Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

Wilfred Owen Writes to Siegfried Sassoon, Father-Confessor, Colonel, and Prophet; Lord Dunsany Dines with the Company

Today, a century back, two days after writing, then shelving a way-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen sat down once again to write… a still-pretty-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon. I don’t think it needs much more introduction (or commentary).

5 November 1917

Mahim, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury

This was not the photograph in question, but rather the Philpot portrait (Fitzwilliam Museum); but see below

My dear Sassoon,

When I had opened your envelope in a quiet comer of the Club Staircase, I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by’ (as you would recommend for such effusions) until I could think over the thing without grame.[1]

I have also waited for this photograph.

Show some rich anger if you will. I thank you; but not on this paper only, or in any writing. You gave—with what Christ, if he had known Latin & dealt in oxymoron, might have called Sinister Dexterity. I imagined you were entrusting me with some holy secret concerning yourself. A secret, however, it shall be until such time as I shall have climbed to the housetops, and you to the minarets of the world.

 

There is indeed a slight resemblance between the heretical sun king and the rebel poet

Smile the penny! This Fact has not intensified my feelings for you by the least—the least grame. Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.

What’s that mathematically?

In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.

If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life–however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze. It is some consolation to know that Jupiter himself sometimes swims out of Ken!

If this sounds like a poem, that’s because it soon will be, a long effort entitled “This is the Track” and containing the lines:

To be a meteor, fast, eccentric, lone.
Lawless; in passage through all spheres.
Warning the earth of wider ways’, unknown
And rousing men with heavenly fears.

This marks the end of surely one of the most courageously sustained effusions that Sassoon has ever been subjected to. He must be writhing–and also flattered. Returning to the letter at hand, we find Owen, confident that his outburst of adoration will not have spoiled the friendship, returning to earthly matters:

To come back to our sheep, as the French never say, I have had a perfect little note from Robt. Ross, and have arranged a meeting at 12.30 on Nov. 9th. He mentioned staying at Half Moon St., but the house is full.

I have ordered several copies of Fairies & Fusiliers, but shall not buy all, in order to leave the book exposed on the Shrewsbury counters…

The connection between Sassoon and Owen is intense and important, even if it is not fully reciprocal. Sassoon esteems the young poet, and if he does not seems quite capable of intense warmth without intense passion, he clearly “values the relationship,” as we would say in our mercenary way. And Owen professes love for regard, friendship, and reading/editing/poetic fellowship–these things are the most important.

But Owen is not some blithe innocent or fashionably fancy-free poetic adventurer; he’s an ambitious poet, and Sassoon’s gift of entree into the literary world by means of associations with Roberts Ross and Graves is very welcome too… And it’s endearing that Owen reports his little scheme for drawing attention to Graves’s new book. With self-consciousness of his silliness, sure–but he still reports it.

Sassoon is a beloved friend–loudly and enthusiastically beloved, but still not the be-all-end-all. There is also Owen’s family, and the society of his many friends and contacts from his ergotherapeutic activities.

I am spending happy enough days with my Mother, but I can’t get sociable with my Father without going back on myself over ten years of thought.

What I most miss in Edinburgh (not Craiglockhart) is the conviviality of the Four Boys (L. vivere—to live) Someday, I must tell how we sang, shouted, whistled and danced through the dark lanes through Colinton; and how we laughed till the meteors showered around us, and we fell calm under the winter stars. And some of us saw the pathway of the spirits for the first time. And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so safe beneath us, we praised God with louder whistling; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.

Which, if the Bridge-players Craig & Lockhart could have seen, they would have called down the wrath of Jahveh, and buried us under the fires of the City you wot of.

This would appear to be one of the more open–though still oblique–references to homosexuality in Owen’s edited letters: the fire-buried city in question is surely Sodom, one of the two “Cities of the Plain” which another of our writers (and soon-to-be-path-crosser) will eventually choose as the euphemistic title of the fourth volume of the first English translation of the greatest French novel (or simply novel) then being written (or at any point). Got it?

To which also it is time you committed this letter. I wish you were less undemonstrative, for I have many.adjectives with which to qualify myself. As it is I can only say I am

Your proud friend,

Owen[2]

 

A much less dramatic/interesting/significant letter will play the “secondly, and anticlimactically” role, today. But Lord Dunsany‘s correspondence with Lady Beatrice is suddenly available these days, and perhaps we will wring some insights from it eventually. As it is, however, he seems a bit… aloof.

