Siegfried Sassoon Endures a Torrent of Drivel; Charles Carrington Chooses a Tank of Filth; Herbert Read Misses Out on Fear

We begin today with a brief update on Siegfried Sassoon–or, really, on his unbelievable Theosophist roommate.

7 October 1917, Craigockhart,

Dearest Robbie,

I am much relieved that the new poems have passed safely  through your judgment…

Rivers is back, and I hope he will get me a room to myself, as I can’t do anything with a prosy Theosophist there all the time–he maddens me with his stilted talk. When I told him our casualties (by official reports) were 102,000 for
September, he remarked ‘Yes, Sassoon, it is the Celestial Surgeon at work on humanity.’ But he may provide material for a poem some-day…[1]

Perhaps–but he will certainly provide material for the coming memoirs and novels…

 

But Ypres looms. Even those, like Herbert Read, who have missed the worst of Passchendaele seem to be able to put their finger on the essence of its late-war-of-attrition misery. This next letter sounds so much like the recent accounts of Carrington and Blunden that it feels almost like plagiarism. It’s not, though: it’s just that everyone is having the same experience. There is a really frightening unity of events here: the battalion successfully advances under a smothering barrage, and even holds its gains against counter-attacks, but it is nearly destroyed in doing so, and those who survive hardly more fit to continue than those who were maimed; the only fit officers are those who were left out of the initial attack and then sent forward to pick up the pieces…

When I arrived behind the line I found that the Battalion were in the thick of the fight. I had to stay behind until they came out, along with two others who had straggled in. All such stragglers for all the Brigade were billeted together–about 15 of us. We have a large mess-hut wherein some passing genius has built a wide open old-English fireplace of bricks. Fuel in plenty appears miraculously, so, as the weather is vile and tempestuous we build the fire high and sit around it in a circle. We were rather quiet, not knowing what has happened to our friends. Vague rumours come down to us every now and then. So-and-so is killed, so-and-so is wounded. The ——- have only two officers left out of the twenty that went into action. I hear that Col is wounded, but still ‘carrying on’. That sounds like him. Later someone comes down with shell-shock. He seems distracted and does not know anything definite. Some he has seen killed, others wounded. A few grim details he can give us. The attack was a great success–all objectives taken and so on. But for all we want to know we shall have to wait until they come out. The latest rumour says that is tomorrow and that we are going back to reorganize. We can only hope so.

Read, whose army career is intermittently difficult to follow, is something of a fire-eater himself (he led a raid this summer, and has been decorated for valor), so this next thought is certainly believable on its face. I think, however, that it touches on something deeper, something that helps explain why the war still goes on and why, a century on, it still fascinates:

I feel a little ashamed of having escaped it all. There is always a regret in not having shared dangers with friends. Perhaps one is jealous of their experiences…[2]

 

Charles Carrington has missed none of his comrades’ dangers, of late. Yesterday, a century back, he spent a long day crouching in the positions gained during the assault on October 4th, and we left him to his own devices. Today his increasingly exhausted and jumpy company are still waiting for their relief.

It seemed so quiet this morning that headquarters sent us orders to do salvage work. The wounded had all been brought in; the stretcher-bearers were collecting and burying the dead; I sent men to help in this and to collect arms and equipment. But during the morning it rained once more, and at times there was some shell-fire, at which the poor wretched men returned to their shell-holes. They got the worst of the weather; but we in our wooden shed right on the skyline soon began to attract the shells. The Colonials on our right were expecting trouble. Suddenly a signal went up, three little lights pale against the rainy sky, red and green and white. It was the SOS. Then both barrages fell and the ‘crumps’ burst all about the valley. Though it turned out to be a false alarm, the artillery never altogether died away, and as the afternoon wore on, the enemy’s guns searched the Stroombeek valley and the ridge whereon we were. Luckily the men in the open lower down the slope were in little danger.

And, as a few days ago, Carrington’s attention becomes fixed on one aspect of his surroundings. It’s not that he doesn’t describe the men and what they are going through, but it’s almost as if he has come to understand that the men hardly matter in such a grim war of attrition–it’s the shells, and what might save a man from their force and fragments. Carrington is a very frank writer, and perhaps this switch from close description to a sort of leisurely descriptive aside is just a lapse of attention to style–“now the pill-box bit, I guess.” But it feels almost as if it substitutes for further description of feeling: the experience is so overwhelming, the exhaustion so complete, that we will now stare at the wall for awhile.

Pill-boxes had begun by being concreted cellars in farm houses; they grew gradually into keeps of reinforced concrete in the midst of the wreckage of ruined houses; in the third stage the ruins were scattered by shell-fire and the square boxes of concrete were left standing alone. We had found in the vestibule of this mansion a little kennel door leading to a tiny cellar perhaps six feet in each dimension, half its depth being below ground-level. This closet was concreted over, and being watertight, had naturally filled up to ground-level with rain-water. At some time or other it had been used as a latrine, and the smell from it was prodigious.

When a second time the S O S was sent up (as far as we could-see, without reason) and again our barrage fell and the German retaliation came crashing round us, I began to look for cover. A near whizzbang decided me. Smell or no smell, I would explore the funkhole. I crawled in and found a ledge round the kennel and a few boards just above water-level stretched across the corners. It was safe from anything less than a direct hit from a 5’9. But if I let my hand drop carelessly or hung my foot over the edge of the board it fell into two feet of stagnant green water, fetid and slimy sewage. The smell of it was midway between a septic tank and a tidal river in an industrial town, and it had a staleness all its own.

Thorburn almost jeered when I crept into this tank, but when later in the evening a third SOS went up from the Colonials, and the shells fell closer than ever, Serjeant Walker and I went to earth together, and before long Thorburn swallowed his pride and joined us.

This is just one more incident, one more indignity, one more disgusting detail, but it really can stand as metonymy for Passchendaele–a place so awful that a septic tank is a welcome shelter. Even the men of 1916–men who put up humorous signboards and collected flowers to decorate the trenches–would be aghast.

To-night the battalion was to be relieved. We were already far enough back not to be continually on the alert. We sat and waited from seven o’clock till midnight crouched on boards, this dank pool three inches from the seats of our trousers and the roof three inches above our heads. Since an excursion or two showed that the men were not under fire, there was nothing to do beyond exchanging a few routine messages with headquarters about the relief. We sat and talked, sticking a candle-end on a ledge to light up the slime on the damp walls and our own unshaven faces.

One caller came to us, ‘Davy’ Jones, a little racecourse tout, a man of unlimited impudence, a singer of scurrilous songs, owner of the company Crown and Anchor board, always in trouble, but always well forward in action.
For once he was beat. He had been to headquarters on some errand or other (we had made him an acting section leader) and was standing in the little trench outside when two 5‘9’s came over together and burst on the parapet. With that curious uncertainty of shell-fire, they had almost blown the ground from under his feet without hurting him. But he was badly shaken and had lost his impudence. We brought him into our funkhole and made a fuss of him until the shelling was over.

