Bayoneting With Edward Heron-Allen; Wilfred Owen’s “Last Words”

First, today, another very entertaining entry from our great latecomer, Edward Heron-Allen. He is recently commissioned, still under training, and very much in England. But he has advanced, thematically, as far as the “Bull Ring.” Other than this not being in France–and the instructor not being notably Scottish–it fits the pattern well:

…I was detailed to watch advanced bayonet practice which was extremely interesting and real. The men start in a trench, go ‘over the top’ in waves, across a plateau of sand jumping obstacles, and over a ditch into a trench where they stab recumbent sand bags, painted to represent Huns. They form on the other side and rush a row of hanging Hun-bags, and then make a final charge on the last trench, which means a six foot jump landing with one’s bayonet well through another row of Hun-bags. A concealed instructor pulls wires which make Hun heads bob up on the way, and you have to jab those en passant. As the men yell furiously the whole time the scene is cataleptically exhilarating to watch, and the men evidently enjoy it vastly. I should not care to do it myself![1]

 

Wilfred Owen, though he could hardly top this, also has some exhilaration to share. In this rather strange letter to his mother, he describes how exploring the older parts of Scarborough with a Belgian painter led to an aesthetic euphoria.

Last night I took an artist johnny—called Claus…  (a fat old tub, with round spectacles, and a conical head) …to Scarborough, where there’s not a house built since 1780, not a street much wider than Claus, and miles of it, mind you, miles of glorious eighteenth century. It was twilight…

Not a soul in the alleys.

Not a lamp lit. A dim moon—and the Past.

And we got excited. What excited us, who shall say? We jumped about, we bumped about, We sang praises, we cursed Manchester; we looked in at half open doors and blessed the people inside. We saw Shakespere in a lantern, and the whole of Italy in a Balcony. A tall chimney became a Greek Column; and in the inscriptions on the walls we read romances and philosophies.

It was a strange way of getting drunk. I wonder if the people in the officers’ bar suspected that evening how much more cheaply a man can get fuddled on fresh air and old winding passages?

Very nice, and refreshingly un-1918: it’s a passage that throws us back to Baudelaire or ahead to Dylan, c. 1965.

But it’s still 1918, and euphoria is not all that Owen has been experiencing:

I am sorry you have disturbing and daylight-lingering dreams. It is possible to avoid them: by proper thinking before sleep. I confess I bring on what few war dreams I now have, entirely by willingly considering war of an evening. I do so because I have my duty to perform towards War.

Sudden seriousness. And, perhaps, another explanation for the metaphorical drunkenness. Owen seems to have exorcised another segment of his war experience in producing this poem draft, which he prefaces with a stern warning to his mother, whose Christian faith he risks offending:

There is a point where prayer is indistinguishable from blasphemy. There is also a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable, from prayer.

As in this first verse:

Last Words[2]

‘O Jesus Christ!’ one fellow sighed;
And kneeled, and bowed, tho’ not in prayer, and died.
And the Bullets sang—‘In vain’
Machine Guns chuckled ‘Vain’
Big Guns guffawed ‘In vain’

‘Father and Mother!’ one boy said.
Then smiled—at nothing like a small child; being dead.
And the Shrapnel Cloud
Slowly gestured ‘Vain!’
The falling Splinters muttered ‘Vain’.

‘My Love!’ another cried, ‘My love, my bud!’
Then, gently lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
And the Flares gesticulated, ‘Vain’
The Shells hooted, ‘In vain’
And the Gas hissed, ‘In vain’.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Journal, 165-6.
  2. This will be revised and re-titled "The Last Laugh."
  3. Collected Letters, 533-34.

Edward Heron-Allen Bids the Boys Farewell; Ralph Hamilton Makes Ready for the Tanks

Edward Heron-Allen came under fire today, a century back, for the very first time.

When the firing begins the mud flies in all directions, and spatters back all over the marking shelters–sometimes a bullet comes skidding back, and men get hurt. We watched it for some time, and then had a mild experience of what it was to be ‘under fire.’

Yes, Heron-Allen is on the practice musketry course at Tunbridge Wells. Still, there is some intent behind this apparently merely blustering insistence that new officers expose themselves to slight chances of ricochet hits–they will have to begin to learn the deportment that will be expected of them.

We had been told to telephone back to the firing point when we were wanting to come back, but the range officer said this was ridiculous as the path was well to one side of the line of fire, and it wasn’t worth while to paralyse the British Army whilst we re-joined them. The only possible danger was a ricochet. “Did it often happen?’ ‘Well–only now and then…’

We made for the path quick, before we heard any more comforting reflections. We wouldn’t have hurried for the world!

 

Coincidentally, the only bit of action from one of our writers at the front today also concerns range-marking. Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, continues to prepare his position for the possibility of a German advance, and he is worried about tanks. Anti-tank shooting is the newest discipline of the artillery, and his men are uncertain how to proceed, or even how to judge such short ranges. Hamilton’s solution is to paint symbols on large boards and place them out between the lines.

