Angelic Voices and Parade Ground Shouts: Young Lovers at the Graves-Nicholson Wedding

Robert Graves and his best man, George Mallory,[1] left Wimbledon early for the church in Piccadilly. The rest of the family followed, as his father, A.P. Graves, recorded in his diary:

Mr. Sassoon’s invitation (declined) to the festivities. Berg Collection, NYPL

Amy [his wife, Robert’s mother] in her wedding war paint, a fine green velvet with gold trimmings and a suitable hat … then the rest of us … we taxied, 5 inside, to Apple Tree Yard and thence walked to Church. I had a new suit (grey morning) admired of all but Amy and neat bowler and gloves, and a trimmed head and beard. We were almost the first arrivals, but the Church filled up…

Robby looked fine and said his responses firmly and clearly, as did Nancy. She was in a beautiful blue check dress with veil and had a wonderful bouquet arranged by her good father. The choir boys sang beautifully and the Parson was in earnest.[2]

Well, that’s that–a fine wedding, and no dissenting opinions!

Except, of course, for Robert’s own description of the event. This comes afterward, and is marked by the same combination of comic precision, irresistibly truth-y tone, and general untrustworthiness shared by most of his writing:

Nancy and I were married in January 1918 at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, she being just eighteen, and I twenty-two. George Mallory acted as the best man. Nancy had read the marriage-service for the first time that morning, and been so disgusted that she all but refused to go through with the wedding, though I had arranged for the ceremony to be modified and reduced to the shortest possible form. Another caricature scene to look back on: myself striding up the red carpet, wearing field-boots, spurs and sword; Nancy meeting me in a blue-check silk wedding-dress, utterly furious; packed benches on either side of the church, full of relatives; aunts using handkerchiefs; the choir boys out of tune; Nancy savagely muttering the responses, myself shouting them in a parade-ground voice.[3]

See, funnier! And there being no digital record of the relative (ha!) volume of Graves’s voice or the choir’s tunefulness, these semi-objective facts are lost in the mire of history.

And isn’t that just fine? Of course the parents of the somewhat wild, troublesome boy–not so long ago reported dead–are pleased to see him wed a girl from a good family, and find euphony everywhere; and of course the young man suddenly uncertain of how exactly he and his very young, fiercely independent/feminist bride will actually manage (not least this coming evening) remembers discord, shouting, and muttering…

There were many other witnesses: school friends from Charterhouse, family friends from both sides, Robbie Ross and Eddie Marsh, a smattering of less closely-connected celebrities, including Max Beerbohm and the great architect Edwin as Lutyens. But let’s stick to our trusted–or familiar, at least–sources…

 

Wilfred Owen was there as well, feeling perhaps a little nervous to be at a London wedding of two scions of much-higher-up-the-middle-class artistic families. In his report to his mother he will channel, it seems, the spirit of Mrs. Elton (see the very end of Emma):

The wedding was nothing extraordinary. Not a great crowd of people, but a very mixed one. Some were dressed in the dowdiest unfashion. Possibly these were celebrities in their way? George Belcher was the greatest surprise: togged up in 1870 costume, a very striking figure.

Graves was pretty worked up, but calm. The Bride, 18 year’s old, was pretty, but nowise handsome.

Oh, but he was pleased about one thing, as another letter to his cousin Leslie (the earnest but untalented poet) confides:

Heinemann was there; and Edward Marsh, the Georgian Anthologist tho’ I did not know him as such till afterwards. I was introduced as ‘Mr. Owen, Poet’ or even ‘Owen, the poet’.[4]

 

Also in attendance was Charles Scott Moncrieff, a valued friend of Graves’s since his positive review of Over the Brazier and his help in getting Fairies and Fusiliers published. But Moncrieff was not particularly thrilled to be there–he had also reviewed, and far less favorably, several of Graves’s friends, including Nichols, who was there, and Sassoon, whom he might have expected to be, but, of course, wasn’t. Moncrieff, too, was still on crutches and in a leg brace–his wounded leg will never heal completely and was still giving him severe pain.

Nor had Moncrieff’s morning been free from emotional stress and personal risk. Still a serving officer recently appointed to a desk job at the War Office, and he was habitually indiscreet about his sexual preferences–which sounds like a species of criticism but is in this case evidence of considerable moral courage: Moncrieff had gone to court this morning, a century back, to try to secure the release of a friend who had been arrested for “gross indecency with a male person.” He had failed, and seen his friend was sentenced to a year in Wormwood Scrubs.

Given the anti-gay witch hunt then being stirred up by the thoroughly revolting (and somehow familiar) Noel Pemberton-Billing, a right-wing M.P, whose personal rag The Imperialist has been lately thriving on a heady mix of hate-mongering and conspiracy theories, Moncrieff was either loyal but rash or loyal and carefully calculating, i.e. that his MC and his wound would give him some protection from gay-bashing rabble-rousers. Which it might–for a little while.

So today, a century back, Moncrieff was out of sorts for many good reasons.

I was too sore… in mind and body, to regard very closely the quiet little person who stood beside me in a room from which I longed to escape…

This quiet little person was Wilfred Owen. They will meet again, this evening, at dinner and then at Robbie Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, where a lively literary discussion lasted into the wee hours. Ross, with his old fame as Oscar Wilde’s most loyal friend, is about to become the prime target of the Pemberton-Billing attack.

Owen was probably relatively unaware of the quasi-political threat facing London’s prominent semi-closeted gay intelligentsia, but it seems unlikely that there would have been no mention of the noxious cloud creeping toward Ross. Nevertheless, today, from his lunch with Ross and their arrival at the wedding together to the late night gathering, marked a sort of double arrival for Owen: he was now at the center of London gay social life, and he had arrived as a poet.

There is a marked tendency among biographers to speculate as to what was talked about all evening[5]–Owen’s poetry? the new sound effects of Owen’s Miners? French translation? Ross’s foolish decision to allow an upcoming performance of Wilde’s Salome?–but I don’t think we actually know. Still, it will soon be clear that Owen and Moncrieff did more than cross paths. They parted as “intimate” friends–an ambiguous adjective which may or may not have already (i.e. tonight, a century back) have carried a wink and a nudge.