And at the close of the day, exactly like Edmund Blunden, yesterday, Carrington and his comrades find themselves drawn to wistful reminiscences of better times. But not the endless summer of 1914, or cricket on the lawn, or school games, or English meadows… who can remember that anymore?

We soon fell into a sentimental conversation,

‘Of old unhappy far-off things
And battles long ago.’

Jones and I talked of our old fights, of Ovillers and Gommecourt, and the good times in summer out at rest, and of the friends who had ‘drawn their full issue’ long before…

At last our relief came. Section by section the relieving regiment arrived and replaced each of my groups with a platoon. Thorburn saw to the section reliefs; it was my place to ‘hand over’ company headquarters and explain the tactical situation…

I was full of anxiety to cross the Steenbeek and get away, being terribly frightened of being hit now at the last minute. We passed the Winnipeg road and the old Langemarck trench line, left on our right Janet Farm, where the doctor plied his trade, then crossed the little bridge over the Steenbeek among the rusting remains of twenty-two tanks lying dead in the bottom of the valley, and reached the road, where at last there was a firm foothold to find unless you trod in a shell-hole…

Terrified, Carrington jumps on a truck when shelling begins, and is separated from his sergeant and his men. Eventually he finds his way, alone, to the bivouac. “Edmonds'” account ends with an irony less bitter than most:

Serjeant Walker and all my stragglers came in. Cold, damp and utterly despondent I crept into my valise and slept.

It seemed to me that I had been feeble, inactive, and unnerved, but for my part in this battle I was given the Military Cross and a captaincy. I had expected a court-martial.

Casualties to the Battalion:

Killed        4 officers, 81 other ranks.
Wounded 6 officers, 171 other ranks.
10             252

The total, 262, being about half of those who took part in the battle. At this stage of the war, in order to avoid the disproportionate death-rate among officers, only sixteen per battalion went into action. This time ten were hit. My company set out with three officers, seventeen N.C.O.’s and ninety-two men. One officer, two N.C.O.’s and forty-four men survived the attack unhurt.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 189-90.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 109-110.
  3. A Subaltern's War, 170-85.

Diana Manners is a Catalog of Calm Amongst the Bombs; Nothing of Importance for Siegfried Sassoon, and the Embarrassment of His Glory of Women

Today, a century back, the survivors of the 2nd Royal Welch had the pleasure of being inspected by–and inspecting in turn–the Commander-in-Chief of the B.E.F.

The C.-in-C. rode on to the ground at 12.30, twenty minutes late. After pinning ribbons on a few he remounted and passed along the lines of Infantry. Then we marched past, uninspired, on our way back to billets. We were told that “these inspections are his only recreation.” He looked as if he took it sadly to-day…[1]

 

Meanwhile, one of their more illustrious recent subalterns, Siegfried Sassoon, was in Scotland, writing to Robbie Ross.

3 October, 1917 Craiglockhart

My dear Robbie, I hope the air raids haven’t annoyed you? I am sending you some Cambridge Magazine cameos…

I have great difficulty in doing any work as I am constantly disturbed by nurses etc and the man who sleeps in my room—an awful bore. It is pretty sickening when I feel like writing something and have to dry up and try to be polite (you can imagine with how much success!) However, Rivers returns on Friday and may be able to get me a room to myself (or get me away from these imbeciles).

Oh, for a room of one’s own in which to write… And it’s pretty amusing that Sassoon describes his roommate in a two-person hospital room as “the man who sleeps in my room!”

But if he hasn’t been writing much, he has been reading: the war has gone on long enough to see another little loop of ours close: Sassoon is reading what we have recently been reading, as its events were taking place:

…Get Nothing of Importance by Bernard Adams (Methuen) He was in the First R.W.F. with me for eight months (and mentions me once under the name of Scott). The book is by no means bad and he was a nice creature.

“Was:” Adams died of wounds on February 27th.

 

Sassoon shows little to no indication of being interested in writing such a record himself–prose is only prose (“by no means bad” rather than “good”) and memoirs are for the dead. Poetry is still the truth and the way…

In between the two above sections of the letter, Sassoon had mentioned a new potential friend/patron:

Lady Margaret Sackville has sent me her war poems and asked me to lunch! A rival to Lady Ottoline; and
quite ten years younger!

But of course he has already passed Lady Margaret–in a gesture that can be read as both an act of literary/social generosity and a snub–on to his new sidekick, Wilfred Owen, who will invite her to contribute to The Hydra.

Then, in a postscript, Sassoon gets back to his own poetry, in particular to a poem that directly addresses some examples of what he generally considers to be the fouler sex:

I sent Massingham a very good sonnet, but be hasn’t replied! It is called ‘Glory of Women’—and gives them beans.[2]

Beans! Ha! Well. This is certainly a slashing indictment of unfeeling “home front” types, so flaying the unfeeling idiots who wax complacent on the far side of the experiential gulf that this satire almost wins a conviction of their conspiracy to commit further war crimes.

 

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.
You can’t believe that British troops “retire”
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
    O German mother dreaming by the fire,
    While you are knitting socks to send your son
    His face is trodden deeper in the mud

 

Devastating… but wait–why “women?” There is nothing here that explains why it is, exactly, that the sins of women are particularly grave. Or that their political disempowerment and the social strictures that keep them from full participation in war (however much these strictures are evolving or temporarily loosened) might explain their apparently hypocritical position as actually far less hypocritical than the similar statements by the post-conscription aged male property-owners who run the country…

It’s a solid satirical sonnet–a great, sweeping, but errant blow. Like the rest of the letter, it offers proof that nasty myopia and broad-brush stereotyping can coexist with skillful prosody.

 

Not the least ironic bit of Sassoon’s letter is that it begins with that polite question about air raids. This might remind Sassoon that, yes, although no women in England have seen soldiers dying in actual trenches and that many no doubt mouth patriotic pieties instead of listening or seeking out the worst truths of war, thousands upon thousands are now being bombed on a regular basis, while he is safe in Scotland playing golf, writing poetry, and complaining about his roommate.

The air raids are troubling Diana Manning, for instance–or are they?

