Wilfred Owen in Hampshire; Herbert Read Reads a Novel, and Writes a Journal, and Looks Forward to Death or Glory

First, a brief update from Wilfred Owen, now a patient at the famously nasty military hospital at Netley, near Southampton Owen refers to its enormous main building as “The Bungalow,” but he is relatively lucky in being assigned to the Welsh Hospital, which is essentially a complex of huts out back. Blighty is nice, but he continues to hope, above all things, for home leave.

Sunday Mng. Welsh Hospital, Netley, Hampshire

I shall have to stay here a week or so. Visitors are allowed in the afternoons, but you will of course wait till I get my 3 Weeks at home. We are on Southampton Water, pleasantly placed, but not so lovely a coast as Etretat. The Town is not far off, & we are allowed to go in. Hope you had my Telegram. Nothing to write about now. I am in too receptive a mood to speak at all about the other side the seamy side of the Manche. I just wander about absorbing Hampshire.[1]


Our only other communication today is a rather more complex missive from the front, from Herbert Read to Evelyn Roff. In just a few pages, written from a reserve billet between spells of trench duty, Read manages to touch on writing and reading, the meanings of art and the possibility of death in war…


One item of news I must not forget to tell you. Aylwin came. I read it (in the trenches, of all incongruous places) and it conquered me…

Read goes on to compare the now-obscure 1899 novel to The House of Seven Gables and Wuthering Heights. Once his literary analysis is completed, a new paragraph launches into a discussion of his own recent writing. This is an overdue reminder of a development I haven’t had precise enough dates to be able to cover: Read had been very busy during his long absence from the trenches, and is now editing (and writing much of) his own Modernist periodical, Arts and Letters. He preens a bit for Roff, and soon moves from barely concealed pride to open fishing for compliments:

Shall I ever make a reviewer (vide Portrait of the Artist)?

…I was a little doubtful about the second poem…

It’s hard not to imagine an eye-roll. But Read is both a capable poet and a perceptive reviewer–for which you must take my word, for the time being.

From there, Read’s discussion of Modernism gains confidence until it ends in an abrupt segue that could stand for the strange fascination of the trench-letter-genre in general:

…It is one of my aims–to restore poetry to its true rôle of a spoken art. The music of words–the linking of sounds… unity of action. Each poem should be exact… The fact of emotion unites the art to life. Any ‘idea’, i.e. ethical or critical, or philosophy should only be basic–ground from which the beauty springs. Or perhaps the unifying principle of a man’s art viewed as a whole.

I’ve been chosen for a death or glory job soon to come off. I am very glad–glad in the first place because it gives me the first chance I’ve had of doing something–glad in the second place because it means that others recognize that I’m of the clan that don’t care a damn for anything.

All the same I intend to ‘come through’ as full of life as anything.[2]

So the next volume of Arts and Letters–and the sound of poetry and the emotional unity of art–will have to wait until this next raid or patrol comes off. If it comes off.

What’s strange here, to me at least, is that the serious, learned talk of the meaning of art has the effect of undermining the youthfully bluff claim that he is eager to risk his life in a coming action. Read[3] side by side as he wrote them, the three paragraphs seem like a too-strenuous declaration of multiple self-definitions… as he protests we realize the improbability or their being conjoined in the same person: Herbert Read cares a great deal for art, and he also cares for nothing, and he also wants very much to survive the quotidian brutality of some trench “stunt.”

And yet he really does mean more or less what he says. It’s all that Nietzsche: paradox is possible, death is acceptable, and glory, really, is the goal…


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 470.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 98-9.
  3. The past verb, not the writer/officer!

Two Poetic Heroes Take Stock: Robert Frost on All His Swag, While “Edward Eastaway” Looks to Join His Friend Between Boards; Herbert Read Proclaims his Aesthetic Creed

Yesterday, 2nd Lieutenant R. H. Beckh was singing the praises of his billets. Tonight, a century back, he led a patrol toward the German lines. They stumbled into a German position, and Beckh was shot and killed.[1]


In England, Edward Thomas was both keeping up with his correspondence and taking unusually active steps toward furthering his poetic career. To Eleanor Farjeon, he wrote a comfortable sort of from-the-bosom-of-my-family letter:

15 viii 16

My dear Eleanor,

Mother wants me to thank you for her letter… She is really much better. Now the rain has laid the dust she has been out and that has done her good…

It is a lovely calm evening after rain and not a little sun. I came up and sold some books and had tea with John Freeman and de la Mare and a brother in law of his who may publish some Eastaway in a volume.

This would be Roger Ingpen of the small publishing house Selwyn and Blount–Thomas joked that Ingpen must be “both Selwyn and Blount.” And of course Thomas–the well-known poetry critic who, after much rejection and discouragement, has published a few poems as “Edward Eastaway” but gotten nowhere close to a book of his own–will not get away with just tossing this in. Farjeon’s comments with something like an exasperated sigh “How casually he mentions the teatime with… Ingpen.” Interesting a publisher, during wartime, in the poetry of a writer with no real poetic reputation and no interest in writing patriotic pablum is no small breakthrough.

Nevertheless, the letter continues conversationally, and without explicit thanks–perhaps it is too early, yet, to count one’s chickens–for all of Farjeon’s unrequited help in getting Thomas’s poems into manuscript and typescript. But Thomas has other things on his mind, too.

… I wish suddenly I was an Officer going out now. I am most impatient. Yet the book on Artillery instruments I am reading is not a thing I could master in the boat train, neither…

Frost hasn’t written for an age…[2]

Poor Edward. He will write to Frost today as well; this Selwyn and Blount situation is big news, however diffidently he wishes to report it. But he is wrong about Frost–or, at least, correct by no more than a matter of hours. Frost was busy today, as well, a century back:

Franconia N.H.
August 15 1916

Dear Edward:

First I want to give you an accounting. I got here a year ago last March, didn’t I? I have earned by poetry alone in the year and a half about a thousand dollars—it never can happen again…

Still one feels that we ought to have something to show for all that swag; and we have: we have this farm bought and nearly paid for. Such is poetry when the right people boom it…

This, by the way, is a direct thank-you to Thomas, rather more forthright than Marcel’s aunt, but still perhaps slightly obscure: it was Thomas, in the early days of their friendship, who wrote multiple reviews and worked hard to get the word out on Frost’s North of Boston, “booming” it on both sides of the Atlantic.

I dont say how much longer the boom can last. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of them all the time, as Lincoln more or less put it. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down. Nevertheless what
we have done, we have done (and may He within Himself make it pure, as the poem has it)…

Those wily moderns! This, after the nod to Lincoln, is a double dose of Tennyson: Frost quotes first from Ulysses, then from his “Morte D’Arthur.”

It’s funny: I preach and preach the gospel of the rejection of Romanticism as a war-time mode, writing perhaps far too often here as an earnest latter-day apostle of the quietly serious poets like Thomas and Sorley, not to mention the rising poets of protest. But zealotry–commitment, that is, to the point of categorical exclusion–has no place in poetry: “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a great ringing piece of foolishness, an affront to soldiers everywhere who might fondly hope to do their duty without dying in a futile charge. But Ulysses pays for all


Back, then, to Thomas, Frost’s brave fellow-oarsman, and fis second letter of today:

15 viii 16

My dear Robert

…I have had you all in mind continually these last few days. For I have been at Steep on sick leave after vaccination, which gave me headaches &c for a week. Much of the time I spent in sorting letters, papers & books, as I may not have a home for some time to come.

Helen & the children are going to the seaside. I may go at any moment to my new unit which may be in London & may be anywhere. They will move during September & soon after that I might be far off. This waiting troubles me. I really want to be out. However, I daresay I shan’t be till the winter. I wrote some lines after a period in hospital— largely because to concentrate is the only happy thing possible when one is bored & helpless. Today came a chance of getting a book out. A brother in law of De la Mare’s publishes in a small way & I am to send him a batch to look at…

I brought a big load of books up with me to sell today & am sending away 2 more cases. I burnt a pile that would have roasted a sheep 2 nights ago

No news of anyone… Bottomley I may see at the end of the month when everyone is away & I may have some leave between leaving my old corps & joining the new. I should like to go up there & bathe in the lake with the bird’s eye primroses & the silver sand. There is nothing like the solitude of a solitary lake in early morning, when one is in deep still water. More adjectives here than I allow myself now & fewer verbs.

Goodbye all & my love to you all.
Ever yours

Edward Thomas.[3]


Finally, today, we have a letter from Herbert Read, in camp in Staffordshire. He is writing to a young woman whom he wished to impress with his seriousness. It’s a very… serious letter, and I won’t transcribe it all here, but a few excerpts will give a sense both of Read’s personality and of how his heavy-duty reading (and way of reading) shapes his worldview. Usually we do the “young subaltern, innocent” or watch how the romantic mindset and the Public Schools attitude prepare (or fail to prepare) a young man for the trenches. Read has the seen the trenches, but he will be going back to much worse. And fore-read is fore-armed.

And now I must report that I am very pleased with myself–I wrote the Read section a few days ago, and promptly forgot that he discusses Romanticism. A riposte to Frost!

15.viii.16    Rugeley Camp, Staffordshire

I believe our difference about Pessimism is merely terminological. My pessimism does not deny all effort or defeat all hope–there never was such a hopeful and ambitious soul such as this… This pessimism sees life at its real worth and accepts it as such… And it does realize the possibilities of man… My old friend Nietzsche was a pupil of Schopenhauer and a pessimist of the first water; but there never lived such a prophet of the noble and enthralling possibilities of man….

This leads me naturally on to the next subject upon which I desire to ‘hold forth’–Romanticism. Romanticism is–in literature–the confusion of the human with the divine. Now you can regard the divine as merely an abstract idea, or as ‘an atmosphere, ubiquitous yet intangible’, or as something very real and omnipresent; but whatever you do you must not imagine for a moment that man is a constituent of it… And of course you can see the same false spirit in Idealism in Philosophy, and in Christianity.

Well, young Herbert, what do we mean by the “divine?” What about the semi-divine, the heroic? There seems to be precious little room for poetic nuance. For, that is, the ale-slopping good fellowship and romantic high-heartedness that has been a major strain of English poetry since before its beginning.

