Robert Graves Reaches Out to Sassoon, but Sassoon is Intent on his Quarry; David Jones Disbands

Today, a century back, was another good day for Outdoor Siegfried Sassoon.

February 6 (Limerick. Ballingrane)

A wet day, south-west wind. Found in some gorse… ran nicely back a half-circle to Nantinan, where he tried the earths… and ran us out of scent. A nice twenty minutes…  A glorious ride—very sad that we did so little…[1]

 

But Outdoor Sassoon is neglecting his indoor friends–the poets, that is. Even the recently married poet-comrades…

Dear old Sassons

I have been intending to write for so long but find it difficult: don’t know why. Was the wedding a success? ask me! It would have been more so if you had been able to attend. I am for the moment confined to my couch with a cold but in the last three days have written 45 letters, 3 new poems, recast four old ones, two of which I sent to Colour and got £ 3.3.0 by return, read two books, pasted in my press cuttings, compiled an address book and played patience, and even washed my face–no, I haven’t, but shaved once.

Is Graves joking to lighten the mood of a soldier waiting to ship out? Perhaps, but the willingness to make fun of himself in this way has just a tinge of the abject about it. I don’t think Graves is quite sure what’s he done to lose Sassoon’s approval–or he doesn’t want to admit that Sassoon is simply in a snit about his “defection” into marriage.

The letter moves on now to news of their widening circle of acquaintance among the bright young literary things: the popular poet of 1917, the scandal/success debut novelist of 1917, and perhaps the most prolific and influential young reviewer-in-uniform:

Bob Nichols is back in London since February 1st; write to him. Did I tell you Alec Waugh is an enormous admirer of your poems? I have it on the authority of Scott-Moncrieff…  He [Waugh] is producing a book of poems in the spring, Moncrieff says. I wonder will it be good? I expect not.

I hear you’re under orders for Palestine from a subaltern called Roberts whose letter just arrived from Limerick.

And thus Graves circles back to the same subject that he opened with: not weddings or postings, but why Sassoon is so out of touch about such important things. But then Graves shows–or claims–that the real reason for their estrangement is his own good fortune and being just wounded enough to be safe:

I am getting a job in No. 17 Cadet Battalion here as soon as the details leave for Ireland, so that Nancy and I can make up our minds to settle down. The contrast between you and me makes me so ashamed: that’s why I find it difficult to write. But Sassons, though I know you wanted to return to a line battalion I know it’s much better as it is; the strain in Palestine isn’t nearly so great on you and you aren’t likely, or so likely, to get killed. I’m most awfully keen on you living on because as soon as the war stops I know your nerves will get absolutely rested again and you’ll be your old self (like when you saw me here the other day only more so) again and write miraculous poetry.

Best love always,

R.[2]

 

And while these two officers of the Royal Welch write about Ireland, Palestine, and Merry Olde England, a soldier of their regiment is reduced, abandoned, and reassigned. David Jones serves the melancholy purpose, today, of reminding us of the costs of this war of attrition: each infantry brigade throughout the B.E.F is being reduced from four battalions to three, a major structural change. This is supposed to be a mere reorganization, but it’s clearly not so simple. No new brigades are coming into the line, so this is at best a shuffling of forces and an admission that reinforcements for the existing four battalions are not to be had; at worst, it’s an acknowledgement that manpower limitations mean that three men will have to do the work of four. And this with a German offensive in the offing…

But that is war on the level of the bureaucrat: from the point of view of the infantryman themselves, the worst thing is that the unlucky fourth battalion of each brigade is not to be reassigned elsewhere, but simply dissolved in place, its men going as replacements to the other three. For an army that long prided itself on Regimental Tradition and esprit de corps to simply sacrifice battalions to bureaucratic convenience was shocking, and a sore blow to many of its soldiers. What were all those football matches and parades about, if the army is simply going to play Russian roulette with each foursome of its core units of identity? What can be trusted, now, when the army mouths slogans? And how can new, sustaining relationships be formed at this late date?

David Jones, though he is a gentle soul and an artist to the core, is nevertheless an old soldier, and proud of his unit. Even those little inclined to group-think or cliquishness are driven to collective identification during the stress of combat, and, after the Somme, Jones has good reason to be proud of what the London Welsh have endured. But today, a century back, it was announced that the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers are shortly to be disbanded, and he took it hard:

As one of the few surviving members to arrive with the battalion in France, he, more than most, dreaded the end of ‘cap-badge loyalty’, an aspect of the fellowship that made military life endurable. On 6 February, the battalion was officially disbanded in a funerary ceremony for which Colonel Bell returned specially to deliver a eulogy.

After this collective death, Jones, disfellowshipped, will wait for reassignment for a week or more, and then be sent into the line near Armentieres with the 13th Battalion of the R.W.F.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 210.
  2. In Broken Images, 92.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 147.

Ralph Hamilton on a Flurry of Deadly Folly; Elizabeth Bishop In the Waiting Room

Just one brief note from the war, today, and then a very strange centennial… the most powerful straight-back-to-a-particular-moment-in-time poem I’ve ever read. It has nothing to do with this project except its date…  and also consciousness of the war and a deep binary (i.e. in the sense of an older writer looking back upon an incident as recorded by her younger mind) contemplation of the the mystery of the human condition. So, upon reflection, it has everything to do with this project, albeit in a distant sense. I’ve been really looking forward to this bit…

 

But first, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven is here to steady us on an excitable morning. His diary reminds us of the confusion and deadly silliness of the war of attrition as he analyzes a sudden artillery duel on his sector of the line. He tosses off his conclusion, but one imagines that it probably took some extensive detective work to figure out what actually took place…

As far as I can make out this morning, nothing really happened, except that both sides lost their heads. The Germans started the excitement by seeing spooks. They bombed their own wire and put up their S.O.S., whereupon our people thought they were going to be attacked and sent up our S.O.S. Both artilleries promptly replied, and for the next half-hour there was hell in the front lines. I fancy it was fairly expensive for both sides, as I imagine there were a lot of casualties.[1]

“Expensive,” that is not just in the financial cost of huge amounts of ammunition fired to no strategic effect, but in terms of blood and suffering.

 

Humanity: confused, frightened, driven mad with fear and the strangeness of the other–yet beginning to see, perhaps, in glimpses of insight, that though we are all utterly alone, we are also all utterly alone together. We are human beings, clotted into tribes of strange and foolish other human beings, and we may (or may not) have long lives to live among them…

 

Now, I’ve read a lot of Great War literature and history and poetry and memoir over the past twenty years, especially during the last four. (I’m pounding through two mediocre novels set this March, as we speak!) But, happily, I do find some time to read some other things as well. One of this past year’s projects was Elizabeth Bishop (born 1911) who produced a smallish oeuvre of poetry in a variety of forms and moods. This smallish oeuvre is richly studded, however, with tremendous, unforgettable poems. I had read some of her brilliant descriptive poems of people and animals, I knew the perfect villanelle about losing things, but I had never read In the Waiting Room. There must be other brilliant poems of remembered childhood experience, but if I knew of any even approaching this one I have long forgotten them…

I don’t like to post entire long poems here, for several reasons, so please follow the link above and read the whole thing (it’s only a few pages). Or read below: I will excerpt a few large sections, perforating her meditative brilliance with my eager interjections.