There’s another tendency among later writers to go for a nice irony or parallelism today: Graves had flirted with homosexuality for a long time but was now, with all of his gay friends in attendance, committing to heterosexuality–meanwhile, two of his gay friends meet, and sparks are struck…  The problem is that Graves, despite his own scandal-and-sales-courting later emphasis on his schoolboy love, was never really sexually interested in men. He was passionate, prudish, and living in all-male social environments, so he fell in love with a boy and was passionate about his friendships with other young men. But when he met the strong-willed, artistic, unconventional Nancy Nicholson, he fell in love with her, and the speed of their marriage suggests not just old ways or wartime accelerations but also, probably, an interest in attaining to physical intimacy right quick.[6] Nor does Owen’s sexuality seem to have required an evening at Robbie Ross’s for confirmation: in all likelihood he has been aware of, and relatively at peace with, his own sexuality for some time. But it is hard to tell, as such topics never come up in the family letters.[7]

Nevertheless, Owen’s friendship with Moncrieff will blossom–soon, if not tonight–into something more, probably for Owen and certainly for Moncrieff. Moncrieff will accompany Owen back to his hotel around 2:00 a.m. tomorrow, a century back, and also put him in touch with an old friend living in Scarborough. Strangely, perhaps, since Owen was less sophisticated, less experienced, and four years younger, it is Moncrieff, the decorated, wounded, handsome critic who is most smitten with the quiet little poet…[8]

 

But let’s not forget about the rest of the heteronormative festivities, as recounted in the Groom’s suspiciously candid later reminiscences:

Then the reception. At this stage of the war, sugar could not be got except in the form of rations. There was a three-tiered wedding-cake and the Nicholsons had been saving up their sugar and butter cards for a month to make it taste like a real one; but when George Mallory lifted off the plaster-case of imitation icing, a sigh of disappointment rose from the guests. However, champagne was another scarce commodity, and the guests made a rush for the dozen bottles on the table. Nancy said: ‘Well, I’m going to get something out of this wedding, at any rate,’ and grabbed a bottle. After three or four glasses, she went off and changed back into her land-girl’s costume of breeches and smock. My mother, who had been thoroughly enjoying the proceedings, caught hold of her neighbour, E. V. Lucas, the essayist, and exclaimed: ‘Oh, dear, I wish she had not done that!’ The embarrassments of our wedding-night (Nancy and I being both virgins) were somewhat eased by an air-raid: Zeppelin bombs dropping not far off set the hotel in an uproar.[9]

Funny, my other London sources do not mention an air raid that night…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, that George Mallory, once Graves's teacher at Charterhouse--they had since climbed together in Wales.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 191-2.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 272.
  4. Collected Letters, 528-9.
  5. Yes, I realized belatedly, that I had just done so.
  6. This will be, for Graves, the beginning of a checkered but fervent career of extolling/pursuing the feminine, uxoriously, literalily, and otherwise...
  7. Except, perhaps, in some of the editorial elisions later performed by his brother.
  8. Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 140-3.
  9. Good-Bye to All That, 272-3.

Max Plowman and the Inspirational Power of Collective Action; Edward Brittain Grumbling in Italy

Here’s a surprising and pleasing juxtaposition. After the haze of misogyny (or, at least, contemptuous anti-feminism) which hung over yesterday‘s meeting between Graves and Sassoon, we have our other prominent pacifist infantry officer, Max Plowman, taking rather a different approach to questions of courage. Plowman has long been active in liberal causes, and, it would seem, he has learned something from them.

Plowman’s protest against the war–after his honorable service as a “Subaltern on the Somme” (which followed his original intention to serve with the ambulances)–will never draw the attention that Sassoon’s abortive protest did. But it seems to have earned him a letter from a hero of the drive for Women’s Suffrage, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence (the future Baroness Pethick-Lawrence). If one of the reasons we suspect that Graves’s friends don’t like Nancy Nicholson is that she is a young feminist and a “Land Girl” prone to wearing trousers and insisting on carrying her fiancé’s baggage, one wonders how they would cope with a middle-aged peace activist, suffragist, and former prisoner of conscience who took her husband’s name on marriage–as he took hers.

But I am digressing, now, and Plowman will return to our original subject–the war, that is:

Dear Mrs. Pethick Lawrence

…I was thinking, as I wondered what I should say in answer to your letter, of the things that give one courage. I remember quite well the day before I first went into trenches. It was early in August last year & we were bivouacing in dry shell-holes on the high ground near Mametz… we were going to ground alongside Delville Wood on the following day. And… I remember very clearly how, & with what satisfaction, I recalled the only march I had ever done before I joined the army–from the Embankment to the Albert Hall as the tail end of that huge midsummer demonstration in favour of Votes for Women. I remember hearing you speak, & though I had surely been the most inconspicuous person in the whole show, it glowed in my memory then as one of my few actions that had been mightily well worth while. It gave me that assurance of personal identity which is, I suppose, the foundation of courage.

Now your letter comes with the same gift. So I thank you enormously…

…your kindness adds a cubit to my stature.

…Yours very sincerely,

Max Plowman

P.S. Can you answer this conundrum? Having proved to my own satisfaction that every man has a God-given right to his own life, how am I to remain a member of an organisation which has the destruction of men’s lives for its chief object?

M.P.[1]

Yes, that’s a good question, isn’t it…

 

Our other bit, today, a century back, is another letter of thanks from a young subaltern to a sustaining female presence… in this case Edward Brittain to his sister Vera.

Italy, 22 December 1917

I am so thankful for your letters–they are now as before the greatest help in the whole world . . . I don’t know whether I am glad to be here or not–it sounds strange but it’s quite true; I was glad to leave the unpleasant region we were in not far from you and the novelty was good for a time but yet in a way it is all the same because there is no known future and the end is not yet, though, on the face of things at present, there is perhaps more chance of return…

We will have another look at this letter when Vera receives it, but I should include just a little more, as insight into Edward’s mood, now that he has adjusted to life on a quiet front:

…this sort of routine is so deadening; it is a life of thinking about little details the whole time and especially thinking about the right one at the right time; the brain must be essentially a machine of memory and after that the rule of life is expediency.

It is very tiring and uninteresting. I can’t get on with this because of a number of messages, orders, etc which are continually arriving…  I am rather a grumbler.

…Goodnight, dear dear child

Ever your

Edward[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 86-7.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 385-7.

Olaf’s Agnes Votes Yes; So Too Does the Graves Family; Wilfred Owen Awaits Poets’ Books, and Letters

Olaf Stapledon has written several letters to Agnes Miller over the past few days about his disillusion and despair. He is both contemptuous of the home island he is leaving–the complacency, the luxury, the hypocrisy–and frustrated at the sadness that his once again leaving it for ambulance work at the front is causing.

But he has also discussed a bitter and uncomfortable irony: that his service in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit was accepted long ago, when Britain had a volunteer army, and then grandfathered in after conscription. But now a schoolfellow–and fellow pacifist–who holds precisely the same views has no such option available to him and, instead of laborious and dangerous service at the front, is languishing at Wormwood Scrubs. This must be an evil. Australia, meanwhile, is to vote on the question of conscription. Agnes’s letter to him is written just after his, and yet it will be read only months after…

18 December 1917

Thursday Conscription Referendum. Everything is in a turmoil about that. Public meetings pro & anti everywhere, eggs & other missiles in constant use, papers full of it. Trams full of argumentative people. Posters everywhere. I am going to vote yes.[1]

And months later each will learn of the other’s position. As Olaf recently wrote, they can hardly part, since they have really yet to meet, as lovers.

