The Master of Belhaven Has Great Fun; Rudyard Kipling Tries Out a Jest; Isaac Rosenberg in the Gloomiest Depths

We have a jarring triple contrast for today, a century back–a diary entry and two letters, each in a very different mood and aspect.

We begin, wrong-footedly, with the comic relief. The Master of Belhaven is nothing if not a sportsman. But those Germans, on the other hand, they really do put up a poor show…

I walked over to Welch’s detached section with him in the afternoon. He lent me a gun and we put up quite a lot of partridges. The birds are very wild now, and we did not get any. However, it was great fun. The Hun, who is no sportsman, amused himself by putting out shrapnel not far off, but they were too high to be at all dangerous.[1]

 

Then it’s an abrupt and painful transition from a colonel with the leisure to shoot (at) partridges on a lark–and the good breeding to forgive the birds of the battle zone their wildness–to a private with very much less in the way of time and sport and fun. Isaac Rosenberg, is less interested in the birds of No Man’s Land than most of our poets are–but he’s a dab hand with the rats.

Dear Mr Bottomley

I do not know when I begin a letter whether to plunge right to the depths into the gloomiest of Byronic misanthropy (as indeed, my inclination pushes me to,) or be nice and placid & acquiescent about things. I know if I didn’t explain myself properly Id only appear weak & stupid, & as the situation does not give me the chance to explain myself, it must be left unexplained just yet, at least…

I have been transfered… my own Batt is broken up & what was left of them mixed with other Battalions… Poetry has gone right out of me I get no chance to even think of it. My ‘Unicorn’ is dead, & it will need a powerful Messiah to breathe life into its nostrils. I could more easily draw than write but the weather is too cold for that, if I did get the time… Thank you for what you say about my ‘Kolue’ speech. If the war does not damage me completely Ill beat that yet.

Yours sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[2]8.

These sorts of bulletins–“it’s miserable, but let us hold onto hope”–are the best Rosenberg has been able to manage, of late. But if poetry really has been driven right out of him then he is, at least, still holding on to the last fragments he was able to produce before his transfer… we shall see them soon.

 

Speaking of production, here’s a strange one. Rudyard Kipling and several cronies have recently decided to begin the distinctly sui generis (and extremely English) project of composing a sham fifth book of Horatian odes. In this letter to C. R. L. Fletcher, then, we might expect to find Kipling in his mode of master yarn-spinner–and we do. He is excited by the game, there is a burst of creativity couched in hale-fellow encouragements… but it’s not all fun and games.

Bateman’s, Burwash, Sussex

Feb. 17.1918.

Dear Fletcher

…I think highly of any good “fake” and the idea of the original M.S.–of a decent rich brown tinct–is very fine indeed. Thus are Immortal Works built up! ‘Only hope we’ll have some paper left after the war! Facsimiles cost like sin: but I foresee an edition de luxe in the years to come!

And I think too the notion of fresh hands in the game is fun. We oughtn’t to keep the fun to ourselves…

All good luck be with you.

Ever

RK.

This selection of the letter more or less captures the tone. He is writing, again, about the project of composing odes in the style of Horace and rendering them in Latin. And that’s not all. He is thinking, too, about that collection of short ancient verses known to classicists (and well-educated 19th century Englishmen more generally) as the Greek Anthology. The anthology is rich in epitaphs, and Kipling has been mulling these over. There is a post-script–and it doesn’t sound like a joke.

P.S. How does this go into Greek. It’s out of the sepulchral unchristian epigrams of the missing parts of the Anthology:

On an R. A. Subaltern

Death fell upon my Son from out of the skies while
he was laughing, they tell me, at some jest. Would
I had known what it was. It would serve me through
the years when I shall not laugh.

The grammar is mixed I think.[3]

The striking thing is that this epigram–which Kipling proposes, perhaps jokingly, to render into Greek–is not at all lighthearted. It’s a suitably stoic ancient-style epigram, one that would fit well, perhaps, with what the mourners on the hither side of the generational gulf might want their public sentiments about their “fallen” sons to sound like. Which is why this epigram, published later in revised form, is often presented as if it is written by Kipling about his boy Jack. And, of course, how could his only son be entirely absent from his mind? But there is no mention of Jack, here–instead it is the classical heritage, on the one hand, and the Royal Artillery (Jack Kipling was an infantry officer) on the other…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 457.
  2. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 117-
  3. Letters, IV, 483-4.

Three Poems for February: Edmund Blunden’s Deceitful Calm, Vera Brittain’s Dream Grown Vain, and Siegfried Sassoon’s Upteenth Idyll; Thomas Hardy Looks to Past Collapse; Kipling and the War at Home; Happy Birthday Muriel Spark

And so we come to February, a strange month. It will be slow, here (though enlivened by two strange and awesome childhood visitations by later writers, on which see below). In fact, it’s really the last “slow” month of the war. Is the end in sight? Well, in hindsight, yes. But, then, of course, to see February in this light is a violation of the terms of our compact. Yes, a German offensive is expected, and yes, the strategists see this spring and summer as crucial, because Germany is under tremendous pressure to strike a winning blow after the collapse of Russia and before the weight of the United States can turn the tide on the Western Front. But “the strategists” have been promising breakthroughs for several years now, and we can hardly be look complacently forward and congratulate them for being right. And yet…

I have three poems, today–one dated to the day and the other two appearing as “month poems.” And the first one, at least, is a bit of a cheat. The argument I’m trotting out here is that this February occupies a doubly ironic position: there is no reason to expect–or so the poor bloody infantry would feel–any change, any way to remember another cold, muddy month in the fourth winter of a war of attrition. And yet there is no way to remember this month other than as the month before[1] the last German offensive, before everything changed.

