Kate Luard in the Slough of Despond; Rest for David Jones and Waxing Madness for the Master of Belhaven; Vera Brittain is Back on the Job; Wilfred Owen is Self-Published; Francis Ledwidge Remembered

We are all over the place once again, today: living well in Scotland, miserable in the mud of the salient, and coming to war-torn France for the first time. But we’ll begin near Ypres, where the battle is now in its fifth day.

Kate Luard keeps a “diary” in the form of letters written to be circulated amongst her many family members in England, so there is a compromise in her writing between an unvarnished honesty of expression and the recognition that what she writes will leave her hands and be read by many people, perhaps with varying opinions on the conduct of the war. She tells the truth–but she seems to think carefully of how she is presenting the suffering in her hospital.

The editors of her letters, however, have also included some private letters to individual siblings, and one of these shows that even the masterfully composed Senior Sister is struggling to keep her composure amidst the horror of Third Ypres–and willing to write more frankly of it. Or perhaps it’s the other way round: the act of writing about pain and suffering and death, every day, helps Luard keep a lid on her emotions, but writing to her sister Georgina nearly punctures the seal, letting out a torrent of grief. Nearly… but she saves it, in part, with the tried-and-true Fussell maneuver of adapting the literary heritage to new circumstances as a way of staving off the overwhelming. She’s the first of our writers to use a now-indispensable literary reference–Bunyan’s “slough of despond”–to describe the mud of the current campaign.

Sat, Aug 4, 1917

William Blake, “Christian in the Slough of Despond”

Dearest G,

Yours of Tue 31st arrived today with incredible speed. Yes, it is now chiefly ubc (utter bloody chaos) of the ghastliest and in the most midwinter conditions of night and day pouring rain and sloughs of despond underfoot–inside the wards as well as out. And all the Push a washout, literally. I think I’m getting rather tired and have got to the stage of not knowing when to stop. When I do I immediately begin to cry of all the tomfool things to do! But outside my Armstrong hut one can keep smiling. It is the dirtiness & wasted effort of War that clouds one’s vision…[1]


Not far away, the Master of Belhaven‘s battery enters its fifth day of continuous firing. The costs mount.

We were shelled again last night… A third man in my battery had gone off his head. I have been feeling horribly ill myself all day… It is all owing to the beastly gas… I wish I could get news of Bath. I am very worried about him.[2]

Hamilton’s concern is genuine, even to his unrealistic expectations: the hospitals are overwhelmed, and when they can send information about badly wounded or dying men, they send it homewards, rather than back to the front. But I think it is a strange sort of lifeline: with his lungs attacked by gas and his duty–as he sees it–compelling him to force broken men (those overwhelmed by “shell shock” to the point of nervous breakdown) to remain under fire, he needs to feel compassion about someone, somewhere…


There was relief for others, however. Today also marked the turn of David Jones and the rest of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers to slog back from the lines to reserve billets along the crowded Yser Canal. There,

they were given chocolate and cigarettes, hot food, clean clothes, and a fresh colonel, R. H. Montgomery. Here Jones heard from the survivors of the assault…what they had endured and learned who among his acquaintances had fallen. Their experience scoured his imagination differently than if he had fully shared it… He may have experienced survivor’s guilt…[3]

He surely did–I don’t think that sensitive men who survived major assaults just because they were on the right list and their friends on the wrong one ever escaped a sense of guilt. The “bureaucratic near miss” can occasion as sense of pious exaltation when the savaged unit that one was not with is a strange one–but when it is your friends and comrades that the paper-pushers have separated you from…

At some point in the next few days Jones will sketch one of his surviving comrades (at right) “writing something” in an apparent moment of repose.


Speaking of writing things, the section of Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room in which we are privy to Elinor Brooke’s diary continues today. Elinor is in the English countryside near Lewes, when she hears what she first believes to be the sound of thunder. But it is the roll of the guns in Flanders, where her brother Toby is serving with the infantry.[4]


There is something of Vera Brittain in the fictional Elinor Brooke, and–coincidentally–today, a century back saw Brittain in Boulogne, en route from London to her first posting at a hospital in France. She had abruptly left the V.A.D. in May, coming home from Malta intending to marry and care for Victor Richardson, but Victor had died soon after and her brother Edward has been sent back to France, leaving her isolated from the suffering members of her own generation. She soon decided to try to return to nursing, but, having broken her contract, had to apply for reinstatement.

