Siegfried Sassoon Packs for Palestine; Isaac Rosenberg is Sent Packing

I suppose it is neither terribly perceptive nor strikingly original to note the importance of reading to writing and, in return, the utter dependence of reading on writing. Still, there is perhaps slightly more to say here than to make small jokes about the blindingly obvious–a reminder, at least, of one of the Fussell-inspired beginning places of this project: when you come to the task of describing something frightening, emotionally intense, and both utterly unlike your previous experiences and almost literally unimaginable to your future readership, you may be thrown back in confusion on the resources of your reading. In other words, all books derive in part from the books their writers read, but war books more than others.

Siegfried Sassoon likes to play the innocent or the ingenue–he failed to take a degree, he wasn’t a serious scholar, and he finds himself to be overawed by the presence of powerful intellects. Perhaps; but he is still intelligent and serious, and growing less diffident. And he’s packing literary weight, now:

February 7

Orders to embark Southampton next Monday.

Books to take to Egypt:

Oxford Book of English Verse
Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Hardy, Moments of Vision
Crabbe, The Borough
Browning, The Ring and the Book
A Shropshire Lad
Meredith, Poems
Oxford Dictionary
Hardy, The Woodlanders

Barbusse, Le Feu
Pater, Renaissance
Trollope, Barchester Towers
Surtees, Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour, Facey Romford’s Hounds
Bunyan, Holy War
Plato, Republic
Tolstoy, War and Peace (3 vols)
Scott, The Antiquary[1]

It’s quite a list: heavy on the essentials of English poetry, a few crucial “war books,” a late emphasis, perhaps, on autodidactic self-improvement, and then a few personal touchstones. The list explains where Sassoon is coming from as a poet much better than his “binary”–which is to say shaped with a heavy hand, and half-occluded–memoirs or his contemporary jottings and letters, and it is worth examining somewhat closely. Also, who doesn’t love to read a list of books?

Where do we begin? Blue-bound, of course, on India paper. The Oxford Book. Where else? This is the essential point of reference, the common ground codified and certified by the great University. And England’s poetic soil is green and fertile, if not always uncomplicatedly pleasant.

The most important poets are supplemented in their own volumes–Keats, the essential Romantic; Wordsworth, if ambition should point in that direction; Browning is perhaps a bit surprising, but he ranked quite high among the young Sassoon’s closer Romantic forebears. Crabbe, whose The Borough is a work describing everyday life in heroic couplets, is a bit of an outlier, but he might be there to strengthen Sassoon’s intention to write directly and descriptively about what the soldiers are experiencing.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, of course. Even though several are included in the Oxford Book, a lyric poet abroad might feel naked without them.

Of the later Victorians, Meredith and Hardy. Meredith, too, might be there for his unromantic emphasis on everyday life. And Thomas Hardy, Sassoon’s family friend at one remove, his more-than-polite correspondent, and something, perhaps of a poetic dream-mentor: he is becoming a Doktorvater or poetic grandsire while Rivers has become the dream father of Sassoon’s suffering soul.

But the choice of Hardy is interesting: not the enormous Satires of Circumstance, which is more essential to Sassoon’s 1916 poetry than any other examplar–and perhaps quite well remembered, by now–but the newest volume of poetry, Moments of Vision, together with The Woodlanders. Although this is one of Hardy’s later novels, it is something of a throwback to his early “Wessex” novels, treating of love in a rural setting in which, while not all goes well, to say the least, it does not end in utter calamity. It was broadly popular, too–not, in other words, one of the heavy-hitting late career novels which both sustain Hardy’s reputation to this day and helped finish him as a novelist in censorious Victorian Britain.

If there is one book that both advances the tradition of the rural English Lyric and narrows it to suit a certain sensibility–inclined to tragedy, to gently-posed but bitter irony, and toward a worship of the young male form that is at least implicitly homoerotic–it is Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The poems are good–sometimes very good–but their influence on Sassoon’s generation is out of proportion to their merit-in-a-vacuum. (Which is not a thing that actually exists, of course. See Peter Parker’s Housman Country on all this.) Housman doesn’t really stand alongside Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, and Hardy–but he does, in Sassoon’s valise.

Then there’s the Pater and the Plato–signs of an awakened intellectual appetite or ambition–bracketed by a few significant war books. Shorter, more recent, and French is Barbusse’s Le Feu (Under Fire) the first really influential realistic depiction of modern war. It’s a better book than All Quiet–which won’t be published for a decade, anyway–and should be read in its place. It’s got the horror and the intensely-lived experience, but without the heavy narrative hand on the wheel. Sassoon, Graves, and Blunden will all read this book…

It’s hard to tell whether War and Peace is there as a Modern War Essential or as a Great Book that is also a great way to spend a great deal of time in boats, trains, and dusty camps. Probably the latter, although Sassoon would have very much enjoyed Tolstoy’s own first-person fictions of warfare–the Sevastopol Sketches–had they been available.

Whether Bunyan’s second book (generally he’s a one book author, except for Protestant Allegorical or Siege Warfare completists) is there because Sassoon knows that it’s an allegory from static warfare (they all tried to use Pilgrim’s Progress when they could, but it’s a quest narrative, and they were going nowhere, so only the Slough really appealed) or whether because he just thought there might be some as-yet-untapped veins of Christian allegory in the tradition suitable for the smelting-into-satire, I am not sure. But I incline to the latter, once again.

Let’s see: then there is Trollope, and Scott, which are entertaining things; holes, perhaps, in his literary education, or middleweights to spar with before Tolstoy if he gets a bit windy.

Last, and very certainly least, are two novels by Surtees, who sits uncontested upon the throne of middlebrow Mid-Victorian fox hunting literature.

I am not going to pretend that I have read all the books on this list. However, since the point of such lists (or, at least, of publishing and then re-posting them) is to posture at imagined adversaries with pointy paper antlers, I will assert that I have read most of them, mostly, and thereby imply that those readers who haven’t have a lot of work to do.

But when I confronted my own failings in regard to Sassoon’s list, I decided that, rather than pay close attention to Meredith (or some of the other poets) or Trollope, I would read Surtees. Sassoon loves reading him–I believe he calls him his favorite author, somewhere–and perhaps this might offer a window into the meeting of the minds of the allegedly binary Sassoon: he is reading, but he’s reading about hunting. Well, I have to report… not so much. A few chapters in, Mr. Sponge is entertaining, but not memorable–kind of like Dickens arrested at the Pickwick stage, dressed in a clean waistcoat, told to mind his manners about all that social reform stuff, and rusticated. But then again I haven’t gotten to the allegedly excellent hunt scenes, which may be the missing link between Renaissance epic and cinematic car chases that I have been looking for all these years…

A preliminary conclusion, then: it’s a false lead to look for literary inspiration in the two hunting novels. Sassoon is bringing along old favorites to reread, and the very fact that they treat of the war-analogous activity of hunting in its innocent mid-Victorian days (and, more importantly, in the long moments of prewar innocence during which they were first read) suggests that he is not reading the, with any thought toward his own writing (not that that means that they won’t have any influence). The analogy is probably to modern soldiers who might bring along Ender’s Game or (closer to home, here) The Lord of the Rings.


This post should probably end lightheartedly, with a challenge to lay bets upon just how much he will actually read during his time in Egypt and Palestine. But we have instead a weird and ominous transition through tenuous connections. Sassoon is off to Palestine–not only the ancient homeland of his father’s people, but also rather near to the much more recent homeland of his father’s (but most especially his great-grandfather’s) family. And he is bringing books on Greece, Russia, and many an English covert.

Isaac Rosenberg, whose Jewishness is not something he could deny,[2] is now reaching actively toward it. But that’s not the real irony–the real irony is that just as Sassoon has accepted Palestine when he really wants France, Rosenberg is desperate to escape France for Palestine. He has many hopes, transfer-wise, but has begun to focus them on the Jewish battalion, which is to be sent to serve in that theater of the expanding war.

There is another much more direct connection between Sassoon and Rosenberg, but I am fairly certain that this connection–Eddie Marsh–would never have made much of it. Sassoon’s snobbery (which might, in a familiar irony, contain an anti-semitic strain) would not have appreciated being connected with the rough-edged and impassioned Jewish poet-artist from the slums, nor would their styles have been congenial.

In any event, Rosenberg is putting his hopes in Marsh. Can Churchill’s secretary save him from France and his declining health? Perhaps, but not today. Today’s transfer will get Rosenberg out of the trenches, but not out of a fighting unit destined for more combat in France. He was sent from the 11th King’s Own Lancasters, about to be disbanded in the reorganization of infantry brigades from four to three battalions, but not to any cushy billet: The 1st King’s Own may be in rest in Bernaville at the moment, but they are an old Regular battalion and part of the 4th Division, and their services will be required should the Germans attack, as they are expected to do shortly.

