Siegfried Sassoon Paints the Emerald Isle; Rowland Feilding Admires the French

A quiet day today, with only two writers to hear from. First, Rowland Feilding describes life “on a course.” He is an experienced senior officer, so he is sent now to learn not from elderly “dug-outs” or fulminating drill sergeants, but from the French, who are still the senior ally when it comes to land warfare. Feilding is no fool, and instead of rivalry or mild prejudice we get frank admiration for the seriousness and professionalism of the French. They are war-weary too, but with the Germans occupying French territory, there is no lack of clarity about war aims.

February 8, 1918.

Cours Supérieure d’Infanterie, Secteur 220, Vadenay.

It is like being at school again. We go to the lecture room at 8.30, or earlier, each morning, and are lectured to—in French, of course—for 3 1/2 hours, or more! Will you believe me when I tell you that I have sat through 4 1/2 hours of it to-day? In the afternoons we are motored to see different Army Schools, etc.

I am much struck with the thoroughness and efficiency of these Frenchmen, and the serious way—in contrast to ours—that they go about the war. I wonder if they overdo it. And the voluminous literature that is handed to us here to digest almost throws our army (which I have always thought held the record in this particular) into the shade. But it is an interesting and valuable experience, and I am being most hospitably treated, and am already getting into the French ways of eating and living.

The Commandant—Major Lemaire—is a very animated Frenchman of great personality, though small in stature;—a devotee to his profession and to France! He is so full of energy that he seems to be on springs…

Though between his lectures and sometimes during them he laughs and jokes almost incessantly, he has his troubles, and these are serious. For all his property and that of his wife is in the northern part of France, which has been devastated by the enemy so that he has only his pay–600 francs a month, out of which he supports himself and his wife, and her parents, and, I believe his own as well! He was in the trenches till a month ago and was severely wounded in the chest at Douaumont (Verdun). Hence his presence here. As he said to me when I first came, “I am no embusqué,”[1] and threw open his chest to show me the wound as he said it.

The one discomfort is the cold, since this is a woodless and coalless country, and one cannot get a fire very often. The French do not seem to mind, or else have got “habitué” (as they say) to this kind of hardship. Gardner and I have not, and we slink back from our evening walks with any old end of timber we can find, discarded from the Back Area defences, to warm our frigid billet. Saturday afternoons and Sundays are kept for “repos” and all are heartily glad of it…[2]

 

And Siegfried Sassoon, his bags packed (or, at least, his book list assembled), had the last hunt of his Irish idyll. It was a good enough hunt, it seems, but the main literary opportunity was to wax rhapsodic (to his diary) about the glories of the scenery. Sassoon really does landscape well…

…we scrambled about over walls and rough places… The country all round looked beautiful–shining with water and grey villages, and white cottages, and the green fields, and soft, hazy, transparent hills on the horizon–sometimes deep blue, sometimes silver-grey.

And that was that: luncheon with friends, a farewell to Limerick, an afternoon train to Dublin, then an overnight ship to London.

There is a long chapter in the Memoirs detailing the characters and scenery of this fox hunting interlude from the point of view of “George Sherston,” and it borrows from the diary (not least the above passage) but not for the purposes of expanding on “Sherston’s” inner life. It’s a chapter more in the manner of Surtees than Barbusse, to use two of yesterday’s touchstones. At the end of the chapter, we learn that Sherston/Sassoon made the Dublin train with “30 seconds to spare…” and then the book hops over his leave to begin again at the end of the next journey…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I.e., malingering, or serving as a R.E.M.F.; he wouldn't be in such a safe job if weren't recovering from a wound.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 250-1.
  3. Diaries, 210-11; Complete Memoirs, 584.

Duff Cooper in Air Raid and Ecstasy; Cynthia Asquith on Monogamy and the Avoidance of Official Inquiry into Malfeasance; Private Frederic Manning is Spared

Duff Cooper, on garrison duty in London, dined last night with his mother. They were interrupted by an air raid, but not, apparently, a very damaging one. Being by now something of an old soldier, at least as far as the home goes, Cooper simply went home

and slept soundly until the all clear signals woke me at between one and two. At about the same time Diana telephoned to know if I was alive.

Lovely to be able to simply pick up the phone and check on a loved one–it will be different when he is finally sent overseas. But Duff and Diana were reunited in person today, a century back–and intimately, too, in the wee hours of tomorrow…

January 29, 1918

Lunched very happily with Diana at the Piccadilly and we went together to the Coliseum. We dined at Katharine’s house. She herself was out… We sat comfortably in front of the fire and I have seldom enjoyed a meal more. At about ten Katharine came in and almost at the same moment we heard the guns beginning. I was on air raid duty so had to go at once to barracks. Luckily I found a taxi at Marble Arch. I had to wait about a long time in barracks. At last the all clear signal came at about one thirty and I dashed back to Oxford Square just in time to catch Diana who was on the point of leaving. We had a most exquisite drive home. I adored literally the soles of her feet.

 

Our only other entry is also from London society, and–as this is Cynthia Asquith–from an adjacent arc of the very same social circle.

Tuesday, 29th January

I was going down to Taplow for the day to see Mamma who, I am glad to say, is having ten days rest there. Ettie and Willie conducted me to her suite—through about three swing doors—and I asked, ‘Why on earth are you keeping my poor mother like a sort of Glamis monster?’ I thought her looking really better and she is very happy. I hoped she would be able to discover the mysteries of Ettie’s system and organisation of life, but I don’t think she has gleaned much…

But the matter at hand is a rather interesting intersection of society charitable work and politics, namely the control of canteens in France, specifically the “hut” or huts run by one Lady Angela Forbes.

I read them what Papa had given me, as he was very anxious for Ettie’s opinion, the draft of the procedure in the House of Lords agreed to by Lord Derby. This is it: ‘Lord Ribblesdale will ask the questions and will be followed by Lord Wemyss. In their speeches they will not attack the War Office, but they will be at liberty to eulogise the work of Lady Angela and to make reference to the necessity, in the interest of military discipline, of the centralisation of the control of huts.’ After they have spoken. Lord Derby will reply in the following terms:

‘The noble Lord is quite right in saying that in the interest of Military Discipline it is necessary that the control of Huts in big Military Areas should be centralised, and this is gradually being carried into effect. I quite recognise the valuable and difficult work done by Lady Angela and the closing of her canteens was not intended in any way to reflect on her management of the huts, or upon the zeal and ability she has shown in discharging her onerous tasks. I understand Lady Angela is prepared to take up other work and I should regret if this incident should interfere with her doing so. I hear of many wild rumours in regard to this case…

After this Lord Ribblesdale will answer in the following terms:

‘I beg to thank the noble Earl for the statement he has just made, and to accept it on Lady Angela’s behalf as a settlement of her case. While no one will I think consider that, in view of the nature and extent of her work for the soldiers, the noble Earl’s appreciation of her services erred on the side of exaggeration, I am ready to admit that in view of the circumstances which have necessitated this discussion of her case, the noble Earl’s tribute is not an ungenerous one. Lady Angela and her friends would, of course, have preferred the investigation she has repeatedly pressed for, but she recognises that the exigencies of the service, the critical state of public affairs, and the expense of these inquiries render it extremely difficult for the authorities to grant them.’

This is, I assume (I should do some more research…), another distant echo of the mutiny of Étaples. At the very least it shows the cognizance of one earnest noblewoman that something is rotten in the largest British army camp in France.