Testament of Youth shares with so many young soldier’s memoirs the general expectation that all older administrative and staff types are either cold fish bureaucrats or self-righteous hypocrites–surely her misery will not be understood by officialdom.

I was interviewed by a middle-aged woman with a grave face and an “official” manner, who sat before a desk  frowning over a folder containing my record. She motioned  me to sit down, and I told her that I wanted to join up

“And why,” she asked peremptorily, “did you leave Malta?”

I trembled a little at the sharp inquiry. Breaches of contract were not, I knew, regarded with favour at Red Cross Headquarters, and were pardoned only on condition of a really good excuse. My own reason, which could not help sounding sentimental, was not, I felt certain, a “good excuse” at all. But I could think of no plausible alternative
to the simple truth, so I told it.

“I came home meaning to marry a man who was blinded at Arras,” I said, “but he died just after I got back.”

To my surprise, for I had long given up expecting humanity in officials, a mask seemed to drop from the tired face before me. I was suddenly looking into benevolent eyes dim with comprehension, and the voice that had addressed me so abruptly was very gentle when it spoke again.

“I’m so sorry. … You’ve had a sad time. Is there anywhere special you want to go?”

I hated England, I confessed, and did so want to serve abroad again, where there was heaps to do and no time to think. I had an only brother on the Western Front; was it possible to go to France?

It was, and she arrived yesterday. Today, typically, she is alone in observing the notable anniversary:

Our train next day did not leave until the afternoon, so I spent the morning in the English Church at Boulogne commemorating the Third Anniversary of the War. The Chaplain-General to the Forces, once Bishop of Pretoria,
preached to the packed congregation of officers and nurses a sermon to which I only half listened, but I paid more
attention to the prayers and the collects:

“Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take Thou vengeance of our sins;
spare us, good Lord, spare Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us for ever.”

A phrase from my Pass Mods, days at Oxford slipped into my mind; I had quoted it not long ago to Edward in a
letter from Malta:

“The gods are not angry for ever. . .

It came, I thought, from the Iliad and those quiet evenings spent with my Classical tutor in reading of the battles for sorrowful Troy. How like we were to the fighters of those old wars, trusting to the irresponsible caprices of an importuned God to deliver us from blunders and barbarisms for which we only were responsible, and from which we alone could deliver ourselves and our rocking civilisation!

But I did not, at the moment, allow my thoughts to pursue the subject thus far. Dreaming in the soft light that filtered through the high, stained-glass windows, I saw the congregation as a sombre rainbow, navy-blue and khaki, scarlet and grey, and by the time that the “Last Post ” — with its final questioning note which now always seemed to me to express the soul’s ceaseless inquiry of the Unseen regarding its ultimate destiny — had sounded over us as we stood in honour of the dead who could neither protest nor complain, I was as ready for sacrifices and hardships as I had ever been in the early idealistic days. This sense of renewed resolution went with me as I stepped from the shadowed quiet of the church into the wet, noisy streets of Boulogne. The dead might lie beneath their crosses on a hundred wind-swept hillsides, but for us the difficult business of continuing the War must go on in spite of their departure; the sirens would still sound as the ships brought their drafts to the harbour, and the wind would flap the pennons on the tall mast-heads.[5]


Two disparate notes to close a troubling day. There was triumph, of a sort, for Wilfred Owen. He “plunked” a pile of freshly-printed copies of The Hydra “outside the Breakfast Room Door” at Craiglockhart Hospital. It’s his first gig as an editor, and he has written several short pieces for the magazine as well. He’s proud–his “ergotherapy” is going well. But this isn’t just about literary success or professional rehabilitation–it’s about class, too (it usually is). Owen is not yet aware of his famous new fellow-patient, but as this anecdote suggests, he is already excited about the magazine’s providing new social opportunities.

