Edwin Vaughan in Slaughter Wood; Jack Martin in the Noxious Saps; Lord Dunsany Remembers Francis Ledwidge

Edwin Vaughan is almost there:

August 12 Sunday. We had sudden orders in the forenoon to move up nearer the line, and after a hurried packing we marched off at 2.30 p.m. Straight up to Pop and out on the Ypres road with my nerves tingling, unable to talk for excitement and drinking in the real atmosphere of war. We were part of the never-ending stream now, welling up into the great reservoir behind Ypres which was swelling and deepening until the dam should be loosed and all the men and guns and shells should pour out on to the enemy lines…

But the eve of battle is not battle–and it is predictably shabby. Their home for the next few days will be

…a nondescript camp consisting of bivouacs, tents, huts and tarpaulin shelters into which we stowed the troops as best we could. For our combined mess and bedroom we had a small hut with a table and a couple of forms. It was a baleful place for the shell-holes and shattered trees bore testimony to the attentions of the German gunners. Amongst the trees was a great concentration of tanks—and the name of the camp was Slaughter Wood![1]

 

Jack Martin‘s experience has been somewhat difficult to integrate with the rest, here. But he is a rare voice from the ranks and our only engineer, and in this capacity his diary sometimes takes us to new depths, as it were. He and the rest of his company of sappers live, now, like moles in their tunnels, working by day and sleeping by night–or the other way around. This has always been unpleasant and dangerous, but the new German technique of firing different gas shells at all hours has made it even more dangerous–and unimaginably unpleasant.

The Huns have made some fierce counter-attacks on our left today… This evening we have heard that we are to be relieved tomorrow. Thank God. Although we have spent most of our time in the comparative security of the saps, this period in the line has been most trying and exhausting. By day and night the Hun has kept up a continual harassing fire, mainly of HEs and gas shells. The entrances to the saps are covered at night with double gas curtains which are daily saturated with some mixture intended to neutralise the poison…

Owing to the gas curtains being kept down at night and the ventilation shaft being shut, the air in the tunnels becomes most fetid. Seventy or eighty men crowd in one of these galleries, mainly with wet clothes, and all in a filthy dirty condition, breathing the same air over and over again, their bodies stewing in the close, damp atmosphere and exuding all manner of noxious odours–this alone is sufficient to make us ill. It is positively choking to enter the tunnel in the early morning… you choke and splutter and gasp for breath… But foul air is better than poison gas, and dugouts are to be preferred to shell holes.[2]

 

Lastly, today, a century back, was a Sunday. It seems to have been the Sunday on which Father Devas, chaplain of the First Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, kept his vow of saying a funeral mass for Francis Ledwidge–Frank, to his friends–thirteen days after he was killed by a shell while road-making on the first day of the battle.[3] It must have been around now, too, that Ledwidge’s patron, Lord Dunsany, an officer of the same regiment serving on garrison duty, learned of his protegé’s death. Dunsany will see Ledwidge’s second book through to publication, but he is also at work on a volume of his own, a collection of slight, lightly fantastic war-themed short stories. These generally feature lightly drawn every-soldier characters–the book is full of soft-focus celebrations of British steadfastness and gentle wish fulfillment. But one soldier, at least, is drawn from life.

 

The Road

The battery Sergeant-Major was practically asleep. He was all worn out by the continuous roar of bombardments that had been shaking the dugouts and dazing his brains for weeks. He was pretty well fed up.

The officer commanding the battery, a young man in a very neat uniform and of particularly high birth, came up and spat in his face. The Sergeant-Major sprang to attention, received an order, and took a stick at once and beat up the tired men. For a message had come to the battery that some English (God punish them!) were making a road at X.

The gun was fired. It was one of those unlucky shots that come on days when our luck is out. The shell, a 5.9, lit in the midst of the British working party. It did the Germans little good. It did not stop the deluge of shells that was breaking up their guns and was driving misery down like a wedge into their spirits. It did not improve the temper of the officer commanding the battery, so that the men suffered as acutely as ever under the Sergeant-Major. But it stopped the road for that day.

I seemed to see that road going on in a dream.

Another working party came along next day, with clay pipes and got to work; and next day and the day after. Shells came, but went short or over; the shell holes were neatly patched up; the road went on. Here and there a tree had to be cut, but not often, not many of them were left; it was mostly digging and grubbing up roots, and pushing wheelbarrows along planks and duck-boards, and filling up with stones. Sometimes the engineers would come: that was when streams were crossed. The engineers made their bridges, and the infantry working party went on with the digging and laying down stones. It was monotonous work. Contours altered, soil altered, even the rock beneath it, but the desolation never; they always worked in desolation and thunder. And so the road went on.

They came to a wide river. They went through a great forest. They passed the ruins of what must have been quite fine towns, big prosperous towns with universities in them. I saw the infantry working party with their stumpy clay pipes, in my dream, a long way on from where that shell had lit, which stopped the road for a day. And behind them curious changes came over the road at X. You saw the infantry going up to the trenches, and going back along it into reserve. They marched at first, but in a few days they were going up in motors, grey busses with shuttered windows. And then the guns came along it, miles and miles of guns, following after the thunder which was further off over the hills. And then one day the cavalry came by. Then stores in wagons, the thunder muttering further and further away. I saw farm-carts going down the road at X. And then one day all manner of horses and traps and laughing people, farmers and women and boys all going by to X. There was going to be a fair.

And far away the road was growing longer and longer amidst, as always, desolation and thunder. And one day far away from X the road grew very fine indeed. It was going proudly through a mighty city, sweeping in like a river; you would not think that it ever remembered duck-boards. There were great palaces there, with huge armorial eagles blazoned in stone, and all along each side of the road was a row of statues of kings. And going down the road towards the palace, past the statues of the kings, a tired procession was riding, full of the flags of the Allies. And I looked at the flags in my dream, out of national pride to see whether we led, or whether France or America. America went before us, but I could not see the Union Jack in the van nor the Tricolour either, nor the Stars and Stripes: Belgium led and then Serbia, they that had suffered most.

And before the flags, and before the generals, I saw marching along on foot the ghosts of the working party that were killed at X, gazing about them in admiration as they went, at the great city and at the palaces. And one man, wondering at the Sièges Allée, turned round to the Lance Corporal in charge of the party: “That is a fine road that we made, Frank,” he said.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 190.
  2. Sapper Martin, 93.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 189.

Happy Birthday Richard Aldington; A Painful Encounter for Vivian de Sola Pinto; A Different Sort of Protest from Siegfried Sassoon; Duff Cooper is Saved by Alice; Ivor Gurney’s Delightful Present and Grim Portent

It’s a busy day, today, in England and France…

Today is Richard Aldington‘s twenty-fifth birthday and, having been newly trained as an officer, he was able to take a weekend’s leave and spend it with his wife, the poet H.D., at her rooms in the village of Brocton. It was a happy and productive time:

That birthday weekend she reassured him and helped him take stock of his situation. He wrote to [a friend]: ‘I have been thinking over writing, translation & similar matters & under the encouragement of my wife I have begun to try to build up the ruins again!’

With H.D.’s support, he was tackling the problems the war had brought him as a writer: the lack of time for any sustained work, the limited opportunities for publication–and, worst of all, his ‘writer’s block’, arising out of his not having the luxury (unlike Pound and Eliot) of being able to ignore the war and yet feeling that what he could write about it was weak and inadequate…[1]

Now if he would only date his manuscripts…

 

In any other regiment, Vivian de Sola Pinto would be a literary giant; in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, he is more of a minor memoirist. But it it really is a very good memoir–just short on hard dates, alas–and it’s not quite fair to the man that he will only feature prominently here as a supporting character, both tactically and literarily.

He arrived in France in April after long service–and a long illness–in Egypt, and recovery at home. Tonight, a century back, his current tour of duty will come to a sharp end.

On the night of 8th July, after completing our usual patrol of no-man’s-land I led my men over the bank into the sunken road. It was bright moonlight, and as we dropped on to the road, we found ourselves in the middle of a number of men in flat caps, obviously a German patrol. For a moment English and Germans stared at each other in amazement. I had my loaded revolver hung round my neck on a lanyard and in my excitement I raised it and fired into the mass of strangers. I thought I had fired one shot, but found afterwards that I had emptied all six chambers. I certainly hit a man near me and saw him fall. Then I saw a blinding flash and heard a tremendous roar. The next thing that I remember was regaining consciousness on a stretcher in our front line with a bandage round the bottom of my face and my mouth full of blood, feeling that, perhaps, my lower jaw had been blown off. Later I learnt that after I fired my revolver a German threw one of their stick-bombs, which exploded above my head and knocked me unconscious…

At the dressing station Pinto learns that his jaw is intact, but that “various teeth were knocked out and pieces of bomb were lodged in my tongue and left cheek.” Eating became something of a challenge in the short term, as, even equipped with a rubber tube, “it tended to spout out through the hole in my cheek.”

There followed a very long and uncomfortable journey on a motor ambulance to the railhead, where I was carried on my stretcher to a hospital train by two stretcher-bearers in strange uniforms with broad-brimmed hats like those of boy scouts. ‘Americans!’ I said to myself, and was thrilled by the thought that American units were now in France…[2]

Remarkably, his recovery will be so swift that Pinto will not see Blighty, but instead move directly from the American hospital to a convalescent home near Dieppe…

 

Duff Cooper has not been shot in the face. But he’s still taking his transition into the army rather hard.

July 8, 1917

I arrived in London at about 5 and went to my flat which seemed very desolate with everything put away. It was still raining hard. I telephoned to everyone I knew but not a soul was in London. Then a great cloud of depression came upon me and I felt even more miserable than I had been at Bushey and without hope.

This is a private diary, and surely he showed a stiffer upper lip–not to mention charm and wit–to the outside world. But still… it’s a bit melodramatic! Which befits, I suppose, one of the last of the devoted friends-and-pursuers of Diana Manning. But today, unexpectedly, Cooper turns a corner, emotionally. It must be the radiant love of the divine Diana, right?

