Bob Nichols and Robbie Ross Rehearse the Big Show; Siegfried Sassoon Gallops Away

Yesterday found Siegfried Sassoon indoors, at a literary breakfast. Today, it is the outdoor man to the fore once again:

Rode to Witherley on Monday; weather frosty. Got on Chamberlayn’s black horse and rode on to Upton. Scent poor all day, but good fun, and lots of Atherstone hedges to jump. Back to Witherley.[1]

 

We’re accustomed to these turns from Sassoon, but this may have frustrated his friends more than most of his inscrutable reversals. Having left London behind, he had also left Robert Nichols with the impression that–despite his dislike of the first reading at which they performed together–he might still attend the next. Nichols and Ross have been cooking up a big charity reading, to be hosted by the society mover and shaker Sibyl Colefax two days hence, and Sassoon–his poetry increasingly popular, his person eminently presentable, and his past adding a dash of political protest glamor, would be an important adornment for the occasion…

Ross and Nichols had decided to go big–or wide, at least–in their selection of poets. In an attempt to secure their right flank, as it were, they had asked Edmund Gosse to chair the event. So they had a fussy but respectable and old-fashioned anchor for the evening, but they were also subjected to his whims: they have been told in no uncertain terms that the entire reading must be over in little more than an hour, all so that Gosse can go home and dress in time for a previous dinner engagement!

So it seems likely that the the rehearsal–scheduled for today, a century back–was somewhat stressful. In fact, it might not have come off at all: the sources are noncommittal on what actually took place, and no one explicitly mentions showing up and practicing. It might have been that the rehearsal was simply a meeting, and that they were forced to put their trust in Gosse’s experienced leadership and assume that whoever showed up would be able to read their own work effectively…

The roster, at least, is a very solid one. Gosse will lead the Georgian traditionalists and hopefully put the non readers/old money crowd at ease, while Nichols will represent the young war poets. Although he hopes that Graves and Sassoon will be his subsidiary musketeers (rather than absent fusiliers), it is probably clear to him that neither the camp commandant in Wales nor the hot-and-cold fox hunter are good bets to make it. So the plan is for Gosse to read for Graves while someone else will represent Sassoon if he doesn’t show.

There has also been a delicate getting-to-know-you lunch in which Gosse was introduced to the three Sitwells, who have been building their influence in Modernist circles through their Wheels anthologies. They have evolved a very… modern… strategy of shocking with their personal oddities and their commitment to all that is new while, inevitably, reassuring traditionalists like Gosse with their aristocratic pedigree and “beautiful manners.” Also passing muster with Gosse are a certain invective-slinging American banker/poet and a young schoolmaster-poet only just beginning to sample the brave new literary world… But Ezra Pound, another mooted possibility, has been ruled out: he had  insulted Gosse rather egregiously in a review of Gosse’s Swinbourne book, and that was a line that the organizers knew they could not cross…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 135.

Robert Graves Makes Colorful Plans; High Quigley Gets His Blighty; Vera Brittain Learns the Meaning of Emergency

Around lunch-time, today, a century back, the Graves family’s worries were alleviated by a telegram announcing that Robert had spent the night at the Nicholsons’ home. Robert, twenty-two, is entranced by Nancy, all of eighteen, as is she with him. They are thinking of marriage, already, and of collaboration: she is a painter, and will illustrate his planned writings for children.

In Nancy, Robert had discovered a woman who shared his growing conviction that there was something better and more true in the myths and legends of childhood than in the terrible ‘reality’ of the adult world’: When Nancy showed Robert some of her paintings, which included illustrations to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, he found that ‘my child-sentiment and hers–she had a happy childhood to look back on–answered each other.

Graves spent the morning running errands, but he also dropped in on Edmund Gosse and then said an early good-bye to his family. Graves is bound for Scotland, but first he returned to Nancy, having dinner with the Nicholsons and then going with them to a revue, Graves’s first-ever experience of popular entertainment of this sort. He must have been in an excellent mood when he caught the night-train for Edinburgh, and another meeting with Siegfried Sassoon[1]

 

It’s been only two days since we heard from Hugh Quigley, portentously preparing for battle. He was right to worry about a wound–and lucky.

Le Treport, 12 October, 1917

I got that comfortable wound I mentioned in my last letter: some intuition must have told me what was going to happen. The pain is not too great, although the right leg is useless just now; the doctor says it will come in time. I am expecting to be home in two days…

Our division had the pleasing task of making a bold bid for Passchendaele: of course, the officers told us the usual tale…

But none of us knew where to go when the barrage began, whether half-right or half-left: a vague memory of following the shell-bursts as long as the smoke was black, and halting when it changed to white… I was knocked out before I left the first objective, a ghastly breast-work littered with German corpses. One sight almost sickened me before I went on: thinking the position of a helmet on a dead officer’s face rather curious, sunken down rather far on the nose, my platoon sergeant lifted it off, only to discover no upper half to the head. All above the nose had been blown to atoms, a mass of pulp, brain, bone and muscle.

After this horror, a concessive clause under absurd pressure:

Apart from that, the whole affair appeared rather good fun.

It’s a transition, in a letter, and we shouldn’t make too much of it… but this is the madness of war in one pivoting sentence. Quigley pursues the idea:

You know how excited one becomes in the midst of great danger. I forgot absolutely that shells were meant to kill and not to provide elaborate lighting effects, looked at the barrage, ours and the Germans’, as something provided for our entertainment–a mood of madness, if you like.

Well, yes, madness: he’s gotten there himself.

Next comes a detailed description of the assault, including a mad Highlander screaming at them as they move deliberately behind the walking barrage, and a comrade stopping to loot a German corpse. It is far more horrible than his breezy letter made it seem, but his claim about the uselessness of the rifle–at this stage, at least–is borne out.

We got the first objective easily, and I was leaning against the side of a shell hole, resting along with others, when an aeroplane swooped down and treated us to a shower of bullets. None of them hit. I never enjoyed anything so much in my life–flames, smoke, lights, SOS’s, drumming of guns, and swishing of bullets, appeared stage-properties to set off a great scene. From the pictorial point of view nothing could be finer or more majestic; it had a unity of colour and composition all its own, the most delicate shades of green and grey and brown fused wonderfully in the opening light of morning. When the barrage lifted and the distant ridge gleamed dark against the horizon, tree-stumps, pill-boxes, shell-holes, mine-craters, trenches, shone but faintly, fragmentary in the distant smoke. Dotted here and there, in their ghostly helmets and uniforms, and the enemy were hurrying off or coming down in batches to find their own way to the cages…

Then, going across a machine-gun barrage, I got wounded. At first I did not know where, the pain was all over, and then the gushing blood told me.

Quigley follows a German prisoner back to a dressing-station, and is then carried back over the rear areas of the torn battlefield:

…a wilderness of foul holes littered with dead men disinterred in the barrage. One sight I remember very vividly: a white-faced German prisoner tending a whiter “Cameron” who had been struck in the stomach. In spite of the fierce shelling he did not leave him, but stayed by him as long as I could see. I confess my first feeling of deadly fear arose when on the stretcher. The first excitement was wearing off and my teeth were chattering with cold.

There was a German shrapnel barrage to get through, too, which killed more than a few of the wounded and stretcher-bearers. Wounded, but carried through this secondary maelstrom safely, Quigley praises the Medical Corps very highly:

…my stretcher bearers, R.A.M.C., were good stuff, afraid of nothing, and kind-hearted, apologizing for any jolting. How they kept it up during that ghastly 10-kilometre journey is a mystery. I would rather go over the top than suffer that fatigue.[2]

 

Quigley’s curious and florid prose-style has been a welcome addition here, but many of the more experienced veterans are still professing their inability to describe the horrors of Passchendaele. (Will time tame his style?) Vera Brittain, for instance, waits at a mid-point in the lines of evacuation that begin with that German prisoner and those heroic stretcher-bearers:

24th General, France, 12 October 1917

Someday perhaps I will try to tell you what this first half of October has been like, for I cannot even attempt to describe it in a letter & of course we are still in the middle of things; the rush is by no means over yet–Three times this week we have taken in convoys & evacuated to England, & the fourth came into our ward all at the same time. Every day since this day last week has been one long doing of the impossible–or what seemed the impossible before you started. We have four of our twenty-five patients on the D.I.L. (dangerously ill list, which means their people can come over from England to see them) and any one of them would keep a nurse occupied all day but when there are only two of you for the whole lot you simply have to do the best you can. One does dressings from morning till night. I never knew anything approaching it in London, & certainly not in Malta. No one realises the meaning of emergencies who has not been in France. Nor does one know the meaning of ‘bad cases’ for they don’t get to England in the state we see them here; they either die in France or else wait to get better before they are evacuated…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183-5.
  2. Passchendaele and the Somme, 147-53.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377-8.

Robert Graves De-Dedicates Siegfried Sassoon; Eddie Marsh Rededicates Himself to Winston Churchill, and Heads for Belgium

Robert Graves begins his letter to Siegfried Sassoon of today, a century back, with an apology: he has belatedly changed the dedication of Fairies and Fusiliers, his upcoming collection of poetry. Instead of being dedicated to Sassoon it will be the entire Royal Welch Fusiliers who share the honor.

Dearest Sassons,

If you’d been anyone else you’d have thought me a first-class four-letter man for changing the dedication like that, but you know it wasn’t meant for anything, except that I was afraid at the last moment of a dedication to an individual for fear of jealousy from Gosse, Ross, Marsh, Masefield or anyone like that of my ‘friends and lovers’ not to mention the family. Also, I thought that to point my devotion to the regiment would strengthen my expression of hatred for the war.

“I was afraid… fear… jealousy… hatred:” excuses, excuses. It also seems possible that this has something to do with the newest “lover,” Nancy Nicholson. She is, in most senses, Graves’s first lover, and not one that he would think Sassoon likely to approve of. But whatever his motivation, Graves is abjectly apologetic:

…I’m so sorry for my stupidity.

Well; but he must apologize: he is also asking Sassoon to read his proofs. This awkwardness taken care of, updates on mutual friends and comrades follow, including a mention of the luckless Julian Dadd:

Poor Julian was ill since he was discharged, brainfever due to worry about Ginchy where he somehow thinks he didn’t do well enough, but he’s in a good place I hear…

In other words, a mental breakdown of some sort. This sort of news can’t really be avoided–Sassoon is still in touch with other members of the regiment–yet it is still difficult to wade through. And any news of Graves’s current activities can only remind Sassoon not only that Graves is still “doing his duty” while he is playing golf, but also that Graves gave up a similarly cushy posting to a rest home on the Isle of Wight in order to come and deal with Sassoon’s protest. So Graves cutting to the chase is perhaps not, for once, unwelcome:

I do my best to cheer up the listless atmosphere of Litherland with wry jokes and my usual grotesques…

Sassons, I’d like you to tell me honestly are these shellshock fellow-patients of yours getting on our nerves? I’d be very unhappy if I thought they were: you talk of golf with lunatics, but I hope to God it’s not as bad as that. Damn Rivers, why should he go and get ill like that and leave you?

Yes, the inimitable Rivers, overworked and ill, has gone on a lengthy leave–an important interlude not only, perhaps, in his actual life, but in the fictional life he is given in Pat Barker’s Regeneration: he gets to reconnect with his mentor, check up on illustrative old patients, and observe the sickening methods used by less humane doctors to “cure” their patients’ neurological and psychological symptoms.

We can all, perhaps, agree, on the silver lining of Sassoon’s situation.

No, not all the golf:

…But one thing good is that you’re writing again… Stick to it and show me something good before New Year. Try… to cut down the slang as much as possible..