The men were so stupid about where to put the boards that I galloped about placing them myself. It was quite safe, as there was too much fog for the Hun to see me…[1]

“Quite safe–” yet probably more dangerous than the butts at Tunbridge Wells.

 

But back now to Heron-Allen, who described another scene, today, that once again shows the belatedness of his introduction to the emotional stresses of the long war. In the evening, he wanders down to the train station where a number of recent trainees are departing for the front–it’s a scene right out of 1915.

The scene on the platform beggars description. There were about 50 of them, and good God! how young they were. Some older men going out perhaps for the second time, but the average was nineteen. There were about 20 officers, and the band grouped at the end of the platform and played gay tunes. The boys… shouted, they sang, some danced, one or two, the youngest, were slightly drunk. The officers among them were talking and chaffing, and helping them with tips about the equipment. Our padre was there of course, and was charming with them, especially the few who stood still with an expression in their eyes which I never saw before and hope never to see again…

…when one boy whom I have drilled and lectured to went up and kissed the glass against which his girl’s face was pressed white, I frankly had to go away and pull myself together…

The guards got fussy, the band played ‘Auld Lang Syne’–it was a moment in which one lives at treble speed. On the last note the train moved –the officers all at the saluted (morituros vos salutamur) and the band struck up the regimental march as this cargo of glorious creatures disappeared into the night. We officers stood rigidly to attention till the march was over, and then dispersed into the dark. Many of us were glad it was dark. I met the delicate and educated Brothers, and said with a sickly attempt at conversation ‘Very interesting.’ He replied ‘Very terrible, look at my hands’. He was shaking like a man with ague…

Back to the inn at 10.45pm, and to bed a sadder and wiser man.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 455.
  2. Journal, 156-60.

Edward Heron-Allen Analyzes a Word of Command; Wilfred Owen Has Made an Influential Friend; Vera Brittain’s Poetic Ambitions, and What Comes Out in the Wash

We can sketch Siegfried Sassoon‘s leave in London only in appointment-book fashion. Yesterday it was friends and music; today, family. Sassoon spent the day at an aunt’s house, his mother having come up from Kent for the day.[1]

 

Meanwhile, back in Kent, Edward Heron-Allen, still learning the ropes of infantry drill, has a quite surprisingly funny rendition of the strange contortions of drill-ground commands. These are choreographic orders that began as simple English words but have been altered by years of shouting at men who already know the stereotyped commands into what seems like a foreign language. Heron-Allen is, after all, a splendid linguist…

…The colonel appeared and marched us off. His word of command is astonishing when you don’t know it. First an extraordinary gurgle, which I afterwards learned to mean ‘4th Queen’s Own’, and then, with great lucidity ‘mootwryicolleroo’ which the intelligent military interpreted as ‘move to the right in a column of route’, and so we marched off…[2]

 

And Wilfred Owen, back in Scarborough, is belatedly realizing the social heights to which his friendship with Sassoon has delivered him, as he will describe in tomorrow’s letter to his mother.

Yesterday, I had tea in the Club in Scarborough, and taking up Who’s Who was amazed to find that Roderick Meiklejohn who invited me to dinner at the Reform was Mr. Asquith’s private secretary while Mr. Asquith was in office…

Meiklejohn, as it happens, will spend tomorrow morning with Sassoon…[3]

 

We also learn, today, that Vera Brittain has been rather busier than she has led us to believe. Not only has she written enough poetry for a small book, but she has sent them off–bereft of influential literary friends though she is–to a publisher, received a favorable reply, and already written to her brother about it. Verses of a V.A.D. is on it’s way, and Lieutenant Brittain sounds just a bit jealous…

Italy, 10 February 1918

Very glad to hear that Erskine Macdonald was so favourable in his criticism; it is certainly rather unusual–I should think–for him to half-finance a first volume of any sort…

I am extremely busy again with all sorts of work–chiefly range practices and difficulties connected with washing men and clothes. The most excellent system of giving a man clean underclothes every time he went to the baths which we had in France cannot apparently be done here. The present system is to have a Corps laundry; all kinds of units send clothing when asked to do so: the result is that the company has to have (say) 50 shirts, 45 pants, 55 socks, and 30 undervests collected. This of course leaves a lot of men without a change of certain garments; then at some time or other they will carefully return to you washed 35 shirts, 50 pants, 40 socks, and 20 undervests. At present we are doing some of the washing ourselves. A few people come over and drop bombs when the moon is favourable — otherwise there is not much war going on.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 211; Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 441.
  2. Journal, 153.
  3. Collected Letters, 530.
  4. Letters from a Lost Generation, 389.

Siegfried Sassoon in London; Edward Heron-Allen Takes Tea in Tunbridge Wells

Siegfried Sassoon arrived in London at 7 this morning, a century back, to begin the traditional “last leave” before posting abroad. Having only two days and a few hours to spend in London, he set immediately to work having fun, never mind any fatigue from a day of hunting yesterday, followed by an overnight trip from Ireland.