There is general agreement that Lady Angela has been reasonably well served–and then country house life resumes:

It was a lovely day and we went out in the garden before luncheon. At luncheon we discussed the Master of Trinity plan for Mr Balfour…

Lord Desborough, Ivo, and Imogen went out to shoot our dinner Mamma, Ettie, and I played tennis: I played well.

Boring! What else is going on?

Afterwards Ettie and I had a delicious walk. We discussed ‘lovers’ and their compatibility with happy marriages. She said she was not monogamous in the strict sense of the word, and had never been in love in the way which excluded other personal relations. To be at her best with one man she must see a great many others…

Cynthia, perhaps, was too discrete to discuss Bernard Freyberg directly–and certainly too careful to confirm him in writing as a “lover.” But surely she had something to contribute the the conversation? Perhaps it was pure theory, on her end…

In spite of all entreaties, I obstinately insisted on returning to London by the 9.56, instead of staying the night. I was well punished. In about half an hour the lights went out and then we stuck at Acton for about an hour and a half listening to the Hell of a bombardment. I was alone in a cold dark carriage—not frightened—but very bored. At last we moved on to Paddington and then I went by underground to Sloane Square. All the lights were out and lots of poor children were encamped on the platforms. I didn’t get home till about two. The raid of the night before had been severe…[1]

Sometimes it feels as if 1919-39 will pass in the blink of an eye.

 

Lastly, today, resolution in the case of Frederic Manning. He has a drinking problem–he is an alcoholic, that is–and, with what degree of conscious choice or acquiescence we cannot be sure, he has allowed his drunkenness to become a clear obstacle to his continued (though as yet quite short) career as an officer. After being repeatedly drunk–and belligerent–in the mess, even his sympathetic C.O. could not control what threatened to become a court martial case. But there are several arguments for a less punitive course, as Manning argued on his own behalf in a December affidavit:

For some time previous to the 29th of October I had been suffering from continual insomnia and nervous exhaustion. I was in an extremely weak condition of health generally, and in those circumstances had recourse to stimulants. I think that my condition subsequently was in a considerable measure the result of these circumstances.

Perhaps this is the reticence of the British officer, or perhaps even so the meaning was clear: he may have only recently been commissioned, but he is a battle-scarred veteran of the ranks, and his experience on the Somme is at the very least a contributing factor to his loss of control.

Skillfully handled it might have saved Manning at a court martial. Further pause was gained by a technical point:
there was only one witness, the medical officer, to the latest offence. This too, the authorities felt, could pose a problem in court. Finally, the Army Council in London was prepared to be swayed by Major Milner’s observations: what “useful purpose’’ would be served by another court martial?

Pragmatism prevailed. In January 1918 the War Office decided that Manning’s service could be “dispensed with”, and so notified officials in Ireland. A new letter from Manning requesting resignation was filed on 29 January.

This time his plea was accepted. There will be a month in limbo, and then the publication of the news that “he had been
allowed to resign because of ‘ill health brought on by intemperance.'”

If this is a dishonorable discharge, it was honorably gained: Manning earned his “shell shock.” Yet Manning cannot have looked forward to being drummed out of the officer corps as a drunkard, and his letters to his friends of this period are “less than forthcoming.” He refers to back pain as a disabling factor and sneers at the idiocy of the officers around him–then, much later, he will acknowledge what must be at least a comfortable plurality of the truth: “disorganized nerves” and personal conflicts led to his loss of commission…

There is just a little bit of Henry Williamson here, although Manning had more reason to be secure in terms of his age and education, and his social problems in the regiment were brought on by a more aggressive sort of anxiety than Williamson/Maddison’s moody insecurities…

Manning’s biographer Jonathan Marwil arrives at a balanced conclusion:

Was the cause of his loss of control delayed shell shock, the “hard” time he had at the very beginning with the colonel, the boredom and contempt he increasingly felt for the “imbecilities’’ of his brother officers, or the demands made on him as a parade-ground and now commissioned soldier? It may have been of all these, and more besides. What is clear is that, having fallen foul of authority in July, he could not recover his balance. The more he drank, the more anxious he became; the more anxious he became, the more he drank. And so he was perceived as a misfit, as “a nice gentlemanly young fellow, but weak in character”.

The judgement was neither unkind nor unfair…

This conclusion was abetted when he learned, more than a half-century after the fact, that a sympathetic (and influential) officer of the Royal Irish Regiment had intervened to help divert Manning’s path from a salutary court martial. It didn’t take modern understanding of PTSD to understand that a drinking problem might be exacerbated by hard military service, and some combination of mercy and special pleading on behalf of a very talented “misfit” probably helped him avoid punishment for his failure to conform as an officer or control his own alcoholism. It also seems that the family of this officer–a barrister named Sir John Lynch–took Manning in after his discharge and helped restore him to help.

So Manning will not be sent out to France any time soon, and so, perhaps, we get our book. As Marwil points out, there will be another sort of testimony entered belatedly into evidence: Manning’s brilliant novel, Her Privates We.

What this judgement omitted was the record of Private 19022, the private who had been on the Somme.[2]

A novel–based on its author’s experiences but quite “heavily” fictionalized–can’t really plead a legal case. But few books of the Great War do more to show the nature of the traumas inflicted on an infantryman c. 1916.

All that is behind us, now…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 404-6.
  2. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 186-89.

Angelic Voices and Parade Ground Shouts: Young Lovers at the Graves-Nicholson Wedding

Robert Graves and his best man, George Mallory,[1] left Wimbledon early for the church in Piccadilly. The rest of the family followed, as his father, A.P. Graves, recorded in his diary:

Mr. Sassoon’s invitation (declined) to the festivities. Berg Collection, NYPL

Amy [his wife, Robert’s mother] in her wedding war paint, a fine green velvet with gold trimmings and a suitable hat … then the rest of us … we taxied, 5 inside, to Apple Tree Yard and thence walked to Church. I had a new suit (grey morning) admired of all but Amy and neat bowler and gloves, and a trimmed head and beard. We were almost the first arrivals, but the Church filled up…

Robby looked fine and said his responses firmly and clearly, as did Nancy. She was in a beautiful blue check dress with veil and had a wonderful bouquet arranged by her good father. The choir boys sang beautifully and the Parson was in earnest.[2]

Well, that’s that–a fine wedding, and no dissenting opinions!

Except, of course, for Robert’s own description of the event. This comes afterward, and is marked by the same combination of comic precision, irresistibly truth-y tone, and general untrustworthiness shared by most of his writing:

Nancy and I were married in January 1918 at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, she being just eighteen, and I twenty-two. George Mallory acted as the best man. Nancy had read the marriage-service for the first time that morning, and been so disgusted that she all but refused to go through with the wedding, though I had arranged for the ceremony to be modified and reduced to the shortest possible form. Another caricature scene to look back on: myself striding up the red carpet, wearing field-boots, spurs and sword; Nancy meeting me in a blue-check silk wedding-dress, utterly furious; packed benches on either side of the church, full of relatives; aunts using handkerchiefs; the choir boys out of tune; Nancy savagely muttering the responses, myself shouting them in a parade-ground voice.[3]

See, funnier! And there being no digital record of the relative (ha!) volume of Graves’s voice or the choir’s tunefulness, these semi-objective facts are lost in the mire of history.