The next line on from Frost’s Tennyson quote is “It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles/And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.” This is no “false spirit!” Not for men who look to friendship as they gather their morale in anticipation of the trial of combat… But Read, I think, considers himself too serious for all this. No sloppy thoughts!

By the way, neutrality is the worst and most cowardly of attitudes… Remember Nietzsche: A yea, a nay, a straight line, and a goal.

This reads (apologies) like the brow-furrowings of a young man out to impress a young woman. A poet needs comrades…

Next, albeit with a clear note of self-aware pedantry, Read scolds his friend for her limited view of literature, while bounding up the mast to nail his colors as high as may be.

You seem to imagine that it is the aim or object of Literature to give moral instruction to its generation! Do, for heaven’s sake, assure me you don’t mean this. The ‘purely literary standpoint’ is all that matters not only in Literature, but in Life… Art is the redemption of Life… Only thus can we approach the Divine–only thus become immortal. There you have my creed! I stand or fall by it![4]

Yes, yes, but a man must live, too. And provide for his family, and dream with his friends…


References and Footnotes

  1. Powell, A Deep Cry, 117.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas... 208-9.
  3. Elected Friends, 140-5.
  4. The Contrary Experience, 74-6.

Three Writers Down; The Royal Welch Fusiliers Before High Wood: Frank Richards a Runner and Robert Graves in Mid-Stride; A Letter from Harold Macmillan and a Phone Call for General Congreve

The Battle of the Somme continues, with the British forces near the center of the initial assault pushing north into the German second line. This phase is usually called the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, and the map below will help situate us: the contour lines the snake over the north of the map show the height of the ridge–and of the aptly named High Wood. Mametz Wood, now securely in the rear, is just to the south of the western section of this map.

As of this morning, the British have been driven out of High Wood, and the line generally runs across the central and southern reaches of this map. Elements of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers are moving up toward the Cemetery (between the 8 and 9, left center) in support of another assault of the Wood, while South African troops have made their name in bloody fighting at Longueval and Delville Wood (in the lower right of the map). Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch will await their turn to enter High Wood, while elements of Billy Congreve‘s 76th Brigade will attempt to secure the rest of Longueval.bazeintin ridge







Robert Graves preserved and published this battalion order, still in its signalling grid, that he received just after midnight, i.e. at the very beginning of today, a century back. He has now–that politically unfortunate Special Reserve seniority of his–been given command of B Company:

To O.C. B Co. 2nd R.W.F. 20.7.16.

Companies will move as under
to same positions in S14b
as were to have been
taken over from Cameronians aaa
A Coy. 12.30 a.m.
B Coy, 12.45 a.m.
C Coy. 1 a.m.
D Coy. 1.15 a.m. aaa
At 2 a.m. Company Commanders
will meet C.O. at X
Roads S14b 99. aaa
Men will lie down and
get under cover but equipment
will not be taken off
s14b99, bazentin

A lesson in map-reading from Robert Graves. A detail of the above map, we can find square 14, quarter-square “b” (always the top-right quarter-square), and the crossroads in the very top corner (9, 9 on the x and y axes). Amusingly, we’ve got the maps available online and Graves evidently didn’t have his handy when he was working from the battalion order: the crossroads is not near the churchyard. See the next map, below.

Graves continues:

S 14b 99 was a map reference for Bazentin churchyard. We lay here on the reverse slope of a slight ridge about half a mile from the wood. I attended the meeting of company commanders; the colonel told us the plan. He said: “Look here, you fellows, we’re in reserve for this attack. The Cameronians are going up to the wood first, then the Fifth Scottish Rifles; that’s at five a.m. The Public Schools Battalion are in support if anything goes wrong. I don’t know if we shall be called on; if we are, it will mean that the Jocks have legged it. As usual,” he added. This was an appeal to prejudice. “The Public Schools Battalion is, well, what we know, so if we are called for, that means it will be the end of us.” He said this with a laugh and we all laughed. We were sitting on the ground protected by the road-bank; a battery of French 75’s was firing rapid over our heads about twenty yards away.[1] There was a very great concentration of guns in Happy Valley now. We could hardly hear what he was saying. He told us that if we did get orders to reinforce, we were to shake out in artillery formation; once in the wood we were to hang on like death. Then he said good-bye and good luck and we rejoined our companies.

At this juncture the usual inappropriate message came through from Division. Division could always be trusted to send through a warning about verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches, or being polite to our allies, or some other triviality, when an attack was in progress. This time it was an order for a private in C Company to report immediately to the assistant provost-marshal back at Albert, under escort of a lance-corporal. He was for a court-martial. A sergeant of the company was also ordered to report as a witness in the case. The private was charged with the murder of a French civilian in an estaminet at Béthune about a month previously. Apparently there had been a good deal of brandy going and the French civilian, who had a grudge against the British (it was about his wife), started to tease the private. He was reported, somewhat improbably, as having said: “English no bon, Allmand très bon. War fineesh, napoo the English. Allmand win.” The private had immediately drawn his bayonet and run the man through. At the court-martial the private was exculpated; the French civil representative commended him for having “energetically repressed local defeatism.” So he and the two N.C.O.’s missed the battle.

It is very like Robert Graves to seize on this story of triplicate absurdity–bureaucracy’s impervious shamble, pointless violence and exculpatory cant–and insert it here between build-up and disaster. And yet: given what we know of Graves’s punctilious preference for the yarn over the whole cloth of the truth–and given what we will read of the difficulty of getting any message to the advanced battalions today, this must be, at the very least, an anecdote-out-of-time.

But the Royal Welch were in a bad position. They had moved forward (from the crossroads of the meeting into or near Bazentin Cemetery) but then waited for hours in an area devoid of real cover–an area, moreover, which was constantly searched by German artillery, firing against the nearby British batteries or seeking to drop shells on the routes used by reinforcements and carrying parties. By about 10 o’clock, the battalion had taken something like 100 casualties. When the barrage increased, Graves ordered B company to move slightly back, and as they did so, a German “crump”–a large-caliber shell–exploded among them.

I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: “I’ve been hit.” Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietsche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:

Non, tu ne peux pas me tuer.[2]

It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him. (This copy of Nietsche, by the way, had contributed to the suspicions about me as a spy. Nietsche was execrated in the papers as the philosopher of German militarism; he was more popularly interpreted as a William le Queux mystery-man–the sinister figure behind the Kaiser.)[3]

One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.

My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: “Old Gravy’s got it, all right.”

Dr. Dunn came up indeed, and treated what he called “a bad chest wound of the kind that few recover from,” and then sent Graves on to the dressing station near Mametz Wood. This was at present overwhelmed with casualties coming back from the bungled attack in front. So, following standard procedure, Graves, unconscious with a sucking chest wound, was left to die while medics focused on helping those who could be saved.


But it still goes on. Colonel “Tibs” Crawshay[4] was by now frustrated nearly to distraction. His battalion is being destroyed, deedless, waiting to be committed to an attack that is obviously failing (the wounded of other battalions in the brigade are streaming back), by a command structure so far back that it can’t possibly do the right thing soon enough.

The passage of messages… between front and rear was always a difficulty, and a vexation at both ends. Before the action Radford had been asked for by Brigade to be employed as a Forward Liaison Officer. He was detailed with some signallers to use Bazentin-le-Petit Windmill, 200 yards east of the Cemetery, as the forward post of a relay system.

bazentin to high wood

The Churchyard, the Windmill, and High Wood

(On the map at right we can see the ground covered between Graves’s crossroads and the churchyard. Each of the smaller squares (i.e. quarters of the numbered squares) is 500 yards long and wide, so they had moved by about that much. The crossroads can be seen at center, bottom, and the cemetery and the windmill are at 8b-c and 9a-b, respectively; High Wood is some 1400 yards away to the northeast, in the upper right.)

Captain Radford, seconded to the Brigade for signalling, describes the problem of communications, the heart of “command and control:”

At the beginning of the morning attack the enemy barrage cut the wires. The barrage smoke made lamp signalling impossible… the wireless set provided was for transmission only, so it was not known if messages were being received… Brigade was in poor quarters… in… Mametz Wood, nearly two miles from High Wood, although deep and roomy dug-outs made for a German division were in Bazentin-le-Petit within a few yards of screened view-points from which the face of High Wood and the Flers road could be seen. Advanced Brigade, so-called, in the quarry by the Cemetery roadside, was a mere relay post. This remoteness was laid down in a General Routine Order issued because of casualties earlier in the War. The Order was circumvented by Brigadiers who know when and how to do it, but times without number it warranted the utter negation of Command when prompt and authoritative decision was needed, especially if more than one unit was concerned. Prompt decision and action were essential this day, ‘yet none of our Brigade Staff came within hundreds of yards of its dissolving units.’ The cost in all the lower ranks of preserving some General of brigade and division, and some members of their Staffs, is beyond reckoning, but must be stupendous.


Frank Richards‘s account of this attack is fascinating. A trained signaller, he was one of the men sent forward under Captain Radford and took up a position in the mill. Briefly, then:

We had a good view of everything from here, but we also found that when we were exchanging messages with the wood, the enemy would have an equally good view of us, especially when we were flag-waving… by 10 a.m. they had put up one of the worst barrages that I was ever under.

Richards has set up this moment well. A day or two before, a fierce barrage had left a man mortally wounded–Richards uses the transparent euphemism “hit low down”–and his buddies contemplating killing him to stop his agony. As they deliberated, a stretcher-bearer “went mad and started to undress himself. He was uttering horrible screams and we had to fight with him and overpower him before he could be got to the Aid Post.” The man died before any action was taken, but then Richards’s pal Duffy is also hit “low down.”

…it was a bad wound and I knew his case was hopeless; but he was conscious…

As Richards and three men carry him back, a shell splinter narrowly misses Richards’s foot.

Although Duffy was dying on the stretcher he noticed it as he hung his head over the side and said “Hard lines, Dick! If a youngster had been in your place he would have had a beautiful Blighty wound through the foot. We old ones aren’t lucky enough to stop one that way. We generally stop one the way I have done.”

