Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves Reunited (Again): The Poet as Hero, Literary Critic, and Golfer; Another Trial For Tolkien’s Tea Club

By today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon‘s long convalescent leave was over–he rejoined Robert Graves (as well as several other friends and acquaintances from the regiment) at the Royal Welch depot at Litherland, near Liverpool.[1] Coincidentally, his poem “The Poet as Hero” appeared today in the Cambridge Magazine:

You’ve heard me, scornful, harsh, and discontented,
   Mocking and loathing War: you’ve asked me why
Of my old, silly sweetness I’ve repented—
   My ecstasies changed to an ugly cry.

 

You are aware that once I sought the Grail,
   Riding in armour bright, serene and strong;
And it was told that through my infant wail
   There rose immortal semblances of song.

 

But now I’ve said good-bye to Galahad,
   And am no more the knight of dreams and show:
For lust and senseless hatred make me glad,
   And my killed friends are with me where I go.
Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs;
And there is absolution in my songs.

 

Now, where does that leave us? For one thing, it leaves us with an “indoor” Sassoon very much in transition. The old diction is rejected, but then wielded ironically: he has exchanged the happy warrior for the scarred and melodramatically vengeful “Mad Jack” character that he seemed to create for himself last summer half out of idle curiosity and half out of a military transmogrification of his hunting persona. So it would seem that the “outdoor” Sassoon, driven to show dash and aggression before his comrades until he finds himself alone in a German trench, has infiltrated his poetry… But this poem is a raid, a testing assault on the morale of the foe rather than a proper attack that might hold new ground. I think we can count on Mad Jack tossing a few such grenades and falling back.

So who is Sassoon, these days? Still, I think, a soul in very polite, presentable turmoil. A person in-between.

As Graves remembers this period–they shared a hut at Litherland, and went about much together–Sassoon was still voicing a certain sort of aggression, but his motivations seem to have changed…

Siegfried said that we must ‘keep up the good reputation of the poets’–as men of courage. Our proper place would be back in France, away from the more shameless madness of home-service. There, our function would not be to kill Germans, though that might happen, but to make things easier for the men under our command.

So, in other words, Sassoon believes that the poet should indeed be a hero, just a hero of a new sort: an unostentatiously heroic officer, a servant to his men. Surprisingly, perhaps, since he is notably self-absorbed in several different ways, it would seem that Sassoon was exactly this–a good, valued small-unit leader, respected by his men as well as his fellow officers. So says, at least, the often jealous and intermittently unreliable Graves, who writes as if he is well aware that he looked up to Sassoon, just now, for just these qualities.

These are beliefs that will be put to the test next yer. But for the time being the seriousness of the war is somewhat masked by the triviality of their surroundings. This is the depot, and while officers must be tremendously brave under fire, they are not expected to be other than tremendously idle when at home.

Officers of the Royal Welch were honorary members of the Formby golf club. Siegfried and I went there often. He played golf seriously, while I hit a ball alongside him. I had once played at Harlech as a junior member of the Royal St. David’s, but resigned when I found it bad for my temper. Afraid of taking the game up again seriously, I now limited myself to a single iron. My mis-hits did not matter. I played the fool and purposely put Siegfried off his game…[2]

This anecdote we may, perhaps, trust without either verification of qualm.

Still, things do look a little bit different when they are fictionalized for the memoirs of “George Sherston.” “Cromlech” is Graves–and see if you can spot Litherland’s clever disguise…

Clitherland camp had acquired a look of coercive stability; but this was only natural, since for more than eighteen months it had been manufacturing Flintshire Fusiliers…

The third winter of the War had settled down on the lines of huts with calamitous drabness; fog-bleared sunsets were succeeded by cavernous and dispiriting nights when there was nothing to do and nowhere to do it…

But I shared my hut with David Cromlech, who was well enough to be able to play an energetic game of football, in spite of having had a bit of shell through his right lung…

Sherston’s memories now drift toward the old rituals of the regimental mess, with the sharp divide between the young men who will go out to France and grave danger as soon as they are needed and the collection of “good-natured easy-going” old majors who fill various jobs on the base, pottering about in pre-war routines.

These convivial characters were ostensibly directing the interior economy of the Camp… the training of recruits was left to sergeant-instructors… hard-worked men who were on their legs from morning to night, and strict because they had to be strict. The raw material to be trained was growing steadily worse. Most of those came in now had joined the Army unwillingly, and there was no reason why they should find military service tolerable. The War had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman. What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims. I was just beginning to be aware of this.

There will be few memorable high jinks from these two, this month, in an atmosphere like this. But of course the growing grasp of a new historical reality is no guide to daily events. No, it was camp routine, hunting, and golf, with less-than-yawning gaps between the recollections of the two friends.

Sassoon remembers playing golf largely alone–evidence that he had a talented for blocking out Graves’s more annoying habits–and hunting most Saturdays. Which, of course, enhances his status with the old Regular officers of the battalion… but what of Graves/Cromlech, who cares about regimental tradition more than Sassoon does but seems perversely bent on remaining socially difficult? We hit a spot, now, where the differences between the two memoirs seem less a matter of contention, failures of memory, or deliberate falsification of the past and more complementary. Here are two young men who admire each other, for different reasons, and that which they admire comes to loom larger in their memories of the friendship. From Graves we see Sassoon’s social ease, his athletic skill, and the status his Military Cross gives him. From Sassoon, the indolent country gentleman who never took a degree, we see Graves’s intellectual firepower and wide reading.

Although he was nine years younger than I was, I often found myself reversing our ages, since he know so much more than I did about almost everything except fox-hunting… he once fairly took my breath away by pooh-poohing Paradise Lost as “that moribund academic concoction.” I hadn’t realized that it was possible to speak disrespectfully about Milton…[3]

Come what may, this is a wry acknowledgment that this was a most useful friendship.