Another paragraph of advice ensues, but, since I imagine that, after rolling skyward, Sassoon’s eyes would not alight on the page again until the next paragraph, I will skip thence:

Some unknown friend has sent me the Loom of Youth: what an amazing book! I’m going to find out if Alec’s poetry is as good as his prose: he must be a wonder boy: he is I believe old Gosse’s nephew…

Sassoon has, presumably, heard about this book from Owen–although it is also possible that Owen would be unwilling, this early in their friendship, to emphasize the ground-breaking subject matter. But that would only be a sort of false irony: Graves, despite his own schoolboy crush (and later enthusiasm for the scandal-courting properties of writing about adolescent homosexuality), is about to embark on an exclusively heterosexual odyssey. If we were to assign labels–an unsatisfactory business at best–he is straight while Waugh, Sassoon, and Owen are, at least at this point in their lives, gay. In any event, Loom of Youth has clearly undercut Mr. Britling as the book of the moment…

Graves’s letter ends in bathos:

Robert Nichols will write to you for my proofs when you’re done. I have been all the week with a travelling medical board, as military representative, and have watched the fat old doctors passing the twisted weedy old syphilitics up from C3 into A: my only duty an occasional signature.

Tired. Goodbye.

Best love,

Robert[1]

 

By coincidence, we now begin a short period covered by a travel diary kept by Eddie Marsh, who has been Sassoon’s friend and advisor since before the war (he has also been of great help to Graves and to Isaac Rosenberg) as well as the essential organizer of both Georgian Poetry and semi-clandestine gay literary London society. He is also the private secretary to Winston Churchill–or had been, until Churchill’s ousting in late 1916. But Winston is back, baby, and so is Eddie:

‘…all my glory extinct,’ I served for the better part of a year in the West African Department (of the Colonial Office). But at last ‘came the dawn.’ My telephone rang, and it was Winston, announcing that Lloyd George had offered him the Ministry of Munitions, and would I come along? I went along.

It was delightful to be with him again…

The diary, which Marsh will later print “as a period piece,” shows an experienced public servant enjoying the ministerial life once more–and seeing the war with his own eyes for the first time in several years.

Sept. 13, 1917.

Crossed from Dover to Calais in the ‘P.11,’ starting soon after 9.30 and taking an hour. It was a perfect day and the
smoothest possible passage. We passed minesweepers, troopships, and several naval craft. The young Lt. whom I
talked to told me that the ship had lately got two ‘probables’ for destruction of submarines…

Later in the day, near Wytschaete Ridge, which had been reported “quiet,” Churchill, Marsh, and their escorts come come under fire–or a nearby battery does–from German shells.

Columns of smoke rose from the ground, 60-100 yards from us, and bits of shell fell quite close—5 or 6 yards off–while all the time our own shells were whistling and shrieking over our heads.

I was rather surprised at not feeling the least frightened—the only thing was that I was a tiny bit self-conscious, and perhaps a little unnecessarily anxious to keep up the conversation for fear the others should think I was rattled! The
landscape was extraordinary. There was a sudden line of demarcation between the fertile wooded country we had been driving through, and a tract of land where there was nothing but the black naked trunks of trees, with all their branches broken off short. The ground was practically all shell-holes, filled with water, and their edges all grown over already with vegetation, mostly a vigorous plant with flowers composed of masses of pink buds, which I happen to know is called persicaria…

Winston lent me his excellent field-glasses, through which I could see the emplacement of the Boche lines, about 3000 yards off in the plain—and several towns, including the utter ruin of Ypres, where I could make out no trace of the Cloth Hall or of the Cathedral.

Later, after a detour to see one of the Messines craters, they arrive at their first destination: Haig’s headquarters.

G.H.Q, is an ugly modern chateau, in nice green grounds with a pond and a little river. Sir Douglas doesn’t ‘do himself’ so well as Lord French did, when we stayed with him at St. Omer. There is no champagne here, the house is very cold, and the rear doesn’t lock![2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 83-4.
  2. A Number of People, 250-4.

The Battle of Pilckem Ridge: Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge; David Jones, Edmund Blunden, Phillip Maddison, Ralph Hamilton, and Kate Luard

After a difficult spring, it’s been a relatively quiet summer so far. But that’s over, today.

Looking a century back, we know that today’s attack begins the last of the truly enormous offensive disasters of the British war. After Third Ypres, that is, there is only one more disaster, and then one last offensive. But in 1917, of course, today wasn’t the last of anything, only the latest in the long series of “big pushes,” each of which has been very costly, and none of which has achieved a breakthrough into the German rear.

The reason I’m dwelling on our inevitable position of historical irony (i.e. knowing more than the writers knew then, a condition which this project usually seeks to obscure, due to the governing conceit that we are there, a century back, and know no more of the future) is that this may be the last of those days, before the end of the war, that seemingly everyone who was there (and some who weren’t) wrote about. It will be one of the last days, at least, that I will insist on exploring from many vantage points, and perhaps no day in the next fifteen months will produce so long a post. Even if the coming weeks will find the British army as miserably mired as it has ever been, for readers it may well be all downhill from here…

Which is all to say, please bear with me, today: there are several poems and several long prose extracts. It’s a terrible day.

 

We’ll begin, not entirely inappropriately, with melodramatic fiction. Henry Williamson‘s alter ego Philip Maddison never misses a battle, and there is a strange, fruitful tension between Maddison’s use as a tightly-grasped mirror onto the life-history of his creator and the plot contortions which deliver him to every major action of the British war to witness the “show.” It seems fitting to let him talk us into the opening of yet another battle, before we try to understand the experiences of the poets who were there.

Dragging clouds broke into rain on the night of July 31.[1] Some said it was due to the gunfire… Everything he had experienced in war so far was diminished by the sinister feeling all around him as he rode through the Grand Place [in Ypres], despite the almost furtive activity among the ruins, where were hidden masked batteries of guns, including a 15-inch howitzer known as ‘Clockwork Charlie’ for its regular bombardment of Passchendaele station thirteen thousand yards away.

…A psychical vacuum of lost life, old terror, and chronic hopelessness lingered in the crepuscular ruins… ahead lay nihilism… One of many hundreds of thousands who had passed that way, Phillip proceeded, nervous animation of flesh and bone on innocent horseflesh because there was no alternative, while he remained unbroken.[2]

But it will go easily with Phillip: he commands a Machine Gun Company’s transport unit[3] and will have no duties until it is time to bring ammunition up later in the day. He sleeps through the opening barrage.

 

This rose to a climax at around a quarter to 4:00 a.m., as dawn was breaking–or would have, if it were not so heavily overcast. At 3:50 the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers moved up and out. At the same time, their own 14th Battalion attcked from assembly trenches directly in front. To their left were other battalions of the 38th Division, then the Guards Division, and eventually a strong French force. To their right were the 51st and 39th Divisions, then divisions belonging to four other corps–including Canadians and Anzacs–arrayed further to the south.

A map of the area showing the precise expectations of advance. At four hours and five minutes after “Z”–7:55 A.M.–the 38th Division’s second wave should have arrived at a slight ridge line east of “Iron Cross,” often referred to as the “Green Line.”

The 15th RWF had been given the task of moving over the muddy wreckage of No Man’s Land and the German front lines, then “through” the 14th Battalion and its captured objectives near the village of Pilckem. This was accomplished with relative ease and few casualties: the enormous barrage had obliterated the lightly-held forward German positions (remember all those patrols into empty space) and it was not until the 15th were almost a mile into what had been German territory that they started taking direct fire.

The geography of Flanders favored the assault more than the Somme: the “ridge” that was the objective in this battle was only twelve or fifteen meters higher than the Yser Canal which the Royal Welch (and, just to the south, Edmund Blunden) have so frequently been crossing, so there would be no uphill advance into the muzzles of the enemy’s guns, as it were. Yet the flat terrain also meant that there would be very little cover for advancing infantry. (Worse, on the operational level, the geography of Flanders made resupply and consolidation miserable and difficult: unless there had been many days without rain, much of the area was waterlogged, and all resupply had to be through the open mud.)

At some time around 8:00, after resting briefly, the battalion launched its attack from near Pilckem village toward its own objectives to the east. They were now in the sights of the slightly elevated German machine guns, encased in concrete pillboxes, many of which had survived the opening barrage. The next few minutes are the sort of experience that defy description, and the Battalion War Diary perhaps wisely opts for simple elision.

Considerable opposition was met with at BATTERY COPSE & by this time there were but few officers remaining.

In other words, the battalion, though continuing to move forward, was met with murderous fire from nearby strong points, fell behind the carefully timed “walking” support barrage, and was stopped by that mysterious combination of moral failure, confusion, exhaustion, and physical depletion that leads to historians of battles using metaphors of physical force. They had done well, penetrating much further into the German lines than most of the units on the southern part of the assault, but still not quite as well as the ever-optimistic planners had hoped. And that planning was everything: there was no possibility of getting messages back over a mile of broken ground to the the telephones that could contact the artillery. There was no possibility of bringing up heavy weapons to address the German pill boxes. The ridge was held, by the German Third Guards, and when the barrage lifted they came up and fought. There was nothing for the Royal Welch to do but rush whatever German positions could be rushed, until they were… halted, pushed back, forced to a halt, and dug in.

The Diary remained matter-of-fact:

… the smoke barrage… tended to confuse the men… Lt. Col. C.C. Norman[4]… was wounded and ordered the Bn. to consolidate on the IRON CROSS ridge. As no officer remained, the Bn. was handed over to the R.S.M. Jones who saw to the consolidation which was being carried out some way in rear of the GREEN LINE giving a greater task to the 115 bde who were passing through us.

It is striking, even on such a day, that the battalion’s ranking member, only a few hours into the battle is the Regimental Sergeant Major: there should have been between twelve and twenty officers at the start, but all of those who went forward have been wounded or killed.

And many of the men, including Ellis Humphrey Evans, the Welsh shepherd and bard better known as Hedd Wyn.

Not long after the 15th Welsh began to advance from Pilckem he was hit, probably by a large piece of shrapnel from a German shell. The shell struck him in the stomach, or the back–a great wound would have been visible, in any case, on both sides of his body. He fell, somewhere near a crossroads on the road to Langemarck, and lay there for around three hours. Perhaps he was in shock at first, probably in terrible agony thereafter. At some time around midday, stretcher bearers found him, and struggled back through the thickening mud to an advanced dressing station.

Hedd Wyn–Private Ellis Humphrey Evans–died on a stretcher not long after arriving at the dressing station. There is a mention of his receiving morphia before the end (which we might fervently hope, even a century on, to be true) and unreliable accounts of last words.[5]

Evans–Hedd Wyn–will be buried nearby, with a chaplain reading the burial service in Welsh. His last letters and his last great poem–an ode written for the upcoming National Eisteddfod–will find their way slowly back to Britain over the next days and weeks. For many officers the telegram is sent within a day or two, but not to the far-off farming family of an enlisted man, living their lives in a language other than English. Hedd Wyn’s parents and siblings will have to wait through weeks of dire rumor before the War Office confirms his death.

 

This is one stanza from the ode that Hedd Wyn sent, only a few weeks ago, for adjudication at the National Eisteddfod:

Y macwy heulog, paham y ciliodd?                       Why did he depart, this radiant youngster?

Ba ryw hud anwel o’m bro a’i denodd?                  What drew him from me, what unseen power?

Ei oed a’i eiriau dorrodd, – ac o’i drig                Breaking his word and pledge together–then he

Ddiofal unig efe ddiflannodd                            In his carefree home was seen no longer.[6]

 

 

Onward. It seems that David Jones never met Hedd Wyn. He surely laid eyes on him, over the past two weeks, but I can find no record of anyone making Jones aware that he had “fought alongside,” however briefly, a true Welsh bard.[7] But he did not fight alongside him on his last day.

Yesterday, a century back, David Jones learned that he would be kept back from the attack along with a small cadre of officers[8] and men.

Jones was assigned to ‘battalion nuclear reserve’ — a group from which the already depleted battalion could be reconstituted if it were wiped out during the assault. Upon receiving his assignment, he asked the adjutant to be removed from the list so he could take part in the attack. Although he wanted merely to remain with his friends, he argued that he ought to trade places with a married man. The adjutant furiously berated him for ‘pretending to wish to be a bloody hero’ while knowing full well that men detailed had no choice in the matter. Simmering down, he told Jones that there would be plenty of other opportunities, that the nucleus was likely to be called upon anyway, and that he only wished he had been assigned to it. Feeling foolish, Jones tried to explain that he had not meant it that way. He was forced to endure the ignominy of relative safety…

Thomas Dilworth’s account of the battalion’s advance emphasizes their success in meeting and defeating German opposition between Pilckem village and the not-quite-obtained “Green Line,” even after the loss of so many officers.

