Ralph Hamilton Worries the Finer Points; Cynthia Asquith on Lady Desborough and Charles Dickens

Ralph Hamilton stayed up until two in the morning last night, a century back, first slaving over the duplicating machine and then touching up his colored maps by hand, with a paintbrush. A raid has been ordered on his sector and he has been charged with devising and executing the artillery plan. He is “very anxious the thing should go off well for everyone’s sake, and particularly as it is the first little battle that I have entirely arranged by myself.” Then, with all the planning done but for the smaller details, he went to a Casualty Clearing Session to have a rotten tooth pulled.[1]


While we await developments, then, let’s to London and, beginning with yesterday’s entry, reacquaint ourselves with Cynthia Asquith’s diary. Her husband’s surprise leave from his own artillery command lends a festive atmosphere to… scenes that may have had a different festive atmosphere had “Beb” not been there.

The list of friends to be mourned has grown longer, but her life is still filled with visitors, amusements, and sharp commentary on familiar figures–Lady Desborough, for one, whom we most recently saw mourning the death of Patrick Shaw Stewart.

Monday, 14th January

Lady Desborough, long before the war, with her two eldest sons, Julian and Billy Grenfell

Ettie and I were deep in conversation about Gosta Berling, and for what sum we would ‘give ourselves’, when Michael rushed up with a small silver egg-cup and peremptorily shouted, ‘Take that, and be sick in it!’ His power of suggestion was so great that Ettie began to feel sick and even she lay down before dinner.

Professor Walter Raleigh (University of Glasgow)

The beloved Professor arrived before dinner, looking more like a Blake drawing than ever. I love the way his eyes signal the thought which his tongue is shortly going to voice ‘coming over’, and he has such a delicious giggle in his eye.

This would be the formidably named Professor Walter Raleigh, one of the first and most influential professors of (contemporary) English Literature. But it is not to be a night, merely, of learned discussion.

After dinner really brilliantly amusing games were played. First Ettie unveiled me as a Renaissance statue; her float voice in pointing out the ‘lascivious contours of my cheek’ was admirable. Then Beb unveiled Evan as a ceramic of Helen of Troy—far the best thing of the kind I have ever seen. He really was brilliant, reaching his climax when he bared Evan’s shirt-front as Helen’s famous breast, delicately pointing out the curious and uncommon formation grotesquely represented by Evan’s two studs ( : instead of . .  )!

Cynthia Asquith (Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 1912)

Just in case no one else is as pleased with the timelessness of Asquith’s writing as I am, I will note for the record that the above typographical representation–of what I take to be vertically-arrayed (rather than traditional horizontally-arrayed) nipples–is a pioneering use of whatever those ASCII smiley faces we used to use in emails are called…

We rocked with laughter. The Professor and Letty then did an excellent Hamlet and Ophelia to Beb’s judge.


That was yesterday, a century back. To today, then:

Tuesday, 15th January

Ettie had to go up by early train and so Evan was carried off bound to her chariot wheels—I wonder if he wouldn’t have loved to stay and talk to the Professor. Pages and pages of Barriesque sentiment from John’s governess, comparing John to Peter Pan and me to Wendy.

Which is a bit odd. But then again Asquith is a close friend of Barrie’s, and has worked as his assistant.

I got up late and took the Professor for a short walk before lunch. He wore a rug instead of a coat, and it looked just like a Sir Walter Raleigh cloak. I told him about Sylvia Strayte and he promised to write a scenario with the right part for her. After luncheon… my question, ‘Do you miss Ettie?’ led to the most interesting discussion on her.

‘Miss her? No,’ he replied, ‘I never miss her—I’m glad to see her, but I never miss her—because you see she’s never a rest.’ I said I thought she was just one of the people one might miss in absence more than one enjoyed in presence; Ettie being such a tuning-fork, one might feel in the dark—as if the electric light had been turned out—and when it was turned on it might make one blink. He said he didn’t need a ‘tonic’, and that his quarrel with her was her constant ‘battling’ against life, her swimming against the current—precisely the ‘steel’ qualities in her which Letty and I had been admiring and enjoying. I had even thought I must make an effort to emulate her and I must say it was honey to hear the Professor’s disapproving dissection of her. How she would have minded what he said!

I said that I thought, before the war and its weight of personal suffering had fallen on her, One might have been irritated by her stubborn gospel of joy and attributed it largely to health and personal immunity. But that, now she had earned the right to preach and practise, her determination to go on fighting with broken tools and to save what was still worth keeping was wholly admirable and most valuable. This he admitted, but when I said I envied her capacity for intimacy, he strenuously denied it and said that her deliberate activity made her mechanical, and prohibited any real friendship or the finest companionship—his great point being that she never ‘blossomed’, and that that was what he valued. When, in his comparison of us, I denied the dewdrop that I was natural he said, ‘No, you’re not natural—you’re Nature.’

A compliment produced with the skill of an Elizabethan courtier. But Asquith–high-born and well-married though she is–would rather Raleigh pass another test. She is a serious reader, unashamed of having popular taste (of the best sort), and requires some of this taste to be shared by her intimates:

The Professor has just re-discovered Dickens—having not touched him for years and approached him critically, he has now found himself caught up in a flame of love and admiration. At dinner he said no one should read him between childhood and thirty or forty—certainly not in college days. The discussion led to his reading us heavenly bits out of Our Mutual Friend, chiefly those-relating to those masterpieces the ‘Wilfers’. Beb’s sick, dainty face led to a fierce discussion between me and him, which inducted the Professor into some very good talk about beloved Dickens. I said he was my principal touchstone about people, and that I should never have married Beb had I fully realised this dreadful lacuna. Beb said, with a sort of pride, that at Oxford they had considered Dickens something scarcely to be mentioned, and he accused us of being on the wave of the counter reaction. This annoyed me—as at every age I have read and revelled in him from pure hedonism—I maintained that no one would feel obliged to admire him from literary snobbishness, as they would Keats. He gaped at me when I said that, whatever his faults of style, I ranked him with the real giants—with Shakespeare, in fact, because he had above all the quality of wealth, and love, and sympathy—and I also claimed the Homeric quality for him.

Shakespeare and Dickens again!

To my joy, the Professor was an eloquent ally and said Dickens was a ‘howling swell’: that he had suffered from mispraise—which had produced the reaction against him—that by his contemporaries he had been liked for the comic and the sentimental, and that now the tide of true appreciation had thrown him right up amongst the giants. He spoke of his ‘heavenly homeliness’, his exuberance and amazing richness, and proved how false and superficial the charge of ‘unreality’ was. To Beb’s inquiry he maintained that Sterne was ‘thin’ beside him, Meredith nowhere, and Thackeray pour rire. In fact he said he had ‘eternity’. He considers Great Expectations the masterpiece and that, even from the point of view of ‘style’, the description of the marshes was as good as anything.

It was interesting talk and I wish I could record it. I enjoyed getting heated, and Mamma told me to ‘put two bits of Beb on the fire’—meaning coal. I made the Professor promise to ‘testify’ his conversion to Dickens. I think he might write something delicious about him.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 436-7.
  2. Diaries, 395-7.

Duff Cooper’s Country Weekend; Wilfred Owen’s Poetic Candlepower

Duff Cooper‘s weekend must continue to balance his mourning for Patrick Shaw Stewart with, well, getting on with the rest of his life.

January 5th.

Lady Desborough came down to breakfast and held the table as gallantly as ever. A pleasant morning spent playing with ponies and donkeys and sitting about, I went for a walk with Rosemary before tea the same walk that we went only a month ago when we were lamenting Edward. We had not had time even to find new words for our new sorrow. I like her enormously. She is so sensible. This evening more guests arrived. Michael, Rosemary, Diana and I played bridge until dinner… We talked about the past. It is my favourite subject now…[1]


Wilfred Owen provides a pretty direct contrast: work instead of play, and thoughts for the future and for new friends, instead of the past, and vanished ones.