He lunched with his two most important advisors/advocates, Robbie Ross and Eddie Marsh, and went from there to what sounds like a rather long and heavy-hitting sort of concert (anti-German feeling still not running high enough to keep Beethoven’s 5th off the bill), and then back to Ross for dinner. After dinner, Sassoon met with Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, his Craiglockhart savior. But, alas, he wrote nothing of this meeting beyond the bare record–“Sherston” skips the London trip before picking up the diary when he goes abroad, and, wearying, perhaps of the second big biographical push, Siegfried’s Journey doesn’t fill in the blank but merely sends us back to Sherston (who, as we have just learned, is cribbing from Sassoon’s diary) for the coming months… So, because there is little to go on and, also, perhaps, in tacit agreement with Sassoon’s own evident judgment that this brief stay in London interrupts the narrative of his adventures to little effect, even so stalwart a fictionalizing soul as Pat Barker omits this bit of Sasson’s journey as well…[1]

 

Edward Heron-Allen is almost a comically apposite opposite to the younger-than-he-seems, sensitive, amiable, fond-of-presenting-himself-as-ignorant Sassoon: a fussy, elderly/middle-aged, effusive polymath, Heron-Allen has a mind of great discernment, a talent for making adversaries, and not much poetry about him… And, amazingly, today, as Sassoon complicates his present life with his multiple-looking-backs, Heron-Allen looks forward to his own biography–still not yet written, alas.

How is life as an infantry subaltern in a pretty country town? Believe it or not, it is making this eminent Victorian more content with his Englishness…

…This morning I had to get up at 6.15 am, in the darkness of a grey wet morning (the weather is really ‘chronic’) and had breakfast at 7am, though it was too early for coffee or toast. Still–I am acquiring a belated taste for tea! My future biographer will say ‘He took to drinking tea, which he had hitherto detested, at the age of 56’…

…they have route marches on Saturday and glad I was that I was Orderly Officer for they march about 12 miles before 12 noon (parade at 9 am) and the officers have to wear full packs and service equipment. I must get out of that, or reserve my rights to turn back when I give out.[2]

Although I have an innate distrust for anyone who publishes books on palmistry or tries to persecute blustering writers on personal grounds, I also have an instinctive affection for anyone who dotes on the work of their future biographers… so it all evens out…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 211.
  2. Journal, 150-1.

Olaf Stapledon’s Little Twiddly Scrawls; Siegfried Sassoon’s Idyll Turns to Remorse; Edward Heron-Allen on Parade

Olaf Stapledon remains committed to the principle that the experiential gulf (not to mention the two hemispheres) that separates him from his beloved Agnes can best be bridged by creating familiarity with his circumstances. This letter isn’t quite up to his previous high standard of literary teleportation, but it operates on the same implicit premise: if I can write you into knowing the people I’m with, it will be like we are closer together…

SSA 13

4 February 1918

Yesterday I wrote you a scrap in a hurry; today I am beginning again or rather tonight, and under awkward circumstances, for I am at an aid post with three garrulous Englishmen and two garrulous Frenchmen. The latter have gone but the former remain. One of them is making cocoa, which is now an almost unheard of luxury. He is the well-bred and well-built younger [George Romney] Fox, our best runner, and a charming lad although he is a bit too pleased with himself. Another is one [William] Meredith, formerly in Cadbury’s works, a keen self-educating lad who suffers from two disadvantages, being neither of the well-to-do nor of the proper “working” class. He somehow always errs on the side of formality and over respectability; but he also is a good lad, a hard worker too. The third is the great and famous inhabitant of Liverpool, Alec Gunn, called the mitrailleuse on account of his endless rattle of talk. . . .

Goodnight. These silly little black twiddly scrawls that are our only lines of communication! Goodnight.[1]

It’s Stapledon’s gift–and his dogged project–to keep two hearts close together as their time apart stretches to many years.

 

And it’s Siegfried Sassoon‘s gift to house two different personalities within himself–Outdoor Sassoon (or George Sherston, the Fox-Hunting Man) and Indoor Sassoon, the poet. Today, however, he once again works from the outside in.

Hacked to meet—four miles from Limerick. Fine sunny morning. Rode Sheeby’s big bay mare…  [the fox] ran very twisting (a vixen). Slow hunting for about forty minutes, ran toward Limerick, and killed at a farm… A poorish day, but very jolly… Happy days.

Sassoon’s previous few days of “jolly” hunting produced poems that dwelt in the happy hunting grounds of his mind, keeping the war well in the background. But today this “jolly,” “happy” diary mood somehow twisted, vixen-like to produce a bloody, angry, haunted war poem in his old style.

 

Remorse

Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,—each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
‘Could anything be worse than this?’—he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees…
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs. ‘O hell!’
He thought—‘there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.[2]

 

Sassoon does this sort of thing very well. What should I add? Either you are pummeled by the force of the imagery and the rhythm of the verse into a sharper awareness of the horror of war, or you are put off by the oversimplifications that such a direct assault necessitates. Or both…

 

Finally–this is an awkward segue, given that this is an older man, safe at home, and very impressed with his own father’s deathless deeds–we mark a major change in the circumstances of Edward Heron-Allen. After several years (but only a few entries, here) of life as a not-so-young and slightly cracked home-front volunteer, he is now to begin life as an elderly subaltern: he began training with his very own platoon of Sussex volunteers, today, a century back, at Tunbridge Wells.