 

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.

 

Young Elizabeth then picks up the February 1918 National Geographic and reads. Something about the dramatic presentation of human difference that the magazine offers–there are Brave White Explorers, there is man killed in tribal fighting, there are African women, with their breasts hanging low, horrifying the proper American girl–stirs her sense of self, and then, as overhead sound merges with the thoughts bred from words, an epiphany strikes.

 

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

 

No, nothing could. To be at once aware of the full force of self-hood, of the boundaries that separate your own little body from the shuffling, yelping others around you, and of your full membership in a species so familiar and yet so terrible and strange…

And it’s three days before her seventh birthday. (The poem itself was written many decades later, when Bishop was belatedly being recognized as one of the century’s great poets.)

Worcester, MA, is far from Templeux, where those two panicky barrages are falling on two sets of trenches despite the fact that neither gallant infantry officers nor wicked staff brass hats actually harbored any murderous raid plans for this morning, a century back.

But I haven’t bent the rules of this project as far as it might seem. At the very end of this childish/timeless/rivetingly powerful poem, we will have the date as well as the reminder of the war. National Geographic may point to a different way of seeing the world (with all its own problems), but looming over this day, a century back–and over young Elizabeth’s new perception of her humanity and her Elizabeth-ness in all its strangeness–is the fact that humanity is conducting one of its most destructive experiments yet.

 

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 451.

Siegfried Sassoon in Barracks and Jack Martin in the Alps: and Both on the Brotherhood of Soldiers

Siegfried Sassoon‘s brief but spirited war against the war–better described, perhaps, as his revolt against the army, or come to think of it, as his revolt against the war conceived as dependent on certain grand strategic principles and decisions–is now long over. He has been sent to Limerick, far from combat, and plunged back into the congenial all-male companionship and calmly structured life of the garrison officer.

He has not forgotten yet what men in barracks are for, in either the purposive or future sense of the phrase, and he will continue to think and write about the wrongness of men being sent to die in what seems to be an endless war, coolly prolonged by those who could end it through negotiation. But whether he is now simply recharging his poetic batteries (dreadful phrase) or working on the task of beautiful idealization that so often precedes literary martyrdom, it’s hard to tell. in any case, he has turned his eye and his pen toward the young soldiers once more under his care.

 

In Barracks

First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

The barrack-square, washed clean with rain,
Shines wet and wintry-grey and cold.
Young Fusiliers, strong-legged and bold,
March and wheel and march again.

The sun looks over the barrack gate,
Warm and white with glaring shine,
To watch the soldiers of the Line
That life has hired to fight with fate.

Fall out: the long parades are done.
Up comes the dark; down goes the sun.
The square is walled with windowed light.
Sleep well, you lusty Fusiliers;

Shut your brave eyes on sense and sight,
And banish from your dreamless ears
The bugle’s dying notes that say,
‘Another night; another day.’

 

 

From Limerick, then, to Italy. It would have been nice, for purposes of comparison, if I had touched us down today, ever so briefly, in the frozen muck of the Flanders plain. But we remember, do we not?

The war is very different in the Alps. But Jack Martin, too, is stretching his writing muscles as the sun goes down–rather earlier than it did for Sassoon’s grim-fated soldiers in Ireland.

We never tire of looking at the great mountains… They seem to look down on the plains and on the puny ways of men with a dignified superiority much as a philosopher might watch the sport of kittens…

Often I have seen photographs taken above the clouds but today I have seen the real thing. I place it as one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. The sun was getting low in the heavens and we were preparing our tea when I looked out of the door towards the plain and it was all covered with a great white cloud which reached up to within a hundred yards or so of us. The huge white mass was almost still…

Although the sun was sinking it was still just above the cloud and touched it here and there with wonderful tints of rose and rosy-gold…

They saw nothing of this at Brigade HQ, for being at a lower level they were enveloped in the mist. Soon after sundown the cloud disappeared as suddenly as it came. Nature is a quick-change artist in this country and no mistake.

So that was sunset–but Martin, too, turns his thoughts down from the sun and its beauties and mysteries to his comrades. He is compelled to, for the sun is down and he is still outside, on guard under the cruel stars.

I sometimes lose patience with Sassoon’s solipsism, but by the coincidence of their writing today–very different sorts of writing by very different men–Martin reminds me that Sassoon’s conflicted and conflicting impulses were honestly motivated: the sickness of war, its crime and its pity, are that it kills people–it comes first for the eager young men–and for no good reason. And one early and ironic lesson that war teaches these young men is that they need each other very badly if they are to endure it.

I am now on night duty. Sitting by the firelight has grown oppressive so I have lit a precious candle to enable me to pass the time in writing. I have been outside the billet and the silence is the sort that can be felt. People who live under modern conditions of civilisation can scarcely comprehend the meaning of absolute silence. And the silence of the trenches among the mountains is uncanny and almost palpable…

There is not the least sign of life or activity and the winking stars look down like cynical eyes of cruel gods ready to laugh at human suffering and misery. Yet you know well enough that away in front, men are ceaselessly watching, ready to give the alarm at the first sign of animation on the enemy’s lines; and there are rifles and machine guns and trench mortars and field guns and howitzers of all kinds and sizes ready to break forth into a clamorous roaring and screeching at any moment…

You know that all that noise is possible and the Silence makes you shudder. It feels uncanny. It oppresses you…. you creep back into your billet with cold shivering down your spine and a dull nervousness in your heart–And there you have a light and you see your comrades asleep, and hear their snorings and inarticulate grunting and you feel like being at home once more. Your spine becomes warm and erect–your heart steady and brave, and you say ‘Bah! I wasn’t afraid; I was only interested![1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 165-7.

Max Plowman and the Inspirational Power of Collective Action; Edward Brittain Grumbling in Italy

Here’s a surprising and pleasing juxtaposition. After the haze of misogyny (or, at least, contemptuous anti-feminism) which hung over yesterday‘s meeting between Graves and Sassoon, we have our other prominent pacifist infantry officer, Max Plowman, taking rather a different approach to questions of courage. Plowman has long been active in liberal causes, and, it would seem, he has learned something from them.

Plowman’s protest against the war–after his honorable service as a “Subaltern on the Somme” (which followed his original intention to serve with the ambulances)–will never draw the attention that Sassoon’s abortive protest did. But it seems to have earned him a letter from a hero of the drive for Women’s Suffrage, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence (the future Baroness Pethick-Lawrence). If one of the reasons we suspect that Graves’s friends don’t like Nancy Nicholson is that she is a young feminist and a “Land Girl” prone to wearing trousers and insisting on carrying her fiancé’s baggage, one wonders how they would cope with a middle-aged peace activist, suffragist, and former prisoner of conscience who took her husband’s name on marriage–as he took hers.

