Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement, “To Any Dead Officer;” Henry Williamson is Blighty Bound; Herbert Read’s Theories of Courage

Before we get to a statement–and a poem, and a memoir’s context for the two–we have two brief updates.

 

For the past week Henry Williamson has bounced about the hospitals of northern France. He believes that he has gotten a “whiff” of phosgene gas from German gas shells–but he may also just be sick, or run down. In any event, he finds it pleasant to be out of the line and hopes to be able to parlay the sick time into reassignment. In this he may well be lucky, as in the name of efficiency sick and wounded officers can no longer count on returning to their unit. Most fear and deplore this change, but Williamson (and probably his C.O. as well) would welcome it.

Dear Mother,

Please get those protectors for armpits in my new tunic at once–big ones under the lining–you probably know by this time that I am for England on the first boat which leaves any time… Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno…

This hospital is a bon place–I live on champagne and fried plaice & chicken now!!

Love Willie.[1]

Williamson, whose intestinal health has long been an issue, can look forward to a lengthy recovery in Blighty…

 

Herbert Read is in rather a more bloody-minded state, and with sharper tales to tell. Or not: restraint in what he writes to Evelyn Roff is a point of pride–Read is a very purposeful sort, and he thinks twice about describing the war without a theoretical grasp of how such war tales might fit in with his theories of Modern literature. (He seems less concerned that a policy of mentioning, but not describing, certain experiences might not help their budding relationship flourish.)

Nevertheless, he has something to say, and it is the confirming converse of Williamson’s lonely experience: what makes it all worthwhile are the men. And what defines a man’s worth is the way in which he carries himself through danger.

15.vi.17

My present location is not too bad. We are now in the third week of our period in the line… and rather terrible days they were. But you can have no desire for me to ‘paint the horrors.’ I could do so but let the one word ‘fetid’ express the very essence of our experiences. It would be a nightmare to any individual, but we create among ourselves a wonderful comradeship which I think would overcome any horror or hardship. It is this comradeship which alone makes the Army tolerable to me. To create a bond between yourself and a body of men and a bond that will hold at the critical moment, that is work worthy of any man and when done an achievement to be proud of.

Incidentally my ‘world-view’ changes some of its horizons. I begin to appreciate, to an undreamt of extent, the ‘simple soul’. He is the only man you can put your money on in a tight corner. Bombast and swank carry a man nowhere our here. In England they are everything. Nor is the intellect not a few of us used to be so proud of of much avail. It’s a pallid thing in the presence of a stout heart. Which reminds me of one psychological ‘case’ which interests me out here: to what extent does a decent philosophy of life help you in facing death? In other words: Is fear a mental or a physical phenomenon? There are cases of physical fear–‘nerves,’ ‘shell-shock,’ etc. There are also certainly cases of physical courage… and there are, I think, men who funk because they haven’t the strength of will or decency of thought to do otherwise.

But I would like to think there was still another class (and I one of them) whose capacity for not caring a damn arose not merely from a physical incapacity for feeling fear, but rather from a mental outlook on life and death sanely balanced and fearlessly followed. But perhaps I idealize…[2]

Perhaps he does. Read has a good deal of trench experience by now, but he has not suffered the same sort of trench trauma–or string of losses of friends both fond and beloved–that has overburdened “Mad Jack” Sassoon. But it is an interesting break down of different types of courage–and an intelligent one. Cursed are dullards, blessed are the philosophers, strong of will–so it’s also a flattering one. But it asks no larger questions…

 

Today’s main event is Siegfried Sassoon‘s completion of a draft of his statement against the war.

It thus happened that, about midnight on the day my portrait was finished, I sat alone in the club library with a fair copy of the ‘statement’ before me on the writing-table. The words were now solidified and unalterable. My brain was unable to scrutinize their meaning any more. They had become merely a sequence of declamatory sentences designed to let me in for what appeared to be a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top’; and, at the moment, the Hindenburg Line seemed preferable in retrospect. For the first time, I allowed myself to reflect upon the consequences of my action and to question my strength to endure them. Possibly what I disliked most was the prospect of being misunderstood and disapproved of by my fellow officers. Some of them would regard my behaviour as a disgrace to the Regiment. Others would assume that I had gone a bit crazy. How many of them, I wondered, would give me credit for having done it for the sake of the troops who were at the Front? I had never heard any of them use the word pacifist except in a contemptuous and intolerant way, and in my dispirited mood I felt that my protest would have a pretty poor reception among them. Going to a window, I looked out at the searchlights probing the dark sky. Down below, the drone of London rumbled on. The streets were full of soldiers getting what enjoyment they could out of their leave. And there, on that sheet of paper under the green-shaded lamp, were the words I had just transcribed.

‘I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’

This is the soon-to-be-famous opening of the published statement–I’ll include the rest when the newspapers get it. But Sassoon, using the privileges of the memoir writer, embeds the public breakthrough in a web of private doubt. Clean breaks and simple strong feelings are never to be his way…  Who is he doing this for, again?

To the soldiers it didn’t matter, one way or the other. They all wanted it to stop, but most of them would say that the Boches had got to be beaten somehow, and the best thing to hope for was ‘getting back to Blighty with a cushy wound’. Then I remembered that night, early in 1914, when I had been up in this room experiencing an emotional crisis in which I had felt that my life was being wasted on sport and minor poetry, and had imagined myself devoting my future to humanitarian services and nobly prophetic writings. On that occasion I had written some well-intentioned but too didactic lines, of which a fragment now recurred to me.

Destiny calls me home at last
To strive for pity’s sake;
To watch with the lonely and outcast,
And to endure their ache . . . .

Much had happened since then. Realities beyond my radius had been brought under my observation by a European War, which had led me to this point of time and that sheet of paper on the table. Was this the fulfilment of that feeble and unforeseeing stanza? . . . And somehow the workings of my mind brought me a comprehensive memory of war experience in its intense and essential humanity. It seemed that my companions of the Somme and Arras battles were around me; helmeted faces returned and receded in vision; joking voices were overheard in fragments of dug-out and billet talk. These were the dead, to whom life had been desirable, and whose sacrifice must be justified, unless the War were to go down in history as yet another Moloch of murdered youth…

I went back to the statement on the table with fortified conviction that I was doing right. Perhaps the dead were backing me up, I thought; for I was a believer in the power of spiritual presences. . . .

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

The words came into my head quite naturally. And by the time I went to bed I had written a slangy, telephonic poem of forty lines. I called it To Any Dead Officer, but it was addressed to one whom I had known during both my periods of service in France. Poignant though the subject was, I wrote it with a sense of mastery and detachment, and when it was finished I felt that it anyhow testified to the sincerity of my protest.

The dead officer is Orme/”Ormand” killed so recently in a pointless attack on the Hindenburg Line, his death described to Sassoon by Joe Cottrell. The poem, which Sassoon of the memoir would clearly prefer that we use to mark this day’s work, a century back, rather than the didactic “statement,” continues as follows:

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
  I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
  Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
  Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
  Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
  No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
  Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
  Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
  Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
  Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
  Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
  I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
   “Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
  With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
  It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
  And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
  Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
  Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 163.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 97-8.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52-4; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

Alfred Hale Endures, as far as Thetford; Vera Brittain’s Anxieties and Victor Richardson’s Hopes

Alfred Hale “had a somewhat better night” on his second night in barracks, but his second full day as a soldier was another adventure in class distinction and social abasement. Detailed to join a labor battalion at Thetford, Hale takes the underground to Liverpool Street Station, where he is handed a piece of cake and marched longingly past the First Class passengers.

