A Novel Premonition for Elinor Brooke; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard Under German Bombs; Vera Brittain is at War at Last; Rudyard Kipling and the Efficacy of the Mob–and Charles Sorley Sees the Blindness

As the day dawns over Sussex today, a century back, Elinor Brooke reaches a crossroads in her war.

I was trudging uphill, feeling spikes of stubble jab my ankles, and then, just as I reached the top, the sun rose–huge, molten-red–and at that moment I knew–not thought, not feared, knew–that Toby wasn’t coming back.[1]

This is Elinor’s diary entry, in Pat Barker’s novel. Elinor is fictional, but her position–from the intuition, to the death of her brother, to the long struggle she will have to learn of its circumstances and make sense of it all–is very familiar.

 

And it still goes on. Edmund Blunden is fortunate to be in reserve today.

A fairly idle day… read Leigh Hunt… There was a big bombardment again this evening. Some of our party went over I suppose–God help them in the mud. Just as we were settling down for the night, Boche came over. Our knees knocked and teeth chattered, but nothing fell on us…[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, is closer to the action–and dodging bombs from the same German raiders. 1917, as Blunden recently observed, is not 1916. In some ways it feels as if in just two short years we have come from a 19th century world beginning to be troubled by machine guns to the cusp of mid-century schrecklichkeit. All we’ll need are stronger engines and bigger bombs.

We are so much in the thick of War up here that no one talks or thinks of anything else…shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. The last are much the worst. He dropped five at dinner-time about 70 yards away, and came over with some more about 10.30 to-night and some more later. There’s no sort of cover anywhere and it is purely beastly. Shelling is nothing to it. The Sisters are extraordinarily good in it.[3]

 

Nor is Vera Brittain far from the bombs–but then again she has felt the bombs land in London, too. She writes to her mother today, a century back, from her new assignment in the great British base complex in the Pas-de-Calais.

24th General Hospital, Étaples,
France, 5 August 1917

. . . I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of a hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods. It is all huts & tents; I am working in a hut & sleeping under canvas, only not in a tent but in a kind of canvas shanty, with boarded floor & corrugated iron roof.. .The hospital is frantically busy & we were very much welcomed. . .

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases… The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, & one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings. My half-forgotten German comes in very useful, & the Sisters were so glad to know I understood it & could speak a little as half the time they don’t know what the poor things want. It gives one a chance to live up to our Motto Inter Arma Caritas, but anyhow one can hardly feel bitter towards dying men. It is incongruous, though, to think of Edward in one part of France trying to kill the same people whom in another part of France I am trying to save…

Well, Malta was an interesting experience of the world, but this is War.[4]

Rarely is the epistolary first draft–especially to Mother, rather than to one of her fellow members of the Lost Generation–better than the coming memoir, but I think that’s the case today. There is a swelling of strings as Vera finally reaches France–the place that killed Roland, Geoffrey, and Victor, and that still has Edward in its clutches–and there is an excellent evocation of the sounds of the bombardment, too, which works nicely amidst the others, here–but the effect of her description of France is less powerful than the simple antithesis she used in the letter:

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.[5]

 

Finally, there’s a remarkable letter of today, a century back, from one to another of two titans of the turn of the century: the bard of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and one of its dashing New World practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt. If not for the fact that they are not 19th century men, and that they are discussing sons (the present Kermit Roosevelt and the ever-present-through-his-absence Jack Kipling) and geopolitics… and if I didn’t despise this newly ubiquitous (at least in American pop culture) term, then I would describe this letter as a founding document of “bro” culture. Kipling’s writing has rarely been so off-putting, so ingratiatingly chummy, so eager to be brutal.

I have come a long way–through reading the man’s fiction, history, and private letters–to understanding Kipling much better than as the facile, solemn Imperialist chest-thumper of the familiar caricature… but a few paragraphs of this letter bring that old idea back with a vengeance. Kipling is full of blustery, silly talk as he updates the former president on his son’s adventures in England (Kermit Roosevelt is about to go out to Mesopotamia attached to a British Machine Gun unit); then there is unsolicited “expert” military advice (Kipling worries that the new American generals are too eager, and will fruitlessly spend their first small forces instead of building up for a “big push”), and there are helpful suggestions such as these:

I fancy that before you’ve done, in the U.S.A., you will discover as we have that the really dangerous animal is the Hun in one’s own country no matter what he pretends to be. You hold a good many hostages for his good behaviour and I sometimes wonder whether, if the U.S.A. took toll from her own unnaturalized Germans for every Hun outrage committed on the U.S. and on France, it wouldn’t have a sedative effect…

Don’t worry: Kipling is not suggesting that German Americans be killed in retribution for U-boat sinkings, only that a few officially sponsored riots in German American neighborhoods (I believe one applicable analogy would be to the pogrom) might just do the trick.

…It’s what the Hun comprehends perfectly. We have bled him badly in men, and if we can use up a decent percentage of his 1919 class this winter by exposure in the trenches as well as direct killing, he will feel it more.

But of course I’m being squeamish: anti-German-American riots were quite within the realm of possibility. And I just passed Kipling’s casual assertion of the righteousness of retributive atrocity without comment. Why? Because that describes the activities of uniformed soldiers? Because that’s different than casually advocating violent demagoguery and mob violence as strategic tools to an ally which is, ostensibly, a multi-ethnic democracy? Because my century-late outrage would be better served by letting Kipling’s endorsement of such things stand on its own rather than surrounding it with fussy complaint? “Bettered the instruction” indeed.

Worst of all, Kipling’s strategic guesstimates are accurate:

What he seems to funk more than most things is the stringency of the new blockade now that the U.S.A. is imposing it and neutrals can’t feed him as much as they used to. We’ve got another twelvemonth of trouble ahead of us I expect but it won’t be all on one side.[6]

This is the sort of letter, from one figurehead of imperial warfare to another–and from one older man willing to sacrifice his son to another–that might have re-affirmed Siegfried Sassoon‘s faith in the righteousness of his protest…

 

But back to this treatment of “Huns:” not Germans who are armed and dangerous in the trenches opposite, but German emigrants, civilians living in America, posing no threat and powerless to defend themselves. The analogy to wounded prisoners is not precise, yet it seems a coincidence worth exploring that Vera Brittain’s first encounter with helpless Germans also began today, a century back.

…when I told the Matron of my work in Malta, she remarked with an amused, friendly smile that I was “quite an old
soldier…” but… I was hardly prepared for the shock of being posted… to the acute and alarming German
ward…

Although we still, I believe, congratulate ourselves on our impartial care of our prisoners, the marquees were often
damp, and the ward was under-staffed whenever there happened to be a push — which seemed to be always — and the number of badly wounded and captured Germans became in consequence excessive. One of the things I like best to remember about the War is the nonchalance with which the Sisters and V.A.D.s in the German ward took for granted that it was they who must be overworked, rather than the prisoners neglected. At the time that I went there the ward staff had passed a self-denying ordinance with regard to half days, and only took an hour or two off when the work temporarily slackened.

From the moral high ground Vera Brittain now wields a satirist’s sword with great skill:

Before the War I had never been in Germany and had hardly met any Germans apart from the succession of German mistresses at St. Monica’s, every one of whom I had hated with a provincial schoolgirl’s pitiless distaste for foreigners. So it was somewhat disconcerting to be pitch-forked, all alone — since V.A.D.S went on duty half an hour before Sisters — into the midst of thirty representatives of the nation which, as I had repeatedly been told, had crucified Canadians, cut off the hands of babies, and subjected pure and stainless females to unmentionable “atrocities.” I didn’t think I had really believed all those stories, but I wasn’t quite sure.[7] I half expected that one or two of the patients would get out of bed and try to rape me, but I soon discovered that none of them were in a position to rape anybody, or indeed to do anything but cling with stupendous exertion to a life in which the scales were already weighted heavily against them.

At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained gauze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Attached to the ward was a small theatre, in which acute operations were performed all day by a medical officer with a swarthy skin and a rolling brown eye; he could speak German, and before the War had been in charge, I was told, of a German hospital in some tropical region of South America. During the first two weeks, he and I and the easy-going Charge-Sister worked together pleasantly enough. I often wonder how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the theatre — as we did all clay at frequent intervals — in that foetid stench, with the thermometer about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor. After the “light medicals” that I had nursed in Malta, the German ward might justly have been described as a regular baptism of blood and pus.

This is inhuman and horrible, but the point–Brittain’s point, and now mine–is that it is also deeply humane.

One tall, bearded captain would invariably stand to attention when I had re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heels together, and bow with ceremonious gravity. Another badly wounded boy — a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England — held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims — that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.

And Kipling, to some degree, had. But we’ll leave today with another voice, one which has greater personal authority than anyone who has spoken yet. The wounded Germans may be dying in English hands, but Charles Sorley had studied in Germany, and fought Germans, and been killed by Germans. In the memoir, Vera Brittain enlists the young dead poet against the cruel masters of war:

Somewhere, I remembered, I had seen a poem called “To Germany,” which put into words this struggling new
idea; it was written, I discovered afterwards, by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915 :

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Barker, Toby's Room, 85.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 78.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 137.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 268-9.
  5. Testament of Youth, 372-3.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 467-8.
  7. Which is about right. The British press ran with a great many entirely invented atrocity stories, and propaganda and myth made an ugly marriage of convenience with stories like the ones Brittain mentions. And yet there was a tendency after the war--an inevitable after-effect of government lies--to disbelieve all stories of German atrocity and assume a rough moral equivalence. There wasn't--which was at least in part due to the fact that Germany occupied enemy territory, and believed itself to be under existential threat; neither of these things were true in the same way of Britain. But German atrocities, especially during the invasion of Belgium, were very real. They should not bear on the claim to humane treatment of wounded soldiers, but even if pacifists between the wars emphasized the horror of war in general rather than of particular forms of armed aggression, it is bad history to discount the deliberate violence meted out by the German army to French and Belgian civilians.
  8. Testament of Youth, 372-77.

Three Views of Siegfried Sassoon and Doctor Rivers

A quiet day, today, a century back, even for Ralph Hamilton, who has been gassed the last few nights, as the German batteries in his area of the Salient opt to conserve their ammunition. This makes sense: even if there had not been numerous intelligence failures (several are related by Edmund Blunden in Undertones of War, which we will look at shortly) that revealed allied plans, the build-up to the battle would be obvious to casual observers for many miles around. Everywhere men are readying equipment, stockpiling ammunition, digging assembly trenches, or making last-minute exploratory patrols.

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, is far away, safe in Scotland. He has been under the deferential yet magisterial care of Dr. Rivers for three days now, and we will take a first look at this fascinating therapist-patient relationship from three angles, today. First, Sassoon’s letter (we’ve already read a snippet) to Robbie Ross:

26 July
‘Dottyville’
Craiglockhart War Hospital
Slateford, Midlothian

My dear Robbie,

There are 160 Officers here, most of them half-dotty. No doubt I’ll be able to get some splendid details for
future use.