Rosenberg will feel the dissolution of his old unit much as David Jones did, and it will affect his writing. Perhaps because of the endless war, his separation from his old unit, the doldrums of February and the promise of an attack in March–for any of these reasons, or all, or none and simply from the nature of his mind and powerful, grim poetic gift–his writing, too is dwelling increasingly on historical suffering and destruction and on Jewish themes. Which go rather well together. When Rosenberg finishes and mails the next batch we will have a date on which to read them, but for now it is a long lonely train trip for him, and a wait for us for his poetry, undated and unrecorded as he is sent from unit to unit and task to task…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 210. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 440, reports that he abandoned some of the weightier (in a literal sense) volumes, but then bought them in Egypt--he is a man who sticks to his list, evidently.
  2. Not that Sassoon is an apostate or a traitor to his people or anything so dramatic as that. He had few memories of his father and almost no contact with traditional Judaism. He was not Jewish by any then-accepted standard, and was raised as an Anglican by his mother. But he was socially able to treat his Jewishness, such as it was, as only an exotic part of his family's past, and his extreme Englishness of manner probably made it hard for all but the truly impassioned anti-semites to hate him once they knew him. If a man writes better English poetry than you, plays better cricket than you, and rides to hounds, hurling old slurs is bound to look a little silly... Not that other forms of anti-semitism wouldn't have dragged him down in other situations, but if there were more than sneers thrown at him by other "gentlemen," he doesn't have anything to say about it.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 390-1.

Kate Luard on Models and Women; Edwin Vaughan Rests; Siegfried Sassoon Keeps in Touch with the Old Views

Today, a century back, in both Belgium and Scotland, is another “day after.” Two nights ago Kate Luard reported that three nurses at a nearby hospital had been wounded–a “dirty trick,” since the hospitals should be identifiable from the air–and that her “letters to relatives of died-of-wounds are just reaching 400 in less than three weeks.” Of these she tries to write “about a dozen every day or night.” But today is quiet–another lull just behind the glassy eye of the still-gathering storm.

I’ve noted before that Sister Luard enjoys exploring, no matter where she is, and will take country rambles or sight-seeing trips on any rare occasion when the hospital is calm enough to spare her for a few hours. In the midst of a battle she can’t go far but–gratifyingly–she is as efficient as ever in discovering and taking in the newest sight of the behind-the-lines tour:

I went with two Sisters to Evening Service at the Church Army Hut at the cross-roads, only standing room, all men soon going over the top. Very nice hymns. Then we went a bit up the road continuous with this, parallel to the line, all of it camps, Archies and all the various paraphernalia of War. There was an aeroplane caught in a tree and there was a model of the present offensive laid out in miniature in a field, with dolls’ rails, trenches, cemeteries, farms and dug-outs – a fascinating toy.

But after nightfall the war resumed, and Luard had to face it–as well as a sexist but complimentary colonel and the mute demand of her diary that she try to record her true feelings about the war. She answers both like the old campaigner she is:

The mosquitoes are appalling to-night, so are the Gothas… [one] dropped a bomb about 200 yards from our quarters – it made a red flare and heavy cloud of black smoke and knocked my photos off my shelf.

Colonel F. said to me just before they came, ‘We’re going to be bombed to-night.’ I said, ‘Yes, probably.’ Then he said, ‘I don’t know how you women stick it – it’s much worse here than in London, where you can go into your cellar.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to stick it,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m amazed at the level of calm of you Sisters.’ I am too sometimes. They’d rather die than show any windiness, though everyone hates it. And to-day there has been shelling too – one just now. Personally, I wouldn’t be anywhere else while the hospital is here, but it’ll be a relief when the War’s over![1]


Edwin Vaughan‘s last few days have been the most intense and miserable of his life. His diary maintains a steady, somewhat anesthetized calm throughout, but his eyes are always open. Relief has come at last–for his battalion and for his beleaguered psyche–and today he reaches his reserve billet, a muddy tent near the Yser canal.

Harding was asleep in his valise, and I sat down on the floor and cut my puttees off with a knife. I had shed my sodden clothes and rubbed down with a towel when Martin came in with my supper. He, like all the others, was rather uneasy and made no reference to the attack. I got into pyjamas and ate my stew lying in bed. It was wonderful to have a hot meal and I was grateful for it after my four days of nibbling at filth.

The tent flaps were laced over, the rain had ceased, the guns were silent and Jimmy Harding lay motionless. I ate
slowly and dully, staring at my candle. I took my Palgrave from the valise head; it opened at ‘Barbara’ and I read quite coldly and critically until I came to the lines

In vain, in vain, in vain.
You will never come again.
There droops upon the dreary hills a mournful fringe of rain

then with a great gulp I knocked my candle out and buried my face in my valise. Sleep mercifully claimed me before my thoughts could carry me further and after my four days of strain I slept for eight hours—and at noon I was awake and sitting up with Jimmy eating sausage and bacon with the sun streaming in through the wide opened tent flaps.

‘It’s all wrong,’ said Jimmy whimsically.

‘What is?’ said I, with a mouthful of toast.

‘That coughing Lizzie out there.’

I regarded him questioningly and he assumed his shocked expression. ‘Is it possible that you were so debased as to indulge in Aunty’s Ruin last night? For my part I didn’t sleep a wink all night,’ said he blandly. ‘Ugh! There she goes again, the spiteful cat!’ and I spilt my tea as a terrific roar shook the earth.

‘What on earth is it?’ I asked.

‘Oh, merely a 12-inch gun that has been firing all the morning.’ And walking to the tent door I saw the smoking barrel of a naval gun towering over the hedge 30 yards away. I could hardly imagine myself having slept through a number of explosions like that, but Jimmy assured me that I had. ‘Incidentally,’ he added, ‘it’s not going to be too healthy for us here when Jerry starts trying to find her.’ I agreed…[2]


Yesterday’s meeting between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon was, to put it plainly, a bigger deal for one than the other. If Owen–or Sassoon, looking back–was aware of a touch of hauteur in Sassoon’s attitude, the same quality is visible from a different angle as he writes to Lady Ottoline Morrell. Despite Sassoon’s abandonment of the pacifist cause, they seem to be on relatively good terms still. And, not coincidentally, they even discuss an important work of war literature in its new role of anti-war literature, namely Henry Barbusse’s Le Feu, which will be the most important non-English influence on Sassoon’s writing… Sassoon seems to plead agnosticism, now, on all matters of war and politics…

19 August, Central Station Hotel, Glasgow

I am never sniffy or snubby with my friends–as you ought to know by now! I thought you understood that when I don’t feel like writing letters I don’t write them.

Barbusse’s French is beyond me, but the translation is good enough to show the truth and greatness of his book, so you needn’t be so superior about it!

I have been working at new poems lately, and a few of them are shaping themselves all right.

A man has motored me over to this large city and I have lunched ponderously.

Your delightful tiny Keats has been my companion lately, but most of my days have been spent in slogging golf-balls on the hills above Edinburgh. I admire the “views” prodigiously: they are bonny. A month ago seems like a bad dream. ‘And still the war goes on, he don’t know why’.



References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 147-8.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 212-14.
  3. Diaries, 184.

The Master of Belhaven is Cold and Bothered; Robert Graves Prepares Another Volley; Ford Madox Hueffer Translates Barbarously

In the Ypres Salient, The Master of Belhaven continues to track the toll of prolonged exposure to shell-fire, this time on himself. Today’s entry is an excellent example of a diary being used to help sustain emotional self-control. By performing a calm analysis of one’s own symptoms of “shell shock,” one can demonstrate that they have not progressed so far as to be disabling.

Since dinner we have been very heavily shelled by a 5.9 howitzer. He has been dropping them regularly every minute for the last three-quarters of an hour just behind my No. 5 gun The result is that my hand is rather shaky. I find that when I am being really heavily shelled in an exposed place my pulse goes up from its normal seventy-five to over a hundred a minute; at the same time, I feel cold all over. It is a curious phenomenon. One would think that the faster the heart beat the warmer one would be. I have just asked for help and the heavies have started. If they are lucky, and engage the right battery, it often stops the hostile shelling; if not, it generally makes it worse.[1]


And then there is the home front. Fittingly, if today’s other two writers have leisure to write, it is in part because they were both damaged by the Somme. Each has been hospitalized after showing similar nervous symptoms, and then assigned to Home Service.

