Siegfried Sassoon Heads East; Edmund Blunden Bangs Around in No Man’s Land

Siegfried Sassoon has broken out of the war’s pattern–and he hardly seems broken up about it. He has arrived back in France, but instead of an interminable and miserable slow train up the line, he cuts across the grain of the war, and across the unspoiled hinterland of France, bound–still slowly, but much more scenically–for the east.

February 15

Awoke in the railway carriage to find a bright, frosty morning—and the train in a station. We started about 9 and crawled to St Germain (fifteen kilometres from Lyons) Arriving there at 12:30. The morning journey was through fine country—fir-clad hills and pleasant little valleys threaded by brooks and shallow rivers.

Notes (oxen pulling a tree: boy standing among trees looking down-at the train). Yesterday was through level, brown, buff, sand-coloured places. To-day dark-green firs are the colour-note, and the sun shines gloriously on all, and warms my face as I crane from the window to see the unfolding prospects.

We stay at a rest-camp near the station—bath and lunch—in the afternoon go marketing. The blue Saone River flowing nobly along. We leave again to-night…[1]

Sassoon’s diary has taken on a different cast, reminiscent more of Edward Thomas‘s field notes of a soldier intending to return to his poetry than of his own recent modes of hunt diary or journal of self-discovery.


Although Edmund Blunden doesn’t describe his brief stint as battalion adjutant, it’s likely that this passage of the memoir refers to tonight, a century back. According to the battalion diary–the 11th Royal Sussex are now near Gouzeaucourt, on the old Cambrai battlefield–“Companies [were] employed at night on working parties, cable burying, & improvement of defenses.” The fact that there were no casualties (unlike on several other nearby nights) makes the dating more likely, if far from airtight. It is yet another study of the ominous quiet on the German side of the line.

The silence and inertia in the German trenches were a puzzle, and the old remark about “holding the line with a man and a boy” was passed round among us. One might sit, as I did, upon our parapet, and spend several minutes looking at the opposite line and the ruins and expensive cemetery of Villers Guislain, without any disaster. One night, the whole battalion was ordered to put out wire in No Man’s Land, and although such an order created the usual terrible imaginings, the reality was almost like a practical joke. Conversation went on among the men, the wire was uncoiled with all possible noise, the jangling tin crosses on the ends of the reels were allowed full voice, company commanders bawled for sergeant-majors — No Man’s Land became (to speak comparatively) a parade. Worley was the specialist in charge, and he ran about with his favourite gloves on, putting mistakes right here, and fancy touches on there — and telling me loudly the work was going on well — “is the old General about, d’you know sir?” At last a machine gun was turned on, but the wire was in place, and no harm was done. [2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diary, 213,
  2. Undertones of War, 206.

Thomas Hardy’s Musical Ghosts; We Meet Coleman Clark, as the Bombs Fall on Paris

War writing is thin on the ground, today–too many of our writers are dead, or home doing jobs they don’t find to be worth writing about, or off hunting. In fact, the most interesting bit I have from any diary is from Thomas Hardy‘s:

Performance of the Mellstock Quire at the Corn Exchange, Dorchester, by the local Company for Hospital purposes. Arranged for the admission of present “Mellstock” Quire to see the resuscitated ghosts of their predecessors.[1]

“Mellstock” would be Stinsford, and this staged version of the tale that had become Under the Greenwood Tree is a reconstruction of life in Hardy’s native village in the time when his parents were young–almost another century back, in other words. It’s a rural tale, a pleasant, loving story of old England (or old Wessex) that has little in common with Hardy’s later fate-ravaged tragedies–there are doubts in church, but mostly about the reform of the old instrumental choir, and there is love given and loss, but generally without violence and misery. So, as a war benefit, he might have chosen better, or worse…


So this seems as good a day as any to remind us that that Yanks are coming. I’m not sure whether I’ll introduce any American soldier-writers as “Regulars” here during the next few months, but one who might make the cut is Coleman Clark. Clark, a young New Yorker of means who started at Yale College the month after the war began, had not waited for official American involvement, but came to France in 1916 as an ambulance driver. He saw Verdun and, in late 1916 and early 1917, the Salonika and Serbian fronts. But when his term of enlistment with the ambulances expired he didn’t go home–he went to Paris and joined the French Foreign Legion. He’s a kind-looking, boyish sort of youth (picture to follow) but he has now segued from Olaf Stapledonish thoughtful selflessness toward the more hard-bitten model of the American in France once provided by Alan Seeger. After four months of training he is now in Paris, on leave, awaiting his first assignment as an “aspirant” French artillery officer.

Jan. 3, 1918.

There was a raid in Paris last night which scared the civilians terribly, and with good reason. Towards eleven o’clock they blew the horns in the streets, and all the lights went out. Immediately afterward we heard the buzzing of the French aeroplanes on guard, which all the old ladies in the house took for the Gothas. Nothing happened for about half an hour or so, and then I heard the anti-aircraft guns start going’ off. It seemed quite weird to hear guns at Paris. A few minutes later I heard ten or a dozen bombs drop, but none in our district. The whoozing of the empty shrapnel cases coming down added considerably to the fright. A bomb is never heard until a fraction of a second before it hits—a little whing, and then the crash; whereas the shrapnel case, lumbering down much more slowly, is heard a few seconds before it hits.. The papers say very little about the raid. They mention a certain amount of “degats de materiel et de vie humaine,” [human and material casualties] but the principal feeling is of hatred, not regret. . . .[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Life of Thomas Hardy, 384.
  2. Clark, Coleman and Salter (privately printed), 110.

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



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.

Olaf Stapledon Goes to Mass; Rowland Feilding Praises Courage Under Fire

There is a special pathos in following the conversation of Olaf Stapeldon and Agnes Miller, separated as it is by half the world, the long weeks it takes letters to traverse the distance, and the vagaries of wartime mail. Agnes has been having her doubts, recently, that their love can survive the long loneliness, but Olaf hasn’t learned of them yet. And before he does, her doubts have turned back to questions, which he will then have to answer.

It’s been hard (of course!) being separated for long years, with only letters to sustain them. And when Agnes sees young men going off to fight–or bright, brave young men like Olaf taking high-status roles as officers–her faith in his faith that a pacifist’s place is in the hard, humble duty of the Ambulance Corps wavers.

You see, conscription did not come here, so there was no need for him to go to prison. But just put yourself in his place in a free country like Australia. You need not go to war & you need not go to prison, but I don’t think you would be content if you lived here to go on with your daily work just as usual. I think you would have been drawn away to do Red Cross or relief work just as you have been doing. Would you not? If so I think you must be right in being there now. If you would not have gone, do you think it would have been more worthwhile to stick to your own work or to have joined the English C.O.s in their protest? Which?

This is a difficult hypothetical, and we must point out on Olaf’s behalf that he never had to make such a choice because he committed to the Friends’ Ambulance Unit long before conscription came to England, when his old classmates were joining the army in droves. And he has thought all this through, carefully, too…

But the conversation is months in arrears, and Olaf’s letter of the same day, a century back, is a colorful slice-of-life letter. And yet, like any wartime letter, it can hardly fail to address these questions of duty, suffering, principle, and motivation.