 

Robert Graves, suddenly, has similar obstacles to face, but his are right before him, and eminently conquerable. Today he and Nancy Nicholson told their families of their plans to marry.

…on Tuesday the 18th, Nancy, her parents, and her brother Kit all came to lunch at Red Branch House. Nancy had defied convention by arriving not in a skirt but in the trousers of her land-girl’s ‘uniform’, of which she was immensely proud; but Alfred accepted this tolerantly, and wrote in his diary that evening that ‘Nancy grows on one’, and that it had been ‘a delightful party. Mr. N. most witty and charming, Mrs. N. a very capable and wise woman’.
When the other Nicholsons had departed, Nancy stayed on for tea, ‘and then went off with Robby into town carrying part of his baggages. Before this John came in and announced their engagement as Cupid. Robby threw the family ring, the ancient Eagle, with “Catch” and she caught on and caught it.’ Later that day, Robert and Nancy broke the news of their engagement to her parents… [2]

A good catch; but not everything will go so smoothly.

 

Wilfred Owen has no such weighty matters on his mind–just a few of his favorite things: Christmas, poetry, and friendship…

My dearest Mother,

…If you hold to giving me a present this is what I most want: Tides, Poems by John Drinkwater…

Siegfried is going out next week, but may stay in Ireland on the way. He feels like a condemned man, with just time to put things straight. One of his last deeds here is causing Robert Nichols (of the Ardours & Endurances) to write to me, and befriend me. I await Nichols’s letter with much wonder…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 261-2.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 189.
  3. Collected Letters, 516-7.

Olaf Stapledon Goes to Mass; Rowland Feilding Praises Courage Under Fire

There is a special pathos in following the conversation of Olaf Stapeldon and Agnes Miller, separated as it is by half the world, the long weeks it takes letters to traverse the distance, and the vagaries of wartime mail. Agnes has been having her doubts, recently, that their love can survive the long loneliness, but Olaf hasn’t learned of them yet. And before he does, her doubts have turned back to questions, which he will then have to answer.

It’s been hard (of course!) being separated for long years, with only letters to sustain them. And when Agnes sees young men going off to fight–or bright, brave young men like Olaf taking high-status roles as officers–her faith in his faith that a pacifist’s place is in the hard, humble duty of the Ambulance Corps wavers.

You see, conscription did not come here, so there was no need for him to go to prison. But just put yourself in his place in a free country like Australia. You need not go to war & you need not go to prison, but I don’t think you would be content if you lived here to go on with your daily work just as usual. I think you would have been drawn away to do Red Cross or relief work just as you have been doing. Would you not? If so I think you must be right in being there now. If you would not have gone, do you think it would have been more worthwhile to stick to your own work or to have joined the English C.O.s in their protest? Which?

This is a difficult hypothetical, and we must point out on Olaf’s behalf that he never had to make such a choice because he committed to the Friends’ Ambulance Unit long before conscription came to England, when his old classmates were joining the army in droves. And he has thought all this through, carefully, too…

But the conversation is months in arrears, and Olaf’s letter of the same day, a century back, is a colorful slice-of-life letter. And yet, like any wartime letter, it can hardly fail to address these questions of duty, suffering, principle, and motivation.

6 November 1917

It is a foggy, muddy November Sunday, and in our great rugger match this afternoon we shall get well plastered. These matches are a great institution; they give us something to talk about for a fortnight before the event and a fortnight afterwards. We discuss rugger as seriously as if it was the war. We estimate people’s respective merits. We tragically whisper that so and so is no use, you know.” We exclaim, with eyes round with adoration, that so and so is glorious. We rearrange the whole program of our work so as to enable The Team to be all off duty on the Day. In fact it is just like school…

Stapledon then tells us about a recent service at the local church. There is some condescension, here, from the well-bred English Quaker, about the ceremonies of rural French Catholicism… but as always with Stapledon, sympathy trumps whatever stiffness holds him back, and he is drawn in:

The other day was the French “Jour des Morts.” Some of us dressed up and went to church to represent the convoy. It was a little old church… packed with pale blue soldiers, and in the background were about four women in deep black. The service began in the ordinary way, and seemed lamentably unreal, insincere. The priest muttered and rang bells and waved his hands & did genuflexions, the intoning was very bad. Then came a solemn solo on some sort of hautbois, rather an improvement. Then, after more scampered chants, the band in the gallery began playing some fine stately piece or other. We all sat and listened and were rather strung up by it. Then came the sermon, a rather oratorical affair, and yet somehow sincere. He spoke very clearly, slowly, and with much gesture. He pictured the supreme sacrifice of Christ, the similar sacrifice of any man who dies avec les armes a la main, en se battant pour la France [in arms, fighting for France], or words to that effect. He described sympathetically the mud & misery of the trenches; and then urged men, if they ever felt inclined to give up the struggle, to remember devastated France who needed their help. He pictured the souls of the glorious dead enjoying heaven. And his last words were a moving summary of all the sufferings of France since the war began…

One felt as if the little church were some ship in a great storm, sweeping toward a fierce coast. One felt that the blue mariners, instead of pulling at ropes and sailing the ship, were praying to imaginary gods of the tempest. I don’t know. It was somehow terrible. One felt the awful fatal power of the world, and the littleness of men. Finally the band played Chopin’s dead march as people slowly moved out with wreaths for their friends’ graves. That nearly reduced some of us to tears, very much against our will. I can’t explain. There was something more than the obvious tragedy of human death about it, though indeed that is more than enough in itself, our blue soldiers, with their short-cropped black hair, and their matter-of-fact French faces. They had such a strange shamefaced way of crossing themselves, rather as if they suspected it was a foolish superstition but were determined to be on the safe side. They had seen hell all right but they did not know at all what heaven is…[1]

 

The only other piece today is almost a flash-forward. Rowland Feilding is neither a dreamer nor a pacifist, but he is, in another sense, what Olaf Stapledon hopes to be, namely an older married man, doing his duty, and keeping his beloved wife Edith as close as he can. Feilding has done more than any of our writers to hold to the plan of writing scrupulously honest and open letters to his wife, sparing her nothing.

But today there is a painful reversal, a vertigo at the edge of the experiential gulf: Feilding is safe in reserve, and his wife and children are in danger, in London. It’s a short letter, but it packs in love, a sort of befuddled proto-feminism, and the awkward tone of a husband/commander exhorting and commending his wife/subordinate from far away, in relative safety.[2]

I got your letter to-day, describing the air-raid, which interested me enormously and filled me with pride to think of you all joking at the bottom of the kitchen stairs.

