Siegfried Sassoon Will Return to France, But Not Acquiesce; Edmund Blunden Bestrides the Becrumped Duckwalks of Ypres

Siegfried Sassoon was not in the best of moods when Robert Graves recently came to visit. He was reminded, surely, of Graves’s role in sending him to Craiglockhart, and irritated by how easy Graves has found it to make his peace with the war, as it were. But the friendship endures, and is sustained by another, now:

19 October, Craiglockhart

Dearest Robert, I am so glad you like Owen’s poem. I will tell him to send you on any decent stuff he does. His work is very unequal, and you can help him a great deal.

Seeing you again has made me more restless than ever. My position here is nearly unbearable, and the feeling of isolation makes me feel rotten. I had a long letter from Cotterill to-day. They had just got back to rest from Polygon Wood and he says the conditions and general situation are more bloody than anything he has yet seen. Three miles of morasses, shell-holes and dead men and horses through which to get the rations up. I should like the people who write leading articles for the Morning Post (about victory) to read his letter.

This letter from Cotterill may have undercut the last of Sassoon’s resistance to returning to active service, but Sassoon has clearly been nearly ready to find a way to come in from the cold. In any case, even old Joe Cotterill, the quartermaster of the 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, has scant influence on Sassoon compared to the man he sees daily, respects most of anyone, and can only not disappoint by giving up his protest:

I have told Rivers that I will go back to France, if they will send me (making it quite clear that my views are exactly the same as in July—only more so).

This is at once wishful thinking and specious logic. Sassoon–a man hopelessly unable to either outwit or out-muscle the ponderous bureaucracy of the war–is writing to the very friend most instrumental in having helped that bureaucracy shuffle him neatly aside, and yet he is imagining that he can both keep his opinions and negotiate the terms of his return. It takes a strange form of bullheadedness to refuse to understand the official illogic of a system whose callous officiousness one had previously protested:

They will have to give me a written guarantee that I shall be sent back at once. I don’t quite understand how it is that Rivers can do nothing but pass me for General Service as he says, because I am in the same condition as I was three months ago, and if I am fit for General Service now, I was fit then.

This is, again, strangely obtuse coming from a man with such a gift for viciously exposing official hypocrisy. Sassoon loves Rivers and hates the War Office, but he doesn’t imagine that just because the War Office cynically sent a more-or-less healthy protester to a hospital, a doctor in its employ won’t sacrifice his own integrity… but I took him to task over this only two days ago.

This next line should be taken, I think, as a joke, on Rivers’s part. (That, in any event, is how Pat Barker plays it.)

He says I’ve got a very strong ‘anti-war’ complex, whatever that means. I should like the opinion of a first-class ‘alienist’ or whatever they call the blokes who decide if people are dotty. However we shall see what they say. Personally I would rather be anywhere than here.

Sassoon realizes–at least on a slightly subconscious level–that he has lost the fight over making his own mental state relevant to his opinions. And so his mind returns to the trenches.

It’s too b….y to think of poor old Joe lying out all night in shell-holes and being shelled (several of the ration-party
were killed) but, as he says, ‘the Battalion got their rations’. What a man he is.

And as for Graves? Is Graves a real man? Sassoon pulls no punches, here:

O Robert, what ever will happen to end the war? It’s all very well for you to talk about ‘good form; and acting like a  ‘gentleman’. To me that’s a very estimable form of suicidal stupidity and credulity. You admit that the people who sacrifice the troops are callous b….rs, and the same thing is happening in all countries (except some of Russia). If you had real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce as you do.

Yours ever Sassons[1]

Is it sadness and confusion or sheer effrontery to end a letter that contained the news of his decision to abandon his protest with an attack on his friend for his own acquiescence?

 

And speaking of the trenches, Edmund Blunden and his 11th Royal Sussex left them tonight, a century back. It’s been a (short) while since we’ve had a harrowing, flare-smeared Ypres night relief:

But as yet we are not relieved. The most dangerous moment of the tour is to come. Upon the arrival of the “guides,” there was the usual process of sorting one another out by company headquarters, and some mistake led to a certain amount of noise. The moment was when my company was halting in the open, near Hunwater Dugout. At once the Germans fired so many illuminants that the ground with its pools was like a jeweller’s shop; I shouted to my anxious men to stand fast, but one or two were new or nervous, and ducked or moved on; then the enemy’s machine guns played, the informing white lights multiplied, were repeated farther off; red lights, bursting into two like cherries on a stalk, went up by the dozen. There seemed now no doubt that a box barrage of the highest quality would come down on us, and my skin felt in the act of shrivelling. To our amazement, the German guns held their peace; the streaming bullets raced over a little longer, then slackened, and we went with sober minds on our way. It seemed a long way, as all night journeys in the Salient did, but we knew we had been lucky this time, and as we picked our way between the roaring batteries and the greasy roadside wreckage, we rejoiced. Finally a number of short leafy trees in the mist showed that we were on the borders of life again; it was Voormezeele, and our camp was at hand — Boys Camp. A hot meal awaited all, and I suppose the surviving officers still reckon that night’s roast pork in the flapping, icy marquee as particularly notable among Quartermaster Swain’s many capital performances…[2]

A few days hence, Blunden will craft a comic version of the horrors of this tour in one of his schoolboy-baroque letters to Hector Buck. If we skip some of the more toweringly referential sentences (not to mention the cricket bits), there is a nice bit of purple-prosey description of night work with the battalion:

…The tents flap wildly in the teeth of the nor’easter, the mud stretches unimaginably that way and this, stolchy and skin-deep; the too thoughtful foeman tries to vary our dull existence with bombing beanos when the raspberry-coloured moon ariseth…

we string along the becrumped duckwalks in a darkness that may be felt, a remnant manages to find its way up to the foremost shellholes and lies down in them. The previous tenants quit as fast as the sludge will allow… meantime the scorbutic Blunden is crawling around trying to find the ruins of Potiphar Farm or Usedtobe Castle in order to get his correct dispositions back to a Fuming and nail-nibbling C.O. Ruins are not, so he falls back on lesser symptoms of bygone villages; such as a contortion of metal which proves a Brewery lost…

At last he sees that there is nothing for it except compass bearings so he drops his compass into one or two pools of water and goes back to Company HQ. This place is usually an old Bosch pillbox with the typical Bosch smell and a large doorway facing right towards the Bosch gunners, machine-gunners, minnymen, snipers, and whatso else there be that crump, zonk, bump, plonk, or in any other way soever worry, annoy, or badger the nonchalant Englishmen. But mark you, there is no means of getting into the dugout except this doorway, screened though it be with two or three ground sheets and some German equipment: and once inside, the unguarded foot suddenly falls lovingly into about 18 inches of Hunwater, with noisome bubbles winking at the brim…

And with the shells comes an amusingly over-the-top parody of bureaucratic “Bumf.”

The arrival of a muster of 5.9’s just outside the door causes the last drain of whisky to jolt off the pro-table and vanish for ever in the seething depths. And then up comes some paper warfare – ‘You will submit a Raid Scheme’ or ‘s e c r e t. The Battalion will not be relieved for 25 years’ or ‘The 333rd course for intending Landscape Painters will assemble at Medicine Hat on the 1st April 1918. Coys, will detail 50 young & intelligent men each, with if possible some knowledge of wombat culture, gingernut-fancying and love cages, to report at Bn. HQ at 2 a.m. today. Rations for 1920 will be carried and the men will have a bath before they leave the front line.

(Sd) Napoleon Buonaparte
Lt, & A/Adjt 6 p.m.’[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 191-2.
  2. Undertones of War, 253-4.
  3. More Than a Brother, 13-14.

Withdrawals and Approaches: Charles Carrington, Hugh Quigley, Edmund Blunden, and Guy Chapman near Passchendaele Ridge

Before we turn to the tribulations of Charles Carrington on the Steenbeek, we must look to our immediate rear, where we have such a build-up of memoir writers in the support lines of the Salient that poetry can pass from one to the next…

 

First is Hugh Quigley, soon headed back toward the front lines. A fell mood is upon him:

The Canal Bank, Ypres, 6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in the molten sky, slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream: I was lying in the hospital trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, too, is on the way back in. His last tour had been harrowing, although of course it could have been worse. All of his unsurpassed talent for knitting together Gothic horror and pastoral idyll in close company on the page is exerted here, as he describes the withdrawal and then the time in reserve:

After the most vigorous display by the Bosch artillery that I have yet had to cast my eye upon and a narrow escape from being pulled under in a swamp on the way out (I was in such a hurry to get out of the barrage that my foot missed the dead man I was going to use as a duckboard),  we came back to this Corydonian spot for a B.E.F. rest. We feed in a barn which smells most pleasantly of hops…

Or not–not yet: this is not the studied, sumptuous memoir bur rather a contemporary letter to his school friend Hector Buck, which soon more fully embraces the usual tone of frenetic gaiety:

A bevy of milkmaids flitters about and warbles dithyrambs in the sunny air; at times they cease to warble but make a noise exactly similar by working an obese and crotchety cream separator. Since I knew they were on the go I have broken my vow and shaved; but even then my Charms are not availing.[2]

The memoir also fills us is in on how Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex were really spending their time out of the line: drilling, marching, shooing on rifle and pistol ranges, and practicing for some of the least Arcadian recourses of the war.

This next episode–gas training–makes it possible, using the Battalion War Diary, to date this description fairly securely to today, a century back:

It was even a pleasure here to see Williams, the divisional gas officer, and his same old sergeant, at their kindly, deadly work again. I forget what type of gas it was that Williams discharged upon us, leaving it to us to get our helmets on or pass out. However, I believe it was not at full strength, for some hens poking about in the stubble did not suffer. Perhaps God tempers the gas to the Ypres hen.

But here is a point of interest not only specifically to this project but to the entire genre of the war memoir. Several of our writers involved in Passchendaele have–even while describing its horrors at great length–begun to refuse to dwell firmly in their evolving historical moment. In 1917 the war has become too much to bear–or its young wager-victims have become too prematurely old to live without the melancholy shoring-up of reminiscence:

Our minds receded with actual joy to the 1916 war, and particularly that season when we were within the kindly influence of Bethune. When had we heard the word “a bon time” since? How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on, singing, toward the Somme! When we left this camp of disastered 1917, to be merged again in the slow amputation of Passchendaele, there was no singing. I think there were tears on some cheeks.

More prosaically, Blunden reports that he was passed over for promotion at this time–“the General would not hear of it, claiming that I was too young. My offences against propriety of speech and demeanour were in any case sufficient to spoil my chances…”–but also that he will be given a company nonetheless (to command as First Lieutenant, rather than a Captain).

Before that I had had a special duty to do. It was to act as “Tunnel Major” in Hedge Street Tunnels — to regulate the very limited and fiercely coveted accommodation there, and the traffic in and out. This took me back to the accursed area again, and even while I made my way there the evil nature of the place displayed itself. Going up by way of Zillebeke, I was obliged to stop. An “area shoot” began, a solid German bombardment for an hour on a chosen space, enclosing several battery positions. This shelling was so concentrated and geometrical that, leaning against the side of our old trench just beyond its limit, one was in safety. But the area covered was treated as with a titanic roller and harrow. About half an hour after this shoot began, from the very middle of the furnace two artillerymen suddenly emerged, running like demons but unwounded.

