Wilfred Owen: Here is Poetry; Sassoon’s Example Furthered, and Traduced; Cynthia Asquith and Duff Cooper on the Air Raid–and (at Long Last!) a Discussion of Rasputin’s Endowment

Wilfred Owen is proving himself to be a man at ease with many roles: he runs a military hotel by day, but in his free time he vies with antique dealers, writes chatty letters to his mother, composes febrile poetry, and attends to the delicate balance of camaraderie and flattery (not to say worshipful enthusiasm) best calculated to hold his new friend’s personal interest while also soliciting his critical attention…

6 December 1917 Scarborough

My friend,

I shall continue to poop off heavy stuff at you, till you get my range at Scarborough, and so silence me, for the time. This ‘Wild with all Regrets’ was begun & ended two days ago, at one gasp. If simplicity, if imaginativeness, if sympathy, if resonance of vowels, make poetry I have not succeeded. But if you say ‘Here is poetry,’ it will be so for me.

What do you think of my Vowel-rime stunt in this, and ‘Vision’? Do you consider the hop from Flea to Soul too abrupt?[1]

Alas, I am not sure which poem “Vision” refers to, But the “flea”  bit is Owen is asking Siegfried Sassoon‘s advice about “Wild with all Regrets.” Owen’s self-deprecating comments are not simply pro-forma: the draft needs work.

But there is no lack of confidence here either, as the second paragraph shows. Owen is asking advice, but he is also pointing to a significant innovation in his poetry, the use of what he calls “vowel-rime,” a sort of half-rhyming that is unconventional yet fits very well with what is emerging as his method: to write traditionally-structured poems that go deep into horror and pathos while avoiding triteness. To rhyme in a way more consonant with speech is to avoid chiming, to avoid sounding just a bit too much like Tennyson, who never sung of shell-shocked men or bodies torn apart by explosives.



Following Owen’s presentation of evidence on how Sassoon’s influence is advancing the cause of war poetry, we have a sort of cross-examination to deal with. If Sassoon’s lead in speaking directly of the war’s horrors, of taking a colloquial voice in formal diction (more Hardy than Kipling, in its antecedents; more Drummer Hodge than Barrack Room Ballads) and using it to criticize the war can spur Owen towards his masterpieces of anguish, can his example also be betrayed for the purposes of military propaganda?

Oh, yes indeed. Gilbert Frankau, a rare presence here but a vigorous one during the war as he worked to stake a claim to the literary territory a brow and a half down the ladder of popular taste from Robert Nichols, is eager to support the cause. Even–and, if we are to be consistent, this is much to his credit, in a way–to the point of insisting on the rightness of its most disturbing concomitants. Like shooting your own men for running away. After all, doesn’t one propagandize pour encourager les autres?

Today, a century back, Frankau wrote three stanzas of Sassoonish pith that one would like to read as bitterly ironic. But if the form is Sassoonish, the mode isn’t: this will be the preface to a long, unironic, and “pitiless” poem in which the spirit of the titular deserter is barred from Valhalla…


The Deserter

I’m sorry I done it, Major.’
We bandaged the livid face;
And led him out, ere the wan sun rose,
To die his death of disgrace.

The bolt-heads locked to the cartridges;
The rifles stead to rest,
As cold stock nestled at colder cheek
And foresight lined on the breast.

‘Fire’ called the Sergeant-Major.
The muzzles flamed as he spoke:
And the shameless soul of a nameless man
Went up in cordite-smoke.[2]


It is a commonplace–or should be–of the study of the war’s literature to remind the reader that pro-war poetry and deeply traditional stuff were overwhelmingly more popular than Sorley/Sassoon et. al., during the war, and that “Disenchantment” didn’t set in until the wave of memoirs crested ten years after the armistice. And yet… Frankau’s little piece is not Brooke or “In Flanders Fields” or even an updated “Light Brigade.” It’s not simply pro-war, pro-violence, or a troublingly untroubled depiction of violent death: it’s a vindictive celebration of cold-blooded killing. A bloody-minded jingo could surely argue that “such things are necessary,” and even make the point that these poetic chaps should be commended for reminding us of what happens to bloody cowards, the stick to the carrot of heroic satisfaction…

But that doesn’t it make it any less disgusting. Sassoon perfected the hammer-blow line-end to make us feel the terrible waste of war. Frankau reduces it once more to doggerel, and celebrates that waste.


So much for war literature in England, today.

And what about the war? Well, there was an air raid in the early morning, which Sassoon, in London between hunts, only mentions in passing when he returns to his diary (he will, however, have something more to say about it presently, in a letter). But Cynthia Asquith weighs in with a nice dismissive mot:

Thursday, 6th December

Was woken at five by guns—another air-raid at last! I like them with my dinner, not with my dreams, felt sleepy and bored…[3]


Which would be the best upper-class-diary-mention-of-the-air-raid were it not for Duff Cooper‘s entry in the field. Cooper, on leave for the weekend, manages to undermine his own recent idealization of the halcyon trip to Venice, then give us our most bizarre and tangential mention of the events of Russia’s conspicuously eventful year, and only then get to the air raid…

Dined… in Upper Berkeley Street… Bertie Stopford drove me home. He is a notorious bugger and was very attentive to me, saying I looked younger than when he last saw me which was in Venice before the war, He has been in Russia for some time and talked to me about the murder of Rasputin. After Rasputin was dead, Felix [Yusupov] Elston fell on the body and beat it. Felix told Stopford this himself. He suspects that there had been some relationship between Felix and Rasputin. The great charm of the latter for women was that when he had them he never came and so could go on forever. Also he had three large warts on his cock.

I have forgotten to mention that at five o’clock this morning there was an air raid…

So the bombing didn’t make the biggest impression, being less notable, on first consideration, than third-hand information about Rasputin’s genitalia. What a piece of work is man, etc.

Cooper, who had never yet been in London for a major air raid, found it strange. “It was difficult to realize that this was war going on in London.” But he was not unduly alarmed, and considered it a good first test of his courage under fire. He was back in bed before the anti-aircraft guns ceased….[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 514-15.
  2. See Hibberd and Onions, ed., Winter of the World, 190-1.
  3. Diaries, 377.
  4. Diary, 62.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.


Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.


Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…


Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.


And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]


At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]


Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…


Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…


The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]


But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]


And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?


Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]


Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]


Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]


References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

Siegfried Sassoon Joins the Second Battalion, in Several Frames of Mind; Unquiet Death Stalks Edwin Vaughan

After a long, slow train journey, a nasty night at Corbie, and a sticky tramp up to “Camp 13” at Chipilly, Siegfried Sassoon joined the Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers today, a century back.

He is not best pleased: his previous service had been with the First Battalion, and even finding his way to the one other Regular battalion of his own Regiment is not good enough to lift his spirits. (Many, indeed, were not so fortunate, in these days of expanding bureaucracy–he might have been sent to a Kitchener mob or even to some foreign, declassé regiment.) The chief appeal of the 2/RWF was to have been Robert Graves, but he is headed Blightyward, sick once again.

Will the dour and acid Sassoon of the Rouen sojourn remain utterly friendless, or will his gentler instincts (or the inevitable cycles of his changeable mien) prevail?