But I am digressing, now, and Plowman will return to our original subject–the war, that is:

Dear Mrs. Pethick Lawrence

…I was thinking, as I wondered what I should say in answer to your letter, of the things that give one courage. I remember quite well the day before I first went into trenches. It was early in August last year & we were bivouacing in dry shell-holes on the high ground near Mametz… we were going to ground alongside Delville Wood on the following day. And… I remember very clearly how, & with what satisfaction, I recalled the only march I had ever done before I joined the army–from the Embankment to the Albert Hall as the tail end of that huge midsummer demonstration in favour of Votes for Women. I remember hearing you speak, & though I had surely been the most inconspicuous person in the whole show, it glowed in my memory then as one of my few actions that had been mightily well worth while. It gave me that assurance of personal identity which is, I suppose, the foundation of courage.

Now your letter comes with the same gift. So I thank you enormously…

…your kindness adds a cubit to my stature.

…Yours very sincerely,

Max Plowman

P.S. Can you answer this conundrum? Having proved to my own satisfaction that every man has a God-given right to his own life, how am I to remain a member of an organisation which has the destruction of men’s lives for its chief object?

M.P.[1]

Yes, that’s a good question, isn’t it…

 

Our other bit, today, a century back, is another letter of thanks from a young subaltern to a sustaining female presence… in this case Edward Brittain to his sister Vera.

Italy, 22 December 1917

I am so thankful for your letters–they are now as before the greatest help in the whole world . . . I don’t know whether I am glad to be here or not–it sounds strange but it’s quite true; I was glad to leave the unpleasant region we were in not far from you and the novelty was good for a time but yet in a way it is all the same because there is no known future and the end is not yet, though, on the face of things at present, there is perhaps more chance of return…

We will have another look at this letter when Vera receives it, but I should include just a little more, as insight into Edward’s mood, now that he has adjusted to life on a quiet front:

…this sort of routine is so deadening; it is a life of thinking about little details the whole time and especially thinking about the right one at the right time; the brain must be essentially a machine of memory and after that the rule of life is expediency.

It is very tiring and uninteresting. I can’t get on with this because of a number of messages, orders, etc which are continually arriving…  I am rather a grumbler.

…Goodnight, dear dear child

Ever your

Edward[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 86-7.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 385-7.

Carstairs on Leave; The Master Returns; Toby’s Room at Garsington

After the intensity of Bourlon Wood, today is a quiet day, a transfer day–with time, then, for a fictional foray.

When Carroll Carstairs came to write his narrative of the harrowing battle for Bourlon Wood, he did so with an oddly light yet gripping style–and he scanted neither the intensely subjective experience of being a man alone under fire nor the nature of infantry combat as a contest of small groups of men all negotiating fear, discipline, compassion, loyalty, and violence. His coda to the episode hints at the difficulties ahead for soldiers who pass through such experiences.

The next day—at a time when I was well able to appreciate it—my leave to England came through.

I made a wide circle to avoid a particular point being shelled; fearful, now that I was temporarily a detached human, of being hit.[1]

 

Going the opposite way, today, a century back, was Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Hamilton, returning from an apparently useless senior officers’ course on Salisbury Plain. He dutifully notes the stages of his approach, but has nothing, as yet, to say of the battle that awaits him.[2]

 

Finally, today, another fictional introduction. Well into the fourth year of this project, I am highly sympathetic to novelists who find a way to put their earlier research to a second use. Pat Barker’s novel Toby’s Room follows a brother and sister and a small group of friends through the war: there is a good deal about art and medicine, and, merging the two in Great War fashion, about the horrors of disfigurement. The novel, too, mines Vera Brittain‘s experience and opens a dialogue with Virginia Woolf’s fictional treatment of the war.

But I mention Toby’s Room now because it also makes a flying visit to Historical Sassoonland, the point of origin of Barker’s Regeneration books. Today, a century back, the novel’s protagonist, Elinor Brooke, begins keeping a diary… which coincides with a visit to Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor, at which “the talk was all of Ottoline’s recent trip to Edinburgh to see Siegfried Sassoon, who… does seem to have treated her rather badly…” But Elinor’s sympathy is with Sassoon, hating the war and yet trying to find a place in it where he can do some good, even if it is only to take care of his men. The “diary” continues for the next few days…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 139.
  2. War Diary, 414.
  3. Toby's Room, 233-6.

Lord Dunsany Finds Comfort Among Friends, and a Near Miss and Wordsworth

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, has had a less than exalted military career. He’s never fit in well with his brother officers–perhaps because he is a prickly sort of character, perhaps because he’s a literary chap (and a fantasy-inclined literary chap at that), or perhaps because he was briefly an officer in the prewar army and had quit, thus demonstrating a preference for the life of a prickly, literary, adventurous, wealthy lord to that of a career army officer… For these reasons–or because of his outspokenness or his intermittent speaking up for an enlisted poet–and also certainly because of his status as a peer and the fact that his wound was bravely but awkwardly obtained in Dublin–Dunsany has spent very little time at the front. So it is with eager appreciation that he has found himself accepted, at last, into the less socially intimidating milieu of a line battalion.

He has found fellowship–friends and comrades, if not yet quite a band of brothers. And this makes him very happy. But how did it come about?

Because out here, where titles and outside interests are not of much account, he has passed the one test that really matters.

My Darling Mink,

We are well out of the way of shells and will still be when you get this letter. I hope you may some day meet all the officers of D. Co. with whom I have soldiered. They are all my friends, even Lacey, a typical ranker: they probably all started out with a prejudice against my inexperience, which I think changed in every case under shell-fire…

That is, the logically assumed that a titled, ex-professional officer with so little trench experience was either being protected or had previously proven to be a grave liability. But, as with Robert Graves and so many others, he finds that social resistance is not zealously maintained against an officer who can do his job under fire.

And, even better, the mixed lot of men now officering old Kitchener battalions are likely to be less hostile to the consolations of literature than a mess full of regular officers.

…and another is Williams… a journalist on the Manchester Guardian with a good appreciation for poetry. One night I was rummaging among philosophy to find comfort and he said did I know Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty. I asked him to repeat it, which he could not do, but he said what he could remember of it as we went along the line and I certainly found it inspiring. I don’t think I told you that I was hit one night but not hurt. It was that night, but it was later on that we were talking about Wordsworth, towards dawn.

Ever your loving

Pony[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147.

Ivor Gurney in a Nutshell; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon Eat, Drink, and Mock Merrily; Herbert Read the Very Model of the Modernist Company Commander

A day, today, of striking contrasts. First, Marion Scott seems to have asked Ivor Gurney for some biographical details, presumably for some task related to the publication of his Severn and Somme, which she has single-handedly seen into the press. He responded with a charmingly inexact potted bio:

26 October 1917

Details of the Life and Crimes of the private named Gurney.

