Isaac Rosenberg’s Daughters of War; Francis Ledwidge’s Gods of Greece; Siegfried Sassoon Declares the Death of Youth

Some days we make do with an update and a diary excerpt or two… other days three important poets are writing about their minds and their methods.

Isaac Rosenberg posted a letter to Eddie Marsh today, which probably included a draft of his difficult, sui generis, mythological poem “Daughters of War.” It also contained an attempt to allay the perplexity the poem would cause:

I am now fearfully rushed, but find energy enough to scribble this in the minute I plunder from my work. I believe I can see the obscurities in the ‘Daughters’, but hardly hope to clear them up in France… The first part, the picture of the Daughters dancing and calling to the spirits of the slain before their last ones have ceased among the boughs of the tree of life, I must still work on. In that part obscure the description of the voice of the Daughter I have not made clear, I see; I have tried to suggest the wonderful sound of her voice, spiritual and voluptuous at the same time. The end is an attempt to imagine the severance of all human relationship and the fading away of human love. Later on I will try and work on it, because I think it a pity if the ideas are to be lost for want of work. My ‘Unicorn’ play is stopped because of my increased toil… It is to be a play of terror—terror of hidden things and the fear of the supernatural. But I see no hope of doing the play while out here. I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces.[1]

Of the play, more anon, I hope. And this almost touching personal detail is a reminder of just how difficult it must be to write poetry in the trenches, especially as a private. Of course he gestures and grimaces–and many writers talk to themselves, at their leisure, in rooms of their own…

As for “Daughters of War,” the poem has been long in gestation–Rosenberg sent an early draft to Gordon Bottomley in December–and it has been growing in power. Like the ancient poets who dreamt Valkyries and Amazons–and like David Jones and his Sweet Sister Death–Rosenberg summons up female embodiments of war’s power.

Space beats the ruddy freedom of their limbs,
Their naked dances with man’s spirit naked
By the root side of the tree of life…

I saw in prophetic gleams
These mighty daughters in their dances
Beckon each soul aghast from its crimson corpse
To mix in their glittering dances :
I heard the mighty daughters’ giant sighs
In sleepless passion for the sons of valour
And envy of the days of flesh,
Barring their love with mortal boughs across–
The mortal boughs, the mortal tree of life.
The old bark burnt with iron wars
They blow to a live flame
To char the young green clays
And reach the occult soul; they have no softer lure,
No softer lure than the savage ways of death.

We were satisfied of our lords the moon and the sun
To take our wage of sleep and bread and warmth–
These maidens came–these strong everliving Amazons,
And in an easy might their wrists
Of night’s sway and noon’s sway the sceptres brake,
Clouding the wild, the soft lustres of our eyes…

 

Next to this wrenching vision, full of sex and death, the melodious prose and harmonious rhymes of Francis Ledwidge seem to come from an entirely different war, a different era. They don’t, of course–they come from the same day. These are very different sensibilities: our two poets in the ranks and out of the working classes share very little else than those three facts of their identity.

Ledwidge wrote another letter to the prominent writer Katherine Tynan today, a century back, and it begins with a strange confusion.

19.6.17

This is my birthday. I am spending it in a little red town in an orchard.

Actually, it is not his birthday. Which goes a longer way to show one of the larger cultural and social gaps among our writers than a ream of commentary about Ledwidge’s rural roots or Lord Dunsany‘s reflexive condescension towards his Irish “peasant” protégé. It seems that birthdays were little regarded in rural County Meath a century and another score of years back, and even when he enlisted Ledwidge did not know the date of his birth. His mother, flustered, confused his and his brother Joe’s, or so the story goes. Our Frank Ledwidge was born on the 19th, but of August–his twenties have two months left to run.

Again I think of how this sort of confusion might have arisen in Rosenberg’s family too, with an absent father and Yiddish-speaking mother, or how Ledwidge and his surviving siblings might have shared, like Rosenberg and his brother, the “family suit.” But for such similarities there are more striking differences. Rosenberg is a child of the London slums. And Ledwidge?[2]

There is a lovely valley just below me, and a river that goes gobbling down the fields, like turkeys coming home in Ireland… I was down here earlier in the spring, when all the valley wore its confirmation dress, and was glad to return again in the sober moments of June. Although I have a conventional residence I sleep out in the orchard, and every morning a cuckoo comes to a tree quite close, and calls out his name with a clear voice above the rest of the morning’s song, like a tender stop heard above the lower keys in a beautiful organ…

If you go to Tara, go to Rath-na-Ri and look all around you from the hills of Drumcondrath in the north to the plains of Enfield in the south, where Allan Bog begins, and remember me to every hill and wood and ruin, for my heart is there. If it is a clear day you will see Slane Hill blue and distant. Say I will come back again surely, and maybe you will hear pipes in the grass or a fairy horn and the hounds of Finn…

Ledwidge also enclosed three new poems, “The Find,” “Stanley Hill,” and “The Old Gods:”

I thought the old gods still in Greece
Making the little fates of man,
So in a secret place of Peace
I prayed as but a poet can:

And all my prayer went crying faint
Around Parnassus’ cloudy height,
And found no ear for my complaint,
And back unanswered came at night.

Ah, foolish that I was to heed
The voice of folly, or presume
To find the old gods in my need,
So far from A. E.’s little room.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon has not written in his diary since beginning to work on his “declaration.” Today, a century back, he is very much still in declaration mode, railing angrily at the waste of the war and the evil cynicism of those who prolong it.

June 19

I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as ‘an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb’. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts.

And the ancient wars on which they base their arguments did not involve such huge sacrifices as the next two or three years will demand of Europe, if this war is to be carried on to a knock-out result. Our peace-terms remain the same, ‘the destruction of Kaiserism and Prussianism’. I don’t know what aims this destruction represents.

I only know, and declare from the depths of my agony, that these empty words… mean the destruction of Youth. They mean the whole torment of waste and despair which people refuse to acknowledge or to face; from month to month they dupe themselves with hopes that ‘the war will end this year’.

And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words
convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes.

The soldiers who return home seem to be stunned by the things they have endured. They are willingly entrapped by the silent conspiracy against them. They have come back to life from the door of death, and the world is good to enjoy. They vaguely know that it is ‘bad form’ to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth about the war…

The diary continues, wandering into violent territory as Sassoon decries the bloodthirstiness of women and imagines a mob awakening to “lynch” the “dictator” who has plunged it into war.

The soldiers are fooled by the popular assumption that they are all heroes. They have a part to play, a mask to wear. They are allowed to assume a pride of superiority to the mere civilian. Are there no heroes among the civilians, men and women alike?

Of the elderly male population I can hardly trust myself to speak. Their frame of mind is, in the majority of cases, intolerable. They glory in senseless invective against the enemy… They regard the progress of the war like a game of chess, cackling about ‘attrition,’ and ‘wastage of man-power’, and ‘civilisation at stake’. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance.

Soldiers conceal their hatred of the war.
Civilians conceal their liking for it…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 375; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 359-61.
  2. See Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 183.
  3. The Years of the Shadow, 294-6.
  4. Diaries, 175-6.

Olaf Stapledon in 1999; Francis Ledwidge in a Fairy Ring; Siegfried Sassoon in an Underground Dressing Station

I’m always excited when we can play on the century-back conceit and take additional literary-centennial glances, either looking back a century back again, often with Hardy, or a century forward, as one of our writers ponders what two centuries may bring

But today, a century back, we go back only 77 years, and forward a mere 82: first of all, it is Thomas Hardy‘s 77th birthday… so best wishes. And then there is this strange and very charming letter by Olaf Stapledon to his fiancée Agnes Miller. It begins ordinarily enough.

Annery, 2 June 1917

My own girl,

Agnes, I have been trying to write a nice letter to your Daddy, but have not succeeded so far. I don’t want to write about pacifism, because it’s no use arguing, but I do want to write a nice letter with just a word or two about the war in it. I have tried two or three times unsuccessfully…

Olaf has time on his hands, now, at home on leave, so he included four miniature letters along with this one, each in its own envelope, marked with the year in which she was to have read it. Two were linked to moments in their past and one was marked “1917.” The last, however, was marked “1999,” with the additional directions “Open it & read it for her, dear Agnes of 1917. She, poor soul, will not be able to. Pour soul? Glorious blessed soul or nothing.”

Dearest,

It will be all over when you get this. This war will be over, & you and I will be over. What we two shall be then, I don’t know, but if we do live in some way or other, and can remember and feel, then we will be lovers still. Perhaps you smile at this letter, & perhaps I also must smile at it in 1999. But I in 1917, in the middle of all these wars and wonders, set down as a certain thing that for you & for me both then & now the main thing in all the world is that we love one another.

For ever

Your Olaf[1]

Scarcely more warlike–or less romantic, should we use the old extensive sense of the word–is this poem, written today, a century back, by Francis Ledwidge. Really, this is a day of three visions, sweet-numinous, foreboding-fantastic, and deadly-traumatic.

The Find

I took a reed and blew a tune,
And sweet it was and very clear
To be about a little thing
That only few hold dear.