…first class compartments, the society of Deans, and the chance of partaking of an expensive luncheon on board an express train on the Great Eastern Railway were, I then supposed, henceforth to be denied to me for some time to come, even though I happened to be a shareholder of the Railway Company…

Nothing happened in the train worth recording, except that our sergeant talked a great deal with a man in the compartment, not in khaki, about the probable duration of hostilities. By doing so, and in other small ways, he somehow unintentionally made me feel even more socially inferior… than I had hitherto felt.

It gets no better at Thetford, where the camp is slow to process new arrivals. Although Hale is able to benefit from his means–he finds a cottage where they will sell him dinner–he is still alone and bewildered both my military customs and the inscrutable bureaucracy. And, for that matter, he is bewildered by any way of making headway in the world other than the narrow one he has so long pursued.

But back in camp, I must needs get into a muddle as to which dining marquee I was to sleep in. In the place where we had had tea that afternoon, on a table reposing solitarily by themselves, lay my kit-bag and other effects. Where had the others gone to? What was I to do? I felt more miserable than ever, and badly needed help and advice from someone in authority with common sense.[1]

Instead he finds an abusive sergeant. Somehow or other he figures out where to go, how to lay out his bedroll, how to locate the latrines and, eventually, how to sleep in an open tent, with a dozen strangers…

 

Vera Brittain is coming home, but it will take time. In a letter of today, a century back, to an uncle, she writes of her feelings for her brother:

Malta, 7 May 1917

…One might have surmised, but could not have anticipated, that everything that made the world worth while for Edward would be so suddenly wrecked; I can feel his need of me as strongly across all these miles as if he had actually expressed it, and as long as he is in this world his need of me will come before everything else; whether it ought to or not is beside the question. So you see how desperately anxious I am to get home before he goes back
into the vortex that has robbed him of everything…

Edward, meanwhile, was writing to Vera. We have already drawn on the condolence letters which provide details of Geoffrey Thurlow’s fate, summaries of which fill much of this letter. Harder to bear, in some ways, is the news of Victor Richardson:

…Tah was told last Wednesday that he will probably never see again, but he is marvellously cheerful. I went up. to town on Saturday and came back last night; I was with him quite a long time on Saturday evening and yesterday morning and afternoon. He is perfectly sensible in every way and I don’t think there is the very least doubt that he will live. He said that the last few days had been rather bitter. He hasn’t given up hope himself about his sight and occasionally says ‘if I get better . . . ’[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 48-52.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 352-3.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Germans join the counter-attack.

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

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

 

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

28.iv.17

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

J.R. Ackerley’s Brother Returns; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Lines, and Face to Face with a Spectre; Ivor Gurney Conjures Three, and Thanks Several Handfuls; Rowland Feilding is Witness to an Execution; Seventeen Letters for Edward Thomas; Siegfried Sassoon Curses Fate, and Departs

It’s another busy day, a century back, with one small sad action in the line and poetry behind it from Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, who today leaves for the front once again.

But first, I did something odd in yesterday’s post. J.R. Ackerley writes the section of his memoir leading up to his brother’s role in the assault on Boom Ravine with heavy, ominous foreshadowing. The exchanged watches, the vision of unstrapping the watch from a dead wrist. Reading it, I was sure Pete Ackerley would die, so I wrote it up that way.

And for some hours, yesterday, a century back, Joe Ackerley seems to have believed that his brother was indeed dead. Then late reports came in that Pete was wounded, but Joe could do nothing. What was one wounded subaltern? The senior officers around him were busy attending to the tactical problems raised by the little raid,

And my brother was lying out wounded in no man’s land, and might have been the merest litter left about after a riotous party, for all the interest the Brigadier, the Colonel, or the Major evinced in his fate. And I did nothing either…

For several hours–and several pages–Ackerley wrestles with the question of what to do. His memory of this horrible time is so patchy that it is almost blank. Did he bravely go out into the open to look for his brother? Were the callous senior officers trying to allow him unofficially, heroically, to rescue his wounded brother? He’s not sure. Was he about to be a hero, or was he being a humbug?

Ackerley is not even sure if he was there, when his brother, finally, crawled back into the trench, wounded in the leg, not dangerously, hoping for another crack at the Huns. Pete Ackerley was sent back with a nice Blighty one, and spoke well of his brother at home. Joe Ackerley concludes the episode–written as the certain loss of a brother undone almost after the fact by a carelessly non-ruinous fate–by noting that “whatever happened I never recovered my watch.”

 

Hard on the heels of this strange account–but there’s a lot I want to cover, today–we have another trench baptism. Late last night, hours after coming up into the front line for the first time, Edwin Vaughan had toured the trenches with another officer, watching the men at work. There–and not for the first time–Vaughan’s anxiety washed over and eroded his heaped-up contempt, leaving him chastened. He may despise the officers and men when in billets, but he was impressed with their professionalism amidst the dangers of the fire trenches at night. Early this morning, after a fitful, drink-induced nap, he took his first turn on duty.

…as my sergeant did not arrive, I went out alone into the trench, where the eerie influences of the night descended up on me. It was deathly still, the mud, the smell of earth, the ragged sandbags, the gruesome litter numbed my brain; a cold fear chilled my spine and set my teeth chattering. I stood shaking and gazing horrified into the darkness, thinking: ‘this is war! and I am in the firing line!’ Then in a panic I set off down the trench. Reaching the first corner I drew back sharply and my heart stood still, for under the trenchboard bridge I saw a dark form pressed against the side of the trench.

In horror I glued my eyes upon it; the light was growing stronger, and it was quite distinct. And now I thought I saw a stealthy movement. Drawing my revolver and with just my head round the bend, I challenged it in a low voice. There was no reply… with my gun well forward I advanced and prodded–an old greatcoat hung on the trench side.

My relief at this anticlimax cheered me somewhat…

Anticlimax–as well as a suspiciously dense conglomeration of typical trench incidents–is Vaughan’s hallmark. But there is a different sort of anticlimax at 8 a.m., when his loathed Company Commander, Hatwell, wakes him under pretext of seeing the lovely morning but really “because he was jealous of my being asleep.”

And right after the beautiful morning? Hatwell gives Vaughan an ugly task: seeing to the burial of several nearby corpses.

Lying flat on their backs, with marble faces rigid and calm, their khaki lightly covered with frost, some with no wound visible, some with blood clotted on their clothes, one with a perfectly black face, they lay at attention staring up into the heavens. This was my first sight of dead men and I was surprised that it didn’t upset me. Only the one with the black face has stayed with me.[1] The thick, slightly curled lips, fleshy acquiline nose, cap-comforter pulled well down over his head and the big glassy eyes have become stamped on my brain.

In the afternoon, Vaughan experiences his first bombardment, rather confusingly described. Although he is in a deep dugout, he sees “the trench wall opposite” blow up and then a dud shell land “on the parados,” which would usually be directly over his head as he shelters in a dugout. These are trench mortars, as he explains:

…very destructive projectiles… their effect is so devastating and demoralizing that whenever they are used we inform our artillery who plaster the enemy lines heavily in retaliation. The idea is that their infantry will know that every time the mortars are used, they will catch out for it…

Vaughan’s first full day in the line is completed by a near miss from a German sniper–“my slip was an act of Providence–” and a failed attempt, after dark, to bury the nearby corpses. The ground is frozen, and they are left under a blanket…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers, is an excellent correspondent both because he has pledged to tell his wife everything and because, despite his responsibilities, he is a sharp observer, and his anecdotes are pointed. Some small tragedies need little elaboration.

