A Shell Inscribes a Line in Edward Brittain’s Hand; Hugh Quigley Girds for Battle; Herbert Read Welcomes the Conquering Heroes; Isaac Rosenberg Goes Under the Weather; Phillip Maddison Goes from Safety to the German Lines, and from the German Lines to G.H.Q.

Today, a century back, brings a welter of writing–wry, wet, windy, and ominous.

 

Hugh Quigley knows that he about to march back into the thick of things, and so he writes, to someone he loves, with the cruel candor of the soldier before battle:

I expect this will be the last letter you will get from me for at least ten days. You know what that means. I can only only hope to get out safely, or, at worst, with a comfortable wound. If the same fate happens to me as to Peter, I have done my duty, according to conventional standards. By higher and more ideal standards, it is too perverted to be called duty at all, if it does not immediately help to stop war and avoid sacrifice.

Our men are growing more confident everyday; in fact, one could almost go into battle now with a bag of provisions and a walking-stick. The rifle plays only a small part, for the enemy invariably throw up their hands when the infantry approach…

Quigley’s confidence is more than a bit overstated, but then again this is a letter home, a last letter before combat, meant to reassure. Or something along those lines. While it is true that the rifle-toting infantryman is increasingly just a pawn in an artillery war, the idea that there will not be any fighting necessary in an advance against German pillboxes is ridiculous, as we have seen so often, recently.

Regardless, Quigley is soon back in a full-blown romantic mode: he even finds a “curiously apposite” French poem on a scrap of paper.

This paper was lying beside a tombstone under the shadow of a great church. I spent an afternoon wandering round that church, sentimentalizing to my heart’s content, with no one to disturb me and no one to utter bald consolations about the price of life. The slow passage of time came to a sweetness of thought, not melancholic, not poignant, just a lingering tenderness and a faint regret, tenuous as a web of sun in the tree-shadows. High chestnuts, browning through shimmering gold, dropped solitary leaves with a faint pat on the flat stones or rustled them through the wire-enclosed wreaths hanging from grey crosses, half-ruined, green with a decay of beauty, so that the harmony of life came very close to death, reality to dream…

You will see the old sentiments cannot die… They are worth something more than this, farther and higher… Not ephemeral, but progressive and continuous on a way of perfection…

Each man prepares for the ordeal of a tour in the trenches in a different way. Quigley, it’s safe to say, complicates the stereotype of the enlisted man’s “this leaves me in the pink” letter before battle…[1]

 

And Vera Brittain, who has lost a fiancé and two close friends after letters more or less like that one, has decided that she can’t hang on every turn of the front line/reserve/rest rotation of her only brother. So Edward writes to her today, only when he is safely out of the latest mess. I include this letter mostly for how it begins:[2] with a mark made by the war, not just on a day, a century back, but in a single moment:

France, 10 October 1917

— That curious dash because a shell made me jump. This is rather a filthy place… We haven’t had a mail for 3 days owing to our sudden move and so I expect there will be a letter from you when it does come. I am very glad you have written some more poems so as to make enough for a small volume; I will ask Mrs L[eighton] about it; I believe you were thinking of Erskine Macdonald before. By the way why haven’t you sent me any of your new poems as you know I should like to have them?[3]

 

Isaac Rosenberg has just had leave–his first–and has been writing poems. But the heavy rain of the last few days has done no good for his always-problematic lungs. The weather will save him, perhaps, if it doesn’t kill him: today, a century back, he went sick with influenza, which for a man of his physique is certainly more dangerous than ordinary trench duty.[4]

 

Comfort and the fortunes of leave are also on the mind of Herbert Read, guilt-stricken at having missed his battalion’s part in the Passchendaele battle. He can make amends by preparing decent beds for them all: having been held back in reserve and appointed billeting officer, he spent a long day’s negotiation with the inhabitants of a poor northern French village–“Mais c’est la guerre, as they all say.”

10.x.17

They came in shortly after midnight, very weary and ready to drop down and sleep anywhere. It isn’t three weeks since I left them, but it was like greeting long lost friends… It isn’t only fancy that makes them seem to have aged five years and more. They have gone through what as probably the most intense shell fire since the war began.[5]

 

Finally, today, we have a date-in-a-novel, a time-stamped activity from our strangest and most carefully calendrical fictional war book. Henry Williamson himself missed the summer and Passchendaele because of a long stint recovering from symptoms that may have been simple illness or may have been worsened by gas or the psychological toll of his service in the winter and spring around Arras. But his enormous semi-autobiographical sequence on the life of Phillip Maddison elongates the author’s combat experiences, compresses his time at home, and puts the protagonist always where the action is. Phillip Maddison never misses a battle.

Today, a century back, his heroic mentor, “Westy,” has turned up again as well, and this time Phillip plunges in unlikely fashion into the German lines (as he has done several memorable times before, including during the Christmas Truce and at Loos) as a sidekick rather than as a lone ranger.

Before sending us over the top, as it were, Williamson dutifully gives us a potted military history of the “Fourth Step” of Third Ypres, a.k.a. the “Battle of Poelcappelle.” Which is all well and good,[6] but sits rather jarringly with the most Gumpish of the many Gumpish moments in the series so far. I will quote and then summarize, as best as I can.

(The whole sequence of novels is a slog, but so very interesting: there is an unprecedented devotion to raking oneself over the coals of memory while raking out the embers of traditional military history at the same time–just not well-enough written to enchant other than a devoted reader over several thousand pages.)

The day after the fourth step had been launched, two men, each with a long stick in his hand, were walking on one of the many duck-board tracks lying parallel to the Wieltje-Frezenberg road, alongside which was an almost continuous row of 18-pounder field-guns….  The senior of the two, whose diminutive scarlet gorget patches on the collar of his ranker’s tunic were concealed under a woolen scarf, carried, in addition, a map-case.

“I don’t see how the infantry can possibly move in this weather, Westy. Must the attacks go on?”

“If only the Chief could have had his own way, and attacked up here last May, instead of down south, as demanded by Joffre… Third Ypres was put off in 1916, and again last spring. With the results that everyone can now see–only everyone, as usual, will draw the wrong conclusions.”

Well, Westy, you didn’t really answer the question.

Now commences the aforementioned Gumpish adventure, a sort of shark-jumping in the Passchendaele mud. It’s ridiculous to find this (over and over again) in a book that is generally concerned both to represent the progress of the war from a young soldier’s point of view and to dwell on the very real push-and-pull between rashness and cowardice, confidence and self-loathing that seems to have riven Williamson’s character, as well as that of his alter ego. Ridiculous, and suited more to a pot-boiler than an attempt at literature/transmuted memoir, but nonetheless fascinating. If Williamson had a slightly steadier hand, we could even begin to make the argument that his sprawling Bildungsroman is actually an argument that the realist novel is a poor sort of form for telling war stories…

The setting is this: “Westy,” the clear-eyed, far-seeing, casually imperturbable Cassandra of the Old Contemptibles, has become a sort of minister-without-portfolio for the staff, charged to roam wherever he will and report on the “real” situation without regard for the normal channels of command. He takes Maddison forward with him into the front lines, where another assault–the “Fifth Step” of the battle–is about to take place. Commandeering a platoon of Lancashire Territorials, the two adventurers cross into no man’s land near the town of Passchendaele itself, and find a crucial hole in the German defenses.