Outside the large dugout which I was to supervise a quartermaster-sergeant’s body was lying. Men were afraid to pause even a few seconds at this point and bodies were not quickly buried…

I found the tunnels crammed with soldiers on business and otherwise. The Colonel and Adjutant of the R. F.’s, who had taken our place in the Tower Hamlets sector a fortnight or so before, were occupying a new and half-finished dugout; they used me very hospitably. The Colonel remarked, pouring me out a drink, “We no longer exist.” I asked how: he explained that their casualties had been over 400.

Our experience had been only the prelude to their full symphony…[3]

 

Guy Chapman‘s symphony, as it happens–it was his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which greeted Blunden, though Blunden does not recall the young officer’s name.[4]

On our third evening in Hedge Street we welcomed a very young, very fair and very shy subaltern from the Royal Sussex, who were to relieve us the next day. His battalion had preceded us at Tower Hamlets and had suffered a like experience. Late that evening a 6-inch How-battery commander came in to ask for accommodation and stayed to dinner. He was a pale bald man with a near fair moustache. He thumped on the table and recited Kipling for our entertainment.

This next bit, then, would be proper to tomorrow, a century back:

On the next day I showed our incoming tenant from the Sussex over his noxious habitation. As we bade him good-bye, he shyly put a small paper-covered book into my hand. The Harbingers, ran the title, ‘Poems by E.C. Blunden.’ It went into my it along with the battered Shakespeare, the torn Evan Harrington, and Sir Thomas Browne.[5]

 

Finally, though, we must skip ahead, more in the geographical than the anticipatory sense. We left Charles Carrington (the “Edmonds” of A Subaltern’s War), yesterday, about to grab a few hours overnight in the A Company dugout. After two long sleepless days and nights, he was exhausted, jumpy, and not too proud to simply sleep in a place of greater safety, “a little bit of narrow trench partly covered with a sheet of iron.”

After dawn, Carrington/Edmonds continued to lay as low as he decently could.

I determined quite basely to take shelter for a few hours in C company’s pill-box, and presently plucked up courage and squattered across through the stream to it.

This pill-box was the only piece of good cover in the battalion area. Imagine a small room ten feet square and six feet high with walls of thick rough concrete. There is only one opening, the door, over which a waterproof sheet is draped. The furniture consists of four bunks made of wire stretched on wooden frames. Signallers and officers’ servants have made a little hutch under the lee of the outer wall. Inside, live Marriott and Flint, a serjeant, and as many other people as are thought to deserve refuge. During the day Newsom and Wolfe each pay a visit to get some rest. I come first and stay longest. After all, the headquarters of a front-line company make quite a good command-post for a support company commander, and Thorburn’s position is within shouting distance and full view by daylight. On such a little journey had we lost our way last night.

Flint is something in the same exhausted state as myself; Marriott, who came up from reserve with Thorburn and Wolfe after the attack, is very cheerful and doing most of the work…

Descriptions of pill-boxes will be a major feature of “Edmonds'” narrative from here on out, with loving attention both to their horribleness and their precise degree of protection against different armaments.

But war narratives can never be truly predictable: today passes pleasantly and amusingly, with a tone of light comedy, however much strained, by tension, toward hysteria:

Marriott welcomed me cordially enough, and found me the dry corner of a bed, where I tried to get an hour’s sleep, but with little success. After a time he came into the pill-box, grinning, to ask me to take away some men of mine who were creating a disturbance in his trench. I went out and found the ten ration-carriers of last night all roaring drunk. The poor devils had got lost, just like everyone else, had wandered all night, and finally decided that the company was annihilated. Not without good sense they decided not to starve. They did their best with a whole company’s rations, but a whole company’s rum defeated them. Hither they had wandered very happy and very sleepy, but rather inclined to sing themselves to sleep. We saved the rest of the food and rum, and sent over the
remains, plenty for my handful of men.

It was difficult to know what to do with these men. One or two were helpless and comatose, one or two were incurably cheerful, the others varied from one extreme to the other. To arrest them and send them down the line would bring shell-fire on them and their escort, besides weakening the outposts. I stormed at them in my severest manner, promising them all courts-martial and death sentences. Some understood me and sobered a little, but Bridgwater and two or three others only blinked and looked more amiable than ever. If I had had any laughter in me I should have burst out laughing, too. We brought most of them round to a condition soon where they could go back to the company. The hopeless cases we left to sleep it off. There were no shooting parties at dawn, after all, as a sequel to this episode.

During the rest of the day I remained almost entirely in the pill-box. The shell-fire gradually increased as it had done yesterday, but we had no direct hits, any one of which would have done for us. Marriott kept up a running fire of conversation all day, little jokes and reminiscences, sly hints about my company and the rum, comparisons of our men with the Colonials, anecdotes of the day and of old battles. He had a N.C.O. in the pill-box with him, as orderly serjeant, one of those professional humorists without whom no company could hang together. The queer turns of his dialect, and an attractive little stuttering in his speech, an acute street-arab sense of humour, combined with the
manners and deference of a gentleman, made him perhaps a perfect example of the urban soldier. The stories flowed out of him all day, his adventures with long-forgotten brigadiers, ‘madamaselles’ or serjeant-majors, his friends and their idiosyncrasies, love and war and the weather, the bitterness of things, red tape and bad language.
(I cannot refrain from quoting ‘that our armies swore terribly in Flanders.’) He could tell a tale against a staff officer always with tact enough not to scandalise the officers present. If I were Dickens and could write down what he said,
my fortune as a novelist would be made. But I’m afraid the jokes that made us reel with laughter would be flat to-day. One jumped at any excuse to be gay, and to laugh meant to forget that open door, facing the wrong way, through which a shell might come at any moment to burst in the midst of us…

But relief from anxiety through laughter is temporary–relief from the front line, by another battalion, is what they crave.