So far, at least, the former:

I was wearing my best friends, a pair of greased marching boots whose supple strength had never failed to keep the water out; how much those boots meant to me can only be understood by persons who have never shared my type of experience; I can only say that they never gave me sore feet; and if this sounds irrelevant, I must remind the reader that a platoon commander’s feet were his fortune.

Yes: when at long last he returns to a fighting unit of his regiment, after more than half a year a way, he sings a paean to his boots, preferring them to his human traveling companions, the two cadet officers he had “nothing in common with.”[1]

But as he points out, an infantry officer’s feet are very important… also, generally, are his friends.

Also, I have erred: those were the words of “George Sherston,” not Siegfried Sassoon. But as it happens, today, a century back, is the day that the exceedingly flimsy veil is rent by a draft–namely the draft of the foregoing passage of Memoirs of an Infantry Officer which made its way into Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle. I will wrest a slightly different bit from Dunn, to show that Sassoono does indeed remark on the men of his battalion, and not just the unsuitable officers.

I found myself in command of No. 8 platoon, which contained 8 Private Joneses.[2] Its total strength numbered 34, including 2 sergeants, 2 corporal and 6 lance-corporals. Eight of the 34 were Lewis gunners. These being deducted my compact little unit… seldom mustered 20 strong… A recent draft had added a collection of under-sized half-wits to the depleted Battalion. Several men in my platoon seemed barely capable of carrying the weight of their equpiment…[3]

Shorn of its sheen of fictionalization, this is still pretty harsh. At the very least it’s a less-than-ringing endorsement of the most literary battalion on the occasion of the arrival of its most appreciated litterateur…

But wait, there’s more! Here’s Sassoon in propria voce, taking the story from yesterday afternoon:

Left Rouen about 4 o’clock in sunlight… Got to Corbie at midnight… slept in Field Ambulance and went out to.Rest Camp at Chipilly next day to join Second R.W.F.

…My two R.W.F. companions are… quite dull and suitably impressed by the occasion. Everything seems conspiring to lower my spirits (our kits were lost and plundered on the way up…)

The poem he wrote is of a piece:


I have come home unnoticed; they are still;
No greetings pass between us; but they lie
Hearing the boom of guns along the hill
Watching the flashes lick the glowering sky.

A wind of whispers comes from sightless faces;
‘Have patience, and your bones shall share our bed.
Their voices haunt dark ways and ruined places,
Where once they spoke in deeds who now are dead.

They wondered why l went; at last returning,
They guide my labouring feet through desolate mud.
And, choked with death, yet in their eyes discerning
My living Strength; they are quickened in my blood.


It becomes impossible to track down the “real” Sassoon–to fix him for than a few moments, here or there in the years, pen or indelible pencil in hand. When he was writing “Return,” at least, it would seem that a Sorley-inflected (but not Sorley-quality; indeed, wholly traditional and showing not a trace of his sharp recent satiric wit) poem about death and loss was the only thing that could express his true feelings. (Better, at least, then simple whingeing about uncongenial companions or slow trains.) It would seem, too, that his requirements of the Second Battalion are extremely unrealistic: it will not do unless it is officered by men he already knows and loves, despite the fact that many of these are dead or disabled…

But poetry is truth, right?

Ah, but what if the author himself returns to the poem and adds a footnote excoriating his own verse for its “entirely artificial emotionalism?”[4]

Sassoon is impossible, which is also to say that he’s never dull, even when he’s down. Let’s just give the last word to Frank Richards, old soldier and signaler of the battalion, and leave Sassoon for a better day:

Two new officers that had just arrived seemed of a far better stamp than some that we had had during the last few months, and one named Mr Sassoon, who was wearing the ribbon of the Military Cross, was soon very popular with the men of the Company he was posted to. He had been with the First Battalion before he came to us. The Battalion was doing the ordinary training… I had some glorious days in the villages some miles from the huts. We at least were getting all the enjoyment we could before going back to the blood-tub where we never knew what might happen to us.[5]


That’s more like it. But speaking of returning to the blood-tub:

Edwin Vaughan was also on the way up to the line last night, scrambling overland to rejoin his platoon in its scattered front-line posts. After a harrowing approach through machine gun and trench mortar fire, Vaughan had circled the posts, crawling through the viscous mud to visit each one and check in with the non-com in command. At one such post he found a normally reliable man–Corporal Bennett–in near panic (does that etymology lurk in Ledwidge’s recent pastoral?), begging to be relieved. But Bennett calmed down once Vaughan denied his request and explained that exceptions couldn’t be made. He was left in the post, in command of six men and Vaughan finished his tour and snatched a few hours of sleep in a dugout.

Early in the morning, a century back, Vaughan awoke and found a fellow officer making out a casualty report for Corporal Bennett:

A few minutes after I had left them a bomb had fallen amongst them. I told Holmes about Bennett’s nervousness and sudden return to fatalism and we agreed that he must have had a premonition.

But Vaughan’s description of his interaction with Bennett doesn’t mention a premonition or “fatalism.”

I’ve doubted details of Vaughan’s diary before–it seems to me to have been inconsistently “worked up,” with a lack of clear explanation of when it is and is not the plain daily diary it purports to be… but today’s tale actually seems to bolster the case that Vaughan is not always embroidering his experience.

First, although he is indeed “emplotting” events–turning a small disaster into a retrospective story of fate (or nerves and nemesis–it seems as if he is doing it as he writes. The story-fying of experience, that is, is taking place this very morning, a century back, and not later on (when the diary was recopied).

Second, because the CWGC database confirms some details of today’s account. One obvious question is why a corporal would be in command of a post of six men, and a possible answer is that he would if he had been formally invested with a sergeant’s responsibility by means of the arcane rank of “lance sergeant,” a sort of honorary half-promotion for corporals. I can’t find a Corporal Bennett at a close enough date, but there is a Lance-Sergeant Alfred Bennett of the Royal Warwickshires who is listed as having been killed tomorrow, a century back. That is a very small discrepancy, and it is even bolstered by the fact that Bennett has no known resting place. Many bodies were lost even in less difficult circumstances… I can’t quite match Bennet’s report of three other men being killed–and a fourth later in the day but, again, the database brings us fairly close: a few corporals and privates of the Warwickshires are reported killed today and buried at nearby cemeteries.

And then another wrinkle: Vaughan claims to have buried all four of the men “in shell-holes behind the post where they were killed.” Were some of them reburied later, while Bennett, who appears on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, was never found? Very possible; I haven’t read ahead in Vaughan’s book yet, but perhaps that will clear things up to some degree.

So let’s move on, then, for the moment, genre sensors at the ready, to discover the reason that Vaughan gives these details:

After coming off duty, I was lying alone in the straw, and just dozing off, when I heard someone stop outside the cellar.  Sitting up, I saw the blanket slowly lifted and a head appeared in the dim light of the candle. I hardly repressed a scream of horror, and an icy numbness gripped me as I scanned–a blackened face, thick lips and acquiline nose, big eyes that stared at me, and a cap comforter drawn down almost to the eyebrows.  It was the face of the dead man that I had buried.

