if I decide to. Tuesday I am going up to London, on Dental Leave, in order to see a high official at the War Office. Nothing succeeds in Aerial Matters without some boldness. So I am starting well.

I have not sent in my application for Transfer, as, once I did so, I should commit myself to the C.O’s eternal displeasure. Now what do you think about it.?

Flying is the only active profession I could ever continue with enthusiasm after the War…

By Hermes, I will fly. Though I have sat alone, twittering, like even as it were a sparrow upon the housetop…

Owen is swept away, again, by this idea, which–as he probably realizes, between the high-flying bits of bluster–does not sound terribly practical. But to dream of flight!

If I fall, I shall fall mightily. I shall be with Perseus and Icarus, whom I loved; and not with Fritz, whom I did not hate.  To battle with the Super-Zeppelin, when he comes, this would be chivalry more than Arthur dreamed of.

Zeppelin, the giant dragon, the child-slayer, I would happily die in any adventure against him. . . .

But I am terrified of Fritz, the hideous, whom I do not hate.

Fondest wishes for a fine old Aberystwithian Holiday.

Your own Wilfred[3]

It seems a little strange to object primarily to the deadliness of being an infantry officer and then dream of becoming a pilot: yes, there is little glamour in the infantry in a trench war, and fighter pilots will indeed take on the mantle–at least for propaganda purposes–of latter-day knights. But pilot training is deadlier than grenade-handling, by a long shot…

Owen is hard to read in these letters… but it’s probably the case that he has been worried about being accepted in his regiment, being seen as acceptable to his battalion commander. Now he can play up the promise of the Flying Corps knowing that he is likely to be assigned to an active battalion before long…


Finally, it would seem that there are ways to be prophetically almost-witty and to not only somehow clamber up onto the right side of history blind and backwards… and then slip right off the other side, showing your saddle-girths to the sky. I joked yesterday about Raymond Asquith‘s cutting edge opinions on the benefits of vaccines, breast-feeding, and the proper deployment of national care-giving resources. Today, a century back, in a letter to Diana Manners, he has a chance to seem ahead of his time once again. Asquith, defender of gay rights?

27 August

. . . All the morning I have spent conferring with a bn. officer who wants me to defend him at a Court Martial on a charge of “homosexualism”, as these overeducated soldiers persist in misnaming these elementary departures from the strict letters of “Infantry Training 1914”. His story seemed a very queer one[4] even to me who esteem myself a man of wide sympathies. But I am hoping to persuade Sir E. Carson to take my place, as I think the situation demands a deeper reservoir of cant than anyone but an Ulster covenanter can extemporarily command. . .[5]

This is pretty interesting, really, and I wish we knew more about the case. It’s not quite clear whether Asquith deserves any credit for his “wide sympathies,” here. It’s good to know that he is not a fulminating homophobe, but he is also trying to get out of the job and may be telling Manners about it more for the frisson/ability to demonstrate his cutting-edge disdain for convention than to show that he really doesn’t care where a man finds love or sex. As for the case itself, it seems clear that most units would tolerate a certain amount of more or less clandestine homosexual activity. Again, this may have something to do with the idea that consenting adults might do as they wish, English gentlemen respect privacy, etc., but it may have more to do with simple expediency–which is what Asquith is getting at with his “Infantry Training” joke. In an all male world it made more sense to look the other way than to aggressively prosecute gay men or men who took some comfort among their fellow soldiers. It seems likely that there were many who lived more or less conventionally heterosexual lives at home but refused the only likely such option in France–government-inspected and approved mass-market brothels in reserve-billet towns–and looked among their comrades instead. After all, this is the England that recently sent Oscar Wilde to jail, and also the England that tolerated more or less open homosexuality in the artistic reaches of the middle and upper classes, and in which the sexual availability of off-duty Guardsmen (the non-commissioned soldiers of Asquith’s regiment, among others, which were stationed in London in peace time) was a cliché of urban decadence. Hence the more-than-ordinary-in-military-legal-cases requirement for cant.

I know nothing about this case and shouldn’t speculate, but it is somewhat likely that one of three things posed a more significant problem than, simply, “homosexualism,” and pushed the case toward a court-martial. First, the officer may have earned the enmity of his commander, and not necessarily because of an uncompromising hatred of homosexuality. It might be  cynically seen as a sure-fire way to force a man our. Second, the officer might have failed to be discreet, which was a serious problem given the hypocrisy of the situation and the high bar for social reserve in Guards regiments. Asquith would, I’m sure, overlook a gay man who could be trusted not to be publicly exposed as such, but not a man who was a likely embarrassment. Third, while we, today, would note that homosexuality in and of itself does not cause this problem, it would have seemed to present a serious and legitimate threat to discipline if the gay officer had seemed to take an interest in any men under his command. In an all-male army, heterosexual abuse of rank wasn’t possible, but there are obvious problems not only of potential coercion (this, one imagines, might often be overlooked in an army in which some men were assigned to be body servants, were tied to wagon wheels or flogged for minor offenses and sometimes shot for serious ones, and in which all might be sent to their deaths) but of accusations of favoritism. Coercion is bad: favoritism is worse, especially in the form of a sexual relationship between officer and man. No cracks from the learned Asquith about Spartans or Thebans would be appropriate in such a case. In the British Army, all personal beliefs aside–as in most societies’ armies–it would be a bad thing if the private soldiers of a platoon had good reason to believe that their officer will protect one of them more than others.