February 15, 1917. Facing Spanbroekmolen (Fort Victoria).

Here we are in the trenches again.

This morning, in daylight, a German came running across Noman’s Land with his hands up, and was shot by his own people just as he reached our wire. We shall get his body in to-night.

Ivan Garvey, who commands the Company holding the line at the point where it happened, says that three of his men immediately came rushing along the trench to tell him, and that when he went to the spot he found the platoon gazing over the parapet at the dead German. Some of them wanted to go and fetch him in then and there, but Garvey naturally did not allow that.[3]

 

Edward Thomas has been reading the letters written by his men, working to set up the battery, practicing. Today there was a training “shoot,” then more preparatory work in the afternoon. For several days his comrades have been grating on him, and he has seemed to take solace in his observations of the natural world:  “Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw, lovely white puffs of shrapnel round planes high up…” Well, then: not so much nature reigning alone, but nature in her new context: “Dead campion umbels and grass rustling on my helmet through trenches.”

But this evening, a century back, brought relief and connection: the first post delivery since the battery embarked for France.

Letters arrived at 6. We sorted them and then spent an hour silently reading. 750 letters for me; 17 for me–from Helen, the children, father, mother, Eleanor, Freeman, Mrs. Freeman, Guthrie, Vernon and Haines.[4]

 

And Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back. He lays the counter-Brookean sonnet sequence aside in order to address her requests for material for his first book of poetry, which she is preparing. The preface is rather fulsome, and shows one side of Gurney’s personality in full effect: he is effusive, generous, taking delight in being comically expansive.

15 February 1917 (P)

Preface

This book stands dedicated to one only of my friends, but there are many others to whom I would willingly dedicate singly and in state, if that did not mean the writing of 40 books of verse and dedications; a terrible thing for all concerned . . . So that under the single name and sign of homage and affection, I would desire such readers as come to me to add also—To my Father and Mother; F W Harvey, (also a Gloucestershire Lad;) Miss Marion Scott, whose criticism has been so useful, and she so kind; in spite of my continued refusal to alter a word of anything. The Vicar of Twigworth; H.N. Howells, (and this is not the last time you will hear of him;) Mr Hilaire Belloc, whose “Path to Rome” has been my trench companion, with the “Spirit of Man” ; Mr Wilfred Gibson, author of “Friends” , a great little book; many others also; including Shakespeare and Bach, both friends of mine; and last but not least — 5 Platoon, B Co, 2/5 Glosters; who so often have wondered whether I were crazy or not. Let them draw their own conclusions now, for the writing pf this book it was that so distracted me. . . . This is a long list, and even now does not include old Mrs Poyner that was so jolly and long-suffering; not my boat “Dorothy” now idle in the mud; though a poet sung of her full of glory at Framilode.

Even as I write the list becomes fuller, further extended, yet a soldier must face pain and so it remains shorter by far than might be. I fear that those who buy the book (or, even, borrow) to get information about the Second-Fifth will be disappointed. Most of the book is concerned with a person named Myself, and the rest with my county, Gloucester, that whether I die or live stays always with me; — being so beautiful in itself, so full of memories;  whose people are so good to be friends with, so easy-going and so frank.

Some of the aforementioned people I have never had good fortune enough to meet in the flesh, but that was not my fault. I hope they will forgive my using their names without permission. Ah, would they only retaliate in kind! That is however not likely, as I never was famous, and a Common Private makes but little show. All the verses were written in France, and in sound of the guns, save only two or three earlier pieces. May well be indulgent to one who thought of them so often, and whose images of beauty in the mind were always of Gloucester, county of Cotswold and Severn, and a plain rich blossomy and sweet of air — as the wise Romans knew, that made their homes in exile by the brown river, watching the further bank for signs of war.

And that’s not all, folks–Gurney has a ballad in him, today:

Compree. Ballad also
Ballad of the Three Spectres

As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee.
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.

The first said, “Heres a right brave soldier
That walks the darky unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher.
And laughing at a Nice Blighty.

The second, “Read his face, old comrade.
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow.
Then look his last on Picardie.

Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
“He’ll stay untouched till the War’s last dawning.
Then live one hour of agony.

Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one — two — three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.

Not so bad eh?

By Gum, what will All the Good People of Gloster think of the Ugly Duckling they have hatched? There will be Some Surprise, what with one thing and another if the Tome appears. Roll on that time as soon as possible. Good luck with the Flu:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[5]

It’s difficult with Gurney, moody (i.e. mentally unstable) as he is–sometimes his letters seem to lay bare his suffering, to be uncertain records of his uncertain emotional terrain. But it’s reductive to insist that everything is about his mental state. He is a very good writer, and that requires–of course–embodying multiplicity, even contradiction. Or, simply, complexity–there’s nothing impossible or contradictory about what he has written. He is excited at the prospect of his first book, and he has, lately, found a new way to speak for the common soldiers… and yet he lives always under the grim little open end of his spectral “ballad:” for every death he dodges, many more possible deaths await, every day of the war, all the way until that last day’s dawning–and then a few hours more.

 

Finally, today, our foremost Fusilier is going back to the front. After an unhappy few months in camp near Liverpool and a whirlwind last few days of leave in London, Siegfried Sassoon began the freighted journey once more. Today, a century back, he left London for a base depot in France–and he described the experience, we will not be surprised to learn, more than once:

On February 15th I was at Waterloo for the noontide leave train (or, to be exact, the leave train the wrong way round). My mother was there to see the last of me, and Robbie had shepherded me to the station. My one desire was to have no feelings about anything. As we paced the platform I remarked to Robbie that the train was quite an old friend as this was the fourth time I had travelled by it. When it at length began to move, their faces kept up the usual forlorn pretence of looking bright. With the egotism of youth I couldn’t help wondering what they said to one another about me after they had turned away from the vanishing train…[6]

Ah but that is all retrospect. Here is the day’s diary, and a poem–with all thoughts forward and not a mention of mother or mentor bereft on the platform:

15 February

Left Waterloo 12 noon. Irish Hussar in carriage. Sunshine at Southampton…

Left London feeling nervous and rattled; but the worried feeling wears off once aboard the Archangel.

And as it does, Sassoon settles from the personal into the observational.

People seem to become happy in a bovine way as soon as they are relieved of all responsibility for the future. Soldiers going to the War are beasts of burden, probably condemned to death. They are not their own masters in any way except in their unconquerable souls.

Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear ‘they begin to ‘buck’ themselves up’. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way out of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles—nay, rewards them for their acquiescence with actual money and medals. But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market.[7] Hence their happiness. They have no worries because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight–of the enemy. They are not ‘going out’ to do things, but to have things done to them.

Not to make too much of one line, but this is the essence of Sassoon’s change of heart about the war, and it will be reflected in the change in the poetry as well. War, and poetry, once celebrated deeds. Now, in a latter-day phrase, men don’t do deeds, they are drafted into the galleys, shipped out like cabbages to become the subjects of passive suffering…

Finally, there is a poem of today’s journey which takes a step down the angry road that Sassoon has just sketched out:

Life-Belts (Southampton to Havre)

The Boat begins to throb; the Docks slide past;
And soldiers stop their chattering; mute and grave;
Doomed to the Push, they think ‘We’re off at last!’
Then, like the wash and welter of a wave,
Comfortless War breaks into each blind brain.
Swamping the hopes they’ve hugged to carry abroad;
And half-recovering, they must grope again
For some girl-face, or guess what pay they’ll hoard
To start a home with, while they’re out in France.
For, after all, each lad has got his chance
Of seeing the end. Like life-belts in a wreck,
They clutch at gentle plans—pathetic schemes
For peace next year. Meanwhile I pace the deck
And curse the Fate that lours above their dreams.[8]

Sassoon is speaking against “comfortless war,” now, and emphasizing the helplessness of these soldiers to influence the chances of their own survival.

