The Battle of Langemarck: Four Seconds in the Life of Harry Patch; Edwin Vaughan in Command

Today, a century back, is another day of battle, as the British (and French) forces in the Ypres Salient surge forward once again. The Master of Belhaven is firing in support and Kate Luard will be picking up the pieces, but we will focus on two infantrymen as they attack today in the segment of Third Ypres known as the Battle of Langemarck. Neither is in the first attacking wave, but there is more than enough horror for the supporting troops and each will experience one of the most terrible days of their war.

 

At 4:45 the bombardment began, and two battalions of the 61st Brigade attacked toward Langemarck. Harry Patch, with C Company of the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was in the second wave.

I remember the names–Pilckem Ridge was one and the other was Langemarck… How were we to know that a pile of rubble was this village or that, or that a gentle slope was a particular ridge…? You only knew what was right next to you…

I have a memory of crossing a flooded stream…

This was the Steenbeck, the second waterway (after the Yser canal) that now marks the pilgrims’ progress out of Ypres and into the Slough of Despond.

Our guns’ opening bombardment had begun with an almighty clap of thunder. You can’t describe the noise, you can’t… There was an officer going down the line… He had drawn his revolver, and I got the distinct impression by the set look on his face that anybody that didn’t ‘go over’ would be shot for cowardice where they stood…

For once the British operational luck was good: the weather held (though the ground was still terribly muddy) and the German defense was disorganized due to a half-completed relief. Langemarck was swiftly taken, and by 5.45 the second wave was moving through to its attack positions.

It was absolutely sickening to see your own dead and wounded, some calling for stretcher-bearers, others semi-conscious and beyond all help… I saw one German… all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor, a horrible sight. Others were just blown to pieces; it wasn’t a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it, and there I was, only nineteen years old. I felt sick.

It got worse.

We came across a lad from A Company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ I was with him in the last seconds of his life. It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy… I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day I’ve always remember that cry and that death is not the end.

I remember that lad in particular. It is an image that has haunted me all my life…

Patch and his team soon reached the German second (support) line, where they set up their gun to fire in support of the men of their battalion just ahead, who were pushing into the German third (reserve) line.

I’d just changed a magazine… and Bob was looking elsewhere in the support line when two or three Germans came out of a trench and one of them spotted the machine gun and came straight for us with rifle and bayonet…

My right hand was free… I drew my revolver and I shot him in the right shoulder. He dropped his rifle but he came stumbling on, no doubt to kick the gun in the mud and us to pieces if he could…

I had four seconds to make my mind up. I had three rounds in that revolver. I could have killed him with my first; I was a crack shot. What should I do? Four seconds to make my mind up. That Cornishman’s ‘Mother’ was ringing in my ears and I thought, ‘No I can’t kill him’, and I gave him his life. I shot him above the ankle, and above the knee. I brought him down… for him the war was over… at the end of the war he would rejoin his family. Perhaps he was married; perhaps he had children.[1]

 

No more than two or three miles to the south, Edwin Vaughan‘s day developed more slowly, as his 8th Royal Warwickshires moved up behind several attacking waves.

August 16

At 2 a.m. a guide led us out of the camp in an easterly direction. We moved in column of route, in silence and with no smoking. I was leading with Ewing, but it was pitch dark and as our guide led us, sometimes on a hard road then on to mud then again on a sleeper track, I could not follow our direction. At last we arrived at a canal, with a steep
bank on either side and a towing path. We crossed a rough bridge and Ewing gave the order to fall out.

We were at Bridge 2A of the Yser canal, a few hundred yards north of Ypres. The air was poisoned by a terrible
stench that turned me sick. In the dim light the water appeared to be a dark-green swamp wherein lay corpses of men and bodies of horses; shafts of waggons and gun wheels protruded from the putrefying mass and after a shuddering glance I hurried along the towing path to clearer air. The bank was honeycombed with dugouts, chiefly occupied by REs. At one point I saw a fingerboard ‘To the RC Chaplain’.

Our cookers now rolled up and the cooks carried a hot meal over to our men. For my part I had lost my fear now, and in spite of the imminent attack and the fearful mass below me, I ate a hearty breakfast of sausages and bacon…

Vaughan is a commanding writer, and one who is keen both to describe the remembered scene with all the tools of the language and to record the raw emotions of the moment:[2]

…I walked along the path to where Sergeant Major Chalk was standing on the bank, silhouetted against the sky. I climbed up beside him and stood gazing across the darkness of the earth into the dawn. After a few minutes of silence he said ‘what is the time. Sir?’

‘Four forty-five’ I said, and with my words the whole earth burst into flame with one tremendous roar as hundreds of guns hurled the first round of the barrage…

Spellbound I saw a line of coloured lights shoot up from the Boche and then Chalk tugged my sleeve to indicate that our Company was lining up on the towing path…

My nervousness was gone now; trembling with excitement, but outwardly perfectly reasonable, I drank in every detail of the scene almost with eagerness. To the east we moved along the winding track between batteries of heavies that belched smoke and fire as we passed. The light grew rapidly, and the line of fire changed to a line of smoke. Around us and ahead of us was earth, nothing but earth—no houses or trees or even grass just faint shapeless humps from which the great guns hurled their iron death…

The men sing as they march up to take their positions in support.

The road had now almost disappeared and we were marching over shell-holes around which was scattered debris and wreckage at which I now dared not look. I kept my eyes fixed on the distance until we came to some low buildings—Van Heule Farm.

These were some of the concrete pillboxes of which we had heard. In front of them were six dead Germans and a disembowelled mule…

I led my platoon off to the right and we continued to move steadily across that muddy waste until I realized that we were walking into a curtain of fire. We were right on top of the German barrage when glancing round I saw Ewing give the signal to halt.

I repeated the signal to my men, and we all dived into shell-holes right on the fringe of the shell-torn zone. With my head just over the edge of my shell-hole I lay blinking into the shrieking, crashing hail of death 30 yards in front. We were too close to fear anything except a direct hit and fascinated I stared at that terrible curtain through which we soon must pass. One gun was firing regularly onto a spot only a few yards in front of me and as I watched the bursts I became aware of Private Bishop in the shell-hole in front with a thick red stream running down his back. I shouted to him ‘Are you hurt, Bishop?’ Turning round he said, ‘No Sir’ in surprise. So I leaped across the edge of the hole and found that the stream proceeded from a shrapnel wound in a carton of jam in his haversack…

Soon the order comes to occupy a more forward position. Since they are some distance to the south, the line of the Steenbeck (which runs from south east to northwest across the west-to-east oriented battlefield) is further to the east than where Patch and his battalion crossed it.

Dully I hoisted myself out of the mud and gave the signal to advance, which was answered by every man rising and stepping unhesitatingly into the barrage… we were surrounded by bursting shells and singing fragments, while above us a stream of bullets added their whining to the general pandemonium. The men were wonderful! And it was astounding that although no one ran or ducked, whilst many were blown over by shells bursting at our very feet no one was touched until we were through the thickest part of the barrage and making for the little ridge in front.