I am speculating, and shouldn’t–I don’t know who this officer was or what indiscretion lead to the prosecution. But I have been thinking of a sad case we will encounter in the future, and Asquith’s view is not insignificant testimony on a thorny issue…


References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience, 76-7.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 210-12.
  3. Collected Letters, 406-8.
  4. No, it didn't mean that then.
  5. Life and Letters, 290.

Blighty in a Bowler Hat for John Bernard Adams; Siegfried Sassoon’s Gradations of Thankfulness; Richard Aldington Takes Up His Role in the Farce; Raymond Asquith Keeps the W from the D

First, today, John Bernard Adams has reached the shores of blighty:


“I represent Messrs. Cox and Co. Is there anything I can do for any of you gentlemen?”

A short, squarely built man, with a black suit, a bowler hat, and a small brown bag, stepped briskly into the room. He gave me intense pleasure: as he talked to a Scotch officer who wanted some ready cash, I felt that I was indeed back in England. It was a hot sunny day; and a bowler hat on such a day made me feel sure that this was really Southampton, and not all a dream. Sir, whoever you are, I thank you for your most appropriate appearance.

A century on, this moment requires more elucidation: Cox and Co. were a sort of general agent to British officers, a combination of concierge service and ATM (with, one assumes, steep fees) that was particularly useful to non-moneyed officers (who are now, of course, the great majority). Elucidation, then ratification: yes, what could be more reassuringly early-20th-century-English than a bowler-hatted businessman being of particular service to a particular class?

The hospital ship had been alongside nearly an hour, I believe. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. Breakfast, the dressing of my wound again, lunch; all had followed in an uneventful succession. The throbbing of the engines as the boat steamed quietly along had been hardly noticeable at all. At last there was a bustle, and we were carried out of the room, out into the sunshine again, and along the quay to the train. Here I was given a berth in the middle tier this time, for which I was very thankful. I felt so utterly tired; and the weight of my arm across my body was intolerable. That seemed a long, long journey too; but I got tea without delay this time, and it was hot. At Farnborough the train stopped and a few men were taken out. The rest came on to London.

“Is there any special hospital in London you want to go to?” said a brisk R.A.M.C. official, when we reached Waterloo.

“No,” I answered.

He wrote on a label, and put that round my neck also.

“Lady Carnarvon’s,” he said. I lay for some time on the platform of Waterloo station, gazing up at the vault in the roof. Porters and stretcher-bearers stood about, and gazed down at one in silence. Then I was moved into a motor ambulance, and a Red Cross lady took her seat in the back. My head was in the front, so that I could see nothing. Just before the car went off, a policeman put his head in.

“Any milk or anything?”

“Would you like any milk or beef tea?” the lady said.

“Milk, please.”

“He says he would like a little milk,” said the lady.

And then we drove off.[1]

A man in a bowler hat, a lady offering milk–Adams, it would seem, is nearing Journey’s End.


In an odd non-crossing of paths, Siegfried Sassoon, who had left the 1/RWF a day later on leave, beat his battalion comrade ashore by a few hours. It’s not odd, really. These two paths of return from the trenches–the evacuation of the wounded and the ferrying-to-leave–are of course distinct, and it’s not surprising that a healthy man moves faster than a wounded one (if Adams had been more severely wounded his evacuation would have stopped temporarily at a base hospital). So not odd–really just frustrating. Hey! I’ve been reading all these books and you two don’t even comment on the fact that you’re riding the same waves and rails at the same time?

June 11

Arrived at Southampton beat to the world at 10.35 this morning in showery weather with bright clouds over it all. And the smooth water and the low green Isle of Wight.

Very strange to be in Melbury Road again with someone playing on a piano over the way and the late June evening only just dusk at 9.30 (but of course it’s the extra hour that deceived me).[2]

An epochal event, this: one of history’s first experiences of mild confusion and irritation at Daylight Savings Time. In writing his memoirs–or, rather, “George Sherston’s” memoir, Sassoon takes advantage of his binary vision to draw our attention to what I have called the “irony of proximity.” From great danger, rats, and misery to apparent civilian normalcy in a few days–or a few sentences.

Flook was in a hurry to tell me that I was to go on leave. I didn’t wait to inspect my platoon’s rifles, and not many minutes later I was on my way down the Old Kent Road trench. Maple Redoubt was getting its usual evening bombardment, and as a man had been killed by a whizz-bang in the Old Kent Road a few minutes earlier, I was glad when I was riding back to Morlncourt with Dottrell; glad, too, to be driving to Mericourt station behind the sluggish pony next morning; to hear the mellow bells of Rouen on the evening air while the leave train stood still for half an hour before making up its mind to lumber on to Havre. And thus the gradations of thankfulness continued, until I found myself in a quiet house in Kensington where I was staying the night with an old friend of Aunt Evelyn’s.

To be there, on a fine Sunday evening in June, with the drawing-room windows open and someone playing the piano next door, was an experience which now seemed as queer as the unnatural conditions I had returned from. Books, pictures, furniture, all seemed kind and permanent and unrelated to the present time and its troubles. I felt detached from my surroundings–rather as if I were in a doctor’s waiting room, expecting to be informed that I had some incurable disease. The sound of the piano suggested that the specialist had a happy home life of his own,
but it had no connection with my coming and going. A sense of gentle security pervaded the room; but I could no longer call my life my own.