Here I am at the end of the first day and if it is all going to be like today it will be interesting…

Perhaps: but the diary is not–unless it can be excerpted for the purpose of not-so-gentle mockery. The ankle deep mud on the parade ground at Tunbridge Wells gave Heron-Allen “an idea of the state of things in Flanders…” except for the fact that in the very next sentence they give up bayonet training because it is “too filthy,” and have a lecture instead. Just like in Flanders.[3]

But we will look in on Heron-Allen as his time in training camp continues… it will get more interesting for him, and for us as well…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 280.
  2. Diaries, 209-10.
  3. Journal, 141-44.

Edward Heron-Allen Summons Samuel Pepys; Max Plowman Has Faith: After Horror, There Will Be Progress

Edward Heron-Allen turned to his diary, today, a century back, to write a giddy piece of (self)-parody “in the manner of Mr. Pepys.” It describes his fascination with his first real military uniform:

14 September 1917:

…I, straightaway, with assistance from the artificer of the house to put it on and sally forth… should have been vastly put to it had the knowledgeable fellow not been there, such a wilderness of straps and buckles as never did I see in my life… Once trussed I did display myself to my house woman, and she, fond thing, vastly pleased with me and declared that so fine a soldier never she saw…

The new-clothed soldier now visits his elderly mother, one of the few true Victorian Ladies to see a son into His Majesty’s Army, for the very first time, in 1917:

…and she mighty proud over her baby-boy, who is nearer 60 than 50 years of age. My mother in a great tosse for that I carried no sword, but did appease her, telling her that swords are not worn now by officers, though the rascally clothiers would fain lead young officers to buy them and so swell their accompts. But I wiser, and having already my father’s sword which cost me nothing…[1]

 

But the middle-aged Heron-Allen is going nowhere soon. Max Plowman, however–for all that he is a post-ambulance corps, post-infantry, post-concussive trauma, post-Rivers pacifist–may be going back into the thick of it sooner than he would like. His letter of today to Hugh de Selincourt covers a good deal of theoretical ground, but ends by corralling belief into the service of circumstance:

…Don’t let the thought of my going to France distress you for a moment. I may not go at all. And if I do, what is it really? A broil of circumstance I could not honestly hold aloof from but which I didn’t make & is therefore not more to be worried about than any other external misfortune. –Do you know I find consolation in the very thing that makes you sorest. If this war only proves the futility of war then the world’s solid gain is too enormous to assess, & what can prove that better than the afterthought (which you’ve already seen) that every fair & foul thing we know here has its counterpart there? Who can tell with what pain self-consciousness first came to man–we can only guess by what we know of our own puberty. This is the puberty of nations & we cannot tell the amount of pain necessary to produce thought. But I’m certain thought will come as a result. I’ve that faith in life that I am sure it will never lose direction. The world’s self-consciousness has already begun. Bless you. Love is enough.

Be happy.[2]

Here the historical irony is very painful, and clever remarks about the torturous logic required to turn endless war into the hope of peace–or ways in which the “puberty of nations” can call to mind a pimply horror wreaking havoc rather than sudden leaps in reason and maturity–seem unnecessarily cruel…

 

And then there is Edward Brittain. Healed of his wound (in body, at least), he has been back at the front already for more than two months. But today, a century back, his battalion went for the first time into the rolling battle around Ypres, near Passchendaele Ridge…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Journal of the Great War, 118-9.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 81.
  3. Testament of Youth, 387.

David Jones Draws His Gun; Edward Heron-Allen is Dull to Fear; Kate Luard on Leave at Last; Siegfried Sassoon on Hunters and Dreamers

“Boche Machine Gun Captured by the 15th R.W.F.”

David Jones had some time on his hands today, a century back. Or so it would seem from the drawing–a beautiful thing–he made of one of his battalion’s trophies from the first day of the battle. A German machine gun, probably one that had been firing into the assaulting troops that very morning, is caught in a pose at once slightly tense–like the animal it should recall, at least metaphorically, but never fully does–and infinitely calm. It’s a charismatic machine, made for killing by means of gears and trajectories, but its roughed-in foot gives it less the air of a trophy suitable for mounting than of a predator that might yet spring again.

 

Edward Heron-Allen got a good chance to say “I told you so,” today, a century back, as German aircraft returned for the first raid on London in months, and the first night raid by the new generation of heavy bombers:

On Tuesday (the 4th) I went up to town with a friend who was firmly convinced that the aeroplane danger was at an end as far as London was concerned… I incurred much pitying contempt by saying that I did not believe this…

That very night I was wakened at midnight by my housekeeper at Hamilton Terrace… I got up and went to the window. The air was full of the loud hum, and throbbing reverberations which announce the presence of the new big German ‘Gotha’ aeroplanes. As I looked out, a crash shook the house…

It was a fine night with overhanging clouds, and I went out into Hamilton Terrace. The enemy machines were directly over our heads, and I could follow their roar as they went off to the southward, and I went back to bed and to sleep. An hour later another rapping on my door…