I cannot tell you how much I admire the way in which you have handled this problem, forcing the children to look upon the air-raids as a game. It is splendid. The others will inevitably take their cue from you. Had you been a man you would have made an ideal soldier. Above all, I admire the way in which you have never woken the children till, in your opinion, the danger has become imminent. You are becoming a veteran now, and I have every faith in your leadership, and that it will carry you and the household through…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 254-6. Of all things--and allowing for the ten thousand miles separating the lovers--this scene recalls (or anticipates, rather) the Advent Evensong scene in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
  2. He is probably not in "relative" safety; London was a big place and the raids did not kill very many compared to the constant bombardment even on quiet sectors of the rear areas in France and Belgium. Nevertheless, the thought that on some nights, at least, his family is in danger and he is not is strange and destabilizing...
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 223-4.

Rowland Feilding Belatedly Locates the Machine Guns of the Somme; John Ronald Tolkien Still Suffers from its Fevers; Ivor Gurney on the Courage of Women

Rowland Feilding has been mixing light letters about life in reserve with accounts of how he is spending his own free time (which, as a battalion commander, can be considerable), namely walking the old battlefield of the Somme and remembering what he and his men endured during the Battle of Ginchy last September 9th.

You will remember what a terrific fire we encountered when we attacked at this place. I have ever since been curious to know where that fire came from, and how so powerful a concentration of machine-guns could have complete escaped our artillery. Now I know. A well-concealed and winding trench, branching into two, and worked in conjunction with nests of shell-holes adapted as machine-gun positions! That is what we ran into, and it was a hopeless task we undertook that day…[1]

 

One of the casualties of the Somme–of its infectious diseases rather than its bullets, shrapnel, or gas–was John Ronald Tolkien. He has yet to return to full health, and, after a severe relapse which put him in the hospital for nine weeks, he went before a Medical Board today in Hull. The report was middling:

He has still not recovered his strength; he suffers from debility and pain in his arms and shins, and he looks delicate

Declared “30 per cent disabled,” Tolkien was sent back to the 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, for light duty. The board’s decision may be changed later, but for now Tolkien has some reason to hope that he has seen the last of the trenches.[2]

 

Alas for Ivor Gurney that this is not true. He remains in hospital, but with a wink and a nod: his lungs are more or less fine–it is his talented fingers which keep him there, accompanying all the would-be singers in their own recoveries.

16 October 1917

My Dear Friend: This is a most lovely morning, and I ought to be out on the hills somewhere instead of writing letters, even to you. For letter writing is work of a sort, though I like it not badly here, and in France it is often a pleasure.

There is not much to tell you, there is no masterpiece of chiselled and exquisite verse…

Is it wise of me to play music? Well, I do, but know only too well that the effort to forget will be an extra difficulty against the little serenity I shall have in France. Unless I grow stronger of soul of course, and so much stronger is unlikely. The things I should most like to write are things of beauty with a vinegary ending, something after “The Fire Kindled”. Heine I believe is famous for that sort of thing. It is best to be Shakespeare but good to be Heine — though not Thersites.

Gurney is almost always etceterative–and occasionally tremendous. What an idea–to write beautiful, vinegary things, like Heine. And Thersites is a rare reference, but an excellent one: Gurney perhaps remembers him as the one common soldier who makes a role for himself in the Iliad, where Thersites is an ugly, misshapen grumbler amongst the gleaming heroes and handsome demigods who lead the Greek army, a would be mutineer who is scorned and battered into silence by his betters. But he is, nevertheless, a common man with a voice in the great poem.

Gurney is, as usual, writing to Marion Scott, and he segues now from his own classically-cast ambition (and muted grumbling) to a consideration of women at war. It is typical of his intelligence that he takes an observation (and one which runs against the grain of all-too-typical prejudices) and proceeds without much fanfare to a sensitive (and sensible) reconsideration of a Big Concept–courage, in this case  .

…Nurses are really wonderful people to do so many things distasteful and still to smile. There is a very nice set of nurses here (have I told you?) that could hardly be better. They call this the “Ragtime Ward”, a name of envy given by men oppressed in places of female dragons and discipline. The courage of women is certainly not less than that of men. To my mind, that is. The serene performance of hateful duties, and the refusal to be depressed by them is the finest form of courage. The more sensational are the wilder forms — no higher. There are a few soldiers who go on till they are knocked out, not heeding wounds, most of these comparative few have supported their nerves only too freely beforehand. The rest may be the flower of earth, but the man who can be brotherly and crack a joke on a winter night in a shell hole has undoubted undeniable unsupported courage, which is not always certain of the spectacular gentlemen, who may be Berserk or drunk. But there! It is only my preference perhaps for serene and quiet strength rather than for the violent kind. Violence is waste of energy.

Here endeth the umptieth lesson…

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 215.
  2. Chronology, 102.
  3. War Letters, 222-4.

Diana Manners is a Catalog of Calm Amongst the Bombs; Nothing of Importance for Siegfried Sassoon, and the Embarrassment of His Glory of Women

Today, a century back, the survivors of the 2nd Royal Welch had the pleasure of being inspected by–and inspecting in turn–the Commander-in-Chief of the B.E.F.

The C.-in-C. rode on to the ground at 12.30, twenty minutes late. After pinning ribbons on a few he remounted and passed along the lines of Infantry. Then we marched past, uninspired, on our way back to billets. We were told that “these inspections are his only recreation.” He looked as if he took it sadly to-day…[1]

 

Meanwhile, one of their more illustrious recent subalterns, Siegfried Sassoon, was in Scotland, writing to Robbie Ross.

3 October, 1917 Craiglockhart

My dear Robbie, I hope the air raids haven’t annoyed you? I am sending you some Cambridge Magazine cameos…

I have great difficulty in doing any work as I am constantly disturbed by nurses etc and the man who sleeps in my room—an awful bore. It is pretty sickening when I feel like writing something and have to dry up and try to be polite (you can imagine with how much success!) However, Rivers returns on Friday and may be able to get me a room to myself (or get me away from these imbeciles).

Oh, for a room of one’s own in which to write… And it’s pretty amusing that Sassoon describes his roommate in a two-person hospital room as “the man who sleeps in my room!”

But if he hasn’t been writing much, he has been reading: the war has gone on long enough to see another little loop of ours close: Sassoon is reading what we have recently been reading, as its events were taking place:

…Get Nothing of Importance by Bernard Adams (Methuen) He was in the First R.W.F. with me for eight months (and mentions me once under the name of Scott). The book is by no means bad and he was a nice creature.

“Was:” Adams died of wounds on February 27th.