London, 3 October 1917

Thank God to be back even in these discordant nights. I dined with Ivor last night in the cellar of Wimborne House, after an hour in the Arlington Street basement, with some of the wounded, and screaming kitchenmaids — most trying. Later at Wimborne House arrived Jenny [Lady Randolph] Churchill and Maud Cunard, both a little tipsy, dancing and talking wildly. They had been walking and had got scared and had stopped for a drink. Maud had a set purpose to get to the opera, because it being raid-night the public required example…

I’ve ordered myself chemises embroidered in hand-grenades and a nightgown with fauns…[3]

It’s not Lady Manning’s job to refute Sassoon’s misogyny–it’s just the luck of my date-obsessed bibliographic trawl. But it works out well, I think: she can be both a flighty and insensitive aristocrat and a victim of the war. She is enormously privileged, yet she has also sought out the war’s its suffering–more, really, than most people in her precise social position. She has lost friend after friend (including one whose grave we will visit tomorrow) and has worked long hours as a hospital volunteer, though she writes little about this aspect of her life. And her tendency to continue to live the high life and scoff at kitchenmaids and joke about bombs is neither heroic nor contemptible nor very different from Sassoon’s comportment. A wealthy woman in London rather than a soldier in the trenches watching faces get trodden deeper into the mud, she has not been as directly traumatized by the war as Sassoon. Which is perhaps why she is more consistent, and rather less hysterical…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 406.
  2. Diaries, 187-8.
  3. Autobiography, 155-6.

Edward Brittain’s Heavy Work; Ivor Gurney Impressed at the Keyboard; Wilfred Owen Requires a Reputation

We have been following–at least a little–the superstitiously strained epistolary connection between Vera and Edward Brittain, now so close in distance but so far from confident about their chances of ever seeing each other again. A century back, she will not know that he is safe–that he has been safe up until the point of writing–until she gets this letter.

France, 2 October 1917

A line to tell you that I am alright. We were suddenly called upon to go up again and take over our former sector for another 4 days much to our disgust, but fortunately most of us are back again and for the moment well behind the line in the same place as we were at the end of July and beginning of August. I am expecting leave any day but I’m afraid I shall not be able to see you on the way as we now go by C. I haven’t heard from you since I wrote last but I expect you are very busy owing to this continual pushing… Some time I will tell you all about what we have done in the 2nd half of September during which we only had 3 1/2 days out of the line, which is heavy work for the salient
when straffing.[1]

 

Ivor Gurney is thrilled to be in Blighty–safe, able to rest, clean–but as he is also, as he wrote in excitable fashion to Marion Scott yesterday, oppressed by the hospital atmosphere:

Allons, I am nothing but grumbles because staying in bed makes me unfit in no time — a bundle of oppressed nerves; and those ruddy drawing room ballads set me afire.

In a letter to Herbert Howells of today, a century back, he enlarges upon this theme:

…I am in the devil of a temper. I am not quite sure whether the gas has not slightly aggravated my ordinary thickheadedness and indigestion. If this is so, then there’s hope for the Wangler: if not, then no hope; I should be merely a Lucky Blighter soon to be cast out into outer darkness again.

Anyway, I am that spoilt pet of Society, an accompanist that can read at sight. But O! what that same Pet has to endure! The rapturous soulfulness that disdains tempo. The durchganging baritone that will not be stayed long by interludes of piano, whose eager spirit is bars too early for the fray. The violinist that will play songs—not only the voice part but any choice twiddly bits that a careless writers has left to the piano. The universal clamourous desire for ragtime.

There is something funny, certainly, about the skilled musician and composer being implored to hammer out popular tunes for the benefit of the hospital–and something very sad and worrisome about the way in which his psychological state is disregarded while his allegedly not-much-worse-than-a-cold symptoms of being gassed are attended to.

Gurney next discusses Edinburgh.

Enbro is indeed a magic name. Its glamour is increased (as usual) by distance and denial. 16 miles and regulations of the most strict. I wonder which was Henley’s hospital? There are many memories round this city, but the dearest to me are those of R L S, that friend of Everyman. Henley and the Great Sir Walter…[2]

Alas, again, that it is gas inhalation that has brought him to the outskirts of Edinburgh, and not the underlying and exacerbated psychological problems that plague him–he might have been in more salubrious company. But I forget: Gurney is an enlisted man, and no gentleman, however temporary. He would under no circumstances end up at Craiglockhart, or in Siegfried Sassoon‘s good graces…

 

Speaking of those graces and their salubrious and salutary effects, here is Wilfred Owen:

Tues. Aft.
2 October 1917

I have rescued these sheets from under a few feet of later accumulations. I have been quite well all week save for a cold. Nothing has been announced about my Board. Clearly I have another 3 weeks yet—before leaving—or having another board. Have been to School again. Am going to do Hiawatha with them now.

Then follows an ugly bit of casual racism about a Japanese envoy encountered on a visit to the fleet. Then this:

I have before me a letter, (as the novelists say,) from Lady Margaret Sackville to Sassoon, shyly presenting him with her war poems—some of them very fine. She is the great Patroness of Literature, and I am going to ask her for something for the Magazine…

Next comes a combat officer’s perspective on literary pacifism–and if it is mild and middling (as we might expect), it is very much a combat officer’s perspective–an undecorated combat officer.

I have never been much convinced that there was any serious accusation of cowardice hanging over Owen regarding his performance in the line this winter–but it is still clear that he feels he could have done better, and must do better when he returns to action. It will take generations before there is widespread understanding that to experience psychological symptoms after prolonged combat does not indicate any weakness of character. Nevertheless, hanging about with “Mad Jack” Sassoon and his MC (the ribbon may have floated down the Mersey to the sea, but the aura remains) may be having an effect on Owen’s sense of self in more than merely poetic ways:

Read Wells’ article in today’s Mail. Most important. I enclose it. As for myself, I hate washy pacifists as temperamentally as I hate whiskied prussianists. Therefore I feel that I must first get some reputation of gallantry before I could successfully and usefully declare my principles.[3]

In the article in question Wells does not argue for present pacifism but rather for a postwar solution that will prevent the re-emergence of militarism: ‘I have always insisted that this war must end not simply in the defeat but in the disappearance of militant imperialism from the world . . .”

We don’t need to indulge heavily in historical irony here. A famous writer advocates something like a League of Nations to prevent militaristic “bloodbaths,” and a gentle poet–already committed to the position that any true Christian ethic requires resistance to militarism–decides that he must be recognized for excellence in violence before he publicly espouses pacifism…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 375-6.
  2. War Letters, 212-4.
  3. Collected Letters, 497-8.

David Jones on the Flank of Another Disaster; Kate Luard Goes There and Back Again; Ivor Gurney and the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XX: He Was Lucky, He Died Early in the War; Edward Brittain Asks for Nichols

One of the fascinations of reading Kate Luard is the occasional glimpse of a daredevil lurking beneath the persona of a calm and omnicompetent senior nurse. While it is primarily her fierce devotion to duty that drives her to seek the most dangerous assignments–she can do the most good as a nurse and administrator closest to where the wounds are received–she also shows something like a childish enthusiasm for adventure and danger. She wants to be where the action is, and, with her new posting as the Senior Sister at what will now be a pioneering forward surgery center in the Salient, she will be.