This time I did not bother to get up but lay and listened for about 20 minutes when the infernal racket went on. I cannot account for the fact that there never entered my head for one moment the idea that at any moment my house might be blown to pieces, and I was asleep again before it was over! It was not bravery or pluck–it was simply that our sense of fear is dulled…[1]

Heron-Allen, at least in his own estimation, is a quick study. After several years in disgruntled letter-to-editor mode, he has only recently been fitted with a home guard uniform, but he enjoys being a soldier.  And by his second air-raid warning (in the person of a servant, not a klaxon–this is only a foreshadowing of the greater Blitz) he is dull to the fear of death from above…

 

Not that courage under fire–even if it is the fire of a handful of bombers attacking an enormous city–isn’t praiseworthy, but it’s amusing to think of Heron-Allen as a self-satisfied middle-aged veteran when we also have a letter, today, from Kate Luard. Fortunately for her–and unfortunately for us, a century on, since her diary kept the various swellings and burstings of Third Ypres in focus for us these last five weeks–she is now going on leave.

Wednesday morning, September 5th. Dazzling and deafening. We scuttled in and out of the Elephant [shelter] till 3 a.m. and every one is alive this morning. Probably we shall all be off somewhere to-day. I’ll wire from Folkestone if and when I get there…[2]

After her leave there is another gap in her published letters as Luard is sent to supervise other units. It will not be until February that she returns to C.C.S. 32 and we will hear from her regularly once again.

 

Finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon is still living his strange life as a healthy officer in a war hospital, a recovering pacifist still in the army, and a well-known poet mentoring a greater talent. His letters to Lady Ottoline Morrell, a sponsor of his anti-war protest phase, tend to display this discomfort from rather unflattering angles, but today he writes to her of one thing that fighting soldiers and pacifists must agree upon: the pain of loss. And yet something about the tone of these letters is still distinctly snobbish, even if the ideas expressed are not necessarily awful…

5 September 1917, Craiglockhart

My dear Ottoline, I am glad you have forgiven me! I would have written, but have been knocked flat once again by the best sporting friend I ever had getting killed on August 14—in France. He was indeed my greatest friend before the war—a Winchester boy named Gordon Harbord, whom I met in 1908 and saw constantly afterwards. When the unintellectual people go it is much the worst–one feels they’ve so much to lose.

I had been busy writing a cub-hunting poem for him during the days between August 15 and the time I heard of if.

Things go on the same here.

I wonder if Massingham would care to use the sonnet in The Hydra—show it to him when you see him.[3]

So, interestingly enough, it is not just Wilfred Owen who is proudly posting out copies of The Hydra. The sonnet in question is “Dreamers,” which Sassoon gave to his new friend for the September 1st issue of the magazine.

 

Dreamers

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Journal of the Great War, 114-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 158.
  3. Diaries, 184-5.

Edward Heron-Allen in the Home Guard; Edward Brittain Admits it is Very Strange; A Fortunate Headache for Edwin Vaughan

Sir Edward Heron-Allen has previously turned up here only as the target of return fire in a rather ridiculous dispute with not-actually-an-enemy-alien Ford Madox Hueffer. But he kept a wide-ranging diary which is often very interesting despite itself. It charts a course somewhere between Duff Cooper‘s blithe privilege and Alfred Hale‘s proto-elderly schlimazzeling–it is privileged, high-spirited, yet cranky–and otherwise reflects the huge range of interests and self-interests proper to a middle-aged Late Victorian eccentric polymath. Still, who needs to read what one old county gentleman thinks of politics, farming, and the follies of the young?

Ah, but Heron-Allen has–like those other two–belatedly found his way into uniform. He’s a soldier now, too, of a sort, yet seldom does the diary have anything to do with the war that everyone else is fighting. Today, a century back, his local Home Guard unit (formed in 1914 but not recognized by the War Office until this year) is at last preparing for duty, and his account of his uniform and accessories has a bizarre but irresistible charm:

The Selsey Platoon has now got its uniforms… some of them like nothing on God’s earth but a foreign caricature of the British Tommy. My tailor could not do much to my uniform… I do not think I shall wear it very long however for the Sergent-Major tells me that soon after I am made Platoon Sergeant I am sure to be made Lieutenant…  All this is very trivial and Pepys-like, but I confess to a childish pleasure on this being ‘dressed up’…

I dined on Tuesday with my dear old mother, who was much interested in my military career! My father was one of the first volunteers (of 1859)… The old lady proudly presented me with his sword, a really beautiful weapon, elaborately etched with designs of various kinds… I have always wanted to possess it for it was always the admiration of my childhood…

I made a note on the exhibition of intensive hen-keeping, at the Zoological Gardens…[1]

 

Edwin Vaughan‘s diary is a different animal altogether. Less well-kept-hen than tense–but carefully groomed–rabbit, he has spent two days in a crouch, ears flared, near Poperinghe. But this is the real war…

August 13 We heard this morning that we are moving up again tomorrow and that on the 16th we will be in support to a battalion of Irish Rifles at St Julien. The imminence of the attack made me very frightened and I trembled so much that I could not take part in the discussion at first. But after poring over the map for a bit and passing on all information to my platoon, I grew calmer. Before noon we had learnt every detail of the ground from the map and, incidentally, had been issued with private’s clothing.