I have had so far one poetical contribution—from a Guards Officer—which he timidly brought up to my room with his own towering person. I was trotting around the room talking to the furniture in German at the moment; but I affected what dignity I could, and tried to look as if I had 10/6 in my pocket, and fifty more contributions on my desk…[6]


Lastly, today, a very different sort of note to a mother. This is from Father Devas, chaplain of the First Royal Inniskillings, to the mother of Francis Ledwidge:

4th August 1917

Dear Mrs Ledwidge

I do not know how to write to you about the death of your dear son Francis. Quite apart from his wonderful gifts, he was such a lovable boy and I was so fond of him. We had many talks together and he used to read me his poems… The evening before he died he had been to Confession. On the morning of the 31st he was present at Mass and received Holy Communion. That evening while out with a working party a shell exploded quite near to them killing seven and wounding twelve. Francis was killed at once so that he suffered no pain. I like to think that God took him before the world had been able to spoil him with its praise and he has found far greater joy and beauty than ever he would have found on earth. May God comfort you and may his Holy Mother pray for you. I shall say a Mass for Francis as soon as I can.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Many thanks, as ever, to Caroline Stevens, for the text of this letter and for all her work in preserving and publishing her great aunt's legacy. See Unknown Warriors, 204-5.
  2. War Diary, 360.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 164.
  4. Toby's Room, 83.
  5. Testament of Youth, 366-9.
  6. Collected Letters, 480.
  7. Curtyane, Francis Ledwidge, 189.

J.R. Ackerley and Billie Nevill Go Out; Three Poems from Edward Thomas, Turning and Turning War-Ward; Robert Graves in a Coy Competition with Siegfried Sassoon; Kate Luard and Another Bombing Victim; Raymond Asquith in the Salient’s Filth

A bit of a long post, today, but it’s another gamut-runner, and brief enough for that. We go from poetry of quiet beauty all the way to “sheer abomination undiluted by a single touch of beauty, grandeur or sentiment.”

Two days ago, Edward Thomas went sick once again. But with “sick call” comes a relief from duties, and so he took up his pen. First came “It was upon,” a sneaky sonnet that looks back, and forward. It’s no poetic innovation to go to the natural world in contemplation of the future–nor, indeed, to thresh the old store of bucolic/agricultural imagery to come up with some symbol of change. But Thomas goes deep into the subject, rifling the old English farmer’s word hoard to come up with the evocative “lattermath,” which refers to the second or third mowing of grass, for hay.

It was upon a July evening.
At a stile I stood, looking along a path
Over the country by a second Spring
Drenched perfect green again. ‘The lattermath
Will be a fine one.’ So the stranger said,
A wandering man. Albeit I stood at rest,
Flushed with desire I was. The earth outspread,
Like meadows of the future, I possessed.

And as an unaccomplished prophecy
The stranger’s words, after the interval
Of a score years, when those fields are by me
Never to be recrossed, now I recall,
This July eve, and question, wondering,
What of the lattermath to this hoar Spring?

Then, yesterday, a century back, Thomas wrote “Women he liked,” a.k.a. “Bob’s Lane.” Here once again an ominous mistrust in futurity creeps in around the edges of the landscape.
Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob,
Old Farmer Hayward of the Heath, but he
Loved horses. He himself was like a cob,
And leather-coloured. Also he loved a tree.
For the life in them he loved most living things,
But a tree chiefly. All along the lane
He planted elms where now the stormcock sings
That travellers hear from the slow-climbing train.
Till then the track had never had a name
For all its thicket and the nightingales
That should have earned it. No one was to blame.
To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails.
Many years since, Bob Hayward died, and now
None passes there because the mist and the rain
Out of the elms have turned the lane to slough
And gloom, the name alone survives, Bob’s Lane.

This one is a good one, a who-but-Thomas one. He has yet to see France, but he knows, of course, that those well-drained lands will be pounded to mud by infernal machines and so draw forth from good English Protestants, well-versed in their Bunyan, the inevitable reference to the “Slough of Despond” in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

But it’s not just such felicitous word choice: this is Thomas’s whole poetic persona being dragged toward war. It’s not quite a mind of metal and wheels pondering gunpowder under the eaves of ancient Fangorn, but it’s close.

