Edward Brittain Faces Another July First; Rowland Feilding and La Belle France; Robert Graves on the Isle of Wight–and What is Siegfried Sassoon Up To?

Now that Edward Hermon is dead, Rowland Feilding is probably our most consistently uxorious writer. He writes faithfully and fully, concealing nothing of his feelings or–once the demands of military secrecy are met–of the danger that he is (or has recently been) in. But today, a century back, he is safely in the rear… and he has something else to confess, namely a raging crush on a local girl.

June 30, 1917. Bollezeele (near Zeggers Cappel).

I am getting rather bitten with agriculture. No wonder these peasants get rich;—or, if they do not (and I really do
not know), I should say there must be something radically wrong with the whole system of land tenure in this country. They are the most industrious and the thriftiest people I have ever seen…

I am sure it must be impossille for those who have not seen it to realize what cultivation means in France and Belgium, or to picture the seas of corn and potatoes and roots, extending as far as the eye can reach and further; the forests of hops, weedless; without a barren patch or a neglected spot anywhere. In the farm where I am billeted there is a farm-hand—a girl of about eighteen. She sleeps on the straw, on the floor of a stable. She is up, bursting with life and spirits, each morning at five o’clock; and she works, at top pressure, without ceasing, till dark. Then she returns to her straw. She is slim, but has the strength of an average man. She handles the farm horses with a single rein (attached to one ring of the bit only), and by word of mouth. Apparently, she neither eats nor drinks.

It is the “manure” season. That is to say, it is the time of year when they carry out the loathsome liquid accumulation of the past twelve months and spread it over the fields, and so wrapt up is this girl in the work, that you would think she revelled in it.

She moves always at the double—whether through the chicken run, whence every bird flies scared and panic-stricken at her wild approach, or through the manure heap (for she never goes round it). Each time I pass her she
looks up with full face and a cheery grin. I don’t suppose she ever washes, and she must reek of manure, but she fascinates me because of her extraordinary vitality. It is quite exciting to watch her at her work.

But, as I look upon her, I despair of the English as an agricultural nation.[1]

 

Before returning to France we need to visit the Isle of Wight, where Robert Graves has recently been ensconced in a Victorian palace (it was one of Queen Victoria’s retreats) to convalesce at his leisure. His ailments are quite real–exhaustion, damaged lungs, and semi-undiagnosed shell shock–but, as he tells the story, he is still eager to enjoy himself.

Along with several new compatriots, Graves founded “The Albert Edward Society,” a college-style faux secret society in “mock honour” of the prince consort. They ate strawberries and drank wine, “sang bawdy songs” and otherwise celebrated their being alive to celebrate bygone days–Graves, after all, is impetuous, irrepressible, creative, and twenty-one years old.

In Good-Bye to All That he calls the society the “Royal Albert Society” and gives several more examples of concurrent high jinks and clevernesses, including changing the labels on the paintings in the gallery, dressing up a piece of driftwood as a drowned sailor, and defending the society from boorish intrusion by outdoing all the efforts of the intruders at telling filthy stories. Which makes a lousy anecdote, since Graves is not at liberty to repeat the story he told to win the day… his point, however, is that he is no longer quite the prude he once was.

In keeping with the guiding principle of his memoir, Graves also throws in entertaining stories that chime with perceived reading-public interests and drops whatever names he can. Therefore he mentions A.A. Milne (slightingly) and he tells of his interactions with a curious colony of French Benedictines in exile on the island who strike him as urbane and humane, despite not keeping poetry in their library. Graves has the sad task of describing to one of these monks what his native Béthune looks like now. And, as if in an echo of the several young Anglican officers who have become Catholics or are moving in that direction, Graves claims that these interactions–and his general esteem, pace the skill with filthy stories, for the monastic life–brought him some way in a similar direction: “Catholicism ceased to repel me.” Which is vintage Graves, whether or not the self-centeredness and backhanded snark are intended…[2]

Graves’s letters from this period, however, mostly concern his efforts to advance his poetry and that of his friends.

30 June 1917
Osborne, Isle of Wight

Dear old Sassons,

Without doubt a great poem: poor little Orme, he’d have been awfully pleased with it. The simple effect would be strengthened by a more regular sweep in the first half of each verse: as it stands it would worry people who didn’t know much about poetry: it breaks the flow of sense.

Trusting to your good nature I’ve pencilled in some tentative suggestions…

Mindful of my constant impositions on the patience of others, I will not excerpt from the individual word-queries and quibbles of scansion that Graves then lists…

…I know you’ll forgive these remarks, because you’ve patched up poems for me before now. And without my corrections it is a great poem, so you needn’t notice them…

Robbie has my Fairies and Fusiliers manuscript if you happen to be in town and want to see what I’ve been at.

Best love

Robert

And then–this very same day, a century back–Graves received a letter from Sassoon which seems to have given a general sketch of his intention to protest against the war. Graves will spend a good deal of time in his memoir emphasizing Sassoon’s poor health–exhaustion, shell shock, general malaise. But this sounds like how he has been feeling at this time. Sassoon himself has hardly made any physical complaints, and sees himself as aggravated and motivated rather than ill. The two men may, of course, have reasons to differ about the etiology of Sassoon’s intent to protest…. but I would not be surprised if the (lost) letter to Graves read something like Sassoon’s fictionalized account of this period:

Back at Butley, I had fully a fortnight in which to take life easily before tackling ‘wilful defiance of military authority’. I was, of course, compelled to lead a double life, and the longer it lasted the less I liked it… it wasn’t easy to sustain the evangelistic individuality which I’d worked myself up to in London. Outwardly those last days of June progressed with nostalgic serenity. I say nostalgic, because in my weaker moods I longed for the peace of mind which could have allowed me to enjoy having tea out in the garden on fine afternoons. But it was no use trying to dope my disquiet with Trollope’s novels or any of my favourite books. The purgatory I’d let myself in for always came between me and the pages; there was no escape for me now…[3]

No, no escape. But he was only passive north-by-northwest, as the warning-shot letter to Graves demonstrates.

Graves wrote back, clearly alarmed, but neither aware that Sassoon has actually written his protest and set the wheels in motion to have it read out in the House of Commons, nor that he had not yet actually published it.

It is only too much like Sassoon to do what he has in fact done: taken several steps toward dramatic action, then wandered off with the act uncompleted, the rebellion hanging fire but liable to set itself off at any time. Graves seems to suspect something like this:

I have just posted a letter I wrote this morning but your new one has come. Look here, why don’t you come and see me down here…

I want to know what characteristic devilment this is. Are you standing as a pacifist MP? That’s the most characteristic thing I can think of next to your bombing Lloyd George.

Yours,

R

But the alarm has only begun to ring, as Graves’s post-script–as usual, critical of a mutual friend–shows:

I’ve also written on Sorley. Bob Nichols of course is not Sorley but he’s next best, a devout admirer.

I’ve a copy of my new poems here.[4]

So Graves is alerted… but has not not yet leapt into action. He will act, and soon–as a loyal friend, if not always a true one.

 

The idea of the protest, remember, is to stop the madness. Edward Brittain has just returned to it. And he too writes two letters, today, both to his sister Vera.

France, 30 June 1917

I have arrived at the transport lines and shall be starting for the trenches in half an hour or so. The battalion is apparently just at the place where one would wish it wasn’t, as the papers have not failed to mention the place every day for the last week or so…

Opposite Lens, in other words, where the British staff is convinced that a hasty offensive might unseat “demoralised” the German defenders.

And not only is Brittain’s new battalion in the area of contemplated operations–it is slated to attack. An entire year–less about ten hours–after his wounding, after months and months of rehabilitation, and waiting, and training, he is suddenly thrust back into the very forefront of the war.

France, 30 June 1917
A dug-out

8.45 p.m.

The unexpected has happened again and I am in for another July 1st. If it should be that ‘Ere the sun swings his noonday sword’ I must say goodbye to all of this — then good-bye. You know that, as I promised, I will try to come back if I am killed.

It is all very sudden and it is bad luck that I am here in time, but still it must be. All the love there is in life or death to you, dear child.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 197-8. This, too, must put one in mind of The Spanish Farm Trilogy--but there, it being a (good) novel, the "girl" is a woman with a spirit to match her physical energy, and a full life half-hidden from (and imagined by) the decorous English officer...
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 175; Good-Bye to All That, 250-4.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 488-9.
  4. In Broken Images, 71-2.
  5. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 362-3.

Scott Moncrieff Returns to London; Alfred Hale Endures Parental Bluster; Wyn Griffith in Red Tabs with Royalty; Vera Brittain on “The Profound Freemasonry” of Those Dead Beyond the Gulf

Today, a century back, we have rather a potpourri of four updates–and none are from the trenches.

First, we witness Charles Scott Moncrieff, now back in London, returning to a familiar literary orbit.