Rivers, the chap who looks after me, is very nice. I am very glad to have the chance of talking to such a fine man.
Do you know anyone amusing in Edinburgh who I can go and see?

It was very jolly seeing Robert Graves up here. We had great fun on his birthday, and ate enormously. R. has done some very good poems which he repeated to me. He was supposed to escort me up here, but missed the train and arrived four hours after I did!

Hope you aren’t worried about my social position.

Yours ever S.S.[1]

 

And then there is Sassoon’s retrospective, very-lightly-fictionalized account in Sherston’s Progress. The narratorial Sherston describes several early evening meetings with Rivers during which they conducted casual, friendly, wide-ranging conversations. Other than these nightly sessions of what we would recognize as talk therapy, Sassoon is free to roam the grounds of the hospital and even make day trips. There is evidently little concern that he is intending to run into Edinburgh and launch a new pseudo-Pacifist “war on the war.”

But what is Rivers doing with Sassoon? Is he ill? If so, in what way? And if not, what responsibilities does a doctor wearing an army uniform[2] bear toward an officer who is not ill but rather refusing to do his duty? Surely even Sassoon’s float-on-the-stream-of-events Sherston must eventually work around to this query?

One evening I asked whether he thought I was suffering from shell-shock.

“Certainly not,” he replied.

“What have I got, then?”

“Well, you appear to be suffering from an anti-war complex.” We both of us laughed at that.[3]

And so a friendship, surrogate father-son relationship, and literary trilogy was born. One imagines Pat Barker reading the Sherston memoirs to this point and murmuring “ah-ha.” And she improves upon the scene.[4] After discussing Sassoon’s courage in action (his reckless courage that more than once took him far ahead of his unit), his hatred of the staff and certain civilians, his lack of hatred of the Germans despite his ferocity when attacking them with hand grenades, some of the intensely traumatic sights he witnessed, and his written protest and symbolic ribbon-divesting, the conversation works its way around to his mental state:

Sassoon stood up. ‘You said a bit back you didn’t think I was mad.’

‘I’m quite sure you’re not. As a matter of fact I don’t even think you’ve got a war neurosis.’

Sassoon digested this. ‘What have I got then?’

‘You seem to have a very powerful anti-war neurosis.’

They looked at each other and laughed. Rivers said, ‘You realize, don’t you, that it’s my duty to… try to change that? I can’t pretend to be neutral.

Sassoon’s glance took in both their uniforms. ‘No, of course not.'[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 183.
  2. Sassoon seems to pointedly refuse to see Rivers as a "real" Army Officer, describing him as "dressed as an R.A.M.C. Captain" [my emphasis], which is fair enough given his long civilian career and brief army affiliation, although still rather convenient for Sassoon and his binary visions...
  3. Complete Memoirs, 518.
  4. Barker places this dialogue in the dramatic and memorable first meeting between Sassoon and Rivers, which would have occurred on the 23rd. The novel needs to hurry through Sassoon's initial opposition (and present the brave, persuadable, changeable, charming, principled, petulant Sassoon that we, here, already know) and address how the developing relationship affects Sassoon's course. Hence the compression of several meetings into one. But Sassoon's writing of this particular Rivers-Sherston meeting as a few evenings into his stay makes more sense, chronologically, even if he is looking back without dated notes.
  5. Regeneration, 15.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Siegfried Sassoon Bombs Busily Along; Charles Carrington’s Half-Conscious Nightmare; Alf Pollard Finds the Germans, and Loses Some Men; Vera Brittain’s Immense Fact and General Malaise

We are surrounded by the Battle of Arras. We’ll finish in Malta, where Vera Brittain waits for news, and most of the post will follow Siegfried Sassoon‘s latest turn as “Mad Jack” in the developing battle. But we’ll begin with two other members of the supporting cast, each within a few miles of Sassoon, and each sharing important aspects of his experience.

The Battle of Arras, now in its second week, is neither trench-warfare-as-usual nor a matter of major “over the top” assaults, those strange aberrations in military history in which lines of troops abandon their subterranean life in order to move over open country, their shoulders hunched against the shell fire. Instead we have something rather like the tough, ceaseless, street-by-street urban warfare of later wars, with the trenches and strongpoints standing in for ruined cities. The weather, a cruel abridgement of the recent turn toward spring, only increases the misery.

 

Charles Carrington has been in the battle since near the beginning, but he remembered tonight, a century back, as one of the worst:

After many exacting days and freezing nights we finished with a night attack against two German outposts on 16th April, the date of Nivelle’s offensive that was to have finished the war. Our petty skirmish was for us as deadly as the greatest battle was for him. Again it was dark and wet, with a drizzle that turned to snow until before dawn a blizzard was blowing. Two of our companies blundered into one another and opened fire. The assaulting party ran into uncut wire which they could not see. They dug themselves in and waited for dawn when the Germans cleverly slipped away. That night my horse, impressed for duty as a pack pony to carry ammunition to the front line, died of exposure and so, very nearly, did its master, to whom the whole episode was a half-conscious nightmare of fluttering trench-mortar bombs, the kind we called ‘grey pigeons’, coming down through driving snow…[1]

 

And Alf Pollard, back in the nick of time, is out in front of the battle, and looking for more of a fight. The Honourable Artillery Company are north and east of Arras, where the advance has already taken several lines of German trenches–but not yet the local section of the Hindenburg Line.

On the afternoon of the 16th, a Brigade Major carefully examined this trench system through his binoculars, and, failing to observe any signs of life, came to the conclusion that Fritz must have fallen back even further. He at once issued orders that patrols were to be sent out.

Pollard volunteers, and asks to take only four men, since he has more experience with small patrols and, like Sassoon, likes to gallivant more or less on his own. But he is required to take an unwieldy twelve, as per staff orders. The thirteen men set out after nightfall, in moonless, rainy darkness. Feeling their way slowly between Gavrelle and Oppy Wood, they eventually reached the German line without encountering any signs of life, noisily cut their way through the wire, and reached the parapet of the trench. Almost by chance Pollard discovers that they are at the entrance to an occupied German dugout–the trench system is strongly held, but the sentries are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, sheltering from the cold rain.

The patrol has achieved its object, so Pollard withdraws–only to discover, back in No Man’s Land, that one of his men is missing. Two others have been left holding a hole in another portion of No Man’s Land while the remaining eight are now told to wait for him on a small ridge between the lines. Pollard takes a runner and goes back to the edge of the German trenches to look for the missing man–and this time they are discovered.

Someone challenged me sharply from the trench. I spun round in time to see the flash of his rifle. I fired two shots and heard him yell as I hit him.

The firing gave the alarm. Men were appearing in the trench like magic. Reggie and I were caught like rats in a trap. It would have been impossible to have broken our way out through the wire without offering a sitting target to the enemy.

There was only one thing to do. I seized Reggie by the arm and ran. Down the parapet we fled was fast as our legs would take us. Star-shells were going up in all directions. By their light I could see that the trench was of a pattern known as island traversed. That meant that here were two trenches parallel with one another joined at short intervals by cross-cuts. At intervals along the parapet were squares of concrete which I knew to be machine-gun emplacements. I realised it was a position that would take a lot of capturing.

We must have covered well over a hundred yards before I spotted it. It was a miracle that I saw it at all–just a narrow gap in the wire entanglement left so that the holders of the trench could get out easily if they wished to. I darted into it with Reggie close on my heels. It zig-zagged through both lines of wire. In a moment we were free of our cage…

Pollard and Reggie crawl back toward their lines, now sheltered by the thick belts of wire. But when the firing drops, they know a German patrol is coming after them. Pollard outfoxes the patrol by sheltering under the wire–so close to the German lines that the Germans overlook them. This is one of the places where Pollard’s memoir feels indistinguishable from a boy’s story of play-war–he is thrilled at the success of this simple stratagem, hiding by the seeker’s home base.

Once the patrol returns to its trenches, Pollard and Reggie meet up with the main group of their own patrol on the little ridge. They return to their own lines and all is well–the German line has been located and confirmed as being in an active state of defense, and Pollard, his eyes on bigger prizes, casually notes that they “gave me a bar to my Military Cross for that show.”

But this is sketchy sort of decoration, despite Pollard’s relish in describing his exploit. “He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line,” as the citation will read–apparently all the other patrols sent out failed to find the Germans. But there is no mention in Pollard’s account of the missing man. Worse, he does mention that he simply forgot to pick up the two others who had been left on their own, and these are later learned to have been found by the German patrol that Pollard and the runner eluded. One was killed, another was taken prisoner, and the original man seems to have remained missing–not the most successful of all patrols.[2]

 

The action of today, a century back–a “bombing stunt” along the tunnels and trenches of the Hindenburg Line, fills an entire chapter of Siegfried Sassoon‘s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. So we’ll read it instead in its entirety in its first written form, his diary of tonight, a century back:

April 16

At 3 a.m. the attack began on Fontaine-les-Croisilles. I sat in the First Cameronians H.Q. down in the tunnel until nearly 6, when I was told to despatch twenty-five bombers to help their B. Company in the Hindenburg front line. I took them up myself and got there just as they had been badly driven back after taking several hundred yards of the trench. They seemed to have run out of bombs, failing to block the trench etc, and were in a state of wind-up. However the sun was shining, and the trench was not so difficult to deal with as I had expected.

My party (from A. Company) were in a very jaded condition owing to the perfectly bloody time they’ve been having lately, but they pulled themselves together fine and we soon had the Bosches checked and pushed them back nearly four hundred yards. When we’d been there about twenty-five minutes I got a sniper’s bullet through the shoulder and was no good for about a quarter of an hour. Luckily it didn’t bleed much. Afterwards the rest of our men came up and the Cameronians were recalled, leaving me to deal with the show with about seventy men and a
fair amount of bombs, but no Lewis-guns.

I was just preparing to start bombing up the trench again when a message camp from Colonel Chaplin [of the Cameronians] saying we must not advance any more owing to the people on each side having failed to advance, and ordering me to come away, as he was sending someone up to take over. I left the trench about 9.45. Got wound seen to at our Aid Post in the tunnel, walked to Hénin—and was told to walk on to Boyelles. Got there very beat, having foot-slogged about four kilometres through mud. Was put on a motor-bus and jolted for an hour and a half to Warlencourt (20th Casualty Clearing Station) and told to expect to go to England. Written about 7.30 p.m. with rain pelting on the roof and wind very cold. I hate to think of the poor old Battalion being relieved on such a night after the ghastly discomforts of the last six days. The only blessing is that our losses have been very slight. Only about a dozen of my party to-day—most of them slight. No one killed. My wound is hurting like hell, the tetanus injection has made me very chilly and queer, and I am half-dead for lack of sleep, sitting in a chair in my same old clothes—puttees and all—and not having been offered even a wash. Never mind—‘For I’ve sped through O Life! O Sun!'[3]

And so the diary ends, for today. Sassoon is once again a hero, and he is wounded, and, managing to ride the falling edge of adrenaline and the rising tide of pain and exhaustion, he is writer enough to smoothly end the diary with an appropriate quotation, from Robert Graves‘s “Escape.” But what has this action-packed account omitted, and what has it emphasized?