At dusk when we were all ready the orderly arrived again. Where were the Berks? we asked. Not yet come up. But he had brought instead a large rough mongrel sheep dog, trained to carry messages through fire. Marriott grew quite despondent. “I thought they were going to send up the Berkshires,” he said, “ but all we’re going to get now is barks”; at which we laughed uproariously. The Berks never did come, but before long a company of another regiment began to arrive. I collected my gear (we were in full marching order), and splashed through the stream to Thorburn, who had had another day’s shelling and felt a little neglected. We headed back a second time to the jumping-off line, where we were now to be reserve company. Marriott withdrew his men to our position in the shell-holes by the Stroombeek.

As Thorburn and I ploughed through the mud after our men, we passed one of the relieving platoons going forward. Their subaltern gripped me by the arm.

“Who are you? Where are you going? Where’s the front line? Have you seen A company?” he asked all in a rush.

“Keep straight on,” I answered jauntily, “follow the tape. Your captain’s up there. We’ve just been relieved.”

“Don’t go! ” he said. “Don’t leave us! For God’s sake, show us the way.” I had met someone more frightened than
myself. My confidence came back to me in a moment. This man was in a shivering funk.

“God damn it!” I said. “You’re all right. You’re much stronger than we were. There’s a good dugout up there—you can’t miss it.”

And I shook him off and walked on. I wonder what state that poor devil was in at the end of his tour. But I had only gained a momentary confidence, and before morning was sinking back into the same apathy of suppressed fear as before.

We took up our position on the right half of the jumping-off line, quite near headquarters. There were about twenty-seven men to organise in four sections, and place in the best shell-holes. For company headquarters Serjeant Walker, Thorburn and I found an old incomplete pill-box called on the map Cluster House. It was one of those early German efforts made of concrete on the western and of wood on the eastern side, so that in case of capture it would give no cover against German shell-fire. But it gave shelter from the rain, and here we settled. To make some amends to Thorburn for the twenty-four hours duty he had taken alone, I sent him to battalion headquarters to sleep, where they found him a corner of some kind. Walker took the top bunk in the little room, I took the lower one, but could only doze for an hour or two, in spite of the fact that I had not had eight hours’ sleep out of the last ninety. It was very cold and I was acutely aware of my wet knees.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 133-4.
  2. More Than a Brother, 12.
  3. Undertones of War, 246-9.
  4. Blunden's poetry will soon be well known; Chapman published his memoir five years after Blunden's Undertones.
  5. A Passionate Prodigality, 207.
  6. A Subaltern's War, 170-77.

Siegfried Sassoon Whets his Waterman; Carroll Carstairs Re-Treads the Military Road; Hugh Quigley Among the Corpses, Old and New

Before we march alongside one writer into the lurid atmosphere of the Salient and thrash through its horrors and terrors with another, we will begin with a friendly and pleasingly literary letter. Siegfried Sassoon wrote to Robbie Ross today, and the letter makes it clear that he has already received Robert Graves’s recent missive. Sassoon is in good spirits–complimentary and confident, and apparently willing to forgive Graves’s decision to dedicate his next book to the Regiment rather than to Sassoon:

17 September, Craiglockkart

My dear Robbie,

Robert sent me his proofs: His new poems are delightful, and the whole book is a wonderful expression of him. I hope you are feeling refreshed by your country visits.

I have got about 300 lines of verse for you to inspect; but am too lazy to copy it out…

I was rejoicing in my luck in getting a room to myself—my late companion having gone–but after two days a man of forty-five with iron-grey hair, an eyeglass and an aquiline nose has floated in.

This is the man Sassoon will describe in Sherston’s Progress–memorably and amusingly–as “The Theosophist.”

There follows an obscure reference to the book of Job–meaning, apparently, that he talks war shop or swaggers with his comrades–and a clever ratification of the fact that Sassoon, like Owen before him, is finding the writing life at Craiglockhart to be good for his nerves (whatever ails them–or doesn’t).

…I play golf every day, and say ‘Ha ha,’ among the captains. But in the dusk I whet my trusty Waterman and slay them all with songs!

Yours ever S.S.[1]

 

Others will have a harder time finding a quiet evening to write. Judging from the War Diary of the Grenadier Guards, the following night relief described by the American officer Carroll Carstairs took place tonight, a century back:

It was dusk. The men were falling in. The evening was quiet, The night sinister and sombre. The men looked ominous, set and serious—a visual translation of my own sensations. I listened to the simple words of command and read in them an added meaning and a new significance.

“Slope arms—move to the right in fours—form fours—right—by the left, quick march.” We stepped out while some gunners watched with admiration those slightly supermen—the Guards.

“We’re givin’ ’em socks to-night,” said one.

We reached White Hope Corner, and then that inevitable halt. I watched the huddled remnant of Boesinghe Wood tremble to an occasional flare. The men talked in whispers or were silent. Silent mostly. No smoking allowed, of course, just when one most needed a cigarette.

After what seemed an interminable time we moved on, halted again, moved, halted—it tried one’s nerves. At last we struck the duckboards—Clarges Street, with enemy shells falling well to our right.

“Good old Military Road again,” I thought. “That old road is certainly living up to its name.”

Now and then we were threatened as a shell dropped close, and once I tripped and fell flat on my face.

Can anything be slower than these night reliefs, whose speed is controlled by the darkness, the difficult way and the responsibility each man had for the man behind him?

We approached Cannes Farm while it was a target for enemy shelling and a party of Scots Guards scattered from it and among us, and to avoid a mix up we proceeded straight into the zone of fire.