6 November 1917

It is a foggy, muddy November Sunday, and in our great rugger match this afternoon we shall get well plastered. These matches are a great institution; they give us something to talk about for a fortnight before the event and a fortnight afterwards. We discuss rugger as seriously as if it was the war. We estimate people’s respective merits. We tragically whisper that so and so is no use, you know.” We exclaim, with eyes round with adoration, that so and so is glorious. We rearrange the whole program of our work so as to enable The Team to be all off duty on the Day. In fact it is just like school…

Stapledon then tells us about a recent service at the local church. There is some condescension, here, from the well-bred English Quaker, about the ceremonies of rural French Catholicism… but as always with Stapledon, sympathy trumps whatever stiffness holds him back, and he is drawn in:

The other day was the French “Jour des Morts.” Some of us dressed up and went to church to represent the convoy. It was a little old church… packed with pale blue soldiers, and in the background were about four women in deep black. The service began in the ordinary way, and seemed lamentably unreal, insincere. The priest muttered and rang bells and waved his hands & did genuflexions, the intoning was very bad. Then came a solemn solo on some sort of hautbois, rather an improvement. Then, after more scampered chants, the band in the gallery began playing some fine stately piece or other. We all sat and listened and were rather strung up by it. Then came the sermon, a rather oratorical affair, and yet somehow sincere. He spoke very clearly, slowly, and with much gesture. He pictured the supreme sacrifice of Christ, the similar sacrifice of any man who dies avec les armes a la main, en se battant pour la France [in arms, fighting for France], or words to that effect. He described sympathetically the mud & misery of the trenches; and then urged men, if they ever felt inclined to give up the struggle, to remember devastated France who needed their help. He pictured the souls of the glorious dead enjoying heaven. And his last words were a moving summary of all the sufferings of France since the war began…

One felt as if the little church were some ship in a great storm, sweeping toward a fierce coast. One felt that the blue mariners, instead of pulling at ropes and sailing the ship, were praying to imaginary gods of the tempest. I don’t know. It was somehow terrible. One felt the awful fatal power of the world, and the littleness of men. Finally the band played Chopin’s dead march as people slowly moved out with wreaths for their friends’ graves. That nearly reduced some of us to tears, very much against our will. I can’t explain. There was something more than the obvious tragedy of human death about it, though indeed that is more than enough in itself, our blue soldiers, with their short-cropped black hair, and their matter-of-fact French faces. They had such a strange shamefaced way of crossing themselves, rather as if they suspected it was a foolish superstition but were determined to be on the safe side. They had seen hell all right but they did not know at all what heaven is…[1]


The only other piece today is almost a flash-forward. Rowland Feilding is neither a dreamer nor a pacifist, but he is, in another sense, what Olaf Stapledon hopes to be, namely an older married man, doing his duty, and keeping his beloved wife Edith as close as he can. Feilding has done more than any of our writers to hold to the plan of writing scrupulously honest and open letters to his wife, sparing her nothing.

But today there is a painful reversal, a vertigo at the edge of the experiential gulf: Feilding is safe in reserve, and his wife and children are in danger, in London. It’s a short letter, but it packs in love, a sort of befuddled proto-feminism, and the awkward tone of a husband/commander exhorting and commending his wife/subordinate from far away, in relative safety.[2]

I got your letter to-day, describing the air-raid, which interested me enormously and filled me with pride to think of you all joking at the bottom of the kitchen stairs.

I cannot tell you how much I admire the way in which you have handled this problem, forcing the children to look upon the air-raids as a game. It is splendid. The others will inevitably take their cue from you. Had you been a man you would have made an ideal soldier. Above all, I admire the way in which you have never woken the children till, in your opinion, the danger has become imminent. You are becoming a veteran now, and I have every faith in your leadership, and that it will carry you and the household through…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 254-6. Of all things--and allowing for the ten thousand miles separating the lovers--this scene recalls (or anticipates, rather) the Advent Evensong scene in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
  2. He is probably not in "relative" safety; London was a big place and the raids did not kill very many compared to the constant bombardment even on quiet sectors of the rear areas in France and Belgium. Nevertheless, the thought that on some nights, at least, his family is in danger and he is not is strange and destabilizing...
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 223-4.

Wilfred Owen on the Next War; Hugh Quigley Confronts the Landscape; Kate Luard Allows a Late Night; Herbert Read’s Mock(ing) Letter

Today, a century back, presents us with a broad range of experience in four snippets.

Wilfred Owen is still writing copiously: this time it is a long, poetry-enclosing letter to his mother, which begins in the old style of detailed reports on his doings, in this case a long description of a visit to the home of some decidedly fashionable Edinburgh householders. But he is soon on to his new topic–Siegfried Sassoon.

Many thanks for Father’s Views (of Aberystwyth). Wish I had his views of S.S. I will copy out one or two of my recent efforts in Sassoon’s manner.

Even without such a clue, identifying poems such as “The Next War” as being heavily influenced by Sassoon is shooting critical finish in the biographical barrel. Or, given the quotation that heads the poem, simply being handed a dead fish.


The Next War

War’s a joke for me and you,
Wile we know such dreams are true.
– Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,–
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,–
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for Life; not men, for flags.

If this poem still feels somehow light, despite the subject matter, it’s for a promising reason: Owen’s lyrical apprenticeship has left him ready to write fluid and pleasant verse, his prosodic skill a tool that may have surprising applications. Owen’s letter continues:

…I find it well received by the public and praised by Sassoon with no patronizing manner but as a musical achievement not possible to him. He is sending copies of the Hydra to Personages!

Last night I had a consultation with Dr. Brock from 11 to midnight!

I asked him (for the first time) when he meant to have me boarded. He said there were no instructions given to him yet; and wasn’t I quite happy where I am? Very well . . .

I still have disastrous dreams, but they are taking on a more civilian character, motor accidents and so on.[1]

He is on his way to recovery–and therefore the current slow course is judged to be best. This is very lucky for Owen, but one wonders exactly what these nightmares were like. He doesn’t tell his mother, of course, and he didn’t tell Sassoon. Is his sleep merely “disturbed,” as we would say? Or does he wake screaming, terrified, every night, several times, as was common at Craiglockhart? It’s hard to wangle a clear explanation of trauma, isn’t it…


Herbert Read, writing to–and to impress–Evelyn Roff, strikes another pose today, this time the sarcastically self-aware world-weary officer in repose. Well, no, not repose, exactly…


We are now ‘enjoying’ a rest! That blessed word ‘rest’. It has terrors for us almost equal to any the line can produce. It means a constant scrubbing and polishing… a continual state of qui vive, for safety releases all kinds of horrors upon us: fellows with red hats and monocles who seldom molest us in our natural haunt…

And then there are the tasks, which Read writes with the same strenuous jauntiness, of drilling the troops, both slovenly veterans and raw recruits, back up to the standards of non-combat duty and, worse, of reading their letters:

…two or three weary subalterns have to wade through two or three hundred uninteresting letters every day. Comme ci: ‘Dear old pal–Just a line hoping as how you are in the pink of condition as this leaves me at present. Well, old pal, we are out of the line just now in a ruined village. The beer is rotten. With good luck we shall be over the top in a week or two, which means a gold stripe in Blighty or a landowner in France. Well, they say it’s all for little Belgium, so cheer up, says I: but wait till I gets hold of little Belgium.

From your old pal, Bill.

And so on…[2]


Kate Luard, too, has been enjoying a rest–or, at least, a few days without dire trouble. But this phase of the war presents very little of interest to a working nurse on an afternoon at liberty.

I went with P. for a walk and saw a great many Tanks in their lair; hideous frights they are – named Ethel, Effie, Ernest, etc.

With her own preferred leisure activities so curtailed, will she soften her administrative heart to others? Yes, of course–and with ulterior motives, too.

Sunday, September 2nd.