Keeping in formation, the remainder struggled in deep mud past Pilckem village and concrete machine-gun emplacements, which they outflanked, compelling their garrisons to surrender. In reserve, listening to the gunfire, Jones worried about his friends and bitterly regretted his separation from them.[9]

Jones will nevertheless write their advance, presumably drawing on his comrades’ memories, in the thick description and black comic mood of the “Balaam’s Ass” section of The Sleeping Lord. The section about the openness of the advance, as the men contemplate their coming exposure to German machine guns, is frightening. Jones draws thorny little historical-personal sketches of the men of the unit, alternating several of these with sardonic and tragic descriptions of the landscape, or lack thereof:

It’s as level as Barking and as bare as your palm…

All the fine fiery waters in Headquarter’s larder won’t raise a mole-hill for Lieutenant Fairy on that open plain…

not a bush, no brick-bat, not any accidental & advantageous fold, no lie of dead ground the length of a body…

Not a rock to cleft for, not a spare drift of soil for the living pounds of all their poor bodies drowned in the dun sea…

Nor yet was there aid or covering wing, or upright, or linden hedge or agger or paraduct or mothering skirt for a frightened last-born, or gunnal for the evil swell; or anything drawn to mask or shadow…

The list of men, and the lack of cover that will kill them, goes on for pages before Jones, in an echo of the medieval Welsh “Triads,” names “the three who escaped.” And then the poem ends:

But for all the rest there was no help on that open plain.[10]

 

There were more than three survivors, in prose, and Jones will join them later on, where they hold their muddy positions near what had been the German second line and their “Black Line–“the penultimate line of intended advance. But the tone of tomorrow may be different than the tone of today: the survivors of the battalion took pride in its success, and celebrated it.

And so it is a curious fact that the one image I have found which links the material facts of this day to the work of one of our writers is about as traditionally triumphal as 1917 art could get: it is Jones’s sketch of a German howitzer–proof that they fought through the infantry and reached the artillery–captiured today, a century back, and drawn soon after.

 

By now it should be clear–to us if not to all the contemporary generals–that, as a matter of strategy, the front line positions on a Great War “battlefield” matter very little. They will change hands as counter-attacks and second efforts are launched, and the place where a battered battalion went to ground may not turn out to be defensible. What matters, really, is whether the newly occupied territory can be connected to the arteries of warfare in the rear. If reinforcements can be brought up quickly, if the cavalry can follow the infantry and the guns can get to new positions with vantage points over the enemy rear, then the offensive can be sustained.

These are deep battles, therefore, and when attacking waves of infantry face little in the way of enemy shellfire it is both because they are being left for the machine guns to deal with and because the artillery may also have “lifted” in order to focus on the interdiction of reserves. The infantry in the immediate rear, whether working or moving up in support, are the most vulnerable targets of shrapnel, gas, and high explosive as the day wears on.

The 1st Royal Inniskillings, therefore, had drawn a less dangerous assignment than leading the attack, but it is now far from a safe job. A few miles south-east of the Royal Welch, they have detailed to build the forward-area infrastructure that the offensive would depend upon.

Francis Ledwidge‘s biographer puts us with the men of his battalion, in support, questioning the only British soldiers they see who are likely to have some sense of how the battle is progressing.

All during the morning… the tide of wounded flowed back from the front line. Once again the stretcher-bearers had to raise their burdens shoulder-high as they sloshed along. Questioned how the day went, there was not much they could tell… All they could say was that the German front line of shell-craters was quickly taken, as it was manned by only scattered outposts. But immediately they found themselves in an inferno of gunfire as wave after wave of Germans came out against them, fighting like tigers.

Francis Ledwidge

Ledwidge and his comrades in reserve had been toiling since early morning at road-making…

There was a violent rainstorm in the afternoon, shrouding the region in a grey monochrome… Road-work could not be suspended, however, as the tracks were in use as fast as they were laid down. Tea was issued to the men and, drenched to the skin, they stopped to swallow it. A shell exploded beside Ledwidge and he was instantly killed.

There is no doubt about Ledwidge’s fate; the shell killed six other men and wounded many more. The battalion chaplain, Father Devas, was nearby, but still far too far away for last rites. He performed the burial service soon afterwards, and will write in his diary, tonight:

Ledwidge killed, blown to bits; at Confession yesterday and Mass and Holy Communion this morning. R.I.P.[11]

 

It was a battlefield burial, and not much like the one Ledwidge had described in “A Soldier’s Grave.”

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death,
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

 

Within a few miles and a few hours, Wales and Ireland lost their foremost war poets. Hedd Wyn was 30; Ledwidge, born half a year later, would have turned 30 in August. Both came from Celtic “peasant stock” and humble circumstances: Evans was one of nine children who survived infancy and left school at around the age of fourteen; Ledwidge, too, was one of nine children and left school perhaps a year earlier. Hedd Wyn stayed at home until conscription, but Ledwidge traveled–and only he crossed over into the language of the conquerors and received a lord‘s patronage and wide publication while he lived.

Each worked with their hands while working on their verse, and each will receive a posthumous epithet which confines their work even as it helps hold their place in collective memory: they were the Shepherd Poet and the Poet of the Blackbirds.

Each was looking forward to the reception of his latest work–Ledwidge’s second book, Hedd Wyn’s awdl for the Eisteddfod. Ledwidge, who had lost Ellie, wrote a last letter to Lizzie; Hedd Wyn, who had lost Lizzie, wrote a last letter to Jini. Both are buried, now, in Artillery Wood Cemetery.

Francis Ledwidge, who did not turn his poet’s pen toward the worst of the war, wrote these verses in February:

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

 

And Hedd Wyn wrote these lines about one of his friends who had gone before him to the war. It could have been for Ledwidge, almost, or, now, for himself:

Ceraist ti grwydro gwlwdydd pellenig,—             You loved to roam the distant lands
Y gwlwdydd sy ‘mhell tros y don;                           The countries beyond the sea,
Weithiau dychwelit i’th gartre mynyddig              Sometimes you’d return to your highland home,
A’th galon yn ysgafn a llon.                                    And so light of heart you’d be.

Gwelsom di ennyd cyn dychwel ohonot              We saw you awhile before you returned
I’r rhyfel sy’n crynu y byd;                                       To the war that makes the world quake,
Nodau y gwlatgar a’r beiddgar oedd ynot,           Bearing the marks so dearly bought
Y nodau sy’n costio mor ddrud.                              For your country and bravery’s sake.

Fe chwyth y corwynt tros fryniau Trawsfynydd    The storm rages over Trawsfynydd’s hills
O’th ôl fel yn athrist ei gainc;                                   After you, as if it would weep;
Tithau yng nghymni’r fataliwn ddi-hysbydd          You, who with numberless battalions in France
Sy’n cysgu’n ddi‑freuddwyd yn Ffrainc                   Lie there in a dreamless sleep.[12]

 

 

Does this strange practice of following a number of lives faithfully through their day-to-day progress, even to their deaths, help us see a perhaps-too-familiar war in a new light? Sometimes it doesn’t quite seem worth the effort. But on other days, even on sad days like this one, it does seem to intensify historical experience. And, yes, often in that familiar, bitterly ironic way.

What is to be done? Why are thoughtful young men from the green and pleasant hills of England’s first colonies (to say nothing of the thousands who came from England’s more recent and farther-flung colonies, essentially invisible in this project, or the English boys themselves) dying in Flanders? What good is it doing?

In England, the same papers that carried the news of the opening of the offensive at Pilckem Ridge carried news of yesterday‘s parliamentary questions about a certain unruly officer. Sassoon’s protest has fallen entirely between two battles. Inspired by Arras, it has lapsed during a quiet summer, and only the wake’s last mild ripple laps up against Passchendaele.

Robert Graves, now back at the Royal Welsh depot at Litherland, seems somewhat jealous of his friend’s publicity, however negative it is. (Only two newspapers will come out in support of Sassoon; others will mock him, dismiss him, or publish would-be exposés of his family history.)

My dear Sassons

…Well you are notorious throughout England now you silly old thing! Everybody here who’s been to France agrees with your point of view, but those that don’t know you think it was not quite a gentlemanly course to take: the ‘quixotic-English-sportsman’ class especially.’ But you have accomplished something I suppose… What a ridiculous business! I hope it won’t injure your poetry: and that old Gosse won’t think better of celebrating his protégé in the Edinburgh Review. I’m longing to get my Sorley back. Hurry up with it…

Poor devils at Pilkem![13]

 

Yes, the poor devils. Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge would perhaps have written verse about the battle, if they had lived. Hedd Wyn surely would have; his war verse was very strong even before he had seen the war. But what could they have written about the attack itself? This war is beginning to produce great literature–small recompense for the suffering, but there is no way out of that moral-aesthetic fact–but it has yet to produce many good accounts of a major offensive. This is not surprising: it has always been very difficult first to make any sense of a battle and then represent it in words, let alone in verse. And it’s not getting any easier.

But Edmund Blunden, who is here and who will survive the day, will try. He wrote a poem (“Third Ypres”), a story (“Over the Sacks”), and he addressed the ongoing battle in the most harrowing chapter of his memoirs.

The story we will pass over (a page of the manuscript is at right, and it can be read in full at the First World War Poetry Digital Archive). And the poem is none of his best, not least because Blunden tries to describe the progress of the war, blow by blow. This is no wartime lyric, but an attempt, as it were, at a fragment of descriptive epic, something to fall between Vergil and Lucan.

It begins with the realization among the men of the writer’s battalion that the early stages of the attack are going well.

Triumph! How strange, how strong had triumph come
On weary hate of foul and endless war
When from its grey gravecloths awoke anew
The summer day. Among the tumbled wreck
Of fascined lines and mounds the light was peering,
Half-smiling upon us, and our newfound pride;
The terror of the waiting night outlived,
The time too crowded for the heart to count
All the sharp cost in friends killed on the assault.
No hook of all the octopus had held us,[14]
Here stood we trampling down the ancient tyrant.
So shouting dug we among the monstrous pits.

Amazing quiet fell upon the waste,
Quiet intolerable to those who felt
The hurrying batteries beyond the masking hills…

The War would end, the Line was on the move,
And at a bound the impassable was passed.
We lay and waited with extravagant joy.

This is verse, but it’s also historical witness. This is how the day went, for many of the battalions involved. The first waves did well, but the effort was impossible to sustain.

Now dulls the day and chills; comes there no word
From those who swept through our new lines to flood
The lines beyond? but little comes, and so
Sure as a runner time himself’s accosted.
And the slow moments shake their heavy heads,
And croak, “They’re done, they’ll none of them get through,
They’re done, they’ve all died on the entanglements,
The wire stood up like an unplashed hedge and thorned
With giant spikes — and there they’ve paid the bill.”

Then comes the black assurance, then the sky’s
Mute misery lapses into trickling rain,
That wreathes and swims and soon shuts in our world.

The rain happened that way too. Although the attack had been held back in the hopes that August would be drier than July, it began raining this afternoon and rained almost steadily for most of the next week. This rain was more than symbolic, but less than strategically decisive: the attack had failed to break through, so no matter how many Germans were killed, no matter how many guns were captured, it was already doomed to failure on the strategic level. The only remaining question is not strategic or tactical but attritional: there will be no breakthrough, but will one army or the other break?

Neither will collapse, yet, but no one could have known that for certain. Nevertheless, they could have guessed with more intelligence, or good sense, or pity. Instead, Haig and his staff will long press the question, on into an autumn of mud and misery and death.

Blunden’s account of today in Undertones of War begins with the Staff–but those who command the battle have already become irrelevant to its progress by the time it begins; another familiar irony. He improves on the poem in many ways, not least in allowing the generalized vision of battle to focus briefly–if distantly–on actual people. The runner is joined by captains and churls; the Thersites of the Royal Sussex and some of the far-off Captains of Contingents.