Three times the cuckoo named himself,
But nothing heard him on the hill,
Where I was piping like an elf
The air was very still.

‘Twas all about a little thing
I made a mystery of sound,
I found it in a fairy ring
Upon a fairy mound.

June 2nd, 1917.

 

Will no one remember the war? Oh, Siegfried Sassoon will. As his release from Chapelwood Manor draws near he knows that he will soon have to decide (after a period of leave, naturally) whether he will really act on his growing disgust and anger with the conduct of the war. But there is no question that as his body strolls through a peaceful Sussex spring, his mind remains in the tunnels of the battle of Arras.

 

In an Underground Dressing Station

They set him quietly down. I think he tried
To grin . . . moaned . . . moved his head from side to side.

He gripped the stretcher; stiffened; glared, and screamed,
‘Oh put my leg down, doctor, do!’ (He’d got
A bullet in his ankle; and he’d been shot
Horribly through the guts’.) The surgeon seemed
So kind and gentle, sayings above that crying,
‘You must keep still.’ But he was dying . . . dying.'[2]

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 228.
  2. Diaries, 173.

Duff Cooper Gets the Call; Henry Williamson is Laid Low; C.E. Montague Draws Strength From Hardy; Woolf Praises Sassoon; Francis Ledwidge Gropes Toward God; Isaac Rosenberg Lifts His Eyes to the Larks

I don’t mean to make fun of Duff Cooper–he is a capable man, and not nearly as daffy as he sounds in his journal–but, until today, all we’ve heard of his recent decision to take an Army commission is that is seemed to yield positive short-term results in his endless pursuit of Diana Manners. Ah–but has he forgotten the other woman in his life? Yes, yes he has.

In the afternoon Mother telephoned. She has found about my prospects of joining the army. She is naturally much upset–it is most awkward.[1]

 

Nor did I set out to make fun of Henry Williamson, today, but this disjunction between diary and novel is… also pretty funny:

Thursday, 31 May. Kicked on head by Tommy.

The editors add, helpfully, that “Tommy was a mule.” Which, given that Williamson is a mule-riding Transport Officer–and despite the fact that he describes stubborn men as “mules”–should probably be taken literally, and not as a slight on the stubborn character of some insubordinate “Tommy Atkins.”[2]

In the novel, instead of this misadventure, Phillip Maddison attend a conference held by Captain Hobart in which he is initiated into further tactical secrets of the coming Messines Ridge attack. There is much admiration expressed for General Plumer, the rare innovator among the British senior officers and the man most responsible for the novel use of what are essentially early modern siege warfare tactics scaled up by several orders of magnitude and undertaken over the course of many months: there will be some very big mines. Which, of course, were top secret at the time.

After the conference Phillip goes walkabout, as he so often does. Leaving his work to his sergeant, Phillip strolls past signs and organizational tapes and models and remarks on the fact that every possible preparation for the coming attack has been carefully thought out. He is then struck by the idea that if such detailed tactical information were to be passed on to the men of the Machine Gun Company, surely it would be a good thing for morale, and who better to lecture them than himself…[3]

 

But today is a busy day, and with those bits of silliness out of the way we can move toward a few more formal literary accomplishments.

First, I’d offer this definition of a worthy novel: a book that can offer intellectual and emotional support to a reader burdened by cares and mired in doubt, yet far from any easy resonance with its subject matter. We have a nomination, then, today, from C.E. Montague, writing to his wife:

May 31, 1917

A man here has got The Return of the Native and I borrowed it last night and read the first few pages again. How wonderful they are—I do believe the finest opening ever written for a novel of that kind. I shall try, at odd times, to read on. There is something massive and hill-like about Hardy which makes him good to read during this passing madness of the world—he helps one to feel what a mass of durable things in human nature as well as in other ‘nature’ are going on all right, all the time, and will be there to come back to when the evil time is overpast.[4]

 

Time in its dogged unidirectionality is a strange thing. Thomas Hardy has held out an austere kind of hope to many of our writers, and his approval meant more to Siegfried Sassoon than that of any writer… but if one were to try to sell an unacquainted reader on the merits of Sassoon’s poetry today, a more powerful endorsement might be felt to come from a review of his verses that was published today, a century back, in the Times Literary Supplement:

…the beauty in them, though fitful, is of the individual, indefinable kind which comes, we know not how, to make lines such as we read over each time with a renewed delight that after one comes the other.[5]

Thus Virginia Woolf on The Old Huntsman and Other Poems.

 

We also have a relative rarity, today: a long letter from Francis Ledwidge. Written from reserve billets in France, to Katherine Tynan, it shows Ledwidge in the thick of the action and, characteristically, able to wring beauty from the terror and violence of his surroundings.

I would have written to thank you for the sweets, only that lately we were unsettled, wandering to and fro between the firing-line and resting billets immediately behind. This letter is ante-dated by two hours, but before midnight we may be wandering in single and slow file, with the reserve line two or three hundred yards behind the fire trench. We are under an hour’s notice. Entering and leaving the line is most exciting, as we are usually but about thirty yards from the enemy, and you can scarcely understand how bright the nights are made by his rockets. These are in continual ascent and descent from dusk to dawn, making a beautiful Crescent from Switzerland to the sea. There are white lights, green, and red, and whiter, bursting into red and changing again, and blue bursting into purple drops and reds fading into green. It is all like the end of a beautiful world. It is only horrible when you remember that every colour is a signal to waiting reinforcements or artillery, and, God help us if we are caught in the open, for then up go a thousand reds, and hundreds of rifles and machine-guns are emptied against us, and all amongst us shells of every calibre are thrown, shouting destruction and death. We can do nothing but fling ourselves into the first shell-hole and wonder as we wait where we will be hit. But why all this

I am indeed glad to think you are preparing another book of verse. Will you really allow me to review it? I don’t want money for doing it. The honour would be more worth than money…

A. E. sets me thinking of things long forgotten, and Lord Dunsany of gorgeous Eastern tapestry and carpets. Do you get such impressions from the books you love? I met a traveller in Naples who told me that he never read Andrew Marvell but he remembered a dunce’s cap and a fishing-rod he had when a boy, and never could trace the train of thought far enough back to discover where the connection lay. I am writing odd things in a little book whenever I can. Just now I am engaged in a poem about the Lanawn Shee, who, you remember, is really the Irish Muse. One who sees her is doomed to sing. She is very close to you. I am writing it in the traditional style of the ‘Silk of the Kine.’

Here are the opening verses:

Powdered and perfumed the full bee
Winged heavily across the clover,
And where the hills were dim with dew,
Purple and blue the West looked over…

There is some more of this exercise in willful aestheticism, but Ledwidge also includes a finished poem in a very different vein:

 

Ascension Thursday, 1917

Lord, Thou hast left Thy footprints in the rocks,
That we may know the way to follow Thee,
But there are wide lands opened out between
Thy Olivet and my Gethsemane.

And oftentimes I make the night afraid,
Crying for lost hands when the dark is deep,
And strive to reach the sheltering of Thy love
Where Thou art herd among Thy folded sheep.

Thou wilt not ever thus, O Lord, allow
My feet to wander when the sun is set,
But through the darkness, let me still behold
The stony bye-ways up to Olivet.

 

Yet neither Sassoon nor Ledwidge can lay claim to the most important poetic reference point of today. Isaac Rosenberg wrote recently to Gordon Bottomley (the letter was posted today, a century back) about a number of things, including his new work alongside the Royal Engineers, putting out barbed wire at night. The letter mentions both Dead Man’s Dump and Daughters of War, and also seems to indicate that he has completed “Returning, We Hear the Larks,” a poem which can speak for itself, about many things, not least that a poet walking in the shadow of the valley of death who chooses not to look to God might also look to nature–even here–and then, through nature’s verse-entwined messengers, to poetry.

Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl’s dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 54.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 157.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 144-5.
  4. C. E. Montague, 161.
  5. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 360.
  6. I'm not entirely convinced by Moorcroft Wilson's dating of the poem to May 1917, but it seems plausible... and this is a poem that can't be left to slip through the cracks entirely...

John Ronald Tolkien’s Lost Play; Wilfred Owen’s Equipoise is Tested

John Ronald Tolkien is being drawn back into the war’s orbit, but not without quiet mental resistance of a fairly unusual sort. He is, of course, writing “fairy stories,” which is to say he is working in another world. Recovered from “trench fever” and with the end of his convalescent leave looming, Tolkien wrote, today, to the War Office to report the expiration of his leave (in ten days’ time) and give his current address. Also today–across the table, at the same time, one likes to imagine–his wife Edith dated the school exercise book in which she had made a painstaking fair copy of the first version of her husband’s poem “The Cottage of Lost Play.”[1]

It’s a nice poem, and, confined as we are in our unknowing of all developments more recent than a century back, we might classify it securely as whimsical escapism, evidence that many literary young officers in 1915 and 1916 were not moving together in a loose skirmish line toward the undiscovered country of realism and disillusionment, but rather retrenching along their sentimental flanks. But it’s never quite that simple. There are ideas hidden in plain sight in this poem which some readers might recognize, and the road and the cottage–which seem at first to be provided by Cliched Victorian Location Scouting Ltd.–hint at other shores entirely…

 

The only other correspondence we have today is Wilfred Owen, still in fine fettle, to his mother.