Then I saw fellows drop lifeless while others began to stagger and limp; the fragments were getting us and in front was a belt of wire. At this moment I felt my feet sink and though I struggled to get on, I was dragged down to the waist in sticky clay. The others passed on, not noticing my plight until by yelling and firing my revolver into the air I attracted the attention of Sergeant Gunn, who returned and dragged me out. I caught up the troops who were passing through a gap in the wire, and I was following Corporal Breeze when a shell burst at his feet. As I was blown backwards I saw him thrown into the air to land at my feet, a crumpled heap of torn flesh.

Sick with horror I scrambled over him and stumbled down into the cutting, which was the Steenbeck Stream. Crouched in here we found the Irish Rifles, and we lined up with them. There was a padre who gave me a cheery grin and further along was a major smoking a pipe as he sat on the bank with his back to the enemy. I climbed out of the stream and saluted him, noticing out of the corner of my eye that a tank was ditched in the cutting. I sat down beside him and told him who we were, and then from the heap of flesh that had been Breeze, I saw the stump of an arm raised an inch or two. Others saw it too and before I needed to tell them, the stretcher-bearers were on their way to him. Very gently they brought him in to where I was sitting. He was terribly mutilated, both his feet had gone and one arm, his legs and trunk were torn to ribbons and his face was dreadful. But he was conscious and as I bent over him I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of mingled recognition and terror. His feeble hand clutched my equipment, and then the light faded from his eye. The shells continued to pour but we gave poor Breezy a burial in a shell-hole and the padre read a hurried prayer.

…The ground sloped up so sharply in front that I could only see for about 30 yards. Behind us was nothing but the shell-swept waste of mud and filth. So I called to Corporal Benjamin to come and talk to me. He had just made some reference to poor Breeze, when there was a clang and he staggered back, his helmet flying off into the stream. A bullet had gone through it without touching him and his comical look of amazement and indignation as he retrieved it made me shriek with laughter…

We are now at the stage of every battle where things slow down: whatever was planned so minutely has run its course, and the various units who have come “through” the attacking waves must now assess the situation, discovering just where the enemy has been destroyed or retreated, and where he is hanging on. And with every hour on the battlefield the danger increases, as the German artillery, too, discovers what territory has been held and what can now be fired upon.

At about 3 p.m. we saw two figures walking back behind us, and recognizing Radcliffe we hailed him and ran across. His right wrist had been shattered by a sniper’s bullet and he was very upset for it was a rotten sort of blighty for a Doctor of Music to get. With him was Sergeant Bell who had got a bullet in the arm from the same sniper. It was with real regret that we gripped their left hands and said goodbye—we knew for ever. We felt that this was the beginning of the break-up and we rejoined our troops in deep dejection.

Half an hour later Ewing arrived, breathless from dodging the energetic snipers, and told me that I was to take command of the Company as he was going to HQ as adjutant in place of Hoskins, who had been hit… My instructions were to move the Company at dusk straight over to the left, form up behind the Gloucesters and after dark to push forward and deal with any machine guns in front.

Vaughan has not always had the confidence of the higher-ups in his battalion, but needs must. Despite being issued vague orders to make a lateral movement across a battlefield and then attempt the sort of small-unit tactical feat that will be the stuff of hundreds of war movies to come, he seems to acquit himself well–at least at first.

Owing to the murk of battle and the misty rain, we were able to move at 6 o’clock, so stumbling and dodging round the shell-holes we followed our guide over half a mile of mud and water in front of what had been St Julien. The  snipers were very busy as we crossed, but the light was so bad that the shots sang over our heads and no one was hit.

By the time we had formed up behind the Gloucesters, it was quite dark, so I immediately sent out four small patrols to locate the enemy line. In a very few minutes machine guns opened out and sprayed bullets over our line. The patrols all returned and reported that the ground in front was a morass of mud and water, and before they had gone a hundred yards the Boche had heard them floundering about, and had opened fire. I believed them but to satisfy myself I took a couple of men and went out towards a spot where I had judged a gun to be. In five minutes we were stumbling into deep holes full of water, and the noise we made dragging our bodies through the mud caused flares to shoot up all along his line and the ground was swept by traversing guns. By the light of one flare I thought I saw a low pillbox with figures standing before it, but I was not sure. In any case it was obvious that to attempt a night attack would be madness, so I took my patrol back. On the way we stumbled into a large swamp and waded about in water for some time before striking our positions.

Vaughan’s habit of honesty about his own shortcomings as an officer is one of the most valuable aspects of his diary. He hasn’t quite refused to perform a direct order, but he has asserted his own judgment–as a second lieutenant of very limited combat experience–that the suggested attack is “madness,” and demurred. This could be interpreted–unfairly, but still–as a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to get some of his men killed in capturing an important local objective. As a company commander, Vaughan now has only the battalion’s commanding officer to answer to:

I found the CO waiting for me and I sat down in the mud beside him feeling dead beat and horribly ill. What he was saying I had no idea, for I must have fainted or gone to sleep. After what seemed a long time I heard a voice saying
unintelligible things, and I was just able to mutter, ‘I’m awfully sorry. Sir, but I haven’t the least idea what you’re saying.’ He shook me violently and said ‘Now, Vaughan, pull yourself together.’ Whereupon I was alert in a moment and he repeated his instructions. I was to form up my platoons in depth to the right of where we were then sitting. The Gloucesters were going out before dawn and the following night I was to spread out to the left and form a line joining the Ox and Bucks. Then he left me and I sat for a while staring into the darkness, realizing that we were in a hell of a place.

It was a very different attack from what I had imagined we would experience: terror and death coming from far away seemed much more ghastly than a hail of fire from people whom we could see and with whom we could come to grips. And now we were in an unknown district and must await through the long night the uncertainties of the dawn…

But they still must go forward–the uncertainties of dawn are likely to include a counter-attack, and they must prepare for this as best they can.

Chalk and I went in front… in a few moments a salvo of high-velocity shells kept us flattened out in the mud as they crashed amongst us.

Coincidentally, David Jones sketched a different British tank elsewhere in the Salient today, a century back

As we pushed on again we discerned dimly, through the rain and darkness, a derelict tank. ‘What about that for an HQ, Sir?’ said Chalk. I assented and when I had positioned the troops in front with Jimmy Harding among them, I led my staff of runners, signallers and pigeon carriers back to that spot. As we approached it, however, we were met by a filthy, overpowering stench and found that a shell had burst underneath it and it had burnt out. The charred bodies of the crew were inside or half out of the open door. So I sought the healthier atmosphere of a large crater 30 yards away and gathered my staff in neighbouring shell-holes.