The hour of attack had been fixed by the staff much earlier than the infantry wanted or thought suitable. The night had passed as such nights often do, shelling being less than was anticipated, silent altogether at times. I suppose it was about 3:00 when I shook hands with Colonel Millward, mounted the black-oozing steps of battle headquarters in the burrows below Bilge Street, and got into the assembly ditch (Hornby Trench) with my signallers. It was thick darkness and slippery going, but we used an old road part of the way. Where we lay, there were in the darkness several tall tree stumps above, and it felt like a friendly ghost that watched the proceedings.

At 3:50, if I am right, shortly after Vidler had passed me growling epigrams at some recent shellburst which had covered him with mud, the British guns began; a flooded Amazon of steel flowed roaring, immensely fast, over our heads, and the machine-gun bullets made a pattern of sharper sound and maniac language against that diluvian rush. Flaring lights, small ones, great ones, went spinning sideways in the cloud of night; one’s eyes seemed not quick enough; one heard nothing from one’s shouting neighbour, and only by the quality of the noise and flame did I know that the German shells crashing among the tree stumpswere big ones and practically on top of us. We moved ahead, found No Man’s Land a comparatively good  surface, were amazed at the puny tags and rags of once multiplicative German wire, and blundered over the once-feared trench behind them without seeing it. Good men as they were, my party were almost all half-stunned by the unearthliness of our own barrage, and when two were wounded it was left to me to bandage them in my ineffective way. The dark began to be diluted with day, and as we went on we saw concrete emplacements, apparently unattended to as yet, which had to be treated with care and suspicion; I was well satisfied to find them empty. And indeed the whole area seemed to be deserted. German dead, so obvious at every yard of a 1916 battlefield, were not to be seen. We still went ahead, and the mist whitened into dawn; through it came running a number of Germans — a momentary doubt; no — “Prisoners!” shouted my batman. A minute more, and my advanced guard of signallers had come into touch with the companies, digging in along their captured objective. Meanwhile, I went ahead to see all the mist allowed; there were troops of our brigade advancing through the lines of men consolidating shell holes, and with map before me I could recognize some of the places which we had certainly captured. It seemed marvellous, for the moment! All ours — all these German trenches. Caliban Support, Calf Avenue, Calf Reserve. But, stay — even now a pity looks one in the face, for these trenches are mostlymere hedges of brushwood, hurdles, work for a sheep-fold, with a shallow ditch behind; and they have been taking our weeks of gunfire in these!

The sympathy actually occurred to me, but was soon obliterated by the day’s work and an increase in the German gunfire upon us. The passage of the tanks through our position was thought to be the reason, for as these machines wheeled aside from the pits where our men were digging, heavy shells came down with formidable accuracy. Besides, the enemy must have captured our operation maps with all the stages of advance displayed. I remember that I was talking with somebody about one “Charlie” Aston, an officer’s servant, who had been running here and there to collect watches from German dead. He had just returned to his chosen shell hole, with several
fine specimens, when a huge shell burst in the very place. But not much notice was taken, or elegy uttered, for everywhere the same destruction threatened. And Tice and Collyer were already killed—news as yet failing to have its full painfulness in the thick of things.

The battalion headquarters soon advanced from the old British front line, still conspicuous with the tall tree stumps, and crushed itself into a little concrete dugout with a cupola over it, formerly used for a perfect survey of the British defences. Road-making parties had lost no time and, strung out among the shellbursts, were shovelling and pummelling tracks across old No Man’s Land.

These men might be Ledwidge and his companions–except that they are in a neighboring division. The road they’ve made allow the staff–not the Olympian General Staff but its least august and most local branch office–to see the battle.

And then the brigade headquarters came, beautiful to look upon, and their red tabs glowed out of several shell holes. This was more than the German observers could endure, and in a short time there was such a shower of high explosive on that small area that the brains of the brigade withdrew, a trifle disillusioned, to the old British trenches. Another shower, and a more serious and incontestable one, was now creeping on miserably over the whole field. It was one of the many which caused the legend, not altogether dismissed even by junior officers, that the Germans could make it rain when they wanted to. Now, too, we were half aware that the attack had failed farther on, and one more brilliant hope, expressed a few hours before in shouts of joy, sank into the mud.[15]

This is life-history, or personal prose–but it seems to fit the battle. Or, at least, what the battle will become.

 

But that too is taking liberties with historiography. It was not raining in the morning, and the Germans did not make it rain–nor were all the staff’s objectives impossible to obtain. Can one attempt more traditional battlefield historiography, on a day like today?

Just to the left of the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ 38th Division were the Guards, including the Second Irish Guards, whose official historian, already on the job a century back, was Rudyard Kipling.

July 31st opened, at 3.30 a. m., with a barrage of full diapason along the army front, followed on the Guards sector by three minutes of “a carefully prepared hate,” during which two special companies projected oil-drums throwing flame a hundred yards around, with thermit that burned everything it touched. The enemy had first shown us how to employ these scientific aids, and we had bettered the instruction.

His barrage in reply fell for nearly an hour on the east bank of the canal. Our creeping barrage was supposed to lift at 4 a. m. and let the two leading battalions (2nd Irish Guards and 1st Scots Guards) get away; but it was not till nearly a quarter of an hour later that the attack moved forward in waves behind it. Twelve minutes later, Nos. 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion had reached the first objective (Cariboo and Cannon trenches) “with only one dead
German encountered”; for the enemy’s withdrawal to his selected line had been thorough. The remaining companies followed, and behind them came the 1st Coldstream, all according to schedule; till by 5.20 a. m. the whole of the first objective had been taken and was being consolidated, with very small loss…

About half-past five, Colonel Greer, while standing outside advanced Battalion Headquarters dug-out in the first objective line, was killed instantly by shrapnel or bullet. It was his devoted work, his arrangement and foresight that had brought every man to his proper place so far without waste of time or direction. He had literally made the Battalion for this battle as a steeple-chaser is made for a given line of country. Men and officers together adored him for his justice, which was exemplary and swift; for the human natural fun of the man; for his knowledge of war and the material under his hand, and for his gift of making hard life a thing delightful. He fell on the threshold of the
day ere he could see how amply his work had been rewarded…

No Greek heroes here, but a Moses out of the grimmer warfare of the Hebrew Bible–they did it first, and we will do it more ruthlessly and competently. And he falls within sight of the promised land.

And here’s a strange if superficial coincidence: on a day when the Sassoon family is being dragged through the tabloids (Siegfried, though he was baptized and raised as an Anglican and identified with his maternal family–the eminently English Thornycrofts–descended from a prominent Sephardic Jewish mercantile clan) in search of their scion’s wretched anti-militarism, a half second cousin, Reginald Ellice Sassoon, is credited with speeding an important advance.

Lieutenant Sassoon, commanding No. 3, got his Lewis-gun to cover a flank attack on the machine-gun that was doing the damage, took it with seven German dead and five wounded prisoners, and so freed the advance for the Scots Guards and his own company. As the latter moved forward they caught it in the rear from another machine-gun which had been overlooked, or hidden itself in the cleaning-up of Hey Wood.

Sassoon sent back a couple of sections to put this thing out of action (which they did) and pushed on No. 4 Company, which was getting much the same allowance from concrete emplacements covering machine-guns outside Artillery Wood…

All in all, the Irish Guards had been quite successful.

Indeed, they admitted among themselves — which is where criticism is fiercest — that they had pulled the scheme off rather neatly, in spite of their own barrages, and that the map and model study had done the trick. By ten o’clock of the morning their work was substantially complete. They had made and occupied the strong points linking up between their advanced companies and the final objectives, which it was the business of the other brigades to secure. As they put it, “everything had clicked…”

Successful, yet still costly:

…At three o’clock Father Knapp appeared at Battalion Headquarters — that most insanitary place — and proposed to stay there. It was pointed out to him that the shelling was heavy, accommodation, as he could see, limited, and he had better go to the safer advanced dressing-station outside Boesinghe and deal with the spiritual needs of his wounded as they were sent in. The request had to be changed to a reasonably direct order ere he managed to catch it; for, where his office was concerned, the good Father lacked something of that obedience he preached. And a few hours after he had gone down to what, with any other man, would have been reasonable security, news arrived that he had been mortally wounded while tending cases “as they came out” of the dressing-station. He must have noticed that the accommodation there was cramped, too, and have exposed himself to make shelter for others…

The toll is taken: three officers, including the C.O. (but not the chaplain) killed, and three wounded. More paths cross here: Lady Dorothie Feilding‘s brother “Peter” (Henry) was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and she will spend much of the rest of her honeymoon seeking news of him before finally learning that he is safe, for the moment–his battalion was in reserve. But as they use “their contacts in Flanders” to try to get news by letter and telegraph, her new husband, late of the Irish Guards, will learn that “his 3 best friends” were all killed today, a century back–Sir John Dyer, Col. Greer, and “Father Knapps who was to have married us.”[16]

Casualties in other ranks came to 280, a large part due to machine-gun fire. It was a steadying balance-sheet and, after an undecided action, would have been fair excuse for a little pause and reconstruction. But a clean-cut all-
out affair, such as Boesinghe, was different, though it had been saddened by the loss of an unselfish priest who feared nothing created, and a commanding officer as unselfish and as fearless as he…

Greer’s insistence that the men should know the model of the ground, and their officers the aeroplane maps of it, and his arrangements whereby all units could report lucidly at any moment where they were, had brought them success. So, with 50 per cent, of their strength gone, and the dismal wet soaking the stiff survivors to the bone, they hobbled about, saying, “If he were only here now to see how he has pulled this off!”[17]

Pilckem ridge, a bloody, partial success–or at least a qualified failure–is over. But the larger monstrosity known as Third Ypres has only begun; Passchendaele is coming…

 

We’ll close today with two more participants–our two most assiduous diarists–both in the British rear. Kate Luard, ready and waiting for the first torn bodies, wrote in her diary at the beginning and the end of the day.

4.15 a.m. …We crept out on to the duckboards and saw. It was more wonderful and stupendous than horrible…

6.30 a.m. We have just begun taking in the first cases…

Same day, 11 p.m. We have been working in the roar of battle every minute since I last wrote… Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he began putting over high explosive. Everyone had to put on tin-hats and carry on… no direct hits but streams of shrapnel, which were quite hot when you picked them up… we were so frantically busy that it was easier to pay less attention to it.

It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again…[18]

Luard’s forward hospital dealt with hundreds of abdominal wounds, saving many, perhaps, who would have died on the way to the usual Casualty Clearing Stations. If Hedd Wyn’s wound had only been a little less severe, if it had only been possible for the overburdened stretcher bearers to go farther and faster…

 

But just as Luard worked all day to save the broken bodies, the Master of Belhaven worked all day to break more. That’s in the nature of artillery work.

We… have fired without stopping all day… we have not got as far as was intended just here, I have only seen about a couple of hundred German prisoners, but I believe a great many have been taken. They have no doubt gone back by a different route. On the other hand, I believe we have done very well up to the North…

This is true–both the French advance and the near-achievement of the “Green Line” goal by the Guards and the 38th Division were accounted successes. But ground gained still must be weighed against the flesh and blood it cost. Hamilton summarizes the reports filtering back from the wounded infantry: “I am afraid our casualties have been very heavy.” As for his own batteries, it will not be a one-sided battle for long.