Nope–maybe tomorrow. Today, it’s a stiff drink and a dose of Lewis Carroll that does the trick.

I went to the Junior Carlton, drank a pint of champagne and some sherry with a small dinner and read Through the Looking Glass. As if by enchantment my melancholy left me and I knew that I should not be unhappy again. Courage came back to me which I had lost, and I despised myself for having done so. I went back to my flat, changed into my uniform, spoke to the Montagus who had just returned and motored down to Bushey feeling perfectly happy.[3]

 

This sort of mood shift–and its means–might be one of the very few things that Cooper could share with Ivor Gurney. But Gurney’s spirits rise today through the usual pleasures: good food and fond memories of home. And alas that his reading, today, is significantly less fantastic.

8 July 1917

My Dear Friend:

…This village is still delightful, and today the weather is perfect.

Two days ago, I had a dinner of salad and deux pain-beurres. It was perfectly wonderful to have such a dainty meal after aeons of shackles (Englished — skilly: stew.)

Your parcel has arrived, and thank you very much for it. Especially the lemonade powder and the fruit, which are summery things; but do not suppose that the cake, cheese, biscuits and OXO go unappreciated.

Gloster county is packed full of beautiful things, and pink dogroses of the most delicate miraculousness find place therein. Also wild strawberries by the million, and would I were on Coopers Hill looking over to Malvern and Wales while easing my back at times. O God, that goes too deep though!

Then the letter turns on a dime–its import, that is, even though the tone remains light.

We are having really a pretty easy time now, and this means Over the Top, I think. Well, let come what come may, as the Victorians said, I shall have had my day. (And a — poor one at times.)

Alan Seeger’s poems must be interesting. I like “I have a rendezvous with Death” very much…

I have no change now, but next letter shall contain a 5 fr note to be applied to the purchase of Ralph Hodgson’s “Poems”, for you… Or would you prefer the Second Book of Georgian Verse…?

A Frenchwoman told me she never heard French soldiers sing half so much as English. This pleased me, and indeed 7 Platoon has been songful of late…

Your sincere friend,

Ivor Gurney[4]

Singing, then, and thinking of the summer beauties of Gloucestershire… and remembering another soldier’s prophetic/poetic rendezvous…

 

Finally, today, an update of sorts on the Siegfried Sassoon drama. First–and this will prove significant–Robbie Ross is now on the case.

8 July 1917
Hotel Albion, Brighton

Dearest Siegfried, I am quite appalled at what you have done! I can only hope that the C.O. at Litherland will absolutely ignore your letter. I am terrified lest you should be put under arrest.

Let me know at once if anything happens.

Ever your devoted

Robbie[5]

Sassoon has made an interesting choice–out of idleness, he will claim, but perhaps more truly out of a semi-conscious instinct for self-preservation. He informs his influential friends of his dramatic action when it has only half-begun: the letter is sent to Litherland, but the “Statement” is not yet published.

Among the immediate actions Ross will take is to send a letter to Robert Graves, on the Isle of Wight. But today, a century back, Graves is still in ignorance of Sassoon’s action. His letters of today and recent days are all poetry–or, rather, about the placement of poetry. He is drumming up support for his own book and negotiating with Eddie Marsh about the next Georgian Poetry anthology–in which he, Sassoon, and Robert Nichols will be prominent. And in each of these letters to mutual friends he both praises some of Sassoon’s verses and takes behind-the-back potshots at other poems…

Ironically, then, since Graves is about to throw up his poetry-mongering to take up his friend’s dangerous case–Sassoon is risking not only disgrace but imprisonment and, theoretically at least, capital punishment–Sassoon himself has not been as entirely idle as he would have us believe. He has also been tending to his poetic fortunes, and recently wrote to complain about a sharp review–to Charles Scott Moncrieff, as it happens. And today, a century back, Scott Moncrieff replied:

I enjoyed your book much more than I have said, but I do confidently think that you are too ‘good at’ poetry to waste your talents on such London Mail storyette effects as you have secured in ‘The Hero.’ If I had written it I should talk about myself for years after, on the head of cleverness. But that is another matter.[6]

It’s busy times, these days, what with poetry, literary maneuvering, and attempting to provoke a court martial…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Whelpton, Poet, Soldier, and Writer, 152-3.
  2. The City That Shone, 202-3.
  3. Diaries, 56.
  4. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 174.
  5. Diaries, 179.
  6. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 361.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

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.

Wilfred Owen and Charles Scott Moncrieff Return; Lord Dunsany’s “Songs of an Evil Wood,” Siegfried Sassoon Breaks Through, and Finds Something to Live For: “Love and Beauty and Death and Bitterness and Anger.”

Today we have two brief updates, a rant and a poem from our fox hunting man, and then, naturally, a poem from a foremost fantasist set in an all-too-real wood.

 

First, tonight, a century back, the relief arrived, and Wilfred Owen led his platoon–intact except for the blinded sentry–back through the miles of cloying mud toward safety in the reserve line. Tomorrow he will take up his pen in an initial attempt to describe his first days in the line.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, meanwhile, is returning to the front for the first time in many long months. He had expected a training assignment in France, as his health is generally none too good. But he seems pleasantly surprised–or is he just putting a brave face on?–to return to active duty in winter.

15th Jan.

We reached part of the Battalion last night, after a circuitous journey, by various funny trains. We were sent on Saturday to the wrong place, a village which our men had left that morning. It was very sad and sorry and beginning to snow, however we found some hospitable Irishmen who took us in, and next morning we found our way to the 1st Bn. of our own regiment. It is a great triumph being here. My friend Major Campbell Johnson is commanding at present, the Colonel being on a month’s leave and I shall probably be Second in Command till he returns. . . . Do not worry. I am very happy with the Regiment, particularly as I didn’t expect to rejoin it. I am looking forward to occupying a responsible and important position, and the risks are at present negligible.[2]

 

Two days ago, and a century back, Siegfried Sassoon went a-hunting–we may recall the disappointing end of the hunt, with the fox’s unsporting resort to a “wet drain.” Afterwards, Sassoon “stayed the night at Wistason Hall and danced at Alvaston. Came home yesterday afternoon.”

Which all sounds pleasant enough. But apparently that dance wasn’t quite the thing. Today Sassoon caught up with his diary, first recording the events of the hunt in the usual sporting shorthand. But his mood changes rather suddenly as he reflects on the indoor pursuits that followed:

A few hours in the pre-war surroundings… Pleasant enough; but what a decayed society, hanging blindly onto the shreds of its traditions. The wet, watery-green meadows and straggling bare hedges and grey winding lanes; the cry of hounds, and thud of hoofs and people galloping bravely along all around me; and the ride home with hounds in the chilly dusk—those are real things. But comfort and respectable squiredom and the futile chatter of women, and their man-hunting glances, and the pomposity of port-wine-drinking buffers—what’s all that but emptiness? These people don’t reason. They echo one another and their dead relations, and what they read in papers and dull books. And they only see what they want to see—which is very little beyond the tips of their red noses. Debrett is
on every table; and heaven a sexless peerage, with a suitable array of dependents and equipages where God is [page torn out].

Page torn out, eh? Deliberately? Tough to tell. The editor is unwilling to risk an explanation, and no paleographer could do much with the stub and scattered characters that remain.

Sassoon’s rant, however, has not yet run its course. He describes an officer who has been at the depot for eighteen months and takes sick leave because of an “injury caused by riding” which (in a precise foreshadowing of a Seinfeld joke) is actually gonorrhea.

What earthly use are all these people? They don’t instruct anyone; they simply eat and drink. I think nearly half the officers in our Army are conscripted humbugs who are paid to propagate inefficiency. They aren’t even willing to be killed; I can at least say that for myself, for I’ve tried often.

There’s the rub–the gulf that separates one kind of soldier from a very different kind, the absolute difference between the combat tribe and all those who are safe. And Sassoon’s thoughts race from death to fame and poetry, even while staying on the ostensible subject of military efficiency:

Twelve months ago today my poem appeared in The Times. “To Victory”–and it’s not arrived yet–not the sort of Victory I meant. And since then I’ve been lucky. Things might have gone just a little differently, and all those decent poem’s I’ve done since then might never have been written. Now I’ve got my book fixed up, and there’s nothing to do but wait for something else to happen to set my emotions going in a blue-and-crimson flare-up–mostly blue—with a touch of yellow (for liver). Now I’ve really got a grip of the idea of life and describing it, I hope I shan’t get myself killed in 1917. There’s still a lot to say. Love and beauty and death and bitterness and anger.

Now that’s a soldier-poet’s ars poetica. The next page in the journal holds this poem:

England has many heroes; they are known
To all who read of German armies beat.
One chap got drunk and took a trench alone,
And grinned to cheering mobs in every street.
Though England’s proud of him—her stuffed V.C.—
No medal was attached to his D.T.
Think of the D.C.M’s and D.S.O’s
And breasts that swell with Military Crosses;
They are the pomps of War; and no one knows
Nor cares to count the bungling and the losses.
But I would rather shoot one General Dolt
Than fifty harmless Germans; and I’ve seen
Ten thousand soldiers, tabbed with blue and green,
Who, if they heard one shell, would crouch and bolt.
But when the War is done they’ll shout and sing.
And fetch bright medals from their German King.[3]

This is a private journal, of course. But Sassoon is waxing powerful here, and trying out a new power, a new rage, that cannot be unleashed on the world. Yet.

Only one year after “To Victory” and we have suddenly a near-repletion of the tropes of disillusionment, rage, and protest: the cost of war, the hypocrisy of rewarding valor without reckoning those costs, the bungling of generals, the emptiness of military pomp (but also the cynical injustice of its distribution), the fantasy violence against his own superiors, the preference for hating the Englishmen-of-the-rear who get killed without risking themselves rather than hating the “harmless” Germans, his fellow front-fighters; and, last, the sharp-elbowed play with the military acronyms and the nasty last couplet which, if not exactly coherent in its critiques, shows how well verse can serve these sorts of emotions…

To become a great war poet one needs, at a minimum, intense combat experiences and a fallow period that focuses emotional turbulence into some sort of breakthrough in the craft. Owen has just had the first and now Sassoon has moved on to the second.