My Darling Mink,

The officers of D. Company gave me a dinner last night at the Club. We walked back  arm in arm with me in the middle, either to show that that was their natural and usual way of going home, not a necessity, or else to show that if ever I wanted help to get home after dinner, I should have it…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A helpful note from the editor explains that "SS cannot explain this word."
  2. Collected Letters, 504-6.
  3. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 146.

The Master is Promoted; Ivor Gurney Packs his Tragedies and Versifies his Thanks; Wilfred Owen’s Shy Hand is not Shy of Praising Sassoon

Less than a week ago, the Master of Belhaven was all alone, pistol in hand, in advance even of the infantry. Dodging a grenade that mortally wounded the infantry Captain behind him, he shot and killed a German soldier at point-blank range. But only two days after these accidental front line heroics he found himself suddenly in command of two brigades of artillery.

Larch Wood, 25th August, 1917

Another tragedy. At 10 o’clock this morning Colonel Street was killed as he was standing outside his Headquarters. The adjutant telephoned to me and I at once went over and took command of the group. It is perfectly extraordinary how history repeats itself; this is now the third time my colonels have been killed and wounded.

Hamilton, by contrast, was doubly lucky–it might well have been him. On the 27th, the Germans captured the very infantry post from which he had gone out with the unfortunate Captain Flack and run into the German grenade ambush.

Today, a century back, he was rewarded for his good work–and his survival:

Larch Wood, 29th August, 1917

During breakfast this morning the staff captain rang up and said “Good morning, colonel.” I asked him if he was pulling my leg, but he told me a wire had just come through appointing me to command the 106th Brigade with the rank of lieut.-colonel; so I have reached that exalted rank at last![1]

 

Ivor Gurney, meanwhile, is preparing for another tour near the front lines (now with the machine guns, he is never quite in the very front line, but rather in support or reserve, which are shelled just as much). Writing once again to Marion Scott, he would prefer to treat the war only in passing. He is more interested in his own personal preparations: he lists the books he will carry with him, and he sends a “pome” back for her.

My Dear Friend: We are off up again, and this is the last letter written in the quiet. (We can write up there however, and do you write). I go up with Brent Young, Harvey, 6 Tragedies of Shakespeare and “The Bible in Spain”, with nothing to fear on that account therefore.

You will find a fresh pome below, though there is no question of volunteering . . . .

And here I break off because they say no letters will be censored up there. “May all the infections that the sun sucks up — fall upon Fritz and make him by inchmeal a disease.”

(Today is August 29)

To M.M.S.

O, if my wishes were my power.
You should be praised as were most fit.
Whose kindness cannot help but flower.

But since the fates have ordered
So otherwise, then ere the hour
Of darkness deaden all my wit.

I’ll write: how all my art was poor.
My mind too thought-packed to acquit
My debt. . . And only, “thanks once more”.[2]

 

Gurney sometimes seems too pure a soul–pure in his devotion to poetry and music and the Gloucestershire countryside, though riven, also, but doubt and madness–to go in for mere wit. But it’s not really so–he does like to be clever in a quiet way. He is often hurried and muddled–by nature, and because of war’s ill nurturing–and without Scott to collect and collate and edit he would be nowhere near the book of poetry that is soon to be published. So thanks are due, and amidst preparations for a march toward the German guns he dashes off a few credible verses on how he is too benumbed and befuddled to manage a credible thank-you…

 

Wilfred Owen, has been so busy of late–that Field Club, writing and editing the hospital magazine, the amateur dramatics, hanging out with Siegfried Sassoon–that he has still a backlog of signed copies of The Old Huntsman to distribute to family members. Today it is his sister Mary’s turn to receive the Huntsman, along with a promise of The Hydra, and a cover letter to boot.

Thursday, 29 August 1917, Craiglockhart

My dear Mary,

I was grieved—almost aggrieved—to hear you had had some bad days at Aberystwyth…

The family vacation on the Welsh coast was, evidently, rather unsatisfactory. Owen rolls this familial “cloud”–a little briskly, perhaps–into his pessimism about the course of the war.

… it is not to be wondered at that I was a bit snappy in my Editorial, which you shall have in a day or two.

But a word from Sassoon, though he is not a cheery dog himself, makes me cut capers of pleasure.

