The Many Threads of Wilfred Owen; Kate Luard Has Boys to Remember and Two Hundred Letters to Write

Wilfred Owen is a busy bee these days.

Tues. Night[1]

Dearest of Mothers,

So pleased to have Father’s letter & your note this morning… Last week passed unmercifully quickly. The only way to lengthen time is to add more miles to the roads of our journeys. And the only way to lengthen life is to live out several threads at a time and join them up in crucial moments.

At present I am a sick man in hospital, by night; a poet, for quarter of an hour after breakfast; I am whatever and whoever, I see while going down to Edinburgh on the tram: greengrocer, policeman, shopping lady, errand boy, paper-boy, blind man, crippled Tommy, bank clerk, carter, all of these in half an hour; next a German student in earnest; then I either peer over bookstalls in back-streets, or do a bit of a dash down Princes Street,—according as I have taken weak tea or strong coffee for breakfast…

The next paragraph makes Craiglockhart–especially for those undergoing Dr. Brock’s “ergotherapy”–sound much like a sort of summer camp for grown men. It’s not work therapy, really, but rather activity therapy. Golf and tennis and swimming and arts and crafts… and for Owen, who aspires so fervently to be a writer and has always had an interest in theater, magazine-making and the amateur stage:

This afternoon I spent with a Daily Mail sub-editor, Salmond… When we had discussed together many mighty things and men, and an Emersonian silence fell between us, we went upstairs to the Cinema, & so finished a very pleasant afternoon. Tonight Pockett enrolled me as Mr. Wallcomb, in Lucky Durham, a fashionable young fellow, whose chief business in the play is introducing people.

Thus I need at once:
1) 1 Green Suit,
2) 2 or 3 Green Shirts,

The list runs to seven items, mostly green, that might do for his costume, and then segues into a long and rambling discussion of poetry and other matters. Owen is having a very good time–but he has as yet no confidantes to describe it to, save his mother.

It’s too late o’night to talk like this. Time I snuggled myself away.

Goodnight, dear Mother.

X W.E.O.[2]

 

In painful contrast to this evidence of a young man on the mend is Kate Luard‘s letter from Ypres, today, a century back. We have seen this pattern before: during the excitement, trauma, and back-breaking work that fills the days after an attack, she writes to record events, to praise the heroically praiseworthy, and, perhaps, to help manage the stress of the situation, controlling things that are out of anyone’s control by putting them on paper. Then, when the pace of work slows, the diary shifts into an elegiac mode, and she writes to express something of the pathos, misery, and suffering she has witnessed. The pattern follows that of her work as the senior nurse, which shifts now from crisis management toward administrative tasks, and there is one terrible duty in particular that will now take up much of her time and emotional energy.

The very nice Australian Sister in charge of the Australian C.C.S., which is not yet working, is getting my 209 break-the-news addresses into order for me to begin upon some day, and that since yesterday week. Does that give you some idea of what is has been like?

Luard shakes off this mood, now, and discusses other goings-on in the hospital, including rivalries between the surgeons, experimental treatments, the various emotional and physical needs of the patients and her efforts to meet them, and even her campaign to establish something of a normal social life by leading the nurses in hosting an “At Home” gathering for the doctors and friendly area officers.

But Luard’s thoughts come back, before the end of today’s entry, to the pity of war.

A boy called Reggie in the moribund Ward was wailing, ‘I do feel bad and no one takes no notice of me.’ When I comforted him he said, ‘You’re the best Sister in the world–I know I’m a nuisance, but I can’t help it–I’ve been out there so long and I’m so young–Will you give me a sleeping draught and a drop o’ champagne to make me strong?’ He had both and slept like a lamb, but he died to-day. A dear old dying soldier always would shake hands and say, ‘How are you to-day?’ He died last night. One boy in the Prep. Hut implored me to stay by him until he had his operation…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Incorrectly dated by the editor of his letters--Tuesday was the 7th, not the 8th.
  2. Collected Letters, 480-2.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 139-40. I also want to take the opportunity here to thank Tim Luard for his invaluable work in adding some of Kate Luard's letters to individual siblings to the published text of her open letters, as well as for all of his work on his great aunt's writing. His recent article gives a great deal of more information about Luard's experience during Third Ypres than I have been able to include, including both illustrations, and descriptions of several memorable events of the battle's first week.