A step toward protest, perhaps, but one expressed in a fairly traditional idiom. Any soldier–any human being–from any era may curse fate and still feel themselves to possess a fairly free hand for heroic self-fashioning. If this sort of poem is going to shock its readers out of the assumption that this war is, if not Great, at least generally noble and worthwhile, that hand of fate–in the person of British staff plans and German bombardments–will have to do more than merely lour

References and Footnotes

  1. Another indication that this "diary" is (re-)written after the fact.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 30-34.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 150.
  4. War Letters (Childhood), 162.
  5. War Letters, 133-5.
  6. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  7. A phrase he took up in the memoir, moving it backwards a few days into a conversation with Lady Ottoline Morrell.
  8. Diaries, 131-2.

Edwin Vaughan Approaches the Line, With Nightmares of His Own Demise; Francis Ledwidge Dreams of Fairies

Edwin Vaughan is due to see the front line at last. Denied first by being posted to a battalion at rest, then again when the battalion was sent into trenches but his company was kept in battalion reserve, he will at last have a chance to see the elephant, if only while leading up a ration party.

On the 4th another officer had taken the rations up to the companies in the line. He returned late, after the “terrific rumble and growling” of a barrage, to report that the enemy–Vaughan, oddly, specifies the German regiment–has attacked three times, apparently either a raid or a local effort to seize some trench (more likely a raid, as the Germans were not at this time much interested in advancing their line). This is all a little too specific and certain, but then again that is in the nature of rumors, and it is quite possible that previous raids have identified the Germans opposite. The truth of the matter is of less moment than how it affected Vaughan:

This story seriously disturbed my rest: it brought danger so close to me. I lay awake for hours, thinking that I might have been in the line during that barrage and attack… Then how would I have acquitted myself? I saw horrible pictures of myself lying dead in a shattered trench, or helplessly bleeding to death in a shell-hole with no power to call for help. And not less terrible I saw myself on the road, panic-stricken and unable to go forward with the rations.

No–no less terrible; men have been shot for less.

Devoutly I wished that the war would be over before our turn came to go into the line.

It will not be. But late the next night Vaughan is sent up not with but rather after a ration party, ordered to catch them up on a bicycle. This is surely a strange first approach to the line.

I started off in great fear, fully expecting a repetition of last night’s barrage. The cold was terrible, and I had no gloves… the handlebars… felt like white-hot metal… on every side gaped great black holes, and the snow around was blackened with debris, or yellow with explosive.

Very shortly I sniffed a curious, sweet, choking smell, and falling from my bicycle, I dragged out my gas-mask with numb fingers and pulled it over my head…

I sped on, almost mad with panic, passing no one on the way except two limbers, whose masked drivers were urging their teams into a stumbling trot, until, at last, I felt that my head and heart were bursting, and falling off my bike on to the side of the road I dragged off my helmet and took great gulps of air, not caring whether it were gas-laden or not.

As a matter of fact the air was now quite clear and being close to the trench, I left my bike and walked along to it…

A hero’s welcome? Not in this war book.

I was astounded and chagrined to find in the dugout a strange crowd of officers who told me that my Battalion had been relieved some time before…

This was such an anticlimax and I was so annoyed that I walked back to my bike and then cycled home in an unhurried and serene fashion, not giving another thought to the possibilities of shelling.[1]

 

I can think of no smooth transition from Vaughan’s latest schlimazeling to Francis Ledwidge‘s latest poem, unless it is that counter-intuitive serenity. There is something heroic in being so completely immune to the atmosphere of a grim winter war.

 

Fairies

Maiden-Poet, come with me
To the heaped up cairn of Maeve,
And there we’ll dance a fairy dance
Upon a fairy’s grave.

In and out among the trees,
Filling all the night with sound,
The morning, strung upon her star,
Shall chase us round and round.

What are we but fairies too,
Living but in dreams alone.
Or, at the most, but children still,
Innocent and overgrown?

February 6th, 1917.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 23-4.

Verey Lights on the Snow, Howitzers on the Ice, and Cold Snow Hours: Winter Wistfulness with Jack Martin, Dorothie Feilding, and Edward Thomas

I’ve dipped into Jack Martin‘s diary rather sparingly since introducing him early this month. It has largely been full of complaints that will be, by now, predictable: the cold, the discomfort, and the attentions of the German artillery. Although Martin does note that the latter has been lavished in “counter-battery” fire on the artillery behind rather than up near the line where his small unit of sappers is stationed–“For this we offer up thanks.”

Today, a century back, he gives us an update from the ranks on the conduct of the war:

31.1.17

Have had a little more snow. The ground is white everywhere and at night time it shows up a remarkable reflection from the Verey lights although they are four or five miles away in a straight line. The signs of the times seem to point towards increased activity on this front in the spring. A great deal of work is being done in this neighborhood in the way of dump-making and laying railway tracks… Of course, nobody knows what it all means–we can only guess.

Have had some lively arguments lately regarding the termination of the war. It is interesting to notice how desires form into opinions. Quite a number of the fellows reckon on March or April seeing the end. I laugh at them and say ‘1929’ but in serious argument I say that the war may last until 1920. So I am looked on as a miserable pessimist but despite all my hopes and desires I cannot imagine the war finishing this year. The people who are running the war are not doing any of the fighting![1]

 

This is both a prime mover of soldier’s gripes and an unavoidable truth. Next up is Dorothie Feilding, with another example of that mixed-message classic, the letter describing a bombardment. On the one hand, it emphasizes to the recipient that she, the writer, is near to deadly danger. On the other hand, this bombardment has, at least, passed by.

31st Jan 17

Well Ma–since you like ’em ‘often’ here’s another! Many thanks for your letters…

The most tremendous heavy firing last night & we were afraid it was the Boche making a stunt across the ice as the inundations are of course frozen. However they keep it broken every day with field guns enough to stop any serious advance over it. The noise turned out to be of the Belgians making however…

We had practically no casualties tho’ the noise was terrific, of course at night things always sound exaggerated & the flash of guns make everything light up. Hope Fritz was bored by the proceeding though I imagine he holds that part of the line as thinly as he possibly can, an old concierge every half mile or so & I bet they are wily old birds to get with an obus.

This, again, is not an original sort of joke, but it is uncommonly well done. One imagines that Lady Feilding would be charmingly condescending (in the Austenian sense) and a little flip upon discovering one of these shell-dodging, trench-holding concierges… but the humor distracts from the frightfulness.

I’ve just been talking to Mairi Chisholm whose farm is close by there & she says the old house was proper on the shake all night from the firing,so was no 14.

It’s awfully odd the way sound carries further inside a house… when there is heavy firing going on a long way away 30 miles or so you hear & feel it awfully plainly in the house. You then go outside to listen & you can hear nothing.

The vibration I suppose up the walls of the foundation in the ground.

Goodbye darling

Yr loving
Diddles[2]

 

Last and not least we have a letter from Edward Thomas to Eleanor Farjeon, his first to her from France. It elaborates on the most interesting aspect of his diary for today, a century back.