The weather has not cleared up enough yet for Active Operations, so we are still slack. General S. told me to-day the exact drop in the numbers of daily casualties, and it is a big one. We have a piano in our Mess salved from 44. It brings the M.O.’s and their friends in every evening about 9 p.m., which is really bed-time, but one mustn’t be too much of a Dragon in these hard times. And last night I let them keep it up till 10.30, as it was a good and cheery cover for some rather nasty shelling that was going on, and had been all day – on both sides and beyond us (behind us as we face the line). It went on all night too, and lots of casualties were brought in; 6 died here, besides the killed in the Camps. Of course in one interval he must needs turn up overhead too. I only slept about an hour all night.[3]


Finally, today, our second reading of Hugh Quigley, and the second one in which we must be led through the analysis of an experience without having read the details. But we are familiar, I think, with the war in general, and judging from that, this all seems to make very good sense indeed:

One can never decide definitely about anything there; there is not time, even, for decent thinking; always on the move should be our war-cry. I have seen a vast chunk of France now and I don’t feel inclined to enthuse about its beauty. The same monotony of streamless plains. A new brand of nostalgia enters the system: one longs for a purling brook, a clear lake, and a whole village. I have seen enough ruins to send our feather-brained sentimentalists into the last stages of delirium.

I am beginning to overcome the lice nuisance…

Quigley goes on to discuss his reading–Conrad–and to weigh the best philosophical approaches to a soldier’s life:

The Epicurean idea is the best: make the most of a good thing when you have it and let the future go to the devil. In fact, a Stoic-Epiucurean would have a glorious time just now, and the old Cynic antagonist fill the trenches to every one’s satisfaction; but the doubt arises, would he do for fighting? Too canny, perhaps; too bald in his perception of facts. The barbarian is the darkest fighter after all; he goes right at it…

On a roll, now, Quigley discusses H.G. Wells, wartime sunsets, memorial language, Corot, and, memorably, his impressions of the battlefield around Achiet-le-Petit:

…not a tree was visible anywhere, yet such a perfect gradation of soft greys from rose to pale blue as I have never seen or even dreamt. We seemed to enter a dim world of fairy, grey warriors going into a new Valhalla, where all harshness and ruggedness had been smoothed down into quiet loveliness, and a peaceful contentment taken the place of violent action; where the spirit could forget yearning and find its faintest desires broaden out into a graciousness as if heaven were earth, and earth a kindlier God. It was morning, morning in full summer, when we went there, and a veil of rose lay over the earth, touching a far town–Achiet-le-Grand–to a golden mystery of wall and tree, and outlining with silver the broad road that led from it in the direction of Bapaume.[4]

But now, I think, we can with rare precision discuss absence as well as presence. We can, that is, gather something of what Quigley has not read. He goes on to claim that he has “lost all taste for pure landscape”–yet still he describes it. He hasn’t seen the worst of war, but it is still striking to note what his description of the road to Bapaume lacks. We might compare it to Sassoon’s “Blighters,” the very poem which Vivian de Sola Pinto, himself approaching the line in France, had recently committed to memory :

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
“We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”
I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,”
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 490.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 107-8.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 155.
  4. Passchendaele and the Somme, 105-112.

Edward Brittain Faces Another July First; Rowland Feilding and La Belle France; Robert Graves on the Isle of Wight–and What is Siegfried Sassoon Up To?

Now that Edward Hermon is dead, Rowland Feilding is probably our most consistently uxorious writer. He writes faithfully and fully, concealing nothing of his feelings or–once the demands of military secrecy are met–of the danger that he is (or has recently been) in. But today, a century back, he is safely in the rear… and he has something else to confess, namely a raging crush on a local girl.

June 30, 1917. Bollezeele (near Zeggers Cappel).

I am getting rather bitten with agriculture. No wonder these peasants get rich;—or, if they do not (and I really do
not know), I should say there must be something radically wrong with the whole system of land tenure in this country. They are the most industrious and the thriftiest people I have ever seen…

I am sure it must be impossille for those who have not seen it to realize what cultivation means in France and Belgium, or to picture the seas of corn and potatoes and roots, extending as far as the eye can reach and further; the forests of hops, weedless; without a barren patch or a neglected spot anywhere. In the farm where I am billeted there is a farm-hand—a girl of about eighteen. She sleeps on the straw, on the floor of a stable. She is up, bursting with life and spirits, each morning at five o’clock; and she works, at top pressure, without ceasing, till dark. Then she returns to her straw. She is slim, but has the strength of an average man. She handles the farm horses with a single rein (attached to one ring of the bit only), and by word of mouth. Apparently, she neither eats nor drinks.

It is the “manure” season. That is to say, it is the time of year when they carry out the loathsome liquid accumulation of the past twelve months and spread it over the fields, and so wrapt up is this girl in the work, that you would think she revelled in it.

She moves always at the double—whether through the chicken run, whence every bird flies scared and panic-stricken at her wild approach, or through the manure heap (for she never goes round it). Each time I pass her she
looks up with full face and a cheery grin. I don’t suppose she ever washes, and she must reek of manure, but she fascinates me because of her extraordinary vitality. It is quite exciting to watch her at her work.

But, as I look upon her, I despair of the English as an agricultural nation.[1]


Before returning to France we need to visit the Isle of Wight, where Robert Graves has recently been ensconced in a Victorian palace (it was one of Queen Victoria’s retreats) to convalesce at his leisure. His ailments are quite real–exhaustion, damaged lungs, and semi-undiagnosed shell shock–but, as he tells the story, he is still eager to enjoy himself.

Along with several new compatriots, Graves founded “The Albert Edward Society,” a college-style faux secret society in “mock honour” of the prince consort. They ate strawberries and drank wine, “sang bawdy songs” and otherwise celebrated their being alive to celebrate bygone days–Graves, after all, is impetuous, irrepressible, creative, and twenty-one years old.

In Good-Bye to All That he calls the society the “Royal Albert Society” and gives several more examples of concurrent high jinks and clevernesses, including changing the labels on the paintings in the gallery, dressing up a piece of driftwood as a drowned sailor, and defending the society from boorish intrusion by outdoing all the efforts of the intruders at telling filthy stories. Which makes a lousy anecdote, since Graves is not at liberty to repeat the story he told to win the day… his point, however, is that he is no longer quite the prude he once was.

In keeping with the guiding principle of his memoir, Graves also throws in entertaining stories that chime with perceived reading-public interests and drops whatever names he can. Therefore he mentions A.A. Milne (slightingly) and he tells of his interactions with a curious colony of French Benedictines in exile on the island who strike him as urbane and humane, despite not keeping poetry in their library. Graves has the sad task of describing to one of these monks what his native Béthune looks like now. And, as if in an echo of the several young Anglican officers who have become Catholics or are moving in that direction, Graves claims that these interactions–and his general esteem, pace the skill with filthy stories, for the monastic life–brought him some way in a similar direction: “Catholicism ceased to repel me.” Which is vintage Graves, whether or not the self-centeredness and backhanded snark are intended…[2]

Graves’s letters from this period, however, mostly concern his efforts to advance his poetry and that of his friends.

30 June 1917
Osborne, Isle of Wight

Dear old Sassons,

Without doubt a great poem: poor little Orme, he’d have been awfully pleased with it. The simple effect would be strengthened by a more regular sweep in the first half of each verse: as it stands it would worry people who didn’t know much about poetry: it breaks the flow of sense.