14th June

. . . Broadway (a brother officer here) is very good and faithful to me. He comes down after breakfast in a dressing gown and again (for messages) before he goes out. He has got me this writing pad. Colin came this afternoon and brought a great armful of roses. . . . My friend Robert Ross was in before Colin—fresh from a week-end with the Asquiths—and gave me a novel and a promise of all the latest poetry and other books. I was glad to see him as I wanted an expert’s eye cast on the portraits in this room. . . . I expect a good many brother officers this week. Broadway finds them. He is more obliging than words can say. This place is doing me a lot of good and I feel better already. Our surgeon is like the young villain in Hardy’s Laodicean—he looks about 14 but is very able…[1]

Reading Hardy, depending on Ross’s taste, Asquiths at arm’s reach… and, though he doesn’t mention it in this letter, he is also being regularly visited by Ronald Knox. It’s a small world… which I believe I’ve noted before.

 

While Moncrieff is returning from the war seriously wounded, Alfred Hale is slowly headed toward France. So slowly that he is still in the adjusting-to-training-camp stage. And it turns out that even our Old Man of the Air Force has parents. Hale may live a solitary life of privilege–before conscription that is–and see camp as an ordeal rather than an adventure, but he’s only 41… and he still has parents who write him their worries, reminding us that the generational gulf is, in terms of years on this earth, relative, and not absolute…

14 June: A letter from my father. A cousin had come to see him on Draft leave. He seemed to be bored with the War, especially with the prospect of death before his time from bullets or exposure… all of which surprised and shocked my father. ‘It didn’t matter how long the War lasted, but we must have a military victory at all costs’. (This last the burden of all letters from home)…

Hale senior also tells his son that at least his work as a batman is “setting free an abler man.” But Hale isn’t so sure. “Was I really doing that? Unfortunately, I much doubted it…” Nor is Hale accepting the idea that his music “must gain” from experience. He is fairly certain, in fact, that innocence of certain things is highly preferable…[2]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith has recovered, to some extent, from the overwhelming disillusionment and horror at the murderousness of war that he felt after the death of his brother. Or perhaps he has just become more practical… and honest in his balance of emotional reaction and natural self-interest. In any event, he was very happy to be reassigned to the divisional staff a few days ago, replacing a wounded officer in an intelligence job running “an advanced information centre.” Griffith puts on his red tabs “with delight… I felt proud and important in red. Besides, I would be drawing pay at the rate of £400 a year, a tremendous jump for me.” And today, a century back, his elevated status put him in the way of royalty:

… the King and the Prince of Wales visited the headquarters on 14 June. The King shook hands with all the senior members of the corps and divisional staffs…[3]

 

A wounded young man of letters returning to the literary world, a middle-aged musician learning further humiliations, and a one-time trench fighter content to be on the staff. The war brings many changes–until the changes stop.

Vera Brittain comes to the end of the road, today, with Victor Richardson.

Five days after [his death] Victor was buried at Hove. No place on earth could have been more ironically inappropriate for a military funeral than that secure, residential town, I reflected, as I listened with rebellious anger to the calm voice of the local clergyman intoning the prayers: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all those who have died for their country…”

Eternal Rest, I reflected, had been the last thing that Victor wanted; he had told me so himself. But if, thus prematurely, he had to take it, how much I wished that fate had allowed him to lie, with other winners of the Military Cross, in one of the simple graveyards of France. I felt relieved, as I listened to the plaintive sobbing of the “Last Post” rising incongruously from amid the conventional civilian tombstones, that Edward had not been able to come to the funeral. The uncomprehending remoteness of England from the tragic, profound freemasonry of those who accepted death together overseas would have intensified beyond endurance the incommunicable grief which had thrust us apart.

But when, back in Kensington, I re-read the letter that he had written in reply to mine telling him of Victor’s death, I knew that he had never really changed towards me, and that each of us represented to the other such consolation as the future still held.

Vera then gives her brother the final words of the present chapter of her memoir, ending Edward’s fervent assurance of true brotherly love

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live…

Yes, I do say ‘Thank God he didn’t have to live it.’ We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again… But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother.

Edward[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 95.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 153.
  4. Testament of Youth, 359-61.

Vera Brittain and Victor Richardson

Throughout the last week Vera Brittain has been spending as much time as she can with Victor Richardson, the best school friend of her brother and her dead fiancé. She intends to marry him, despite the knowledge that he will be blind and disfigured for the rest of his life. She will marry him also because of his wounds, out of affection and pity and a sense of higher duty. Vera has been torn for years between an urge toward self-realization and various notions of service, but nothing has been quite right. After the double blow of Geoffrey Thurlow’s death and Victor’s terrible wound, she made an impulsive decision that in retrospect seems both tragically unwise and inevitable–but don’t they all?

She will love, and serve, and “sacrifice” herself for Victor–sacrifice in a way that is neither traditional, exactly, nor modern and liberated. It’s tragic and romantic, in keeping with the religion of her adolescence. So she has sat by his side for a week, and made plans about a future life that they might share.

Until yesterday, when delirium suddenly set in and the condition of Victor’s brain injury suddenly worsened. His family was called in, but soon he seemed to stabilize, and sleep, and so both families went home to the Brittains’ new flat.

Next day, just before breakfast, his father was summoned to the public telephone on the ground floor of the flats; my parents had not yet had a private telephone installed. The message was from the hospital, to say that Victor had died in the early hours of the morning. The Matron had tried to call us during the night, but could get no reply; apparently the night-porter’s attitude towards his duty was similar to that of my orderly in Malta.

I still remember that silent, self-imposed breakfast, and the dull stoicism with which we all tried to eat fried bread and bacon.

I can’t help but be reminded of Eleanor Farjeon, and what crossed her mind as she bobbed in the wake of the news that Edward Thomas was dead: now we must eat, especially now–because we must live.

Victor Richardson was twenty-two. Vera Brittain, still just twenty-three, has much experience in going through the motions of continuing to live:

Immediately afterwards we went down to Chelsea; on the way there the aunt and I bought a sheaf of lilies and white roses, for our minds were still too numbed to operate in any but the conventional grooves.

Victor’s body had already been taken to the mortuary chapel; although the June sunshine outside shone brilliant and cheerful, the tiny place was ice-cold, and grey as a tomb. Indifferently, but with the mechanical decorum of habit, the orderly lifted the sheet from the motionless figure, so familiar, but in its silent unfamiliarity so terrible an indictment of the inept humanity which condemned its own noblest types to such a fate.

I had seen death so often . . . and yet I felt that I had never seen it before, for I appeared to be looking at the petrified defencelessness of a child, to whose carven features suffering and experience had once lent the strange illusion of adulthood. With an overwhelming impulse to soften that alien rigidity, I laid my fragrant tribute of roses on the bier, and went quickly away .

Back at home, the aunt, kind, controlled, too sensitive to the sorrows of others to remember her own, turned to me with an affectionate warmth of intimacy which had not been possible before and would never, we both knew, be possible again. “My dear, I understand what you meant to do for Victor. I know you’d have married him. I do wish you could have. . . .”

“Yes,” I said, “I wish I could have,” but I did not tell her that the husband of my imagination was always Roland, and could never now be Victor. The psychological combats and defeats of the past two years, I thought, no longer mattered to anyone but myself, for death had made them all unsubstantial, as if they had never been. But though speech could be stifled, thought was less easy to tame; I could not cease from dwelling upon the superfluous torture of Victor’s long agony, the cruel waste of his brave efforts at vital readjustment. As for myself, I felt that I had been malevolently frustrated in the one serious attempt I had ever made to serve a fellow- creature. Only long afterwards, when time had taught me the limits of my own magnanimity, did I realise that his death had probably saved us both from a relationship of which the serenity might have proved increasingly difficult to maintain, and that I had always been too egotistical, too ambitious, too impatient, to carry through any experiment which depended for its success upon the complete abnegation of individual claims.

When Victor’s young brother had been sent for from school and the family had gone back to Sussex, I wandered about the flat like a desolate ghost, unable to decide where to go or what to do next. Only when twilight came could I summon sufficient resolution to write to Edward in the dim drawing-room, and to copy into my quotation-book Rupert Brooke’s sonnet “Suggested by some of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research”:

Not with vain tears, when we’re beyond the sun,
We’ll beat on the substantial doors, nor tread
Those dusty high-roads of the aimless dead.
Plaintive for Earth; but rather turn and run
Down some close-covered by-way of the air.
Some low sweet alley between wind and wind,
Stoop under faint gleams, thread the shadows, find
Some whispering , ghost-forgotten nook, and there
Spend in pure converse our eternal day;
Think each in each, immediately wise;
Learn all we lacked before; hear, know and say
What this tumultuous body now denies;
And feel, who have laid our groping hands away;
And see, no longer blinded by our eyes..[1]

 

It’s not so much that the influence of Brooke lingers, as that it remains dominant across large swathes of the English poetry-reading public. The new books are coming out, and Gurney is reading Sassoon who has been influenced by Sorley. But that is, as yet, a tight-knit group…

Still, Vera Brittain’s own writing doesn’t need the influence of other writers to express emotions alien to Brooke. She will write a poem, too, in the coming days, the latest in a series of memorials for young men she loved, in one way or another:

 

Sic Transit

V.R., died of wounds, 2nd London General Hospital, Chelsea, June 9th, 1917
I am so tired.
The dying sun incarnadines the West,
And every window with its gold is fired,
And all I loved the best
Is gone, and every good that I desired
Passes away, an idle hopeless quest;
Even the Highest whereto I aspired
Has vanished with the rest.
I am so tired.
London, June 1917

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 357-9.