10.30 p.m. 5 January, 1918

My dear dear Mother,

This has been a day of continuous work from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m…

On such days I always write to you—as you notice. Because on such days I have no time to settle down to my art. For it is an art, & will need the closest industry. Consider that I spend—what ?—three hours a week at it,  which means one fruitful half-hour, when I ought to be doing SIX hours a day by all precedents.

Poor Wilfred Owen, born into a time when writers’ work habits were glorified and dramatized instead of analyzed and debunked. Six hours! Surely not…

Owen doesn’t mean to gloat over his untalented cousin’s lack of success, but, again, simple contrasts are irresistible to a certain cast of writing mind… and this is a clever line, just self-deprecating enough, and yet accurate in its claims. There is power, here…

Leslie has been unfavourably reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement. Not attacked of course: one does not attack harmless civilians—They say he rimes with ease but has no originality or power.

I rime with wicked difficulty, but a power of five men, four women, three children, two horses, and one candle is in me…

Your own Wilfred x[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Old Men Forget, 72.
  2. Collected Letters, 525-6.

Duff Cooper Comes into the Presence of Lady Desborough; Carroll Carstairs Goes Sick

Duff Cooper must now deal with the loss of his friend (and defeated rival for Diana Manners‘s affections) Patrick Shaw Stewart in a manner that seems (and apologies if this characterization unduly influenced by an age of entertainment which has flattened out the weird old aristocracy into the casts of dramatically predictable costume dramas, or if it seems obnoxious and unfeeling) perfectly appropriate. Duff will mourn Patrick at a weekend party at a great country house.

The weekend will be about Patrick, of course, about the loss of yet another friend, another promising and talented young man. But it is also about Ettie, Lady Desborough, who has climbed back up to the same social pinnacle she once occupied as the queen of the “Souls” by a painful new route. She is the center of the scene once again, reprising her new role as chief mourner, who suffers the lost first of sons and now special young friends, yet refuses to submit to life’s blows. Cooper will look back on this weekend and write a scene-setting introduction to what he described today in his diary.

The next day was Friday and I was due to pay a visit to Taplow Court, where Lord and Lady Desborough lived. For many years before the war their house had been a celebrated centre of entertainment, and as their children grew up it was thrown open to the younger generation, who considered it the summit of all that was delightful. Their two elder sons, Julian, brilliant athlete and memorable poet, and Billy who equalled his brother in athletics and surpassed him in scholarship, had both been killed, Patrick, who came between them in age, had been a close friend of both, and had so loved their mother, his own parents being dead, that she had counted perhaps more than anybody in his life. She had loved him too, had helped him in his career and there was no house in the country where his loss would be felt so much.[1]

So off goes Duff to Taplow.[2]

A transcript from my diary… shows how we had learnt at that time to cope with tragedy.

January 4th.

The line running in my head all day has been–‘There is nothing left remarkable. Beneath the visiting moon.’ I telegraphed the news to Diana. Michael Herbert came in the afternoon. We were going to Taplow but wondered whether to and whether Lady Desborough would have heard the news…[3]

We decided to go to Taplow and caught the 5.5. We travelled with Rosemary [Leveson-Gower], Casie [Lady Desborough’s daughter] and Diana Wyndham. They were in high spirits and obviously hadn’t heard. I told Rosemary when we got to Taplow station and she told the others. They all heard it quietly. There were no tiresome tears or exclamations.

When we arrived we found that Lady Desborough was in her room and had already heard. Patrick’s sister had telegraphed to her. She adored Patrick. I went to see her after tea. She was sitting by the fire, almost in the dark. She has been ill. She kissed me and I couldn’t help crying a little. We sat and talked about Patrick until dinner. She is the most wonderful woman in the world, and the bravest. She didn’t come to dinner that evening. . .[4]


In France, Carroll Carstairs happens upon the surest way to survive a brutal winter in the line. After just two days in the freezing trenches, his battalion rotates out, but his body has had enough.

The next morning the Battalion went into the line; fine, deep, well-made trenches. On our left the Germans were shelling a large pond frozen over. The crash of the shell was followed by an immense splitting of the ice. Quite a magnificent sound. That night on lying down in the dugout I started to take off a boot.

“You can’t take your boots off.” It was the Commanding Officer who had spoken.

I looked up. “Why, of course not.” He observed me closely. “You had better go sick to-morrow morning.” All night in the dugout I tossed and coughed. I had a high fever…

I tried to appear sorry to be leaving when I said good-bye to “Bulgy” in the morning, but each step on the duckboards of the long communication trench was sheer joy in spite of the pain in my side. . . .

But I am ill all right. A temperature of 104—not so bad. I am pleased my going sick has been justified. How cool these sheets and how warm these blankets. And my service jacket on the chair over there. I must get a ribbon sewn on it as soon as possible. A Military Cross won at Cambrai. What for? I don’t know, but I’m glad to have got it. It’s such a pretty ribbon. If only I were on the staff I could get a lot of medals! And no risk involved! I am lucky. They have pinned a blue paper to the blanket on my bed. This means England. . . .[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Cooper, Old Men Forget, 71-2.
  2. Having set the scene in his much later memoir, he now quotes his as yet unpublished diary, but he cleans it up as he goes--it is no "transcript." Therefore, I have generally used the later published version of the diary... and the ellipses make a mess of it anyway. But it's all done in good faith, you know...
  3. The version of the diary quoted in the memoir and the subsequently published version differ in minor respects; I'm not sure which to trust. The quotation is from act of V of Antony and Cleopatra, just after Antony's death.
  4. Diaries, 63-4; Old Men Forget, 71-2.
  5. A Generation Missing, 148-50.

Ford Madox Hueffer’s Last Prayer to Viola Hunt; Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson Are Engaged; Edward Brittain Turns to The Loom; The Master of Belhaven Wines and Dines; Patrick Shaw Stewart Visits the New Brigadier

Ford Madox Hueffer‘s not-quite-marriage to Viola Hunt is on the rocks, but that does not preclude grand Late Romantic gestures. Today is his birthday–his forty-forth–and Hunt sent him “a box of preserved fruits & some vests & plants & tablecloths.” Her did her one better, sending a “lovely” poem… and then slashed a remainder mark across the romantic gesture by assuring her that the poem is not a heartfelt communication to her, but the result of a mere poetic game of bouts rimés, in which he tosses off poetry at short order to a given rhyme scheme. This, alas, is not only rather mean of Ford, but highly probable.

So, dear reader, try not to get too weepy–it’s just a game![1]


One Last Prayer

Let me wait, my dear,
One more day,
Let me linger near,
Let me stay.
Do not bar the gate or draw the blind
Or lock the door that yields,
Dear, be kind!

I have only you beneath the skies
To rest my eyes
From the cruel green of the fields
And the cold, white seas
And the weary hills
And the naked trees.
I have known the hundred ills
Of the hated wars.
Do not close the bars,
Or draw the blind.
I have only you beneath the stars:
Dear, be kind!



Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson are at a much earlier stage of their romance–more first prayer than last–but today, a century back, they took a big step forward. They have been discussing their future at great length during their long weekend together, and now it is settled: they must marry. Robert’s biographer R.P. Graves explains:

…they ‘decided to get married at once’. Nancy evidently ‘attached no importance to the ceremony’, and Robert was bound to agree with her. Luckily for him, however, Nancy also said that ‘she did not want to disappoint her father’. At that stage in his life Robert very much desired the approval both of his family and his friends; and it is highly unlikely that the man who talked to Sassoon about ‘acting like a gentleman’ could have seriously contemplated ‘living in sin’ with this girl of eighteen…

But although Graves is due back in Wales to take up his military duties once again, they decided–either from some point of tactics or, perhaps, or simple pusillanimity– to wait to tell the family. Today the Graves family will celebrate… Robert’s brother Charles’s winning of a Classical Exhibition[2] to St John’s College, Oxford.[3]


Speaking of educated/aspirational youth, there’s a letter of today, a century back, from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera which touches on a topic that Graves has often discussed. Brittain is reading one of the big books of the year–and perhaps the most scandalous (if we are not inclined to find militarist–or pacifist–screeds scandalous on their political principles).