On the other hand, many things stay the same, so we’ll hear from two great Victorian writers as well. And on the other, other hand, “everything changed;” so we’ll also hear from a Modern woman as yet unborn–this morning, that is–and yet at the top of her game.

 

Gouzeaucourt: The Deceitful Calm

How unpurposed, how inconsequential
Seemed those southern lines when in the pallor
Of the dying winter
First we went there!

Grass thin-waving in the wind approached them,
Red roofs in the near view feigned survival,
Lovely mockers, when we
There took over.

There war’s holiday seemed, nor though at known times
Gusts of flame and jingling steel descended
On the bare tracks, would you
Picture death there.

Snow or rime-frost made a solemn silence,
Bluish darkness wrapped in dangerous safety;
Old hands thought of tidy
Living-trenches!

There it was, my dears, that I departed,
Scarce a plainer traitor ever! There too
Many of you soon paid for
That false mildness.[2]

 

So Edmund Blunden, looking back only to look ahead, and writing yet another agonized version of the survivor’s poem, this time in retrospect and prospect at once.

 

Vera Brittain, barred by her gender from any sense of comradeship in the face of death–indeed, from any tighter embrace of danger (she’s done as much as she can, in that regard, to get to a hospital in France)–is already a three-fold survivor. Her poem–written this month, a century back, amidst the calm that Blunden would remind us is about to be disturbed–looks steadfastly back at the first love she lost. This is more than personal mourning or general disenchantment. Given the short lines and traditional rhymes this reads, at first, as a rather prim poem–which makes the sharpness of its despair surprising: a pretty thing with jagged edges.

 

Roundel

(“Died of Wounds”)

 

Because you died, I shall not rest again,
    But wander ever through the lone world wide,
Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain
            Because you died.

 

I shall spend brief and idle hours beside
    The many lesser loves that still remain,
But find in none my triumph and my pride;

 

And Disillusion’s slow corroding stain
    Will creep upon each quest but newly tried,
For every striving now shall nothing gain
            Because you died.[3]

 

 

Siegfried Sassoon is also sad today–“very sad,” in fact.

February 1 (Limerick, Maine)

Went to the Meet… but weather very wet and stormy, and hounds went home from the meet… Twenty-three miles for nothing… Very sad.

Once again Outdoor Sassoon comes home from a hunt and writes a poem, its music sweet and its sentiment… sentimental.

 

Idyll

In the grey summer garden I shall find you
With day break and the morning hills behind you
There will be rain-wet roses; stirring wings;
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.
Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep:
And I shall know the sense of life re-born.
From dreams into the mystery of morn
Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there
‘Til that calm song is done, at last we’ll share
The league-spread quiring symphonies that are
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.

February 1[4]

 

And back in England, two great men of the older generation (two different older generations, really) cope with the war in very different ways. Sometimes it seems as if there are really only two modes of being an old (i.e. past military age) man in times like these: you either lament the war and all its foolish, backward, wickedness, or you fantasize about taking part.

Thomas Hardy, in this letter to Edward Clodd, takes the first course.

Max Gate, Dorchester, Feb 1. 1918.

My dear Clodd:

My best thanks for “The Question” which I shall read with interest, as I do everything of yours…

What a set-back this revival of superstition is! It makes one despair of the human mind. Where’s Willy  Shakespeare’s “So noble in reason” now! In another quarter of a century we shall be burying food & money with our deceased, as was done with the Romano-British skeletons I used to find in my garden.

Sincerely yours,

Th. Hardy.[5]

 

And then there’s Rudyard Kipling–a great writer in a different mode. In terms of sheer narrative energy and storytelling verve he is almost without peer–which says little enough about his life or his politics, which are both far less exemplary and entertaining. But I don’t comment, here, upon his imperialist writings, or his celebrations of the manly spirit of adventure. I just quote from this letter, about how, having sussed out the movements of the enemy by careful observance of the natives, he has to stay home this weekend to defend his castle against maliciously anti-Kipling rioters and other crypto-socialist/peacenik undesirables.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex

Feb. 1.1918.

Dear Colonel–

I ought to go up to London tomorrow for the week end as I have a good deal of important business there. But I understand that some sort of “demonstration” with regard to the food question is being planned by some of the women in the village, for Saturday night, which is not the sort of thing to leave behind one as it might easily end in window-breakings and other things that would upset our maids…

There has been in our service a Mrs. Smith–sister of Fennels–who has been here as charwoman. She has suddenly given notice for no reason though she has no other work and has been carried by us through hard times; and I understand that she is among the women concerned.

This seems to point to Bateman’s as one of the objectives in the “demonstration.”

Very sincerely

Rudyard Kipling

The editor of Kipling’s letters notes that there are no records of disturbances in Sussex this weekend, a century back. There is general unhappiness about food shortages at home, and Kipling is far from the only person in Britain tempted to believe the rumors of nefarious doings afoot. But if any vengeful members of the working class laid siege to Kipling’s Keep, he seems to have annihilated them in complete secrecy… I imagine that his gardeners diligently kept the grass short, otherwise I would imagine the Great White Hunter stalking up and down in the long grass in pith helmet and tweeds, shouldering his elephant gun…[6]

 

Finally, to begin a week in which we observe (in a very clever and literary way!) the birthdays of two major women writers of the mid-20th century, I should mention that Muriel Spark was born today, a century back. This would be trivia rather than literature were it not for her brilliant, lacerating satirical story, “The First Year of My Life.” This makes Spark surely the youngest person to contribute a properly dated fictionalized memoir to A Century Back.