 

Sassoon shows little to no indication of being interested in writing such a record himself–prose is only prose (“by no means bad” rather than “good”) and memoirs are for the dead. Poetry is still the truth and the way…

In between the two above sections of the letter, Sassoon had mentioned a new potential friend/patron:

Lady Margaret Sackville has sent me her war poems and asked me to lunch! A rival to Lady Ottoline; and
quite ten years younger!

But of course he has already passed Lady Margaret–in a gesture that can be read as both an act of literary/social generosity and a snub–on to his new sidekick, Wilfred Owen, who will invite her to contribute to The Hydra.

Then, in a postscript, Sassoon gets back to his own poetry, in particular to a poem that directly addresses some examples of what he generally considers to be the fouler sex:

I sent Massingham a very good sonnet, but be hasn’t replied! It is called ‘Glory of Women’—and gives them beans.[2]

Beans! Ha! Well. This is certainly a slashing indictment of unfeeling “home front” types, so flaying the unfeeling idiots who wax complacent on the far side of the experiential gulf that this satire almost wins a conviction of their conspiracy to commit further war crimes.

 

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.
You can’t believe that British troops “retire”
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
    O German mother dreaming by the fire,
    While you are knitting socks to send your son
    His face is trodden deeper in the mud

 

Devastating… but wait–why “women?” There is nothing here that explains why it is, exactly, that the sins of women are particularly grave. Or that their political disempowerment and the social strictures that keep them from full participation in war (however much these strictures are evolving or temporarily loosened) might explain their apparently hypocritical position as actually far less hypocritical than the similar statements by the post-conscription aged male property-owners who run the country…

It’s a solid satirical sonnet–a great, sweeping, but errant blow. Like the rest of the letter, it offers proof that nasty myopia and broad-brush stereotyping can coexist with skillful prosody.

 

Not the least ironic bit of Sassoon’s letter is that it begins with that polite question about air raids. This might remind Sassoon that, yes, although no women in England have seen soldiers dying in actual trenches and that many no doubt mouth patriotic pieties instead of listening or seeking out the worst truths of war, thousands upon thousands are now being bombed on a regular basis, while he is safe in Scotland playing golf, writing poetry, and complaining about his roommate.

The air raids are troubling Diana Manning, for instance–or are they?

London, 3 October 1917

Thank God to be back even in these discordant nights. I dined with Ivor last night in the cellar of Wimborne House, after an hour in the Arlington Street basement, with some of the wounded, and screaming kitchenmaids — most trying. Later at Wimborne House arrived Jenny [Lady Randolph] Churchill and Maud Cunard, both a little tipsy, dancing and talking wildly. They had been walking and had got scared and had stopped for a drink. Maud had a set purpose to get to the opera, because it being raid-night the public required example…

I’ve ordered myself chemises embroidered in hand-grenades and a nightgown with fauns…[3]

It’s not Lady Manning’s job to refute Sassoon’s misogyny–it’s just the luck of my date-obsessed bibliographic trawl. But it works out well, I think: she can be both a flighty and insensitive aristocrat and a victim of the war. She is enormously privileged, yet she has also sought out the war’s its suffering–more, really, than most people in her precise social position. She has lost friend after friend (including one whose grave we will visit tomorrow) and has worked long hours as a hospital volunteer, though she writes little about this aspect of her life. And her tendency to continue to live the high life and scoff at kitchenmaids and joke about bombs is neither heroic nor contemptible nor very different from Sassoon’s comportment. A wealthy woman in London rather than a soldier in the trenches watching faces get trodden deeper into the mud, she has not been as directly traumatized by the war as Sassoon. Which is perhaps why she is more consistent, and rather less hysterical…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 406.
  2. Diaries, 187-8.
  3. Autobiography, 155-6.

Alfred Hale Cuts His Teeth on Army Toffee; Jack Martin Admires a Model; Edwin Vaughan on a Long Day’s Journey; Eddie, Bobbie and Ottoline Advise Siegfried Sassoon

I’m going to wager that readers are willing to go through three of our peripheral writers before finding out what Siegfried Sassoon has been up to.

 

Jack Martin‘s diary has been intermittent of late, and, to be frank, a bit boring. But kudos to the young signalman today, a century back, for catching on to a new theme of ours:

Received a parcel of books from Elsie and resumed my office of distributing librarian. The field in which we lives slopes downwards  towards Flêtre and at the bottom of the dip a Hants Corporal is making a model of the ground over which the next advance is to be made by our Brigade. It is really a work of art consisting of only earth, bits of stick and pieces of stone and wire. All the trenches, both ours and the enemy’s, are shown, the whole model being constructed from a large-scale map.[1]

 

And how is the emphatically middle-aged Alfred Hale doing in camp?

10 July: chocolate and other things of a kind fit to make a supper off had run out at the canteen. My weekly parcel of food had not arrived. So while the officers sat down to a good late dinner, I had nothing to eat of an evening but penny bars of toffee. Began to break my false teeth in consequence, as the said bars were very hard to bite.[2]

 

And, from Edwin Vaughan we have a model “battalion on the march” piece. I’ve cut the “diary” down a bit, but I’ve had to keep most of it so that we can trudge a long through the uphills and downs of this brutal but typical day afoot.

July 10

Marched out in high spirits at 10 a.m., the only drawback being the fact that we were carrying a blanket each and the sun was very hot. The troops sang heartily and unceasingly during the first hour as we swung down sunken country lanes and through deserted, battered hamlets. Song after song was started and taken up by the whole Company, Cole and Taylor being the leading choristers.

Towards the end of the second hour the sweat began to pour and the spirits to flag. A few of the old crocks like Bishop and Dredge were limping markedly and rifles began to shift restlessly from shoulder to shoulder. The singing died away completely and at once we began to get busy. Up and down the ranks we went, joking, encouraging and cursing. I could hear Radcliffe’s voice singing a forlorn solo in front and Harding was already carrying two rifles. Ewing had sent his horse to the rear of the Company and was trying to pull the leading platoon together. We managed to keep every man in his place until the next halt when we flopped out by the roadside.

We had to enforce rigid discipline to keep the waterbottles corked and several names had been taken before we fell in. We moved off with the crocks weeded out and placed in rear of the Company, and a song was started in the leading platoons. This soon died away, however, and the step broke. Soon we came upon a man from ‘B’ Company sitting by the roadside, then some of ‘A’ and more ‘B’, and then there was a sudden rush from our platoons as men fell out to join them. We pounced at once upon them and cursed them back into the ranks, but the effect was heartbreaking and our work was doubled. I finished that hour carrying an additional pack and two rifles while the other officers were doing more or less the same. Three packs were slung from Porky’s saddle and a limping soldier grasped each stirrup.

When we dropped exhausted into the edge of a cornfield, Ewing came down the column telling the troops that we were almost at our destination. This cheered them somewhat, and when we got on to the road again all eyes were fixed on the horizon where our village was due to appear. Cresting the hill ten minutes later we saw a small village a mile ahead, and a quiver of relief ran down the column; on reaching it, however, we found that it was in ruins and a notice board proclaimed it to be Monchy-au-Bois.