And isn’t that just fine? Of course the parents of the somewhat wild, troublesome boy–not so long ago reported dead–are pleased to see him wed a girl from a good family, and find euphony everywhere; and of course the young man suddenly uncertain of how exactly he and his very young, fiercely independent/feminist bride will actually manage (not least this coming evening) remembers discord, shouting, and muttering…

There were many other witnesses: school friends from Charterhouse, family friends from both sides, Robbie Ross and Eddie Marsh, a smattering of less closely-connected celebrities, including Max Beerbohm and the great architect Edwin as Lutyens. But let’s stick to our trusted–or familiar, at least–sources…

 

Wilfred Owen was there as well, feeling perhaps a little nervous to be at a London wedding of two scions of much-higher-up-the-middle-class artistic families. In his report to his mother he will channel, it seems, the spirit of Mrs. Elton (see the very end of Emma):

The wedding was nothing extraordinary. Not a great crowd of people, but a very mixed one. Some were dressed in the dowdiest unfashion. Possibly these were celebrities in their way? George Belcher was the greatest surprise: togged up in 1870 costume, a very striking figure.

Graves was pretty worked up, but calm. The Bride, 18 year’s old, was pretty, but nowise handsome.

Oh, but he was pleased about one thing, as another letter to his cousin Leslie (the earnest but untalented poet) confides:

Heinemann was there; and Edward Marsh, the Georgian Anthologist tho’ I did not know him as such till afterwards. I was introduced as ‘Mr. Owen, Poet’ or even ‘Owen, the poet’.[4]

 

Also in attendance was Charles Scott Moncrieff, a valued friend of Graves’s since his positive review of Over the Brazier and his help in getting Fairies and Fusiliers published. But Moncrieff was not particularly thrilled to be there–he had also reviewed, and far less favorably, several of Graves’s friends, including Nichols, who was there, and Sassoon, whom he might have expected to be, but, of course, wasn’t. Moncrieff, too, was still on crutches and in a leg brace–his wounded leg will never heal completely and was still giving him severe pain.

Nor had Moncrieff’s morning been free from emotional stress and personal risk. Still a serving officer recently appointed to a desk job at the War Office, and he was habitually indiscreet about his sexual preferences–which sounds like a species of criticism but is in this case evidence of considerable moral courage: Moncrieff had gone to court this morning, a century back, to try to secure the release of a friend who had been arrested for “gross indecency with a male person.” He had failed, and seen his friend was sentenced to a year in Wormwood Scrubs.

Given the anti-gay witch hunt then being stirred up by the thoroughly revolting (and somehow familiar) Noel Pemberton-Billing, a right-wing M.P, whose personal rag The Imperialist has been lately thriving on a heady mix of hate-mongering and conspiracy theories, Moncrieff was either loyal but rash or loyal and carefully calculating, i.e. that his MC and his wound would give him some protection from gay-bashing rabble-rousers. Which it might–for a little while.

So today, a century back, Moncrieff was out of sorts for many good reasons.

I was too sore… in mind and body, to regard very closely the quiet little person who stood beside me in a room from which I longed to escape…

This quiet little person was Wilfred Owen. They will meet again, this evening, at dinner and then at Robbie Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, where a lively literary discussion lasted into the wee hours. Ross, with his old fame as Oscar Wilde’s most loyal friend, is about to become the prime target of the Pemberton-Billing attack.

Owen was probably relatively unaware of the quasi-political threat facing London’s prominent semi-closeted gay intelligentsia, but it seems unlikely that there would have been no mention of the noxious cloud creeping toward Ross. Nevertheless, today, from his lunch with Ross and their arrival at the wedding together to the late night gathering, marked a sort of double arrival for Owen: he was now at the center of London gay social life, and he had arrived as a poet.

There is a marked tendency among biographers to speculate as to what was talked about all evening[5]–Owen’s poetry? the new sound effects of Owen’s Miners? French translation? Ross’s foolish decision to allow an upcoming performance of Wilde’s Salome?–but I don’t think we actually know. Still, it will soon be clear that Owen and Moncrieff did more than cross paths. They parted as “intimate” friends–an ambiguous adjective which may or may not have already (i.e. tonight, a century back) have carried a wink and a nudge.

There’s another tendency among later writers to go for a nice irony or parallelism today: Graves had flirted with homosexuality for a long time but was now, with all of his gay friends in attendance, committing to heterosexuality–meanwhile, two of his gay friends meet, and sparks are struck…  The problem is that Graves, despite his own scandal-and-sales-courting later emphasis on his schoolboy love, was never really sexually interested in men. He was passionate, prudish, and living in all-male social environments, so he fell in love with a boy and was passionate about his friendships with other young men. But when he met the strong-willed, artistic, unconventional Nancy Nicholson, he fell in love with her, and the speed of their marriage suggests not just old ways or wartime accelerations but also, probably, an interest in attaining to physical intimacy right quick.[6] Nor does Owen’s sexuality seem to have required an evening at Robbie Ross’s for confirmation: in all likelihood he has been aware of, and relatively at peace with, his own sexuality for some time. But it is hard to tell, as such topics never come up in the family letters.[7]

Nevertheless, Owen’s friendship with Moncrieff will blossom–soon, if not tonight–into something more, probably for Owen and certainly for Moncrieff. Moncrieff will accompany Owen back to his hotel around 2:00 a.m. tomorrow, a century back, and also put him in touch with an old friend living in Scarborough. Strangely, perhaps, since Owen was less sophisticated, less experienced, and four years younger, it is Moncrieff, the decorated, wounded, handsome critic who is most smitten with the quiet little poet…[8]

 

But let’s not forget about the rest of the heteronormative festivities, as recounted in the Groom’s suspiciously candid later reminiscences:

Then the reception. At this stage of the war, sugar could not be got except in the form of rations. There was a three-tiered wedding-cake and the Nicholsons had been saving up their sugar and butter cards for a month to make it taste like a real one; but when George Mallory lifted off the plaster-case of imitation icing, a sigh of disappointment rose from the guests. However, champagne was another scarce commodity, and the guests made a rush for the dozen bottles on the table. Nancy said: ‘Well, I’m going to get something out of this wedding, at any rate,’ and grabbed a bottle. After three or four glasses, she went off and changed back into her land-girl’s costume of breeches and smock. My mother, who had been thoroughly enjoying the proceedings, caught hold of her neighbour, E. V. Lucas, the essayist, and exclaimed: ‘Oh, dear, I wish she had not done that!’ The embarrassments of our wedding-night (Nancy and I being both virgins) were somewhat eased by an air-raid: Zeppelin bombs dropping not far off set the hotel in an uproar.[9]

Funny, my other London sources do not mention an air raid that night…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, that George Mallory, once Graves's teacher at Charterhouse--they had since climbed together in Wales.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 191-2.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 272.
  4. Collected Letters, 528-9.
  5. Yes, I realized belatedly, that I had just done so.
  6. This will be, for Graves, the beginning of a checkered but fervent career of extolling/pursuing the feminine, uxoriously, literalily, and otherwise...
  7. Except, perhaps, in some of the editorial elisions later performed by his brother.
  8. Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 140-3.
  9. Good-Bye to All That, 272-3.

Christmas 1917: Melancholy Milestone, Vicarious Joy, and Less Unhappy Than I Thought

It’s a complicated Christmas, 1917. Several of our writers–including Cynthia Asquith, with whom we’ll start, and Vera Brittain, whose long, sad day will come last–will dwell on the same themes of unsettled traditions and mixed memories.