The story begins with these memorable sentences:

I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday. Testimony abounds that during the first year of my life I never smiled.

It’s viciously good–and, much like Blunden’s backward-looking song of February–it rather spoils the outcome of the war, noting her babyish progress at each of the major milestones to come. Reader, the war will end in November, and the unsmiling baby will grow up to write a great deal, and little enough of it smile-provoking…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Well, there were also three quiet weeks at the beginning of March...
  2. Later published in Undertones of War.
  3. Later published in Verses of a V.A.D.
  4. Diaries, 208-9.
  5. Collected Letters, V, 247.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 482.

Wilfred Owen Reports to Mother; Kipling’s Soldier Breaks Down

We take a deep breath today after the excitement of seeing one of our poets married off–and two of our writers hit if off. (What could go wrong?)

We heard something of Wilfred Owen‘s impressions of the wedding, yesterday, but I might as well give the rest of the letter–a prompt after-action report to his mother–that he wrote upon returning to duty, today, a century back.

Thursday, 24 January 1918 Scarborough

Just five minutes and half a sheet of paper left to tell you what a good, full, & profitable 24 hours I had in London.

Lunched with Ross. Wells was there, but at another table, whence he waved to me from afar. Had a few words after lunch, but we were in a hurry to drive off. The wedding was nothing extraordinary…

Dined at the Reform again with Roderick Meiklejohn of the Liquor Control Board. (Lord Rhondda was the nearest person to me at lunch!) Then repaired to Half Moon St. with Meiklejohn, & passed the evening with Ross and two Critics. At 2 a.m. found my way to Imperial Hotel, and started up this morning by the 10 a.m. from King’s Cross.

Feel much refreshed. Dearest love. W.E.O.[1]

The presence of Charles Scott Moncrieff in this letter is, perhaps not surprisingly, heavily veiled: he is merely one of “two critics!”

 

And in the fictional future-past of today, a century back, Strangwick, the traumatized soldier at the heart of A Madonna of the Trenches, breaks down, unable to bear the weight of confusion and guilt about the death of his “uncle” three days earlier.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 528.

A Madonna of the Trenches

Rudyard Kipling was three things: a prodigious storyteller, a problematic political figure, and too old to fight in the Great War. (He was many other things, it’s true, but I do like to hew to the main argument, once in a while.)

So it is only a venial violation of the rules against post-century-back peeking to note that Kipling will survive the war, and write about it. But that writing–the two volumes of the History of the Irish Guards in the Great War, as well as a number of short stories–will still be overshadowed by death. By the millions of combat dead around the world, the nearly a million British dead, the many hundreds of officers and men of the Irish guards, but, more than any of them, by the death of Kipling’s only son, Jack, while serving in that Regiment. The work is a memorial of sorts, but it also stretches toward a less well-lighted exploration of grieving. Several stories–including the incomparable “The Janeites“–are set in a rather peculiar Masonic lodge, where men come together for ritual and for learning, and to talk through the experiences that haunt them. The story takes place at about the time of its composition–several years after the war, when Kipling was researching and writing the histories, and steeping himself in the lives of the two Guards battalions.

“A Madonna of the Trenches” is strange, fascinating, and–depending upon your taste and Kipling-appreciation-tendencies–either a strangely double-filtered and portentously spooky story or a harrowing spine-tingler that crosses over from mere frisson to real tragedy. The story involves traumatic trench horrors, doomed love, suicide, a ghostly visitation, an obnoxiously masterful doctor, and the misery of a soldier, standing in for so many surviving soldiers, who is condemned to perpetually recall both the many ways that the trenches can kill a man, and the ways they keep the dead literally unquiet. But why continue to crib from an able summary and discussion which is available online?

One of the many “controversial”–which is, I think, here, only to say “not easy to settle”–aspects of the story is the significance of the date of the main (past) action of the tale, a date which is mentioned several times during the story. It’s today, a century back, which is also St. Agnes’s day, and, as such, may may refer to a poem by Keats (whom Sassoon is reading about just now) concerning star-crossed lovers both like and unlike the ones in the story.

The events of the story do not seem to have any direct connection to the factual action of the war or the experiences of the Irish Guards on this January 21st–but there’s the date in the text, plain as plain, nevertheless. Did I recently recommend reading a huge four-book Modernist novel just because an apparently haphazardly-chosen January 1918 date appears in it? That was silly… don’t do that

But do read this story–just a yarn, just a ghost story that revets its pathos with the horrors of the trenches. And also, just maybe, a short story of real affective power… What happened, in that trench, today, a century back?

“A Madonna of the Trenches” is available online here, at the website of the Kipling Society.

 

The Master of Belhaven Masters the Mimeograph; A Regenerating Tale of Cowardice; Ford Madox Ford’s “Footsloggers;” Wilfred Owen, Fourth Musketeer?