A cyclist met us here and reported to each company commander that the Brigadier was waiting just ahead to see us march past. So we bucked up the troops a bit and swung past him in great style, only to fall to pieces again on
emerging from the village on to the open plains. The whole Battalion was now silent, and everywhere could be seen the strained looks, bent shoulders and straggling sections that denote whacked troops. And thus we crawled across the plain for another 20 minutes, when suddenly from No 13 platoon the voice of Private Cole arose in a lovely and very vulgar song: after a few lines. Corporal McKay joined in, then Taylor and Kent and a few more until the whole Company was roaring out the song with their last breaths.

The effect was magical for the whole Battalion pricked up its ears and after a few shudders and syncopations, shook down to a good stride and curled steadily along the winding roads until we reached a charming cluster of trees, through which shone the red roofs of Berles-au-Bois.

A burst of cheering rose from the troops at the sight of the quartermaster sergeants who were waiting for us on the road…[3]

 

I’m very glad for this next letter. Eddie Marsh has been with us since the beginning, but always in the wings, as it were. He is the center of several networks of great importance to this project–of the young painters and poets, of gay literary London, of a social network that connects many promising young men with the center (or the periphery, this last year) of great power. But we don’t get to see much direct evidence of why he has so many friends and why he seems to play a consistently positive role in their lives and literary developments. But this letter to Siegfried Sassoon: shows all of that, and through it, I think, we may get a clearer concise view of what Siegfried Sassoon was in 1917 than we can even through the stereoscopy of his own writings. He is good and honorable, and foolish and headstrong and self-centered, yet easy to influence if only gently.

10 July 1917
5 Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn

My dear Siegfried,

Thank you very much for telling me what you’ve done. Of course I’m sorry about it, as you expect. As a non-combatant, I should have no sort of right to blame you, even if I wanted to. But I do think you’re intellectually wrong—on the facts. We agree that our motives for going to war were not aggressive or acquisitive to start with, and I cannot myself see that they have changed. And it does seem strange to me that you should come to the conclusion that they have, at the very moment when the detached Americans have at last decided that they must
come in to safeguard the future of liberty and democracy—and when the demoralised Russian Army seem—after having been bitten with your view—to have seen that they must go on fighting for the sake of their freedom.

I cannot myself see any future for decent civilisation if the end of the war is to leave the Prussian autocracy in any position of credit arid trust.

But now dear boy you have thrown your die, and it’s too late to argue these points. One thing I do beg of you. Don’t be more of a martyr than you can help! You have made your protest, and everyone who knows that you aren’t the sort of fellow to do it for a stunt must profoundly admire your courage in doing it. But for God’s sake stop there. I don’t in the least know what ‘They’ are likely to say or do—but if you find you have a choice between acceptance and further revolt, accept. And don’t proselytise. Nothing that you can do will really affect the situation; we have to win the war (you must see that) and it’s best that we should do it without more waste and friction than are necessary.

Yours

Eddie

Marsh is writing, in other words–and it must be in other words, for a clear statement of the obstacles he faces would cause Sassoon to put his head down and butt–to make sure that Sassoon’s protest remains nothing more than a misguided romantic gesture. In which, ironically, it has a great deal in common with other actions by brave and idealistic young men over the last few years. Sassoon has written that he knows what he is letting himself in for–prison and blustering threats of a firing squad. But if he could clearly imagine that happening–just as he can’t imagine his own martyrdom in barbed wire and shrapnel very clearly, no matter how beautifully he rages and mourns–then he would write about it differently. He is young and foolish, still.

But the most important unspoken element in Marsh’s letter comes from his deep experience of military bureaucracy (he is, after all, Churchill’s secretary). It is, again, as foolish to imagine a young knight waving a sword and successfully defying the entire German war machine as it is to imagine on infantry lieutenant forcing the War Office into a position it does not want to take. Sassoon might be gambling on the machine’s slow stupidity making a martyr out of them, but if he was, he shouldn’t have told his friends. Marsh, Robert Graves, and others are acting now–betraying their friend and protecting him–to shunt the would-be confrontation into an empty corner of the military mind.

And Graves, though impetuous, can also be a ruthless tactician. He quickly notified Bobbie Hanmer, a handsome, non-intellectual fellow officer of whom Sassoon was fond, surely so that Sassoon would be reminded what the loss of his friends’ respect might entail. Hanmer’s letter to Sassoon was likely also sent today, a century back:

Tuesday

1 War Hospital, Block C 11, Reading

My dear old Sassons, What is this damned nonsense I hear from Robert Graves that you have refused to do any more soldiering? For Heaven’s sake man don’t be such a fool. Don’t disgrace yourself and think of us before you do anything so mad. How do you propose to get out of the Army for the first thing? You are under age and will only have to join the ranks unless you become a Conscientious Objector, which pray Heaven you never will.

Let me have a line soon, Yours ever Robert H. Hanmer.

Will Sassoon’s morale be able to weather such bombardment? Perhaps, but the supporting fire he is receiving seems as if it would be far less effective, and he may find himself advancing almost alone… which is, of course, how he likes to do things, although others do tend to follow. Anyway, here is some of that supporting barrage, in the form of a recent letter from Lady Ottoline Morrell:

Garsington

I saw Bertie [Russell] in London yesterday and he showed me your statement which I thought extraordinarily good. It really couldn’t have beep better, I thought. Very condensed and said all that’s necessary. It is tremendously fine of you doing it. You will have a hard time of it, and people are sure to say all sorts of foolish things. They always do—but nothing of that sort can really tarnish or dim the value and splendour of such a True Act…

It is beastly being a woman and sitting still, irritating. Sometimes I feel I must go but and do something outrageous.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 85.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 96.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 175-6.
  4. Diaries, 178-9.

Swimming in the Scarpe with George Coppard; The Master of Belhaven Returns for a Field Day; Vera Brittain is Coming Home

George Coppard joined a gun team on the Scarpe canal only a few days ago, but he soon had a run in–or rather a swim-in–with the Germans:

As things were quiet at that particular time the officer permitted several of us to go for a swim. We set off towards a bend in the canal about a hundred yards from the gun positions. When we were well round the bend I saw some other swimmers in the water about two hundred yards away. Suddenly one of my companions yelled, ‘Blimey! They’re bloody Jerries!’ And so they were. We turned tail at speed, making a bit of a splash…

With such close proximity, today’s encounter is hardly surprising–evidence of faltering morale among the German defenders of Arras. The British advance may be unsustainably costly, but the concentrated barrage–more than a month into the battle–is still a matter of unendurable madness and misery for the defenders.

