Olaf Stapledon’s Little Twiddly Scrawls; Siegfried Sassoon’s Idyll Turns to Remorse; Edward Heron-Allen on Parade

Olaf Stapledon remains committed to the principle that the experiential gulf (not to mention the two hemispheres) that separates him from his beloved Agnes can best be bridged by creating familiarity with his circumstances. This letter isn’t quite up to his previous high standard of literary teleportation, but it operates on the same implicit premise: if I can write you into knowing the people I’m with, it will be like we are closer together…

SSA 13

4 February 1918

Yesterday I wrote you a scrap in a hurry; today I am beginning again or rather tonight, and under awkward circumstances, for I am at an aid post with three garrulous Englishmen and two garrulous Frenchmen. The latter have gone but the former remain. One of them is making cocoa, which is now an almost unheard of luxury. He is the well-bred and well-built younger [George Romney] Fox, our best runner, and a charming lad although he is a bit too pleased with himself. Another is one [William] Meredith, formerly in Cadbury’s works, a keen self-educating lad who suffers from two disadvantages, being neither of the well-to-do nor of the proper “working” class. He somehow always errs on the side of formality and over respectability; but he also is a good lad, a hard worker too. The third is the great and famous inhabitant of Liverpool, Alec Gunn, called the mitrailleuse on account of his endless rattle of talk. . . .

Goodnight. These silly little black twiddly scrawls that are our only lines of communication! Goodnight.[1]

It’s Stapledon’s gift–and his dogged project–to keep two hearts close together as their time apart stretches to many years.

 

And it’s Siegfried Sassoon‘s gift to house two different personalities within himself–Outdoor Sassoon (or George Sherston, the Fox-Hunting Man) and Indoor Sassoon, the poet. Today, however, he once again works from the outside in.

Hacked to meet—four miles from Limerick. Fine sunny morning. Rode Sheeby’s big bay mare…  [the fox] ran very twisting (a vixen). Slow hunting for about forty minutes, ran toward Limerick, and killed at a farm… A poorish day, but very jolly… Happy days.

Sassoon’s previous few days of “jolly” hunting produced poems that dwelt in the happy hunting grounds of his mind, keeping the war well in the background. But today this “jolly,” “happy” diary mood somehow twisted, vixen-like to produce a bloody, angry, haunted war poem in his old style.

 

Remorse

Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,—each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
‘Could anything be worse than this?’—he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees…
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs. ‘O hell!’
He thought—‘there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.[2]

 

Sassoon does this sort of thing very well. What should I add? Either you are pummeled by the force of the imagery and the rhythm of the verse into a sharper awareness of the horror of war, or you are put off by the oversimplifications that such a direct assault necessitates. Or both…

 

Finally–this is an awkward segue, given that this is an older man, safe at home, and very impressed with his own father’s deathless deeds–we mark a major change in the circumstances of Edward Heron-Allen. After several years (but only a few entries, here) of life as a not-so-young and slightly cracked home-front volunteer, he is now to begin life as an elderly subaltern: he began training with his very own platoon of Sussex volunteers, today, a century back, at Tunbridge Wells.

Here I am at the end of the first day and if it is all going to be like today it will be interesting…

Perhaps: but the diary is not–unless it can be excerpted for the purpose of not-so-gentle mockery. The ankle deep mud on the parade ground at Tunbridge Wells gave Heron-Allen “an idea of the state of things in Flanders…” except for the fact that in the very next sentence they give up bayonet training because it is “too filthy,” and have a lecture instead. Just like in Flanders.[3]

But we will look in on Heron-Allen as his time in training camp continues… it will get more interesting for him, and for us as well…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 280.
  2. Diaries, 209-10.
  3. Journal, 141-44.

A View, a Poem, a Hunt, a Truce of Sorts, and a Poet’s Death

A quick tour today, a century back, of the literary war: from poetry to killing and from a cathedral-crowned vista to a quagmire.

The poetry we have read before: Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother, enclosing a copy of his recent success.

28 January 1918

Here then is the Nation.

I hope you’ll not hawk it about or make much of it to anybody whoever. I’m proud of one thing and that’s the decent amount of room they give under the impressive tide POETRY !

…There is nothing to tell you…

Always your W.E.O.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, too, has a success to report:

January 28

Limerick Hounds at Fedamore

…A good hunt of an hour and fifteen minutes… Found two at Rockbarton and dug one out (both bad
foxes). Rode Sheeby’s bay mare—a lovely ride. Strong southwest wind, and rain later in day. Home 5.30. Best hunt I’ve had Since the war. Took one fall—my own fault.[2]

 

And Rowland Feilding isn’t quite sure whether the status quo on his front indicates success or failure, wisdom or defeatism–or some sensible middle course.

January 28, 1918.

Left Sub-Section (Right Brigade)
(Tombois Farm to Island Traverse), Lempire.

We came up into the Front line this evening, relieving the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, and this morning, in anticipation, I went round the trenches—the same that I left to go home on leave on the 23rd December.

The change is remarkable. I left the trenches frozen like rock. I find them, to-day, half full of sticky mud; twice as wide and half as deep owing to the caving of the sides; two layers of trench-boards buried 2 feet deep in glutinous mud. It is a labour to walk in them, and to-day being a clear, sunny day it was not an occasion for easy cuts across the open.

Even so, for long stretches of these trenches you are under full view of the enemy—about 500 yards away; But he does not shoot, which suggests that his trenches are no better than ours (which, no doubt, is the case), and that he does not want us to shoot at him.

