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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Henry Williamson and Phillip Maddison Part Company; Frederic Manning is an Officer; Ivor Gurney to the Machine Guns; Edwin Vaughan Comes Up Empty

Henry Williamson‘s multi-volume novel follows his life fairly closely, except when it doesn’t. We saw a strange little omission, recently, of a bizarre claim, but now there is a different sort of divergence. Henry Williamson saw a great deal of combat early in the war and has been back in France conducting mule trains through shell-fire for several months–but he missed the great battles of 1916 and, after his supporting role during in Arras, he will miss the next major battle of 1917. But Phillip Maddison will not: Williamson sends his alter ego into virtually every major action of the war, leaving his own path for a fictional excursus constructed atop the Official History whenever battle is in the offing.

The novel–the present volume is Love and the Loveless–prints several weeks of a “diary” based closely (except for the suppressed tale noted above) on the real diary, running up through the 27th. Today, however, the contrast becomes rather sharp. The diary:

Wednesday, 30 May  Raining a bit… went to concert in evening. Lost revolver.[1]

And the novel:

30 Wed  The great Whore of Death on the way to challenge her rival, Krupp’s Iron Virgin. Hung with black, veils, she is lugged to the bridal chamber, served by her pollinating dupes. This monster from the dark side of the moon.

It’s not that Henry Williamson doesn’t write like that c1917–he does a pretty good pastiche of his younger self, actually–it’s that the “historical” Williamson remains on a semi-active section of the front while Phillip Maddison announces, with this melodramatically dire diary entry, that he is on his way to Messines, site of the next British offensive.

By chance–or fate!–the march of his Machine Gun Company from railhead to combat positions passes by some enormous but carefully concealed mine openings behind the lines of Messines Ridge. Phillip, a countryman like his creator, hears nightingales in the wood and recognizes huge dumps of clay from the local subsoil (geologically adjacent to that of his home territory) rather than the surface. His captain confides the great secret of the very deep mines, pushed far under the German lines, and set to explode in a few days time…[2]

 

A few other items of business.

First, Frederic Manning, the period of service in the ranks on the Somme that will give rise to his novel now long behind him, was commissioned today, a century back, into the Royal Irish Regiment. Whether he will stick in this second attempt at becoming an officer remains to be seen…[3]

 

Also today, Edwin Vaughan, recently returned to the line and intending to go out on patrol, was disappointed in his bloody new hopes…

…in bunches of six we passed out through the wire… with infinite caution we advanced into the neutral ground of shadows and mystery, every sense alert for the faintest sign of a German patrol. With bayonets lowered and finger on trigger, crawling by inches up to every dark form (which turned out to be a bush or a haycock), worming our way along hedges–for three hours we sought for an enemy patrol to surprise and attack, but… we saw no Boche…[4]

 

Ivor Gurney, however, is headed in the opposite direction, and very much relieved. Actually, his letter of today to Herbert Howells mentions going “up the Line tonight,” but it also makes it clear that he has, at last, been transferred away from the infantry duty that is breaking down his body and sent instead to work for the machine guns: “they have give me a new number and badge of servitude — 241281.”[5] For the time being, at least, it seems that Gurney will live with a desirable compromise: he will remain with his battalion, with men he understands and feels affection for, but his job will be to support the local Machine Gun Company–and that will keep him slightly further back than an ordinary infantryman, no longer subject to nighttime patrols or raids.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 157.
  2. Love and the Loveless, 140-44.
  3. The Last Exquisite, 129.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 139-40.
  5. War Letters, 164-5. See also The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 100.

Herbert Read Writes of Reading Writers Aright; Praise for Siegfried’s Lines; Henry Williamson’s Dark Journey; Vera Brittain Starts for Home

We’ll begin today with a letter from Herbert Read to Evelyn Roff. We don’t know Read well, and he’s different from many of our young officers–he reads Nietzsche! he hails from Yorkshire!–but, then again, not really all that different. He’s just another young poet, missing the English spring and reporting on his ambitious reading…

22.V.17

Your letter arrived yesterday and did indeed manage to convey to me the very spirit of spring in England, so that I was away in Yorkshire, with the daffodils in Farndale and the brown moors reviving with green–until my eyes were dim and my breath was still . . .  and then I began to curse the chance that makes of me an exile, and then to curse myself for a sentimental fool.

Spring we do have here, but in an abortive sort of way. The felled trees bloom, but for the last time, and forget-me-nots spring up among the ruins. But everything is sad, and our few flowers are like wreaths among so much desolation.

The lull I told you of is lasting longer than we expected, and we have now been in rest ten days. It is significant that during this time I have never been tempted to write to you–our present existence is rather passive and unimpressive. We spent most of the first week cleaning–skins and clothes. We are up early, drilling, etc., until noon, and then the rest of the day is left to our own devices, which mostly taking the form of football, riding, eating, reading, and various shooting competitions…

But any day–any hour–we expect sudden orders to back into the thick of it. And none of us really cares how soon those order come, for the sooner our fate is settled the better, we argue.

And that is that. The letter then turns to literature, as these letters so often do. Read and Roff’s mutual attraction is to some degree intellectual… which is to say that Read seems very interested in proclaiming and explaining his opinions. Despite her careful praise for Read’s youthful first volume of poems, Songs of Chaos, Roff’s other opinions do not meet with unconditional approval:

…I don’t see how Kipling fits in. He is one of my bêtes noires–a landmark in Philistia, though that is rather a rash judgment of the author of Kim and Puck of Pook’s Hill. It’s the man’s Idealism that is wrong–not his pure imagination. I’ll second your favour of Richard Jeffries and Morris, and Ruskin is good as art… Matthew Arnold no bon… The Rossettis are fine…[1]

Read doesn’t write much like our other poets–his “wreaths among so much desolation” seem at once those of an unreconstructed Romantic and a budding free verse rebel–but his reading is certainly “correct.” It will take a while for the appreciation of Kipling’s style and fertility and constancy to escape the bonds of his association with militarism and empire, but William Morris lurks behind many of our writers (Tolkien not least) and Richard Jeffries was beloved of both Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas. The boy just have to get himself to London… although Ypres is in the way.

 

Two days ago I mentioned a… highly improbable statement by Henry Williamson, namely that he had been sent on a flying visit to the War Office in London and somehow charmed his way into a new assignment on a signal course. His diary records nothing of the kind, but mentions that he is to be sent to a signalling course in one of the rear areas in France.

In today’s letter to his mother, however, he repeats the tale:

22 May

Dear Mother, Just a short note to let you know I am O.K., and a staff job at last!!! And on Army Staff Corps too!!! I got it by luck–went to the W.O. the other day special duty, & came back to a course, & clicked at once.

This makes no sense. The editor of his papers breaks in with a rare parenthetical to write that “there is no detail or confirmation of this rather extraordinary event.” Worse, there is no further bragging or later fictionalizing, which are de rigueur with Williamson.

So it seems clear that he just made the story up, for no reason (that I can see) other than to impress his mother and mislead his family. They are meant to think, I guess, that he has somehow “wangled” a “staff” job, when in fact he has merely been sent to learn signal work, either because the Army likes sending officers on courses or because his own unit wants to be rid of him…[2]

 

Before we come to a leave-taking in Malta, let’s take this pleasant interlude from the pen of none other than Alfred Percival Graves, Celtophile, man of letters, and father to Robert. He, too, has been urged by son to read his friend’s verses and–despite possible misgivings about the satiric tone of some of the poems–he wrote approvingly to Siegfried Sassoon today, a century back, in (light) verse of his own.

The Hindenburg Line
By bombardment and mine,
We may wear through,
Or tear through
Or powder quite fine,
But I Donner-wetter!
I know of a better
And mightier line!
None other can shape it…

The Siegfried we call it.

Yours really delighted with the Old Huntsman and other poems,

A.P.G.[3]

 

Finally, then, Vera Brittain. She has decided to come home, to be of what use she can to her family–and to Victor Richardson, last of her brother’s intimate friends, blind and badly wounded. She is breaking her contract as a V.A.D., but this is permissible, and, really, the bureaucracy has been surprisingly swift in giving its permission and sending her home. She will look back on today as the beginning of a journey with nothing of the romance that clung to the journey out.

On May 22nd, with a small home party of home-going Sisters and V.A.D.s, I began my long, dirty and uncomfortable journey to an England that seemed, at the outset, curiously improbable and remote. We had to send our heavy luggage by sea… and were allowed to carry only one package, into which, disregarding uniform and equipment, I stuffed the silks, laces, pale blue kimono and other treasures acquired in Valleta. We were told to carry food for six days, and filled our haversacks with bread, butter, tinned milk and potted meat, all of which had become repulsively languid by the end of the second outrageously hot day. Somehow I found a corner for my diary…

Yes, her neglected diary. Well, habits change, and, alas, it will continue to be neglected, leaving us more dependent on reminiscence and correspondence. But she did describe today, a century back:

May 22nd

Left Malta. I hated to go, for I had been very happy there, & it was a real pain to say goodbye to Stella, with whom I have been for so long.