The main points are confirmed by another writer in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–as are the two necessary interpretive conclusions:

April 16th–At 3.A.M. the attack of two days ago was repeated… This was another dud show… Sassoon, a very stout man, was wounded in Tunnel Trench: his craving to renew the attack was not allowed.[4]

Sassoon was very brave, once again, and once again unnecessarily aggressive. We’ve seen enough of his moody self-doubt and in the diary to recognize that he is not playing a role, here–or not playing it in any dishonesty to himself, if that makes any sense. If it’s a performance, as all social endeavors to some degree are, then it’s all method…

Whatever Sassoon’s thoughts about the war, whatever his feelings about the wrecked bodies he has passed to get to this point, the battalion commands his loyalty, and his responsibility is to lead. He doesn’t talk about his men often–it seems like a dubious cliché, but I do think this burden of leadership was assumed, in both senses, by men of his social position, right along with the code of behavior that forbade complaining about it–but whenever he does it is clear that he is highly motivated by his determination to do right by them. If physically leading the way and taking the greatest risks is not always quite a satisfactory answer to the entire question, well, neither was it a bad start. Tonight, a century back, Frank Richards spoke to

an old soldier and one of the few survivors of old B Company who had taken part in the bombing raid. He said, ‘God strike me pink, Dick, it would have done your eyes good to have seen young Sassoon in that bombing stunt… It was a bloody treat to see the way he took the lead. He was the best officer I have seen in the line or out since Mr. Fletcher… If he don’t get the Victoria Cross for this stunt I’m a bloody Dutchman…”[5]

A good officer–and a fox hunting man with a Dutchman’s name.

Siegfried has been absurdly fortunate: not only is he safely wounded, but none of his men are killed or badly hurt. And the chance he wanted so badly fell into his lap, and he took it… it almost seems as if the half-committed pacifist, half-despairing lost boy of the last few months stamped his foot in willful insistence until the war begrudgingly gave him exactly what he wanted…  But the rough narrative of a successful fight won’t remain the full story–it’s only the brassy initial theme, and the undertones and variations won’t stay silent for very long. The war has given him horror, too, and no sure solace: if death-defying aggression can salve his conscience now, the memory of it will not last forever. Does Sassoon recognize this as clearly as he recognizes his good luck in merely not being killed?

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t. Given the constraints of this project and the length of his memoir, there’s no real way to take it on here, except to point out to readers this excellent opportunity to see what “voice” can do–or, rather, how much an author’s control of irony and tone from his secure position of future knowledge can influence our sense of the meaning of events, even if they are, in terms of factual detail, recounted fairly faithfully. Sassoon will not pretend to understand the mood that produced this bombing stunt, nor will he condemn it. But he does deflate his own heroics with more jabs than are strictly necessary.

Some very brief excerpts, then, beginning when Sassoon goes ahead of his own men and meets up with a corporal of the Cameronians, the unit which he is meant to support:

(Looking back on that emergency… I find some difficulty in believing that I was there at all.) For about ten minutes we dodged and stumbled up a narrow winding trench…

…we went round the next bay. There my adventurous ardour experienced a sobering shock. A fair-haired Scotch private was lying at the side of the trench in a pool of his own blood… I slung a couple of combat at our invisible enemies, receiving in replay an egg-bomb, which exploded harmlessly behind me. After that I went bombing busily along, while the corporal (more artful and efficient than I was) dodged in and out of the saps–a precaution which I should have forgotten… in this manner [we] arrived at our objective without getting more than a few glimpses of retreating field-grey figures. I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business. This, curiously enough, was the first time either of us had spoken since we met.

Does the skill of the self-satire make us forget the blood? Is it lurid, absurd? Is it remarkable that the clueless toff is good at bombing Germans out of their trenches, or only that he is such a clueless toff in the first place, and can’t provide a more conventionally meaningful narrative? (Or is that the point, that this sense of boyish silliness can’t coexist in the same rational narrative as the suffering and death from which it is inextricable? Where are the bodies? Who are the men killed or wounded by Sassoon’s bombs? Can they really exist in a story that plays alliteration for laughs and turns men hunting other men into figures of drawing room comedy?)

Ignoring Jeeves, Bertie trips blithely on:

The whole affair had been so easy that I felt like pushing on… I thought what a queer state of things it all was, and then decided to take a peep at the surrounding country. This was a mistake which ought to have put an end to my terrestrial adventures, for no sooner had I popped my silly head out of the sap than I felt a stupendous blow in the back between my shoulders…

Sassoon comes to, and finds his own sergeant binding a neat bullet wound. (And I am reminded that Sassoon himself will note that he felt as if he were being ministered to by a well-trained servant, a characterization which no doubt prompted my Wodehouse reference, above.)

After a short spell of being deflated and sorry for myself, I began to feel rabidly heroical again, but in a slightly different style, since I was now a wounded hero, with my arm in a superfluous sling…

So, overly enthusiastic heroism? Proper, “very stout” aggression?

But what if it tips over into something else? The Sassoon of the diary doesn’t seem to realize that charging on, shot through the shoulder, beyond his objective–the very act that got him in hot water over the summer–is close to crazy. He will, though…

It did not occur to me that anything else was happening on Allenby’s Army Front except my own little show…[6]

 

Far away from all this, Vera Brittain is busy with her duties as a nurse in Malta, but she has also been pining, restive. Malta was a charming and wonderful novelty, her first experience of foreign living. But it’s also a base hospital on a safe island–demanding work, but far from the center of the action. The mails are slow, and her conversations with Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow lag weeks behind their actions. She cannot know whether they have been involved in the spring offensive. She is neither near the front nor near the young men she feels most close to.

When she picked up her diary today, a century back, for the first time in many weeks, it was to report her reawakening wanderlust:

April 16th Malta

Had a short letter from Miss Lorimer to say she is going out as an orderly to one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Salonika. I want to go there more than ever.[7]

And then she wrote to Geoffrey Thurlow, who–though she cannot know this–has missed the initial Arras attack, but is about to be thrown in to the next desperate effort to shove the Germans back just a little bit more.

Malta, 16 April 1917

You are really a good correspondent; Mother says you are ‘most faithful’ to her too. Not like Victor, whose letters are few & far between, & very short when they do come. To me, at any rate, he conveys most by what he leaves unsaid. I have been rather anxious about him this last week, for last time I heard of his whereabouts he was at Arras, & I feel sure he must have been in the great battle–which at present we here only know of as an immense Fact, shorn of all its details. I hope you didn’t get into, even the fringe of it.

That is well put. For us the immense fact remains, outlined or obscured by clouds of innumerable details… but we still have to make a story.

I have been off-duty for a day or two with a bad throat & general malaise, but am back again to-night. I am beginning to be glad that I came out when I did, and not straight into the kind of weather that is just beginning. The nights are still quite cool but the days are getting very hot . . . The sirocco is blowing to-night in a hateful way, rushing down the stone verandah, & making the doors & shutters creak & groan. To me this particular wind always seems fraught with sinister things; it hides the stars, so that the night is as black as ink, & makes the men peevish & sends their temperatures up.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 144-5.
  2. Fire-Eater, 203-9.
  3. Diaries, 155-6.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 329.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 227.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 440-5.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 339.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 334-5.

Wilfred Owen in Front of the Line; Edmund Blunden’s Theatrical Interlude is Over; Edwin Vaughan’s Drastic Disillusionment

We have another full day, today, with excerpts from Edmund Blunden and Edwin Vaughan that each get at one (or more) of the core questions of how wartime experiences are transformed into literature. But first, today, we should begin by finishing with Wilfred Owen‘s first combat experience. Lasting from the 12th to the 15th, that nightmarish slog-and-cower affair is over–but today, a century back, Owen wrote the letter to his mother that described it. I’ll omit most of what we have already read, but the beginning and end of the letter itself make it clear why this letter really is the foundation of his war-writing.

Tues. 16 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

My own sweet Mother,

I am sorry you have had about 5 days letterless. I hope you had my two letters ‘posted’ since you wrote your last, which I received tonight.

I am bitterly disappointed that I never got one of yours.

I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.

I held an advanced post, that is, a ‘dug-out’ in the middle of No Man’s Land…

The narrative of the days in the line follows. When Owen begins his conclusion by criticizing the performance of other officers it is clear that he is not being snarky but rather expressing a sense of great relief: tere but for the grace of God he would have gone…

The officer of the left Platoon has come out completely prostrated and is in hospital.

I am now as well, I suppose, as ever.

I allow myself to tell you all these things because I am never going back to this awful post. It is the worst the Manchesters have ever held, and we are going back for a rest.

I hear that the officer who relieved me left his 5 Lewis Guns behind when he came out. (He had only 24 hours in). He will be court-martialled…

Don’t pass round these sheets but have portions typed for Leslie etc…

Your very own Wilfred x[1]

There were moments in this letter when it felt like straight, unfiltered reportage. “Downloading,” as we like to call it. But of course this is never perfectly true–our minds don’t work like that. The letter begins with grand dramatic statements, and if it proceeds through an intense and fairly unadorned description of horror, it ends with an awareness of itself. With, that is, the letter as a sensitive (in several senses) record of what has been experienced.

 

Now from a war-poet a-borning to the middle of the war’s most beautiful and harrowing memoir. When we last read Edmund Blunden it was not long after his Ypres Christmastime. Early in the new year he saw the town itself, and was shocked by the reality of this battered crucible of the war in Belgium.

I had longed to see Ypres, under the old faith that things are always described in blacker colours than they deserve; but this view was a tribute to the soldier’s philosophy. The bleakness of time had found its proper theatre. The sun could surely never shine on such a simulacrum of divine aberration.

“Theatre,” as a matter of fact, crops up in the title of this chapter of the memoir–“Theatre of War”–and thence to Paul Fussell‘s book, where it did the same duty. Today, a century back, a new act opened as his battalion went back into the line:

The new year was yet very young when the battalion filed through Ypres to take over trenches at Potijze, which we came to know very well. It was not the worst place in the Salient. I had seen it already, and its arrangement was simple — a breastwork front line, running from the Zonnebeke road to a railway bank on the south; a support line; two good (or not too bad) communication trenches — Haymarket and Piccadilly. Battalion headquarters dugout was at Potijze Chateau, beside the road. It boasted a handsome cheval-glass and a harmonium, but not a satisfactory roof.

This headquarters also enjoyed a kind of Arcadian environment, for the late owner had constructed two or three ponds in the grounds with white airy bridges spanning them, weeping willows at their marges, and there were even statues of Venus and other amorous deities, although I did not examine them closely. The chateau itself, much injured as it was, was not destroyed, and in the upper story my observers gazed through a telescope on a dubious landscape; lucky these, whose day could not begin before eight and ended at four with the thickening of what little light there had been. Littered on the floor beside them were old maps of parts of the estate, some of great age, and registers of the number of woodcock, hares, rabbits, and I forget what, formerly laid low by shooting parties of this fine house. At least we had not done that![2]

No huntsman he. But note, too, “Arcadian–” a second Fussell chapter title. This should remind us that, although we lost many good men and good writers in 1916–and though in many ways the stereotypical or shorthand view of the British experience of the war is essentially that of 1916, remembering the Somme and forgetting much of what came after–some of the most essential writers still have much of their war still ahead of them. The spring of 1917 will be eventful, the autumn as awful as anything on the Somme.