This is diary-to-memoir conversion with a heavy thematic hand, yet wielded with sufficient skill so as to seem deceptively gentle. But here’s a bit we can’t miss:

The pensive music had caught me off my guard; I was only an intruder from the Western Front. But the room contained one object which unexpectedly reminded me of the trenches–a silent canary in a cage. I had seen canaries in cages being carried by the men of the tunnelling company when they emerged from their mine galleries.

In an odd double-twist of his gently fictionalized life, Sassoon did not spend tonight, a century back, with a friend of his (invented) “Aunt Evelyn,” but rather with his actual aunt, in a house which had a studio for his sculptor uncle Hamo Thornycroft attached. Perhaps his real Aunt and Uncle had a conveniently caged fringillidine memento belli, and perhaps not…

The real Sassoon will now be off home to Kent, and we will greet him soon enough, on his return to the Western Front.[3]


No such luck for Noel Hodgson, whose battalion of the Devonshires went into the line today, a century back, opposite Mametz. Before marching up from billets, Hodgson managed a quick note to his sister Stella, whose first baby was due within the week:

Dear old girl; a word in haste to wish all luck to you and the BIT, this week; your loving brother. Bill. I think
much of you.[4]


And from a young subaltern of the Devonshires to one of the regiment’s newest privates. Richard Aldington writes a chummy, not to say fawning letter to Amy Lowell, patroness of modern poetry, about his coming metamorphosis:

Woodland Cottage,
N. Devon

My dear Amy,

So many thanks for your kind letter. I ought to have written earlier to thank you…

I am called up for June 24, so by the time you get this I shall be awa’! I hope you will write to me, Amy, even if I am
not always able to write you. As soon as I can I will let you know my military address. My number on the form is 61, so that in a fortnight I cease to be “Richard Aldington, the celebrated Imagist poet” (vide Drama ad.I) and become
Private R. Aldington, 61, 6th Devonshire Regiment!

Quelle farce [what a farce]!

Aldington did not volunteer, but was drafted after conscription was extended to include married men. This, of course, does preclude a bit of better-late-than-never snobbishness about his friends and fellow modernist writers:

I don’t know what is happening to Flint and Lawrence. As they are older than I, they are several “classes” later, which may mean a week or more delay. I am certain that neither of them will be passed for “Service Abroad”, as I
shall probably be. If they are passed for “Garrison Service at Home” or “Clerical Work”, they won’t be actually required for some time–at least so my officer friends tell me. Flint, I imagine, will continue for some time in the G.P.O. And Lawrence will continue to nurse his hatred of mankind in Cornwall!

D.H. Lawrence would, in fact, continue to nurse his principled opposition to the war, in Cornwall, and suffer for it.


Finally, today, Raymond Asquith. Death of course, is only one of the trench officer’s two inevitable worries:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
11 June 1916

Certainly it was a formidable bundle you sent me from the Income Tax people. It is quite impossible out here to discuss what one’s income is or what one’s tax should be, so they will have to kick their heels for a bit. Luckily I have been paid a little for Revenue cases and enclose you £50 to keep the W. from the D.

I am glad that Trim’s baptism went off nicely and that he scooped in some presents; also that Helen has the right instincts about Archbishops . . . How like Visey and Margot to make such a fuss about Lord K. As if it mattered these old men being killed . . .

This will be our last news of the news of Lord Kitchener’s death being received. Margot Asquith had, apparently, burst into the church during the baptism of Raymond’s son to spread the news. Very rude…

As so often with Asquith, it’s hard to tell where the humor ends and the hurt begins. He has missed his son’s baptism, naturally, and cares little enough for the death of another old man…  Or is it merely that the closeness of trench life keeps him from his best letter-writing form?

In any case, this final example of General Staff idiocy must be an invention:

There is such a noise in the room that I can’t write you a proper letter. An order has just come out that there is to be no cheering in the trenches when peace is declared. No one can say that our Generals don’t look ahead.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Nothing of Importance, 290-2/304-7.
  2. Diaries, 77-8.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 312-4; Infantry Officer, 47-8.
  4. Zeepvat, Before Action, 183.
  5. Life and Letters, 267-8.

The Nursing Sister Finds a Blackbird, F.W. Harvey a Lark; Farjeon and Lawrence Tramp Together; Julian Grenfell Witnesses the Carnage at Hill 60

We begin with the Nursing Sister, often the best of our writers for briskly communicating the war’s ironic proximity of beauty and violence (although Will Harvey will do the same–if in a lighter vein–below). Her diary entry of tomorrow discusses today, a century back.

A very muddy officer of 6 ft. 4 was brought in early yesterday morning with a broken leg, and it is a hard job to get him comfortable in these short beds.

Yesterday at 4 a.m. I couldn’t resist invading the garden opposite which is the R.A. Headquarters. It is full of lovely trees and flowers and birds. I found a blackbird’s nest with one egg in. From the upper windows of this place it makes a perfect picture, with the peculiarly beautiful tower of the Cathedral[1] as a background.[2]


Edward Thomas is too deep in his Marlborough research to take a long break, although he has been invited to join friends in the Sussex countryside. So Eleanor Farjeon found another companion for a long walk today–D.H. Lawrence. And yet somehow it is almost as if Thomas is walking, ghost-like beside them. Farjeon seems to think of him always:

The early hour was to allow for a long day; it was twenty miles to Chichester. I arranged to walk across from Rackham and join him [Lawrence] at the gate on the Greatham road. We met in one of those white Sussex mists which muffle the meadows before sunrise, lying breast-high on the earth, her last dream before waking. We set out, then, in a world still asleep, the known lanes and fields were strangers, as friends sleeping become strangers. The woolly haystacks and the sheep huddled against them were not yet actual haystacks and
real sheep. They were still being dreamed by the land. If a lamb had bleated, one felt the dream must break, earth stir in her bed, and shake the sleep out of her eyes. We talked in lowered voices. At that time I walked with the long lope that matched Edward’s negligent stride. He covered ground fast without any appearance of hurry. It was too fast for Lawrence, who soon said, ‘I must teach you to walk like a tramp…”

Lawrence was in his angelic, child-like mood. We found, followed, and lost the old track the Romans had made over the Downs to Chichester. We lost ourselves as well as the track, and wandered among curling valleys that led us astray. We only occasionally looked at the map. We sang scraps of songs, and every two miles lolled on the grass, where, till the dew had dried, I spread my green silk mackintosh. It was a new one, and Lawrence approved of it. We ate snacks from my knapsack, and talked when we felt like it. Our talk that day seldom touched on the things that irked him unendurably.

In one of the deep bottoms, where the whitebeams looked like trees in silver blossom, he cried, ‘We must be springlike!’ and broke green branches and stuck them round our hats.[3]

Not much of the bayonet’s tender caresses on this jaunt. Just two gentle, child-like writers on a long ramble. One will repeatedly shock the world, the other write gentle poetry and prose for children… People are so changeable, and so many different things happen to them…


In Ploegsteert Wood, just south of the salient the 5th Glosters produced a second issue of their trench newspaper, the 5th Gloucester Gazette. Several of the signed works–a comic marching poem, a parody of a soldier’s letter home–carried Will Harvey’s initials (F.W.H.), and one unsigned piece is probably his as well:

Nature Notes

Birds sometimes selected queer nesting places. A lark built a nest and laid three eggs therein at the top of a trench parapet. One day our sapper section indulged in a little trench mortar practice over the nest, and, immediately after a bomb had been fired, it was found that one of the eggs had hatched out. Evidently the young bird was anxious to know what was the matter.

Don’t worry: the same brief note also mentions cuckoos calling during a bombardment, blackbird’s eggs being cooked for breakfast, and nightingales singing nearby.[4]


And, just to the north, more ground was lost on the southern flank of the Ypres salient this morning. Behind a cloud of gas released on the flanks of the British position, the Germans retook Hill 60. The gas settling in what had been the British support lines made any immediate counterattack impossible. Among the dead was Captain George V. Robins of the East Yorkshires, a regular officer who had written a few Newbolt-ish verses which will feature in early anthologies including this ode to polo:

On to the ball when the pace is quick,
Galloping all the way,
Stirrup to stirrup and stick to stick
God, what a game to play!

This is the law that mayn’t be broke,
This is our chiefest pride;
Never a single selfish stroke,
Every man for the side.

This is the toast we love to drink,
Every night the same,
Bumpers all ! and the glasses clink,
“Here’s to the Soldier’s Game!”


Julian Grenfell, who could write much better stuff from the same sort of vantage point, has been stewing all spring while his (cavalry) regiment was held in reserve. Now, with the salient under such pressure, they are marched close behind the front (Proven is only a few miles northwest of Ypres), near enough to see the carnage, and to begin to hope that he too might soon be sent Into Battle.

Wednesday, 5 May:

Exercise in morning.News at midday to go up & dig trenches in reserve line… about 1/2 mile from Ypres. Stayed with horses. They say the men dug awfully well…

Went into dressing station in farm. Cases kept coming in. 30 men died of gas. Kitchener affair. Everyone smoking. Dead & wounded lying on stretchers in barn waiting for ambulances. Men dressed on the small kitchen floor.

Staff officer told me we are going to hold line just round outskirts of Ypres. Told me also Hill 60 taken by gases. NB “Shattered” look of wounded & men going back.[5]

This is an unfamiliar position for Grenfell, who has had little leisure to stroll about and observe the after-effects of battle. We tend to see him, here on A Century Back, as either a fighting soldier or a sui generis character–troubled, perhaps, but quiet, interior, the violence concealed behind the smirk. He writes jaunty letters across the fraught distances to his mother, or he makes frightful comments about fighting and killing… and then the poetry comes out of nowhere.

But this is 1915, and poetry is not solely the province of aesthetes or sensitive types. Grenfell had written a few poems before he experienced battle, and the best had evoked other killers and killing sports: his greyhounds, and the thrill of the hunt. Now, suddenly, he is in an unusually passive role, and yet he is jotting down an observation.

“NB–“is this an idea for a future poem? It seems likely. He reuses diary observations in his letters without making any particular note of it, and this is not the sort of thing he would toss into his cloyingly upbeat letters home. So is the poet of “Into Battle” now contemplating verses about its costs?

The world is changing…


References and Footnotes

  1. I am not sure precisely where she is, given the redacted unit numbers and place names, but she is somewhere south of Ypres, with a Field Ambulance unit attached either to the 3rd, 4th, 27th, or 28th Division. Perhaps, then, she can see the cathedral in Ypres (St. Martin's Church) from her window. Or perhaps she is referring to another smaller "cathedral."
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 134-5.
  4. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 73-74.
  5. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 295-6.