We were taken by transport to Grand Harbour, & after waiting on docks for about an hour, put on the Isonzo. It was a rough, wet & stormy day, & as there were no chairs we had to sit on deck on our piled-up luggage. We had not been long out of the harbour when the waves seemed mountains high &: the ship pitched & rolled to an angle, as they afterwards told us, of 42°. All the luggage piled up at the back, to say nothing of ourselves, rolled down the deck right as far as the rails. This happened three times; the last time I sat in almost two inches of dirty water, & slid in it nearly down to the rails, which effectually ruined all the clothes I had on.[4]

To this cranky diarist’s account she will add, much later, a smooth memoir-writer’s touch.

I do not know why I omitted an incident which I recalled long after other details of the journey were forgotten–the melancholy sadness of listening, at sunset in Syracuse harbour, to the “Last Post” being sounded for a Japanese sailor who had been washed overboard from the destroyer that had acted as our convoy across the turbulent Mediterranean.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience 95-6.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 154.
  3. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 362.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 341.
  5. Testament of Youth, 347-8.

Adlestrop Arrives; Kate Luard Quotes a Critique: “It Seems a Pity;” Battle Pieces and Counter-Bombardments: Two Ways to Observe a Battle, with Guy Chapman; Herbert Read Arrives; Duff and Diana Read the Source

None of Edward Thomas‘s poems appeared under his own name while he lived. Today, a century back, The New Statesman published what will become his best known and most widely loved poem, Adlestrop.

He would have been less interested, I think, in such fame than in the praise he has won from friends, above all the words which were just sent by Frost for the comfort of his widow.

But there are other traditional assessments of death and its qualities, hardly less conditional in their predication of judgments to the mind of the deceased: some might say something like “at least we can say that Edward Thomas had a quick and painless death.” I distrust cliches on such unfathomable topics, but perhaps we can inch toward comprehending such a sentiment as we read accounts which describe the sufferings of those who die slowly.)

 

Which brings us to Kate Luard, who continues to take stock of the pain of the Battle of Arras. Her celebration of courage never wavers, but I questioned recently whether that very celebration–absent any sense that the war’s cost might be protested by the men bearing the worst of it–isn’t more problematic than it might seem. Sister Luard is not about to turn protestor, but she seems almost to have heard the question, posed a century on, and opened up her record of the war to one short, stoic query of all this suffering. If she won’t ask the question, she will let one of her patients–to whom she has accidentally been cruelly (by her own lights) honest–speak freely. (And, indeed, what could someone already devoting all her time and energy to nursing the wounded of both sides do, but write?)

There’s a handsome Scot with one leg off who asked me last night to take his socks off. I took one off. ‘Have you taken the other off, too?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said guiltily; ‘they’re both off now.’ Next day Sister told me he knew his leg was off, but he didn’t. To-night he said, ‘My feet are hot.’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘especially the one you haven’t got, I suppose?’ (It always is the one they feel most.) ‘Have I got but one?’ he said. I was covered with confusion. ‘Ah, well, I can see by what ye say I’ve got but one, but it’s no matter. I feel a pain in them whiles, but I can smile between the pains. I’ve got two daughters and a wee son I’ve never seen. I know what I’ll do when I do see them. Don’t I know!’ (And I’m afraid he’s in for gas gangrene and may not see them.) Then he looked round the ward at all the stumps and splints and heads and said, ‘Seems a pity nearly everyone has to get like this before Peace is declared.'[1]

 

From Sister Luard, then, to the Royal Welch, where the semi-official chronicle of Dr. Dunn also draws a very thin, sharp line between the truth of war and the lies that spring up like mushrooms in the mud.

The account of our recent action which G.H.Q. has received and published makes very interesting reading. “Our troops charged down the ridge,” “driving the enemy down at a canter”: of aught else–nothing. What artistry!

…Rumour is never so busy as during a fight. Following the fight comes the legend, and it grows hourly as individuals, often far away, and units gather to themselves credit and garlands, or have these thrust upon them for the credit of someone else. It’s all so human and amusing.[2]

Amusing, perhaps, but only to those on one side of the experiential gulf. G.H.Q. may be in France, but it is far from the troops, and the truth.

 

Guy Chapman‘s A Passionate Prodigality is one of the best books written about the war, and both its subject and its execution fit this project up and down. Except for the alight problem that Chapman, another literary young officer, never gives dates. But today, shortly after Chapman is sent down from the staff to find his battalion (the 13th Royal Fusiliers), I get a rare chance to match his memoir to a historically recognizable action. We won’t really be able to track his development, so this is s snippet to recommend a worthy book to enterprising readers–and to advance today’s accidental discussion of truth in battlefield historiography.

The attack was to be launched at streak of dawn, 4.25; and at that moment a wild racket was once more loosed into the void. Once more the curtain of darkness was changed to a whirling screen in which flaming clusters, red, orange and gold, dropped and died; and dun smoke, illuminated by explosions, drifted away greyish white. Once more red and green rockets called frantically for aid. Once more eyes stared into the impenetrable cataract, vainly trying to pick out familiar outlines. The enemy’s barrage joined the din. Black columns of smoke stormed up in the foreground. And through it all came wave on wave of the malicious chitter of machine guns.

But Chapman isn’t in the attack; he is watching from a hill–at least at the start. He is no Epicurean, and does not find the spectacle a soothing one. His account of watching the attack from a distance harmonizes marvelously with the Royal Welch complaint about “battle piece” obfuscations.

The story of this attack will no doubt appear in the military history of the war, elucidated by diagrams. To the watchers on the hill-side it was only a confused medley, in which English and Germans appeared most disconcertingly going to and fro, oblivious of each other. Even later it was only possible to glean that one brigade had lost direction, and coming up behind the flank of the other after the position had been taken, had swept on, carrying away with it the better part of two companies of the 13th; that some reached Square Wood, a mile past the objective, and that perhaps a dozen in all returned. This is part of history, but all we were able to see were some of the ingredients.

Chapman is no doubt right about how the battle will look in large-scale histories, but, ironically, his later “gleaning” seems to derive from either the official regimental history or a common source among regimental papers:

On April 28th began that series of attacks which aimed principally, if not wholly, at assisting the French. The 13th Battalion attacked from the trenches about 300 yards east of the Gavrelle-Roeux road. Their objective was the Whip cross-roads, south-east of Gavrelle. The attack began at 4.25 a.m…  At 10.15 a.m… Nos. 3 and 4, held the road, including the cross-roads, for some 250 yards. The success was complete though the Fusiliers had been constantly harassed by fire from snipers and machine guns…

While the Fusiliers were on their objective a body of the 63rd Brigade swept across their front leading towards Square Wood from the south-west. They had lost direction, but they succeeded in carrying a body of Fusiliers with them until they were recalled. The 10th Battalion, in support of the 13th on their right flank, had made persistent attempts to get into touch with this brigade, but without success.[3]

Just one more brief bit of Chapman. He sees the German counter-attack massing and tries to help, rushing to alert the gunner-observers on the hill with him. But they know their business, and Chapman is once more forced to be the more passive sort of observer, and a very different sort of ancient Roman exemplar from the smooth-browed Epicurean philosopher:

I caught in my glass a grey ant crawling over the edge of the railway cutting, followed by another, and then more…

When I looked again, the assembled ants had moved. They came crawling over the top of Greenland Hill in three lines, about six hundred strong. They were just starting down the forward slope when something flashed in front of them. A column of bright terra-cotta smoke was flung upwards so high, that there shot into my memory the pictures of the djinns in an old copy of the Arabian Nights, and I half expected a leering hook-nosed face to look down from its summit…

More Germans join the counter-attack.

All the field guns were firing now. In what seemed a few minutes this formation too was scattered. Small groups tried to escape by flinging away to the flank. ‘One-o degrees more right, up fifty,’ shouted my neighbour.  A little puff of white smoke danced gallantly in the air. A few tiny figures shrank to dots. ‘Got ’em,’ he shouted; ‘Repeat.’ other officers up and down the trench were excitedly calling similar orders. In ten minutes the counter-attack was broken, smashed, and tossed in the air like a handful of dust: and up here everyone was whooping, laughing, and holloing. We were a Roman audience at the Coliseum, bull-fighting fans at a fiesta, good citizens who brown a pack of grouse tearing down the October wind: we were in fact a group of young Englishmen who had just helped to knock out about a thousand Boche, and we were damned glad about it.

His counter-attacks broken, the enemy spent the day shelling what he could get at. One shuddered to think of flesh cringing beneath the huge shells which fell again and again along the battered line. Darkness came gently in. I turned as I crossed the skyline. Solitary shells were singing through the air. Dull crunches announced their arrival in the distance. A dump was burning in Plouvain, and against its lights, black ghosts towered upwards.[4]

 

Another young officer and powerful writer will shortly become a bit easier to keep tabs on. Herbert Read has returned to the fight, and joins our recent company of subalterns quite pleased with their new company.:

28.iv.17

I arrived at my battalion last night, after wandering over the face of France for three days…

I am in the thick of the new fighting. We are not in the trenches, but expect to go up sooner or later. But it is intensely interesting: no fear of getting bored here. The guns are going all day and night. this morning, very early, we were wakened by a furious strafe. You know what ordinary thunder is like: imagine that continuous for a couple of hours and yourself not listening to it, but inside the heart of it: that’s something like it. And then the air is one continuous quiver of gun-flashes…

I like my new battalion very well on first impressions: there are three other officers in my company, and they are all very decent fellows… I expect I shall be quite happy. We are all optimists out here. We’ve got the Boche absolutely cowed, and our men are splendid. There are big events pending–and if they go as we expect the war will be over in no time. With a bit of ordinary luck I’ll see you sometime these summer holidays.[5]

 

And back in London, Duff Cooper continues to pursue Diana Manning, only to be continually driven to distraction by the interference of “Scatters.” Three days ago, Duff “went home in a black rage not only of jealousy and anger but also of sorrow that she should sink to such depths as Scatters.” Two days ago she called to apologize, and he accused her of “deteriorating” and confided in his diary that “I loved her less.”