Italy, 17 December 1917

…We got out of the line alright and are in quite decent billets… I am trying to read The Loom of Youth which is excellent but I am only progressing slowly at present: it is a bit exaggerated but otherwise a very reasonable portrayal of the public school. Victor would have liked it immensely as it very largely expresses his opinions.[4]

What’s interesting about this is that Alec Waugh’s book is not just a critical-satirical book about Public Schools–it’s also a gay love story. But I haven’t actually read the book, and I have no idea how clear that might be to someone “progressing slowly” through it.

It’s tempting to think that Edward is trying to tell his sister something… but I doubt it. If he were, he might mention Geoffrey Thurlow, his intimate friend, rather than Victor Richardson, the school friend who later ardently courted Vera and whom she briefly planned to marry. And also, even if he were trying to hint at secret desires of his own, it would surely sail over her head. The former provincial young lady knows things now–many valuable things–that she hadn’t known before; she knows all about love and loss and what the war does to the minds and bodies of the boys who go to fight it… but she hasn’t learned much about the love that dare not speak its name.


All of this is very interesting, of course, but I am once again neglecting the war. Quickly, then, to the Master of Belhaven, upon whose semi-martial doings we must keep half an eye, and then on to the Naval Division.

Yesterday, a century back, Ralph Hamilton pulled off a difficult feat: giving decent entertainment to the officers of a nearby French battery. Luckily, his own officers had recently scored some new opera records in Amiens, so after a dinner for twelve, “which was rather a strain on our resources… we had a two hours’ Grand Opera concert, which was a great success.” After hypothesizing that war “must have been very dull before the days of gramophones,” Hamilton reports a return engagement for today.

Alas–the British are at a disadvantage in two crucial areas: cookery and artillery.

They did us very well… They took us to see their 75’s, and even took the whole thing to pieces to show us the mechanism… The gun is far in advance of ours, much lighter, far simpler and stronger. I have never been able to understand why we did not adopt it at the beginning of the war…

But Hamilton has talked shopped before telling us of the dinner.

…we sat down over twenty. It was a regular feast that lasted for two hours. Their cook was a chef in a French restaurant before the war…

Hamilton even managed the reciprocal speech-making, his French lubricated by “a little good red wine.” Returning home he discovered that he and five of his officers have been mentioned in dispatches– “so we have not done so badly after all.”[5]


This is the pleasant side of the war of attrition. But there is also discomfort.

Patrick Shaw Stewart has now found his battalion–and it is all “his,” on a temporary basis, once more–probably about as swiftly as his parting letter found Lady Desborough.[6] Today, a century back, she wrote back:

Patrick darlingest, How I loved your adorable letter from the train, and how above all I loved you. And blessed you for holding on in trust through all the frozen time–never, never fretting… How I shall miss you, how I love you.”

But Patrick was back to writing to Diana Manners, the woman he can’t give up and who is, now that all Englishwoman are equidistantly out of reach, just as reachable as any of the others. She won’t hear his proposals and protestations, but perhaps she will accept this sort of daily diary.

Today I rode again towards the front, a martyr to duty, having evolved a new system of leading my horse the first mile, thus becoming almost entirely thawed before making myself immobile… had an amusing first interview with Oc as Brigadier, in the course of which I took a very fair luncheon off him…

Alcohol and fur are the twin secrets of winter campaigning.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, Dual Life, II, 563 n31.
  2. A partial merit-based scholarship, in American parlance.
  3. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 189.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 385.
  5. War Diary, 423-4.
  6. Although I wrote about his departure and arrival yesterday, the journey must have taken about three days, so he would have left--and written from the train to the coast--on or about the 13th.
  7. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 237-8. I am not confident of the dates in Jebb, which are not supported by a critical apparatus. He lists today, a century back, as the day Asquith was wounded, but Sellers's The Hood Battalion, 282, has the 20th, and yet has his promotion to brigadier as tomorrow, when it does seem clear that he was already brigadier--or functioning as brigadier--today, a century back. My best guess is that Asquith is the brigadier now in effect, but will officially take the position tomorrow, and be wounded on the 20th, so I will mention it then.

Olaf Stapledon Need Not Worry About Parting; Robert Graves Has a More Pleasant Walk in the Snow; Cynthia Asquith and Bernard Freyberg Clash… Over Siegfried Sassoon’s Hero; The Loves and Letters of Patrick Shaw Stewart

In a few moments it will be back to the Souls/Coterie and their tangle of letters and affairs, but we’ll begin today, a century back with a lonelier–and purer–soul. Olaf Stapledon, still home, still on leave, writes again to Agnes Miller, in Australia, and he takes yet another small step toward an uncharacteristic despair.

Sunday night, the last night of leave. I go early tomorrow. This evening Mother played some Rubinstein on the piano and part of it was a “melody” that you used to play. It brought back ancient days. Father and I had such a wet walk this morning. Thurstastone was all one driving blizzard.— But what’s the use of writing you a sort of schoolboy diary? The last night of leave is a poor night. It’s bad enough for oneself but it’s worse for one’s people; and their sorrow makes one grieve far more. It’s good to talk to you tonight, for I am not on the point of leaving you—alas, partings need not worry us, for we have not yet our meeting. You are always as near as ever, and as far.[1]

That rather sets the tone, doesn’t it? Despair and sorrow and high romance–and, that, of course is the use of writing such a diary.


Robert Graves, however, is more fortunate: his beloved is near at hand. His biographer notes yet another visit to Nancy Nicholson–and confirms that the Merseyside weather had reached London by evening.

On Sunday, after an early lunch, he went into town again, and did not arrive back in Wimbledon until three in the morning, after walking the last last of the journey, all the way from Putney, in a driving blizzard.[2]


Actually, it seems that it was snowing in London throughout the day. Last night, a century back, Cynthia Asquith locked her bedroom door after (somehow!) using “purple passages” of Shakespeare to hold off the advances of Bernard Freyberg. Today the two resumed their contest of wills in a proxy battle over–wait for it!–the poetry of a certain young writer absent from–though present in verse at–a recent soirée.

Sunday, 16th December

Slept badly after agitating evening and woke to swirling snowstorm. Mary resurrected and joined us after breakfast. Freyberg inveighed against the Georgian Poets and reproached me for holding a brief for Siegfried Sassoon. I maintained that, having fully demonstrated his personal physical courage, he had earned the right to exhibit moral courage as a pacifist without laying himself open to the charge of cloaking physical cowardice under the claim of moral courage. Freyberg is very uncompromising in his condemnation and, with some justice, says it is offensive to come back and say, ‘I can’t lead men to their death any more’—it implies a monopoly of virtue, as if other officers liked doing it because they acquiesced in their duty.

Yes, “some justice”–which is what Rivers led Sassoon to see, although–and this is an important distinction–with an emphasis more on the position of the men-to-be-led-to-their-deaths than on the unfairly maligned virtue of the other officers…

But Freyberg, an Argonaut, a 1914 volunteer, a V.C., and a young brigadier, is too canny, at least, to bring only a medal to a poetry fight. He has read some of Sassoon, and he has a practical objection:

He thought the poem called ‘The Hero’ caddish, as it might destroy every mother’s faith in the report of her son’s death. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon breaks the conspiracy of silence, but sometimes I strongly feel that those at home should be made to realise the full horror, even to the incidental ugliness, as much as possible.[3]

A strange “but” in that last sentence–but it is fascinating, of course, to find a woman at home taking the side of the poets’ realism/horror while the eminent fighting soldier stands up for the non-caddishness of comforting lies. Asquith’s declaration here is very much like the intense enthusiasm of later readers of Great War Poetry: not only does she hold a brief for Sassoon, but it’s essentially the same brief that has become canonical. She would deny the experiential gulf–or, rather, she would recognize it and esteem those poets who try to write across it, and read eagerly in order to be one of the better sort of home-front people, who read in order to understand the true war…

There are several ironies here, including Sassoon’s habit (which should be apparent to Asquith if she has read his books) of expressing a casual nastiness towards both aristocratic patronesses and older women and Asquith’s scoring such high marks in our implied hierarchy of worthy readers/home front loved ones while her husband, unmentioned in these sections of her diary, is overseas, and she is embroiled in a pseudo-affair with a brother officer…

But back to the practical point: there’s a war on, and someone must write something to a million grieving mothers. Freyberg has probably written dozens–he has been both a company commander and a battalion commander. And is absolute truth always a virtue? Was he definitively wrong to strive to find some balance between truth and mercy?