Siegfried Sassoon Invokes the Spirit of the Years; Edmund Blunden Will Be Left Behind; Noel Hodgson’s “Before Action.”

The Battle of the Somme was scheduled to begin this morning, a century back, but it has been postponed for two days. July 1st–a date to remember, a date to compress history with–will be the day the Big Push begins.

Three poets today, then, in the quiet of what was to have been the storm–two memories in prose and then an archetypal poem.

Siegfried Sassoon, who was to have rotated into support, is still holding trenches with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Under fire, he reads–yesterday, it was one of Hardy‘s great tragic novels. Today, he quotes the Spirit of Dramatic History:

June 29

Steady bombardment. Enemy quiet (up to 1.50 p.m.), weather cool and cloudy–no rain.

SPIRIT OF THE EARTH

What of the Immanent Will and Its designs?

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

It works unconsciously, as heretofore,
Eternal artistries in Circumstance,
Whose patterns, wrought by rapt aesthetic rote,
Seen[1] in themselves Its single listless aim,
And not their consequence.

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

Yet but one flimsy riband of Its web
Have we here watched in weaving—web Enorm,
Whose furthest hem and selvage may extend
To where the roars and plashings of the flames
Of earth-invisible suns swell noisily,
And onwards into ghastly gulfs of sky,
Where hideous presences churn through the dark—
Monsters of magnitude without a shape,
Hanging amid deep wells of nothingness.

(from Hardy, The Dynasts)[2]

Dodgy stuff, this cherry-picking from a vast reading to suit the circumstances of the day….  But, yes, these lines, written by Hardy to dramatize the Europe-ravaging, world-convulsing wars of just over a century back (i.e. the Napoleonic wars) fit very well for the century-back now. Battle looms, and Siegfried Sassoon is simultaneously grief-stricken, fairly happy, and engaging in battle-and-glory-tinged suicidal ideation.

 

Always unruffled and unassuming, Edmund Blunden is on the verge of what will be his first battle. He is near Richebourg-Saint-Vaast, north of the Somme, where a diversionary attack–which is intended to confuse the Germans and/or draw their reserves–is about to be launched.

Before long “secret” attack orders came, which everyone had to know. The phrase was that “The following officers and men have been carefully selected to participate,” or some such honorific proscription; however, our battalion was supplying only various detached parties, the real offensive falling to the share of the other three in the brigade. My name was not among the selected, and in that moment, so absurdly dominant is the desire to be talked about, disappointment was among my feelings.

Put this beside Sassoon’s voluntary heroics–not to mention Robert Graves‘s bellowing praise of them–and we have a good short-hand for the personalities of these three major war poets. Blunden, brave as the rest and considerably newer, is gentle and quiet. But, it would seem, even if he is too wise (or too retiring) to be “eager to go,” he is not master enough of his independent self-hood to escape disappointment. Ah, but then he recognizes the “absurdity…”

A further irony, of course, is built into the concept of the diversionary attack:

But what was the attack? This: The German line ran out in a small sharp cape here, called The Boar’s Head. This was to be “bitten off,” no doubt to render the maps in the chateaux of the mighty more symmetrical. The other battalions were being hurriedly exercised a mile or two behind through wheatfields, where the Pioneers had run up a canvas model of the enemy lines, and instead of some weeks, some days only were left; the day of decision came swooping upon the brigade. Over the way the Bois du Biez, with many trees still black and scowling amid the greenness of June, and empty houses along its verges, stood in our common gaze, nor was the legend that, when Neuve Chapelle (also close at hand, in sight) was assaulted, battalions went into the wood to be heard of never again, separable from its gaunt omnipresence. I explored some of the derelict trenches built for assembling infantry in the offensive of a year before, and found them terribly punished and shapeless, full of warnings, sown with jagged iron.

