Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

Charles Scott Moncrief is Decorated; Henry Williamson is Sacked; Vera Brittain Sees the Sights; Olaf Stapledon is Fed Up

We have three brief updates today–one good, one bad, and one in transit–before a very unusual letter from Olaf Stapledon.

First, Charles Scott Moncrieff, still abed with a badly mangled leg, has good news, which he receives with proper, and perhaps even unfeigned, modesty.

I have been given one of the fourteen Military Crosses allotted to the 29th Division. No one else in the Regiment, I’m sorry to say, for most of them deserve it more than I do…

Perhaps, but Moncrieff is a brave officer, with a record of consistent leadership and courage–if he hadn’t been so often ill, he would surely be dead by now. Nevertheless, he scorned the decoration, and will try to refuse it–his wound, he will point out, was caused by his own barrage, which is not a terribly heroic fact. But his commander will object to this objection, effectively forcing Moncrieff to accept the MC:

Captain C. K. Scott Moncrieff is an officer with a distinct temperament, and of an intelligence far above the average… whatever he says to the contrary, I shall remained convinced that, not only on the date in question, but on one or two previous occasions also, he thoroughly earned the award which His Majesty has been pleased to bestow.[1]

 

Henry Williamson is doing less well. He has been “strafed” several times recently about timeliness and the proper care of his mules, and although he tried to present his assignment to a signals course as some sort of inside-track “staff” appointment wangled on a super-secret journey, it seems likely that he was selected for the course in the hopes that his unit could thus be rid of him. It didn’t take.

Sent back from the Signalling Course. Good. Very rotten report however. Strafed by G.O.C.[2]

 

And Vera Brittain, on her way home from Malta, will visit her second great capital in three days:

May 26th–Were approaching Paris when we woke up; typical French scenery so often described by Roland–thin sentinel trees and straight white roads. Thought very much about Roland and Geoffrey, for this was their country, now…

It is. British cemeteries are already, and will ever after be a major part of the landscape along the Somme and around Ypres. But Paris is still Paris, and many visitors can claim it. Vera, something of a minor sophisticate in this particular context, guided two of her companions for the afternoon.

After lunch … I took them round to look at some of the sights. Took them to Notre-Dame, the Madeleine and along the most important streets… Afterwards did a little shopping…[3]

 

Last night, a century back, Olaf Stapledon began a letter to his beloved, Agnes Miller, on the occasion of her birthday. But he is home on leave and “bed is a luxury not to be missed,” so the letter trailed off. Today he picked it up, and “with uncharacteristic sarcasm” (as the editor of his letters puts it), gave Agnes an account of his doings in the disastrous recent Nivelle Offensive.

It’s fine to see a six horse limber going down a road at breakneck speed with the driver urging and lashing and the other men hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and shells crashing all round, nearer & nearer it seems, till at last one makes a direct hit, kills five horses and two men on the spot, while the other horse goes a bit down the road till it drops and the third man crawls out of the wreckage into the ditch. It’s fine to see four or five cars all charging down the same bit of road until one of them has to jam on all brakes to avoid crashing into the limber the second after it is hit, and then has to creep gingerly round between the dead horses and ditch while a shell bursts alongside it, breaks in its windows and pierces its body work with steel splinters. Once free, and away dashes the old Vulcan like a mad thing down the road with the poor devils inside crying out at the jolts, swinging, bumping, crashing across the railway line, past the sentry box where someone has propped the dead sentry up against his box for some reason unknown. Meanwhile the next car spots the wounded man in the ditch, draws up to take him on board, but the egregious idiot of a lieutenant who happens to be on board forbids the driver to stop under shellfire, so that (think of it!) the car goes on, leaving the man wriggling…

Oh it’s all very fine & we deserve far more of it. But, ye gods what a damned silly thing is war! Fed up, FED UP!

This from a young man who has spent several years at the front with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and hitherto been unfailing and unflinching in both his disapproval of the war and his dreamy insistence on seeing better things, in the stars, to come.

But whether back in England or among Germans, Stapledon is far from alone in feeling fed up.