For fully half a minute we looked in silence at each other, then he asked me if I could tell him what time the rations would be up.  I laughed hysterically and made him come in so that I could dispel by conversation the awful fright that this appearance had given me. It was Corporal Harrison, his face blackened with wood-smoke but his every feature identical with that of the corpse.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 407.
  2. The paucity of family names in Wales seems to have been a never-ending source of humor to English observers. But it does stimulate an irresistible creativity in the way of cognomina...
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 306.
  4. Diaries, 143.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 221.
  6. Some Desperate Glory, 36-43.

J.R. Ackerley’s Brother Returns; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Lines, and Face to Face with a Spectre; Ivor Gurney Conjures Three, and Thanks Several Handfuls; Rowland Feilding is Witness to an Execution; Seventeen Letters for Edward Thomas; Siegfried Sassoon Curses Fate, and Departs

It’s another busy day, a century back, with one small sad action in the line and poetry behind it from Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, who today leaves for the front once again.

But first, I did something odd in yesterday’s post. J.R. Ackerley writes the section of his memoir leading up to his brother’s role in the assault on Boom Ravine with heavy, ominous foreshadowing. The exchanged watches, the vision of unstrapping the watch from a dead wrist. Reading it, I was sure Pete Ackerley would die, so I wrote it up that way.

And for some hours, yesterday, a century back, Joe Ackerley seems to have believed that his brother was indeed dead. Then late reports came in that Pete was wounded, but Joe could do nothing. What was one wounded subaltern? The senior officers around him were busy attending to the tactical problems raised by the little raid,

And my brother was lying out wounded in no man’s land, and might have been the merest litter left about after a riotous party, for all the interest the Brigadier, the Colonel, or the Major evinced in his fate. And I did nothing either…

For several hours–and several pages–Ackerley wrestles with the question of what to do. His memory of this horrible time is so patchy that it is almost blank. Did he bravely go out into the open to look for his brother? Were the callous senior officers trying to allow him unofficially, heroically, to rescue his wounded brother? He’s not sure. Was he about to be a hero, or was he being a humbug?

Ackerley is not even sure if he was there, when his brother, finally, crawled back into the trench, wounded in the leg, not dangerously, hoping for another crack at the Huns. Pete Ackerley was sent back with a nice Blighty one, and spoke well of his brother at home. Joe Ackerley concludes the episode–written as the certain loss of a brother undone almost after the fact by a carelessly non-ruinous fate–by noting that “whatever happened I never recovered my watch.”


Hard on the heels of this strange account–but there’s a lot I want to cover, today–we have another trench baptism. Late last night, hours after coming up into the front line for the first time, Edwin Vaughan had toured the trenches with another officer, watching the men at work. There–and not for the first time–Vaughan’s anxiety washed over and eroded his heaped-up contempt, leaving him chastened. He may despise the officers and men when in billets, but he was impressed with their professionalism amidst the dangers of the fire trenches at night. Early this morning, after a fitful, drink-induced nap, he took his first turn on duty.

…as my sergeant did not arrive, I went out alone into the trench, where the eerie influences of the night descended up on me. It was deathly still, the mud, the smell of earth, the ragged sandbags, the gruesome litter numbed my brain; a cold fear chilled my spine and set my teeth chattering. I stood shaking and gazing horrified into the darkness, thinking: ‘this is war! and I am in the firing line!’ Then in a panic I set off down the trench. Reaching the first corner I drew back sharply and my heart stood still, for under the trenchboard bridge I saw a dark form pressed against the side of the trench.

In horror I glued my eyes upon it; the light was growing stronger, and it was quite distinct. And now I thought I saw a stealthy movement. Drawing my revolver and with just my head round the bend, I challenged it in a low voice. There was no reply… with my gun well forward I advanced and prodded–an old greatcoat hung on the trench side.

My relief at this anticlimax cheered me somewhat…

Anticlimax–as well as a suspiciously dense conglomeration of typical trench incidents–is Vaughan’s hallmark. But there is a different sort of anticlimax at 8 a.m., when his loathed Company Commander, Hatwell, wakes him under pretext of seeing the lovely morning but really “because he was jealous of my being asleep.”

And right after the beautiful morning? Hatwell gives Vaughan an ugly task: seeing to the burial of several nearby corpses.

Lying flat on their backs, with marble faces rigid and calm, their khaki lightly covered with frost, some with no wound visible, some with blood clotted on their clothes, one with a perfectly black face, they lay at attention staring up into the heavens. This was my first sight of dead men and I was surprised that it didn’t upset me. Only the one with the black face has stayed with me.[1] The thick, slightly curled lips, fleshy acquiline nose, cap-comforter pulled well down over his head and the big glassy eyes have become stamped on my brain.

In the afternoon, Vaughan experiences his first bombardment, rather confusingly described. Although he is in a deep dugout, he sees “the trench wall opposite” blow up and then a dud shell land “on the parados,” which would usually be directly over his head as he shelters in a dugout. These are trench mortars, as he explains:

…very destructive projectiles… their effect is so devastating and demoralizing that whenever they are used we inform our artillery who plaster the enemy lines heavily in retaliation. The idea is that their infantry will know that every time the mortars are used, they will catch out for it…

Vaughan’s first full day in the line is completed by a near miss from a German sniper–“my slip was an act of Providence–” and a failed attempt, after dark, to bury the nearby corpses. The ground is frozen, and they are left under a blanket…[2]


Rowland Feilding, commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers, is an excellent correspondent both because he has pledged to tell his wife everything and because, despite his responsibilities, he is a sharp observer, and his anecdotes are pointed. Some small tragedies need little elaboration.

February 15, 1917. Facing Spanbroekmolen (Fort Victoria).

Here we are in the trenches again.

This morning, in daylight, a German came running across Noman’s Land with his hands up, and was shot by his own people just as he reached our wire. We shall get his body in to-night.

Ivan Garvey, who commands the Company holding the line at the point where it happened, says that three of his men immediately came rushing along the trench to tell him, and that when he went to the spot he found the platoon gazing over the parapet at the dead German. Some of them wanted to go and fetch him in then and there, but Garvey naturally did not allow that.[3]


Edward Thomas has been reading the letters written by his men, working to set up the battery, practicing. Today there was a training “shoot,” then more preparatory work in the afternoon. For several days his comrades have been grating on him, and he has seemed to take solace in his observations of the natural world:  “Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw, lovely white puffs of shrapnel round planes high up…” Well, then: not so much nature reigning alone, but nature in her new context: “Dead campion umbels and grass rustling on my helmet through trenches.”

But this evening, a century back, brought relief and connection: the first post delivery since the battery embarked for France.

Letters arrived at 6. We sorted them and then spent an hour silently reading. 750 letters for me; 17 for me–from Helen, the children, father, mother, Eleanor, Freeman, Mrs. Freeman, Guthrie, Vernon and Haines.[4]


And Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back. He lays the counter-Brookean sonnet sequence aside in order to address her requests for material for his first book of poetry, which she is preparing. The preface is rather fulsome, and shows one side of Gurney’s personality in full effect: he is effusive, generous, taking delight in being comically expansive.