Duffy dies not long after reaching the aid post, and Richards returns to action. Today, then, his parting words hang heavily. As the shelling picks up pace, five of the men in the brigade signalling post on the hilltop retreat to a shell-hole “absolutely useless and terror-stricken.” Richards has to summon a runner to write down a message as he reads it.

When I was about halfway through it, he gave a shout; I turned round and found him groaning on the ground. A shell splinter which must have passed high up between my legs had hit him in the thigh. It was a nasty wound…

Near-emasculation has become a strangely persistent theme, perhaps to counterbalance the fact that these of all wounds were impossible to introduce into polite company in 1916…

Nor does the message that nearly killed Richards get through. After the advanced signalling team is hit by shellfire, the flags are abandoned and Richards is ordered to run messages–literally run, since no more swift or more advanced form of communications is working–between brigade headquarters and the brigade’s advanced battalions in High Wood. He sees terrible things passing through the debatable valley. On one run he passes a trench full of men as he goes toward the wood, then re-passes it minutes later and sees that it is full of corpses and scattered body parts.

Richards has seen a lot, but today moved him to a rare note of protest:

I have often wondered since them, if all the leading statesmen and generals of the warring countries had been threatened to be put under the barrage during the day of the 20th July, 1916, and were told that if they survived it they would be forced to be under a similar one in a week’s time, whether they would have all met together and signed a peace treaty before the week was up.

Then, true to his “old soldier” persona, Richards ends the chapter on a different note. The Royal Welch took heavy casualties, but the well-born men of the Public Schools Battalion suffered even more.

It was the custom that all parcels that arrived for men who were casualties should be distributed among the survivors. The Commanding Officer of the Public Schools Battalion kindly sent a number of mailbags full of parcels for distribution among our men. We lived on luxuries for the next few days.[5]


Back, now, to Captain Radford’s account:

The supply of runners was soon exhausted and was not replaced. At noon I went to Brigade to report the futility of it all…

Ironically, as he left his post to protest its futility an earlier order from Brigade finally reached some of the forward battalions. It was hours late, and in urging reinforcements into the Wood it referred to an earlier stage of the attack, but it nevertheless gave Colonel Crawshay of the Royal Welch the excuse he needed to move forward. The battalion had been at roughly half-strength when it came up, then suffered many casualties and detached a good number of men for carrying parties and duties such as Richards’s signalling station. Only a few hundred men formed up. By the time they had organized, covered the shell-strewn near-mile to High Wood, and fallen out into attack formation, it was nearly 2 o’clock.

The 2nd Royal Welch entered High Wood in something like replay of the 15th entering Mametz Wood. Thick foliage, fallen trees, enfilade fire and bursting shells, confusion, no real sense of where the Germans were, the shattered panicky remnants of the earlier units… but the 2nd Battalion was a highly experienced battalion built around a core of prideful Regulars, and they cleared much of the wood in a furious “bush-mêlée” that the chronicle essentially cannot describe. Furious, and incredibly costly: there were 150 casualties in the batalion, perhaps more than half of the men engaged in the fight. Every single officer who entered the Wood was either killed or wounded.

And then, crippling anti-climax. The Welch and the other battalions of the brigade are now ordered to fall back because the farthest parts of the Wood are untenable due to German machine gun fire. But these machine guns had never been addressed by any part of the attack plan. So have they been sent, twice, to assault a position, at great cost, when it was never thought to be worth holding? Or is the staff at Division and Corps level so callous and foolhardy that they are willing to spend hundreds of lives to take a place and only then decide if it is worth the taking?

The interloper from the Divisional Staff who arrived in the early evening had no satisfactory answer.

Nothing, however, was so maddening as his parting remark, “the General has the situation in hand”–spoken with a straight face. The situation never was grasped. Fumbling fingers far away had trifled with opportunity for hours…[6]

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle is woven from the words of career soldiers, regulars of a proud regiment not given to undue carping about the higher-ups (and supplemented, too, by a few temporary officers and tough old soldiers and non-coms). These are not the disillusioned volunteers crying out against chateau generals. And yet their history, today, is one of foolish attack plans, horribly wasteful standing orders, poor management, and craven overconfidence–it’s not the chateau generals that did for their plan of attack, but rather the remote brigadier and the indifferent, ignorant, map-besotted divisional general–their few miles over hill and dale is more than enough for complete incomprehension.

The fog of war is to a certain extent inevitable, but there is no excuse for generals who believe that they can collate fragmentary and out-of-date reports, glance at the map, and know the truth. Decisive action in effective ignorance is worse than resignation, especially when there are capable officers actually on the scene. These generals are fraudulent seers and cold-eyed killer kings in one person, and all the worse if, in telling themselves that it’s tough job and someone has to do it, they don’t even realize what they are doing.


Apologies for the outburst. It’s a century gone, no? Anyway, this concludes today’s entry as far as the Royal Welch go. There is much more to come, of course–we will not leave Robert Graves lying on that stretcher under the eaves of Mametz Wood. But there was much fighting elsewhere on the Somme, and two more of our writers have been hit.


Amidst the staccato beat of calamity and notification, there is a more hopeful stroke, today. Harold Macmillan, too, has been wounded on the Somme:

I don’t know whether my postcard has reached you. I hope it didn’t frighten you. I wrote it as soon as I got down to the Bn. dressing station and had seen the Doctor.

Both my wounds are luckily very slight…

Macmillan had volunteered for a patrol, either last night or the night before, to ascertain the location of nearby German positions.

I said I would go, and I took 2 men, both of whom I knew and trusted.

We got out a good way and I think we obtained all the information that we wanted. Unfortunately, just as were were going to come home, about 2.30 a.m. we were spotted by a German bombing post in a sap. They challenged us, but we cd. not see them to shoot, and of course they were entrenched while we were in the” open. So I motioned to my men to lie quite still in the long grass. Then they began throwing bombs at us at random. The first, unluckily, hit
me in the face and back and stunned me for the moment… the men never moved or ran till I gave the word… A lot of flares were fired, and when each flare went up, we flopped own in the grass and waited till it had died down…

…I was able to master myself, and it was not till I got back in the trench that I found I was also hit just above the left temple, close to the eye. The pair of spectacles which I was wearing must have been blown off by the force of the explosion, for I never saw them again. Very luckily they were not smashed and driven into my eye…[7]

The rest of Macmillan’s letter–which omits the grim details of his men returning fire and killing at least one German at close range–is concerned with letting his family down easy. These are slight wounds, and he would only be sent to England if it so happened that the hospitals in France were still filled with the more seriously wounded. His duty, he explains, is to find a way to stay in France and return to his duties as soon as may be…


Finally, today, and worse, we have a family that won’t be notified in the usual way.

Billy Congreve was a conscientious Brigade Major, and when his brigade’s attack on Longeuval (see the first map, above) was held up, he went up himself to investigate. From a former German gun-pit he observed the front line and the German positions now under attack, ignoring warnings of nearby snipers. Exhausted after several days with little sleep and much movement around the battle zone–including multiple trips to bring in the wounded after failed attacks–Congreve seemed to the men around him to be depressed. He may have become incautious. And he was very tall.

Only minutes after Robert Graves was hit, a mile or two to the west, apparently killed but actually at the first stage of an excruciating odyssey, Congreve stepped down from the gun-pit into the main trench, and was shot through the neck. A sergeant standing next to him saw the bullet hit.

He stood for half a second and then collapsed. He never moved or spoke, and he was dead in a few seconds.


It’s unfortunate that this death reads here almost like a lost detail, a swallowed anti-climax of the already endlessly brutal Somme. This is not intentional, and it’s mostly unavoidable: Congreve had lost a volume of his diary, and if he began keeping another one it seems not to have made it home. So he fell silent, here, months before he was silenced.


Major Billy Congreve, VC

Congreve was a formidable soldier. Boyishly handsome and gangly, he was cool-headed and brave and had seized the opportunity of the war to swiftly advance the career he had just begun. A twenty-five-year-old (brevet) major, he had twice been decorated for gallantry, and his performance in the extreme situation of the last few days will soon earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for valor. This award had also been won by his father, W.N. Congreve.

And so the passing of the most terrible news began not with the usual grim race between the bureaucracy’s telegram and the notes of fellow-officers, but with a telephone call from 76th Brigade back to 3rd Division, and then across to XIII Corps Headquarters. A Brigadier General Greenly gave the news to General Congreve:

It was at a very important and critical moment, when the Corps were on the point of carrying out a very important and very daring operation, and where the direction of the corps commander was of the greatest importance. When I told him what had happened he was absolutely calm to all outward appearance and, after a few seconds of silence, said quite calmly, ‘He was a good soldier.'[8]

Billy Congreve was married to Pamela Maude on June 1st, and there was a brief honeymoon, but he parted from his wife in mid-June to return for the planning of the Somme Offensive. I don’t know this for certain, but it seems unlikely that he could have known, then, that he would become a father, in March. When the little girl is born, her father will be eight months dead.


References and Footnotes

  1. The very battery that Rowland Feilding admired yesterday. It would seem, however, that the valleys on both sides of Mametz Wood have attracted the same black comedic nickname... Or perhaps I am confused: in any event, this "Happy Valley" is north of the wood, not the "Death Valley" south of it...
  2. "No, you cannot kill me."
  3. This is not the oft-trotted-out "that which does not kill us" quote, but rather an oddly off French translation of a line in "Unter Feinden," which reads "Sterben? Sterben kann ich nicht!" or "Die? I can't die!" Suffice it to say that Nietzsche's complex and contradictory writings are just about the last thing that can, or will, get a fair shake in the British Army of the Great War. Which is why, of course, Graves is into them...
  4. If General Blackader anticipates Atkinson, surely this is a Monty Python name, avant la lettre.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 186-92.
  6. The War the Infantry Knew, 229-41.
  7. From Downing Street to the Trenches, 207-9.
  8. Armageddon Road, 193-4.

Guy Chapman on Raiding and Loss; Alan Seeger on Absent Leaves and Leafy Bowers; Isaac Rosenberg Limps into France; Olaf Stapledon Challenges the Censor; Vera Brittain Gains and Loses Time with her Brother; Edith and John Ronald Tolkien Part

So I’ve been neglecting another excellent memoir. The major problems with reading Guy Chapman‘s A Passionate Prodigality are two: dates are few and far between, and it is very much in the style of Edmund Blunden‘s Undertones of War. Given that we have barely begun getting to know Blunden and his most beautiful of the war memoirs, it will be difficult for Chapman to find his own voice at the same time, as it were.