 

And yet, context: all this is a disguise of the continued grinding of the mechanical and inhuman machine.

Today, a century back, in Birmingham, John Ronald Tolkien was examined by a Medical Board at the 1st Southern General Hospital. His fever is gone, but he is still symptomatic, weak and wracked with pains. Accordingly, he is granted six weeks convalescent leave.

And in France, his dear friend G.B. Smith’s shrapnel wounds–which appeared at first to be good blighty ones–have turned gangrenous.[4]

 

Finally, today, a correction of a recent and eminently silly mistake. (My thanks to reader Tracy Kellock who pointed this out.) I garbled my notes for November 30th and included an “it’s my twenty-first birthday!” note written by Edward Brittain as if it had been written by his sister Vera, who in fact turns 23 next month. So a belated happy birthday to Edward, with apologies for the total lack of fact-checking…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 310-11, sleuthing from various evidence. In his diary Sassoon will note later in the month that he returned on the 4th, but it would not be surprising if he were indeed mistaken.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 233-4.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 381-4.
  4. Chronology, 96.

Rogerson’s West Yorkshires Lose a Man–and Another is Killed; Manning’s Bourne and his Westshires Must Stick Together; Saki is Up from his Sickbed; Kate Luard is Back; No-Man’s-Land Beckons Edmund Blunden

Sidney Rogerson’s today, a century back, was an uninterrupted continuation of his yesterday. After marching up in the early morning he had spent most of the day waiting for his battalion in the front-line trenches, alongside the battalion they were to relieve. Since the relief began, just before midnight last night, Rogerson, as the senior officer of the two companies in the front line trench system, has been ceaselessly busy.

It was now my job to go round the company to tell all and sundry what the place looked like in daylight and what they had to do. No sooner had I arrived in the front line than the first casualty occurred, a new recruit being shot in the mouth by a stray bullet…

Although Company Headquarters were less than 100 yards from Fall Trench, the distance measured in terms of mud was so great that I could not be sure of maintaining any effective touch from the support line. I told Mac, therefore, that he would have to take charge of the front-line trench…

I told Mac that his first job must be to see that a sap was dug out so as to secure a view into the dead ground in front… I impressed upon him–and indeed upon every man I passed–that as there were no dug-outs our safety depended upon out energy in digging… The order, therefore, was “dig like blazes all night and lie doggo all day…”

It was Rogerson’s good fortune to hold a commission in the West Yorkshire Regiment, with many miners in the ranks. Within a few hours, a sketchy four-foot trench was seven feet deep and properly shaped. But not everything went so smoothly on this first night.

A covering party for the diggers working at the sap (a sap being a forward trench, extended toward the enemy) soon came under fire, and after their commander–a Lieutenant Pym–ordered them back into trenches, it was discovered that he had not returned with them. Assuming that he was lying wounded or dead in No Man’s Land, a patrol was sent out, but found nothing. When they returned empty-handed, Rogerson’s friend and subordinate “Mac,” the senior officer on the spot, decided to lead another more thorough search for find Pym. He therefore sent a note, by runner, to Rogerson asking to go “have a look for Pym.”

Now, tragedy. We begin to understand Rogerson’s emphasis on the “distance in mud” and how this alters communications. Rogerson had no idea that Pym was missing, even though the front trench was in an uproar looking for him. So, receiving this informally-phrased note and thinking that Mac just wanted to visit with the neighboring company for a palaver, Rogerson wrote an indignant reply telling him to get on with his work. He was only a hundred yards away, but still too far, by mud, to know what was going on. Mac, receiving the reply, understood the mistake at once but still felt that he had to write back and explain. At this point, with daylight near, the only other officer in A Company, a Lieutenant A.E.P. Skett, took it upon himself to go out, against orders.

Hardly had he put a foot in No-Man’s-Land than he fell back dead, his head split open by a random bullet. Who shall say that he did not know his fate was upon him?

…no trace was found, not has word ever since been heard of Pym.

The mud swallowed him up as completely as it had, by delaying communication between Mac and myself, killed poor Skett. Him we buried before daylight as reverently as we could in the circumstances, digging a grave between bursts of machine-gun fire in the parados of Fall Trench.

The CWGC confirms the death of Skett–and the welcome information that his body was subsequently moved to a proper burial ground–but there is no record on their site of a Pym of the West Yorkshires.

And all this before dawn today, a century back.

After stand-to, most of the men slept, but Rogerson and Mac had first to give the colonel a tour of the front line and then, acceding to the wishes of an artillery officer, coordinate their fire with a barrage on an isolated section of the haphazard German defenses. A small group of Germans flees the bombardment, and some are shot down–which makes today one of the few days of ordinary trench warfare in which one of our writers is closely involved with both killing and dying.

No Man’s Land continues to exert a strange fascination, as two different anecdotes–each gruesome in its own way–attest. Rogerson stays close to Mac all day long after learning that he–Mac–wants to go out into the open area around Dewdrop Trench. His brother, he believes, was one of the men who was killed in the attack that day. Rogerson talks him out of this: the body would be decomposed, and what could he do but add to either uncertainty or a store of unforgettable horror? This certainly seems like wisdom, but, then, as night falls once again, Rogerson–absolute ruler of a mud-island kingdom–decides to let another man go on another sort of mission.

This would be Robinson, a slightly mad but very efficient corporal who wishes to “scrounge” (this is a favorite coinage of several of our writers, as I believe I have mentioned) for souvenirs.

He and his platoon had done such excellent work and he was such a law unto himself that I had no heart to refuse him, although I could not give him permission to leave the trench I compromised by saying that I should know nothing about it… I further told him that he must search every British corpse and bring be back the paybooks, after which what he did with the Germans was no concern of mine.[1]

An eventful night is still ahead for Rogerson and his men, but this would seem to bring us, more or less, to midnight…

 

From the east-central bulge in the line around Lesboeufs, then, back to the west and north across the Ancre, past where the British lines facing Serre and Beaumont Hamel have hardly moved since the battle began, and all the way to the rear areas around Bus-les-Artois–and from memoir to fiction.