So this should be another stage of that slow journey up the line, from safety to misery and danger. But, especially in the Salient, the war doesn’t always follow the script.

After lunch Radcliffe, Harding and I went down to Pop for a farewell dinner. We have heard so much now, that we know what we are in for. We found the trench model quite close to Slaughter Wood and we stopped to examine it. At La Poupée we had a most wonderful dinner with many drinks so that when we started back through the darkness, we were all a little unsteady. When we got back into camp, Radcliffe and Harding were asleep in no time, but the champagne and the excitement of the attack prevented me from lying down even. I felt that my head was bursting, so in pyjamas and slippers I went out again into the wood. A gentle rain was falling and the mud came up over my bare ankles. I had walked about 30 yards from the hut when without warning there was a blinding flash and a shell burst close beside me. Staggering back I hurried to the hut as three more crashed down among the trees. Kneeling on the steps I groped along the floor for my tin hat; at the same moment another salvo fell around us, chunks whizzed past my head and I heard the splintering of wood and a clatter as if the table had gone over.

Then I heard a voice screaming faintly from the bushes. Jamming on my tin hat I ran up the track and stumbled over a body. I stopped to raise the head, but my hand sank into the open skull and I recoiled in horror. The cries continued and I ran on up the track to find that the water cart had been blown over on to two men. One was crushed and dead, the other pinned by the waist and legs. Other men ran up and we heaved the water cart up and had the injured man carried to the aid post. I took the papers and effects from the dead men and had the bodies moved into the bushes until morning. Then soaked with rain and covered in mud I returned to the hut.[2]

 

And finally, today, Edward Brittain has heard from his sister Vera, now stationed at a hospital at the Étaples base camp. He writes back to her with a mixture of dogged persistence in former roles (why write to a working nurse in Étaples about your six-weeks-lost valise?!?) and bemusement at her new circumstances. But neither of these subjects hold his pen for long: an officer who knows that battle is looming generally cannot entirely lift his eyes from the narrow horizon of future cares, and the “absurd” becomes a plan of attack without even a full stop.

France, 13 August 1917

Many thanks for your letters of the 7th and 9th. I think I know whereabouts you are though I don’t really know the side towards the sea…  I don’t want anything now thanks except that accursed valise…

It is very strange that you should be nursing Hun prisoners and it does show how absurd the whole thing is; I am afraid leave is entirely out [of] the question for the present; I am going to be very busy as I shall almost certainly have to command the co[mpan]y. in the next show because, as you know, some people are always left behind and Harrison did the last show just before I came out. I shall probably not be able to write at all regularly after the next few days though I don’t know for certain. . . Things are much more difficult than they used to be because nowadays you never know where you are in the line and it is neither open warfare nor trench warfare.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Journal of the Great War, 111.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 191-2.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 371.

The Duchess of Sutherland is in German Hands; Vera Bandages Badly in Buxton; John Lucy Bandages Hastily at Le Cateau; Frank Richards Fires Two Friendly Rounds; We Meet George Coppard

In German-occupied Namur, the Duchess of Sutherland negotiates her status.

The Padre came in at last and said that the flames would not reach us. In the afternoon we ventured into the smoky street. It was like walking through a dense fog. All the buildings were smouldering… A German officer told me that the town was burnt because some of the civilian inhabitants had been shooting at the soldiers from dark windows.

The Germans has arrived in Belgium primed to treat any resistance to their occupation by anything other than a formal military unit as serious crime. Perhaps there were a number of Belgian civilians who took pot shots at Germans, or scattered members of overrun Belgian army units who fought on, but the German army tended to treat any rear-area firing as evidence of an “illegal” guerrilla resistance, and respond with brutal punitive violence.

The Doctor and I thought we had better visit the Commander, General von Bülow…

General von Bülow said he was sure he had met me at Hamburg, and that he would arrange with one of the diplomats to get a telegram through to Berlin, which he trusted would be copied in the London papers, announcing the safety of our Ambulance.

‘Accept my admiration for your work. Duchess,’ he said. He spoke perfect English. To accept the favours of my country’s foe was a bad moment for me, but the Germans were in possession of Namur and I had to consider my hospital from every point of view. Also those who are of the Red Cross and who care for suffering humanity and for the relief of pain and sickness should strive to remember nothing but the heartache of the world and the pity of it.[1]

General von Bülow ‘did me the honour’ to call the next morning at our Ambulance. He was accompanied by Baron Kessler, his aide-de-camp, who composed the scenario of La Legende de Josephe. He had been much connected with Russian opera in London during the past season. It was exceedingly odd to meet him under such circumstances.after having so often discussed ‘art’ with him in London.[2]

It’s the forgettable ballet that keeps being remembered. Harry Graf Kessler, one of the last of the great Europeans, was culturally and linguistically fluent in French, German, and English; he was diplomat and a soldier, yes–and latterly famous for his diaries–but he was primarily an artist and patron of art. He had written the book for La Légende de Josephe, a collaboration with Strauss and the Ballets Russes, and he had recently been in England to oversee the first London production, which was seen, on the same night, by Siegfried Sasson, Edward Thomas, and Osbert Sitwell, all unbeknownst to each other.