Max Plowman on Death and Memory; John Masefield on the Ruins of Martinpuich; Duff Cooper’s Bearings Shift

Max Plowman appears here infrequently, now that his memoir’s span is done, and generally as a letter-writer–and it’s his complex relationship with pacifism that holds our attention, rather than his modest skill as a poet. But today’s letter includes a threnody he wrote for the son of a family friend, recently killed in action, and I think it is worth our time. Plowman didn’t know this “boy” well, but he responds to his death as a challenge–as an example of the challenge that the immensity of the war’s carnage presents to the frailty of human emotional intention:

Amid so many dead
Why should I sing of you?
Or seek to crown your head
With wreath of rue
Who wear the immortal crown ordained for you?

Myriads are dead–are slain
And many thousands more
As votaries to Pain
Will touch the shore
Where Memory wanders, and is seen no more

But your name lives in me.
Your life for earth I keep.
You died for Liberty.
‘Tis she doth weep
And in her heart your dear remembrance keep.[1]

There is something to the rhythm of this, as Plowman remarks in his own self-deprecating comment on the verses. The middle stanza, I think, rises above the more familiar sentiments of the other two: he is not just pledging to remember a dead soldier, but doing so while noting that both the scale of the slaughter and the ways in which pain blanches memory will make such vows more difficult to keep than they might at first seem.

 

Most of Duff Cooper‘s school friends long ago joined the armed forces. Many of them have been killed. But this option was not open to him as a matter of course, because he held a post in the Foreign Office (although I have not read that he vigorously pursued an exception in order to go fight; others did). He has brooded on this fact intermittently, but his diary, as we have it, reads most of the time like the narrative of the thoughts of a feckless young man and eager wooer. The war is serious business, yes, but not nearly as all-consuming as the pursuit of Diana

And yet, now, opportunity knocks.

The government want more men for the army and we in the Foreign Office are all to be medically examined and I think they will have to let some of us go. If anyone is allowed to go I shall be as I am the youngest of the permanent staff, unmarried and I should think perfectly fit…

He has waited for events to approach him, and, suddenly, they have. Will he back away? Rush toward them? Or wait some more–wait, that is, to be asked to become a sort of conscript?

The thought fills we with exhilaration. I don’t own to it as people would believe it was bluff and I dare say too that I shall very soon wish myself back.

This is wisdom, surely: caution, as well as a highly-developed sense of social propriety. One might not have gone to war in the first rush (or second, or third), but to bluster about a safe job would be unforgivable.

What follows next is impressive: Cooper may seem callow and love-smitten, pursuing the beautiful and monumentally coy Diana to the exclusion of all war aims and most thoughts about the suffering troops… but he is honest. Or he is honest enough to be persuasive: if what follows is bluster, than I am taken in. Even the afterthought, suddenly, seems true. And cruel.

But I am eager for change. I always wished to go to the war though less now than I did at first. I envy the experience and adventure that everyone else has had. I am not afraid of death though I love life and should hate to lose it. I don’t think I should make a good officer. The only drawback is the terrible blow it would be to Mother. I don’t know how I should dare to tell her. I think Diana too would mind.[2]

Yes, I think she might.

 

Finally, today, a brief bit from the letters of John Masefield. Preparing a book on the Somme battle, he has been touring the devastated areas, and writing regularly to his wife. Masefield is not a combatant, but he is a war writer in his own way, and a very good one, as we will see. In addition, he is one of the most important contemporary references for several of our poets, and thus a useful point of comparison to their more intense and immediate forms of witness. He is good–necessarily–on ruins; and he too chooses the writer’s paradox of sharp description tempered by self-doubting agnosticism:

I was out yesterday at Morval, on the east of the battlefield, & today at Martinpuich; both busy places when I was here first & noisy with cannon & none too safe, but now as quiet as tombs, utterly deserted wrecks & ruins of pleasant little towns, Morval on a hill top, like a little Troy, & M’puich along a ravine, like (I suppose) Nineveh. It is not possible to describe either place. They are both collections of big holes, with shattered wood in them, & a sort of mound in each, where the church was. In M’puich there were a lot of the cure’s sermons, in script, lying in the mud, all about Jesus & the holy Marie, & a lot of rather blasted gardens, with currant bushes & May flowering tulips. But no man can describe them. They have to be seen. Once they must each have had 3 or 400 souls in them, with homes & smoke & fires & dinner times & beasts in the stable, & now, my God, they lie out in the blasted field, unvisited by man, & they look like the cities of the plain, & the corpses’ knees & hands & boots stick up out of the mud at one as one goes by, & the rats come out sick over one’s feet. No more news.

Bless you all & my dear love to all.

Your old lover
Jan.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 68.
  2. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  3. Letters From France, 1917, 285.

J.R. Ackerley in Captivity; Kate Luard Helps a Prisoner in Vain; Alfred Hale’s Ordeal Begins

First, today, J.R. Ackerley, a prisoner in a German hospital, managed to write–while lying on his belly, perforce–a card to his brother:

Dear Old Peter

just a line to let you know that I am wounded and a prisoner in Germany–which has successfully killed my War-goose.

The wound is not bad, but inconvenient, being in the bottom!

Thine

Joe[1]

 

It could be worse, as it is in this parallel experience from Kate Luard.

A poor old Boche with the lower part of his face missing came in this morning (no tongue or lower jaw); dying of thirst apparently; he nearly went mad with joy when I succeeded in getting two feeders of water and brandy down with him, but means of india-rubber tubing on the spout, but he died later.[2]

 

With such experiences awaiting even willing recruits, is it any wonder that Alfred Hale, ready but far from willing, fears the worst of military service? But he is far from horror, as of yet, and the indignities he will experience will be slightly more subtle than Ackerley’s wound, though they come in swift and unyielding succession. Hale is due at Town Hall, Ealing, at 9 a.m., to see about continuing to contest his call-up.

…I ate a good breakfast, somewhat after the manner of the condemned criminal’s last meal, I suppose.

Arrived outside Town Hall, I spoke to one of the sergeants who were waiting there till the Recruiting Officer arrived… The Recruiting Officer was very pleasant to me as before. It seems I need not have turned up before Monday, but if I wished to go today he had no objection. he rather struck me, in fact, as having no objection to anything, except possibly being routed out of a very comfortable job and sent out to the trenches, say…

Surely it is so. But today is the beginning of Hale’s ironic katabasis, and the Recruiting Officer is for the moment spared. With withering irony Hale describes how he is bounced bureaucratically about–he is too old, or he had been, at one point in the implementation of conscription; no one, least of all himself, really wants him in the army–and then inducted, it seems, more or less because that’s how the flipper-and-bumper rituals of military/bureaucratic hierarchy spat out this particular ball. And it’s more about the angle in than the actual characteristics of the input: the enthroned colonel at the top of the building is annoyed either by his manner or by the perceived cheekiness of his appeal, so Hale is in.

After trooping upstairs and down, then marching with other draftees to the train, Hale arrives in a barracks in Hounslow for his medical exam. Everyone is still being very pleasant–after all, who should be unhappy on a fine day in London, so far from Flanders?

By this time I was quite at my ease and trying hard to treat the whole matter as a joke, and it was very helpful the way all these kind people backed me up and were ready to joke along with me. Meanwhile one of the orderlies looking out of the window exclaimed, ‘There go a batch of conscientious objectors’. ‘With a Bible in each hand, I suppose?’ suggested another scornfully. And then it came to my turn, I was sent through a door…

Which is where his comfort evaporates. Once undressed, the pleasant forty-two-year-old musical gentleman wearing nothing but his shoes is weighed and examined, and no jejune comparison to a lamb (or a more suitably aged but similarly meat-marketable beast) is necessary:

Having been weighed… I found myself in a very large room of the canteen variety… At a small table to one side sat two medical men in khaki, who took not the slightest notice of me…

Bullied by the eye-exam orderly, Hale forgets to produce his spectacles, is flustered by the doctor’s implication that he is flubbing the exam on purpose, remembers the spectacles, and successfully retakes the exam.

But by this time I had begun to lose my nerve, all my former calm of mind leaving me bit by bit. The doctor took me aside, and I was in a pretty trembling fright, with my heart beating up and down like a sledge-hammer, when he further examined me.

Which is when Hale has the deplorable timing to mention that he would like to go for an officer.

‘I am passing you C2’, was the reply.. ‘They want officers for the Labour Companies, don’t they?’–this to the other doctor. But the remark had to be repeated twice, as the old gentleman seemed to have fallen asleep.

Well that seems alright then–not fit enough for the front-line infantry, but perhaps an officer’s life a bit further from the trenches.

The long day’s journey continues on to the tailor’s, where, after much initiating into the profane vocabulary of the professional NCO, he gets his first rough khaki… and it is still only lunch time.

It was here that I first experienced making the one plate do for both meat and sweet.

Never such innocence again.