Indeed, for a few days past I find that the officers on duty on both sides have been making it a practice to walk along the parapet, so as to avoid the quagmire of the trenches. This morning, however, when an officer on our side tried it, the enemy opened with machine-gun fire: so this highly irregular practice is now at an end, which is perhaps as well…[3]

 

Meanwhile, in the semi-peacefulness of reserve, Dr. Dunn of the Royal Welch–or one of his contributors–waxes rhapsodic today about the scenery around St. Omer.

January 28th–On rising I looked down on a lawn of vivid green sparkling with dew, which continues into a glade in the trees that surround the house; closing the glade, framed in black stems and branches, was the weathered grey Cathedral, aloft on its hill, standing in relief in liquid winter sunlight against a clear blue sky. It was an enchanting scene, awakening visions of faerie…[4]

 

And it was today, a century back, that the Canadian Medical Officer and poet John McCrae died, at Boulogne, of pneumonia. He was the author of “In Flanders Fields,” perhaps the most popular poem of the war.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 529-30.
  2. Diaries, 207.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 248-9.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 439.

A Madonna of the Trenches

Rudyard Kipling was three things: a prodigious storyteller, a problematic political figure, and too old to fight in the Great War. (He was many other things, it’s true, but I do like to hew to the main argument, once in a while.)

So it is only a venial violation of the rules against post-century-back peeking to note that Kipling will survive the war, and write about it. But that writing–the two volumes of the History of the Irish Guards in the Great War, as well as a number of short stories–will still be overshadowed by death. By the millions of combat dead around the world, the nearly a million British dead, the many hundreds of officers and men of the Irish guards, but, more than any of them, by the death of Kipling’s only son, Jack, while serving in that Regiment. The work is a memorial of sorts, but it also stretches toward a less well-lighted exploration of grieving. Several stories–including the incomparable “The Janeites“–are set in a rather peculiar Masonic lodge, where men come together for ritual and for learning, and to talk through the experiences that haunt them. The story takes place at about the time of its composition–several years after the war, when Kipling was researching and writing the histories, and steeping himself in the lives of the two Guards battalions.

“A Madonna of the Trenches” is strange, fascinating, and–depending upon your taste and Kipling-appreciation-tendencies–either a strangely double-filtered and portentously spooky story or a harrowing spine-tingler that crosses over from mere frisson to real tragedy. The story involves traumatic trench horrors, doomed love, suicide, a ghostly visitation, an obnoxiously masterful doctor, and the misery of a soldier, standing in for so many surviving soldiers, who is condemned to perpetually recall both the many ways that the trenches can kill a man, and the ways they keep the dead literally unquiet. But why continue to crib from an able summary and discussion which is available online?

One of the many “controversial”–which is, I think, here, only to say “not easy to settle”–aspects of the story is the significance of the date of the main (past) action of the tale, a date which is mentioned several times during the story. It’s today, a century back, which is also St. Agnes’s day, and, as such, may may refer to a poem by Keats (whom Sassoon is reading about just now) concerning star-crossed lovers both like and unlike the ones in the story.

The events of the story do not seem to have any direct connection to the factual action of the war or the experiences of the Irish Guards on this January 21st–but there’s the date in the text, plain as plain, nevertheless. Did I recently recommend reading a huge four-book Modernist novel just because an apparently haphazardly-chosen January 1918 date appears in it? That was silly… don’t do that

But do read this story–just a yarn, just a ghost story that revets its pathos with the horrors of the trenches. And also, just maybe, a short story of real affective power… What happened, in that trench, today, a century back?

“A Madonna of the Trenches” is available online here, at the website of the Kipling Society.

 

Rowland Feilding and the Admonitory Death of Private Mayne; A Mining Disaster in Staffordshire; Siegfried Sassoon Suspicious in Peace of Mind, C.E. Montague Melancholy at Football; Rudyard Kipling Hatches an Ode-iferous Plot

This is one of those days of discombobulated experience–but it’s hard not to feel that there is some link between all these different disasters, impression, and feelings. The war is everywhere…

Rowland Feilding‘s thoughts are dwelling on the repulse of a German raid by one of his Lewis gunners, a swift and savage burst of violence on a generally quiet front. When the action occurred, two days ago, Feilding was bracketed, here, by protesting young officers. He would never himself step away from the narrow passage of duty and make a public protest… and yet, in his letter to his wife of today, a century back, he makes it clear how much he–a middle-aged battalion commander with Regular army experience–loathes the way the higher-ups (be they no higher than Division, a mere two steps up the ladder, since he commands his own battalion) are disconnected from the experience of the soldiers. Once more the scarlet tabs of the staff officer begin to seem like a bright badge of moral cowardice…

January 12, 1918. Fillers Faucon

The incident of the morning before last had so filled me with pride of the battalion that I confess I have been aghast at receiving—instead of any acknowledgment of the successful and heroic repulse of the German raiders by Private Mayne and his companion—the following memorandum, which has been circulated in the Division.

I quote from memory:

“Another instance has occurred of an enemy patrol reaching within bombing distance of our line. This must not occur again. Our patrols must meet the enemy patrols boldly in Noman’s Land,” etc., etc., etc.

How simple and how grand it sounds! I think I can see the writer, with his scarlet tabs, seated in his nice office 7 or 8 miles behind the line, penning this pompous admonition.