15 February 1917 (P)


This book stands dedicated to one only of my friends, but there are many others to whom I would willingly dedicate singly and in state, if that did not mean the writing of 40 books of verse and dedications; a terrible thing for all concerned . . . So that under the single name and sign of homage and affection, I would desire such readers as come to me to add also—To my Father and Mother; F W Harvey, (also a Gloucestershire Lad;) Miss Marion Scott, whose criticism has been so useful, and she so kind; in spite of my continued refusal to alter a word of anything. The Vicar of Twigworth; H.N. Howells, (and this is not the last time you will hear of him;) Mr Hilaire Belloc, whose “Path to Rome” has been my trench companion, with the “Spirit of Man” ; Mr Wilfred Gibson, author of “Friends” , a great little book; many others also; including Shakespeare and Bach, both friends of mine; and last but not least — 5 Platoon, B Co, 2/5 Glosters; who so often have wondered whether I were crazy or not. Let them draw their own conclusions now, for the writing pf this book it was that so distracted me. . . . This is a long list, and even now does not include old Mrs Poyner that was so jolly and long-suffering; not my boat “Dorothy” now idle in the mud; though a poet sung of her full of glory at Framilode.

Even as I write the list becomes fuller, further extended, yet a soldier must face pain and so it remains shorter by far than might be. I fear that those who buy the book (or, even, borrow) to get information about the Second-Fifth will be disappointed. Most of the book is concerned with a person named Myself, and the rest with my county, Gloucester, that whether I die or live stays always with me; — being so beautiful in itself, so full of memories;  whose people are so good to be friends with, so easy-going and so frank.

Some of the aforementioned people I have never had good fortune enough to meet in the flesh, but that was not my fault. I hope they will forgive my using their names without permission. Ah, would they only retaliate in kind! That is however not likely, as I never was famous, and a Common Private makes but little show. All the verses were written in France, and in sound of the guns, save only two or three earlier pieces. May well be indulgent to one who thought of them so often, and whose images of beauty in the mind were always of Gloucester, county of Cotswold and Severn, and a plain rich blossomy and sweet of air — as the wise Romans knew, that made their homes in exile by the brown river, watching the further bank for signs of war.

And that’s not all, folks–Gurney has a ballad in him, today:

Compree. Ballad also
Ballad of the Three Spectres

As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee.
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.

The first said, “Heres a right brave soldier
That walks the darky unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher.
And laughing at a Nice Blighty.

The second, “Read his face, old comrade.
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow.
Then look his last on Picardie.

Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
“He’ll stay untouched till the War’s last dawning.
Then live one hour of agony.

Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one — two — three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.

Not so bad eh?

By Gum, what will All the Good People of Gloster think of the Ugly Duckling they have hatched? There will be Some Surprise, what with one thing and another if the Tome appears. Roll on that time as soon as possible. Good luck with the Flu:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[5]

It’s difficult with Gurney, moody (i.e. mentally unstable) as he is–sometimes his letters seem to lay bare his suffering, to be uncertain records of his uncertain emotional terrain. But it’s reductive to insist that everything is about his mental state. He is a very good writer, and that requires–of course–embodying multiplicity, even contradiction. Or, simply, complexity–there’s nothing impossible or contradictory about what he has written. He is excited at the prospect of his first book, and he has, lately, found a new way to speak for the common soldiers… and yet he lives always under the grim little open end of his spectral “ballad:” for every death he dodges, many more possible deaths await, every day of the war, all the way until that last day’s dawning–and then a few hours more.


Finally, today, our foremost Fusilier is going back to the front. After an unhappy few months in camp near Liverpool and a whirlwind last few days of leave in London, Siegfried Sassoon began the freighted journey once more. Today, a century back, he left London for a base depot in France–and he described the experience, we will not be surprised to learn, more than once:

On February 15th I was at Waterloo for the noontide leave train (or, to be exact, the leave train the wrong way round). My mother was there to see the last of me, and Robbie had shepherded me to the station. My one desire was to have no feelings about anything. As we paced the platform I remarked to Robbie that the train was quite an old friend as this was the fourth time I had travelled by it. When it at length began to move, their faces kept up the usual forlorn pretence of looking bright. With the egotism of youth I couldn’t help wondering what they said to one another about me after they had turned away from the vanishing train…[6]

Ah but that is all retrospect. Here is the day’s diary, and a poem–with all thoughts forward and not a mention of mother or mentor bereft on the platform:

15 February

Left Waterloo 12 noon. Irish Hussar in carriage. Sunshine at Southampton…

Left London feeling nervous and rattled; but the worried feeling wears off once aboard the Archangel.

And as it does, Sassoon settles from the personal into the observational.

People seem to become happy in a bovine way as soon as they are relieved of all responsibility for the future. Soldiers going to the War are beasts of burden, probably condemned to death. They are not their own masters in any way except in their unconquerable souls.

Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear ‘they begin to ‘buck’ themselves up’. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way out of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles—nay, rewards them for their acquiescence with actual money and medals. But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market.[7] Hence their happiness. They have no worries because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight–of the enemy. They are not ‘going out’ to do things, but to have things done to them.

Not to make too much of one line, but this is the essence of Sassoon’s change of heart about the war, and it will be reflected in the change in the poetry as well. War, and poetry, once celebrated deeds. Now, in a latter-day phrase, men don’t do deeds, they are drafted into the galleys, shipped out like cabbages to become the subjects of passive suffering…

Finally, there is a poem of today’s journey which takes a step down the angry road that Sassoon has just sketched out:

Life-Belts (Southampton to Havre)

The Boat begins to throb; the Docks slide past;
And soldiers stop their chattering; mute and grave;
Doomed to the Push, they think ‘We’re off at last!’
Then, like the wash and welter of a wave,
Comfortless War breaks into each blind brain.
Swamping the hopes they’ve hugged to carry abroad;
And half-recovering, they must grope again
For some girl-face, or guess what pay they’ll hoard
To start a home with, while they’re out in France.
For, after all, each lad has got his chance
Of seeing the end. Like life-belts in a wreck,
They clutch at gentle plans—pathetic schemes
For peace next year. Meanwhile I pace the deck
And curse the Fate that lours above their dreams.[8]

Sassoon is speaking against “comfortless war,” now, and emphasizing the helplessness of these soldiers to influence the chances of their own survival.

A step toward protest, perhaps, but one expressed in a fairly traditional idiom. Any soldier–any human being–from any era may curse fate and still feel themselves to possess a fairly free hand for heroic self-fashioning. If this sort of poem is going to shock its readers out of the assumption that this war is, if not Great, at least generally noble and worthwhile, that hand of fate–in the person of British staff plans and German bombardments–will have to do more than merely lour

References and Footnotes

  1. Another indication that this "diary" is (re-)written after the fact.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 30-34.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 150.
  4. War Letters (Childhood), 162.
  5. War Letters, 133-5.
  6. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  7. A phrase he took up in the memoir, moving it backwards a few days into a conversation with Lady Ottoline Morrell.
  8. Diaries, 131-2.