I was very tired but had to stagger out at once to see that the line was unbroken and I had a rotten time dodging shells. Feeling half dead I was on my way back when I heard a voice yelling ‘Stretcher-bearers’. It was Sergeant Swingler with a chunk of shrapnel in his shoulder…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Last Fighting Tommy, 90-101. The name Harry Patch will be familiar to Great War cognoscenti and even perhaps to those with little reading in the subject, and/or an interest in alternative rock. He was not really a writer, but his story is terribly moving, and even almost hopeful: at his funeral, in 2009, soldiers from Belgium, France, and Germany accompanied his coffin--and, in strict accordance with his wishes, there were no weapons present, not even ceremonial swords. So that was Harry Patch, and it seemed a shame, in the strange logic of military history, not to include his terrible day, here, in some way. At the very least this trauma of a century back gave a renewed push to the effort to remember the Great War properly--in its full awfulness--in hte two decades leading up to the centenary. But there is a good methodological reason, too, for including him: his story, "as told to" interviewers (and, for the book, to the military historian Richard Van Emden) is the most extreme sort of counterpoint to what I generally value the most, here. Instead of a near-immediate record in a dated diary entry or letter, we have the memories of a day only after these memories have weathered eighty or nineties years in the mind of a survivor--Patch didn't start talking about the war until he was over a century old. It's a reminder of what, from another point of view, really matters, and a rebuke from a very gentle old man: the section I quote from, above, begins "I'm told we attacked on 16 August, but the date doesn't mean much to me..." and then he, in Hemingway/Fussell fashion still remembers the names, but, as the first ellipsis, above, continues "it is such a long time ago that I can't quite connect them up in my head."
  2. His diary will be extensively worked over after the fact, at least in part to achieve this effect.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193-200.

A Novel Premonition for Elinor Brooke; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard Under German Bombs; Vera Brittain is at War at Last; Rudyard Kipling and the Efficacy of the Mob–and Charles Sorley Sees the Blindness

As the day dawns over Sussex today, a century back, Elinor Brooke reaches a crossroads in her war.

I was trudging uphill, feeling spikes of stubble jab my ankles, and then, just as I reached the top, the sun rose–huge, molten-red–and at that moment I knew–not thought, not feared, knew–that Toby wasn’t coming back.[1]

This is Elinor’s diary entry, in Pat Barker’s novel. Elinor is fictional, but her position–from the intuition, to the death of her brother, to the long struggle she will have to learn of its circumstances and make sense of it all–is very familiar.

 

And it still goes on. Edmund Blunden is fortunate to be in reserve today.

A fairly idle day… read Leigh Hunt… There was a big bombardment again this evening. Some of our party went over I suppose–God help them in the mud. Just as we were settling down for the night, Boche came over. Our knees knocked and teeth chattered, but nothing fell on us…[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, is closer to the action–and dodging bombs from the same German raiders. 1917, as Blunden recently observed, is not 1916. In some ways it feels as if in just two short years we have come from a 19th century world beginning to be troubled by machine guns to the cusp of mid-century schrecklichkeit. All we’ll need are stronger engines and bigger bombs.

We are so much in the thick of War up here that no one talks or thinks of anything else…shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. The last are much the worst. He dropped five at dinner-time about 70 yards away, and came over with some more about 10.30 to-night and some more later. There’s no sort of cover anywhere and it is purely beastly. Shelling is nothing to it. The Sisters are extraordinarily good in it.[3]

 

Nor is Vera Brittain far from the bombs–but then again she has felt the bombs land in London, too. She writes to her mother today, a century back, from her new assignment in the great British base complex in the Pas-de-Calais.

24th General Hospital, Étaples,
France, 5 August 1917

. . . I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of a hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods. It is all huts & tents; I am working in a hut & sleeping under canvas, only not in a tent but in a kind of canvas shanty, with boarded floor & corrugated iron roof.. .The hospital is frantically busy & we were very much welcomed. . .

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases… The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, & one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings. My half-forgotten German comes in very useful, & the Sisters were so glad to know I understood it & could speak a little as half the time they don’t know what the poor things want. It gives one a chance to live up to our Motto Inter Arma Caritas, but anyhow one can hardly feel bitter towards dying men. It is incongruous, though, to think of Edward in one part of France trying to kill the same people whom in another part of France I am trying to save…

Well, Malta was an interesting experience of the world, but this is War.[4]

Rarely is the epistolary first draft–especially to Mother, rather than to one of her fellow members of the Lost Generation–better than the coming memoir, but I think that’s the case today. There is a swelling of strings as Vera finally reaches France–the place that killed Roland, Geoffrey, and Victor, and that still has Edward in its clutches–and there is an excellent evocation of the sounds of the bombardment, too, which works nicely amidst the others, here–but the effect of her description of France is less powerful than the simple antithesis she used in the letter:

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.[5]

 

Finally, there’s a remarkable letter of today, a century back, from one to another of two titans of the turn of the century: the bard of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and one of its dashing New World practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt. If not for the fact that they are not 19th century men, and that they are discussing sons (the present Kermit Roosevelt and the ever-present-through-his-absence Jack Kipling) and geopolitics… and if I didn’t despise this newly ubiquitous (at least in American pop culture) term, then I would describe this letter as a founding document of “bro” culture. Kipling’s writing has rarely been so off-putting, so ingratiatingly chummy, so eager to be brutal.

I have come a long way–through reading the man’s fiction, history, and private letters–to understanding Kipling much better than as the facile, solemn Imperialist chest-thumper of the familiar caricature… but a few paragraphs of this letter bring that old idea back with a vengeance. Kipling is full of blustery, silly talk as he updates the former president on his son’s adventures in England (Kermit Roosevelt is about to go out to Mesopotamia attached to a British Machine Gun unit); then there is unsolicited “expert” military advice (Kipling worries that the new American generals are too eager, and will fruitlessly spend their first small forces instead of building up for a “big push”), and there are helpful suggestions such as these:

I fancy that before you’ve done, in the U.S.A., you will discover as we have that the really dangerous animal is the Hun in one’s own country no matter what he pretends to be. You hold a good many hostages for his good behaviour and I sometimes wonder whether, if the U.S.A. took toll from her own unnaturalized Germans for every Hun outrage committed on the U.S. and on France, it wouldn’t have a sedative effect…

Don’t worry: Kipling is not suggesting that German Americans be killed in retribution for U-boat sinkings, only that a few officially sponsored riots in German American neighborhoods (I believe one applicable analogy would be to the pogrom) might just do the trick.

…It’s what the Hun comprehends perfectly. We have bled him badly in men, and if we can use up a decent percentage of his 1919 class this winter by exposure in the trenches as well as direct killing, he will feel it more.

But of course I’m being squeamish: anti-German-American riots were quite within the realm of possibility. And I just passed Kipling’s casual assertion of the righteousness of retributive atrocity without comment. Why? Because that describes the activities of uniformed soldiers? Because that’s different than casually advocating violent demagoguery and mob violence as strategic tools to an ally which is, ostensibly, a multi-ethnic democracy? Because my century-late outrage would be better served by letting Kipling’s endorsement of such things stand on its own rather than surrounding it with fussy complaint? “Bettered the instruction” indeed.