Very few shells have come over us to-day as we expected. During the actual attack the hostile artillery devote themselves to the infantry. Our hard time will come to-morrow.[19]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. By which he means the night of July 30-31st; and he's jumping the gun just a bit on the rain...
  2. Love and the Loveless, 218-19.
  3. As Williamson did, until he went sick and was sent to Cornwall to recuperate.
  4. The cool old officer whom David Jones had so recently glimpsed striding the parapet.
  5. Llwyd, The Story of Hedd Wyn, 93-115. Alan Llwyd has weighed the various testimonies about Hedd Wyn's death, and I follow his reconstruction of the most probable sequence of events.
  6. Trans. Howard Huws.
  7. It's more than possible that I have just missed this. If not--if no one figured this out during Jones's long life and told him about it--then it's a striking and somewhat sad slipped stitch in the patchwork of Great War literature. Jones worked for years to learn enough Welsh to integrate its myths and history into his war epic, and even if he would not, perhaps, have been unduly impressed by the mere coincidence of proximity in space and time, he might, if he had known that a chaired bard had been killed in his own battalion, have thought more about contemporary Welsh poetry and its place in a British accounting of France and Flanders. Or not--there are many things I do not understand about Welsh-language culture a century back--and now--and about the political and cultural complexities of translation. Do Welsh poets claim David Jones--or, rather, do they honor his application for honorary membership in their ranks--for his ancestry, artistry, and benign intent? Does the resurgence of Welsh culture after devolution mean that Hedd Wyn has been annexed, to some degree, away from some more pure bardic/local identity and flattened into a "heritage" figure, half Welsh Rupert Brooke and half Welsh Wilfred Owen? I wish I had started on this particular thread a bit earlier...
  8. This also accounts for all officers becoming casualties--a disproportionate number would have been held back. but still...
  9. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-63.
  10. The Sleeping Lord, 100-111.
  11. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 188.
  12. Trans. Howard Huws
  13. In Broken Images, 80.
  14. This line recalls--or rather foreshadows--the closing lines of Undertones of War.
  15. Undertones of War, chapter 21.
  16. Lady Under Fire, 219. The misspelling--"Knapps"--is presumably Lady Dorothie's.
  17. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 193-8.
  18. Unknown Warriors, 133-4.
  19. War Diary, 356-7.

Lady Feilding and the Gas Attack; Hope for Kate Luard’s Glorious Boy; Visitors for Siegfried Sassoon; Henry Williamson: Wasting Mules, Skyhigh Verbiage, and Safe Souvenirs

As we catch up with several writers who have not been on the front lines at Arras, we have a few shorter updates, today, as well as an overdue missive from Lady Feilding.

In something like a literary crossing of paths, Thomas Hardy wrote to Edmund Gosse, today, praising his new book. Gosse, meanwhile, was visiting with a young family connection also known to Hardy through the younger man’s uncle, Hamo Thornycroft. Siegfried Sassoon is evidently pleased to be so distracted:

April 26

My sixth day in this hospital. Roderick came this afternoon. And afterwards Robbie and Edmund Gosse, who was in delightful good humour.[1]

 

Sassoon’s battalion, meanwhile, is out of the line, though far smaller than it was when he left it. In reserve, but knowing that they will soon march again, the 2nd/Royal Welch engage in one of the milder ironies of industrial warfare’s waste.

…moved to Blairville. Socks, dozens of pairs, are being thrown out all over the camp, the result of a consignment from the Welfare Association having been delivered. Those in the packs of the dead were just thrown out, and shirts too, all good, to rot or be burned.

Our casualties for the tour are 13 officers, 4 of them killed, and about 120 other ranks out of a trench strength of 350.[2]

 

Two days ago, a century back, Henry Williamson was once again in trouble. After a visit from a military vet, who found some of the mules under his care “apparently neglected, and wasting away,” he was “straffed like hell” by his superiors.

There is no mention of this latest bump in the road in a letter he then wrote to his mother. Instead he produced a long, strenuously literary, sentimental letter, full of swooping birds (at least six different species are mentioned) and melodramatic and ominous sights. A brief sampling:

In the vast blue above the newly arrived swallows wheel and call and from yonder grim and black wood the cuckoo sings. Spring is here with its promise of life and hope–and Death.

…I ‘spose the blue-tits will soon vibrate with the thunder of the guns–tons of earth will be blown skyhigh in huge black fountains–the shrapnel will burst in white soft clouds above the wire–Hell itself will be let loose, and soon the beauty of the spring will disappear, and shattered trees and torn earth alone be left–and among it, pathetic little bundles of wasting flesh will strew the ground… and the sky will still be blue, and at night the stars will shine out…

All that, perhaps, in lieu of “I got yelled at at work again today, mum.”

But by today, a century back, the elevated mood has come back toward earth, while a more familiar epistolary persona is in evidence:

The souvenirs Williamson sent home… but where are the German hand grenades?

Dearest,

Just got your letter saying you got helmets–good…Thanks for toffee & Cycling. Aren’t those helmets good souvenirs? the spikes screw on top. The flat fellow is Bavarian. Write soon send Kentish Mercury.

Love Harry. PS Guns going like hell.[3]

What became of the pickelhaubes, I do not know…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Dorothie Feilding is in Flanders, as ever, and not on the Arras front, where things are most active. But just as “minor surgery” is surgery on someone else, there is no point objecting that someone under attack is not actually part of the day’s major offensive.

Perhaps as a response to the allied push, the Germans in Belgium launched a gas attack, not, apparently, to screen or support any major operations, but simply to damage and disconcert their enemy and perhaps take any trenches that might be abandoned or lightly held. It began three days ago, with clouds of gas–probably primarily phosgene–rolling over the lines and into the rear areas where the Munro Ambulance Corps was stationed. The scale of the attack prompted a brief telegram to her mother at home on the 24th, stating, concisely, “All well Dorothie.” Today, a century back, she elaborated in a letter to her father.

Lady Feilding generally shrugs off being almost killed by shellfire, preferring a blithe and rather daffily dismissive style. But either because of that frighteningly brief telegram or because this new experience was far more frightful than the familiar ambulance-driving under shrapnel fire, she narrates the hours after the attack in detail.

My dear Colonel

Things have been moving here just lately but I haven’t had time to write you much about them, also I was waiting till the events had been duly recited in the communique before writing about them, as it is always wisest.

This having been done I will now tell you more about it, also the rubber bath has come before I forget to thank you for it. It is a dashed fine one & I am very grateful to Mr Da.

On the 23rd about four am, Fritz suddenly started launching gas at us from the local metropolis up at N. The wind wasn’t very good for him, too much to the N with the result the gas came diagonally back from the lines & we here at no 14 got a very bad go of it. Jelly smelt it & woke up which was most intelligent of him; we all got up & threw on a few garments & of course hadn’t a gas mask in the house as ours were in the car, which that night happened to be in the other garage down in the town. There was the limousine here however & Jelly started that & then he went off with the ambulance up to the lines & the gas being very bad by then here I evacuated Winkie & Helene & the girl next door up to a hospital a few miles up the road. There I borrowed some gas masks & a spare driver as I was feeling rather faint & thought it best to have two drivers in the car. I left Winks & CO there & tore back to no 14 to find the gas had cleared away very quickly from there, as a matter of fact it had been following the road we took to the left & we were in it for 3 or 4 miles & so by bad luck got much more than the people who stayed here. By this time I was quite sure the Boche had overrun the sector as I couldn’t imagine our having it so bad & the lines being still tenable. As a matter of fact, the waves were very local & came in gusts. For instance, the main part of the town here got none. It just travelled down in long columns. I rushed up to our barracks & was awfully relieved to find them all ok. They had had very good masks & the main gas column had passed to the right of them & on our way.

Then we just worked like navvies all day till dark. Simply never an engine stopped all day & we were all pretty beat at the end of it. At the beginning, Boche had rushed our lines but we drove them out again as the commimique said & things are exactly as they were before now which is very satisfactory. The sector was very lucky to get off with the line in the old place.

It’s a dirty business gas & rather frightening; comes in great foggy waves & makes you cough your head off. Those poor, poor devils of men. I can’t tell you what it’s like to see them all lying about unconscious & in the most awful states. Much worse than blesses in a way because there is so desperately little you can do for them. In many cases they are alright for 12 to 24 hrs & then go down like logs. The Boche had a lot of casualties from our fire & we got some prisoners too.

I felt quite (fairly) alright the day itself after the 1st hour. Just rather cut. It didn’t work on me till 24hrs after when, at about 5am, I couldn’t breathe except like a scared rabbit & went down to get a drink & then felt awfully faint. This kept coming on at intervals all that day, so I went to bed in the afternoon & have been there ever since. I am quite all right again now & am getting up again now as I haven’t had a proper go of it since yesterday. It’s a beastly feeling–you can’t get a proper deep breath…

This is a long scrawl isn’t it?[4]

 

Finally, today, from behind the lines at Arras, Kate Luard reports on the status of a particularly affecting patient.

Thursday, April 26th, 10.30 p.m.

…The officer boy with the fractured spine isn’t going to die yet… I got the colonel to put him on the Evacuation list tonight to give him a chance to get X-rayed at the Base and perhaps recover…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 162.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 340.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 131-4.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 205-7.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.

Wilfred Owen’s Relief; Robert Graves Hymns the Joys of Oxford to Siegfried Sassoon; Letter Bombs from Henry Williamson

Robert Graves, with impeccable timing, sat down to write a long overdue letter his erstwhile comrade Siegfried Sassoon. Those who have attained an excellent posting at Oxford ought not forget their less fortunate comrades in the trenches…

‘D’ Company
No. 4 Officer Cadet Battn
Wadham College
Oxford

21 April 1917

My dear Sassons

At last I am comfortably settled down here, and by Heaven, it’s a good game now that I’m cured of the desire to go back to France (I know I’m more use here and would only crock up if I tried a fourth time) and if it wasn’t for you being out there again I’d feel this was too good to be true. Get a cushy quick, old thing and I’ll work this sort of a job for you here. Anyhow, get sent to Somerville if you get over to Blighty at all: in time to read your reviews with me.

Events, of course, have out-paced Graves’s wishes. But Graves, who can often be rather unreasonable, has a very reasonable reason to be pleased with his new job–with bad lungs deriving in part from a serious battle wound, he has unquestionably earned the right to be safe at home. Sassoon, indeed on his way back with a blighty one, may yet heal completely–at least in body.

The letter continues with happy literary gossip–Sassoon’s book is delayed by the paper shortage, but Graves is busily setting up reviews and garnering introductions to various poets. Sassoon’s family friend Edmund Gosse has connected Graves to Masefield, and Graves’s friendship with Robert Nichols is blooming, while he continues to take advantage of Sassoon’s introduction to the pacifist hotbed of Garsington, where “Lady Utterly Immoral is such a ripper.” In his usual ingenuous/oblivious fashion Graves lists exactly what he was paid for a poem in the Nation as well as which poets (Gordon Bottomley among them) have praised his work. But he is not entirely given over to the social side of the literary world: he has also discovered the Tudor poet John Skelton and plans “a book of studies chiefly about Poetry and Children and France and things.”[1]

We’ll hear more from Graves tomorrow.

 

Is Henry Williamson doubting the wisdom of any of his recent postal actions? No!

Dear Mother,

Today, Saturday 21st, I sent off a parcel containing my boots and an orange in each–again the latter is quite empty.

Quite empty?

PS. If by any chance you find a greyish powder in any of those eggs, merely empty it in the garden NOT in the fire. There is always a millionth of a chance of a full one going in by mistake…

One hopes that no one is reading Williamson’s mail. Officers are generally immune from censorship, but then again Williamson may be under close watch as an inefficient and untrustworthy sort… this letter not only mentions sending probably non-explosive grenades but also reveals his position (Bullecourt) by means of a reference to a “Bully lad” who “courts.” Good lord…[2]

 

So much for the lighter portions of today’s work. There is one very important event I should mention that I don’t think can be fixed to one particular date. However, today, a century back, provides a terminus ante quem: Wilfred Owen‘s 2nd Manchesters had been in the line for twelve straight days, but they were relieved today. He will shortly write to his mother, describing this tour of duty:

For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank!

This concussion will have repercussions. As will the horrors that follow.

I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/Lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest will be a 9 days-Rest.

Lt. Gaukroger is listed as being killed on April 2nd, so Owen must have spent time near his temporary battlefield grave.

It can be difficult to isolate the neurological and psychological components of “shell shock,” but the experience of being blown through the air by a heavy shell and then living in close proximity to the body of a comrade can stand as a good example of the way the two come together. Owen’s “nerves” have been affected, as has his attitude toward the war: his first complaint after this experience is directed back across the gulf that separates the combat soldier from those at home:

I think that the terribly long time we stayed unrelieved was unavoidable; yet it makes us feel bitterly towards those in England who might relieve us, and will not.

We are now doing what is called a Rest, but we rise at 6.15 and work without break until about 10 p.m. for there is always a Pow-Wow for officers after dinner. And if I have not written yesterday, it is because I must have kept hundreds of Letters uncensored, and enquiries about Missing Men unanswered…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 68-9.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the Great War, 129.
  3. Collected Letters, 452-3.