May Morning at Oxford; A Bevy of May Poems; Letters from Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton

Oxford, 1 May 1915

I was up at 3.45 this morning for the famous May Morning ceremony… as the clock struck four all the people turned towards the tower & became absolutely silent. Then immediately after, as the sun was rising, the choristers on the top of Magdalen tower sang the May Morning Latin hymn, turning towards the sun… I could quite easily have wept at the beauty & pain of it. I couldn’t help thinking how different everything is from what we pictured it would be, & how you had meant to be here, & how you would have loved it if you had been…

Vera’s letter then turns to discuss the apparent lack of progress in the war. She notices that the Territorial regiments seem to be suffering the most at Ypres, almost as if Kitchener’s Army is being held back form some other onslaught–as indeed it is. She then reproaches herself for her weakness:

When I read your letters & find how you never complain of anything by so much as a word, dear, although I know you shrink from horror & ugliness just as much as I do, I feel I am not being one little bit brave.

I hear Mother is sending you out some socks[1] for your men. I am glad you are giving us some faint idea at last of things you want. I do feel such pleasure in sending them.

Goodbye for the present–very best of love–


Vera Brittain is a kindred spirit, always looking back and looking ahead, remembering and fretting, waiting and hoping. She will return to this May Day in verse–a day to remember, like Speech Day, for its beauty, for its aching sense of bright hopeful promises, and for what came after.

We will come back to today when Vera does, but we’ll turn, before the end of this post, to Roland Leighton‘s “response,” a long letter to her also begun today, a century back.


But it ain’t only Oxford. Everywhere, spring has sprung. And with it poetry has bloomed,and burgeoned, and  flowered…

In honor, then, of the first of the month, here are several month-dated poems, all written during–or about–this first springtime of the war.


This is the first appearance here of William Noel Hodgson, the son of a bishop, a prolific athlete at Durham School, and a talented scholar. He was working toward a second degree at Oxford (Christ Church) when the war began, but soon volunteered and was commissioned in the 9th Devonshires. At this point he is still in training and, like so many other subalterns of Kitchener’s Army, he was writing verse.

(Apologies for the spacing–there is skillful rhythm here, but I find myself unable to easily reproduce indentations in this silly program.)

Splendide Fallax [i.e. Gloriously Deceptive”]

It was the time of snowdrops,
They wandered thro’ the lawn;
Her eyes were like the ocean,
His hair was like the corn;
And she saw nought besides him ;
But he that duty guides him.
And love must be forsworn.
It is the time of roses
And she goes by forlorn,
Nor sees the summer splendour.
Nor feels the breath of morn.
The trees are green above her
But no more comes her lover
And hark! they mow the corn.

May 1915

Sure-footed, and efficient: there are young lovers about to be parted. It’s springtime and roses, and sprouting corn. And hark–a clever ending, especially if you had had the thought that hair “like the corn” is straining ye olde poetic diction. Ah, but it becomes a gentle nudge, doesn’t it? “Mowing, my friends, is a pastoral image.” It’s more subtle than a similar move that Wilfred Owen will one day make, admonishing the reader directly for confusing men and flowers.

Hodgson also wrote “Durham” this month, which is more schoolboy Brooke or innocent Grenfell than young man’s Thomas. I’ll give the first and last stanzas, which convey the (familiar) sentiment well enough:

On death’s frontier lie broken
Half-a-hundred empty schemings
And a thousand fairy dreamings,
By the stark word, “Battle,” spoken,
Ultimate and simple passions in the men are re-awoken…

When our bones long since are rotten.
One above the dying embers
Shall grow young as he remembers,
Names and faces half-forgotten.
With the ancient loves and friendships of thy tenderness begotten.

May 1915[3]

The 9th Devonshires will go to the front in July.


About Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson I know very little. He was a graduate of Leeds University, a schoolmaster when the war broke out, and soon a lieutenant in the 8th (New Army) battalion of the West Yorkshire regiment, which is about to arrive at the trenches.[4] At some point this month, near Laventie, he wrote this poem. It could stand as the representative of all other traditional early trench poems–up with the lark and down with the nightingale:


Thy song comes thrilling through the air
a ‘ glorious stream of melody—
A golden flood.
What precious chance has kept thee there.
Singing thy strains of faerie glee,
Where all is blood?
We cannot see thee, wondrous bird;
The dawn has scarce begun as yet;
The moon still high.
But friend and foe thy song have heard.
And none who hear it can forget
Nor check a sigh.
Because thy music, wildly sweet.
Seems still to call us from the ground
To soar and fly;
But we, alas, have leaden feet;
Unloveliness is all around.
Men fight and die.
’Tis no fit place for such high lore.
For we are bound, we cannot rise—
Till the blood mist clears.
But fly to him who launched the war.
Sing, sing to him and ope’ his eyes
To human tears.

Alas! poor sprite! thy fate with him
Were poor indeed. For one who wrongs
A world entire,
To glut ambition’s idle whim,
Will never hearken to thy songs
Of hallowed fire.
Then stay with us. The nightingale
Shall sing all night her sad, sweet dirge
For death and pain;
But Dawn thine own free voice shall hail.
And in the heart high Hope shall surge
And soar again.
And grim-faced men with weary eyes
Shall turn their thoughts from blood and strife.
Across the foam.
To where, beneath Old England’s skies.
Thy sisters sing of love and life
To those at home.[5]


May Wedderburn Cannan was born in Oxford, the daughter of Charles Cannan, Dean of Trinity and director of the Oxford University Press. Naturally, perhaps, she was both a volunteer and a poet. She had joined a VAD–“Voluntary Aid Detachment” before the war, and in late April 1915 she went to Rouen. At this point in the war VADs–amateur middle and upper class volunteers, mostly women, with scant formal training in nursing–were still mostly scorned, and not allowed closer to the front than Rouen, which was a railhead miles behind the front lines.