So Private Mayne, it seems, will go unrecognized and unrewarded–In the meantime he has died, and I can only
say, “God rest his soul”![1]

There is a note that Private Mayne–Private Joseph Mayne, of Ardcumber, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, son of James and Mary–was mentioned posthumously in despatches. This, short of the V.C., was the most recognition a dead soldier could hope for (strange phrase, that). And a private–an Irish private–killed in a small action, on the defensive was never going to receive any major reward, even though his heroic gallantry in manning his gun after his body had been mutilated by German grenades surely saved the lives of several of his comrades.

 

And at the Podmore Hill Colliery, in Staffordshire, today, a century back, an accumulation of coal dust and “firedamp”–methane–exploded, ripping through coal seams worked by several hundred men. Rescue efforts were unavailing and the final toll will prove to be 156 miners–men and boys. This was the third deadly explosion in the mine, and the second in three years. Wilfred Owen will read of the disaster, naturally, and he will choose to write about it as well, unable not to conflate the sudden death of so many by fire and gas (and some of them very young) with the horrors of the war itself. And, by the time Miners is complete, it will be one of his most wide-open poems, in terms of historical experience and deliberate reaching toward the universal… the miners are seen not only as soldiers, but as in some sense linked even with the ancient life whose remains they are harvesting at such peril so far below the ground, and with the years to come, which they will not see.

 

News of this disaster–but what are 156 poor men against the daily toll of the war?–will spread slowly, and so we see several of our writers merely going about their business.

For Siegfried Sassoon, this business now is a numb and pleasant–suspiciously numb and pleasant–idyll. It is almost as if he is being visited by a premonition of the mining disaster, in all its frank horror and heavy symbolic weight.

January 12

Peace of mind; freedom from all care; the jollity of health and good companions. What more can one ask for? But it is a drugged peace, that will not think, dares not think. I am home again in the ranks of youth–the company of death. The barrack clock strikes eleven on a frosty night. ‘Another night; another day’.[2]

 

C.E. Montague–a man of something near to an opposite temperament from Sassoon’s–is feeling much the same way:

On January 12, Montague was back at Rollencourt. There was a pause in operations, and he played ‘a good game of football’; but was ‘intensely melancholy, these days’, over the public situation. ‘Now’, he says, ‘is the time to learn and practise fortitude, but it is hard.’[3]

 

But life persists, and pastimes persist. Montague plays football, Sassoon will go hunting when he can, and Rudyard Kipling–who, whenever he makes a brief appearance in a Great War history, is generally depicted as utterly destroyed by the death of his son–continues to bear up as best he can. He is at work–naturally–on a collaborative project involving Horace. Not to translate him, study him, or make the great Roman poet somehow applicable to Britain’s war effort, but rather to concoct a spurious, tongue-in-cheek Fifth Book of Odes. (Horace wrote four.) In Latin. Is there satirical intent? Sure. Is it, or was it ever, broadly accessible? Perhaps a bit more back then, but, really… not so much.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex
Jan 12.1918

Dear Fletcher:

I am, as you know, no scholar when it comes to the Latin but I think it’s lovely… I think this is going to be glorious larks!

…I’ve got a new Fifth Booker whereof Hankinson Ma. is preparing the translation. It came out in the Times ever so long ago under the title The Pro-Consuls but I perceive now that Horace wrote it. Rather a big effort for him
and on a higher plane than usual – unless he’d been deliberately flattering some friend in the Government. I’ll send it along.

Ever yours

Rudyard Kipling[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 246-8.
  2. Diaries, 203.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 200.
  4. Letters, IV, 479-80.

The Master of Belhaven Toasts Qualified Success; Alf Pollard Dumps the Americans; Duff Cooper Rededicated; The Winter Scene by Carroll Carstairs; Max Plowman’s Protest Begins with Home Service

We’ll begin the year with a cold-eyed appraisal from the Master of Belhaven:

To-day we start the fifth year of war, and I am convinced it will still be going on next New Year. The question is how many of us will be alive to see it? Some, at any rate, will survive. We saw the New Year in properly and at exactly midnight by the signal officer’s watch I gave the toast: “Success to ourselves and damnation to the  ——— Hun.”[1]

 

A New Year’s Card for 1918, designed by David Jones

And this we’ll follow with a hopeful (or bizarrely oblivious, or refreshingly oblivious, or weirdly-non-despairing, or eternally young and silly–it’s up to you, as the reception theorists say) bit of horseplay, interrupted by the stroke of midnight, last night, a century back. Alf Pollard and other English machine-gun instructors have planned a treacherous assault on their allies.

Close on one o’clock in the morning, I and three other fellows entered quietly by one door. Working in pairs we rapidly turned over all the beds with their occupants enveloped in their blankets and flea-bags. The pandemonium was terrific. Irate sons of the United States were hitting out at one another in their desire for retaliation. By the time the first light went on we were clear at the opposite end of the hut.[2]

 

Elsewhere, we have what amounts to a New Year’s resolution from Duff Cooper. He has dallied–or considered dalliance–lately, but no more: he will be true to the woman he loves best.