Edward Thomas Writes to Robert Frost; Siegfried Sassoon in Literary London, and Under Lady Ottoline’s Influence, but Hardy Beneath; Rowland Feilding: No Place is Safe

Yesterday, a century back, was Edward Thomas’s first full day at the front. But his battery has not yet gone into action, and things are slow.

No letters yet. Censoring as usual. Gramophone playing… 9 p.m. Great cannonade thudding and flashing quite continuously away south in Ancre.[1]

Slow enough to finally write–despite the gramophone–to Robert Frost, the friend whose regard and sympathetic understanding (and poetic gift) prodded Thomas into writing poetry in the first place. But with Frost across the Atlantic, and increasingly out of touch with Thomas’s mental world, the friendship has been lagging. Thomas recently received a copy of Frost’s new book, Mountain Interval; he is still hoping for help from Frost in seeing his own first collection published. Nevertheless, it is the friendship that matters most to Thomas, and it is hard not to think, once again, that Eleanor Farjeon gets the drafts, while Frost gets the polished work. This letter–the second paragraph in particular–is like a refined version of what he wrote to her yesterday.

244 Siege Battery BEF France 111 February 1917 and a Sunday they tell me

My dear Robert,

I left England a fortnight ago and have now crawled with the battery up to our position. I can’t tell you where it is, but we are well up in high open country. We are on a great main road in a farmhouse facing the enemy who are about 2 miles away, so that their shells rattle our windows but so far only fall a little behind us or to one side. It is near the end of a 3 week’s frost. The country is covered with snow which silences everything but the guns. We have slept—chiefly in uncomfortable places till now. Here we lack nothing except letters from home. It takes some time before a new unit begins to receive its letters. I have enjoyed it very nearly all. Except shaving in a freezing tent. I don’t think I really knew what travel was like till we left England.

Yesterday, our 2nd day, I spent in the trenches examining some observation posts to see what could be seen of the enemy from them. It was really the best day I have had since I began. We had some shells very near us, but were not sniped at. I could see the German lines very clear but not a movement anywhere, nothing but posts sticking out of the snow with barbed wire, bare trees broken and dead and half ruined houses. The only living men we met at bends in trenches, eating or carrying food or smoking. One dead man lay under a railway arch so stiff and neat (with a covering of sacking) that I only slowly remembered he was dead. I got back, tired and warm and red. I hope I shall never enjoy anything less. But I shall. Times are comparatively quiet just here. We shall be busy soon and we shall not be alone. I am now just off with a working party to prepare our Gun positions which are at the edge of a cathedral town a mile or two along the road we look out on. We are to fight in an orchard there in sight of the cathedral.

It is night now and cold again. Machine guns rattle and guns go ‘crump’ in front of us. Inside a gramophone plays the rottenest songs imaginable, jaunty unreal dirty things. We get on well enough but we are a rum company. There is a Scotch philosopher, an impossible unmilitary creature who looks far more dismal than he really can be—I like him to talk to, but he is too glaringly timid and apologetic and helpless to live with. The others are all commonplace people under 26 years old who are never serious and could not bear anyone else to be serious. We just have to be dirty together. I also cannot be sincere with them. Two are boys of 19 and make me think of the boys I might have had for company. One of the two aged about 24 is rather a fine specimen of the old English soldiers, always bright and smart and capable, crude but goodhearted and frivolous and yet thorough at their work. He has been 10 years in the army. All his talk is in sort of proverbs or cant sayings and bits of comic songs, coarse metaphors—practically all quotations.

But I am seldom really tired of them. I suppose I am getting to like what they are, and their lack of seriousness is no deception and is just their method of expression.

I used to read some of the Sonnets while we were at Havre, but not on these last few days of travel. ‘Mountain Interval’ also is waiting.

My love to you all.

Yours ever

(s/Lt) Edward Thomas[2]

It’s very nice to put one’s friend in the company of Shakespeare–for it’s his Sonnets which Thomas has been reading, and Frost’s Mountain Interval surely might wait a bit, then, and still be highly valued… what’s odd, though, is that Thomas seems to have already read the book, or at least most of it. Why does he not want to discuss it with Frost? Fatigue, perhaps…

 

The second leg of Siegfried Sassoon‘s last leave involved little in the way of attentive dogs, Elizabethan airs, or uncomfortable family silences. After a few days with his mother in Kent, Sassoon went to stay in London with Robbie Ross and was soon immersed in literary London, and particularly in its semi-clandestine gay social circles.

Today, a century back, Sassoon managed to eat three square meals, one with each of the three friendly patrons who have done the most to advance his poetic career.

Breakfast with Eddie Marsh at Gray’s Inn. Lunch at the Reform with Meiklejohn and Robbie Ross. Tea at Gower Street with ‘Brett’ to inspect her vast portrait of Ottoline Morrell. Dinner at Gosse’s. At 1.45 a.m. bed.

With Marsh Sassoon was discussing the proofs of his next book; with Ross it was “gallant efforts to keep our spirits up” in the best Victorian style (Ross had been the staunch friend of Oscar Wilde), and we might assume that dinner with Edmund Gosse was a more staid affair. And then there is tea, too, and the mention of Lady Ottoline Morrell (the Dorothy Brett portrait I don’t have, alas).

Sassoon–far from famous but no longer unknown–is now at the confluence of several literary streams. Marsh, of course, remains secretary to Winston Churchill (who is in the political wilderness, now) and the force behind Georgian Poetry and all things Brooke and Brookeish. Ross, who was openly gay in a time when that meant facing constant prejudice and the threat of prosecution, provided entree into gay life in London, about which Sassoon does not write. Gosse was highly respected, and although he too repressed homosexual desires he was an older family man–and an old friend of Sassoon’s family–and he represented a Victorian literary mode that even non-revolutionary types like Sassoon must have found rather stuffy.

And the there is Ottoline Morrell. Lady Ottoline was an influential, off-beat society figure whose various interests tilted much younger and more Modern than any of Sassoon’s other friendly patrons–she will come to patronize several other notable artists and writers. But much more important, now, is the fact that she is an outspoken pacifist.

Sassoon had spent a good deal of time at her house during the difficult-to-date middle period of his convalescent leave in the early autumn, and there he learned… well… influence is always difficult to pin down. Sassoon is always the first to acknowledge his own impressionability, but is it really a matter of his getting anti-war ideas from her circle? Not exactly. Even if he was not quite as putty-like as he would have us believe, this is not really a matter of ideas but rather of emotion. No one at Garsington Manor could teach Sassoon to hate the war, but they could model attitudes of expressing this hatred… So: is the Bohemian glamor of openly criticizing the war pushing Sassoon further off-kilter, further away from any comfort with his Mad Jack/Happy Warrior persona? Surely. But Sassoon–in retrospect, again–is also able to recognize the self-centeredness of this anti-war turn.

Distraction of a different character was provided by Lady Ottoline, with whom I spent two whole afternoons which were by no means beneficial to my state of mind… Lady Ottoline insisted on being intensely earnest and discursive. She was obsessed by what she felt to be the brutal stupidity and imbecile wastefulness of the War, and my own return to it had involved her in a crisis of emotional depression.This caused me to talk recklessly, with a sort of victimized bitterness. I should probably get killed, I said; but the main trouble was that I no longer new what I was being killed for. ‘One gets sent out again like a cabbage going to Covent Garden Market,’ I exclaimed, adding that cabbages were better off, because they didn’t claim to have unconquerable souls, and weren’t told that they were making a supreme sacrifice for the sake of unborn vegetables. These discussion led neither of us anywhere…[3]

So the later memoir, well-polished in its sheepish sloughing off of youthful confusions…

As for today’s diary entry, there is nothing else in Sassoon’s own voice. But immediately after the entry he copies in three (of four) stanzas of a Thomas Hardy poem.

Let me enjoy the earth no less
Because the all-enacting Might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
Had other aims than my delight.

From manuscripts of moving song
Inspired by scenes and dreams unknown
I’ll pour out raptures that belong
To others, as they were my own.

And some day hence, towards Paradise
And all its blest — if such should be —
I will lift glad, afar-off eyes
Though it contain no place for me.

So, come what may, he will write, in the manner of his coming dedicatee. And after that, an anticipatory list:

Books taken to France

Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Hardy’s Dynasts
Hardy’s (Golden Treasury) Poems
Conrad, Nostromo and A Set of Six
Lamb’s Essays and Letters (selection)
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales[4]

This book list hardly seems to fit with the witty Georgian-Modern literary London scene in which Sassoon spent his leave. But it does show the poet on a more steady trajectory than he might want us to see. Is he really blown hither and yon by the brave ideas of all his witty and passionate friends? Or is he on course?

Sassoon will bring Hardy to France, he is dedicating his poems to Hardy, he is copying Hardy into his notebook, and instead of scoffing at patriotic effusion or objecting to it on humanist grounds, he is preparing an unflinchingly satiric attack that seems like a plausible imitation of what Hardy might have been as an angry young man. Before leaving Liverpool, Sassoon had attended a show at the Hippodrome–he had a good time, he thinks (this is the later, ironic voice, not the coiled satirist of early 1917)–but he fantasized about seeing a tank come charging down the stalls of the music hall, crushing the ignorant home-front jingoists…

So he’s working on a poem to that effect, and the full-protest Sassoon who will emerge this year is quite recognizable even now. He is inspired by Hardy, not by any Georgian poet, and he is unwilling to be modest (surely an all-but-essential precursor to poetic achievement). But he’s not being fair… he has never seen a tank and he has spent more time over the past six months fox hunting and golfing than in military tasks… but then again he is going back, now. I’ll let the voice of the memoir have the last word:

The situation was too complex for the shy and callow young man I was on that dreary February afternoon.[5]

 

So we’ve had a lot of writing, today, and some turmoil–but all with very little war in it. And we haven’t heard from Rowland Feilding in a while… so, let’s.

Colonel Feilding is not the sort of man to be easily led into off-balance opinions or to criticize without carefully considering his own position and responsibilities. But he has promised utter honesty in his letters to his wife, and he does not hide his feelings about the grim reach of the war. This short letter, though devoid of “victimized bitterness,” becomes an accidentally effective commentary on the “imbecile wastefulness” of the war.

February 11, 1917. Kemmel Shelters.

I returned to the battalion last evening, and found that the enemy had been shelling my battalion in Camp. It is in Divisional Reserve—training in a safe (!) place. Four have been killed and nine wounded, and the huts so badly
smashed that two Companies have had to be moved elsewhere.

The place was properly knocked about, and it was a surprising bit of shelling, too, seeing that the huts were unusually well hidden in a wooded depression, in the lee of Mount Kemmel, and screened by the protection which that steep hill affords. Personally, I could have sworn that these huts, at any rate, would have been safe from bombardment.

But no place is safe…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 161.
  2. Selected Letters, 135-6.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 46. The "cabbage" line may have been uttered this week, a century back, but he will record it in a few days time in his diary as if it had come to him then...
  4. Diaries, 131.
  5. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  6. War Letters to a Wife, 150.

Song Time is Over for Francis Ledwidge; Thomas Hardy on Low Spirits, and Spiritualism; A Punch-Up for Milne; Max Plowman on the War of Attrition, the Morale of Aggression, and the Atrophy of Humanity

We have several literary cameos today, a century back, but let’s begin with a double stroke of Max Plowman-related good fortune. First, it seems that we can date a section of his memoir, A Subaltern on the Somme, to precisely today, a century back.[1] Second, he is addressing a subject that was of sharp relevance only a few days ago–the idea of maintaining the “moral” ascendancy in No Man’s Land even when no offensive was in the works, generally by means of raids on the opposing trenches.

The Staff-Captain’s lecture

At the Town-hall we attend a lecture by a divisional staff-captain in a room which is used in the daytime as a school. The staff-captain is a tall fair man of aristocratic bearing, keen eyes and a genial manner. He is talking about the necessity for keeping the initiative, and pointing out the many ways in which troops holding the line may show themselves masters of the situation, even though the time for an advance over the German lines be delayed till the Spring. Our one object should be to prevent the enemy from ever feeling comfortable, and to this end we should keep patrols going and raid the enemy trenches whenever there is a chance. Morale is the great factor, and by keeping the initiative we shall help to destroy the German morale and so make the work of advance ten times easier than it would be if, through slackness, we allowed the other side to feel themselves “top-dog.”