Here is Bourne, the well-born enlisted man who has been pressured into agreeing to go for officer training but insisted on first going through the coming attack with his company. (Bourne is, in all these respects, much like his creator, Frederic Manning.)[2] Bourne and his mates in the “Westshires” know now that the day of their attack draws closer–two days, weather permitting. Today is a day for preparing, and for sorting out. Questions of privilege and cadre, of special jobs and general responsibilities, are decided amidst two very strong contrary pressures–to go together with the men you love and trust, and to avoid terror, wounding, and death.

After breakfast that morning, Bourne passed by the regimental’s tent, and saw his batman, who had just finished shaving, sitting on a box by the doorway. Bourne noticed that his boots had been barred.

“I didn’t think you were going over the top with us, Barton,” he said, his surprise giving his words the turn of a question.

“The regimental didn’t want me to go,” said Barton, blushing and smiling; “‘E tried to work it so as I shouldn’t go, but they wouldn’t ‘ave it.”

He was smiling, even as he blushed, in a deprecating way.

“I don’t know what ‘e wanted to bother for,” he said reasonably. “It’s only right I should go with the rest, and I’d as lief go as stay. You think o’ things sometimes as seem to ‘old you back; but it’s no worse for me than for the nex’ man. I think I’d rather go.”

The last words came from him with slow reluctance and difficulty; and yet the apparent effort he made to utter them, hurrying a little towards the end, did not imply that they were untrue, but only that he recognised a superior necessity, which had forced him to put aside other, only less valid, considerations. He was thinking of his wife and children, of the comparative security in which he had left them, and of what their fate might be in the worst event; but war is a jealous god, destroying ruthlessly his rivals.

“You’re in B Company, aren’t you?” Bourne asked him, trying to carry the conversation over these awkward reflections.

“Yes,” said Barton cheerfully. “They’re a nice lot in B Company; N.C.O.’s an’ officers, they’re a nice lot of men.”

“Well, good luck, Barton,” said Bourne quietly, moving away, as the only means of relief.

“Good luck, Bourne,” said Barton, as though he did not believe in luck.

All day the business of preparation went on, with the same apparent confusion, haste and impatience, but with quite a painstaking method underlying all that superficial disorder. To some, who did not understand the negligent manner of British officers and men, even the most efficient, the business may have seemed careless and perfunctory, when as a matter of fact all details were scrupulously checked, and all errors and deficiencies corrected.

But they are still in reserve, and so a visit to the YMCA canteen in the evening is possible. And what are the men singing?

Oh, my! I don’t want to die,
I want to go ‘ome!

Rejecting this atmosphere, Shem, Martlow, and Bourne return to camp–they’ll get free rum there, anyway.

…After they had had their rum ration they took off boots, puttees and tunic, and rolled themselves into their blankets, spreading their greatcoats over them as well, because of the cold. Bourne felt quiet, and was almost asleep, when suddenly full consciousness came to him again, and, opening his eyes, he could just see Martlow looking abstractedly into the dark.

“Are you all right, kid?” he whispered, and put out a hand to the boy’s.

“Yes, I’m all right,” said Martlow quietly. “You know, it don’t matter what ‘appens to us’ns, Bourne. It don’t matter what ‘appens; it’ll be all right in the end.”

He turned over, and was soon sleeping quietly, long before Bourne was.[3]

 

Three other quick notes, as the Battle of the Somme swells toward its violent conclusion, here.

Today, a century back, Hector Munro, a.k.a Saki, got wind of his battalion’s involvement in the coming battle. He had had malaria as a child, and the disease has come back–few men of any advanced age (Munro is forty-five) are able to fight off such chronic conditions in the cold, wet, lousy trenches–so he has been in the hospital for some weeks. Today, though still ill, he made it back to his battalion, apparently by brazening his way past the doctors.[4]

 

I also have a correction to make. I mentioned on October 12th that a long gap in Kate Luard‘s diary-in-letters indicated a long period of leave in England. In fact, she had two short periods of leave on either side of yet another assignment as a senior nurse in France. Today, a century back, Sister Luard was posted to No.32 Casualty Clearing Station, at St. Venant, closer to Ypres than the Somme. (With thanks to Caroline Stevens for the correction, and for all her work getting her great aunt’s writing into print.)

 

Lastly, today, we will go back down in the central region of the Somme front. Still holding trenches near the Schwaben Redoubt, Edmund Blunden‘s battalion is also being swept into preparations for the big attack. It would seem that confusion, fortune, and the close proximity of near-safety and great danger will be the ubiquitous themes of this last shove of the year’s Big Push.

Will Blunden’s life be endangered on the whim of a staff officer… or not?

And this,” said Lupton, the adjutant, pulling his moustache one gaunt morning, “is Z day minus two.” My eye must have looked like a pickled onion. “Really. The biggest attack of the lot.” That had been the case before. But — anyway, the news was right, and whatever Z day might do, there was a little affair for the battalion at once. A German strongpoint thirty or forty yards ahead of the Schwaben was awkwardly situated in regard to the proposed “doings,” and would be cleaned up by us now. I received this information with distaste, and Harrison seemed at first to think it applied specially to me; then he changed his mind, and sent James Cassells out with a “fighting patrol” that night; if this failed, it seemed I was to try my hand the night after. As soon as Cassells and his men moved, they were bombed and fusilladed, whereon they lay down in confusion round the inconvenient sap-head, and, by the grace of God, suddenly two of the enemy from another direction wandered among them and surrendered. These prisoners duly arrived at battalion headquarters, blinking, half expecting to be eaten alive — a milkman and an elementary schoolmaster — most welcome guests. The back areas were so well pleased with these samples that they accepted the perfectly sound report of Cassells, finding the enemy’s post too strongly wired and resolutely held for any but a carefully studied assault.[5]