Trusting to your good nature I’ve pencilled in some tentative suggestions…

Mindful of my constant impositions on the patience of others, I will not excerpt from the individual word-queries and quibbles of scansion that Graves then lists…

…I know you’ll forgive these remarks, because you’ve patched up poems for me before now. And without my corrections it is a great poem, so you needn’t notice them…

Robbie has my Fairies and Fusiliers manuscript if you happen to be in town and want to see what I’ve been at.

Best love


And then–this very same day, a century back–Graves received a letter from Sassoon which seems to have given a general sketch of his intention to protest against the war. Graves will spend a good deal of time in his memoir emphasizing Sassoon’s poor health–exhaustion, shell shock, general malaise. But this sounds like how he has been feeling at this time. Sassoon himself has hardly made any physical complaints, and sees himself as aggravated and motivated rather than ill. The two men may, of course, have reasons to differ about the etiology of Sassoon’s intent to protest…. but I would not be surprised if the (lost) letter to Graves read something like Sassoon’s fictionalized account of this period:

Back at Butley, I had fully a fortnight in which to take life easily before tackling ‘wilful defiance of military authority’. I was, of course, compelled to lead a double life, and the longer it lasted the less I liked it… it wasn’t easy to sustain the evangelistic individuality which I’d worked myself up to in London. Outwardly those last days of June progressed with nostalgic serenity. I say nostalgic, because in my weaker moods I longed for the peace of mind which could have allowed me to enjoy having tea out in the garden on fine afternoons. But it was no use trying to dope my disquiet with Trollope’s novels or any of my favourite books. The purgatory I’d let myself in for always came between me and the pages; there was no escape for me now…[3]

No, no escape. But he was only passive north-by-northwest, as the warning-shot letter to Graves demonstrates.

Graves wrote back, clearly alarmed, but neither aware that Sassoon has actually written his protest and set the wheels in motion to have it read out in the House of Commons, nor that he had not yet actually published it.

It is only too much like Sassoon to do what he has in fact done: taken several steps toward dramatic action, then wandered off with the act uncompleted, the rebellion hanging fire but liable to set itself off at any time. Graves seems to suspect something like this:

I have just posted a letter I wrote this morning but your new one has come. Look here, why don’t you come and see me down here…

I want to know what characteristic devilment this is. Are you standing as a pacifist MP? That’s the most characteristic thing I can think of next to your bombing Lloyd George.



But the alarm has only begun to ring, as Graves’s post-script–as usual, critical of a mutual friend–shows:

I’ve also written on Sorley. Bob Nichols of course is not Sorley but he’s next best, a devout admirer.

I’ve a copy of my new poems here.[4]

So Graves is alerted… but has not not yet leapt into action. He will act, and soon–as a loyal friend, if not always a true one.


The idea of the protest, remember, is to stop the madness. Edward Brittain has just returned to it. And he too writes two letters, today, both to his sister Vera.

France, 30 June 1917

I have arrived at the transport lines and shall be starting for the trenches in half an hour or so. The battalion is apparently just at the place where one would wish it wasn’t, as the papers have not failed to mention the place every day for the last week or so…

Opposite Lens, in other words, where the British staff is convinced that a hasty offensive might unseat “demoralised” the German defenders.

And not only is Brittain’s new battalion in the area of contemplated operations–it is slated to attack. An entire year–less about ten hours–after his wounding, after months and months of rehabilitation, and waiting, and training, he is suddenly thrust back into the very forefront of the war.

France, 30 June 1917
A dug-out

8.45 p.m.

The unexpected has happened again and I am in for another July 1st. If it should be that ‘Ere the sun swings his noonday sword’ I must say goodbye to all of this — then good-bye. You know that, as I promised, I will try to come back if I am killed.

It is all very sudden and it is bad luck that I am here in time, but still it must be. All the love there is in life or death to you, dear child.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 197-8. This, too, must put one in mind of The Spanish Farm Trilogy--but there, it being a (good) novel, the "girl" is a woman with a spirit to match her physical energy, and a full life half-hidden from (and imagined by) the decorous English officer...
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 175; Good-Bye to All That, 250-4.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 488-9.
  4. In Broken Images, 71-2.
  5. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 362-3.

Henry Williamson Unwrites His Lone Patrol; Edward Thomas Opens Himself Up to Frost; Charles Scott Moncrieff Amidst the Peasantry; Ivor Gurney’s Gloucesters Come Upon an Old Friend; Siegfried Sassoon Swears a New Fealty

Today is thick with poets; but today’s post is also a reminder of the entanglement of different forms and genres. Before the three poets, two litterateurs of different accomplishments–and, along the way, two comminglings of history and fiction…

Charles Scott Moncrieff is back in Doullens, a century back, and delights in describing the local grotesques:

2nd April, 1917

I write this by the stove in the bedroom of an aged woman. We have just arrived in the village where I was in hospital a twelvemonth ago. We halted yesterday near the main town of these parts, into which I walked in the afternoon. . . .

We dined at the Hotel des Quatre Fils Aymon, where the host—a very large man like Bigoudin in Locke’s book—stands by the sideboard and ladles out soup to a frantic waiter who resembles Professor Harvey Littlejohn…

My hostess is very old and sunken and is crouching over the other side of the stove telling her beads and looking up dully over my shoulder at the snow. She is a pleasant spectacle after a terrible old woman with a mad daughter, on whom one of my platoons was billeted last night. She refused to sign the statutory declaration to claim no damages on the grounds that she had not had time to see whether there had been any. I stood there while she peeled potatoes angrily over a pail of water, slicing them again and again to get to the  end of black eyes and worm holes—the daughter sat with twitching hands and feet on the stove, interjecting very savage observations—at last the old one said, “I never do sign and I never will.”[1]


Henry Williamson, meanwhile, reports to his mother on his position–the dotted letter code indicates Croiselles–and on his observation of a local attack.

Dear Mother,

Just a short epistle to let you know I received your letter dated 28 March. Yes you are quite right about my destination but you may get a letter with this one that will show you the change.

I watched an attack at 5 oclock this morning. The warfare has changed a lot–of course we are only scrapping their rearguards & their artillery is only a few guns here & there. Well we got past all the defensive ridges, like the downs, now, & on this hill I stood on I could see for scores of miles: it was like standing on the Salt Box Hill & seeing the green country for miles away–it is quite possible to side right up to the Bosche outposts here without knowing where they are.

Well I watched our men going forward at dawn–I was only an interested spectator you see, as I had news of an attack & went up to watch it. The guns gave the village below us hell for a time & then the men went forward, & there was little fire & an hour afterwards I saw two prisoners wounded & looking very white coming in, & then ten others. So I tied my horse up & stealthily crept up to the village & couldn’t see a dam thing. So I went on for a mile or so and to my great surprise & fear I saw a lot of Bosche with machine guns about 150 yds away!!!

And I gave myself up for lost but went on a bit further and found myself in a big trench system with noone about–suddenly it struck me I was in the ‘Hindenburg Line‘![2] And I was!!! I can tell you I felt rather windy & started to go back–on the way back I got two Bosche bombs ready to throw as I was unarmed but I didn’t see a dam thing. I got back to the village after 8 hours away and found my horse frantic with hunger.

I reported my observations to the [——-] and one might hear further you never know. And the best part is that if I had known that the Bosche was there I wouldn’t have gone for £10000 but I believed all the time that he was miles away!!![3]

Only with Henry Williamson would we look to an absence in fiction to query a presence in a “historical document” such as this letter, and yet even though his long novel features a number of escapades which he didn’t make–indeed, several solo rambles into danger just like the one he describes here–there is nothing in the early April scenes of Love and the Loveless that fits the bill. Otherwise, we find what we might expect in a more sober romancer: the booby-trapped piano appears, for instance, but as a “story” that was then current not something the author vouches for. (And it’s better told: of course it must be a specific note that is wired… although a specific chord would be better–perhaps the 7th chord towards the end of “victor-i-ous” in “God Save the King?”)

