Thomas Hardy is no jingoist. In fact, his refusal to be enthusiastic about the bloody business of the war and his loathing of the very idea that a political disaster should lead one group of people to hate another notably similar group of people set him apart from the majority of Britain’s older writers.
In his emotional or poetic stance he is something very close to a dissident, the honorary colonel of the swelling regiment of the poets of protest and disillusionment. And yet he is still a patriot, still willing to entertain the (reasonable!) expectation that a great effort must be made to finish the terrible task that England began. And that criticism of the government’s conduct, of the principles by which the war is being raised is loyal, right, patriotic, and proper.
This month, a century back, Hardy put out this call, notable as much for its grim tone as for its familiar sentiments.
A Call to National Service
Up and be doing, all who have a hand
To lift, a back to bend. It must not be
In times like these that vaguely linger we
To air our vaunts and hopes; and leave our land
Untended as a wild of weeds and sand.
–Say, then, “I come!” and go, O women and men
Of palace, ploughshare, easel, counter, pen;
That scareless, scathless, England still may stand.
Would years but let me stir as once I stirred
At many a dawn to take the forward track,
And with a stride plunged on to enterprize,
I now would speed like yester wind that whirred
Through yielding pines; and serve with never a slack,
So loud for promptness all around outcries!
In Arras, Edward Thomas sat down to another lengthy letter, today, a century back, to his wife Helen. This is one of those cases in which what will be a brief note in his diary is fleshed out in the letter into a vivid vignette, a picture that constitutes writerly exercise as much as relationship maintenance. Thomas is in no hurry, as the younger men tossed into the trenches so often are, to emphasize the depth and breadth of the experiential gulf–he writes to share, and, simply, to write–loved ones are easier to face across a sheet of paper than his exacting muse.
And I must wonder, looking ahead into the letter: is Thomas precise or indelicate in his aviation simile?
1 March 1917 Arras [Group H.Q.]
This afternoon I had nothing in particular to do and Berringtond the Signals Officer of the Group, asked me to go along with him just to see how his telephone wires were being laid alongside the marsh at the edge of the city to our batteries (including 244). So I got the colonel to give me a little job to do on the way and we went out. It was sunny and warm with a fresh wind. I did what I had to do and while I was doing it Herrington sat down on the bank and smoked, which made him more or less forget what he had meant to do. Then we strolled on till a German plane came over and the alarm was blown and we sat down and smoked while the Anti-Aircraft sent scores of shells singing past us and spotted the plane with white puffs. The German had been going quite low over the city, taking photographs no doubt, but he rose up till he was as small as a lark and wasn’t touched…
Thomas next describes desultory German shelling near their position and the first rounds fired in response by his own battery. But the more striking sight is across no man’s land:
…the day was very clear and we could see the German lines and the ghastly village of ruined houses and dead trees that was my first sight of the enemy country a fortnight ago. At first I couldn’t believe it, it looked so near. Yet the line of dead tall straight trees against the sky was quite unmistakeable…
Thomas describes the rest of the ramble that eventually took him back to Group HQ–but more on that below.
I have often made reference to the gaps and rough patches in Edward and Helen Thomas’s marriage. But under the strain–and separation–of war, the marriage seems to be, if we might take an unromantic and practical point of view, doing its job. He is lonely, and he reaches out to his wife, taking some comfort from the one-sided conversation…
Now it is 5.50 p.m. Everybody is out except the Colonel who has another Colonel with him in the office, so I am alone in the dusk, and now this moment they have closed the shutters so that it seems night. It seems I am not escaping at once as the Colonel is having some difficulty in getting hold of the man who was to succeed me.
I have had a lot of Mother’s cake and a lot of tea and my ears are burning. I should like to talk to someone as I can’t write.
The letter continues tomorrow… and yet Thomas’s writing for the day isn’t done. He also wrote a very different sort of letter to Eleanor Farjeon. Thomas, proud of his Welsh descent, acknowledges the date, the festival of the patron saint of Wales.
March 1 St David’s Day
My dear Eleanor, The ginger came. All of 244 had a good dip into it and there was still some left in the tin. It was very good and it was still more good of you to send it. Thank you. Next day Helen wrote to say you really were coming to High Beech at last. I am expecting to hear now that you did.
Well, I expect to return to 244 in a day or two. They know I don’t want to stay here and a successor is being interviewed today, so that I shall soon cease to be a glorified lacky or humble adjutant to an old Indian colonel perplexed in the extreme. It has been a useful experience. I have got used to the telephone and I have seen how things are done and not done at Headquarters.
With Farjeon, Thomas takes another tack on the experience of being shelled. He has weathered it, yes–but his imagination is not insensitive to the appalling mystery of bombardment: with weapons so massive, even the smallest adjustment would spell destruction.