Cannan could be compared unfavorably, then, with Lady Feilding (or Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker), amateurs who found their way to the front by joining foreign Red Cross units. Or she could be compared with the Nursing Sister, a woman with extensive and valuable nursing experience who nonetheless worried constantly that she would be kept, because of her sex (her gender, we would say), away from where she could do the most good.

Neither comparison would be quite fair. The Pervyse crew were outliers, with unusual connections or skills and the willingness to buck against the traces of English sexism. Cannan did what she could, within the current bounds of convention–she volunteered, and when she was sent to run a soldier’s canteen, she did. Later, she will do more.

Her poetry, too, is conventional, but it captures a moment, a slice of experience, and it flashes forward to the prevailing mood of mid-war poetry: wistful, sentimental, fending off a darkness unvisualized with memories of the better times.

Cannan later wrote the following poem, which commemorated her month near the front:


26 April—25 May 1915
Early morning over Rouen, hopeful, high, courageous morning.
And the laughter of adventure and the steepness of the stair.
And the dawn across the river, and the wind across the bridges.
And the empty littered station and the tired people there.

Can you recall those mornings arid the hurry of awakening.
And the long-forgotten wonder if we should miss the way,
And the unfamiliar faces, and the coming of provisions.
And the freshness and the glory of the labour of the day?

Hot noontide over Rouen, and the sun upon the pity.
Sun and dust unceasing, and the glare of cloudless skies.
And the voices of the Indians and the endless stream of soldiers.
And the clicking of the tatties, and the buzzing of the flies.

Can you recall those noontides and the reek of steam and coffee.
Heavy-laden noontides with the evening’s peace to win.
And the little piles of Woodbines, and the sticky soda bottles,
And the crushes in the ‘Parlour’, and the letters coming in?

Quiet night-time over Rouen, and the station full of soldiers.
All the youth and pride of England from the ends of all the earth,
And the rifles piled together, and the creaking of the sword-belts,
And the faces bent above them, and the gay, heart-breaking mirth.

Can I forget the passage from the cool white-bedded Aid Post
Past the long sun-blistered coaches of the khaki Red Cross train
To the truck train full of wounded, and the weariness and laughter.
And ‘Good-bye, and thank,you. Sister’, and the empty yards again?

Can you recall the parcels that we made them for the railroad.
Crammed and bulging parcels held together by their string.
And the voices of the sergeants who called the Drafts together.
And the agony and splendour when they stood to save the King?

Can you forget their passing, the cheering and the waving,
The little group of people at the doorway of the shed.
The sudden awful silence when the last train swung to darkness,
And the lonely desolation, and the mocking stars o’erhead?

Can you recall the midnights, and the footsteps of night watchers,
Men who came from darkness and went back to dark again,
And the shadows on the rail-lines and the all-inglorious labour,
And the promise of the daylight bring blue the window-pane?

Can you recall the passing through the kitchen door to morning,
Morning very still and solemn breaking slowly on the town.
And the early coastways engines that had met the ships at daybreak.
And the Drafts just out from England, and the day shift coming down?

Can you forget returning slowly, stumbling on the cobbles,
And the white-decked Red Cross barges dropping seawards for the tide,
And the search for English papers, and the blessed cool of water,
And the peace of half-closed shutters that shut out the world outside?

Can I forget the evenings and the sunsets on the island,
And the tall black ships at anchor far below our balcony,
And the distant call of bugles, and the white wine in the glasses,
And the long line of the street lamps, stretching Eastwards to the sea?

…When the world slips slow to darkness, when the office fire burns lower,
My heart goes out to Rouen, Rouen all the world away;
When other men remember I remember our Adventure
And the trains that go from Rouen at the ending of the day.


And now a shifting of gears. The influential Modernist peridical The Egoist (Volume II, Number 5) came out today. With all this larking about and remembering Rouen there’s no time for the Modernists today. But geez, marshaling your artillery on the flanks while the young enthusiasts of the soon-to-be old guard rush to their death in a flowery frontal assault is… good strategy. What, precisely, is the explanation for the fact that the death rate among committed modernists was so much lower than that of the major talents of a more traditional bent?

We’ll come back to that. In the meantime, if you’d like to see what May Sinclair published today, or Amy Lowell, or H.D., or her husband Richard Aldington, or D.H. Lawrence, or what Harold Monro thought of their Imagist brethren, well… check it out at the link above. There’s even a short verse from T.E. Hulme, “now in the trenches of Ypres” written in 1908 but cited here as an early moment in the “History of Imagism.” Many of these writers will have their day here too, but not today.

But stop! I do have to write a little bit about Lawrence, whose poem ‘Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?‘ (quoting Jesus on the cross) is a remarkably explicit early anti-war poem. Lawrence, who will be persecuted for his pacifism, foregrounds the murderous destructiveness of war and the insanity of the men of avowedly Christian nations killing each other by the thousands.

I shot my man, I saw him crumble and hang/ A moment as he fell–and grovel and die.

And God is good, for I wanted him to die/ and twist and grovel…

It gets more horrible, and notably graphic, too. Lawrence is neither a prude nor a soldier, but he anticipates what many prim soldier boys will realize with a start during training, namely that penetrating with the bayonet is for many an unavoidably sexual image:

Like a bride he took my bayonet, wanting it…

…And I, the lover, am consummate

This kind of stuff complicates the image of a straight march from flowery Georgian patriotism to the poetry of horror and protest, doesn’t it?