Monday [12] February 1917

My own dear Mother,

I thought to write yesterday, but we were working all day; sick animals in the morning, and riding in the afternoon. In spite of the hard ground we went out into the country. I had a horse with a reputation of ‘warming up’. Sure enough, he would not let me remount after a halt. When at last I swung over, and before I could get the reins properly gathered, he bolted. It was not so much a gallop, as a terrific series of ricochets off the ground, as if we had been fired from a Naval Gun. But the worst part was the sudden checks. Once I found myself with my hands in the brute’s mouth; but I was still on top of him somewhere, and never actually touched ground. I was only thoroughly shaken.

Your 3 parcels came within 2 days of each other, 2 actually together. It is so unlucky that they did not reach me up the line, where everything has a tenfold value. Still nothing can take from the preciousness of the presents you send me…

So Wilfred is still safe and content on his transport course. In fact, he’s better than content, since it must be a pleasure to write to his mother (long obsessed with what she believes is her family’s decline from true gentility) about all this horsey business, however comical. There is a thriving sub-genre of “riding school” vignettes, in which an officer of either the lower middle or the urban middle classes confronts the ultimate living, breathing, quadrupedal embodiment of the traditional squirearchy. Generally, said officer struggles–and generally the horse is cast as something like a vengeful footman who knows how to put the jumped-up interloper in his place, “downstairs” be damned.

But we have an even stronger indication of Owen’s equestrian privilege and far-from-the-trenches good fortune:

The socks have almost exceeded my need. Withhold Socks for another month or more.

Unprecedented. With sore feet exchanged for a sore seat, Wilfred is now galloping full-tilt toward some Georgian Poetical version of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Kingdom of Sweets.

Gingerbreads arrived in fine condition—both lots. They are the most homelike bits in all the parcel.

You made a very cunning choice of Biscuits. You overwhelm me with Chocolate. I am keeping it, like most of the sweet-stuff, for going up the Line…

I am settling down to a little verse once more…

Alas, practicality on Owen’s part–and historiographical dutifulness on mine–ends the tasty cadenza back with a return to a more earthly note.

I have lost a bundle of my MSS, together with all the photographs I brought out. They were left out of packing. That’s the sort of servant I’ve got. Please send some photographs. Also would you mind getting an Army Book Animal Management pub. by Gale & Polden, Aldershot.

Please thank Mary specially for her dear letters which I read constantly.

As for yours, I live by them.

Ever your loving W.E.O. x[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 99.
  2. Collected Letters, 433-4.

Edwin Vaughan Approaches the Line, With Nightmares of His Own Demise; Francis Ledwidge Dreams of Fairies

Edwin Vaughan is due to see the front line at last. Denied first by being posted to a battalion at rest, then again when the battalion was sent into trenches but his company was kept in battalion reserve, he will at last have a chance to see the elephant, if only while leading up a ration party.

On the 4th another officer had taken the rations up to the companies in the line. He returned late, after the “terrific rumble and growling” of a barrage, to report that the enemy–Vaughan, oddly, specifies the German regiment–has attacked three times, apparently either a raid or a local effort to seize some trench (more likely a raid, as the Germans were not at this time much interested in advancing their line). This is all a little too specific and certain, but then again that is in the nature of rumors, and it is quite possible that previous raids have identified the Germans opposite. The truth of the matter is of less moment than how it affected Vaughan:

This story seriously disturbed my rest: it brought danger so close to me. I lay awake for hours, thinking that I might have been in the line during that barrage and attack… Then how would I have acquitted myself? I saw horrible pictures of myself lying dead in a shattered trench, or helplessly bleeding to death in a shell-hole with no power to call for help. And not less terrible I saw myself on the road, panic-stricken and unable to go forward with the rations.

No–no less terrible; men have been shot for less.

Devoutly I wished that the war would be over before our turn came to go into the line.

It will not be. But late the next night Vaughan is sent up not with but rather after a ration party, ordered to catch them up on a bicycle. This is surely a strange first approach to the line.

I started off in great fear, fully expecting a repetition of last night’s barrage. The cold was terrible, and I had no gloves… the handlebars… felt like white-hot metal… on every side gaped great black holes, and the snow around was blackened with debris, or yellow with explosive.

Very shortly I sniffed a curious, sweet, choking smell, and falling from my bicycle, I dragged out my gas-mask with numb fingers and pulled it over my head…

I sped on, almost mad with panic, passing no one on the way except two limbers, whose masked drivers were urging their teams into a stumbling trot, until, at last, I felt that my head and heart were bursting, and falling off my bike on to the side of the road I dragged off my helmet and took great gulps of air, not caring whether it were gas-laden or not.

As a matter of fact the air was now quite clear and being close to the trench, I left my bike and walked along to it…

A hero’s welcome? Not in this war book.

I was astounded and chagrined to find in the dugout a strange crowd of officers who told me that my Battalion had been relieved some time before…

This was such an anticlimax and I was so annoyed that I walked back to my bike and then cycled home in an unhurried and serene fashion, not giving another thought to the possibilities of shelling.[1]

 

I can think of no smooth transition from Vaughan’s latest schlimazeling to Francis Ledwidge‘s latest poem, unless it is that counter-intuitive serenity. There is something heroic in being so completely immune to the atmosphere of a grim winter war.

 

Fairies

Maiden-Poet, come with me
To the heaped up cairn of Maeve,
And there we’ll dance a fairy dance
Upon a fairy’s grave.

In and out among the trees,
Filling all the night with sound,
The morning, strung upon her star,
Shall chase us round and round.

What are we but fairies too,
Living but in dreams alone.
Or, at the most, but children still,
Innocent and overgrown?

February 6th, 1917.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 23-4.

The Day Before: Siegfried Sassoon, Noel Hodgson, J.R. Ackerley, George Coppard and Others Await the Attack; Edmund Blunden on the Battle of the Boar’s Head; Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson Addresses His People Before the Great Offensive

Today, a century back, was the last day before the storm broke. The bombardment that had begun on the 24th continued, and many of the German defenders in their positions on the Somme front had been killed, wounded, or driven mad by the incessant pounding. Many–but not nearly enough: these were well-wired, deep-dug, many-layered positions that generally stood on higher ground than the British lines, commanding No Man’s Land with interlocking fields of fire. Many of the men who sheltered in them were sheltered well: in deep fortified dug-outs they waited for the barrage to lift, for their first chance to fire back.

If the Germans waited, uncertain of the battle’s timing, most of the British officers knew that the next morning would bring the decisive minutes of the campaign–even, perhaps, of the entire war.

And here, tomorrow will bring, well, a lot of stuff. So, faithful readers, be forewarned: I’ve decided to break up tomorrow into four separate (but still lengthy) posts; the first will go up over night, the second at 7:30, etc.

 

The 9th Devons “spent the last day resting in the wood.” They took communion from the battalion chaplain, Ernest Crosse; then the officers sat around a fire singing and swapping stories.

Before they left for the line the men were issued with sandwiches and told to make sure their water bottles were full, but they were strictly forbidden to eat the sandwiches or drink the water on the way to the line. Watering points were provided along the route and the sandwiches would be their breakfast: a long day lay ahead of them, and it was something to do in the final hours.

They left the wood at 10.30pm, 22 officers and 753 men, leaving the rest in reserve. Noel Hodgson was with his bombers. It would be their task to ‘mop up’ after the first lines of the attack, dealing with pockets of resistance and strongpoints, and countering enemy bombers and machine guns. Hodgson, as bombing officer, answered directly to Lieutenant Colonel Storey and had his own copy of battalion orders.

…The front line trench had been badly damaged by enemy shelling in the last few days, forcing a late change of plan. Instead of using it, the 9th Devons and 2nd Borders on their left, further up on the hill, would advance from new forming-up positions in the reserve trenches. This possibility had always been envisaged. It was safer, given the accurate fire the Germans regularly directed into the front line. The disadvantage was that the two battalions now had 250 yards of extra ground to cross.

The change also caused some confusion and delay as the carefully planned timings and routes through the trenches no longer applied, but by 2.35am everyone was in place with a few hours ahead to snatch whatever sleep they could. Gaps had been cut in the wire over the previous three nights, and once the men were in position, bridges and trench ladders were put in place.[1]

 

But we get ahead of ourselves. Back to the morning before–today, a century back, and Siegfried Sassoon, whose battalion is going back instead of forward.

This morning warm and breezy. We go down to Kingston Road. Jordan and self out cutting, wire from 10.30 to 11.30. No one noticed us. Pleasant trenches; mustard, charlock and white weeds growing across the trenches. Another dead man lying on the firing-step. News of M.C. before lunch… Battle begins tomorrow. C. Company dispersed on carrying-parties etc. Gibson’s face in the first grey of dawn when he found me alone at wire-cutting. Brow and eyes good: rest of face weak: Jaunty-fag-smoking demeanour under fire.[2]

“News of M.C.:” Sassoon has been awarded the Military Cross for his courage and initiative in the aftermath of the failed raid of May 25th.