Gloucester Cathedral 1900…

Head boy sometime

I have forgotten when I got the Scholarship (I have asked Mrs Hunt to tell you.)
Stanford — Composition
Mr Waddington (whom I like very much) for Counterpoint…

Also the Westminster Board.

Mr Sharpe (a good man) for Piano…

Centre-forward for Kings School

Owner of the “Dorothy” (defunct)

2nd best batting average
3rd best bowling — last term of school

crack platoon shot July 1917

Author of “Severn and Somme”
and a further unborn imbecility.

Army Feb. 9th (?) 1915

Proficiency pay. C[onfined to].B[arracks]. every now and then. Sang Widdecombe Fair
blushingly at Albert Nov: 1916

Wounded Good Friday night — or rather on the Sat:
Gassed (?) at Ypres.[1]

 

A few miles away in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon spent the day together. It was something of a last hurrah,[2] since Owen’s Medical Board–not to mention Sassoon’s make-up Board–is looming on the horizon. But it was a low-key last hurrah, centered on two things dear to combat soldiers: food and laughter. Owen will write, tomorrow:

I am so happy with Sassoon. Spent all day with him yesterday. Breakfast, Lunch, Tea & Dinner, chiefly at the Conservative Club…[3]

Sassoon provided the chief amusement:

After a good dinner and a bottle of noble Burgundy had put us in good spirits, I produced a volume of portentously over-elaborate verse, recently sent me by the author. From this I began to read extracts—a cursory inspection having assured me that he would find them amusing.

The extracts included bizarrely eccentric lines such as

When Captain Cook first sniff’d the wattle
And love Columbus’d Aristotle…

Which left Owen “surrendering to convulsions of mirth in a large leather-covered armchair.” Before joining Owen in this surrender, Sassoon managed to get as far as:

What cassock’d misanthrope
Hawking peace-canticles for glory-gain,
Hymns from his rostrum’d height th’epopt of Hate?

O is it true I have become
This gourd, this gothic vacuum?[4]

Very bad poetry is funny, it’s true…

 

Herbert Read, however, is a serious-minded Modernist, and, in today’s letter to Evelyn Roff, he writes… well, perhaps from the heart, perhaps to impress, perhaps some of both. But he certainly becomes the first poet here to quote an abstract contemporary poem in lieu of describing what his latest tour in the line was like–in lieu of Dante, Bunyan,  or the Bible. It’s also, for us, a remote crossing of paths: the poem he quotes–almost accurately–is by the important Modernist H.D., wife of Richard Aldington (and current hostess of D.H. Lawrence).

We have had a terrible time–the worst I have ever experienced (and I’m getting quite an old soldier now). Life has never seemed quite so cheap nor nature so mutilated. I won’t paint the horrors to you. Some day I think I will, generally and for the public benefit.

This casual-but-major statement of intent, with Read’s habitual mix of studied rationality stretched thin over his ambition, is especially noteworthy if we follow his train of thought. It makes very good sense, of course, to go from horror to the hope of writing to the question of what writing the war might accomplish… which would be some sort of attempt to bridge–or at least signal across–the yawning gulf that separates combat veterans from civilians. Very good sense: but I feel as if we don’t often see these two thoughts nakedly next to each other, and in this order. Sassoon feels the gulf and then writes in anger and in ways which are neither didactic nor conciliatory; Read wants to write, and then thinks of the gulf…

I was thoroughly ‘fed up’ with the attitude of most of the people I met on leave–especially the Londoners. They simply have no conception whatever of what war is really like and don’t seem concerned about it at all. They are much more troubled about a few paltry air raids. They raise a sentimental scream about one or two babies killed when every day out here hundreds of the very finest manhood ‘go west’.

…and then he comes back to the anger. This we saw as long ago as 1915, but it is getting worse.

And yet Read pulls up short again, and turns, doing an unusual sort of somersault back over the gulf. He will describe war, but he will use the words of a civilian and a woman–a woman moreover in a position analogous to the letter’s addressee: both are women in England with long experience in waiting for the next letter, and fearing the next telegram.

Of course, everyday events are apt to become rather monotonous. . . . but if the daily horror might accumulate we should have such a fund of revulsion as would make the world cry ‘enough!’ So sometimes I wonder if it is a sacred duty after all ‘to paint the horrors’. This reminds me of a poem I’ll quote–by one of our moderns and a woman at that.

Another life holds what this lacks,
a sea, unmoving, quiet—
not forcing our strength
to rise to it, beat on beat—
a stretch of sand,
no garden beyond, strangling
with its myrrhlilies—
a hill not set with black violets
but stones, stones, bare rocks,
dwarf-trees, twisted, no beauty
to distract—to crowd
madness upon madness.

Only a still place
and perhaps some outer horror
some hideousness to stamp beauty,
a mark
on our hearts.

H.D.

Perhaps the quotation has too much of the gesture about it–“See, I read women!”–but it’s not impossible to read it as whole sincere. This is a novel way of reaching out to Roff, across the gulf, and implying that she is to be considered an honorary combatant, able to understand something of its horror and not get hysterical about “a few paltry air raids.” And even if it is working hard to emphasize their connection, it’s not a bad quotation at all: the poem, with its horror and ruinscape and madness, is quite a good fit for the Salient in 1917. Which, I suppose, could be said of a lot of Modernist poetry, especially for those readers who might find the Christian framework of the old standby descriptions of Hell or the Slough of Despond off-putting…

In any event, Read is not just the impressively intellectual and in-touch boyfriend, here: he is also, to a surprising degree, given the emphasis on accumulating horrors, a happy warrior. This is not as uncommon a combination as we might think–Sassoon is the most obvious analogue, of course, but we might also remember gentle Roland Leighton‘s thirst for a decoration–and Read should, even in a somewhat preening letter, be given credit for facing up to the apparent contradiction.

War is horrible, but he’s enjoying himself; it’s more than can be borne, but he’s bearing it quite well:

My military progress continues… I  am now commanding a company… I thoroughly enjoy my despotism… I have got a fine lot of lads though they are fastly decreasing in numbers… they are a gallant crew: we have more decorations in our company than in any other in the battalion. I got four Military Medals today out of seven for the battalion. And damn proud of it we all are…

My subalterns (notice the ‘my’–sort of possessive pride) are quite a good lot…

The day grows long, so instead of transcribing the characters-of-the-company piece which closes the letter, I will merely summarize his band of brothers. They are much what we would expect: the quiet old guy of thirty or so; the sturdy, pretty-eyed optimist; the boastful but efficient sportsman; and, most promising, the “young rake of the cockney variety”…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 226-7.
  2. But not as much as Sassoon remembers it to be, since he seems to confuse/conflate two memories, including aspects of their next evening out in this description, or vice versa...
  3. Collected Letters, 503.
  4. Siegfried’s Journey, 64-65. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 278-9. The unfortunate author was one Aylmer Strong; Sassoon presented Owen with the volume.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 112-14.

Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen Link Up–A New Spat and a New Friendship; Owen’s “Disabled,” and Isaac Rosenberg’s Simultaneous Prequel, “Girl to a Soldier”

Robert Graves spent the night on the train from London to Edinburgh. Arriving at Craiglockhart, today, a century back, he found Siegfried Sassoon in a bad mood, fed up with his intolerable Theosophist roommate (although it is unclear whether the man’s relentless Panglossianism, the actual tenets of his pseudo-faith, or merely his baroque shenanigans with English diction are the real cause of Sassoon’s ire). But Sassoon’s troubles are deeper, probably: after long weeks working with Rivers, and then a long break while Rivers himself was on sick leave, Sassoon is beginning to be convinced that regardless of the rightness of his cause–his protest, that is–there is no ethically acceptable course for himself but to rejoin the men he protested for, and put himself once more in harm’s way.

After all, for how long can one write and golf and complain when one’s friends (not to mention the soldiers who, by all accounts, respected Sassoon and would not fare as well under most other subalterns) are going back to war?

For a little while longer, evidently. Sassoon is most stubborn when others might want to give him a nudge. Even though Graves took the night train to see him, Sassoon couldn’t be bothered to wait, and called in a subordinate (of sorts) to entertain his guest.

 

Biography can be a sweeping, powerful genre, filled with insights into life and history and the human condition. But it’s also, fundamentally, an assemblage of interesting tit-bits. And here’s a good one: Wilfred Owen only became friendly with Robert Graves because this very morning, a century back, Sassoon would not, by Jove, be stayed from a round of golf, no matter how many friends-and-poets want to spend the morning with him. Owen appreciates the strange gesture of selfish generosity:

On Sat, I met Robert Graves (see last poem of O.H.) for Sassoon, whom nothing could keep from his morning’s golf; & took Graves over to the Course when he arrived. He is a big, rather plain fellow, the last man on earth apparently capable of the extraordinary, delicate fancies in his books.

No doubt he thought me a slacker sort of sub. S.S. when they were together showed him my longish war-piece ‘Disabled’ (you haven’t seen it) & it seems Graves was mightily impressed, and considers me a kind of Find!

No thanks. Captain Graves! I’ll find myself in due time.

So, yes, although he has just met another impressive published poet, not to mention a man, however gawky, from a literary family, with a Public School behind him and Oxford ahead (should he survive)–a man so esteemed of Sassoon that he is the addressee of several poems–Owen is able to puff out his chest and hold his head high. He might accept more friendship, but he doesn’t seem to be in need of any more mentors or patrons (though, of course, in the professional sense he very much is). Nor does he: “Disabled” is not one of Owen’s more subtle pieces, nor does it have that compression and swift, quiet musicality of some of his best poems. But it is direct, and very, very sad:

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
                            *        *        *        *        *
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
                            *        *        *        *        *
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
                            *        *        *        *        *
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

 

A good poem, terrible in its lingering agony.

But we were in the middle of a letter marked by Owen’s high spirits and new confidence. So: Owen is flattered by Graves’s compliments, and he values Sassoon very highly–esteems him, even loves him in some sense(s)–but he is his own poet now, and not so smitten that he doesn’t see the condescension and inequality of their relationship:

I think it a rather precious exhibition of esteem that S.S. lends me the MSS. of his next book. On the other hand, when I pointed out a quotation from Shakespere that I intended for my Frontispiece, he collared it by main force, & copied it out for himself![1]

 

Let’s return to Sassoon, and to what he is avoiding. And let’s give him his due as a thinker: he is slow to decide and easily influenced on the way to decision, but he is bullish and not easily swayed once underway, less brilliant than several of our young poets, but not nearly as plodding as he portrays himself in the proper-person autobiographies.

The problem is not what to do–he can hardly wait out an indefinite war as an asymptomatic victim of its neuroses, and he will not accept a sham permanent disability–but how to explain his about-face, how to justify it to himself as well as to others.

Graves, for instance, hates the war and fights on, but his explanations are not satisfactory to Sassoon:

It doesn’t matter what’s the cause.
What wrong they say we’re righting,
A curse for treaties, bonds and laws.
When we’re to do the fighting!
And since we lads are proud and true,
What else remains to do?

 

Graves generally styles himself as a bit of a rebel, but he is conventional, at least, in the fact that his pride in serving well–and in serving with well-respected units of a proud old Regiment–is a central facet of his war experience. Sassoon can’t object to this, exactly, but he also can’t express his loyalty this simplistically.

His irritation with Graves, however, may have relatively little to do with poetic expressions of dissent. He may be annoyed at another aspect of what could be seen as either immaturity or commendably heedless devotion. Not only is Graves fighting on with only the most conventional not-reasoning-why as his excuse, but he is (conventionally) besotted with a young woman, one whose outspokenness and enthusiasms (feminism, the literature of childhood) are hardly to Sassoon’s taste.[2]

There are worse things in the world than differences of opinions, friendly spats, and petulant devotion to previously planned rounds of golf, especially when they conspire to spark new friendships. Whatever the initial impressions that Owen and Graves garnered of each other, they will be friends, now, to the benefit of both. If Graves seems an unsuitable mentor he will still a very useful reader. And Owen, like most poets in the course of making leaps and bounds, makes good use of the criticism his work-in-progress receives.

 

But there are other poets not in Scotland. Isaac Rosenberg, for instance, is in France, where he recently returned from leave and promptly fell ill with influenza. One slim benefit of this dangerous illness is the ability to catch up on his correspondence…

Dear Mr. Bottomley

When I returned from my holiday I as taken sick and sent down the line. So I can write to you more leisurely than before. When I was in England I felt too restless to write or read…

Rosenberg then confides that he purchased a book of Bottomley’s, and proceeds to be assiduously complimentary of the work, as well as concerned about his mentor’s health–this from a sick, weak man who, if he survives the ‘flu, will be sent back into the line. But Rosenberg’s deferential attitude never falls all the way into obsequiousness. His leave was emotionally confusing (as of course it must be, after a first long experience of the trenches), but despite the feelings of dislocation his confidence is high:

I don’t knew whether you sent that photo you promised… but I am looking forward to seeing it very much. If ever I get the chance I will remind you of your promise to sit for me–if I still have the skill and power to draw. I wrote a small poem I’ll enclose, I may now be able to think about my unicorn although so many things happening puts all ideas our of ones head.

Yours sincerely,

I Rosenberg

The poem he included was this early draft of “Girl To A Soldier On Leave,” which makes, I now realize, a rather haunting companion–too late, or too early–to “Disabled.” Sex and death and fear ans suffering are all hand-in-hand, today…

 

Girl To A Soldier

I love you – Titan lover,
My own storm days Titan.
Greater than the sons of Zeus,
I know whom I should choose.

Pallid days, arid & wan
Tied your soul fast.
Babel cities smoky tops
Bore down on your growth
Vulturelike… What were you?
But a word in the brain’s ways
Or the sleep of Circe’s swine.
One gyve holds you yet.