It seems safe to conclude that, while Williamson may well have witnessed an advance in these confused post-withdrawal pre-Arras weeks, he didn’t really stumble into the German lines and make a narrow escape, borrowed bombs clutched in sweating palms… German grenades appear in the novel, too, but only as potential souvenirs that Phillip Maddison discovers and covets. It is good to be remembered that when a young soldier brags, truth can be less truthy than fiction.


Another writer who will straddle the divide between memoir and fiction (or, rather, who putters happily down both carriageways) is Siegfried Sassoon. Today, at least, his various accounts of himself march neatly in step: the “good old 2nd Battalion” reached Corbie, today, on their march to the front, and everything is looking up…

After they had arrived and settled their men–it was an easy march–Ralph Greaves (“Wilmot” in “Sherston’s” memoirs) played a piano he found in their billets while the others drank bad champagne. But this “convivial evening” was over all too quickly–in the morning they will march on north.[4] Nevertheless, tonight, a century back becomes the scene of a set-piece in Sassoon/Sherston’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, as Sassoon introduces the major “characters” of the 2nd Battalion. These include not only “Munro”–the very Dr. Dunn who will compile The War the Infantry Knew–but also “Leake,” the company commander who is no sooner introduced as a hostile Regular Army snob than he and “Sherston” stumble away from the sing-along “sholemnly” swearing eternal friendship. So Siegfried Sassoon is among friends once more…[5]


And now to the pure poets. First, Ivor Gurney, who writes (to Marion Scott, as always) of beauty and music and, for once, of a decent burial.

My Dear Friend:

Tin whistles and mouth organs still going hard, and we waiting for dinner and moving afterwards, for a company of ours took two more villages last night, and we shift also of course. We have been hard worked, but still and all the same, this open country work is far preferable to trench life. This place is quite pretty, very pretty; and this morning I saw, at first dawn, one mystical star hanging over a line of black wood on the sky-line; surely one of the most beautiful things on earth.

I hope by the time this letter gets to you you will be trotting about in real Spring sunlight; it is cold here as yet, but no man may foretell of April’s whims.

I told you of the death, a little time back of one of our most looked to corporals. Well, that was before the advance. About a fortnight after the movement started, we heard his grave had been discovered; and after tea one evening the whole company (that was fit) went down for a service there. Quite a fine little wooden cross had been erected there: the Germans had done well: it was better than we ourselves would have given him; and on the cross was
“Hier ruht ein tapferer Englander, Richard Rhodes”, and the date.

Strange to find chivalry in sight of the destruction we had left behind us; but so it was. They must have loved his beauty, or he must have lived a little for such a tribute. But he was brave, and his air always gallant and gay for all his few inches. Always I admired him and his indestructibility of energy and wonderful eyes.[6]


Finally, another beautiful, introspective letter from Edward Thomas. Still possessed of both some free time and the near-certain knowledge that things will shortly be much busier, he writes to Robert Frost–and he strives to make the most of it. This is an “update” letter, yes, but it is also what all good personal writing should be–rigorously true to the present moment. And it is fascinating–to me, at least!–to re-read events–or, rather, to read re-written events–from Thomas’s life. Some of these things he has described to his diary, his mother, his wife, Eleanor Farjeon, and his son Merfyn. Will they look different with a few more days’ hindsight, and written as they are to his poetic heart’s companion, his bluff, keeper-challenging American friend?


2 April 1917

My dear Robert,

I heard that the mails have been lost several times lately at sea. I thought I had better make another shot at you. This is another penultimate letter. Things are closely impending now and will have happened before you get this and you will know all about it then, so I will not try to tell you what they are, especially as I could not get them past the censor.

I have seen some new things since I wrote last and had much and worse things to endure which do not become less terrible in anticipation but are less terrible once I am in the midst of them. Jagged gables at dawn when you are cold and tired out look a thousand times worse from their connection with a certain kind of enemy shell that has made them look like that, so that every time I see them I half think I hear the moan of the approaching and hovering shell and the black grisly flap that it seems to make as it bursts. I see and hear more than I did because changed conditions compel us to go up to the very front among the infantry to do our observation and we spend nights without shelter in the mud chiefly in waiting for morning and the arrival of the relief. It is a 24 hours job and takes more to recover from. But it is far as yet from being unendurable. The unendurable thing was having to climb up the inside of a chimney that was being shelled. I gave up. It was impossible and I knew it. Yet I went up to the beastly place and had 4 shell bursts very close. I decided that I would go back. As a matter of fact I had no light and no information about the method of getting up so that all the screwing up I had given myself would in any case have been futile. It was just another experience like the gamekeeper,—but it was far less on my mind, because the practical result of my failure was nil and I now see far more from the ground level than I could have seen then from 200 feet up the factory chimney.

Well, that answers the questions. Although he is less schooled in latter-day Thomas-lore than I am, Edward Thomas is still Edward Thomas, and remembers his own memories well–including the stand-off with the keeper. The time he, Thomas, shrank from conflict despite being in the right, when the belligerent Frost stood firm and was ready to risk violence in a quiet English wood…

Otherwise I have done all the things so far asked of me without making any mess and I have mingled satisfaction with dissatisfaction in about the usual proportion, comfort and discomfort. There are so many things to enjoy and if I remember rightly not more to regret than say a year or ten years ago. I think I get surer of some primitive things that one has got to get sure of, about oneself and other people, and I think this is not due simply to being older. In short, I am glad I came out and I think less about return than I thought I should—partly no doubt I inhibit the idea of return. I only think by flashes of the things at home that I used to enjoy and should again. I enjoy many of them out here when the sun shines and at early morning and late afternoon. I doubt if anybody here thinks less of home than I do and yet I doubt if anybody loves it more.

But why should I be explaining myself at such length and not leave you to do the explaining?

We have shifted lately from the edge of a small city out to a still more ruinous village. The planks and beams of the ruins keep us warm in a house that has not had an actual hit except by fragments. We live in comparative comfort, eat luxuriously from parcels sent from London or brought up from places well behind the lines, and sleep dry and warm as a rule. We expect soon to have to live in damp clay pits for safety. There are some random shots but as a rule you know when to expect trouble, and you can feel quite safe close to a place that is clearly dangerous. We work or make others work practically all day with no rests or holidays, but often we have a quiet evening and can talk or write letters or listen to the gramophone playing ‘John Peel’ and worse things far. People are mostly friendly and warm, however uncongenial. I am more than .ten years older than 4 of the other 5 officers. They are 19, 20, 25, 26 and 33 years old. Those of 25 and up regard me as very old. I don’t know if the two boys do—I get on better with them: in a sort of way we are fond of one another—I like to see them come in of a night back from some job and I believe they like to see me. What more should anyone want?

I revert for 10 minutes every night by reading Shakespeare’s Tragedies in bed with a pipe before I blow the candle out. Otherwise I do nothing that I used to do except eat and sleep: I mean when I am not alone. Funny world. What a thing it is. And I hear nothing of you. Yet you are no more like an American in a book than you were 25 years ago. You are doing the unchanged things that I cannot or dare not think of except in flashes. I don’t have memories except such as are involved in the impressions as I see or hear things about me. But if I went on writing like this I should make you think I was as damnably introspective as ever and practised the art too. Goodnight to you and Elinor and all.