 And yet, these strong, cheerful, clean, determined men? these accumulations of trench-mortar bombs, hand grenades, bright blue wire, small-arms ammunition? these cruelly gleaming machine guns in hitherto unrevealed emplacements of our trenches, neat as office safes? On the afternoon before the attack, Penruddock (now away from us on some special duty) came up to give our selected ones the latest instructions, and also lanyards wherewith to bind numbers of prisoners. On that same afternoon our heavy artillery thundered away for hours at the German line; no answer came. How could we lose?

 

This question, of course, needs no answer from me. Nor does the following poem demand commentary. Noel Hodgson is somewhat akin to Blunden–gentle, countryish, classically trained. “Smiler,” though, is outgoing, while “Rabbit” is more of an alert watcher. Both go in for quietly effective poetry, but while Blunden’s will have depths to be explored, Hodgson tends to lay plain his meaning.

And that, in this case at least, is no criticism. Hodgson sat down, recently, to write what was on his mind as he prepared himself for battle–he may have completed “Before Action” as recently as a few days ago, but it was published today, a century back, in The New Witness.

 

Before Action

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received.
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing.
The laughter of unclouded years.
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his.
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill.
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice.
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;–
By all delights that I shall miss
Help me to die, O Lord.

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sassoon's mistake, I think--it should be "Seem."
  2. Diaries, 81.

Balderdash on Stage; Henry Williamson Sees His First Attack

The bias of this war literature project has swung rather heavily toward poetry, novels, and memoir, as well as the semi-literary genre of diaries and letters. But what about the stage, I ask you?

It was not until December 1914 that anything one could call a serious, original war play appeared, and then only a very small one, produced under less-than-serious circumstances. J.M. Barrie’s “playlet,” Der Tag, opened at the London Coliseum on December 21, on a variety bill that also included a play by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a ballet, three comedy acts, a family of equilibrists, and a company of trained pigs. Theatre publicity announced that “The burning words of a great mind on a great subject should render this little play one of national interest”, but concentration must have been difficult.[1]

Samuel Hynes describes the playlet as a disastrous mashup of Dynasts-style portentousness and the sort of sketchy propaganda-fantasy that Lord Dunsany will eventually turn his hand to, but don’t take his word for it: “Virginia Woolf… thought it ‘sheer balderdash of the thinnest kind.'”

But what, really, could one put on the stage, at this point, that might actually represent the war? The best anyone could do was a mild representation of the clash of ideals, or some such thing… theatergoers will have to wait until ten years after the war’s end–just when the first “disenchanted” English memoirs began to appear–to see a realistic war play.

 

Herbert Read applied for a temporary commission in the Regular Army today, a century back, and solicited a letter of recommendation from Michael Sadler, the vice-chancellor of Leeds University and an important collector of modern art. Sadler was the first major influence on Read’s development as an art critic, but for now his major influence in obtaining a commission for Read takes priority.[2]

 

Lastly and loomingly, Henry Williamson wrote home today, about his first (slight) experience of battle.