And so Blunden will be safe, for the next two days at least…

 

(And as for the next two years… well, but none of these writers know that we have only [!] two years to go. We’re in it for the duration, and, a century back, that could only be measured in prospective months or years, or in mud, or in as-yet-unspilled blood… In any event, two years from tomorrow I’ll take a day off…)

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 36-51.
  2. Although Manning was Australian (though long resident in England) and had a more checkered past. We don't learn much about how Bourne has ended up in the ranks instead of taking a commission--he consistently says that he prefers the honest camaraderie to a position in the hierarchy--but Manning was a once and future gentleman: before coming to the Somme as an enlisted man he had washed out of an officer training course due, at least in part, to drunkenness.
  3. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 202-8. Manning's book was published with a blurb of high praise from Hemingway, and this sort of exchange shows why... although Hemingway didn't have combat experiences like Manning's...
  4. Langguth, Saki, 276.
  5. Undertones of War, 118.

Greengages for the Resurrected Graves; Siegfried Sassoon Blanks his Mind on the March

Colonel Crawshay of the Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, has a difficult task, today. Among many letters he will write is this one:

22/7/16

Dear Mrs. Graves,

I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss.

He was hit by a shell and very badly wounded, and died on the way down to the base I believe. He was not in bad pain, and our doctor managed to get across and attend him at once.

We have had a very hard time, and our casualties have been large. Believe me you have all our sympathy in your loss, and we have lost a very gallant soldier.

Please write to me if I can tell you or do anything.

This letter, then, is on its way to Wimbledon, where Robert Graves‘s family resides. Graves, although salvaged from the human scrap heap at the dressing station yesterday, is in no condition to protest the exaggeration of his death.

Heilly was on the railway; close to the station was the hospital–marquee tents with the red cross painted prominently on the roofs to discourage air-bombing. It was fine July weather and the tents were insufferably hot. I was semi-conscious now, and realized my lung-wound by the shortness of breath. I was amused to watch the little bubbles of blood, like red soap-bubbles, that my breath made when it escaped through the hole of the wound. The doctor came over to me. I felt sorry for him; he looked as though he had not had any sleep for days.[1]

I asked him: ‘Can I have a drink?’

‘Would you like some tea?’

I whispered: ‘Not with condensed milk in it.’

He said, most apologetically: ‘I’m afraid there’s no fresh milk.’

Tears of disappointment came to my eyes; I expected better of a hospital behind the lines.

‘Will you have some water?’

‘Not if it’s boiled.’

‘It is boiled. And I’m afraid I can’t give you anything alcoholic in your present condition.’

‘Some fruit then.’

‘I have seen no fruit for days.'[2]

Yet a few minutes later he came back with two rather unripe greengages. In whispers I promised him a whole orchard when I recovered.[3]

 

As “George Sherston” and the Flintshire Fusiliers–a.k.a. Siegfried Sassoon and the 1st Royal Welch (coming out now after a less destructive turn in the line on the Bazentin ridge)–marched down to rest billets, Sherston struggles with the newest bad news: “David Cromlech” has been reported dead. It was a long day’s march, and Sassoon’s actual diary entry is very short; but here retrospection and fictionalization provide an explanation.

So it will go on, I thought; in and out, in and out, till something happens to me… Yesterday afternoon I’d heard that Cromlech had been killed up at High Wood. This piece of news had stupefied me, but the pain hadn’t begun to make itself felt yet, and there was no spare time for personal grief when the Battalion was getting ready to move back to Divisional Rest. To have thought about Cromlech would have been calamitous.

“Rotten business about poor old ‘Longneck’,”‘ was the only comment that Durley, Dottrell and the others allowed themselves. And after all he wasn’t the only one who’d gone west lately. It was queer how the men seemed to take their victimization for granted. In and out; in and out; singing and whistling, the column swayed in front of me… But it was a case of every man for himself, and the corporate effect was optimistic and untroubled. A London editor driving along the road in a Staff car would have remarked that the spirit of the troops was amazing. And so it was. But somehow the newspaper men always kept the horrifying realities of the War out of their articles, for it was unpatriotic to be bitter, and the dead were assumed to be gloriously happy. However, it was no use worrying about all that; I was part of the Battalion, and now I’d got to see about getting the men settled into billets.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I'll switch, now, from the first edition of the memoir, much of which is available elsewhere on the internet, to the substantively similar but more consciously theatrical and thus easier-to-read revised edition.
  2. This, it seems to me, is an anticipation of Frodo's "No taste of food... [is] left to me."
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 219-20.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 363-4.

Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton: A Desperate Kiss as the Train Departs; Edward Thomas Updates Robert Frost: Lonely in the Ranks, but Content; Max Plowman Has Had Enough of Ambulances, and Argues for Muscular Pacifism

Updates today on Edward Thomas and Max Plowman, but first, the end of the (in-person) affair, as Vera and Roland spend their last day together. His leave will go on for two days, but hers–granted at the last minute from a sympathetic supervisor at the Devonshire Hospital–is up in the morning. They must part today–for months, at least.

After a farewell to Mr. Leighton and the younger siblings at the station–marked by the old man’s impulsive decision to kiss Vera goodbye–the two lovers took a train to London. Accompanying them was the redoubtable Mrs. Leighton–but she, at least, had some business of her own.

Mrs Leighton to interview her publishers & Roland & I to do some shopping. He & I went off both rather subdued. It was almost painful to be alone together when the knowledge of the impending parting lay like a cloud upon us. With the memory of the previous evening at Lowestoft in our minds, I think we both felt that the only satisfactory way to spend those few last hours would be in some quiet solitary place, where love could ease its desperate pain a little by expressing itself, and perhaps break through that foolish shyness of ours, which even these days had not been able to dispel, once and for all. The knowledge that we had only such a short time left, and even that had to be spent in the publicity of London shops and streets, had a tantalising effect that was irritating & jarring. I had that desperate feeling of wishing it were all over and done with that always enters the present for me when something I hate is going to happen in the near future. I find it hard enough to learn to live for the day, as one must in these times; I find it quite impossible to live for the hour.