Wednesday 31. i. 17

Had to shift our lines in snow. 12 to a tent with 2 blankets each. Ankles bad. Nearly all water frozen in taps and basins. Mess crowded–some standing. Censoring letters about the crossing and the children and ailments etc. at home. Had to make a speech explaining that men need not be shy about writing familiar letters home…[3]

I’ve read a number of comments, from young officers, of the awkwardness of reading one’s men’s letters, but I can’t recall anyone else making a short speech about it in order to allay reservations. I know I make this point quite often, but it’s especially relevant here: Thomas can, perhaps, speak with some authority (or at least empathy) on the matter, since he too must write intimate letters to his family, while so many men in ordinary infantry units are having their letters home read by snobbish subalterns who may be teenagers and half their age.

Or is that worse? Thomas writes the same letters, but as an officer, he is not subject to regular censorship by someone he must see every day, and take orders from. He, who writes endearments to a wife and children, must promise that his reading of other men’s endearments will not be intrusive…

In any event, the letter to Farjeon:

My dear Eleanor I have time to write now, but if I had less time I should have more to write about. There is little to do and still less I can do, because of my ankles. Practically all I do is censoring letters. I try to rest my feet, but the place is extraordinarily uncomfortable and crowded. If I were able to get about I shouldn’t notice it, as there is a big town and harbour close by.

We await orders to go up country. The place is just a clearing house or junction, and all there is to do (besides completing our stores) is to go route marches. If we stay more than a day or 2 I am sure to run into somebody. Yesterday I met one old Artist I had known moderately well.

The worst of this hanging about is that everybody gets on ones nerves, or my nerves. They all worry me and I imagine I worry them, as they spend all the time possible out in the town and leave me to my own mercies.

So far all I have done when I have been alone in this little crowded room, is censoring letters and writing them, and sometimes looking at last month’s Sketch or so. I can’t read, I doubt even if I can write—I am practically certain I can’t, except a brief diary. I was interrupted by a boy going through a list of games and asking if I played any of them, which I didn’t.

I had better not go on with this negative news. Tea in —– cost me 2 frs; for I did take the train in yesterday and did my ankle no good by it.

The crossing was easy, and the departure and arrival beautiful and unforgettable. There were some cold slow hours to be passed and still are. I daresay what makes me not very cheerful is all the things to be seen and noticed and commented on and just undergone. I shall know more what I am seeing and feeling later on.

Confirmation of his hopes and intentions regarding his diary and letters… and a reminder that any really good poet is committed to honesty. Thomas strives, and doubts, and scours his own soul as often as possible.

We may move soon or late. We do not know. And I may not receive any letters till we have moved up into position. There is a notion that that position will be midway between the two I thought of. I can’t say more.

Tears doesn’t rhyme with care, does it? So I shan’t make it—but let me know when the verses begin to arrive.

This, cleverly enough, provides the answer key–by referencing his own verses, which Farjeon is now editing–to the above hinting about his location. It would be hard to miss the word-choice of “Harbour” as a reference to Le Havre–one of the only likely places of disembarkation, anyway. But the “Tears” bit tips off Farjeon that Thomas believes that his battery will be sent to Armentières. Sadly, even a much more obvious censor-evasion (obvious, and dubious, since he is spending hours of the same day censoring the men’s letters) in a letter to his wife Helen went unrecognized:

…he had written to Helen, ‘What do you think of “Armed Men in Tears” as the title of my next book?’ When we compared our letters Helen said, ‘I think it’s a very bad title, don’t you, Eleanor?’

A rare point scored from the ever-abnegating Eleanor on the ever-gentle Helen.

But back to the letter. Poor Eleanor: not only does she love him but come always second to his wife, but she also helps him incessantly and comes always second (of fifth, or tenth) to his greater poetic friend.

…I wonder would you make sure that the dedication

TO ROBERT FROST

doesn’t get left out.

I had your Goodbye just before I left. No more goodbyes now. I shall begin to look ahead perhaps, if I ever do look ahead again. Long it is since I did so. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 49-50.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 197-8.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 246-7.

Vera Brittain Muses on What Might Have Been; Jack Martin Off to the Horses; Edward Hermon is Headed Home

Jack Martin‘s story began (here) yesterday, with the sapper responding coldly and rudely to questioning by his officer, one Mr. Buchanan. It’s not quite clear why the matter–a misunderstanding about career qualifications that was not Buchanan’s fault–seemed to Martin to a merit baiting a man who could make his life unpleasant, but bait him he did. So Martin left off yesterday expecting to face the music. He had only been rude, not technically insubordinate, so he expected to receive not a punishment but rather some sort of new and onerous duty. And today he did.

Ha ha! Buchanan has done it. Just before 10 o/c last night when I was preparing to go off duty Sgt Twycross came into the office and told me that I am to go to the Transport for a week… for instruction in horse riding and transport duties. Ever since I have been in the army I have declared my absolute ignorance of horses–and Buchanan has remembered it.[1]

There are worse things than transport courses looming, but also worse things than lingering illness. Bob Hermon seems to be feeling worse than merely “seedy,” alas, but neither does he appear to be dangerously ill. And we learn that the privileges of a battalion commander do include some circumvention of the normal bureaucracy: Hermon wouldn’t take a home leave at Christmas when it wasn’t his turn–which was admirable–but after several weeks of weakness and exhaustion, he is amenable to going directly home for a convalescent leave, skipping the traditional slow trains and overcrowded hospitals of France.

3rd January 1917, 2.30 p.m.–trenches, Bois Grenier Sector

First & foremost I’m coming home in a day or two for three weeks. I’m rather knocked out just at present so I hope you will have plenty of beef tea etc. Just to put me on my legs once more. You needn’t worry old dear as I’m quite alright really & only want a bit of nursing.

My love to you old dear.[2]

 

And finally, Vera Brittain wrote to her brother Edward today, a century back. We’ve read the best of this letter before, on the anniversary of the death of Roland Leighton, but now we have the present-day context. Vera Brittain is a dependable writer, and here she embodies (and writes from) two very different points of view: she still performs the draped wistfulness of the bereaved of 1915, but from behind that persona she looks out, too, with the hard-edged stare of a 1917 veteran.

Malta, 5 January 1917

Do you remember how I always used to tell you that when He & I met, right up to the very last, we never could think of anything to say? Wouldn’t it be difficult to know what to say if one met again after being separated by the greatest gulf of all. And as you say. He’s so unforgettable, even though He belongs, as it were, to another life in which both you & I happened to live as well. I can see you now teasing Him about ‘The Quiet Voice’, and I remember very distinctly how I cried one day just after He had gone to the front when I was looking in one of your drawers for something or other & came across a letter from Him to you signed ‘Sometime An Ancient Majesty’, & another signed ‘Monseigneur’; I remember it made me think of the time we might have had all together at college.

Sometimes I feel very weary of this life — specially when I recall such small incidents — & wonder if this age-long War will leave anything worth having behind it at all. If not, may it not leave us either! . . .

It seems rather curious that on the night of Dec. 23rd I was kneeling by my bed in the dark thinking about Him…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 44.
  2. For Love and Courage, 320.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 310-311.