Two nights earlier he and the rest of the London Rifles had been under fire in close support of an assault in front of Ploegsteert wood but–strangely–you would hardly know it from his letter. Perhaps, given his tendency to rapid distraction from one subject to another, the two days’ gap between the fight and the letter have left him disinterested in dramatizing the action. It seems certain that he was not in the two half-companies that, according to a battalion historian, actually went forward. Anyway, Henry today is in a jolly mood, and waxes brash:

Dear Mother, how are you all at home? I expect that by the time you get this you will have had Xmas…

I shall have some tales to tell you when I get home–tales that you never read in the papers or soldiers letters. Tales of [the London Rifle Brigade] and how good luck has always been its lot when the odds seem overwhelming. The other night… we heard suddenly the ploc ploc of rifle fire, and it gradually swelled in sound till it became a roar, mingled with the pop, pop, pop of maxim guns. Blinding white rockets lit up the sky, and field guns suddenly flashed and boom! and shriek a shell speed on its errand of death. The boom, boom, boom, continual & awful sounds our cannon spoke in the night. We then knew that our men were attacking. In the morning we heard that several German trenches has been taken…[3]

Vivid, but slight (and there is a good deal of [sic]ness in the above, never fear).

Here’s how Williamson later reworked the battle, blending the experience of Phillip’s “London Highlanders”–previously step-for-step with the London Scottish–into his first-hand experiences with the London Rifles:

…with a jump of concealed fear, orders were read out for an attack, on the 19th, two days after the new moon. The company lay out at the edge of the wood, shivering and beating aching hands and feet, in support to a regular battalion’s assault on a cottage in No Man’s Land called Sniper’s House and a section of German trench that enfiladed the dreaded and dangerous Diehard T-trench. The assault of muttering and tense-faced bearded men took place under a serried bank of bursting red stars of shrapnel, and supporting maxim-gun fire: figures floundering across the root-field, with its sad decaying lumps that were dead cows and men. Hoarse yells of fear become rage arose; while short of, into, and beyond the British front line dropped shell after shell to burst with acrid yellow fumes of lyddite…

The survivors, coming back through the wood, wet through and covered with mud, their uniforms ripped by barbed-wire, were singing as they passed the London Highlanders… They were wonderful, remarked Sergeant Douglas…

Yes, because they were going out, thought Phillip; they were marching away from death, to warmth and sleep. The local attack had failed before the uncut German wire; but Sniper’s House was taken.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Hynes, A War Imagined, 40.
  2. King, The Last Modern, 25-6, 38.
  3. A. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 45-7.
  4. A Fox Under My Coat, 25-6.

Bad News for Francis Ledwidge; Ford Skewers a Squire; Thomas Hardy is Only a Century Out of Date

Bad news today for Private Francis Ledwidge of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. As long ago as the spring his girl Ellie Vaughey had thrown him over for John O’Neill, but Ledwidge still had hopes. Until today, when Vaughey and O’Neill were married. All of Ledwidge’s home affairs had now gone awry. First the political; and now the personal–it might have felt as if there was little reason, now, to ever go home to county Meath. What was left?

Well, poetry. And the grim winter barracks life and future uncertainty of the army.[1]

 

From a fledgling poet to a master. Thomas Hardy has been awkwardly navigating the shoal waters of jingoism and propaganda since August: a few questionable close calls, but no total disaster yet. If he continues to survive without writing something truly terrible, he may yet metamorphose from hoary Victorian Legend to the supreme ironist among poets, a sage worthy of the suffering soldier poets. (Spoiler: he sure will! We’ll hear from Charles Sorley in a few days on Hardy’s great merits.)

In any event, Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance have come out, and will, at least in Paul Fussell‘s opinion, prove the true harbinger of the war’s literary art. But today another pre-war project long in the works now bore fruit–ironic and bitter fruit, of course. The Dynasts, Hardy’s massive, masterful, strange, and difficult verse drama of the Napoleonic wars was mounted for the first time tonight as an actual theatrical production.[2] The great man himself had a cold, and did not attend. Reviews were cordial.

 

And another curious literary debut in today’s issue of The BystanderFord Hueffer‘s “The Scaremonger” is a charming but faintly bizarre combination of mild “never fear!” propaganda, mean-spirited caricature, and whimsy.