And, indeed, before Hale is released on his own recognizance for the afternoon, he learns that the doctor was wrong–C2 men will not be allowed to apply for commissions. This is neither the first nor the last of the eminently avoidable traps that the clueless Hale wanders into, but it’s a bad one–despite his social status and unsuitability for physical labor, he is now bound to the military world’s lower caste. But old reflexes are far from extinguished: Hale duly tips the apologetic, rheumatic sergeant who gives him the bad news.

The true “Catch-22” is, appropriately, a business-machined evil hammered into being by a later bureaucracy, rising to dominance in the Second War and only first scientifically described at the beginning of the 1960’s. In 1917, Alfred Hale is like a silent film schlemiel uniquely skilled in choosing to seat himself on whatever pile of lumber has already been attached to a crane. It is very lucky for him, then, that he also seems to have a cinema tramp’s gift for provoking the kindness of near-strangers.

Going home for a few hours, Hale allows his thoughts to wander melodramatically.

In the train, the white may blossom on the trees, as we passed along, made me very sad. I thought of what I knew was happening elsewhere, and this glorious May sunshine and riot of white colour over all. It was like a great white light that shone on a tragedy, and made pain and death and suffering show up worse by way of contrast.

Arriving back at the barracks that evening, Hale has his first conversation, as an enlisted man, about when the war might end. Then a kindly NCO teaches him how to salute, and one of his barracks-mates instructs him in the mysteries of “making myself snug for the night” by placing his overcoat over his blanket.

Like any good children’s story–or any good narrative of innocence–we end the chapter by going to sleep. Or trying to.

How I missed my sleeping-suit and linen sheets and pillow-case! That is perhaps one reason why I could not sleep. And what a place to find oneself in, me of all people too![3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 1.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 122.
  3. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 38-46.

Ivor Gurney in Perforated Good Spirits; Spring Offensive: Wilfred Owen Goes Over the Top; Siegfried Sassoon on the Effect of the Bombardment; Billy Prior’s Attack

Today is a day of blood and gore and foreboding. But we’ll start with the good news.

Pretty good news, at least: Ivor Gurney is wounded, and thus safe. There is pain, yes, but it hasn’t bought the best of news–early hopes of Blighty have faded. Gurney informs Marion Scott of his condition in a letter posted today, a century back:

My Dear Friend: Well, I am wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough; as although kind people told me it meant Blighty for me, yet here I am at Rouen marked “Tents”. I do not yet give up hopes, but very few boats have been running lately; none at all for some days; and the serious cases go first of course. It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm must underneath the shoulder—the muscles opposite the biceps, to describe them more or less accurately. It hurt badly for half an hour, but now hurts not at all…  there is no real damage done to my arm, not enough to please me.

Alas! Alas! There are hardly any books here! And the life is made up of hanging about waiting to be shifted again. Now if I could find some real hard reading to do–something to distract my mind–all might be well; or if I had some MS and a few books of verse, I would turn out something in spite of the flatness of my mind. O well, hopes
are not yet gone…

Though this Spring is cold and unclement, I cannot keep out of mind what April has meant for me in past years — Minsterworth, Framilode, and his companionship. And my sick mind holds desperately on to such memories for Beauty’s sake; and the hope of Joy…

So, if I can send you an address, please send me some small books of verse, and Tolstoi’s Cossacks (Worlds Classics – Pocket Ed.) I wonder whether at last I might try Housmans “Shropshire Lad”?

I will write again in half a shake:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

(I write with my perforated arm, so you see not much is wrong.)[1]

 

It could be much worse. Which Kate Luard can make too painfully clear:

Saturday night April 14th. I’ve never in my life seen so many aeroplanes or so many dead men or so many German prisoners; they are marched in hundreds down our road…

One Cockney boy with both arms smashed said to the Padre, ‘Sy a prayer for me, will yer? That would be nahce. Can’t yer confirm me?’ It’s the only time I’ve seen the Padre laugh. Then the boy offered to sing ‘Tooleroolerity, I want to go to Blighty–Blighty is the plice for me.’ And then he died.[2]

 

 

So. Now another strange non-convergence. Two of our poets who have been creeping toward the line come even closer today–one attacks while the other is on the edge of the action–while a third man who will come to occupy the same space as both of them, but who did not exist, suffered some portion of both of their experiences.

 

During the morning, Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters moved forward to their attack positions… and found that the staff work had been very bad indeed. First, there was a simple problem of time and distance: “It was realised by the battalion at the outset that it was impossible to cover the distance in artillery formation with the loads and paraphanalia [sic] that the private soldier is called upon to carry in the attack in the time given.” To make matters worse, the last 1,000 yards of the approach involved moving across the enemy’s front, and when the Manchesters appeared in view the Germans immediately placed a hurricane barrage on the ground to be covered. Nor did they know what they were attacking, or where the other British units in the area were. The C.O., Lt. Col. Luxmore, rode off to consult with brigade and came back at 12:20, ten minutes before the scheduled attack time, saving his battalion by ordering a postponement and a flank march to a different position.

But they still had to attack, and they still had to cross a hillside in full view of German-held St. Quentin just to reach the jumping-off point.

Though this barrage was straight in the middle of the Battalion, they moved forward through it as steadily as going on parade, each wave keeping its dressing and distance and every carrier retaining his load. By the Grace of God alone only 30 men were lost in this barrage.

This took long enough that the newly-agreed-upon assault time of 1:00 was also missed. It seems as if there had been no allowance made for the fact that this is not an assault from long-held trenches with reasonably secure telephone connections to the rear but rather an exploratory attack by a unit feeling its way through new country. If the stakes weren’t so high the image of the colonel galloping about in Napoleonic fashion as if he were his own dispatch rider would be comical.

In any event, his arrival was doubly providential, since someone needed to take tactical command on the spot and ignore whatever brigade-level plans remained. Since staying out in accurate artillery fire meant certain destruction and the German wire barriers did not seem too imposing, the Manchesters mounted a quick frontal assault on a German-held trench near their objective, through the barrage and long-range machine-gun fire. Reaching the trench, they found it to be abandoned. This was victory, of a sort, and the day’s work done, so they turned the position over to their relief and went briefly into reserve.[3]

Wilfred Owen was physically unscathed, but this was his first real attack, his first day in the open, under fire. His letter to his mother will strike a tone somewhere between exhilaration and disbelief:

Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communique; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter![4] Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open.[5]

But neither the battalion diary–which is in fact quite detailed and emotional for such a document–nor the letter do much to make us feel what it must have been like to have been there. Marching about, with no cover; uncertain of directions, of objections, of intentions–uncertain of anything except the fact that there would be no safety until some indeterminate length of shell-harrowed, bullet-swept ground was crossed.

But Owen will write it another way, in his poem “Spring Offensive,” which closes with these stanzas:

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

 

There are many facile ways to make this next transition: “As Owen’s experience opens out, as his poetry rises, Sassoon descends…” Or, perhaps: “While Owen does not deny God and heaven, he writes with biblical force and yet pointedly fails to confirm any solace or meaning to the day’s ‘inhumanities;’ meanwhile, Sassoon is becoming confirmed in his beliefs about where fault for slaughter lies.” That sort of thing. But even if we eschew easy parallels, there is a striking juxtaposition here. Siegfried Sassoon–who has been hoping for open battle, in which he knows he will either excel or be killed–will get instead a new experienced of compressed horror, and one that will push his angry poetry toward something even deeper and darker. Not above ground and into the great wide shell-swept open, but down underground, in the subterranean fastnesses of the Hindenburg line, where, safe from the shells, it will be grenade- and knife-work, and hell will be no Miltonic abstraction of fiends and flames but mappable terrain, still contested by the damned…

Tonight, a century back, Sassoon is still on the verge of this. His diary picks up late last night:

April 14

At 9 p.m. we started off to relieve the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers in Hindenburg support (Second R.W.F. being in support to the First Cameronians). It was only an hour’s walk, but our Northumberland Fusilier guides lost themselves and we didn’t arrive and complete the relief until 4 a.m. Luckily it was fine. I went to bed at 5 a.m., after patrolling our 900-yard front alone!—in a corridor of the underground communication-trench of the Hindenburg Line—a wonderful place. Got up at 9.30 after a miserable hour’s sleep—cold as hell—and started off at 10.45 with a fatigue-party, to carry up trench-mortar bombs from dump between St Martin-Cojeul and Croisilles. Got back very
wet and tired about 4.30. Rained all day—trenches like glue.

But in beginning to transmute the experience to memoir, Sassoon will bring a sense of helpless victimization–of abject horror–to the fore:

Stage by stage we had marched to this monstrous region of death and disaster. From afar it had threatened us with the blink and din of its bombardments. Now we groped and stumbled along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of human havoc. The World War had got our insignificant little unit in its mouth; we were there to be munched, maimed or liberated.[6]

So not Milton–Dante. The great devil mouth churning, while little dead men run up and down the twisting trenches in his hide, hurling bombs at each other…

We will see what the morrow will bring. But this stay amidst the wreckage of the attack will yield some of the most viscerally upsetting and vividly “anti-war” of Sassoon’s poems. One example will do, I think:

 

The Effect

‘The effect of our bombardment was terrific.
One man told me he had never seen so many dead before.’
War Correspondent.