 

Finally, today, our newest diarist completes his approach to the line. Edwin Vaughan‘s big day was yesterday, a century back. He left camp outside Rouen, bound for the front line trenches–or so he thought.

As I drove down in the rattling, bone-shaking old taxi, I tried hard to convince myself that the moment I had lived for had arrived and that I was now a real Service man. But this was difficult: there was no band playing, no regiment bearing the old colours into the fray, only little me…

As the semi-official truck-train jerked out of Rouen, it began to snow hard, and the bare truck wherein I, the only passenger on the train, sat on my rolled up valise, was soon full of whistling snow…

And yesterday brought neither relief, resolution, nor rest. Left on a bare platform for his 1 a.m. connection to a branch line, Vaughan spent several hours walking to keep warm.

The cold was intense, and in addition I was wet through, beastly hungry and over the boots in snow.[3]

Today proper began with another slow, freezing train journey, this time not alone but in a compartment Vaughan shared with a wordless, whimpering Hussar and two fighting rats.

Once again I am struck not just by the novelistic writing style but with the extreme compliance of the accidents of his experience with the expectations of the form. Vaughan, that is, seems both ready to write a “war book” and fortunate to be readily experiencing numerous “set pieces” that fit the bill. Part of this, at least, is a good reminder for us: it’s 1917, and while the “war book” is not as strongly constructed or familiar an idea as it will be next year (not to mention 1929), it’s quite possible now for men to come to the front full not of Tennyson, Malory, Newbolt, and Brooke, but of Barbusse, Sorley, and the letters and word-of-mouth experiences of disillusioned officers (though Vaughan has shown no direct influence of these, as of yet).[4]

The other side of the equation are Vaughan’s intentions: more than most, this diary is akin to a novelistic memoir. What will he focus on? What will he choose to omit?

In any case he is unusually aware of the way in which his expectations dominate his experience, and his writing is very much colored by the disappointment of those expectations. He writes, in other words, in a strongly ironic mode.

Today’s entry continues at some length. By 6 a.m. a small station and breakfast, then a journey by lorry up to division HQ “beside a driver who annoyed me by regarding this journey up the line as a matter of no especial importance.”

As we drove out of Sénapont on to the main road, I began to question the driver about the line, picturing the Battalion in the midst of fire and smoke. He told me about the locality in which they were stationed, and I, with my eyes prepared to meet a scene of wire entanglements, shell bursts and trenches, was confused by his references to the estaminets the men frequented, the girls they met, and the cushy time they were having. Finally I discovered that we were just outside of Abbeville and many many miles from the line! It was a drastic disillusionment and I did not know whether to be annoyed or relieved.

That’s enough quotation for today, but the let-down will continue: from taxi to train to train to lorry to mess cart, and from base to division to actual combat unit Vaughan finally meets the officers of his battalion, billeted in an old hotel in Arraines-sur-Somme. He is greeted generally with either rudeness or indifference, and of course the first person he meets is the standard-issue useless major who is being kept from interfering with the unit’s actual operations…

The clouds clear briefly when Vaughan “chummed up with a fellow called Hawkins,” and then settle again definitively when the hostesses–“vile hag”–stumbles in, straight out of Victor Hugo, except that in this case both of the little girls who work for her are starved and overworked… Vaughan has pulled off a minor masterpiece of approaching-the-line bathos.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 427-8. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209-217.
  2. Undertones of War, 136.
  3. Once again it is clear that Vaughan's diary is carefully dated, but not always composed on the day indicated.
  4. The term "disillusion" will appear, below... and I should add that my sense that the diary was not merely "transcribed" much later on but actually, to some significant degree, rewritten, is growing. As far as I know it is impossible to know what "belongs" to the date, what was written within a few days, and what may have been added or altered long after...
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 6-8.

Siegfried Sassoon Sees Mr. Britling Through; The Thomas Family’s Christmas Comes to an End

Two poets, today, one in the intimate struggle of family life; the other alone with his reading.

First, Siegfried Sassoon, still lowering and at Litherland camp.

December 27

Medical Board gave me another month’s home service…

Another sharp frost and thick fog this morning. Reading Curzon’s Monasteries in the Levant which Meiklejohn sent me at Christmas. More amusing than Eothen, but Doughty’s Arabia Deserta spoils one for every other book of that sort.

I heartily agree–there will be subsequent editions of Doughty’s bizarre masterpiece carrying an introduction by T.E. Lawrence, so there’s another Great War writing connection for us. But, while it’s extremely appropriate that Sassoon-at-loose-ends is reading heavyweight Victorian travel literature, he is also reading something rather hotter off the presses. But this diary entry will take its sweet time getting there:

…Those four months away from the Army blotted out the slight sense of discipline I had managed to acquire, much against my will. I want to go off and play golf and be independent and alone, all the time! My absurd decoration is the only thing that gives me any sense of responsibility at all. And the thought of death is horrible, where last year it was a noble and inevitable dream. And nothing left but to watch the last flare-up, and try to dodge through to the end, the victory that is more terrible than defeat—exhaustion, and blind men with medals, and everyone trying to clean up their lives, like children whose little make-believes have been smashed  and ruined in the night.

This is as close as Sassoon will get to sounding like mid-60’s Dylan; but he’s under a rather different influence: the book of the year (it’s that time, for critics, isn’t it? Or have I missed it?) is certainly H.G. Wells’ Mr. Britling Sees it Through. Sassoon now copies out a lengthy quotation from the book, which he is in the middle of reading:

Mr Britling says: ‘Everywhere cunning, everywhere small feuds and hatreds, distrusts, dishonesties, timidities, feebleness of purpose, dwarfish imaginations, swarm over the great and simple issues . . . It is a war now like any other of the mobbing, many-aimed cataclysms that have shattered empires and devastated the world; it is a war without point, a war that has lost its soul, it has become mere incoherent fighting and destruction, a demonstration in vast and tragic forms of the stupidity and ineffectiveness of our species.'[1]

Word perfect–Sassoon was copying carefully.

I can’t do H.G. Wells justice in just a few paragraphs here. I hardly know the breadth of his work, and like most Americans I think of him as a founding father of Science Fiction first and foremost… and very little after that. But Mr. Britling was a major book, a real attempt to use the novel to wrestle with, for lack of a better term, current events. And there is a Wells-like figure at the center of the book: Mr. Britling is a man of letters, given to sweeping pronouncements in newspaper articles, late-night fits of writerly inspiration, and serial affairs that seem, implausibly, to hardly intrude upon his home life.

But Mr. Britling is not Mr. Wells (Sassoon does not copy down quotation marks to show that Mr. Britling, rather than a narratorial or authorial voice, is speaking; his editor does add them later). Mr. Britling has something Mr. Wells does not: a seventeen-year-old son.

The course of the book’s events are easily summarized: we get an extremely idyllic Summer of ’14 (seen through the eyes of an American visitor), which includes casual witty brilliance, highly competitive amateur sports, and a benevolent, endearingly self-serious German tutor. This is followed by much time in Mr. Britling’s mind as he adjusts to the realities of the war. His young secretary (i.e. personal assistant) joins up, taking a commission, but his own boy idealistically enlists in Kitchener’s Army, in the ranks. He is underage, so he will be stuck safely in training, unable to serve overseas for more than a year… and Mr. Britling goes on planning (and only rarely completing) self-important think-pieces on the war.

And then things begin to unravel–young Hugh Britling had lied about his age in order to avoid the need for parental consent for combat deployment, and he is sent to France in 1915. The 1914 confidence about Empire and the thrill of rising to the challenge begin to fall flat with the bloody balls-up of the Battle of Loos. And Mr. Britling writes on…

I suppose I will stop there, since my paltry summary has reached the spot, more or less, from which Sassoon quotes. No spoilers, of course… although this book was published months ago, a century back. But you know what must happen.

What’s of more interest to us–or of more direct interest–is how the book affected our writers.

It certainly seems to be something like the consensus best “state of Britain” novel of 1916, and they are all reading it: Wilfred Owen was reading something by Wells in November, likely Mr. Britling, as was Isaac Rosenberg, more recently. Robert Graves will shortly (in terms of the lived chronology of his memoir) discuss the book and its author in his usual fashion–which is to say inaccurately, and with an eye for stirring up trouble. And reader Richard Hawkins reminds me that Gilbert Frankau, an author whom I have more or less abandoned here (not because I don’t like his writing–I don’t, but it’s instructive–but rather because there are just not enough dates), will also remember meeting Wells at about this time. Frankau, too, will take a pot-shot at him, too, in his memoir.

Virtually every novel and memoir by a Great War combatant addresses the question of what I have been calling “the experiential gulf” and “the conflict of the generations.” They must comment–wryly, sadly, in still-hot fury–on the ways in which fatuous old men on the home front fail to understand/stereotype/disrespect the young men in uniform while at the same time being complicit in, and often profiting from, their senseless slaughter. So it’s… perhaps “amusing” is not the best word… that Frankau treats Wells dismissively as a cynical anti-imperialist who welcomes the destruction of the war while Graves mistakes the man for the creation and makes Wells into Mr. Britling and Mr. Britling into a chirping optimist, an embodiment of the smug older generation who are staggered by the war but can’t even bear to face that fact… Wells was nothing so simple, nor was his creation.

I shouldn’t drone on about Wells’s book. The quotation Sassoon uses, above, is fair and representative: it’s about Mr. Britling’s hesitant, increasingly despairing attempts to cope. He’s not smug, after a while; nor does he fail to see how terrible the war has become. Graves didn’t read the book–or didn’t read far enough–and simply used it as something that sounded like it should attract his derision… but it shouldn’t. It’s not a great book, and the ending is not, to my mind, very satisfactory. But that is because it was written during the dark middle of the war–it could hardly end in despair (and still be publishable, or artistically true to its aspirations to speak for some general type of English mind) and it certainly couldn’t end on an uplifting note…

It’s interesting, then, that Sassoon is moved by the lesson this middle-aged intellectual places at the heart of his novel about a middle-aged intellectual, and striking that Sassoon then puts it to his own purposes, namely preparing to go out to France again with a grim heart and clear eyes…

But Sassoon, too, is fibbing, albeit in a much more venial way. When Sassoon comes to memoir-ize his diaries–not in the “George Sherston” trilogy but in the later series of memoirs in propria persona–he rewrites the date of this intense encounter. (Did these silly fellows, who dreamed big and expected to die young, not imagine posthumous publication of their private writings?)

On New Year’s Eve I was alone in my hut reading Mr. Britling Sees It Through, which was more of a revelation to me than anything I had met with, and seemed to light up the whole ground of the War. Someone was speaking his mind fearlessly, and since it happened to be the mind of H.G. Wells I devoured his pages in a rapt surrender of attention. Finally I came to a startling passage that checked my rapid reading. For several minutes I sat staring at the words. Then I copied them carefully into the small note-book in which I recorded my nocturnal ruminations. I was in the panoramic and retrospective state of mind induced by New Year’s Eve, and this was what one of England’s most powerful imaginations told me.