Roland went to various shops making small purchases while I waited for him in the taxi. Then I had my V.A.D. coat measured at Hobson’s, where he bought a few more things. I let him choose a pipe for himself at Dunlop’s, so that he would be sure to get one he really liked, & then to his complete surprise insisted on giving it to him with a small brown suede case to keep it in. Next we wandered round looking for a periscope for Edward, and finally landed at a shop where we abandoned the search for periscopes and Roland bought a vicious-looking short steel dagger—in case of—accidents. He handled it with great deliberation, and professional interest, wondering whether it would do for getting between someone’s ribs or not. To see the thing in cold blood & think of its use made me shudder. I talked to him afterwards of the horrible wound it would make and the unpleasant sound of its being drawn out, and though he took an almost morbid delight in playing with it, he admitted that he thought he could not use it himself except under the fierce excitement & madness of hand-to-hand fighting. The sight of this dagger in the hand of one of the most civilized people of these ironically-named civilized times depressed me to morbidness also, and half for professional, half for purely morbid reasons, I made him promise if he got wounded to let me see the wound…

This is one of those areas in which the whole repressed Edwardian/Late Victorian childhood thing takes on an almost medieval cast. Better that, at least, than modern: we could focus on Roland’s civilized reserve and his contemplation of frenzied dagger penetration, or we could move on to Vera’s fixation with the wounds of her exalted beloved.

After a slight disagreement over a present or roses and a long digression about Vera’s principled objection to engagement rings–which she sees as symbolic of male possession of the female–they returned to their hotel.

A gloom seemed to have settled upon us more deadly than actual sharp pain. Finally Mrs Leighton came in, and we were soon joined by Mr Burgin, the author, with whom we had arranged to have tea…

Mrs Leighton, apparently, has a habit of meeting with her male admirers. But I don’t know enough, really, to cast any more certain aspersions.

Is Roland having a good time, I wonder?

Roland played absently with his dagger, but he spoke very little, and I still less. I had to catch the 6.30 from St. Pancras and at last got up to depart. Mrs Leighton came to the door with Roland & me. She told me in the passage she didn’t feel he would be killed, but perhaps would get wounded some little wound, she hoped, that would bring him back to England for a time. He got into the taxi while I said goodbye to his Mother on the steps of the hotel. She told me that if I had any stories or articles any time that I wanted to try & publish, I was to send them to her, and she would give me all the help she could. Then she kissed me goodbye &, holding my hand, told me again in her sweet impulsive way that she liked me very much–really.

I felt as if I wanted to cry. So much I had meant to say to him was unsaid, and yet it seemed, as he agreed, to be no good saying any more. He said very bitterly that he didn’t want to go back to the front, and this glimpse of England and real life had made him hate France more than ever. I couldn’t believe I was really going to part from him; it was so queer to look at him with an earnestness that tried to commit to vivid memory his features, and to think that in little more than a few minutes they would only be an image in my mind.

Finally, at the station, they are alone:

At St. Pancras he wanted to pay for my ticket, but I wouldn’t let him, saying I must assert my independence more than ever now. Again I wished desperately it was over, and yet felt at the same time that for him to go away from me was quite impossible. Conversation was difficult & in jerks. I said I wondered if I should ever overcome my dislike of railway stations & he said decidedly “I never shall.’’

It was difficult to realise that what I had thought about so much–the possibility of finding a man whom I could love, which seemed so impossible–had really happened. “Roland, am I really engaged to you?” I said.

He looked down at me, his face very pale and a kind of quiet blaze in his dark eyes. “Yes” he said, in the low and rather musical tone of his deepest emotion…

When the time for getting into the train came near, the crowd of people round my carriage was very depressing. He said angrily he wished there weren’t other people in the world. I reminded him sadly of a sentence in the first letter he wrote me after we parted before. “Someday we shall live our roseate poem through–as we have dreamt it.” A little wistfully I said that it seemed further away now than ever. He only said “We must–we shall.”

The crowds are pressing in on the two young lovers, the world is weighing heavily upon them. There will be a slightly different tinge to this, in the later version:

…we had perforce to walk up and down the noisy platform, saying nothing of importance, and ferociously detesting the cheerful, chattering group round my carriage door.

“I wish to God there weren’t other people in the world!” he exclaimed irritably.

“I agree,” I said, and remarked wearily that I should have to put up with their pleasant company in a lighted dining-car all the way to Buxton.

“Oh, damn!” he responded.[1]

Improper? Articulately inarticulate? But there are beautiful things, still:

A stir in the crowd indicated the train’s imminent departure. I had made up my mind before that I would not kiss him on a crowded station, but the misery of farewell put that all out of my head and he at any rate was in a sort of despair, quite oblivious of the crowd. He stooped & kissed me passionately almost before I realised he had done it. I got up on the step of the carriage & he stood as near me as he could. He looked away from me a moment & dragging out his handkerchief furtively drew across his eyes. I hadn’t realised until then that this quiet & self-contained person was suffering so much. It was a revelation I would have given a great deal to have had before of his real feeling, & my own value to him. And I felt very sorry for him too, for I had not the least inclination to cry myself. To me it seems that while women make a great fuss about little things, when something happens that really matters we have absolute control of our emotions, but with men it is the other way about.