First, a chatty letter from Robert Graves to Siegfried Sassoon. The news is poetry, and good:

Dear Old Sassons,

The Second Battalion is at Nieuport. Old Yates was on leave last night and told me all the news. He says that they’re not depressed more than usual out there: they still don’t think beyond the mail and the rum-issue…

Heinemann is going to publish my things in the autumn… Say you’re pleased: I’ll not send in the proofs before you’ve seen them.

So Graves will have another book of poetry–something he has long desired in any case, but also a spurring, sparring blow in his friendly rivalry with Sassoon, who is now both well-reviewed and, due to the protest, famous/notorious. Amusingly, the letter goes on respond to the news that Dr. Rivers–despite his reservations about poetry–has politely purchased Graves’s latest book–or attempted to. He accidentally acquired, instead, a book of poetry by Graves’s uncle Charles:

What a disappointment for Rivers to get War’s Surprises: it must have justified its title when it arrived… I’ll send Rivers a copy of the Goliath and David (my last) as a token of esteem and regard: salute for me that excellent man. Send me Sorley when you can…

Best love



And, finally, a rare date from mid-war Ford Madox Hueffer. With some time to spare from his work as a depot officer, he has resumed his work as a propagandist, this time by way of translation. Ford’s “Translator’s Note” to Pierre Loti’s The Trail of the Barbarians apologizes for its faults by making reference to the circumstances of its translation:

…it has been performed between parades, orderly rooms, strafes, and the rest of the preoccupations that re-fit us for France… so it is not a good rendering. You need from 11.45 pip emma of 8/8/17 to 11.57 pip emma of 9/8/17 for the rendering of almost any French sentence![3]

The note is dated at the latter end of that range–namely today, a century back.


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 364.
  2. In Broken Images, 81-2.
  3. War Prose, 191-2.

Robert Graves Triumphantly Off to War… with Mum Coming Up Behind; Siegfried Sassoon Shares with the Class; Richard Aldington Instructs the Bored Wives and Idle Poets of England

Despite the mutually supporting accounts of Graves and Sassoon eliding London from the equation, it would seem that Robert Graves left today, a century back, from Waterloo station, to which he was accompanied not by ten lecherous and naive officers but rather by his parents and an uncle. He may have been traveling light by design–an old soldier, now–but, it would seem, he traveled too light: discovering that he had left his money and papers at home in another tunic pocket, Graves sent his mother back to retrieve them, and she ended up following him to Southampton on the next train…[1]


And as for Siegfried Sassoon… no, actually, we’ll skip his diary for today, a century back. Explaining the knee-jerk anti-Semitism of the English Squirearchy–e.g. “Lieutenant X is a nasty, cheap thing. A cheap-gilt Jew. Why are such Jews born, when the soul of Jesus was so beautiful?”–is tiresome enough, and it’s heavier going when the anti-Semite in question is the scion of a famous Jewish family, the Anglican son of a father, born Jewish, who left the family. Not that he should get a pass, just that it’s a bit too complex to discuss without biographical spade work…[2]


Our other matter today is catching up with Richard Aldington, who has been writing amusing letters to F.S. Flint ever since he (Aldington) left for France at the end of December.

A letter of January 3rd begins, in typical jaunty-Francophile fashion,

Sale type,

J ’attends toujours un lettre de toi, mais cela n’arrive jamais

The letter rattles on into a surprisingly non-downhearted (for Aldington) report on his doings in the reserve areas of France. He even breaks into English–his native tongue and Flint’s–to relay the current marching songs:

Marching, marching, marching.
Always bloody well marching
From Reveille to Tat[t]oo;
When the war is over
We shall be marching still.

Aldington shares, too, the popular call and response–“Are we down-hearted?” ‘No!” “Shall we win?” “Yes!” “Shall we have a good dinner?” “No!–before admitting that they are actually eating fairly well.

The next letter, of the 13th, thanks Flint for writing to him and shares two most shocking bits of intelligence. First, Aldington has been transferred to a pioneer battalion, which one might expect to be bad news for a poet with no particular interest in manual labor. And yet:

I am really getting on quite well–am in a good battalion, get plenty of grub, not too much work, and fairly good billets. So, as the saying is. I’ve “clicked”!

And the second development?

…It is rather annoying but it appears to be an order that one must not use French in letters. That robs me of half my rhetoric & all my pornography, so you’ll only get dull letters from me. But write in French yourself…

The letter goes on to take a shot at Aldington’s poetic fellow-traveler Ezra Pound–well-deserved of course, as all shots at Pound are. But we must hasten on to today, a century back.

22nd January 1917
Dear Franky,

…By the way, you remember some time ago the Times issued a series of pamphlets for soldiers, extracts from English classics? I wish you’d get hold of some for me–I’d like something to read & chuck away.

To speak the honest truth: I worry very little about all these literary squabbles–how can one trouble in the face
of so much human misery?

Here is a real Bairnsfather incident that happened the other night. We were going through a village wh. has been absolutely battered out of existence by bombardment. We were passing what had once been a row of shops.  Everyone was tired & trudging along in silence; even the guns were silent; then a broad midland voice remarked: “Bill, business don’t see[m] to be very brisk in these parts.” Perhaps it doesn’t sound so very funny, but it seemed so to us…

Aldington’s high spirits lead him to take up the role of jocularly supportive friend. Never mind all the miserable letters he has sent Flint, wallowing in his plight as a despised conscript–he is an overseas soldier, now, and enjoying himself. He can condescend to mere civilians…

Are you writing anything? Your literary idleness is really a disgrace… For Heaven’s sake do something! Are we all to be “wash-outs”? You are too comfortable. Try sleeping on the floor with two blankets & an overcoat, or spend a frosty night in a hole in the back garden with your wife letting off Roman candles & lanthe throwing bricks at you! You might hire de Bosschere to knock a hammer rapidly on a table (like Marinetti) for a machine-gun, & if you make the hole over a drain you can wear an anti-gas helmet! That would stir you up a bit…

Oh but softly, friend Richard. You have been in France for three weeks, and never yet in the line.

In an allied but rather rarer mood of high self-confidence, the letter continues into an unlikely–or perhaps I should say Modern–passage on marriage and separation. H.D. is Aldington’s wife, the poet Hilda Doolittle:

You dear people seem tremendously far away, like demi-gods in a smoky Elysium. For the Lord’s sake don’t interrupt H.D. if she is having a good time with any one–when I said “look after H.D.” I meant help her to have a good time & not bother about me. I didn’t want to make you a kind of Argus! Take H.D. out, if you can, to theatres, & get her to meet new & amusing people. And if you can devise any sort of an “affairepour passer le temps, so much the better. She’ll be a grass widow a while longer yet..


What could go wrong?


References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 168.
  2. Diaries, 122-3.
  3. Imagist Dialogues, 162-173.

May Morning Again for Vera Brittain; Richard Aldington Churns Through the French; We Meet Wyn Griffith: Leave, Reunion, Parting, and the Lessons of Poetry

A this project (not to mention the war) nears the end of its second year, we have a chance to do what more and more of our writers–especially those who have loved, and lost–now have occasion to do, namely observe anniversaries of their own. Let us then observe May Day (only slightly belatedly) with a poem by Vera Brittain, as described in her memoir.

After the first few days at the Fever Hospital I felt perfectly well… during those noisy, monotonous weeks, I had at last time to read the newspapers, with their perturbing accounts of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, and Townshend’s surrender at Kut, and the first stages of Roger Casement’s progress towards his execution… there was still more than enough opportunity for thoughts about the past. At the beginning of May a Times paragraph describing the ceremony on Magdalen Bridge brought back to me the cool, sweet ride through Marston just after dawn a year ago, and all at once the impulse to put what I felt into verse–a new impulse which had recently begun both to fascinate and torment me–sprang up with overwhelming compulsion. Seizing my note-book and a pencil, I retired to the beetle-infested bathroom, which, owing to the persistent loquacity of the V.A.D. who shared my room, was the only place in the building where I could be certain of peace.

Later I polished up the poem, “May Morning,” and sent it to the Oxford Magazine.[1]


Courtesy of the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

The Oxford Magazine published the poem today, a century back (efficient!), and so we find ourselves, with Vera Brittain, looking back a century, and a year, and four more days. “May Morning,” by the way, is a venerable Oxford tradition involving a segue (very appropriate, in a medieval university town) from hymns to parades to general partying.

The rising sun shone warmly on the tower;
Into the clear pure heaven the hymn aspired,
Piercingly sweet. This was the morning hour
When life awoke with spring’s creative power,
And the old city’s grey to gold was fired.