David Jones in Billets; Vera Brittain in Despair; Edward Thomas Indecisive

jones 1-24-1916

A sketch by David Jones dated today, a century back, of billets in Richebourg St. Vaast, from A Fusilier at the Front

After tormenting herself by obsessing over what Roland may or may not have known and felt and thought in the hours between his fatal wound and his death, Vera Brittain once again finds herself contemplating the past, and finding there a sad certainty of the future she now inhabits.

In my mind I have lived through his death so many times that now it has really happened it seems scarcely any different from the many other occasions in which the only difference was that it was not an actual fact, in fact I don’t believe even now that I have felt such an utter desperation of renouncement as I did the first time he went to the front. I think my subconscious self must have told me then that I should not have him for long, in spite of my apparent belief, originated I suppose by my desire, that I should. Into my diary of that time, and into all my letters, there seems to have crept in spite of myself a quite unmistakable prescience of death. I was always writing to him about it, & facing it with him from all points of view. I remember writing once, before he came home on leave, “If only Fate will let me see him once again, I feel I could forgive it anything it may have in store for me.” Have I forgiven it? I wonder.

When the beauty of sunrise at the end of night-duty, or a glimpse of very pure sky behind bare tree-branches, takes me for a minute out of myself, I get sudden shocks which shake me to the very depths, of realisation that of all these things he loved so he is conscious no more…

If only the War spares us–He shall be to men as the Arthur Hallam in Tennyson’s In Memoriam.[1]

“Us,” here, means Roland’s survivors. Perhaps the friends who are now writing to her, perhaps his family (i.e. his mother). But most of all her brother Edward, to whom she wrote today. For now, though, the project of memorializing Roland takes second place to plotting out her own path.

1st London General Hospital, 24 January 1916

…Did Mother tell you that I am thinking, of giving up this place when my six months are up, & possibly not going on with nursing any more? It is not just that, much as I have always hated nursing, I now detest it so much that I can scarcely do it well at all, as that I must have a month or two’s freedom in which to think things out & reconstruct life. Life has been shattered into fragments even more than I thought–how much, I realise more & more every day. And I am beginning to realise, too, that my existence won’t be of much use either to myself or anybody else till I have had time to pick the fragments up & reshape them again.

Vera heaps scorn, now, on all of the other “girls” who have become VADs. In her low moods her (not unjustified) sense of herself as a precious intellectual elite reasserts itself. After many sentences of lament, she works around to the question she would pose to her little brother:

Practically anyone can be moulded into a nurse good enough to serve the purpose. And I am beginning to feel that I am quite thrown away on a job anybody can do, instead of finding something in which my brains & education will be of some value. If nurses were urgently required I would say nothing, but there are too many, & since no amount of good work can make you into a Sister or into anything different from what you are to start with, as time goes on there will be too many still more. And since there are other things which, in order that the Country & the War can go on, it is necessary for women to do, would I not be better in one of these? Que dit-tu? [What do you say?]

Anyhow, I propose to have my holiday–which I really feel I need,–& look round. If Father & Mother bicker much more it may be really necessary to earn one’s living, too–and as I have no longer marriage to look forward to as an ultimate fate, I am thrown on my beam ends again. A girl can do so much more from a purely practical point of view when a man shares her life & goes about with her; it is harder to do things alone. I don’t propose to go back to college while the War lasts, or do other work than war work.

But since this war seems likely to be interminable, it seems it would be better to find something to do which if it does not further, at least does not hinder, as this does, my ultimate object in life. I want to discuss it when we meet.

We have been expecting Zeppelins all night–warned they were coming, lights very low etc…

Possibly a raid that blew up the whole place, one’s self included, would be an easy answer to many problems. But I suppose it is a pity to die or want to as long as there is even one person left who desires one’s life.[2]

These last paragraphs, though raw and written in private grief and petulance, illustrate several different ways in which gender defined the war experience. Vera feels her uselessness intensely, and–this is the mood of desperation rather than a more balanced self-assessment–finds her self trapped in the middle. To care, as a nurse, feels no longer like a gesture of sacrifice, a step closer to the experiential gulf that separated all women in this war from their soldier lovers–it feels like a squandering of the intellectual identity she had pushed so hard to build. And yet she has also been denied her role as helpmeet to an exceptional soldier. There is not even the mounting pressure that men will feel now as conscription comes into play. Little will be asked of her; she can withdraw. But that too would be a failure, a surrender.

What, then, is to be done? She may change her mind about the worthiness of nursing, for one thing. But there is that last sentence, a cliffhanger in real time. Is there anyone else who cares enough?


Finally, today, Edward Thomas catches up with Eleanor Farjeon–sending her, most notably, his powerful recent verses on “Roads.”

24 1 16            Hut 15

My dear Eleanor I have let a long time go by. In the interval I have been home for 24 hours. That is all I could get, and I was really glad to get it…

On the way home I got on with some verses I began last week or at last began thinking towards, and I have now nearly finished them. I shall try to copy them for you before I shut this up tonight.

There is not much that is new except these lines about roads.

Certainly I think your dashes would clear up ‘Rain’ a little. I will put them in.

I would have written yesterday in the train but thought there might be a letter from you waiting in camp and I mustn’t write too many. I spend rather more than all my pay now. This is not a very intelligent remark. It simply means that feeling I ought to economise I hit upon the idea of two letters instead of three—And now I expect I shall have a letter as soon as I post this. I hope so.

This letter also contains his explanation of the “Helen” figure in “Roads” which I excerpted when the poem was written. And, of course, the usual semi-despondent trolling for compliments from Farjeon. Thomas does and doesn’t know how good his poetry is.

One last thing: Thomas has now been confronted with the same choice that had recently been presented to his regimental comrade and camp-mate Wilfred Owen. Will he volunteer?

They asked for 500 volunteers for a draft to France today. 2 or 3 hours to decide. They might probably not have taken me. Anyway I didn’t decide…

Goodbye. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

All roads now lead to France–but that doesn’t rule hesitating at a crossroads along the way, now does it?


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 306-8.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 222-4.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 182.

Rupert Brooke Is of Two Minds; John Lucy Faces the Prussian Guard, and Horrible Casualties; Morgan Crofton Visits a Monument; Tolkien Hits the Books

Attention Readers: This Blog Will Be Closing In Exactly Four Years. Please Begin Moving Toward the Check-Out Counter.


Before we get to yet another determined attack near Ypres, we have another entry in the already familiar formal progress from the halcyon green fields of England toward the muddy realities of first combat. Captain Crofton is at Rouen, where he follows in the footsteps of several of our non(yet)-combatants by taking a moment to see the sights–including one grimly appropriate monument.


No Orders up to 11.30. Send Mathey and Goodliffe up to Camp to see our Horses, and warn our Servants to be ready. At 12 o’clock we went round the Town to see the places of interest. The Cathedral is beautiful, but very finicky, the tall spire, 500 feet high of wrought iron, was added to the building in 1842. The Glass in the Windows is old and very good, and the Organ is magnificent. The Interior of the Building itself is not unlike Salisbury. The Doors are poor. The Best Church was Saint Maclou, the carving and stone work being very fine, but the Interior decoration is rather tawdry. There is however a beautiful Louis XV wood carving over the Altar.