Worst of all, Kipling’s strategic guesstimates are accurate:

What he seems to funk more than most things is the stringency of the new blockade now that the U.S.A. is imposing it and neutrals can’t feed him as much as they used to. We’ve got another twelvemonth of trouble ahead of us I expect but it won’t be all on one side.[6]

This is the sort of letter, from one figurehead of imperial warfare to another–and from one older man willing to sacrifice his son to another–that might have re-affirmed Siegfried Sassoon‘s faith in the righteousness of his protest…

 

But back to this treatment of “Huns:” not Germans who are armed and dangerous in the trenches opposite, but German emigrants, civilians living in America, posing no threat and powerless to defend themselves. The analogy to wounded prisoners is not precise, yet it seems a coincidence worth exploring that Vera Brittain’s first encounter with helpless Germans also began today, a century back.

…when I told the Matron of my work in Malta, she remarked with an amused, friendly smile that I was “quite an old
soldier…” but… I was hardly prepared for the shock of being posted… to the acute and alarming German
ward…

Although we still, I believe, congratulate ourselves on our impartial care of our prisoners, the marquees were often
damp, and the ward was under-staffed whenever there happened to be a push — which seemed to be always — and the number of badly wounded and captured Germans became in consequence excessive. One of the things I like best to remember about the War is the nonchalance with which the Sisters and V.A.D.s in the German ward took for granted that it was they who must be overworked, rather than the prisoners neglected. At the time that I went there the ward staff had passed a self-denying ordinance with regard to half days, and only took an hour or two off when the work temporarily slackened.

From the moral high ground Vera Brittain now wields a satirist’s sword with great skill:

Before the War I had never been in Germany and had hardly met any Germans apart from the succession of German mistresses at St. Monica’s, every one of whom I had hated with a provincial schoolgirl’s pitiless distaste for foreigners. So it was somewhat disconcerting to be pitch-forked, all alone — since V.A.D.S went on duty half an hour before Sisters — into the midst of thirty representatives of the nation which, as I had repeatedly been told, had crucified Canadians, cut off the hands of babies, and subjected pure and stainless females to unmentionable “atrocities.” I didn’t think I had really believed all those stories, but I wasn’t quite sure.[7] I half expected that one or two of the patients would get out of bed and try to rape me, but I soon discovered that none of them were in a position to rape anybody, or indeed to do anything but cling with stupendous exertion to a life in which the scales were already weighted heavily against them.

At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained gauze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Attached to the ward was a small theatre, in which acute operations were performed all day by a medical officer with a swarthy skin and a rolling brown eye; he could speak German, and before the War had been in charge, I was told, of a German hospital in some tropical region of South America. During the first two weeks, he and I and the easy-going Charge-Sister worked together pleasantly enough. I often wonder how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the theatre — as we did all clay at frequent intervals — in that foetid stench, with the thermometer about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor. After the “light medicals” that I had nursed in Malta, the German ward might justly have been described as a regular baptism of blood and pus.

This is inhuman and horrible, but the point–Brittain’s point, and now mine–is that it is also deeply humane.

One tall, bearded captain would invariably stand to attention when I had re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heels together, and bow with ceremonious gravity. Another badly wounded boy — a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England — held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims — that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.

And Kipling, to some degree, had. But we’ll leave today with another voice, one which has greater personal authority than anyone who has spoken yet. The wounded Germans may be dying in English hands, but Charles Sorley had studied in Germany, and fought Germans, and been killed by Germans. In the memoir, Vera Brittain enlists the young dead poet against the cruel masters of war:

Somewhere, I remembered, I had seen a poem called “To Germany,” which put into words this struggling new
idea; it was written, I discovered afterwards, by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915 :

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Barker, Toby's Room, 85.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 78.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 137.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 268-9.
  5. Testament of Youth, 372-3.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 467-8.
  7. Which is about right. The British press ran with a great many entirely invented atrocity stories, and propaganda and myth made an ugly marriage of convenience with stories like the ones Brittain mentions. And yet there was a tendency after the war--an inevitable after-effect of government lies--to disbelieve all stories of German atrocity and assume a rough moral equivalence. There wasn't--which was at least in part due to the fact that Germany occupied enemy territory, and believed itself to be under existential threat; neither of these things were true in the same way of Britain. But German atrocities, especially during the invasion of Belgium, were very real. They should not bear on the claim to humane treatment of wounded soldiers, but even if pacifists between the wars emphasized the horror of war in general rather than of particular forms of armed aggression, it is bad history to discount the deliberate violence meted out by the German army to French and Belgian civilians.
  8. Testament of Youth, 372-77.

Robert Graves on Siegfried Sassoon’s Protest; A Day in the Life of Duff Cooper; Francis Ledwidge Begs a Bog-Flower; Alfred Hale’s Post-Box Dismay

It was today, a century back, that Siegfried Sassoon received a telegram ordering him to report to the Royal Welch Depot at Litherland, near Liverpool. Meanwhile, his friends conspire to knock him off his tentatively-pursued course toward political martyrdom. Robert Graves, now moving to escape his pleasant confinement on the Isle of Wight, wrote to Eddie Marsh:

12 July 1917
(In bed, 12 midnight)

My dear Eddie

What an excellent and sensible letter!

About Sassoon first. It’s an awful thing–completely mad–that he’s done. Such rotten luck on you and me and his friends, especially in the Regiment. They all think he’s mad: and they’d be prepared to hush it up if the Army Council don’t get to hear of the bomb shop incident, but I don’t think S.S. will let them hush it up.

Graves is never shy of speaking ill of his friends in letters to mutual friends, nor of foregrounding his own self-pity, but despite these words he is committed to saving his friend what he justifiably believes to be an action both futile and embarrassing. For once Graves’s penchant for unreflective action will provide the results he desires.

The ‘bomb shop,’ by the way is a pacifist bookshop in London now selling Sassoon’s statement in pamphlet form. But it has yet–I believe–to be widely disseminated, hence Graves’s hopes of nipping the protest in the bud.

I don’t know what on earth to do now. I’m not going to quarrel with Sassons… I think he’s quite right in his views but absolutely wrong in his action… I’m a sound militarist in action however much of a pacifist in thought. In theory the War ought to stop tomorrow if not sooner. Actually we’ll have to go on while a rat or a dog remains to be enlisted…[1]

I only wish I’d known about S.S. in time: it would never have happened if I’d been there but I’ve not seen him since January…[2]

This, again, is both self-dramatizing on Graves’s part and highly likely (never mind the fact that the ridiculous “militarist in action/pacifist in thought” statement is no improvement on Sassoon’s quandary). When Sassoon is with his hunting friends, he hunts, and thinks little of politics or poetry. When he is with poets, he writes, and when he is with soldiers he fights. Alone, dispirited, and seeing little of his officer-peers and much of the older, socially and/or intellectually impressive pacifists, he has written a tract.