Silently reverent stood the noisy throng;
Under the bridge the boats in long array
Lay motionless. The choristers’ far song
Faded upon the breeze in echoes long.
Swiftly I left the bridge and rode away.

Straight to a little wood’s green heart I sped,
Where cowslips grew, beneath whose gold withdrawn
The fragrant earth peeped warm and richly red;
All trace of winter’s chilling touch had fled,
And song-birds ushered in the year’s bright morn.

I had met Love not many days before,
And as in blissful mood I listening lay
None ever had of joy so full a store.
I thought that spring must last for evermore,
For I was young and loved, and it was May.

Now it is May again, and sweetly clear
Perhaps once more aspires the Latin hymn
From Magdalen tower, but not for me to hear.
I toil far distant, for a darker year
Shadows the century with menace grim.

I walk in ways where pain and sorrow dwell,
And ruin such as only War can bring,
Where each lives through his individual hell,
Fraught with remembered horror none can tell,
And no more is there glory in the spring.

And I am worn with tears, for he I loved
Lies cold beneath the stricken sod of France;
Hope has forsaken me, by death removed,
And Love that seemed so strong and gay has proved
A poor crushed thing, the toy of cruel chance.

Often I wonder, as I grieve in vain,
If when the long, long future years creep slow,
And War and tears alike have ceased to reign,
I ever shall recapture, once again,
The mood of that May Morning, long ago.

This is not a bad poem, per se–except in those regions where the words their order are with constancy rearrabged–but it is apprentice work. The verse is diligent and, despite the poet’s willingness to voice the reality of the war’s losses, still very traditional. This is decorous public grief–the voice of the poet as a grieving woman need not be arraigned on charges of conduct undermining of national morale. Post-Victorian culture has room for overstuffed rooms full of weeping females, as long as their keening is decently restrained.

And if, knowing Vera’s travails, we might read depression and misery into “the long, long future years” and anger into “the toy of cruel chance” we must know that this was not the obvious contemporary reading. Yet it’s what is not in the poem that matters: I don’t think the editors of the Oxford Magazine–or its readers–noticed the absence of notes of vengeance or righteousness or Brookean beautiful sacrifice. They weren’t forced to, and Vera Brittain, inexperienced poet but sharp-eyed reader, must know that, if you want your poem to strike at the reader’s heart, you will need diction pointed enough to prick her awake.

Nevertheless, Vera Brittain’s “new impulse” will bear fruit: she has written about the war, and seen her work in print. This marks both the beginning of a new identity and the resurrection of an old yearning.


A bit of a shift in tone, now, but a strange harmony nonetheless. Richard Aldington, a very different sort of chap than Roland or Vera, is nonetheless hastening to complete a work of scholarship before the war claims him. Writing again to F.S. Flint–en Français, naturalement–Aldington praises Bouvard et Pécuchet, Flaubert’s heroically cluttered satire of 19th century confidence. He then harasses his friend for more fodder:


Tout a toi, sale cochon, et presque mon seui ami,

[BUT SEND ME SOME BOOKS! All the best to you, you swine, and almost my only friend, R.[2]


Finally today, regret. I have failed, friends, in my advance-reading. For it would have been very good to know Llewelyn Wyn Griffith already–alas for my mistaken note that his memoir only picks up this summer! Griffith, as his name indicates, is Welsh–and he is also Welch, a subaltern in the 15th (Service, i.e. Kitchener’s Army) battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Twenty-five, with writerly aspirations and a civil service career on hold, Griffith had gone out in the early winter and served time in trenches both decent and awful (Givenchy) and found that he was able to put up a decent charade of being a competent officer.

His memoir includes the usual stories–but beautifully rendered, and much more concisely than many of our writers–of “prentice days” in the frigid trenches: learning to fear the different German guns, to fight the ever-encroaching mud, and, when suddenly assigned to teach a course in field cookery, to perform an officer’s most important duty and swiftly locate a competent sergeant to do the job for him.

But all is not lost, for the first bit of Griffith’s experience that is strongly distinct from that of so many others has only just begun. In medias res, then!

Griffith is married (confusingly, his wife’s name is “Wyn,” while he himself is usually called “Wyn Griffith”) and in mid-April his wife’s father died. Griffith, at the front since December, applied for leave, and it was granted him. We have relatively few married men, here, and Griffith does not dwell on the enforced absence in his early chapters–but it is always there, nonetheless. A sharp example of the challenges to maintaining a Vera-and-Roland-like sympathy at a distances has just come: After enjoying a splendid four days on a course–clean linen in an unspoiled town!–and writing to his wife about it, Griffith discovers, when his mail catches up with him, that he has been writing beatific letters to a woman just bereaved.

Griffith, then, is a man longing for his wife after months of misery and discomfort as well as a husband eager to comfort her in a time of grieving. He is also, curiously, a sort of guilty survivor: he recognizes, in a flash, the “plight of women” that we discussed here more than once.

In the line, in support, or in billets, a soldier quickly learns to calculate his degree of danger. There is terrible, acute, unmanning fear–and bliss, and many stages in between. But for a loved one waiting at home there is never any real relief from anxiety: anything might happen during that gap of a few crucial days as the letter makes its way across the channel.

So when the leave comes through, Griffith literally runs straight from the trenches for home, slipping on muddy duckboards, then risking frost-bite in his sodden uniform in a cattle-car on the last train for Boulogne. It was “the longest journey I have ever known.” After an agonizing thaw in front of a guard’s oil-lamp and an aggravating delay on the boat, Griffith sails for England:

As we neared Folkestone, England came in sight, and I realized why poets have sung of those white cliffs; years of my life had slipped away for ever in the five months I had spent in France, and I saw a new country; the train carried us past orchards in blossom; hedges had taken on a new beauty after my sojourn in the pollarded fens of Flanders. The country sang of peace, and every moment was bringing me nearer to Wyn; it would be strange if that journey were not stamped indelibly on my memory. It has now sunk deeper than memory; it has become a part of my being and of my way of thinking.

This was a century back, and another ten days. We elide, then, the longed-for reunion with his wife, in a London hotel, just as Griffith does: with “And so, with this meeting, I had reached my ‘journey’s end’,” the third chapter of his book closes.

Today, a century back, chapter four begins. The title? “Mud.”

It was on the 5th May, 1916, that this ten days of delight was destined to end…

This next bit I like very much: we are awash with poets here, but now I have a wise old ally in criticism. How might a soldier who is a devoted reader of poetry arm himself against loss and gird his love from despair?

Love grows rapidly in the forcing-house of war, and the dull ache of absence fosters a sensitivity and quickens response. The poets have taught us that to mortals endowed with their own delicacy of emotional structure, parting can become an agony of a death, but war, with its rude barbarian violence, had made even of use ordinary creatures, a regiment of sufferers. Common clay we were, and far enough removed as we thought ourselves from the spun glass of the poet’s imagining, we found ourselves betrayed into the very emotions they had sung. That the prose of war should prove the truth of poetry’s tale of men’s feeling–that it should now be easy to believe that some of those magic lines were indeed a reflection of the real thoughts of real men and women–that was an astonishing discovery. I had read a quantity of poetry, and had even tried to write it, but all with a sense of projecting my personality into an adjacent field of life. Here and now I was treading, at some remove, the very paths the poets had walked before me.

From his poetry-sharpened sensibility he goes directly–and without any of the commentarial fuss I am now making–to a demonstration of his negative capability. This is a soldier’s story that is–like all soldiers’ stories–self-involved. But not to solipsism: Griffith recognizes the stories that he cannot tell.

Shortly before eight o’clock in the morning the boat train steamed out of Victoria station, leaving Wyn standing on the platform, one of many women fighting each a lonely battle against a distant peril. Some were to know defeat, others triumph, but none was to escape the rack of doubt and suspense.  I cannot tell her tale of that day: the return to an empty room, the quiet packing of a bag, and the cruel sight of other women looking into their husbands’ eyes. I saw no beauty in the Kentish orchards that had delighted my eyes but ten days ago, and the flowering hedges were a mockery…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 268.
  2. Imagist Dialogues, 112-3.
  3. Wyn Griffith, Up to Mametz, 97-110.