It’s not simply the quandary of being caught between an instinct for celebration and the need to use a family occasion to grieve and lament for those who have been lost, but also a problem that has grown with this long, static war: if Christmas used to be a trigger for happy memories and the balm of reenacting old joys, there are now three Christmases for which the boys have not been home; three Christmases tinged with that same sickly feeling of mixed emotions, and the fear that absent loved ones may at any moment turn out to be permanently absent. For those who have lost brothers, lovers, sons, or husbands, Christmas may now provoke sharp memories of painful and bereft Christmases past.

 

It’s a very complicated Christmas at the Asquiths. Cynthia Asquith learned last night from her father-in-law, the former Prime Minister, that his son “Oc”–her husband’s sole surviving brother–has been dangerously wounded.

What bad luck! And it sounds bad, too—compound fracture of both bones above the ankle: P.M. wrote, ‘However, they hope to be able to save his foot’. I do hope he won’t lose it.

I packed up parcels after tea, and after dinner we had the usual bedroom marauding parties, but none of us had the heart for any of the time-honoured stocking jokes . . . once the old passage seemed so impregnated with darling Ego and Yvo.

Yes, if she sounds less than horrified about the serious wound to her brother-in-law, that might be because she is in her mother’s house, and both her brothers are dead.

Christmas has become a melancholy milestone for us, but luckily the men of this house-party (who are all under six years) take a glorious joy in all the old rites. Michael was the most satisfactory Christmas child imaginable: he refused to have the fire in his bedroom lit because he was afraid Father Christmas might bum his toes coming down the chimney. Bibs was wonderful with her presents—one for every servant and all beautifully done up in fancy paper and labelled. She kept putting the wrong parcels in the various stockings, so our labours lasted far into the night. I had a sad little hair-combing with Letty. She has been so valiant this year—no breakdown like last Christmas Eve and energising all day over the house decorations. My heart aches for my little John: one turns for salvation to the nursery and that is ‘the most unkindest cut of all’.

And this morning?

Tuesday, 25th December

Nurse called me at 7.30 to see Michael opening his parcels: the vicarious enjoyment was very great. Most of the family went to early service. I joined them at a late breakfast. Found a gorgeous enamel fountain pen from Freyberg. Great excitement over an anonymous present to Bibs—a lovely, and very costly-looking star-sapphire Grenadier badge brooch…[1]

And where is papa? With the artillery in Flanders:

The Major asked what the men would like for their Christmas dinner: we had expected that they would choose either geese or turkeys, but we were completely wrong; our sergeant-major reported that there was a very strong feeling in favour of sucking pigs, and a party was sent out from the wagon line to search the farms of Flanders for a sufficient supply of these delectable animals.[2]

 

Let’s take a quick tour of some of our main characters, now:

 

Robert Graves took a short leave for Christmas, and was able to be with his intended: the Nicholsons were at their house in Wales, near Harlech, and only a few hours’ journey from Rhyl. The wedding is now planned for about a month hence…[3]

 

Rowland Feilding is home, with Edith and their four daughters, aged about one to thirteen–there will be no need to write a war letter to his wife today.

And a very blurry picture of Blunden at the signal school at Mont des Cats

 

 

Edmund Blunden is away from his beloved battalion, a home away from home. He is on a less-than-thrilling signal course, tramping around in the snow and learning about German wireless procedures.

 

 

Wilfred Owen, quite busy with a hotel-full of reserve officers, will tell his sister–while thanking her for her gift and apologizing for not yet sending one to her–that he had

a very mopish Christmas. The C.O. held an orderly Room for punishments in the morning—a thing forbidden in King’s Regulations on Christmas Day—and strafed right & left, above & below…[4]

 

As for Siegfried Sassoon, he has been mopish for a while now, but he enjoys moping more than most. At least, he doesn’t sound too displeased with his Christmas:

Christmas Day (Litherland)

Alone in the hut, after a day of golf at Formby, in fine, cold weather; dine to-night with Colonel Jones Williams and family at Crosby.[5]

 

Back, then, to the front, where the Master of Belhaven is (tremendously) better prepared than he was yesterday:

Our fourth War Christmas, and a typical Christmas Day, snow everywhere…  The men on my H.Q. had a tremendous dinner with six turkeys and a bottle of stout a man, which I provided… We had a tremendous dinner with five French officers; it was really overpowering, as I had only four of my own… the doctor and I had to do all the talking…[6]

 

Carroll Carstairs will recall a similar scene in the mess of the 3rd Grenadier Guards:

Christmas night. Champagne was drunk by the Battalion Headquarters mess. We became flushed and merry—purely artificially so—all very jolly.[7]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary-in-letters has lapsed during her posting to a new hospital, but a Christmas letter to her father survives:

My darling father,

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own troupe and the rivalry is keen. We three sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers. We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3[rd] D[ragoon] G[uard]s and 2nd Black Watch & others. Each concert party has its ‘Star Girl’ marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall. Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely stockings & high heels![8]

 

As for Jack Martin, Christmas came early, and so today, in the line, he was grateful for a faint echo of the famous truce of yesteryear:

Today has been beautiful and very quiet. Our guns have fired a few rounds but the Italians and Austrians have religiously abstained from any act of warfare…[9]

 

Olaf Stapledon surely wrote something to Agnes Miller, but the letter seems not to have survived. But Agnes herself isn’t pulling any punches: it may be Christmas, but it’s still only a few days after the vote on conscription.

…A Happy Christmas to you, dear, in your far away village or barns or car, wherever you are.

If only you were here! …this is the fourth Christmas… without you… It surely must be the last…

It seems that everything works up all through the year towards Christmas & one counts the waiting of all the past year at Christmas & the sum of it is very great. . . .

The result of the Referendum has left many a tear of desperation in train. I forget the figures, but the main fact is that there is a very much larger majority for no than there was last year. I feel a terrible outsider because I cannot take it to heart like all my friends…

The sad part about it is that those gaps will be filled by men who are not the right ones to go—married men, & boys & families who have already done their bit—the willing ones. That is the wicked part about not having conscription. They may bring it in compulsorily yet—but then the fat will be in the fire!

…You would have voted against it, would you not? Your ‘no’ would have been the outcome of very different thinkings to the no of 99 per cent of the Victors in our Referendum, but the result is the same. There is the pity of it. The Quakers stuck to their no. Mother is one of their black sheep.[10]

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain. There is an evocative and deeply sad section of her memoir, Testament of Youth, set at Christmas, 1917. But after reading it over several times, it seems a bit fishy, in terms of the exact timing. I’m not alleging any malfeasance greater than the “telescoping” that many memoir writers indulge in, but if it’s done for effect, and if we care about the day-to-day timing of “history,” then we might well ask–and why, then, are these changes made? And for what effect?

Except for the weather it didn’t seem much like Christmas, with no Roland or Victor or Geoffrey to buy presents for, and Edward so far away that the chance of anything reaching him within a week of the proper time was discouragingly remote. Wartime Christmases anyhow had long lost their novelty, but Mary and I got up early all the same and made shopping expeditions to the village, walking back in pitch darkness through the frozen mud laden with fruit and sweets and gaudy decorations. Christmas Day itself was less unhappy than I had expected, for after a tea-party with the men in my ward, I spent the evening warmly and sleepily at a concert given by the convalescents from the two next-door huts, of which Hope Milroy was now in charge by day.

My own tea-party had to be brief because of another Corporal Smith — though of a type very different from that of the first mortally ill man that I had seen at the Devonshire Hospital — who was rapidly dying of phthisis.

Thus the transition from a melancholy but warm Christmas day to a dismal night of suffering and death. But note the lack of chronological specificity in the transition. That is, she doesn’t say that her own tea party was also to take place Christmas night, but rather implies it… does she telescope all the way to New Year’s Day?