Love! You love me, your eyes
Have looked through death at mine.
You have tempted a grave too much.
I let you – I repine.[3]

 

And, finally,–and just so we can get all five of the most famous surviving war poets into one post–let’s have a quote from the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex, for today, a century back:

Orders to move on 14th received. Party with Lieutenant Blunden reconnoitres camp near Vierstraat.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 499.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 185-6.
  3. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 110-12.

Siegfried Sassoon Endures a Torrent of Drivel; Charles Carrington Chooses a Tank of Filth; Herbert Read Misses Out on Fear

We begin today with a brief update on Siegfried Sassoon–or, really, on his unbelievable Theosophist roommate.

7 October 1917, Craigockhart,

Dearest Robbie,

I am much relieved that the new poems have passed safely  through your judgment…

Rivers is back, and I hope he will get me a room to myself, as I can’t do anything with a prosy Theosophist there all the time–he maddens me with his stilted talk. When I told him our casualties (by official reports) were 102,000 for
September, he remarked ‘Yes, Sassoon, it is the Celestial Surgeon at work on humanity.’ But he may provide material for a poem some-day…[1]

Perhaps–but he will certainly provide material for the coming memoirs and novels…

 

But Ypres looms. Even those, like Herbert Read, who have missed the worst of Passchendaele seem to be able to put their finger on the essence of its late-war-of-attrition misery. This next letter sounds so much like the recent accounts of Carrington and Blunden that it feels almost like plagiarism. It’s not, though: it’s just that everyone is having the same experience. There is a really frightening unity of events here: the battalion successfully advances under a smothering barrage, and even holds its gains against counter-attacks, but it is nearly destroyed in doing so, and those who survive hardly more fit to continue than those who were maimed; the only fit officers are those who were left out of the initial attack and then sent forward to pick up the pieces…

When I arrived behind the line I found that the Battalion were in the thick of the fight. I had to stay behind until they came out, along with two others who had straggled in. All such stragglers for all the Brigade were billeted together–about 15 of us. We have a large mess-hut wherein some passing genius has built a wide open old-English fireplace of bricks. Fuel in plenty appears miraculously, so, as the weather is vile and tempestuous we build the fire high and sit around it in a circle. We were rather quiet, not knowing what has happened to our friends. Vague rumours come down to us every now and then. So-and-so is killed, so-and-so is wounded. The ——- have only two officers left out of the twenty that went into action. I hear that Col is wounded, but still ‘carrying on’. That sounds like him. Later someone comes down with shell-shock. He seems distracted and does not know anything definite. Some he has seen killed, others wounded. A few grim details he can give us. The attack was a great success–all objectives taken and so on. But for all we want to know we shall have to wait until they come out. The latest rumour says that is tomorrow and that we are going back to reorganize. We can only hope so.

Read, whose army career is intermittently difficult to follow, is something of a fire-eater himself (he led a raid this summer, and has been decorated for valor), so this next thought is certainly believable on its face. I think, however, that it touches on something deeper, something that helps explain why the war still goes on and why, a century on, it still fascinates:

I feel a little ashamed of having escaped it all. There is always a regret in not having shared dangers with friends. Perhaps one is jealous of their experiences…[2]

 

Charles Carrington has missed none of his comrades’ dangers, of late. Yesterday, a century back, he spent a long day crouching in the positions gained during the assault on October 4th, and we left him to his own devices. Today his increasingly exhausted and jumpy company are still waiting for their relief.

It seemed so quiet this morning that headquarters sent us orders to do salvage work. The wounded had all been brought in; the stretcher-bearers were collecting and burying the dead; I sent men to help in this and to collect arms and equipment. But during the morning it rained once more, and at times there was some shell-fire, at which the poor wretched men returned to their shell-holes. They got the worst of the weather; but we in our wooden shed right on the skyline soon began to attract the shells. The Colonials on our right were expecting trouble. Suddenly a signal went up, three little lights pale against the rainy sky, red and green and white. It was the SOS. Then both barrages fell and the ‘crumps’ burst all about the valley. Though it turned out to be a false alarm, the artillery never altogether died away, and as the afternoon wore on, the enemy’s guns searched the Stroombeek valley and the ridge whereon we were. Luckily the men in the open lower down the slope were in little danger.

And, as a few days ago, Carrington’s attention becomes fixed on one aspect of his surroundings. It’s not that he doesn’t describe the men and what they are going through, but it’s almost as if he has come to understand that the men hardly matter in such a grim war of attrition–it’s the shells, and what might save a man from their force and fragments. Carrington is a very frank writer, and perhaps this switch from close description to a sort of leisurely descriptive aside is just a lapse of attention to style–“now the pill-box bit, I guess.” But it feels almost as if it substitutes for further description of feeling: the experience is so overwhelming, the exhaustion so complete, that we will now stare at the wall for awhile.

Pill-boxes had begun by being concreted cellars in farm houses; they grew gradually into keeps of reinforced concrete in the midst of the wreckage of ruined houses; in the third stage the ruins were scattered by shell-fire and the square boxes of concrete were left standing alone. We had found in the vestibule of this mansion a little kennel door leading to a tiny cellar perhaps six feet in each dimension, half its depth being below ground-level. This closet was concreted over, and being watertight, had naturally filled up to ground-level with rain-water. At some time or other it had been used as a latrine, and the smell from it was prodigious.

When a second time the S O S was sent up (as far as we could-see, without reason) and again our barrage fell and the German retaliation came crashing round us, I began to look for cover. A near whizzbang decided me. Smell or no smell, I would explore the funkhole. I crawled in and found a ledge round the kennel and a few boards just above water-level stretched across the corners. It was safe from anything less than a direct hit from a 5’9. But if I let my hand drop carelessly or hung my foot over the edge of the board it fell into two feet of stagnant green water, fetid and slimy sewage. The smell of it was midway between a septic tank and a tidal river in an industrial town, and it had a staleness all its own.

Thorburn almost jeered when I crept into this tank, but when later in the evening a third SOS went up from the Colonials, and the shells fell closer than ever, Serjeant Walker and I went to earth together, and before long Thorburn swallowed his pride and joined us.

This is just one more incident, one more indignity, one more disgusting detail, but it really can stand as metonymy for Passchendaele–a place so awful that a septic tank is a welcome shelter. Even the men of 1916–men who put up humorous signboards and collected flowers to decorate the trenches–would be aghast.

To-night the battalion was to be relieved. We were already far enough back not to be continually on the alert. We sat and waited from seven o’clock till midnight crouched on boards, this dank pool three inches from the seats of our trousers and the roof three inches above our heads. Since an excursion or two showed that the men were not under fire, there was nothing to do beyond exchanging a few routine messages with headquarters about the relief. We sat and talked, sticking a candle-end on a ledge to light up the slime on the damp walls and our own unshaven faces.