The Master of Belhaven has never been the savviest of our writers. But he is a good officer–energetic and competent and cool under fire, be it literal artillery fire or the pressure of a Christmas Eve faux pas:

All the battalions and brigades have been sending us Christmas-cards. We had not thought of it, so feel rather left. So I spent the morning printing off a hundred little double sheets on the duplicator, with 106th Brigade Royal Field Artillery on one side and “With best wishes for Xmas and the New Year from Lt.-Col. The Master of Belhaven and Officers 106th Brigade, R.F.A.”[1]

 

It sounds like a merry Christmas Eve for Wilfred Owen. Not that he is home with his family or in the bosom of his friends (or vice versa). No: he is back in Scarborough after a brief leave in Edinburgh, but the post has been kind to him. He began a letter to his mother yesterday morning, a century back:

My own Mother,

Came back last night… A good journey, and as a show well worth the money in itself. The sun began to think of setting about two o’clock and so there was a three hours’ winter sunset over the Northumberland moors…

Having been interrupted, he continued the letter today.

Have now had your lovely parcel, & opened it but not broken into the scrumshies.

And what did he get from the schoolboys that he taught and mentored?

The Scotch boys gave me 100 Players Cigarettes. It was most touching…

Those were the days. But this is mere preamble:

I can think of nothing at the moment but Robert Graves’ letter, which came by the same post as the parcel.

He says ‘Don’t make any mistake, Owen, you are a —— fine poet already, & are going to be more so. I won’t have the impertinence to criticize . . .

Puff out your chest a little, and be big for you’ve more right than most of us . . .

You must help S.S. & R.N. & R.G. to revolutionize English Poetry. So outlive this war.

Yours ever, Robert Graves.’

I have never yet written to him![2]

So there it is: the implied offer, from Robert Graves–lo, even as he is about to threaten the group with a permanent female presence–that Owen, the young man from the provinces with the unfashionable accent, might become their D’Artagnan.

 

A major contemporary writer, half-realized master Modern novelist, and occasional poet, Ford Madox Hueffer is surely too old to be included on such a list of future revolutionaries, and still too young to mind all that much. Also, he probably wouldn’t care in the least, since his dance card of literary adversaries is already overfilled with those whose barbs have drawn blood, and I’ve seen nothing to indicate that he has any regard for Georgian War Poetry.[3] Ford will be after bigger fish as soon as he can sit down and really write. A novel, that is.

But, as it happens, he did sit down today and begin to write a long, elegiac, apparently fairly traditional poem… which gets ironic and weird before it even begins. It is titled after the nameless infantry, then dedicated to the British propaganda chief (and friend of Ford’s) C.F.G. Masterson.

 

Footsloggers

To C. F. G. M.

I

What is love of one’s land?
. . . I don’t know very well.
It is something that sleeps
For a year — for a day —
For a month — something that keeps
Very hidden and quiet and still
And then takes
The quiet heart like a wave,
The quiet brain like a spell,
The quiet will
Like a tornado; and that shakes
The whole of the soul.

II

It is omnipotent like love;
It is deep and quiet as the grave
And it awakes Like a flame, like a madness,
Like the great passion of your life.
The cold keenness of a tempered knife,
The great gladness of a wedding day,
The austerity of monks who wake to pray
In the dim light,
Who pray
In the darkling grove,
All these and a great belief in what we deem the right
Creeping upon us like the overwhelming sand,
Driven by a December gale,
Make up the love of one’s land.

 

It goes on for several more stanzas, a poem that lulls–or deceives?–with its prettiness and music, even as it works around central issues of the conflict. Is Ford a very good poet tossing off something with deceptive lightness? Or is this another game, another none-too-serious expenditure of prodigious talent on a production which might acquiesce too easily to a narrowly patriotic reading, allowing the unwary reader to fall into a trap?

I’m honestly not sure what to make of it… Ford evidently worked on it over the next few days; the entire poem can be read here.

 

And finally, today, in Pat Barker’s novel The Eye in the Door (the second of the Regeneration trilogy), Charles Manning, an older, erudite officer and family man who has an affair with the protean Billy Prior (and has also been treated by W.H.R. Rivers), will recall staying with Robbie Ross this Christmas Eve, along with Siegfried Sassoon. (In reality, Sassoon is at Litherland.) Tonight was–in Manning’s telling, in the novel–the occasion of an air raid with a predictably ironic outcome. It was his first raid, and he “was a complete bloody wreck,” although Ross’s housekeeper was perfectly calm. Manning adds, in this perhaps doubly fictitious anecdote, that Sassoon was also windy, commenting “All that fuss about whether I should go back or not. I won’t be any bloody good when I do.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 422-7.
  2. Collected Letters, 518-19.
  3. He will shortly write, in fact, a letter hawking the poem below as a rare example of poetry written by a man who has actually been at the front.
  4. Barker, The Eye in the Door, 166-7.

Olaf Stapledon on Utopia in England. and a Queer and Vengeful Justice

Olaf Stapledon, writing regularly to his beloved Agnes now that he is home on leave (and thoroughly fed up with bourgeois complacency), recommends a book, today, and reveals an influence that we might well have suspected, a link which connects one of the most earnest young writers of what will soon be called science fiction with the author of several important late 19th century works of fantasy and speculation. Who would have thought that a Quaker-allied sentimentalist determined to work toward the enlightenment of working men would enjoy a classic of19th century utopian socialism?

14 December 1917

… I have told the bookseller to send you a wee book when he can get a copy of it. It is William Morris’s “News from Nowhere.” You will like it, am sure. It is a sort of tale, and also a picture of a Happy England that might be. Read it thinking of the things we want to help to bring to pass when we are married. It is only a little book, and a very readable one. Of course it is open to much criticism, but that matters not. It gives a charming though rather limited picture. . . .