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
They sprawled in yellow daylight while he swore
And gasped and lugged his everlasting load
Of bombs along what once had been a road.
‘How peaceful are the dead.’
Who put that silly gag in some one’s head?

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
The lilting words danced up and down his brain,
While corpses jumped and capered in the rain.
No, no; he wouldn’t count them any more…
The dead have done with pain:
They’ve choked; they can’t come back to life again.

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the fire-step like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat…
‘How many dead? As many as ever you wish.
Don’t count ’em; they’re too many.
Who’ll buy my nice fresh corpses, two a penny?’

 

So a Dante, but a Dante who has lost sight of Purgatory, and knows that Paradise is impossible. This shocking turn in Sassoon’s poetry on the very day of Owen’s first attack makes an uncannily good introduction for our next subject.

Sassoon, as his diary shows, was sleepless and agitated and keyed-up, but he was not yet shocked into losing his mental equilibrium. Owen has survived his first attack and is uncertain yet what meaning he can wring out of it, or what it has wrung out of him.

Which brings us to Lt. Prior. Billy Prior is, in the literary sense, real–more real to me, having read his story several times, and seen it enacted–than many historical figures. But he’s also fictional. He began life, I think it’s fair to say, as a “composite character” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a sort of stock figure of well-researched historical fiction, well-equipped with a 20th century panoply of trauma, neurosis, and defiant energy. But then he took on a life of his own. Regeneration is the sort of book that with great modesty and intelligence–two essential characteristics, along with compassion, that it shares with its (non-fictional) hero, Dr. William Rivers–would wave off such superlatives as “the best of its kind.” But it is–the trilogy is an incomparable fictional exploration of the psychological damage wrought by the war, and Billy Prior is the most compelling fictional Great War officer I can think of.[7]

But it’s early days, and he has not yet opened out into that full fictional life. Prior will be “shell-shocked” into both amnesia and temporary mutism, and the account of the battle (read the book!) that he provides for his therapist is stubbornly matter-of-fact. In fact–and very interestingly–Prior’s memories of today, a century back, draw heavily both on Owen’s first sharp experience of walking under shell fire “as steadily as going on parade” as well as on the sort of edge-of-madness clarity that Sassoon’s poetic voice summons. This is good historical fictional practice, of course, but there are lots of good accounts of such attacks (I’ve heard there’s a blog…) and it’s interesting that Prior’s trauma borrows in such a way from two “real life” figures whose paths will cross his own, in fiction.

I’ll include now a short excerpt from Regeneration: as it fades out one might either take up the novel itself or read once more Owen’s letter and his battalion’s history.

Prior dragged on the cigarette and, momentarily, closed his eyes. He looked a bit like the boys you saw on street corners in the East End. That same air of knowing the price of everything. Rivers drew the file towards him. ‘We left you in billets at Beauvois.’

‘Yes. We were there, oh, I think about four days and then we were rushed back into the line. We attacked the morning of the night we moved up.’

‘Date?’

‘April the 14th.’

Rivers looked up. It was unusual for Prior to be so accurate.

‘St. George’s Day. The CO toasted him in the mess. I remember because it was so bloody stupid.'[8]

‘You were in the casualty clearing station on the …’ He glanced at the file. ’23rd. So that leaves us with nine days unaccounted for.’

‘Yes, and I’m afraid I can’t help you with any of them.

‘Do you remember the attack?’

‘Yes. It was exactly like any other attack.’

Rivers waited…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 153-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 113.
  3. War Diary, WO/2392/2, page 160 (of pdf).
  4. Fayet.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.
  6. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 316.
  7. I'm not sure if Christopher Tietjens should count; George Sherston probably shouldn't...
  8. St. George's Day is usually April 23rd, not April 14th, and the calendrical complexities which move it later under certain conditions shouldn't have resulted in making it the 14th in 1917. I have a very limited understanding of the liturgical calendar, but this would seem to be a simple slip, occasioned perhaps by the fact that the next day Rivers mentions--the end of the total gap in Prior's life history--is the 23rd--unless I am simply misreading the fictional conversation? Is Prior playing some game with the dates, testing Rivers in some way? I don't think we are meant to subtly infer than his amnesia is feigned... In any event, it's fiction! And I'm very pleased to have an excuse to begin considering Regeneration, the most important (ah, superlatives) of the Great War novels written by later generations, before the time of its main action (all too infrequently dateable) this summer and autumn.
  9. Regeneration, 77.

Robert Graves Informs Robert Nichols; Siegfried Sassoon Closes Another Loop; Ford Madox Hueffer Hymns the High-Life; Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller on a Live Wire and Mr. Britling; Richard Aldington Tells Off and Tells a Joke

February, it seems, will rival January as a cold and miserable month that nonetheless provides a great deal of interesting war writing. Poets writing to other poets! Poets reading original acenturyback sources! Tall tales of the troops that are actually funny! More Mr. Britling! Scabrous poets lashing out at all the other poets they can name!

The first piece of… several… today, comes from Robert Graves to his new friend Robert Nichols. Nichols is out of the war, we may recall, and has flatteringly asked Graves–with tongue-in-cheek preciousness–to inspire his poetry by “feeding my faun with cherries.”

2 February 1917

My dear Robert,

What a ripping letter! I wrote you one a day or two ago and though it’s a bad habit I must write another. You’re lucky, to be able to be so happy in England: I couldn’t while the war lasts…

A friendly letter, or a critical one? Mostly the former. With Graves it’s always possible that what might seem like a sharp reference to the experiential gulf–“you’re a civilian now, friend, oh-so-happy in England, while I’m a soldier”–is merely careless, and it certainly seems as if he is otherwise enthusiastic about this new relationship.

Next, Graves ups the ante by writing Nichols not prosy notes to inspire his poetry but rather a poem of his own. This is the revised version of the draft poem “To Robert Nichols” that made up much of today’s letter:

Here by a snowbound river
In scrapen holes we shiver,
And like old bitterns we
Boom to you plaintively:
Robert how can I rhyme
Verses for your desire—
Sleek fauns and cherry-time,
Vague music and green trees,
Hot sun and gentle breeze,
England in June attire,
And life born young again,
For your gay goatish brute
Drunk with warm melody
Singing on beds of thyme
With red and rolling eye,
All the Devonian plain,
Lips dark with juicy stain,
Ears hung with bobbing fruit?
Why should I keep him time?
Why in this cold and rime,
Where even to dream is pain?
No, Robert, there’s no reason:
Cherries are out of season,
Ice grips at branch and root,
And singing birds are mute.

Next, Graves presumes to preach to Nichols, affecting a frank, hale-fellow voice to knock (fairly, however) Nichols’s rather old-fashioned approach. We are Sorley‘s children, now, Robert!

Look here, Robert; I’ll risk your being annoyed, if you are you’d be no friend of mine, but nowadays one doesn’t ‘view the constellations quietly, quietly burning’, at least not after one’s left school. ‘Moral austerity’? Sorley talks of the spiky stars that shine: less luxuriant, sharper, more effective.

Call me a grandmother: I like being ragged. But oh, Robert, you’ve got all the qualities of a poet if you want, and it seems such a rotten stunt for you to sit in a kimono to view constellations quietly, quietly burning, and read Bridges. You want to get away from all that into a new method…

I don’t apologize for this. I mean it and I feel Somme trenches give me the right even to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit if I feel so inclined.

Yours affectionately

Robert[1]

Well, there you have it, quite openly in that last paragraph. There are many bases for asserting authority in poetry. But in war poetry, there is one only–experience. Having fought in “the Somme trenches,” Graves can criticize without restraint all poetry up to and including that which is divinely inspired… and his humorous hyperbole only half-covers the fact that he is less-than-half joking.

 

Siegfried Sassoon, left behind in Litherland Camp and not party to this new poetic friendship, is moping about and reading. ah, but who? One young but old-fashioned poet, and one fallen soldier–each of them one of our sources. Or, rather, one of them a source I came to late in his lie=fe and should have used more, and the other more of a source-to-come.

February 2

And now reading Charles Lister‘s letters in the hut and feeling deadly tired and depressed. I suppose I’ll worry along somehow in France. How, I don’t quite know.

Wilfrid Gibson’s new poems arrived today. He seems to be laying himself out to be a sort of Crabbe (modernised on Masefield Lines). Some of it is very good, but diffuse…

Charles Lister, another of the well-born young men who swarmed into the Royal Naval Division at the start of the war, was a friend of Patrick Shaw-Stewart and Rupert Brooke, and the third of the “Argonauts” to die. Lister’s father published his son’s letters, and while these will not have anything like the influence of Charles Sorley on the younger poets, it is another early case of a feedback loop.

Sassoon is reading one of the books we might read (and have read a bit of) in order to understand the experience of the war. His writing of his own life, therefore–not just in the memoir but in the near-“real-time” of his diary–is now influenced by Great War life-writing.