The whistle sounded & the crowd moved a little away from the door, but he still stood close to me and as the train began to move he pressed my hand almost violently, and, drawing my face down to his, kissed me again, more passionately than ever. And I kissed him, which I had never done before, and just managed to make myself whisper “Goodbye.” He said nothing at all, but turned quickly from me and began to walk rapidly down the platform. Although I had said I would not, I stood by the door as the train moved out of the station and watched him walking away through the crowd. But he never turned again. What I could see of his face was set and pale. It was over. . .[2]

 

Over. But don’t worry, folks, they were both writing to each other again before the evening was out.

London, 23 August 1915
7.0 p.m.

I could not look back dear child–I should have cried if I had. I am writing this in a stationary taxi drawn up in a corner of Russell Square.The driver thinks I am a little mad, I think, to hire him and then only sit inside without wanting to go anywhere at all… I don’t know what I want to do and don’t care for anything, except to get you back again; and that I cannot do–yet. How far it seems, sweet heart, till we may have our roseate poem through, as we have dreamed it so long.

I cannot write for the pain of it.
[Goodnight, dear Child, good night.]
Buxton, 23 August 1915
Midnight

When I arrived I found no one in the house but servants, one of whom informed me that Father had an overnight wire from Edward this morning to say he was going to France to-night. Father & Mother at once rushed off to Farnham on the chance of catching the regiment before it left, but even so they may have been too late. He has gone off even more suddenly than you did…

My thoughts keep racing feveredly from you to Edward & from Edward to you. So I must do something & writing to you is the only thing I am capable of doing at the moment. How it has all happened at once! . . .

I am trying to recall the warmth and strength of your hands as they held mine on the cliff at Lowestoft last night–so essentially You. It is all such a dream. Often as I have come home by the late train I have seen the moonlight shining over the mountains, but it has never looked quite the same as it did to-night. It is getting so
late.[3]

This is clearly a great moment–a great, potentially terrible moment–in their relationship. In the true story of their “relationship.” Vulgar contemporary word. Their love.

Vera will write a poem, soon, too:

St. Pancras Station, August 1915

One long, sweet kiss pressed close upon my lips,
One moment’s rest on your swift-beating heart,
And all was over, for the hour had come for us to part.

A sudden forward motion of the train,
The world grown dark although the sun still shone,
One last blurred look through aching tear-dimmed eyes—

And you were gone.

 

 

There are, alas, still, other people in the world. Some few.

Two days ago, Edward Thomas began a letter to Robert Frost:

My dear Robert,

…This is my 3rd full week of drill with my foot unhurt & nothing to complain of except 2 doses of anti-typhoid inoculation. I am still billeted with my father & mother, waiting for the announcement that we are going to camp…

I like the life; I don’t mind beginning my day with polishing buttons & badge & the brass of my belt. I quite like the physical drill which is very strenuous & includes running, jumping, leap-frog &c. But so far I can’t talk much to the men I am with. They don’t seek me more than I do them & I am a good deal alone in my minutes of ease. Close quarters in camp may help…

It’s a little too simplistic to treat Thomas’s letters to Frost as the naked truth, but Thomas at least makes a special effort to search deeply and speak plainly. But nothing in this letter really surprises, anyway: the agonizer and freelancer and frequent lapser-into-depressions has found a certain peace in the repetitive, simple, finite tasks of private soldiering, and a release from mental tension in physical exhaustion.

Next, his prospects:

…being over 33 I shall not go on to France at once but come back to London & take my commission there if one is offered… The tendency at present, I hear, is to keep older fresh officers at home. But one knows nothing & one ceases to be curious; I don’t really look forward more than a week, except for a moment perhaps now and then when I am doing extended order drill exactly as if under fire on the battlefield, & more briefly still when the eyes nearly water as we march with or without a band.

Today, a century back, he continued the letter. All this newfound peace and relaxation into a simpler state has affected his reading, too. But he would still read new verse! Or doth he protest too much?

When you write anything send it please, if you don’t feel I am unfit for reading; all I have read since I joined is “Cymbeline” again. I find I read it every year now & find it new & better. I look forward to reading it in peace…

Yours ever with my love to you all

Edward Thomas[4]

 

We have only scattered letters from Max Plowman–there will be a most useful book, so we follow him here in prologue mode–but from what we have seen so far he is committed both to the idea of serving his country and to the pacifism of his Quaker faith. An ambulance unit, therefore, because it combined service, danger, youthful adventure… and a refusal to kill.

But it’s been a long few months in England, and he writes to his brother today[5] to announce a change of heart:

B.W.T.A. Soldiers’ Recreation Rooms,

Friends’ Meeting House, Saffron Walden, Essex

Dear J.,

I told the C.O. this morning I had decided to transfer to a fighting regiment in the ordinary way or take a commission… I’ve taken the plunge… Layton said he’d be very glad to recommend me for a Com. but that he’d think twice or three times before giving me a transfer as a private to another regiment. I suppose simply because he thinks fellow merely transferring do not redound to his credit. I fancy that’s all swank & that he is practically obliged to let me go anywhere I please in a fighting regiment. My point is that I don’t mind a Commission so long as it’s in a decent regiment & I can afford it, but unless I can satisfy myself on those two points I’d rather go in the Coldstreams or any first class regiment as a private than continue to muck about in a second class show… or take a Com. in some filthy understrength rag-time lot–or go bankrupt with a Commission I couldn’t keep up.

Well these are good points all–and Plowman now displays other character traits both stereotypically Quaker and rather heterodox. First, he is very well aware not only of the class distinctions that have always existed between British regiments, but of the way in which these distinctions are shifting.

The Coldstreams–the Coldstream Guards–are an elite unit in every sense. The idea of “Guards” units–garrisoned in the capital, their ranks filled with men of especially good physique, many of their officers aristocrats–goes back to the middle ages. But the British Guards units had been organized along more or less sensible lines. Their officers were socially elite, but the various privileges extended to the units allowed them to claim a higher level of military efficiency as well. In peacetime, the Guards looked good and drilled exceptionally well, since their responsibilities for “guarding” the royal family involved much more ceremonial drill than actual bodyguard work.[6] In wartime, their advantage was probably mostly moral–parade ground drill had no direct application to modern war, but the sense of solidarity and unit prestige translated to enhanced esprit de corps. They have been allowed, as well, to stay small. The guards have only doubled in size, being choosy about their personnel all the way, while many county regiments have expanded five-fold.