I get a letter from Diana every day and write to her. It is my chief occupation.[3]

 

But it’s not all hijinks and resolutions: we do have one piece of actual business. The Chelmsford Medical Board observes no holiday, today, and it is hearing the case of Max Plowman, among others. Plowman has had a long, slow recovery from shell shock–there seem to have been temporary cognitive effects as well as basic neurological (and,  of course, psychological) damage. But he is physically whole, now, and psychologically stable–and unwilling to fight any more. Plowman, who wrote poetry, memoir, and essays on the subject of war and its horrors, will explain how his return to his pacifist principles came about:

I was sitting in an Army tent at Chelmsford, reading Tagore on Nationalism, considering the argument quite objectively, when suddenly I knew that I had no right to be in the Army. The conviction was immediate, and seemingly spontaneous. But it was ludicrous, absurd, impossible, beyond entertainment: there I was, very definitely in the British Army. It was futile to think I had no right to be. Then it was as if a voice added “And now you have to come out of it.” The decree was flat and so peremptory I could have laughed. But it was true, and I knew it. So there was simply nothing for It but to assent. A confounded nuisance, but there wasn’t any option about it.

“Right,” I said to myself, “and that’s that”. Whereupon I had a sense of extraordinary elation, and with it an immense feeling of good-will. This was hardly due to a sense of release from personal danger, for I thought at the time I might be asking to be shot, but at that moment I knew what the sailor feels when he comes to port, what Bunyan’s pilgrim felt when the burden rolled off his back, what we all feel when we cease to live from our wills I felt as if I had received a free pardon from spiritual death.

If this experience provided a sense of philosophical relief, Plowman still needed to register his political change of direction–and then deal with the personal consequences. His essay “the right to live” stated the case (or asked the obvious and unanswerable questions) rather firmly. Of the men of the infantry–neither heroes nor stoic Tommies, here, but, as in Sassoon’s writing, helpless and abject victims, he wrote:

And for liberty they have suffered the torments of the damned. They have been shot and stabbed to death. They have been blown to pieces. They have been driven mad. They have been burned with liquid fire. They have been poisoned with phosgene. They have been mutilated beyond description. They have slowly drowned in mud. They have endured modern war. To what end?[4]

Plowman, however, cannot undo his own decision, long ago, to leave the ambulances and join the infantry. His own right to live is very much a vexed question. But, unlike Sassoon, his medical care and his public position against the war have not compromised each other: he went before the board today and took his chances.

Well, I went through the inquisition this morning. “one month’s Home Service” with an intimation that they were quite sure it would be the last–advice to take no notice of a dilated heart–& a hint that it was simply ‘up to me’ to be well by the next board. –So that’s that. Had they known they might have spared themselves the pains. As it is I think it is all to the good…[5]

In other words, the result is convenient, as regards his protest: Plowman can attempt to resign his commission in protest of the war’s prolongation while he himself is marked “Home Service.” Even though he decided upon this course weeks ago, and even though he believes that he will shortly be sent back to “the torments of the damned,” his opponents will not be able to accuse him of returning to pacifism at the very moment that the war will begin to directly threaten his own safety once again. And then, should he in fact be sent back to the front, the Army’s motivations might well seem suspect. (Though Plowman is happy to admit that their callousness in sending him back is not personal, but rather part of the general acceleration of the meat grinder, at least as far as it concerns those already fed into its maw.) It’s 1918, and idealism and cynicism are shadowboxing…

 

And finally, today–New Year’s Day itself has occasioned far less forward-looking meditation than the eve stimulated retrospect (which is natural enough, at this point in the war)–we have Carroll Carstairs, doing the foreboding winter scene in proper painterly fashion:

The first day of the new year came pale as death. The trees looked very black against the snow. The ruts in the roads were frozen hard. In the process of shaving, one’s fingers became so cold that one had to dip them in the hot water to be able to go on. We bought a tree from a farmer to use as kindling wood. The men tore off every loose plank in their huts for the same purpose. Very much against regulations, but who could have stopped them?[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 431.
  2. Fire-Eater, 241-2.
  3. Diaries, 63.
  4. The Right to Live, 33, 75-6; see Pittock, "Max Plowman and the Literature of the First World War.
  5. Bridge into the Future, 89.
  6. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 147.

Patrick Shaw Stewart Forgoes the S.O.S.

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.[1]

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.

Patrick Shaw Stewart in his Student Days

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[2]–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 morning
     Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer,
     If otherwise wish I.

 

Fair broke the day this morning
     Against the Dardanelles;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
     Were cold as cold sea-shells.

 

But other shells are waiting
     Across 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 Troyland
     And 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 morning
     From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
     Flame-capped, and shout for me.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 204-5.
  2. See Stand in the Trench, Achilles, esp. pp. 263-77.

What a Night it is for Olaf Stapledon; Thomas Hardy Mourns the Son of Stourhead

Of all the young men born to a privileged English country background, with their birthright of rolling landscaped gardens and Latin tutors, Captain Harry Hoare lived the combination of country house and classical heritage more intensely than the rest–he came from Stourhead, the Wiltshire estate famed for its huge, carefully allusive garden dotted with “classical” temples seen along dramatic vistas.

Stourhead: Pantheon seen from across lake, with unidentified American children in foreground, routed by ducks

Stourhead: Pantheon, seen from Temple of Flora, with unidentified American child in foreground

The Hoare family had fallen on hard times (relatively speaking) in the later 19th century, and the estate was shuttered for years, until it passed from a childless cousin to Harry’s father. The family soon moved to Stourhead, renovating it slowly while they lived in a cottage on the grounds. There were setbacks, including a devastating fire in 1902, but the family continued to repair the estate and its grounds. During the first decade of the 20th century, Lady Hoare became friendly with Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma (and then, in turn, with his second wife Florence), who lived only 35 miles off.