 

It is very much 1917, now. But not for everyone. How does the war look from the point of view of a new officer cadet? Duff Cooper takes pains today to record for posterity an ordinary day in the life:

This was really my first normal day here and as the others will probably be similar I will describe it. I got up at a quarter to six, before reveille and before anyone else in my room. Had a cold plunge, washed, shaved, and dressed. Breakfast roll call parade at five minutes to seven. Then breakfast and time after it to enjoy a swift cigar and a glance at The Times. Parade at 8.30–physical training which is very exhausting. Then a lecture, then more drill and musketry instruction. Lunch at 12:30. It amuses me at about 11:00 when the day seems half over to remember myself a little while ago sauntering down to the Foreign Office at this hour to begin my work–but it saddens me in the evening at about 8.30 when my beastly dinner is finished and there is nothing more to do, to think how at this hour in London I should be setting forth upon an evening’s pleasure.

Sure, but it ain’t exactly the trenches.

To go on with my day–lunch at 12.30, a cup of coffee in the canteen afterwards to take away the taste of lunch. Then at 1.45 the most exhausting and unpleasant parade of the day under the broiling sun–company drill. Then lectures… Just time after tennis to write to Diana before the post goes and to have a hot bath before dinner. The evenings are the times I feel depressed and long for good food and wine and pleasure and beautiful women…[3]

Ingenuous Duff! Yes, drill in the hot sun sounds unpleasant. And perhaps a cigar and the paper, and two baths, and three meals (however substandard) are all not much to crow about… but tennis! It seems like an invitation to mock the travails of officer cadets. It’s not–it’s an honest man’s diary… but still. There is no regimen of truly bad food and agonizingly hard drill that leaves men choosing to play tennis at the end of the day…

 

And then there’s that lost life of food, wine, and that one woman. But it’s only been about three weeks since Cooper saw Diana Manning.

For Francis Ledwidge, it has been about two years since the love of his life, Ellie Vaughey, died. “His” Ellie had already spurned him to marry another–an act which may have contributed to his decision to enlist–but her death shortly thereafter somehow brought the loss home to Ledwidge, causing him to break off a blooming new relationship with Lizzie Healy. So it has been two years, more or less, for the poet without much thought of love.

Today, a century back, after a long silence, Ledwidge decided to write to Lizzie again. Is it because hope is in his heart this summer, or is it because battle looms again? A foolish question… soldiers’ minds rarely believe in separating the two strains of feeling…

You will be surprised to hear from me again after a silence neatly three years long. The reason I write is because I have been dreaming about you and it has made me rather anxious. I sincerely hope that nothing troubles you in body or soul.

It must be quite beautiful on the bog now. How happy you are to be living in peace and quietude where birds still sing and the country wears her confirmation dress. Out here the land is broken up by shells and the woods are like skeletons and when you come to a little town it is only to find poor homeless people lamenting over what was once a cheery home. As I write this a big battle is raging on my left hand and if it extends to this part of the line I will be pulling triggers like a man gone mad.

Please, dear Lizzie, send me a flower from the bog, plucked specially for me. I may be home again soon. In fact I am only waiting to be called home. God send it soon.[4]

 

And finally, today–although I suspect that my fascination with Alfred Hale is not shared by many readers–one amazing little detail that adds a quirky grace note to today’s tales of a privileged, disgruntled early volunteer, a privileged latecomer to the military life, and a working-class soldier long in the ranks.

Hale is a man in his forties, belatedly conscripted and now very belatedly hoping to be rescued from the ranks by means of an unlikely special commission.

How? Well, he hopes his parents will obtain one for him.

From whom? The chief of the boy scouts, naturally:

12 July: Letter from my mother. Sir Robert Baden-Powell had taken no notice of appeal for help from my father in getting me a commission. How I watched the post every day just then…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This letter also mentions the "worst possible news about my friend Peter." This would Peter Johnstone, with whom Graves was--or had been--infatuated at Charterhouse. Unintentionally or not, Graves muddies the waters with his account of the incident in Good-Bye to All That, seeming to conflate a 1915 revelation about Peter's alleged homosexual activity with today's bad news that he had been charged with soliciting a soldier. Being a well-connected young man--the grandson of an Earl--Johnstone was remanded to a doctor's care rather than to prison. On which more later...
  2. In Broken Images, 77-8. See also R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 177-9.
  3. Diaries, 56-7.
  4. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 184-5.
  5. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 96.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

July 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

10 July 1917
5 Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn

My dear Siegfried,

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

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

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

Yours

Eddie

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

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

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

Tuesday

1 War Hospital, Block C 11, Reading

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

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

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

Garsington

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

A Horse Does for Rowland Feilding and a Bunny for Edwin Vaughan; Wilfred Owen Lies Uneasily at Craiglockhart

First today, a painful irony–and yet, considering the circumstances, a cosmically gentle one.

Many writers remark on how it seems strange that illness and accident continue their quiet culling of human hopes even amidst the actuarial storms of battle. And it does seem that way…  Anyway, Rowland Feilding will be missing the next battle. He will describe, tomorrow, today’s lucky misfortune:

July 3, 1917

No. 10 Stationary Hospital, St. Omer.

To-day I should be one of a party with General Plumer, making a presentation of the bell of Wytschaete Church (which has been dug out of the ruins) to the King of the Belgians; but, instead, I am in bed in the hospital at St. Omer, enduring the torments of the damned each time I am obliged to make the smallest movement.

Briefly, I turned a somersault with my mare over the sandbag wall at the Royal Munster Sports yesterday, at Zeggers Cappel, straining or tearing some muscles in my back, and breaking a bone or two in my left hand. The
Iast I remember was crawling away from the course, and the soldiers clapping as I picked myself up from the ground. They are always like that.

I came here on an ambulance—19 miles—and arrived after eleven o’clock, last night. I am glad I have had the experience. I think I understand now in a small degree how the wounded must suffer when they are carried back over the bumpy roads.[1]

It will be some time before Col Feilding is fit to write the war again–or far enough away from his wife to need to…

 

 

But Wilfred Owen  is in a very different frame of mind. Beginning his “ergotherapy” in Scotland, he wrote to his cousin and quondam fellow literary aspirant Leslie Gunston yesterday, a century back. I’ll skip through all but the end of the lighthearted Scots travesty which begins the letter:

1 July 1917 Craiglockhart

…A pleasaunte streme of letters is flowing in to me: but it must be fed by my own showres swoote.

My Ballad is going strong, finished Fytte 1 at the Second sitting. Late last night I very hastily draughted a Fate sonnet. I had an Idea—which is almost my Gospel. Can you get it from this?

The draft of the sonnet is dated today, a century back.[2] Of the ballad more anon:

The Fates. (2nd Draught.)