 

According to a dated letter of his wife’s, Lord Dunsany left England today, a century back, for France. Due to some combination of age (though he is only thirty-eight), infirmity (he has been wounded and ill), possible unreliability (although there is no evidence of this) or general unpopularity (being an Anglo-Irish lord, a litterateur, and a former-ex-officer all may have made life in the mess difficult), Dunsany has been kept at home for rather a long time. His movements over the next months are difficult to trace, but it may be that he is intended now for a depot/training officer and is merely being sent out for a bit of first-hand trench experience. He will not be out long (and if there is an explanation for his recall other than his next bout of illness–tonsilitis–I don’t know it) and I have no dates for quite some time, yet in the next week or two he wrote his most significant real “war poem.” So I’ll give it here–it’s usually entitled either “Songs of an Evil Wood” or “Plug Street [i.e. Ploegsteert] Wood.”

.
There is no wrath in the stars,
They do not rage in the sky;
I look from the evil wood
And find myself wondering why.

Why do they not scream out
And grapple star against star,
Seeking for blood in the wood,
As all things round me are?

They do not glare like the sky
Or flash like the deeps of the wood;
But they shine softly on
In their sacred solitude.

To their happy haunts
Silence from us has flown,
She whom we loved of old
And know it now she is gone.

When will she come again
Though for one second only?
She whom we loved is gone
And the whole world is lonely.

And the elder giants come
Sometimes, tramping from far,
Through the weird and flickering light
Made by an earthly star.

And the giant with his club,
And the dwarf with rage in his breath,
And the elder giants from far,
They are the children of Death.

They are all abroad to-night
And are breaking the hills with their brood,
And the birds are all asleep,
Even in Plugstreet Wood.

II.

Somewhere lost in the haze
The sun goes down in the cold,
And birds in this evil wood
Chirrup home as of old;

Chirrup, stir and are still,
On the high twigs frozen and thin.
There is no more noise of them now,
And the long night sets in.

Of all the wonderful things
That I have seen in the wood,
I marvel most at the birds,
At their chirp and their quietude.

For a giant smites with his club
All day the tops of the hill,
Sometimes he rests at night,
Oftener he beats them still.

And a dwarf with a grim black mane
Raps with repeated rage
All night in the valley below
On the wooden walls of his cage.

III.

I met with Death in his country,
With his scythe and his hollow eye
Walking the roads of Belgium.
I looked and he passed me by.

Since he passed me by in Plug Street,
In the wood of the evil name,
I shall not now lie with the heroes,
I shall not share their fame;

I shall never be as they are,
A name in the land of the Free,
Since I looked on Death in Flanders
And he did not look at me.[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209-215.
  2. Diaries, 121-2.
  3. Diaries, 118-20.
  4. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 133. Patches of Sunlight, 293-5.

Robert Graves, Meet Robert Nichols; Francis Ledwidge’s Rude Awakening; Wilfred Owen Within Sound of the Guns; Ford Madox Hueffer’s “One Day’s List”

The strange/glorious/dismal January efflorescence of war poetry continues, today, a century back: we have a long and soon-to-be-much-quoted war poem from Ford Madox Hueffer, another poem from Francis Ledwidge, and a letter recording Wilfred Owen‘s next step toward the line.

Today is also the day that two other war poets, having independently discovered each other, made contact. So I will put my faith in your patience (and your hunger for poetry) and first discuss the odd, chatty, many-connection-making letter in which Robert Graves replies to a letter of introduction from Robert Nichols.

Nichols, an early volunteer officer who was shell-shocked at Loos (also Graves’s first battle) has long been at home, and now discharged from the army–and he has attained a notable level of poetic success. His Invocation is, although both too early and too hopeful to fit with the verse now being written under the influence of Charles Sorley, far more widely read than the initial efforts of Sassoon or Graves. In fact, with Grenfell and Brooke dead, Nichols is, a century back, perhaps the most celebrated of the “soldier poets.” Yet Nichols has evidently read Graves’s Over the Brazier and found much there that is worthwhile: he wrote to Graves asking for permission to dedicate his next book of poems, in part, to him. Graves greets this rather grand gesture with both genuine enthusiasm and awkwardly emphatic reciprocal fealty.

S’addresser à
Captain Robert Graves
3rd R W Fus.
The Huts
Litherland
Liverpool

7 January 1917

Dear Robert Nichols,

…Of course you may: I’d simply love it. It’s hard to say how cheered I am: Orderly Room and battalion drill and company ledgers and the town of Liverpool and the enforced society of young gentlemen whose sole amusements are liqueur shifting and promiscuous fornication, had almost convinced me that there was no God in Heaven nor any bay trees on Parnassus. I feel tremendously honored.

Funny how things happen. As you may suspect, I’m a very very ardent Sorleian and when I saw your letter in the Westminster Gazette about him… I asked S. Sassoon (a poet of some note who funnily enough has strayed into this battalion and shares a hut with me) who you were because I felt sure you were a fellow of the right stuff. He reminded me of that Oxford Poetry book and I remembered that your things were far and away the best in the collection and that Eddie Marsh was very keen on them.

Eddie Marsh–of course. Despite his desirable status as a poet with a growing public (not to mention as a soldier whose “neurasthenia” has resulted in a not-dishonourable discharge from the army) Nichols has happened upon the Marsh zone rather late, but most profitably. After sending Invocation to Marsh, “almost instantly he had entered the small circle of Marsh’s closest friends.” With Brooke dead and Churchill out of power, this is not what it once was, perhaps–but Marsh is still very much the central node of the network of Georgian poets and their nascent band of assertive little brothers, the War Poets.

Somewhat awkwardly, of course, this younger generation is not looking up to Rupert Brooke at all–they have found another idol, the dead poet of 1915 whose legacy will be the poetry of 1917 and 1918, while 1914 (“and other poems”), while remaining broadly popular, will fall from poetic regard.

I’ve got a very bad memory, worse since I met an old shell last July, and I somehow didn’t connect the two. Did you know Sorley before his death? I met him at Oxford in 1913 when we were both up there for scholarships, but didn’t realize who he was–wasted opportunities, horrid to lack back on…

Graves has invented this memory of meeting Sorley–honestly, wishfully, invented, I believe, rather than duplicitously–and of course he forgets that “who he was” would have been a very clever, unusually mature and reserved potential scholar, not yet the author of Marlborough and Other Poems nor noticeably set in that direction. And now, with Sorley in mind, Graves presumes–these fits of grandiosity do not serve him well–to critique his older friend to his new one.

This fellow Sassoon, not exactly a prepossessing name for a poet, perhaps, was out in France with me in 1915 and is a most extraordinary good man… and says what he means very courageously. No Union Jack flapping or sword waving, but just a picture of France from the front trench, and our ‘brutal and licentious soldiery’. He’s not musical, always, but it’s good stuff; original too and not redolent of Masefield as is so common these days and contains no ode either to Kitchener or Rupert Brooke. Look out for his The Old Foxhunter and Other Poems[1] about February or March, with William Heinemann. I was to have brought out a second volume at the same time, but hitches occurred…

A bit of hemming and hawing follows, and then some preemptive self-criticism about his own published work–Graves evidently wants Nichols to approve of him as a fellow war poet.

Well, cheeroh, and best of luck and don’t recover from your shell-shock too soon. I’m rather stupidly going back to France this week with only one lung–having deceived the medical board. Chiefly because I want to hurry into hospital again and do a bit of writing for which soldiering provides no leisure.

Yours

Robert Graves

I hope to see you sometime when I come on leave, in London, say, or aprés-la-guerre[2] at any rate…[3]

Francis Ledwidge, is fired up, these days–and homesick and fairy-struck. He goes back to yesterday‘s theme–those fairies who lurk just at the edge of the fields we know, just at the edge of our dreams. But there is something of a shock at the end of this one.

 

The Dead Kings

All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming.
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming.

And every dead king had a story
Of ancient glory, sweetly told.
It was too early for the lark,
But the starry dark had tints of gold.

I listened to the sorrows three
Of that Eire passed into song.
A cock crowed near a hazel croft,
And up aloft dim larks winged strong.

And I, too, told the kings a story
Of later glory, her fourth sorrow:
There was a sound like moving shields
In high green fields and the lowland furrow.

And one said: “We who yet are kings
Have heard these things lamenting inly.”
Sweet music flowed from many a bill
And on the hill the morn stood queenly.

And one said: “Over is the singing,
And bell bough ringing, whence we come;
With heavy hearts we’ll tread the shadows,
In honey meadows birds are dumb.”

And one said: “Since the poets perished
And all they cherished in the way.
Their thoughts unsung, like petal showers
Inflame the hours of blue and gray.”

And one said: “A loud tramp of men
We’ll hear again at Rosnaree.”
A bomb burst near me where I lay.
I woke, ’twas day in Picardy.

France,
January 7th, 1917

A deft reawakening to the reality of war.

 

Wilfred Owen, too will find his reality defined by the sound of explosions today, a century back. I promise to find time in the next few days to really dig into what Owen is experiencing, but suffice it to say that if his letters have suddenly sobered up, it’s because his initiation into combat has not been easy. The weather is terrible, and they are headed for a nasty section of the front.

Sunday, 7 January 1917

My dear dear Mother,

It is afternoon. We had an Inspection to make from 9 to 12 this morning. I have wandered into a village cafe where they gave me writing paper. We made a redoubtable March yesterday from the last Camp to this. The awful state of the roads and the enormous weight carried, was top much for scores of men. Officers also carried full packs, but I
had a horse part of the way.

It was beginning to freeze through the rain when we arrived at our tents. We were at the mercy of the cold, and, being in health, I never suffered so terribly as yesterday afternoon. I am really quite well, but have sensations kindred to being seriously ill.