The men were seen into shallow slits where they were packed as tight as sardines in boxes. No trench system there; dig down until you strike water, which was at a depth of about three feet, and get what protection you could.

The officers were better off in a tiny pillbox, a new entrance to which had been made by a British shell, so narrow that to get inside you had to take off all your equipment.

After a time I made a tour of our lines. We were “Company in support.” Two companies were in the front line and the fourth in reserve. The night was dark as pitch and threatened rain. I tripped on some loose strands of barbed wire and cut my hand. Although there was a certain amount of shelling, we had so far escaped casualties.

The night passed…[2]

 

Hugh Quigley, though not far away from Carstairs, is much further along in his experience of Third Ypres–he is enduring, in fact, what Sassoon’s statement had been intended to protest. We move, now, from a jaunty letter and an atmospheric narrative to one of the most characteristic types of Great War pieces, namely an attempt to describe the indescribable that soon breaks down into a catalogue of horrors.

Vlamertinghe, 17 September, 1917

You will have read of Belgium in every newspaper dispatch and every book written on war. The best I can do is simply to tell you what I experienced–and suffered more or less patiently. The country resembles a sewage-heap more than anything else, pitted with shell-holes of every conceivable size, and filled to the brim with green, slimy water, above which a blackened arm or leg might project. It becomes a matter of great skill picking a way across such a network of death-traps…

Quigley’s experiences of the Salient also includes this encounter, from earlier in the week:

…we dug out a new trench. While plying the spade, I encountered what looked like a branch sticking out of the sand. I hacked and hacked at it until it fell severed, and I was picking it up prior to throwing it over the parapet when a sickness, or rather nausea, came over me. It was a human arm.

It gets worse:

…we set out on patrol, but had to take refuge in a deserted pill-box in No Man’s and because the enemy had sighted us. This pill-box had been used at one time as a a charnel-house; it smelt strongly of one and the floor was deep with human bones. From there we watched the Very lights flickering outside, and, casting a weird light through the doorway, the red flash of bursting shells. Occasionally a direct hit shook us to the very soul. While sitting there, the odour overcame me and I fainted. Waking up an hour afterwards, I found myself alone, without the faintest idea of my whereabouts, uncertain where the enemy’s lines were or my own. Some authors practise the description of fear, but nothing they could do could even faintly realize my state. It went beyond fear, beyond consciousness, a grovelling of the soul itself.

Quigley eventually calms down and saves himself; but this letter continues to be densely populated with horrifying corpses. Stumbling back to his own trench that morning he falls, and finds his “hands clutching at a dead man’s face.” And then there is this:

Our road to Company H.Q. from Ypres is shown in places by dead men in various postures, here three men lying together, there a dead “Jock” lying across a trench, the only possible bridge, and we had to step on him to get across.[3] The old German front-line… must be the most dreadful thing in existence, whether in reality or imagination, a stretch of slimy wicker-work bordering a noisome canal of brown water, where dead men float and fragments of bodies and limbs project hideously, as if in pickle. The remembrance of one attitude will always haunt me, a German doubled up with knees under his chin and hand clutching hair above a face of the ghastliest terror.

But this is only horror. The dead, rather than death, decay rather than suffering.

…my first experience of death was worse than this. Our battalion had entrained almost as far as Ypres, and we rested beside the railway…

Where they are spotted by German observers. The very first rounds from the heavy artillery are on target:

…our two companies had just got over when I heard a scream of a shell. Instantly we got on our noses: I looked up cautiously, just in time to see it explode in a thick mass of other companies on the railway. The scream of despair and agony was dreadful to hear, men shell-shocked out of reason and others dying of frightful wounds. That shell caused fifty casualties and shook the whole battalion for several days… That cry of dying men will ring in my ears a long time after everything else will be forgotten.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 186.
  2. A Generation Missing, 97-99.
  3. Why, one wonders, couldn't they remove this body?
  4. Passchendaele and the Somme, 120-5.

Edwin Vaughan’s Longest Day, at Langemarck Ridge; Hugh Quigley’s Purpose; Thomas Hardy Praises a Dead Officer and a Living Poet

Two brief pleasant snippets, today–hopeful, literary–before we read a long and terrible day of battle.

 

We have been recently reminded–by his new acolyte Wilfred Owen, no less–that Siegfried Sassoon admires Thomas Hardy above all living writers. This missive, then, will bring him much happiness.

Max Gate, Dorchester, Aug. 27, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

We were beforehand with you in respect of To any Dead Officer, for we cut it out of the Cambridge Magazine—not knowing that it would be reprinted. Many thanks for sending it all the same, as I have now two copies, one for lending to people who never return things. I am not clear as to where you are, so send this line through my friend Thornycroft.

Sincerely yours

Th: Hardy.

P.S. I need not say how much I like the poem.

T.H.[1]

To receive, at some point soon, a note of admiration from the great Hardy–routed through his sculptor uncle in order to reach him in golfing retreat from pacifist outrage at a war hospital for shell shocked officers–will be a nice representation of the conflicted position Sassoon is in…

 

“I am inclined to think you are causing yourself too much discomfort about me.” With these words we’ll belatedly begin reading Hugh Quigley’s diary-in-letters. The diary begins some months ago, but it is my hope that it will be a valuable addition to this project over the coming weeks, as Third Ypres morphs into Passchendaele.