Richard Aldington Must Make Quick Work of Flaubert; T.P. Cameron Wilson on War Poetry: a Tiny Part of the Great Dirty Tragedy; Asquith and Churchill; Shaw-Stewart and Asquith

Anyone who has ever been a graduate student–or has known graduate students or academics; or has a nodding acquaintance with the concept of the agonized, semi-professional writer–will recognize the trope of The Bizarre Artificial Motivation Conjured Up in Order to Force Oneself to Finally Finish that Paper/Dissertation/Article/Book. Well, Richard Aldington, writing today to F.S. Flint, has got a good one:

Woodland Cott.,
Weds 3/5/16

Dear Franky,

Vu [Given] the approach of conscription, I want, if possible to get that book on French prose done immediately. I enclose a cheque for 10/-. Will you get me Flaubert’s Correspondence & remit it to me?

…Can you lend me anything of Bloy, Schwob… GourmontC-L Philippe… Huysman’s En Route et La Cathédrale,–Gide anything, Romains, Villiers &c.

Don’t despoil yourself, but I must get another book done before the sword of Damocles falls–must try and write some poems.

Please forgive my asking so much, but you’ll understand.

A toi,


The dangling sword of Damocles is, of course, conscription. Aldington, to coin a phrase, is not eager to go. This is a nice isolation of this project’s usually-closely-conjoined twin interests, namely literature and war: Aldington wants to write, but not about the war, because that would require experiencing it. No, right now it’s Literature vs. War, and there is a race to the finish line for the one, the staring line for the other.

Can we bring ourselves to care whether or not Aldington completes his critical survey of French literature? Ah, but that’s a question of empathy…


So, and before we get to an interesting crossing of paths–or letters, at least–from two familiar hands, I want to include a letter, written today, a century back, from a much less familiar poet, T.P. Cameron Wilson. There are too many writers to keep track of here, I realize, but that straining at the bounds of memory, identification and, yes, empathy is part of the point of the project: another sensitive, verse-writing young officer who is awed by the strange coexistence of beloved nature–so soothing, so literary–and the worst that man can devise, and wreak upon his fellow man? Yes, another.

It’s a point that is both new to warfare–when thousands die a day, sometimes, and often without witness or adversary or heroic demise or, really, anything that can be used to individualize the event of their death, how can the singer/poet/historian possibly include them?–and as old as Western Literature. The Iliad is a swaggering poem starring the ultimate aristocracy, its heroes literally larger than life-size, the almost-all-conquering children of gods… and yet there is a strenuous effort to give even the immediate, unknown soldiers, the spear-fodder of Achilles, some sort of life–a name, a home, an epithet or a condensed life history…

Rhigmus, Peiros’ peerless son, had come
From farm country in Thrace. Achilles’ spear
Transfixed him and stuck in his belly.

(Iliad c20.450; trans Lombardo. That was one example at random–Alice Oswald’s Memorial is a fascinating, harrowing work entirely focused on just this neglected aspect of the Iliad.)

But Homer had a cast of merely many hundreds, and death could still be seen in serial close-up. Can we still do it, a century back, with high explosives, and attrition? We can try.


…But I’ve distracted us from T.P. Cameron Wilson, who can speak to all this with actual authority:

3-5-16 . . . We’ve just had a very trying day, as the Hun has bombarded us rather violently and smashed up one or two men badly…  Machine guns and rifle fire are, as a rule, all we have to suffer, though they are bad enough in all conscience…

It is utterly peaceful now. Evening, with birds singing their hearts out, larks over the fields, lilac in the gardens of the poor ruined farms round us, a wonderful sea of brilliant yellow turnip-flower which smells like meadow-sweet, swallows flying high and happy — and, higher still, a little resolute yellow-white fly of an aeroplane, watching, watching, and moving with a sort of calm certainty through the shrapnel which is bursting round it. That is very far and unreal. The shells burst silently, in snow-white puffs of smoke, which remain for ten minutes or so unchanged by wind or rain in those still places. It is as though some huge hand dabbed the blue canvas with little fanciful flakes of white. Then, many seconds later, you hear the bang of the shell, and the whine of the fragments through the air — very faint and elfin.

Now there’s an adjective! It jars us from a dream world back to reality. Or almost:

It is as I say, unreal, and not terrible, somehow, to us on the green earth here. But every now and then there comes a sound like a steam-saw cutting through thin wood and moving towards you with great speed. It ends suddenly, far off, in thunder. At any minute it may end in thunder close at hand. It is merely an interesting phenomenon to those new comers who haven’t yet seen the work a shell can do. To the rest who have seen, it is a terrible and fiendish thing, which one must keep so to speak, masked — which one mustn’t talk too much of! I saw a man to-day, for instance — No. One can’t describe it. Only the memory of things like it makes one see this Spring evening’s beauty through a sort of veil of obscenity, as a madman may see beauty. For mangled bodies are obscene whatever war-journalists may say. War is an obscenity.

Is this, then, the gateway to protest, to revolt? No: there remains the question of war-guilt, war-aims, and other political-philosophical hyphenates which all these literary young men still tend to take, for the most part, on faith. They know that politicians are self-serving and that the press serves politicians, and yet… England’s cause is just…

Thank God we are fighting this to stop war. Otherwise very few of us could go on.

And Wilson, although he is not willing to revisit the question of the meaning of this war, sees already what must be done to make future wars less likely. A poet himself, he finds fault with poetry, and begins to anticipate Paul Fussell‘s tirades about the wicked effects of heroic diction:

Do teach your dear kids the horror of responsibility which rests on the war-maker. I want so much to get at children about it. We’ve been wrong in the past. We have taught schoolboys “war” as a romantic subject. We’ve made them learn the story of Waterloo as a sort of exciting story in fiction. And everyone has grown up soaked in the poetry of war — which exists, because there is poetry in everything, but which is only a tiny part of the great dirty tragedy. All those picturesque phrases of war writers — such as “he flung the remnants of his Guard against the enemy,” ” a magnificent charge won the day and the victorious troops, etc. etc.,” are dangerous because they show nothing of the individual horror, nothing of the fine personalities smashed suddenly into red beastliness, nothing of the sick fear that is tearing at the hearts of brave boys who ought to be laughing at home — a thing infinitely more terrible than physical agony. I can’t explain it all without getting into a sort of confounded journalese swing of words, but you’ll understand.

It isn’t death we fear so much as the long-drawn expectation of it — the sight of other fine fellows ripped horribly out of existence by “reeking shard,” as a great War-journalist says who spoke (God forgive him) of “a fine killing” in some battle or other. Meanwhile there are the compensations of a new sort of comradeship, of new lights on life, of many many new beau ties in humanity. I hope I shall come through it alive, though it’s doubtful. I hope I shall be a much, much better sort of person for it all though that is a selfish sort of aspect of a huge drama like this…

I find myself… doubting so much, such as the survival of personal identity — the whole idea of personality or individuality is so very difficult to keep, before what one sees of man’s mortality. Anyhow there is always God. That stays firm. And if He is Love, it must all be working out somehow, but how sad He must be sometimes, when even a little little heart like one’s own nearly bursts with pity. Don’t think me overwrought or sentimental — unduly so at any rate — I am sticking things very well really. Only to you who understand so well, it is a relief to pour out a little of all one feels.[2]


After this eloquent and raw letter, it feels strange to return to our two sharpest wits, each dulled by boredom. But that, I suppose, is part of the project, here too, part of the truth of war…

First, Raymond Asquith writes home about a friendly visitor. Remember that ousted First Lord of the Admiralty? It says a very great deal about Britain, about these last years of the 19th century (so to speak), and about traditional political roles to discover that Winston Churchill, during this enforced hiatus from his, er, still-upward-trending political career, did not hit the lecture circuit or take up a lucrative lobbying position but, rather, the command of an infantry battalion, the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, in trenches near Ploegsteert.

3 May 1916

. . . There is utterly nothing to report from here–Winston turned up this afternoon and I took him for a walk on the ramparts. He was rather sentimental about the spring and rather dismal about the War; says it would be madness to have an offensive this year and that we must wait until the Russians have 7 million men and look for victory in the autumn of 1917. His battalion is being disbanded and merged in another, so he is coming home on Saturday to oust Carson from’ the leadership of a patriotic opposition or co-operate with him in it if the worst comes to the worst…[3]

So Winston’s Flemish Idyll won’t last. But still, this says so much: that a politician in war time will take a “demotion” to a military job that puts him in discomfort and in harm’s way;[4] and that the ruling class still so straddles army and state that no one will raise a fuss about a part-time soldier moving directly from a political desk to a battlefield command… and back again, after a few months.