As I was making my damp bed, I heard the Guns for the first time. It was a sound not without a certain sublimity. They woke me again at 4 o’clock…

But Owen withholds further comment there, which I am once again tempted to interpret as wisdom: there will be more of this, so let us wait until our experience is deeper…

The letter goes on in Owen’s new manner–one sentence paragraphs likes faits divers, which veer from matter-of-fact to comic to foreboding. He still wants to be deep, to write heavily… but now, at least, he doesn’t trust himself to. Owen is treading lightly into this new unknown, feinting toward serious statements and then pulling back…

I have had to censor letters by the hundred lately. They don’t make inspiring reading.

This morning I have been reading Trench Standing Orders to my Platoon. (Verb. Sap.)

Needless to say I show a cheerier face to them than I wear in writing this letter; but I must not disguise from you the fact that we are at one of the worst parts of the Line.

I have lost no possessions so far; but have acquired a pair of boots and a map case (presents). And of course my valise is heavier by much dirt…

I can’t tell you any more Facts. I have no Fancies and no Feelings.

Positively they went numb with my feet.

Love is not quenched, except the unenduring flickerings thereof. By your love, O Mother, O Home, I am protected from Fatigue of life and the keen spiritual Cold.

Your own W.E.O.[4]

 

And our last poem today is quite amazing. Just yesterday Ford Madox Hueffer, was writing a letter that was at once self-serving (the subtext being “I am a good writer, and would like a cushy job from you) and feeling towards both an honest appraisal of shell shock and a literary approach to writing seriously about fragmented experience. And he was complaining of his own stupidity, poor memory, and shaky sanity. Yet today he wrote a poem, fluidly an quickly, in a very different vein, which will not only turn up in many anthologies–which is to say that it is neither difficult nor offensive nor heavily “disillusioned” nor, as so many of Ford’s writings, unnecessarily provocative–but is also quite good. He has not made close friends in the 8th Welch, but he has made friends, and lost them.

I think it’s fair to say that “One Day’s List” is unique in his oeuvre; I’m certainly not sure how to comment on it. Modern? Yes. Traditional? In a way. A lament, a threnody, a war poem? Sure. Honest, true, and a new take on the ever-growing subject of loss, and coping with loss? I think so. Yesterday Sassoon imagined the German dead and the English dead in some underworld; today it’s the Germans and the Welsh in heaven…

 

One Day’s List

(Killed. — Second Lieutenants unless otherwise stated.
Arnott, E. E. — Welch Regt.
Jones, E. B. D. — Welch Regt.
Morris, J. H. — Welch Regt.[5]
And 270 other ranks, Welch Regt.

Died of Wounds.
Knapp, 0. R. — 2nd Lieut. Welch Regt.)

My dears . . .
The rain drips down on Rouen Town
The leaves drip down
And so the mud
Turns orange brown. . . .
A Zeppelin, we read, has been brought down.
And the obscure brown
Populace of London town
Make a shout of it,
Clamouring for blood
And reductions in the price of food . . .
But you — at least — are out of it. . . .

Poor little Arnott — poor little lad . . .
And poor old Knapp,
Of whom once I borrowed a map — and never returned it.
And Morris and Jones . . . and all the rest of  the Welch,
So many gone in the twenty-four hours of a day . . .
One wonders how one can stay . . .
One wonders. . . .
For the papers are full of Kelch,
Finding rubbishy news to make a shout of it,
But you at least are out of it.

One wonders how you died . . .
The mine thunders
Still where you stuck by Welch Alley and turned it. . . .
The mine thunders
Upwards — and branches of trees, mud, and stone,
Skulls, limbs, rats, thistles, the clips
Of cartridges, beef tins and wire
Belch
To the heavens in fire
From the lips
Of the craters where doubtless you died,
With the Cheshires and Wiltshires and Welch
Side by side.
One wonders why you died,
Why were we in it ? . . .
At home we were late on parades.
Seldom there to the minute,
When “B.” were out on Cathays
We didn’t get much of the lectures into the brain. . . .
We talked a good deal about girls.
We could all tell a story
At something past something, Ack Emma !

But why? why? Why were we there from the Aisne to Mametz,
Well — there’s a dilemma. . . .
For we never talked of glory,
We each thought a lot of one girl,
And waited most days for hours in the rain
Till she came:
But we never talked of Fame. . . .

It is very difficult to believe
You need never again
Put in for week-end leave,
Or get vouchers for the 1.10 train
From Cardiff to London. . . .
But so much has the Hun done
In the way of achievements.

And when I think of all the bereavements
Of your mothers and fathers and sweethearts and wives and homes in the West,
And the paths between the willows waiting for your tread,
And the white pillows
Waiting each for a head,
Well …. they may go to rest!

And, God help me, if you meet a Hun
In Heaven, I bet you will say, “Well done,
You fought like mad lions in nets
Down by Mametz.”

But we who remain shall grow old,
We shall know the cold
Of cheerless
Winter and the rain of Autumn and the sting
Of poverty, of love despised and of disgraces,
And mirrors showing stained and ageing faces,
And the long ranges of comfortless years
And the long gamut of human fears. . . .
But, for you, it shall be forever spring,
And only you shall be forever fearless,
And only you have white, straight, tireless limbs,
And only you, where the water-lily swims
Shall walk along the pathways, thro’ the willows
Of your west.
You who went West,
And only you on silvery twilight pillows
Shall take your rest
In the soft sweet glooms
Of twilight rooms. . . .

No. 2 Red Cross Hospital,
Rouen, 7/1/17

References and Footnotes

  1. Graves has got the title of the forthcoming The Old Huntsman wrong; the sort of hunting solecism which would drive Sassoon to distraction.
  2. Sic! There, I said it! Wrong accent...
  3. In Broken Images, 61-3. The end of the post-script mentions--disapprovingly, of course--Wheels, the modernist journal/anthology edited by Edith Sitwell. Its first issue, published in 1916 (and regrettably left all but unmentioned here) positioned it as an alternative to Marsh's anthologies and featured work by Edith's brother Osbert (and their younger brother Sacheverell) and his friend Bimbo Tennant. These, for now, are the rival cliques of poets...
  4. Collected Letters, 423-4.
  5. Morris and Arnott are listed in the C.W.G.C. records as being killed two days apart, on the 21st and 23rd September, 1916. Jones I have not found. Nevertheless, they may all well have appeared in the same newspaper casualty list.

Bim Tennant’s Perpetual Smile Falters; Kate Luard Among the Mad and the Mangled; Rudyard Kipling Will not Yield; Francis Ledwidge Hymns a Patron’s Pen

Today, a century back, we have a strange and terrible quartet. We will end with the gentlest sort of prospective-farewell poem, and preface that with a survivor’s half-suppressed outburst of grief and relief. But first, the obscenity of war’s damage to young bodies, and then a clenched, wretched testament to the ongoing agonies of a bereaved parent.

Kate Luard‘s hospital was, once, a fairly orderly place where minor wounds were dealt with quickly so the staff could focus on abdominal wounds. It is now, like any medical facility on the Somme, a shambles and a madhouse. (And I’m letting loose with the rhetoric only as suppressing fire, really: because today’s second entry is, in its quiet, specific way, worse.)

Monday, September 18th. We are all grappling with work all day now, some of it is wonderful, but much of it is nothing but black. There is a boy dying who has his Will in his Pay-book made out ‘to my beloved mother.’ He looks about 17…There is a mad boy who is very funny: when you feed him he says, ‘1,2,3 a cup of tea, bread and butter 4,5,6, it’s 238 now…’ All his thoughts are in numbers… The blind boy with both legs off is dying; he doesn’t know his legs are off, and is cheerfully delirious most of the time. He calls us ‘Teacher…’ He was murmuring ‘Such is life’ just now.[1]

 

Even the greatest writer with swiftest, strongest imagination can be brought to his knees by a form letter. Rudyard Kipling has carried on; it’s been nearly a year since his son John’s death, and he has continued to live, and to write. And he spared no effort in finding those of his son’s men and comrades who might shed light on his disappearance on the battlefield of Loos. And they, trying to be kind, may have been cruel–Kipling came away with hope, despite the fact that these witnesses saw his son shot down, fatally, in a failed attack. But maybe there was nothing else they could say.

Four days ago, a century back, the War Office generated a form letter stating that the younger Kipling must be officially considered dead “unless further information about his fate has been received.”

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex
18th September 1916.

The Secretary
War Office, Alexandra House

Sir,

In reply to your letter. No. 125146 /1 (C. 2 Casualties) of the 14th September, I should be glad if you would postpone taking the course you suggest in regard to my son Lieutenant John Kipling. All the information I have gathered is to the effect that he was wounded and left behind near Puits 14 at the Battle of Loos on September 27th 1915. I have interviewed a great many people and heard from many others, and can find no one who saw him killed, and his wound being a leg wound would be more disabling than fatal.

May I draw your attention to the fact that in your letter you state my son’s rank as 2nd Lieutenant, whereas he was Lieutenant. Also in the published casualty list, he was incorrectly report as “Missing” instead of “Wounded and
missing.”

Yours truly,
Rudyard Kipling.

But there isn’t any hope–his comrades know he was fatally shot, and other than desperate and melodramatic hopes about amnesiac survivals, there is no chance that a captured officer would not have been identified through neutral parties many months before. Even that second paragraph is desperately sad, a proud man cloaking desperation in simple fussy umbrage: John Kipling’s promotion was not formalized until after his death, so, in the present view of the bureaucracy, it cannot have taken place. He is missing, and he is dead, and forever a 2nd Lieutenant.[2]

 

The advance at Loos that killed Kipling was the last great action by the Guards in 1915. Three days ago, they suffered through their worst disaster of 1916. And Bimbo Tennant survived.