Soon, in any case, Corporal Smith will die:

The traditional only son of a widow, who had been sent for from England, he was one of those grateful, sweet-tempered patients whom it was torture to be unable to save. As he and 1917 ebbed away together, I couldn’t rest even though the surviving gassed cases had gone to England and the convoys had suddenly ceased, but hovered ail night between the stove and the foot of his bed, waiting for the inevitable dawn which would steal greyly around the folded screens. Only once, for ten minutes, did I forsake the self-imposed futility of watching the losing struggle, when Edward’s Christmas letter, written on December 22nd, came out of a snowstorm to remind me that love still existed, quick and warm, in a world dominated by winter and death.

So here is the real Christmas gift. And yet it can hardly have arrived on Christmas. Three days would be good time–but quite reasonable–for a letter from the trenches in France to England. But from the new Italian front to a hospital in France? And she has just commented that she would expect it to take a week for her letter to get to him…

But here in her chronology–whether she remembers it as Christmas or she knows that it must have been a few days later and she is merely prolonging the “scene” for effect–comes Edward’s fond, but distant greetings…

“To-night I owe you a long letter… I am so thankful for your letters — they are now as before the greatest help in the whole world. . . . I don’t know whether I am glad to be here or not — it sounds strange but it’s quite true; I was glad to leave the unpleasant region we were in not far from you and the novelty was good for a time but yet in a way it is all the same because there is no known future and the end is not yet, though, on the face of things at present, there is perhaps more chance of return…

“It seems so much more than two years ago since Roland was killed — to-morrow and Monday I will think of you whenever I can and our love of him may lessen the miles between us.”

And that is how the strange, syncopated blow falls on the reader. I almost missed it: it has been two years since Roland died–two years and two days, for us–but the reader of the memoir would pass from then to there in an hour, or else in a few days of casual reading. Vera Brittain has seen fit to let the anniversary of the worst Christmas pass by unremembered, until she reads the letter.

She includes one more line from her brother’s letter, before bringing us back to the here and now (whenever, precisely, that is):

“What a long war this is! It seems wonderful to have lived so long through it when everyone else is dead.

“Good night, dear dear child.”

It must have been very soon afterwards that Corporal Smith died. His mother, a little woman in rusty black, wept quietly and controlledly beside him when the final struggle for breath began; she gave us no trouble even when Mary replied “Yes, quite sure,” to her final piteous inquiry. After I had taken her through the bitter, snowy darkness to the night superintendent’s bunk, Mary and I laid out the boy’s wasted body. His rapid death had been due, we were told, to an over-conscientious determination to endure; he had refused to complain until too late.

There, and none too subtle, is the message: another year, another day, another death–and why do we not complain, why do we not protest? Whence (and wherefore) any help for our plight?

And then, softly, Brittain turns back to a much more traditional Christmas, a moment out of Dickens, with a slight uncanny tinge of Rilke.

When the orderlies had carried him away, we sat shivering over the stove and discussed in whispers the prospect of a future life; that old discussion, the answer to which three of the four with whom I had most often shared it had now discovered for themselves — or not, as the case might be. But on night-duty many things appeared possible which were quite improbable by day; there seemed, that midnight, to be strange whispers in the snow-laden silence, and the beating of invisible wings about us in the dimly lighted ward.[11]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 384.
  2. Moments of Memory, 310.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 190.
  4. Collected Letters, 519.
  5. Diaries, 198.
  6. War Diary, 422-7.
  7. A Generation Missing, 146-7.
  8. Unknown Warriors, 205.
  9. Sapper Martin, 156.
  10. Talking Across the World, 263-4.
  11. Testament of Youth, 396-9.

A Chill Falls Over Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves; Jack Martin’s Comedic Christmas Dinner

We have entered, now, into a debatable region of the Robert GravesSiegfried Sassoon friendship. Sassoon is cuttingly brief about their visit of today, a century back. When he returns to his diary, he will write this:

Last Friday went to Rhyl to see Robert Graves, and received his apologies for his engagement to Miss Nicholson.[1]

A cutting bit of humor to amuse himself… yet there is a ring of truth to it. Sassoon means to be nasty–as if the young Miss Nicholson, who surely promises to irritate him with her strong personality and outspoken feminism, is the proper cause of the apology. But Graves, head over heels in love, is not apologizing for Nancy Nicholson in that sense. Surely, if we are meant to hear an echo of truth in the gibe, he is apologizing the way male comrades often apologize for breaking up the old gang. They were soldiers, together, and planned big things, and now a woman–never mind the particular nature of this particular woman, she’s just “a woman”–has come between them. Fat chance they’ll be roaming the Caucasus together now!

So, Graves’s allegedly apologetic mien was a plea for the retention of the friendship that there has been–they can still write together and dream together, even if he is getting married! And perhaps they could… but it will be true, now, that another person has a prior claim on Graves’s time and his loyalties, and she does not promise to be the sort of woman who sits contentedly at home while her husband pursues his bachelor’s life unchanged….[2]

Graves, for his part, will write (wryly?) that “[n]one of my friends approved of my engagement… Siegfried could not easily accustom himself to the idea of Nancy.”[3]

 

Just one more note today, a century back. In Italy, due to the requirements of manning even a quiet sector of the line, Christmas has come early, at least for for one unit. And Sapper Martin has played an out-sized role in delivering holiday cheer to the men of his unit:

Much excitement all day long. All the men not on duty have been engaged in preparing and decorating the large room for our Christmas dinner. Some of them were out all morning up on the hills getting holly, mistletoe and other foliage…

Oxley and McCormack brought back a good supply of turkeys, beef, pork, cabbages, potatoes, carrots, tinned fruits, biscuits, custard powder, tinned milk, beer, wine and syrupo, the latter being a descriptively named beverage indulged in by Italian teetotalers either for drinking or for quenching their thirst, I don’t know which, but it is not much good for either…

After the dinner came the concert. The interest centred on a sketch… caricaturing Capt. Ainger and Mr Purvis and not omitting some of the NCOs and men. I was the author, producer, stage manager, musical director and everything else all rolled into one. And it was a great success… Capt. Reah laughed till the rears ran down his cheeks. It was only three days ago that some of the men came to me with the request that I should write a sketch–so it has been pretty quick work… But as it was everybody was thoroughly amused and therefore I was quite satisfied…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 198.
  2. See also R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 190.
  3. If this sounds unusually mild and non-scandal-courting for a quote from Good-Bye to All That, never fear: in that ellipsis is the happy information that Robbie Ross "tried to dissuade" Graves from marrying Nicholson with bizarre racist innuendos...
  4. Sapper Martin, 155.

Ford Madox Hueffer’s Last Prayer to Viola Hunt; Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson Are Engaged; Edward Brittain Turns to The Loom; The Master of Belhaven Wines and Dines; Patrick Shaw Stewart Visits the New Brigadier

Ford Madox Hueffer‘s not-quite-marriage to Viola Hunt is on the rocks, but that does not preclude grand Late Romantic gestures. Today is his birthday–his forty-forth–and Hunt sent him “a box of preserved fruits & some vests & plants & tablecloths.” Her did her one better, sending a “lovely” poem… and then slashed a remainder mark across the romantic gesture by assuring her that the poem is not a heartfelt communication to her, but the result of a mere poetic game of bouts rimés, in which he tosses off poetry at short order to a given rhyme scheme. This, alas, is not only rather mean of Ford, but highly probable.