Today, a century back, Duff and Diana made up–almost successfully. They had dinner and “a great quantity of champagne,” Afterwards, to get her back to his place, Duff

bribed her with the promise that she should read my diary. She came and I read her all the last month. I was drunk and had forgotten, when I started, the incident of reading hers, I had to go through with it. She took it well and assured me that she didn’t mind. I regretted bitterly having done it.[6]

Whether in France or in London we have strange optimism, questionable tactics, nonsensical strategy, and valor in the face of self-inflicted adversity…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 119.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 340-1.
  3. O'Neill, The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War.
  4. A Passionate Prodigality, 163-6.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 90-1.
  6. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 52-3.

Lady Feilding Consoles Mairi Chisholm; Rowland Feilding Prepares to Confer Blessings; Siegfried Sassoon in the Hindenburg Tunnel

Before we go down into the Hindenburg tunnel with Siegfried Sassoon, a brief update on our two far-flung Feilding cousins. Lady Dorothie Feilding remains on duty in Belgium (now a quiet sector of the line) and is a good object lesson, today, on how the expectations of even the most enterprising and fearless women remain very different than those of the men who go to war. She has been working as an ambulance driver since 1914, but–it’s true–she’s had many leaves. Some of these we can chalk up to privilege and her irregular situation. Others seem not so much given to her as taken in order to forestall any accusation of heartless abandonment: as an unmarried woman, her first duty is to console. So one long leave was spent at home after her brother was killed while another was spent accompanying her sister on a mission to retrieve her husband by means of a Swiss-facilitated prisoner exchange.

And now her friends need her support. We spent a little time with Elsie Knocker (now the Baroness T’Serclaes) and Mairi Chisholm in the early days of the war when they moved in precisely the same circles as Lady Feilding. They are still nearby, in the Cellar House which made their name (but the book doesn’t hold a candle to Lady Feilding’s letters):

April 15th

Mother dearest–

The world is a very sad place–I have just been spending today busy up at N which is active, but mostly on our part, & last night with Mairi Chisholm at P in the old cellar house where she is now. The Baroness was away & she was all alone poor kiddie & very unhappy as the boy she had just got engaged to, young Jack Petre,–our cousin in the RNAS [Royal Naval Air Service] was killed 2 days ago in his machine on the Somme. They were only engaged privately so don’t talk about it but I am so sorry for the poor little kid–she feels it dreadfully–all the more because she is a very quiet reserved little soul, & as charming as the Baroness is 3rd rate which is saying a lot.

I am dreadfully sorry about it, he was such a nice boy & had a brilliant career. His machine came down like a stone through engine trouble while flying over the aerodrome & he was killed at once…

Love from Diddles[1]

 

It was just yesterday that Kate Luard, on the Somme, noted how many airmen were coming down. And before we get to the Somme, I want to stop for one more paragraph in Flanders, where Rowland Feilding, like his cousin a Catholic, reports to his wife on a special gift to his battalion of the Connaught Rangers.

April 15, 1917 (Sunday).

Rossignol Estaminet (near Kemmel).

This morning (Sunday) the Chaplain has been going round the Companies, which are scattered, saying Mass, and speaking to the men about your miniature crucifixes. He explained all about these;—how you had arranged to have them blessed by the Pope, specially for this battalion; how Cardinal Bourne had brought them from Rome; and how, next Sunday, when we shall be back behind the trenches, we are to have a Parade Mass, when they will be distributed. And he said many nice things about you… We go back to the front line this afternoon.[2]

 

But our protagonist, for now, must be Sassoon. We left him, yesterday, exhausted but on the brink of action, as another battalion prepared to push the subterranean attack on the Hindenburg Line near Arras. So let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of the tactical situation. If the opening day of the battle of Arras was a great success, tactically, it has become a predictable and awful slog. Having penetrated the German lines, the British troops are now trying to hold their new gains, under-strength and able to resupply only over the devastated ground they’ve gained, while the Germans counter-attack with fresh troops from prepared defenses along direct lines. The Germans seem to be determined, however, not to leave their strongest new fortifications in British hands.

We have heard much of the Hindenburg line, but not yet seen much of this “truly wonderful piece of engineering.” Now we will see not only a portion of the line–two linked trench systems running on either side of a ridge near Arras–but of the tunnel underneath:

Beneath the support trench, at a depth of 40 feet, was a huge dug-out or tunnel some 6 feet 6 inches high, and said to be 2 miles long in this portion. It was fitted down the middle with tiers of bunks, and small living-rooms and store rooms opened off it…[3]

This is the only available field of valor for Siegfried Sassoon, second in command of B Company, 2nd Royal Welch, and temporary detached bombing officer. And the same goes, of course, for “George Sherston” of the Flintshire Fusiliers: let’s jog from diary and history into the vivid colors and tense emotions of fictionalized memoir. In doing so we will also step back a full day, picking up the narrative of last night, when the unit is first led into the tunnel system.

At a midnight halt the hill still loomed in front of us; the guides confessed that they had lost their way, and Leake decided to sit down and wait for day­light. (There were few things more uncomfortable in the life of an officer than to be walking in front of a party of men all of whom knew that he was leading them in the wrong direction.) With Leake’s permission I blundered experimen­tally into the gloom, fully expecting to lose both myself and the company. By a lucky accident, I soon fell headlong into a sunken road and found myself among a small party of sappers who could tell me where I was. It was a case of, “Please, can you tell me the way to the Hindenburg Trench?” Congratulating myself on my cleverness, I took one of the sappers back to poor benighted B Company, and we were led to our battalion rendezvous…

We were at the end of a journey which had begun twelve days before, when we started from Camp Thirteen. Stage by stage, we had marched to the life‑denying region which from far away had threatened us with the blink and growl of its bombardments.[4] Now we were groping and stumbling along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of inhuman havoc. There must have been some hazy moonlight, for I remember the figures of men huddled against the sides of communication trenches; seeing them in some sort of ghastly glimmer—(was it, perhaps, the diffused whiteness of a sinking flare beyond the ridge?) I was doubtful whether they were asleep or dead, for the attitudes of many were like death, grotesque and distorted.

Here Sassoon–for it is the remembering mind that is front and center, not the lightly fictionalized character that is “seeing” these things by the uncertain light of the moon (or was it flares?)–breaks in to remind us what is at stake. Or, rather, what war literature of quality really is: something that can strive for truth but never reach it but still not betray it, while history (“it had been multiplied a millionfold,” below) tilts inevitably and asymptotically at impossible, revolving standards of certainty.[5]

But this is nothing new to write about, you will say; just a weary company, squeezing past dead or drowsing men while it sloshes and stumbles to a front line trench. Nevertheless, that night relief had its significance for me, though in human experience it had been multiplied a mil­lionfold. I, a single human being with my little stock of earthly experience in my head, was entering once again the veritable gloom and disaster of the thing called Armageddon. And I saw it then, as I see it now—a dreadful place, a place of hor­ror and desolation which no imagination could have invented. Also it was a place where a man of strong spirit might know himself utterly powerless against death and destruction, and yet stand up and defy gross darkness and stupefying shell fire, discovering in himself the invincible resistance of an animal or an insect, and an endurance which he might, in after days, forget or disbelieve.

Anyhow, there I was, leading that little procession of Flintshire Fusiliers, many of whom had never seen a front line trench before. At that juncture they asked no compensation for their efforts except a mug of hot tea. The tea would have been a miracle, and we didn’t get it till next morning, but there was some comfort in the fact that it wasn’t raining.

It was nearly four o’clock when we found ourselves in the Hindenburg Main Trench. After telling me to post the sentries, Leake disappeared down some stairs to the Tunnel. The company we were relieving had already departed, so there was no one to give me any infor­mation. At first I didn’t even know for certain that we were in the front line. The trench was a sort of gully: deep, wide, and unfinished looking. The sentries had to clamber up a bank of loose earth before they could see over the top. Our company was only about eighty strong and its sector was fully six hundred yards…

This would bring us up to the early morning of today, a century back.