But minor Blunden though it may be, Chapman’s is still a very good book indeed, one of the best of the second rank of war memoirs. Chapman, a Kitchener’s Army subaltern in the Royal Fusiliers, has been out since July 1915 and has a good deal to tell us. He establishes several things very quickly: that he was very afraid to go to France and never entertained any “romantic illusions;” nor was he “resigned to self-sacrifice” or drunk on the wine of patriotism. Yet he went willingly enough because–and this is a major theme of the book–by the time the dust of enlistment-fervor settled, Chapman considered himself already welded into the framework of his battalion. And such is the utility of esprit de corps: form a disparate group into a military “unit,” and the bonds of fellowship and corporate pride (and social pressure, and the fear of being outcast) will ensure that the hesitating members of that group will be pulled along by the general obedience.

But Chapman uses a very different metaphor: he feels that he was “born into” the 13th Royal Fusiliers, and he would not be parted from his family.

It’s not unfitting, then–since Chapman first hoped to write a battalion history before settling on a memoir–that our first foray into the book is marked by the date of a death in that family. Chapman is not disenchanted so much as disgusted, in many ways, with the foolishness of the war. Early in his narrative–it is 1915, as his battalion is learning the ropes–he flashes forward to the spring of 1916, when “the costly and depressing fashion of raiding the other side” had been set by “the Canadians.”

I have read elsewhere of this idea that Canadian raids inspired a costly fit of large-scale raiding along the British front, but I don’t think I included it here–in any even,t other officers held the same belief as Chapman. Is this a sort of British Army scuttlebutt, in which rumors of new tactics by those naive roughneck Canadians are to blame for the end of any “live and let live” status quo? It would seem so, since the “fashion” must have been set among various divisional (and higher) staffs, but perhaps there really was some singular inspiration for the raids that are weakening and even demoralizing various units all along the front.

Such raids–especially when conceived as mini-attacks with bombardments that do more to warn the enemy than damage him–do seem pointless, unless it be a matter of relative morale and the “upper hand.” But that’s just the point: it seems even more lunatic to get men killed without even any hope of dislodging the enemy than it does to get (many more) men killed in an effort to win a few miles of trenches, and yet, as we have seen, there were numerous volunteers among the 15th Royal Welch, while officers of the Regular battalions clearly believed both that losses were worth the “moral” advantage of terrorizing the Germans opposite and that raiding provided individuals opportunity to prove their valor (and be rewarded for it). Nothing more primitive, nothing more probable.

In any event, Chapman has recently been on leave, and when he returned, the battalion Transport Officer was departing for his own leave and Chapman was detailed to step in as his replacement. So he took up an easy job–like a wise young subaltern, he let the experienced sergeant do all the work with the carts and beasts–and he missed the raid:

In spite of the Loos fiasco, we of course believed that the big push would succeed. After ten months in France, we were still in our state of primal innocence. But even in those early days the surprised mind woke momentarily to the thought, ‘but–it’s a life sentence.’

A night or so later, our raiding party crept out from the right company’s line and lay waiting for the 60 lb. T[rench]. M[ortar],’s to finish the breaking of the wire. A wind had risen during the afternoon and was now blowing across the front. The twenty-four men lay in the rank grass with Batty, Gwinnell and Perkins in front, waiting for the toffee-apples to lift and waver into the wire in front. The trench mortar fired; but the registrations had not been carried out when there was no wind. The breeze caught the bomb…

‘I say, guv’nor,’ said Private Billett to Gwinnell: ‘I’m ‘it in the bleedin’ arm.’

‘Shut up,’ growled Gwinnell. ‘So am I.’

‘Are yer, guv’nor!’ returned Billett. ‘I’m sorry to ‘ear about that.’

Light comedy, friendly fire. Bitter ironies:

Gwinnell staggered up, with three wounds in the leg, Perkins hit in both arms; but Batty lay still. A splinter had gone straight through his brain. Eight other men were hit, and there was no more to be done about the raid. Gwinnell, bleeding from his wounds, shepherded the men back and brought in Batty’s body.

This would be lieutenant Francis Clive Batty-Smith, killed in action on June 4th, 1916, at age twenty-two.

The catastrophe wrenched many of us as no previous death had been able to do. Those we had seen before had possessed an inevitable quality, had been taken as an unavoidable manifestation of war, as in nature we take the ills of the body. But this death, at the hands of our own people, through a vagary of the wind, appeared some sinister and malignant stroke, an outrage involving not only the torn body of the dead boy but the whole battalion.

Yet though we all loved Batty-Smith, our mourning was short.[1]


Everyone is chatty today, so I will skip through the long, lovingly-argued (in both senses–Olaf Stapledon can’t write without remembering his regard for his beloved, nor without revealing his deep care for ethical nicety) discussion of the rightnesses and wrongnesses of the war. But this bit, weary though we may be, should be part of the story:

In your last letter you stated as cogently as it can be stated the official position with regard to the war…

You ask if I am sure my cause is right. No, not since conscription. But I know that if I join the army it will be to escape from an uncomfortable position, to shirk responsibility, and not to help the Allies. I won’t join the army (yet I am practically already in the English & the French armies. The difference is a shade only, but a vital shade), because the whole war (especially if we win) is the




and as I love England (more than many a soldier) I will not


even if to refuse means to be damned body & soul. Even if it were to mean shaming the girl I love, even if it were to mean slipping away from her altogether. It may be priggish and snobbish and unsociable and pigheaded and pharisaical and hypocritical and hyperidealistical not to fight. The kindly human thing just now may be to fight. But if I fight it will be be through weakness & selfishness and a wretched desire for applause, and because I shall have shut my heart to the great Spirit that is trying to realise itself in every mind and every nation and in all liberties and human institutions. The Spirit is a live thing & a lovable. To obey it is not selfish salvation-seeking. I wonder how much of that will get through.

Not a whole lot! We see now the plight of suspiciously non-conforming ambulancers, who are not trusted to write “on their honor” as officers generally are. Alas. Olaf?

It is scrappy stuff anyhow…

Well, friend, I guess we have found a pretty deep difference between us, through I hope we are so close as to be able to kiss and be friends over the chasm![2]


Isaac Rosenberg is starting to fly high as a poet, but today, his first day on the march in France, he came down to earth. Rosenberg holds enormous power in his mind, but he’s also a classic shlimazl. He wrote two poems on the troopship, but he also lost his socks…

So I’ve been in trouble, particularly with bad heels… you can’t have the slightest conception of what such an apparently trivial thing means.

He had never told his mother that he was leaving for France–only his sister, and at the last minute. Now, the thing done, he re-establishes contact, and asks her to send him some socks…[3]


And hence to a very different poet–and yet one in a very similar position. The Boston Brahmin, Harvard-educated Alan Seeger also serves in the ranks, and, although he has seen combat and long service in the Foreign Legion, he too knows that summer is likely to foreshorten his mortal span. And he, too, is driven to get his verse at last into print. He wrote to his “marraine” (godmother) in Paris, three days and a century ago:

June 1, 1916

What a bitter disappointment! After having worked feverishly on my poem and finished it, in spite of work and other duty, in the space of two days, behold the 29th comes and the 30th, and no permission [i.e.”leave”] arrives. It would have been such an honor and pleasure to have read my verses there in Paris; I counted on seeing you and getting a moment’s respite from the hard life here. To have raised my hopes and then left me in the lurch like that was certainly cruel…

Disappointed in leave and in poetry, Seeger nevertheless makes the best of his situation.

Meanwhile we have come back to première ligne [front line] and are again in the little camp where Colette was killed. Strange how quickly one forgets here on the front. For a few days after that disaster the men kept to the abris [shelters], but now we are again careless as before and are living outside in the fine weather, though the same thing may happen again at any moment. I have a charming little house, made by bending down saplings and tying them overhead into a leafy roof. In this I have made a bed out of four logs, fastened into a rectangle about three feet by seven, between which chicken wire is strung, and then spread with new straw; voilà a most clean and comfortable couch. All around are sylvan scents and sounds and the morning sun shine slanting through the heavy foliage.

Seeger’s letters home to America are generally very different from our usual France-to-England missives–he discusses poetry, or long-term plans, and naturally enough, given the weeks such letters would take to go and come. This letter, to Paris, shows him in a much more familiar light: first, leave disappointments; then, trench-description. Now for the parcels:

What have I to thank you for since my last letter? The briquet, I think, and the aluminum flask, both of which were exactly the right thing. You cannot imagine what pleasure it is to receive these parcels. You see now we are living entirely in the woods, and never go back to the village cantonments, so that it is extremely difficult to get little luxuries of any kind… the pleasure of receiving them comparable to nothing except that of a child opening his Christmas stocking. Is it not pathetic to be in a state where a man’s utmost possibilities of volupté [sensual pleasure] are confined to the vulgar sense of taste, the lowest of all?

Even a letter to America–to his mother–of today, a century back, has a peculiarly British tone:

This sector has one exciting feature which I have not found in others: the deep woods allow patrols to circulate between the lines in day light. There are frequent encounters and ambuscades. This is very good sport… The enemy are so pushing the game along all the fronts that our reserves will soon have to be thrown in. There is this comfort, that when we go, it will not be to sit in a ditch, wait, and be deluged with shells, but we will go directly into action, magnificently, unexpectedly, and probably victoriously, in some dashing charge, even if it be only of local importance.

Never mind: we are back from “sport” now to the Nietzsche-inflected battler-madness that runs like a counter-theme through certain literary young men of several nations:

In that moment, trust, as I do, in the great god, Chance, that brings us in life, not only our misfortunes, but our greatest bits of happiness, too. Think of so many who are ingloriously stricken by accident in time of peace. War is another kind of life insurance; whereas the ordinary kind assures a man that his death will mean money to someone, this assures him that it will mean honor to himself, which from a certain point of view is much more satisfactory.

And then there is this, one more letter of today, a century back, and once more to his Marraine:

June 4, 1916.