That was back on June 23rd. In July–on the 19th, in fact–Kessler had dined with the Duchess of Sutherland at Lady Ripon’s. Now the society lady and art world insider faced each other again as staff officer and civilian volunteer nurse. A small world, and still, here, just barely a civilized one–a polite conversation among friends who happened to be enemies.

Like the good international gentlemen they were, the count and the general would make sure that the Duchess got home safely. Were they aware that she had sought them out only after seeing apparent evidence of punitive arson by the occupiers?

Namur was far from the worst of the arson. As they chatted politely, forty miles away in Louvain the University Library was a still-smoking ruin. Tends of thousands of rare and unique manuscripts were gone. The library had been fired late the night before as another act of nihilistic reprisal after unexplained shots were blamed on non-uniformed snipers, or “francs tireurs,”and German troops had prevented Belgian fire fighters from saving the medieval buildings and their treasures.

Nor was arson the worst of it. More than 200 civilians died in Louvain, and, elsewhere in Belgium, German officers were responding to similar incidents of “illegal resistance,” real or imagined, by ordering the execution of dozens or even hundreds of innocent civilians, with few apparent qualms about the massive disparity in scale between the casualties they may have suffered and the retribution they took or the morality of collective punishment.[3]

So not such a civilized world, after all. And we begin today to see the horrors of battle, too.

 

John Lucy began the 26th of August, a century back, “sleeping soundly on the stone floor” of a kitchen in the town of Caudry. The 2/Royal Irish Rifles had marched about 75 miles in five days, during which they had fought the Battle of Mons and interrupted their retreat several times to deploy against German cavalry (which never did charge–“they feared our rifle fire”). Lucy was again detached from his battalion, and so it was that when German shells began to crash into the town he and his section of eight men were part of a scratch force of several units that fell out to mount a defense. This was the beginning of the battle of Le Cateau (a town a few miles south and east of Caudry), a real 20th century battle: no cavalry charges, little close-in action, and a great deal of accurate artillery fire.

Then we got it… A heavy shell exploded just over our heads, and we were all knocked flat on the pavement, where bricks and pieces of mortar rained on us. I rose slowly and waited for the others to get up. I was dazed slightly. A sergeant went off at the double, leading those who were not injured. All my section except two went with him. He beckoned to me. I thought a moment and looked hard at the scattered khaki forms, dead and dying, from which little streams of blood flowed across the pavement into the gutter, and I turned away too.

I had only gone a few yards when a voice dried in anguish: ‘For God’s sake, Corporal!’

One of his men was dead, but another was alive, and, once Lucy had inexpertly bound his numerous shrapnel wounds, able to walk. Lucy was stumbling through the town with the wounded man on his arm when he came upon a number of corpses in the street–other men of his regiment.

The sight of the badges and buttons of those dead men if my own corps had a queer effect on me. I became angry with the Germans for the fist time. Then my anger turned to anxiety, Was my brother among the slain?

After leading the wounded man to a hospital, Lucy “fled” Caudry and was able to find the body of his battalion, reforming to the south. His brother was there, unhurt.[4]

 

The Royal Welch had reached Le Cateau yesterday afternoon. They had yet to fire a shot in anger or suffer any casualties, other than a single slight wound from a spent bullet. As Frank Richards told us yesterday, confusion abounded, yet it was clear that a general retreat was in progress, and that it was wearing down the men.

As they assembled, before dawn, several officers (including Major Geiger, commander of Richards’ A company) decided to order their men to leave their packs behind, pretending that they would be picked up later. This fooled no one, but it was deemed better to stack packs and march off than to permit the men to discard them, and allow a retreat to become a rout.

After several wrong turns, after which “one humourist started singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary'”–solid exceptional-rule-proving evidence that this regular battalion, unlike the Royal Irish Rifles, was too cool to sing the song except for satirical effect–the battalion marched south and west out of town, moving through several villages without seeing any Germans. Artillery fire was accurate, and one officer spent several hours galloping up and down a nearby Roman Road under shell fire trying to obtain clear orders from the tangled command structure. The battalion was eventually told to form a rear-guard for the rest of the infantry.