So far, only the freelancing of Westy and Maddison is ridiculously far-fetched. There does seem to have been a disconnect–mostly environmental and unavoidable (and to some extent a product of bureaucratic awkwardness and scale management and inefficient traditions)–between the enormous effort put into planning an attack in the weeks and months before it and the failure to process any knowledge of German plans and movements during the days when the pending attack must have been obvious to them. The strategic plan must be, to a large extent, inflexible, but there is a horrible sense that while the attack could be built to respond to reports from the front in the last days–to adjust to the adjustments made by the defense–the will just isn’t there. It’s such a big bureaucracy, and the top planners are so very far from the trenches…  The British guns mass on known German positions, there are raids and counter-raids, withdrawals and new positions… and the machinery of the attack clicks slowly forward…

More or less alone in a gap in the vaunted German defenses, “Westy” writes out a dispatch, describing the tactical omission and opportunity. But while he is doing so the green subaltern of the platoon they have borrowed blows a whistle, as if he were on parade or mid-attack. Alerted, a German machine gun opens up, Westy us shot through the chest–his eighth wound–and it is left to Maddison to save the day.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Maddison–touched now by the hand of of the divine and possibly dying West–is suddenly, once again, brave and resolute, decisive and dashing. But he is also on a segment of the line where he is known to various officers, and not well liked. He has a significant reputation for both shirking and for wild immaturity, and so the perils which spring up to prevent him from getting Westy’s report to the men who must read them are not just physical obstacles like broken country and German bullets, but also the enemies of his past, among his own army.

Calm and collected, Maddison takes off, D’Artagnan-like, but find that he must explain himself to an officer who knows him from his days a misfit and lead-swinger.. He is disbelieved, disrespected, place under arrest, and then left alone with a horse and an easily-bluffed enlisted man. So Phillip Maddison, veteran of First and Third Ypres, Loos and the Somme, turns horse-thief, and gallops off to G.H.Q… and there, dropping dead with exhaustion and telling a strange tale, he is warmly listened to, fed and bedded, and made to tell his tale to the assembled mucky-mucks. There is good food and wine and cigars, but also the confident formality (of the very well-bred Englishmen). The unkempt messenger is heeded, and a better plan is put in motion… Phillip has saved day, and will have a pleasant rest at G.H.Q. before returning to his ordinary duty as a transport officer in a humble Machine Gun Company… And Henry Williamson leaves us wondering–is this a personal triumph in the face of the cold indifference of strategy? Is the implication that the Staff, with its cigars and clean clothes and expensive liquor, is nonetheless doing the best it can by men like Westy (not to mention all those thousands of platoons in the front lines? Or are the two worlds as incompatible as they feel, since the distance between the two seems to have grown greater after the unlikely gallop of our hero from one to another, rather than smaller?

I’m not sure. The simple answer, surely, is that when Williamson is writing of a time when he was abed in England, he works from a military history and indulges himself by writing a Boy’s Own Paper adventure. Whether this means that he was unable to consistently write a giant realist novel as a consistently realistic “War Book,” or simply unwilling to do so, is another matter.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 144-7.
  2. If there is an image of it available somewhere, I didn't find it with a desultory search, alas.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377.
  4. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 172.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 111.
  6. It seems a relatively clear and balanced history of the battle as seen from the decades afterwards, and didn't Tolstoy do much the same thing, after all?

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

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

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

 

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

3 October, 1917 Craiglockhart

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

London, 3 October 1917

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Eddie Marsh in the Weeds of G.H.Q.; Vera Brittain Amidst the German Ward–and the Mutiny

We will spend the day, today, with two non-combatants in France. First, we rejoin the brief but lively diary of Eddie Marsh, patron of the poets and secretary to Winston Churchill.

Marsh, despite his Passchendaele-appropriate moniker, is rather unimpressed with the rear-area scenery–but happier with the company.

Friday Sept. 15th.

Another uneventful day. I had a good walk with Philip in the morning on Helfaut Ridge—and spent the afternoon,
after an unsuccessful attempt to see Millie Sutherland, hanging about till Winston was ready.

That would be Philip Sassoon, M.P., city cousin of Siegfried, and Millicent Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland. Philip is a member of the much more prominent branch of the Sassoons that had intermarried both with the Rothschilds and the old landed English nobility, and he has been a staff officer with Haig since the beginning of the war, putting his social skills and connections at the service of the notably taciturn Commander in Chief.

 

…It was a pity we were at G.H.Q. for quite such a quiet time (though we should have been more in the way if more had been going on). Even so I was much struck by the ease and serenity with which Haig carries his burden—I am sure he is quite imperturbable. He and W. seemed to warm to one another as the visit went on, and at our last luncheon Haig was quite genial and cracked several jokes. Philip says the passion of his life is for being talked to, but that he combines this with a fatal propensity to nip topics in the bud. The tone of G.H.Q. is tremendously optimistic—so much so that I found other people were quite irritated. Kiggell told me he thought the Boches were in the position of a man who is clinging with his fingers to the edge of a precipice—and they evidently all think that if only we can get a spell of good weather we can do wonders, even this year…[1]

 

Perhaps. But in Étaples, today, a century back, Vera Brittain is observing “The Boches” from a more intimidate and humane angle.

“Have just been writing a poem on the German ward,” I told my mother on September 15th; “was composing it this morning while watching a patient who was rather sick come round from an operation.”

 

The German Ward

When the years of strife are over and my recollection fades
Of the wards wherein I worked the weeks away,
I shall still see, as a visions rising ‘mid the War time shades,
The ward in France where German wounded lay.

I shall see the pallid faces and the half-suspicious eyes,
I shall hear the bitter groans and laboured breath,
And recall the loud complaining and the weary tedious cries,
And the sights and smells of blood and wounds and death.

I shall see the convoy cases, blanket-covered on the floor,
And watch the heavy stretcher-work begin,
And the gleam of knives and bottles through the open theatre door,
And the operation patients carried in.

I shall see the Sister standing, with her form of youthful grace,
And the humour and the wisdom of her smile,
And the tale of three years’ warfare on her thin expressive face,
The weariness of many a tire filled while.

I shall think of how I worked for her with nerve and heart and mind,
And marvelled at her courage and her skill,
And how the dying enemy her tenderness would find
Beneath her scornful energy of will.

And I learnt that human mercy turns alike to friend or foe
When the darkest hour of all is creeping nigh,
And those who slew our dearest, when their lamps were burning low,
Found help and pity ere they came to die.

So, though much will be forgotten when the sound of War’s alarms
And the days of death and strife have passed away,
I shall always see the vision of Love working amidst arms
In the ward wherein the wounded prisoners lay.

Not for the first time, here, I have revived a work that the author might wish forgotten:

…As anyone who can visualise the circumstances of its composition will imagine, it was not a good poem…

No, not particularly. But it will begin to earn Brittain some recognition for her writing. She, too–though far less devoted to the practice of poetry than most of our writers–will have a book of verse out before too long.

In the memoir, this place-holding mention of the poem is followed by a long story of going out to lunch with a friend, only to be embarrassed by finding a nurse and an officer on an obvious assignation. After this, she writes of being confined to quarters because of the unrest in the camp surrounding the hospitals:[2]

At the time, this somewhat disreputable interruption to a Holy War was wrapped in a fog which the years have deepened, for we were not allowed to mention it in our letters home, and it appears, not unnaturally, to have been omitted from standard histories by their patriotic authors.

I feel less guilt-ridden about this breaking of the rules against “flash forwards” given the extent of the censorship that surrounded the mutiny. In any event, it is an extremely sharp irony that just when we have this window thrown open onto the visit of modern Britain’s most famous politician–and, later, military historian–to its most ineffective (or controversially ineffective) military leader–champagne! optimism!–we have a former provincial young lady’s firsthand testimony on the secrecy surrounding the violence done to British soldiers by other British soldiers.

We were told that the disturbance began by a half-drunken “Jock ” shooting the military policeman who had tried to prevent him from taking his girl into a prohibited café. In some of the stories the girl was a young Frenchwoman from the village, in others she had turned into one of the newly arrived W.A.A.C.S ; no doubt in the W.A.A.C. camp she was said to be a V.A.D. Whatever the origin of the outbreak, by the end of September Étaples was in an uproar…

Quite who was against whom I never clearly gathered, but one party was said to be holding the bridge over the Canche and the others to be trying to take it from them. Obviously the village was no place for females, so for over a fortnight we were shut up within our hospitals, to meditate on the effect of three years of war upon the splendid morale of our noble troops. As though the ceaseless convoys did not provide us with sufficient occupation, numerous drunken and dilapidated warriors from the village battle were sent to such spare beds as we had for slight repairs. They were euphemistically known as “local sick.”[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Number of People, 255-6.
  2. This memory may be displaced by a few days, which makes sense given the lack of records she alludes to--few memoir writers can be specific about dates without (illegal) diaries, letters, or military records to make reference to, and the mutiny was suppressed in all such sources.
  3. Testament of Youth, 385-6.