Remember I am in 244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France and am and shall remain 2nd Lieut. Edward Thomas

Yours ever[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 126.
  2. This is the extent of Williamson's belated self-censorship, which surely wouldn't fly if his letters were being read by other censors.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 107-9.
  4. The War the Infantry Knew, 308.
  5. Diaries, 148; Complete Memoirs, 412-17.
  6. War Letters, 152. I was not able to trace this corporal, although I gave the effort only a few moments, alas...
  7. Selected Letters, 160-2.

Ivor Gurney Holds Forth

It’s Ivor Gurney‘s birthday, today. Unfortunately, he takes the occasion to express a shocking opinion.

28 August 1916

Dear Mrs Voynich:

My twenty-sixth birthday finds me at a Clearing Station having my teeth attended to. I wonder where the twenty-seventh will find me? I hope — in England; consuming such wonderful chocolates as you sent me. They were very tray bong, and deserve mention in dispatches. You are to be envied, being near cliffs and the sea. I do not care for skylarks—you may have the whole tribe…

That is correct: an English poet–a Gloucestershire lad, no less–not only doesn’t love all the birds, but particularly dislikes the most poetical of them all.

…but your telling me the French name for them came in useful a day or two after, as we marched past an Estaminet with “Alouette” printed for all the world to see and wonder at. The French are a lovable lot, and a holiday in France; a walking tour especially; could not be bettered as a cheap escape from war-thoughts, if there are any, just after the war. (Apres le gore, our men say; as a joke, and not a bad one.) The French are so courteous, so easily interested, and obviously such a fine-tempered race…

We are probably the finer and more miraculously achieving, when we are put to it; but the French will be sooner stirred to great ends than we — as allies we are ideal, and have a suitable enemy to call out our best. And how well and lovingly they build! France will not erect ugly little tinpot churches all over her tiny towns, but will have one great church worthily built in an open space. Our men do not speak well of the French towns, but all their comminations and cursings come down to the simple ground-objection that there are no picture palaces. They will remember the quiet grace of these farms, and towns and villages when, apres le gore, they reach their own badly built, evilly conceived, wilful-carelessly planned conglomerations of houses, and see vistas of grey depressing slate roofs, and terrible fever-visions of desirable villas.

Well, the thought of la belle France has run away with me somewhat.

Indeed. But Gurney is hard to know, and so it is hard not to feel grateful for the strange perambulations of his letters. A man of parts, and opinions… but these are war letters, in the end:

You must have gathered from all this rigmarole that up till now I have been able successfully to dodge flame and steel — even nice blighties have eluded my anxious search. There is something that one ought perhaps to be grateful for, in that my mind is very much more serene than it was and my health altogether better. Perhaps two years…

This is an apparent irony that Gurney has mentioned before: does it make sense that a man who has struggled with his mental health in peacetime should find contentment easier to come by in the trenches? Well, it does not not make sense…

What follows is somewhat more odd. Another reference to the disappearance of Will Harvey turns immediately into a somewhat manic rundown of his poetic likes and dislikes. But what of the loss?

My best friend went out on patrol some weeks back, and has never returned. I am glad to say that we accidentally met on that morning and he lent me R[obert].B[ridges].’s “Spirit of Man”. Mine for always I suppose now. Unless that event occurs which will dissolve such rights of ownership, or desire; For it is a good book, though very far below what it might be. Why all that Shelley and Dixon, and Hopkins or what’s his names of the crazy precious diction? About one third of the book is worth having, some of it foolish merely. The Greek stuff is sometimes nonsense. The French trite and dull. Where is Wordsworth, Stevenson, Whitman, Browning? And why not more Tolstoi? The Yeats things are good, but he has omitted rare stuff, as Kathleen ni Huolihan, the Fiddler of Dooney.

One would not expect Bridges to include any Belloc; he is an old man; but the book would be better for it. You are right about M. Aurelius. He is mostly a washout. The only thing truly worth preserving is the “Dear city of Zeus” passage. Epictetus has humour and more courage, but it is a waste of time to read more than the Manual. The whole of E: is there, save the “custard with a hook” sentence. Anyway, are all of them. Whitman, Christ, Epictetus not included and summed up in the mind of Bach?

Perhaps not some of Whitman, but add Beethoven and there you are. Having read these two philosophers once, it should never be necessary to read them again. They have one “tip” to give, for which I thank them, and so — farewell.

Nothing more of Harvey. But, before he goes, Gurney has a poem:

Rondel (is it?)
on next page.

Nor flame nor steel has any power on me.
But that its power work the Almighty Will.
Nor flame nor steel has any power on me;
Through tempests of hell fire I must go free
And unafraid, so I remember still
Nor flame nor steel has any power on me.
But that its power work the Almighty Will.

(Yes, I note the two “powers” ; but perfection is not a thing I value, but only Truth and Beauty.)

Distractedly, Gurney seems to return now to an implicit contradiction in his praise of France followed by his praise for German music.

A French-woman told me that les civils [i.e. civilians] expected the war no more than we did, and that les civils say, that if there were a God, he would go into the Trenches and finish the War. Les soldats think otherwise; and anyway, to see the French faces and to look into their eyes, is to be sure that whatever France thinks she thinks she will have no part for ever in the Prussian type of Atheism or religion. What news! What a time to live in, and, if it must be as a soldier. What a time to die in! And for what a cause! II faut a écraser les barbares [we must smash the barbarians], and then perhaps les barbares will remember and serve Europe again after their own great fashion. But a thousand years might well run before even the charitable forgive, especially as Germany will so easily forgive herself; if she ever manages to reach that spiritual height. However we propose to try to help her there…

With best wishes for present and future health:

Yours very sincerely Ivor Gurney[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 98-100.

Max Plowman is Nicked in Time; The King Amongst the Guards, and Hailed by Asquith and Kipling; A Poem for Richard Aldington

Max Plowman was wounded today, a century back. Or, as he puts it, half-wounded. I’ll include a lengthy excerpt from the memoir here, because Plowman chooses to follow the tale of a new subaltern’s scratch with an account of a very young old soldier’s burden. Not all battalion doctors are well-loved, or even decent.


Another perfect day; but against the blue sky beyond High Wood an observation-balloon hangs ominously. If we were shelled in the dark, how shall we fare in such daylight as this with that balloon hanging over there? Anyway — merciful and delicious relief! — the shelling here has ceased at last. At moments there is real silence. To our tired ears this absence of sound is positive and acute pleasure: we drink it like wine, loath to break it even with conversation. Wondering what will happen, we file down the hillside. To our surprise the silence continues. Out in the bright sunlight the trench is deepened and widened and not a shot is fired at us, though looking across the valley we can see shrapnel falling, ironically enough, on the trenches we have left.

Soon after noon we return, very hot, to eat our bully beef and bread, sitting on the firestep. Castlereagh, bright lad, has made me a drink of tea, which I am thankful to accept even from his mess-tin. But while drinking it, I feel a smack on the neck and look round to see who is throwing earth about. No one looks guilty, and putting my hand up I find my neck bleeding; and there at my feet lies an inch of shrapnel I had not seen before. Luckily it must have been the flat side that hit and split the skin. Hill ties me up and we laugh over our first “casualty.” Then Rowley comes along and, brushing my ridicule aside, insists that I must report to the M.O. for anti-tetanus inoculation. I can get on at once with Hardy’s sergeant, and afterwards, on behalf of the company, “take over” at Pommiers Redoubt where the battalion is due again to-night. We shall pass the dressing-station on the way out.

