The Christmas quiet of the Western Front was broken, today, a century back, at dawn, by a minor German offensive near Cambrai–but no offensive is minor to the men under the barrage.
Patrick Shaw Stewart, commanding the Hood Battalion, had a decision to make: was this just a covering barrage for a raid, or was there an actual attack underway which might threaten the integrity of his position? He’s a new commander–a relatively inexperienced temporary commander–and to nervously call for support when it was not needed would not look well… so Shaw Stewart refused to send up the S.O.S. signal, even though he was urged to do so by the artillery liaison officer who was with him. This decision was “exceptionally gallant” as well as both correct and mistaken: the barrage was not, in fact, the immediate harbinger of a surprise attack–but the attack did come an hour later, and was beaten back.
But Shaw Stewart did not live to see it. The following account, given at one remove by an officer who interviewed the liaison officer who was with Shaw Stewart when he died, is more graphic than most. Perhaps because it passed between an officer and a male friend–Ronald Knox, who will compile the memorial volume of Shaw Stewart’s letters–rather than a wife or mother who would have been presumed to need gentle solace more than truth. And yet it ends with the familiar mercy of an “instantaneous” death.
He was hit by shrapnel, the lobe of his ear was cut off and his face spattered so that the blood ran down from his forehead and blinded him for a bit. The gunner tried to make him go back to Battalion H.Q. to be dressed, but he refused, and insisted on completing his round. Very soon afterwards, a shell burst on the parapet, and a fragment hit him upwards through the mouth and killed him instantaneously. This gunner, who was in the ranks of the R.F.A. before the war, and as liaison officer with the infantry can speak with sure experience, says that he has never seen a battalion better organised. He was intensely struck with Patrick’s capacity; there was no detail to do with the men’s comfort to which he did not give the closest personal attention. And he spoke with the greatest admiration of his fearless personal courage. He mentioned all this in the course of ordinary conversation, without being aware that I knew him at all well.
His battalion fought well; they seem to have been a fine lot, with a splendid fighting spirit. I thought this might interest you. It was very pleasant to hear, for, whatever the grief may be at home, a death like this is so undoubtedly worth while.
Knox does not comment on this assumption. Shaw Stewart, the brilliant, unhappy “Edwardian meteor” (who will eventually receive a biography by that title) dies too late to be in tune with the tragic march of 1915 and 1916. His parents are dead and there are no writers or famous socialite-diarists in the family–he had won his position and his friends at Eton and Balliol largely through effort and academic brilliance. And he has no wife or great love all his own to mourn him. He loved Diana Manners, but in vain; and although he had the love of Lady Desborough, he was neither lover nor son to her but something (uncomfortably, at times) in-between.
I can’t do justice to Shaw Stewart, here, but it’s certainly not justice to have him end up a brainy also-ran, his death stuck in at the end of the year, months away from any notable battle. He didn’t get the girl, he didn’t rise to military eminence like his friend Freyberg or live to see a brilliant career like Knox (who took up the job of memorializing Shaw Stewart and publishing his letters, but did not write much of him in his own voice); nor did he die a timely and “meaningful” (in the sense of “handily contextualizable”) death or leave pretty poems (and photos to match) like Brooke.
He was a brilliant classicist, “perhaps the finest Homerist to fight at Gallipoli,” and an extremely clever writer (his list of one hundred and one erotic suggestions for Diana Manners, which lapses quickly into trilingual-quotation-from-memory is one of history’s most profligate expenditures of learning on unsuccessful wooing). But he wasn’t really a poet.
Shaw Stewart did, however, write poetry–or, at least, one notable poem. It is most worthy of sustained attention as an exercise in classical reception and application–which it gets from Elizabeth Vandiver, who borrows a line of his for the title of her excellent book–but his major contribution to the common anthology of the war is, like that of several other poets dying young, a poem in which a the poet faces his death and asks for divine–or, in this case, heroic–aid.
Shaw Stewart, only twenty-nine, is, nevertheless, belated. And so too is his inescapable poem. He probably wrote it in 1915, in Gallipoli–certainly it refers to the strange experience of being a Homer-steeped classicist fighting so near to Troy. But no one read it then. In the end, Shaw Stewart’s formidable substance is overshadowed once more by context: like Charles Sorley’s masterpiece, this poem was found with its author’s possessions after his death. And either paper was scarce when inspiration struck or, more likely, Shaw Stewart had a strong feeling about where his poem might belong: “I Saw a Man This Morning” was written on the flyleaf of his copy of that most essential non-classical element of any poetical young officer’s literary kit–his copy of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.
I saw a man this morningWho did not wish to dieI ask, and cannot answer,If otherwise wish I.
Fair broke the day this morningAgainst the Dardanelles;The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeksWere cold as cold sea-shells.
But other shells are waitingAcross the Aegean sea,Shrapnel and high explosive,Shells and hells for me.
O hell of ships and cities,Hell of men like me,Fatal second Helen,Why must I follow thee?
Achilles came to TroylandAnd I to Chersonese:He turned from wrath to battle,And I from three days’ peace.
Was it so hard, Achilles,So very hard to die?Thou knewest and I know not—So much the happier I.
I will go back this morningFrom Imbros over the sea;Stand in the trench, Achilles,Flame-capped, and shout for me.