 

rqg1-4Noel Hodgson and his friends had written “last letters” a few days before, when the attack had been planned for the 29th. So too had Rob Gilson, whose 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment (The Cambridge Regiment) will go forward in the morning. But Gilson found time, today, to send one of the famous Field Service Post Cards–seen at right[3]–as a last reassurance. Today, a century back, he is “quite well.”

J.R. Ackerley, whose battalion–the 8th East Surreys–was also slated to attack in the first waves, chose not to write home. One of his friends and fellow-subalterns wrote a letter proclaiming himself well, and post-dated it to July 2nd.

This, surely, was to tempt Nemesis, and Ackerley questioned the point of a “last letter:” the gap, the lag, would always be there, and no letter could really prove its writer to be still alive. Why try so sincerely to allay small measures of worry when it would do nothing to change the bare fact of life or death, and when any such efforts would be drowned in the accompanying infinities of grief.

Instead of writing, Ackerley “read Conrad’s Lord Jim for the fifth time.”[4]

 

George Coppard has already assured us that he and his battalion weren’t much for writing. But he remembered the night’s march very well:

On the night of 30 June the 37th Machine Gun Company rested in a field near Albert. A fierce bombardment of the German lines was going on. We were in the area of the big guns… They were underneath camouflage nets and looked huge, bigger than anything we’d seen before…[5]

And Edmund Blunden, to his frustration, has only a back seat to a sideshow. North of the Somme, there was a large diversionary attack on the Boar’s Head salient. Would this serve to confuse the German staff tomorrow, when the movement of reserves and ammunition supplies must be decided upon?

June 30, 1916

At the moment of the attack my platoon was in a familiar strong point on the La Bassee Road, called Port Arthur, two hundred yards in rear of our foremost breastwork. Sergeant Garton and myself obliged the men to withdraw into the cellars, and waited ourselves on the fire step in the failing darkness. Mad ideas of British supremacy flared in me as the quiet sky behind us awoke in a crescent of baying flashes, a half-moon of avenging fires; but those ideas sank instantly, for the sky before us awoke in like fashion, and another equal half-moon of punishing lightnings burst, with the innumerable high voices of machine guns like the spirits of madness in alarm shrilling above the tempest blast of explosion. A minute more, and a torrent of shells was screeching into Port Arthur; we had been in no doubt about this attention, for the place was an obvious “immediate reserve”; we (it was our good fortune) went below. The brickwork of the cellar cracked under one or two direct hits, but stood. Presently the gunners switched away, and we went out again into the summer morning, with an airplane or two arriving on bright wings.

There was not much shelling now, but machine guns continued to fire in a ragged way; no news came. My expectation was that we should be called up to reenforce, but no news came. At last a small straggling group of those unfortunate selected soldiers blundered dazedly round the trench corner into Port Arthur, and lay down in the first shelter available, among them Sergeant Compton, a brave and brilliant young fellow. All too eagerly I asked him, as I brought out to the sweating and twitching wretches whatever refreshment my dugout held, “What things were like”; in a great and angry groan he broke out,”Don’t ask me — it’s terrible, O God ” Then, after a moment, talking loud and fast: “We were in the third line. I came to a traverse, got out of the trench, and peeped; there was a Fritz creeping round the next traverse. I threw a bomb in; it hit the trench side and rolled just under his head; he looked down to see what it was . . .” He presently said that the attack had failed. Of his party, none had returned without bullet holes in their caps, uniforms, or equipment; one Single was already exhibiting his twice-perforated mess tin with his usual dejected wit. In No Man’s Land a deep wide dike had been met with, not previously observed or considered as an obstacle, which had given the German machine guns hideously simple targets; of those who crossed, most died against the uncut wire, including our colonel’s brother. A trench had been dug across No Man’s Land at heavy cost. So the attack on Boar’s Head closed, and so closed the admirable life of many a Sussex worthy.

Even now, we apprehended that a fresh forlorn hope might be demanded of the brigade.

At the risk–nay, the utter certainty–of sidetracking an excellent writer with an unnecessary learned digression, I want to point out how apt this reference is. A “forlorn hope” is not a “foolish expectation” or “sadly mistaken wish” but a corrption of the Dutch for a “lost troop.” As a technical term of Early Modern siege warfare, it refers to a unit–usually volunteers–who lead the attack on a fortress, usually by storming a breach. They are not expected to survive, since they will draw the fire of the prepared defenders. But in doing so, they will open the way for another storming party which may succeed while the defenders reload…

What the brigade felt was summed up by some sentry who, asked by the General next morning what he thought of the attack, answered in the roundest fashion, “Like a butcher’s shop.” Our own trenches had been knocked silly, and all the area of attack had been turned into an Aceldama. Every prominent point behind, Factory Trench, Chocolate Menier Corner, and so on, was now unkindly ploughed up with heavy shells. Roads and tracks were blocked and exposed. The communique that morning, when in the far and as yet strange-seeming south a holocaust was roaring, like our own extended for mile upon mile, referred to the Boar’s Head massacre somehow thus:

“East of Richebourg a strong raiding party penetrated the enemy’s third line.”

Perhaps, too, it claimed prisoners; for we were told that three Germans had found their way “to the Divisional Cage.”

Explanations followed. Our affair had been a cat’s-paw, a “holding attack” to keep German guns and troops from the Somme. This purpose, previously concealed from us with success, was unachieved, for just as our main artillery pulled out southward after the battle, so did the German; and only a battalion or two of reserve infantry was needed by them to secure their harmless little salient. The explanations were almost as infuriating to the troops as the attack itself… and deep down in the survivors there grew a bitterness of waste…

But in the spirit of the thing, we should sweep this direct testimony of the failed “cat’s paw” under the rug. However disillusioning, the Battle of the Boar’s Head can’t escape its destiny: from conception to execution–and even in its literary re-purposing, though to different effect–it was always a diversion, a feint, a flam-tap of history before the great crash of cymbals. “The bitterness of waste” is retrospection, which is out of bounds.[6] Today, a century back, is about tomorrow.

 

So back then to fiction: Phillip Maddison will be in the thick of it tomorrow–being fictional makes it easier to experience (and survive) several of the great British assaults in succession. On battle’s eve, he marches up…

The night of 30 June was fine in the valley of the Ancre, and fairly quiet. Cries of water-fowl came through the darkness as the column halted in the traffic congestion.

The last hues of sunset were congealed upon the north-west rim of the earth above which arose a steely haze of light. Phillip wondered, as he leaned on his rifle, if this was the glow of the midnight sun, the distant rays in space rising millions of miles beyond the horizon of the battlefield. How small it must all seem to the sun, which had looked upon so much life and death on the planet. Everything was vast to one human brain, but to the sun, how small…

Where was God in the actual scheme of things? His Son had failed to alter the scheme… It was all right for Father Aloysius to talk; but it was a fairy story.

He quivered with terror of death, waiting to enter the dead town of Albert…

The platoon marched straight on, passing under the red-brick mass of high walls and shattered roof above which the Golden Virgin leaned down from the campanile, high over the street, gleaming in every gun-flash…

“With so much stuff going over, it will be a cake-walk,” said the Adjutant to Phillip…[7]

 

From skepticism and foreshadowing, then, we will go back to the Traditional Voice, on what in some ways is its last day of unquestioned ascendancy.[8]

Lieutenant Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson, MC does not, in verse at least, entertain any of the same doubts. His 8th West Yorkshires moved up tonight to assault trenches opposite Thiepval, and today, a century back, he wrote this “last letter” in verse:

To My People Before The Great Offensive

Dark with uncertainty of doubtful doom
The future looms across the path we tread;
Yet, undismayed we gaze athwart the gloom,
Prophetically tinged with hectic red.
The mutterings of conflict, sullen, deep,
Surge over homes where hopeless tears are shed,
And ravens their ill-omened vigils keep
O’er legions dead.

But louder, deeper, fiercer still shall be
The turmoil and the rush of furious feet,
The roar of war shall roll from sea to sea,
And on the sea, where fleet engages fleet.
The fortunate who can, unharmed, depart
From that last field where Right and Wrong shall meet.
If then, amidst some millions more, this heart
Should cease to beat,—

Mourn not for me too sadly; I have been,
For months of an exalted life, a King;
Peer for these months of those whose graves grow green
Where’er the borders of our empire fling
Their mighty arms. And if the crown is death,
Death while I’m fighting for my home and king,
Thank God the son who drew from you his breath
To death could bring

A not entirely worthless sacrifice,
Because of those brief months when life meant more
Than selfish pleasures. Grudge not then the price,
But say, “Our country in the storm of war
Has found him fit to fight and die for her,”
And lift your heads in pride for evermore.
But when the leaves the evening breezes stir
Close not the door.