Edmund Blunden’s Runner in the Mud; Kate Luard Begins Taking the Toll

There is relatively little to read today, as the army hauls itself up over the wide, shallow morass it conquered yesterday. Or, rather, one writer is more than enough, for this day after. The story of the Battle of Third Ypres–which will soon be best known by the name of the next ridge, Passchendaele–is the weather. It started to rain yesterday afternoon, and it rained all day today, a century back.

The following “chilling description” is not from the diary of a miserable front-line soldier or a “disenchanted” memoir writer: it’s from a despatch issued by Haig himself–the man who will press on with the “battle” even as the rains continue.

The low-lying clayey soil, torn by shells and sodden with rain, turned to a succession of vast muddy pools. The valleys of the choked and overflowing streams were speedily transformed into long stretches of bog, impassable except by a few well-defined tracks…[1]

“Drowning in mud” has, until now, been almost exclusively a figurative or metaphorical expression.

 

We had three poets to read about yesterday; one survives today. At least Edmund Blunden writes in a sort of triplicate: diary, poem, and memoir.

Last night, crouching in the battalion’s new signalling post, he “was never so hideously apprehensive.” Today did not disappoint: it was “the most wicked twenty-four hours I have ever been through, Somme included… Another retreat from Moscow.”[2]

The position was no better during the night, and the succeeding day was dismal, noisy, and horrid with sudden death. Tempers were not good, and I found myself suddenly threatening a sergeant-major with arrest for some unfriendly view which he was urging to the headquarters in general. Then, there were such incidents as the death of a runner called Wrackley, a sensitive and willing youth, just as he set out for the companies; struck, he fell on one knee, and his stretched-out hand still clutched his message.

Such an incident can be true in different ways, retold in different genres:

Runner, stand by a second. Your message. — He’s gone,
Falls on a knee, and his right hand uplifted
Claws his last message from his ghostly enemy,
Turns stone-like. Well I liked him, that young runner,
But there’s no time for that. O now for the word
To order us flash from these drowning roaring traps
And even hurl upon that snarling wire?
Why are our guns so impotent?
The grey rain,
Steady as the sand in an hourglass on this day…

Returning to memoir, we learn that one of Blunden’s friends, believed lost, is alive:

Vidler, that invincible soldier, came in a little afterward, observing: “That was a quick one, ‘Erb. I was feeling round my backside for a few lumps of shrapnel — didn’t find any, though.”

And as for the rest of the day, it settles all too quickly into the muddy, godforsaken depletion that will come to characterize the entire battle. Blunden, fighting off the insensibility that comes with exhaustion and curdled fear, writes this mood by means of a wry surrender into reference to his literary forbears:

This second day was on the whole drab in the extreme, and at the end of it we were ordered to relieve the 14th Hampshires in their position ahead, along the Steenbeck. The order presented no great intellectual difficulty, for the reduced battalion merely had to rise from its water holes, plod through the mud of an already beaten track, and fill other holes. Darkness clammy and complete, save for the flames of shells, masked that movement, but one stunted willow tree at which the track changed direction must haunt the memories of some of us. Trees in this battlefield are already described by Dante.

Headquarters, officers, signallers, servants, runners, and specialists, arrived in the blind gloom at the trench occupied by the Hampshire headquarters, and it is sufficient to indicate the insensate manner of the relief when I say that we did not notice any unusually close explosion as we drew near to the trench, but as we entered it we found that there had just been one. It had blown in some concrete shelters, and killed and wounded several of our predecessors; I was aware of mummy-like half-bodies, and struggling figures, crying and cursing.[3]

 

Kate Luard wrote, at midnight, of those half-bodies that had made it as far as her hospital:

It has been a pretty frightful day–44 funerals yesterday and about as many to-day. After 24 hours of peace the battle seems to have broken out again; the din is so terrific I can hardly sit in this chair…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Quoted in Holmes, Tommy, 57.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 77.
  3. Undertones of War, 223-4.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 135.

Haig Pronounces Edwin Dyett’s Fate; We Meet Jack Martin

Edwin Dyett’s conviction for desertion has made it all the way up the chain of command today, a century back. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Forces, wrote one word on the document:

Confirmed.

A telegram was duly sent to Army HQ. In what could be a bitter parody of bureaucratic heartlessness, the one concern of the officer in the Adjutant General’s office who sent the telegram was that “Sub-Lieutenant Dyett should… not be deprived of his badge of rank before the sentence is carried out.”

A conspiracy theorist might roll this together with General Gough’s comment that any private soldier absent for so long would certainly be shot and see that an example was being made of Dyett. And it was, although almost certainly not through any premeditated decision to shoot an officer as a sop to the restive ranks. But, naturally, obscurely, there was some concern for fairness in this rigidly non-egalitarian society apart. And, of course pour encourager les autres

There can be nothing to halt the sentence now, no voice of reason wondering whether it is in any way “necessary” to kill a broken man.[1]

 

Dyett’s story will soon be over. But the war goes on, and with the new year, we’ll begin a new diary.

Actually, Jack Martin’s war diary began in September, when he first arrived in France–but it has been getting more interesting of late, and we will be in need of new writers to get us through a long winter.

Martin is unusual in several ways. First, this is one of those Great War stories that exist more or less in isolation. Because the diary was only recently discovered, and since it appears to have been transcribed (by him) after the initial composition, and since he is one of the millions of soldiers whose personnel records were later destroyed (by, naturally, a German air raid during the Second World War), there is very little in the way of supporting/corroborating evidence for his military career.

Secondly, he was an enlisted man–which meant that his diary was technically illegal–and a trained signaler, a “sapper” (as “other ranks” of the Royal Engineers were called). The Great War historian Richard Van Emden, who edited the diary, reports that it is the only known diary from the ranks of the Royal Engineers.

Thirdly, there is Martin’s voice and point of view. Here he is unusual, but certainly not unique: clever, sharp, and fairly bookish, he does not hail from the traditional officer class yet he certainly does not fit the role of the humble, laboring Tommy. The fact that he became a Royal Engineer–and an enlisted man with heavy responsibilities in terms of safe-guarding and passing along signals–indicates that his intelligence was recognized. And the fact that he did not reach France until late 1916 indicates that he was most likely a late volunteer, rather than a Kitchener’s Army enthusiast or a 1917 conscript. So it is anybody’s guess, here, whether this will prove to be a happy or a disillusioned diary, a good war story or an anti-war lament. (If it’s any good, it will fit none of these categories neatly…)

In any event, Martin begins not only with a bit of a chip on his shoulder but a touchy, proprietary interest in how others see that chip…

The diary has so far commented on Martin’s fellow sappers, on the French and the Belgians, and on many other subjects that have caught his attention. One amusing running report concerns his efforts to elude the censors by sending his sweetheart, Elsie, a copy of A Girl of the Limberlost (the same book being avidly read this Christmas by Bronwen Thomas) with marks under certain letters… but Elsie keeps writing back claiming to have read the book but never noticing any such message…

Two other running concerns are Martin’s fellow sappers and his commanding officer, a subaltern named Buchanan. Taking the latter first, I should note that Sapper Martin and his fellows are functioning outside of the familiar platoon-company-battalion structure of the infantry. Buchanan, a lieutenant (I believe), commands a platoon-sized group of sappers attached to an infantry brigade, a group of specialists with special duties. They will not man front-line trenches, but they will have many dangerous responsibilities–when their brigade reaches the front lines. Therefore Buchanan looms large: he is both the immediate commander and the only local representative of the “regiment,” in this case the Royal Engineers. After him there is not really anyone to whom a humble sapper could appeal…

An even more constant concern of Martin is the nature of his fellow sappers. He is largely, a stranger in a strange land: he is an English lad, and many or most of the sappers of his unit are Scots…

So let’s begin by recognizing one of Scotland’s contributions to general Anglophone/world culture. Once upon a time, religious calendars were all-important, and the mere months and years counted with much less attention. But a strange outgrowth of dour Presbyterian disregard for Christmas was a tendency to compensate a week later with a holiday known as Hogmanay…

1.1.17

Hogmanay is an excuse for mirth, merriment and jollification degenerating into rowdysim and horseplay. I protested that it had no interest for me and accordingly went to bed at 10 p.m. Andy looked on me with a mixture of sorrow and disgust while Davidson and Hamilton declared they would have me out of bed..