Friday, July 27th.

…This venture so close to the Line is of the nature of an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Their chance of life depends… mainly on the length of time between the injury and the operation… Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’s six miles back…

But this is all, from Luard’s point of view, too good to be true.

And then the Blow fell–not the shell but the sentence: Army H.Q. couldn’t sleep in its bed for thinking of the 29 precious Sisters exposed to the enemy fire up at Brandhoek, and sent an order at 10 p.m. that all the Sisters were to go off to two Canadian C.C.S.’s about 6 miles back… The pretty Canadians were full of concern and hospitality for the poor refugees, but we felt most awful frauds.

It’s wonderful that the one time Sister Luard allows her letters home to slide into the old soldier’s bitter sarcasm it is because she is being forced to give up a difficult and dangerous job for a safer one. (She doesn’t mean any backhanded compliment to the Canadians, I’m sure, but it certainly reads that way: “pretty,” indeed–there’s a battle brewing!)

But even if the Staff wallahs are intent on mucking things up with their old-fashioned ideas about women and danger (are there not bombing raids on base camps, and on London?), the doctors who actually depend on these nurses understand the situation. By 9 this morning Luard had already been summoned back to resume work in preparing the hospital, and it seems clear that the senior medical officers are advocating for the nurses’ return…[1]

 

Further forward still, there were indications that a German withdrawal from their front lines was underway, so A Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers–only two days after D company lost sixteen men to what must have been a German ambush–mounted something between a patrol and a raid–a “reconnaissance”–to discover where they were.

[David] Jones was sent forward with his platoon to guard one of the flanks. The raiders advanced to find the front line empty and advanced further to the support trenches where two German battalions waited. As the night darkened, fighting was furious, and the outnumbered raiders were annihilated.

The German strategy makes sense: an attack is obviously coming, and they have confidence in their deep defenses–why leave men to be killed by the British bombardment? It is too late for the British to move up to the new positions, so they will just have a longer run to meet established German resistance… which can await them in concrete having ceded only a few hundred yards of Belgian mud.

But the British planners of the battle want, predictably, to know where they stand, hence the reconnaissance, and the German preparedness, and another local disaster for the Welsh, several times more costly than the day before yesterday’s debacle.

Nor is Dilworth’s “annihilated” much of an exaggeration. The battalion diary states, rather chillingly, that A Company “met with considerable opposition & for the most part were either killed or wounded. Weather fine.”

This is strangely sloppy record-keeping, and a high price to pay for a battalion that is expected to take part in the attack in the next few days. A quick search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database shows forty-six[2] members of the battalion who died either today or tomorrow, a century back. A high price to pay for confirmation of an intelligence officer’s surmise.

Whether Hedd Wyn was involved, we do not know–but it should have been about even odds that he either participated in one of these two raids or, like Jones, was part of their covering parties. One of Jones’s good friends, however, had gone out into the German lines, and came back. Which led to this strange little story about “Lazarus Black,” a one-time roommate of Jones’s:

After returning to the firing trench, he confided to Jones that he would ask for a decoration for saving an officer’s life by killing a German. Jones was astounded. The night had been pitch dark, the raid disastrous. He urged Black not to make the request since word was sure to leak out and he would be a laughing stock. The next day, Black nevertheless made his appeal to officers immediately above him, who scoffed at him but passed on his request. News of this quickly spread, and Black was ridiculed, though not as much as Jones had feared. Later, Black confided to him that he had wanted the decoration solely to make his wife and four children happy.”[3]

 

While battle approaches in the salient, life goes on elsewhere. Edward Brittain is in France, a month into his service with a new battalion. His correspondence with his sister Vera has largely involved requests for help tracing and replacing the valise that was lost when he came out. But today shows Brittain still striving after literature, despite the deaths of all three of his close friends and fellow aspirants. One of our amateurs is drawn, now, into the readership of one of our nascent professionals:

France, 27 July 1917

…In the Times Lit. Supplement of July 12th there is a long article about Robert Nichols who seems to be a poet of unusual merit; his works up to date complete are only 3/6 so you might like to get them; don’t send me the book but I should like some of the best of them in my own book; those quoted in the article are excellent.[4]

 

And lastly, today, Ivor Gurney, like Brittain a musician (though further advanced in that path) and about to join Nichols as a published “War Poet,” writes to Marion Scott, primarily about the business end of this first publishing contract. Often flighty, Gurney adopts a mode of sustained and balanced self-criticism, and he does an astute job of placing himself amongst–or rather off to the side of–the new pantheon:

27 July 1917

My Dear Friend: Your letter of terms etc has arrived. Thank you for it. It seems to me you have done very well, but still — that is no reason why you should not try to do better still, since publishers are our lawful prey and natural enemies. Personally (again) when the book was written there was no thought of making money behind it, but chiefly an occupation and mind exercise. For all that I really do not see why the book should not pay, though I do not expect any very laudatory reviews in the “Times” etc. You have won the preliminary skirmishes anyhow.

My own opinion of the book is, that it is very interesting, very true, very coloured; but its melody is not sustained enough, its workmanship rather slovenly, and its thought, though sincere, not very original and hardly ever striking. For all that, the root of the matter is there, and scraps of pure beauty often surprise one; there is also a strong dramatic sense. Where it will fail to attract is that there is none, or hardly any of the devotion of self sacrifice, the splendid readiness for death that one, finds in Grenfell, Brooke, Nichols, etc.

All this is fair, and accurate. And important: it is 1917, almost on the eve of Passchendaele, and poetic self-sacrifice does not hold the same sort of market share it once did (although, as we need frequently to be reminded, it will remain much more popular than the poetry of protest until years after the war).

Alas that Gurney, who, for all Scott’s support, is essentially alone in his craft (Will Harvey being otherwise engaged), has only summoned Sassoon, and not yet had the opportunity to read him at length. But he explains, now, why he writes about war the way he does–and it sounds very much like Sassoon’s recent writing. Only he is a private, with no possible chance of mounting a protest.

That is partly because I am still sick of mind and body; partly for physical, partly for mental reasons; also because, though I am ready if necessary to die for England, I do not see the necessity; it being only a hard and fast system which has sent so much of the flower of Englands artists to risk death, and a wrong materialistic system; rightly or wrongly I consider myself able to do work which will do honour to England. Such is my patriotism, and I believe it to be the right kind. But how to write such poems as “If I should die” in this mood? (Also, I am not convinced that poets believe what they write always. Brooke was a sincere exception, but then, he was lucky; he died early in the war. So often poets write of what they wish to believe, wish to become, as one prays for strength and virtue not yet obtained.) Golly, what a lecture! Serves you right…

I should like a talk with you, and yet would a talk be sufficient? For one forgets so easily things which one knows too well…

Be happy and get well. You are hereby appointed G.L.A. (Grand Literary Agent) with double salary:

With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney…

P.S. How many complimentary copies?[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 130-1.
  2. I did not examine the results to see if there are any detached members, those who died of earlier wounds, outright errors in the database, etc.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 161.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 367.
  5. Letters, 178-9.