The cob-like, tree-loving farmer here is another Lob, and his environs could almost be Adlestrop–and off-stage, as it were, the steam train lurks. It’s hard not to see in the slow-climbing train a portent of technological-aided disaster…

Finally, today, “There was a time.”
There was a time when this poor frame was whole
And I had youth and never another care,
Or none that should have troubled a strong soul.
Yet, except sometimes in a frosty air
When my heels hammered out a melody
From pavements of a city left behind,
I never would acknowledge my own glee
Because it was less mighty than my mind
Had dreamed of. Since I could not boast of strength
Great as I wished, weakness was all my boast.
I sought yet hated pity till at length
I earned it. Oh, too heavy was the cost.
But now that there is something I could use
My youth and strength for, I deny the age,
The care and weakness that I know—refuse
To admit I am unworthy of the wage
Paid to a man who gives up eyes and breath
For what would neither ask nor heed his death

It’s hard, of course, not to read this as coming straight from Thomas, rather than allowing for the assumption of a poetic mask. The speaker feels his age, but not in the flexingly heroic Tennysonian sense. He is still frustrated, still pitiable, but perhaps approaching a certain sort of peace. Or perhaps not. But in any case, as Edna Longley points out, the introvert has metamorphosed, however grudgingly, into a soldier. His choice of “wage” makes us think of Brooke, and realize (not for the first time) that this is not a metaphor that should be taken lightly.

There is no assumption of heroic or sacrificial “meaning” here, no perching of a dubious poem atop a hollow cairn of patriotic assumptions and religious implications: “[h]ere he acknowledges war as a paradoxical saviour, a perversely accepted test.” “Perverse” is exactly right. It doesn’t feel right because it can’t be right, but it’s acceptable all the same. The thinking man, the skeptic, the non-joiner has joined, and will fight–and possibly give up eyes and breath–for… well, he’s not sure for what. Thomas has fallen into step, and with a grimace he picks up something of the traditional language of the happy volunteer. But this language he takes “a little more seriously while still contesting it.” [1]


It’s a poetical sort of day: Robert Graves wrote to Siegfried Sassoon as well, a century back, and we get a bit of insight into the balance of power, as it were, in their friendship. Graves, recovered from his operation and stuck in camp, pines for camaraderie, but it would seem that Sassoon’s close-to-the-vest maneuvers on his own recent leave have left Our Robbie feeling a bit miffed:

23 June 1916

Bloody Litherland

Dear Sassons,

It is with bitter disappointment that I hear that you’ve been in Blighty on lave and dined with Eddie and never let me know. God! man, I’d have come down from John o’ Groats if you’d told me.

This is indeed an awful place. I’m so restless and enthusiastic and want-to-get-back-to-the-boys-ish that I have succeeded at one time or another in offending most of the more considerable people here…

Ah, so perhaps the young poet begins to recognize some of the foolishness of the war?

Roll on the trenches! I head you’ve been risking your precious life again among them craters: I am pleased, damn pleased, you’re doing so well; wish to hell I was with you–go on risking, and good luck. It’s a man’s game.

A bit forced? No: very, very forced, and nothing like the wiser-than-he-once-was ironist of Goodbye To All That. I’m tempted to instruct you, dear readers, to see the forgoing as a bit of a put-on, a jest made “in character.” But I don’t think so. Graves likes Sassoon and he really (probably) does hate camp enough to want to be back at war, but the competitive edge of their friendship–the desire to be close but also to surpass–is very keen. In fact there’s more edge than blade… some of the forced jollity here must be because Graves is leading up to a bit of a gloat: next, he shares some of the reviews–positive, if not unreservedly so–of his first book, Fairies and Fusiliers. Take that, self-published Siegfried!

…I have been frantically busy lately… sweating about the country all abouts, so of course when the match is burning my fingernails my bloody verses insist on forcing themselves to be written by me: they flock on me in shoals and I can’t refuse them: I can’t give them a hurried birth and then strangle ’em straight away. They want washing and clothing and suckling ans what not in my precious time, and then what happened to my Regimental duties? …I hope you are still writing with the same sudden genius of your last trench-letter. How strange that you have all at once struck what you have been searching for for so long; but I suppose now you want another little cushy Flixécourt tour to give you the time and leisure and quiet.