For if there’s any consciousness to follow
The deep, deep slumber that we know as Death,
If Death and Life are not all vain and hollow,
If Life is more than so much indrawn breath,
Then in the hush of twilight I shall come—
One with immortal Life, that knows not Death
But ever changes form—I shall come home;
Although, beneath

A wooden cross the clay that once was I
Has ta’en its ancient earthy form anew.
But listen to the wind that hurries by,
To all the Song of Life for tones you knew.
For in the voice of birds, the scent of flowers,
The evening silence and the falling dew,
Through every throbbing pulse of nature’s powers
I’ll speak to you.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 193-4.
  2. Diaries, 82.
  3. From the Trinity College Cambridge Library (spoilers abound).
  4. Parker, Ackerley, 23.
  5. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 79.
  6. I am trying, you see, to work through all my most egregious mixed metaphors, in preparation for the grim task of writing up the Big Push...
  7. The Golden Virgin, 271-3.
  8. But not really. I am compelled to remind everyone that, even as the tide of disillusionment and disenchantment will begin to rise sharply, here, as the Somme attack founders, the public face of "poetry" and "war literature" will remain largely positive, patriotic, and traditional for more than a decade to come.

A Battle Postponed: Last Letters, Larks, Misfires and Misery with Noel Hodgson, Alan Seeger, Siegfried Sassoon, Rowland Feilding, and Donald Hankey; Tolkien Arrives; Thomas Hardy Longs for News; Edward Thomas Walks the Green Roads

We begin with Alan Seeger, our American in the French Foreign Legion. It’s easy to forget, here, with our focus on the British experience, but the Somme battle involved a large number of French troops as well.

We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave. No sacks, but two musettes, toile de tente slung over shoulder, plenty of cartridges, grenades, and baïonnette au canon.

I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. Add the ode I sent you and the three sonnets to my last volume and you will have opera omnia quo existant.

I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.

This potential “last letter,” sent to a mysterious “friend” rather than to his mother or his Parisian Godmother, is, as so many will be, mistaken. Due to wet weather (and, perhaps, a late lack of confidence in the artillery preparation) the “biggest thing yet” will now be pushed back by two days…

 

The 9th Devons learned this around mid-day. Their excess kit had already been put into storage in preparation for the forward move into the “assembly” trenches, and all was ready for the assault. Instead, they now had at least a day and a half of free time. Noel Hodgson, a scholar at heart till, settled down to read a pocket Odyssey–in Greek, naturally. Later on, youth and restlessness overtook the tightly-knit band of brother officers:

After dinner a spirit of skittishness came over the officers, and we indulged in various rags, the most brilliant being to try running up to the top of a bell tent. When done by several at once from all sides it has a terrifying effect on the inmates of the victimised tent.[1]

Juvenile hijinks do not generally travel well–but doesn’t this one? Imagine being in a bell tent (four-sided, circus-like in profile, but only big enough for a few men to sleep) and all the walls suddenly beaten inward and upward by eight hammering feet…

A minor irony, this, that while the troops slated for the actual attack had time to lark about, those who were to have rotated into reserve remained entrenched in the teeth of the bombardment.

 

Rowland Feilding, out of combat for the time being, at least, went up to watch the show before The Show.

June 28, 1916. Corbie

To-day the Trench Mortar officer of the 30th Division (Captain Edwards) invited me to lunch at his Artillery Battle Headquarters, in front of Bray, to see the bombardment. It was in full swing, as it has been, day and night, since
the 24th. It was an impressive sight. Heavy rain was falling, and the sky was cloudy, and—especially opposite
the French—the ridge, where the German trenches are, was hidden by a wall of smoke from the bursting shells.
The Germans were not replying at all—at any rate on the back areas, though they appeared to be doing so upon our front line.

They (the Germans) must be having a horrible time, I should think. All our valleys are thick with guns and howitzers. In one small valley alone, which I know well, I was told to-day, we have more guns concentrated than
were employed by our army in the whole South African War.

Some of our shells were bursting prematurely, which is bad. It reminded me of poor D—— once when we were at Cambrin and the same thing was happening. It was at the time when a good many ladies at home were beginning to take up munition work, amongst them, he said, his mother; and he remarked: “I shouldn’t be surprised if those were some of my mother’s shells!”[2]

Another pretty funny bit. Less amusing, of course, to the men who were still in those lines, with mother’s shells falling short and the German retaliation picking up speed.

 

Donald Hankey, is one of these, and his new diary attests to the general unpleasantness of being in the front of a battle zone. Many minds have been fixed upon the task of making this zone as unpleasant as possible–and few of them are worried about how this will affect their own troops. The infantry are… well, yes: they are there to be shot at. And gassed.

The last few days have been awful. Our people must needs try their hand at gas. The first night a burst cylinder gassed half the gas experts, besides a lot of our men. The second night the wind was unfavourable, and they elected to get rid off the stuff over us just a half hour after we had been informed that the stunt was off, and had consequently ceased our precautions against the gas and the inevitable [German] barrage. We were fairly caught–“hoist with our own petard” … The only comfort was that it killed the rats. Poor comfort that!

Poor comfort indeed–but this awkward phrase is a reminder that Hankey must envision this diary as something upon which future publications can be based. He has abandoned the ceaselessly uplifting pose of the “Student in Arms,” but he is trying here to find a middle ground. Might this sort of tone be successful? Perhaps, but it’s a poor compromise between truth and public journal-ism.

Here’s how Hankey described these same days in a letter:

…a week in a rat-infested trench, was bombarded by German shells, gassed by our own gas, got waist-deep in liquid mud without the chance of a change, saw some of my best men blown to bits, etc. etc. Couldn’t do anything in return.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is no stoic, and he too is clear on the fact that to be in a trench on the Somme at this time was certainly “very beastly.” But a man with a good book is never truly miserable…

June 28,

Here I sit in this dog-kennel of a dug-out in 85 Street with the shells hurrying and hurooshing over to Germany; or
thereabouts, and banging away on the slopes on each side of Fricourt and away to Contalmaison. Wet feet–short of sleep–trench-mouth—very beastly it all is—on the surface. But all’s well, really… Reading Hardy’s Tess now.[4]

 

And as the young soldier whose verses he had admired over the winter hunkered down to read his Tess, Thomas Hardy himself was writing his friend Florence Henniker in the hopes of getting more war news. So, yes: even old men abed in England know that something is afoot.

My dear Friend:

…We had a mild excitement last week—the Wessex Scenes from the Dynasts having been performed by the Dorchester players at the Weymouth theatre. The house was crammed—many wounded men & officers being present—& the money raised for the Red Cross & Russian wounded—was a substantial sum. Of course the interest to us lay not in the artistic effect of the play—which was really rather a patchwork affair, for the occasion—but in the humours of the characters whom we knew in private life as matter-of-fact shopkeepers & clerks.

…I daresay you get rumours of war news which don’t reach us here. People seem to think we shall do something decisive soon, but I don’t know…

Always affectly

Th. H.[5]

 

And one poem, before we go. Edward Thomas is writing of a real forest near his camp, and yet he seems to overlay life with a sort of fairy tale gloss–and through that we glimpse an undercoat of uneasiness. I suppose the best fairy tales are threatening, and a bit uncanny, but there is battle at the end of this one, no?

 

The Green Roads

The green roads that end in the forest
Are strewn with white goose feathers this June,

Life marks left behind by someone gone to the forest
To show his track. But he has never come back.

Down each green road a cottage looks at the forest.
Round one the nettle towers; two are bathed in flowers.

An old man along the green road to the forest
Strays from one, from another a child alone.

In the thicket bordering the forest,
All day long a thrush twiddles his song.

It is old, but the trees are young in the forest,
All but one like a castle keep, in the middle deep.

That oak saw the ages pass in the forest:
They were a host, but their memories are lost,

For the tree is dead: all things forget the forest
Excepting perhaps me, when now I see

The old man, the child, the goose feathers at the edge of the forest,
And hear all day long the thrush repeat his song.

 

And speaking of forests and roads and the English landscape and fantasy, there is a short note in the battalion diary of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers today, a century back. Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien has joined.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 192-3.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 81.
  3. Davies, A Student in Arms, 170-1.
  4. Diaries, 80.
  5. Collected Letters, V, 165-6.
  6. Chronology, 82.

Henry Williamson and the Rumble of Jutland; Noel Hodgson Renounces, T.P. Cameron Wilson Writes a Soldier, and Bimbo Tennant Worples Fey-ward; then Friendships, Farewells, Transfers, and Wedding Bells

A strange day, today, a century back. For a good two centuries, Britain’s security was guaranteed by its navy. For the last 22 months, that navy has had little to do, and all eyes were on the enormous expansion of the unloved younger son of the military family. There were a few famous chases and cruiser actions, and there was the submarine war, but confidence was high that should the German fleet–and the rapid expansion of that previously negligible body had been one of the most important catalysts of Brittain’s alliance with France and Russia–ever venture out into the North Sea the Royal Navy would treat it much as it had treated the Spanish Armada.

Yesterday, a century back, the battleships and battle cruisers of the German navy came out at last. The complicated plan involved separating the two major elements of the British fleet and using a screen of submarines to torpedo the slow capital ships. It failed almost immediately, since the British battle cruisers steamed through the submarine line before it was fully prepared, but the beginning of the battle nevertheless went Germany’s way. I do not have a good grasp of naval warfare, and this battle–the only truly big steel-ships-and-guns battle in European history–is quite complicated, but, hopefully, a brief summary should suffice to prepare us for the responses of various Britons.