So, dear reader, try not to get too weepy–it’s just a game![1]

 

One Last Prayer

Let me wait, my dear,
One more day,
Let me linger near,
Let me stay.
Do not bar the gate or draw the blind
Or lock the door that yields,
Dear, be kind!

I have only you beneath the skies
To rest my eyes
From the cruel green of the fields
And the cold, white seas
And the weary hills
And the naked trees.
I have known the hundred ills
Of the hated wars.
Do not close the bars,
Or draw the blind.
I have only you beneath the stars:
Dear, be kind!

17/12/17

 

Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson are at a much earlier stage of their romance–more first prayer than last–but today, a century back, they took a big step forward. They have been discussing their future at great length during their long weekend together, and now it is settled: they must marry. Robert’s biographer R.P. Graves explains:

…they ‘decided to get married at once’. Nancy evidently ‘attached no importance to the ceremony’, and Robert was bound to agree with her. Luckily for him, however, Nancy also said that ‘she did not want to disappoint her father’. At that stage in his life Robert very much desired the approval both of his family and his friends; and it is highly unlikely that the man who talked to Sassoon about ‘acting like a gentleman’ could have seriously contemplated ‘living in sin’ with this girl of eighteen…

But although Graves is due back in Wales to take up his military duties once again, they decided–either from some point of tactics or, perhaps, or simple pusillanimity– to wait to tell the family. Today the Graves family will celebrate… Robert’s brother Charles’s winning of a Classical Exhibition[2] to St John’s College, Oxford.[3]

 

Speaking of educated/aspirational youth, there’s a letter of today, a century back, from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera which touches on a topic that Graves has often discussed. Brittain is reading one of the big books of the year–and perhaps the most scandalous (if we are not inclined to find militarist–or pacifist–screeds scandalous on their political principles).

Italy, 17 December 1917

…We got out of the line alright and are in quite decent billets… I am trying to read The Loom of Youth which is excellent but I am only progressing slowly at present: it is a bit exaggerated but otherwise a very reasonable portrayal of the public school. Victor would have liked it immensely as it very largely expresses his opinions.[4]

What’s interesting about this is that Alec Waugh’s book is not just a critical-satirical book about Public Schools–it’s also a gay love story. But I haven’t actually read the book, and I have no idea how clear that might be to someone “progressing slowly” through it.

It’s tempting to think that Edward is trying to tell his sister something… but I doubt it. If he were, he might mention Geoffrey Thurlow, his intimate friend, rather than Victor Richardson, the school friend who later ardently courted Vera and whom she briefly planned to marry. And also, even if he were trying to hint at secret desires of his own, it would surely sail over her head. The former provincial young lady knows things now–many valuable things–that she hadn’t known before; she knows all about love and loss and what the war does to the minds and bodies of the boys who go to fight it… but she hasn’t learned much about the love that dare not speak its name.

 

All of this is very interesting, of course, but I am once again neglecting the war. Quickly, then, to the Master of Belhaven, upon whose semi-martial doings we must keep half an eye, and then on to the Naval Division.

Yesterday, a century back, Ralph Hamilton pulled off a difficult feat: giving decent entertainment to the officers of a nearby French battery. Luckily, his own officers had recently scored some new opera records in Amiens, so after a dinner for twelve, “which was rather a strain on our resources… we had a two hours’ Grand Opera concert, which was a great success.” After hypothesizing that war “must have been very dull before the days of gramophones,” Hamilton reports a return engagement for today.

Alas–the British are at a disadvantage in two crucial areas: cookery and artillery.

They did us very well… They took us to see their 75’s, and even took the whole thing to pieces to show us the mechanism… The gun is far in advance of ours, much lighter, far simpler and stronger. I have never been able to understand why we did not adopt it at the beginning of the war…

But Hamilton has talked shopped before telling us of the dinner.

…we sat down over twenty. It was a regular feast that lasted for two hours. Their cook was a chef in a French restaurant before the war…

Hamilton even managed the reciprocal speech-making, his French lubricated by “a little good red wine.” Returning home he discovered that he and five of his officers have been mentioned in dispatches– “so we have not done so badly after all.”[5]

 

This is the pleasant side of the war of attrition. But there is also discomfort.

Patrick Shaw Stewart has now found his battalion–and it is all “his,” on a temporary basis, once more–probably about as swiftly as his parting letter found Lady Desborough.[6] Today, a century back, she wrote back:

Patrick darlingest, How I loved your adorable letter from the train, and how above all I loved you. And blessed you for holding on in trust through all the frozen time–never, never fretting… How I shall miss you, how I love you.”

But Patrick was back to writing to Diana Manners, the woman he can’t give up and who is, now that all Englishwoman are equidistantly out of reach, just as reachable as any of the others. She won’t hear his proposals and protestations, but perhaps she will accept this sort of daily diary.

Today I rode again towards the front, a martyr to duty, having evolved a new system of leading my horse the first mile, thus becoming almost entirely thawed before making myself immobile… had an amusing first interview with Oc as Brigadier, in the course of which I took a very fair luncheon off him…

Alcohol and fur are the twin secrets of winter campaigning.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, Dual Life, II, 563 n31.
  2. A partial merit-based scholarship, in American parlance.
  3. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 189.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 385.
  5. War Diary, 423-4.
  6. Although I wrote about his departure and arrival yesterday, the journey must have taken about three days, so he would have left--and written from the train to the coast--on or about the 13th.
  7. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 237-8. I am not confident of the dates in Jebb, which are not supported by a critical apparatus. He lists today, a century back, as the day Asquith was wounded, but Sellers's The Hood Battalion, 282, has the 20th, and yet has his promotion to brigadier as tomorrow, when it does seem clear that he was already brigadier--or functioning as brigadier--today, a century back. My best guess is that Asquith is the brigadier now in effect, but will officially take the position tomorrow, and be wounded on the 20th, so I will mention it then.

Kipling’s Tales of the Rout at Cambrai; The Master of Belhaven Learns of the Debacle; The Darkness of Toby’s Room; Jack Martin and Edward Brittain in Italy

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is back in the swing of things, with his battery to the south and east of the Cambrai conflagration.

All day the heavy battery cannonade was kept up, and rumours were received of trenches lost and even batteries captured. Late this morning I got a situation report, and found things were worse than we had realized. The Hun had penetrated our line to a depth of 8,000 yards in places, and some batteries were lost, including A/107, which is sad, as it belongs to our division… it is the first time we have lost any of our divisional artillery.[1]

 

This is the fight that the Guards are still fighting. They have been defeated–driven back, at least, in the impossible task of holding a salient improvidently grabbed, while massively outgunned. Kipling sings the Second Irish:

The dawn of the 30th November was ushered in by single shells from a long-range gun which found them during the night. Half an hour after they had the order to move to Heudicourt and had digested a persistent rumour that the enemy were through at Gonnelieu, telegrams and orders began to pour in. The gist of them was that the line had undoubtedly cracked, and that the Brigade would move to Gouzeaucourt at once. But what the Brigade was to do, and under whose command it was to operate, were matters on which telegrams and orders most livelily conflicted…

And so it is the part of the Imperial Bard to describe a… well, an inglorious retrograde movement, perhaps, if not a rout. But then that is the benefit of choosing the size of your story: this is a British embarrassment, but still a proud day, of sorts, for the Second Irish Guards:[2]

Over the ridge between Gouzeaucourt and Metz poured gunners, carrying their sights with them, engineers, horses and infantry, all apparently bent on getting into the village where they would be a better target for artillery. The village choked; the Battalion fell in, clear of the confusion, where it best could, and set off at once in artillery formation, regardless of the stragglers, into the high and bare lands round Gouzeaucourt. There were no guns to back them, for their own were at Flesquières. As was pointed out by an observer of that curious day — “‘Tis little ye can do with gun-sights, an’ them in the arrums av men in a great haste. There was men with blankets round ’em, an’ men with loose putties wavin’ in the wind, and they told us ’twas a general retirement. We could see that. We wanted to know for why they was returnin’. We went through ’em all, fairly breastin’ our way and — we found Jerry on the next slope makin’ prisoners of a Labour Corps with picks an’ shovels. But some of that same Labour Corps they took their picks an ‘shovels and came on with us.”