18th September

. . . Thank Heaven I have come safely out of this battle after two days and two nights of it. It started properly at 5 a.m. 15th, and the artillery fire was terrific. We were in support and went up about 7.45 and sat down again further up just the right side of the German barrage. Then I was sent across to the ——– Guards to go with them, find out where they proposed going, and lead the Battalion up beside it. Off I went, and joined the ——— Guards, and went forward with them. When we had skirted G, the further of the two G’s [Ginchy, not Guillemont?] and were going through a little dip in the ground, we were shot at by Boches on the high ground with rifles, there must have been about twenty shooting at us. I was walking in front with their C.O. and Adjutant, and felt sufficiently uncomfortable, but didn’t show it. Bullets scuffed up dust all around with a wicked little ‘zump,’ but they were nearly all short and none of us, at least who were in front, were hit. Thus we went on, and they took up their position between two of these huge steel tanks on the near side of the ridge. Then they lent me an orderly, and I started back to bring the Battalion along; it was an unpleasant journey of about half a mile over nothing but shell-holes full of dead and dying, with any amount of shells flying about: Several whizz-bangs landed very close to me, but I got back to the Battalion and explained the position to them and then we all went down there…

The C.O., the Adjutant, the Doctor, and I spent that afternoon, evening, and night in a large rocky shell-hole. We were severely shelled on and off the whole time, and about four men were done in in the very next shell-hole a couple of yards away. That night was one of the coldest and most uncomfortable it has ever been my fortune to spend–‘with the stars to see.’ Meanwhile most of the Battalion had gone up to support the ——– and ——– Brigade, who had done the attack at five that morning, and had lost heavily. At seven or eight next morning we moved our Batt. head-quarters to the line of trenches in front which had been dug the night before. This was safer than our shell-hole, and as we had the worst shelling I have ever experienced during that afternoon and evening, it was probably a very wise move.

An attack took place at 1.15 p.m. that day, and I will tell you more about it when I see you, D.V. My worst job was that of taking messages down the line of trenches to different captains. The trenches were full of men, so I had to go over the open. Several people who were in the trench say they expected every shell to blow me to bits. That night we were again shelled till about 8 p.m. and were relieved about midnight. We got in about 2.30. I was dog-tired, and Churchill,[3] who now commands No. 4 Company, was even more tired. Soup, meat, champagne, and cake, and I went to bed till about 2 p.m. That is the time one really does want champagne, when one comes in at 3 a.m. after no sleep for fifty hours. It gives one the strength to undress.

So far, so good–in the effort to write, as well as in the effort to survive the 15th. But young Bim makes an error here–he opens himself out to a somewhat irrational (if modest enough) hope, and this quickly brings down his facade of stoic endurance.

Now the great question is will leave start soon? They say it will. I wish my poems could come out soon. The lighter blue cover is sure to be charming. If there is any question of a photy in the papers please try and get my Sargent drawing in and not my other photographs, as most of them are bad…

Darling Moth’, I am so thankful to be alive; I suppose you have heard who are dead? Guy Baring, Raymond Asquith, Sloper Mackenzie, and many others. It is a terrible list. . . Poor Olive will be heart-broken–and so will Katherine. Death and decomposition strew the ground. . . . [4] I must tell you of other things.

I made a very pleasant discovery the other day. I had occasion to walk a few hundred yards with Corporal Jukes, one day, and he told me that his father was keeper at Clouds, and he remembers your wedding, and has a photy of it at home. He knows Willson as ‘Ernie,’ and remembers when Icke was footman! He is such a charming man. What is more, he has a sister, Polly Jukes (such a nice name), who was housemaid to Glen–Grandpapa at Glen, so he is altogether a great family friend. I was so glad he introduced himself. We had a very good talk about people like Mr. Mallet, Mrs. Vine, and suchlike hench-folk. Do write and tell me if you remember him? He was butler to some general in Cairo before the War, and is forty-one years old, very young-looking, and a perfect man. . . .[5]

I wouldn’t trade those last two paragraphs for a fat volume of careful trench-life description. Why does Bimbo write to his mother? Or rather, why–for his part–does he write to her? (Of course he writes to her to comfort her, to allay her worry for him, to interrupt the misery of a mother’s fear with his high-spirited hijinks… but this is, so far, selfless.) He writes, of course, to build the bridge from his end.

If goofy endearments wear on the reader, a century on, their purpose is revealed when he breaks here, and writes himself turning squarely from grief and loss and fear toward the sunlit uplands of the past. Was the past great and glorious because we have drunk deeply of the Soul-powdered kool-aid of aristocratic Panglossian self-celebration? Yes. Is this a voice of enormous privilege? Yes. But like many young men, he had a happy past, and now is heading into battle and sees… unhappy things ahead…

 

Finally–disparately, incongruously–today, Francis Ledwidge has written a poem, and dedicated it to his fellow-Irish-writer-and-Royal Inniskilling and patron Lord Dunsany. Or, rather, to one of his instruments. Ledwidge has been home from Gallipoli for months, but he will be going out again… eventually. There is some drama (and winking self-dramatizing) in this very poetic pose. The poet is not exactly on the brink of going forward with a forlorn hope, contemplating an object of significance before setting out for peril. But he has cause more than good enough to brood upon an awaiting Rubicon…

You have to like old-fashioned poetry to feel this sort of thing, I think. But if you do, then, crack a smile, please. Let the last of the singers lift your spirits.

 

To an Old Quill of Lord Dunsany’s

Before you leave my hands’ abuses
To lie where many odd things meet you,
Neglected darkling of the Muses,
I, the last of singers, greet you.

Snug in some white wing they found you,
On the Common bleak and muddy,
Noisy goslings gobbling round you
In the pools of sunset, ruddy.

Have you sighed in wings untravelled
For the heights where others view the
Bluer widths of heaven, and marvelled
At the utmost top of Beauty?

No! it cannot be; the soul you
Sigh with craves nor begs of us.
From such heights a poet stole you
From a wing of Pegasus.

You have been where gods were sleeping
In the dawn of new creations,
Ere they woke to woman’s weeping
At the broken thrones of nations.

You have seen this old world shattered
By old gods it disappointed,
Lying up in darkness, battered
By wild comets, unanointed.

But for Beauty unmolested
Have you still the sighing olden?
I know mountains healther-crested,
Waters white, and waters golden.

There I’d keep you, in the lowly
Beauty-haunts of bird and poet,
Sailing in a wing, the holy
Silences of lakes below it.

But I leave you by where no man
Finds you, when I too be gone
From the puddles on this common
Over the dark Rubicon.

Londonderry, September 18th, 1916.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 88-9.
  2. Collected Letters, IV, 402-3.
  3. No, not he--this is a Captain Spencer-Churchill.
  4. I'm not certain, but I do think this is Bim's ellipsis, a dip of his own mask at the thought of Asquith...
  5. Memoir, 231-4.
  6. Complete Poems, 231-3.

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.

A Cockney Farewell for Lord Kitchener; John Bernard Adams on a Bow at a Venture; Will Streets, An English Soldier; Rowland Feilding, Foolhardy No More; Tolkien Leaves the Lonely Isle for the Eastern Shore

The pace of the war, at least as we read it, begins to quicken, now, toward summer. There is much to get to today, a century back, and once again I beg forbearance: at the end of today’s post is a very long quotation from Adams’ Nothing of Importance–an incident of the greatest importance for his advancing understanding of the real nature of war.

 

On the 5th, Will Streets‘s battalion, the 12th Yorks and Lanks, were withdrawn from the line to the upspoiled country around Doullens. But they were still overshadowed by the Somme: their new home has been chosen for its physical resemblance to Serre, on the Somme. Tapes set out on the rolling ground represented the location of the German trenches they would now “practice” assaulting.

Nevertheless, it was a reprieve. It’s hard to keep dates on Will Streets, but today, a century back, he wrote a letter home to his mother:

For the first time since we have been at the front we are away from the sound of guns. It is certainly a blessed relief. The papers say there is a war–but who in these shining hours desires to read the papers! They disturb one’s ideas, for which of them tells you that it is Spring? It is only the kisses and faces of those ‘over there’ that we miss. But Spring is in the air and leads us to hope that soon we shall gaze upon those faces and accept those kisses, and the mother, let me tell you, that for us soldiers Spring will never end.

This is a high-spirited letter home, nothing more. But, of course, there are many ways that last line could be read. A poem written very close to this date does not avoid the issue.

An English Soldier

He died for love of race: because the blood
Of Northern freeman swell’d his veins: arose
True to tradition that like mountain stood
Impregnable, crown’d with its pathless snows.

When broke the call, from the sepulchred years
Strong voices urged and stirr’d his soul to life;
The call of English freeman fled his fears
And led him (their true son) into the strife.

There in the van he fought thro’ many a dawn,
Stood by the forlorn hope, knew victory;
Proud, scorning Death, fought with a purpose drawn,
Sword-edged, defiant, grand, for Liberty.
He fell: but yielded not his English soul:
That lives out there beneath the battle’s roll.

There is no disenchantment here, no unwillingness, in Streets’ writing persona, to be a sacrifice for his country; no bitterness from a young Derbyshire miner given so little by that country until he was asked to serve and sent out to prepare a daunting attack… And although he had to use his scant hours of leisure to scratch together something of the education that so many of our writers had handed to them–because, surely, of that conscious, aspirational investment–Streets has no interest at all in spurning traditional diction.

Streets’ letter to his mother reinforces his commitment to the undimmed ethos of Kitchener’s Army:

The English Tommy… needs not any praise, for what he does is natural and free, and wherever there is freedom of action there is freedom of spirit.[1]

It’s odd, to our ears, to hear a soldier claim “freedom of action.” But it shouldn’t be. Perhaps class–and Streets’ long-deferred dream of bettering himself through education–enters into it rather heavily here: the privileged officers who could find their way to safe billets if they were willing to risk a little social opprobrium may begin to doubt the whole enterprise, while the man who sees military service as an elevation to a larger sense of belonging is still carried forward by his initial motivations. And these are very fine, but generalized, impersonal.