… I hardly think we shall be here much longer. I have a presentiment that we are soon going into action. The last rumor is that we are soon to go to Verdun to relieve the 2nd Moroccan division. That would be magnificent, wouldn’t it ? the long journey drawing nearer and nearer to that furnace, the distant cannonade, the approach through the congested rear of the battle-line full of dramatic scenes, the salutations of troops that have already fought, “Bon courage, les gars!” [approx. “go get ’em, boys”] and then our own debut in some dashing affair. Verdun nous manque. [We miss/long for Verdun] I should really like to go there, for after the war I imagine Frenchmen will be divided into those who were at Verdun and those who were not. . . .[4]


So Seeger expected leave and didn’t get it. When we last heard from Vera Brittain, her brother Edward’s leave (his first since going out to France) had just been canceled. But–there’s always a bureaucratic twist–it was reinstated at the last minute, and so Edward has given his family one of the war’s few types of truly happy surprises… and even those are bittersweet in retrospect.

June 4th-10th

Edward came back on leave for 5 days–so bitter-sweet & all too brief. Got leave from hospital for two days & stayed at the Grafton Hotel with him & Mother. He spoke in veiled but significant language of a great battle–another Big Push–soon to take place, & knew that he was to be in it. He said it would be somewhere in the region of Albert, where he is now. In spite of spending a lot of time with him I hardly had a chance of speaking to him at all, for there were always so many people about.[5]


As Vera Brittain releases her only brother to the wars, her thoughts must have lingered on the lover she lost. She might have thought, as she often writes that she did, of the future they might have had together. So only one year–and a marriage, and his death–separates her experience from that of Edith and John Ronald Tolkien. Last night, the still-nearly-newlyweds spent the night at the Plough and Harrow Hotel in Edgbaston. This afternoon, a century back, they said farewell, and Tolkien set first feet on the road to adventure. Or, rather war, and by rail–to London, first, and thence France.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chapman, A Passionate Prodigality, 13, 41, 82-4.
  2. Talking Across the World, 153-4.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 313.
  4. Letters and Diary, 201-6.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 325-6.
  6. Chronology, 80.

Alan Seeger’s Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Legionnaire

Alan Seeger, our ex-Harvard Francophile bohemian, has some advice today for a female friend back in the States. The poet is wise beyond his years. Or believes himself to be. But as is often the case, the advice that would be given sheds a great deal of light on the giver.

February 26, 1916.

Your letter finds me here in the hospital, where I have been for a month now for a “bronchite” or “congestion pulmonaire” or whatever they call it… rejoining the regiment I shall be just in time for the big offensive, which is the only thing that really matters.

Your letters always have a double interest for me, not only, relatively, as coming from yourself, but also, absolutely, as emanating from a very unusual personality. Old man Yeats (whom, by the way, you ought to know if he is still at the old stand, quatre cent et quelque West 29th St., chez Miles. Petitpas) used to define Culture as the understanding and the employ of intellect as an instrument of pleasure. You seem to have this understanding to a remarkable degree. Re markable particularly because among women, who are ipso facto denied the numerous occupations that men have to choose from to make life seem worth while, it is pre-eminently sensibility that is developed far beyond and to the expense of all the other faculties, like the rose that gardeners make exquisite by cutting off all the other buds on the stalk. And remarkable again be cause the emotional life is not closed to you, as it is to the vast majority of “intellectual” women, whose intellectuality is only a recourse to cover a bald spot, but yours when you choose to yield yourself to it.

Of all the formulas that claimed my early youth, one to which I can still adhere is that of the three categories, the lust for power, the lust for feeling and the lust for knowledge, to one or the other of which I can assign all those who, in their passion to live fully, are the supermen, the élite of humanity. Take as respective types Napoleon, Byron, Pico della Mirandola. All superior minds attach themselves more or less remotely to one of these three ideals. I make no distinction between them; those who attain eminence through either one may, in their way, be equally admirable. It is through knowledge that you seek revelation; I seek it through feeling. But I understand the paths that you have chosen, because, as a matter of fact, I started out on them myself…

The sexism is egregious, although hardly uncommon, a century back. But condescending silliness is eternal. Seeger is young and over-confident, and filled with half-digested philosophy. Those übermenschen sound so cool! Seeger was a rock, an island, his books his bulwark, his poetry…

Ah, but he did not remain a striver after knowledge. Let him take up the tale:

I need not describe to you my apostasy from learning, because you can find it described per fectly by Balzac. Take the case of Eugene de Rastignac in Pere Goriot or more particularly of Raphael de Valentin in the Peau de Chagrin. Young men, absorbed, like myself, in their studies, accepting cheerfully solitude and poverty in the pursuit of their one interest, they were suddenly éblouis by the vision of the world and the more glittering forms of pleasure to be had through the instrument of Sense. Straightway the charm was broken…

And so down from “the quiet groves of the Academy” and into the city, where the truth lies. And love. But love is not enough!

The dedication to Love alone, as Ovid prettily confesses his own in more than one elegy, is good as far as it goes, but it only goes half way, and my aspiration was to go all the gamut, to “drink life to the lees.” My interest in life was passion, my object to experience it in all rare and refined, in all intense and violent forms. The war having broken out, then, it was natural that I should have staked my life on learning what it alone could teach me. How could I have let millions of other men know an emotion that I remained ignorant of? Could not the least of them, then, talk about the thing that interested me most with more authority than I? You see, the course I have taken was inevitable. It is the less reason to lament if it leads me to destruction. The things one poignantly regrets are those which seem to us unnecessary, which, we think, might have been different. This is not my case. My being here is not an accident. It is the inevitable consequence, as you see, of a direction deliberately chosen…[1]

And that’s where mockery of Seeger’s posing falls flat. He has chosen the rigors of the French Foreign Legion and withstood them, now, for well over a year. And–so far as we can trust his self-presentation in letters such as these–his sense of purpose has hardly wavered. However hollow the philosophical stance seems, Seeger continues to follow the direction he chose–he had had opportunities to leave the legion–and without grumbling. Is he foolish to see war as a font of learning, as an experience that can’t be missed? Perhaps, but that’s not really the right question. Foolish, maybe. But consistent, committed.


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Diary, 182-7.

Max Plowman Moulders in the Ambulances; Roland Leighton Might Be Missing a Letter or Two; Tolkien Among the Trees

Another writer with a slow-starting war is Max Plowman, a pacifist (though not a Quaker) who had chosen the Field Ambulance as a compromise between principle and patriotism. Like Olaf Stapledon, he has struggled with the decision, but unlike Stapledon he has neither made it to France nor successfully resisted the sense that serving in an Ambulance unit was really doing enough. A letter of today, a century back, sheds some light on a process that several of our writers have gone through but few have written about. Plowman, stuck in training in the rather unmilitary-sounding Bishop’s Stortford, explains to Janet Upcott the slow process of trying to find an infantry battalion that will give him a commission now.

…Meanwhile I know you’ll be sorry with me to hear that the Oxford & Bucks is “off”… the C.O. wrote quite amiably to me the other day saying that he was having a number of officers pushed on to him & consequently has absolutely no vacancies. Here endeth the second lesson. All I have done subsequently is to fill in the name of Co. Williams’ battalion on my “blue form” & post that to the War Office again. I don’t suppose I shall ever hear of it. –I am really sick of the whole middling business & I see now I ought to have taken the opportunities half a dozen at a time. –It seems odd that it should be so difficult & so elaborate & stage-doory to be of any use… if you could do anything by way of mentioning me I should be most awfully grateful…[1]

Oh, there will be vacancies.

In the same letter Plowman announced that he had found a new title for his contemplated book of poems, and was replacing Nietzsche as the epigraph–“I suppose I shall have to sacrifice that enjoyable piece of devilment”–with Blake on “bearing the beams of love.” So not all roads lead to the trench poem–or at least not yet.


Roland Leighton remains either unaware or, depending on how you see it, culpably half-aware of his epistolary spat with his fiancée Vera Brittain.

France, 21 November 1915

I am still with the Somerset L.I. [Light Infantry] and hear today that I am to stop here until Dec. 10th (a month in all)… I got one letter from you a day or two ago addressed to me here, & finding it somewhat of an enigma presume that there is some correspondence for me waiting with my own Battn. I shall try to ride over there to collect it tomorrow, if I can. I gather that you must have been down to Heather Cliff but shall probably be enlightened by your former letters.[2]

Yeah, you’re going to want to borrow that horse, buddy.


Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien began work on a poem he called Kortirion Among the Trees. He remains in training camp at Cannock Chase, although he may have begun the poem on a short leave spent in idyllic and history-infused Warwick.[3] He will enclose a copy in a letter next week, and we’ll read it then.


References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 38-9.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 188.
  3. Chronology, 75.

A Tip for Lord Crawford; Alan Seeger, Unimportant Individual, Holds to his Course

Two brief updates today. First, Lance-Corporal Lord Crawford‘s second-most-pronounced (and least offensive) personality quirk: having decided to spend the war in drag as a common man (yet as a volunteer medical orderly–so it is a committed, difficult performance to be sure) he loves it when ordinary officers–several steps below him on the usual social scale–mistake him for, well, a man of the serving classes.

Tuesday, 9 November 1915

I received a tip of fifty centimes for holding an officer’s horse in the street–one of these men who come into Hazebrouck shopping…

But what’s a fellow to spend such a sum on? Not liquor, surely?

New regulation by the town major that all must be in barrack or billet by 8.30pm, instead of 9pm. Tiresome, for it upsets our evening routine in a very awkward fashion and doesn’t seem to effect any useful purpose, unless indeed it proves true that fresh and onerous restrictions on the sale of liquor are to be imposed. As it is we live under pretty stringent regulations. Hours are already much limited, beer is very thin, spirits are forbidden–but as every house and cottage is a potential estaminet there is little obstacle to those who mean to get the stuff. I question whether these drastic byelaws are really effective, except as regards the shy man (and we are few) who doesn’t like to ask for a rum.[1]


And Alan Seeger is still untangling the untimely rumors of his demise in the September offensive. By now his mother will have learned that he is alive and well, but the awful misunderstanding cannot help but make him acknowledge his small role in a vast and unheroic enterprise.