I suppose it’s not impossible that Sassoon was still reading the book four days later, but as he is working directly from his diary, it certainly seems to be the case that he is moving the reading-event in order to make it serve more precisely as his reflection upon the year. (Which is amusing given his actual diary entry on the 31st, which we will see in due time–it mentions nothing more reflective than a grumpy game of golf.) So, a minor point, but… BOO! He was not copying this out on New Year’s Eve, but rather today, a century back…

After the quotation, as above, Sassoon then gathers himself for retrospective reflection. It’s amusing, again, that the older Sassoon condescends to his younger self while fudging the timing of his experiences for a slight dramatic effect:

The words are alone on the flimsy little page. I didn’t venture to add my own commentary on them. But I am moderately sure that I remarked to myself, ‘That’s exactly what I’d been thinking only I didn’t know how to say it!’ Nevertheless I had already written on a previous page, ‘The war is settling down on everyone…'[2]

Compared with most of my cogitations, this was quite explicit…

And so Sassoon at simultaneously gives himself credit for finding the true 1916 mood in himself as well as in Wells’s pages and cuts his young self down:

The diary indeed discloses very little of my actual state of mind about the War. Some of its entries suggest that I was keeping my courage up by resorting to elevated feelings. My mental behavior was still unconnected with any self-knowledge, and it was only when I was writing verse that I tried to concentrate and express my somewhat loose ideas…

So we shouldn’t trust the diaries, but we can trust this one novelist-over-forty (fifty, even!), but we can (implicitly) trust the later memoirs? It’s going to be quite a year…

 

And today, a century back, Edward Thomas left his family at High Beech to return to “Tintown,” Lydd, and his artillery training. Comparing letters to memoirs is especially strange when they are written by two women who loved the same man–or, rather, when he is writing to one woman and being written about by the other.

First, Eleanor Farjeon’s correspondence with Thomas around this Christmastime, which she had done so much to make so miraculous:

I had sent to High Beech my own budget of presents to add to the gaiety, and with Edward’s I enclosed as a Christmas card a new London-Town Nursery Rhyme:

ST MARY AXE

Saint Mary, ax. Saint Mary, ax.
Saint Mary, ax your fill.
Saint Mary, ax whatever you lacks
And you shall have your will.—
O bring me a Rose, a Christmas Rose
To cUmb my window-siU.—
You shall have your Rose when Heaven snows.
Saint Mary, sleep until.

Thomas responded on Christmas Day, from the bosom of his family:

Christmas High Beech

My dear Eleanor, I am bloated with your presents. But that is not their fault. The apples were and are delicious, and the poem is I think one of your very happiest. Why do I like the last line so much? What does the ‘Until’ remind me of? Or is it just that it reminds me of something else that is good?

…The Christmas tree is afoot. It is 5.50, and Baba has no suspicions. Goodbye. I hope we shall meet next Christmas time.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas

Thomas wrote to Farjeon again, yesterday, a century back, but kept the letter as he left High Beech, posting the Christmas one instead. Then, tonight, back at camp, he found a second parcel (or, rather, the first, sent when Farjeon still thought he would be unable to get Christmas leave) and wrote a new note.

R.A. Mess,
Tintown, Lydd
27 xii 16

My dear Eleanor, I only found your cake this morning. It is very good. If you and a cup of tea would appear it would be excellent— only of course I shouldn’t mind whether it was or not. I am going to send you in exchange some verses I made on Sunday. It is really Baba who speaks, not I. Something she felt put me on to it. But I am afraid I am meddling now. A real poem would include and imply all these things I am writing, or so I fancy.

These verses we shall read in two days, when he sends them to “Baba,” his daughter Myfanwy. The next line, well… bear it in mind when we read his wife Helen’s reminiscences:

…It is curious how I feel no anxiety or trouble as soon as I am back here, though I was so very glad to be at home.
I will just copy out the verses and send this off.

Goodbye. Oh, the Christmas tree was a great success. Baba went pale with surprise as she came into the room and found it. Thank you.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[3]

 

From Helen Thomas’s memoir I will excerpt with a heavy hand, as she writes a great deal over the same few days between the writing and the posting of this letter… but there is no surprise here: a wife surprised by the sudden return of her soldier husband will write  intensely, and intimately… his visit was only three days, but here it seems longer. For Helen the visit is a miraculous in-gathering of the family, but also a chance for their often tense marriage to find a moment of calm before the the war pulls them apart.

…in the evenings, when just outside the door the silence of the forest was like a pall covering too heavily the myriads of birds and little beasts that the frost had killed, we would sit by the fire with the children and read aloud to them, and they would sing songs that they had known since their babyhood, and Edward sang new ones he had learnt in the army–jolly songs with good choruses in which I, too, joined as I busied about getting the supper. Then, when Myfanwy had gone to bed, Bronwen would sit on his lap, content just to be there, while he and Merfyn worked out problems or studied maps. It was lovely to see those two so united over this common interest.

But he and I were separated by our dread, and we could not look each other in the eyes, nor dared we be left alone
together.

The days had passed in restless energy for us both. He had sawn up a big tree that had been blown down at our very door, and chopped the branches into logs, the children all helping. The children loved being with him, for though he was stern in making them build up the logs properly, and use the tools in the right way, they were not resentful of this, but tried to win his rare praise and imitate his skill. Indoors he packed his kit and polished his accoutrements…

And I knew Edward’s agony and he knew mine, and all we could do was to speak sharply to each other. ‘Now do, for goodness’ sake, remember Helen, that these are the important manuscripts, and that I’m putting them here, and this key is for the box that holds all important papers like our marriage certificate and the children’s birth certificates, and my life insurance policy. You may.want them at some time; so don’t go leaving the key about.’ And I, after a while, ‘Can’t you leave all this unnecessary tidying business, and put up that shelf you promised me? I hate this room, but a few books on a shelf might make it look at bit more human.’ ‘Nothing will improve this room, so you had better resign yourself to it. Besides, the wall is too rotten for a shelf’ ‘Oh, but you promised.’ ‘Well, it won’t be the first time I’ve broken a promise to you, will it? Nor the last, perhaps.’

Oh, God! melt the snow and let the sky be blue. The last evening comes. The children have taken down the holly and mistletoe and ivy, and chopped up the little Christmas-tree to burn. And for a treat Bronwen and Myfanwy are to have their bath in front of the blazing fire. The big zinc bath is dragged in, and the children undress in high glee, and skip about naked in the warm room, which is soon filled with the sweet smell of the burning greenery. The berries pop, and the fir-tree makes fairy lace, and the holly crackles and roars. The two children get into the bath together, and Edward scrubs them in turn – they laughing, making the fire hiss with their splashing. The drawn curtains shut out the snow and the starless sky, and the deathly silence out there in the biting cold is forgotten in the noise and warmth of our little room. After the bath Edward reads to them. First of all he reads Shelley’s The Question and Chevy Chase, and then for Myfanwy a favourite Norse tale. They sit in their nightgowns listening gravely, and then, just before they kiss him good night, while I stand by with the candle in my hand, he says: ‘Remember while I am away to be kind. Be kind, first of all, to Mummy, and after that be kind to everyone and everything.’ And they all assent together, and joyfully hug and kiss him, and he carries the two girls up, and drops each into her bed.

And we are left alone, unable to hide our agony, afraid to show it. Over supper, we talk of the probable front he’ll arrive at, of his fellow-officers, and of the unfinished portrait-etching that one of them has done of him and given to me. And we speak of the garden, and where this year he wants the potatoes to be, and he-reminds me to put in the beans directly the snow disappears. ‘If I’m not back in time, you’d better get someone to help you with the digging,’ he says. He reads me some of the poems he has written that I have not heard — the last one of all called Out in the Dark. And I venture to question one line, and he says, ‘Oh, no, it’s right, Helen, I’m sure it’s right. ’

Thomas never does seem interested in Helen’s thoughts about his writing. There are others for that… friends. And she knows this, and–as if to assert her primacy, her one prior and unassailable claim, Helen Thomas’s memoir moves from the intimacies of poetic language to the greater intimacies of marriage, of sexual companionship…

And I nod because I can’t speak, and I try to smile at his assurance. I sit and stare stupidly at his luggage by the wall, and his roll of bedding, kit-bag, and suitcase. He takes out his prismatic compass and explains it to me, but I cannot see, and when a tear drops on to it he just shuts it up and puts it away. Then he says, as he takes a book out of his pocket, ‘You see, your Shakespeare’s Sonnets is already where it will always be. Shall I read you some?’ He reads one or two to me. His face is grey and his mouth trembles, but his voice is quiet and steady. And soon I slip to the floor and sit between his knees, and while he reads his hand falls over my shoulder and I hold it with mine.

‘Shall I undress you by this lovely fire and carry you upstairs in my khaki greatcoat?’ So he undoes my things, and I slip out of them; then he takes the pins out of my hair, and we laugh at ourselves for behaving as we so often do, like young lovers. ‘We have never become a proper Darby and Joan, have we?’ ‘I’ll read to you till the fire burns low, and then we’ll go to bed…’

That would have been last night, a century back.

So we lay, all night, sometimes talking of our love and all that had been, and of the children, and what had been  amiss and what right. We knew the best was that there had never been untruth between us. We knew all of each other, and it was right. So talking and crying and loving in each other’s arms we fell asleep as the cold reflected light of the snow crept through the frost-covered windows.

Edward got up and made the fire and brought me some tea, and then got back into bed, and the children clambered in, too, and sat in a row sipping our tea. I was not afraid of crying any more…

I stood at the gate watching him go; he turned back to wave until the mist and the hill hid him. I heard his old call coming up to me: ‘Coo-ee!’ he called. ‘Coo-ee!’ I answered, keeping my voice strong to call again. Again through the muffled air came his ‘Coo,-ee’. And again went my answer like an echo. ‘Coo-ee’ came fainter next time with the hill between us, but my ‘Coo-ee’ went out of my lungs strong to pierce to him as he strode away from me. ‘Coo-ee!’ So faint now, it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death. Then with leaden feet which stumbled in a sudden darkness that overwhelmed me I groped my way back to the empty house.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 109-110.
  2. Siegfried's Journey, 40-41.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 236-237.
  4. Under Storm's Wing, 168-73.