Or then again perhaps not: perhaps Streets writes poetry when he writes poetry and reassures his mother when he writes to her, and perhaps he, like everyone else, is closely bound to the men of his platoon, and will fight for fear of letting them down… Even after all this reading, all we have are glimpses and guesses: do the men of Kitchener’s army really yearn to fight and win the big battle, or are they beginning to see that this war’s battles–even the hoped-for successes–are consumers of infantry more terrible than any hundred-handed monster of antiquity.

 

And speaking of Kitchener’s army, today, a century back, brought the shocking news of the sinking of the HMS Hampshire, victim of a German mine. 650 men drowned, including Field Marshal Lord Kitchener and his staff, en route to a strategic conference in Russia. The sudden demise of the Secretary of State for War–Britain’s greatest living soldier and already quite literally both the face and the namesake of its first mass army–was everywhere felt as a major loss. Or, almost everywhere.

30a_Sammlung_Eybl_Großbritannien._Alfred_Leete_(1882–1933)_Britons_(Kitchener)_wants_you_(Briten_Kitchener_braucht_Euch)._1914_(Nachdruck),_74_x_50_cm._(Slg.Nr._552)

Lord Kitchener as he appeared in one of the seminal 10th century posters

It’s not that Kitchener was such an effective administrator–famous old soldiers rarely are, and Kitchener was widely disliked by other cabinet ministers, an opinion he reciprocated. But in a constitutional monarchy whose monarchs were careful to tread quietly, Kitchener’s symbolic volume was very great.

A man–many men–died in a few terrible minutes, and then, as it happens in history, events began to be emplotted, interpreted. Kitchener died, some will say, just ahead of “his” army, like some sort of appropriately bitter and ironic twist on the Moses and Joshua story.

Or, from a victorious general, he became a sort of cabinet-level Rupert Brooke, an image of strength (or beauty) suddenly refigured as a sacrifice–but a “sacrifice” that doesn’t quite work. Is this death glorious? Nothing was accomplished by it, nothing furthered–Brooke died before he landed, and Kitchener’s mission ended in horrific mischance when it had hardly begun. Neither poetry nor strategy were furthered by these “sacrificial” deaths. But perhaps the paradigm lists away from the Christian story of redemptive sacrifice toward the old pagan practices: you can burn all you want on the altars of the pagan gods, and they may or may not accept your sacrifice… Try as they might to make this a sort of devotio (the ritual in which a Roman general charges the enemy alone, trading his life for the divine favor of victory), contemporary realists must try to understand that this was a military bureaucrat done in by a mine… nothing more.

So what did our writers make of it? We’ll hear a few, today and in coming days.

Vera Brittain remembers how her own happiness–her brother Edward is home on leave–was knocked awry by the loss of Lord Kitchener:

The afternoon of his return to London stands out very clearly in my recollection, for on that day the news came through of Kitchener’s death in the Hampshire. The words “KITCHENER DROWNED” seemed more startling, more dreadful, than the tidings of Jutland…

For a few moments during that day, almost everyone in England must have dropped his occupation to stare, blank and incredulous, into the shocked eyes of his neighbour. In the evening, Edward and our mother and I walked up and down, almost without a word beside the river at Westminster… So great had been the authority over our imagination of that half-legendary figure, that we felt as dismayed as though the ship of state itself had foundered in the raging North Sea.[2]

A pall cast over his short leave, brother and sister say goodbye in Piccadilly Service as she goes to work. The ship of state may have swamped there, for a moment, but Vera Brittain’s war–like everyone’s, really–is more about her people, her young men. And whatever Kitchener wrought, he is out of it now–and Edward is headed for the heart of it.

I climbed the steps of the ‘bus with a sinking heart, for I knew very well how many were the chances against our meeting again.[2]

 

Back to Kitchener, here, for some good soldierly black humor. Did all of Britain’s subjects meet the passing of the great warlord with such gravity? Not according to David Jones:

On 2 June the battalion returned to the familiar Richebourg sector, and made for the front-line trench near Moated Grange. While they moved along a communication trench towards the line, someone coming from the rear announced that Kitchener had been drowned at sea. Jones was passing a wet and weary Cockney who paused in his work to say, ‘Oh, ’e ’as, ’as ’e. Well roll on fuckin Duration.’’

To these men, no man’s death was important news.[4]

Rowland Feilding writes to his wife today, a century back, to continue their conversation (one sided, alas) on duty, honor, and pushing to put one’s self back in harm’s way. Two days ago he wrote to say that “it looks as if I shall have some difficulty in getting back to my battalion.” So that’s that–he will stay with the entrenching battalion rather than the a front line battalion, for the time being. Any regrets? Well, yes:

June 6, 1916, Bois des Tailles

I have been thinking things over to-day, and I feel I should not have worried you by telling you I was bored here, and wanted to get back to my battalion. I ought to have thought more of you and been contented to stay here. Anyhow, my efforts to get away have failed so far, and I shall not renew them. I shall wait until they send for me, though, if I see a chance of getting some more interesting job, I shall still take that.

This is interesting: most officers struggle continually with the balance between obedience and showing eagerness and aggression (or between safety and honor), so why a swift and complete reversal?

But my anxiety to get a more dangerous job is over. I had a walk with my C.O. yesterday, and he told me—more or less plainly—that he had heard I was too chancy. Anyhow, that is over for good and all. I can say, before God, that I have never risked a man’s life unless I was ordered, or thought it necessary: and I have never asked an officer or man to do a thing which I was not prepared to do myself.

He was good enough to say that I was too brave (meaning, I suppose, foolhardy); but, never mind, I won’t be brave in future. I shall hate it, but I will take any safe billet they may offer me.

When they say these things it makes me feel I have been unfair to you. But I have tried to act as I have thought you would like me to act. Besides, my inclinations are to be in the swim.

You must be most careful about yourself. Don’t tire yourself, and you need not worry about me, because I am absolutely safe here.[5]

I wish we knew more about Mrs. Feilding. But here at least is a combination of a regimental realization, as it were–there’s a fine line between brave and foolhardy, and he has been overstepping it–with a soldier’s acknowledgment of the constant buzzing fear that never leaves a wife on the other side of that yawning gulf. These men came out like young warriors, with that schoolboy (or, if we want to do the anthropological deep-dive, that tribal war-band) motivation to excel, to match and exceed their striving peers…

But now they have realized two things. First, that they fight not for a war band but as part of a ponderous bureaucracy that can be trusted neither to give the best the best opportunities nor to ask too much of some while rewarding others for giving less. Second, that they are neither schoolboys nor young unmade men, out to make their names–they have wives, already, and children. Even the Romans of the middle Republic–those paragons of virtuous Victorian aspiration–but the old experienced warriors in the third line.

So Rowland Feilding, like Edward (“Robert”) Hermon, now says, essentially, “I have risked myself, and proven to myself and others that I am willing. But now I won’t seek danger, and as long as I am here in this safe job, rest assured that no deadly telegram will reach you…”

 

Before we get to the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers, a brief update on one John Ronald Tolkien. Today, a century back, he crossed the channel and made his way to Étaples. I’ll let the authors of the authorized authorial chronology takes us from certainty to speculation:

Equipment he had bought–including a camp bed, sleeping bag, mattress, and spare boots–having failed to arrive, he begs, borrows, or buys replacements. Possibly on this date he writes or begins to write a poem expressing his feelings for the land he has left, ending with ‘O lonely sparkling isle, farewell.’ The earliest, undated version has the Qenya title Tol Eressëa, but later the poem will be called The Lonely Isle (a literal translation from the Qenya) and will bear the dedication ‘For England’.

A weak mandate! Possibly, he began a poem. Ah, well, but here it is:

The Lonely Isle

O glimmering island set sea-girdled and alone –
A gleam of white rock through a sunny haze ;
O all ye hoary caverns ringing with the moan
Of long green waters in the southern bays ;
Ye murmurous never-ceasing voices of the tide ;
Ye plumèd foams wherein the shore and spirits ride ;
Ye white birds flying from the whispering coast
And wailing conclaves of the silver shore,
Sea-voiced, sea-wingèd, lamentable host
Who cry about unharboured beaches evermore,
Who sadly whistling skim these waters grey
And wheel about my lonely outward way –

For me for ever they forbidden marge appears
A gleam of white rock over sundering seas,
And thou art crowned in glory through a mist of tears,
Thy shores all full of music, and thy lands of ease –
Old haunts of many children robed in flowers,
Until the sun pace down his arch of hours,
When in the silence fairies with a wistful heart
Dance to soft airs their harps and viols weave.
Down the great wastes and in gloom apart
I long for thee and thy fair citadel.
Where echoing through the lighted elms at eve
In a high inland tower there peals a bell :
O lonely, sparkling isle, farewell!

Tolkien seems pretty committed to old-fashioned diction too, doesn’t he? And yet he is doing something strange and new, mapping a mythological world over his own. The citadel, as we have seen, is Warwick, and the isle is England. But no, they are Kortition, and Tol Eressëa, no simple island but a stepping stone carefully placed between the fallen world and an earthly heaven…[6]

 

Alas, after all this, that there are trenches to visit, and shells still to fall. Two days ago, Siegfried Sassoon reported on the spread of the “latest fashion:

Two raids are fixed for to-night, by the Division on our left…  in the swift glare of bursting shells can be seen the floating smoke and little clouds from shrapnel-bursts. Sometimes the glare is almost ruddy—suggesting burning cities and ruin and all horrors and confusion.

And somewhere a mile or two away the raiding parties are waiting till it’s time to go across–men with blackened faces and grim clubs and axes and bombs–men with knocking hearts, stifling the yawns of nervousness–wondering if our shells have cut the German wire–knowing that the enemy are ready for them–knowing they will probably be killed or wounded or caught like rats. O this bloody war! It will be my turn to go on a raid soon, I suppose.

The diary continues:

June 5

A heavy bombardment along, by La Boiselle, two miles to our left…

It was a battle seen in miniature against a black screen of midnight. Men were invisible: it was a struggle of giants hurling thunderbolts. Star-lights and flares, red and white, kept curving up from both lines…

The glare of the high explosive bursting was a fearful sight. One couldn’t imagine anything living in that hell. Orme and Morris were hit on Sunday night when up with the working-party.