Either Siegfried Sassoon’s MC Goes, or Robert Graves Arrives: A Showdown for Sassoon’s Protest; the Royal Welch at the Horse Show; Olaf Stapledon on Blood and Ribbons

Siegfried Sassoon‘s lightly fictionalized (or not-really-novelized) memoirs are smoothly written. The narrative performs what the author seeks to present as his somewhat changeable and peripatetic youthful self: reading along, we seem to float through days and weeks without accumulating any detail on the sort of specific events that shape a life. But that, of course, is how memory sometimes works–until the remembering writer comes to a series of tense and unusual days.

Sassoon’s account of this week anticipates The Very Hungry Caterpillar in both its structure and its ironic narrative omnipotence: this is a silly young thing on an inevitable journey toward a resolution that he does not appear to expect, however obvious it appears to others.

Yesterday he described being summoned to a Medical Board, the first indication that the Army will use the excuse of shell shock–more irony, this–as a way to avoid confrontation.

On Tuesday my one-legged friend… handed me an official document which instructed me to proceed to Crewe next day for a Special Medical Board…

He tore it up–and he was still hungry! But today?

On Wednesday I tried to feel glad that I was cutting the Medical Board, and applied my mind to Palgrave’s Golden
Treasury of Songs and Lyrics. I was learning by heart as many poems as possible, my idea being that they would be a help to me in prison, where, I imagined, no books would be allowed…[1]

The problem with this little journey is that it would seem that Sassoon is off on his dates. In this account of Sherston’s progress all the factual details are correct but the dates–to go by the days of the week which he presents to us–are four days off. Today was a Wednesday, a century back, but it was also July 18th, the day Robert Graves arrived in Liverpool to more or less take charge of his friend. [2]

Graves’s account is, as usual, breezy and self-serving, but for once it seems to hew more closely to both the facts and the feeling of the matter than Sassoon’s–not least because the wording relies heavily on the letter Sassoon sent to him.

The general consulted not God but the War Office… and the War Office was persuaded not to press the matter as a disciplinary case…

This may have been due to the influence of Robbie Ross, or, as Graves claims, to his own appeal to Evan Morgan, a ministerial secretary he had recently met.

I next set myself somehow to get Siegfried in front of the medical board. I rejoined the battalion and met him at Liverpool. He looked very ill; he told me that he had just been down to the Formby links and thrown his Military Cross into the sea.

Not the cross itself, likely in a box in a drawer somewhere, but the ribbon worn on the uniform tunic. Sassoon’s account of this in the fictionalized memoir is excellent, although in his chronology it will not take place until Saturday the 21st:

[As he waited for news] my mind groped and worried around the same purgatorial limbo so incessantly that the whole business began to seem unreal and distorted…

So on Saturday afternoon I decided that I really must go and get some fresh air, and I took the electric train to Formby. How much longer would this ghastly show go on, I wondered, as the train pulled up at Clitherland Station. All I wanted now was that the thing should be taken out of my own control, as well as the Colonel’s. I didn’t care how they treated me as long as I wasn’t forced to argue about it any more…

I wanted something to smash and trample on, and in a paroxysm of exasperation I performed the time-honoured gesture of shaking my clenched fists at the sky. Feeling no better for that, I ripped the M.C. ribbon off my tunic and threw it into the mouth of the Mersey. Weighted with significance though this action was, it would have felt more conclusive had the ribbon been heavier. As it was, the poor little thing fell weakly onto the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility. One of my point-to-point cups would have served my purpose more satisfyingly, and they’d meant much the same to me as my Military Cross.

Surely not–or perhaps we must take the pluperfect carefully here. Once, George Sherston–who, we must remember, is essentially Sassoon shorn of his writing life–cared very much about sports, and a few of his victories in country horse races are loving described in Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man. That young rider became the soldier Sherston… but surely by now the pre-war memento has nothing of the same symbolism as the coveted Military Cross?

Watching a big boat which was steaming along the horizon, I realized that protesting against the prolongation of the War was about as much use as shouting at the people on board that ship.[3]

True, but slightly disingenuous. When Sassoon allows himself to be persuaded to give up his protest (we will read this, falling between two chronological stools, tomorrow) the emphasis is not on the effectiveness of the protest but rather on the level of personal drama it will entail. There was never much hope of effective protest, but there had been a lingering hope for symbolic martyrdom and great publicity. But if there will be no dramatic trial, no harsh punishment for dereliction of duty…

Graves describes their meeting:

We discussed the political situation; I took the line that everyone was mad except ourselves and one or two others, and that no good could come of offering common sense to the insane. Our only possible course would be to keep on going out until we got killed. I expected myself to go back soon, for the fourth time. Besides, what would the First and Second Battalions think of him?[4]

Well, Graves is pretty much safe, given the severity of his lung wound. But the rest of the appeal is spot on: this action will cut Sassoon off from the officers and men of the actual fighting battalions. He will make a gesture to men he once led by example–not gesture–and remain physically safe. And he will violate the code of gentlemanly “good form,” thus letting the side down.

Should these arguments be persuasive?

Eh, who are we to say?

 

Instead of tail-chasing analysis–never a strength, here–we’ll go for ironic juxtaposition. Yes… what would the Second Battalion, huddled in its trenches–and missing one of the few officers who could be counted upon to be a popular comrade, a considerate platoon leader, and a brave fighter–think of all this?

Well, they were distracted today–there were the horses to saddle, the goat to groom, the fifes to polish…

A Divisional Horse Show was the G.O.C.’s own stunt. He meant it to be the success that forethought and two weeks of painstaking preparation could make it, and he had his reward…

Imperial War Museum

 

This is one of those situations–rare, in my humble, carpal tunnel vision of internet sharing–where a picture is worth a battalion of words.

It wasn’t merely a horse show, for the Royal Welch… it was a fife and drum and goat show.

This was good for morale, perhaps, even though the 2nd RWF did not cover itself in glory in the officers-on-horses section of the competition…[5]

 

And to circle back, we’ll close today with Olaf Stapledon, a pacifist in harm’s way, but eligible for little honor.