News From Nowhere features a Morris-surrogate protagonist who goes to sleep in the 19th century and wakes up in a post-industrial social utopia some hundred-plus years in the future. He wanders among the kind and forthright citizens, traveling up the Thames from London and learning about all that is wonderful now that was once cruel or sordid. There are a lot of hale and happy men, thoroughly pretty and contented women, and satisfied artisans of both sexes. (Actually, he more or less anticipates the early 21st century artisanal/contentment-driven/self-help/pseudo-anti-capitalist style.  Which is a shame, because he was writing from a time when the destructiveness of unchecked capitalism was so much more apparent even in the places where the rich were benefiting, and before such a complete victory of corporate industry was anything like a forgone conclusion. Morris was trying to be a revolutionary, and he will end up as the beardy great-grandfather whose pretty things are fetishized–and they are very pretty–while his passions and fond, foolish hopes are more or less forgotten.)

But anyway: in Morris’s tale the time traveler soon comes to learn from local antiquarians how this beatific state had been born out of the collapse of industrial capitalism at the end of the 19th century. It is, like much of Morris’s graphic and textile productions, both lovingly crafter and willfully impractical. He simply does away with competition, profit-seeking, and social stratification without really explaining how such things came to pass, putting his faith in human nature. Even the specifics of how beauty, plenty, and freedom all now peacefully coexist are a little wonky: surely a repeating polemic against iron bridges is not a necessary element of Utopia? Perhaps some aspects of mechanical development might have qualified as babies worthy of cherishing, of careful indoctrination in the new world order instead of being thrown out with the rest of the sooty, coal-fired bath water?

In any event, Stapledon is right about two things: it is a charming little book, and, if it pictures far more than it can properly propose, at least it begs the question “and why couldn’t England be happier than it is?”

I don’t think that Stapledon has only just read the book–he is thinking of it again, now, and sending it to Agnes, perhaps in part because it shows an eminently successful man and an honorable socialist writing dreamy, future-gazing prose. But his thoughts of the book follow, I think, from his recent musings about the difference between participatory pacifism and a true anti-war stance, and from his new distaste for bourgeois complacency.

What if it is not enough to try to aid the wounded, and hope that the war ends? What if England really needs to step towards Utopia, and soon? The dark satanic mills of Morris’s time have brightened slightly (even if they have turned all the young women yellow), and the lot of the working man has been gradually improving as political participation broadened. But Stapledon sees, now, in place of the frank classist exploitation of mid-Victorian times or the Social Darwinian justification for the subjugation of the masses, a new hypocrisy that ties industry, war, and the moral plight of young men all too tightly together.

The letter continues:

Miss Graveson sent her love to you… Miss G told us of Kenneth Robinson an old school fellow of mine who is a C[onscientious] O[bjector]. He stayed long to help his father in business, and at last was called to a tribunal. His position was much like mine—ready to do anything but military service, and very anxious to join the F. A. U. He trained for that, but the Tribunal would not grant him exemption for it because, if you please, his father & brothers were not COs. He was left at large for some time, but was finally arrested and given eighteen months hard at Wormwood Scrubs, you know what that means— solitary confinement with possibility of going mad. He’s a nice chap, so gay and unassuming and simple. Oh England, for shame! And here am I sitting in mufti before a nice fire with my feet on a thick fur rug and a meal preparing for me. Yet he and I are of the same persuasion, mind you. The only difference is that he was tied down by the need of helping his old father while I went off before the conscription act came in. It is a queer justice that lets me do the job I wanted and refuses it to him. . . [1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 260.

The Master of Belhaven Aghast; George Coppard in (and out) of Danger; Jack Martin at Rest, Siegfried Sassoon in the Field, and Cynthia Asquith on the Stage

A peripatetic day, today, a century back. But first we should tidy up matters on the Western Front.

The Master of Belhaven is doomed to remain on the outskirts of the battle of Cambrai, now in what is essentially its final day.

An intense bombardment began at 5 o’clock, but I don’t know who is attacking. It is still raging now at midday…

The current action will remain opaque to Hamilton, but he meets one of his former subordinates who lost his guns in the initial German counterattack. Perhaps he should have known not to trust what he was reading in the papers when away from the front.

The disaster seems to have been much worse than we have been told… There is no doubt this is the worst reverse the British Army has ever had in France. I believe we lost about 4,000 prisoners, but it is impossible to get any reliable information.

It’s still not so easy, in such cases where entire battalions melt away and brigades are surrounded–but the real number of prisoners was probably about 6,000.

The cold is something dreadful, thick ice everywhere–I can hardly hold a pen to write.[1]

Which also explains why “major offensive operations” are over for the winter.

More irony: just as Hamilton learns that things have been wildly out of control, they are once again stabilizing. Although the German counter-attack will continue, it was essentially forestalled by Haig with the expedient decision to retire–i.e. retreat–along most of the line, falling back onto defensible positions not all that different from the start line of November 20th.

Two more days of fighting will lead to a stalemate with little net change of position. In fact, in what is as neat an irony of attrition as one could wish, the situation is probably worse for the infantry on both sides, as on one section of the line the British held early gains while on another they ceded more than a mile of territory to the Germans, resulting in a double salient. Which meant that both sides could pound the new lines with mortars and machine guns from multiple angles and closer distances.

 

But we left George Coppard in a bad way, in hospital, and the operating theatre under preparation.