The battle of Arras was still going on, and a show was working up to capture to capture ground near Rouex. On 12 May our artillery put up a fierce bombardment and our two guns joined in with barrage fire across the canal on Jerry’s support area. The 37th Brigade attacked, and later a big party of Jerries, carrying no visible arms, swarmed down the other side of the canal. Suddenly they saw us, and up shot their hands. Our guns were trained on them, and it was touch and go whether to open fire… One or two of us favoured the extreme treatment, but Lieutenant W D Garbutt decided they should be taken prisoner… He was courageous, steady and companionable, and we thought a lot of him.[1]

 

While we’re on the subject of artillery, it’s been too long since we’ve heard from Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven. Our gruff battery commander and faithful diarist fell ill in November and was eventually sent to England for an operation The exact nature of the complaint is not clear from his diary, but he has recovered. Hamilton returned to France at the end of April and his brigade is now in rest behind the lines at Fouquière. Well behind the lines–but not quite far enough.

I woke at 7 o’clock this morning to find the Huns having shots at us, with a long-range naval gun. It was a very high velocity gun, as the shells arrived at a tremendous pace. He only fired about a dozen rounds, none of which fell within 500 yards of us, and all except one were “duds.” I suppose it amused him and did not hurt us…

At 5.30 p.m. this afternoon the brigade staff and all battery staffs went out to do a little scheme. It was a distinctly humorous situation if one thinks of it. There were we having a field day, like in England, and all the time we are well within range of the German guns…[2]

 

From this ominous ordinary day we proceed to Malta, where Vera Brittain‘s resolve to return home has been accepted by the authorities. It doesn’t make much sense to refer to this ready permission as an advantage of her gender–not when she had to jump through a number of hoops to be allowed to leave England even though there was a nursing shortage, while young men with far less training were herded into the armies and sent out as a matter of course.

Even though a large number of women are taking advantage of new opportunities for social mobility and becoming nurses, ambulance drivers, and munitions workers, fundamental social expectations are not shifting. One clear sign of this is that the path for a quick return to traditional roles is being kept open. (Naturally: when the war ends, the tens of thousands of women with new industrial or agricultural jobs will be unceremoniously sent home so that returning soldiers can take up their old jobs). A soldier was “in” until his health broke or he was killed or wounded, but a V.A.D. nurse who informed her superiors that she was needed at home was allowed to break her contract. Only a few weeks after deciding to come home in order to support her brother and, she hopes, to nurse Victor Richardson, the great Bureaucracy has inclined its head toward the suppliant, and released her in acknowledgment that, for young women if not for young men, family still has a greater claim than country. But, as she writes today to her brother, getting home will be a slow process, and feel slower still–and it will not be without its dangers, given German submarine warfare.

Malta, 12 May 1917

I have at last got permission to resign & ‘proceed to the United Kingdom’ & now it is a case of wait, wait, wait, until the opportunity to do so comes. I may leave in one week, maybe two, maybe three; the chief point is to get back before you go, & as (D.V) I hope not to be too long once I start, it would be all right even if I didn’t go till the beginning of June, as you cannot go, can you, before June 15th? Should come even if you had gone, because of
Tah, but I must see you. . .

The risk of course is great, but half the world at present are running greater ones daily & the issue may make it well worth while. The uncertainty about going & the suspense about things happening at home are hard to bear, but I shall count these as nothing if only I can reach you. . . I have written to the family about it so you can talk about it to them; don’t let them worry; time enough for that if anything does happen. One only hopes for the best; ‘the Gods are not angry forever’, & perhaps for once they will be kind to those to whom they have been so cruel.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun, 108-9.
  2. War Diary, 284.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 353.

Vera Brittain’s Sisters at Lemnos; Henry Williamson’s Sister Assigned to a Lonely Soldier

Vera Brittain‘s life and her private writing are a major focus of this project. But she also writes verse, with an eye to publication, and this we’ve seen very little of. “The Sisters Buried at Lemnos,” written last year while en route to Malta, was first published in a magazine at her former school, St. Monica’s. It has now moved up one significant wrung: today, a century back, it was published in The Oxford Magazine.

 

The Sisters Buried at Lemnos

O Golden Isle set in the deep blue Ocean,
With purple shadows flitting o’er thy crest,
I kneel to thee in reverent devotion
Of some who on thy bosom lie at rest!

Seldom they enter into song or story;
Poets praise the soldier’s might and deeds of War,
But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory
Of women dead beneath a distant star.

No armies threatened in that lonely station,
They fought not fire or steel or ruthless foe,
But heat and hunger, sickness and privation,
And Winter’s deathly chill and blinding snow.

Till mortal frailty could endure no longer
Disease’s ravages and climate’s power,
In body weak, but spirit ever stronger,
Courageously they stayed to meet their hour.

No blazing tribute through the wide world flying,
No rich reward of sacrifice they craved,
The only meed of their victorious dying
Lives in the heart of humble men they saved.

Who when in light the Final Dawn is breaking,
Still faithful, though the world’s regard may cease,
Will honour, splendid in triumphant waking,
The souls of women, lonely here at peace.

O golden Isle with purple shadows falling
Across thy rocky shore and sapphire sea,
I shall not picture these without recalling
The sisters sleeping on the heart of thee!

Vera Brittain

First, literature. This, needless to say, is an effort that reflects neither Brittain’s incisive prose style nor her mounting frustration and “threadbare” patriotism. But then again, for Vera Brittain, 1916 was a long time ago. Is a change in her style coming, or will she soldier on in the mold of a Minor Sister of St. Rupert, combining unreflective reflections on sacrifice with beautiful sentiments, and no thoughts particularly sharp or unyielding?

Second, politics. This is a traditionalist poem, but its argument is quite progressive. Given how thoroughly Vera’s emotional life–especially as reflected in her correspondence–revolves around four young male soldiers, it’s easy to forget that few women (especially women of her class, but that’s another matter) entered into active war service. There is still enough public discomfort with the idea of well-bred young “girls” handling the bodies of young men that she does not dwell, here, on just how difficult and intimate that service is. Instead, she uses her first acquaintance with women as actual casualties of the war to make an unassailable feminist argument: that, if they should die, think only this of them–they have as much claim to this rhetoric of beautiful sacrifice as any doomed officer…

 

Stranger by far is our other bit of writing for today, a century back. Henry Williamson has just finished haranguing his mother when a parcel arrives, necessitating a short thank you note.

Dear Mater,

Thanks for vests recd yesterday. We are very busy, as we have many new drafts, and shortly shall kill a few more Bosches I expect. There is no leave. Love to all. HWW.

But the letter has a striking and strange enclosure: a note to his sister Doris, asking her to take on the role of pen-pal and gift-giver to one of the men in his company.