So, back in the end here to our writers in the trenches. Roland Leighton reported a few days ago that

We have left our trenches in the wood, and have been since 6 p.m. last night holding another piece of the line…  there are no primroses or violets here, but only sandbags and boarding and yellow slag. Which is perhaps as it should be.

Today, still in the same area, he writes again.

Flanders, 1—3 May 1913

Yesterday we got rushed off suddenly to occupy a line of support trenches, and had to stay in them till 3.30 a.m. this morning. We are to hold them again this evening, I believe; which, with nothing more inspiring to do than sit still in the rain for the most part of the night, does not sound inviting. Still, at the worst it is good practice, and you can listen to the undulating roar of a distant artillery bombardment from the direction of Ypres not with
equanimity but with a certain tremulous gratitude that it is no nearer. Someone is getting hell, but it isn’t you–yet…

I recently mentioned Epicureanism. Roland’s thought is, I think unwittingly, almost an exact paraphrase of a famous Epicurean definition of contentment, from the beginning of book II of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura:

Pleasant it is, when over the great sea the winds shake the waters,
To gaze down from shore on the trials of others;
Not because seeing other people struggle is sweet to us,
But because the fact that we ourselves are free from such ills strikes us as pleasant.
Pleasant it is also to behold great armies battling on a plain,
When we ourselves have no part in their peril.

We can only hope that Roland gets to lines seven and eight:

But nothing is sweeter than to occupy a lofty sanctuary of the mind,
Well fortified with the teachings of the wise.

Well. It is fortified, at least, with the essential English spirit, that of the well-bred outdoorsman:

This morning I took a digging party of 50 men about 2 miles the other side of our wood…[6]

It was a glorious morning and from where we were on the hill we could see the country for miles around. It looked
rather like the clear cut landscape in a child’s painting book. The basis was deep green with an occasional flame-coloured patch in the valley where a red-roofed farm house had escaped the guns.

Just below the horizon and again immediately at our feet was a brilliant yellow mustard field. I left the men digging and went to look at some of the houses near. All the windows were without glass and the rooms a mass of debris… I enclose a rather pathetic souvenir that I found among the rubbish in the ruins of one of the rooms—some pages from a child’s exercise book.

Soon after I came back to the trench a German howitzer battery that had caught sight of us sent over 38 3.5″ shells, which fortuitously hit nearby, though they were all within thirty or forty yards of us. Luckily you can always hear this sort coming and we had time to crouch down in the bottom of the trench…

The explosion blows a cloud of earth and splinters of shell into the air, so that when they fire a salvo (all four guns together) the effect is rather terrifying and you wonder if the next one will come a yard or two nearer and burst right in the trench on top of you. I do not mind rifle fire so much, but to be under heavy shell fire is a most nerve-racking job.[2]


And today, a century back, the liner Lusitania set sail from New York, bound for Liverpool with a cargo of, most notably, neutral civilians and concealed munitions.


References and Footnotes

  1. The great work on the Great War's Roll of Socks has yet to be written. But we are making progress!
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 92-6.
  3. Hodgson,Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 30-2.
  4. Powell, A Deep Cry, 304.
  5. Wilkinson, Sunrise Dreams and Other Poems, 15-16.
  6. I don't really know, alas, where Leighton is just now. He might be on the high ground near Cassel, or then again he might be further south.
  7. Letters from a Lost Generation, 92-6.

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, Part I

Churchill on BrookeRupert Brooke had jokingly wondered, during the winter, who would “do the Times” obituary if he should die. Well. The first draft was written by Eddie Marsh, but–as the penmanship at right demonstrates–it was Churchill himself who redrafted and produced the final version. Winston’s obituary is characteristic and, for us, very interesting, a strong new example of the war being written to a purpose other than the service of simple truth.

The prose swells, it rolls and thunders–it’s inspirational, and yet it’s not really about what it’s about. Churchill, who will one day become an orotund, inspiring, and inaccurate historian, continues the transmutation of Rupert Brooke’s life and (recent) work into instrument and symbol. Which is to say propaganda. This is the First Lord of the Admiralty writing about the death (not in action) of one humble temporary sub-lieutenant. How much greater is his moral[1] value dead, his handsome portrait shimmering force-like behind his rousing patriotic verses, than his tactical value alive, just one more half-trained subaltern?

That, I suppose, is not really our concern here. Instead, we should begin tracking his legacy as a writer. In the days to come we will read assessments of Brooke from several of our other soldier-poets, but today let’s begin with the obituary.

During the last few months of his life, months of preparation in gallant comradeship and open air, the poet-soldier told with all the simple force of genius the sorrow of youth about to die, and the sure triumphant consolations of a sincere and valiant spirit. He expected to die: he was willing to die for the dear England whose beauty and majesty he knew: and he advanced towards the brink in perfect serenity, with absolute conviction of the rightness of his country’s cause and a heart devoid of hate for fellow-men.

Those last few lines assume too much, protest too much. Presumptuous history or biography–but useful obituary. But the rest of it is–and this is the remarkable thing–more or less accurate. Was Brooke depressed, ill, uncertain, and nasty at different moments over the past six months? Sure. But as far as his writing/public persona went, he was fluently, trippingly serene–and ready to die. We will read critiques of his posture: it seems fair to say that Brooke’s obsession with sacrifice stems from self-obsession, even neurosis, and not calm, quiet, patriotic conviction.

It doesn’t matter if the truth is that his patriotism was bound up in a nasty tangle with his depression and anxiety. Now he is become a name, and a face, and a sequence of sonnets. Back to Churchill:

The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward in this, the hardest, the cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, ruled by high undoubting purpose, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.