There was a certain something in the atmosphere which caused me to think it expedient to rise and join in the festivities. At midnight we rose, shook hands all round, wished each other a happy new year and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ Then we trooped out of the dugout and visited all the others, waking up everybody who was asleep and compelling them to shake hands with us. The various Scotsmen, of course, were up celebrating the occasion and the Englishmen took the commotion and disturbance in good part, with the exception of Billy Gould, our irascible cook. He would have slain the lot of us gladly…

We finished up at the Sergeants’ dugout where we indulged in gramophone, cigarettes and a bottle of port till nearly 2 a.m. The night was moonlit but muddy…

All of this is strange to Martin, but quite familiar to us.

After the Hogmanay celebrations, Martin returns to earth. And that means his simmering conflict with Buchanan. But this is no simple story of a villainous, bullying, or cruel officer. Buchanan is, in Martin’s estimate, “a good officer” who is so demanding and exacting–Martin writes this with approval–that the senior officers of the brigade are afraid to go around him to give orders to his sappers. Buchanan also cuts “a good athletic figure” and is rumored to have been “an Oxford Double Blue.” Jack Martin is concerned to win the respect of this officer, but only on his own terms. And it would seem that Buchanan has it in for our Sapper Martin…

2.1.17

Had a rare old beat-up with Buchanan this evening–the other day Sgt Twycross had to fill up a form with all sorts of particulars of each of us including our civil occupations. I said, ‘Shove me down as a clerk or an account.’ He thought accountant sounded better and so put that down. Buchanan apparently had perused this list and when he found me on duty he started asking a lot of impertinent questions which I resented, I gave him some information about Chartered Accountants but told him I was not one. Then he said, ‘Oh I suppose you are a clerk in a chartered accountant’s office?’ I replied ‘No, I am not,’ quite respectfully, having regard to his dignity as an officer. But so decidedly that even a rhinoceros would have considered himself told off. He turned away, picked up a paper, and a terrible tense silence fell on the place. Brady looked aghast while Andy almost fainted, for they had never heard a mere man talk to Buchanan like that. They sighed great sighs of relief when B went out, and they told me that I was in for it now.

Well, if I am it can’t be helped–I can’t be punished for what I said, but I suppose he’ll get his own back in some way or other…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Death For Desertion, 63, 76.
  2. Van Emden, ed., Sapper Martin, 32, 43-44.

Siegfried Sassoon and a Year Dying of Atrophy; Hermon’s Chugs and the Prayer for the Sentry; Tolkien Makes a Commitment; Edward Thomas Can’t Get Home for Christmas

We have four writers writing today, a century back. First–and at long last–Siegfried Sassoon has picked up his pen once more. His diary, dormant since August, now abruptly resumes:

December 22

Been at Litherland since December 4. Robert Graves went on leave to-day, and will be going to France quite soon. Haven’t been able to get a hunt with the Cheshire since December 9 owing to hard weather. An occasional round by myself at Formby and several expensive gorges at the Adelphi have been my only pleasures…

The only merit of this hut-life is that there are no women about. Plenty of fifth-rate officers—’Capel Sion Light Infantry’.

This is less a nasty complaint than a slur–Sassoon is referring to a couple of “savage” novels about Welsh peasants which had recently caused an outcry in Wales. Apparently the newer officers of the Royal Welch are not much to our Siegfried’s taste–but he has always been a snob. Also curious is the fact that Robert Graves does not appear on the links or at the Adelphi, but only on his way out once more…

I shall not go out till February unless I can’t help it. The long nights and cold weather are more than I can tackle. Last Christmas was at Montagne. Richardson, Edmund Dadd, Davies, Jackson, Pritchard, Thomas, Baynes, have been killed since then… I am more than twelve month’s older since then. 1916 has been a lucky year for me. This is a dreary drab flat place–smog and bleary sunsets and smoky munition-works at night with dotted lights and flares, and bugles blowing in the camp, and sirens hooting out on the Mersey mouth, and the intolerable boredom of Mess and not enough work to do, and people waiting their turn to go out again. No one is at his best here.

Did Siegfried sense a reader, just then, and muster a gesture at apology for his nastiness? Perhaps not, but he does now move toward a broader explanation of his mood:

And the men are mostly a poor lot—ill-trained truss-wearers, and wounded ones. The year is dying of atrophy as far as I am concerned, bed-fast in its December fogs. And the War is settling down on everyone—a hopeless, never-shifting burden. While newspapers and politicians yell and Brandish their arms, and the dead rot in their French graves, and the maimed hobble about the streets. And the Kaiser talks about Peace because he thinks he’s won.

I seem to be acquiring the reputation of a bon viveur—the result of melting fivers at the Adelphi. Some man said in Mess to-night: ‘These new regulations for food will tax your ingenuity in ordering a dinner!’ And the result is a disordered liver, and cynical poetry. I wrote a beastly thing about a butcher’s shop to-day. I don’t suppose it’s any good either. I wonder whether my boat will ever touch the shores of beauty again. Those garden-dawns seem a very long way off now. And nothing before me but red dawns flaring over Ypres and Bapaume. And people still say the War is splendid, damn their eyes. And the Army in France can contemplate a patched-up peace because it is so weary of the Ways of death.[1]

 

The December doldrums spread from the outskirts of Liverpool to Sassoon’s home territory of Kent. At “Tintown,” in Lydd, a new camp order of today, a century back, confirmed what Edward Thomas had feared–or, at least, expected. There would be no Christmas leave. In his letter informing his wife Helen he included a depressingly practical list of possible Christmas presents: an overcoat, “arctic socks,” a periscope, and a pocket sextant… At home in High Beech, Helen Thomas had been preparing for a Christmas without her husband for some weeks. At a party with her daughter, she only heard the words of his letter:

The sentence ‘And Helen, I can’t get home for Christmas’ thumped out a sort of tune in my head, and though with my ears I heard ‘How lovely Myfanwy looks,’ ‘How cleverly you have made the frock,’ I listened with all my being to ‘And Helen, I can’t get home for Christmas’.

Today’s news seemed to remove all hope that she would see her husband before he was sent to France.[2]

 

Edward “Robert” Hermon, more than two years into his war, also wrote to his wife today, a century back.

22nd December 1916–No 48 answering 55–Rue Marle

I went to bed last night feeling an awful worm & not at all pleased with the idea of having to take my Battalion some miles today to be reviewed by my late brother officer, in the most beastly cold wind. I liked it even less when the day was simply pouring with rain & I got all my knees wet en route.

However, the rain stopped soon after we got to the place of parade & it cheered up & the sun shone & was quite nice. D.H. recognized me alright and I rode along with him while he passed my Battalion & he was most complimentary & very pleased with their turnout.

So the former brother officer is none other than Haig himself, the commander of the B.E.F. But this positive review is the good news. Our bluff former regular and confident Battalion Commanding Officer is a far cry from Edward Thomas–but he too will be away from home for Christmas.

Dearie mine I very much doubt if I get home for some time now. Today they have put all C.O.s & staff officers on the ordinary leave roster, & not supernumerary to it as they used to be. The consequence is that I come a long way down the list now…

This bureaucratic change is actually quite significant. Either the army can no longer tolerate so many leaves for its staff officers and battalion commanders, or there is a growing awareness that when enlisted men get only a few days of leave in a year and subalterns perhaps two or three slightly longer leaves, the higher-ups can’t be jaunting home whenever convenient. It’s almost as if the army is adjusting to the realities of a long war of attrition in which maintaining the goodwill of a conscript army will be as much of a challenge as driving the Germans from France and Belgium…

Darling mine there’s a prayer in the little book I should like you to teach the kids. It’s one that starts about ‘the sentry on watch this night, those who command that they etc. There are a couple of lines in the middle that you might eliminate.