Here is ‘The Hero,’ then, Sassoon’s no-holds-barred assault on the convention of the C.O.’s condolence letter. It is also, incidentally, one of the few poems to feature a female character and yet not treat her scorn–condescension, perhaps, but not contempt.

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.


There are other Argonauts abroad in London, and they have crossed paths all too quietly.

Missing, alas, from Diana Manners and Duff Cooper‘s diaries are accounts of Patrick Shaw Stewart‘s recent leave. The most probable explanation is simple awkwardness: Shaw Stewart has seen a great deal of the war, and Cooper is only recently commissioned, so there is a great gap of experience there, and experience is an incontestable, unexchangeable currency of honor… and yet it is the new subaltern Cooper who is on the verge of–to fall into the old sexist language, here–winning the prize they both coveted, and not the brigadier with the V.C.

Diana Manners avoided Shaw Stewart, seeing him only for a few meals, even when the two were thrown together (with Duff and a number of others) last weekend at a house party in Somerset. Shaw Stewart still enjoyed the party, describing a bag of fifty pheasants as “not a bad change from the winter campaign,” but, ignored by the woman he loved (and was still doggedly pursuing, by letter when not in person), he spent much of his time and energy on his more unconventional but equally intense relationship with “Ettie,” Lady Desborough, the light of the Souls, now fifty and the mother of Shaw Stewart’s dead friends Julian and Billy Grenfell.

Strange and intertwined as all these relationships are, it’s still remarkable to note that today, a century back[4] Shaw Stewart returned from leave to take over command of his battalion from Oc Asquith (the youngest of the three brothers, now promoted brigadier) after having left Manners (the intimate friend and best epistolary sparring partner of Raymond Asquith, the eldest of the three brothers) and Cooper behind, and then been seen to the train, a few days ago, by his friend and Naval Division colleague Bernard Freyberg. That’s right: Freyberg, who has been laying siege to the matrimonial loyalty of Cynthia Asquith, wife of the middle brother, Herbert, and who has let off all his guns to deter a nuisance foray in the form of a Siegfried Sassoon poem.

Shaw Stewart used that train journey to write to Lady Desborough, playfully refuting her suggestion that he had bought notepaper in order to write to “his girl friends–“even though he does fact continue to write to Diana Manners “almost daily.”

I did buy the notepaper, but it was to write to you to tell you how infinitely I adore you and how perfect and essential you have been to me this leave. What should I do without you? You are Julian and Billy, Edward and Charles to me, and then you are yourself.

Strange and effusive, but fitting, perhaps, for a letter between one of the great melodramatic late Victorians and an “Edwardian meteor.” And however overcooked we might find their social self-celebrations, however overheated their prose, there is no denying the fact that Lady Desborough, who has lost two of her three sons, and Shaw Stewart, who has lost the four friends he names (and many others), are united by harrowing and tremendous loss.

But, once more at the front, his letters–and loves–seem to have fallen into a more predictable course. Perhaps Diana was frustratingly cold when he was in England, but now, in the trenches, where it is bitterly cold in all too unmetaphorical sense, the old habit of reaching out to her, of telling his days to her, is still of great comfort: she is completely unobtainable, but the thoughts still warm him, perhaps. Shaw Stewart, ever the classicist, makes a nice tale of an ordinary, if severe, unpleasantness of winter duty:

Church Parade at 11 am… I thoughtfully issued an order that great-coats might be worn; then, proceeding through the icy blast to put on my own–the one you know too well–I found it caked with mud and the blood of my faithful uncomplaining horse. So, mindful of Hector’s rule that “it is impossible to make prayer to Zeus, lord of the clouds, all bespattered with mud and filth,”[5] I attended without, and nearly died of cold, besides having to sing to hymns without the band…

I inherited Oc’s half-shed and succeeded in putting on first, silk pyjamas, then flannel pyjamas, and then a fur lining, and then everything else on top, and in not waking more than twice in the night feeling cold…[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 261.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 188-9.
  3. Diaries, 380-1.
  4. I think; the dating is not terribly clear. Oh for uniformly prim footnoting!
  5. Iliad VI, c. 263.
  6. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 236-8.

Ivor Gurney on Ledwidge and the Poor Folk; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Foiled by Diana; Wilfred Owen on England, and the Abode of Madness

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been too long in Limbo. Or, more accurately, in Macedonia, which is no one’s idea of either a glamorous or a crucial theater of war. His society there is limited mostly to French career officers. It could be worse, one would think, but Shaw Stewart has different standards: his ambition is to scale the heights of English society… and today, a century back, at long last, he arrived back in England. Instead of staying in London or going to visit his family he went straight for Belvoir, where Diana Manners was ensconced. Sometimes, brilliant or beautiful people–brilliant, beautiful, and frequently not-so-nice people–get what they deserve. Manners is or was the muse to many men, and many of these have been killed–Raymond Asquith was the greatest loss. But just because the suitors are being winnowed by war does not mean that Diana is ready to give up bow, quiver, and pack.

One assumes that Shaw Stewart was invited, but Manners was not looking forward to the visit, and “feared he was going to propose to her.” A telegram to another beau, Duff Cooper, joked “Pray God with me to face this great ordeal and to let me triumph.” But she was evidently more than a match for a single gallivanting officer.  Without having proposed, Shaw Stewart will move on tomorrow from Belvoir to Panshanger, where Lady Desborough is throwing the third of four consecutive weekend parties. Shaw Stewart will get to mix with lords, politicians, society belles, and the ghostly absence of her two elder sons, his friends Julian and Billy.[1]


Just a brief note on Edward Thomas‘s war diary for today, a century back. He merely jotted a few lines, but these nevertheless convey the strange ways in which officers in a different sort of Limbo–Codford is a staging camp, and orders for France may appear at any point, now–spend their days scattered among disparate activities. Thomas inspected latrines, issued pay to the men of the battery, wrote letters, learned to ride a motorcycle, and received, with a letter from his wife Helen, an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.[2]


Ivor Gurney has been writing prolifically to Marion Scott, of late, and today another of our poets crosses his pen:

O tis cold! but this barn is pretty strawy, and my oil-sheet is over my legs, and I go straight on. Merely through boredom I have turned out another masterpiece today. Also having seen the Observers appreciation of Ledwidge’s description of the robins note as being like tiny cymbals, I looked for a robin, found one, heard it — and dont agree, altogether. He must have thought a lot to have written that description — it being too out of the way to be spontaneously observed. Now please turn back to the back of page one, where further grace will flow from my pen.

Interesting, both in the critique and the unusually confident note of humorous self-deprecation. It feels like Gurney has put his finger upon one more way that the poetry of 1917 is betwixt and between: we cannot get by without robins (not to mention larks and nightingales)–but are we really listening to them anymore?

But Gurney is unique among our poets in the quality of his ear. He is–we shouldn’t for a moment forget this–a trained musician and a composer, and sounds are his province. His mood is light today, as he trips from the usual parcel-thank-yous to joking about the dearth of local musical facilities… and yet we could almost read this as a most grave lament.

I think everything you have sent me has arrived now. There are no stragglers left. Binyons verses, for which I thank you are here also, but — O I need a piano; though two verses are pretty well settled in me. For the sum of one franc I got an hour on a faint toned piano yesterday; but that was not good enough, and there was no Bach, my fingers were stiff and my mind wandering allways . . .