They watch me, shadowing, to inform the Fates,
Those constables called Fortune, Chance, and Death;
Time, in disguise as one who serves and waits.
Eternity, as women that have breath:

I know them. Men and boys are in their pay.
And those I hold my perfect friends may prove
Agent of theirs, to take me if I stray
From Fatal ordnance. If I move, they move . . .

Escape? There is one unwatched way: your eyes,
O Beauty! Keep me good that secret gate.
And when the cordon tightens of the spies.
Let the clear iris of your eyes grow great!
So I’ll evade the press-gang raid of age[3]
And miss the march of lifetime, stage by stage.

Your W.E.O.

The letter to Gunston was swiftly followed by one to Wilfred’s mother

Sunday [2 July 1917] Craiglockhart

My dearest Mother,

…I can’t even tell you how long I shall be kept here. I feel pretty sure of another fortnight; but in any case it would be of no interest for you to come just before I am able to get home…

He raises a host of other objections and suggestions an (unlikely) joint parental journey before turning to his own feelings.

…I feel a kind of reservation about all pleasant things I do here. I have made no friends in this place, and the impulse is not in me to walk abroad and find them…

If any of you should just look me up out of friendliness—just a fren’ly aft’noon call—when there’s nothin’ much doin’ at home—please bring plenty of room in your baggage for taking back my surplus stuff…

Really I am looking so well as to cause remarks to be made as I pass the guid wives in the town. I want you to see me now.

Oh Mother!

x W.E.O.[4]

 

We’ll end this offbeat day with Edwin Vaughan, a cold sweat, and a tinned rabbit:

July 2

It rained heavily all day so that several more shelters fell in. Dunham and I sat in my dripping cubby-hole and tried to whistle. We were not very successful, so I wrote a cheery letter home and went to sleep. I had a ghastly dream about the tinned rabbit that had come up in the rations. I woke, bathed in perspiration. Seeing that I was awake, Dunham asked me if I was ready for my rabbit, whereupon I swore at him and crawled out into the rain to wander round the trench until dusk.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 197.
  2. Actually, it's dated "June 2," but that slip is common.
  3. This line, appropriately enough, is marginally marked "bad," while lines and 14 earn a "G."
  4. Collected Letters, 473-5.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 172.

Edmund Blunden Cudgels His Brain; A Tart Thank You from Thomas Hardy; David Jones Under Fire; Edwin Vaughan in the Mire

And now for something completely different from Edmund Blunden:

Several poems of the usual quiet melancholy type have made their appearance, and two or three I have left broken off through lack of heart to go on. I had half a mind to turn Roman Catholic whilst walking round Omer Cathedral the other day, but I can’t convince myself. I don’t know what to do. Aunt Maude writes saying that I haven’t written lately–but I have. Still, tomorrow evening I will cudgel my brains for flippancies about this most damnable war ‘such as her soul loveth.’ For she seems to think that the war is merely an opportunity for us poor devils to show our courage and cheerfulness: I see in it an opportunity for battle-murder and sudden death, and ‘Good Lord, deliver us!’ But I think things have got beyond him

As with nearly all letters complaining about aunts, this one is to his mother, and even the whimsy seems a bit more wearisome–nice Anglican boys do not drop offhand hints about conversion…  but he shrugs it off, in the end:

Forgive this writing which is obviously that of a pale wretch gibbering through the iron bars of his cage at the bright unthinking people passing by…[1]

 

Thomas Hardy has a bit of a bone to pick with his old friend J.M. Barrie–but he does so delicately, once more cloaking his preferences and disinclinations with the fusty, fussy mantle of age. Although, to be fair, it is true that he is not young…

Max Gate, Dorchester
23 June 1917

My dear Barrie:

It was so kind of you to concoct the scheme for my accompanying you to the Front-or Back-in France. I thought it over carefully, as it was an attractive idea. But I have had to come to the conclusion that old men cannot be young men, & that I must content myself with the past battles of our country if I want to feel military. If I had been ten years younger I would have gone. . . .

I hope you will have a pleasant, or rather impressive, time, & the good company you will be in will be helpful all round…

Always sincerely yrs
Thomas Hardy.[2]

 

No–“pleasant” would not be the word, and the slight dig of changing “front” to “back” is a point well taken. David Jones, for instance, spent today, a century back “huddled in a dugout” throughout seven hours and fifteen minutes of continuous shelling.[3] Not pleasant at all.

 

As for Edwin Vaughan, his day was far less terrifying, beginning as it did with relief and a march to the rear. And yet it was notably unpleasant…

After a few hundred yards we turned off on to a slippery path through thick trees and after sliding and crashing down with clatter of rifles and tin hats and loud cursing, we at last spied the glow of cookers above us among the trees, and were met by Braham who was waiting to guide the troops to their bivvies. Thankfully we followed him inch by inch up a slippery bank to where the cookers stood promising hot pontoon.

I was the last to climb the greasy bank and had just reached the top when my feet slipped and down I went, rolling over and over until I was messed with sticky mud from head to foot. I cursed loudly and foully as I recovered my tin hat from a pool, and had another shot at the bank. I finished the last part on my knees, and by the time the cooks had directed me to the troops’ bivvies, they were already installed and the other officers had gone on with Braham to their quarters.

So savagely I decided to be a martyr, and I stopped to see the troops draw their pontoon. Standing by the cookers like a brown ghoul I watched the troops one after another file into the flickering light of the fire which played on their muddy clothes, the black faces and dirty ducks of the cooks and on the dripping tree trunks. Over all the rain fell with a steady swishing through the leaves.

I waited until all the Company were served, then had a mug of stew, after which I set off through the trees in the direction indicated by the cooks as the officers’ lines…

They started to jeer at me for my muddied appearance but I assumed a superior attitude as I told them that I was the only one who had remained to see the troops comfortable. Then I howled ‘Mess!’ and Martin appeared with a huge plate of stew. As I ate, Martin stood watching me and chaffing me about my ‘muddy look’. Being Martin he was allowed to do so, but when he commenced to pick bits of mud out of my hair I had to get cross and send him away…[4]

Muddy, but relieved–in both senses–Vaughan fell asleep as dawn broke.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 74-5.
  2. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 220-1.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones and the Great War, 157.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 167-9.

Edward Brittain on Victor Richardson, and What Remains; Ivor Gurney on Food and Fatalism; Patrick Shaw Stewart Lolls and Reads

First, today, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first to her since the death of Victor Richardson. There is something still clinging to this letter of the Romantic idealism that has always marked this group of friends–but not much. Edward is not in a mood to be sentimental about cruel wounds, or to fool himself about pain.

Roker, Sunderland, 11 June 1917

Dearest Vera —

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live; I have a horror of blindness, and if I were blinded myself I think I should wish to die. The idea of long years without the light of the sun and the glory of its setting and without the immortal lamp of life is so abhorrent to me — and the thought of that has been hanging over me these 2 months — that I cannot altogether deplore the opening of the gates of eternal rest to that Unconquerable Soul, although I loved him in a way that few men can love one another. I am so very glad that you were near and saw him so nearly at the end; in a way too I am glad not to have been there; it is good to remember the cheerfulness with which he faced the living of a new life fettered by the greatest misfortune known to men.