It’s a pleasant, very English little tale, something like Wodehouse covering Wells: there is a meddlesome “squire” in an east coast town, a retired money-man who has devoted his leisure to recondite research in the classics (the Latinist as extravagantly detached luftmensch was a familiar type) and annoying the locals. But now the squire is seized by war fever, and his philological battles against a Prussian professor give birth to paranoia: he has become convinced that a German submarine will make a secret landing on his part of the coast, unleashing “Huns” to rape and pillage the defenseless English countryside.

This is rather irritating to the officers of the local New Army unit that is responsible for coastal defense. The squire is not only frightening the young ladies of the village but there is also the concern that his flamboyant cowardice, no matter how ridiculous, might spread.

So a demonstration is arranged, a dummy raid by one section of the local army battalion against those standing guard, complete with blank cartridges and instructions to any of the soldiers who can manage a bit of German to use it, the better to fool the garrison.

The story is light-hearted, so far, but it addresses a real enough situation. German ships have attacked British shipping in the Channel and bombarded the coast, and a serious raid with civilian casualties will actually take place in a few weeks’ time. Even though an actual invasion is a very far-fetched idea, rumors abounded (Rupert Brooke has written several letters about being mobilized to meet invasion scares, and suggested nastily that a real raid would do the English scaremongers good) and fear ran as rampant as cliche.

So a tale that played up the competence and pluck of the half-trained members of Kitchener’s Army would qualify as useful pro-war-effort writing.

The end of this little tale I don’t mind spoiling: sure enough, as the brave men of the 57th West Kents assemble on the beach to mount their war-game invasion, they run smack into another group of armed men muttering in German. It’s a fearful mix-up, since the West Kents are only carrying blanks and the other German-speaking fellows are quite rude, but no matter: eventually, with the help of one regular sergeant and a boy scout they capture a hundred Prussian commandos and their state-of-the-art submarine.

The terrified squire, meanwhile, charges the beach brandishing several pistols, shooting several English soldiers before turning the gun on himself. Which is a dark turn for a silly story. The moral?

The moral, apparently, is that Ford Madox Hueffer is the sort to pick any fight, no matter how silly and unrewarding. The suicidal hysteric is a thinly disguised burlesque of Edward Heron Allen, English eccentric, Sussex squire, distinguished scholar of Persian, and, according to Violet Hunt, who was then living with Hueffer, despite his marriage, her rejected suitor.

The (historical) story gets weirder: Heron Allen recognized the caricature and railed against the perfidy of a man who came to dinner at your house with his scandalous mistress, then made fun of you, and was a German to boot. He appears to have been able to use that squire-ly influence as well: Hueffer, whose father had indeed been German, will shortly be ordered by the local constabulary to leave West Sussex. Suspicious chap, you know. German name. Strange habits.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 90.
  2. Or, rather, a few selected scenes were staged. The thing is massive.
  3. Ford, War Prose, 140-8.

Charles Sorley Recalls Agamemnon Striding a Railway Platform; Billy Congreve on the Comforts of Home

Charles Sorley wrote to his parents today from his training camp in Kent, recalling his train journey out of Germany as the war began.

Shorncliffe, 23 November 1914

By the way I liked the Armenian article in The Cambridge Magazine. It brought back to me that little crooked old fellow that Hopkinson and I met at the fag-end of our hot day’s walk as we swung into Neumagen. His little face was lit with a wild uncertain excitement he had not known since 1870, and he advanced towards us waving his stick and yelling at us ” Der Krieg ist los, Junge,” [“War is here, boys”] just as we might be running to watch a football match and he was come to tell us we must hurry up for the game had begun.

Not your every day war-as-football metaphor.

And then the next night on the platform at Trier, train after train passing crowded with soldiers bound for Metz–varied once or twice by a truck-load of “swarthier alien crews,”[1] thin old women like wineskins, with beautiful and piercing faces, and big heavy men and tiny aged-looking children–Italian colonists exiled to their country again…

…and we watched the signal on the southward side of Trier, till the lights should give a jump and the finger drop and let in the train which was to carry us out of that highly-strung and thrilling land.