That greasy-looking M.O.! Rowley says that he covers his skin with the fat of bully beef to save washing and keep off the lice, and though that is probably gross libel, unfortunately it looks true. I suffer his attentions, wondering what devil of malice he must house to make him scornful of our easy spell, and together the sergeant and I go into the fearsome valley.

Suddenly those black-bursting shells known as “coal-boxes” begin to fall. They come with terrifying explosions, and we scuttle in search of a deep communication-trench there should be hereabouts. At the far end of the valley a limber is moving along the road. A shell comes over, and when the cloud of smoke clears, the wagon is gone and the horses are bolting down the road. A moment later and we are mopping our hot faces in the comparative security of the deep trench.

The doctor

My platoon arrives at the Redoubt as twilight fades. The sergeant reports “all correct,” except that Brown, a youngster among the Gallipoli men, is “bad.” I find him lying on the ground breathing heavily and apparently unconscious. He should not have been given that box of bombs to carry. I loosen his tunic and try the ordinary restoratives without effect. This is a case for the doctor. After searching for some time, I find him at mess in the Headquarters dug-out; so I send down a message. He comes up, evidently annoyed at being disturbed, and I apologise as we go to the boy together. The doctor bends over him for a moment, and then, rising, shouts with astonishing fury: “You damned young scrimshanker, get up! What the devil do you fancy you’re playing at? Think you can swing the lead on me? Get up, or I’ll have you in the guard-room.”

He pushes the boy with his foot, but the lad does not stir.

“Don’t you think he is ill?”

“Ill! There’s nothing the matter with him at all. Just ‘wind up,’ the bloody young coward. Leave him there if he doesn’t get up, and don’t call me again. I don’t waste my time over these damned scrimshankers.”

He turns and goes back to the dug-out. This strikes me as callous brutality, and for a moment I am at a loss to know what to do. The men around come to the rescue. They pick up the boy, assuring me they will look after him. As they carry him off I hear them murmuring, “Brute,” “Swine.”

“He had the fever in Gallipoli,” the sergeant explains, “and he gets these attacks. I think he’ll come to after a bit, and then we’ll get him something warm.”[1]

I have read a number of similar anecdotes. It’s the sort of story that’s impossible to tell without the teller taking sides, at least implicitly. Some doctors were loathsome brutes–although we might bridle a bit about equating physical greasiness with a nasty and prejudicial temperament–and some private soldiers would fake illness to avoid hazards or fatigues. But even without the awfulness of the doctor being underlined for us, we know where the best judgment lies. If the non-coms and the other men of the soldier’s section will vouch for him, then he is no coward or skrimshanker…

Yet if we only assume that the doctor does not see himself as a conscious villain, then his actions probably stem from his subscription to a belief which is both ugly and not entirely indefensible: if the battalion doctor does not wield the “stick” that helps keep soldiers to their task (glory and victory, I suppose, would be the “carrots”) then who will? If there are cowards feigning illness, and they are allowed to go back, will not the morale of other men buckle?

The frightening thought is that a similar calculus presided over another “moral” issue–not going sick in a trench but going missing from an attack. Who was to judge whether the man cowering in the assembly trench was a once-steady soldier bludgeoned by stress and shock into a nervous collapse or, rather, that he was simply a coward? Discipline from above can never be perfect, and yet scores of these men were shot…


Richard Aldington rubs me the wrong way. But I have set myself up: who am I to judge? (Judgment from a century beyond stands in for “discipline from above, here.”) The man has friends–friends who write him poems. Today, a century back, Aldington read this missive from F.S. Flint.


To R.A.

I saw you on a muddy road
In France
Pass by with your battalion,
Rifle at the slope, full marching order.
Arm swinging;
And I stood at ease.
Folding my hands over my rifle.
With my battalion.
You passed me by, and our eyes met.
We had not seen each other since the days
We climbed the Devon hills together:
Our eyes met, startled;
And, because the order was Silence,
We dared not speak.
O face of my friend.
Alone distinct of all that company.
You went on, you went on.
Into the darkness;
And I sit here at my table.
Holding back my tears.
With my jaw set and my teeth clenched.
Knowing I shall not be
Even so near you as I saw you
In my dream.


And Aldington immediately wrote this note in response:

Wednesday 9/8/16

Just going on “Night Operations”–a scrawl to thank you for your poem, which makes me weep. You are a good friend, old boy.

But that’s not all. Flint, after all, is no soldier. Aldington is not going to permit that liberty, that… license! And while he’s at it…

See how low I’ve fallen! I notice some military mistakes in the poem! “Rifle aslope” should be “at the slope,” “full kit” should be “full marching order,” “at ease” should be “standing easy.” If you leaned on the muzzle of your rifle you’d get 2 days C.B. [confined to barracks]!!

Don’t curse and don’t think I’m not appreciative. I was fearfully touched by the poem, but these grotesque second thoughts inserted themselves into my mind on a second reading…



Ha! Aldington may be a conscript, and miserable, and still in England, no closer to the guns than Flint. But he’s a soldier–and YOU WILL RESPECT THE EXPERIENTIAL GULF!  Yea, and to the least experienced among them is that special experience the most jealously-guarded possession. Woe to the un-uniformed war writer!


Finally, today, the king is back in France. He begins by inspecting a division in reserve–the grandest of all divisions, the Guards. For respectful and deep-dyed Royalism, we now go to Raymond Asquith, son of the still-by-the-skin-of-his-teeth Prime Minister, and confidant, too, of a future P.M. (I know my own “spoilers” policy, but I believe we all know well enough that “Winston” will survive the war…)

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
9 August 1916

I wish one could form any idea as to whether our offensive is being a success or not. People here think that it is, but I hear from Bluey that Winston pronounces it to be a murderous failure.

The King came to see us, this morning, looking as glum and dyspeptic as ever . . .[3]


My apologies! Shocking bad manners. For respectful and deep-dyed Royalism, we now go to Rudyard Kipling, historian of the Irish Guards.

The King came on the 9th August to visit the Division. Special arrangements were impossible, so bombing-assault practice went on, while the officers of the Battalion were presented to him “in the orchard where the messes were pitched.” He made no orations, uttered no threats against his enemies, nor guaranteed the personal assistance of any tribal God. His Regiments merely turned out and cheered the inconspicuous car as long as they could see it. But there is a story that a Frenchman, an old Royalist, in whose wood some officers had rigged a temporary hut of which he highly disapproved, withdrew every claim and complaint on the promise that the chair in which the King of England had sat should be handed over to him, duly certificated. Which was done.[4]

As ever, with Kipling, it’s neatly done. That old George is no Kaiser Bill is made most evident by the regard for royalty evinced by even an irritatingly shrewd and petty Frenchman…


References and Footnotes

  1. A Subaltern on the Somme, 50-2.
  2. Imagist Dialogues, 137.
  3. Life and Letters, 283.
  4. The Irish Guards, I, 151.

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XII: Siegfried Sassoon Goes Hun-Hunting with Poetry in Mind; An April Medieval Fantasy from Bimbo Tennant; Ralph Mottram’s Original Crime; Charles Scott Moncrieff on the Shelf

Our poem for April is a salutary reminder that literature neither moves in a straight line nor in unison. Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon, for instance, have lately been pushing toward new ways of writing about the war.

And Bimbo Tennant? Less new. Here’s a poem he composed this month, a century back.


The Knight and the Russet Palmer

“Give you good day, Sir Knight,
And whither may you be bound?
Methinks I could read your hand,
Sir Knight, As sure as the world is round.”

“What do you lack, you Palmer old?
And what would you have wi’ me?
Will you give me word of my true-love
That sails across the sea?”