Yes, I do say Thank God he didn’t have to live it. We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again: you find me changed, I expect, more than I find you; that is perhaps the way of Life. But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother

Edward[1]

 

So life goes on, even if there is nothing but love to get down behind in the mud and push.

Ivor Gurney, today, is thinking of life–and food… and poetry… and food again… and ends.

11 June 1917

My Dear Friend: Out of the line once more, but for once, not hungry, for the Lord and the ASC have been kind to us, and liberal gentlemen have bestowed cake upon me…

Yes, the College Mag. and the TLS have arrived. I am sorry I forgot to thank you. If there are any complementary copies please send them to Mrs Chapman and Mrs Hunt…

Today there are orgies of cleaning, and men brush and polish frantically at brass and leather. The weather is beautiful, and there is plenty of water to wash with, so we are not unhappy. Also there is plenty to eat…

Gurney is writing to Marion Scott, of course, and he includes several rondels in a similarly light-hearted vein. But see the last lines–light-heartedness is a passing mood, in the trenches, and never the note of resolution.

Rondels

1. Letters

“Mail’s up”! the vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind
(His wife, his sister, or his lover.)
Mail’s up, the vast of night is over.
The grey-faced heaven Joy does cover
With love, and God once more seems kind.
“Mail’s up”! The vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind.

2. Shortage

God God! No Jam! No Bread!!
No Butter!!!
Whatever are we coming to?
O desolation, anguish utter —
Good God! No jam, no bread, no butter.
I hear the brutal soldiers mutter.
And strong men weep as children do.
Good God! No jam, no bread,
No butter!
Whatever are we coming to?

3. Paean

There’s half a loaf per man today?
O Sergeant, is it really true?
Now biscuits can be given away.
There’s half a loaf per man today;
And Peace is ever so near they say.
With tons of grub and nothing to do.
There’s Half a Loaf Per Man today!
O Sergeant is it Really True?

4. Strafe (1)

I strafe my shirt most regularly.
And frighten all the population.
Wonderful is my strategy!
I strafe my shirt most regularly;
(It sounds like distant musketry.)
And still I itch like red damnation!
I strafe my shirt most regularly
And — frighten all the population………….

5. Strafe (2)

The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute.
We crouch and wait the end of it, — or us
Just behind the trench, before, and in it.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
(O Framilode! O Maisemore’s laughing linnet!)
Here comes a monster like a motor bus.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
We crouch and wait the end of it — or us

I wonder if the proofs are with Sidgwick and Jackson yet. That will interest me, and also (when the time comes) to know what Gloucester people think. Last night I read some to a friend of mine, and was surprised to find how little I cared for them, and how remote they seemed. As for Spring 1917, it is as I thought long dull, and unvaried…

With best wishes; Yours sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Finally, today, an update from Patrick Shaw Stewart, now with the Royal Naval Division in France. It’s a discursive letter, and I’ll make some cuts to get us to the good parts… who could he be reading, now that he’s reached the Western Front at last?

…The battery commander is out, so I am lying flat on my tummy in the grass outside his habitat in the amiable sun, waiting till he comes in; one of the pleasanter phases of war. When I have written to you, and X, and Y, and Z, I will
go on with Tom Jones, which I am in the middle of and which is far and away the best book I ever read. Messrs Meredith and James are simply silly beside it, and as for the Victorians ——–. I got through Sense and Sensibility the other day, by the way, not bad, but not half as good as Pride and Prejudice, or Emma.

I did tell you about our time up the line? It was quite agreeable, good weather (though a lot of mud), and a quiet time, very few casualties. I had rather luck having a chain of posts very much advanced in a rather well-known place, so far advanced as to be clear of mud and also clear of shelling. The only trial was that I hardly got a wink of sleep—one has to re-acquire the habit of sleeping in a sitting-position on a petrol tin in the later half of the morning…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 355.
  2. War Letters, 168-70.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 198-99.

Alfred Hale Rides the Rails… and Misses His Tea; Duff Cooper Goes for a Soldier; Charles Scott Moncrieff’s Return

Before leaving Thetford camp this morning, a century back, Alfred Hale was given a medical inspection to assure the army of his physical fitness.

This meant going into the medical tent one by one and saluting the MO seated at a table, who then asked if you were ‘All right’, and on your replying, ‘Yes thank you, Sir,’ marked your paper and off you went.

This hurdle overcome, Hale was issued with various “belts and small equipment.”

This equipment I did not know how to put on, nor how even to get the rest of my kit into marching order, which much exasperated a corporal…

With two fellow conscripts also bound for the RFC, Hale then begins a train journey through “flat, sunlit country,” and with that things suddenly improve.

I had that delightful feeling, I recollect, of being as though on an adventure into the unknown, and on such a glorious summer day, too. For the first time after getting into Khaki I felt really happy.

Yes, but, well… the day dragged on. After the train and a long ride in a van to the camp where one of his fellows was deposited, Hale and another were driven off to an RFC camp still further off–several miles from anywhere, but nearest to St. Neots, Huntingdonshire. After dallying in the van and at a wayside in, it was well past tea-time when they arrived. And, therefore, disappointment:

So whereas if I had been an officer I should have had a proper late dinner, or at least an evening meal of some sort or kind had I been an NCO for instance, being only a private and a batman, the lowest and most despised being in the Royal Flying Corps, as I was soon to find out, I could only get bad coffee and penny bars of chocolate by paying for it out of my own pocket.

But the canteen hut. This was decorated, or had been decorated, apparently for the previous Christmas, with an inscription in large ornamental letters on the walls, which ran as follows: ‘The Compliments of the Season to Major Petrie and all our officers’. Well, I have no doubt Major Petrie deserved the compliments of the season at the Christmas of 1916; I have also less doubt that he ever went without anything to eat from lunch-time till the next morning while stationed at a home camp in England, or had to drink bad coffee and eat bits of stale penny chocolate bars lest he should go to bed in a starving condition…

This canteen reminded me for all the world of the descriptions in boys’ books of life in the backwoods…

And now I realized, if I had not done so before, that it would be my lot to have to shave myself next morning with the army razor issued to me, I having lost the safety razor I had specially provided myself with. The possibility of this happening I had indeed been dreading all that long afternoon since leaving Bedford. For I cannot shave myself at all with an ordinary razor; even a safety razor sometimes gives me trouble, but an ordinary razor, no; especially the sort issued to Army recruits…[1]

 

Duff Cooper is due for a medical himself. It may have just as perfunctory as Hale’s, but I’d wager it was conducted with a bit more formality. Cooper has been several years on the sidelines, but now, only two days after resolving to try for the army in the latest “comb out” of younger and less essential men in government jobs, he is, all of a sudden, in. Not that the he will lavish description on the process…

May 19th, 1917

Was medically examined for the army and passed A.