We hear a lot about the grim reality of war. That’s all true enough as far as it goes, but if you go deeper it’s all intricate pretence and lies. The other day a very big person who happened to be visiting our village came in specially to see us privately and congratulated our decorated fellows and said (of course) we all deserved the croix, but he had only got a certain number to dispense; and he hoped to have another opportunity of giving us more later on. It was nice, because it was informal & he need not have come, so obviously he meant it all. But—ugh, what is a bit of red and green ribbon! Blood on French clothes is red on blue not red on green. The other night one of our fellows, lucky devil, got a bit of high explosive in his hand, such a tiny business, but by Jove he has got sick leave in England for it!! Now we are all praying for bits like that, but also the same bit in the eye would be less satisfactory! And poor old Harry Locke who got a bit through him in April is still languishing in French hospital. And a ridiculous little doll of a man who always dragged a toy dog about with him even in hot places (an officer in the army) got his leg blown off it seems just after I saw him last and behaved like a brick. Human nature is odd! Eh bien, nous verrons, mais je suis ennuyé. [Well, we’ll see, but I’m annoyed.][6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 505.
  2. Then again, I'm not completely sure who to trust here, the citations go in circles, and seem to depend on a letter that Graves will write tomorrow. If that is misdated, and no one is citing Army records, I'm not sure it's clear that Sassoon is wrong about the dates. In any case, amidst the confusion, they seem to have omitted to observe the centennial of Jane Austen's death...
  3. Complete Memoirs, 508-9.
  4. Good-Bye to All That, 198.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 367.
  6. Talking Across the World, 237.

Wilfred Owen Arrives at Craiglockhart; Olaf Stapledon Contemplates Heroism

Wilfred Owen has arrived in Scotland, where he will be treated for the after-effects of shell shock. Feeling a bit guilty that he has had no chance at home leave, he writes a long letter to his mother describing yesterday–London, the Royal Academy Exhibition at Burlington House, the journey north–and his new surroundings.

26 June 1917
Craiglockhart War Hospital, Slateford, Midlothian

My dearest Mother,

We left Netley at 11 on Monday Morning, & I separated from Captain Robertson at King’s Cross about 3 p.m…

Then I made for Burlington House. This year’s show is nothing so good as the last; and I didn’t spend very long there. I had tea at the Shamrock Tea Rooms, perhaps the most eminently respectable exclusive and secluded in Town. There was the usual deaf old lady and her Companion holding forth upon the new curate. I happen to know that a few stories higher in the same building is an Opium Den. I have not investigated. But I know. That’s London. I met few faces I knew. But strolling down New Bond Street, I ran into the last person on earth or under the earth that I wished to meet: Major, now Colonel, Dempster, of the 2nd Battalion. We stopped, of course, and he pretended to be very affable and cordial. Yet I know a more thorough-bred Snob does not exist—even in the imagination of Thackeray. To meet him in my first hour in town. Alas! This, also, is London! . . .

I had time to get measured for new Slacks at Pope and Bradley’s.

A cheap dinner, and so to King’s Cross an hour early to get a Comer Seat.

I read some Israel Zangwill as far as the Midlands. Then wondering how few miles I was from You, slept. I woke up as we were rounding the Coast by Dunbar. I saw nothing waiting to meet me at the Waverley Station, so I went into the Hotel and breakfasted hugely. I then walked the lovely length of Princes Street. The Castle looked more than ever a Hallucination, with the morning sun behind it. Or again it had the appearance of a huge canvas scenic device such as surrounds Earls Court…

There is nothing very attractive about the place, it is a decayed Hydro, far too full of officers, some of whom I know.

I shall not see the M.O. till Tomorrow. I am going out now to lake the lie of the land…

Always your lovingest of all,

Wilfred x[1]

 

 

And with gentle irony, Olaf Stapledon–who will not receive yesterday’s ringing insistence on the strength and fullness of their epistolary relationship for several weeks–writes to Agnes Miller with only good news. Oddly, for him, it’s suddenly a war of ribbons and praise and courage well recognized…

Agnes,

Hooray!  Five of our fellows have got the croix de guerre…  They are corps citations, not merely divisional. The wording of the document is very fine. (Things sound so fine in French.) I must copy it out for you when I get the chance. We are all immensely pleased and proud. We only expected a general citation of the convoy. This is better in some ways, though we should like the convoy to be cited as well. All those people richly deserved their crosses. The official account is that they were rewards for work on two days of the offensive, but really they are rewards for long tireless service in the convoy. On those two days they only did what everyone else was doing, but they set the example, and always have set the example. I, being only OC’s driver and no candidate, had a wee bit to do with the settling who was to get the thing, only a wee bit. I am most pleased about Julian, who is rather sensitive about being thought a shirker from military service. It will take a weight off his mind. . . . I think it’s up to me to get a croix de guerre, or to earn one anyhow. But when the time comes one forgets about such things and thinks only of the amazing facts of war. In fact in an offensive it seems almost sacrilege to think of little metal crosses and ribbons. Anyhow perhaps we shall not have another spell. No one wants the vile job, that’s sure.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 471-2.
  2. Talking Across the World, 233.

Vera Brittain Bids a Brief Farewell; Robert Graves Settles a Bet

When Edward went back to France in the last week of June 1917, I did not go with him to Victoria, for I had come superstitiously to believe that a railway station farewell was fatal to the prospect of meeting again. Instead, I waved to him from the window as his taxi rounded the corner of the square, and then helped my mother to wrap up his violin and put it away once more. In the dining-room hung his portrait by Graham Glen; painted while his wound was still painful, the face above the Military Cross ribbon looked pale and sad and retrospective, as it had been for many months after the Somme.[1]

This, needless to say, is a very good measure of how much things have changed over the last two years. Tearful-faux-cheerful farewells on the platform are no longer opportunities to pose or play new roles or even simply to cling to the departing soldier… when you have already lost several of those you tried to hold on to until the last moment, such a demonstration seems fruitless, painful, and ill-omened. After seeing her brother into a taxi, Vera Brittain went upstairs and wrote these verses:

 

To Them

I hear your voices in the whispering trees,
I see your footprints on each grassy track,
Your laughter echoes gaily down the breeze–
But you will not come back.

The twilight skies are tender with your smile,
The stars look down with eyes for which I yearn,
I dream that you are with me all the while–
But you will not return.

The flowers are gay in gardens that you knew,
The woods you loved are sweet with summer rain,
The fields you trod are empty now, but you
Will never come again.

 

 

Although our only other anecdote for today springs from the same genre, it could hardly be more different in tone. And yet it fits: this cheeky-dismal note from Robert Graves speaks to the exact same contrast of the hopes of 1915 and the pain of 1917.

At the end of chapter XIII of his memoir, Graves reports a conversation between the battalion Adjutant and a company commander named Furber, a pessimist whose “nerves are in pieces.” The other men remain confident–this is before Loos, even–that they will soon be driving the Germans back. Furber, however, bets that “the trench line won’t be more than a mile from where they are in this sector two years hence,” and the Adjutant laughingly accepts. The conversation took place on June 24th, 1915, and Graves adds a footnote: Furber won the bet.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 362-3.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 117-8.