To reverse chronological course and restore our sense of future-mastery, I’ll note that it’s also interesting that he’s reading Wilfrid Gibson, who is most definitely a Georgian poet, but not–not yet–a war poet. But he will be. Although this project has seen numerous young men accepted despite severe vision problems, Gibson, already in his late thirties when the war broke out, was several times refused when he attempted to volunteer. But 1917 will bring increasing demands for men, and, accordingly, a loosening of such restrictions… so even as Sassoon reads the words of an Edwardian young man now long dead, he is reading the diffuse Georgian poetry of a poet who will soon know war.

 

Some weeks ago we dispatched the ailing Ford Madox Hueffer to the south of France. Another one of those hospital nightmares? Oh no, my friends!

…we had lived like gentlemen. A peeress of untellable wealth and inexhaustible benevolence had taken, for us alone, all the Hôtel Cap Martin [in Menton, on the French Riviera]–staff, kitchens, chef, wine-cellars. We sat at little tables in fantastically palmed and flowering rooms and looked, from the shadows of marble walls, over a Mediterranean that blazed in the winter sunlight. We ate Tournedos Meyerbeer and drank Château Pavie, 1906. We slept in royal suites… You looked round and remembered for a second that we were all being fattened for slaughter… But we had endless automobiles at our disposal and Monte Carlo was round the corner.

Yes, fattened for the slaughter–perhaps. But having pushed hard to see actual service in France, Ford is now hoping to escape the trenches, and one imagines that others who have gotten as far as the Riviera will as well. But surely not all.

There is so much to comment on, here–and letters to go before we sleep–but let’s try to register three critical touches.

First, it’s safe to say that Ford’s gambling in Monte Carlo–he won steadily using a mathematical system devised by a brilliant friend, then got bored and gambled it away again–alongside various eccentric aristocrats puts Sassoon’s fox hunting and golf to shame as an activity unbecoming an officer who is supposed to be disabled…

Second, a comparison to George Coppard‘s birthday memory is illuminating. For an enlisted man to land at an English aristocrat’s hospital where he will be pampered for a few weeks and given free cigarettes is “dead lucky;” but for an officer and high-liver like Hueffer/Ford to be moved to a similar admission–“untellable… inexhaustible… fantastically”–it takes Monte Carlo, succulent meats, fine Bordeaux, and endless automobiles…

Third, Ford is a bit of a genius. He will write the one and only High Modernist masterpiece dealing with the war, but that, in many ways, sprung fully-formed out of his possibly exaggerated shell shock and (other) modernist commitments. As this scrap of memoir makes clear, he might have been considered instead the forerunner of the realist-absurd World War Two style, or even of Post-Modernism in its beautiful chaos phase. By which I mean Heller, and then Pynchon–who else? If some of Ford’s descriptions recall the earnest efforts of Milo Minderbinder, this transition from French beachfront merriment to hard-edged despair is something that Tyrone Slothrop might have experienced (Ford would have added a trained octopus and mysterious femme fatale if he had known he could get away with it):

…On the 2nd of February, 1917 I had stood on that platform. There had been an icy wind and snow falling. I was going up the line again. If you have asked me then whether I felt despair I should have denied it–mildly. I had been conscious of being dull and numbed in a dull, numb station. All France up to Hazebrouck in Flanders was deep in snow. I was going to Hazebrouck in Flanders.[2]

 

But back to earth, now, with an unlikely pair: young lovers whose warrior half is not a warrior but a pacifist medic, firmly rooted in his dreams of the stars. Half a world away, today, a century back, Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller wrote to each other. I don’t often include much from Agnes’s letters–they tell of civilian life in Australia, and often engage Olaf in philosophical discussion–but today her question (ought America to join the war?) brings in the text-of-the-moment:

…there was a little paragraph in Wells’ book “Mr. Britling Sees It Through” which made me want America not to fight. It was where the young American explained that his country will betray her trust if she allowed herself to be drawn into war. He said America was the field for humanity to make a fresh start in, to turn over a new leaf, & it would be wrong got her to go back to the old lines. Do you think that?

Up until a few weeks ago. Oh, apologies–she was asking Olaf.

It would seem that although Olaf and Agnes are half a world away, they are on the same side of that generational gap, the biggest stumbling block on the approach to the experiential gulf. Never has Agnes Miller sounded so much like Vera Brittain (the Vera Brittain of 1914 and 1915).

Have you read “Mr. Britling” yet? I want to read it again to myself. We are going to discuss it at one of the Seekers meetings this year. Hugh’s letters made me cry. Dad said after reading one very harrowing one, “Well, it’s quite understandable that the men themselves wouldn’t see beyond their own trenches. They wouldn’t take a broad view.”–& I wanted to burst out indignantly, “No & why should they? Poor men! Why should anyone see beyond all the filth of it. They were not meant to, war is not the right way. It’s all a hideous madness.”–but I couldn’t have said anything without bursting into tears, so I said naught.

And Olaf, who will receive this letter in a month or two, is writing to Agnes about a book he is reading,

about feminism and marriage and love and the evolution of a nobler kind of society. The point of it all is really very simple, namely that women… must become free & independent economically and spiritually.

The world could do with more such. But he’s not here because he’s a good lad and a conscientious liberal–he’s here because he’s a good writer. Here’s a lovely metaphor:

Dear, you know how an electric wire conveys a current, and how if the current is too strong for it the wire fuses–goes white hot and breaks. Well, all this poor letter writing business is our electric wire, and it is too thin a wire for the current of understanding and sympathy and love that has to pass along it, that must pass along… When we meet, girl, there will be such a lot to learn of one another… The best thing I have learnt in these years of war is the sense of the supreme worth of sincerity in human thoughts and feelings…[3]

 

It’s been a long day and this is perhaps too much, but in guilt–or righteous concession–over the extent to which my dislike for Richard Aldington‘s personality and fiction informs my reading of his letters, I must include this one (to F.S. Flint, as usual). Aldington is certainly warming to the task:

My brave,

I fear my letter worried & annoyed you–but you must permit me a “grouch” occasionally. “The flesh is sad, alas”–& I have no books to read. Sometimes I wish you were here. One can “wag the beard” quite freely while working & we could discuss cadence & quantity & rhythm to the sound of pick and shovel…

So the weather is cold with you? Imagine! Here it is subtropical. We live on iced champagne & salads. The R.F.A. wear nothing but their trousers & socks. It is reported that the R.S.F. have abandoned all clothing except Japanese
umbrellas & fans.

The amazing thing is that in spite of the heat my shaving and tooth brushes are stiff with ice each morning. I have to thaw my towel before it will bend, the jam in tins is covered with a “crust” of ice &…but why continue? You think I
exaggerate? Come & see!

A yarn. Quidam barbarus–a certain Hun, taken prisoner at X on the 11th of Z was asked by a Tommy how long the
war would last. “Two years more,” quoth Fritz, “then we beat you with the bayonet. You’ll only need one ship to take your lot back then.” “Ho,” said our compatriot in wrath “and your blankety blank lot’ll go ’ome in a copulating perambulator.”

This was told me by one who vowed he’d seen it. No doubt the yarn appeared last June in the Journal & last
Saturday in The Evening Standard, but it’s new to me & maybe to you. I hope you’re edified.

See, that’s funny. And the joke requires three participants: the German stooge; the earthy lower-class Briton, profane but, on his best behavior, searching for euphemism; and the well-bred ear, there to appreciate the word-substitution (which was not a new necessity among those who frequently salted their speech with the earthy latrinogrammatic first-resorts represented by “copulating,” but seems to still give a frisson to the middle classes) as well as the metrical superabundance that makes “copulating perambulator” such a joy to find in a sentence that could have been, in a less eloquent age, “screw you, buddy.”

Finally, Aldington, for all that he is an enlisted laborer, now, is a very productive writer, and not only of letters. I’ve already excised about ten literary name-drops from this one, but it now becomes clear what Aldington is up to:

I wrote an article in malicious mood on modern English poetry in which I abused decisively & praised ironically some score of our villainous pundits of the pen. Still it was a poor affair–I lack verve & venom…

What do you think? A new Dunciad in prose with Abercrombie & Kipling & all that lousy crew round Monro elegantly dished and derided.

Perhaps this is what Aldington currently believes that his lowly stance in a copulating navvying unit might help him achieve: it’s a good crouch from which to chuck heavy objects at the marble busts atop the world of poetry. Kipling, popular master of the waning empire; Abercrombie, the reigning Georgian; and Harold Monro as the portfolio-holder for the rising-unmoderns.

Or he just wants to heap invective on a major modernist who has criticized–and critically!–Aldington’s recent translations from the Greek:

…a propos, that fatted imbecile of destruction, Eliot… Slay me this imbecile with a note to ’Arriet. “The Greeks put intelligence on their tombstones” quotha. Many, and the Yanks cannot even get it into the periodicals of their intellectual élite. Consult H.D. and use information and indignation here supplied to expose this festering lunatic, this bunion on the souls of Pound, this comPound [sic], this insult to God!

If you need it borrow some money from H.D. She usually gets a “check” about the 10th” of the month. Call
then…

Cheer up! Why I may be blown to bits to-morrow. Then you can write my biography.

Thine
R.[4]

Well, he sounds like he’s having a good time…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 65-66.
  2. War Prose, 65-7.
  3. Talking Across the World, 203-4.
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 180-2.