Despite the superior gunnery of the British fleet–and, once combined, its greater size–the initial engagement revealed a major design flaw that resulted in the swift sinking of three battle cruisers. Reading up on the battle after some years is shocking, even after–in fact because of–my many-months-long immersion in trench warfare. The British ships were well armored against broadsides, but when a few German shells hit at long range, they plunged through the thinner armor over deck and turrets. Exploding below decks, their blasts rushed through the open hatchways that connected the British guns with their magazines deep below decks. Naval combat, too, has its special horrors: flash fires spread through steel rooms; ships are saved only by flooding burning areas before ordinance is ignited, drowning the men who remain below to save those stationed higher up; if the fires are not contained, the chain explosion of shells tears the ship apart; concussed and burned men who are thrown clear are likely to drown.

The Queen Mary was struck twice and rent by internal explosions, capsizing and sinking within minutes. Twenty men were rescued, 1,266 died.

The Invincible may have been hit only once, but this shell too plunged through and ignited a magazine. Invincible broke in half and sunk in ninety seconds. 1,026 men died, and six–blown through the air from their positions in a turret and a fire-control mast–lived.

The Indefatigable was hit several times and also blew up, settling quickly as internal explosions tore out its keel. Although more men may have been blown clear, they would have been sucked under by the displacement of the sinking ship. 1,017 men died, and only two survived long enough to be rescued.

 

The news of yesterday’s disaster be absorbed by our writers over the next few days, but the battle continued overnight and into today, a century back. The British fleets drew together, and a running battle was fought as the Germans, their plan negated despite the destruction of the three battle cruisers, withdrew toward their bases. Although they mostly eluded the British Grand Fleet, one modern German battleship was sunk, along with ten smaller ships, while the Royal Navy lost eleven more (smaller) ships.

In the wake of this sudden carnage, the debates began–and they continue. But for our purposes another simple summary will do: Jutland is a very good example of a tactical victory that is also a strategic defeat (for Germany, that is). Britain, when the number, tonnage, and quality of the ships are factored in, had lost roughly twice as heavily. And let’s not forget human lives: more than 6,000 British sailors died in the two days, and “only” some 2,500 Germans. That is very much a “battlefield,” or tactical, defeat. But the German Imperial Navy and gambled on a sortie and been stopped–it returned to its bases and there would be no more serious attempts to destroy the British Grand Fleet, ergo something of an “operational” draw and a strategic defeat.

As tactics gives way to strategy, so strategy yields to Grand Strategy (which seems like it should be capitalized). If the Royal Navy could not be defeated, then Britain could not be assaulted/invaded. It could, however, be besieged/ blockaded. Therefore, in order to starve Britain, Germany would keep its battleships in port, turning instead to its submarines in a broadcast campaign against merchant shipping. So in the failure of the German fleet to defeat the British today, a century back, there originates a straight line which leads to the decision to wage “unrestricted” submarine warfare, and thus to the significant U.S. presence in Europe in 1918, at the time of the breaking of the European armies.

 

After all that blood and steel, it feels curious to return to our usual matter of little movements among writerly soldiers. But Henry Williamson, never able to resist putting his Gumpish alter ego on the outskirts of all the war’s most famous actions, provides the link.

Phillip Maddison, having been trained as a machine gun officer (this much following Williamson’s own experience), now headed back to France, recalled from a home leave to arrive in time for the “big push.” There has been drama, culminating in a nasty quarrel with his old friend Desmond over the woman they both… admire. This is the appallingly thin (character of) Lily: a wan, unfortunate girl, ill-used, and now rising toward nineteenth century middlebrow novel sainthood through her improbable and steadfast love for Phillip…

Her first, partial martyrdom was to an abusive older man. Her second is to her creator’s thematic imperatives. The events of spring 1916 are chronicled in a chapter entitled, amazingly, “Lily and the Nightingale.” After the quickening of love and the noble decision to resist desire and wait, Phillip is packed off to France (while Williamson was in fact on convalescent leave). He arrives today, a century back, and Williamson allows us, surely, to date his arrival:[1]

Phillip tottered off the gangway at Boulogne having, as he said to his companion from Victoria, catted up his heart, despite the fact that the crossing from Folkestone had been made in sunshine on a blue and waveless channel. Fear had taken the heart out of him: fear of being sick: fear of the idea of having to face machine-guns again. The apparition of death from the back of his mind had come forward to share his living thoughts, so the voyage had been a semi-conscious froth of nausea, of endurance despite abandon.

While the transport had been crossing, with its destroyer escort, there had been a constant heavy thudding of guns. Either the Big Push had started, along the coast towards Ostend, or there had been a naval battle. When the ship docked, they heard: the German fleet had come out, and there had been a tremendous battle in the North Sea…[2]

 

Once again I have failed in my resolution to streamline this project. But we march from great battle to great battle, and we mark the last month before the Somme with not one but rather three or four “month poems.”

First, I want to suggest reading an excellent and spectacularly a propos prose piece by Hector Munro (a.k.a. the prominent prewar satirist Saki: Birds on the Western Front is of a feather with much of our reading.

Second, Noel Hodgson‘s “Renunciation” doesn’t quite qualify as a “month poem” because it was published on this very day, a century back, in The New Witness:

Take my love that died to-day.
Lay him on a roseleafbed,–
He so gallant was and gay,–
Let them hide his tumbled head,
Roses passionate and red
That so swiftly fade away.
Let the little grave be set
Where my eyes shall never see;
Raise no stone, make no regret
Lest my sad heart break,–and yet
For my weakness, let there be
Sprigs of rue and rosemary.

Brookeish, and sentimental, but not bad for all that. And can we read toward the turning of the poetic tide just a bit? I don’t think so, really: this a beautiful death for a gallant soldier, beautifully mourned. But if we imagine how a head might “tumble” or why else a grave might be unmarked… but no.

In addition, Hodgson will shortly write a prose sketch set today, a century back. June 1st 1916 was Ascension Day, and for Hodgson it brought back memories of a school days’ ramble one Ascension morning, an expedition with a friend, after birds’ nests, in the early morning light.

And I remembered the chill of the water round our middles as we forded the river, where the mist still hung in wreaths, and the heavy dew on the grass. We took a grebe’s nest, I remembered, and a reed-warbler’s…

I remembered, too, how, as we sat in a cottage and ate lemon-curd and bread, a clock struck eight; and how we girded ourselves and ran, and were in time for callover at nine, whereby was great renown to us for many days; and how I slept, in my oaken seat at matins.

But his companion that day was Nowell Oxland, killed at Gallipoli. It must have been a day of melancholy thoughts for the often high-spirited Hodgson. He is young, full of life, a believer in divine Providence and a patriot, and yet he is unwilling to leave thoughts of despair unexpressed, unwilling to betray memory, denying its pain by sentimentalizing the past or putting loss to utilitarian (not to say militarist) purpose. What else would we ask, really?[3]

 

Third, then, Bim Tennant, gallant and gay, wrote a rather lengthy fairy tale fantasia in verse at some point during this month. He thought highly of the strange-but-charming “Worple Flit.” But I shall content us with an excerpt. And no follow-up questions, please: though I love this unquiet-ghost-of-William-Morris sort of stuff in principle, just today I have no idea what is going on in Bimbo’s little world:

And as we jogged along the road, the night grew wondrous fine,
And out of the Hills the Hill-folk came, and the Down-men, all in a line,
Their packs right full of their elfin gear, and their flasks of their trollish wine…

And their talk was soft as a cony’s back, and swift as a whippet hound.
‘By the puckered cheek of my barbary ape! ’tis an ill sight we see,
The glamour of England fades this day with the folk of the South Countree.’

The good folk passed and silence fell, save where among the trees
Their elfin jargon echoed back and sighed upon the breeze,
Like channeling mice in barley shocks, or humming honey bees.
‘Now by my chin and span-long beard,’ I heard the beldame cry,
‘I wot we ha’ missed the Dairy Thief ‘mid the good folk flitting by.’

But scarcely had the word been said, when down a lapin track,
Behold the goblin slowly come, bent double beneath his pack,
And slow and mournful was his stride, for ever a-glancing back.
‘Give ye the luck,’ the beldame cried: ‘give ye the luck,’ quo’ she,
And the Dairy Thief he doffed his cap, but never a word spake he.

Then over a knoll and under a stile, until my eyes were sore,
I watched him go; so sad an elf I never did see before…

Silent I stood and thought to hear across the open Down,
Some lingering lilt of a goblin song from pixie squat and brown,
Or perchance to spy some faerie dame in her dewy cobweb gown.
I search’d and found ne witch ne folk, but as I stood forlorn,
Three green leaves flickered to the ground, of oak and ash and thorn.

Poperinghe, June, 1916.

It is very strange indeed, to read a poem like this–there’s an ode to a Nightingale, too, this month, borrowed from Boccaccio–with such a place and date affixed.Such verse should be the text for some winsome Pre-Raphaelite woodcut, and yet it comes from an ante-room of hell on earth…

 

Fourth, then, T.P. Cameron Wilson weighs in. I have been slow to pick him up–and I still, given the low volume of writing that I have in hand, resist making him a “Category” all his own–but he elbows in rather nicely. Who is he writing to, today, and with a poem? Why, Harold Monro, of The Poetry Bookshop, of course.