This would be the prayer in question:

O GOD, who never sleepest, and art never weary, have mercy upon those who watch to-night: on the sentry, that he may be alert; on those who command, that they may be strengthened with counsel; on the sick, that they may obtain sleep; on the wounded, that they may find ease; on the faint-hearted, that they may hope again; on the light-hearted, lest they forget Thee; on the dying, that they may find peace; on the sinful, that they may turn again. And save us, good Lord. Amen.

It would be the part about death, then, that Hermon would eliminate. I leave it to the reader, I suppose, to guess to what extent this request is a gesture of connection–a wishful thought from a father who is prevented by circumstance from, among many other things, seeing to his children’s religious education–and to what extent it is a hope for intercessory prayer.

I would love to think that the kids were saying it, or had said it when I go round the front lines at midnight & it appeals to me awfully as I see so much of the sentry & know what he has to go through… He wants all the help one can give him. Well my love, good night.[3]

But why parse such a letter? It is, even for the skeptical reader a century hence, a war-of-attrition-style Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude.

 

And yet all is fair in love and loss in war–especially in strictly calendrical projects arising therefrom. I would prefer to end on that sweet and uplifting note, but there’s one more letter to cover today, and not a hopeful one. Geoffrey Bache Smith‘s mother wrote to his close friend John Ronald Tolkien today, in response to his letter and “with details of her son’s last days.” And yet, if it ended there, we’d have less to read. Mrs. Smith also asked Tolkien for his help in seeing her son’s verses published, and “upon receipt of her letter, Tolkien replies at once.” And he will see the project through.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 104-5. I have not been able to figure out the "beastly thing about a butcher's shop--" perhaps he abandoned it.
  2. Hollis, Now All Roads, 307, which seems to place Helen's letter today; but the context of World Without End, 163 (whence the quote) puts it a few weeks ago, when Thomas was first at Lydd.
  3. For Love and Courage, 316-8.
  4. Chronology, 97.

Phillip Maddison Writes, but not to Father; Rowland Feilding on Deep Dugouts, Glistening Seals, and the Hell of Mametz Wood; Donald Hankey Neat as a Pin

Phillip Maddison, wounded on the First of July, reached England a few days ago. He has endured the agony of early treatments for large flesh wounds–scraping, probing, tweezers. And he is in shock, it would seem–or despair. He has written only a brief note, telling his family that he is alive and wounded, and then a field postcard to the keeper of his local pub.

Today, a century back, chided by a nurse, he brings himself to write to his mother. Still, he pretends that only two visitors are allowed, and asks her to bring his sister with her. The scene immediately shifts to his father, near their suburban London home.

On the Saturday afternoon of July 8, Richard Maddison was working in his allotment, with a satisfaction based on two thoughts that gave him a calm feeling: one, that his son was at least out of the battle, with wounds that were not so severe as to lead the authorities, in whom he had implicit trust, to send for his mother and himself; two, that the benefit of sub-soiling he had done upon his rods of land was to be seen in the healthy appearance of the growing crops.

This minor reverie is then interrupted by Lily Cornford, the troubled, winsome, soft-focus girl who loves Phillip. She registers as merely an intrusion for Richard Maddison until she reveals that she is now a hospital volunteer. Then her inquiry is acceptable, and, when she blushes, and becomes a “Vision.” Lily has heard that Phillip is wounded, and is reassured by his father’s bland confidence.

Richard Maddison is distracted, pleased by the pretty young woman’s attentions. We are left for a moment watching him savor the expansive feeling that these attentions bring–watching, if we’ve been reading, with something of the snide derision that his son (or, rather, the author) might feel. Only a foolish old Victorian Polonius would have “implicit trust” in the authorities that sent waves of half-trained soldiers into intact wire and machine guns…

The puncturing of this mood is, by Williamsonian standards, fairly subtle. Lily moves on and, a few minutes later, one of Richard Maddison’s fellow special constables (these middle aged men were tasked with enforcing blackout restrictions and watching for Zeppelins) brings home the meaning of the encounter: the whole neighborhood knows more about Phillip’s condition than his father does.[1]

Henry Williamson‘s fiction is usually even more obvious: he’s the ham-handed man-child caught axe-grinding once again… really! It can be very heavy going indeed. He aims to comment on every aspect of the war, borrowing from his own war experience only when it’s conventionally exciting and otherwise throwing Phillip into every possible battle and using the public record for the details. At the same time he bears down, for thousands of pages, in exhaustive scrutiny of the salient facts of his actual personal life. These are, essentially, twofold: his fickle, immature, and changeable character (“Phillip” is always high-minded, but alternately clownish and noble, courageous and cowardly), and his father’s responsibility for molding that character.

Which is why it is good to read Williamson, here. Going into the details of why we have what writing we do have from these century-back soldiers breaks the fourth wall of the project, as it were: suffice it to say that few nasty or whingeing letters from serving soldiers are preserved, and fewer published. And we don’t have much in the way of complaint about one’s parents. I often make reference to one Philip Larkin poem, here, but there’s another one that serves just as well as a reminder of what British writing c. 1916 (or 1930, by which time almost all of the seminal novels and memoirs had come out) is too polite to encompass. And mum and dad–dad especially–did a number on Henry Williamson.

So, thanks to fiction, we are reminded here of a sobering fact: some wounded soldiers were miserable and depressed. Some blamed their parents for their predicament–fairly or no. Williamson/Maddison is in the army because the Territorials, just before the war, seemed an easy way to find the social acceptance and manly aura that he craved–and this craving stemmed from his father openly despising him as a weakling and Mama’s boy. It’s fiction, but, hey–it’s plausible. Today, a century back, somewhere, a young officer was suffering not only the misery of his wounds but the wounds of his unhappy childhood. And a father–a stiff, unpleasant father–was suffering the wound of his son’s skilfully nasty flanking fire: that postcard to a publican, that pretty girl who knows more, who cares more than he does…

 

Back to the front, now, with Rowland Feilding, who reports to his wife on the aftermath of the Somme.

July 8, 1916. Bois des Tallies.

Yesterday I went off alone to visit Fricourt, which our troops captured last Monday. There was a picture of the village two or three days ago in the Daily Mirror, which I saw yesterday. The picture showed a church and a street
of battered houses. It was not the Fricourt of to-day, which has no church, nor even a house standing. There remain just fragments of walls: that is all.

As you enter the village from this side you pass the cemetery. The tombstones—practically all—have been shattered and scattered broadcast. Scarcely a grave could be recognized by its nearest and dearest, save through its position. In one case, near the roadside, a shell has fallen upon one of those elaborate and rather pretentious family vaults so much in vogue in France, pulverizing the great black granite slab which covered it, and exposing the coffin shelves below. What a sudden and rude awakening for those sleeping bodies, and how undreamed of when they were laid in their highly respectable bourgeois tomb!

Heavy rain began to fall at midday, and continued in torrents at intervals throughout the afternoon, and all last
night. I had gone to Fricourt to look for Percy Clive, but when I reached the place I found that heavy fighting was in
progress before Mametz Wood, about a mile in front, and that his battalion was in it. So I had to postpone my visit.
The wounded were being carried back in streams, all covered from head to foot with the mud in which they had
been fighting, slimy and glistening like seals. It looks more and more as if Hell cannot be much worse than what our
infantry is going through at the present moment.

I should break in here, for a moment–Feilding has gone to report on aftermath, to do some prompt battlefield tourism, and he has found instead a fierce battle in progress. Percy Clive, a liberal MP and fellow Grenadier Guardsman, is now with (and, I believe, commanding) the 7th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, part of the 17th Division. It has fallen to that unit–“The Northern Division”–together with the 38th or “Welsh” Division to drive the Germans from the steep, still-in-fact-wooded Mametz Wood.