Best of luck when the Delayed Offensive actually comes, and may I be there with you old man!

…I’m getting my latest things typed to send you. The rules of the ‘mutual admiration society’ demand a similar step on your part. Or write, at any rate.

Sorley is still selling, and The Times has labelled him ‘Enrolled among the English Poets’ for which God bless that usually bloody paper…

Ever your affectionately


Isn’t it splendid that the RWF have now twice been singled out for special mention in a daily communiqué?[2]

That post-script does help to ground us: even in the memoir Graves owned up to an enduring regimental pride. Love the war or hate the war, he wanted to be identified with an honorable and glorious regiment:”May I be there with you” and “pleased, damn pleased” may ring false because they are strained, but they are not supercilious or sarcastic.


Two brief bits, now, before our last letter of the day. First, a look ahead:

The 8th East Surreys, a battalion of Kitchener’s Army with a year in France but little in the way of sharp combat experience, went into the line today, a century back, opposite Montauban, a few miles east of Albert, on the Somme. Among their officers were J.R. Ackerley, an innocent, awkward, gay, poetry-writing, Public School lieutenant, and his friend Wilfred “Billie” Nevill, a bluff, confident, outgoing Public School athlete. Captain Nevill brought along a couple of footballs…[3]


And, with Kate Luard, a look back at one of the most common and–in its commonness, at least–confounding themes of our reading of the war’s “long second year.”

Captain—– of the Suffolks, who died here two days ago from a bombing accident, picked up a live bomb which had fallen short to throw it again, but he was just too late and it got him; he was buried yesterday; the Suffolks lined the road with their band, and followed 4 deep finishing up with 30 officers marching behind. They were awfully cut up about it.[4]


Finally, today, we catch up with Raymond Asquith. Yesterday, a century back, he wrote to his wife Katherine. He fills us in on a brief bit of savagery that we, with our focus on the subalterns of the Regular and Kitchener battalions, have missed. There has been bloody fighting in the familiar wasteland around Hooge, in  the Ypres Salient, and the tough Canadian troops so admired by their imperial forebears have suffered greatly. All chaff to whet the wit of Raymond–and yet he spares his wife (or seems to spare her) nothing of the beastliness, which is a significant choice.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
22 June 1916

. . . We came out of the trenches last night and marched into camp about 3 this morning. Now we are out, I suppose there is no harm in saying what I daresay you have already guessed–that we were pushed in to relieve the Canadians opposite Hooge. The Canadians had almost all been killed in the recent fighting there (which was unlucky for them) and hardly any of them had been buried (which was unlucky for us). The confusion and mess were indescribable and the stinks hardly to be borne. No one quite knew where the line was…

It was impossible to show ourselves for a moment without being shelled and there were no adequate arrangements for hiding. Sloper Mackenzie, Eddy Ward and another officer were shut up for 48 hours in a dug-out meant for 2 at the best of times and when half flooded as it was with blood and water and filth of every kind quite unfit for habitation. We did our best to clean out some of the muck but the process was so disturbing that poor Sloper was physically sick in the middle of it. I couldn’t endure sleeping there so got hold of an old stretcher and lay on it in a shell-hole outside, which I think saved my life, though it might easily have ended it.

One would have given anything for a bottle of verbena or a yard of ruban de Bruges… I never saw anything like the foulness and desolation of this bit of the Salient.

This reminds me very strongly of Vera Brittain‘s revelation as she picked through Roland Leighton’s kit–that, for him, always a fastidious boy, the filth of trench warfare must have been a torment. For Asquith, too, there is surely much truth–and perhaps still a little self-pleasing bravado–in his preference for danger over horrible discomfort and sensory misery.

There were 2 woods near to us on which we roamed about picking up gruesome relics in the dusk–Maple Copse and Sanctuary Wood–not a leaf or a blade of grass in either of them, nothing but twisted and blackened stumps and a mesh of shell holes, dimpling into one another, full of mud and blood, and dead men and over-fed rats which blundered into one in the twilight like fat moths.