…A meeting of British soldiers, being asked to give a message to people at home, cried “We’re fed up with the war,” and again & again they persistently cried it. As for the bosches… we had some Germans helping to load the carts, & they did it well; especially one smiling, kindly chap with whom the French stretcher bearers soon became very friendly. Of course there is really a lot of blind hatred & hostility, but less than of old. It’s the miserable diplomatists that have not the courage to talk about peace…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 131; Chasing Lost Time, 131.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 155.
  3. Testament of Youth, 351-2.
  4. Talking Across the World, 225-6.

Phillip Maddison’s Off-Hand Heroics; J.R. Ackerley on the Attack

This morning, a century back, another major attack–another “phase” or renewed effort of the Battle of Arras–lurched into motion at 3:45. The objective is Bullecourt, a town on the Hindeburg Line to the south and east of Arras, and Henry Williamson‘s 208 Machine Gun Company is firing in support. Documents relating to Williamson’s participation–including the hortatory order of the day promulgated by the Divisional General two days earlier–can be seen here, in Anne Williamson’s excellent article on his service with 208 MGC.

But Henry Williamson also described the attack in his novel, once more illustrating the liminality of history and literature while at the same time intentionally blurring the line with the heel of his own writing hand, as it were.[1] Since he is with the transport of a Machine Gun Company, Williamson is several layers behind the attacking troops, amidst the supporting artillery. As is Phillip Maddison, when the barrage begins.

About 3.44 a.m., in the hush of darkness beginning to give way to a spectral pallor in which he could see the wire of the reserve line across the sunken road as a blackish mass, a lark rose in song above him. It was followed by another, and a third; and he waited, with the stillness of expectation, while the singing grew faint and shrill as the birds flew toward the paling stars. There was a great ragged orange flash, oval and instant, from the four 9.2 howitzers in the chalk quarry on his right, and while the flash went through his eyes into his mind the sky became one great raging sea of light.

It goes on, and it is rather well done, if overwrought: these mid-war larks sing on throughout the massive bombardment, “like the jingling of frailest silver chains” amidst the mixed ordnance. Edward Thomas‘s battery is somewhere nearby, contributing its four howitzers to the din.

But this is only preamble. There is, of course, a fierce German resistance, which includes accurate interdiction fire meant to prevent the British from supporting and supplying attacking troops, and to suppress any return fire when the German counterattacks come. There are many casualties among the men and mules of 208 MGC, and a comrade of Williamson’s, 2/Lt. A. C. Montford, is killed.

The attack fails–not least because the German counter-attack, coming from the down-slopes behind the Hindenburg, is quick and fierce–and Williamson’s diary has little else to say.

Thursday, 3 May: Z Day. Zero hour 3.45. Intensive barrage right up North & down to Bullecourt. Rumours of failure – prisoners in cages – walking wounded. 187 Brigade smashed up, ¾ Coy missing at evening. No shelling in rear areas. 7th Div. again attacks in evening. Montford killed.

But in fiction today becomes another moment for young Phillip Maddison to wander into heroism. There is a Montfort in the book, and he is killed, as in life. But there is also a Lt. Fenwick, who is reported lying badly wounded next to a Sergeant Butler.

One of the strange continuities of Williamson’s many-volumed novel is Maddison’s habit of going on long, improbable, unauthorized rambles through no man’s land (or even into the enemy’s rear). These seem to encapsulate Williamson/Maddison’s in-betweenness. He is neither boy nor man, neither working class enlisted man nor socially assured officer, both enthusiastic adventurer and sullen incompetent…  and he likes long walks in the country, whether in pre-war peace or mid-war pauses. In company, he is all good-will and blunders waiting to happen; but alone he can do great things…

Today’s invented action–it seems pretty clearly to be a fictional aristeia placed within a life-structured narrative, rather than a “version” of something that did occur, since Williamson, to my knowledge, mentions nothing like it–is a bit different. Maddison hears the report of the wounded men and immediately recognizes that they are lying in an area he knows well because of a previous unauthorized stroll, on a quiet day before the battle, right up to the face of the new German defenses.

This earlier brave-but-irresponsible ramble has equipped him to be unusually decisive, and once on course he is completely effective. Leaving his transport section and the excited survivors of the barrage, Maddison journeys up from his safe post in the rear, finds both wounded men in the danger zone, and brings them in under fire. He knows the map, so he goes. We get no real insight into why this petulant boy-officer is ready to exceed his duties in this way–he just goes, and does it. And just as the birds brought him up to the barrage, the birds bring him home.