It was now twilight. Deploying into two lines, the battalion eventually saw a body of cavalry passing across their front at extreme rifle range, and, when a cavalry officer rode up and demanded that they fire, the order “was given.” Firing independently, the marksmen of the Royal Welch emptied a few saddles. These shortly proved to belong to their countrymen, a troop of the 19th Hussars. This small disaster passes with comment in Dunn’s unofficial unit history.[5]

Frank Richards goes into a little more detail about this incident:

I was the extreme left-hand man of the Battalion, Billy and Stephens being on my right. Our Colonel was speaking to our Company Commander just behind us when… a staff-officer came along and informed our Colonel that all our cavalry patrols were in and that any cavalry or troops who now appeared on our front would be the enemy. He had hardly finished speaking when over a ridge in front of us appeared a body of horsemen galloping toward us. We… opened out with rapid fire at six hundred yards. I had only fired two rounds when a bugle blew the cease-fire. This I may say, was the only time during the whole of the War… [with one future exception] that I head a bugle in action. The light was very bad, and the majority of the bullets had been falling short because we couldn’t clearly see the sights of our rifles, but several horses fell. The horsemen stopped and waved their arms. We had been firing on our own cavalry who, I was told later, belonged to the 19th Hussars: I never heard whether any of them had been killed.

I don’t know whether Dunn’s account of emptied saddles or Richards’ account of fallen horses best describes the friendly-fire casualties of the 19th Hussars–perhaps both horses and men were hit.

Soon after, the 2/Royal Welch were again marching south, so exhausted that some of Richards’ buddies were dreaming (or hallucinating) as they marched–a fact which will have some considerable relevance once certain fantastic stories of the retreat from Mons begin to be told.[6]

 

Earlier in the day, Francis Grenfell had left Le Cateau

in a cattle truck with five other wounded. A very amusing thing happened in the railway station. About 500 refugees were there, all in a great state of distress and alarm, and a few gendarmes and soldiers. Suddenly a German aeroplane came over. You would have roared with laughter as all the refugees started yelling and rushing about the station. Every gendarme or stray soldier who possessed any sort of firearm loosed it off into the air, which made the women yell all the more. A very fat officer seized a rifle and rushed forward to shoot the aeroplane, which was about five miles away. The bolt jammed, so he put it on the ground, gave it a kick, and it went off through the roof.[7]

 

Francis would eventually reach England, and receive a hero’s welcome. Vera Brittain, however, is still stuck in Buxton, sweating out her Oxford exam results. What better way to pass the time waiting for test results than to take more tests?

Wednesday August 26th

To-day took place the dreadful First Aid Exam., on account of which I was not at all nervous, but at which I nevertheless did not acquit myself magnificently. The doctor was a tall fine man, with a kind manner, but plenty of sarcasm and disdainful criticism at his command. He asked me what I should do for a fish hook embedded in the skin. I answered promptly & I think correctly, but he gave me no indication, & told me to bandage Mrs Gibbons for a broken forearm. I received a small criticism for turning my back on the patient, but remembered how to do the arm, improvising with handkerchiefs as I had not sufficient bandages. Then he told me to treat another woman for a cut throat, at which I made three bad mistakes, by not finding the artery at once, forgetting to make the patient sit down, & saying a tourniquet should be put on above & below when I really knew perfectly well that no tourniquet could be applied. However he seemed better pleased when I said I would send for an assistant at once to relieve me in digital pressure.

I thought I did not care whether I passed or not, but I do very much now I have been in for the exam., not because I think I shall ever go in much for that type of study, but because of the general principle such an exam, as this involves. One of my greatest aspirations is to succeed in whatever I undertake, So to undertake nothing unless I do it well. I seem of late to be falling below this personal ideal, since I do not imagine for a moment I shall be passed in this one, & am expecting every post to hear that I have failed badly in the Oxford Senior, that therefore my Exhibition is rendered void, & my chance of Oxford postponed. I must again arise, & set up my inexhaustible fount of enthusiasm, energy, & will once more.[8]

 

In Gloucestershire, Edward Thomas took a long walk with Robert Frost, so long that it ended by moonlight. The moon led his thoughts in a direction that he had hitherto resisted:

“a 1/3 moon bright and almost orange low down clear of cloud and I thought of men east-ward seeing it at the same moment. It seems foolish to have loved England up to now without knowing it could perhaps be ravaged and I could and perhaps would do nothing to prevent it.”[9]

 

In Croydon, “an ordinary boy of elementary education and slender prospects” named George Coppard tried to enlist at Mitcham Road Barracks. Upon confessing that he was just sixteen years old, the recruiting sergeant replied “Clear off son. Come back tomorrow and see if you’re nineteen, eh?” He would.[10]

 

And one more note from the home front, a fait divers on the sorrows of a minor writer. Arthur Conan Doyle might get his unit of bustling and self-serious middle-aged volunteers recognized, but not every such effort would find favor. Victorian polymath and scholar/translator Edward Heron-Allen organized today a meeting in the very same county with the very same purpose, but either he was too little or it was too late: in short order “a letter from the military authorities told them that this was not desirable.”[11]

References and Footnotes

  1. Pity is a common word and a broad concept--there's neither influence nor anticipation here. Yet it's striking how close this formulation is to a future poetic statement of purpose, namely Owen's "my subject is... the pity of war."
  2. From Women in the War Zone, 40-1.
  3. Easton, ed., Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918, 648; Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 191.
  4. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 128-140.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 24-9.
  6. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 18-19.
  7. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 199.
  8. Chronicle of Youth, 96-7.
  9. Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 157.
  10. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 1.
  11. See his entry on the Fantastic Writers and the Great War site.