To my mind it was a far more impressive sight than the ruins of Ypres, because it was sheer abomination undiluted by a single touch of beauty, grandeur or sentiment…

Goodbye, my blessed angel. This morning I took my boots off and washed for the first time these 8 days. It was delicious.

Asquith has already written about a bombardment with… delicious… Epicurean aesthetic detachment. Today, a century back, he catches up with Diana Manners and takes the story from there through the recent nastiness. Thus in one swift missive he gives her both the (safe) beauty of war observed, and its worst pits of filth.

23 June 1916

. . . But, 2 nights out of a dreary 7 did make me think of you perhaps harder than usual–one for beauty and one for ugliness. The first was on the shore of a biggish lake with poplars and a honey-coloured moon, and one of the most
crashing bombardments of the War going on all round, shells bursting in front and behind to right and to left, but not just where I was, so that I felt as safe as if it had been the Charge of the Light Brigade and could enjoy the spectacle as such, and fancy almost that the lake was “Sutton Waters” and wished that you were there to enjoy it too as you would have done intensely–at any rate for a little. After an hour or two the noise gets on one’s nerves like music. There was a gas attack too in the middle which was boring, and for 40 minutes we had to stumble about slobbering into rubber snouts like animals in a pantomime.

Another, night I was in a much worse place than this–the most accursed unholy and abominable place I have ever seen, the ugliest filthiest most putrid and most desolate–a wood where all the trees had been cut off by the shells the week before, and nothing remained but black stumps of really the most obscene heights and thickness, craters swimming in blood and dirt, rotting and smelling bodies and rats like shadows, fattened for the market moving cunningly and liquorishly among them, limbs and bowels nestling in the hedges, and over, all the most supernaturally shocking scent of death and corruption that ever breathed o’er Eden. The place simply stank of sin and all Floris could not have made it sweet. . . The only dug-out turned out to be a ‘dirt trap’ if not a death trap, awash with sewage, stale eyeballs, and other debris, so I spent 2 days on a stretcher in a shell hole in the gutter certainly, but-looking all the while at the stars with which you have so richly studded my memory.

As a “filth and abomination” piece (a new tag!) this could hardly be bettered. The witty tone, the framing with beauty makes it all the more upsetting, and marks it as Asquith’s own. One imagines what Tolkien would have done with this–or what he will do, in a sense. But where Asquith writes to the great beauty and talks of the stars she has given him–and writes after the fact, having endured–Frodo will call on the star-hanging goddess and unleash her light in the face of the filth personified.

So Asquith makes it witty/horrible and frames the filth with Diana Manners herself–and I avoid its details by making a Tolkien reference of dubious relevance.

Asquith has also given us, I believe, our first disembodied eye: it’s an image he spares his wife but deploys to shock the unshockable Diana Manners. And does seem to be specially shocking: we will see more of such eyes, in literature and in lived experience.

I should end with Asquith. He is no Tolkien, but in his own naughty way he does not shirk theodicy, here:

There is a great deal after all to be said for the existence of evil; it might almost be held to prove the existence of God. Who else could have thought of it?[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 304-6.
  2. In Broken Images, 51-3.
  3. Parker, Ackerley, 22.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 71.
  5. Life and Letters, 269-70.

Wilfred Owen Will Fight for Keats; Morgan Crofton and Frank Richards Look Upon Royalty

Wilfred Owen, still teaching in the south of France, wrote to his mother today, a century back. He discussed, among other things, the various paths his future might take. Speculating prodigiously, he produced this oft-quoted pensée:

Do you know what would hold me together on a battlefield? The sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote! I do not know in what else England is greatly superior, or dearer to me, than another land and another people.[1]

It’s a nice thought, but it’s only a very literary (and very affected) version of that most common mistaken apprehension of volunteers and untried soldiers. They may enlist for the sake of ideals–more typically God and Truth and Right (or My Country, Right or Wrong) than Poetry–but they find these too remote, too theoretical for the physical immediacy and emotional intensity of battle.