November 9, 1915

I should have arranged to cable after the attack had I known that any such absurd rumors had been started. Here one has a wholesome notion of the unimportance of the individual. It needs an effort of imagination to conceive of its making any particular difference to anyone or anything if one goes under. So many better men have gone and yet the world rolls on just the same. . . .[2]

Seeger can sometimes seem a canny–even a hard-hearted–semi-Bohemian. But in war he has fallen back on a violent (and perhaps Nietzsche-inflected) Romanticism, and now it has been tested–by delay, brutal discipline, routine, and now battle. To his credit, Seeger is examining his life and his commitments–his “natural sentiments,” he will call them. And holding firm.

Your letter naturally made me unhappy, for it is only in thinking of you that any possible doubts can rise in my mind about having done well in coming here. Philosophy, I know, cannot modify the natural sentiments of the heart, so I will refrain from commenting on your letter. I can only say that I am perfectly content here and happier than I possibly could be anywhere else. I was a spectator, now I am an actor. I was in a shallow, now I am moving in the full current. It is better in every respect, and since it was inevitable, there is no use lamenting. . . .

So the motivations here–in Seeger, in, at least, this letter to his mother–have weathered the reality. He wanted action and he’s got it, and yes, there is no use lamenting. He will dance on with the lady he chose…


References and Footnotes

  1. Private Lord Crawford, 78.
  2. Sorley's last sentiments exactly.

Wyndham Lewis Lets Off A Volley of New BLAST; A Quieter New Venture From Isaac Rosenberg; Classic Reminiscences from Patrick Shaw-Stewart; A Madcap Tale from Dorothie Feilding

Blast #2

Quite a second issue of Blast this month.

Of the seven names appearing in the Table of Contents, two belong to unsung-if-not-completely-forgotten women Vorticists–Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders (or Sanders). Two are Modernist bigwigs I’d prefer to avoid, nasty dominating poets forever conjoined on Desolation Row. But three are soldier-writers of the first water: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s missive from the trenches was published posthumously; Ford Madox Hueffer‘s lugubrious meditation on “The Old Houses of Flanders” marks a sort of way station on his journey from most contrarian of propagandists to unlikeliest of subalterns; and Wyndham Lewis, shooting from the hip, but not yet dreaming of the artillery, wrote most of the issue.

There are two extremes of historical writing, two shoals I try to steer a safe course between. On the one side there is the fine-grained, soldier-by-soldier history of the common man and the longe durée which can be found not only in academic histories of the last few decades but on the numerous excellent websites which present the history of the Great War from a populist/memorial point of view, in which every man’s service is honored and every story is worth telling. And on the other side are the big-idea histories which shape the story of the past around one (or a small number) of experiences, and shrink not from the principle of aesthetic judgment. Such is Paul Fussell‘s book.

So I want to be in the middle. A fair umpire. An unbiased historian. A scintillating centrist.

But let’s not kid ourselves: I’m tacking close to the latter shore. I was afraid of Julian Grenfell; I persist in disliking the 1914 sonnets even though I generally sail by Vera Brittain‘s star and she still loved them well, a century back. I fear the opprobrium of the Great War amateur history community (or would, if there were comments on acenturyback) every time I opine that a soldier’s poem is naive, derivative, or–despite his honorable service and first-hand knowledge of war and my own lack of those qualifications–just not very good at conveying the experience of war. We watch the writing of the war in part to understand it all better–but also to find the best of it.

But–saving grace?–my snobbery is not always, at least, the going academic snobbery. Because I don’t much like those Modernists neither. Ford, yes–when he gets there. Lewis-of-the-smouldering-gaze (see below)  I will reconsider when I read his memoir. But American ambulance men–no matter how hairy chested or undercapitalized–will get scant attention here.

I wear my confirmed literary favoritisms brassard-style: Hardy is the old heart of things, Edward Thomas is our man in (premature) middle age, and Charles Sorley is our man of the New Armies. These are neither Modernists nor wistful post-Victorians. They are the innovating non-rebels, the sharp-minded forward-thinkers as unembarrassed by their love for much of the tradition as by their rejection of its more sentimental of jingoist offshoots… and I much prefer them to the not-very-good writers of the trenches, however bemedalled (sorry Alf) and the blustering bourgeois-shockers still in their cafes (see, now I’m brandishing the white feather–hypocrite!)


Wyndham Lewis

But I have to admit that I’m impressed with the sagacity shown by Wyndham Lewis in this month’s Modernist rodomontade. He is responsible for a fistful of short articles which generally chart an ironic middle course of his own. In one, he remarks on the paucity of good war-inspired art and poetry, yet wonders why there should be a general expectation that war will stimulate popular art:

But as the English Public lets its artists starve in peace time, there is really nothing to be said. The war has not changed things in that respect.

He rails against–or not exactly against, that would be uncool–German brutality and laughs at the idea that it can be attributed to the influence of “the execrable ‘Neech.'” And then he goes and pokes fun at the British sporting self-image.

Then there’s less little gem, which appears to rather precisely predict both the Second World War and our current predicament:


People will no doubt have to try again in 20 or 30 years if they REALLY like or need War or not. And so on until present conditions have passed into Limbo.

Perpetual War may well be our next civilization. I personally should much prefer that, as 18 months’ disorganization every 40 years and 38½ years’ complete peace, is too anarchic except for Art squabbles. In the middle ages a War was always going on somewhere, like the playing of perpetual football teams, conducted by trained arquebussiers, etc. This permanent War of the Future would have a much more cynical and professional character.

Good guess. Sure, there’s also a lot of long-winded nonsense, Bernard Shaw-baiting, Kipling-scorning and halfhearted sniping at big fat militarist targets. But Lewis seems to have hit his stride early: he’s the foppish, lacerating enfant terrible of the avant garde, gleefully out ahead and trying his best to draw the enemy’s fire.

But while some of the posturing comes off as hollow, it is still disconcerting to come suddenly upon Gaudier-Brzeska, a flesh and blood victim in the midst of a war in words:

Gaudier Brzeska vortex

Gaudier Brzeska’s Last Contribution to the Vortex

Gaudier Brzeska vortex2Before we close the pages of BLAST, however, I must bring us to page 21. It’s Pound: would-be-wise and petty, foolish Ezra Pound, whom I would dearly love to leave by the wayside. But page 21 is too good perfect. Pound, too, is writing snide light verse, taking little shots at targets of opportunity–those poor poets unable to recognize the unstoppable rise of the Vortex. In two poems, on one page, he mocks both Rupert Brooke–mostly in a French footnote–and Laurent Tailhade, that strange mutilated old magus who had taken an unknown Englishman abroad–one Wilfred Owen–as an adept.

There’s just a touch more: in deploying his faux-antique grandiose style to mock the French “decadent,” Pound invokes a certain scenic designer:

Let us leap with ungainly leaps before a stage scene
By Leon Bakst.
Let us do this for the splendour of Tailhade.

This is that very Bakst who designed for the Ballet Russes, who made the backdrop for La Légende de Josephe before which three of our poets assembled for A Century Back’s overture.

Quite an assemblage. But one more: we have come across C.R.W. Nevinson before (not to mention H.W., his father), and his woodcut is surely the most affecting and effective combination of Vorticist angles and war time subject matter we have yet seen: Nevinson, On the Way to the Trenches

Oh what a modern war!

But not in Gallipoli; not if you’re Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who wrote to Edward Horner today, a century back:

That flower of sentimentality which buds rather unreadily in me expands childishly on classical soil. It is really delightful to me (I expect it would be to you) to bathe every day, when not in the trenches or standing by, in the Hellespont, looking straight over to Troy, to see the sun set over Samothrace, to be fighting for the command of Aegospotami…

From reveries ancient and learned to recent, and personal:

I am at present disposed to be very optimistic, partly, perhaps, because Charles and Oc have just come back and human relationships thus restarted. Do you remember just before I went to Dunkirk, when you and Julian advised me all one morning how to put on a Sam Browne, and what to pack in 35 lb.? We were young, very merry, and not war-wise (how well I could pack some young lad’s 35 lb. for him now, and how cynically I should explain that he could make it up to 70 lb. with well-timed parcels!).

That was the last time I saw Julian, and the only time for nearly two years. I have lost people who left a fresher gap, such as Rupert, or a more continuous one such as John, but never one who was once such a great friend, or who was tied up in my mind with such a solid and distinct block of Balliol life—indeed, short of you and Charles, it would be impossible.[1]


Two more, quickly.

First, a rather less celebrated publication debuted today, a century back. Isaac Rosenberg has had a great deal of time on his hands, as well as unlimited ambition and severely limited resources. He and his old friend Reuben “Crazy” Cohen had decided to start their own magazine–a monthly, to be published more frequently once the advertising and subscription money started rolling in. The two cobbled together their own works–Rosenberg’s contribution was a lecture on art he had given in South Africa–and printed the eight pages themselves, on a borrowed press.

The venture, nearly needless to say, will be a failure, and Rosenberg will once more feel tightly pinned between the uncertainty of the artist’s life and the potential stability of waged work in the nation’s only growing concern.[2]


Lastly, a letter from Lady Feilding, who gives all of our “sloppy about dates” writers a new mark to aim at:

June 31 Furnes [1 July]

Mother deah–

I am going down to Ypres this morning to see how our cars down there are getting on. I haven’t been in the old place for 3 months & am rather looking forward to a chance of getting down there, of course if I meet Fitzpatrick again I may get heaved out on the way! But I’m full of hope.

It’s before breakfast & I’m terribly sleepy, but remorseful because I didn’t write you yesterday. Night work is very late now… One gets awfully sleepy after a lot of days on end. The troops aren’t relieved until 11 pm & sometimes later now…

Last night up there 2 brancardiers [stretcher bearers] started at 10 pm to fetch a wounded man from the outposts & only got him back at ten am next morning. There is some miles of very exposed communication trench, cut zig zag of course with the result no stretcher can be taken in it & the blessé has to be slung in his blanket & carried by the other men on all fours.