I should leave it there… it’s beautiful and sad, and not altogether crazy–there must be many officers in safe jobs behind the lines with regular access to pianos… But Gurney is a private, and isolated, here: Marion Scott is a faithful friend and a great help in his work, but her connections are relatively humble and run through the musical world. Gurney is far from the seething centers of war poetry–Clitherland Camp, Eddie Marsh’s office, the Poetry Bookshop–and his craft is still happily Georgian. But his opinions are, naturally, beginning to show a certain disenchantment. His latest poems have sung the scenery of his beloved Gloucester, but today he turns to the people:


Poor Folk

We wonder how the poor get on in England,
Who wonder how the troops get on in France.
We’re better off than many folks in England,
Although we’ve got to face the Great Advance…

Oh when at last there comes the Judgement Day,
I’ll ask of God some questions that he must
Answer me well. Or I’ll choose rather to be
Some free spirit of Hell, or merely dust.

As how the poor who fight so well in France,
Die with a smile for England in some ditch.
Seem never really to get a proper chance —
Their wars and justice made for them by the rich.[3]


And finally, today, Wilfred Owen. His last letter described his first, intense experience of the front line, and it marked a major watershed in his writing. But history too can tense and slacken as experience distends and relaxes (the emotional rhythm, too, of regular trench service) and today’s letter, although still that of a changed man, moves back toward a more familiar register.

Friday, 19 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

We are now a long way back in a ruined village, all huddled together in a farm. We all sleep in the same room where we eat and try to live. My bed is a hammock of rabbit-wire stuck up beside a great shell hole in the wall. Snow is deep about, and melts through the gaping roof, on to my blanket. We are wretched beyond my previous imagination—but safe.

Last night indeed I had to ‘go up’ with a party. We got lost in the snow. I went on ahead to scout—foolishly alone—and when, half a mile away from the party, got overtaken by


It was only tear-gas from a shell, and I got safely back (to the party) in my helmet, with nothing worse than a severe fright! And, a few tears, some natural, some unnatural.

Here is an Addition to my List of Wants:

Safety Razor (in my drawer) & Blades
Socks (2 pairs)
6 Handkerchiefs
Celluloid Soap Box (Boots)
Cigarette Holder (Bone, Sd. or 6d.)
Paraffin for Hair.

(I can’t wash hair and have taken to washing my face with snow.)

Coal, water, candles, accommodation, everything is scarce. We have not always air! When I took my helmet off last night—O Air it was a heavenly thing!

…I scattered abroad some 50 Field Post Cards from the Base, which should bring forth a good harvest of letters. But nothing but a daily one from you will keep me up…

Owen moves now to a brief but telling self-survey of how a combatant’s attitudes might change. There is too much here to even begin to unpack. Better to let the writer unburden himself and see what still troubles his mind in the next letter…

We have a Gramophone, and so musical does it seem now that I shall never more disparage one. Indeed I can never disparage anything in Blighty again for a long time except certain parvenus living in a street of the same name as you take to go to the Abbey.

They want to call No Man’s Land ‘England’ because we keep supremacy there.

It is like the eternal place of gnashing of teeth; the Slough of Despond; could be contained in one of its crater-holes; the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it—to find the way to Babylon the Fallen.

It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer.[4]

I have not seen any dead. I have done worse. In the dank air I have perceived it, and in the darkness, felt.

Those ‘Somme Pictures’ are the laughing stock of the army—like the trenches on exhibition in Kensington.

No Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.

To call it ‘England’!

I would as soon call my House (!) Krupp Villa, or my child Chlorina-Phosgena.

Now I have let myself tell you more facts than I should, in the exuberance of having already done ‘a Bit.’ It is done, and we are all going still farther back for a long time. A long time. The people of England needn’t hope. They must agitate. But they are not yet agitated even. Let them imagine 50 strong men trembling as with ague for 50 hours!

Dearer & stronger love than ever. W.E.O.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Edwardian Meteor, 221.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 155.
  3. War Letters, 122-3.
  4. This letter, too, will be the basis for--or shows the first metaphorical feeling toward--a later poem.
  5. Collected Letters, 428-9.

Tom Kettle Writes “To My Daughter Betty;” Raymond Asquith on Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Lady Desborough, and Notre Dame D’Amiens

I haven’t yet written of the Irish writer and politician (and “wit… scholar… orator,”[1] barrister, journalist, and economist) Tom Kettle–and I’m sorry for it. Like Francis Ledwidge, he was an Irish patriotic active in the drive for Home Rule who nonetheless saw it as his duty to fight for Britain against Germany. Unlike Ledwidge, Kettle was famous and influential, a friend of Joyce and a member of Parliament. Thirty-four at the outbreak of war, he chose nonetheless to serve as an infantry officer. Yesterday, a century back, knowing that his battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was about to go into battle for the first time, he wrote a sort of political testament, explaining how his service–and possible death–in a British uniform should further the cause of Ireland. Today he addressed the possibility of his death in a more personal way while also placing it in the largest possible context: he wrote to his three-year-old daughter, and of salvation.


To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

 In the field, before Guillemont, Somme
September 4th, 1916


And I should leave it there–and would, but for a crossing… not of paths, but of references. A century on, we wreak mischief on the mischievous. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, still far off in the East, wrote a letter today, a century back, in which he enclosed the citation for his Croix de Guerre. He has been honored for his courage and general usefulness as the liaison officer to the French 17th Colonial Division–which is no mean honor, unless of course it is more or less pro forma for a well-liked and well-connected officer…[2]

High praise from the far-flung French–but he is being cut down rather closer to home. Raymond Asquith, Shaw-Stewart’s less-than-intimate friend and pseudo-rival (Asquith may feel as if Shaw-Stewart is the newer, inferior model of the socially climbing Eton-Balliol society wit) is full of opinions today.

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
4 September 1916

. . . I’m glad you approved my contribution to Ettie’s book–an almost impossible thing to write even tolerably and probably, after she has doctored it, even less presentable than it originally was. She told me that she was going to cut out a bit in which I had said that Billy was insolent (as he most assuredly was) and as far as I recollect, the excision is bound to make nonsense of some of the least infelicitous paragraphs.

“Ettie” is, of course, Lady Desborough, mother of Julian and Billy Grenfell and society queen of the prior generation (she is to the Souls as Diana Manners is to the Coterie). Lady Desborough was always more than a bit much, and she is now assembling a memorial book for her sons, who were both killed last year. This trajectory–from hostess and symbol of society living to semi-public mourner and keeper of her sons’ flame–is now all too common.

Asquith is rude here, but hardly as rude as he could have been. He has submitted with near-grace to writing panegyric for two younger friends about whom he had a mixed sort of appreciation, to say the least. “Ettie’s” transmutation–from carefully eccentric inspiration for various pseudo-artistic men to full-time whitewasher of her sons’ memory–might be risible if it weren’t, in almost the correct classical sense, tragic. Asquith is much younger than Lady Desborough and positioned as an older friend of her sons rather than a younger admirer of her… but he has son of his own now. He is writing, after all, to the wife of a serving soldier and the mother of a boy who will have to go, if the war lasts into the mid-thirties…

So the fun-making, here, is in a minor key.

But there are other targets of opportunity in this mopping-up operation.

She also told me that she was going to put in Dunrobin and some of Bron’s houses as places where B and J and I had had fun together—which perhaps lends some colour to your charge of snobbery. As a matter of fact Ettie is a snob in the same simple harmless sense as Patrick [Shaw Stewart]. She meant to give her sons the best mise-en-scène from a worldly point of view which could be had and I suppose she wants people to know that she succeeded as she certainly did. She promised me the book but has not sent it–probably it is too big to travel.[3]

So our Shaw-Stewart, mailing home his citation, is only a harmless sort of snob. It’s an odd comparison–or, rather, Asquith is working with an odd definition of “snobbery.” He is citing Desborough–wife of a lord, lady in waiting, famous personality, wealthy landowner in her own right–with social climbing (or aesthetic scene-setting), and then declaring this to be a forgivable sin. It’s not that she looks down, but that, for her sons, she looks around, and arranges…

If that is snobbery, what, then, do we call a political scion hobnobbing with royalty?