Quigley is not there yet, but he came out in June and has been under fire on the line in France. He has written enough, it would seem, to have arrived at the need to write a major statement of purpose and declaration of his state of mind. This is, then, to put the analytical cart before the expository horse for us, but, alas, we go strictly by the dates:

Bertincourt, 27 August, 1917

After all, the worse I can get just now goes to a hardening. All I want you to consider is this: that so far I have told the unvarnished truth, coloured bareness in places, given sordid things a new gleam which might enliven them to my idea, but make them more squalid still perhaps to yours, but I have never consciously said things were well with me when they were not…

Thus I don’t want you to lay too much stress on any sickness you think to find in my letters; it is a mood rather than a condition…

One could easily  say: “I am in the pink”, etc., in every screed, but what’s the good of that? That has no value to anybody, least of all to the man who writes it. A letter, as I conceive it, is at best a picture… of the writer, and as such should be inherently true…

So far, war has remained a romance to me…

If I can keep patience, the cards will fall to me soon and give me a winning hand. I am sure of that…[2]

 

Edwin Vaughan has evolved a similar commitment to truth-in-reportage. But his diary has very little of the tract about it–it’s less a disquisition on truth to mood than a novel narrated by its moody protagonist. Vaughan is concerned to record each dip and dive of his spirits as it occurs, affording equal attention to his external experience and the emotions that shape it. Vaughan has now spent a long night and day under fire just behind the British front lines. An attack is planned, and his company is to be in reserve–but in the Salient there is really nowhere to hide…

August 27

In the rations came a gift from General Fanshawe which consisted of a special meat and vegetable meal in a self-heating tin called ‘Auto bouillant’. They were remarkably good and the troops blessed Fanny for a hot meal. There were also a lot of cold cooked rabbits in the rations! I said to Dunham jokingly. ‘You hang on to my rabbit, I’m going to eat that on Langemarck Ridge.’

Just after midnight I made my way over to the Boilerhouse where Pepper now had his HQ. He was in fairly cheerful mood but ridiculed the idea of attempting the attack. The rain had stopped for the time being, but the ground was utterly impassable being covered with water for 30 yards at a stretch in some parts, and everywhere shell-holes full of water. He showed me the final orders which detailed zero hour for 1.55 p.m.—a midday attack! My instructions were that at zero minus 10 (i.e. 1.45) I was to move my troops forward to the line of the Steenbeck. Then as the barrage opened Wood was to rush forward with three platoons to the gunpits while I reported to Colonel Hanson in the pillbox next to the Boilerhouse. While we were talking a message arrived from Brigade: ‘There is a nice drying wind. The attack will take place. Render any final indents for materials forthwith.’

Pepper read this out to me in a tone which implied ‘This is the end of us!’ Then he scribbled a few words on a message pad and tossed it across saying, ‘Shall I send that?’ He had indented for ‘96 pairs Waterwings. Mark III’. I laughed and bade him ‘cheerio’. As I went out, I met the CO moving up to his HQ. He stopped for a moment while I explained why I had done no work. Then I said ‘It doesn’t look very promising for the attack. Sir.’ ‘No,’ he said, seriously, ‘but it’s too late to put it off now.’ Then we parted and I returned to my blockhouse.

Wood was still lying on his bed in a fuddled state with eyes staring out of his head, and as I turned in I thought to myself bitterly, ‘What chance have we got of putting up a show tomorrow! My only officer out of action already and me commanding a company in which I don’t know a single man and only about two NCOs by sight. Thank God Merrick is a sergeant major I can hang my shirt on!’

…at 10 o’clock I went up to HQ to see if there were any new instructions. I took with me an old oilsheet with which to cover that distressing body at Steenbeck. My impression that his chest was white had been erroneous, for he is coal black but had dragged his tunic open to try to staunch his wound, and now a more or less white vest was exposed. I covered him up because I was frightened of his unnerving me when I passed him for the last time at zero hour.

…As the hands of my watch whirled round I busied myself with totally unnecessary enquiries and admonitions amongst the troops in order to keep my mind free from fear.Then from my wrist in lines of fire flashed 1.45, and feeling icy cold from head to foot I took my troops out and through the ominous silence of the bright midday we advanced in line to the Steenbeck Stream.

My position in the centre of the Company brought me right into my oilsheeted friend; I had grimly appreciated this when an 18-pounder spoke with a hollow, metallic ‘Bong’; then came three more deliberate rounds: ‘Bong! Bong! Bong!’ An instant later, with one mighty crash, every gun spoke, dozens of machine guns burst into action and the barrage was laid. Instantaneously the enemy barrage crashed upon us, and even as I rose, signalling my men to advance, I realized that the Germans must have known of our attack and waited at their guns.

Advancing behind the main attack, Vaughan and his men soon reach the Battalion HQ blockhouse he had visited in the morning.

At the Boilerhouse I sent Wood on to the gunpits with three platoons, while I grouped my HQ staff under shelter of the concrete wall before reporting to the CO. I found him peering round the corner of the pillbox watching the attack
and I stood beside him. With a laboured groaning and clanking, four tanks churned past us to the Triangle. I was dazed, and straining my eyes through the murk of the battle I tried to distinguish our fellows, but only here and there was a figure moving. In the foreground I saw some of Wood’s men reach the gunpits, but the bullets were cracking past my head, sending chips of concrete flying from the wall; the CO pulled me back under cover and I heard him muttering ‘What’s happened? What’s happened?’

Then, standing on the road in front with drums of ammunition in each hand, I saw Lynch shaking and helpless with fear. I ran out and told him to go forward. ‘Oh, I can’t. Sir, I can’t,’ he moaned. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ I said, ‘you will be safer in the gunpits than you are here—right in the barrage.’ ‘Oh, I can’t walk,’ he cried, and I shook him. ‘You know what your duty is,’ I told him. ‘Are you going to let Rogers and Osborne and the rest go forward while you stay here?’