Out in No Man’s Land there was no sign of any German activity. The only remarkable thing was the unbroken silence. I was in a sort of twilight, for there was a moony glimmer in the low‑clouded sky; but the unknown territory in front was dark, and I stared out at it like a man looking from the side of a ship. Returning to my own sector I met a runner with a verbal message from Battalion HQ. B Company’s front was to be thoroughly patrolled at once. Realizing the futility of sending any of my few spare men out on patrol (they’d been walking about for seven hours and were dead beat), I lost my temper, quietly and inward­ly. Shirley and Rees were nowhere to be seen, and it wouldn’t have been fair to send them out, inexperienced as they were. So I stumped along to our right‑flank post, told them to pass it along that a patrol was going out from right to left, and then started sulkily out for a solitary stroll in No Man’s Land. I felt more annoyed with Battalion Headquarters than with the enemy. There was no wire in front of the trench, which was, of course, constructed for people facing the other way. I counted my steps; two hundred steps straight ahead; then I began to walk the presumptive six hundred footsteps to the left. But it isn’t easy to count your steps in the dark among shell holes, and after a problematic four hundred I lost confidence in my automatic pistol, which I was grasping in my right‑hand breeches pocket. Here I am, I thought, alone out in this god forsaken bit of ground, with quite a good chance of bumping into a Boche strong‑post. Apparently there was only one reassuring action which I could perform; so I expressed my opinion of the war by relieving myself (for it must be remembered that there are other reliefs beside battalion reliefs). I insured my sense of direction by placing my pistol on the ground with its muzzle pointing the way I was going. Feeling less lonely and afraid, I finished my patrol without having met so much as a dead body, and regained the trench exactly opposite our left‑hand post after being huskily chal­lenged by an irresolute sentry, who, as I realized at the time, was the greatest danger I had encountered. It was now just beginning to be more daylight than darkness, and when I stumbled down a shaft to the underground trench, I left the sentries shivering under a red and rainy‑looking sky…

A laborious seven-hour trip to fetch ammunition eats up most of the day, which–together with the sleep deprivation he mentions–explains the tone of today’s diary entry:

Got back very wet and tired about 4.30…

Was immediately told I’d got to take command of a hundred bombers (the Battalion is only 270 strong!) to act as reserve for the First Cameronians in to-morrow’s attack. The Cameronians are to bomb down the two Hindenburg Lines, which they tried to do on Saturday and had rather a bad time. We may not be wanted. If we are it will be bloody work I know. I haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time since Tuesday night, but I am feeling pretty fit and cheery. I have seen the most ghastly sights since we came up here. The dead bodies lying about the trenches and in the open are beyond description—especially after the rain. (A lot of the Germans killed by our bombardment last week are awful.) Our shelling of the line—and subsequent bombing etc—has left a number of mangled Germans—they will haunt me till I die. And everywhere one sees the British Tommy in various states of dismemberment—most of them are shot through the head—so not so fearful as the shell-twisted Germans. Written at 9.30 sitting in the Hindenburg underground tunnel on Sunday night, fully expecting to get killed on Monday morning.[6]

This is a man torn between exhaustion and intense anxiety or anticipation. For once I think we can understand why the later account is more vivid and intense than the contemporary document. Elaborate memories will remain, “awful” images that will “haunt” him till he dies. Or, perhaps until these sense memories of revulsion too deep to be dealt with in a hurried diary entry–especially while all intellectual effort must be exerted to keep calm and perform in battle–can be written out, worked into literature.

So, although it is against the rules, I will concede my foreknowledge that Sassoon’s foreboding is incorrect: he will live to write tomorrow, and to re-write today.  The horrors had to be passed by, a century back; they had to be kept in the corner of the eye and stored in deep safe place in the mind. Afterwards, they force themselves back to the surface, and can be considered.

The unmitigated misery of that carrying party was a typical infantry experience of discomfort without actual danger. Even if the ground had been dry, the boxes would have been too heavy for most of the men; but we were lucky in one way: The wet weather was causing the artillery to spend an inactive Sunday. It was a yellow, corpselike day, more like November than April, and the landscape was desolate and treeless. What we were doing was quite unexceptional; millions of soldiers endured the same sort of thing and got badly shelled into the bargain. Nevertheless I can believe that my party, staggering and floundering under its loads, would have made an impressive pic­ture of “Despair.” The background, too, was appropriate. We were among the debris of the intense bombardment of ten days before, for we were passing along and across the Hindenburg Outpost Trench, with its belt of wire (fifty yards deep in places); here and there these rusty jungles had been flattened by tanks. The Outpost Trench was about two hundred yards from the Main Trench, which was now our front line. It had been solidly made, ten feet deep, with timbered firesteps, splayed sides, and timbered steps at intervals to front and rear and to machine‑gun emplacements. Now it was wrecked as though by earthquake and eruption. Concrete strong‑posts were smashed and tilted sideways; everywhere the chalky soil was pocked and pitted with huge shell holes; and wherever we looked the mangled effigies of the dead were our memento mori. Shell‑twisted and dismembered, the Germans maintained the violent attitudes in which they had died. The British had mostly been killed by bullets or bombs, so they looked more resigned. But I can remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from the soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accus­ing gesture. Each time I passed that place, the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the war. Who made the war? I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud‑stained mind. But I only laughed mentally, for my box of Stokes-gun ammunition left me no breath to spare for an angry guffaw. And the dead were the dead; this was no time to be pitying them or asking silly questions about their outraged lives. Such sights must be taken for granted, I thought, as I gasped and slithered and stumbled with my disconsolate crew. Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull.[7]

 

And in verse:

The Rear-Guard

(Hindenburg Line, April 1917)

 

Groping along the tunnel, step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.

 

Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes and too vague to know;
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;
And he, exploring fifty feet below
The rosy gloom of battle overhead.

 

Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw someone lie
Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug.
And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug.
“I’m looking for headquarters.” No reply.
“God blast your neck!” (For days he’d had no sleep.)
“Get up and guide me through this stinking place.”
Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard of ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.

 

Alone he staggered on until he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.
At last, with sweat and horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step.

 

Tomorrow, at last, Sassoon will go into action.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 204-5.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 167-8.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 328-9.
  4. The draft, of this section, which we read yesterday, is much more vivid!
  5. Established, by not-an-irony-but-rather-a-historical-coincidence-rooted-in-common-assumptions-rooted-in-social-and-intellectual-history, by German scholars coming out of exactly the same 19th century rationalist milieu that gave us the Prussian General Staff and the Schlieffen Plan.
  6. Diaries, 154-5.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 430-5.

Edward Thomas Wanders Off and Reads Eastaway; Siegfried Sassoon Inspects the Feet; Vera Brittain is Bitter and Rebellious; The Death of Arthur West

Edward Thomas is still confused about the liturgical calendar. He began a letter to Eleanor Farjeon today, a century back, under the impression that Easter had occurred a week earlier than it will have:

April 3

My dear Eleanor I didn’t discover the Egg till Easter Monday, because I was taking apples out one by one from a corner I had nibbled out. So now I must write again to thank you for an Easter Egg. It was such a lovely morning Easter Monday, though I can’t praise it so well today when the ground is snow slush and the wind very cold though not colder than my feet…[1]

And there the letter trails off… has he been called to the guns? To some reminder that Easter is still nearly a week off?

Thomas also wrote to Gordon Bottomley, but the date of Easter does not arise. It’s clear that Thomas’s rush has everything to do with expectation: he knows that the battle will begin soon.

My dear Gordon,

Your letter of the 28th of March has just come…  think I had better write back now as this is the eve, & I can’t help realizing that I may not have another opportunity. It is the end of a beautiful sunny day that began cold with snow. The air has been full of aeroplanes & shells & yet there have been clothes hanging up to dry in the sun outside my window which has glass in it, though whether it will tomorrow not even the Hun knows. The servants are chatting outside in their shirtsleeves & war is not for the moment dirty or ugly—as it was this morning, when I was well in front & the shining sun made ruins & rusty barbed wire & dead horses & deep filthy mud uglier than they are in the stormy weather or in the pale cold dawn…

Between beauty and ugliness, violence and idleness, time to talk poetry. Eight poems by “Edward Eastaway” have just been published.

I have not seen the Annual yet but by the same post as your letter came The Times review which I was quite pleased with. I don’t mind now being called inhuman & being told by a reviewer now that April’s here—in England now—that I am blind to the ‘tremendous life of these 3 years’. It would be the one consolation in finishing up out here to provide such reviewers with a conundrum, except that I know they would invent an answer if they saw that it was a conundrum.

This is a cold, wry assessment. Thomas was a powerful and precise poetry critic long before he was a poet, and these skills have not deserted him just because he is the poet in question. He knows that his poetry is too assured to fit neatly into any prefabricated category, and that, just as new poems by a pseudonymous author are criticized for not being overtly about the war, they would, if he were to be killed, inevitably come to be considered the work of a war poet. And both of these certainties are amusingly short-sighted. Being a powerful poet who chose not to address what he hadn’t yet experienced, he both is and isn’t a “war poet.” He’s a poet, and there’s a war on, and the weight of it sinks into any good poetry the way the stench of decay unavoidably permeates the cloth of uniforms worn in trenches.

And, since few critics are capable of knowing competent poetry from great poetry without external hints (the praise of others; a famous name) few suspect who this new, strangely assured poet “Edward Eastaway” might be. Should they be sniffing harder, to smell the war? Should they slow down and read the poetry and understand what it is, and why it might be published without a recognizable name?