We Discover Dorothie Feilding, as She Finds Perfect Peace and Happiness; Wilfred Owen is in Blighty, and Still Abed

Dorothie Feilding can be disarmingly frank, but she is also more than a bit elusive. There was little indication in her letters that her friendship with Charles O’Hara Moore was becoming something more. But during her leave in May things accelerated rather quickly. We’ll move back to the 7th of June, as her letters home pick up again:

Dearest Mr Da…

…it’s so wonderful to feel perfect peace & happiness again it seems almost another life since I have felt really happy. I was scared to death the 1st day wondering if everything would be all right but now I am quite quite sure of it. As for Charles he is sure enough for six!

And then on June 9th, we get a bit more context–or, at least, a context we can imagine applying to the sudden decision to marry: we see Dorothie getting in a last hurrah with her many friends (and brothers) still in Belgium, and then addressing herself to another stratum of needs, desires, and obligations.

Mother mine–

I’ve had the most lovely day. I had plotted with that long suffering man the Bloke, to go & hunt up Tubby & Peter today as they are quite close. It was all settled when at 5 am this morning they suddenly blew in here, bursting with excitement & awfully pleased with themselves. We had the greatest fun & in the afternoon begged an array of nags off the sailors & Mish & all went nagging down the beach & dunes. Then to tea with the sailors & then they went off about six. It was a joy having them & they are both looking frightfully well. Peter said he was due for a drop of leave about July & would try his best to be at Newnham to ‘see me pass away’ so if we can fix it up for 1st week in July that ought to suit everybody.

Mother dearest, I feel it’s almost wrong to be so happy these days. I wish I could bring some happiness into you too to make up for your dear Hughie

Will you be glad I’m not in Flanders getting potted at any more? Mairi Chisholm ran in this morning, looking worlds better, she was so touched at your having her at Newnham & I never thanked you half enough. It was because I know that awful desolation that sweeps over every corner of one’s soul & being that I wanted so to help her a little…

It was so awfully nice of you to have her, & thank you so much dearest.

But a letter of June 12th has an entirely different air. Is Dorothie giving her mother comfort, or is she finding another way to refuse a daughter’s obligation to care for her mother when the men have gone away?

We learn this, and more: lost love has long lain below the surface of her persistent courage and daffy nonchalance over several years of ambulance work in Belgium.

Mother my darling–

I got your sad letter last night, & I have been a selfish beast. It seemed so wonderful to feel at peace & a desire to live once more that I have left you thinking all the help I have been to you these years is at an end. Mother dearest, my being happy won’t come between us for ‘a daughter is your daughter all her life’ & our sympathy is too deep for
anything to change it.

At times I have wished I hadn’t the power to feel things deeply & that the superficial beings are the happiest. But it’s not so–God gives you a bigger soul in exchange for pain & the power to be capable things.

Some time before the war Charles & I were very near caring for each other. Then, for no particular reason, we drifted away imperceptibly back to just friendship. I think it was then I first began to think a great deal of Tom. Then Tom went to India & I never saw him again as I went straight to France. But we wrote to each other & in so doing had both felt a deeper & newer affection growing out of our old camaraderie.

We weren’t engaged but I know we should have been had we met again–we both always thought we would meet again quite soon. Then he died just as my love for him was beginning to waken & the bottom seemed to have fallen out of my life. I didn’t care whether I lived or not so you see it wasn’t very meritorious to be brave. I just threw myself heart & soul into the work out here & I got to love my soldiers like my children. It was a positive need to me, to share the life & dangers of this war with them. My whole soul cried out for it & no other kind of work would have helped me one fraction as much; out here right at the heart & pulse of things one finds realities & greatness. The best of everyone comes out…

This is so different from Lady Feilding’s usual style that it helps bring home the adjustment we must make in our understanding of her substance. Like so many of her male counterparts, a vague desire to “serve” and an interest in adventure were part of her initial motivation to endure hardship and danger; and like a very large subset of those officers, a mixture of personal unhappiness and frustrated love morphed into an abiding love for the men under her care.

And yet of course she is in a very different position, vis a vis the continuing possibilities of Romantic love. “The Front” was nearly an all-male world (and due to both standard social and legal prejudice and the additional problem of the effect of hidden love affairs on military discipline, gay men could seek love only at great risk) and she was a young, attractive heiress. There must have been a constant barrage of interest and pressure, much of it in a style that we would now consider harassment. Some of this she laughed off, much of it must have gone unmentioned. But she does have the option of marrying a soldier…

…the sadness of it all worked its way into my very soul. Of all these men who cared for me, it only made it harder & the last 6 months I had got into a sort of mental stupor. I can’t describe it. Just a great ache & loneliness. You see, God by teaching me suffering had given me a bigger soul capable of far deeper feeling, but had given me nothing else as yet to make up for the suffering.

Feilding’s Catholic faith–and her conviction that her suffering soul indicates a coming reward–set her apart from Vera Brittain, but this next paragraph shows how similar their situations might have been:

I used to try & force myself sometimes to care for people I saw who sincerely loved & needed me, so that I might make them happy. But then at the last minute there was never anything but bare friendship & it couldn’t suffice me & I was afraid to marry with only that.

And Vera Brittain would have, in the deeper subsuming to family loyalty and self-sacrifice, married her brother’s blinded friend. As it happens, the ghostly paths of these so-similar-yet-so-different women crossed, in a way, today, a century back. As Lady Feilding was planning her wedding, Victor Richardson was awarded a posthumous Military Cross for his leadership in the Battle of Arras.

So back, now, to the happier and happy Lady Dorothie Feilding, whom we now seem to know three times better than we did after her first eighty-seven appearances here:

Mon. Ritz Hotel London [18 June]

Mother darling–

We have decided Thursday 5th not the 3rd after all for the funeral if that suits you.

That, of course, would be the wedding.

Could you put up Binkie, Charles & best man? His regimental pals, one or two as really want to come, could come by Irish mail to Rugby. I’ve asked Mellins to let Billy & David be pages. I’m getting a little plain white frock & veil, no train or bridesmaids or fuss, but would love those stugs as minute guardsmen with their white clothes & guards belts.

Any immediate relations of Charles who insist on coming we intend billeting on Aunt A at Holthorpe but haven’t broken it to her yet…

I couldn’t bear the thought of being cremated in London for the amusement of Tit Bits, Mothers Home & Pigeon World

This is quite funny, and apt: Lady Feilding has already been a darling of the popular press–titled young ladies driving ambulances made great copy in 1914–and her wedding will prove irresistible to the nascent tabloids, if not perhaps to the pigeon-fancying community. So she is back to her happy-go-lucky early style as the wedding approaches…

And yet her style did change, there, for a moment, and we got a glimpse of her different feelings. She’s an indifferent speller and a casual aristocrat, and has shown no signs of well-read Edwardian Romanticism–nevertheless she feels things just as deeply as any fulsome, long-tressed provincial young lady.