At Cologne I saw a herd of some thirty American school-marms whom I had assisted to entertain at Eucken’s just a fortnight before. I shouted out to them, but they were far too upset to take any notice, but went bobbing into one compartment and out again and into another like people in a cinematograph. Their haste, anxiety and topsyturviness were caused by thoughts of their own safety and escape, and though perfectly natural contrasted so strangely with all the many other signs of haste, perturbation and distress that I had seen, which were much quieter and stronger and more full-bodied than that of those Americans, because it was the Vaterland and not the individual that was darting about and looking for the way and was in need : and the silent submissive unquestioning faces of the dark uprooted Italians peering from the squeaking trucks formed a fitting background Cassandra from the backmost car looking steadily down on Agamemnon as he stepped from his triumphal purple chariot and Clytemnestra offered him her hand.[2]

Sorley has given us a mickle mixture here: his bobbing cinematograph figures are a then-modish but still quite comprehensible metaphor: it’sexactly what we would think of as speeded-up, frenetic “silent movie” figures, their actions played choppily back with the low frame rate abbreviating their every action…

And then Aeschylus. As long as there has been Western humanism dropping Greek Tragedy has been the Queen move, and Sorley doesn’t eschew the main chance. I’m not sure exactly what he means here, but it’s a powerful image. The Fatherland is Agamemnon–that much is clear. He is domineering and skillful but over-proud warlord , a man who has already made his devil’s bargain with the gods. He has booty and crimes a-plenty, and we watch him knowing that his downfall will be swift and awful..

The Italians, then, are cast as the voiceless victims looking on. I am not sure why Italians should have a notable particular claim to victimhood (the Italian wars are more distant than France and Germany’s last war), so it is surely the more abject plight of migrant laborers, regardless of nationality, that qualifies them…[3]And then the American school-marms are complicating the allegory rather unforgivably… Why are the queen, wronged and murderous? But anyway: he is recalling his impressions–his learned impressions–of a thoroughly dramatic Scene One. Yes; the young soldier is already looking back on the beginning and knowing full well that he has a small part to play in a most traditional tragic drama.

And if you have read that heavyweight opening scene of the Agamemnon you may just see it: the corporate pride of the nation at war, the kaiser considering himself an unjustly crossed paramount king; and sad unheeded faces adorning the steam-train-for-palace backdrop. And murder ahead. Never mind the miscasting or non-casting of the most important character, Clytemnestra (is she, simply, Discord? Eris, Erichto, Amata-post-Allecto? But that does no justice to her character, her crime and crimes). This is some good classical-modern riffing. He should write some more serious poetry!

 

And on a very different note, another jaunty report from Billy Congreve. There is a change in the status of the 3rd Division, which is now under the command of General Haldane, who has retained Congreve’s services as ADC. The lull, even in frozen trenches, has its advantages:

23rd November

Very quiet days these. We ride or motor off in the morning to see our war-worn warriors, presenting various medals to those who are left to get them. Various generals turn up and tell them how splendid the are, including Sir John French [commander of the BEF], who came out today and waded round in the mud. The men look better already. Shaving and washing and plenty of sleep work wonders. Heaps of ‘comfort’ are now arriving from home and cigarettes galore. In fact, I think they only lack beer! We are now getting in drafts fast, so by the 27th we should be quite a useful unit again.[4]

Yes, Billy, but you’re not sleeping the trenches, are you? And your servant presumably has an easier time scrounging firewood to heat your shaving water…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. From Tennyson's The Revenge, my pretties.
  2. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 242-3.
  3. Although this is hardly on the same tragic scale as Cassandra's plight. She had already been raped and taken by force from her home, after seeing it destroyed and her family massacred. Cassandra is too much for modernity--better to think of the Italians as the chorus.
  4. Armageddon Road, 86-7.