June 6

The clouds are like giants tumbling and striving and leaping round the edge pf the clear blue sky. They are smoky-white and grey and golden-white. They strike huge attitudes and are blown shapeless again. I see colossal faces of Socrates and Diogenes—bearded sages–and slowly they lose their features.[7] The evening sun strikes the glinting wings of an aeroplane forging away westward—and it is a tiny speck of gold glinting high up. Swallows, skim above the long grass that almost hides the low wire in front of trenches; they are companions of light breezes, close to earth they sail, heedless of rifle-grenades.[8]

 

Finally today, we stay with the very same battalion, stepping only a few hours ahead in time from Sassoon’s diary as we return to John Bernard Adams. The next few days we will linger with this episodic memoir for the sake of an awful new episode. It has been nearly two months since disaster struck the officers of the 1/Royal Welch, and he has sketched in the period with a few undated topical sketches. But now, well–this chapter is worth reading.

“A Certain Man Drew a Bow at a Venture”

maple redoubt

Maple Redoubt is at center

It was ten o’clock as I came in from the wiring-party in front of Rue Albert, and at that moment our guns began. We were in Maple Redoubt. The moon had just set, and it was a still summer night in early June.

“Come and have a look,” I called to Owen, who had just entered the dug-out. I could see him standing with his back to the candlelight reading a letter or something.

He came out, and together we looked across the valley at the shoulder of down that was silhouetted by the continuous light of gun-flickers. Our guns had commenced a two hours’ bombardment.

“No answer from the Boche yet,” I said.

“They ‘re firing on C 2, down by the cemetery.”

“Yes, I hardly noticed it; our guns make such a row. By Jove, it’s magnificent.”

We gazed fascinated for a long time, and then went into the dug-out where Edwards and Paul were snoring rhythmically. I read for half an hour, but the dug-out was stuffy, and the smell of sand-bags and the flickering of the candle annoyed me for some reason or other. Somehow “Derelicts” by W. J. Locke failed to grip my attention. Owing to our bombardment, there were no working-parties, in case the Germans should take it into their head to retaliate vigorously. But at present there was no sign of that.

I went outside again, and walked along Park Lane until I came to the Lewis-gun position just this side of the comer of Watling Street. The sentry was standing up, with his elbows on the ground level (there was no parapet) gazing alert and interested at the continuous flicker of our shells bursting along the enemy’s trenches. Lance-Corporal Allan looked out of the dug-out, and, seeing me, came out and stood by us. And together we watched, all three of us, in silence. Overhead was the continual griding, screeching, whistling of the shells as they passed over, with- out pause or cessation; behind was a chain of gun-flickers the other side of the ridge; and in front was another chain of flashes, and a succession of bump, bump, bumps, as the shells burst relentlessly in the German trenches. And where we stood, under the noisy arch, was a steady calm.

“This is all right, sir,” said Lance-Corporal Allan. He was the N.C.O. in charge of this Lewis-gun team.

“Yes.” said I. “The artillery are not on short rations to-night.”

For always, through the last four months, the artillery had been more or less confined to so many shells a day. The officers used to tell us they had any amount of ammunition, yet no sooner were they given a free hand to retaliate as much as we wanted, than an order came cancelling this privilege. To-night at any rate there was no curtailment.

“I believe this is the beginning of a new order of things,” I said, half musing, to myself; “that is, I believe the Boche is going to get lots and lots of this now.”

“About time, sir,” said the sentry.

”Is there a push coming off?” said Lance-Corporal Allan.

“I don’t know,”  I replied. “But I expect we shall be doing something soon. It’s quite certain we’re going to get our three weeks’ rest after this turn in. The Brigade Major told me so.”

Corporal Allan smiled, and as he did so the flashes lit up his face. He was quite a boy, only eighteen, I believe, but an excellent N.C.O. He had a very beautiful though sensuous face that used to remind me sometimes of the ”Satyr” of Praxiteles. His only fault was an inclination to sulkiness at times, which was perhaps due to a little streak of vanity. It was no wonder the maidens of Morlancourt made eyes at him, and a little girl who lived next door to the Lewis-gunner’s billet was said to have lost her heart long ago. To-night I felt a pang as I saw him smile.

“We’ll see,” I said. “Anyway it’s going to be a good show giving the Boche these sort of pleasant dreams…”

We might skip a bit–but only a bit. For the pastoral interlude is, naturally, not to be missed:

The scene was one of the most perfect peace. The sun was not up, but by now the light was firm and strong; night had melted away. I went back and walked a little way along Park Lane until I came to a gap in the newly erected sand-bag parados. I went through the gap and into a little graveyard that had not been used now for several months. And there I stood in the open, completely hidden from the enemy, on the reverse slope of the hill. Below me were the dug-outs of 71 North, and away to the left those of the Citadel. Already I could see smoke curling up from the cookers. There was a faint mist still hanging about over the road there, that the strong light would soon dispel. On the hill-side opposite lay the familiar tracery of Redoubt A, and the white zigzag mark of Maidstone Avenue climbing up well to the left of it, until it disappeared over the ridge. Close to my feet the meadow was full of buttercups and blue veronica, with occasional daisies starring the grass. And below, above, everywhere, it seemed, was the tremulous song of countless larks, rising, growing, swelling, till the air seemed full to breaking point.

And there was not a sound of war. Who could desecrate such a perfect June morning! I felt a mad impulse to run up and across into No Man’s Land and cry out that such a day was made for lovers; that we were all enmeshed in a mad nightmare, that needed but a bold man’s laugh to free us from its clutches! Surely this most exquisite morning could not be the birth of another day of pain? Yet I felt how vain and hopeless was the longing, as I turned at last and saw the first slant rays of sunlight touch the white sand-bags into life.

“What time’s this working-party?” asked Paul at four o’clock that afternoon.

“I told the sergeant-major to get the men out as soon as they’d finished tea,” I replied. “About a quarter to five they ought to be ready. He will let you know all right.”

“Hullo!” said Paul.

“What are you ‘hulloing’ about?” I asked.

Paul did not answer. Faintly I heard a “wheeoo, wheeoo, wheeoo,” that grew louder and louder and ended in a swishing roar like a big wave breaking against an esplanade — and then “wump — wump — wump — wump” four 4.2’s exploded beyond the parados of Park Lane.

“Well over,” said Edwards.

“I expected this,” I answered. “They’ve been too d—d quiet all day—especially after the pounding we gave them last night.”

“There they are again,” I added. This time I had heard the four distant thuds, and we all waited.

“Wump, wump—CRUMP.” There was a colossal din, the two candles went out, and there was a shaking and jarring in the blackness. Then followed the sound of falling stuff, and I felt a few patters of earth all over me. Gradually it got lighter, and through the smoke-filled doorway the square of daylight reappeared.

“Je ne l’aime pas,” said I, as we all waited, without speaking. Then Edwards struck a match and lit the candles; all the table, floor, and beds were sprinkled with dust and earth. Then Davies burst in.

“Are you all right?” we asked.

“Yessir. Are you?”

“Oh, we’re all right, Davies,” said I. “But there’s a job for Lewis cleaning this butter up.”

At length we went outside, stepping over a heap of loose yielding earth, mixed up with lumps of chalk and bits of frayed sand-bags. Outside, the trench was blocked with debris of a similar kind. Already two men had crossed it, and several men were about to do so. It was old already. There was still a smell of gunpowder in the air, and a lot of chalk dust that irritated your nose.

“I think I’ll tell the sergeant-major not to get the working-party out just yet,”  I said to Paul. “They often start like that and then put lots more over about a quarter of an hour later.” And I sped along Park Lane quickly.

As I returned I heard footsteps behind me. I looked round, but the men were hidden by a traverse. And then came tragedy, sudden, and terrible. I have seen many bad sights—every man killed is a tragedy—but one avoids and hides away the hideousness as soon as possible. But never, save once perhaps, have I seen the thing so vile as now.

“Look out!” I heard a voice from behind. And as I heard the shell screaming down, I tumbled into the nearest dug-out. The shell burst with a huge “crump,” but not so close as the one that had darkened our dug-out ten minutes before. Then again another four shells burst together, but some forty or fifty yards away. I waited one, two minutes. And then I heard men running in the trench.

As I sprang up the dug-out steps, I saw two stretcher-bearers standing looking round the traverse. And then there was the faint whistling overhead and they pushed me back as they almost fell down the dug-out steps.

“Is there a man hurt?” I asked. “We can’t leave him.”

“He’s dead,” said one. And as he spoke there were three more explosions a little to the left

“Are you sure?”

“Aye,” said the stretcher-bearer and closed his eyes tight.

“He’s past our help,” said the other man.

At last, after a minute’s calm, we stepped out into the sunshine. I went round the traverse, following the two stretcher-bearers. And looking between them, as they stood gazing, this is what I saw.

In the trench, half buried in rags of sand-bag and loose chalk, lay what had been a man. His head was nearest to me, and at that I gazed fascinated; for the shell had cut it clean in half, and the face lay like a mask, its features unmarred at all, a full foot away from the rest of the head. The flesh was grey, that was all; the open eyes, the nose, the mouth were not even twisted awry. It was like the fragment of a sculpture. All the rest of the body was a mangled mass of flesh and khaki.

“Who is it?” whispered a stretcher-bearer, bending his head down to look sideways at that mask.

“Find his identity-disc,” said the other.

“It is Lance-Corporal Allan,” said I.

Then up came the regimental sergeant-major, and Owen followed him. They too gazed in horror for a moment. The sergeant-major was the first to recover.

“Hi! you fellows,” he called to two men.” Get a waterproof sheet.”

“Come away, old man,” said I to Owen.