Why do the idiots accuse me of using my eyes? Must I only use them with field-glasses & must I see only Huns in these beautiful hills eastwards & only hostile flashes in the night skies when I am at the Observation Post?

…No don’t tell anybody about Eastaway tho naturally I want people to want to know who he is…

Goodbye. Yours ever & Emily’s

Edward Thomas[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is marching toward the coming battle. But slowly enough for his diary to run the gamut–and include a poem too.

April 3

Left Corbie 9 a.m… Woman in our billet says that troops have been coming through (going toward Doullens and Arras) for fifteen days, never staying more than one night. The movements of our (33rd) Division are nebulous… Our billet is adorned with mouldy stuffed birds, with spread wings; a jay, a small hawk over the fireplace, and a seagull slowly revolving in draughts, hung from a string in the ceiling. Also two squirrels and a stork.

Feeling much better since we started moving, except for usual cold in head and throat. Same old ‘point-to-point’ feeling about going into the show—the ‘happy warrior’ stunt cropping up as usual. Letters from Robert Graves and Julian Dadd yesterday which cheered me no end. R.G. at Harlech—lucky devil…

The Second R.W.F. are gradually taking me to their bosom. It will be best for me to stay here now and try to become a hero…

No sign of my book yet. I do want to see it before I get killed (if death is the dose which April means me to swallow).
First Battalion are up at Croisilles; having a rough passage, I am afraid.

FOOT INSPECTION

The twilight barn was chinked with gleams; I saw
Soldiers with naked feet stretched on the straw.
Stiff-limbed from the long muddy, march we’d done.
And ruddy-faced with April wind and sun.
With pity and stabbing tenderness I see
Those stupid, trustful eyes stare up at me.
Yet, while I stoop to Morgan’s blistered toes
And ask about his boots, he never knows
How glad I’d be to die, if dying could set him free
From battles. Shyly grinning at my joke.
He pulls his grimy socks on; lights a smoke.
And thinks ‘Our officer’s a decent bloke’.

April 3[3]

The diary is the old familiar Siegfried–moody, self-involved and preoccupied with his demise (and, on the way thither, his heroism) in the Brookean fashion, yet also punctuated by striking observations. The squirrel!

But the poetry is another major step in his recent new direction. It’s not so much the “realism”–it’s still too prettily written to succeed in being gritty, too didactic to feel natural–as it is simply the subject matter. The soldiers are being condescended to, it’s true, but at least they (and not “glory” or “England” or “the fray”) are front and center, and they speak, and they begin to be fleshed out. It’s an observational poem: they are marching, after a few easy weeks, and their feet must be attended to. This is practical, but it’s a pointed observation: these are not hearty soldier lads ready for sacrifice, but rather tired men, with sore feet. And if the officer/poet is still operating in a register of theoretical sacrifice, well… perhaps that will be the next change.

 

Briefly, before a difficult last entry, we will hear from Vera Brittain, writing to her brother Edward. This letter reminds us that one of the goals of this project is to measure the passage of “real” time by maintaining the precise historical distance of one hundred years. Vera is reacting today to mail that we read weeks ago, but is just now reaching her.

April 3rd

My mail was depressing to-day; as well as your news about being passed fit there was a letter from Father in the usual strain — German retirement at the wrong time for us and therefore anything but an advantage (of course you say this too & I always suspected it) — Russia internally rotten & likely to sue for a separate peace — conditions dreadful at home — end no nearer in sight etc etc. This sort of letter is so much more depressing out here than at home; for it is long before you get another to remove the impression. Victor too sends me a letter half cynical, half hopelessly resigned; apparently he was on the verge of an attack, for he spoke of perhaps never writing to me again, & says — as you said to him before July 1st — that it is time to say a long long adieu. This too leaves me anxiously & very sadly wondering how long it will be before I hear any more of him & what it will be when I do. I think I would rather have had an attitude of open resentment & rebellion in the face of death than this sort of stifled
bitterness…

Had a delightfully vigorous & colourful letter from Geoffrey–though he longs for leave.[4]

A strange course, that letter takes, to append the news of Geoffrey Thurlow’s letter after she has taken her deepest swing toward disenchantment in some time. But letters to intimates are like that, unloading the mind’s concerns without too much concern for order or priority. I think it’s fair to note that while Vera Brittain takes delight in letters, the central fact of her non-working life is, now, anxiety for the soldiers she loves and cares for. Edward Brittain has been passed fit, at last recovered from his wounds; Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson are both in France, and liable to join in the coming battle. And she will only learn of whatever happens weeks afterwards–unless the news is so bad that someone takes the time and expense to try and get a telegram through. She is far closer to the war than most provincial young ladies will ever get, and further away from the worst of France.

And what could she mean by “open resentment & rebellion?”

 

Finally, today, a century back, Arthur Graeme West was killed by a German sniper. He was twenty-five. To write about him now, today, is disheartening, for a number of tangled reasons.

First, of course, because another bright young man and talented writer has been killed, pointlessly. But I’m also feeling an obscure sort of guilt because it proved to be impossible to properly include West in this project. On the most superficial level, it was hard to draw on a book entitled Diary of a Dead Officer without infringing upon the rules of being strictly a-century-back from the current date. For another thing, West’s writing–some decent poetry, a diary that veers between confessional and angry, initial enthusiasm curdled by the army’s stupidity and the war’s brutality–compares in many ways to Siegfried Sassoon‘s… but it’s not as good. To quote him often would have been duplication, in a sense, and since the thread of West’s story is much more difficult to follow, it might have confused more than enlightened us.

And that tangled thread is the biggest reason that I ended up hardly using his work: it was heavily edited, after his death, to shape it into a particular form. West was certainly disillusioned, even “disenchanted:” he was angry at the war and the army, he was afraid, and he regretted joining. In 1916 he had considered objecting to the war on pacifist principles and even wrote a letter of resignation. But he didn’t send it. Instead he returned to France. In his last few months, back in the line, West wrote very little.

But none of that is disqualifying: the problem is that these aspects of West’s character, his beliefs, are heavily emphasized in the posthumous publication while much else–how much else, and what it was, I don’t know–was cut out. The published Diary is, essentially, a work of anti-war propaganda, carefully constructed by West’s school friend Cyril Joad, who was a committed pacifist. West doesn’t seem to have had the same beliefs, and so he has suffered a particularly ironic sort of violence: his feelings were, after the fact, suppressed and misrepresented, a sort of negative echo of the way in which his decision to join the army (he was no pacifist then; instead he was very typical of our Public School and Oxford boys) controlled his body. There is a lot of interesting material in the Diary, which is why I read it and made some use of it here. But while we can track someone like Sassoon in his changeable moods, our access to West’s mind is not only partially blocked but carefully channeled, and his words stripped of their original context… and that didn’t feel right.

So Arthur Graeme West is dead, and he will have some posthumous recognition as a sort of pacifist martyr–but he wasn’t. He was a young man who came to hate the war and wanted out, but went back anyway, out of duty and out of fear and into fear and terrible danger, and to his death.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 264.
  2. Letters to Edward Thomas From Gordon Bottommley, 281-3.
  3. Diaries, 148-9.
  4. Letters From A Lost Generation, 331-2.

Henry Williamson Unwrites His Lone Patrol; Edward Thomas Opens Himself Up to Frost; Charles Scott Moncrieff Amidst the Peasantry; Ivor Gurney’s Gloucesters Come Upon an Old Friend; Siegfried Sassoon Swears a New Fealty

Today is thick with poets; but today’s post is also a reminder of the entanglement of different forms and genres. Before the three poets, two litterateurs of different accomplishments–and, along the way, two comminglings of history and fiction…

Charles Scott Moncrieff is back in Doullens, a century back, and delights in describing the local grotesques:

2nd April, 1917

I write this by the stove in the bedroom of an aged woman. We have just arrived in the village where I was in hospital a twelvemonth ago. We halted yesterday near the main town of these parts, into which I walked in the afternoon. . . .

We dined at the Hotel des Quatre Fils Aymon, where the host—a very large man like Bigoudin in Locke’s book—stands by the sideboard and ladles out soup to a frantic waiter who resembles Professor Harvey Littlejohn…

My hostess is very old and sunken and is crouching over the other side of the stove telling her beads and looking up dully over my shoulder at the snow. She is a pleasant spectacle after a terrible old woman with a mad daughter, on whom one of my platoons was billeted last night. She refused to sign the statutory declaration to claim no damages on the grounds that she had not had time to see whether there had been any. I stood there while she peeled potatoes angrily over a pail of water, slicing them again and again to get to the  end of black eyes and worm holes—the daughter sat with twitching hands and feet on the stove, interjecting very savage observations—at last the old one said, “I never do sign and I never will.”[1]

 

Henry Williamson, meanwhile, reports to his mother on his position–the dotted letter code indicates Croiselles–and on his observation of a local attack.

Dear Mother,

Just a short epistle to let you know I received your letter dated 28 March. Yes you are quite right about my destination but you may get a letter with this one that will show you the change.