Wilfred Owen in Front of the Line; Edmund Blunden’s Theatrical Interlude is Over; Edwin Vaughan’s Drastic Disillusionment

We have another full day, today, with excerpts from Edmund Blunden and Edwin Vaughan that each get at one (or more) of the core questions of how wartime experiences are transformed into literature. But first, today, we should begin by finishing with Wilfred Owen‘s first combat experience. Lasting from the 12th to the 15th, that nightmarish slog-and-cower affair is over–but today, a century back, Owen wrote the letter to his mother that described it. I’ll omit most of what we have already read, but the beginning and end of the letter itself make it clear why this letter really is the foundation of his war-writing.

Tues. 16 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

My own sweet Mother,

I am sorry you have had about 5 days letterless. I hope you had my two letters ‘posted’ since you wrote your last, which I received tonight.

I am bitterly disappointed that I never got one of yours.

I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.

I held an advanced post, that is, a ‘dug-out’ in the middle of No Man’s Land…

The narrative of the days in the line follows. When Owen begins his conclusion by criticizing the performance of other officers it is clear that he is not being snarky but rather expressing a sense of great relief: tere but for the grace of God he would have gone…

The officer of the left Platoon has come out completely prostrated and is in hospital.

I am now as well, I suppose, as ever.

I allow myself to tell you all these things because I am never going back to this awful post. It is the worst the Manchesters have ever held, and we are going back for a rest.

I hear that the officer who relieved me left his 5 Lewis Guns behind when he came out. (He had only 24 hours in). He will be court-martialled…

Don’t pass round these sheets but have portions typed for Leslie etc…

Your very own Wilfred x[1]

There were moments in this letter when it felt like straight, unfiltered reportage. “Downloading,” as we like to call it. But of course this is never perfectly true–our minds don’t work like that. The letter begins with grand dramatic statements, and if it proceeds through an intense and fairly unadorned description of horror, it ends with an awareness of itself. With, that is, the letter as a sensitive (in several senses) record of what has been experienced.

 

Now from a war-poet a-borning to the middle of the war’s most beautiful and harrowing memoir. When we last read Edmund Blunden it was not long after his Ypres Christmastime. Early in the new year he saw the town itself, and was shocked by the reality of this battered crucible of the war in Belgium.

I had longed to see Ypres, under the old faith that things are always described in blacker colours than they deserve; but this view was a tribute to the soldier’s philosophy. The bleakness of time had found its proper theatre. The sun could surely never shine on such a simulacrum of divine aberration.

“Theatre,” as a matter of fact, crops up in the title of this chapter of the memoir–“Theatre of War”–and thence to Paul Fussell‘s book, where it did the same duty. Today, a century back, a new act opened as his battalion went back into the line:

The new year was yet very young when the battalion filed through Ypres to take over trenches at Potijze, which we came to know very well. It was not the worst place in the Salient. I had seen it already, and its arrangement was simple — a breastwork front line, running from the Zonnebeke road to a railway bank on the south; a support line; two good (or not too bad) communication trenches — Haymarket and Piccadilly. Battalion headquarters dugout was at Potijze Chateau, beside the road. It boasted a handsome cheval-glass and a harmonium, but not a satisfactory roof.

This headquarters also enjoyed a kind of Arcadian environment, for the late owner had constructed two or three ponds in the grounds with white airy bridges spanning them, weeping willows at their marges, and there were even statues of Venus and other amorous deities, although I did not examine them closely. The chateau itself, much injured as it was, was not destroyed, and in the upper story my observers gazed through a telescope on a dubious landscape; lucky these, whose day could not begin before eight and ended at four with the thickening of what little light there had been. Littered on the floor beside them were old maps of parts of the estate, some of great age, and registers of the number of woodcock, hares, rabbits, and I forget what, formerly laid low by shooting parties of this fine house. At least we had not done that![2]

No huntsman he. But note, too, “Arcadian–” a second Fussell chapter title. This should remind us that, although we lost many good men and good writers in 1916–and though in many ways the stereotypical or shorthand view of the British experience of the war is essentially that of 1916, remembering the Somme and forgetting much of what came after–some of the most essential writers still have much of their war still ahead of them. The spring of 1917 will be eventful, the autumn as awful as anything on the Somme.

 

Finally, today, our newest diarist completes his approach to the line. Edwin Vaughan‘s big day was yesterday, a century back. He left camp outside Rouen, bound for the front line trenches–or so he thought.

As I drove down in the rattling, bone-shaking old taxi, I tried hard to convince myself that the moment I had lived for had arrived and that I was now a real Service man. But this was difficult: there was no band playing, no regiment bearing the old colours into the fray, only little me…

As the semi-official truck-train jerked out of Rouen, it began to snow hard, and the bare truck wherein I, the only passenger on the train, sat on my rolled up valise, was soon full of whistling snow…

And yesterday brought neither relief, resolution, nor rest. Left on a bare platform for his 1 a.m. connection to a branch line, Vaughan spent several hours walking to keep warm.

The cold was intense, and in addition I was wet through, beastly hungry and over the boots in snow.[3]

Today proper began with another slow, freezing train journey, this time not alone but in a compartment Vaughan shared with a wordless, whimpering Hussar and two fighting rats.

Once again I am struck not just by the novelistic writing style but with the extreme compliance of the accidents of his experience with the expectations of the form. Vaughan, that is, seems both ready to write a “war book” and fortunate to be readily experiencing numerous “set pieces” that fit the bill. Part of this, at least, is a good reminder for us: it’s 1917, and while the “war book” is not as strongly constructed or familiar an idea as it will be next year (not to mention 1929), it’s quite possible now for men to come to the front full not of Tennyson, Malory, Newbolt, and Brooke, but of Barbusse, Sorley, and the letters and word-of-mouth experiences of disillusioned officers (though Vaughan has shown no direct influence of these, as of yet).[4]

The other side of the equation are Vaughan’s intentions: more than most, this diary is akin to a novelistic memoir. What will he focus on? What will he choose to omit?

In any case he is unusually aware of the way in which his expectations dominate his experience, and his writing is very much colored by the disappointment of those expectations. He writes, in other words, in a strongly ironic mode.

Today’s entry continues at some length. By 6 a.m. a small station and breakfast, then a journey by lorry up to division HQ “beside a driver who annoyed me by regarding this journey up the line as a matter of no especial importance.”

As we drove out of Sénapont on to the main road, I began to question the driver about the line, picturing the Battalion in the midst of fire and smoke. He told me about the locality in which they were stationed, and I, with my eyes prepared to meet a scene of wire entanglements, shell bursts and trenches, was confused by his references to the estaminets the men frequented, the girls they met, and the cushy time they were having. Finally I discovered that we were just outside of Abbeville and many many miles from the line! It was a drastic disillusionment and I did not know whether to be annoyed or relieved.

That’s enough quotation for today, but the let-down will continue: from taxi to train to train to lorry to mess cart, and from base to division to actual combat unit Vaughan finally meets the officers of his battalion, billeted in an old hotel in Arraines-sur-Somme. He is greeted generally with either rudeness or indifference, and of course the first person he meets is the standard-issue useless major who is being kept from interfering with the unit’s actual operations…

The clouds clear briefly when Vaughan “chummed up with a fellow called Hawkins,” and then settle again definitively when the hostesses–“vile hag”–stumbles in, straight out of Victor Hugo, except that in this case both of the little girls who work for her are starved and overworked… Vaughan has pulled off a minor masterpiece of approaching-the-line bathos.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 427-8. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209-217.
  2. Undertones of War, 136.
  3. Once again it is clear that Vaughan's diary is carefully dated, but not always composed on the day indicated.
  4. The term "disillusion" will appear, below... and I should add that my sense that the diary was not merely "transcribed" much later on but actually, to some significant degree, rewritten, is growing. As far as I know it is impossible to know what "belongs" to the date, what was written within a few days, and what may have been added or altered long after...
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 6-8.

Wilfred Owen in Agony; Max Plowman in the Clear; Edwin Vaughan in Limbo; Rudyard Kipling on the Irish Homemaker

Two days ago, a century back–it was a Friday–Wilfred Owen reached the front line for the first time. This was one of the bleak, backwards, unimproved sections of the recent Somme battlefield. The German dugouts were deep, at least, and could perhaps have been made strong with good weather and good work. But their doorways face the wrong way–directly at the German guns, which know exactly where they are–and depth is not an absolute good when the wet and broken land thaws. Owen’s letter to his mother describing his past two days holding the line is intense:

The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn’t.

Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life.

Every ten minutes on Sunday afternoon seemed an hour.

I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees.

Towards 6 o’clock, when, I suppose, you would be going to church, the shelling grew less intense and less accurate: so that I was mercifully helped to do my duty and crawl, wade, climb and flounder over No Man’s Land to visit my other post. It took me half an hour to move about 150 yards.

I was chiefly annoyed by our own machine guns from behind. The seeng-seeng-seeng of the bullets reminded me of Mary’s canary. On the whole I can support the canary better.

In the Platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing. One of these poor fellows was my first servant whom I rejected. If I had kept him he would have lived, for servants don’t do Sentry Duty. I kept my own sentries half way down the stairs during the more terrific bombardment. In spite of this one lad was blown down and, I am afraid, blinded.