By coincidence, today, a century back, Patrick Shaw-Stewart is writing to Raymond Asquith, his friend and his predecessor as a dazzling Balliol scholar and London socialite. It is natural that each should be quietly exasperated by bureaucratic inefficiency, frustrated at his own irrelevance, visibly unperturbed by danger, and severely irritated by physical discomfort…

On reaching Salonica I found (as I had expected) that no one had ever heard of me… The first part was a fortnight in Salonica, where I was clearly superfluous. The second part has been rural, at different minor H.Q., and has consisted largely in coping with torrential spring rains in an imperfect bivouac. I have rather lost the habit of discomfort, and was at first inclined to take things hardly, but the spirit of my race has reasserted itself.

I am trying to learn Greek, but the worst is (see any recent Balkan literature) that unless you are also equipped with Serb, Bulgar, Turkish, Kutzo-Vlach, and Judaeo-Spanish, Greek alone is a very inadequate outfit for the military tourist; and I really hardly know which of the extra languages (having due regard to commercial life hereafter) it would be most profitable to study. I have so far formed part of three messes, none of which had a cook; a grievous drawback after life with the French—and of the latest I have just been elected Mess President by acclamation.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Imagist Dialogues, 111.
  2. Housman, War Letters, 295-300.
  3. Life and Letters, 261-2.
  4. There were complaints, of course, that Churchill lived in undue luxury and took too many leaves... but he was, at least, in considerable danger, and all field-grade and general officers lived a life both safe and easier than that of the infantry subaltern (not to mention his men).
  5. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 167.

Alan Seeger’s Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Legionnaire

Alan Seeger, our ex-Harvard Francophile bohemian, has some advice today for a female friend back in the States. The poet is wise beyond his years. Or believes himself to be. But as is often the case, the advice that would be given sheds a great deal of light on the giver.

February 26, 1916.

Your letter finds me here in the hospital, where I have been for a month now for a “bronchite” or “congestion pulmonaire” or whatever they call it… rejoining the regiment I shall be just in time for the big offensive, which is the only thing that really matters.

Your letters always have a double interest for me, not only, relatively, as coming from yourself, but also, absolutely, as emanating from a very unusual personality. Old man Yeats (whom, by the way, you ought to know if he is still at the old stand, quatre cent et quelque West 29th St., chez Miles. Petitpas) used to define Culture as the understanding and the employ of intellect as an instrument of pleasure. You seem to have this understanding to a remarkable degree. Re markable particularly because among women, who are ipso facto denied the numerous occupations that men have to choose from to make life seem worth while, it is pre-eminently sensibility that is developed far beyond and to the expense of all the other faculties, like the rose that gardeners make exquisite by cutting off all the other buds on the stalk. And remarkable again be cause the emotional life is not closed to you, as it is to the vast majority of “intellectual” women, whose intellectuality is only a recourse to cover a bald spot, but yours when you choose to yield yourself to it.

Of all the formulas that claimed my early youth, one to which I can still adhere is that of the three categories, the lust for power, the lust for feeling and the lust for knowledge, to one or the other of which I can assign all those who, in their passion to live fully, are the supermen, the élite of humanity. Take as respective types Napoleon, Byron, Pico della Mirandola. All superior minds attach themselves more or less remotely to one of these three ideals. I make no distinction between them; those who attain eminence through either one may, in their way, be equally admirable. It is through knowledge that you seek revelation; I seek it through feeling. But I understand the paths that you have chosen, because, as a matter of fact, I started out on them myself…

The sexism is egregious, although hardly uncommon, a century back. But condescending silliness is eternal. Seeger is young and over-confident, and filled with half-digested philosophy. Those übermenschen sound so cool! Seeger was a rock, an island, his books his bulwark, his poetry…

Ah, but he did not remain a striver after knowledge. Let him take up the tale:

I need not describe to you my apostasy from learning, because you can find it described per fectly by Balzac. Take the case of Eugene de Rastignac in Pere Goriot or more particularly of Raphael de Valentin in the Peau de Chagrin. Young men, absorbed, like myself, in their studies, accepting cheerfully solitude and poverty in the pursuit of their one interest, they were suddenly éblouis by the vision of the world and the more glittering forms of pleasure to be had through the instrument of Sense. Straightway the charm was broken…

And so down from “the quiet groves of the Academy” and into the city, where the truth lies. And love. But love is not enough!

The dedication to Love alone, as Ovid prettily confesses his own in more than one elegy, is good as far as it goes, but it only goes half way, and my aspiration was to go all the gamut, to “drink life to the lees.” My interest in life was passion, my object to experience it in all rare and refined, in all intense and violent forms. The war having broken out, then, it was natural that I should have staked my life on learning what it alone could teach me. How could I have let millions of other men know an emotion that I remained ignorant of? Could not the least of them, then, talk about the thing that interested me most with more authority than I? You see, the course I have taken was inevitable. It is the less reason to lament if it leads me to destruction. The things one poignantly regrets are those which seem to us unnecessary, which, we think, might have been different. This is not my case. My being here is not an accident. It is the inevitable consequence, as you see, of a direction deliberately chosen…[1]

And that’s where mockery of Seeger’s posing falls flat. He has chosen the rigors of the French Foreign Legion and withstood them, now, for well over a year. And–so far as we can trust his self-presentation in letters such as these–his sense of purpose has hardly wavered. However hollow the philosophical stance seems, Seeger continues to follow the direction he chose–he had had opportunities to leave the legion–and without grumbling. Is he foolish to see war as a font of learning, as an experience that can’t be missed? Perhaps, but that’s not really the right question. Foolish, maybe. But consistent, committed.


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Diary, 182-7.

Another Grenfell Enters; Rowland Feilding Finds a Poem and Gives Us a Tour of His New Trench Home

On 20 May Billy [Grenfell] arrived at Boulogne with his battalion of the Rifle Brigade and was given a day’s leave to visit Julian. He said he thought that it looked as if Julian might die. When Billy left to go to the front, Julian said ‘I’m glad there was no gap’. That evening Billy wrote the first of his happy, absorbed letters on active service that were like Julian’s–‘It has been such glorious golden weather: Hobbemas[1] on every side as we march along!'[2]

This is Julian‘s biographer Nicholas Mosley on the passing strange behavior of Julian’s younger brother and (of course) sometime rival. I’m not sure exactly where Mosley gets his paraphrases and his quotes from,[3] but we will see a letter of Billy’s in a few days’ time, and if it’s not quite as unconcerned as this paragraph makes him seem… it’s still pretty strange.

We have seen how excited these young officers are to be in France, especially when they have been straining toward “the front” for the better part of nine months. They are like colts scrabbling out of the starting gate–and also like young men who have lived in a stage of mortal doubt about their own courage, their qualities, their ability to perform as men in what they see as the ultimate testing ground, and now are rushing toward the answer.

But one would think that a visit to the bedside of one’s gravely wounded older brother would put a damper on things for more than a few hours.

Or then again, perhaps this is just another good shapshot of the impossibility of doing history in snapshots. Our minds are changeable, our moods more so, and in our mental presence our senses shout down our memory. We live in moments, and even a short durée of a few minutes is cobbled together more than lived. If a grieving person can take a few steps from the locus of their grief and laugh at a joke, why can’t a young man march away from his wounded brother’s bedside and… enjoy the marching weather? Nor, as far as we know, would Julian expect anything else. Does the “gap” he is said to have referred to simply mean Grenfell service at the front, or can it also encompass blithe/unfeeling/heroic aggression?

In any case, an upbeat solipsism is surely the best sort of armor against the slings and arrows of trench attrition…


And from Rowland Feilding today, a remarkable example of what I should probably declare to be a new topos, a new identifiable “piece.”[4] It usually turns up just after the “approaching the trenches” bit, and we might therefore call it “the trenches approached: home sweet home.”

Or, more concisely “Home Sweet Trench.”

May 20, 1915. Le Rutoire.

Last night after dark we relieved the 1st Scots Guards in the trenches east of Vermelles. This town, or village—through which we had to pass to reach our new position—was captured by the French last December, after desperate street fighting, and it is almost impossible to describe the scene of desolation which it now presents. Not a house has escaped greater or lesser destruction. The church is a ruin, and the little that remains of its walls is so pitted with bullet and shrapnel wounds that it is almost true to say that scarcely a stone has escaped damage. Of the chateau—around which the fighting was chiefly concentrated—nothing remains but a pile of bricks.