Skip a bit, brother! It goes on like this for many a stanza, and the pseudo-Medievalism (the influences, I suppose, are Tennyson and Morris) gets thicker.

“And where was my love when the storm was high,
You palsied heavy-eyed Sage?”
“I wot she brewed a draught, Sir Knight,
And conned a runic page…”

Long story short, the good Sir Knight oughtn’t to have put his faith in that lady. The poem is signed “Poperinghe, April, 1916,” and is adequate proof on its own that an inclination to verse may be completely distinct from an inclination to writing about the real experiences war.[1]


But better and more forward-looking writers await.

April 1916 was the cruelest month, at least when it came to the off-handed desecration of an outdoor shrine in the rear areas of the British sector in Flanders. The plot of Ralph Mottram‘s Spanish Farm Trilogy, which is probably the best long novel by an officer about the war (rather than the sharper, narrower experience of fighting in the trenches), turns on the fictional (or fictionalized) “crime”[2] that was committed this month. A soldier with the transport section of a battalion in reserve broke into the shrine, in the corner of a pasture of a large farm, in order to shelter his mules from the elements. The farm family–led by the formidable Madeleine Vanderlynden, who also played host to the officers billeted in the farmhouse–complained, and forms were filed.

The rest was history–or, rather, bureaucracy. Mottram’s three novels, which are difficult to discuss here owing to the absence of precise dates, circle around this event in several different ways. There is a sort of 19th century French novel involving Madeleine’s dramatic affair with an aristocratic French officer; there is another novel centered on Skene, a very Mottram-like New Army officer billeted in the farmhouse and later involved with its inhabitants and the seminal “crime;” and the whole thing takes on–with remarkable success–a time and place in which an enormous-yet-piddling bureaucracy worthy of Heller or Pynchon (or Kafka or Welles) coexists with a little world of stubborn, unchanging peasants… all of whom were brought together by the casual vandalism of a tired muleteer of Kitchener’s army, this month, a century back.[3]


Changing gears now, we have two bits of writing dated specifically to today, a century back. Charles Scott Moncrieff is something of an old soldier, a reservist with 1914 experience and many months in a Regular regiment. He is relatively rare, then, in being both a highly educated, literary sort of chap and an officer who has come by his old army prejudices honestly. He’s not impressed with the New Army:

1st April, 1916

…I am homesick here to be back with my company, or at least with our own 13th Field Ambulance, where I
should have Father Evans to talk to me. I can’t be bothered to beat up a Kitchener’s Army atmosphere among these people, and their different standards annoy me, e.g., their genuine keenness to get away from their regiments in the field. Also I left my company on the verge of a crisis, as my Sergeant-major is at last getting a commission, and my Quartermaster Sergeant came down here with pleurisy a few days before me, so that an extra responsibility devolves on the young shoulders of Machin, who only came back last Sunday from a fortnight in command of another company…[4]

Scott-Moncrieff, though young, is one of many whose constitution will prove unequal to the damp, cold, pestilential trenches. This fever will stay with him and soon send him home for a months-long spell of sick leave, light duty or home duty (i.e. training new troops). I’ve enjoyed bringing his chatty style and keen literary eye into the discussion, but like so many of our writers his letters cease when he’s near home, and so it will be quite a while before we hear from him again.


And finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon is taking matters into his own hands once again. Today he casts aside the coy passive voice: he has decided to go looking for Germans to kill, and he is not shy about writing it.

April 1

Got back to Morlancourt by 1 o’clock on a bright day—east wind, glare and dust. Got through last night all right.  About 9.30 I started creeping along the old sap which leads out to the crater where they put a fresh mine up in the afternoon; about forty yards from our parapet (it didn’t explode properly). Our sentry had seen two men go down into the crater at dusk—covering-party, I expect—while the others worked on the lip. After crawling about forty yards I got to the edge of the crater and could hear them working about twenty-five yards away. Couldn’t make out where the covering-party were, and was in mortal funk lest someone would shoot me. Crept back, and returned with Private Gwynne and four Mills bombs; we threw the bombs, I think with effect; a flare went up and I could see someone about five yards away, below me; fired six shots out of the revolver; and fled.

Gwynne was very steady, but I wish it had been O’Brien. Crawling out the first time was very jumpy work. Went out again at 8.30 this morning, and had a look, but could see no signs of work (or slaughtered Bosches).

I used to say I couldn’t kill anyone in this war; but since they shot Tommy I would gladly stick a bayonet into a German by daylight. Someone told me a year ago that love, sorrow, and hate were things I had never known (things which every poet should know!). Now I’ve known love for Bobbie and Tommy, and grief for Hamo and Tommy, and hate has come also, and the lust to kill. Rupert Brooke was miraculously right when he said ‘Safe shall be my going. Secretly armed against all death’s endeavour; Safe though all safety’s lost’. He described the true soldier-spirit…[5]

I don’t think much need be added to this, although it is sorely tempting to go into heavy analytical mode. It’s clear, anyway, that Sassoon is now “on a mission,” although but more in the hackneyed war movie sense than the literal. Are there any orders to go and chuck grenades at the German working party? Not really–it’s too early for his little actions to be construed as preparation for the coming offensive. It would seem, rather, that there is some sort of tacit, standing permission from the fire-eating Colonel Stockwell to mix things up, to display to the Germans opposite the bloody-minded confidence of the Royal Welch. Whether there are practical benefits to this approach is very doubtful, but it also seems clear that the Colonel is willing to use the aroused and angry sentiments of his grieving subaltern to serve this (questionable) military end. It would be good to hinder German works on their trenches–but won’t such actions just bring down artillery retribution or attract more German attention to their own work?

It’s hard to say…and the tactical debate will not be definitively decided. (My prejudices toward “live and let live” are, I think, honestly drawn from a wide reading of trench memoirs. Which can always be riposted by a careful explanation of the tactical and moral benefits of “dominating no-man’s land”–in this little debate, as in so many other Great War controversies, one’s position is probably more a matter of prior commitments–to the hard logic of military necessity or to the experience of war by men suffering in fear–than a priori reasoning about the situation presented.)

Leaving tactics aside, the question at hand, then, is not whether this sort of aggression works, but rather how one should describe it, at both first and second hand. Summary risks collapsing into cliché: Sassoon seems to be raging like Achilles after the death of Patroklos, crawling forward with murder in his mind to hurl grenades at unsuspecting German workers (or, perhaps, Germans even then tunneling toward him with evil intention). “It’s personal now,” Sassoon must be muttering… so, yes, cliché.

But Sassoon gives us something different, doesn’t he? He does an excellent job of pegging this night’s action to the general spirit of the war by citing Rupert Brooke‘s “miraculous” poetry. It’s strange–and yet not that strange–that a new-ish subaltern newly come to killing adopts the tone of Brooke’s last months. Whatever we think about Brooke’s poetry, it was a remarkably accurate guess–a very sensitive poetic anticipation–of what new soldiers steeped in old poetry would want to be thinking as they headed into combat. Brooke, who never saw real combat, had the wit to write a step ahead of his own experience.

But two steps? After that soldier’s spirit has been been worn away by unyielding attrition?

There will be changes, and changes again. But for now, the poet kills.


References and Footnotes

  1. Available here, with spoilers nearby.
  2. Readers may remember that the army term embraces an extremely wide category of enlisted misdeeds, rather than merely actions that would be criminal in a civilian context.
  3. Spanish Farm Trilogy, 363, 677.
  4. Memories & Letters, 119-120.
  5. Diaries, 51-2.