All the Churches and the Cathedral here date from the 14th-15th Centuries. We next taxied to see where Jeanne d’Arc was burnt. This spot is now occupied by the Halles which are not unlike the Covent Garden Market on a very small scale.

There is a simple stone let into the pavement which says

Jeanne d’Arc
30 Mai 1431

and on the wall above a tablet which says

Here stood the Stake at which Jeanne d’Arc was burnt

It adds the information that her ashes were thrown into the Seine. This being the case, we did not search for her Tomb which we had otherwise decided to do.[1]. Returned to Hotel and lunched at 1.30 at the Restaurant de la Cathédrale.

At 3.30 went up to the Camp and found Goodliffe’s Servant in the Guard Tent drunk. Got him another Groom.

At 6.30 we were told that we should probably go up to the front by the 9.15 Train tomorrow. Dined at the Hôtel de la Poste. Very wet returning to our Hotel.

I fear that I shall find many of my friends missing from the Regiment when I get to it. It has had a very gruelling month’s fighting, and the situation at Ypres is still very shaky. However, we shall soon see now.[2]


Shaky–yes. Reader discretion, if you’re really very interested in war, is ill-advised. But it is going to get gory, now.

We went forward into the front line, out of reserve, on the 10th of November…  Next morning we stood to in the wet shell holes and crumbling trenches under the thunder and blasting flashes of German high explosives. There is no need to describe the bombardment, except to say that it was the worst in my experience.

This was the last great assault of the year, yet another final thrust at Ypres. (I realize that I keep promising a diminuendo toward winter–I had not previously realized how many last gasps the German offensive managed to produce.)

True to his word, Instead, John Lucy does not describe the bombardment. Instead, he describes its victims. One man “entirely lost his head” and ran out of the trench to be killed; another was hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel and lingered unconscious and murmuring throughout the day.

Another soldier had his belly ripped open, and sat supporting his back against the trench, while he gazed with fascinated eyes at large coils of his own guts, which he held in both hands. This was almost the ghastliest sight I saw. Its sequel was better. The man’s entrails had not been penetrated. He got safe out of the trench, was washed, tucked in, and mended well in hospital.

Maimed men passed crouching and crawling behind me, leaving trails of blood on the ground, on their way to a ditch which led back into the woods behind…

Lucy, as you may remember, has already confessed to an overwhelming sense of fatigue and discouragement.

His brother was killed on the Aisne, but at least he had the fellowship of his battalion.

Until the battle of La Bassée. After this, the Royal Irish Rifles were so battered that their identity as a proud professional unit seemed impossibly altered. Hundreds of reservists and militiamen now filled the places of the killed and wounded, and Lucy can’t bring himself to embrace them as true comrades.

He will recognize–the day after tomorrow–the bravery of Territorial units flung now into the battle, but of the replacements sent to his unit he can only see their inferior training and the other ways in which they do not measure up to the men he has spent several years with, and then seen killed.

(Interestingly, Lucy both admits the bias and sticks with the assessment, a good example of the way in which even the altered perspective of a man looking back on the early war with knowledge of its later development does not easily break entirely free of the judgments made in the intense emotional environment of combat.)

In his shattered and poorly-mended unit, there is “one young militiaman” who “came by roaring, and seeking sympathy for a broken arm from every one he met.” It falls to the old army NCOs to enforce the stoic code that they prefer, and even Lucy-looking-back cuts a newly arrived man no slack for the suddenness of his wounding.

The bombardment continues, and Lucy is concussed by a near miss; one eardrum is perforated. Soon after, the order comes to stand to, as “the enemy is massing just in front.”

…our rifles lined our broken parapets. The man of my section on my immediate left kept his head down. I grasped his arm and shook hum savagely: ‘For Christ’s sake, get up, you bloody fool. The Germans are coming.’

He fell over sideways and on to his face when I released him, and exposed a pack covered with blood. He was dead, and my eyes came off him to my shoulder, which was spattered with his brains and tiny slivers of iridescent bone.

‘A butcher’s shop,’ I said to myself. ‘A butcher’s shop. A bloody butcher’s shop.’ I took my left hand from the fore-end of my ready rifle and hit myself hard on the face, telling myself to be something of a man.

This is horrifying, and terrible. As bad an experience under fire as a man can have. And yet, in these strange and uneven later chapters of Lucy’s book, this primal horror segues to another section written without the same personal immediacy. It’s more like imitation Kipling, as a matter of fact.

Two nameless and vague characters suddenly join Lucy in the story–an odd choice, given that he is covered with pieces of another human being and hitting himself to maintain control. And such characters are representative of these sections of the book: he has told us that he no longer cares about his unit in the old way, and it seems natural to drop the practice of giving (pseudonymous) names and character sketches to the men in his section.

So we get, first, a trembling newcomer, who cries out “Mother of God! This is terrible,” and then an old soldier who shouts in grim exultation “Ha-ha, me bhoys. Now we’re for it.” These are stock characters–and at the moment of the great assault, too.

The magnificent Prussian Guards made a review of it. They executed their famous goose-step in the sight of their foe, and the field-grey waves came on… We stopped the Germans on our front, and they were the finest troops of Germany…[3]


Billy Congreve–who, although he keeps getting bumped from lengthy posts by more vivid correspondents, has been seeing a good deal of action of late–wrote of the same assault in similar terms, but with as-yet-undiminished Regular Army jauntiness:

11th November

A proper day this has been, beastly wet and cold, and the fiercest fighting we have yet had.  The Guards Corps (Bill’s Own) arrived… brought up ‘to finish us off’. The result has been desperate fighting…

Before they attacked they gave our trenches and supports and guns the most terrific bombardment. I have never seen the like before.

Although the attack failed, and Congreve remained jaunty, casualties were heavy and several hundred yards of trenches were lost on his brigade front alone.[4]

For a little more length and breadth of perspective on this assault, here is John Buchan‘s hard-on-the-heels history, first published in 1915:

Once more came a period of ominous quietness. It lasted through the 8th, 9th, and 10th, when nothing happened but a little shelling. Then on Wednesday, the 11th, came the supreme effort. As Napoleon had used his Guards for the final attack at Waterloo, so the Emperor used his for the culminating stroke at Ypres. The 1st and 4th Brigades of the Prussian Guard were launched on both sides of the Menin road. At first they used their parade march, and our men, rubbing their eyes in the darkness of the small hours, could scarcely credit the portent. Long before they reached the shock our fire had taken toll of them, but so mighty is discipline that their impact told…[5]

A good example of a propagandistic rule of thumb, here. You may admit a virtue of your opponent’s if it is necessary to the main interest of the tale, subordinated to a greater weakness, and part and parcel of his defeat. Therefore the “mighty” discipline of the Prussian Guards, who multiple witnesses have goose-stepping (yes, they did that then) within sight of the (witnessing) enemy. Wunderbar–aber Krieg ist das nicht! Their discipline only makes them a better target…  the German generals, too, will have to rethink their tactics.