Tragedy and Pride from Rowland Feilding; Vera Brittain on the Mediterranean Sun: Shining Copper, Deepest Purple, and an Easily Mitigated Disadvantage

Vera Brittain is still convalescent after a serious fever and has hard nursing work ahead of her. But she is also a young woman on a Great Adventure…

Sunday October 15th

This really is a most fascinating place; I have not had much to do with it yet, but the more one sees of it, the more attractive it becomes… The unbuilt-over part of the Island would be one vast tract of this brown grass were it not that all the land is divided up into plots the size of fields by low white stone walls. Someone told me yesterday that this place is supposed to be just like the Holy Land–even to the stone wall divisions. Before I heard this it had struck me as being just like pictures I had seen of Palestine, & several times this evening I passed a barren-looking but slightly cultivated field with some little mosque or shrine in the background which reminded me exactly of illustrations I have seen in children’s books of the Parable of the Sower…

The sun here seems to set not only in the West but all over the sky, so that sometimes it is quite difficult to tell where the West is. This evening I felt infinitely little & unimportant, landing on along white road beneath an
immense dome of shining copper & deepest purple.[1]

Ah, but we always are our best (or best-written) selves when luxuriating in our diaries. Could this letter to her brother Edward really be from the same day? How fickle are our moods, how powerful an impediment to the transmission of pure historically-situated feeling is the tightly-gripped pen!

Malta, 15 October 1916

The chief disadvantages of Malta, as I can see already–though I like it ever so much better than I expected to–are 1. Flies 2. Lack of water 3. Glare of the sun. The third disadvantage of course can easily be mitigated, as, as soon as I leave here, I shall go into Valetta, where one can buy almost everything, & not expensively, and get a pair of green glasses!. And if this is not enough I can always buy a solar topee…[2]

 

There are highs and lows from Rowland Feilding today as well. I omitted an interesting letter on the 12th because even as Feilding was touring Ypres, Donald Hankey was leading his last advance. We return to it now, and find that this letter’s sense of “tragedy” seems to foreshadow the loss of a friend and comrade.

October 12, 1916. La Clytte.

To-day I took my mare—the best I have ridden since I came to France, inherited from poor Lenox-Conyngham—the late Colonel of this battalion, and rode into Ypres. I have long yearned to see the city. But what a scene of desolation!—truly, a city of the dead; a ghostly solitude. Not a sound unless that of a gun or bursting shell: not a soul to be seen in the long streets of ruins, except rarely, here and there, an English sentry, or a party of English soldiers, with rifle, pick, and shovel, marching to or from the trenches:—not a man, woman, or child of the nation
that built and owns the city. It is indeed a tragic sight.

October 15, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

During my rounds this afternoon I met poor Parke (who till a few days ago was acting as my second in command) being carried along the communication trench known as Watling Street, on a stretcher.

He had just been killed by a direct hit from a chance shell. He was forty-seven years old, and I was just trying to get him a rest behind the line;—which, added to the fact that he was only recently married and had just returned from spending a short leave with his wife, makes it all the sadder. He was brother to the Parke who was with Stanley in “Darkest Africa.” He was a cheery fellow, and I shall miss him very much.

I hear to-day that the Divisional Commander has recommended me for the permanent command of this battalion, and that the recommendation has been approved, with effect from September 6—the date I took over on the  Somme.

It is now the strongest and the show battalion of the Division.

This, from a devoted and detailed writer, is an almost offensively passing reference–as passing as the death itself and his chance meeting with the corpse. But Feilding had to move on to career news–he is busy and wanted to close the letter, surely. Yet… well… but what is this other than one of our many little death-and-fortune vignettes? The chance shell, the stray bullet with only one man’s name on it…

And it’s another sort of story, too, when told from Feilding’s passing perspective: it’s the near-miss that didn’t miss. Captain Parke, a newlywed, surely intended to write home tonight as well…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 332-3.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 279.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 127.

Donald Hankey’s Conditional Prayer: Death or Blighty; Kate Luard Finds a Few In Between

hankeys-deathToday, a century back, the 1st Royal Warwickshires formed up in their assault trenches, east of Lesboeufs. These were newly-captured, heavily damaged trenches, still occupied by their late defenders (note the absence of blue-marked trenches on the near-contemporary map at right–the British are moving so quickly through German territory now that new “British”–i.e. defensive–trench systems have not yet been established.)

The Warwicks will be attacking east and north, toward Le Transloy. The map tells us all we need to know: there is low ground over which the attackers will have to move, and then attack uphill; there are thick belts of barbed wire–represented by dotted red lines–in front of the German positions.

The attack was scheduled for 2:00 p.m. At 1.45 bayonets were fixed. One of the men in Hankey’s platoon, Private Crudgington, remembered the strong sense of esprit de corps and his officer’s calming prayer:

I heard Lieut. D. Hankey ask his platoon to let him give them a prayer. I remember him saying, ‘If you are wounded, “Blighty”; if killed, the Resurrection.’

This sounds, a century on, like a stab at clever tough-guy war movie rhetoric. But of course it couldn’t have been, then. And even if the punchy formula was a bit of a gambit, a bid to raise the spirits of the terrified men with a pithy bit of inspiearion, there is nothing light or unconsidered about the words themselves: “they reflect his characteristic trust in the pragmatic value of belief as a source of worthy action.”[1]

The order is given to advance, every man is over the top. The Irish were on our left and the French on our right. We had gone about 100 yards, when we were told to lie down. The firing was dreadful, what with the machine-gun and rifle-fire, and then the barrage from the Germans. Our men were falling fast. We were ordered to advance again. Then the firing got more severe. We had only gone about 12 yards in the second advance when the fatal moment came. The French on our right started to retire. The Irish noticed it and started to retire, as they thought the order to retire had been given. Our men started to waver, and the officers saw what was happening.

Then I saw a thing that will always be in my mind. I saw Lieut. D. Hankey wave his men on; they went forward like a shot, as his men had great faith in him. That was the last time I saw him alive. We were ordered to dig in. We made holes big enough for ourselves to get into, then we dug to each other and so made a trench. We collected our wounded, and we came across the C.S.M. of C Company, and we thought that he and his men were the only ones in ‘No Man’s Land.’ He fetched his men, and they helped us to enlarge our trench. They made us about 150 strong. I was asked if I could dress wounds. I was told that one of our officers was lying out wounded. I went and found him.

It was Lieut. Glika, A Company. The poor fellow was so badly wounded in the arm and leg that I could not stop the bleeding. I got help, and I made a stretcher out of two rifles and an oil-sheet, but the officer went out of his mind, so I left him in the care of a man. I went and found some stretcher-bearers, but when we got to him he was dead.

We found the body of Captain Somers, C Company, and the body of Captain Harrison, B Company, on top of our trench. Then Lieut. D. Hankey’s servant came and told Captain Walters that his officer had been killed, and where the body lay. Captain Walters went out and fetched the body in. I was asked by Lieut. Beamish to dig a pit, and Pte. Woods, Lieut. D. Hankey’s servant, gave me his help. We dug a pit about 6 by 5 by 3 ft. and we laid the four officers in it. We were relieved by the ‘Dubs,’ and they filled the grave in. We went back to Guillemont for a rest.[2]

And that’s it. That’s all.

Exactly where or exactly how Hankey was killed, I do not know. But he was shot down today, by bullet or shell, and died either immediately or soon thereafter.

Our knowledge of this last action rests entirely on the scanty Battalion diary and on the post-war memories of Private Crudgington. But even Crudgington–who will name his son Donald, and writes in glowing terms of his officer–wasn’t there, and although there is no reason to doubt his facts, the tone of the letter does seem to show a man happy to write the sort  of response that will please anyone inquiring into the death of an admired writer. He was well-liked, even loved; and he died bravely, and without pain. So we would hope.

This is another case where all we have the writings, through the last letter, then a few less-secure words in a trench… then chaos, and then… it’s all over.

Hankey was not a nobleman or a celebrity, and his relationship with his older brother Maurice, an important government minister, was, at least during the war, a carefully distant one. Once his sister Hilda learned of his death she made efforts to learn more and to secure his personal effects, but there was no immediate outcry or public mourning. His hasty grave was lost, his body never identified, and Hankey will join many thousands of others on the Thiepval Memorial.

Crudginton provides that last prayer and the forlorn scene of burial, and he writes that he was asked a few days later by a passing officer of another regiment if it was true that the writer of the Student in Arms essays had been killed. Word spread quickly, then, but although his sister Hilda will enter into a sad and frustrating correspondence about recovering his personal effects, it seems that no family member or biographer was ever able to track down more information about Hankey’s last days.

There will soon be editorial memorials and obituaries, but it’s hard not to feel that some of the shock of Hankey’s death is in the way that it hardly caused a ripple. But of course that is the normal condition–men have been dying in hundreds and thousands all summer–and we can grope toward the idea that Hankey’s swift “offstage” death and hasty burial is somehow “fitting” because Hankey, a reluctant officer, lived his army life with careful humility. After all, the attack was a failure, but not a massacre; a drop in the bucket of the Somme’s autumn denouement…

It’s only that he was a writer… and we have no writings that immediately fill the void. Only years later, after the war, did a biographer track down Crudgington and solicit his long letter. It’s good to have–full of praise and detail, giving us some sense of specifics to attach to the day that Hankey disappeared forever into a muddy mass grave… But, after all, it was written so long after the events, and the more specific a memory is, the more confident the details, the more we feel that other unbridgeable gap, the one between experience and historical writing.

 

It feels cruel, always, to carry on after the death of one of our writers, like some insensitive literary mockery of the military reality of carrying on even after a hero or leader has been killed. But I plead a dual excuse for seguing now to Kate Luard‘s diary. First, she is about to be reassigned, spending several months at home. Since her “diary” is really a running series of letters to her large family, we will not hear from her until she returns to France–it will be a bleaker beginning to the winter then, for us.

Second, it always seems fitting to follow a death with an account of wounds. I’m not sure why. Because there is hope in the ones who survived? Because some of these wounds are so awful that a swift death on the battlefield seems like a better fate?

Thursday, October 12th. Still busy, with increasing demand for coffins… two patients have each lost an arm through the shoulder joint, and instead of a clean stump each has a black evil-smelling crater… both have the main artery exposed, and pulsating in the wound. They have both been within as near a view of their graves as you can get to without getting in, so it will be fine if they pull through. A boy who died in the night said, ‘Tell them I died like a soldier.’ He would always apologise when he was sick all over you…

There are a few cases of Shell Shock in; they have no wound, but tremble violently at the least noise, and don’t speak. There is a ‘Specialist’ to whom they are all sent, who treats them by suggestion and hypnotism.[3]

These unfortunates are, then, from the point of view of after-care for what we would call PTSD, relatively fortunate. As we will learn over the next two years, the early remedies for “Shell Shock” ranged from these sorts of benign, non-invasive, and often effective psychological measures all the way to doctor-ordered torture.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Davies, 258-61, is (understandably) rather dubious about these words. Did Hankey say something like this? Perhaps, but Crudgington is communicating them years later, and may have been "putting down... what he felt was expected of him." Nevertheless, the sentiments are true of Hankey's long struggle to conceive of the war as a Christian enterprise.
  2. Budd, A Modern Pilgrimage, 140-5.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 92-3.

Phillip Maddison, a Girl, and a Zeppelin; Horror and Pathos from Kate Luard; Vera Brittain Aboard the Britannic; Donald Hankey on What We Shall Be Writing Twenty Years Hence

Kate Luard‘s diary does many things. One of the best–one of the most terrible–is to place side by side a medical professional’s view of dreadful wounds with a writer’s record–a woman’s record and a nurse’s record–of the ways in which the social instincts of these shattered men lead them toward the comprehension of the new realities of their lives.