Looking at this from a century on it seems odd to conclude that unscientific social selection will make a great difference in the quality of the troops: a new battalion of Guardsmen will have more regimental tradition to stiffen their corporate identity, and perhaps the marginal physical specimens will have been eliminated, leading to a stronger and healthier unit. But then again, taking the best connected and gently bred over the most eager might have a negative effect on the battalion’s efficiency…

What Plowman reminds us is that the “gentleman private” concept has been, this past year, more reality than romance. In peacetime the men of the Guards were probably not likely to be better educated than their peers in the county regiments. And despite the wartime expansion we are still seeing only members of the most rarefied “middle” classes–men from the best schools, with aristocratic and political connections, like Bim Tennant and Raymond Asquith–obtain commissions in the new Guards battalions. Plowman thus sees an unconventional middle way: he’s not such a gentleman that a commission in a good regiment is a sure thing, and he doesn’t want to claim class advantage just to sit around with a second-rate crowd.

Better to be officered by well-trained toffs, I suppose, than to be an officer of the 19th Blankshires–a “fighting regiment,” destined soon for France–and try to lead a bunch of coughing miners having second thoughts about their initial patriotic impulse. (By the way, I’m planning, at some point, to write a giant essay on the great fun everyone has in coming up with obviously fictional regimental names, the better to caricature with).

And then there’s the matter of money: officers earn a great deal more than privates. But then they must spend at their social level. This is changing, and changing fast, even in stodgy regiments, but before the war the daily expenses of an officer–fancy tailoring, keeping horses, huge mandatory contributions to the battalion mess–in a high-class regiment far exceeded his pay. This was one way, as the War Office began to work to change the old system of frank patronage and commission purchase, that the “better” units could stay “better–” their officers were necessarily men of means. I haven’t had the energy to really figure out the financial situation, although I hope to (there are probably some beautiful charts in one of the more recent social histories), but Plowman is probably correct: he would save a little money as a private, perhaps, and more as an officer in a low status New Army unit, but he might go into debt as an officer in a regiment that still sought to preserve pre-war traditions of riding and dining.

So, should the humble, practical member of the Society of Friends go for a solder? Why not stay an ambulance driver? Why not go for a commission, when lesser men are winning them left and right?

Writing soon afterwards to his friend the critic and novelist Hugh de Selincourt, Plowman, aware that this flank march had taken him quite a bit away from his original Quaker-warrior position, turned and charged:

And why shouldn’t I take a commission? You talk of punishment. As far as I can see we are miles & miles away from it. The Germans are in Belgium & France… We’ve Zeppelins overhead & submarines all around us but you write as though we were burning & ravaging Germany, Because a few mad fools talk as though they could exterminate all Germans am  personally to let force have its way & be contented with Belgium & France as they are? Someone has got to resist them. Why not I?

…As to killing I’d a minute’s regret for the other day when I wantonly killed an ant & the idea of killing any man is as repulsive to me as ever, but unspeakably loathly as the job might be I could kill Germans at need in France and Belgium… I do not yield my principles one iota because I live in a world that does not acknowledge them…

It simply comes to this. One either believe in active resistance or non resistance. If I lived in an ideal world…

You know I don’t believe in what are called lives of self-sacrifice but there are times when it is necessary that we should sacrifice our own personal ideals for the sake of our weaker fellows…

…here in one of the meantimes we come across a nation suffering from the gangrene of militarism & we must stop it–we must chop off their gangrenous limbs & however loathly it may be I cannot see how anyone can seriously question the necessity of the job. The real benefit of the War is that it is teaching the unimaginative conscience of Nations the awfulness & futility of arms…

I should go in for training to kill now as cheerfully as ever those Knights did who trained to kill the blatant beast. Not vengefully but of dire Necessity.[7]

Quite a transition. Any middling philosopher should be able to smoothly volley returns to several of those soft-toss claims, but the broader point goes unmentioned. It’s wartime, and Plowman has lost the taste for absolute pacifism. So he will go to a sort of practical pacifism: war is wrong, but “active resistance” against militarism is now necessary. But all this depends upon the quality of one’s information–on truth.

Plowman is not the first young man–and he surely will not be the last–to find his assumptions challenged once he recognizes the ubiquity of propaganda. Germany is militaristic, yes. It should bear most of the burden of responsibility for causing the war. But are Britain’s hands knightly-clean? Shouldn’t the surgeon satisfy himself personally that he is taking on–and taking off–only the truly gangrenous, lost limb?

Our boy Max will have himself a commission before too long…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 189.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 260-4.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 143-4.
  4. Elected Friends, 90-2.
  5. Probably, but possibly a day or two earlier.
  6. Although I believe that it is still the case that elite British guardsmen--elite in a rational military sense rather than a primarily social sense--still do both practical and ceremonial work, guarding the Royals and entertaining the London tourists.
  7. Bridge Into the Future, 35-7.

The Truce Begins; Edward Thomas Gets Sentimental; Wilfred Owen Goes to Mass; Vera Brittain Gets a Call After All; Max Plowman Enlists

Here’s an interesting Christmas Eve note: today, a century back, the young pacifist Max Plowman enlisted in the army–but in the field ambulances. This project will track a number of ways in which words like “honor” and even “courage” are twisted or misused, debased or drained of meaning, as the war goes on. But there are few traditions more courageous than those of the British pacifists–many of them Quakers–who chose to answer the implicit or explicit call to serve by taking non-combatant positions that nevertheless exposed them to significant risk. An RAMC ambulance driver was more exposed to artillery fire–even to machine gun and small arms fire–than serving soldiers in any but the front-line units. And stretcher bearers, whose sole job was to enter areas under recent, accurate fire, were exposed to even more. To volunteer for this duty was to assert at once an unwillingness to take life and a willingness to shoulder an equal or greater portion of the burden of personal risk and wartime suffering.