I watched an attack at 5 oclock this morning. The warfare has changed a lot–of course we are only scrapping their rearguards & their artillery is only a few guns here & there. Well we got past all the defensive ridges, like the downs, now, & on this hill I stood on I could see for scores of miles: it was like standing on the Salt Box Hill & seeing the green country for miles away–it is quite possible to side right up to the Bosche outposts here without knowing where they are.

Well I watched our men going forward at dawn–I was only an interested spectator you see, as I had news of an attack & went up to watch it. The guns gave the village below us hell for a time & then the men went forward, & there was little fire & an hour afterwards I saw two prisoners wounded & looking very white coming in, & then ten others. So I tied my horse up & stealthily crept up to the village & couldn’t see a dam thing. So I went on for a mile or so and to my great surprise & fear I saw a lot of Bosche with machine guns about 150 yds away!!!

And I gave myself up for lost but went on a bit further and found myself in a big trench system with noone about–suddenly it struck me I was in the ‘Hindenburg Line‘![2] And I was!!! I can tell you I felt rather windy & started to go back–on the way back I got two Bosche bombs ready to throw as I was unarmed but I didn’t see a dam thing. I got back to the village after 8 hours away and found my horse frantic with hunger.

I reported my observations to the [——-] and one might hear further you never know. And the best part is that if I had known that the Bosche was there I wouldn’t have gone for £10000 but I believed all the time that he was miles away!!![3]

Only with Henry Williamson would we look to an absence in fiction to query a presence in a “historical document” such as this letter, and yet even though his long novel features a number of escapades which he didn’t make–indeed, several solo rambles into danger just like the one he describes here–there is nothing in the early April scenes of Love and the Loveless that fits the bill. Otherwise, we find what we might expect in a more sober romancer: the booby-trapped piano appears, for instance, but as a “story” that was then current not something the author vouches for. (And it’s better told: of course it must be a specific note that is wired… although a specific chord would be better–perhaps the 7th chord towards the end of “victor-i-ous” in “God Save the King?”)

It seems safe to conclude that, while Williamson may well have witnessed an advance in these confused post-withdrawal pre-Arras weeks, he didn’t really stumble into the German lines and make a narrow escape, borrowed bombs clutched in sweating palms… German grenades appear in the novel, too, but only as potential souvenirs that Phillip Maddison discovers and covets. It is good to be remembered that when a young soldier brags, truth can be less truthy than fiction.

 

Another writer who will straddle the divide between memoir and fiction (or, rather, who putters happily down both carriageways) is Siegfried Sassoon. Today, at least, his various accounts of himself march neatly in step: the “good old 2nd Battalion” reached Corbie, today, on their march to the front, and everything is looking up…

After they had arrived and settled their men–it was an easy march–Ralph Greaves (“Wilmot” in “Sherston’s” memoirs) played a piano he found in their billets while the others drank bad champagne. But this “convivial evening” was over all too quickly–in the morning they will march on north.[4] Nevertheless, tonight, a century back becomes the scene of a set-piece in Sassoon/Sherston’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, as Sassoon introduces the major “characters” of the 2nd Battalion. These include not only “Munro”–the very Dr. Dunn who will compile The War the Infantry Knew–but also “Leake,” the company commander who is no sooner introduced as a hostile Regular Army snob than he and “Sherston” stumble away from the sing-along “sholemnly” swearing eternal friendship. So Siegfried Sassoon is among friends once more…[5]

 

And now to the pure poets. First, Ivor Gurney, who writes (to Marion Scott, as always) of beauty and music and, for once, of a decent burial.

My Dear Friend:

Tin whistles and mouth organs still going hard, and we waiting for dinner and moving afterwards, for a company of ours took two more villages last night, and we shift also of course. We have been hard worked, but still and all the same, this open country work is far preferable to trench life. This place is quite pretty, very pretty; and this morning I saw, at first dawn, one mystical star hanging over a line of black wood on the sky-line; surely one of the most beautiful things on earth.

I hope by the time this letter gets to you you will be trotting about in real Spring sunlight; it is cold here as yet, but no man may foretell of April’s whims.

I told you of the death, a little time back of one of our most looked to corporals. Well, that was before the advance. About a fortnight after the movement started, we heard his grave had been discovered; and after tea one evening the whole company (that was fit) went down for a service there. Quite a fine little wooden cross had been erected there: the Germans had done well: it was better than we ourselves would have given him; and on the cross was
“Hier ruht ein tapferer Englander, Richard Rhodes”, and the date.

Strange to find chivalry in sight of the destruction we had left behind us; but so it was. They must have loved his beauty, or he must have lived a little for such a tribute. But he was brave, and his air always gallant and gay for all his few inches. Always I admired him and his indestructibility of energy and wonderful eyes.[6]

 

Finally, another beautiful, introspective letter from Edward Thomas. Still possessed of both some free time and the near-certain knowledge that things will shortly be much busier, he writes to Robert Frost–and he strives to make the most of it. This is an “update” letter, yes, but it is also what all good personal writing should be–rigorously true to the present moment. And it is fascinating–to me, at least!–to re-read events–or, rather, to read re-written events–from Thomas’s life. Some of these things he has described to his diary, his mother, his wife, Eleanor Farjeon, and his son Merfyn. Will they look different with a few more days’ hindsight, and written as they are to his poetic heart’s companion, his bluff, keeper-challenging American friend?

Beaurains

2 April 1917

My dear Robert,

I heard that the mails have been lost several times lately at sea. I thought I had better make another shot at you. This is another penultimate letter. Things are closely impending now and will have happened before you get this and you will know all about it then, so I will not try to tell you what they are, especially as I could not get them past the censor.

I have seen some new things since I wrote last and had much and worse things to endure which do not become less terrible in anticipation but are less terrible once I am in the midst of them. Jagged gables at dawn when you are cold and tired out look a thousand times worse from their connection with a certain kind of enemy shell that has made them look like that, so that every time I see them I half think I hear the moan of the approaching and hovering shell and the black grisly flap that it seems to make as it bursts. I see and hear more than I did because changed conditions compel us to go up to the very front among the infantry to do our observation and we spend nights without shelter in the mud chiefly in waiting for morning and the arrival of the relief. It is a 24 hours job and takes more to recover from. But it is far as yet from being unendurable. The unendurable thing was having to climb up the inside of a chimney that was being shelled. I gave up. It was impossible and I knew it. Yet I went up to the beastly place and had 4 shell bursts very close. I decided that I would go back. As a matter of fact I had no light and no information about the method of getting up so that all the screwing up I had given myself would in any case have been futile. It was just another experience like the gamekeeper,—but it was far less on my mind, because the practical result of my failure was nil and I now see far more from the ground level than I could have seen then from 200 feet up the factory chimney.

Well, that answers the questions. Although he is less schooled in latter-day Thomas-lore than I am, Edward Thomas is still Edward Thomas, and remembers his own memories well–including the stand-off with the keeper. The time he, Thomas, shrank from conflict despite being in the right, when the belligerent Frost stood firm and was ready to risk violence in a quiet English wood…

Otherwise I have done all the things so far asked of me without making any mess and I have mingled satisfaction with dissatisfaction in about the usual proportion, comfort and discomfort. There are so many things to enjoy and if I remember rightly not more to regret than say a year or ten years ago. I think I get surer of some primitive things that one has got to get sure of, about oneself and other people, and I think this is not due simply to being older. In short, I am glad I came out and I think less about return than I thought I should—partly no doubt I inhibit the idea of return. I only think by flashes of the things at home that I used to enjoy and should again. I enjoy many of them out here when the sun shines and at early morning and late afternoon. I doubt if anybody here thinks less of home than I do and yet I doubt if anybody loves it more.

But why should I be explaining myself at such length and not leave you to do the explaining?

We have shifted lately from the edge of a small city out to a still more ruinous village. The planks and beams of the ruins keep us warm in a house that has not had an actual hit except by fragments. We live in comparative comfort, eat luxuriously from parcels sent from London or brought up from places well behind the lines, and sleep dry and warm as a rule. We expect soon to have to live in damp clay pits for safety. There are some random shots but as a rule you know when to expect trouble, and you can feel quite safe close to a place that is clearly dangerous. We work or make others work practically all day with no rests or holidays, but often we have a quiet evening and can talk or write letters or listen to the gramophone playing ‘John Peel’ and worse things far. People are mostly friendly and warm, however uncongenial. I am more than .ten years older than 4 of the other 5 officers. They are 19, 20, 25, 26 and 33 years old. Those of 25 and up regard me as very old. I don’t know if the two boys do—I get on better with them: in a sort of way we are fond of one another—I like to see them come in of a night back from some job and I believe they like to see me. What more should anyone want?

I revert for 10 minutes every night by reading Shakespeare’s Tragedies in bed with a pipe before I blow the candle out. Otherwise I do nothing that I used to do except eat and sleep: I mean when I am not alone. Funny world. What a thing it is. And I hear nothing of you. Yet you are no more like an American in a book than you were 25 years ago. You are doing the unchanged things that I cannot or dare not think of except in flashes. I don’t have memories except such as are involved in the impressions as I see or hear things about me. But if I went on writing like this I should make you think I was as damnably introspective as ever and practised the art too. Goodnight to you and Elinor and all.