Christmas in Belgium with Rowland Feilding and Edmund Blunden; in France with Phillip Maddison and Richard Aldington and Kipling’s Irish Guards; Frederic Manning Returns; David Jones Reflects on the Year; Christmas Day with Edward Thomas and Family

Christmas is a busy day, here: not only is it a major holiday whose traditionally-associated sentiments take on heavy overtones in wartime, but the shadow of the first year’s Christmas truce will continue to cast a shadow either hopeful, dismal, or bitterly ironic over any thoughts of peace or Christian fellowship. Also, it’s a major holiday with a fixed date, so everyone remembers where they were, and my cup runneth over. We’ll work our way back from the front, more or less, beginning in the front-line trenches of the Salient and ending with the Thomas family, in Essex.

 

First, then, is Rowland Feilding: whose activities today–as a commanding officer, a host, a listener at a thunderous Christmas concert, an officer in a devoutly Catholic regiment, and an English gentleman with time and a gun on his hands–pretty much run the gamut:

Christmas Day, 1916.

Facing Messines— Wytschaete Ridge (Cooker Farm).

…Though this is Christmas Day, things have not been as quiet as they might have been, and though we have not suffered, I fancy the battalion on our right has done so to some extent. In fact, as I passed along their fire-trench, I saw them at work, digging out some poor fellows who had been buried by a trench-mortar bomb.

This evening since dark, for a couple of hours, the Germans have been bombarding some place behind us with
heavy shells. The battery from which the fire is coming is so far away that I cannot even faintly hear the report of the guns while I am in the open trench, though, from the dug-out from which I now write, I can just distinguish it,
transmitted through the medium of the ground. I hear the shells at a great altitude overhead rushing through the air. The sound of each continues for nearly a minute, the noise increasing to its maximum, then dying away, till I hear the dull muffled thud of the burst some miles behind our line. The shells are passing over at the rate of more
than one a minute.

This morning I was first visited by the Brigadier, who went on to wish the men in the fire-trench “as happy a
Christmas as possible under the circumstances.” Then the Divisional Commander came, accompanied by his A.D.C., who was carrying round the General’s visiting book for signature. This contained many interesting names. I
also had several other visitors.

When I had finished with my callers I went out with my little 45 gun to see if I could kill a pheasant. I got one, which we had for lunch. My servant Glover acts keeper on these occasions. I need scarcely say that I cannot spare time for shooting pheasants, and to-day was my first attempt, but the other officers go out, especially one—a stout Dublin lawyer in private life—who is a very good shot. He went out yesterday, and before starting consulted Glover, who at once brightened up, and said: “If you want a couple of birds for your Christmas dinner, sir, I can put you on to a certainty, if you don’t get shot yourself.” He took him and they got two. To-day, Glover took me to the same place:—but it turned out to be no spot to linger in:—a medley of unhealthily new shell-holes, under full view of the Germans. Certainly a good place for pheasants: but imagine what correspondence and courts-martial there would be if a casualty took place under such circumstances, and it became known!

I have now put that locality out of bounds, pheasants or no pheasants.

The Chaplain came up and said Mass for the men this morning. I was prevented from going at the last moment by the Divisional Commander’s visit, but it must have been an impressive sight. . The men manning the fire-trench of course could not attend, but it was not a case of driving the rest;—rather indeed of keeping them away. The intensity of their religion is something quite remarkable, and I had under-estimated it.

The service was held in the open—not more than 500 yards from the German line, in a depression in the ground
below the skeleton buildings known as Shamus Farm. Though the place is concealed from the enemy by an intervening ridge, promiscuous bits do come over, and I debated within my mind for some time whether to allow it. In the end, expecting perhaps a hundred men, I consented. But though, like most soldiers, and many others, they will shirk fatigues if they get the chance, these men will not shirk what they consider to be their religious duties, and about 300 turned up.

However, with the exception of a German shrapnel which burst harmlessly about a hundred yards away during the service, all went well…

In the evening I went round and wished the men—scarcely a Merry Christmas, but good luck in the New Year, and may they never have to spend another Christmas in the front line! This meant much repetition on my part, passing from one fire-bay to another, but I was amply rewarded. It is a treat to hear these men open out, and their manners are always perfect…

They are all going to have their Christmas dinner on the 30th, after we get out.[1]

 

From Edmund Blunden, whose battalion is in reserve rather than the front line, we get two accounts of the day’s festivities. The first, from a letter to his mother, radiates bluff good cheer:

We had Church on Christmas morning and dealt with the usual hymns in the best style. The Swains’ Vigil, or While Shepherds Watched, was favourably received–especially at the back part of the room. After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day–truly Gargantuan scenes were witnessed.[2]

And the second, worked over for memoir, well… it has basically the same facts and much the same spirit:

To our pleasure, we were back in a camp in the woods by Elverdinghe to celebrate Christmas. The snow was crystal-clean, the trees filigreed and golden. It was a place that retained its boorish loneliness though hundreds were there: it had the suggestion of Teniers. Harrison’s Christmas was appreciated by his followers perhaps more than by himself. He held a Church Parade and, while officiating, reading a Lesson or so, was interrupted by the band, which somehow mistook its cue. The Colonel is thought to have said: “Hold your b——- noise ” on this contretemps, which did not damp the ardour of the congregation, especially the back part of the room, as they thundered out “While Shepherds Watched.” After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day, and the Colonel visited all the men at their Christmas dinner. At each hut he was required by tradition to perfect the joy of his stalwarts by drinking some specially and cunningly provided liquid, varying with each company, and “in a mug.” He got round, but it was almost as much as intrepidity could accomplish.[3]

 

Neither of these witnesses has much to say about the food, good or bad. But in fiction, as in our recent reports from the home front, it remains a prominent theme.

In Richard Aldington‘s absolutely-no-spoilers-in-the-title novel, the protagonist, Winterbourne, has just reached France–in lockstep with his creator, as often happens in these first-war-novels. It will be hard to track Winterbourne’s progress once he (and Aldington) begin the enlisted man’s slog in and out of the line, in which days and dates are rarely remembered. But today, well…

They passed Christmas Day at the Base. The English newspapers, which they easily obtained a day or two late, were filled with glowing accounts of the efforts and expense made to give the troops a real hearty Christmas dinner. The men had looked forward to this. They ate their meals in huts which were decorated with holly for the occasion. The Christmas dinner turned out to be stewed bully beef and about two square inches of cold Christmas pudding per man. The other men in Winterbourne’s tent were furious. Their perpetual grumbling annoyed him and he attacked them:

‘Why fuss so much over a little charity? Why let them salve their consciences so easily? In any case, they probably meant well. Can’t you see that drafts at the Base are nobody’s children? The stuff’s gone to the men in the line, who deserve it far more than we do. We haven’t done anything yet. Or it’s been embezzled. Anyway, what does it matter? You didn’t join the Army for a bit of pudding and a Christmas cracker, did you?’

They were silent, unable to understand his contempt. Of course, he was unjust. They were simply grown children, angry at being defrauded of a promised treat. They could not understand his deeper rage. Any more than they could have understood his emotion each night when ‘Last Post’ was blown. The bugler was an artist and produced the most wonderful effect of melancholy as he blew the call–which in the Army serves for sleep and death–over the immense silent camp. Forty thousand men lying down to sleep–and in six months how many would be alive? The bugler seemed to know it, and prolonged the shrill, melancholy notes–‘last post! last post!’–with an extraordinary effect of pathos. ‘Last post! Last post!’ Winterbourne listened for it each night. Sometimes the melancholy was almost soothing, sometimes it was intolerable…[4]

 

Speaking of fictional protagonists, Phillip Maddison is back in France. While his alter ego, Henry Williamson, remains in England, Phillip’s training as a transport officer with a Machine Gun Company (supplying this quintessentially 20th-century weapon with ammunition requires a great deal of timeless expertise with mules) has been completed, and he was in the line on the Ancre by mid-December. Williamson then writes up this fete:

The company came out of the line on Christmas Eve, reaching Colincamps in the small hours of Christmas Day. There had been talk of an extra special Christmas dinner for the men; really good rations were to be issued this year, said the A.S.C., with a surprise for each man. The good ration turned out to be frozen pork and dried vegetables. These, boiled up together, were followed by a small slice of gritty Christmas pudding, and then the surprise–a ration cracker bonbon for each man, containing a paper cap.