He is tremendously keen, not in the least ominiscient, and adding to his keenness humour, and being himself obviously fearless, his words catch on. One sees the force of his argument, and the incitement to hold the advantage only seems like the encouragement of a good trainer who wants rugger forwards to use all their weight in the scrum and is able to show them how to do it.

It is not until the lecture is over that one reflects on his advice in terms of actuality. Then one sees a raid as a foul, mean, bloody, murderous orgy which no human being who retains a grain of moral sense can take part in without the atrophy of every human instinct.

I’ve a desire to go back and tell this gallant gentleman that unless he can infuse into my blood hatred such as I seem psychologically incapable of feeling towards an unknown enemy, much as I should like to be able to help keep the initiative, and quite ready as I am to sacrifice my life for this end, I honestly don’t see how it’s to be done.[2]

Thus Plowman–or rather the anonymous subaltern, who does not share his past as a pacifist who first chose the ambulances before opting for the infantry–mounts an effective challenge to militarism, and the moral degradation caused both by war in general and by the static grind of trench warfare in particular. The rugby analogy is apt–especially when discarded, since sporting metaphors inevitably palliate the nastiness of war.

This lecturer is not without his attractions–he is even admirable, in his proper place. Nor is he necessarily wrong to suggest that bloody-mindedness–and, more to the point, a red hand in the foray–is an important piece of any holistic (that is to say, not only strategic but moral, in the restricted sense of “pertaining to military psychology”) approach to winning the war. (I think he is wrong, but there is certainly a great deal of evidence that can lead one to conclude that the awful cost of constantly raiding, of prodding the sleeping dogs opposite into shooting or blowing up a portion of your own men, can be justified if it demoralizes the enemy and staves off the demoralization of your own infantry.)

But Plowman makes two good points, here.

First, even if raiding, with all its grim attritional “sacrifice,” is necessary to stave off defeat, how in God’s name will it bring about victory? He’s justified in asking this, and there is a harsh irony in the fact that readers of the main post-1930 line of Great War Literature will “know” that he is correct, while military historians–especially those of the post-war years and the revisionist schools of recent decades but, really, any historian who pays attention to the actual course of the war–will point out that it did work, more or less. There was little in the way of mutiny on the British side, and spectacular failures on the defensive were limited to the period of the one great German offensive–which so exhausted Germany that it lost the war.

That’s how it will “play” out, but none of the staff officers have foreseen this, and our subaltern is not wrong to wonder.

His second point, even if it is perhaps overstated, holds: how do you go out at night, every once in a while, looking for sleeping men to kill, just to demonstrate to yourself–and to them–that you are a killer to be feared, “without the atrophy of every human instinct?”

 

 

Francis Ledwidge, injured, ill and exhausted after the deprivations of the “Macedonian” campaign, has been recuperating, writing, and otherwise cooling his heels in barracks in County Derry. His latest poem will not make his second collection–already headed for the press, with an introduction written by Lord Dunsany–but it is timely nonetheless:

 

Song-Time is Over

I will come no more awhile,
Song-time is over.
A fire is burning in my heart,
I was ever a rover.
You will hear me no more awhile,
The birds are dumb,
And a voice in the distance calls
“Come,” and “Come.”

December 13th, 1916.

At the risk of reductive reading, “Song-Time is Over” was written right around the time that Ledwidge learned that several months of convalescence and training-camp duties were about to end. At some point in the next few days Ledwidge will be granted leave, pending embarkation. He will come home, and get to see his family in Slane for a few days, but by Christmastime he will bound for England, en route to France or Belgium, the origins of all foreboding distant voices, these days.

 

So we have a silence of the birds and an ominous summons for our Irish nature poet, and we have the opinion of Max Plowman, subaltern in France, on how the war might–or won’t–end.

What about an éminence grise, at home and plied for charitable contributions? Thomas Hardy wrote today, a century back, to Edmund Gosse (eminent man of letters and one of several points of contact between Hardy and Siegfried Sassoon), with his feelings on such matters.[3]

Max Gate, Dorchester. Dec 13, 1916

My dear Gosse:

Of course, if the slightest good is likely to be done by putting down my name as before, please do so, though my working powers will be nil. You will quite understand why it is that I shall be such a dead-head, for I am getting on in years, & far away. I have not been in London this year an unprecedented thing for one who was once half a Londoner.

However, if people should grumble at my figuring in your excellent work without working at it, I may be excused saying that I have been doing things down here for the same Cause. You may have seen in the papers about our dramatic efforts…  So I feel in the Red Cross business as it were, like the rest of you.

…Barrie, by the way, came to our performance, & Granville Barker was coming, but prevented by his military duties. Barrie has I think mellowed into a very nice fellow…

I am not in the best of spirits about the issue of the war; & a book my wife has been reading to me does not help me—Sir Oliver Lodge’s Raymond. Poor dear amiable man.

And thus Hardy corners me into discussing a book I had hoped to omit. No–that would be silly, and unfair. Rather, a book that I have no idea how to properly use, and so chose, in the earliest days of the project, to avoid.

Oliver Lodge’s son, Raymond, was killed early in the war, and the book–published in November and already heading toward its fifth printing–has a familiar opening section: there is a memoir of Raymond’s life, and extracts from his letters. And then–with perfect confidence that many or most among his readers, especially “other bereaved persons,” will not question this transition–Sir Oliver continues to pass along Raymond’s communications, detailing and explaining the messages from his spirit, after his death. The third section of the book mounts a defense of spiritualism against its skeptics. Poor man indeed, and poor millions of other bereaved parents. There are deep, forbidden pools of grief pocketed throughout Europe, now, and a tidal movement of spiritualism will link many of them into a wide, shallow, and dismal fen.

 I suppose you are never coming into Dorset any more, but if you do “after the war” you will know where to find us. I hope Mrs Gosse is well, & we send her best Christmas wishes—if it is not too dangerously near satire to send such messages in these ferocious times.

Always yrs sincerely
Thomas HardyThe Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 190-1." id="return-note-12729-4" href="#note-12729-4">[4]

 

Is there no cheering news, no reason to laugh? Always–it’s not all dark yet, even if it’s getting there. A.A. Milne, invalided home a month ago with “trench fever,” is not only out of the hospital but also “well enough… to attend the Punch Table dinnertonight, a century back.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A letter written tomorrow mentions a lecture "yesterday" which would seem to be the one related below. There are some differences in the accounts, but these can probably be chalked up to the vagaries of memory rather than either intentional fictionalization or a major confusion of events.
  2. A Subaltern on the Somme, 204-5.
  3. Which is good, because it would be hard to pass up on the chance to record a mental crossing of paths with the creator of Peter Pan, and get J.M. Barrie cross-referenced with Milne, Sassoon, and Plowman...
  4. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 190-1.
  5. Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 180.

Verse and Prose from Noel Hodgson; Francis Ledwidge in an English Fog; Edward Thomas Dismissed

It’s a field day for Noel Hodgson today, a century back. Not only did he complete another sketch, but one of his war poems was published in The New Witness. It is not of the “happy warrior” school:

 

A Field

Here sorrow has no beauty, death no greatness.
Where the dumb fields from Heaven to Heaven run
In a dull poverty of desolateness
Under a blind sky, and the rain is spun
In a grey web that long has slain the sun.
To go down reeling in a wild endeavour.
Or take unvanquished in a heart of scorn
The inevitable sword–were well–but never
In these low lands to watch as soon as born
The golden thread in abjectness outworn.
The worth of all things is what men will pay.
And for these mean fields men die every day.[1]

So a realist poem, in a way–grey and grim, with no praise for war. Yet this is still traditional stuff, the diction more faux-Tennysonian than would-be-modern Brookean. “To go down reeling in a wild endeavour” is a very good line, worthy of a companion of Ulysses–but to what end? The poem breaks with the heroic tradition… but only a little. Achilles was well aware that life was short and ordinary existence grey and poor, and he fought on; the Victorian Ulysses refused to abide in the mean fields–or barren crags, rather–and pushed off, and admiral of romancers rather than a subaltern of infantry.

Hodgson’s poem begins on a low note and it holds heroism at arm’s length. But it does not reject “endeavour.” And then there’s the diction problem. Hodgson throws in a bunch of sesquipedalian semi-sequiturs, and he renders “not dead” as “unvanquished,” a sure sign that he is caught between the beautiful idea of dying in some attractively dashing way and the realization that the poets who ignore grim ordinariness of the “fields” in which the dying will be done (not “fields of glory,” but “mean fields” sown with barley or sugar beets) have been doing a disservice to truth.

So Hodgson is on the path from pro-war poetry toward the poetry of protest, but caught yet in No Man’s Land. There is doubt, but the language doesn’t come along with it. Those last two lines should hammer the new discordant note and leave it to resonate, but instead they limp lamely in, one after another…

And here’s the prose, written today, and with a very recognizable protagonist. Hodgson himself has recently returned to his unit from a feverish spell in hospital, impelled by his sense of responsibility when other company leaders were wounded.

There and Back

Up the slope of that tall ridge which encloses the southern aspect of a little hospital town in the Somme country was climbing an officer entering on the last week of a blessed term of convalescence. His hard-worn khaki with a small ribbon on the left breast, and a certain grimness of the mouth, indicated that for some months his way had been in stony places of war. Even now his enjoyment showed in his eyes only.

It was one of those incomparable mornings after rain, when every line is clear and every colour vivid almost
beyond belief. The sky and the little clouds that floated about the horizon seemed to have been washed to a spring freshness, and for the first time in many weeks the sun was warm upon his neck. Arrived at the top of the hill he let himself down in luxurious laziness on the grass, and lighting a black and battered pipe, surveyed the prospect. Below him in the valley among the poplars, whose sober tracery was already faintly tinged with green, lay the red and white of cottages dominated by twin towers, their stone mellowed with the passage of five hundred years. Faintly through the branches glimmered the blue of water, and beyond again a thick fir spinney crowning a quarry stood black against the russet poplars. Behind and over it all swelled the opposing ridge, where the smooth swathe of grass and stubble was broken by the vivid green of young wheat and the rich umber of damp ploughland. Away to the eastward, in a hollow of the hills, the square pile of a great abbey rose mistily from the smoke of the city, and farther still the downs ran, ridge upon ridge, into the mists o f illimitable distance—a Kingdom of dream.

No sign or sound of conflict broke the spell of that healing quiet ; not the echo of a gun, not the distant vision of a hovering ’plane. But all the sounds of the living country mingled ; the rippling song of the larks, the chirping grasshoppers, the rumble of a farm cart on the valley-road, and, as it were the motive and spirit of it all, the delicate melancholy of a far-off church-bell.

For a long time he lay and watched the shadows chase over the wide-breasted hills, then, knocking out
his pipe, rose slowly and took the downward way, to the village, where, in cat-like content, the Territorial soldiers were smoking their caporals about their doorsteps.

Presently a passing Englishman saluted, and he became aware of a familiar face.

“’Morning, Taylor,” he said, stopping his walk.

“What are you doing here?” The old soldier smiled respectfully.

“I’ve brought your second-in-command and your sergeant-major down, sir.”

“What! Mr. Holland and Sergeant Kirke—wounded?”

“Yes, sir, the two of them was wounded by a rifle grenade.”

“Badly?”

“No, sir ; in the legs mostly.” The officer looked thoughtful, and tapped his leg with his cane.

“They’re in the C.C.S., I suppose?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I must go and see them—that leaves Mr. Gibson in command of the company?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And only Mr. Sands to help him?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Last night you arrived, eh? Yes—well. I’m very sorry. Thank you, Taylor.”

The man saluted, and the officer continued his walk. In the hospital grounds he met the Doctor.

“Doctor,” he said, “I think I’m fit enough to rejoin the regiment to-morrow.”