One caller came to us, ‘Davy’ Jones, a little racecourse tout, a man of unlimited impudence, a singer of scurrilous songs, owner of the company Crown and Anchor board, always in trouble, but always well forward in action.
For once he was beat. He had been to headquarters on some errand or other (we had made him an acting section leader) and was standing in the little trench outside when two 5‘9’s came over together and burst on the parapet. With that curious uncertainty of shell-fire, they had almost blown the ground from under his feet without hurting him. But he was badly shaken and had lost his impudence. We brought him into our funkhole and made a fuss of him until the shelling was over.

And at the close of the day, exactly like Edmund Blunden, yesterday, Carrington and his comrades find themselves drawn to wistful reminiscences of better times. But not the endless summer of 1914, or cricket on the lawn, or school games, or English meadows… who can remember that anymore?

We soon fell into a sentimental conversation,

‘Of old unhappy far-off things
And battles long ago.’

Jones and I talked of our old fights, of Ovillers and Gommecourt, and the good times in summer out at rest, and of the friends who had ‘drawn their full issue’ long before…

At last our relief came. Section by section the relieving regiment arrived and replaced each of my groups with a platoon. Thorburn saw to the section reliefs; it was my place to ‘hand over’ company headquarters and explain the tactical situation…

I was full of anxiety to cross the Steenbeek and get away, being terribly frightened of being hit now at the last minute. We passed the Winnipeg road and the old Langemarck trench line, left on our right Janet Farm, where the doctor plied his trade, then crossed the little bridge over the Steenbeek among the rusting remains of twenty-two tanks lying dead in the bottom of the valley, and reached the road, where at last there was a firm foothold to find unless you trod in a shell-hole…

Terrified, Carrington jumps on a truck when shelling begins, and is separated from his sergeant and his men. Eventually he finds his way, alone, to the bivouac. “Edmonds'” account ends with an irony less bitter than most:

Serjeant Walker and all my stragglers came in. Cold, damp and utterly despondent I crept into my valise and slept.

It seemed to me that I had been feeble, inactive, and unnerved, but for my part in this battle I was given the Military Cross and a captaincy. I had expected a court-martial.

Casualties to the Battalion:

Killed        4 officers, 81 other ranks.
Wounded 6 officers, 171 other ranks.
10             252

The total, 262, being about half of those who took part in the battle. At this stage of the war, in order to avoid the disproportionate death-rate among officers, only sixteen per battalion went into action. This time ten were hit. My company set out with three officers, seventeen N.C.O.’s and ninety-two men. One officer, two N.C.O.’s and forty-four men survived the attack unhurt.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 189-90.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 109-110.
  3. A Subaltern's War, 170-85.

Dr. Dunn, Frank Richards, and Edmund Blunden at Third Ypres: Six Men Dead by a Chance Shell, Six by Deliberate Bombs, One by a Bullet; Trauma, Murder, and Angels in the Rocket-Lit Sunset

As yesterday became today, a century back, most of the remaining 2/Royal Welch were grabbing a few hours of sleep in their makeshift line of shell-holes and captured German pillboxes. Dr. Dunn’s day will hardly be any less eventful, although some relief is given to him and to Captain Radford when one Major Kearsey arrived from the Battalion reserve to take command. Within a few hours of dawn they were back into piecemeal combat, advancing into new holes left by more recently retreated Germans. But British “bite and hold” tactics must still contend with the German “defense in depth,” and the fighting is much more reminiscent of the platoon-driven tactics of the next war than of the “lines” of infantry attacking “lines” of trenches which were the common conceptual coinage of even last year’s battles. To advance means to find and eliminate those strong points that held out yesterday, and soon the Royal Welch, pushing out from Jerk Farm, take a number of prisoners in a now-isolated pillbox.

We will hear more about these men in a moment, but Dr. Dunn’s narrative proceeds quickly toward the late afternoon. If yesterday’s narrative involved an admirable suppression of his own very active role in commanding the battalion, today concludes with an admirable confession of what the day’s combat did to him.

In a lull not long after 5, a delusive lull, I went out to look for Mann’s body. Some Australians told me where about it was, and added that “one of our fellows is taking care of his ring…” Radford seemed to be amused at the game of I-Spy among the shell-holes that followed. Doubtless the snipers much enjoyed it, and perhaps a German artillery observer; I didn’t, much, until it was over. It was the longest quarter-hour of my life. Beginning near 6 o’clock there was half an hour’s sustained shelling of H.Q., so accurate, so concentrated, that my confidence in a new shell-hole as the safest shelter was shaken. I came to date a failure of nerve from impressions taken then.

In other words–slightly less old-fashioned words–Dunn chose to become a combatant (in violation of the laws of war) and help save his battalion from what otherwise may have been a collective failure. And in doing so, he pushed himself to the point of exhaustion and was exposed to so much trauma–“shell-shocked” by the physical facts of shelling but also psychologically affected by the experience–that he will suffer a stress reaction in the near future.

 

Frank Richards‘s account of today, a century back, is more detailed, and no less focused on the danger that the doctor–and he himself–faced.

Major Kearsley, the Doctor and I went out reconnoitring. We were jumping in and out of shell holes when a machine-gun opened out from somewhere in front, the bullets knocking up the dust around the shell holes we had just jumped into. They both agreed that the machine-gun had been fired from the pillbox about a hundred yards in front of us. We did some wonderful humping and hopping, making our way back to the bank. The enemy’s artillery had also opened out…

Richards also tells the tale–with obvious relish–of a timorous platoon officer (unfortunately paired with a “windy” sergeant) who has to be forced forward to take a German position. When this officer–“The Athlete”–balks in confusion and sends back for orders, Richards is sent to carry verbal instructions–an awkward task, to send a trusted, more experienced private to give orders to a young and hesitant second-lieutenant. Richards delivers the message, and then, returning from the newly-captured pillbox to the H.Q. unit, he becomes a near witness to a war crime:

The enemy were now shelling very heavily and occasionally the track was being sprayed by machine-gun bullets. I met a man of one of our companies with six German prisoners whom he told me he had to take back to a place called Clapham Junction, where he would hand them over. He then had to return and rejoin his company. The shelling was worse behind us than where we were…

I had known this man about eighteen months and he said, “Look here, Dick. About an hour ago I lost the best pal I ever had, and he was worth all these six Jerries put together. I’m not going to take them far before I put them out of mess.” Just after they passed me I saw the six dive in one large shell hole and he had a job to drive them out…

Some little time later I saw him coming back and I know it was impossible for him to have reached Clapham Junction and returned in the time… As he passed me again he said: “I done them in as I said, about two hundred yards back. Two bombs did the trick.” He had not walked twenty yards beyond me when he fell himself: a shell-splinter had gone clean through him. I had often heard some of our chaps say that they had done their prisoners in whilst taking them back, but this was the only case I could vouch for, and no doubt the loss of his pal had upset him very much.

This brutal tale is tied up too neatly. Unless, of course, that is exactly how it happened.

 

The day’s traumas are far from over. Richards has had a very lucky war so far: not a scratch on him and, as he is usually just behind the attack with the signallers, very little in the way of immediate deadly violence to perform. When he is hit today, it is only a spent piece of shrapnel that hammers him on a thickly-padded part of his leg, and he escapes with a painful bruise and a temporary limp. Which means that he can continue carrying messages over a most uncertain battlefield.