Hardy, though in his novels so often a champion of the disregarded poor, was friendly with many aristocrats, and could hardly resist this family of down-to-earth landowners and their struggle to preserve the past, especially its dramatic temples and the (Two on a) tower folly which was (and remains) the high point, so to speak, of a longer walk on the estate.

Stourhead was still being rebuilt when the war broke out and Harry, the only son, volunteered, eventually becoming a captain in the Devonshire Yeomanry (a territorial cavalry unit that could hardly have had a more Hardy-like name, short of Wessex Light Horse).

 

On November 13th, Harry Hoare was wounded at Mughar Ridge in Palestine. He died at Alexandria on December 20th.

 

Max Gate, Dorchester, December 26, 1917

My dear Sir Henry & Lady Hoare:

Though one should be prepared for anything in these days it never struck me what I was going to read when I opened your letter.

It is no use to offer consolation. And not even Time may be able to give that—I mean real consolation. Once a wound, always a scar left, it seems to me. Though Time can & does enlarge our vision to perceive that the one who has gone has the best of it—& that we who are left are made to look rather poor creatures by comparison with the one who has got safely to the other side—has achieved Death triumphantly & can say:

“Nor steel nor poison—foreign levy—nothing
Can touch me further”.[1]

You may remember what was said by Ld Clarendon in his History of the Rebellion, on the death of Ld Falkland in the Battle of Newbury:

“If there were no other brand upon this odious & accursed War than that single loss, it must be most infamous & execrable to all posterity.”[2]

I write the above in great haste, to answer your letter quickly. Florence has been crying over her remembrance of climbing the tower with Harry. It is a satisfaction, if one may say so, to feel now that we did go to see you when you were all at home together. With deepest sympathy for both

Yours always sincerely

Thomas Hardy[3]

 

It’s hard to follow a letter of condolence from one of the great writers of England, reduced to gruff kindness, quotation and soft, heartfelt cliché. But it is pleasing, in some strange, sad sense–in aesthetic if not philosophical terms–to have Olaf Stapledon here as a counterbalancing writer. After Hardy’s taut, dutiful letter, in which he suppresses the voice of the grim old man who loves to stake out the pain of the indifferent universe’s cruel ironies and instead offers whatever meager gifts convention has to give, Olaf Stapledon regards the immensity of the universe (both literally and figuratively) with utterly different eyes. Stapledon is watching the skies with hope, standing in a different field and a different time of life, his searching spirit suffused by joy even in difficult circumstances, looking at boundless possibility instead of promise cut off.  And, of course, he’s right, too.

26 December 1917

The moon is brilliant, and the earth is a snowy brilliance under the moon. Jupiter, who was last night beside the moon, is now left a little way behind. Venus has just sunk ruddy in the West, after being for a long while a dazzling white splendour in the sky. I have just come in from a walk with our Professor [Lewis Richardson], and he has led my staggering mind through mazes and mysteries of the truth about atoms and electrons and about that most elusive of Cod’s creatures, the ether. And all the while we were creeping across a wide white valley and up a pine clad ridge, and everywhere the snow crystals sparkled under our feet, flashing and vanishing mysteriously like our own fleeting inklings of the truth about electrons. The snow was very dry and powdery under foot, and beneath that soft white blanket was the bumpy frozen mud. The pine trees stood in black ranks watching us from the hill crest, and the faintest of faint breezes whispered among them as we drew near. The old Prof (he is only about thirty-five, and active, but of a senior cast of mind) won’t walk fast, and I was very cold in spite of my sheepskin coat; but after a while I grew so absorbed in his talk that I forgot even my frozen ears. (I had been wishing I had put on my woollen helmet.) We crossed the ridge through a narrow cleft and laid bare a whole new land, white as the last, and bleaker. And over the new skyline lay our old haunts and the lines. Sound of very distant gunfire muttered to us. Three trudging figures slowly drew near, three “poilus” carrying their kits and rifles. As they passed, one of them greeted us in our own tongue, for he had heard us talking. What a night it is. . . .[4]

Atoms, electrons, “ether,” and the stars and planets will all figure into Olaf’s vision of the cosmos, stuff so sweeping that it will make epics seem to pass by like bubble-gum songs–and yet, yes, without forgetting the human scale of the one man killed to little purpose, or the three soldiers trudging through the snowy landscape…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The quotation is from Macbeth.
  2. I'll quote the editor of Hardy's letters: "TH's quotation is accurate apart from the (deliberate) omission of 'Civil' before War."
  3. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 235.
  4. Talking Across the World, 264-5.

Christmas 1917: Melancholy Milestone, Vicarious Joy, and Less Unhappy Than I Thought

It’s a complicated Christmas, 1917. Several of our writers–including Cynthia Asquith, with whom we’ll start, and Vera Brittain, whose long, sad day will come last–will dwell on the same themes of unsettled traditions and mixed memories.

It’s not simply the quandary of being caught between an instinct for celebration and the need to use a family occasion to grieve and lament for those who have been lost, but also a problem that has grown with this long, static war: if Christmas used to be a trigger for happy memories and the balm of reenacting old joys, there are now three Christmases for which the boys have not been home; three Christmases tinged with that same sickly feeling of mixed emotions, and the fear that absent loved ones may at any moment turn out to be permanently absent. For those who have lost brothers, lovers, sons, or husbands, Christmas may now provoke sharp memories of painful and bereft Christmases past.