My dear, except in one or two of my letters, (alas!) you will find nothing so perfectly truthfully descriptive of war. Cinemas, cartoons, photographs, tales, plays—Na-poo.

Owen has been fond of that word lately–and perhaps I should have glossed it before. Tommy slang, from the French “il n’y a plus,” it means “it’s done, over, kaput.” But Owen seems a bit more confident that Mary will accept his praise of his new mentor and not be “na-poo” for him as a respected reader of war literature. (Dad is another matter.)

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Now you see why I have always extolled Poetry.

The ‘Redeemer’, I have been wishing to write every week for the last three years.

Well, it has been done and I have shaken the greater hand that did it.

‘The Death-Bed’, my dear sister, should be read seven times, and after that, not again, but thought of only…

There is no hint of a Board for me yet! I’m going down to make my Evening Tea now.

Just a card will tell me how you & dear Mother are.

Your loving Wilfred[3]

No hint of a “Board:” he will have some time, yet, to work on his poetry in Craiglockhart. Although he only sings his song of Sassoon in the letter to Mary, Owen is also working on his own poetry. He has begun, by today, a century back, to draft the atypical sonnet “My Shy Hand.” A later fair-copy can be seen at right:

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 378-80.
  2. War Letters, 191.
  3. Collected Letters, 489.

Edwin Vaughan in the Purgatorial Slough; Wilfred Owen Praises Siegfried Sassoon: “If You Don’t Appreciate These Then It’s Na-Poo.”

Near St. Julien, in the Ypres Salient, Edwin Vaughan spent a long day under fire today, a century back, waiting for materials to arrive–his company is supposed to build camouflage screens for the assembly positions for tomorrow’s attack. But the wagons carrying the camouflage were hit on the way up, and the miserable night and day were for nought. Soon the attacking troops moved forward past his position.

There was still no sign of the camouflage, and in any case the heavy rain had turned the ground into a huge swamp upon which it would have been impossible to do any work. There was a terrific congestion of traffic on the road, including tanks, shell-waggons, cookers and limbers. From midnight on our machine guns kept up a constant fire to drown the noise of the tanks crawling up into position.[1]

 

Back in Scotland, Wilfred Owen continues our poetic project of the week, namely to write letters that include a sustained critical reading of Siegfried Sassoon‘s The Old Huntsman.

Or, in Owen’s case, fresh from his first two meetings with Sassoon, to write a letter of unstinting praise. Owen’s confidence is waxing these days–fewer nightmares, many activities, and a burgeoning acquaintance with a real live poet who is at once desirable (socially, physically), friendly (with all due restraint), and guardedly complimentary of Owen’s writing. There could be no surer sign of Owen’s refurbished self-confidence than writing a blithe letter to his father, with whom he is not on emotionally easy terms. Is it foolish to hope that his father will like his new friend’s poetry? Perhaps, but it still seems very good that his hopes are high.

26 August 1917

My dear Father,

I think this work of Sassoon’s will show you to the best possible advantage the tendencies of Modem Poetry. If you don’t appreciate these then it’s Na-poo. There is nothing better this century can offer you. I’ve marked the pieces for first reading, and those underlined are specially good. The Old Huntsman was put in as a title piece, to catch the hunting-people, and make ’em read the rest.

‘The Death-Bed’ is a piece of perfect art.

‘Morning Express’, page 56 is the kind of thing that makes me despair of myself; everyone says ‘I could have done that myself!’

Only no one ever did.

Please send me your Criticisms.

I am beginning to feel uncomfortably editorial again after a fortnight’s rest. Nobody is willing to write about our last Concerts, and it looks as if I shall have to fill half the Mag. myself, between now & tomorrow…

And then a choicely-phrased (he is an editor and writer, now, after all) explanation of why he cannot take leave to visit his family:

Realizing how impossible it is for me to be there has spoilt my holiday here. I was make-believing that I was a free creature here, but it is only that my chain has been let out a little. I should only hurt myself with tugging at it.

Fondest love to all.

Your W.E.O.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 219.
  2. Collected Letters, 488.

Vera Brittain Sick Almost to Despair… and Hopeful Yet; Kate Luard: All Quiet at CCS 6; Donald Hankey: The Student in Arms Needs a New Cap; Herbert Read in the Salient

Vera Brittain is getting run down. She has been nursing six days a week for almost two months now, and, despite her protestations that she doesn’t feel any ill effects from moving to the night shift, she has twice been quite ill, with a fever and chills. But this matters little, now that she has something tangible to look forward to. Roland Leighton will soon have his turn for home leave. Unless the war intervenes.