When I came to my senses the following morning my mother and grandmother were sitting beside the bed. There was a basket affair over my leg and I thought the leg had been amputated, but I was soon put at ease on that score. Happy though I was to see my folks I had no inclination to talk. A policeman had informed them that I was on the danger list, and had handed them free rail passes from Croydon to Birkenhead. They stayed for two days, but money was tight and they had to return home… I had discovered that getting a “Blighty one” was not always what it was cracked up to be…[2]

Coppard will suffer another major bleeding incident in a few days, but after that third loss of blood, his recovery, though slow, will proceed without major interruptions…

 

Next we check in on Jack Martin, who is enjoying the slower pace of life in Italy:

An Italian Labour Company is working in our vicinity making trenches and barbed wire entanglements, and they are making them well. It is amusing to see how they scuttle for shelter at the slightest alarm. We cannot help laughing as, compared with Ypres and the Somme, this is like being back at rest.[3]

 

But, of course, not actually like being at rest. That would be more like what Siegfried Sassoon is doing, in his own active fashion:

Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday. Monday December 3 went to Lewes and hunted with Southdown at
Offham. Poor day: very sharp frost. Stayed at Middleham.[4]

I’m glad that Sassoon, on this bit of leave which he was awarded after his four-month stay as a (healthy) hospital patient, is able to complain about the effects of the cold. Soon, no doubt, like the Master of Belhaven, he will be sharing the ill-effects of such weather with the men for whom he made that protest…

 

To London, now, and our second excerpt from the diary of Lady Cynthia Asquith, who bears (and bares) the vicissitudes of the privileged in wartime with perhaps a bit more tongue-in-cheek bravado than Sassoon. I’m not really sure, if I happened to enjoy mounted blood sports, whether I would consider a frigid and poor hunt a worse day out than what seems to be some sort of ill-conceived society fundraiser… a close call, no dout:

Monday, 3rd December

… Lunched in and had to go off to the Albert Hall for the Tombola–the worst of all the horrors of war. We, the Seven Ages of Women—Self (carrying baby) Erlanger child (flapper), Sonia Keppel (debutante), Diana (betrothed). Ruby (mother), Belgian woman (queen of the household), and Baroness D’Erlanger (old lady)—dressed and made up in the most preposterous discomfort in a curtained-off space…

Basil Gill (as Old Father Time) had to recite the most appalling doggerel verses—one for each of us—and one by one (me first, carrying that damned baby) we had to walk through columns on a stage before a dense, gaping crowd. Never have I felt so great a fool!

And then there is more silliness and naughty decadence. Or not: perhaps we should be reading this as a frightening situation of sexual aggression sanctioned by social attitudes. Asquith has admitted to an attraction to Bernard Freyberg, the comrade of her friends and relatives, but it’s unclear to what extent she is being harassed or pressured by him, in the absence of her husband.

Ava Astor drove me home. Mary Strickland, Oc, and I dined with Freyberg at Claridges. Mamma called for Mary and took her off; Oc, Freyberg, and I sat and talked—discussing marriage, and so on—then we dropped Oc at the Manners’ and Freyberg insisted on coming into the flat. I oughtn’t to have let him, but he commands me like a subaltern. I had an awfully difficult time with him. He stayed till 1.30.[5]

 

Finally, today–for those growing tired of society diaries and poetry fragments–there happens to be an old-fashioned war yarn in the short story collection Everyman at War entitled “La Vacquerie, December 3rd, 1917.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 416-7.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 131.
  3. Sapper Martin, 150.
  4. Diaries, 197.
  5. Diaries, 375-6.

Georgian Poetry the Third; Wilfred Owen’s Busy Month; Sassoon and Nichols Together in the Country; the Rout at Cambrai Continues, with Phillip Maddison; We Meet Lady Cynthia Asquith, as she Entertains a New Zealander, and Doubts

December! First of the last months! I wasn’t sure we would make it to December, 1917, but somehow we have. In celebration, there will be an entire volume of “month poems,” some excellent and topical, some indifferent and timeless, in rather a b ad way: December 1917 will see the release of Georgian Poetry III, a volume notable for bringing several of our poets together, at least between two covers. Later this month Isaac Rosenberg, finishing his own works in the alphabetical layout, will happen upon Siegfried Sassoon and read him for the first time.

 

Now Sassoon is, in one important way, a very generous soul: he is generous to his readers, especially those who came afterwards and interest themselves in his solipsism. There are the two piles of autobiography, the letters, the poems, and… ah, but he has been neglecting the diary. It was a place for notes on combat, cris de couer, and, once upon a time, his sporting doings.

So, now that he is a poet of protest no more but not yet a Mad Jack returned unto the bosom of the only men worth having as comrades and followers, what is the post-Rivers, pre-redemption Sassoon to do? Which of the various Siegfrieds will come to the fore?

So far, at least, he is having his cake and eating it too. Visiting his mother, he is at once George Sherston, fox-hunting man, and Siegfried Sassoon, habitué of London literary drawing rooms:

Went on leave November 29. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Weirleigh. Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday…

Which means Nichols will depart tomorrow, a century back, with their somewhat inevitable, somewhat unlikely friendship cemented; and then, on Monday, the diary will resume its oldest form: a hunting journal.[1]

 

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Sassoon’s other recent friendship–a far more momentous one–has reached a period of enforced cooling, as Wilfred Owen has been exiled to Scarborough and all-day duties as a Camp Commandant (not that Owen wasn’t trying to keep things simmering). Owen is on his own again, but he has begun–he has been started, as it were, and he is refreshed, driven. For those who didn’t follow the link above and read all of Georgian Poetry, then, here is a shorter and more aspirational document, looking ahead to the month’s accomplishments:

 

And what of the ongoing war?