 

It’s a very complicated Christmas at the Asquiths. Cynthia Asquith learned last night from her father-in-law, the former Prime Minister, that his son “Oc”–her husband’s sole surviving brother–has been dangerously wounded.

What bad luck! And it sounds bad, too—compound fracture of both bones above the ankle: P.M. wrote, ‘However, they hope to be able to save his foot’. I do hope he won’t lose it.

I packed up parcels after tea, and after dinner we had the usual bedroom marauding parties, but none of us had the heart for any of the time-honoured stocking jokes . . . once the old passage seemed so impregnated with darling Ego and Yvo.

Yes, if she sounds less than horrified about the serious wound to her brother-in-law, that might be because she is in her mother’s house, and both her brothers are dead.

Christmas has become a melancholy milestone for us, but luckily the men of this house-party (who are all under six years) take a glorious joy in all the old rites. Michael was the most satisfactory Christmas child imaginable: he refused to have the fire in his bedroom lit because he was afraid Father Christmas might bum his toes coming down the chimney. Bibs was wonderful with her presents—one for every servant and all beautifully done up in fancy paper and labelled. She kept putting the wrong parcels in the various stockings, so our labours lasted far into the night. I had a sad little hair-combing with Letty. She has been so valiant this year—no breakdown like last Christmas Eve and energising all day over the house decorations. My heart aches for my little John: one turns for salvation to the nursery and that is ‘the most unkindest cut of all’.

And this morning?

Tuesday, 25th December

Nurse called me at 7.30 to see Michael opening his parcels: the vicarious enjoyment was very great. Most of the family went to early service. I joined them at a late breakfast. Found a gorgeous enamel fountain pen from Freyberg. Great excitement over an anonymous present to Bibs—a lovely, and very costly-looking star-sapphire Grenadier badge brooch…[1]

And where is papa? With the artillery in Flanders:

The Major asked what the men would like for their Christmas dinner: we had expected that they would choose either geese or turkeys, but we were completely wrong; our sergeant-major reported that there was a very strong feeling in favour of sucking pigs, and a party was sent out from the wagon line to search the farms of Flanders for a sufficient supply of these delectable animals.[2]

 

Let’s take a quick tour of some of our main characters, now:

 

Robert Graves took a short leave for Christmas, and was able to be with his intended: the Nicholsons were at their house in Wales, near Harlech, and only a few hours’ journey from Rhyl. The wedding is now planned for about a month hence…[3]

 

Rowland Feilding is home, with Edith and their four daughters, aged about one to thirteen–there will be no need to write a war letter to his wife today.

And a very blurry picture of Blunden at the signal school at Mont des Cats

 

 

Edmund Blunden is away from his beloved battalion, a home away from home. He is on a less-than-thrilling signal course, tramping around in the snow and learning about German wireless procedures.

 

 

Wilfred Owen, quite busy with a hotel-full of reserve officers, will tell his sister–while thanking her for her gift and apologizing for not yet sending one to her–that he had

a very mopish Christmas. The C.O. held an orderly Room for punishments in the morning—a thing forbidden in King’s Regulations on Christmas Day—and strafed right & left, above & below…[4]

 

As for Siegfried Sassoon, he has been mopish for a while now, but he enjoys moping more than most. At least, he doesn’t sound too displeased with his Christmas:

Christmas Day (Litherland)

Alone in the hut, after a day of golf at Formby, in fine, cold weather; dine to-night with Colonel Jones Williams and family at Crosby.[5]

 

Back, then, to the front, where the Master of Belhaven is (tremendously) better prepared than he was yesterday:

Our fourth War Christmas, and a typical Christmas Day, snow everywhere…  The men on my H.Q. had a tremendous dinner with six turkeys and a bottle of stout a man, which I provided… We had a tremendous dinner with five French officers; it was really overpowering, as I had only four of my own… the doctor and I had to do all the talking…[6]

 

Carroll Carstairs will recall a similar scene in the mess of the 3rd Grenadier Guards:

Christmas night. Champagne was drunk by the Battalion Headquarters mess. We became flushed and merry—purely artificially so—all very jolly.[7]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary-in-letters has lapsed during her posting to a new hospital, but a Christmas letter to her father survives:

My darling father,

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own troupe and the rivalry is keen. We three sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers. We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3[rd] D[ragoon] G[uard]s and 2nd Black Watch & others. Each concert party has its ‘Star Girl’ marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall. Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely stockings & high heels![8]

 

As for Jack Martin, Christmas came early, and so today, in the line, he was grateful for a faint echo of the famous truce of yesteryear:

Today has been beautiful and very quiet. Our guns have fired a few rounds but the Italians and Austrians have religiously abstained from any act of warfare…[9]

 

Olaf Stapledon surely wrote something to Agnes Miller, but the letter seems not to have survived. But Agnes herself isn’t pulling any punches: it may be Christmas, but it’s still only a few days after the vote on conscription.

…A Happy Christmas to you, dear, in your far away village or barns or car, wherever you are.

If only you were here! …this is the fourth Christmas… without you… It surely must be the last…

It seems that everything works up all through the year towards Christmas & one counts the waiting of all the past year at Christmas & the sum of it is very great. . . .