‘No, Sir!’ he said, and ran across the road. Before he had gone three yards he fell dead…

The hours crept on; our barrage had lifted from the German line and now was falling on Langemarck Ridge. At last, when sick with the uncertainty and apprehension the CO, Mortimore, Coleridge and I were huddled in the tiny cubicle of HQ, a runner arrived with a report from Taylor that the attack was completely held up: ‘casualties
very heavy’…

It is time, then, to send up the reserves. There’s little that I could add to this culminating experience of Vaughan’s war-so-far–somehow, once again, death and misery and fragmenting minds mix with the hollow laughter of a grim, evil slapstick. This is the clutching, scrabbling, desperate, muddy futility that will make “Passchendaele” rival any of the other horror-evoking place names of the British war.

It was then 6.30 p.m. With grey face the CO turned to me saying, ‘Go up to the gunpits, Vaughan, and see if you can do anything. Take your instructions from Taylor.’ As I saluted, backing out of the low doorway, he added forlornly: ‘Good luck.’ I called up my HQ staff and told them that we were making for the gunpits, warning them to creep and dodge the whole way. Then I ran across the road and dived into the welter of mud and water, followed by Dunham and—at intervals—by the eight signallers and runners.

Immediately there came the crackle of bullets and mud was spattered about me as I ran, crawled and dived into shellholes, over bodies, sometimes up to the armpits in water, sometimes crawling on my face along a ridge of slimy mud around some crater. Dunham was close behind me with a sandbag slung over his back. As I neared the gunpits I saw a head rise above a shell-hole, a mouth opened to call something to me, but the tin hat was sent flying and the face fell forward into the mud. Then another head came up and instantly was struck by a bullet. This time the fellow was only grazed and, relieved at receiving a blighty, he jumped out, shaking off a hand that tried to detain him. He ran back a few yards, then I saw him hit in the leg; he fell and started to crawl, but a third bullet got him and he lay still.

I had almost reached the gunpits when I saw Wood looking at me, and actually laughing at my grotesque capers. Exhausted by my efforts, I paused a moment in a shell-hole; in a few seconds I felt myself sinking, and struggle as I might I was sucked down until I was firmly gripped round the waist and still being dragged in. The leg of a corpse was sticking out of the side, and frantically I grabbed it; it wrenched off, and casting it down I pulled in a couple of rifles and yelled to the troops in the gunpit to throw me more. Laying them flat I wriggled over them and dropped, half dead, into the wrecked gun position.

Here I reported to Taylor and was filled with admiration at the calm way in which he stood, eyeglass firmly fixed in his ashen face, while bullets chipped splinters from the beam beside his head. He told me that the attack had not even reached the enemy front line, and that it was impossible to advance across the mud. Then he ordered me to take my company up the hard road to the Triangle and to attack Springfield. He gave his instructions in such a matter-of-fact way that I did not feel alarmed, but commenced forthwith to collect ‘C’ Company men from the neighbouring shell-holes. Of all my HQ staff, only Dunham was left—the others had been picked off, and were lying with the numerous corpses that strewed the ground behind us. I sent Dunham all the way back to the Boilerhouse to lead the platoon from there up to the stranded tanks.

So many of our men had been killed, and the rest had gone to ground so well, that Wood and I could only collect a very few. The noise of the firing made shouting useless. I came across some of ‘C’ Company and amongst them MacFarlane and Sergeant Wilkes. I said to MacFarlane, ‘We’re going to try to take Springfield, will you come?’

‘No fear!’ he replied. ‘We’ve done our job.’

‘What about you, Wilkes?’

‘No, Sir. I’m staying here.’

Finally Wood and I led 15 men over to the tanks. The fire was still heavy, but now, in the dusk and heavy rain, the shots were going wide. As we reached the tanks, however, the Boche hailed shrapnel upon us and we commenced rapidly to have casualties. The awful spitting ‘coalboxes’ terrified the troops and only by cursing and driving could my wonderful Sergeant Major Merrick and myself urge them out of the shelter of the tanks.

Up the road we staggered, shells bursting around us. A man stopped dead in front of me, and exasperated I cursed him and butted him with my knee. Very gently he said ‘I’m blind. Sir,’ and turned to show me his eyes and nose torn
away by a piece of shell. ‘Oh God! I’m sorry, sonny,’ I said. ‘Keep going on the hard part,’ and left him staggering back in his darkness…

Perhaps it can’t get worse than that. The attack continues, the German position is overrun, the garrison surrenders, only to be mowed down by their own guns as they are sent to the rear. Vaughan calls off any further advance and takes stock of the prize.

It was a strongly-built pillbox, almost undamaged; the three defence walls were about ten feet thick, each with a machine gun position, while the fourth wall, which faced our new line, had one small doorway—about three feet square. Crawling through this I found the interior in a horrible condition; water in which floated indescribable filth reached our knees; two dead Boche sprawled face downwards and another lay across a wire bed. Everywhere was dirt and rubbish and the stench was nauseating.

On one of the machine gun niches lay an unconscious German officer, wearing two black and white medal ribbons; his left leg was torn away, the bone shattered and only a few shreds of flesh and muscle held it on. A tourniquet had been applied, but had slipped and the blood was pouring out. I commenced at once to readjust this and had just stopped the bleeding when he came round and gazed in bewilderment at my British uniform. He tried to struggle up, but was unable to do so and, reassuring him, I made him comfortable, arranging a pillow out of a Boche pack. He asked me faintly what had happened, and in troops’ German I told him ‘Drei caput-—others Kamerad,’ at which he dropped back his head with a pitiful air of resignation…

I picked up a German automatic from the bed and in examining it, loosed off a shot which hit the concrete near the Boche’s head; he gave a great start and turned towards me, smiling faintly when he saw that it was accidental. Then he commenced to struggle to reach his tunic pocket; I felt in it for him and produced three pieces of sugar. Taking them in his trembling hand, he let one fall into the water, gazing regretfully after it; another he handed to me. It was crumbling and saturated with blood so I slipped it into my pocket whilst pretending to eat it. I now produced some bread and meat; he would not have any, but I ate heartily sitting on the wire bed with my feet in the water and my hands covered in mud and blood. Dunham was sitting near me and pointing to the shapeless mass of mud-soaked sandbag I asked, ‘What the hell are you carrying in there Dunham?’