During the afternoon the Major handed me a message to take to A Company, which consisted of the survivors of two companies now merged into one under the command of a young platoon officer… The ground over which I had to travel had been occupied by the enemy a little while before and the Company were behind a little bank which was being heavily shelled. I slung my rifle, and after I had proceeded some way I pulled my revolver out for safety. Shells were falling here and there and I was jumping in and out of shell holes. When I was about fifty yards from the Company, in getting out of a large shell hole I saw a German pop up from another shell hole in front of me and rest his rifle on the lip of the shell hole. He was about to fire at our chaps in front who had passed him by without noticing him. He could never have heard me amidst all the din around: I expect it was some instinct made him turn around with the rifle at his shoulder. I fired first and as the rifle fell out of his hands. I fired again. I made sure he was dead before I left him…

This little affair was nothing out of the ordinary in a runner’s work when in attacks.

Returning after giving the message, Richards found Kearsey still in command and Dunn “temporarily back in the R.A.M.C.” After carrying another message to the hesitant “Athlete,” Richards is going forward once again alongside Kearsey when they are caught by a German machine gun, and the major is shot through the leg. Richards dresses the wound and helps Kearsey back to where Dunn and Radford and the H.Q. section were stationed.

The Major said that the Battalion would be relieved at dusk and he would try to stick it until then; but the Doctor warned him, if he did, that it might be the cause of him losing his leg.

He then handed over the command to Captain Radford, who said that he would much prefer the Doctor taking command, as he seemed to have a better grip of the situation than what he had. But the Major said he could not do that as the Doctor was a non-combatant, but that they could make any arrangements they liked when he had left…

Richards accompanies the Major back toward the CCS, and so misses what, precisely, those arrangements were…

Even though the battalion has acquitted itself well–it will shortly be withdrawn, with congratulations heaped upon its few remaining officers–both accounts are framed by implied criticisms of the British staff at brigade and division level (and higher).

Earlier in the day, Richards glimpsed an Australian brigadier in a shell hole, having come forward to see for himself what is happening to the men under his command.

It was the only time during the whole of the War that I saw a brigadier with the first line of attacking troops…[1]

Dunn praises the Australians as well, and in a precise parallel of Richards’ observation, he sees a medical officer from the divisional staff treating the wounded in the front line, and also notes that it was the only time he saw such an august medical personage actually treating the wounded under fire.[2]

 

The Royal Welch will soon be out of it, as will the 11th Royal Sussex. But they have been in the thick of it, too, only a mile or so due south (just on the other side of the chateau that was enfilading the Welsh yesterday). Edmund Blunden was a witness, not so long ago, to one of the worst direct hits we’ve seen; today, a century back–and hardly back with the battalion after a long spell of rest, training, and reserve–he was once again.

There is a special sort of terror in sitting in a pillbox that is very strong and very secure–but not strong enough, and with a door facing the wrong way.

Never (to our judgment) had such shelling fallen upon us. For what reason? The Germans had clearly no idea of letting the British advance any farther along the Menin Road. Their guns of all calibres poured their fury into our small area. Reports of casualties were the principal messages from the front line, and we had no reason to think them exaggerated, with such a perpetual rain of shells. The trenches immediately about our pillboxes were already full of bodies. One man in my headquarters died of shock from a huge shell striking just outside. We endeavoured to send off a pigeon, but the pigeon scared by the gunfire found his way into the dugout again, and presently a noise under the floorboards led to his discovery. The men thought that many shells struck the pillbox. The only question seemed to be when one would pierce it, and make an end.

Next door, so to speak, the adjutant, doctor, and their helpers had a slightly worse position, more exposed to enemy observation. The Aid Post was hit, and the doctor continued to dress the wounded though with only an appearance of protection; the wounded came in great number. I went over to ask for orders and information; Lewis was in an almost smiling mood, and quizzed me about “coming to dinner.” Old Auger, the mess corporal, winked at me over the Adjutant’s shoulder, and raised a tempting bottle from his box. I returned, and presently the firing decreased. Lewis called on us to see how we were, and told me that he really meant some sort of dinner would be going soon, and I was to be there. Colonel Millward had just rejoined, from leave, and I had seen him in the headquarters just now; evidently, I thought, the news he brings is promising. A runner visited me, and went back over the fifty yards to the other pillbox — his last journey. He had arrived in the doorway there, and joined the five or six men sheltering there, including the doctor, consulting about something, when the lull in the shelling was interrupted. I was called on the telephone (we had some inexhaustible linesmen out on the wire) by Andrews at the forward station.

“I say, hasn’t something happened at your headquarters?”

“Not that I know of—all right I believe.” (The sound of shelling had long ceased to impinge.)

“Yes, I’m afraid something’s wrong: will you find out?”

My servant Shearing hurried across, and hurried back, wild-eyed, straining: “Don’t go over, sir; it’s awful. A shell came into the door.” He added more details after a moment or two. The doctor and those with him had been
killed.

Curiously, given Richards’s account of the murder of six German prisoners, six men of the Royal Sussex were killed by this shell–the doctor and five “Other Ranks.”[3]

 

This is the worst of the day’s narrative. And yet only a paragraph later Blunden inserts what has always been for me one of the most memorable pastoral incongruities of the whole war:

During this period my indebtedness to an Eighteenth Century poet became enormous. At every spare moment I read in Young’s Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, and I felt the benefit of this grave and intellectual voice, speaking often in metaphor which came home to one even in a pillbox. The mere amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.

We were relieved in broad daylight, under observation, but nobody refused to move. The estimate of casualties was 400, and although the real number was 280 or so, the battalion had had enough…

By the end of today, a century back, Blunden has picked up on Dunn’s theme for today: the limits of mental endurance in even the bravest men. And the bitterness of the staff’s indifference to their suffering.

The battalion assembled in the neighbourhood of a small and wiry wood called Bodmin Copse, with tumult and bullets and sometimes shells in the air around…

A steady bombardment with big shells began, and luckily most of them fell a few yards short, but the mental torture, especially when, after one had been carefully listened to in flight and explosion, another instantly followed as though from nowhere, was severe. The trench around me was slowly choked and caved in.

Maycock came up with a train of mules carrying Royal Engineers’ material and petrol cans of water to a point near Bodmin Copse, a star turn for which he earned the General’s stern reproof on account of his not obtaining a receipt for the deliveries.

But gentle Blunden cannot end on that note. No: instead, we see yesterday’s incongruous beauty once again:

The eastern sky that evening was all too brilliant with rockets, appealing for artillery assistance. Westward, the sunset was all seraphim and cherubim.[4]

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 251-60.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 400-04.
  3. This according to the Battalion Diary; I have not tracked the men through the CWGC or ascertained whether there is a record of the adjutant being killed today.
  4. Undertones of War, 241-5.