 

For The Master of Belhaven, today was a day of false alarms. Standing-to from 5 a.m. until 9, they expected news of the assault of the German Guards Divisions, but his batteries, on the far flank of the Cambrai action, eventually stood down.[2]

 

So our war story, for the day, is carried on best in fiction. Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison had yet another climax–and anti-climax–to his manifold military experiences. His Machine Gun Company is called into the line to stem the German counter-attack: the British near-breakthrough of November 20th has become a German near-breakthrough, and Williamson seems to take a cruel pleasure in depicting the routed and panicked men who stream back past “286 M.”

Phillip himself, though “windy” and teary, is back in heroic mode, fighting in his pyjamas and helping to hold the line on what was, by all accounts, a desperate day. But in a bitter irony–Williamson perhaps intends this as a microcosm for the belated bureaucratic reckoning which will come for the commanders at Cambrai–Maddison’s commander, Teddy Pinnegar, is blamed for the Machine Gun Company being in the wrong place, even though this happens as a result of Phillip’s decisions during last night’s march… It’s all very confusing.

The day ends with Phillip guilty, feverish, diagnosed with trench fever by an American doctor, and sent to Blighty–not grateful, as he has been in earlier, more fearful times, but rueful that he has let his commander down and is going home sick rather than with a heroic wound. The climax of the book’s non-military action will come in England over the next few weeks, as the war and Phillip’s romantic escapades come together at last.[3]

 

Finally, with the new month, I’d like to introduce one more–just one more!–society diary.

Lady Cynthia Asquith has few connections to anyone we know. Except that she is a daughter of two “souls,” her mother a Wyndham (the grace on the right) and her father Hugo Charteris, the Earl of Wemyss; her brothers Yvo and Hugo (“Ego”) have both been killed in action; she is a confidante of D.H. Lawrence, secretary to J.M. Barrie, daughter-in-law of the ex-Prime Minister (her husband, Herbert Asquith, still serving in uniform and most evidently away from home was Raymond‘s younger brother), and, generally, friends with all of the smart set of society still left in England.

Which includes Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealandish interloper on the group who has earned his stripes (and stars) as a member of the Argonauts and, now, a hero of the Naval Division’s land battles. Lady Asquith will become a prolific author, but already, a century back, it’s clear that, surrounded by war and loss, she knows how to write warriors very well. Ardent lovers, however, are another thing altogether…

Saturday, 1st December

Went down to Brighton by 11.40 to spend the day with Freyberg. He met me at the station. He is staying at the Royal York, but we drove straight to the Metropole for luncheon. He was looking better and had a fine appetite. With his youthful face and the insignia of his anomalous rank (his medals and preposterous number of gold stripes), he is very conspicuous and much stared at—obsequious deference from the waiters. I insisted on taking him to Professor Severn, the phrenologist, but he was hopelessly out about him, marking him low for self-esteem and concentration…

We walked to dinner at the Metropole. He told me of his wonderful swimming exploit in Gallipoli, when he swam for four hours and landed naked and alone, and crawled quite close to the enemy’s trenches and lit torches. His eyes shine and he becomes poeticised talking of military adventures, and I was touched to see his eyes fill with tears once when he was talking about his men. I find him very, very attractive.

He drove me to the station to catch the 9.40. He made love to me all day with simplicity and sweetness, and I don’t know what to do. Several times he said he thought he had better not see me any more, and I suppose I ought to take him at his word: it is the candle that should withdraw, the moth cannot, but it would require considerable unselfishness on my part. I should hate to give him up altogether—conscience tells me I should. He kept asking me if I would have married him had I been free. I enjoyed the day very much—injudicious as it was.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. War Diary, 414-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.
  4. Diaries, 374-5.

Carstairs on Leave; The Master Returns; Toby’s Room at Garsington

After the intensity of Bourlon Wood, today is a quiet day, a transfer day–with time, then, for a fictional foray.

When Carroll Carstairs came to write his narrative of the harrowing battle for Bourlon Wood, he did so with an oddly light yet gripping style–and he scanted neither the intensely subjective experience of being a man alone under fire nor the nature of infantry combat as a contest of small groups of men all negotiating fear, discipline, compassion, loyalty, and violence. His coda to the episode hints at the difficulties ahead for soldiers who pass through such experiences.

The next day—at a time when I was well able to appreciate it—my leave to England came through.

I made a wide circle to avoid a particular point being shelled; fearful, now that I was temporarily a detached human, of being hit.[1]

 

Going the opposite way, today, a century back, was Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Hamilton, returning from an apparently useless senior officers’ course on Salisbury Plain. He dutifully notes the stages of his approach, but has nothing, as yet, to say of the battle that awaits him.[2]

 

Finally, today, another fictional introduction. Well into the fourth year of this project, I am highly sympathetic to novelists who find a way to put their earlier research to a second use. Pat Barker’s novel Toby’s Room follows a brother and sister and a small group of friends through the war: there is a good deal about art and medicine, and, merging the two in Great War fashion, about the horrors of disfigurement. The novel, too, mines Vera Brittain‘s experience and opens a dialogue with Virginia Woolf’s fictional treatment of the war.