Saturday, September 23rd. There is a man in with both eyes and the top of his nose scooped out by a bit of shell. When I was cleaning him up he told me he was 49, but he’d given his age in as 38 to join the Army. Then he said, without any sort of comment, ‘I think I’ve lost my eyesight,’ as if it had been his rifle or his boots.[1]

 

I know of no extensive writing from anyone so horribly wounded in this war.[2] So we move on… to a significant letter from Donald Hankey to his sister Hilda. Hankey has been spared the worst of the Somme, in terms of danger and casualty, at least. But can a serious man–a man who has seen terribly wounded soldiers in the hours before they reached places like Kate Luard’s hospital–really hope for “action” and its greater destruction as an alternative to the grim slog of trench duty? Yes.

1st R. W[arwickshire] R[egiment]. Sept. 23, 1916

Dear Hilda,

I enclose one or two more cuttings. Melrose tells me that 3,000 copies of A Student in Arms have been sold…

We are still at peace; though I am hoping that we may get a scrap before the winter. It would be very horrible to slide squalidly into the winter without any excitement at all.

From all accounts things are going very well now in spite of the Hun having collected all the guns, etc., that he can on the threatened part of the Front.

Hankey may be writing wryly in either of the two previous paragraphs–more likely the earlier. But then again he may be serious. It’s war, even if his battalion is miserably “at peace” in the deepening mud, and it should be fought–there is morale to think of, as well as death. But then he begins, once again, to think of what all this might mean, going forward. It’s not like Hankey not to pause to consider things, and so he does.

How they do hate us! Every day in French and English papers alike you see the signs of it. It is difficult to believe that the war will heal the nations. I should not be surprised if, when we are old, we see a repetition of this war. I have little doubt that it will take most of our lifetime (if we survive the war) for the belligerent nations to recover their strength. But I have little doubt that if, as seems likely, we beat the Hun pretty badly, he will start the moment peace is signed to prepare for his revenge. A depressing thought, isn’t it?

It is–and it was, even without the double-tap of ironic pain that we experience, knowing how right he will turn out to be. And it’s not that Hankey was a pessimist: he feels himself duty-bound, I think, as a servant of God, to be realistic about man’s feeble, fallen state. Nor is his assessment based only on his observations of man’s hatefulness, or even of the foolishness of short memories: it’s also rooted in what he–the successful but carefully humble war-writer–sees as the inherent limitations of war writing.

Also, I doubt if we shall have such a horror of war as lots of people seem to think. The rising generation won’t know what we know, and we shall forget much that is bad. When a soldier can write that the brotherhood of the trench will be “a wistful radiant memory” now, what shall we be writing twenty years hence![3]

What indeed.

 

Today, a century back, was a momentous day for Vera Brittain. “Excited and apprehensive,” she embarked for Malta, to work at a military hospital there. Her mother and brother came out to Camberwell to see her, but she made them say “a last au revoir” on the street “as I did not want to watch them walk away.” Then it was a bus from the hospital–with her friend Betty–to Waterloo Station, a train to Southampton, and then a tender, out to where the mighty liner Britannic was lying at anchor off Cowes.

Remembering today, Brittain will write that “For a moment a sick dread had seized me when I learnt that she had been built as sister ship to the Titanic…” But, much like Donald Hankey, perhaps, she is rooting for a scrap:

In spite of the depressing effect of the ‘bus and Waterloo it was a great relief to me to leave Camberwell… So much had I grown to hate it that I felt that any change, to however much worse physical conditions, would be a welcome relief…[4]

Relief, perhaps. But as soon as she was safely aboard the Britannic, Brittain wrote home, to her brother Edward:

HM Hospital Ship Britannic, 23 September 1916

We left Waterloo (where by the way I felt very wretched as there were so many instructions & such a crowd & so much to do & such a general air of departure) at 12.30, arriving at Southampton at 2.10… We sailed down the Solent just as the sun was setting; it was a glorious evening with a smooth blue sea & the sun making a golden track which seemed to stretch from us to the fast disappearing mainland… Ships with searchlights are all about us in the dim distance–10.15 now. There is a large life-belt–a new kind, of waistcoat shape, attached to each bed.[5]

 

Finally, today, we have fictional cause to remember a historical event of tonight and tomorrow–and one that fits very well with Hankey’s gloomy and accurate prediction of the future of war. There have been several notable Zeppelin raids on England, and tonight another began. These ponderous airships are staples of steampunk, now–retro-glamorous alternatives to a noisier, speedier history of air travel–but they were looming, cutting-edge terrors then. They can do nothing but dump bombs indiscriminately on urban areas–but this of course is what makes them so modern. They float over the experiential gulf, and bring the terror of war to the home front.

Nine zeppelins reached England late tonight, making for London and–very memorable–two were brought down. One came to earth at Snail’s Hall Farm in Great Burstead, another bombed Bromley-by-Bow and crash-landed in slow motion, its crew captured by a patrolling constable.

Henry Williamson has been preparing his ponderous fiction for this moment for quite some time: Phillip Maddison is home from the Somme, and recuperating; his father, Richard–with whom Phillip has a fraught, silently nasty relationship–has been lording it as a self-important special constable enforcing blackout rules in their suburb; and Phillip and his friend Desmond have quarreled over a girl, the limpid and saintly formerly-fallen Lily Cornford.

Late tonight, Phillip and Desmond lie out on “The Hill,” while Williamson presents–through the half-crazed Desmond–their wartime experiences as explanations for their behavior. Desmond, who is nearly hysterical and suffering from shell shock, knew Lily first, and loves her, and perceives her devotion to Phillip (an inexplicable thing, really, even if it is supposed to be inexplicable to Phillip himself) as evidence of his diabolic dishonesty. Combat has unhinged Desmond, rendering him violent and paranoid, but he has heard the more or less true stories of Phillip’s cowardice in 1914 (based more closely on Williamson’s own experiences than the present scenes) and introduces them as evidence of Phillip’s habit of treachery to friends. It’s about war, and it’s about what came before, and it’s about a girl. Phillip is not completely convinced that he is wrong.

Then the friends separate, and Desmond calms down, and the story falls back onto its original line of Freudian entrenchments–Desmond returns and tells Phillip that he is himself the son of a “fallen woman,” and the two friends begin to patch things up…

But you, reader, are losing patience with the plodding pace of this (plodding summary of this) plodding novel. For once, Williamson realizes this too, and it is just now that the zeppelin comes into view, tonight, a century back. The two young soldiers on leave watch as nearby anti-aircraft machine guns open up.

Williamson takes another liberty, now, and conflates the shooting-down of this zeppelin with another raid that will take place on October 19/20–a raid in which bombs killed fifteen people, including several members of the same family asleep in bed. But by October Phillip will be elsewhere, and the historically fictional war waits for no man…

You know where this is going. Tonight is the melodramatic climax of The Golden Virgin, the sixth novel in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, and it clears away a good chunk of Phillip’s past. The two young men are too late: when they come to the site of the bombing, where five houses have collapsed, Special-Sergeant Richard Maddison has already been borne off to the hospital, slightly wounded and in shock–and the bodies of Lily and her mother have been dragged from the rubble.

Phillip meets his father at the hospital, and the old man’s reserve is, for once, gone.

“It was awful, Phillip!”

“Yes, Father, I quite understand…”

“No, oh no. Of course this is all new to me. I suppose… you have many times experienced the effects of bursting shells? Well this one was an eye-opener to me, I can assure you!”[6]

But Lily is dead, transfigured from a not-quite-believable saintly young woman to a saintly ideal for Phillip to ponder as we he returns to the war…

 

Finally, today–if my math is correct and if we can tolerate a “spoiler” that is very broad indeed–we can mark an occasion that none of our century-back writers were aware of: Britain’s war is half over.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 90.
  2. Although Dalton Trumbo did a terrifyingly effective job of imagining something even worse.
  3. Letters of Donald Hankey, 353-4.
  4. Testament of Youth, 292-4.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 276.
  6. The Golden Virgin, 430-42.

A. A. Milne Goes Forward Under Fire, with Jane Austen Holding his Train; Disaster for the Warwicks, and Mercy; Max Plowman Ponders the Gulf and the Writer’s Task; Edward Thomas Burns his Bridges; Wilfred Owen is Better at Rapid

As the clock turned over to today, a century back, A. A. Milne, signals officer of the 11th Warwicks, was sitting in a command dugout alongside his colonel and the rest of the headquarters and signalling sections. They were waiting for news of the battalion’s attack, which had begun an hour and a half before. They had another two hours to wait.

It was about two o’clock in the morning that a runner got through. The attack, as was to be expected, was a complete failure…

Advancing into machine gun and artillery fire, the Warwicks took heavy casualties and “were obliged to return to their original trenches.” Only one officer and eleven men were recorded in that day’s Battalion Diary as killed, but many of the 39 “missing” were also dead, lying between the German and British lines or in the German trenches themselves. The battalion commander, Col. Collison, will remember that three officers died, two were seriously wounded, and another was taken down the line suffering from shell-shock. At least 111 men were wounded.

But Collison and Milne didn’t know this at the time time. They knew almost nothing–which was a problem. And Milne was the communications officer.

“Am I to go back, sir?”

“No.” He caught the Major’s eye. The Major got up and strapped on his revolver. It was all too clearly the moment for me to strap on mine…

“Use your common sense,” said the Colonel. “If it’s impossible, come back. I simply cannot lose three signalling officers in a month.”

I promised, but felt quite unable to distinguish between commonsense and cowardice. The whole thing was so damned silly.

Milne knows, I think, that isn’t so much a brave confession as it is a nice little nutshell. He had wanted this rare independence to choose his own course. But, now–how was he to know where his duty lay? It’s somewhere between heroism and cowardice, out there in the dark.

Milne had to try, at least, to run a new line forward now, in the middle of the night, under fire. But he has only been in command of the signalling section for a single day–who should he choose to help him?

I told my sergeant that we were now going to run out a line, and asked him to pick two men for me. I knew nothing of the section then, save that there was a Lance-Corporal Grainger who shared my passion for Jane Austen, unhelpful knowledge in the circumstances.

The sergeant volunteers and picks a different man. Out they go into the night, following the major (probably the battalion’s second in command) toward the attacking companies.

We dashed. The Major went first–he was going to “reorganize the troops”; I went second, God knew why; the sergeant and the signaller came behind me, running out a line neatly and skilfully… From time to time the Major flung himself down for a breather, and down we flopped and panted, wondering if he would get up again. To our relief each time he was alive, and so were we. We passed one of the signal-stations, no longer a station but a pancake of earth on top of a spread-eagled body; I had left him there that evening, saying “Well, you’ll be comfortable here.” More rushes, more breathers, more bodies, we were in the front line. The Major hurried off to collect what men he could, while I joined up the telephone. Hopeless, of course, but we could have done no more. I pressed the buzzer…

The phone, unexpectedly, works.