Remember I am in 244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France and am and shall remain 2nd Lieut. Edward Thomas

Yours ever[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 126.
  2. This is the extent of Williamson's belated self-censorship, which surely wouldn't fly if his letters were being read by other censors.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 107-9.
  4. The War the Infantry Knew, 308.
  5. Diaries, 148; Complete Memoirs, 412-17.
  6. War Letters, 152. I was not able to trace this corporal, although I gave the effort only a few moments, alas...
  7. Selected Letters, 160-2.

Blackbirds for Edward Thomas; A Bad Report and a Chiff-Chaffing for Henry Williamson; A Gruesome Shortfall for Edwin Vaughan’s Warwickshires

Before we continue with Edwin Vaughan’s harrowing tour in the line we will catch up with Henry Williamson’s latest effort at self-sabotage… but before that, we should begin with Edward Thomas‘s early spring bird count. Yesterday, a century back, Thomas saw rooks nesting and heard partridges and “pipsqueaks.” Today, it was a

Blackbird trying to sing early in dull marsh. A dull cold day… I was in position all day.[1]

It seems an ominous addition after the uplifting larks, but then again, I suppose, nature is indifferent to its poetic resonances…

 

When we last saw Henry Williamson, on the night of the 10th, he was dining with Canadian officers–and overindulging. Whether by coincidence or unusually swift action, he was in hot water by the next afternoon.

His diary entry for the 11th:

Note from G.O.C. Brigade to attend at 4 oclock. Saw damning report from Capt. King ‘incompetent, useless etc’ Road shelled a bit.

The next day–we’re up to yesterday, a century back, now–he pleaded his case before a more sympathetic tribunal:

Dear Mother,

Am quite well and fit, but a rather unhappy as I fear I will lose my job—there has been trouble, but anyhow I don’t think I shall lose much, it is all work and no pay. So don’t be astonished if I go to the artillery or the A[rmy]S[ervice]C[orps]—I have had more during the last week than I got in 4 months in the Flemish sector. By God, it’s awful—we are shelled day & night—the roads are barraged and 12 inch How[itzer]s knock hell into us all day & night, but our guns knock the Bosche to hell & back…

Well I am just going along a  —– awful road with a little river along it (the only one here) & expect to get a blighty one… Well Cheero dear old thing…

This is a strange, almost recklessly cruel letter. He makes it clear that he has blundered and may lose his job; then he emphasizes (and probably exaggerates) his nightly danger, and then he shares a presentiment that he will be… safely wounded?

So is he dramatizing in order to give his mother relief in his next letter–a sort of manipulation that both the real Henry and the fictional Phillip are very prone to–or is he glossing over something like a suicidal mood?

His diary seems to demonstrate the latter:

Artillery ominously quiet early morning… Am taking Ammunition through Miraumont tonight. Have a presentiment…

But nothing happened, last night, except for (once more?) bungling his job:

Took 16 mules thro Miraumont. Got lost. Lost 2 mules. Arrived back at 3 o’clock dead beat…

So what will he tell his mother, today, hard on the heels of a letter that hinted at dejection and a shell with his name on it?

Dear mother,

Please send me April magazines. Have seen the March ones. The mud is awful—3 mules drowned in shell craters last night, it is terrible. Men lie down in the mud & ask to be allowed to die they are so exhausted & beat, it takes one 7 hours to go 4000 yards cross country. The Ger has an 8.2 armour piercing shell here… & has already killed ½ my drivers & mules & destroyed nearly all my waggons damn him. Love William. Don’t forget 1. Sweets (caramels etc) 2. Magazines (including Motor Cycle & Motorcycling) 3. 1 pair pyjamas. 4. Sox.

It’s a day-to-day life on the line, and in Williamson’s mind.

On the back of this letter is a (terrible) poem, containing–as a representative example–the line “are you weaving dreams of glory tinged with fames effulgent glow?”[2]

Evidently, he has entirely forgotten his baleful presentiment of a day before…

His diary for today adds little—another resupply trip, tonight—but it provides one important contextual fact: the Germans are now withdrawing in this sector, too, and this event allows us to find our place in Williamson’s enormous novel. In Love and the Loveless Phillip Maddison goes forward past happy British soldiers, and is given a copy of the Corps Summary of Intelligence—“Comic Cuts” to the sardonic troops—which is quoted at length. So instead of a letter to mother, his fiction reproduces an official document… strange.

But I’m more interested, naturally speaking, in two observations which surround the quotation:

Before going to sleep, he wrote in his Charles Lett’ Self-Opening Pocket Diary and Note Book for 1917 by candle-light, Heard a chiff-chaff in Miraumont, among some willows.

He didn’t–or, that is, this is fiction, an addition to the novel that is not based on the contemporary diary or his letters home. Williamson is a strange bird, but he always was a birder and a rambler and an amateur naturalist (one thing he very much shares with Edward Thomas, so different though they otherwise are). And after he quoted intelligence report, more birds–and no more writerly subtlety:

Then through the moonless dark came the cries of flighting mallard, flying west to the peaceful marshes of the Ancre. They would be nesting soon, he thought. For birds, the spring meant love–for men, the spring offensive, and the kiss of bullets.[3]

 

Between the contortions of Williamson and the horror that is to come, let’s have a bit of nearly-fatal slapstick. In the middle of the night, a century back, Wilfred Owen “was going round through pitch darkness to see a man in a dangerous state of exhaustion.” He then “fell into a kind of well, only about 15 ft.” but hit his head “on the way down.”

I am formally obligated to leave us in some suspense as to the outcome of his tumble, but even my cleverness in omitting the first person pronoun will probably not conceal the fact that he will live to tell the tale.

 

Now to darker doings. Edwin Vaughan has been back from a course for only a few days, but already he has been nearly killed, hastily buried four men, and almost cracked up when he mistakes another man for the risen dead. Today, at least, is the last day of their tour in the front line, and it passes pleasantly enough. Almost.

…we were to be relieved at 7 p.m., a thought which made us very bright and cheerful throughout the day.

At 5 p.m., as we sat in our dugout, a message in Playfair code was handed up by a signaller. It took some time to decipher and it was 5.15 p.m. when Holmes read out the following message: ‘Our heavy artillery will bombard enemy front lines, commencing 5.20 p.m. Withdraw advanced posts.’

Of course it was impossible to withdraw our posts, which were half an hour’s crawl away…

A few minutes later, Vaughan’s section of the line is bracketed by their own guns, firing short.

…Now they rained upon us; all along the trench we could hear them falling, as we sat with fixed grins upon our faces, trembling in every limb… a louder, fierce screech swooped upon us and a terrific crash flung us in all directions and into darkness.

It felt quite pleasant to be dead…

Reader, he has not died. Coughing out a mouthful of dust, Vaughan and his comrades in the company command dugout learn that they have

had a miraculous escape, for the shell had hit the corner of the cellar and blown it in… no one had been touched except Browne–Holmes’ servant–who had been hit in the back by a flying brick.

Our guns had now ceased fire, but we could hear them receiving a few shells from the Germans. I now found that during the few seconds when I had believed myself dead, I had closed my note book, snapped round the elastic and returned the pencil to its socket.

The command dugout now prepares for their relief, and while Browne is sent to alert the NCOs nearby, Vaughan begins piling sandbags over the hole in their roof.

After a few minutes Browne returned, rather white in the face, saying that he could not find the NCO’s dugout. This was only ten yards away… Holmes guessed that Brown was shaken up by the shelling, so he laughed and said, ‘Come on then, I’ll help you to search for it, perhaps someone’s pinched it.’ And they set off together down the muddy trench.

I was just finishing off the roof, when Browne came tumbling in moaning and laughing hysterically. He stared at me screaming ‘Oh God! It is. It is.’ Then we slung him in a chair, gave him a tot of rum, and ran off down the trench to the mine shaft which had been occupied by Sergeant Phillips, Sergeant Bennett, Corporal Everett and Corporal Hollins.

They are all dead, killed by their own artillery. And my guesswork work yesterday turns out not to have been very accurate: I erred in assuming that the Corporal Bennett who was killed yesterday is the Lance-Sergeant Bennett listed in the CWGC database as being killed today. He’s not: he’s his brother.

The last task before withdrawing to reserve then, will be the exhuming and reburial of the four men.

We started at once to pull away the wreckage of the entrance, and had just come to Sergeant Phillips, when Jerry started his “blue pigeon” strafe…

As we worked down the sides, we realized (in the darkness) that the beams and sides were splashed with blood and flesh. The stench of lyddite and fresh blood was ghastly, and the foulness of our groping in the dark cannot be described. At last we could stand it no longer, and regardless of consequences, we lit a candle and commenced working by its shaded light. This evoked a showed of ‘pineapples’ and bullets which continued to fall until we had cleared the shaft.