I had a pleasant enough sojourn in A[miens]. Oliver and I and Sloper got the Prince to lend us his car. We went in on Saturday afternoon, got excellent rooms with soft beds and hot baths, and had several very well cooked meals and some drinkable champagne. The town was seething with other officers from the division and we rollicked about on Saturday night visiting the ladies of the town who provided a certain amount of amusement, but without (you will be glad to hear) any loss of chastity on my part or indeed on that of most of my companions.


Notre Dame D’Amiens in 1916, with sandbags (Imperial War Museum)

With Ettie Desborough and her sons and Patrick Shaw-Stewart thus taken care of–and a favor from the Prince of Wales to clear the palate[4]–the cantering rhythm of Asquith’s letters now resumes.

On Sunday night we drove back again and today in rain and wind have resumed the ordinary drudgery arid beastliness of life. It was pleasant to get back even for 24 hours to the decencies and indecencies of civilisation. The cathedral is very beautiful, but the first thing one instinctively looked at on seeing it was the sandbag barricade in front of the doors to see whether it was properly built according to the classical canons of trench architecture.

Tomorrow we have a Brigade Field Day. Yesterday there was a successful British attack on Ginchy and Guillemont[5] and if they capture Lenze-Wood (I don’t know yet whether they have done or not) comparatively open fighting may set in.

We have been put at 3 hours notice to move, but that happens so often that I don’t think it means anything.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chesterton, albeit via Wikipedia.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 173-4.
  3. It is--Google claims it is over 600 pages but, despite its being long out of copyright, does not reproduce it. Lady Desborough's "Pages from a Family Journal" was privately printed and seems to be quite rare.
  4. Which isn't snobbery, I realize. I fail to score a point on Asquith on the counter-riposte: for Asquith to pretend he were not acquainted with the prince and that borrowing his car would not be useful would be a truer sort of snobbery.
  5. There was, and the Master of Belhaven was firing in support--Blunden's battalion's failed attack was on a different portion of the front).
  6. Life and Letters, 291-2.

Bimbo Tennant Remembers the Good Life of the Souls; Ford Madox Hueffer’s Uncertain History

A few days ago Raymond Asquith wrote to cheer and enhearten Diana Manners, proclaiming in unusually emphatic tones that she–queen of their coterie–was not only incomparably beautiful but a pioneer of wit, a leader in their movement that disdained the dusty witticisms and precious vapidities of the Souls, their parents’ generation. It was a long letter, and it culminated (after an apparent break in composition) with a dark little joke about the death of Basil Hallam, so I cut rather heavily to move things along. I noted that Asquith took a shot at his step-mother’s father, but I elided the location at which he chose to set his “here’s-how-passé-the-Souls-are” joke. That step-grandfather is Bim Tennant‘s grandfather, and the Scottish estate at which this representative bit of the last century’s cleverness was uttered was “Glen,” which still remained–and still, apparently, does–in the family.

It what surely qualifies as a sort of metaphysical crossing-of-paths, Bimbo himself–significantly younger than Asquith yet frightfully traditional in his filial enthusiasms and his poetry alike–wrote a letter today in which he wistfully remembered his childhood days there.

Aug. 23.

” . . . I suppose you are still at Glen. I wish I could be there for the 31st. Talking of the hills, do you remember that day long ago, when a nursery-party we were all descending Minchmuir, and you thought I would be cold, and wrapped me in your rose-coloured lovely petticoat? I love to think of those days; and another time, in later years, when Zelle was balanced shriekingly, on the broad back of a hill pony, which was subsiding into a bog with her. Those were the days when David used to ride Little Diamond; I hope you haven’t forgotten how he and the groom were observed coming across the golf course, vente a terre, closely pursued by a wasp. What fun we all had then…

Do you remember when we were at Kirk House (Kirket) and you were sitting at your writing-table in the ‘tippits for mice’ drawing-room, when a grim procession passed the window headed by me, followed by Clare, one of the maids, two of the gardeners, Christopher, and finally Willson with a ladder, the whole thing explained by the fact that Mdlle. Kremser, the French governess, had climbed a tree and was totally unable to get down unaided? Then the games of cricket with a rubber ball when Jack Pease was unanimously received into the ‘uncledom.’

We had a splendid house in a tree behind Willie Houston’s house (where those little apples used to fall from the tree, and be so delightedly gathered and eaten) years came and went and Willie Houston’s relays of dogs were invariably called ‘Nellie’ quite regardless of sex : ‘Aye, I just ca’ him Nellie.’ What a perfect troll he was! God rest his soul. I think our family has many more good jokes than any other, don’t you?

That last line, in a gauzy nutshell, is why the “conflict of the generations” is a clumsy tool for fine work. Bimbo loves his mother immoderately, borrowed petticoats aside: she is beautiful and wise and, in keeping with the tradition established by her senior officer in the Souls, Lady Desborough, she may have strenuously insisted upon the fact that everyone, always, was having fun. If so, Bimbo is a most loyal scion, and manifestly unfitted for disenchantment.

Now endless love from your devoted son,


P.S. I hope my proofs will come soon. I daresay if I wore black shirts, and painted execrable futurist pictures, and wrote verse that was quite incomprehensible, the reviewers would take it for genuine ‘poesie.'[1]

And yes, there’s the kicker. There is a middle ground, of course, namely the way shown by Sorley, which Rosenberg, Graves, and Sassoon are beginning to pursue. But if that Georgian-to-realist mode is not even in view, and if the cheerful young aristocrat-with-pen sees only the mad-eyed Futurists and his own not-even-neo Romantic juvinilia, well… Bim’s proofs shall be proof that mere months in the trenches cannot budge the fairy-strewn Medievalism lodged in some winsome hearts…


And now for one of those older men who bridges the 19th century novel and, if not quite the wacky excesses of true Futurism, then at least the arriving Modernist upheaval. Ford Madox Hueffer, we may remember, has recently been blown up and deprived of his memory. Or not. The published letters are carefully agnostic on this matter (although perhaps simply by way of the accidents of preservation), but there is hardly enough in the way of references to traumatic memory loss in these letters to Lucy Masterman (the first undated, but assigned tentatively to August) to bolster the shaky assumptions that have been made.

Attd. 9/Welch, 19th Div.
B.E.F, Belgium

Dear old Lucy,

Using a good deal of determination, I have got out of the muses’ hands & back to duty, after an incredibly tortuous struggle across France. I rather began to think that I shall not be able to “stick it”–the conditions of life are too hard and the endless waitings too enervating. However, that is on the knees of the Gods…

I… am not vastly happy with the people here–can’t get on with the C. O. or the adjt.—wh. is disagreeable. However, it is very interesting, all of it—if not gay.

So he has been away–in hospital, perhaps. But why “the muses?” Or has he been somewhere else since the hhospital? In any event, no word of memory loss and life-altering trauma.

Then, today, a century back:

Attd. 9/Welch
19th Div, B.E.F.

Dearest Lucy,

I am fairly cheerful again, thank you–tho’ I do not get on with the C. O., & the Adjt. overworks me because I talk Flemish… Still it is all very interesting & one learns a little more everyday.

Still no references, but then again this is very repetitive. Many letters, especially those that may be spaced by weeks, are repetitive–who can remember what they wrote? And trench warfare is repetitive, so this is no smoking gun of memory loss. Hm.

We have been out of the trenches since Monday & go in again almost immediately—but it is quiet here at its most violent compared with the Somme. Even the strafe that the artillery got up for George V—wh. the artillery off’rs called “great” or “huge” according to their temperaments—wd., for sound, have gone into an old woman’s thimble in Albert, not to speak of Bécourt or Fricourt. George V—whom I saw strolling about among the Cheshires—really was in some danger. At least he was in an O. P. that was being shelled fairly heavily when I was in it “for instruction.” But I guess they squashed the Bosche fire fairly effectually while he was here. Still he gave the impression of a “good plucked ‘un”—& the P. O. W.—who was quite unrecognizable, was perfectly businesslike.