Back, for a moment to the letter of the 12th:

When I met Charles the other day & he told me how he cared, I felt for the 1st time, that he could awaken my power to love (which I thought had died in me) if he loved me strongly & enough. At the very beginning I was afraid perhaps my loneliness was influencing me unduly & that I had not yet found the real thing. But so very soon I was quite, quite sure everything was right.

This, too, is a war romance:

The big things in Charles had not been stirred before the war. He was inclined to be idle & drift through life without being properly alive. The army & war generally has done to him what it has done to many people including myself. He loves me so much, Mother dearest, & so deeply that he has made me love him; it is not just a wild wave of sentimentality, it is [a] real thing which grows greater every day & is coupled with an infinite trust & confidence in him & in what the future will bring. Please God, he will be some months at home, before all the mental ‘angoisse’ [anguish] begins again. I am feeling so small & stormtossed…

I need just a little bit of peace & happiness so badly Mother dearest…

Yr loving
DoDo[1]

 

Wilfred Owen is also very happy and at peace… and also writing to his mother, and also in need of additional funds for new clothes… after that the similarities drop away precipitously.

Monday, Welsh Hospital, Netley

Dearest of Mothers,

I had your letter this morning—a great delight. This place is very boring, and I cannot believe myself in England in this unknown region… It is pleasant to be among the Welsh—doctors, sisters, orderlies.

And nurses.

They kept me in bed all yesterday, but I got up for an hour & went out today, only to be recaught and put back to bed for the inspection of a specialist…

There was no choice of Hospitals when we were detailed off from Southampton, tho’ I tried to get the Birmingham Train, which those officers who lived hereabouts had to take!

When I get away I shall try to journey through London. There are new clothes I want… Here also we fare much better than anywhere in France. I sleep well and show every sign of health, except in the manipulation of this pencil.

Your own W.E.O. x[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 211-16.
  2. Collected Letters, 470.

Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

Charles Scott Moncrief is Decorated; Henry Williamson is Sacked; Vera Brittain Sees the Sights; Olaf Stapledon is Fed Up

We have three brief updates today–one good, one bad, and one in transit–before a very unusual letter from Olaf Stapledon.

First, Charles Scott Moncrieff, still abed with a badly mangled leg, has good news, which he receives with proper, and perhaps even unfeigned, modesty.

I have been given one of the fourteen Military Crosses allotted to the 29th Division. No one else in the Regiment, I’m sorry to say, for most of them deserve it more than I do…

Perhaps, but Moncrieff is a brave officer, with a record of consistent leadership and courage–if he hadn’t been so often ill, he would surely be dead by now. Nevertheless, he scorned the decoration, and will try to refuse it–his wound, he will point out, was caused by his own barrage, which is not a terribly heroic fact. But his commander will object to this objection, effectively forcing Moncrieff to accept the MC:

Captain C. K. Scott Moncrieff is an officer with a distinct temperament, and of an intelligence far above the average… whatever he says to the contrary, I shall remained convinced that, not only on the date in question, but on one or two previous occasions also, he thoroughly earned the award which His Majesty has been pleased to bestow.[1]

 

Henry Williamson is doing less well. He has been “strafed” several times recently about timeliness and the proper care of his mules, and although he tried to present his assignment to a signals course as some sort of inside-track “staff” appointment wangled on a super-secret journey, it seems likely that he was selected for the course in the hopes that his unit could thus be rid of him. It didn’t take.

Sent back from the Signalling Course. Good. Very rotten report however. Strafed by G.O.C.[2]

 

And Vera Brittain, on her way home from Malta, will visit her second great capital in three days:

May 26th–Were approaching Paris when we woke up; typical French scenery so often described by Roland–thin sentinel trees and straight white roads. Thought very much about Roland and Geoffrey, for this was their country, now…

It is. British cemeteries are already, and will ever after be a major part of the landscape along the Somme and around Ypres. But Paris is still Paris, and many visitors can claim it. Vera, something of a minor sophisticate in this particular context, guided two of her companions for the afternoon.

After lunch … I took them round to look at some of the sights. Took them to Notre-Dame, the Madeleine and along the most important streets… Afterwards did a little shopping…[3]

 

Last night, a century back, Olaf Stapledon began a letter to his beloved, Agnes Miller, on the occasion of her birthday. But he is home on leave and “bed is a luxury not to be missed,” so the letter trailed off. Today he picked it up, and “with uncharacteristic sarcasm” (as the editor of his letters puts it), gave Agnes an account of his doings in the disastrous recent Nivelle Offensive.

It’s fine to see a six horse limber going down a road at breakneck speed with the driver urging and lashing and the other men hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and shells crashing all round, nearer & nearer it seems, till at last one makes a direct hit, kills five horses and two men on the spot, while the other horse goes a bit down the road till it drops and the third man crawls out of the wreckage into the ditch. It’s fine to see four or five cars all charging down the same bit of road until one of them has to jam on all brakes to avoid crashing into the limber the second after it is hit, and then has to creep gingerly round between the dead horses and ditch while a shell bursts alongside it, breaks in its windows and pierces its body work with steel splinters. Once free, and away dashes the old Vulcan like a mad thing down the road with the poor devils inside crying out at the jolts, swinging, bumping, crashing across the railway line, past the sentry box where someone has propped the dead sentry up against his box for some reason unknown. Meanwhile the next car spots the wounded man in the ditch, draws up to take him on board, but the egregious idiot of a lieutenant who happens to be on board forbids the driver to stop under shellfire, so that (think of it!) the car goes on, leaving the man wriggling…

Oh it’s all very fine & we deserve far more of it. But, ye gods what a damned silly thing is war! Fed up, FED UP!

This from a young man who has spent several years at the front with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and hitherto been unfailing and unflinching in both his disapproval of the war and his dreamy insistence on seeing better things, in the stars, to come.

But whether back in England or among Germans, Stapledon is far from alone in feeling fed up.

…A meeting of British soldiers, being asked to give a message to people at home, cried “We’re fed up with the war,” and again & again they persistently cried it. As for the bosches… we had some Germans helping to load the carts, & they did it well; especially one smiling, kindly chap with whom the French stretcher bearers soon became very friendly. Of course there is really a lot of blind hatred & hostility, but less than of old. It’s the miserable diplomatists that have not the courage to talk about peace…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 131; Chasing Lost Time, 131.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 155.
  3. Testament of Youth, 351-2.
  4. Talking Across the World, 225-6.