This was my only casualty.[1]

It’s impossible to judge the decisions of combat officers, and almost all who experience their first real bombardment as “terrific” will later realize that it could be very much worse. But Owen has done well–he has kept calm, he has issued orders that seem wise and probably saved lives. Of course, if the bombardment had masked a German attack, he would have been guilty of a terrible misjudgment and perhaps a violation of his orders. But it was a safe bet that there would be no attack in such weather.

Owen is a changed man, and a changing writer. There is no false pride or swagger in the possessive–“my” only casualty–and the idea that he has caused the death of the man who would have been his servant is, despite its illogic, almost inescapable in the fortune-haunted necromancy that pervades an infantryman’s thinking about fate and fatality.

Nor is there unwieldy literary armature in his recognition of what it means to be a front-fighter. Looking back, he reassess the breadth of the experiential gulf by simply noting that as his mother was going to church–no doubt she would be asking God to spare her son–he was thankful for the small mercy of a lessening of the bombardment that let him “crawl, wade, climb and flounder” through thick, corpse-strewn mud to do his duty.

And then there is that one casualty. It will be some time before Owen writes “The Sentry,” which begins

We’d found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through…

But it is a poem of this moment. A later section of the poem describes the further events of today, a century back, and intensifies the horror with the uncanny power of rhyme and rhythm:

There we herded from the blast
Of whizz-bangs, but one found our door at last.
Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles.
And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping
And splashing in the flood, deluging muck —
The sentry’s body; then his rifle, handles
Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.
We dredged him up, for killed, until he whined
“O sir, my eyes — I’m blind — I’m blind, I’m blind!”
Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time he’d get all right.
“I can’t,” he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids
Watch my dreams still; but I forgot him there
In posting next for duty, and sending a scout
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and floundering about
To other posts under the shrieking air.

So there is good news for the wounded, then–the sentry will recover his eyesight. But then, of course, there is the invisible damage of the day, which the letter only begins to express.

Those other wretches, how they bled and spewed,
And one who would have drowned himself for good, —
I try not to remember these things now.
Let dread hark back for one word only: how
Half-listening to that sentry’s moans and jumps,
And the wild chattering of his broken teeth,
Renewed most horribly whenever crumps
Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath —
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
“I see your lights!” But ours had long died out

 

As Owen’s agony on the Somme deepens, Max Plowman has escaped. The best sort of near-miss is the one that leaves one not ominously unscathed but hurt in such a way that escape is not only possible but mandatory. The stereotypical “blighty one” is a nice, safe flesh wound (which may always turn out to be infected by organic matter blown into the wound, and then will have a nice, small chance of turning “septic” and leading to amputation or death). But Plowman has, in a way, been even luckier–he was only concussed, and temporarily amnesiac.

Rouen

I am in bed at Rouen No. 4 General Hospital feeling rather a fraud, for I’ve every limb intact and only a dull headache and a thick ear. I slept for two days at Bray. Then I was so stiff they carted me out and brought me here on a stretcher. There’s a colonel of the Gordon’s opposite. He is sick. We are a mixed crowd of sick and wounded.

The doctor comes round and I tell him all I know.

“People who lose their memories go home,” he replies, as if he were uttering a threat.

Home! My God! I am going home![2]

He will be here for a week, and then Le Havre, and the transport, and home… and the end of the book I wish I could’ve done more with…

 

No more than a few miles from Plowman, Edwin Vaughan has been wandering about, in something like a mirror image of Plowman’s position: inactive and uncertain, but stirred by restless energy. And headed in the opposite direction.

Assigned to the battalion he desires he is nevertheless stuck at camp outside of Rouen awaiting orders to join it. He visits a priest he knows, strolls in the city chatting up “French and Belgian officers and soldiers, English girls and French actresses and demimondaines, padres and police” and soaking up the wartime atmosphere. To Vaughan it seems remarkably carefree, but that is because he is filled with dread about his first experience of combat, and many of those he interacts with are chatting, drinking, and making love to forget what they have seen and known.

Yesterday, a century back, he “cut parade and walked about the forest in the pouring rain,” then went into Rouen and dined with a friend before bumping into–quite literally–an officer of the Gloucesters. Amusingly, since Vaughan has been in France for only a week and the same day’s entry dwells on his own inexperience (“…hard to imagine it… ‘going up’ is treated like going into mess or on parade”) Vaughan then plays the old soldier and jokes with the flustered newcomer. But it turns out that the man is in Vaughan’s brother Frank’s battalion, and a few hours later the brothers are reunited.

They arranged to meet today in camp and attend mass together, but Frank turned out to be on duty. Edwin Vaughan is certain, then, to miss his brother, as he spent the rest of today, a century back, drawing equipment for his imminent move up the line.[3]

 

Finally, today, a wry update on the doings of the Second Irish Guards from their recently-appointed historian, Rudyard Kipling. This paragraph shows him at his best–seeming to write with the troops rather than about them, and acknowledging privation and the difficulty of a war often mismanaged largely as a sort of impudent challenge to the moral, efficiency, and resourcefulness of the battalion. But many others, too, affirm the connections between morale, performance in actual battle, and taking pride in the management of “housemaking” during the quieter periods of trench warfare. Also, socks!

By the time that the 1st Coldstream relieved them on the 14th January, the Battalion had fenced their private No Man’s Land and about six hundred yards of the line outside the posts, all under the come-and-go of shell-fire; had duckboarded tracks connecting some of the posts; systematised their ration- and water-supply, and captured a multitude of army socks whereby companies coming down from their turn could change and be dry. Dull as all such detail sounds, it is beyond question that the arrangement and prevision of domestic works appeals to certain temperaments, not only among the officers but men. They positively relish the handling and disposition of stores, the fitting of one job into the next, the race against time, the devising of tricks and gadgets for their own poor comforts, and all the mixture of housemaking and keeping (in which, whatever may be said, the male animal excels) on the edge of war.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 425-7. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 212-215.
  2. A Subaltern on the Somme, 227-8.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 5-6.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 112-3.

Wilfred Owen Reaches the Front Line, and Sets a Sentry; Edward Thomas Turns Toward Tintown

Today, a century back, Wilfred Owen passed from innocence to experience. Melodramatic, yes, but so was the reality of his first day of combat. After snow and intense cold there has been a thaw, which means disastrous mud, and he is headed for one of those forward positions that had been won from the Germans at such cost during the Somme battle, and yet never put in a fit state for proper defense, let alone habitation. Owen will survive to describe the experience in a letter to his mother.

We had a march of 3 miles over shelled road then nearly 3 along a flooded trench. After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top. It was of course dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4, and 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water. Men have been known to drown in them. Many stuck in the mud & only got on by leaving their waders, equipment, and in some cases their clothes. High explosives were dropping all around out, and machine guns spluttered every few minutes. But it was so dark that even the German flares did not reveal us.

Three quarters dead, I mean each of us 3/4 dead, we reached the dugout, and relieved the wretches therein. I then had to go forth and find another dug-out for a still more advanced post where I left 18 bombers. I was responsible for other posts on the left but there was a junior officer in charge.

My dug-out held 25 men tight packed. Water filled it to a depth of 1 or 2 feet, leaving say 4 feet of air.

One entrance had been blown in & blocked.

So far, the other remained.

The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn’t.[1]

Owen was a callow youth not long ago. This morning he was still a replacement officer, untested by the responsibility of holding a forward position in defense or the enduring of a bombardment that might not cease for days. Tonight, a century back, he’s a veteran. His experience of the world and its terrors and miseries has now in some respects exceeded that of most poets–or most people who have strutted and fretted their long hour. All he has to do, of course, is hold the line, for two nights and two days, until relieved. The Germans won’t be coming. They’ll just be shooting.

It has been quite a long time since Owen focused on his poetry; and what poetry he wrote was, while often not unpleasing, nothing powerful or striking. And there is a long road ahead, and there will be many more experiences (if few that will be as hard to endure as the next two days) before he becomes the poet he will become. But when he begins to write as a true war poet he will come back to this, his first night in the line:

We’d found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through.
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime
Kept slush waist high, that rising hour by hour,
Choked up the steps too thick with clay to climb.
What murk of air remained stank old, and sour
With fumes of whizz-bangs, and the smell of men
Who’d lived there years, and left their curse in the den,
If not their corpses. . . .

The rest of “The Sentry” we will read in two days’ time.

 

 

So Owen has arrived, and become of sharp necessity a different sort of writer. Edward Thomas is a step or two behind. He has already moved from the relative calm of training and poetic composition into the turbulent waters of endless good-byes. Today, a century back, he says the last of his familial farewells and enters the (busy) calm of military preparation. In the morning he bid farewell to his daughter Bronwen, his parents, and his brothers. But life doesn’t always conform to the clear symbolic staging that literature would prefer. Thomas then stopped for lunch with a sister-in-law and a niece and visited another friend, visits of convenience on the way to the train. By evening he was back in Tin Town, Lydd, and back writing–eight letters before bed.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 425-7. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209-212.
  2. War Diary, (Childhood, 153.)