From the echoing ruins of Croiselles white flashes of field-guns seemed to increase the singing of two nightingales on the hillside…

It’s a strange episode, all things considered. Williamson seems to be making the point that Phillip Maddison’s impetuosity can be a force for good as well as bad.

Certainly his sense of military propriety remains skewed–he doesn’t bother to report in that he has saved two men of the company, an MC-worthy action, even if one unlikely to be so recognized in an oft-reprimanded muleteer officer.

And so, next morning, the C.O., a socially generous and easygoing captain who has, nevertheless, frequently had cause to chew out his wayward transport officer, compliments Phillip with a touch of bemusement:

“Good effort, Sticks! You’ve got plenty of guts, to out there alone, in full view of the Boche.”

“Honestly, skipper, it was no more than going for a walk on Blackheath, on an August Bank Holiday evening…”

Phillip makes an awkward joke about women and that long ago-ago August, and just like that, the heroic episode is over.[2]

 

Just a bit to the north, and in real life, the 8th East Surreys are in the first wave of the same attack. The battalion, we may recall, includes two brother officers. It was J.R. Ackerley’s brother Peter who did not die in that February attack–he almost did, and I almost wrote it wrong. But Peter lived, and is recovering from his wound, although he did not return his brother’s watch. So today, a century back, it is the younger (though militarily senior) Ackerley’s turn:[3]

…I had to take my men over the top again, to capture the village of Cérisy[4] (what remained of it) in another sector of the line, and swapped my brother’s unreliable wrist-watch for that of my second-in-command, who was remaining in reserve. He lent it reluctantly; it was an engagement present from his fiancée. I promised to return it.

Well, ahem. But there are more ironies before we get to where we are going, today. On the march to the front, last night, Ackerley saw an old friend.

He was now a brigade major and what we contemptuously called a “Brass Hat.” Seated upon his horse by the wayside he beckoned me out of the line of march. In a low confidential voice he said he supposed that, as an old campaigner, I had no illusions about what lay ahead, and offered me an immediate job with him on brigade staff, out of harm’s way. He begged me to accept it.

Whatever the reason–and Ackerley will not obfuscate–this is quite bizarre. Even if the offer had taken place a day or two before the attack, even if it were not quite so direct, it’s hard to imagine such gross favoritism being so openly displayed–and it put Ackerley in an impossible position.

He had always been fond of me, I knew, indeed he had a crush on me, I think, for I was a pretty young man, and wanted to save me from a fate, of the prospects and hazards of which he doubtless knew far more than I, since brigade headquarters had planned it. “You’ve done your bit already,” said he gently. But I too was a mounted officer. I had a huge mare named Sally, larger than Titchy’s, the largest I had ever seen… and whenever I was perched upon her back I became more arrogant and conceited than I normally was. Titchy’s offer would certainly have attracted me if the bloody fool had made it earlier. But how could a company commander abandon his command on the very eve of battle? That would have been seen as plain cowardice, and cowardice should never be plain. Smiling down at him rather disdainfully from my superior mount, I thanked him and declined…

Ackerley’s account of the battle is, here,[5] brief and bitterly comic:

Suffice it to say here that mine was one of the only two companies to reach our first objective, the crest of a ridge. No special merit, however, should be inferred from that statement; we only ran forward, dashing from shell-hole to shell-hole; doubtless we happened to find more shell-holes than other companies involved…

This is wry sarcasm–and also reasonable tactical criticism. But although he likes to paint himself as a hapless pawn of circumstance, innocent of military knowledge or instinct, Ackerley immediately realizes that two companies can’t hold a line with their flanks in the air.

It’s instructive, perhaps, to compare everything about this account–the tactics, the role of the young Company Commander, the reaction of the Tommies, and the result–with Alf Pollard‘s recent Victoria Cross-winning gambit. The overused adverb “diametrically” comes to mind…

What to do? Heaven knew. I sent a runner back to battalion headquarters with an urgent request for reinforcements and sent my men to digging themselves in as they lay. While they were scratching away, like hens, with their trench tools, at the hard French soil, the Germans counter-attacked in considerable strength, firing from the hip as they advanced. The very sight of them was enough for my company. Rising as one man they deserted me and bolted. I bolted after, shouting “Stop!”–not that I wanted them to. The vain word may well have taken on a shriller note when a bullet struck me in the bottom, splintering my pelvis, as was discovered later, and dealing me a wound where, my father had sometimes remarked, echoing Siward, no good soldier should bear one. With a flying leap that Nureyev might have envied I landed in a shell-hole which already contained one of the things I most detested, a corpse, and was soon to harbor another wounded officer named Facer, and a man bleeding to death of a stomach wound. When dusk fell on that foolish and revolting day I was taken prisoner.[6]