But this is no professional letter–it’s a chilling, tale well-told, ready for a Great War memoir or some latter-day omnibus of the short-form uncanny. Memory, and death, it seems, are the themes for June the First:

1.6.16

I wish you were here, with your sympathy and your power of laughing at the same things as the man you’re with — laughing and weeping, almost, it would be here.

Here’s a thing that happened. When I first “joined” out here I noticed a man — a boy, really, his age was just 19 — who had those very calm blue eyes one sees in sailors sometimes, and a skin burnt to a sort of golden brown. I said to him, “When did you leave the Navy?” and he regarded this as the most exquisite joke! Every time I met him he used to show his very white teeth in a huge smile of amusement, and we got very pally when it came to real bullets — as men do get pally, the elect, at any rate.

Well, the other day there was a wiring party out in front of our parapet — putting up barbed wire (rusted to a sort of Titian red). It is wonderful going out into ‘No Man’s Land.’ I’ll tell you about it one day — stars and wet grass, and nothing between you and the enemy, and every now and then a very soft and beautiful blue-white light from a Very pistol — bright as day, yet extraordinarily unreal. You have to keep still as a statue in whatever position you happen to be in, till it dies down, as movement gives you away.

Well, that night they turned a machine gun on the wiring party, and the ‘sailor boy’ got seven bullets, and died almost at once. All his poor body was riddled with them, and one went through his brown throat. When I went over his papers I found a post-card addressed to his mother. It was an embroidered affair, on white silk. They buy them out here for 40 centimes each, and it had simply “remember me” on it.

And they say “don’t get sentimental!” I wanted you then, to — oh! just to be human.

We had to collect what had been a man the other day and put it into a sandbag and bury it, and less than two minutes before he had been laughing and talking and thinking. . . .[4]

A Soldier

He laughed.
His blue eyes searched the morning,
Found the unceasing song of the lark
In a brown twinkle of wings, far out.
Great clouds, like galleons, sailed the distance.
The young spring day had slipped the cloak of dark
And stood up straight and naked with a shout.
Through the green wheat, like laughing schoolboys,
Tumbled the yellow mustard flowers, uncheck’d.
The wet earth reeked and smoked in the sun . . .
He thought of the waking farm in England.
The deep thatch of the roof — all shadow-fleck’d
The clank of pails at the pump . . . the day begun.
“After the war . . . ” he thought.
His heart beat faster With a new love for things familiar and plain.
The Spring leaned down and whispered to him low
Of a slim, brown-throated woman he had kissed . . .
He saw, in sons that were himself again,
The only immortality that man may know.

And then a sound grew out of the morning,
And a shell came, moving a destined way,
Thin and swift and lustful, making its moan.
A moment his brave white body knew the Spring,
The next, it lay
In a red ruin of blood and guts and bone.

Oh! nothing was tortured there! Nothing could know
How death blasphemed all men and their high birth
With his obscenities. Already moved,
Within those shattered tissues, that dim force,
Which is the ancient alchemy of Earth,
Changing him to the very flowers he loved.

“Nothing was tortured there!” Oh, pretty thought!
When God Himself might well bow down His head
And hide His haunted eyes before the dead.

Is this the sailor-boy himself, mildly alchemized to verse, and a victim of shell rather than machine gun? It hardly matters, and today’s assemblage of dated found-object-writing seems both more numinous and more depressing than usual.

 

So nothing more in the way of commentary. But still, on this busy but less-than-Glorious First, we have a few updates for the month:

 

John Buchan, an invalid at the beginning of the war and no spring chicken, has become an all-but-official propagandist on the (prop-a-) grandest scale: between his voluminous quick-fire histories for Nelson’s and teh very popular Greenmantle, he must be one of the most-read war writers going. But this month he finally went: like C.E. Montague, Buchan has been absorbed into the expanding bureaucracy of the Intelligence branch. He makes his first visit to France early this month–just missing his friend Raymond Asquith at G.H.Q.–and will begin touring and writing from within the military-journalistic complex.

 

Billy Congreve, recently awarded the DSO for his conspicuous gallantry in April in the Salient, is home in London on leave. An active leave: today, a century back, he was married to Pamela Maude at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with the Bishop of London presiding. The honeymoon will last a few days only, for the young brigade major is needed back on duty.[5]

 

And Herbert Read, whose sporadically preserved writing about his experiences as an officer of the Green Howards has been of little use here yet , will return to the front this month, after recuperating from a barbed-wire-related injury.

 

Then there is Isaac Rosenberg, warned to be ready to depart for France at a few hours’ notice. He has just mustered up the courage to tell his devoted sister, Annie, that he is bound for the front.

I asked my boss for the day off and went to Aldershot. It was bleak. I didn’t see a soul except Isaac coming towards me from the other side of the high fence. Talking to him through the wire I said, “But Isaac you’re not fit.” He said, “I’ve been examined, and passed.” I asked him to let me go and see the medical officer. He wouldn’t let me do it. I asked him how much money he had, and he replied “One shilling.” I didn’t know whether he needed anything, but had ten shillings with me, which I gave him. I wasn’t with him more than an hour. I stood there begging him not to go. He said goodbye and disappeared into the distance…[6]

This is a sister’s anguish at the coming suffering and agony of suspense, but it’s also hard not to see the poet reflected in his poem. Moses had much to say about slavery and oppression, about violence and the potential human heroic response…

 

Finally, then, Siegfried Sassoon, in a brown study. The problem is, once you’ve left, where is home?

June 1

I can’t read or enjoy poetry at all since I came back here. Two new officers in C Company since Stansfield
went–G. Williams, who was hit a year ago; and Morris–Sandhurst one. Neither of them at all interesting. Heard from Robert Graves, now at Litherland; he says he ‘wants to come home—to France’. I only wish he would.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, it could be yesterday as well, but the knowledge that the sound is naval gunnery would point more toward today.
  2. The Golden Virgin, 205.
  3. Zeepvat, Before Action, 178-82.
  4. Housman, War Letters, 299-300.
  5. Armageddon Road, 190.
  6. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 136.
  7. Diaries, 70.

Aubrey Herbert in Basra; Raymond Asquith Exchanges Gifts; Wilfred Owen Feels Like Scooting

Aubrey Herbert arrived in Basra today, a century back, two days after landing at Bushire. Some two hundred miles up the Tigris, the British (which is to say largely Indian) garrison of Kut, besieged since December, had their rations reduced to five ounces of meal per day. In Basra, however, Herbert dined with the formidable traveler, scholar, writer, and diplomat/spy Gertrude Bell.[1]

 

And in considerably less glamorous circumstances just outside London, Wilfred Owen reports on his progress. It’s early, yet, but it’s interesting to note that his often-florid notes to his mother do seem to be showing a penchant for emotional honesty. It would be hard to imagine most of our other writers indicating, even in alliterative jest, that they were frightened during a training operation…

Sunday [10 April 1916] Romford

Dearest Mother,

I am reduced, by lack of both time and experience, to saying simply that I am very well, and that my thoughts turn to you-ward some three or four times a day with lovingness.

…We had Night Operations again. I was isolated scouting—felt like scooting…

One or two have been ‘washed out’ of the School already, but I survive yet. These wash-outs are sent to the 60th Division in France: where in fact they will be safer than with Platoons to command.

Our Course may last 5 weeks more…

God shield us all…

Your most-cherishing Wilfred[2]

 

We also have a fairly humdrum letter from Raymond Asquith to his wife Katherine–but it is followed up by a letter (written tomorrow, but tomorrow will be a busy day) to his daughter Perdita. Such interactions show him in the best light: all the wit–the bit about the worrisome profusion of horse drawings is funny–and less than half the cynicism of an ordinary Raymond Asquith letter!

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.
10 April 1916

. . . I wrote the other day to my Birmingham book shop to tell them if they hadn’t succeeded in getting Swinburne’s Shakespeare for you, to send 3 other books instead which I saw in their catalogue, so don’t be alarmed if you get some very absurd volumes–I can’t even remember what they were now, but only that they were what I should have chosen–out of a very poor lot–for myself. You will probably find them terrible. I am enclosing in this letter–heaven knows why–a specimen of the paper money of St Omer (what the private calls a ‘souvenir’) which may be interesting some day (one asks oneself when?) and a picture of a battle which I cut out of one of the German papers which we got here. I am afraid these things do not compare favourably with the presents you have given me–my wrist watch which still goes excellently, the leather photograph case, and my woolly waistcoat, a great blessing in this frightfully cold office-to mention only a few of your benefactions.

Please thank Perdita for the story which she sent me. I will write to her myself soon. It is terrible to think of your being in a house with so many pictures of horses. Do you think it is quite wise or even safe? It would be a blow to us all if you were to give birth to a foal instead of to a son; and there would be even more trouble about finding a name . . .

11.4.16.