The result of the Referendum has left many a tear of desperation in train. I forget the figures, but the main fact is that there is a very much larger majority for no than there was last year. I feel a terrible outsider because I cannot take it to heart like all my friends…

The sad part about it is that those gaps will be filled by men who are not the right ones to go—married men, & boys & families who have already done their bit—the willing ones. That is the wicked part about not having conscription. They may bring it in compulsorily yet—but then the fat will be in the fire!

…You would have voted against it, would you not? Your ‘no’ would have been the outcome of very different thinkings to the no of 99 per cent of the Victors in our Referendum, but the result is the same. There is the pity of it. The Quakers stuck to their no. Mother is one of their black sheep.[10]

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain. There is an evocative and deeply sad section of her memoir, Testament of Youth, set at Christmas, 1917. But after reading it over several times, it seems a bit fishy, in terms of the exact timing. I’m not alleging any malfeasance greater than the “telescoping” that many memoir writers indulge in, but if it’s done for effect, and if we care about the day-to-day timing of “history,” then we might well ask–and why, then, are these changes made? And for what effect?

Except for the weather it didn’t seem much like Christmas, with no Roland or Victor or Geoffrey to buy presents for, and Edward so far away that the chance of anything reaching him within a week of the proper time was discouragingly remote. Wartime Christmases anyhow had long lost their novelty, but Mary and I got up early all the same and made shopping expeditions to the village, walking back in pitch darkness through the frozen mud laden with fruit and sweets and gaudy decorations. Christmas Day itself was less unhappy than I had expected, for after a tea-party with the men in my ward, I spent the evening warmly and sleepily at a concert given by the convalescents from the two next-door huts, of which Hope Milroy was now in charge by day.

My own tea-party had to be brief because of another Corporal Smith — though of a type very different from that of the first mortally ill man that I had seen at the Devonshire Hospital — who was rapidly dying of phthisis.

Thus the transition from a melancholy but warm Christmas day to a dismal night of suffering and death. But note the lack of chronological specificity in the transition. That is, she doesn’t say that her own tea party was also to take place Christmas night, but rather implies it… does she telescope all the way to New Year’s Day?

Soon, in any case, Corporal Smith will die:

The traditional only son of a widow, who had been sent for from England, he was one of those grateful, sweet-tempered patients whom it was torture to be unable to save. As he and 1917 ebbed away together, I couldn’t rest even though the surviving gassed cases had gone to England and the convoys had suddenly ceased, but hovered ail night between the stove and the foot of his bed, waiting for the inevitable dawn which would steal greyly around the folded screens. Only once, for ten minutes, did I forsake the self-imposed futility of watching the losing struggle, when Edward’s Christmas letter, written on December 22nd, came out of a snowstorm to remind me that love still existed, quick and warm, in a world dominated by winter and death.

So here is the real Christmas gift. And yet it can hardly have arrived on Christmas. Three days would be good time–but quite reasonable–for a letter from the trenches in France to England. But from the new Italian front to a hospital in France? And she has just commented that she would expect it to take a week for her letter to get to him…

But here in her chronology–whether she remembers it as Christmas or she knows that it must have been a few days later and she is merely prolonging the “scene” for effect–comes Edward’s fond, but distant greetings…

“To-night I owe you a long letter… I am so thankful for your letters — they are now as before the greatest help in the whole world. . . . I don’t know whether I am glad to be here or not — it sounds strange but it’s quite true; I was glad to leave the unpleasant region we were in not far from you and the novelty was good for a time but yet in a way it is all the same because there is no known future and the end is not yet, though, on the face of things at present, there is perhaps more chance of return…

“It seems so much more than two years ago since Roland was killed — to-morrow and Monday I will think of you whenever I can and our love of him may lessen the miles between us.”

And that is how the strange, syncopated blow falls on the reader. I almost missed it: it has been two years since Roland died–two years and two days, for us–but the reader of the memoir would pass from then to there in an hour, or else in a few days of casual reading. Vera Brittain has seen fit to let the anniversary of the worst Christmas pass by unremembered, until she reads the letter.

She includes one more line from her brother’s letter, before bringing us back to the here and now (whenever, precisely, that is):

“What a long war this is! It seems wonderful to have lived so long through it when everyone else is dead.

“Good night, dear dear child.”

It must have been very soon afterwards that Corporal Smith died. His mother, a little woman in rusty black, wept quietly and controlledly beside him when the final struggle for breath began; she gave us no trouble even when Mary replied “Yes, quite sure,” to her final piteous inquiry. After I had taken her through the bitter, snowy darkness to the night superintendent’s bunk, Mary and I laid out the boy’s wasted body. His rapid death had been due, we were told, to an over-conscientious determination to endure; he had refused to complain until too late.

There, and none too subtle, is the message: another year, another day, another death–and why do we not complain, why do we not protest? Whence (and wherefore) any help for our plight?

And then, softly, Brittain turns back to a much more traditional Christmas, a moment out of Dickens, with a slight uncanny tinge of Rilke.