But I mention Toby’s Room now because it also makes a flying visit to Historical Sassoonland, the point of origin of Barker’s Regeneration books. Today, a century back, the novel’s protagonist, Elinor Brooke, begins keeping a diary… which coincides with a visit to Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor, at which “the talk was all of Ottoline’s recent trip to Edinburgh to see Siegfried Sassoon, who… does seem to have treated her rather badly…” But Elinor’s sympathy is with Sassoon, hating the war and yet trying to find a place in it where he can do some good, even if it is only to take care of his men. The “diary” continues for the next few days…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 139.
  2. War Diary, 414.
  3. Toby's Room, 233-6.

Wilfrid Ewart in Bourlon Wood: What They Asked Us to Do Was Impossible; Doctor Rivers in Another Doctor’s Hell

The Battle of Cambrai has seen an unprecedented advance, a failure to break through, and stiff German resistance in another torn and terrible wood. The Guards have been called in, now–on both sides.

Although Cambrai is one of the few battles not to feature in his novel Way of Revelation, it provided the most harrowing moments of Wilfrid Ewart‘s war experience. At first light, three companies of the First Scots Guards were ordered to clear Bourlon Wood.

This of course was sheer open fighting, and quite different than anything we had done before except on field days.

But it didn’t last long. Machine guns pinned down one flank of the assault, and after several hours of stationary fighting it became clear that the British were outnumbered, and the attackers withdrew.

Then orders came up that they must try again, at two o’clock.

This was at 1.15, so there was not much time to arrange it, and I had the wind up as never before, feeling certain that it was impossible to take the place owing to the machine-guns which were supposed to be rushed with the bayonet…

It is now, I think, that the poor planning of the Cambrai offensive–the first few hours markedly improved in conception and execution, the rest abandoned to foolish hopes–becomes most clear.

There was a short and quite useless machine-gun barrage, no artillery. Just after we had gone over, Tyringham tried to stop us, as the Command realized the hopelessness of it, but it was then too late.

One company was “laid out together trying to rush the machine-guns.” The two guns then turn on Ewart and two men, out in front of his platoon, only fifteen yards away. They throw themselves down behind “a young oak-tree.”

The machine-gun fired absolutely point blank, but could not quite reach us on account of the tree… two Lewis Gunners… kept firing for all they were worth…working their guns in the open until they were killed. Every man was killed one after the other…

By this Ewart probably means every man among the Lewis gunners and their support teams. He is pinned down between the Germans and his men, watching the one kill the other, helpless. Some of his platoon are able to withdraw, it seems, but the Germans now begin throwing phosphorous grenades among the wounded, “which set light to them and burnt them up.”

Ewart and the two men are soon alone, and make a desperate retreat, crawling for the rear. One makes it, then the next is hit heavily (he will die of his wound). Ewart goes last.

I waited about five minutes and then did a lightning sprint on my stomach, and by all natural laws ought to have been hit–the bullets were knocking stones up into my face… It was an experience I shall never wish to repeat… what they asked us to do was impossible.[1]

The First Scots Guards were relieved that night, and due for a longer rest; but their Battle of Cambrai was not yet over.

 

So goes the latest of the war’s bloody battles. But what of those who have survived the earlier battles, their bodies undestroyed and yet not intact?

A good deal of the literature of the war has focused on the question of psychological trauma–“shell-shock”–and how it was diagnosed, treated, experienced, remembered, and written. We have, first and foremost, the poetry of the surviving soldiers who struggled with “shell shock” or post-combat “neurasthenia.” These are the most primary of sources, of course, but “shell shock”–with its dramatic traumas, unstable psyches, and uncertain social reception–calls out for third party treatment, as it were. The novel remains one of the best tools we have for exploring the human mind, and especially for depicting the attempt of one mind to reach another, over particularly terrible gulfs of experience. One series of such attempts, mediated through the mind of Dr. Rivers, becomes the central subject of Pat Barker’s incomparable Regeneration trilogy.

Readers of this project may remember that Dr. Rivers–pioneering neurologist, skilled and sensitive therapist, and father-figure-hero to Siegfried Sassoon–is currently on leave in London after a staff dust-up at Craiglockhart, and working on an academic paper about his work with “war neuroses.” Today, a century back (in the novel, at least), he takes the cruelest sort of busman’s holiday, going to the National Hospital to observe the methods of of Dr. Lewis Yealland, who has boasted of a 100% cure rate for cases of hysterical war neurosis. Readers of Regeneration will certainly remember this scene–it’s awful. Yealland is the villain of the piece, but as far as I can tell it (not far at all! caveat!) Barker represents his methods more or less accurately. Yealland takes patients who have been shocked/traumatized into mutism or who exhibit physical contortions that cannot be explained by physical injuries and he shocks them–literally–back into health.

Yealland believes, as most men once did, that such symptoms are merely the result of a failure of nerve–of a sort of hysterical cowardice rather than damage that has been done to honorable and healthy human beings. So, armored with contempt–Barker portrays him as so thorough a bully that he has no idea he is, in fact, torturing war victims–Yealland uses physical pain and pressure, including electrical shocks and even cigarette burns to force men to speak or unbend their twisted limbs.

It works: they walk again, and speak; they even go back to war.

Enough summary–if this sounds bearable, then read the book. You will come to see the scene–once its horrors are half-forgotten–as a clever piece of fiction, and a major step toward what becomes the most important theme of the trilogy. Not Sassoon’s growth or the renunciation of his protest, but Rivers’ journey from mere saint to fellow martyr: he becomes a witness to the harrowing of the lost generation, one of the few older men in Britain who, through their proximity to the minds of traumatized men, sufferer the war themselves.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Scots Guard, 148-9.
  2. See Regeneration, 223-35.