And here’s a new one, an apparent “shell shock” case described in the very best charming/alarming Lady Feilding style:

Yesterday we had an awful time with a tame Zouave lunatic they very kindly gave ‘Mees’ at Nieuport to take away. He was just cheerfully barmy rather like Neb when tight, & was very funny. He had hotly accused his lieutenant of having cut his wife into little bits with his scissors, which just gave his bright pals the clue he might be queer, wonderful how observant these men get you know, so the patient alternately took me for the lieutenant, the wife, the scissors, his best friend, & something most unpleasant & kept trying to climb out at the back when we weren’t looking…

Well I must run now Mrs Ma. Goodbye & God bless you – yr loving



References and Footnotes

  1. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 142-3.
  2. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 120.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 83-4.

Rupert Brooke Gets the Mail, and Wishes for Miss Austen’s Powers; A Poem and a Letter from Robert W. Sterling; Edward Thomas is Proud to Love

The Grantully Castle anchored off Skyros last night, and today, a century back, Rupert Brooke was on duty on board. The mail arrived–the first since Alexandria–and included a letter from Eddie Marsh with a clipping from the Times of April 5th, describing Dean Inge’s Easter sermon. This must have been something of a moment for Brooke. He was still recovering from “a touch of the sun” in Egypt and generally feeling poorly, but now he knew that he was on the road to literary celebrity and even–should his premonitions of death on this expedition prove to be true–literary immortality.

Brooke wrote back immediately, reporting on his well-being and his writing. Was his confidence returning as the illness seemed to fade? Yes–but look who he’s citing as the missing sort of ingredient, the spirit he would require to inspire.

Dear Eddie,

…Patrick & I are both hale & fit again, though notably thinner. However, as everyone has grown very fat on idleness, it’s as well.

The first few days afloat I was still convalescent. So I could lie in my bunk & read & write in a delicious solitude all day. I actually did jot down a line or two. Nothing yet complete (except a song, worthless alone, for Denis to put lovely notes around): but a sonnet or two almost done: & the very respectable & shapely skeleton of an ode-threnody. All of which shall travel to you, if & when they are done…

I cannot write you any description of my life. It is entirely featureless. It would need Miss Austen to make anything of it. We glide to & fro on an azure sea & forget the war—I must go & censor my platoon’s letters.
My long poem is to be about the existence—& non-locality—of England. And it contains the line— “In Avons of the heart her rivers run.”

Lovely, isn’t it?[1]

Jane Austen again! This is a more military invocation of her tutelary genius, too, than Kipling’s. Tennyson is fine for chivalry, it seems, but the slow tension of a modern campaign needs Miss Austen, complete with scalpel.


We met Robert W. Sterling on March 13th, the date of the death of his friend John Hewitt Sutton Moxly, to whom he dedicated a poem (many thanks to Anne Pedley for tracking down the man behind the initials).

I have promised a look at Sterling’s verse, and there will be an opportunity in a few days. Today, however, he wrote a letter describing his service, and thus we find a good opportunity to look at one of his strange little poems.

First, the letter, describing life in the southern portion of the Ypres salient.

…I’ve been longing for some link with the normal universe detached from the storm. It is funny how trivial instances are seized as symbols by the memory; but I did find such a link about three weeks ago. We were in trenches in wooded country… The Germans were about eighty yards away, and between the trenches lay pitiful heaps of dead friends and foes. Such trees as were left standing were little more than stumps, both behind our lines and the enemy’s. The enemy had just been shelling our reserve trenches, and a Belgian patrol behind us had been replying, when there fell a few minutes’ silence; and I still crouching expectantly in the trench, suddenly saw a pair of thrushes building a nest in a “bare ruin’d choir” of a tree, only about five yards behind our line.

This is a Shakespeare reference–sonnet 73–and one that has provoked much debate among interpreters. Have we not yet brought in William Empson, he of the strenuous and catholic approach to ambiguity, yet? Well, we should.

Empson, who took seven types of wrecking balls to the certainties of traditional literary criticism (leaving ruins that gave shelter to the booths and tents of the New Critics in his wake), went to town on this line, which seems to throw up an analogy between leafless trees and roofless monasteries (the former ravaged by winter, the latter by Henry VIII and Cromwell) and between the forlorn singers which might once have lined the bare ruins of each.

Sterling, possessed of a very strong visual imagination, does a lovely thing with the old line–and much more deftly than most poets (and there will be many!) who will take up the theme of the persistence of nature among the man-made desolation of the trenches. These trees are not seasonally “ruined,” awaiting the rebirth of spring, but well and truly shattered, ruined by man. But the birds sing on.

At the same time a lark began to sing in the sky above the German trenches. It seemed almost incredible at the time, but now, whenever I think of those nest-builders and that all but “sightless song,” they seem to repeat in some degree the very essence of the Normal and Unchangeable Universe carrying on unhindered and careless amid the corpses and the bullets and the madness.

…I suppose Kipling meant something when he said that Life runs large on the Long Trail. In a sense I take it, it runs large out here, not only for the reason of which you so eloquently remind me—the inspiration of a Cause, but because Death has become its insistent and intruding neighbour…[2]

About this time Sterling also wrote

The Round

Crown of the morning
Laid on the toiler:
Joy to the heart
Treasure behind left;
Riches before him.
Treasur’d in toil.
To glean.
Starlit and hushful
Wearily homeward:
Rest to the brow

Sterling’s toils are far from over–the Germans are massing on the north flank of the Salient.


It’s funny sometimes how this project’s rigorous commitment to chronology can actually unsettle the order in which things were experienced by our writers. Yesterday Robert Frost wrote to Edward Thomas with high praise for his verse, but this letter–which, coming from the one poet he respects above all others, will surely buoy Thomas’s spirits–will not arrive for some time.

Instead, Thomas will write to Frost four days hence, complaining both about the historical-biographical-hackery that eats up his time and about an illness.

The reason I haven’t written is Marlborough. I read about him all day… and the reading is pap compared with what the writing will be…The only good will be letting me deeper into the secret of how not to write…

I am a little ill, with the first chill I have had for years, & it jellifies me..

But he also–a little proudly, a little pugnaciously, for Frost is finally beginning to have some success (North of Boston has now been published west of the Atlantic as well)–reports that he soldiers on with poetry, despite getting little in the way of what we would call”positive feedback” since Frost’s departure.

Would Thomas have written the same poems if he had received more praise, more acceptance, less caviling or correcting from more published poets? Probably not–except perhaps if the praise came from Frost. If yesterday’s letter had winged its way to England with the tap of an “Enter” key, would Thomas have managed such beautiful melancholy?

Ah, but we have weightier counter-factuals, here in the middle of a war. Thomas soldiers on, a promised:

So you know I go on with verses to the detriment of Marlborough: take the 2 best hours out of my morning with I am afraid rather poetical things sometimes. Did you think it might become a habit?[4]

We will catch up with some of these poetical things next week, after this letter was written. But the chill he mentions may well have dated to today, for today’s morning dalliance produced Health, a lengthy and robust poem.

Which merits long-winded discussion, yet will receive–alas!–only a short-winded pair of paragraphs:

“Health” shows the Thomas we know well–close observation of nature (a wagtail running on a roof) and a surging love of the world, but weighted down by a fearful ill-health and unhappiness–along with a few new tricks. He writes blank verse, now, for one thing, but this poem bears clear traces of his reading of Nietzsche, specifically On the Genealogy of Morals. The poem’s subject feels a surge of power as he takes in a glorious view; he imagines himself possessing the animal health to fully partake of nature… and then he connects these things with the greatness achieved by men of health and unfettered energy.

Strange indeed. And yet it’s also appropriate that Nietzsche, who has turned up once or twice already here to addle the brains of young reader/writer/soldiers, is finally handled–he might overwhelm the energetic youth, but by Thomas he is assimilated–appreciated, doubted, absorbed, controlled. Edward Thomas is old and wise and weathered (o.k., only his late 30’s, but lots of hard miles!) can resist the urge to apotheosis, or self-aggrandizing madness:

I could not be as the sun.
Nor should I be content to be
As little as the bird or as mighty as the sun.
For the bird knows not the sun,
And the sun regards not the bird.
But I am almost proud to love both bird and sun,
Though scarce this Spring could my body leap four yards.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 680-1.
  2. Housman, War Letters, 263.
  3. The Poems of Robert W. Sterling, 68.
  4. Elected Friends, 47-8.
  5. See especially, Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 226-9.

The Young Intellectuals Revolt: Charles Sorley is Nostalgic for an Army of Mercenaries, Herbert Read Laments Democracy, Tolkien Abandons his Friends, and Rupert Brooke Makes Arrangements

Charles Hamilton Sorley–too weighed down these last few months by the idiocies of camp life to write many letters–managed to sit down and crank one out. This is to A.R. Gidney, another old school friend still at Marlborough:

Sandgate, 6 March 1915

…I am at present somewhat of a Crusoe. I was going through a musketry course at Hythe (where the victories come from), when suddenly the division ups and marches to Aldershot. I arrive back from Hythe to find myself in charge of an empty barracks, and have been there ever since waiting for the advent of a wild Canadian regiment who shall take them over. The wild Canadian regiment have apparently broken loose en route for Shorncliffe. So while the Suffolks are marching twenty miles per day with packs and full equipment on at Aldershot and firing their Trained Soldiers’ Course, the sins of the Canadians are keeping me here idle. And forced idleness is more unpleasant even than forced labour…

Rather amusing, given Hulse’s similar stereotyping of Canadian troops. Sorley, however, will have a more or less opposite impression of the Canadians once he actually meets them. They are strong men and free, less hidebound, etc.

Today, Sorley discusses with Gidney the sporting fate of their house at Marlborough College (high school intramurals, to you American knaves), and then returns to the army:

Here we play hockey and do cross-country running. The latter, best of all sports, has been established some time. And two Saturdays ago was the culmination with the divisional and garrison cross-country race with 400 starters and 12 teams, including two battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, every one of whom were ex-harriers [i.e. schoolboy cross-country runners]. A heavy course over the rich Kentish soil, but the win went, as it surely should, to the amateur element, to the team of a county famed for its sluggishness, and in which quoits is the favourite sport. The Suffolks came in an easy first. This has been one of our many triumphs. Indeed agricultural labour in Suffolk fears a crisis in the near future, for it is quite unlikely that more than a few of the farm-labourers who form 60 per cent. of our battalion will return after the war to the earth, in spite of the poetic attractiveness of “returns to the soil” in the eyes of people like me.