I asked to speak to the Colonel. I told him what I knew. I ordered—what were telephones for?–a little counter-bombardment. Then with a sigh of utter content and thankfulness and the joy of living, I turned away from the telephone. And there behind me was Lance-Corporal Grainger.

“What on earth are you doing here?” I said.

He grinned sheepishly…

“I though I’d just like to come along, sir.”

“But why?”

He looked more embarrassed,

“Well, sir, I though I’d just like to be sure you were all right.” Which is the greatest tribute to Jane Austen that I have ever heard.[1]

 

This story pleases me immensely. Any self-respecting, Pooh-reading Janeite should end it there, in triumph. But delving into this action has raised some interesting issues. We have two witnesses writing this attack, but neither of them were really eyewitnesses at all. The attack was hundred of yards ahead of them, in a shell-stricken night. Milne tells his own story, but Collison tries to tell his battalion’s, and for that he must rely on the testimony of the single surviving officer he was subsequently able to interview.

The attack, Colonel Collison explains, was made with two companies in front. One, despite the loss of three officers, seemed to penetrate the German line. But even that is not certain. The other company was stopped well short of the trenches, and a supporting company lost its way and headed off at an oblique angle.

It must have been easy enough for the forewarned Germans to counter this very localized inroad into their front line. “It is certain that these bold spirits were all either killed or captured,” writes Collison. It was his plan–he, that is, drew up the plan he was ordered to draw up, and remained, blind and helpless, in the position that duty required him to maintain, while other men tried to carry it out.

His diary could be filled with defensive self-justification or a lament for the uselessly slaughtered. But neither of those approaches would serve much of a purpose. Rather, both his personal diary and the official Battalion War Diary testify to Collison’s decency and humanity–and to the free-thinking nature of his command. There is no protest, no dramatic gesture. But the War Diary, written in the clear hand of a clerk (or perhaps the adjutant) on an official army form, makes it perfectly clear that their orders were self-defeating: they were to attack just after–but not in coordination with–that barrage by the heavies. To write that this “no doubt advertised our intended attack” in the official record is a stinging rebuke. It suggests that Collison would have been morally justified in calling off the attack, but, realistically, that option was not open to him. Men were going to die, futilely. But nothing would prove the futility of their deaths unless orders were followed, and so they died.

Collison’s diary also provides a name for the body found by Milne, if we can allow for Milne’s having positioned a man described not as a signaller but as a “headquarters orderly” in that advanced command/signalling position. He was Private Saunders–William Richard Saunders–and Collison, too, steps aside from enumerating the day’s losses to remember a Warwickshire family tragedy: he tells us that Saunders had enlisted alongside his father, who had recently been killed.[2] But that’s it–that’s all the colonel can do, writing later on, to remember what was a very bad day for his battalion.

If the story has taken rather long in the telling, the whole affair… only lasted a few minutes…[3]

Collison even wearily compliments the Germans on their competent defense, but then again, he reminds us, they had been well-warned.

 

Much more remarkable is the Battalion Diary, presumably written today, a century back, or shortly thereafter. It makes it clear that sympathy for the plight of the 11th Warwicks was rather more widespread than we might have guessed:

At daybreak many of our men were still finding their way back to our trenches. The Germans showed themselves + shouted friendly remarks to our men + appeared anxious for a peaceful spell. Our stretcher-bearers went out and fetched in wounded men. For some hours the situation was very quiet…”

And it gets more interesting still. The end of that sentence is crossed out rather heavily–not merely stricken through, but then again not blacked or inked out. I’m confident restoring at least this much:

+ both sides sat[?] or stood[?] on the parapets quite f [3-6 letters illegible].

I wish I could make out the last word, but it seems clear that the Germans were merciful. If they had dead and wounded to evacuate they would have had a much easier time of it–they were in their own trenches. Instead, they took pity on the men they had shot down during the night and allowed for their rescue. Six weeks into the Battle of the Somme they craved some respite, some re-establishment of common humanity.

All this was duly described, then this honesty was regretted. Such an informal truce was, after all, against standing orders. Given Collison’s example of restraint, it wouldn’t do to fulminate–but this would seem to be a pretty clear example of front fighters on both sides united in passive resistance to the best efforts of their generals to get them all killed.

 

 

We have a letter today from Max Plowman on the happy occasion of his survival of his first tour in the front-line trenches. Or, more precisely, on his return to billets to discover a longed-for book in a parcel sent by his friend Janet Upcott. It’s Meredith, and it’s “a treasure.” The pleasure of having good reading to look forward to–his batman had neglected to pack other books when they came to the front–sends Plowman off on a rant about the newspapers.

I find there’s very little one can read out here. The newspapers on the war are nauseating… Whether the general censorship is to blame or not I don’t know but it’s all unreal–the horror & terror & misery are all ‘written down’ or covered with sham heroics by cheap journalism. Moreover, more than ever, I mistrust communiques. They are the window dressing of whitewash & varnish–true as a description of London would be which said “It was quite a large town, bigger than Oxford having many important & interesting churches in it of which St. George’s Hanover Square was considered by many to be the most interesting”. I’m not grumbling–no doubt these things are unavoidable but they look foolish from here & the armchair critic is made ridiculous. Truth has been sunk so deeply down the well now one wonders how long it will take to draw her up again. I should be glad if I thought I had the memory & luck & balance of mind & power of description to help in that direction but I don’t think I have.
This is a combination of a prayer and a writerly statement of purpose, the piety of a doubting writer mustered up and clutched close and slipping away through his fingers. But not all the way away…
Of course only fools believe the newspapers–I mean believe the Germans are cowards who won’t face bayonets–believe soldiers enjoy this kind of war–believe each British soldier who’s killed finds a beautifully tended grave and all the rest of the rot… One hates the vacuum that’s created and the journalistic blather is like a grinning mask on the face of death or a ballet dancer’s skirt on the figure of victory.
This lunging flèche seems a little too aggressive–the writer is back on the attack, but two such different metaphors!
Sorry!–I’ve been writing dull platitudes! Well I’ve been very frightened Janet. Shell fire is a very terrible thing, much more terrible than I had ever troubled to imagine… The men who decided to fire heavy guns on soldiers in trenches must have been possessed by the devil. To sit in an inferno of noise & light & wait to be blown to nothing with small earthquakes all round is a disgusting experience. Its stupidity strikes everybody up there…

The sympathy between Milne’s experience and Plowman ‘s writing is remarkable: “so damned silly” and “stupidity,” the disgust at propaganda and the frank contradiction of ostensible norms and orders shown by the Warwicks and their foes…

Plowman then goes on to describe the very slight wound he had received the previous Wednesday. That was a good joke, of course, but the relief that follows his first tour in the trenches is most sincere. Plowman describes this in a passage from his memoir:

Still alive

It is marvellous to be out of the trenches: it is like being born again. The cloud of uncertainty that hung above us every moment while we were under fire, putting its minatory query before the least anticipation, is lifted, and we are free to say, “In an hour’s time,” without challenging Fate with the phrase. When freedom to anticipate is being persistently challenged, one understands as never before how much man lives by hope. To be deprived of reasonable expectation — even of the next moment — is the real strain. I had not thought of that. Certainty, even of violent death, would often come as a relief. It is the perpetual uncertainty that makes life in the trenches endurance all the time. “Stick it” has become a password: intelligibly the right one. We have to forget “I shall.” It is this constriction of hope that depresses men in the trenches. “If” stands before every prospect, and it is no small “if” in this war. But here we are, alive again, like men redeemed from the grave. We have left the trenches behind.

Instinctively we feel as if we have earned the right to go home. We gave Death the chance. Death did not take it and we’ve escaped alive. What about it? Isn’t the war finished — at least for us? Some of these men have put their lives in pawn a hundred times. Haven’t at least they earned the right of respite? Surely you who live walled round by safety would not demand of these men that they shall keep on offering Death their lives till he accepts? Surely, despite your grey hairs, you’d rather leap from seats of assembly and run into the breach yourselves? I hope you would, but now I am wondering whether you’ve imagination enough to know what’s happening. I should like to remind army commanders, cabinet ministers and other members of parliament, that soldiers only respect those in command over them who are themselves willing to hazard their lives. Napoleon knew this. It behoves them to remember. If they are content merely to prescribe our fates, let them be assured that their share in the honours of posterity will be the award of con- tempt.

Anyway we are alive again for a time — most probably — though three men have been killed in a cook-house that was standing here when we left, but has since been shelled out of sight. Peace will come some day, bringing to some men, if not to us, its almost unthinkable reprieve. Peace might even come to-day. Who can tell?[4]

It’s a bit manipulative to segue back and forth from letter to memoir, but at least I can comfort myself knowing that its quality would provide some solace to the century-back Plowman. Here is how today’s letter concludes:

I wish I could come home & tell you all I know, now while the impressions are fresh because I suppose if I “stick it” long they’ll all get dull & in the desire to “get on or get out” I shall forget what war is really like & be as inarticulate as the rest when I do get back. But… I’m awfully glad I did get out here. This is a rotten letter because it tries to emphasise the terror & horror of the war which one can only vaguely realise in England…[5]

Well, it’s a tall order.

 

Meanwhile, back in England, Wilfred Owen continues with his training. It’s musketry, now, the hoary British army term for rifle-shooting. Let’s let Wilfred observe himself under observation:

Sat. Night [13 August 1916] Mytchett Musketry Camp

Dearest of Mothers,

Just had your Letter which came, as you designed, tonight. It came refreshingly, comparable to the cool rain that broke over this desert this evening…

My own shooting, alas, is the least of my cares. But it is a bit of a worry, because, in duty bound, one strafes the men for bad shooting, and is never sure of not doing worse than the worst of them. They keep a relentless watch on my Target. I have so far got a Pass every day, but I only do well in Rapid! I can get off 5 rounds in 30 secs, scoring 3 bulls and 2 inners, 17 marks out of 20. If allowed more time I do less well. It is an interesting point of my psychological ‘erraticness’…[6]

 

And one more brief, melancholy note, from Owen’s erstwhile fellow Artists’ cadet. Tonight, a century back, Edward Thomas is making a bonfire of books and letters that he can’t take with him. Two months after his landlady evicted him from his shack-study in his garden in Steep, his wife and children will be moving to a new cottage at High Beech. Thomas will continue to move among different barracks and camps, and soldiers–even soon-to-be-officers–must travel light.

I thought I should be accused of making a beacon for Zeppelins last night, I had such a huge bonfire…[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. From Milne's autobiography, It's Too Late Now, quoted and "slightly adapted" by Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 175-77.
  2. I can't corroborate this. Private Saunders' father is listed by the CWGC as Joseph Saunders, but I can't find a good match for him in their records.
  3. Milne's autobiography, It's Too Late Now, is quoted in Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 175; Collison, With the 11th Royal Warwicks in France, 1915-16, 100-8. The Battalion Diary is available online.
  4. A Subaltern on the Somme, 54-5.
  5. Bridge Into the Future, 47-9.
  6. Collected Letters, 404.
  7. Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 270.