Until this merciful and bathetic day’s end–no rescue and no nightingales for Ackerley–his experience was heading from an inverse-Pollard toward a recent Wilfred Owen. But there would have been nothing that even Ackerley’s penetrating irony could do about the prospect of spending a night in a shell hole among the dead and the dying.

instead, he is marched back “at bayonet point and parched,” grabbing the canteens of dead men but finding only neat rum. When he reaches the German aid station he is almost killed by a British aircraft dropping a bomb. Fittingly, then, given his attitude toward the war, Ackerley will precede Kurt Vonnecut into the exclusive club of major 20th century writers who were also allied infantryman captured by the Germans, then nearly killed by the bombs of their own side’s aircraft. Ackerley’s reminiscences will be without reliable dates, now, for some time…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There is an article comparing--no doubt with greater insight and accuracy--the fictional and the historical aspects of today in Williamson's writing, behind a pay wall at the Henry Williamson Society.
  2. Love and the Loveless, 133-9.
  3. Ackerley gets the date wrong in his memoir, recalling the date as "Two months later, on April 3," but Peter Parker's biography has the correct date, which the battalion war diary, available here, corroborates.
  4. Chérisy, not Cerisey on the Somme.
  5. He refers the reader to another book, Hindoo Holiday, for a fuller account.
  6. My Father and Myself, 95-6.

The Battle of Arras Resumes: Charles Scott Moncrieff, A.P. Herbert, Geoffrey Thurlow, Alf Pollard, Frank Richards, and Kate Luard; Vera Brittain Ponders Sacrifice and Glory; Siegfried Sassoon Addresses the Warmongers

Today is St. George’s Day, Shakespeare’s birthday, the second anniversary of the death of Rupert Brooke, and the day that Billy Prior, shell-shocked and mute, came to in a Casualty Clearing Station. But that is all more than a century back, or fiction.

Today is also the beginning of the second phase of the Battle of Arras. In what will become known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe, elements of eleven divisions attacked on a nine mile front just east of Arras, from Gavrelle in the north to Croisilles in the south.

Charles Scott Moncrieff was in the first wave, leading a company of the 1st Battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who went over the top at 4:45, attacking toward Monchy-le-Preux. Scott Moncrieff was hit very shortly thereafter, and spent a harrowing day on the field and being carried back. But by this evening he will be able to write:

23rd April.

I was wounded about five o’clock this morning when leading my battalion in the attack. My left leg is broken in two places. I am now in a clearing station where I shall stay a few days. I shall be at the Base shortly and then home—and expect the leg will heal very quickly. The attack seems to have gone very well, as far as I could see and control it from the ground.[1]

What the letter does not make clear is that Moncrieff was not only leading the attack but leading it as close as possible to the “walking” barrage–and that a short-fall from this barrage–a British shell–was what nearly killed him. He is in grave danger of losing his leg.

Scott Moncrieff experienced his wound as something of a “transcendental” experience, and it will shortly push him further toward a vocation that combines his linguistic and literary talents. Drawing on Paul Claudel’s ‘Hymne à SS Agnès,’ he wrote a poem about his rescue that comes close to the once-popular angelic-intervention tales, albeit in an exalted religious-literary manner, rather than in close imitation of the popular ghost story style of Arthur Machen and others.

I, like a pailful of water thrown from a high window, fell. . . . Alone.