Thus 1916 closes, at least in this novel–cold, gritty, and mean. (Aldington would do the same, but his story is too close to the beginning. There is innocence yet, with Winterbourne utterly acquainted with the line and therefore still amenable to romantic notions such as melancholy, or the indulgent belief that his “deeper” rage is really any different from that of his less sensitive comrades…)

But Williamson rarely misses a chance for symbolic site-citing, so Phillip Maddison takes one more ride on the Somme front.

In the afternoon Phillip rode down to Albert. The leaning Virgin upon the Campanile of the ruined red-brick basilica brought many memories… and helped him to see life clearly against a background of death. But O, how lonely was life after all…

It goes downhill from here. (Metaphorically. If the ground sloped down east of Albert things would have gone differently.) Phillip rides out to the Old Front Line of July 1st (when he was wounded–in reality, Williamson missed the battle of the Somme) and then heads up Mash Valley, amongst the relics.

A brass buckle; fragment of leather; skull with curls matted upon it… everywhere the dead merged with the ground… he was lost, helplessly, in chalky waste… Was this litter of burst and broken sandbags, collapsed and spilled, the trench where he had clambered out on that summer morning? This the wicker pigeon cage carried by Pimm, lying near a scatter of ribs, and, immediately by the handle, a cluster of tiny white finger and knuckle bones? … Was that his pelvis bone, in which three small coins, a franc and two 10-centime pieces, had been embedded by the shell explosion?. He felt the scar in his buttock tingling as he stood beside what was left of Pimm; and closing his eyes, gave the emptiness of himself to prayer…

Anguish rose in him… His mother’s face came to him, while he thought that the spirit of a million unhappy homes and found its final devastation in this land of the loveless. He went back the way he had come…[5]

 

Rarely does Henry Williamson fall into line with Rudyard Kipling. And yet today they are almost of a mood. Kipling, in his role as Official Chronicler of the Second Battalion Irish Guards, reports on the Christmas festivities with the grim frankness of an old soldier rather than the lofty perspective of a Bard of Empire.

Whether this was the vilest of all their War Christmases for the Battalion is an open question. There was nothing to do except put out chilly wire and carry stuff. A couple of men were killed that day and one wounded by shells, and another laying sand-bags round the shaft of a dug-out tripped on a telephone wire, fell down the shaft and broke his neck. Accidents in the front line always carry more weight than any three legitimate casualties, for the absurd, but quite comprehensible, reason that they might have happened in civilian life — are outrages, as it were, by the Domestic Fates instead of by the God of War.

This would be a decidedly unmiraculous Christmas, then. But the peripatetic following paragraph goes a long way toward recovering the diversity of experience of even one day on one sector of the front.

The growing quiet on the sector for days past had led people to expect attempts at fraternization on Christmas. Two “short but very severe bombardments ” by our Artillery on Christmas morning cauterized that idea; but a Hun officer, with the methodical stupidity of his breed, needs must choose the top of his own front-line parapet on Christmas Day whence to sketch our trench, thus combining religious principles with reconnaissance, and — a single stiff figure exposed from head to foot — was shot. So passed Christmas of ’16 for the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards. It had opened with Captain Young of No. 1 Company finding, when he woke in his dug-out, “a stocking stuffed with sweets and the like, a present from the N.C.O.’s and the men of his Company.”[6]

 

Back in London, another novelist of combat, Frederic Manning, is going in the opposite direction as Aldington. Like his protagonist, Bourne, he is a lance-corporal who has been recommended for a commission. Unlike Bourne, he is alive; he is also concealing a checkered past, including a blown first chance at a commission.

On Christmas day 1916 Manning, now a lance corporal, arrived in London on leave. He had applied for a commission in November and was awaiting orders to go to an Officers Cadet Battalion. It was in this application that he had altered his age and his religion. He also stated that he had “now outgrown the asthma” which had afflicted him as a youth. This too was untrue…  Included in Manning’s application was an affidavit from his mother agreeing to the false birth date and stating (wrongly) that “although my son was born in Australia he has been living in England for the past 18 years’’…

But he’s an educated man, who finished a long stint as a private and corporal without dishonor. An officer he will be…[7]

 

Penultimately, we have a letter from David Jones, who will become the author of the formidable In Parenthesis but has not yet found anything like that complex, intense, bewildering voice. Looking back on 1916, he is at once a veteran infantryman, with a wound and Mametz Wood behind him, and a very young man writing a self-consciously old-soldiery letter (to his vicar, although it will later be edited by his father and published).

This Christmas 1916 completed my first year of ‘life in Flanders’. A year ago I was just beginning to enter into the full realization of what war means to the ‘foot-slogger’–the common-place private of the infantry of the Line. The beginning of 1916 was, I think, a time of hope and looking forward to all of us, military and civil–both in Flanders and Britain. We all talked with great confidence and enthusiasm of the ‘Great Push’. We thought, at least most of us, that most likely 1916 would see the triumph of the Entente over the war lords of Odin. I remember quite well sitting in a very wet and particularly bad trench in the noted Richebourg sector with a chum. We were both very cold and very wet; our rations, such as they were, had unfortunately been dropped into the mud in the communication trench, so that, on the whole, the situation was far from what the official report would call ‘satisfactory’. After reviewing the situation with as much philosophy and as little pessimism as was possible, we both decided that the war could not possibly last another winter…

Ah, but are we downhearted?

Nearly a year has rolled by… although the Bosch [sic] is very far from being completely smashed, we have shown him in every way that he is, as a Tommy would say, ‘up against it’…

Jones then wanders into descriptions of behind-the-lines life, going for the comfortable genre-painting picture (see Blunden’s reference to Teniers, above) of British bonhomie in snug billets… it is almost as if he has forgotten the worst. But he hasn’t… he’s just not that writer yet…

Well of course one could go on writing for ever about life out here, but I think I must really finish here for the present. Give my kindest regards to everybody whom I know. Like yourselves at home, we have to live in hope that 1917 may see the end of the struggle–but of course to discuss the ‘duration of the war’ is worse than futile. So au revoir.

Yours very sincerely,

David Jones[8]

 

Rarely is there a good opportunity to get a child’s perspective on the war. But today we have the memories of Myfanwy Thomas–“Baba,” to friends and family–written down long after. Baba is six, this Christmas, the morning after her father, Edward Thomas, unexpectedly came home.