Tuesday December 14th—Wednesday December 15th

When I went on duty at night I heard various disquieting rumours that another big move is impending on the Western Front, & that all leave is cancelled. I felt dreary and depressed, & sick almost to despair, for I have very little hope that he will get leave now–or that he will not be mixed up in this offensive, since he missed the last. This work is almost impossible without hope, and to lose what little there is leaves life a mere grey emptiness. This wretched war is as rich in postponements & disappointments as in more tremendous calamities.[1]

Yes. Yes, it is. But as the fiancée of a man at the front, there is loin-girding to be done, and letter writing. Rumor is never enough, and hope must be offered even where it isn’t felt. She reworks these lines as she reaches out to Roland:

1st London General, 15 December 1915

I would like to write you a specially nice letter to-night, because I expect this will be the one I promised you should have for Christmas–that is, if posts are delayed as much as we have been warned they will be. It would be nicer still, perhaps, if I were not a little disquieted by vague rumours that are going round here of a big movement impending on the Western front, and a consequent cancelling of all leaves in the near future. . .

This is such a wretched War–so abundant in disappointments & postponements & annoyances as well as more tremendous things,—that I should scarcely be surprised to hear that everything I was looking forward to, which temporally make life worth living, is not to come off…

Fight it!

She does. Knowing that it is, at the very least, unhelpful and impolite to mope one’s way through a trench-bound letter, Vera switches gears, and gives Roland a thorough description of her day off with her family… and his. I’ll excerpt, since we have read much of this already:

I went down to the Grand Hotel at Brighton, which I had never seen before. Fortunately lack of sleep does not
make me sleepy, and I thoroughly enjoyed yesterday, which was made still better by most glorious weather. The war of course is much in evidence down there, but not so much in its sadder aspects, such as I see here. At Brighton there is more of the social side of the War, if one can so express it. The Grand Hotel  possessed an abundance of honeymoon couples and slightly wounded officers, and officers belonging to the various battalions stationed down there. It was delightful to take off my uniform and get into some decent clothes, & wrap myself up in my beloved fur coat & feel really warm for the first time for weeks.

But the most momentous part of the whole proceeding is that our respective parents have actually managed to meet at last!

…Mother looked very sweet, and I felt overshadowed & chastened, but Mrs Leighton seemed a good deal more interested in Father… he and Mrs Leighton contributed most of the conversation during the afternoon, with great vivacity; Father didn’t even seem to mind when she criticised his beloved Edward in quite her usual style. She told Father she thought Edward inherited his lack of comprehension of women from him, and accused him of not being very interested in anything else but money! He didn’t appear to mind even
this . . .

Dear me. Mrs. Leighton and Mr. Brittain indeed. Never mind the easy snide/Freudian things that one could say about the dominant parents and their offspring: this is quite a direct shot at Edward. Mrs. Leighton could hardly be more explicit about her suspicions of his sexual orientation–but apparently none of the Brittains notice, though she seems to be aiming rather close across the bows. Vera, smitten with the mother at one remove (and with no real knowledge of men to draw upon), could hardly guess, but is it possible that either of her parents picked something up, and grimaced silently through?

Vera’s letter is almost a parody of obliviousness–sweet obliviousness:

. . . I was actually quiet for once & instead of talking sat opposite Mrs Leighton, and watched your sweetest expression coming & going on her face as she smiled…

The rain is pouring down on the hut roof, & I wonder if it is pouring down on you too, amid your cold & mud & tumbleddown dug-outs. I am just longing to see you, with a chance of being clean & dry at last, sitting with me in a comfortable room before a nice warm hotel fire…

Is it an absurdity to wish you a merry Christmas, in the midst of sodden trenches, & cold & damp & misery? It seems so–with the enemy only comparatively a few yards away, and the Dead sleeping beside you & behind you & beneath your feet–the Dead who perhaps were struggling bravely in spite of cold & suffering, to create a gay spirit for Christmas time–this time last year…

Well then, a Merry Christmas! Perhaps soon after you get this you will be here again to answer it in person, in a better way than with pen & ink. And perhaps–not. But somehow I feel the end is not destined to be here and now. We have not fulfilled ourselves— ‘and Someday we shall live our roseate poem through’……..