Mametz Wood, before

Mametz Wood, which awkwardly straddles a dividing line in the trench map system

This attack will be one of the worst–the bloodiest, the most futile. Overly-complex plans, delays both avoidable and inevitable, and staunch German resistance to attacks that could not be less surprising led to several bloody repulses, yesterday and today.

This is an area that concerns our literary war very closely: in the map at right we can see “The Quadrangle,” in which one trench was single-handedly captured, and then relinquished, by a buccaneering Siegfried Sassoon. That area has been taken now, but the over-matched soldiers of the Northern and Welsh divisions had to attack from there and positions further east up the steep hillsides (note the contour lines) into the Wood.

David Jones and the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers were in the area but missed the attacks–today and tomorrow they will be in brigade reserve, just behind the lines. The day after tomorrow, they will go forward. And yes, it will be “hell,” but with Jones writing, it will be a far stranger, more rich, and more terrible place than that stock comparison suggests.

And in what may be my single greatest sin of omission, I did not discuss Wyn Griffith‘s memoir yesterday.[2] Griffith is another Welshman (in both senses–he was bilingual and more firmly fixed to Wales than many of the 15th RWF or “London Welsh”) and another very good writer. Although he had been an officer in Jones’s battalion (the two may never have interacted directly) he was now on the Brigade staff of the 115th Brigade, 38th Division.[3]

mametz wood, east

Mametz Wood, eastern half, showing Caterpillar Wood

Griffith watched yesterday’s disastrous attack from a position of relative safety and terrible helplessness. No detached observer, like Feilding, he was part of the chain of command that should have been able to adapt the battle to changing circumstances. But not at this point of this war: “brigade” was close enough to the battle to see what needed to be done, but not high enough in the chain of command to make it happen. Telephone and telegraph wires were cut, artillery plans were not to be trifled with, and ill-conceived attacks ground on…

Griffith was in Pommiers Redoubt (just to the south of the positions shown in the map at right–this attack occurred over the junction of four different maps), which had an excellent view of the futile advance down and up the little valley between Caterpillar Wood and Mametz Wood. The Welshmen were raked by enfilading machine-gun fire from the right as well as stiff defensive fire from the wood itself. There was no supporting barrage, no smoke screen… but this was yesterday, a century back, and I omitted it because the only way to do it justice would be to include an entire chapter of Griffith’s book.

Up to Mametz is one of the best memoirs (I know I write this a great deal), but, as the title suggests it falls in between those whose scale approach autobiography and those which describe only a few days or weeks of particular intensity–it is the story of his war, up to Mametz Wood. I very much recommend reading it, but little is to be gained right now from a mid-sized excerpt, so I will just bring us up to date and include one short but representative comment.

The climax of the book–emotionally and operationally, as it were–will come in two days’ time. Yesterday, however, Griffith was the right-hand man to a quiet hero of the war. This was the brigadier, Horatio Evans, who felt he had no choice but to go along with the foolish staff plan of attack. But after a morning of senseless slaughter (another cliche, but merited here), in which scores of men had been killed in order “to prove to our command that machine guns can defend a bare slope,” Evans sacrificed his career to save the remainder of his attacking battalions.

A further advance was being ordered by staff officers–located six miles back–and the brigadier decided to refuse. But his lines were cut, and so it was Griffith who remembered seeing an artillery observation officer with a separate telephone line, ran and found him, brought his Brigadier to verbally refuse the order, and then ran back up to the assembly trenches, through shell-fire, with the written order to stand down, all the while “feeling perfectly safe in the hands of Destiny.”

Hundreds of men were saved, and Brigadier Evans was soon sent home, as he had predicted to Griffith–“they want butchers, not brigadiers.”[4]

He had saved the Brigade from annihilation. That the rescue, in terms of men, was no more than a respite of days was no fault of his, for there is no saving of life in war until the eleventh hour of the last day is drawing to an end.[5]

 

So today, while Rowland Feilding looks for his friend, that friend’s 17th Division is facing machine-gun fire in “knee-deep mud.” Griffith’s brigade has been sent back–he is filling in for a wounded Staff Captain, and spends the day on the phone “parrying all demands from Division”–but other elements of the 38th division are struggling forward at the same time. They will miss their timing for a planned night attack–another intervention of providence or destiny, and likewise temporary.

Tomorrow, in a farther-off echo of the 38th Division getting rid of Brigadier Evans, Haig will fire the divisional commander of the 17th (although he was responsible neither for the German defense, the weather, nor the British plan of attack, which originated either with Haig’s staff or at the Corps or Army level) for this delay.

Ironically, the delay caused by replacing the general who was sacked will put off the assault by another day, giving the German defense more time to prepare.[6]

 

Cutting back to Feilding makes him seem cold-hearted, but there it is. His “hell” may be unimaginative, but the image of wounded, beslimed infantry “glistening like seals” certainly isn’t, and this is an experienced soldier at war: he can do nothing to relieve the sufferings of other men even in a hell so proximate, so he gets on with his day. He continues to tour the recently-captured German front lines around Fricourt and gives us an excellent closing-of-the-circle on a subject of much discussion these last few weeks: the German dugouts that were responsible for the survival of so many of their gunners on July 1st.

I mentioned to a machine-gun officer, whom I met, that I might be going on leave in a day or two, and should like a
souvenir from Fricourt. Said he, “I think I can help you then,” and took me to a place his men had just discovered.

british-troops-at-an-entrance-to-a-german-dugout-in-dantzig-alley-fricourt-july-1916-from-somme-1916

British Troops in a German dugout-entrance, Fricourt, July 1916

I have seen many dug-outs, but this beat them all. It might almost be described as an underground house, where instead of going upstairs you went down, by one flight after another, to the different stories. There were three floors, the deepest being 60 feet or more from the door by which I entered. The entrance hall—so to speak—was the brick cellar of a former house. There were two entrances, one of which, however, could only be recognized from the inside, since the doorway had been blown in. The other door, by which we entered, had been partly closed by a shell, a hole being left just big enough to crawl through on hands and knees.

The German occupants had evidently abandoned the place in a hurry, in the fear—entirely justified—that they might be buried alive if they stayed there. They had left everything behind. The floors were littered with every kind of thing, from heavy trench mortar bombs to grenades, the size of an egg, and from steel helmets to underclothing.

10362-14

An unusual souvenir

Many rifles hung from the wooden walls of the first flight of stairs. The nooks and corners of the rooms were occupied by sleeping-bunks, and from one of these I picked up the French Alphabet de Mademoiselle Lili, par “un papa,” delightfully illustrated, which I will send home to the children.

As I returned to camp I passed many fresh troops on their way up to the line. What a bad start for them in these
deluges of rain! One meets nowadays on the roads many wagons returning from the direction of the line, loaded with “swab” equipment. The troops of the new army wear pieces of cloth of different colours to distinguish their Divisions and Brigades. A battalion—I think of Royal Fusiliers—which I saw marching up, fresh and clean and full of life and vigour, a day or two before July 1, had pieces of pink flannel over their haversacks, displayed in such a way as to be recognizable in battle by our aeroplanes.

A few days later I passed a wagonload of salved equipment returning from the line. It was interleaved with the same pink flannel, now no longer fluttering gaily, but sodden and bedraggled, and caked with sticky clay.[7]

 

Here’s a pretty comparison. Rowland Feilding writes to his wife; Donald Hankey–who has been in the fighting, and buried many men in the days following–writes to his young niece. Hankey has escaped the slaughter once again and, apparently, been sent on a course. See, then, what of the war can be written to a young lady, and how it can be safely garbed in familiar lineaments–the horror story, the religious lesson–without either quite meeting the scale of wartime killing head-on or, otherwise, abandoning some form of truth for utter falsehood:

July 8, 1916

My Dear Eileen,

Thank you for your letter, and please thank Kathleen for hers. When I got your letter I was living in a “dug-out,”  which was a horrid dark place without any windows, which was full of rats. The rats used to eat my breakfast and my candle, and even my clean socks! But now I have gone to school again. Fancy an old fellow like me going to school! But to school I have gone, and it is very nice too! The school is called the 24th Army School, and if you want to write to me you must put on the envelope

2nd LIEUT. HANKEY, 1st R. War. Rgt.
No. 2 Mess, 4th Army School,
B. E. F., France.