The soldiers who volunteer with high principles foremost in their mind often discover, once they have known combat, that they are fighting for their own pride and self-worth, for the pride and self-worth of their unit, and, most of all, for their comrades, the immediate “primary” group whom they live and eat and sleep with, and in whose eyes they fear diminishment.

Owen–it spoils little to note this–is no more wrong than any other. He will continue care about the language of Keats, but he will find that he holds himself together on the battlefield more for its application to the young soldiers around him than for any supreme principle of English poetry, or for those elements of the language useful for praising beauty but not describing horror.


So: morale is a sui generis thing, a personal thing, a regimental thing–a platoon thing perhaps most of all. And yet a touch of the glamor of “King and Country” always helps. (Or, to see this just a touch more cynically, one must first receive a medal of valor from some king or general before being equipped to cast it away in disgust as a lying bauble representing innocent blood cheaply bought.)

His Majesty King George V, a few centuries too late to serve as an actual leader of his army, nevertheless took his figureheading responsibilities seriously. Two of our regulars saw him today, a century back, on his first visit to the front. It’s good to see the king.

First, Morgan Crofton:

Wednesday, December 2

We all got up at 5:30. Breakfast at 6. A brilliant Moon outside illuminated the rather twisting lanes leading to Hazebrouck, when we marched off at 6.30. Got very light and turned into a beautiful day about 7.15. Reached Hazebrouck about 7.30. The 1st Life Guards joined us en route.

Marched through the town and out onto the Hazebrouck-Lille road, where we halted two miles out and lined both sides of the road. Very cold standing about, and as we were in ‘Drill Order’, could not wear our mufflers and warm coats. The sun however came out brilliantly, which made things better, and we felt more congenial. At 10 o’clock The King came past, walking with General Allenby, and General Sir Julian Byng commanding our Cavalry Division followed by the Prince of Wales and a very large Staff. Everyone who could possibly do so seemed to have joined it. We gave The King three cheers and waved our swords. He seemed pleased to see us, but I thought looked thin and worried. He was followed by 10 empty Motor Cars, all flying the Union Jack. Aeroplanes hovered overhead, but no Germans put in an appearance anywhere near. The King passed rapidly down the line, and we then marched back to Hazebrouck, which was very much decorated with flags and the streets crowded with people to see us go by.[2]


And then Frank Richards, a few miles east and over the French border. Richards had not enjoyed his first stretch of “rest,” trench warfare-style: “every night we had to up the line digging communications trenches leading back from the front line.” On the plus side, he was issued a replacement to the cap he had lost in August, during the retreat–metal helmets are still many months away from being standard trench accoutrements.

And then, today’s change in routine:

About one hundred of us were sent to a village outside Armentières, where the King inspected some of his Army. I hadn’t seen the King since he was Prince of Wales, when early in 1905 he held a garden party in the grounds of Sikundra Taj, about six miles from Agra in India… and although over nine years had elapsed he did not look a day older. No king in the history of England ever reviewed more loyal or lousier troops than what His Majesty did that day.

As Richards will now explain, lousy then meant “indicating the presence of lice.” It’s still an unsavory word, in 1914, and its double-ascent (and recent decline–a lousy twist of fate, that) as a general-purpose negative adjective is some years away.

To look at us we were as clean as new pins, but in our shirts, pants, and trousers were whole platoons of crawlers. His Majesty decorated one of our sergeants with the Distinguished Conduct Medal…[3]

Dr. Dunn has a suspiciously similar recollection, with the vocabulary (and the numbers) somewhat elevated:

December 2nd–Stockwell commanded a picked Guard of 4 officers and 200 men whom the King inspected. ‘Rather a unique occasion, guns firing half a mile away.’ The Prince of Wales, who was with the King, was observed to have grown. The parade was spick-and-span without, but most verminous underneath.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Owen, Complete Letters 302.
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 48.
  3. Old Soldiers Never Die, 52-3.
  4. The War the Infantry Knew, 97. Richards and Graves, who edited Richards' book with a heavy hand, were both among the contributors to Dunn's collective history.