With the failure of the Prussian Guard the enemy seemed to have exhausted his vitality. His tide of men had failed to swamp the thin Allied lines, and, wearied out, and with terrible losses, he slackened his efforts and fell back upon the routine of trench warfare.[6]


Writing to the American scholar and poet Leonard Bacon, Rupert Brooke struck some familiar notes, today, a century back. And also a few notes quieter and more wistful than his usual bluster/mock bluster/double-mock sincere bluster.

Anson Battalion, R.N.D.

11 November, 1914

Dear Bacon,

It was a pleasure to get your letter… The muses have fled to America, and are to be interned in that (technically) neutral country, I’m told, for the period of the war. Don’t keep them forever…

All my friends, but a few, are training or serving… The best Greek scholar of the younger generation at Cambridge, [F.M.] Cornford, is a musketry instructor at Aldershot… Gilbert Murray gets up every morning to line a hedgerow, gun in hand, before dawn. What a world! Yet I’m still half ashamed of England, when I hear of the holocaust[7] of the young poets, painters and scholars of France and Belgium–and Germany.

It hurts me, this war. Because I was fond of Germany. There are such good things in her, and I’d always hoped she’d get away from Prussia and the oligarchy in time. If it had been a mere war between us and them I’d have hated fighting. But I’m glad to be doing it for Belgium…

Brooke goes on to recall–as he had in previous letters–the “Dantesque hell” of Antwerp burning and the “truer hell” of the Belgian refugees. He writes movingly about their plight before returning to his favorite subject:

It’s queer to think that one has been a witness of one of the greatest crimes in history.

I don’t hear any irony here–neither in the reversion of subject from the miserable thousands to the thoughtful, posing witness, nor in the fact that he had been sent over hoping to be the savior of Antwerp rather than the witness of its destruction.

And thence to the charming coda:

Well, we’re doing our best. Give us what prayers or cheers you can. It’s a great life, fighting, while it lasts. The eye grows clearer and the heart. But it’s a bloody thing, half the youth of Europe blown through pain to nothingness, in the incessant mechanical slaughter of these modern battles. I can only marvel at human endurance. Come and see us all when it’s all over. Love to the Wells’ and yo you both.


Rupert Brooke[8]

Now there’s a thing. Brooke is even now working on the sonnets–very Georgian, very pretty, prettily patriotic and utterly undisillusioned–that will fix his poetic star in its course. And yet here, recalling his few useless days at the front in a few tossed-off lines of prose, he prefigures much of the subject matter of the later war poets. “Half the youth of Europe” will come down like a hammer in the last line of another man’s poem, a few years hence (almost unaltered, though the resemblance is general and coincidental–the iambs are presumably accidental in the prose letter). And, over the same interval, pain, the endurance of incessant suffering, and mechanical slaughter will all become subjects of poetry much stronger than Brooke’s.

It’s all here–but is it the raw reaping before the winnowing, or is it a contradiction that he should have explored?

Does Brooke not realize that he should be writing directly about the slaughter? Evidently not.

And yet he is also of two minds. This letter contains not only the “it’s a great life, fighting,” comment, but also this terrible and almost-Julian Grenfell-like anticipation of his next stint of foreign service: “Anyway, it’ll be good work, I hope: and (with the horror) fun.”

The parenthesis makes it too easy here to point out that Brooke has the literary significance of war experience inside out: he thinks the story is the glory and the honorable service, with the horror to be compartmentalized away from the bold and uplifting narrative. But we need to go into the parenthesis, too, if we are to understand the war.

And in fairness, it’s early: he saw Belgium’s misery, and the German invasion–with its very real atrocities, whatever the other inventions and exaggerations of propaganda–has only just occurred. Britain has had no chance to do anything but throw its small army into hasty defensive measures. There have been no set-piece attacks, no chance for British generals to develop any war-winning strategy, let alone one that clearly wastes the lives of volunteer soldiers while providing no tangible benefit to the allied cause… it’s early yet, early. But it is interesting to see Brooke of two minds–two distinct and unmingled minds.


And, finally, in the Datable Ephemera From Meticulously Studied Authors category, a note that today, a century back, Ronald Tolkien checked out C.N.E. Eliot’s A Finnish Grammar from the Exeter College library for the second time! He’s working on something, and he’ll Finnish it up by the 22nd.[9]


References and Footnotes

  1. Alas, alack, and god rest the unborn souls of Monty Python, but I can find no reason to suppose that this is intended to be humorous
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 10-12.
  3. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 278-82.
  4. Armageddon Road, 78-9.
  5. Here's the discipline point being driven home by another close contemporary report/"history:" "In spite of lack of officers, in spite of inexperience, boys of 16 and 17 have faced our guns, marched steadily up to the muzzles of our rifles, and have met death in droves, without flinching. Such is the effect of a century of national disciphne. That the men subjected to it are the victims of an autocratic military caste does not alter the fact that they have accepted that system as necessary to the attainment of national ideals." This Eyewitness's Narrative, an anonymous reissue of the reports of Major Ernest Swinton, the first British war correspondent, is available here, pages 101-3. Also ratified by his account are the seriousness of the bombardment and the desperate character of the fighting: it "was probably the most furious artillery fire that they have yet employed against us," and the adjective "desperate" is used on four consecutive pages.
  6. Buchan, A History of the Great War, I, 365.
  7. It's very important to recall that, in 1914, this word retained its original, classical sense of a voluntary sacrifice--a burnt offering devoted to one or more of the gods.
  8. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 631-3.
  9. Actually, he will never finish anything, but still, he's working on a paper. So stay tuned.

John Lucy Counts the Dead in his Trench; Robert Graves Rewrites his Reasons; The Nursing Sister Struggles with Agony; Frank Richards Can’t Miss

An apolobrag: there is too much going on over the next week. There is crisis and controversy among our Ambulance Corps, the First Battle of Ypres is raging, and there are developments to mention in the lives of those still in England–the entries here will be long and ungainly. Pace yourselves? Don’t quit? Read only your favorite subjects?

The next week sets up a transition: we will have the climax of Lucy’s account and the end of the initial heroic phase of the defense of Belgium, and we will arrive at winter’s doorstep. This will mean a long lull during which the British army reorganizes and the diary entries of the nurses, soldiers, and even entire battalions become shorter and less interesting. Which is why I don’t want to stop discussing Vera Brittain or other important writers still abed, a-school, or a-training–their stories will take us through a winter of shorter and sparser posts.

Before we get to several reports on the growing violence of First Ypres, an Graves, 10-25cupdate on young Robert Graves. Still stuck at the depot in Wales, he wrote a letter to a school friend in which he explained his reasons–much decayed from the initial surge of chivalrous feeling for the rape of Belgium–for his continued desire to get to the continent and fight.