There are about 200 students at this school, and some of them are even older than me! We learn all there is to know about killing Huns without getting killed ourselves, and this is very important because a lot of people were killed the other day. Only one must remember that as they died doing their duty, God took care of them, and took them home with Him.

Well, I am sitting in a great big garden, with a great big house just near, and yesterday I went to a funny old French town to get my hair cut and buy some trousers, because when I came here I was covered with mud, and all my clothes had holes in them. And I had lost my walking stick, but now I am as neat as a new pin. But whether wet or dry, ragged or neat, I am always

Your affectionate uncle and godpapa[8]

 

One final note: for the past three days, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien, now with his battalion’s headquarters at Bouzincourt, has been near the battle, but not in it. Two companies of his battalion have gone forward to hold trenches near Usna Hill, but Tolkien, as the signals officer, stayed back. And in Bouzincourt he crossed paths, rather providentially, with his friend and fellow TCBS-ite G.B. Smith. The three “talk as often as they can, ‘discussing poetry, the war, and the future. Once they walked in a field where poppies still waved in the wind despite the battle that was turning the countryside into a featureless desert of mud’.”[9] The two know nothing, yet, of the fate of Rob Gilson.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 319-21.
  2. I also missed, yesterday, the first attack of the 13th Royal Fusiliers--Guy Chapman's battalion--on La Boisselle. It's described in A  Passionate Prodigality, 95-100. Chapman himself was left out of the attack, but he includes disturbing second-hand evidence of the murder of German prisoners. The Somme is overwhelming...
  3. To review: there are four battalions to a brigade, three brigades to a division. Thus the 38th Division had twelve battalions--each a New Army formation created by one of three different regiments.
  4. Evans was slightly wounded yet stayed at his post for the next several days--he seems to have guessed that the wound would be used as an excuse to send him permanently away from the battalion.
  5. Up To Mametz, 206.
  6. In a detail impossible to miss--and perhaps not coincidental--the Welsh Division was at this time commanded by Major General C. G. Blackader.
  7. War Letters to a Wife, 88-90.
  8. Letters of Donald Hankey, 338-9.
  9. Chronology, 83, quoting Carpenter's Biography, 83.

Vera Brittain is in Despair; The Nursing Sister Watches the Preparations for the Big Attack; Julian Grenfell Praises Plato; and H.D. Takes The Lusitania Disaster On As a Personal Calamity

A grim day. There will soon be hard fighting on two sections of the front, as the German Army continues to claw at the salient, while, further to the south, in Artois, a massive bombardment heralds the next Anglo-French attack. And off the coast of Ireland, the Lusitania is torpedoed and sunk, with the loss of almost 1,200 lives.

The Nursing Sister is on night duty now, which accounts for the timing of these diary entries.

Friday, May 7th, 1 a.m.—The noise is worse than anywhere in London, even the King’s Road. The din that a column of horse-drawn, bolt-rattling waggons make over cobbles is literally deafening; you can’t hear each other speak. And the big motor-lorries taking the “munitions of war” up are almost as bad. These processions alternate with marching troops, clattering horses, and French engines all day, and very often all night, and in the middle of it all there are the guns. Tonight the rifle firing is crackling.

Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig have been up here to-day, and every one is telling every one else when the great Attack is going to begin.

There are three field ambulances up here, and only work for two ( —th and —th), so the —th is established in a huge school for 500 boys, where it runs a great laundry and bathing establishment. A thousand men a day come in for bath, disinfection, and clean clothes; 100 French women do the laundry work in huge tubs, and there are big disinfectors and drying and ironing rooms…

My blackbird has laid another egg.

Friday, May 7th, 10 p.m.—A pitch-dark night, raining a little, and only one topic—the Attack to-morrow morning.

The first R.A.M.C. barge has come up, and is lying in the canal ready to take on the cases of wounds of lung and abdomen, to save the jolting of road and railway; it is to have two Sisters, but I haven’t seen them yet: shall go in the morning: went round this morning to see, but the barge hadn’t arrived.

There are a few sick officers downstairs who are finding it hard to stick in their beds, with their regiments in this job close by. There is a house close by which I saw this morning with a dirty little red flag with a black cross on it, where the C.-in-C. and thirty commanders of the 1st Army met yesterday.

Perhaps, then, the sister is at Merville, the French town a few miles to the southwest of Ypres (and due west of Aubers and Fromelles) which is currently First Army headquarters. Although it seems equally likely that the conclave occurred at a divisional HQ. In any event, the Nursing Sister continues with a helpful review of recent fighting and the great current fear: more gas attacks.

The news to-day of Hill 60 and the gases is another spur to the grim resolve to break through here, that can be felt and seen and heard in every detail of every arm. “Grandmother” is lovingly talked about.

The town, the roads, and the canal banks this morning were so packed with men, waggons, horses, bales, and lorries, that you could barely pick your way between them…

We are making flannel masks for the C.O. for our men…

These, of course, are the earliest attempts at gas masks–not very effective, but better than nothing.

4 a.m.—The 9.2’s are just beginning to talk.

Here is a true story. One of our trenches at Givenchy was being pounded by German shells at the time of N[euve]. Ch[apelle]. A man saw his brother killed on one side of him and another man on the other. He went on shooting over the parapet; then the parapet got knocked about, and still he wasn’t hit. He seized his brother’s body and the other man’s and built them up into the parapet with sandbags, and went on shooting.

When the stress was over and he could leave off, he looked round and saw what he was leaning against. “Who did that?” he said. And they told him.

They get awfully sick at the big-print headlines in some of the papers—”The Hill 60 Thrill”!

“Thrill, indeed! There’s nothing thrilling about ploughing over parapets into a machine-gun, with high explosives bursting round you,—it’s merely beastly,” said a boy this evening, who is all over shrapnel splinters.[1]

She has us on tenterhooks for the big attack, no?

This middle-distance look at the front is in so many ways the best. The soldiers may have no idea what is happening on any larger level, and they may be in any sort of mood. But the Nursing Sister is close enough to touch the bodies broken by the latest beastliness or folly and yet far enough from the trenches to see the generals massing and the big guns speaking; she reads the papers but knows from the mouths of the fighters themselves that the papers lie; she shares the soldiers’ contempt for propaganda, but she passes along dramatic tales of front-line trauma as definitively true…

Well, we will have to wait another day or two: the big attack has been be postponed.

 

Home in England, where attacks are only rumors until they are sudden surprises–and then always victories until the casualty lists come through–there is no matching expectancy. Instead only gloom, as a series of blows fall.

Friday May 7th

This has been about the worst day since the beginning of the war–at least it seems to me that it has; horror piled on horror, until one feels that the world can scarcely go on any longer. First you open The Times & see that the Russians are in retreat, the Germans owing to their use of poisonous gas have got Hill 60 back from the British, that the line at Ypres has had to be readjusted owing to an “enforced retirement”.

Then you open a letter from the person you love best in the world at the front. You find he has been hastily rushed off to support trenches where he is within sound of the guns at Ypres, that he has been under shell fire, & that it is a “nerve-racking job”. And every line somehow informs you that even on so keen an intellect & so strong a will the strain is beginning to tell–as it must, more & more–either shattered nerves or death, must it be?

And last thing at night you see by the stop press edition that the Lusitania, carrying over 1,000 passengers & crew, has been sunk by a torpedo, & that there is no word with regard to survivors. I felt so overcome by the horror that I could do no work or anything but think about it. “Always darkest before dawn”–how much darker is it to get than this? Does it mean that the black anguish of further personal loss must be added to all this before the dawn comes–& will the dawn ever come?