They halted and fixed bayonets just outside Gouzeaucourt Wood, the Irish on the left of the line, their right on the Metz-Gouzeaucourt road, the 3rd Coldstream in the centre, the 2nd Coldstream on the right, the 2nd Grenadiers in reserve in Gouzeaucourt Wood itself. What seems to have impressed men most was the extreme nakedness of the landscape, and, at first, the absence of casualties. They were shelled as they marched to the Wood but not heavily; but when they had passed beyond it they came under machine-gun fire from the village. They topped the rise beyond the Wood near Queen’s Cross and were shelled from St. Quentin Ridge to the east. They overran the remnant of one of our trenches in which some sappers and infantry were still holding on. Dismounted cavalry appeared out of nowhere in particular, as troops will in a mixed fray, and attached themselves to the right of the thin line. As they swept down the last slope to Gouzeaucourt the machine-gun fire from the village grew hotter on their right, and the leading company, characteristically enough, made in towards it. This pulled the Battalion a little to the right, and off the road which was supposed to be their left boundary, but it indubitably helped to clear the place.

The enemy were seen to be leaving in some haste, and only a few of them were shot or bayoneted in and out among the houses. The Battalion pushed in through the village to the slope east of it under Quentin Mill, where they dug in for the night. Their left flank was all in the air for a while…

Tanks were used on the right during the action, but they do not seem to have played any material part in the Battalion’s area, and, as the light of the short and freezing November day closed, a cavalry regiment, or “some cavalry,” came up on the left flank. The actual stroke that recovered Gouzeaucourt had not taken more than an hour, but the day had cost them a hundred and thirty men killed, wounded and missing…

This is a tale that will need salting–or sweetening–with rough and ready humor, if it is not to leave a terrible taste in the mouth of any believer in the B.E.F.

A profane legend sprang up almost at once that the zeal shown by the Guards in the attack was because they knew Gouzeaucourt held the supplies of the Division which had evacuated it. The enemy had been turned out before he could take advantage of his occupation. Indeed, a couple of our supply-trains were found untouched on rail at the station, and a number of our guns were recaptured in and around the place. Also, the Divisional rum-supply was largely intact. When this fact came to light, as it did — so to say — rum-jar by rum-jar, borne joyously through the dark streets that bitter night, the Brigade was refreshed and warmed, and, men assert, felt almost grateful to the Division which had laid this extra “fatigue” on them.

But no–I’ve sold Kipling short. Or underestimated his loyalty to the twists and turns of the tale. He is a very great historian, in the old-fashioned sense,[3] and when a bitter day slews toward maniac joy and then back again, he leans into the curves…

One grim incident stays in the minds of those who survived — the sight of an enormous Irishman urging two captives, whom he had himself unearthed from a cellar, to dance before him. He demanded the jigs of his native land, and seemed to think that by giving them drink his pupils would become proficient. Men stood about and laughed till they could hardly stand; and when the fun was at its height a chance shell out of the darkness to the eastward wiped out all that tango-class before their eyes. (‘”Twas like a dhream, ye’ll understand. One minute both Jerries was dancin’ hard to oblige him, an’ then — nothin’, nothin’ — nothin’ — of the three of them! “)[4]

 

Some time ago we opened another entire European front–but then things became busy. Remember Italy? I had intended to give some of Sapper Martin‘s itinerary, as a sort of modern take on the ancient form, because nothing says “timeless military misery” better than a long, long march. But, as the narrative has been without excessively necessary details, I have been passing him over–I merely want to note, then, that his march reached 148 miles, today, a century back, at the end of its second week.[5]

 

But Martin is not our only man headed to the front lines in northern Italy. Edward Brittain was able to give his sister Vera an update today as well, on the occasion of his birthday. And, as you know, an army marches on its stomach, even in Italy…

Italy, 30 November 1917

We are fairly close to the line though not within artillery range; we expect to be closer very soon; at present it does not seem that we shall suffer from artillery anything like as much as we did in the salient… We have had some very hard marching lately but the men have stuck it wonderfully well. . . We have managed to buy a turkey for my birthday dinner to-night for the absurdly small sum of 7 liras…

In time there will be E.F. Canteens as in France, I expect, but at present we suffer from our dissimilarity in taste from the Italians. 22 seems rather old in some ways but young in others, e.g. I have only 1 subaltern younger than me.[6]

Happy Birthday, then, to twenty-two-year-old Edward Brittain.

 

And then there is fiction, which can choose many forms of escapism–or brutal realism. I mentioned Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room two days ago, and Elinor Brooke’s conviction that Sassoon’s decision to go back to the horrors of war was the only possible one. Today, her [fictional] diary describes what she herself is doing for the war effort: an art student before the war, she now assists Henry Tonks, the artist and toweringly influential teacher at the Slade, in his work. Working as artists and recorders of the war’s damage, they draw the faces of mutilated soldiers, in order to aid in pioneering attempts at reconstructive plastic surgery.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 414-5.
  2. I have taken the liberty of changing the great man's paragraphing.
  3. I.e. with the emphasis on story, on narrative, and not on any 19th century balance of facts or, still less, with any 21st century expectation of striving for unbiased perception.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 218-220.
  5. Sapper Martin, 149.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 383.
  7. Toby's Room, 233-6.

Herbert Read on the Pleasures of Rest; George Coppard, E. A. Mackintosh, and Rowland Feilding on the Eve of Battle

Herbert Read has seen a good deal of the nasty late stages of Passchendaele–although, to our loss, he has written little about the experience. Now, however, his battalion is marching south, and he is very well pleased. We, reading over the shoulder of his intended, Evelyn Roff, get another walking-tour-of-rural-Europe sort of letter:

19 XI 17

We are on the trek: for three days we have marched away from the northern horrors and still we march… so contented are we that we don’t mind much the fact that our promised rest has been postponed a while–but only a short while.

This is where we touch the romantic fringe of war–for it is only a fringe, the romance. Now we have all the thrills of a sentimental journey–all the excitement of changing environment and of strange meetings…

The first billet involves a dour Frenchwoman out of central casting, who refuses all amenities, sends them hungry to cold rooms, and overcharges them to cook the food they brought. But the next day’s march ends with Read being directed to mess in “an innocent enough looking house.” What will the tired warriors discover?

I entered boldly enough, only to gasp and fall back on to the toes of whoever was behind me. Seated round a table, enjoying a meal of some sort, were at least six beaming maidens..