My Company is in the reserve trenches for the moment, my headquarters being in a dug-out made by the French. The exterior construction of this dug-out amounts to nothing, and would not stop anything heavier than a whizzbang, if that, but much care has been devoted to its interior decoration, which resembles that of a cottage parlour. The French are much more thorough in these matters than we are. It has a door, two windows with muslin curtains, a little fireplace with wax flowers on the mantelpiece, papered walls and ceiling, a boarded floor, a little crucifix, a big looking-glass, and a sketch and poem by a former occupant nailed upon the wall. The former depicts an angel, flying, and blowing the trump of victory. The latter reads as follows:

O toi qui de ces lieux demain sera le maitre
Soigne ce cagibi [dugout] digne un jour de paraitre
Dans les fastes pompeux de I’immortalité.
Loin de la marmitaille [marmites, i.e. big shells] loin de I’humidité,
Tu pourras a ton aise y manger et y boire,
Et attendre gaiement les lauriers de la gloire.

In a display of foolish bloggerly valor I will attempt a translation:

You who will be the master of this place tomorrow,
Keep this dugout worthy of appearing, one day,
Amidst the grand festivals of the immortal world.
Far from the coal-boxes, far from the damp,
You will be able to eat and drink there at your ease,
And happily await the glorious victor’s laurels.

A touching sampler, actually. Back to Captain Feilding:

The name given to this dug-out by the battalion that preceded us is “Some Hut,” though it is also known as “Buck House.” You must not suppose that all dug-outs are like it. Those in the fire-trench are, as a rule, only just large enough for one or two men to crawl into and lie down side by side.

Scattered about us are little graveyards—French and German; and now we are starting on our own. Those of the French are easily recognizable, owing to the custom of placing the dead soldier’s cap on his grave or perched above it on a stick. The grass is growing long and is beginning to hide the older graves. It is thick with all the wild flowers of an English spring–dandelions, thistles, daisies and buttercups.

To our immediate right front, and visible over the parapet, lies the French battlefield of Sunday and Tuesday—the 9th and 10th of this month, and it is a saddening sight to look upon, the ground between the trenches being thickly strewn with many dead. Beyond, further to the south, the famous height of Notre Dame de Lorette stands out prominently. Behind it are the Labyrinth, and the villages of Souchez, Carency, and Ablain St. Nazaire.

Having concluded his rendering of his new trench home–muslin curtains and samplers, corpses and graves–Feilding closes with an update that, in two short paragraphs, sketches the extent to which the war has already become normal to him. “Quiet” now encompasses violent death, and British gentlemen engaging in mass poisoning of other men may, “partially,” be acceptable:

To-day has been fairly quiet for us, except for some shelling which killed two N.C.O.’s. We also had a man wounded by rifle fire. On our left, however, there was heavy shelling during the late evening.

We heard officially to-day of the Government’s decision to retaliate on the enemy with asphyxiating gases. Every first opinion that I have heard is strongly opposed to this on the principle that two wrongs do not make a right, and we should do better to keep our hands clean, and partially I agree.

To-day the weather is beautiful, though lately it has been miserably cold and wet, and we have longed for the sun again. The lilac was lovely till the rain came; the country is full of it.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Hobbema was a 17th-century Dutch landscape painter.
  2. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 262.
  3. Almost certainly, though, from Lady Desborough's privately circulated memoir... which is hardly a trustworthy source.
  4. I.e. a vignette or story-component that is used by a great many different letter-writers, diarists, memoir-writers, and novelists.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 11-12.

Wilfred Owen Poses with An Author; Vera Brittain Catches Knickers in the Bedclothes; The Royal Welch are Harried by a Lost General

Owen and Tailhade from Hibbert

Clockwise from upper left: Owen, Tailhade (turned sideways to obscure his damaged right eye and hand), Flaubert.

Wilfred Owen and Laurent Tailhade have been seeing a lot of each other, and the elder poet took it upon himself to rectify what he considered to be some of the more glaring holes in Owen’s literary education. On the 5th they met again, and Tailhade gave him Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint-Antoine. Today, a century back, they met again, and Tailhade signed the Flaubert and presented him with Renan’s Souvenirs d’Enfance et de Jeunesse as well. This photo was probably taken today, in commemoration of the occasion.


Meanwhile, at the other end of France, the French and the German commanders in chief both found themselves ignorant of the exact position and condition of their armies. The only certain thing was that the momentum of the campaign was finely balanced. Over three desperate days of fighting along two hundred miles the armies had battered each other, and it was difficult for any general to know if his men were beaten or, perhaps, on the edge of victory. This rolling battle was named after the nearest major river, the Marne.

The BEF had as of yet done little, but as the French drew the German First Army back, they were positioned to exploit the yawning gap between it and the Second Army, further to the east.

The Irish Guards were one of the units that continued their slow recent advance into that gap, crossing the Petit Morin, a tributary of the Marne, and occupying the town of Boitron.

Here the battalion re-formed and pressed forward in a heavy rainstorm, through a flank attack of machine-guns from woods on the left. These they charged, while a battery of our field-guns fired point-blank into the thickets and captured a German machine-gun company of six guns (which seemed to them, at the time, a vast number), 3 officers, and 90 rank and file. Here, too, in the confusion of the fighting they came under fire of our own artillery, an experience that was to become familiar to them… they proudly shut up in the farm-yard [where they were bivouacked] the first prisoners they had ever taken; told off two servants to wait upon a wounded major, took the parole of the other two officers and invited them to a dinner of chicken and red wine. The Battalion, it will be observed, knew nothing except the observances of ordinary civilized warfare.[1]

Yes: is it really remarkable to see a tradition-saturated guards regiments treating its officer-captives like international gentlemen and men of their word? This was how their forebears had conducted themselves in the Crimea and, before that, against Napoleon. Yet perhaps it’s just a little bit remarkable. This is not the first time, and most assuredly not the last, that we will see combat troops treating their opponents rather better than the shrill tone of patriotic sentiment at home might call for.


The 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers had “an eventful day,” a century back, beginning at 3 AM. By four they were overlooking the banks of the Marne, and by mid-morning they were enduring the vicissitudes of incompetent generalship. It was not entirely clear which brigade–and thus which brigadier–the 2/RWF belonged to, and so the day was marked by a series of oblique marches,periodically interrupted by new orders and a change of directions. In an unusual departure from gentlemanly decorum, Dr. Dunn lets the disagreement into his book: the colonel believed that they should be receiving orders from one general Hunter-Weston, but “less senior officers were sure that H.-W. lost his own brigade in  he morning and just wandered round giving orders to anyone who would listen to him.” Major Geiger of A company:

I have a vivid recollection of this distinguished officer early in the day’s proceedings careering past me on the flapper’s perch [i.e. on an extended seat, behind, and presumably clutching, the officer who drove] of a motor bicycle and of thinking how such a means of progression was possible only for a British General…

Hunter-Weston reappeared to order two companies to make a flank attack on what turned out to be British troops. Happily, they realized this before damage was done, yet continued to advance as they had been directed in a martial sort of do-si-do. The general then showed up where the rest of the battalion waited and ordered the colonel, bereft of two companies but with other troops now theoretically attached to his command, to advance to a nearby château.

The battalion had barely reached the château when General Hunter-Weston arrived again on the motor cycle, and again told me to open my map.

But A and B companies were still trundling north-east toward the river. Major Geiger:

Within minutes–I think it would be around 4 o’clock–a gorgeous General Officer, he of the flapper’s perch, burst on our vision. he asked who we were. On my respectfully informing him, he waved his stick and, pointing downhill, exclaimed in the theatrical manner which later made him so celebrated, “Follow me.” He then strode off so rapidly that before one platoon had fallen in he had disappeared–for two years as far as I was concerned.

During the afternoon, the wandering Welch made their way down the steep hillsides of the Marne valley to the town of La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. The bridges had been destroyed by the Germans, who held the part of the town on the right (far) bank of the Marne. This meant that they were near enough to fire upon.

Despite the violence, an air of slapstick persists: useless long-range rife fire by the Royal Welch draws machine gun fire upon them, wounding “‘600 Griffiths, the Goat-Major,[2] one of my most ancient warriors… he had a bullet through his forearm, and a very aggrieved look.”

After several more visitations from the peripatetic Hunter-Weston and less amusing encounters with a German ambush and the bodies of the British soldiers who had earlier cleared the town, the 2/RWF were at last reunited.