One of the great things about reading diaries is the sense of immediacy, of peering over someone’s shoulder and feeling the century evaporate in the intensity of her emotions. One of the difficult things about reading them historically is preserving that immediacy when we bring the rest of our knowledge to bear. Dawn, we know, is very far away, and it will get much blacker yet–so we can’t help but view Vera Brittain’s despair from an ironic distance.

It feels insensitive to Vera, but this is a good moment for a quick tutorial on irony. There are are two distinct types (at least) operating here: for us there is that historical irony of the last paragraph. We look on from the Olympian heights of a hundred years of history, and wish, perhaps, that we could tell the lonely student that the war will last for several more years, that the Lusitania will become, in yet another sense, an ironic calamity (the disaster bearing the seeds of victory), even that all this talk of dawns and darknesses is very subjective indeed, that she (as indeed she half-realizes) is mistaking personal experience for the grand sweep of history.

But I am trying to resist these sorts of badgering interjections. I don’t pretend that readers know nothing of the war’s course, and I allow myself some general foreshadowing (little nibbles of forbidden treats, when the writer should be delivering only a four-square and sensible meal). We wouldn’t be here if they were going to be home safe by Christmas.

But it is very important to A Century Back that we do not allow specific knowledge about any writer/character’s future to color their daily writing/experiences. If we read always with the ironic distance that our superior knowledge of the future imposes, then we will misread the experience as it was written. Gods may be  all-knowing and all-seeing, and they may glimpse the future, but they are notoriously bad at respecting the subjectivities of human experience. Historians who run back down the long slopes of history with a huge grader are going to grind away the little peaks and valleys that are all we see of our own lives as we live them.

I’m getting preachy. Quickly, then: the other sort of irony is Paul Fussell’s irony of proximity. It is constantly surprising, always odd, that normal home life in England goes blithely on so close to the terrible other-world of the trenches. So strange that Oxford could be pretty when Flanders has been ruined, so unsettling that it only takes a day or two for a letter to go from one to the other, and yet the the short gap will do nothing to end anxiety–he may have been killed mere hours after it wads posted.

Vera loves, too, to proclaim Roland’s special nature, to discuss how much heavier the burden of a violent and horrible life is on someone with a questing, sensitive, intellectually energetic nature. She’s not wrong, of course–but she is biased. Roland’s plight is only a more intense version of the cognitive challenge of ironic proximity. Thousands of soldiers are stuck by the uncanny persistence of the natural things they have loved–birds nesting and flowers blooming even in the trenches themselves.

But why, again, insist on this sort of correction? Vera is in love–of course she feels that Roland is unique. And who is harmed by this private, special pleading? It must be good, when crouching low under fire, to know that someone thinks that your sensitivity is a special burden of your unique and valuable nature.

Today’s letter includes this paragraph:

It is horrible to think of you under shell fire, & in support trenches. I suppose you really are very near the vast chaos that was Ypres–if not actually in it. I wonder, if all this ever ends–sometimes I feel as if nothing but the end of the world could finish it–& you are still left to us, if you will be very different. I suppose you are bound to be–people especially those whose sensibilities are fine & keen, can’t go through this sort of thing & remain the same. Your letters, certainly, don’t seem to illustrate you as fundamentally altering, but they do show you to me as becoming very much more all I have known you to be. It seems so characteristic of you to be facing death one moment, & seeing so clearly the beauty of the world, & life, & love, in the next…[2]

For a double-dose of the ironies of the home front, today, it seems that the distraction of having one’s beloved in harm’s way provides an ancillary benefit:

I was put into the first couple of the Somerville tennis six to-day. It seemed easy to get into the team, because I did not care.

True distraction, however–or peace of mind–are not to be found:

I practised tennis this afternoon, but it made me feel very tired; all the time the words [from Roland’s May 1st letter] sounded in my mind “Someone is getting hell, but it isn’t you–yet.”

At night I was so tired & full of despair I didn’t know what to do. I tried to find a little comfort from Wordsworth, & almost the first thing I opened him at was

Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind,
I turned to share the rapture–ah! with whom
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb…[3]

 

So, a terrible day on several fronts–a matter of history’s slopes and vistas. But while Vera Brittain is in the hollows of despair, others may be galloping over their own private mole-hills. Julian Grenfell is in fine fettle:

Friday, 7 May:

Exercise 8 am. Plato’s idea of Happiness realised–no personal property or ties, just as ready to move or to stay. Saddle up 2 pm. Into billets at Thiennes… Dogs all right except Sandon run over by motor, shot him. Puppies grown out of knowledge.[4]

Grenfell will never be accused of sumptuously introspective writing. He has been up behind the lines–the cavalry are the last reserve, in these parts–but not into battle, and now they have returned to their billets at least twenty miles back. Here his primary joy has been keeping dogs and hunting when he can. (All hunting will be forbidden for the sake of the alliance–the French peasantry, having not all that long ago risen up and slaughtered the best part of its aristocracy, does not take as well as the British to having the well-bred churn up their fields and knock down their fences.) We will return to this matter of the injured dog, which Grenfell has to put down, in a few days.

Now, about this Plato reference. Happier without possessions? A sudden conversion to socialism? No. This is rather a more complete embrace of the military life than any sort of broader political aperçu. Julian Grenfell has plenty of possessions, draped all over his body and horse, sent from home by the cart-load, and lugged around by his soldier servant (who is almost never mentioned). What he has discovered that he likes is having no permanent social position–no real estate, as it were, to worry about, no ties. There is freedom in being under orders–many of our writers will experience something like this, although the feeling often passes–and he is discovered in addition a strong sense of belonging more fully to oneself when one belongs nowhere in particular. But Plato? Really? We’ll come back to this when Grenfell recycles the idea in a letter home.

 

And Captain Claude Templer, captured on December 22nd, escaped from prison camp today. He has been writing… verses.[5]

 

Finally, a word on the Lusitania. This is not the place for reportage on the human tragedy or its grand strategic implications. I realize that I end up writing a lot of “context” for the snippets of writing, and thus discussing the course of the war in general. But it is true enough to simply state that the sinking of the Lusitania, a century back, will have no real impact on the Western Front for two years.

But I have another brief, here, namely to track the development of war writing. So here is one awful, off-beat resonance of the disaster.

H.D. and Richard Aldington, modernist writers and unhappy married couple (the “power couple” cliche does not really apply), are expecting their first child. In a few weeks’ time  the child will be stillborn. This is a terrible thing, and neither the least nor the greatest after-effect of the agony will be the destruction of their marriage. H.D. will go on to write about the trauma several times, fictionalizing her experience in different ways and giving us an unsettling example of the “history” of the war being put to purposes both personal and fictional.

In an unpublished fictionalized memoir–Magic Mirror–she seems to blame Aldington for the loss of the baby, for shocking her with the news of the Lusitania. This is of a piece with many horror stories, ancient and less ancient, which connect terrible news with miscarriage. In the story “Bid Me To Live” the husband rushes in and shouts “don’t you realise what this means? Don’t you feel anything? The Lusitania has gone down.” This too leads to the loss of the child (suddenly delicate, I pass over the differences between a miscarriage and stillbirth).

In the autobiographical novel Asphodel–also unpublished during her lifetime–the death of the baby is attributed not to the loss of the Lusitania but to the shock of the first German air raid on London (which took place, historically, ten days after the stillbirth). And yet the trauma is still depicted as being in some way the husband’s fault. The Aldington figure has been mercilessly mocked by the nurses who surround his wife during and after her confinement:

Their cheeks went pink with almost consumptive joy and fervour while they drove and drove and drove one
towards madness. ‘Why isn’t Mr Darrington in Khaki?’

The H.D. stand-in thinks: ‘Khaki killed it. They killed it. . . . Good old ecstatic baby-killers like the Huns up there.’[6]

Millions of men have volunteered. But other millions have not, and Aldington is still one of the latter.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 96-7.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 191-8.
  4. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 296.
  5. Poems and Imaginings, 7.
  6. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, Poet, Soldier, Lover, 113-15.