My sweet Perdita,

I was delighted to get your letter with the violets and the story–I enjoyed the story very much and was sorry when it came to an end—rather suddenly as I thought…

I live in a very pretty little town on the top of a hill with a river running on one side of it to the sea which is only 8 miles away. All round the town are enormous walls of brick and stone 40 or 50 feet high and on the top of them is a broad path on which you can walk and look down onto the fields below. The French built these walls, I believe, to defend them from the English long ago. Ask your mother who the Emperor Napoleon was. He lived here a hundred years ago when he was planning to take his army over in ships and attack England with it. Today I saw a German prisoner. He was a flying man who lost his way and brought his aeroplane down not very far from here thinking that he was among his own friends.[3]

Light on the cynicism, yes, and sweet in the way he softens a war story into something like a folk tale–“a flying man who lost his way.” But I do like the bit of frank criticism in the first paragraph. Writing is something one must do well, young lady, and one must take care to pace one’s stories effectively…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 175. Bell, inevitably "the female Lawrence of Arabia," has recently received big-time biopic treatment.
  2. Collected Letters, 389-90.
  3. Life and Letters, 255-6.

Christmas Eve: Edward Hermon at Work, Scott Moncrieff at Mass, Phillip Maddison at the Theater, Richard Hannay in Bavaria, George Coppard on an Island, Vera Brittain Wandering Toward Victoria

It’s Christmas Eve, now, the second of the war. Many of our officers are on leave, or due to begin it. Others yet in France are taking advantage of what they expect–for reasons of wet weather rather than religious sentiment–to be a quiet day.

christmas eve hermonThis would include Edward Hermon, who wrote home today with “no news” other than his work on the construction of winter stables (see the image at right). “How I wish I was going to spend tomorrow with you & the chugs & have them running in, in the morning, with their things.

C. K. Scott Moncrieff, a combat-tested officer of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, was recovering from “trench fever” and jaundice in a hospital in the South of France. He went to Midnight Mass at the cathedral in Nice and spent several hours waiting in line for communion. It was to be his first Christmas away from home.

 

I’ll follow Moncrieff’s debut with a much-belated check-in on our most elaborately fictional-to-semi-fictional figure, Henry Williamson‘s fiercely self-lacerating doppelganger Phillip Maddison. When we last saw Phillip, he was playing the part of a semi-intentional cad and accidental hero at the Battle of Loos, but he has since returned to England and, fully embracing his paralyzing fear of returning to battle, wangled a transfer into a “navvies battalion,” where he will command politically-shielded laborers expected to do only home service. There has been plenty of time in this slack and socially disparate battalion for Phillip to take leave, head to London, purchase a small motor car (in addition to his obnoxious motorcycle), and make his best effort yet at obtaining an actual girlfriend. But he continues to pinball around within his own head, lurching from one poorly-controlled emotion to the next.

Phillip’s Christmas Eve began with a test to qualify him and several fellow officers for promotion. It consisted of desultory drill maneuvers and then a timed march to test physical fitness, which was immediately diverted by the cynical instructor into a pub. Thus qualified, Phillip took off for London, where he was stood up by the girl and spent the end of Christmas Eve alone in an expensive box in a theater. He finds himself, of course, longing for the comradeship of war–and forgetting that this had been intermittent at best, and usually overshadowed by loneliness, terror, ostracism for cowardice, and various other miseries:

Christmas Eve! Eleven o’clock in London, midnight in Berlin. Now the lighted fir-trees would be on the parapets, voices singing Heilege Nacht. Why was he not there, how could it be the same without him, he thought, as he stood to attention for God Save the King.

And so to Baker Street station, through the darkness without meaning, and the long walk to camp, while he lived in memory upon the frozen battlefield, where the morning star shone white and lustrous in the east.[1]

 

A far punchier fictional Christmas was had by Richard Hannay, the British secret agent who is traveling all across Germany in the guide of a Boer sympathizer in order to reach Constantinople and threaten the German eastern flank by raising an Islamic revolt (of course). He is now involved in “one of the craziest escapades you can well imagine.” Indeed!

Yesterday, while traveling with a minder–the brutish German agent Stumm–Hannay had met the Kaiser and had a nice chat about Africa and Imperial loyalties. Later in the afternoon Hannay was cornered by the suspicious Stumm and forced to drop his role. After a nice left jab and some rough-housing he succeeded in knocking out the ape-like German, and escaping into the snowy woods, only a few miles from the Danube.

But after a long night and day stumbling through the Bavarian hinterlands, Hannay is feverish and despairing. Until, on Christmas eve, he stumbled from the nightmare Germany of enraged sadomasochists and sad-eyed tyrants into the fairytale Germany of kindhearted cottagers.

He finds a homely light in the snowy wilderness:

The shock of warmth gave me one of those minutes of self-possession which comes sometimes in the
middle of a fever.

‘I am sick, mother, and I have walked far in the storm and lost my way. I am from Africa, where the climate is hot, and your cold brings me fever. It will pass in a day or two if you can give me a bed.’

‘You are welcome,’ she said; ‘but first I will make you coffee…’

Poverty was spelled large in everything I saw. I felt the tides of fever beginning to overflow my brain again, and I made a great attempt to set my affairs straight before I was overtaken. With difficulty I took out Stumm’s pass from my pocketbook. ‘That is my warrant,’ I said. ‘I am a member of the Imperial Secret Service and for the sake of my work I must move in the dark. If you will permit it, mother, I will sleep till I am better, but no one must know that I am here. If anyone comes, you must deny my presence.’

She looked at the big seal as if it were a talisman.

‘Yes, yes,’ she said, ‘you will have the bed in the garret and be left in peace till you are well. We have no neighbours near, and the storm will shut the roads. I will be silent, I and the little ones.’

My head was beginning to swim, but I made one more effort.

‘There is food in my rucksack – biscuits and ham and chocolate. Pray take it for your use. And here is some money to buy Christmas fare for the little ones.’ And I gave her some of the German notes.

After that my recollection becomes dim….I seem to remember that she kissed my hand, and that she was crying. ‘The good Lord has sent you,’ she said. ‘Now the little ones will have their prayers answered and the Christkind will not pass by our door.'[2]

Spies and getaways and fairytales… but this is a fantasy, literal escapism. Where Buchan’s spy darts nimbly through the woods, Henry Williamson‘s books rumble through the woods like a dogged giant, huge and ungainly, knocking the symbolic snow from every tree below. Williamson aims to represent the historical whole, and–just like innocent, foolish, passionate, striving Phillip Maddison–the war is stuck in a rut, churning against itself. It was not over by its first Christmas, nor this one, and–despite that big push due in the Spring–few believe it will be over by the next.

So there is a lull of sorts, and both Williamson and Buchan manage to play on the theme of Silent Night. Yes, well: but the trenches still need to be held, and George Coppard was holding one–or, rather, since the area around Festubert was so thoroughly flooded, he held not a trench but a sandbagged breastwork “island.” This, he will write, would be “one of the worst of my experiences,” which involved crouching “on a small strip of earth” above the water for two days, with only four feet of protective wall in front.

Bent nearly double, unable to stand, we waited as the hours dragged on, longing for darkness so that we could stretch our limbs a little. Watch was kept by periscope. Several times a sniper trimmed the top of the breastwork, making us sweat blood. The barbed wire in front was nearly submerged…

It was Christmas Eve, and just after dark a second lieutenant came to visit us. I think his name was Clark. Among other things, he came to remind us that by order of the Commander-in-Chief there was not to be any fraternising with the enemy on Christmas Day. The whole world knew that on Christmas Day, 1914, there was some fraternising at one part of the line, and even an attempt at a game of football. Troops in the front line a year later were naturally speculating on whether a repeat performance would develop and, if so, where. Speaking for my companions and myself, I can categorically state that we were in no mood for any joviality with Jerry… we hated his bloody guts. We were bent on his destruction at each and every opportunity for all the miseries and privations which were our lot…

Sad it is for me to tell that Mr. Clark was shot through the head shortly after arriving on the island.  A machine gun swept the breastwork and got him. He died on the little strip of earth in the early hours of Christmas Day.[3]

 

The last person I want to write about today is Vera Brittain. After yesterday there is no bittersweet pleasure in irony, and, if the conceit of the precise century’s absence and presence permits an imagined emotional connection between then and now, today it seems only cruel.

Still on night duty, Vera spent the early morning hours of Christmas Eve “filling the soldiers’ red bags, which we made, with crackers, sweets and nuts.” She felt little of the Christmas spirit, but she wrote today that

there is at least joy in my heart; I can think of nothing else but the probability of seeing him in two days’ time. For I cannot, dare not, call it certainty yet,–dare not even allow myself to feel thrilled.

No. She has one more night of duty before her own leave begins, but Roland is coming, and she hopes, perhaps, that they might… So she will prepare:

In the morning I had my hair washed at a pleasant little shop near Victoria. I found by enquiring at Victoria yesterday that the only boat-train from Folkestone arrives at 7.30 p.m. As it is sure to be late and he may not even come that way, it is of no use my waiting so late on the chance of seeing him, so apparently I shall have to give up any idea I had of seeing him to-morrow. And perhaps after all his family has first right to him.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 113.
  2. Buchan, Greenmantle, 120-138.
  3. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 59-60.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 295.