Of Corporal Everett we found no trace; he must have been struck by the shell and blown to atoms. Bennett was badly shattered and most of his head was gone, whilst Hollins, who had been sitting with his rifle between his knees, was unrecognizable and the twisted rifle was buried in front of his body.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 93-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 117-8.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 42-8. The only discrepancy between this account and the records is that it is Bennett who is missing while Everett was buried. Perhaps Vaughan and his men mistook one mangled body for another, or perhaps one identity disc was lost while another was found. I'm not sure why Corporal Bennett, who was killed yesterday, is not mentioned. I suppose there is the barest possibility that Vaughan, working back over his diary notes of a traumatic few days, made some sort of mistake and assigned the same surname to two memories, thus creating a story of two brothers killed within a day of each other. But, although I do suspect Vaughan of heavily editing his story after the fact to achieve various effects without indicating where and why he is doing so (of making a "diary" into a "memoir," that is), it seems extremely far-fetched to imagine that he would run so far away with a confusion--the story continues, tomorrow--and even more improbable that he would consciously invent something like this. It is much more sensible to assume that he is correct, and that there has been a record-keeping error at some point after Corporal Bennett's death and up through my desultory searches of the CWGC database...

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

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

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

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

So far, at least, the former:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poem he wrote is of a piece:

Return

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

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

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

 

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

But poetry is truth, right?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Edwin Vaughan Digs In, and Reverses Course; Charles Scott Moncrieff in Amiens; Siegfried Sassoon’s Lamentations; Alf Pollard and His Jolly Old Revolver

Last night, a century back, Edwin Vaughan gave up on trying to bury a number of British corpses lying out near their lines. Today he will deal with the after-effects of a more successful burying party.

This morning, carrying out a few improvements to our dugout, we started to level up the ground under our table which is very rickety. The earth was spongy, and we started digging with entrenching tools, but we struck an old blue tunic, and when we gave it a tug, the resistance–and an unpleasant smell–warned us that we had a guest, so we apologized and patted the earth back. As we replaced the table, a message was brought up by a signaller that I was to report to HQ at 6 p.m. to proceed on a course.[1]

And just like that, Vaughan, who only reached his battalion early in the new year and has had all of two days actually in front line trenches, is off on a “refresher course.” We’ll see him next month…

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, mildly ill and recuperating in Amiens, took his turn as a tourist today. This is a young man at pains to show that he is no ordinary tourist… but he isn’t. Scott Moncrieff knows France and the French better than most Britishers…

16th February, 1917.

. . . With the aid of a very useful little ten sous handbook and map I made my way round le viel Amiens yesterday. It is rather dull. There is one church, St. Germain, faintly interesting, and the Belfry, and an old timbered house in the Passage Gossart—closed and tumbling down, of which I should like to get you the pattern of the corbel, rather worn, but seems to be clusters of fruit with animals between. There is a hedgehog—very distinct, at the end, also a monkey reaching for fruit. . . There is a rumour that the British line now extends to Soissons—I don’t suppose there’s anything in it—but I should like to see Soissons. I’m afraid it is one of the Villes Martyres. France is a very wonderful country: this tiny fraction that we are soldiering in, Normandy, Picardy, Artois and Flanders, is so full of interest, and then there are hundreds of other provinces, each with its own characteristics, and all sunny and pleasant. . . . [2]

 

And in another great cathedral town and British base, Siegfried Sassoon arrived and ran straight into the pain and despondency he has been anticipating. Rouen’s Infantry Base Depot (where he will await assignment to a particular battalion) is a great place to wallow in misery and bureaucratic limbo, but even if Sassoon had had some hopes of keeping his spirits up until he got his chance to go up the line and attempt some sort of reckless beau geste, the misery of the war came companionably to meet him on his first night in France.

Not long after arriving, Sassoon lost his way in the huge camp and stumbled into a Guard Room tent. There–and this “almost certainly did occur”[3]–he came upon this sight:

A man, naked to the waist, was kneeling in the middle of the floor, clutching at his chest and weeping uncontrollably. The Guard were standing around with embarrassed looks…

“Why, sir, the man’s been under detention for assaulting the military police, and now ‘e’s just ‘ad news of his brother being killed. Seems to take it to ‘eart more than most would. ‘Arf crazy, ‘e’s been, tearing ‘is clothes off and cursing the War and the Fritzes. Almost like a shell-shock case, ‘e seems.”[4]

Or so “George Sherston” is told in Sassoon’s memoir. This sort of suffering is what Sassoon has been expecting–but not so soon. Even as he begins to hate the war–as he prepares to hate the war–it sneaks up and catches him with a surprise barrage. There’s another, reason, too, for this scene to affect him: it is also almost an externalization of his own bottled-up spirit-in-turmoil. Sassoon lost his brother, after all, and yet he is an officer and a very well-mannered gentleman and would never cry out like this…

But he’ll write a poem, taking this misery and putting it to use–standoffishly, in terms of voice; ironically, in terms of mood… and politically.

 

Lamentations

I found him in the guard-room at the Base.
From the blind darkness I had heard his crying
And blundered in. With puzzled, patient face
A sergeant watched him; it was no good trying
To stop it; for he howled and beat his chest.
And, all because his brother had gone west,
Raved at the bleeding war; his rampant grief
Moaned, shouted, sobbed, and choked, while he was kneeling
Half-naked on the floor. In my belief
Such men have lost all patriotic feeling.

 

You know who hasn’t lost all patriotic feeling? Alf Pollard, that’s who.

If Sassoon is an on-again off-again fire-eater and deeply conflicted thinker-about-the-war, Pollard know what he wants out of the war–“fun” and medals–and, more to the point, how he wants to write it: as stuffed with cliché and cheerful violence as his pockets are stuffed with Mills bombs…

Dearest Mater,

I expect you have wondered why the devil I have got slack in writing again. As a matter of fact I have been unable to. The battalion have had about the hardest time they have ever had while I have been with them…

I had a difficult reconnaissance to do which was fortunately successful… The result of my report was that we went over the top the next night to capture the trench in front. There was practically no resistance on our right, but, on the left flank, where I happened to be in command, they tried to stop us. I was the first man over the Hun parapet and landed right on top of two Huns who tried to do me in, but fortunately I managed to finish them off with my jolly old revolver. Hand-to-hand fighting was rather fun but we soon cleared them out.

The only man senior to me got killed leaving me in command. I discovered a party of Huns behind me at one time but settled their hash after about two hours, and settled down.

We held the trench for several days… I got hit three times, but only slightly, so I stayed where I was. I had my steel helmet dented in at the front to a hole as big as a fair sized egg and then I had it smashed in at the back, and finally I got hit just below the shoulder blade in the back. The effect of all this only lasted about forty-eight hours and now I am quite fit again with the exception of recurrent headaches.

Now we are out again resting, covered in glory. The Brigadier very kindly informed me that he has recommended me for a medal, so you will probably see me down for an M.C. in the next list of honours..

I want some thick socks also a new torch…

Heaps of love.[5]

Pollard follows the quotation of his letter with the remark that “The M.C. materialized in due course,” and he quotes the citation, for good measure. For Pollard, the strategic reasoning behind the raid is neither here nor there–his is not to reason why–and the difficult winter conditions are mentioned only when it comes to the impossibility of improving trenches in frozen ground. He is a yarn-spinner and a glory-hound, not a complainer… but he does have some interesting comments about morale.

One of the problems with disillusionment and disenchantment is that it is bad for morale. In certain cases, low morale might save lives–there would be no unnecessary attacks, the men opposite might “live and let live.” But in others–and there are many voices which consider this the far more typical case–low morale leads to slack discipline, more casualties from frostbite and trench feet and carelessness around snipers and, if the Germans opposite are fire-eaters, a greater chance of damaging raids. Most of the writers who will become gravely disillusioned during this year will either bottle it up (like C.E. Montague), compensate with risk-taking and attempted heroism (like Sassoon) or suffer psychologically (like Wilfred Owen).

One wonders if Pollard’s men hated him for endangering their lives by choosing to lead such ventures. But if they didn’t, they surely respected his courage–and if they, too, preferred action to inaction, he would have been an easy man to follow… hatred is bad, but pride is not much less important than good trenches and regular nourishment…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 34; I'm getting paranoid, now, about Vaughan's truthfulness. This story is far from impossible, but it's still very unlikely. It would be hard for a man to be killed and entombed in a dugout or cellar without a heavy caliber shell being responsible, but then that would have collapsed the whole thing upon him. It could then have been rebuilt, with the body coincidentally just below the new floor level, I suppose... unlikely, again, but not impossible. If this were a trench and not a dugout, it would be more likely that this man was casually and quickly buried after being killed nearby. But, famous as the French were (among the British), for burying men near trenches or even in filled-in shelters in trench walls, digging beneath the floor of a dugout--but only a few inches--to bury a corpse seems... unlikely. But stranger things have happened.
  2. Diaries, 124.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, 323.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 396-7. As Moorcroft Wilson notes, details of this section of the memoir are knowingly fudged; I'm not sure what her conviction that the incident is "almost certainly" true is based on, but I instinctively agree: Sassoon is much more prone to shifting details when he writes in prose about himself than when he writes verse inspired by external events... so I don't see why we would think that he didn't see such a scene upon his arrival in Rouen, given the poem, below. However, it's uncomfortably nestled among changes and shifting detail; I'm not sure if anyone has remarked on how close the next complaint  in the memoir follows Robert Graves's disgusted anecdote of his own recent return to France--both are horrified by new Welsh officers of a certain social background bragging about their exploits in brothels...
  5. Fire-Eater, 187-88.