Adams’ book is a different creature than the converted diaries or autobiographical memoirs. It’s a record of some months, but it foregrounds and focuses on the major traumas, of which this was one. I hope, if you have read this far, that you don’t begrudge him (or me) the time. If there is something heavy-handed about going back to the sudden, terrible death of a man and casting it in symbolic terms–the beautiful boy, the classical sculpture come to life, only to be instantaneously ended, reft and ruined–well, who is to say that that was the later hand of the writer? The mind of the witness has to do such things too, to cope with sudden death and the gruesome revelation of the body’s frailty and beauty’s uncertain duration. Either way, it’s a desperate attempt to make meaning of death.

In any event, I think Adams has earned his philosophizing and his biblical references by now. He goes to the bible to express the unbearable helplessness of living under artillery fire–to reject, in a sense, the very instinct he has just indulged, namely to tell a meaningful story about the one shell that happened to cut a man’s head in half.

In silence we walked back to the dug-out. But my brain was whirling. “A certain man drew a bow at a venture,” I thought again. That was how it was possible. No man could keep on killing, if he could see the men he killed. Who had fired that howitzer shell? A German gunner somewhere right away in Mametz Wood probably. He would never see his handiwork, never know what he had done to-day. He would never see; that was the point. Had he known, he would have rejoiced that there was one Englishman less in the world. It was not his fault. We were just the same. What of last night’s bombardment? (The memory of Lance-Corporal Allan up by his gun-position gave me a quick sharp pang.) Had we not watched with glittering eyes the magnificent shooting of our own gunners? This afternoon’s strafe was but a puny retaliation.

Slowly it came back to me, the half-formed picture that had arisen in my mind the night of Davidson’s death. “A certain man drew a bow at a venture,” expressed it perfectly. It was splendid twanging the bow, feeling the fingers grip the polished wood, watching the bow-string stretch and strain, and then letting the arrow fly. That was the fascinating, the deadly fascinating side of war. That was what made it possible to “carry on.” I remembered my joy in calling up the artillery in revenge for Thompson’s death. And then again, whenever we put a mine up, how exhilarating was the spectacle! Throwing a bomb, firing a Lewis gun, all these things were pleasant. It was like the joy of throwing stone over a barn and hearing them splash into a pond; like driving a cricket ball out of the field.

But the arrows fell somewhere. That was the other side of war. The dying king leant on his chariot, propped up until the sun went down. The man who had fired the bolt never knew he had killed a king. That was the other side of war; that was the side that counted. What I had just seen was war.

I leaned my face on my arm against the parados. Oh, this unutterable tragedy! Had there ever been such a thing before? Why was this thing so terrible? Why did I have this feeling of battering against some relentless power? Death. There were worse things than death. There were sights, such as I had just come from, as terrible in everyday life, in any factory explosion or railway accident. There was nothing new in death. Vaguely my mind felt out for something to express this thing so far more terrible than mere death. And then I saw it. Vividly I saw the secret of war.

What made war so cruel, was the force that compelled you to go on. After a factory explosion you cleared up things and then took every precaution to prevent its recurrence; but in war you did the opposite, you used all your energies to make more explosions. You killed and went on killing ; you saw men die around you, and you deliberately went on with the thing that would cause more of your friends to die. You were placed in an arena, and made to fight the beasts; and if you killed one beast, there were more waiting, and more and more. And above the arena, out of it, secure, looked down the glittering eyes of the men who had placed you there; cruel, relentless eyes, that went on glittering while the mouths expressed admiration for your impossible struggles, and pity for your fate!

“Oh God! I shall go mad!” I thought, in the agony of my mind. I saw into that strange empty chamber which is called madness: I knew what it would be like to go mad. And even as I saw, came the thought again of those glittering eyes, and the ruthless answer to my soul’s cry: “The war is utterly indifferent whether you go mad or not.”

Owen was standing waiting for me. I grew calm again, and tamed and put my hand on his shoulder. Together we reached the door of the dug-out.

“Oh, Bill,” he said, “have you ever seen anything more awful?”

“Only once. No, not more awful: more beastly. Nothing could be more awful.”

We told the others.

“Not Allan?” said Edwards. He was Lewis-gun officer, and Allan was his best man.

*Not Allan!*’ he repeated. “Oh, how will they tell his little girl in Morlancourt? What will she say when she learns she will never see him again?”

“Thank God she never saw him as we saw him just now,” I said, “and thank God his mother never saw him.”

“If women were in this war, there would be no war,” said Edwards.

“I wonder,” said I.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Dream Within the Dark, 68-9.
  2. Testament of Youth, 272-3.
  3. Testament of Youth, 272-3.
  4. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 97.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 78-9.
  6. Chronology, 80-1.
  7. This reminds me of the greatest English language historical novel of mid-19th century siege warfare--Ballard's Siege of Krishnapur (of course). There the dreamy clouds are made flesh--or, rather, stone--and the beleaguered colonialist actually fire these heads of the Western Canon from their (Western) cannon at the mutinous sepoys... Except in that case I think it's Plato and Socrates...
  8. Diaries, 72-3.
  9. Nothing of Importance, 256/267, 272-85.

Francis Ledwidge Finds Sympathy Far from Home; C.E. Montague and Disenchantment

Francis Ledwidge is still in Egypt–and in his fifth hospital since his “collapse” in December on the retreat through Serbia. But in some ways, at least, his luck is beginning to turn. His new doctor is not only a sympathetic healer but a reader. Ledwidge is thus generally upbeat–almost consistently upbeat, that is–in today’s letter to Lord Dunsany.

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Sidney Sime, an illustration for Dunsany’s Time and the Gods, 1906

…I am now much better and hope to be allowed up in a couple of days. The doctor who is attending me is a fine man. He knows all your books and even heard of mine. He has spoken to me about Sime’s work and believes as I do that your books have immortalised the fame of Sime.

I send you a copy of a small thing recently written. You will know all about it when you read it, and who it is about, for you will remember my telling you at Basingstoke about someone who died. That was the time I went home and was six days absent. Was it much wonder?

This is Ellie, the thwarted love of Ledwidge’s life. After spurning him for another man, her life was miserable and short, and Ledwidge, upon learning of her death, gave up his brooding anger in favor of fulsome mourning.

The poem is below–first, however, Ledwidge rather studiously praises both himself and his mentor.

If you listen very carefully by the time you get this letter you will hear that ‘wandering voice’ as Wordsworth calls the cuckoo. I would like to hear him and will too, in dreams.

I wonder when you were in Africa was it the little things of home which annoyed you? An old broken gate I wot of and a plough in a ditch and other similar neglected things are always in my mind. Did you receive the last poems I sent, the one about the Cobbler, etc? I have many more old ones in my haversack and some day soon will transcribe them and send you copies. They are all faded with Balkan rains, but I will remember the lines that are obliterated.

I hope you are enjoying good health, that is worth many castles; still I would sooner write a great poem and die than live out the century unknown.

Let’s not jump the gun, Francis.

Here, then, is the new poem of true love that Ledwidge summoned up, even now, and forwarded to Lord Dunsany in hopes of publication:

My true love still is all that’s fair,
She is flower and blossom blowing free.
For all her silence lying there
She sings a spirit song to me.

New lovers seek her in her bower,
The rain, the dew, the flying wind.
And tempt her out to be a flower,
Which throws a shadow on my mind.[1]

 

With little else going on today, I will take advantage of the old “date of experience, or date of letter?” bifurcation to discuss one of our best writer’s central experiences. C.E. Montague has pulled every sort of lever to get himself into the trenches: the famous hair-dyeing, refusals of promotion, continued age-fudging and, after both a serious accidental injury and recurring illness, brazening through a sympathetic medical board.

And he got there–for the last few weeks he has been in trenches–just your average forty-nine-year-old journalist and volunteer non-commissioned officer. There were few wills more willing, at the beginning… but today, a century back, Montague succumbed to illness once again, and was sent down the line to hospital with trench fever.[2]

Why does this brief tour in the trenches matter? Because experience is inseparable from certain sorts of authority. Montague will not write a memoir for his own sake, but he will write one of the essential war books–Disenchantment–as a sort of collective memoir. Montague was a journalist and writer, but now he has been a Tommy of the trenches, even if only for a little while. Therefore these sorts of passages can be written in an implied third-person plural:

Suppose those first eight days In the front and support trenches to be the beginning of a divisional tour of sixteen days’ duty in the line. For four days now the weary men would be in reserve, under enemy fire, but not in trenches; probably in the cellars of ruined houses. But these were not times of rest. Each day or night every man would make one or more journeys back to the trenches that they had left carrying some load of food, water, or munitions up to the three companies in trenches, or perhaps leading a pack-mule over land to some point near the front line, under cover of night. Even to lead a laden mule in the dark over waste ground confusingly wired and trenched is work; to get him back on to his feet when fallen and wriggling, in wild consternation, among a tangle of old barbed wire may be quite hard work.

In intervals between these journeys most men would lie in the straw in the cellars or hobble weakly about the outside of the premises, looking as boys sometimes do when stiff with many hearty hacks sustained in a hard game of football, with a chill after it. They crawled in and out of their billets like late autumn bees, feebly scraping the eight days’ plating of mud off their clothes and cleaning their jack-knives after meals with the languor of the elders in the Bible to whom the grasshopper was a burden. A few robust spirits, armed with craft and subtlety more fully than the rest, would strike out, whenever released, for some “just-a-minute,” or estaminet, not too far off, nor yet too near, and there lie perdus, lest the Company Orderly Sergeant warn them for some new liturgy. This defensive policy did not lighten the work of their brethren.

After four days of their labours as sumpter mules, or muleteers, the company would plod back for another four days of duty in trenches, come out yet more universally tired at their end, and drift back to rest-billets, out of ordinary shell-fire, for their sixteen days or so of “divisional rest.” Here their work was really lighter, but still it was work and not rest. It did not wholly wind up in most of the men the spring that had run down while they were in the line. And then the division would go again into the line, and the old cycle be worked through once more. So most of the privates were tired the whole of the time; sometimes to the point of torment, sometimes much less, but always more or less tired.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 146-7.
  2. C.E.Montague, 125.
  3. Disenchantment, 67-9.