Dear Biddy,

Just a hasty line to you. Will you send a small parcel including sweets etc and a pipe (about 1/6) and about 100 Woodbines etc to this man–68348 Driver G. Bevan, 208 MGCoy, BEF France–with a note stating you have heard he is a lonely soldier, & would he care to accept etc etc etc. Don’t mention your connection with me but sign your proper name and address. You might write him a letter, & mention that a parcel is coming. Make it a decent one up to 10/- or so & Father will give you the money from my a/c. No time now, love Harry.[1]

Is this simply a charitable impulse? It seems a bit unwise, as, though surely Williamson is a common-enough name, the driver might have cause to wonder whether this sudden London Williamson benefactress is any relation of his young lieutenant’s. Impulsive or inscrutable, Williamson always has some sort of surprise up his sleeve…

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 148.

Alfred Hale’s First Day on the Job; Ivor Gurney in Rouen; Vera Brittain on Love, Beauty, and Sacrifice, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XIX: Eminent Victorian

We left Alfred Hale forlorn and sleepless on his first night in barracks. But a man can adjust to most things–even the army.

…the last part of that night I must have slept a little, as I woke up about dawn… a sentry passed the window, returning off guard with his rifle and knapsack and other military equipment. Yesterday evening I had heard someone say that Sergeant so-and-so had said to him that he was making up a firing party, and I thought of the lot of the man led out to be shot on such a dawn as this…

But this cheerless brooding on my part was soon to be cut short with a corporal coming in and telling us to get up at once…

After a short march, breakfast–“fried eggs and bacon and tea out of an urn, both rather dirtily served”–and an eminently forgettable first full day in the army:

…that whole place seemed to be made up of huge depressing buildings overshadowing endless parade grounds, where much-drilled platoons of men daily and hourly trod the gravel. Just inside the entrance gates was a large recreation ground with tennis courts–for the officers, I suppose.

What was done with us recruits that morning I have completely forgotten…[1]

This is surely because the army is merely marking time while sorting its catvh. Tomorrow, a century back, Hale will be assigned to his first unit.

 

This snippet from Ivor Gurney would be out of place wherever we put it. But his surprising reaction to another of the great Gothic masterpieces makes a fine counterpoint to Hale’s initiation into the grim wonders of London military architecture.

Yesterday I managed to get to Rouen again, and was for a brief two hours and a half my own master. It really is a  fine town, and a great rock which stands smiling and huge just out of the town and on the river is very impressive. I did not go into the Cathedral, whose iron spire struck me with increased horror; a dreadful thing. St Ouen has a very much finer spire.[2]

 

Another letter from Vera Brittain–to her brother, Edward–confirms her growing belief that the Brotherhood (and Maiden) of the Survivors of Roland must serve one another most intensely now in their deepest need.

Malta, 6 May 1917

You say that you & I must make things worth while to Victor as his family is inadequate for dealing with the situation, & Mother says that in future days ‘he must be our especial care’. I have thought a great deal about both your letters. No one could realise better than I our responsibility towards him–not only because of our love for him, but because of his love for us, & the love felt for him by the One we loved & lost. I am not sure that this doesn’t apply more to me than to any of you. I at any rate know this, that I should be more glad than I can say to offer him a very close & life-long devotion if he would accept it, & I can’t imagine that Roland, if He had known what was to be–if He knows–would be anything but glad too. Those two are beyond any aid of ours–They who have died; and  the only way to repay even one little bit of the debt to Them is through the one who remains: ‘Happiness’ said Olive
Schreiner ‘is a great love and much serving.’ For his sake–for all your sakes — there is nothing I would not do for him…

I dare not think much about Geoffrey. As I work there is a shadow over everything; I know it is there but I try not to think why it is there or to analyse it too much.

This is a delicate matter–or, perhaps, it’s just the sort of thing that I hesitate to pronounce upon with certainty. Neo-Victorian prudery!

But what intense jumble of romantic, Romantic, and filial feelings produces this intense devotion, to others, in the name of Roland? Vera isn’t precisely proposing to become consort-nurse or wife to Victor, so she is certainly hinting at just the type of non-standard relationship that, unless it were formalized through marriage, would, indeed, seem very strange to her peers.

And Geoffrey–who did not attend Uppingham and was never a close friend of Roland’s–is now drawn more snugly into the little circle. His status derives from three things: his close friendship with Edward Brittain, the fact that he spent so much time with Vera just after Roland was killed, and the fact that he is dead now, and beyond the harm of confused emotions,

Do you think it strange, I wonder, that while I loved — & love — Roland so much, I loved Geoffrey a little too? To me there always seemed to be something very much in common between them — though I suppose there always is something in common between ‘whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report . . . . .’[3] This something, whatever it was, seemed to express itself in their mutual love of Rupert Brooke, their mutual sense of the glory of the earth, in Geoffrey’s love of Roland’s poems. . .

When I think of Roland & Geoffrey & Victor & you I am reminded of Carlyle’s mourning in the ‘French Revolution’ over the loss of ‘the eloquent, the young, the beautiful, the brave’. How better could you describe Them–Roland the eloquent, Geoffrey the beautiful, & all four of you so brave & so tragically young. (Victor’s conduct on the Day was glorious–worthy of Roland & of his best self. I almost wept in reading of it–dear old Tah.) . . .

There it is again–the nurse describing the maimed young man as “glorious.” But if I have repented of that critique, especially since Kate Luard soon afterwards gave voice, through her patients, to a more nuanced view of the war’s emotional toll.

Yet this usage remains problematic, here: Brittain is not, as Luard was, commenting on a patient. She is choosing to read third-hand military reports as mitigating factors in the “meaning” of the destruction of Victor’s health, youth, face, and eyesight.

And she brought “beauty” into the conversation, too. One can hardly expect (or even desire) clear critical thinking about such things so close to the event… and yet. Shouldn’t there be some resistance to this romantic resistance to the threat of meaninglessness?

Vera Brittain fancied herself something of a rebel, a feminist conscientious objector, at least, to unquestioning Victorian for religio-patriotic pablum. But as she absorbs these terrible blows she seems to be losing her tentative footing in any sort of “modern” or critical point of view. She writes of saintly fallen heroes, she borrows from the arch-Victorian historian, she proposes an almost monastic sort of self-sacrifice… and in all of this she is abetted by their joint reading of Rupert Brooke.

Which is a bit of a challenge to us, here. Isn’t the influence of beauty and poets–and beautiful poets–one that perhaps we should respect, especially when the sentimental appeal receives covering fire from our guiding muse, the inexorable angel of calendrical coincidence?

Strange that Geoffrey should die on exactly the same day as his beloved Rupert Brooke 2 years before. And the same day of the month as Roland.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 47.
  2. War Letters, 161-2.
  3. Philippians 4:8.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 350-1.