‘Your rabbit. Sir!’ he replied stoutly. ‘You said you would eat it on Langemarck Ridge.’

But The Three Musketeers this isn’t. The worst of it, now, is that there can be no evacuation, for either side, from such a tenuous forward position.

But when he had peeled off the sacking, we decided to consign the filthy contents to the watery grave below. Now with a shrieking and crashing, shells began to descend upon us from our own guns, while simultaneously German guns began to shell their own lines. In my haversack all this time I had been carrying a treasure which I now produced—a box of 100 Abdulla Egyptians. I had just opened the box when there was a rattle of rifles outside and a voice yelled ‘Germans coming over. Sir!’ Cigarettes went flying into the water as I hurled myself through the doorway and ran forward into the darkness where my men were firing. I almost ran into a group of Germans and at once shouted ‘Ceasefire!’ for they were unarmed and were ‘doing Kamerad’.

The poor devils were terrified; suspicious of a ruse I stared into the darkness while I motioned them back against the wall with my revolver. They thought I was going to shoot them and one little fellow fell on his knees babbling about his wife and ‘Zwei kindern’. Going forward I found that several of the party were dead and another died as I dragged him in. The prisoners clustered round me, bedraggled and heartbroken, telling me of the terrible time they had been having, ‘Nichts essen,’ ‘Nichts trinken,’ always shells, shells, shells! They said that all of their company would willingly come over. I could not spare a man to take them back, so I put them into shell-holes with my men who made great fuss of them, sharing their scanty rations with them…

From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell-holes, and now the water was rising about them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning. Horrible visions came to me with those cries—of Woods and Kent, Edge and Taylor, lying maimed out there trusting that their pals would find them, and now dying terribly, alone amongstthe dead in the inky darkness. And we could do nothing to help them; Dunham was crying quietly beside me, and all the men were affected by the piteous cries.

How long, I wondered, could this situation last. No message had reached me from HQ and at any moment the Boche might launch a counter-attack to recover Springfield. My pitiful defences would be slaughtered in a few minutes, and behind us, as far as I knew, was no second line, though somewhere in rear was the 4th Berks Battalion in reserve. We had no Very lights and only the ammunition that we carried in our pouches. In desperation I returned to the pillbox and commenced to flash messages back to HQ—knowing all the time that they could not be read through the rain and mist.

Suddenly, at 11.15, there came the squelching sound of many bodies ploughing through the mud behind. Wildly wondering whether the Boche had worked round behind us, I dashed back yelling a challenge; I was answered by
Coleridge who had brought up a company of 4th Berks. ‘To reinforce us?’ I asked.

‘No. To relieve you’—and my heart leapt…

No–this is the worst, the discovery of what has become of the wounded as Vaughan and the survivors of his company retrace their steps across the battlefield.

The cries of the wounded had much diminished now, and as we staggered down the road, the reason was only too apparent, for the water was right over the tops of the shellholes. From survivors there still came faint cries and loud
curses. When we reached the line where the attack had broken we were surrounded by the men who earlier had cheered us on. Now they lay groaning and blaspheming, and often we stopped to drag them up on to the ridges of earth. We lied to them all that the stretcher-bearers were coming, and most resigned themselves to a further agony of waiting. Some cursed us for leaving them, and one poor fellow clutched my leg, and screaming ‘Leave me, would you? You Bastard!’ he dragged me down into the mud. His legs were shattered and when Coleridge pulled his arms apart, he rolled towards his rifle, swearing he would shoot us. We took his rifle away and then continued to drag fellows out as we slowly proceeded towards HQ. Our runner was dead beat and we had to carry him the last part of the way.

I hardly recognized the Boilerhouse, for it had been hit by shell after shell and at its entrance was a long mound of bodies. Crowds of Berks had run there for cover and hadbeen wiped out by shrapnel. I had to climb over them to enter HQ, and as I did so, a hand stretched out and clung to my equipment. Horrified I dragged a living man from amongst the corpses. The shallow passageways and ruined cubicles were filled with wounded, amongst whom the medical staff were at work…

After reporting to his C.O., Vaughan is sent back to report to the brigadier.

…I went out and walked with Coleridge down the shell-swept road to St Julien, where, at the crossroads, a regular hail of shells was keeping most of the traffic out of the mud. But we were past caring, and walked through them unscathed. Before we reached Cheddar Villa our runner was killed and we dragged him out into a hole.

Brigade HQ was an elaborate concrete blockhouse with many rooms; I found Beart (the Brigadier Major) and Walker (Intelligence Officer) interrogating a German major. Beart greeted me cheerily and told me to go through to the Brigadier, so raising the blanket of an inner door I entered a small room lit by numerous candles. At a table covered by a clean cloth and bearing the remains of a meal sat Sladden, our Brigadier, and Watts, General commanding 145 Brigade. Sladden peered up at me, asking ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Vaughan of the Eighth, Sir,’ I replied, and he cordially bade me sit down while he poured me a whisky. He was very bucked to learn that we had come from Springfield and he asked me numerous questions about the intensity and accuracy of the barrage and the present dispositions of the enemy…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 224.
  2. Quigley, Passchendaele and the Somme, 103-5.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 219-231.

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.