It’s 1915–Gallipoli is just beginning; there have been no major British attacks on the Western Front; the Somme is more than a year away. So, although “sacrifice” was Rupert Brooke’s idea, and Churchill is blithely, resolutely spinning the man and the poetry into the myth of national sacrifice, the scale of the sacrifice to come–still less its futility–are not something that Brooke could have guessed at, or should be thought responsible for. His death, and the uses of his legacy, are ironic. Which is to say, as well, that the trajectory he aimed himself along as he anticipated his own demise was not history’s true path.

History will come. This, however, is a liminal moment, a time for everyone to tie their own flower onto the end of the broken branch. His friend Frederick Kelly, who helped bury him, saw this very clearly:

It was as though one were involved in the origin of some classical myth.

And so we are–not for nothing were Brooke’s Cambridge circle sometimes called the Neo-Pagans. But the deluge is coming, and the fall, and after it the vengeful modernists.

There are too many literary responses to note here, but praise along Churchillian lines will continue to reverberate. We will return for several of the more perceptive reactions, and to make a short study of Brooke’s fraught executorship (Eddie Marsh and Brooke’s mother, at first mourning and sorting together, would spend an agonizing afterlife battling over the sanitizing of his memory–they were both for it, of course, but differently). But here are a few to begin with:

D.H. Lawrence wrote  while still under the impression that it was the sun that had killed Brooke–not an enemy saber or bullet or even a shell fragment, but not, at least, a mosquito, that most practical, least glorious, most appropriate symbol of the traditional deadliness of military campaigning. He did something clever with this, writing that to be “slain by bright Phoebus’ shaft” was”the real climax of his pose… It is all in the saga. O God, O God, it is all too much of a piece: it is like madness.”

Similar, too, was the reaction of Frederic Manning, an Australian who will eventually become one of the most significant Great War writers. Manning “thought Brooke the best of the Georgians, [and] was moved later to an epigram on this symbol of golden youth lost:

Earth held thee not, whom now the gray seas hold
By the blue Cyclades, and even the sea
Palls but the mortal, for men’s hearts enfold.
Inviolate, the untamed youth of thee.”[2]


In time, and because of this sort of instrumental apotheosizing, his friends–and the defenders of poetry and reasoned writing (among them Harold Monro and H.W. Nevinson)–will protest. They risked opprobrium by suggesting either that a real, flawed person had died, and not a god or hero. They pointed out that the torrent of sentimentalized, recruiting-poster-appropriate verse written in his memory amounted to a betrayal of his own more complex poetry–his pre “1914″ poetry, that is. The book 1914 and Other Poems will be rushed out soon and sell tremendously.[3]


So Rupert Brooke is dead–his corpus will suffer a Homeric fate, oiled and burnished to a luster greater than that which they had in life, and yet also dragged behind the victor’s chariot, as time and taste change and the new (literary) order gleefully over-kills the old. But his physical body, at least, was safe. In Flanders, today, an officer is missing, and Billy Congreve describes the quest to learn of his fate.

26th April

Last night, [Lt. Col. George] Cory received news that his brother, Bob, was missing. He is in the 57th Highlanders (Canadian). This was about 8 p.m., so we found a car and, after dinner, set off together. He was naturally very much upset. We left the car outside Ypres, as the shelling was very heavy. Luckily it was a bright moon…

Just as we got to the level-crossing at the north-west corner of the town, a big crump landed almighty close, throwing all sorts of stuff about us. Two dead horses were there, evidently just killed. Two shells a minute (and big ‘uns) were coming on to this place. A dead civilian was there too, a grotesque-looking muddle at the side of the road with a huge bundle of his worldly goods wrapped on a sheet…

Everything was a horrid mess and the town was on fire in several places. It was a rummy scene: the big battered town, the very still moonlit night, the scrunch of broken brick and glass underfoot and no sign of life, except for the occasional motor ambulances rushing through. Then several times a minute, one would hear the coming wailing of some big shell getting closer and closer, then the crash as it hit some building and a roar as it burst…

We were looking for the 15th Battalion and, by great good fortune, found them in St Jean… Half-way along to St Jean, I said to Colonel George [Cory], ‘I suppose it is my imagination but my eyes are smarting a good deal.’

…Sure enough, we were well into a belt of it–this, mind you, was a good one and a half miles from the front line. Tears ran down our cheeks and it was an abominably chokey chemical smell, rather like ether. It was not unpleasant, reminding me of oranges and lilac, but even so it was a ‘wicked’ scent.

…This battalion [the 15th, a.k.a 48th Highlanders of Canada] was on the extreme left of our line… [on the 23rd they had] found themselves surrounded, especially at that part of the line which had drawn back its left on St Julien. Cory’s brother was here. From all accounts he made a gallant fight, for after the rest of the battalion had retired, he was heard to be going on fighting with his machine-gun and the remnants of his company. So that is all they knew about him, and he may be dead or wounded, and anyhow, a prisoner…

Eventually Colonel G. and I came away, but we had many a scare on the way home. We cut across the Plaine D’Amour and never have I seen a place so ill-named! A misery it was, dead things, shell holes and broken trees. I was very tired and my eyes hurt. It is a new horror to this already horrible war, and there is something depressing in this gas. However, I dare say we shall get used to it.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. As in "morale."
  2. Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 120.
  3. See Jones, Rupert Brooke, 428-33; Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 514-7.
  4. Congreve, Armageddon Road, 128-130.