The mess, alas, proves to be in the next room, but it doesn’t entirely disappoint:

Again we were tired and hungry, so again we asked (this time more humbly) for café and omelettes. Nothing could have pleased the old lady better (there was one old lady) and we had a delightful meal on the table in no time. That finished, and our morale recovered, we ventured back into the kitchen, where a gramophone was playing selections of English music, and, perhaps more inviting still, a French stove was roaring away and dispelling the chill of the November twilight. Chairs were pushed forward and we had to accept…

After this impromptu country dance, Read and his friend Col go into town and get another dinner and take in a concert, which included

…a violin soloist who seemed perfection. (Fancy, one week in the horrors I can’t describe and the next listening to Chopin perfectly rendered).[1]

 

And, while one decorated and experienced officer marches away from the worst of the fighting, thousands of other men–just fancy this irony!–are preparing for the next ordeal.

Alan Mackintosh of the Seaforth Highlanders, who chose to give up a safe billet training cadets in order to rejoin his friends in the Seaforth Highlanders, had time to scribble only one hasty note–he addressed it both to Sylvia, the woman he had recently met and fallen in love with, and to his sister Muriel.

My darling girl,

We’re going over tomorrow so I’m leaving this in case I don’t come back. Goodbye. No time for more,

Your loving

Alan[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, whose love for–and formidable epistolary commitment to–his wife Edith has been tested by several major battles, no doubt did the same. But then again he, as a battalion commander, had known about the attack for some time, and spent the eve of the assault in calm contemplation of his men.

My orders were to assault with two Companies, which were to advance on the extreme right… it meant that I was to attack with my right flank “in the air.”

It was very edifying to watch the officers and men preparing for the attack–all optimistic, full of confidence, and cheery:–a little more silent than usual, perhaps, during dinner the night before…[3]

 

And at midnight, tonight, a century back, George Coppard and his men–he is now a corporal commanding two heavy machine-gun teams–left their billets to begin a march up to their assembly positions, 400 yards from the front. Dawn, tomorrow, will bring the war’s next major effort, the far-famed and long-rumored tank battle of Cambrai.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience, 114-16.
  2. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 227-8.
  4. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122.

Rowland Feilding’s Rangers Move up to the Line; Sapper Martin on Hares and Rabblements

Rowland Feilding will be one of our guides to the coming Battle of Cambrai, into which battle he will shortly lead the 6th Connaught Rangers. His account is a valuable one so, even though this breaks with the strict letter of the law, we will draw from a letter written a few days in the future, when he has time to record his experiences for his wife.

I have known for ages of these impending operations, but I think you will agree that even you could not have guessed this from my letters. I have been obliged to keep my own councils, without confiding even in my Adjutant or the Company Commanders.

We came up to the front line on the 18th, having for a few days previously practised the attack over a prepared replica of the German trenches which were to be our objective. This naturally suggested to all ranks what was before them, and, devout though they always are, in the best of spirits, the whole battalion flocked to Confession the last evening—the 17th—in the patched-up barn at Ervillers…

The following morning (Sunday) all went to non-fasting Communion… this being allowed by the Church before going into action…

Feilding goes on to explain that it has taken the troops, nearly all devout Catholics, some time to accept that this dispensation is legitimate, and will not lead them into sin. They ate, they took communion, and then, body and soul prepared, they marched to the line.

In the evening, after dark, the battalion moved up to the trenches, coming in for a certain amount of shelling by the way… The German trench opposed to us was the famous Hindenburg Line. It is a very elaborate work…[1]

 

And Sapper Martin‘s Italian journey continued today, a century back–or, rather, as they rested before resuming their march, they saw other troops going the other way, making the reason for this sudden British anabasis painfully obvious:

Thousands of retreating Italians passed through here this morning. They looked a pretty rabble. Had thrown away all their equipment; the only things they retained other than what they stood up in were their overcoats and these were loaded in piles on little mule or donkey-carts…

In the afternoon Jessie S. held an inspection… He gave us a lecture on the arduous nature of the march in front of us and said that nothing was to be taken unless absolutely necessary; therefore he condemned the football to be dumped but I bet it turns up when we want it….

The culinary adventure continued as well, with “stewed hare and polenta” that was pronounced “quite harmless… and filling.” They have several days’ hard marching ahead of them, but we will in all probability not hear much from Martin for at least a few days–there is too much stewing near Cambrai.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 225-7.
  2. Sapper Martin, 135-6.

Ivor Gurney is Back in Harness; Rowland Feilding’s Connaught Rangers Confess; Sapper Martin in Lombardy

We have another day of minor movements, today, as three of our writers look ahead to coming things.

Ivor Gurney, writing to Herbert Howells today, a century back, is making ready to leave the hospital. His touch of gas–and touch on the keyboard–have kept him out of the fray long enough to miss the rest of the year’s fighting. And to see his book in print…

17 November 1917

My Dear Howells…

Well; here am I, back in harness, and hot to be sent to Command Depot. (Dear old Army!) The notices of my book were out yesterday, and you will probably receive one soon. Could you collar the Morning Post reviews anywhere? The New Statesman? New Age? Nation? Possibly you might see one lying about and collar the bit. It is a crime, but here excusable, I think…

Pte Gurney I.B. 24I28I
B Co
4th Reserve Battallion T.F.
Gloucester Regiment
Seaton Delaval
Northumberland

(Hear, hear!)
So write sometime.

A horrid rumour has reached me that we shall get our embarkation leave next Thursday and be off on the next draft. If so, I shall apply for a commission, just after the 6 days. (Shudders of surprise after) Farwell. Au Revoir. Auf Wiedesehn. Goodbye:

Yours ever I.B.G.[1]

So Gurney is in high spirits–and contemplating a commission. Most of the reviews are not yet out, but they will be generally favorable. As for that commission, well, we shall see…

 

Sapper Jack Martin‘s diary has, over the last few days, begun the most interesting account I’ve read of a new and sideways movement: a body of British troops moves neither up the line nor west toward rest or blighty, but south and east,  to Italy. His long train had whisked the battalion from the mud and misery of Northern France to the pleasant autumn of the Riviera over several days, and then, two evenings ago, a century back, they had crossed into Italy.

Yesterday was a day of food-related misunderstandings, with gifts of jam and nuts and fruit going back and forth and a search for familiar sorts of bread. There is a swift resorting to stiff English stereotypes, as Martin decides that the soil is “too fertile,” which leads the men to be deplorably lazy. He is impressed, however, with the industry of the women-folk and the cleanliness of the houses, and there is an interesting comment tacked on to the end of a predictable description of the English soldiers clowning around by adding vowels to the end of all of their words in order to “speak Italian:”

They couldn’t understand any hilarity amongst men going to war. This particular type of wonderment we found all the way along the march. It has been said that an Englishman takes his pleasures sadly, but it should also be remarked that he can take the serious business of life jocularly.[2]

Today, a century back, they left the rails at Asola, in Lombardy, and began a long march which Martin will describe as “in the nature of an Elizabethan progress.” Marching through a marketplace of enthusiastic Italians, past their Brigadier, who took their salute from his hotel balcony, they marched 17 1/2 miles, the first few accompanied by “crowds of children.” They will have sore feet, after their long train journey–but they also have white Italian bread, and “sausages and potatoes in a Trattoria outside the billet.” Which sounds a great deal better than bully beef or a wan omelet in an Estaminet–but perhaps that is my own prejudice, or the stale palate or long (literary) familiarity with the British soldier’s French diet.[3]

 

And then there’s France, where the Somme region will not be quiet for much longer. Rowland Feilding will write of tonight, a century back, that “the whole battalion flocked to confession” in a converted barn in Ervillers. They did so because the orders had been given to pack up and prepare for a march to the front, first thing tomorrow morning.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 230-1.
  2. This observation seems to have been added at a later date.
  3. Sapper Martin, 129-35.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 226.