An almost unbearable suspense and excitement–should I ever get to sleep that Christmas Eve? Because if Father Christmas found me awake, there would be an empty stocking. Sleep must have come, for I awoke in the white darkness of the early morning and crept from the cosy warmth to the foot of the bed to feel the glorious bulging stocking hanging there, with a trumpet lolling over the top. Daddy was already downstairs, greatcoat over pyjamas, brewing tea; and when he carried up the tray of steaming cups, Bronwen, Merfyn and I all squeezed into their big bed to open our treasures. Stockings never had the proper presents in them, but exciting little oddments, all done up in crisp tissue paper, a painting book, crayons, bags of sweets, white sugar mice with pink eyes and string tails, a Russian lady of bright painted wood, containing a smaller and she a smaller still until there were five Russian ladies and one tiny Russian baby at the end…  Merfyn’s stocking had… a mouth organ. Besides the mouth organ was an assortment of BDV cigarettes with their beautiful silk ‘cards’, shaving soap, a comb for his springy-curls, which I so much envied and loved to brush, and to see the curls spring back again. Bronwen’s stocking had delicious grownup things like tiny bottles of scent, emery boards for her nails, sketch pad and Venus pencils, hair ribbons and lacey hankie. This year Merfyn immediately played ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ and ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’. I still had a doll’s tiny feeding bottle to unwrap, and a grey clockwork mouse which Daddy wound up. Mother, and we girls obligingly screamed as it scurried over the floor. Second cups of tea were brought and then we dressed hurriedly and ate a quick breakfast, for there on chairs and stools were our five piles of ‘proper’ presents in their brown paper or Christmas wrappings. Mother had dressed me a doll and had made several outfits, including a schoolgirl’s with gym tunic, white blouse and tie. I hastily admired the tiny trousseau, undid the buttons and fastenings, and dressed the doll in an old baby dress of mine. Wrapping her up in a grubby shawl, I tucked her up in the doll’s bed which I found inside another parcel.

In a huge parcel of presents beautifully wrapped in pretty paper and with tinselled ribbon, Eleanor Farjeon had sent Edward a large box of crystallized fruits, for he had an insatiable sweet tooth; but alas, they all–pears, apricots, greengages and cherries–tasted strongly of varnish…  Bronwen crouched over the fire, crunching nuts and reading Girl of the Limberlost. While I was helping Mother to lay the tea in the kitchen, with crackers by each plate, there was a sudden quiet in the little parlour and when it was time to call the others to tea, there was a Christmas tree, its coloured candles lit, and decorated with the most wonderful things I had ever seen: tinsel and spun glass ornaments glittering in the candle-light, and at the top a beautiful fairy, sparkling and smiling and waving her wand. What a Christmas! Never before had I seen a Christmas tree. Merfyn had dug it up from the forest some days before, and it had been carefully hidden in the wood-shed.

After I had been allowed to blow out the red, green and white stubs of the candles, and the lamp was lit in the sitting room, the fire made up with wood collected from the forest, the family contentedly reading, crunching nuts or peeling oranges…  Mother read me several poems from The Golden Staircase, the fat anthology given to me by my father; and then I sat on his knee while he sang my favourite Welsh song, ‘Gweneth gwyn’, and romping ones he had sung in camp and which were easy to learn. Now I stood on a chair by the window, the curtains not yet drawn, feeling the magic of Christmas, my father’s large, strong hand on my shoulder, looking out into the white, still forest, straining with my short-sighted eyes behind the small spectacles, hoping to see perhaps the deer with antlered heads and pricked ears, and whispering ‘Shall we see any? Are they out there? Are they cold and frightened? I wish I could see some,’ or even just one. ’ The cosy lamplight, the rising flames of the fire, my father’s hand: safe, warm and content…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 136-9.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 69.
  3. Undertones of War, 132.
  4. Death of a Hero, 236-7.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 103-4.
  6. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 108-9.
  7. Marwil, Frederic Manning, 177; see also Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 126.
  8. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 141-4.
  9. Under Storm's Wing, 292-5.

A Phone Rings in Whitehall; Max Plowman on Sonnets, Duration, and Women’s Wartime Work; Tolkien in Zollern Redoubt

Max Plowman had time today, a century back, for a leisurely letter to his younger sister Gladys.

My Dear Gladys,

…You seem to be having a pretty dull time of it. Not that you say so or suggest it but I know what the Bank of England till 9 o’clock every night must be. Didn’t I serve in a shop not so far away, not so long ago? Well never mind… get all the consolation you can out of knowing that you are doing war work quite as indispensable as mine… plenty of men over here are doing less important work in my opinion than the average woman in England. Not every one who comes out here knows the feeling of “No Man’s Land” & plenty of the wonderful things you see in uniform know more about feather beds than they do about Front Line Trenches. Which is only a roundabout way of saying “& things are not what they seem”. And to point that moral in my own case: it’s exactly a month by the calendar since I heard a shell burst at anything like close quarters.

See, if I were prepared, I could have dated a section of his memoir from that very line… alas. It seems as if Plowman may want in on the betting pool action of a few days’ ago. Or perhaps it’s just that everyone has–must have–a fixed expectation of the war’s ending…

We are having a rare rest… I’m not in any particular hurry! It seems certain as anything can be that the war won’t be over this year… I should think next August will see the end of the war…. Some time before that I hope I shall have the chance of doing some really useful work, other than hanging about in trenches which are shelled from time to time & then of getting enough lead inside me to see me safely back till it’s all over…

First duration, now disenchantment. Barring the war’s end, there’s nothing for it: it’s the infantry’s lot to get shelled, and hope for a blighty. And how to sustain flagging hopes (or distract from them, at the least)? Poetry.

You talk about The Golden Book of Sonnets… I’m very glad you like it. Very few people (comparatively) like poetry at all. I’ve only met one fellow out here who reads any at all & he reads very, little, but poetry is the essence of literature & literature is… simply the best thought & feeling expressed in words… when you write again tell me what you like & why you like it…

A sad corrective to the sort of assumption this project encourages us to slip into: there are millions of men in uniform, so even several thousands of working and aspiring poets and memoir-writers are spread thin on the ground. Most battalions–the First and Second Royal Welch aside–might sport hardly a poet, and no more than a brace or two readers of poetry…

When the war’s over I think we’d better make another (& rather longer) tour on your way back to Switzerland… We might wander out from Amiens & end up at the “Café Cavour” & I’d show you the house & cellars & dugouts & trenches I’ve lived in when you wanted a thrill. Meantime my love to you & all at home…

Your affectionate brother

Max.

Tell them I am perfectly well.[1]

 

Ronald Tolkien, writer of poetry (but not, I don’t think a particularly devoted reader of it), is rather more busy at the moment. For ten straight days his battalion of Lancashire Fusiliers have been at the front lines near Thiepval. As battalion Communications Officer–working now out of the battalion headquarters in Zollern Redoubt–Tolkien has been kept busy establishing and maintaining telephone communications in the battered warren of the recent German positions and back over no man’s land to the higher echelon British formations. Busy, rather than idle–and so probably not writing much, be it letters or the private mythos that is now underway.[2]

 

Segues are one of many features of historical commentary that muffle our effort to connect empathetically to lived experience–especially the experience of a sudden shock.

The phone rang today, a century back, in the office of Lt. Col. Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence.

Hankey answered it himself. He listened impassively to the voice at the other end; then, as he replaced the receiver, he merely remarked, ‘Donald‘s gone.’ After only a brief pause Maurice Hankey turned again to his stenographer. ‘Where was I, Owen?’ were his only words.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 52-55.
  2. Chronology, 92.
  3. Kissane, Without Parade, 262. Kissane relies on his brother biographer, namely Roskill, Hankey, Man of Secrets, I, 308.

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

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

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

 

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

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

Dear Hilda,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What indeed.

 

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

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

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

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

HM Hospital Ship Britannic, 23 September 1916

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was awful, Phillip!”

“Yes, Father, I quite understand…”

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

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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