Still no mention of debilities. Perhaps it hasn’t happened yet? Perhaps it happened, and has yet to be exaggerated-in-the-telling? In any event, prim reporting on the King’s recent visit is hardly indicative of any particularly strange fires akindle in the smithy of the Fordian soul.

But now there is a reference to a week in an ambulance. So it did happen, it would seem–although possibly not when he claimed, and probably not in the shockingly course-altering way he will come to describe it.

I rather think the staff is nibbling at me…[2] I shd. not be really sorry—because I have had my week in the Somme & three weeks here & a week in Field Ambulance & a week draft conducting. I shd. naturally prefer going on as a regimental off’r—but the C. O.—an ex-Eastbourne Town Councillor & the adjt, an ex-P. O. clerk—annoy me—the C. O. says I am too old & the adjt. thanks me all day long for saving the H. Q. Mess 2 frs. 22 on turnips & the like. I don’t know which I dislike most.

Well, that’s what you get for meandering into the New Army in 1915 and speaking some Flemish… this will all be fodder for the big novel. And it’s not that Ford couldn’t always write, it’s just that he is still writing in a less-than-revolutionary descriptive mode. Here’s a bit of “Trench Pastoral, with Bombardment:”

Still, otherwise, it is—tho’ you won’t believe it—a dreamy sort of life in a grey green country & even the shells as they set out on their long journeys seem tired. It is rather curious, the extra senses one develops here. I sit writing in the twilight &, even as I write, I hear the shells whine & the M. G.’s crepitate & I see (tho’ it is hidden by a hill) the grey, flat land below & the shells bursting…

Inconclusive, then. But the letter ends in unfortunately Fordian fashion: a plea for strings to be pulled (Lucy Masterman is the wife of the propaganda chief C.F.G. Masterman) and a pot-shot at his own de facto wife, soon to undergo transformation into one of Modernism’s most frightening ogresses.

 Love to C. F. G. I suppose he cd. not get me sent to Paris. I shd. like a weekend there and cd. spout about the Somme and here.


V[iolet Hunt] seems very queer; don’t tell her anything that I tell you, because she does so worry.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Memoir, 221-2.
  2. It is not. In fact, due to his German parentage, Ford and his brother are on a list that bars them from staff work.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 68-70.

Vera Brittain on the Need to Nurse; Rowland Feilding in Rouen; A Raid on the Devonshires; Matters of Praise and Preference for Edward Thomas and Raymond Asquith

Vera Brittain brings her brother up to date, today, on her recent, momentous decision. Things sound a little less mystical, here, as she presents her internal deliberations for outside approval.

1st London General Hospital, 19 April 1916

You may be surprised still to see the same old address after all–for in the end I have not left here, and am not leaving. Although everything was so nicely arranged for me to leave, I changed my mind and like the erratic weathercock I may seem but really am not, almost at the last moment agreed, as they wished, to stay. The reasons for so doing are rather hard to give–but you yourself well understand, I think, motives of sentiment and conscience, which are difficult to explain but impossible to disobey and keep one’s self-respect and peace of mind. Roland was partly the cause–for I still seem to belong to Him just as much as when He was living, and though He is dead He still has more power over me than anyone who is alive. No sooner had I decided to leave here than the strong conviction came over me, quite against my reason, that somewhere He was living still, & knew and disapproved. The conviction grew stronger & stronger until I could not read His letters or quote His poems or favourite quotations, especially that one on Patriotism, without inwardly reproaching myself for leaving what was hard…

The first two people on this Hospital’s foreign service list have just been ordered to France, so it looks as if they are beginning to draw from here at last. That makes me all the more content that I am not going away from here, as though I don’t in the least imagine I should enjoy foreign service or underestimate its hardships, monotony & loneliness, I should have felt ashamed to think I had given up the work just when the  chance it holds of going abroad was emphasized. Unless anything unforeseen occurs my opportunity probably won’t come for some months–but if the present rather cheery estimates of the length of the War that one hears on all sides are at all correct, it is bound to come in the end.

Of course, when I go abroad from here, I am just as likely–perhaps more so–to go to the East as to France. I only wish that, if I am fated to be sent to the other side of Europe. I could first make a pilgrimage to His grave, as you have done. I feel that if only I could see that

‘Corner of a foreign field
Which is for ever England’[1]

for me, I should not mind what happened, and should be strengthened & inspired to face a lonely life–without interest or hope in itself. Do you think the Germans will ever get through to Louvencourt & ravage it before we have a chance to see His grave?

Next Sunday is Easter-Day. I think perhaps one may celebrate even more than one could last year, the Resurrection of England–an England purged of much pettiness through the closeness of her acquaintance in these days with Life and Death.[2]

It’s hard, for once, for even the most convinced cynic to scoff at the aptness of Brooke‘s pretty poetry. If we come to bury smooth and sentimental phrases that ease the swift conversion of promising young men into “sacrifices” for the national war aims, well… don’t we also hope to praise any words that give consolation to their bereaved? As for the ready application, by a convinced agnostic, of the core of Christian theology to social and political criticism, well, that’s a different matter.


Ten days after landing at Le Havre, Rowland Feilding continues his slow return to the trenches with a visit to one of the great cathedral towns of the rear areas. Nôtre-dame d’Amiens was the 1914 and 1915 favorite (and will remain so), and Nôtre-dame de Rheims is the tragic front-line shrine. But Rouen, beloved of Monet, is no slouch either. And Rouen has other delights for medieval-minded tourists.

April 19, 1916. Bois des Tallies (near Bray-sur-Somme)


Monet, Rouen Cathedral at Sunset, 1893 (Wikipedia)

We left Rouen at half-past three yesterday afternoon with 1,400 troops on board. I was O.C. train, so had a reserved compartment, which I shared with one of my subalterns. I had never seen Rouen before and was greatly impressed by the Cathedral. I visited the “Place du vieux Marché,” where Joan of Arc was burned, the spot—a couple of yards or so from a butcher’s stall—being marked by a slab over which people walk;—no more.

I reached the Entrenching Battalion this afternoon, about forty-four hours after leaving Harfleur, after a wet and muddy march of 6 1/2 miles through comparatively treeless country of the dreariest variety. The day has
been horrible, and the cheerless aspect of the camp upon our arrival was most dispiriting. My servant describes it as a “wash-out,” and it is! Perhaps it will improve when the weather gets better. It is 3 1/2 to 4 miles behind the firing line, from the direction of which the rumble of the guns can be heard…

I hope my first jaundiced impression of the place will prove to have been influenced—more than I can bring myself to believe at present—by the disgusting weather and the long and tiring journey;—to say nothing of my disappointment at not having been sent straight back to the 1st Battalion, as I had hoped.[3]


Three brief literary notes to round us out.

First, today, a century back, was “an unnecessarily perfect day” for Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, now reunited and stationed behind the line in Bray–until a sudden German bombardment began tearing up the trenches around Mansel Copse, near dusk. Hodgson’s friend Harold Rayner was up in it, leading a working party which now had to defend itself against a German raid. The raiding party had crept into a hollow near the front line under cover of the barrage and then charged into the British trenches, killing or injuring sixty-five. Eight missing men were likely captured, a boon for German intelligence.

We’ll read the sketch describing the raid when Hodgson writes it, but the historical forerunner to the fiction will have real consequences. Between the physical damage to the trenches and the uproar caused by the German success, the Devonshires’ next turn in the trenches will be grueling… [4]


The last two short notes are each of little interest in and of themselves, but they nicely illustrate the web of recommendation and personal praise which connects so may of our writers. First we have Edward Thomas writing to Walter de la Mare with the first direct evidence of his, er, complicity in de la Mare’s belated attempts to win his friend some official patronage in the form of a government pension. And who would we guess that de la Mare hopes to enlist in this effort?

Hut 3
Hare Hall Camp

19 April 1916

I have asked Jones & Evans to send you copies of Jefferies, Swinburne, Rest & Unrest, The South Country…  I take it you will send them to Marsh or wherever they are to go. I have got leave from tomorrow till Saturday. Just time to see the children.