April 20th, 1916.[2]

This is disguised memoir, really, rather than a fictional “sketch.” Like Sassoon, Hodgson feels the need to formally renounce pastoral leisure and to seize control of his own return to action. Other subaltern-writers have tended toward the “pawn” analogy, or sought positions on the staff not necessarily for safety’s sake but for a sense of possessing more influence over their own destiny. Hodgson–and his fictional doppelganger–would have been sent back soon, but by going to the doctor soon he is able both to demonstrate and to act on his conviction that the front line is where he belongs.

This is a nice compliment to the poetic struggle above: Hodgson, like so many, is not so sure anymore about the glory of war or the worthiness of sacrifice. There is a lot to work out. But even if “glory” is a lie, and if there is more than a hint of unhappiness with his poetic inheritance and his political position, he has no doubt that his place is with his friends, and his men, come what may.

 

And those enlisted men, of course, have almost no control over their fate. Francis Ledwidge, recovering slowly from illness, injury, and exhaustion after the Gallipoli and Serbian campaigns, was marooned in Egypt for months before being sent home. Or not home–which would be restive Ireland–but Manchester. In a satisfying coincidence, Ledwidge, the now-published “peasant poet” is also musing, poet-wise, on his natural surroundings and the sacrifices of the soldier.

While Hodgson, who seems to be writing about bleak flat Flanders, was on the still-picturesque Somme, and returning for what promised to be a grim battle, Ledwidge, poet of County Meath, is coming back from the edge of a distant desert, admires the English green and pleasant lands to which he has been sent to convalesce.  Ledwidge writes to Lord Dunsany, today:

2nd Western General Hospital,
(A Ward), Lilly Lane, Moston,
Manchester, 20th April 1916

I arrived in England late last night. I cannot tell you how glad I was to return to western civilisation once again. Coming from Southhampton in the train, looking on England’s beautiful valleys all white with Spring, I thought indeed its freedom was worth all the blood I have seen flow. No wonder England has so-many ardent patriots.

I would be one of them myself did I not presume to be an Irish patriot. I am not yet very well, indeed I am far from it; nevertheless I am asking to be sent to Ireland soon. I remember you once said of Manchester that God only Sends fogs to it. You are quite right, but even the English fog is dear to me now and prized by me above Turkish sunshine, or Serbia’s beautiful autumn.

I expect to be home in the course of a week, if I succeed in pretending that my back is strong again. I am so accustomed to asking you to do me favours that I venture this one with no reluctance. I request you to find me clerical work in the Orderly Room for a while, as I am not fit for parades and can’t carry anything on my back. The doctors call my disease ‘cholecystitis’, that is the insane name the medical profession give a bad liver.[3]

The gall bladder, rather, but never mind. Ledwidge is close to home, and close to hopeful. Alas, however, too hopeful: given the political situation in Ireland, nationalists in the British ranks, however infirm, are not likely to be sent home; and he overestimates Dunsany’s influence–were they in the same battalion an officer’s patronage would be powerful indeed, but at a remove, a mere company officer can do little. And Dunsany, in Ireland, will soon have other things on his mind than the comfort of poetical, er, inferiors…

 

And finally, today, more evidence–devastatingly unkind and unjust evidence–that Walter de la Mare is indeed exerting himself on behalf of his friend Edward Thomas, trying to get him a Civil List Pension. Thomas was from a lower middle class background and had left Oxford without a degree: he has been a working writer since, with many friends in many different social positions. But he has very little in the way of savings and no direct lines to the wealthiest and most influential literary men.

Yesterday we learned that de la Mare might reach out to Eddie Marsh; today, we find that he has written to Edmund Gosse. These are both men who took an interest in the unpublished and financially independent (and young, and obscurely charming) Siegfried Sassoon… but they seem to have little interest in Thomas. Gosse might stick his neck out for promising youngsters of the officer class, but as for a corporal and prolific critic…

Confidential
17, Hanover Terrace,
Regent’s Park, N.W.
20 April 1916

My dear de la Mare

I shall be happy to speak to the Prime Minister, (at a more convenient season than now at the height of the crisis!) on the claims of Mr Thomas. I would, however, gently venture to warn you against the dangers of exaggerated language, which does more to harm than to help a candidate. I have not see much of Mr Thomas’ writing, which is often creditable, but I have met with little of his that deserved the epithets ‘rare’ and ‘beautiful.’ He wrote a monograph on Swinburne which was certainly neither the one nor the other!

Unless Mr Thomas has debts, I cannot think the moment well chosen for an appeal to the King’s bounty for him. He is a private, I suppose, in the Army, and his wife and children have therefore for the present some provision. I should have thought it would have been better to wait until peace was declared, when he would perhaps be in need of a special help before resuming his literary work…

Edmund Gosse[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The New Witness, 20 April 1916.
  2. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 72-4.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 148.
  4. Poet to Poet, 220-1.

Siegfried Sassoon in Verse and Prose, Singing Springtime and a Subaltern; Robert Graves and T.E. Hulme Give Thanks to Eddie Marsh

We begin today with Robert Graves, getting back in touch with Eddie Marsh.

15 March 1916

My dear Eddie

It’s rather trying, having to go back into the trenches after a three months’ holiday, especially trenches like this where the two parties are so exceedingly embittered against each other: I have to get used to all the old noises, from the crack! rockety-ockety-ockety-ockety-ockety of a rifle bullet, to the boom! …swish …swish …Grr …GRR! …GRR! …ROAR! of a fifteen-inch shell and there are a lot of new terrors since last December. The specialité here is ‘canisters’, round, tin, barrel-shaped trench-mortars filled with about twenty pounds of the highest explosive. About ten or twelve times as much stuff is handed round now than when I first came out, but I always enjoy trenches in a way, I must confess: I like feeling really frightened and if happiness consists in being miserable in a good cause, why then I’m doubly happy. England’s is a good cause enough and the trenches are splendidly miserable…

Eddie, it seems, has been sending his lost protegé’s books to the young poets at the front.

Thanks ever so much for [Rupert Brooke‘s] Letters from America most of which I had already read in S.S.‘s copy the afternoon I came back here…

Carelessly–or ingenuously–Graves wanders off from the subject of Brooke, first onto the writings of Samuel Butler, whom Graves loves and Brooke quoted, and then onto those of that fellow fusilier, the one who Eddie sent the book to first:

I think S.S.’s verses are getting infinitely better than the first crop I saw, much freer and more Georgian. What a pity he didn’t start earlier! I suspect Gosse of being his retarding influence–‘keeping me to my moons and nightingales and things,’ as S.S. put it himself yesterday–but this is private.

He has written a perfectly ripping one about a mutual friend of ours called Thomas, a subaltern in this battalion whom I believe I told you about before–did you see it?

This is David Thomas, and the poem Graves mentions must be the sonnet “A Subaltern.”

And with the coming words, a worthwhile picture. There are a few old wartime photos of Thomas, looking awkward (to our eyes) because of the high-waisted uniform and half-grown-out haircut. But Sassoon loved Thomas, and with this recently unearthed school photo, taken shortly before the war (the photos were published in news reports of the rediscovery in 2014), one can see why.

A Subaltern
david thomas

David Thomas, in his cricket team photo, no less.

He turned to me with his kind, sleepy gaze
And fresh face slowly brightening to the grin
That sets my memory back to summer days,
With twenty runs to make, and last man in.
He told me he’d been having a bloody time
In trenches, crouching for the crumps to burst,
While squeaking rats scampered across the slime
And the grey palsied weather did its worst.

But as he stamped and shivered in the rain,
My stale philosophies had served him well;
Dreaming about his girl had sent his brain
Blanker than ever—she’d no place in Hell….
‘Good God!’ he laughed, and slowly filled his pipe,
Wondering ‘why he always talked such tripe’.

Robert Graves remembers Thomas–or writes him, memorably–as “simple, gentle, and fond of reading.” But he was indeed an athlete, playing cricket and rugby at school, and, in the First Battalion, inside three-quarter, while David Pritchard played fly-half and Graves full-back.[1]

So Sassoon’s liberties are half-liberties. He first knew Thomas in the summer, at Cambridge, and Thomas indeed had stood, handsome of a summer’s day, with cricket bat in hand.

As for poetic development, well–yes. Sassoon is still his facile, smooth-rhyming old self here, but the blunt wit is coming unsheathed too. If you’re going to go in for hard, jarring turns from England, Summer, and the Breathless Close to rats, rain, and trenches, you needed to have a light, steady hand on the wheel, and Sassoon does. And then there is that grim/naughty reference to Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada–every reader would recognize the reference, in 1916, and the challenge to the pieties of the older generation would be clear. A quick turn, a sestet’s jab–but also the future of Great War poetry laid out before us.

But moods, of course, are moods, and chronologies thick enough will not be bullied into something other than an awkwardly uneven, always-straight line. Here’s what Sassoon was writing, a few miles back, while Graves was praising (but not wholeheartedly, never wholeheartedly) his “perfectly ripping” poetry. I remind the reader (this is great!) that Graves credits himself for Sassoon’s turn away from stuffy, Gosse-ian, pre-Georgian poetic affectation (with considerable justification, but not enough for such complete credit to be taken) toward trench realism.

March 15

Looking across Morlancourt to the west from the hill where our billet stands, at 11.30 on a spring day. The last two days have soaked the earth in pure golden sunlight and warmth, leaving the air warm even when darkness had come and the stars were out. An air-plane drones overhead, and big prosperous clouds move slowly across the blue, trailing skeins and webs of white, flocks of them, far away to the edge of the sky, the furthest ones like pearls in their texture of light and vapour.

…Then I ride out toward Albert and Méaulte, with larks carolling very clear and two solemn black-and-white dogs staring at me from outside an R.E. hut on the ridge where the reserve-trench line is dug. From the slope, looking northwest, the country rises and falls, spare green and drab and brown, to a skyline of trees in tiny delicate silhouette, with occasional dark line of woodland, the white seams of trenches dug in the limestone, and here and there a road winding away to nowhere (or the German territory, unexplored and sinister)…

And everywhere the rural spirit of the neighbourhood has been chased away by shells and soldiers, and supply-sheds and everything else; the very sky has lost its once bird-held supremacy, and isolation; but to-day is fair with clouds in the blue, and something of the spirit of the old countryside shines from the distant scene, as if it strove to assert itself in the early promise of spring, and the flowers would return to find their earth unchanged and the slaughter ended.[2]

Not Gosse’s “nightingales,” but (everybody’s) larks–and caroling, no less. There’s no hard-edged realism here, instead we find realism as the leavening in very prettily written, carefully observant prose. Things are “sinister,” and “chased away,” and there are trenches scarring the land. But without the drama of the sonnet, with its beautiful subaltern foregrounded, there is balance here. Sassoon is loading the image he has evoked, but delicately–we would have to know that he has been writing “ugly” bits and ruminating on his own likely demise in the summer offensive to “know” (or even to guess) that the sinister note is supposed to be the dominant one.

But criticizing poetry is hard; harder still poetry and prose together. And there are the doubly strange yokefellows of war and chronology. Back to Graves’s letter to Marsh, then:

S.S. and I have great difficulty in talking about poetry and that sort of thing together as the other officers of the battalion are terribly curious and suspicious. If I go into his mess and he wants to show me some set of verses, he says: ‘Afternoon Graves, have a drink… by the way, I want you to see my latest recipe for rum punch.’

…We are a disgrace to the battalion and we know it… It’s a great standby to have S.S. here in such society, though one or two of our brother officers are exceptionally nice…

Yours affectionately,

Robert[3]

Sassoon, it is clear, was able to maintain his somewhat wary yet enthusiastic relationship with Graves while staying clear of any lasting social taint…

 

Five days from now T.E. Hulme will be officially commissioned into the Royal Marine Artillery. Which gives me an excuse to read this undated letter into the record. Crossing postal paths! Who doesn’t know Eddie Marsh?

67 Frith Street, Soho Squ.

Dear Marsh

I passed my medical exam today… I should get my commission in about 5 days…

I am very delighted to have got it, and extremely grateful to you. I am sure that I stood no chance whatever of getting it if it hadn’t been for your help. Again thanking you very much for the trouble you have taken.

Yrs. Sincerely

T.E. Hulme[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 178.
  2. Diaries, 41-2.
  3. In Broken Images, 42-44.
  4. Ferguson, The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 219-220.