Frank Richards describes this day too, and it sounds a little less fun when viewed from the ranks:

The enemy were supposed to be holding the two villages, and we had to take them. We were met by a hail of bullets. The men to the right and left of me fell with bullet wounds in the legs, and a sergeant just behind me fell with one through the belly. We were having heavy casualties, but couldn’t see the enemy…. some of the men had remarkable escapes, several having their water-bottles pierced…

When it was dusk we carried on with the attack…

Six of us and a young lance-corporal were told to occupy the nearest large house, and if we found any of the enemy inside not to fire but use the bayonet. The doors and the wooden shutters of the windows were securely fastened and we tried to burst a door open, but failed. We then knocked a panel out of the bottom of it which left a space just big enough for one man to crawl through. The seven of us looked at one another… we were all old soldiers except the lance-corporal, who had about twelve months service. One old soldier had very nearly persuaded him that it was his duty as a lance-corporal to lead the way, when our officers came on the scene and ordered us to get in the house at once, also warning me to take the lead. It took me a couple of seconds to crawl through, but it seemed like a couple of years. I had every prospect of being shot, bayoneted, stabbed, or clubbed whilst crawling through, but nothing happened and the remainder soon followed. We searched the house. There was not a soul inside, but we found a small back door wide open which a few minutes before had been securely fastened.

I went out to report and going down the street came across one of our majors and a half a dozen men knocking at the door of a house which had a Red Cross lamp hanging outside…

We went in and found twenty-seven wounded Germans, including two officers, inside. Our major, who was an excitable man, was cursing and raving and informing the German officers that if one weapon was found in the house he would order his men to bayonet the bloody lot of them. We searched the house but did not find a weapon of any description….

Shouldn’t “our major” be major Geiger, commanding A company?

Back to Dunn’s regimental history for a moment. There is another major on the scene (at least, as second-in-command, he should be a major, one O. de L. Williams, who writes that in a locked house “we found the wounded Germans. Geiger, who came in later, tells about in his own way.”

Major Geiger?

Here we struck oil. Upstairs was a large room with about 50 wounded Germans, all in bed, being tenderly nursed by French Red Cross Sisters. The Germans had their arms and ammunition, which so enraged one officer already in the house that he insisted they should be taken out and shot forthwith, although the Sisters were most emphatic that these men had not fired a shot while in the house. The Germans were badly wounded; all the rifles I had time to examine were clean; so, as senior officer present, I left a guard…[3]

Well. History–and havoc–play havoc with the memory. It seems that it was Williams who raged… and yet he should have been in command of Geiger, only a company commander. It’s possible, though–they had similar length of service–that Geiger was senior despite not being superior… in which case he is describing his own ungentlemanly behavior in the third person. A rum business. It is very well worth noting that, as far as we know, no Germans were shot. If the British had been Germans and the Germans Belgians, many would have died.

Back in the house they had broken into, the men find a “big dinner–roast chickens, ducks, vegetables all nicely cooked, and bottles of wine”–left by the presumed German fleers. “Stories had been going around that the Germans has been poisoning the water in the wells and we had been warned to be very careful not to eat or drink anything where they had been. We never took much notice of the stories or warnings.”  After all, “pukka [real, proper] soldiers would [n]ever poison good food or drink.” The seven fusiliers gorged themselves and went upstairs to sleep in proper beds.[4]


And in fair Buxton, with the drama of Edward’s fate settled for the time being, the upper middle class fends for itself:

Tuesday September 8th

Daddy went off for his holiday this morning. The maids also all went & Mrs Fowler came in to help to look after the house with Drabble, & we began the unaccustomed & very salutary task of looking after ourselves a good deal more than usual. Otherwise the day was of a type I am getting used to — a series of First Aid & nursing classes. Mrs Ellinger had a nurse in to show us bed-making etc., & took care to offer herself as the patient, & to undress in front of the people she had asked in to watch, in order to display her expensive underclothing. To me it looked somewhat unsuitable to see so much lace & frilling when people are starving for want of peace; also I think that plain, dainty garments such as the night-gowns I am now embroidering for myself, which the wash cannot spoil, are much more appropriate for practical use than the kind of elaboration one only expects at a dance.

Well, this is pretty hilarious, all things considered. Two or three Brittains (I assume Edward is at home) appear to be doing some salutary roughing it with only a 3/2 master/servant ratio. Then, what must have been an extremely unerotic strip-tease elicits a minor capitalist-puritanical rant from a young woman, who, I think it’s safe to assume, does not do her own laundry even when the maids are on holiday. Much though we may nod with chagrin at the thought of so much lace and frilling mangled in the wash, it’s hard not to recoil with something more than a giggle from such a heady combination of snobbery and unself-consciousness.

But–aha! There is an untold story here, a tragic incident that explains the wounded pride beneath the puritanical counter-attack, a Testament that explicates the Chronicle.

Brittain does not much soften her portrayal of the provincial middle classes when she reworks all this material into memoir. We learn, as a matter of fact, some new and  damning details, for instance that the women of Buxton “wasted so much material in the amateur cutting-out of monstrous shirts and pyjamas, that in the end a humble local dressmaker… had to be called in to do the real work, while the polite female society of Buxton stalked up and down the hotel rooms, rolled a few bandages, and talked about the inspiration of helping one’s country to win the War.” But when one of these ladies stripped to her fancy panties (or, I would imagine, her voluminous bloomers), the fateful accident occurred. “In a zestful burst of vigour, I crumpled the long frills of her knickers by tucking them firmly into the bed.”[5]

But back to the diary, and the traditional coda of war news:

The news from the front is still vague, but has a more hopeful aspect. The Allies have now taken the offensive & seem to be pushing the Germans back. On the end page of the Daily Mail to-day were some ghastly pictures of ruined Louvain – the Oxford of Belgium – the destruction of which by the Germans is the greatest crime of the war…[6]


Lieutenant Billy Congreve of the 3/Rifle Brigade was now a long way from Tipperary–where his battalion had been stationed when war war declared–and with little more than the channel to go. Having arrived in England a few weeks previously, he and the rest of the 6th Division (which included his father, commanding its 18th brigade) sailed from Southampton today, a century back: “A captured [German] officer… says that they will be done in a month, If so, we are only just in time. Certainly the papers seem more cheerful today. The Germans have apparently left Paris alone and now we have taken up the offensive.”[7]

References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 41.
  2. Yes--this would be the old non-com who took care of the regimental goat--or would have, if it had not recently passed on.
  3. Dunn, Old Soldiers Never Die, 50-7.
  4. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 23-6.
  5. Testament of Youth, 101.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 105.
  7. Armageddon Road, 24.

Wilfred Owen Dines with Tailhade, Edward Thomas Remains Uncertain

When a young man, clean-cut and Victorian-mothered, shakes off academic disappointment and a faith-bruising stint as a curate’s assistant and heads off to France to teach English, he might hope to make some new French friends. And so Wilfred Owen did, counting a number of his early pupils, both teenagers and adults, as friends–one young student even went on a sort of exchange visit with Owen’s family.

And then Madame Léger hired Owen away from the Berlitz school to serve as the tutor to her daughter. And then she encouraged his friendship with a sixty-year-old poet and local celebrity well-known for his political and sexual non-conformity. And soon the plot will further thicken.

This evening, a century back, Owen went to dine with Laurent Tailhade, his brand new French poetry mentor, at his hotel in Bagnères-de-Bigorre. It was probably an interesting evening: Tailhade was melodramatic and sickly, and, even if we adjust Owen’s account for the effect of flattery, he was clearly enamoured of the young Englishmen. Plus, he had stories.

They don’t make erotic poets like they used to: Tailhade was not merely a mildly political poet, but an anarchist of a fairly grim stamp. Like many on the right, he enthused in the approved late-19th century bomb-throwing manner over the beneficial effects of mass violence. Tailhade had even lost an eye to a bomb and several fingers in a duel. Whether he delved deeply into political matters of which Owen could have known little is doubtful–but they certainly talked of literature. Naturally, it was the best French books that the English ingenue had yet to read which occupied Tailhade the most: gifts of Renan and Flaubert will soon be coming.[1]


Edward Thomas, traveling alone to take the pulse of rural England for a series of war articles, wrote to Eleanor Farjeon, sending her the words to a few old songs they had sung together during the idyllic August holidays.

[Postmark] 4 September 1914, Coventry

My dear Eleanor,

Here are the songs. I am too full up with the ales of Birmingham and Coventry consumed since I left that I can
hardly do more. It hasn’t been quite fruitless, but that is all I can say…

…Goodbye and give my love to Bertie.[2] I hope he has got what he wanted. My own plans are more uncertain. It is obvious for one thing that I can’t go away for an indefinite long time and have others to look after the family.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas
P.S. I should be very grateful for any war poems you come across…[3]


Francis and Riversdale Grenfell turned thirty-four today, a century back, in quick succession. Francis was recovering from his wounds in England. Rivy was with the 9th Lancers on the Marne, and about to be engulfed in a new battle.

References and Footnotes

  1. See Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 135-6.
  2. Farjeon's brother Herbert, who had just enlisted in the infantry.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 95.