[Au Revoir, dearest.][2]

 

Donald Hankey, meanwhile, is making a name for himself. The first of his “A Student in Arms” pieces has just been published, and it is attracting much attention, in this case from the wife of his prep school master:

E Brigade, Officers’ Mess, Charlton Park, S. E., Dec. 15,

Dear Mrs. Wathen,

Yes, I had an article called “The Honour of the Brigade” in last week’s Spectator. I think it must have been one of my best because a publisher wrote and asked if I had anything to publish! This is the second time that has happened and I am getting a swelled head. Next Saturday I think there will be one called “The Religion of the Inarticulate.” I have also got swelled head about that…

This is all very nice for an “amateur” and as I say, I shall have to get a new cap. Yours affly.,

Donald Hankey[3]

 

And behind the lines at Casualty Clearing Station 6, in Lillers, Kate Luard confirms the winter calm. One patient has been left with them for more than six weeks and is, unexpectedly, improving. The town is briefly enlivened by the Scotsmen of the 15th Division–“that got farther than anyone else beyond Loos and Hill 70, and would have chased the flying Boches back to Lille if ‘the Staff Work’ had backed them up”–and are now in billets. The primary medical problem, other than the constant flow of shrapnel wounds, is the prevention of trench feet. “Nothing doing in the Base Hospitals or up here; sisters going home on leave everywhere.”[4]

 

Finally, today, progress from a wayward writer: Herbert Read has reached the trenches for the first time. He has been unsure of himself, a poetry-reading officer without the solid upper middle class background of most New Army subalterns.[5] Today, it seems, was his first real day of mud and fear, deep in the Ypres salient. His battalion, the 7th Green Howards (The Yorkshire Regiment) will hold the line now on and off for several months, but Read, struggling to find his footing in the human and geographic mire of wintry trench duty with a green battalion, is perhaps not keeping up his diary.[6] He has been elusive, for us, because of this… but eventually his diary and his poetry will make him one of our most distinctive voices.[7]

For today, however, we can draw upon something he wrote later, in a fierce anarchist/Modernist style (and in the third person), yet clearly drawing upon his first days at war. The piece is called “First Blood:”

Snow falling all night: in the morning the world will be white. The earth will be covered with a nice new coat of paint, to hide the scars and pockmarks. For the earth is in a bad way-a battered old scarecrow, blackened, ragged, her fingers and toes all splintered. Oh such a mess!

Sanctuary Wood: the god of this sacred place is Moloch, and he is a very fierce old god, and people say that to seek sanctuary in his arms is to say goodbye to your beloved’s. His sanctuary a wood, a dark gloomy glade, full of caves and ditches. If you wait till daylight you will find that the trees have no branches, but are whiskered with splinters. Tatterdemalion trees, you might say; all higgledy-piggledy, like darts in a target. An acre of frenzied brushwood. It is the worst place in the Salient (the Salient, not a salient: just as we say the Cross when we mean a cross on which mankind is crucified).

A salient is a secret symbol. As the war stiffened its hold on men’s imaginations and became, not a controllable event but a ravage that must mount the scale of fever and slowly fall, the Salient became a fixed idea. To maintain this thrust in the enemy’s side was the insane will of a whole army. It was not justified in a strategic sense. It was a blind impulse, to which hundreds of thousands of lives were sacrificed…

…it is nervy business for a raw subaltern. The first time he goes out in the daylight, a shot from the front cracks like a whip in his ear. He draws in his breath and the blood deserts his face. Immediately the air cracks behind him and a bullet ricochets from the bank he faces.

Terror melts his limbs. He falls to the ground grasps the rungs of the duckboard.

He had forgotten. He had not realised that death could be so imminent, waiting for him round the corner, his first day in the front line. They had said to him: You must crawl. But it is not easy to remember to crawl; it is not an attitude that comes natural to a man…

The crux of the story–which would seem to fictionalize different events of the coming weeks–is the constant danger from snipers. The “raw subaltern” is spared their worst, but not all of his men are so lucky…

But this semi-fictional mode does not come naturally to Read, and we will save deeper inquiry into his writing for those months when his diary is most complete…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 294.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 199-201.
  3. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 322.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 36-7.
  5. Or so it would seem--but his writing persona is very different, and he allowed few gleams of his contemporaneous writing into print.
  6. Or squelching it--I'm not sure.
  7. Cecil, Herbert Read and the Great War.