But not every pacifist made it through the war with his convictions unchanged. Plowman, tempted already into uniform by the pressure of his enthusiastic peers, will find the RAMC something of an unhappy compromise…

 

At home in Buxton, Vera Brittain was surprised by a lovely Christmas Eve extravagance.

Thursday December 24th

The sinfully extravagant Roland rang me up this morning & spoke to me, not for 3 minutes but for six. Amid all the crowds of things I wanted to say to him I could think of nothing & my conversation was unintellectual to say the least of it. He wished to know what particular book I wanted for my birthday among the moderns but I could think of no one in particular though I mentioned Henley, Francis Thompson, Kipling & Hardy.

Well, those early phone calls with boyfriends are tough. And Kipling and Hardy, at least, are right on point.

 

And Edward Thomas is thinking of England. The poem he wrote today, a century back–The Manor Farm–is of a piece with many of his early poems: it’s converted from notes of his rambles and it quietly captures some aspect of the changing seasons of rural life with insight and precision. This one, though, is a bit hokey, bending too far toward the sort of verse one might find captioning a sentimental Christmas lithograph. There is an ancient yew, a church-yard, and, for an ending, a light opera elegy:

But ’twas not Winter—

Rather a season of bliss unchangeable

Awakened from farm and church where it had lain

Safe under tile and thatch for ages since

This England, Old already, was called Merry.[1]

Well, it’s Christmastime in the country. And tomorrow, it will be Christmas in–and between–the trenches.

 

But first, midnight mass in Bordeaux, which Wilfred Owen attended along with the family he served as tutor. It was a heady experience for a poetic young man newly escaped from an evangelical Anglican background to suddenly find himself

All mixed up with candles, incense, acolytes, chasuble and such like. If I didn’t bow, I certainly scraped, for there was an unholy draught. How scandalized would certain of my acquaintance and kin been to see me. But it would take a power of candle grease and embroidery to Romanize me. The question is to un-Greekize me.

The force of this quip is classical rather than religious. Owen, it would seem, is not to be much seduced by the ceremonies of the Roman church or the sonorities of Roman poets–the obnoxiousness about Catholic ritual is meant to reassure mother.

But he does believe himself to be under the influence of Greek culture. This probably means, at this point in his continuing self-education, a Keatsian or Decadent-inflected idea of the Greek: sensuality, eros and truth–and, perhaps, a violent vibrancy.[2] We will track the evolution of these vague ideas in a few years, when they re-enter his poetry.

 

Further north, the Christmas spirit was swelling. A subaltern of the Hampshire regiment wrote to his parents about

a beautiful story of–the Wessex,[3] say–who had a fine singer among them, whom both sides delighted to honour: so the Germans just shouted ‘Half time, Wessex’, when desiring music, and everyone stopped firing. The songster climbed on to the parapet of the trench, and both sides joined in the chorus. If a senior officer of either side appeared, a signal was given and all hands lay doggo: then a fierce fusillade took place doing any amount of damage to the air twenty feet over the enemy’s heads, and the senior officer went back delighted with his enemy’s energy and zeal, not to say courage, in face of heavy fire. Then the concert recommenced.

The subaltern, one Michael Holroyd, segues in the same letter from this clearly embellished “tale” to a description of the beginnings, in his sector, of the famous Christmas Truce.

It is now, for instance, Christmas Eve, and I’ve just been out for an after-dinner stroll towards the enemy. We found the men in the intermediate lines singing loudly; not a shot from our own front or the Bavarians opposite. The moon looks down upon a slightly misty, pale blue landscape, and bending my ear to the ground I can hear a faint whisper of German song… I shall be greatly surprised if they or we fire a shot tomorrow; whatever Prussian warlords do, Bavarian troops are pretty sure not to desecrate Christmas Day…[4]

This will turn out to be both an accurate prediction and a reminder (rare in this context of truce) that “spontaneous” actions in war are always prepared long in advance by those forces, i.e. literature and art, which shape the perceptions and expectations of the spontaneously-acting soldiers. It’s good history to point out the difference between events and the legends that spring up after them–but better history to notice the legends that pave the way for the actions that shape the events…

 

The Royal Irish were in reserve, but headed for the line. Therefore Christmas came early:

On Christmas Eve after tea and the distribution of the Christmas puddings from England, the Battalion, with the Hertfordshires, relieved the 4th Dogras, 6th Jats and 9th Gurkhas. It is recorded that, the Gurkha being a somewhat shorter man that the average Guardsman, the long Irish had to dig their trenches about to feet deeper, and they wondered loudly what sort of person these “little dark fellas” could be.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Edna Longley, in the Annotated Collected Poems, has some good comments here on the "stylistic risks" that Thomas took in this poem. He did take some criticism for the sentimentality but, characteristically, stood by it. I'd like these to be slight missteps on the road to poetic greatness, but it's probably more accurate to say that Thomas, sprung full-grown from the mind of prose to stalk among the demigods of poetry, knew that his path encompassed even such quotidien byways. Like latter-day Bob Dylan he is neither embracing folk nor reacting from it, but writing very naturally as a latter day practitioner, ancient and modern at once.
  2. See Vandiver, Stand in the Trench Achilles, 131.
  3. This is an early example of a fictionalized regimental name--the "Wessex" don't exist, this being not a current county but an old term for parts of Southwest England. It recalls Hardy, in fact, who re-popularized the old name in his lightly fictionalized depictions of the area in his novels.
  4. Brown, 1914, 264-5.
  5. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 69.