A nice tale. But now a somewhat sinister turn of thought, for this reluctant New Army subaltern. Recall that “Service” has a new meaning. There are still echoes of noble sacrifice (and of domestic servitude, for that matter), but it has also become a technical term appended to the name of most New Army battalions, their members having volunteered to serve for the course of the war (and not after–Regular, Reserve, and Militia units favored a term of enlistment measured in years).

I see and appreciate your difficult position in regard to so-called “service.” But apart from everything else it has always seemed to me that, magnificent as the prospect of nations in arms may be, the old system of hiring your Wellington and a handful of hundred thousand criminals to bleed for you, that your scholars and students might not let out the torch of learning in its passage from hand to hand, was, from the point of view of civilization and culture, more beneficial to the country.

What does Sorley mean by this? Are his politics this elitist?

No–and yes. I don’t think he is using “torch of learning” in an ironic sense. Or perhaps there is a gentle irony of over-statement, but this is not sarcasm–he is being deliberately naughty. In early 1915 it is still always deliberately naughty to omit patriotic bromides or anti-German cant, but then again Sorley has always recoiled from such stupidity. Naughty–but not necessarily insincere.

A small, national-but-mercenary army had always been the modern British way, more or less, even though the French had led the way toward the “nation in arms” as long ago as the 1790s. England is an island, with a a navy. So very few of the best and the brightest had hitherto found themselves in harm’s way, and those who did constituted an aristocracy, not a slice of the nation’s leading classes. Now Sorley, truly one of the best and brightest, is unhappy about the change–as he seems to have been almost since the moment of volunteering.

We have to thank Germany for the new system: only she organizes her levy on business lines of selection. Amongst other dearths I imagine there will be an alarming dearth of learning after the long war it’s going to be. But every difficulty and doubt about comparative uses of enlistment and “business as usual” points more than ever clearly to the fact that, admirable as the voluntary system may be for punitive raids in the Crimea or Transvaal, it has terrible draw-backs for a knock-out tussle with an equal. Not that I throw it over: I think you must make your Englishman believe he’s acting freely before he’ll act well. A conscript New Army (not to be called Kitchener’s army, please) would have lacked that concord during training which will, one hopes, be the foundation of discipline in the field…

Chilling practicality, this. But except for the cavalier tone of a wise elder writing to a younger schoolboy friend, there is nothing specific to object to.

It’s true: Britain had hitherto run her empire without any sacrifice from the middle classes or the majority of the aristocracy. Now there will be sacrifices, and so everyone had better pretend that all is done freely and for the best of motives. It will be easier on everyone that way… the irony is that Sorley had felt from the beginning as if he simply had to volunteer: free-thinker though he might be, he was not ready to deny the reality of class status far enough to simply shrug and go to school. He was outflanked and out-foxed. A university-bound young man must (or so he felt) do his bit, or be seen to be doing it…

As for the idea of a conscript army, well–hold that thought. There had never been a draft in Britain, and it was considered nearly unthinkable, politically. And why contemplate it, when the New Army, with its many hundreds of thousands of eager volunteers, is even now beginning to be integrated with the remnants of the old?

Sorley is in a dark mood, here. Frustration runs deep:

I have heard twice from H. L. R., 2nd R. D. Fusiliers, “in the trenches” (a phrase which has ousted “at the front” in the popularity of the masses). When do we hope to follow him out there? When we are sent, if you want a reliable answer. April the 1st, if you want a rude one…[1]


Aboard ship en route for the eastern Mediterranean, Rupert Brooke wrote to Eddie Marsh today:

Sunday, 6 March [ah, but today is a Saturday, in 1915]

My dear,

Your last letter was very nice. It seems ages ago now since we said good-bye to you on our mottled parade ground. I saw Violet at Avonmouth. We’ve had rather a nice voyage: a bit unsteady the first day (when I was sick), & today: otherwise very smooth & delicious. There has been a little, not much, to do. I’ve read most of Turkey in Europe. But what with parades, & the reading of military books, I’ve not written anything. Anyway, my mind’s always a blank at sea.

For two days we’ve been crawling along the African coast, observing vast tawny mountains, with white villages this side of them, & white peaks beyond. The sea has been a jewel, & sunset & dawn divine blazes of colour. It is all too ridiculously peaceful for one to believe anything but that we’re a—rather odd—lot of tourists, seeing the Mediterranean & bent on enjoyment. War seems infinitely remote: & even the reason, foreseeing Gallipoli, yet admits that there are many blue days to come, & the Cyclades.

The tourism point is well-taken. Touring the Gothic masterpieces of Northwest France is nice, but–the influence of Greek antiquity on the Victorian imagination being what it was–a nice Mediterranean cruise is even better.

We’ll have a number of letters from Brooke to friends more or less his old age, but it’s interesting to see how he writes to Marsh, who is considerably older and has been an enthusiastic mentor and something of a patron. (Marsh’s connections helped get things published, and his job as Churchill’s assistant got Brooke into the Royal Naval Division).

Brooke has made Marsh into a sort of agent or privileged amanuensis, among whose duties is the handling of some of Brooke’s semi-detached affairs. The jewel/talisman referred to below was a gift of “Anonyma,” who must be either new flame Lady Eileen Wellesley or the actress Cathleen Nesbitt.

I wish I were younger: then the five-pointed jewel would have been the height of my wish. Even now it thrills a little. I wear it–Please thank Anonyma & say I’m quite sure it’ll bring me luck. But what ‘Luck’ is, we’ll all wait & see. At least, we’ll all wait, & you’ll see, perhaps. I can well see that life might be great fun: & I can well see death might be an admirable solution. At that, quote to her something appropriate from the Apology, & leave her to her prayers.

But first give her a kiss of pure gratitude from me.

If I write anything, I will send it you. I’m afraid I shan’t write though.

Everyone you know is well. Patrick is the life & soul of the party—the life, anyhow. Denis is competent, Kelly silly, Johnny inquisitive & simple-hearted, & Oc Oc-like. While Freyberg (whose comment on you is that you’re ‘a white man'[2]—a great compliment), often rushes across the room to say ‘I say, do you think this is going to be a bloody good show? I do.’

Nothing amusing has happened. We bullied & cajoled & argued & implored the stokers into being vaccinated & inoculated…  In a fortnight, the quarter-million Turks.


If I’m wounded, or anything, & you have news, will you send it to (a) the Ranee, (b) to Dudley Ward, 33 Upper Richmond Road, East Putney. He’s taken in hand the reporting my abrupter turns of fortune to one or two disconnected but deserving enquirers.

This is not so terribly macabre, by Brooke’s standards (it will get much more so), and it’s only reasonable. Many young soldiers and officers were concerned about the orderly dissemination of information about their fate.

So Marsh also gets the even dicier job of being the central switchboard for official news of Rupert. “The Ranee” is Brooke’s formidable mother, and getting in between mother and son was a tall order. Dudley Ward is the friend who gets to handle the more troublesome or less socially exalted affairs–he knows about Taatamata and has also been there for Brooke to help clean up after the relationships that didn’t end as (apparently) sweetly. Ward will get more instructions shortly…

So the phone tree, as it were, leads from poor old Eddie to the family on the one hand and the women on the other. Everyone else will find out somehow…


Earlier this week John Ronald Tolkien had received, by telegram, an ultimatum: appear in Cambridge on Saturday (today), or resign from the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. A jocular ultimatum, perhaps, but his three friends–off to the wars so soon and sensing the final end of childhood fellowship–were deeply disappointed when Tolkien, lost perhaps amidst preparation for end of term papers, neither turned up nor responded.[3]


And last and least, an entry from one of the most interesting writers of the war–and, from the perspective of this project, one of the most frustrating. The published version of Herbert Read‘s diary is so radically edited that a gap of fifteen months will appear between today and the next entry.

I will be able to check in a few times during those months, but not with any real sense of continuity, so it’s with a sense of resignation that I present his curated thoughts of today, a century back. The young intellectual is in his early weeks of training, yet:


I don’t think I am satisfied with the tendency of modern Democracy. Though it is a fine ideal in that it strives for the utilitarian principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, yet it offers no encouragement to the development of the personality of the individual. It will insure happiness, but scarcely nobility. It will be fatal to even a spiritual superman.

Surely its essential affirmation should be man’s right to choose… Perhaps my dissatisfaction arise from the fact that, though in economics I am a communist, in ethics I think I am an individualist. Are these two creeds incompatible?

We don’t know Read yet, so how can we rule on whether he is a book-blinded young fool or a sober intellectual with an unusually firm grip on his future self?

Looking back on this day, though, from a future a few years hence, much more will be clear. The Nietzsche stuff will fade, as it tends to, but Read’s cultivation of hard-mindedness will not turn out to be callow. He may change his mind about some things, but he will prove himself a rugged-enough individualist, able to continually tolerate these apparent contradictions–an individualist in command, a communist taking government pay to order lower class men into danger, an anarchist in obedience to orders…

As to the philosophical questions he raises, well… let’s hide behind our quaint literary habit of taking philosophical inquiry as a symptom of personal and writerly development…

It’s o.k., though–Read doesn’t have all the answers either:

What would be the virtue of the super-race to which I wish democracy to aspire? I am afraid I cannot give a very satisfactory answer. I can’t even decide what Virtue is.

We Atheists must get away from the salvation-or-damnation test of Christianity, We must find a new test–a religion of human perfectibility. My own ideal is aesthetic rather than ethical. I don’t desire a world of saints. Nor do I worship a Nietzschean tyrant. More I cannot say, except that the highest expression of virtue that I know of is found in the last lines of Shelley’s ‘Prometheus’–emphasis being laid on Hope and Defiance.[4]

The allusion to “Prometheus Unbound” is interesting–a good bit of Romanticism for a fulminating young Modernist to adopt, as he prepares for war. I’ll quote from the last nine lines of the drama:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite…

To defy Power, which seems omnipotent…

Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.


References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 255-9.
  2. John Buchan is also enamored of this odd use of the term, at least in his potboilering voice.
  3. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 63, 325.
  4. Read, The Contrary Experience, 71.