Eddie Marsh again–and that won’t be the only familiar name with whom de la Mare will correspond.


Finally, Raymond Asquith has been asked for his help. Bad enough–but the task might involve bad writing, and that cannot be tolerated. He confides in his wife, Katherine:


19 April 1916

Today I had a letter from Ettie [Desborough] asking me to contribute an appreciation of Billy and Julian [Grenfell] for a book she is making about them. It was a charming letter but it is a terrible request. I suppose I must try to put something together, but I have such a bad memory for the individual incidents or characteristic sayings which alone can make memorial prose tolerable.[6]

Reader, he will manage it nonetheless.

Is this good writing? Yes. Is it honest? Well, then.

But it’s a nice reminder of the distinction between public and private prose:

It was easy to idealize Julian, because superficially he seemed to be built on very simple lines.  One might have set him up in a public place as a heroic or symbolic figure of Youth and Force.  In reality he was far too intelligent and interesting to be a symbolic figure of anything.  His appetite for action was immense, but it was a craving of his whole nature, mind no less than body.  His sheer physical vigour, as everyone knows, was prodigious.  Perfectly made and perpetually fit he flung himself upon life in a surge of restless and unconquerable energy.  Riding, or rowing, or boxing, or running with his greyhounds, or hunting the Boches in Flanders, he ‘tired the sun with action’ as others have with talk.  His will was persistent and pugnacious and constantly in motion.  His mind, no less, was full of fire and fibre; lively, independent, never for a moment stagnating, nor ever mantled with the scum of second-hand ideas, violent in its movements but always moving, intemperate perhaps in its habit but with ‘the brisk intemperance of youth’.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. This is Rupert Brooke--but, dear reader, you recognized the quotation, from the 1914 sonnets, and already one of the most popular bits of English poetry.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 249-50.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 71-2.
  4. Zeepvat, Before Action, 170-2.
  5. Poet to Poet, 220.
  6. Life and Letters, 259.
  7. This is from, I believe, the "Memoir" that Lady Desborough published; I found it here--spoiler alert.

Olaf Stapledon is on the Move; Vera Brittain Decides to Stay Put; Raymond Asquith and Patrick Shaw-Stewart Fail to Pull Their Weight

First, today, Olaf Stapledon‘s ambulance unit has moved. He reports to his fiancée on the new lay of the land.

Friends’ Ambulance Unit
18 April 1916


Here I am at last at W[oesten]. I came up yesterday… at night I went up to the furthest aid post as a passenger in someone else’s car so as to learn the lie of the land. There was a moon, so we saw quite a lot. The roads are very bad, worse than the aid post roads I knew up north… I believe we go up to about 400 yards from the first-line trenches, but that may be exaggerated. Anyhow the country up there is very much devastated. There is a line of tall trees (some intact, some broken off short) beyond which are the trenches. We had a long wait, listening to crackings & whizzings from rifles and watching rats crawling and scampering about in the moonlight, over heaps of all kinds of rubble…

It is a gruesome place…  very little has happened for a week or two in this region. The worst of it is one never knows when it is going to begin again…[1]


From an unusually downbeat Olaf to an uncharacteristically tacit Vera Brittain. She has been writing often, of late, to her brother Edward, but her diary has suffered. This dutiful, guilty update fills us in on deliberations which have largely been opaque to us: should she, as a V.A.D. nurse, stay or should she go?

Tuesday April 18th

Such a large blank–nearly a whole month. And this is the day that has been in my mind for months–the day I meant to leave–and I am not leaving. Strange to have come through devious & humiliating paths to that sudden decision to remain, when it was all but too late to change my mind after saying I would go.

But after indescribable suffering, indecision, almost madness, at last, if not happy, I am at least at peace. And out of it all I have won that queer conviction, quite against my reason, that “the dead die not”. For if somewhere He is not living, & feeling, why, when everyone else applauded my decision, should He force Himself upon my mind, set Himself against the choice I had made, and make me feel that He, who means more to me than all the rest put together even though He be dead & they alive, did not approve. Why should I have felt that He was grieved because He said I was turning my back on the higher & more difficult things?

It’s difficult to make any solid claim as to what might be that certain tendency to dramatize emotional turmoil and what might be relatively straight self-reportage. Vera was torn about whether to give up nursing, but thinking of Roland and the “higher & more difficult things” pushed back against the boredom, her sense of intellectual destiny, social pressures, etc., until she decided to stay. Or should we say that Roland’s Undying Spirit, as Real as He is Capitalized, reached out to her from beyond the grave to keep her on course for self-sacrifice?

Brittain will comment in her later memoir on this decision, and, although she mocks her own self-absorption, she does not deny how tumultuous the decision-making process had been:

I was suddenly overwhelmed by a passionate conviction that to give up the work and the place I hated would be defeat, and that Roland, and whatever in the world stood for Right and Goodness, wanted me to remain at the hospital and go on active service. I was far too deeply immersed in my obsession to speculate even for a second whether Right and Goodness, if personified, were likely to turn from the terrific task of assessing wartime guilt to interest themselves in my little difficulty about the hospital and the War Office. Overcome with shame and remorse, I begged the Matron to allow me to withdraw my notice…[2]

So that explains it. And it explains, too, the diary’s embarrassed silence as this fiercely proud young woman realizes she has made a mistake and will need to ask for help.  But let’s get back to the diary and ask our all important question: how does poetry factor in to all this?

But now, at any rate, I can say His poems to myself, say the War Sonnets of Rupert Brooke, without feeling afraid of them, without feeling so bitterly unworthy that I dare not face the thought & meaning of them. For such a right, even remaining to face a life hard, dreary & often unpleasant is a very low price indeed.

But it is a very hard school in which I am learning lessons. “Redemption. . . with suffering & through time.” At least I feel a little more hope of it to-night than I have felt for months. Meredith would have understood–he who said

. . . in mould the rose unfolds.
The soul through blood and tears.

Good stuff. Vera, as confirmed an agnostic as a not-actually-rebellious Edwardian middle class girl could be, has completed her conversion. It’s one that we might have suspected: She is a woman of letters now. Her faith is Romantic and mystical, and her liturgy is literature: Victorian worthies like Meredith guide her understanding of the world, and to cope with it, her missal is filled with Brooke’s sonnets and her own beloved’s verses.

I do like how the last line of the diary brings us back to earth–the troubled, mourning young woman and her mother, who of course sees the striving, outward-bound girl she so recently was.

Saw Mother to-day; we had tea at Marshall & Snelgrove’s. She thinks me quite madly erratic–but long ago gave up questioning my reasons for what I do.[3]


Finally, today, two brief notes on a loosely-linked and rather similar pair of intellectual subalterns. Patrick Shaw-Stewart is writing to Lady Desborough, mother of his school friend Julian Grenfell. Which is the main interest of the letter, which otherwise simply expands upon his sense that Salonika is not the place to be.

Nothing can conceal from me the fact that I am superfluous here: they have enough liaison already, and even when (or if) this front becomes active, I shall not be what Lord Kitchener (I think) calls “pulling my weight.” Therefore (don’t tell any one), I am seriously considering applying to “return to duty,” either in the R.N.D., or (if they are quite effete) in the Army.[4]

Transfers are difficult to wangle, but requests to be transferred from safe duty toward line battalions are honored more often than not…


And Raymond Asquith thinks even less well of his safe job at Montreuil:

…There is as little news here as ever. Almost everyone has influenza or pneumonia, but I keep myself as well as one can expect to be when one is bored. I do this by sleeping for about 8 hours every night and drinking a great deal of liqueur brandy. I am reading Leacock’s Half Hours with the Idle Rich which Gilbert sent me. It is really very clever. I am also pushing along with Eothen, a pleasant surprise. It is extremely readable . . .[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 139.
  2. Testament of Youth, 263.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 325.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 165-6.
  5. Life and Letters, 258-9.