Incidentally too I have been in the midst of quite a noisy artillery give and take. You can’t imagine the noise this makes in a city. I don’t pretend I liked it. Sometimes I found myself fancying that if only the enemy pointed the gun like this ——– instead of like this ______ he would land a shell on the dinner table and send us to a quieter place. However he didn’t. 244 is just going into action with its own guns and I wish I were there. Soon I believe I shall be…
I cut down Thomas’s description of the sight across no man’s land in his letter to Helen because it is more vivid in this one–nor is it the last such description.
With Farjeon, Thomas is a little more willing to show himself horrified, to allude to the dark places in his imagination that cannot but be stimulated by the new sights of war. He has been here for several weeks, but the sight of empty towns and the ruins of recently thriving habitations still shock him. As they should… but he is not the sort of writer who uses the phrase “another world” lightly.
We are wondering now if the enemy is going to retire from this front. It will be strange walking about in the ghastly village which was the first I saw of the enemy’s ground, a silent still village of ruined houses and closegrown tall trees stark and dark lining a road above the trenches. It was worse than any deserted brickworks or mine. It looked in another world from ours, even from the scarred world in which I stood. In a curious way its very name now always calls up the thing I saw and the way I felt as I saw it.
The name resembles a name in Malory, especially in its English pronunciation and this also gives a certain tone to the effect it had. I see it lining the brow of a gradual hill halfway up which is the English line with the German above it. The houses and trees dense and then to right and left only trees growing thinner till at last the ridge sweeping away is bare for some miles. But this is E. T.’s vein. Goodbye. Keep well and write soon.
This must be the village of Beaurains, just south and east of Arras on the German lines, and remembering Sir Gareth “Beaumains” form Malory.
Oh, that Edward Thomas would write a dark twisted fantasy of the middle ages behind the ruined Arras of the 20th century…
In honor of Dewi Sant, we close with our favorite Welsh unit and then our most determinedly Cymrophile London Welshman. First, the celebration of the Royal Welch Fusiliers–the third of the war (follow the links for 1915 and 1916).
March 1st, St. David’s Day. A genial, almost windless day ending in a crisp, starlit night. With times of rawness the weather was generally fine during this week. Fritz is said to have withdrawn from Gommecourt. When last we were in the line he blew a mine in the road that crossed No Man’s Land on our left front. As he is expected to withdraw on this front any day now, we, being on an hour’s notice, have had little to do since coming here.
It was nearing noon before there was any assurance that the officers St. David’s Day Dinner could be held. Provisional plans had been made, and leeks had been bought for the Battalion. Yates, Mann, Mess-servants, Pioneers and defaulters, all pulled together. A very scratch kitchen was fitted up in a broken and dismantled shrine, to the scandal of some French details; a hut built on to it, and used as a chapel during the French occupation, was repaired and enlarged. Timber had been got from the Engineers. Tables and benches were run up by the Pioneer Sergeant, “Daisy” Horton.
The merit of a plain menu was Parry’s excellent cooking: soup, lobster mayonnaise, stew, steam-pudding–the sauce was the thing, Scotch woodcock, dessert; whisky, port, champagne cup; coffee. Roger Poore, transferred from the Hants Yeomanry and recently posted as Second-in-Command, presided; the C.O. was on leave.
We had a jolly night. None of the traditional ritual was wanting, and there were many to eat the leek. A German howitzer shell-case, which had been used by the French as a gas-gong, served as loving-cup. It was to have been sent home after being inscribed and decorated by Sergeant-Shoemaker Johnson, a remarkably good artist in metal, but it was lost before Poore could make up his mind about the wording.
And finally, an inauspicious St. David’s Day for his London Welsh namesake, Jones-the-Artist. David Jones had been sent to work with a unit of the engineers in the hopes that his draughtsmanship might be put to military use. Alas,
As a flash-spotter Jones was unsuccessful. Sometimes flash followed flash so quickly that he had to mark the second while reporting the first and he was unable to do two things at once. The mill swayed in the wind. In the dark he sometimes had difficulty finding the speaking end of the telephone. When reaching for the phone, he sometimes jogged the theodolite, moving its dial. Having lost the bearing, he made up the figures–not, he realised, a useful thing to do. By the end of February, he was discharged from the Survey Company on the trumped-up charge of not having had his hair cut. ‘My association with the Engineers’, he later remembered, ‘was shameful and brief.’’
On the morning of 1 March 1917 he trudged several miles under full pack to a railhead to catch a train back to his battalion north of Ypres. Despite his protests, a transport officer insisted on putting him on a train going south-west. That afternoon he arrived at a camp on a hill above Rouen, where he was detained for nearly a month, awaiting confirmation from his battalion…
He could have run across Siegfried Sassoon there, and talked poetry! Or not, for Jones was a shy enlisted autodidact in a Kitchener battalion, and even if the rigidities of military hierarchy had not separated them, Jones’s diffidence and Sassoon’s snobbery would have done the job… Jones, alone, will head into the same sort of limbo that Sassoon has been enduring but in an even worse place: he will soon go to the “Bull Ring” at Étaples, to be shouted at by the very worst sort of over-enthusiastic drill sergeants…