When the orderlies had carried him away, we sat shivering over the stove and discussed in whispers the prospect of a future life; that old discussion, the answer to which three of the four with whom I had most often shared it had now discovered for themselves — or not, as the case might be. But on night-duty many things appeared possible which were quite improbable by day; there seemed, that midnight, to be strange whispers in the snow-laden silence, and the beating of invisible wings about us in the dimly lighted ward.[11]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 384.
  2. Moments of Memory, 310.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 190.
  4. Collected Letters, 519.
  5. Diaries, 198.
  6. War Diary, 422-7.
  7. A Generation Missing, 146-7.
  8. Unknown Warriors, 205.
  9. Sapper Martin, 156.
  10. Talking Across the World, 263-4.
  11. Testament of Youth, 396-9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

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

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

And that’s all we learn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want me any more?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

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

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

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

27 November 1917 Scarborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you will read through this, twice.

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Wilfrid Ewart in Bourlon Wood: What They Asked Us to Do Was Impossible; Doctor Rivers in Another Doctor’s Hell

The Battle of Cambrai has seen an unprecedented advance, a failure to break through, and stiff German resistance in another torn and terrible wood. The Guards have been called in, now–on both sides.

Although Cambrai is one of the few battles not to feature in his novel Way of Revelation, it provided the most harrowing moments of Wilfrid Ewart‘s war experience. At first light, three companies of the First Scots Guards were ordered to clear Bourlon Wood.

This of course was sheer open fighting, and quite different than anything we had done before except on field days.

But it didn’t last long. Machine guns pinned down one flank of the assault, and after several hours of stationary fighting it became clear that the British were outnumbered, and the attackers withdrew.

Then orders came up that they must try again, at two o’clock.

This was at 1.15, so there was not much time to arrange it, and I had the wind up as never before, feeling certain that it was impossible to take the place owing to the machine-guns which were supposed to be rushed with the bayonet…

It is now, I think, that the poor planning of the Cambrai offensive–the first few hours markedly improved in conception and execution, the rest abandoned to foolish hopes–becomes most clear.

There was a short and quite useless machine-gun barrage, no artillery. Just after we had gone over, Tyringham tried to stop us, as the Command realized the hopelessness of it, but it was then too late.

One company was “laid out together trying to rush the machine-guns.” The two guns then turn on Ewart and two men, out in front of his platoon, only fifteen yards away. They throw themselves down behind “a young oak-tree.”

The machine-gun fired absolutely point blank, but could not quite reach us on account of the tree… two Lewis Gunners… kept firing for all they were worth…working their guns in the open until they were killed. Every man was killed one after the other…

By this Ewart probably means every man among the Lewis gunners and their support teams. He is pinned down between the Germans and his men, watching the one kill the other, helpless. Some of his platoon are able to withdraw, it seems, but the Germans now begin throwing phosphorous grenades among the wounded, “which set light to them and burnt them up.”

Ewart and the two men are soon alone, and make a desperate retreat, crawling for the rear. One makes it, then the next is hit heavily (he will die of his wound). Ewart goes last.

I waited about five minutes and then did a lightning sprint on my stomach, and by all natural laws ought to have been hit–the bullets were knocking stones up into my face… It was an experience I shall never wish to repeat… what they asked us to do was impossible.[1]

The First Scots Guards were relieved that night, and due for a longer rest; but their Battle of Cambrai was not yet over.

 

So goes the latest of the war’s bloody battles. But what of those who have survived the earlier battles, their bodies undestroyed and yet not intact?

A good deal of the literature of the war has focused on the question of psychological trauma–“shell-shock”–and how it was diagnosed, treated, experienced, remembered, and written. We have, first and foremost, the poetry of the surviving soldiers who struggled with “shell shock” or post-combat “neurasthenia.” These are the most primary of sources, of course, but “shell shock”–with its dramatic traumas, unstable psyches, and uncertain social reception–calls out for third party treatment, as it were. The novel remains one of the best tools we have for exploring the human mind, and especially for depicting the attempt of one mind to reach another, over particularly terrible gulfs of experience. One series of such attempts, mediated through the mind of Dr. Rivers, becomes the central subject of Pat Barker’s incomparable Regeneration trilogy.

Readers of this project may remember that Dr. Rivers–pioneering neurologist, skilled and sensitive therapist, and father-figure-hero to Siegfried Sassoon–is currently on leave in London after a staff dust-up at Craiglockhart, and working on an academic paper about his work with “war neuroses.” Today, a century back (in the novel, at least), he takes the cruelest sort of busman’s holiday, going to the National Hospital to observe the methods of of Dr. Lewis Yealland, who has boasted of a 100% cure rate for cases of hysterical war neurosis. Readers of Regeneration will certainly remember this scene–it’s awful. Yealland is the villain of the piece, but as far as I can tell it (not far at all! caveat!) Barker represents his methods more or less accurately. Yealland takes patients who have been shocked/traumatized into mutism or who exhibit physical contortions that cannot be explained by physical injuries and he shocks them–literally–back into health.

Yealland believes, as most men once did, that such symptoms are merely the result of a failure of nerve–of a sort of hysterical cowardice rather than damage that has been done to honorable and healthy human beings. So, armored with contempt–Barker portrays him as so thorough a bully that he has no idea he is, in fact, torturing war victims–Yealland uses physical pain and pressure, including electrical shocks and even cigarette burns to force men to speak or unbend their twisted limbs.

It works: they walk again, and speak; they even go back to war.

Enough summary–if this sounds bearable, then read the book. You will come to see the scene–once its horrors are half-forgotten–as a clever piece of fiction, and a major step toward what becomes the most important theme of the trilogy. Not Sassoon’s growth or the renunciation of his protest, but Rivers’ journey from mere saint to fellow martyr: he becomes a witness to the harrowing of the lost generation, one of the few older men in Britain who, through their proximity to the minds of traumatized men, sufferer the war themselves.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Scots Guard, 148-9.
  2. See Regeneration, 223-35.