That takes care of that. Now he’ll just need to get a commission in a reputable regiment. But first things first.

Went down to Sutton with Diana by the 5.15 I had two pretty moments with Diana in the garden. She told me I must not come to her room as it was next to Lady Horner’s…

I woke at four. It was already getting light so in spite of instructions I crept to Diana’s room, a long and creaky journey. It was very beautiful when I arrived and we lay together until it was quite light and all the birds were singing, including a very monotonous and damnable cuckoo.[2]

There simply must be some clever remark to be made here about rare birds of paradise and damnable cuckoos and the pleasures of idleness and the rigors of military life… but it eludes me.

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff narrowly escaped death at Arras. Recently, he has learned that he may yet even keep his leg. Feeling, perhaps, that the hospital has become less an anteroom to hell and more a purgatory that may someday be escaped, he has begun to stave off despair and to write again. Today and tonight, a century back, these verses “came into” his head. They are strange… but seem to represent the wisdom of a soldier who did not survive, passed on now to his little brother in a mystical of visitation from the beyond.

 

The Return

The queerest thing of all now, is the way the sizes shift, Johnny;
Bracken Hill’s no height now, no height at all.
And the little dog Peter, was the weight I just could lift.
He has grown to hide high mountains, but the great dog’s starved and small.

Deep enough’s the pool to swim now, where for rocks we wouldn’t dive, Johnny,
But the river where we wouldn’t leap, ’tis no step over now;
And the wild bull’s field we wouldn’t pass the time I was alive,
I can lean across the hedge of it, and scratch his brow.

Stepmother’s so little and queer I needn’t ever cry, Johnny,
And her cruel way of talking leaves me easy in my rest;
But you I can’t see all at once, you’ve grown so high.
And that’s because the heart’s great that struggles in your breast.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 64-9.
  2. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  3. Diaries, 129-30.

A Sunrise, a Hospital Barge, and a Ban on Pineapple Chunks from Wilfred Owen

A quiet day, for our writers, a century back. One letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother Susan will have to suffice–along with its verse enclosure, that is.

10 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mother,

…I sailed in a steam-tug about 6 miles down the Canal with another ‘inmate’.

The heat of the afternoon was Augustan; and it has probably added another year to my old age to have been able to escape marching in equipment under such a sun.

The scenery was such as I never saw or dreamed of since I read the Fairie Queene. Just as in the Winter when I woke up lying on the burning cold snow I fancied I must have died & been pitch-forked into the Wrong Place, so, yesterday, it was not more difficult to imagine that my dusky barge was wending up to Avalon, and the peace of Arthur, and where Lancelot heals him of his grievous wound.

I’ve already wondered whether there is not a bit of a false front here–can Owen really be so blessedly happy with a diagnosis of “shell shock” hanging over his head? But perhaps he can, as the comment about the march indicates. He has not yet been in any way dishonored, and he is neither marching with a pack nor in trenches. So he makes hay while the sun shines–which would have been a better joke if I had already indicated that this letter includes a draft of the poem “A Sunrise.”

In any event, there’s another poem clearly linked to today’s letter:

 

Hospital Barge at Cérisy

Budging the sluggard ripples of the Somme,
A barge round old Cérisy slowly slewed.
Softly her engines down the current screwed,
And chuckled softly with contented hum,
Till fairy tinklings struck their croonings dumb.
The waters rumpling at the stern subdued;
The lock-gate took her bulging amplitude;
Gently from out the gurgling lock she swum.

One reading by that calm bank shaded eyes
To watch her lessening westward quietly.
Then, as she neared the bend, her funnel screamed.
And that long lamentation made him wise
How unto Avalon, in agony,
Kings passed in the dark barge, which Merlin dreamed.

So I suppose it bears reminding that there are no straight lines from trauma to poetic innovation. This is no matter for a Roman road, but rather a rambling Celtic drover’s track, veering into history and fairy land… and, indeed, there certainly seems to be progress of a sort, here. There is music in this, of a sort that is rare in his earlier work: pleasant, side-wise rhyme and alliteration that is almost onomatopoeic–lazy barge music for a lazy barge song.

Although this poem is still to come, the Arthurian mood is certainly proper to this letter, and not cleanly divisible from the military milieu, either.

But the Saxon is not broken, as we could very well hear last night. Later, a real thunderstorm did its best to seem terrible, and quite failed.

The.next book for you to read is A Knight on Wheels. It is great.

Eh, I’m not so sure of that, but with a guilty conscience I must mention that this is a book by Ian Hay (Beith), whose The First Hundred Thousand is one of the most important mid-war publications by and on the British Army, but has made almost no impact here.

But let’s follow Owen’s train of thought: he’s got time, he’s written a poem, he’s a wounded warrior of sorts… what of service? what of his “contribution?” what of fame?

I, with the inherited diffidence of my distinguished Grandma, must say I could never do anything like so great.
I suppose in the million eyes of the Empire I have already done a thing greater than this merry book; but, then, more fools the million eyes . . .

This, perhaps, would be a good spot to interpolate the properly enclosed poem, straight-jacketed by diction, and with none of the easy command of the “Hospital Barge:”

 

A Sunrise

Loomed a pale Pearl more marvellous than the Moon’s,
Who thereby waned yet wanner than she was.
Because of the pallor of the Pearl of dawn,—because
Her Pearl was whiter than the wan, worn Moon’s.

The Pearl cleared Opal; Emerald eftsoons.
And the Emerald trembled peerless for an hour.
Till shower’d with shimmering Sapphires. (Their blue shower
Burst keen and brilliant as the first birds’ tunes.)

Then slowly through the shaking jewels of dawn.
Moved the immutable Ruby of the Sun,
Hung the immortal Ruby, huge with morn.

And the Moon was finished like a reel unspun.
She vanished as a Pearl that falls in wine.
She died: like the white Maid that once was mine.

 

There is some deftness here, rhyme-wise… but this is not the sort of stuff that–even imagining that the traditional register holds the field entire–will win fame and honor.

The fundamental fact, here, I think, is that Owen is in something of a holding pattern–whether he is really loving this interlude (The Idylls of the Subaltern?) or whether he is putting on a brave face for home and for himself to cover his anxiety–he is still awaiting a double verdict: will it be blighty, or back to the trenches? And are his “nerves” an acceptable war wound or a sign of weakness?

The letter leaves literature for the milder balm of the gossip of daily life–not that talk of food shortages, however light-hearted, is a cheery subject.

How are you rationing? The French hereabouts subsist chiefly on Dandelion Salad. I am not joking. The young leaves with oil make an excellent supper. Tell me how you find it.

I live mainly on Pine Apple Chunks. There are going to be certain things Afterwards which will be held by all who love me in everlasting TABOO,

One of these is Pine Apple Chunks.
Another is a lead pencil on bad paper.
Another is the smoke of a damp wood fire…

All Love from your very own Wilfred x[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 456-7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Malta, 6 May 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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