I can’t imagine why I joined: not for sentiment or patriotism certainly & I am violating all my most cherished anti-war principles but as D. N[evill]. B[arbour]. says ‘France is the only place for a gentleman now,’ principles or no principles. The only grumble I have is that (seeing that the chance against returning whole-skinned if we go out now is about 2-1 & I have consequently resigned myself) I am renouncing far more than the majority of my fellow subalterns here who have never been at Ch[arterh]ouse, or understood the meaning of any art higher than that of–well let us say Peter Paul Rubens for old friendship’s sake.[1]

This minor-masterpiece of adolescent offense-giving concludes with a telling hope: that he will be able to join his fellows in the “shady paths of academia” before long. A few months as an unpopular dogsbody subaltern and Graves is renouncing all his original reasons for joining–“sentiments” such as honor and the defense of the wronged as well as the desire to put off Oxford. The blunt elitism is reminiscent of Vera’s thoughts about Roland, but it also explains why the literary and ungainly public school boy was not popular in the art-less old boy’s network of the Royal Welch depot. And yet: there is no shaking this “gentleman” business. His preferences, as he sees it, don’t enter into it: however much he loathes most men who proclaim this identity, he doesn’t imagine forswearing it. He’s a gentleman, so he must go to France.


The Nursing Sister has a long and harrowing entry today as her train struggles to cope with the casualties of First Ypres–I’ve pared it down to the first thoughts and a few striking bits:

Sunday, October 25th.–Couldn’t write last night: the only thing was to try and forget it all. It has been an absolute hell of a journey–there is no other word for it. First, you must understand that this big battle from Ostend to Lille is perhaps the most desperate of all, though that is said of each in turn–Mons, the Aisne, and this; but the men and officers who have been through all say this is the worst. The Germans are desperate, and stick at nothing, and the Allies are the same; and in determination to drive them back, each man personally seems to be the same. Consequently the “carnage” is being appalling, and we have been practically in it, as far as horrors go…

I suppose it’s time to begin “tagging” the trope of “desperation…” “!”

They were bleeding faster than we could cope with it; and the agony of getting them off the stretchers on to the top bunks is a thing to forget…

This, coming after a long paragraph describing specific agonies, is, in a literary sense, rewarding. There is only so much manipulation of broken bodies that prose can do before it too becomes a thing to forget. But we’ve been with the Nursing Sister enough on the swaying, trundling trains full of wounded men for the imagination to supply more agony than a few rote sentences of description could.

And then, in a vivid anecdote, it gets better–and, in another way, worse.

In the middle of the worst of it in the night I became conscious of a Belgian Boy Scout of fourteen in the corridor, with a glass and a pail of drinking water; that boy worked for hours with his glass and pail on his own, or wherever you sent him. We took him back to Calais. He had come up into the firing line on his cycle fitted with a rifle, with tobacco for the troops, and lived with the British whom he loved, sharing their rations…


Finally, another time-warp and fiction-intrusion moment: this is the second time that the Nursing Sister has prefigured Yossarian’s central trauma in Catch-22:

I think if one knew beforehand what all this was going to be like one would hardly want to face it, but somehow you’re glad to be there. We were tackling a bad wound in the head, and when it was finished and the man was being got comfortable, he flinched and remarked, “That leg is a beast.” We found a compound-fractured femur put up with a rifle for a splint! He had blankets on, and had never mentioned that his thigh was broken. It too had to be packed, and all he said was, “That leg is a beast,” and “That leg is a Beast.”[2]


Near Fromelles, Frank Richards and the 2/Royal Welch were under attack, and suffering from artillery and sniping. Like the Royal Irish, however, they found that the enemy bombardment was not enough to ruin their musketry, and they easily drove off each German assault. Richards is admirably vague on dates, but it seems to have been about today’s assault that he observed the following:

I don’t think any one of them ran twenty yards before he was dropped. To good, trained, pre-War soldiers who kept their nerve, ten men holding a trench could easily stop fifty who were trying to take it… with the parapet as a rest for our rifles it was impossible to miss.[3]


In front of Neuve Chapelle today, a century back, John Lucy was awakened from an exhausted slumber in the bottom of the trench into which he had slumped after helping beat off an overnight attack.

Sergeant Kelly stood above me, blue-jawed like a pirate, with blasphemy on his lips. ‘Get up and fight,’ he said. ‘The bloody Germans are all around us, and remove that man. Is he dead?’

…Young Shea and I lifted O’Brien and propped him in the corner of the trench. The body canted, gave way and fell down sideways, the lifeless limbs slowly adjusting themselves to the accidents of the bottom of the trench. I gazed at it stupidly with heavy eyes, wondering if I should sit him up again. It seemed important that he should sit.

‘Will you fight?’ said Sergeant Kelly bitterly.

Lucy is confused, but he soon sees what the the alert sergeant has noticed: a small number of Germans, caught in the open among the dead and dying of the night assault and exposed by daylight.

…we put our bullets into the heads of the lying enemy. Two or three of them rose stiffly to their knees to escape, but the bullets caught them and they flopped down again. One man actually managed to rise to his feet and I shot him through the chest…

I felt disgusted. We had slaughtered too many already. I was miserable until the German line was still and I prayed for them as I killed them.

It gets worse.

When a wounded German right in front of their trench tries to limp away, Sergeant Kelly shoots him at point blank range.

We could not look at Sergeant Kelly, nor at each other for the shame of it.

Another NCO, the “kind-hearted” Sergeant Benson who just yesterday had cheered Lucy with his ribbing over Kipling, now comes into their section of trench. Seeing the twice-wounded German so close and in agony, he calls out to him to save himself by surrendering.

As the German soldier crawls to their trench, Benson, standing up to receive him, is killed by “a bullet through his pitying mouth.” The back of his skull is destroyed by the bullet’s exit. The Irish lay out Benson’s body next to the wounded, rescued German in the bottom of the trench.

Lucy’s writing here is surprisingly powerful in its paucity. Without being explicit or fussily novelistic he conveys the sheer moral exhaustion of soldiers too long under fire. Although machine guns are firing over their heads they seem interested only in making the German comfortable, surely because they can do nothing for Benson, O’Brien, or the other dead men. Were it not for the “terrible energy” of the murderous Sergeant Kelly, it seems as if they would have simply sat in the trench until the firing stopped or until a German assault took the trench. Instead, Kelly forces them to clean and repair both their trench and their rifles, which are beginning to be fouled with mud.

He was a great man in a way, and a good war leader; a product of the slums of Dublin, and a stout asset to the British army, though a nasty piece of work from our point of view, just then.

Just as he doesn’t quite confess their failure to keep up the defense of the trench, Lucy doesn’t declare their recovery. They hear that a member of their section away working as a runner has heroically captured a small group of German infiltrators (presumably from the night assault) and this seems to restore their own confidence. The implacable Kelly moves off to another bay, and Lucy and the three remaining men of his section defend their own during two further attacks in the afternoon and overnight.[4]


Finally, Alan Seeger is still behind the lines, far to the south of the battle raging around Ypres. But we are keeping tabs on cathedral sightings, so:

Verzenay, October 25, 1914.

On guard from four to six this morning… Our company assembled this afternoon and we took a fine walk through the woods on the heights above Verzenay. From the open crests there were wonderful views across the valley. Reims was plainly visible in the middle distance, to the northwest. Could see the cathedral clearly… Aeroplanes circled continually overhead on reconnaissance and were bombarded with shrapnel from the lines below, without any apparent damage.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. The photo of the letter can be found in the DNB volume on Graves.
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  3. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 36-7; Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 82-3.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 231-8.
  5. The Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 12-13.