An hour or two I lay and dozed…

. . . . Ah, whose mind prayed
Through mine then? Whose quiet singing heard I from my stretcher, swinging
Sorry, weary, sick, Strongly, clearly, belated back to Arras? Who dictated
Strongly, clearly, till I sung these French words with my English tongue?[2]

In a neighboring division, also largely Scottish, Captain John Eugene Crombie of the Gordon Highlanders, who had so recently written  “Easter Day 1917, The Eve of Battle,” was wounded near Roeux. Less fortunate than Scott Moncrieff, he will die of his wounds by the end of the day.[3]

On the left of the attack, the 63rd Division–The Royal Naval Division–led the attack on the village of Gavrelle. Rupert Brooke‘s old comrades in the Hood Battalion came up too quickly from reserve, through a heavy German barrage, and then pushed on into house-by-house fighting. In the neighboring brigade was the Drake battalion, pressing through the same barrage. A.P. Herbert, whose meditations on courage, cowardice, and institutional brutality will be set in the recent past but informed by this experience of battle, led his platoon while equipped with certain supererogatory liquid courage. He was soon hit:

Sub-Lieutenant Rackham saw him fling up his arms and fall. ‘He seemed to me to be in a bad way–dangerously
wounded, I thought at first.’ At a field-dressing station, jagged bits of shrapnel and hip-flask were found to be embedded deep in his left buttock; ignominious wound, honourably sustained. It was serious enough for him to be sent home again. He believed that the brandy from his flask was an effective sterilizing agent…[4]

Kate Luard received many such wounded men, and some who had fared much worse:

Monday, April 23rd, 10 p.m. Just come up to lie down for an hour before the next take-in. We have filled up twice, and they are hard at it again over the road; we come next… the earth-shaking noise this morning did its work; the wounded Germans tell me here are a great many dead. We have a splendid six-foot officer boy lying silently on his face with a broken back, high up. I hope he won’t live long…[5]

 

Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company–who are, naturally, really, a London-based militia regiment of infantry serving in a “Naval” infantry division–were in reserve on the central section of the assault.[6]

The barrage was terrific and it seemed impossible that anything could stand up against it. Nevertheless, the wire was very tenacious and… They put up an obstinate resistance.

It was not very long before we were required. A Company went first, but a few minutes later a call came for us and I moved forward. As we approached the position I could see the long lines of uncut wire with dead fusiliers hanging across it like pearls in a necklace where the Hun machine-guns had caught them. All the same some of them had penetrated through the gaps and the trench was captured. I had my usual luck and got my Company through the enemy’s counter-barrage without any casualties. My men were full of fight… There was no resistance; the few Huns we encountered surrendered instantly. At once I set about preparing the trench for the counter-attack which I knew would follow. The whole place was a shambles…

The town of Gavrelle was a few hundred yards on our right. The attacking troops had gone right through and our right consequently projected slightly beyond our left. We were the extreme left of the Divisional front. The Division on our left whose main attack was directed against Oppy Wood had failed with the result that the position was held in echelon…

The counter-attack was not launched until the following morning…[7]

A bit further south, the 10th Sherwood Foresters, part of the 17th Division, were in support of the assault just south of Monchy-le-Preux, near the town of Guémappe. Among the objectives on this front was the concentration of German artillery on the high ground in their rear. Perhaps, by the day’s end, the positions of the batteries that dueled with Edward Thomas‘s will be taken.

But not immediately; the leading battalions were held up and the 10th Sherwood Foresters were called forward, and took the first German trench. Geoffrey Thurlow, the last of Edward and Vera Brittain‘s close friends to remain unscathed, was there, and he had neither succumbed to the shell-shock that had afflicted him in 1916, nor to the fear of it. Safe in a German trench after the successful assault, he was asked once more to show his courage, and once again he didn’t let the school down. His commander will describe his actions in a letter he will write to Edward Brittain:

I sent a message to Geoffrey to push along the trench and find out if possible what was happening on the right. The trench was in a bad condition and rather congested, so he got out on the top. Unfortunately the Boche snipers were very active and he was soon hit through the lungs. Everything was done to make him as comfortable as possible, but he died lying on a stretcher about fifteen minutes later.[8]

So Geoffrey Thurlow, too, is dead.

Far away in Malta, Vera Brittain was just beginning to cope with the previous disaster to hit her tight-knit circle. In a letter which draws heavily on her diary of yesterday, she wrote to her brother:

Malta, 23 April 1917

My own dearest Edward

Your letter of the 8th has just arrived but contains no reference to the terrible news of the last day or two; it seems to be the only one that has come, so I suppose all my letters have missed the mail just when I wanted them most. It is dreadful to have to wait a week for details. That is the hardship of foreign service — not climate or distance so much as the separation by time & distance from anything that matters…

I am broken-hearted indeed about Victor. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure that it is not better to be dead.

This is not an idle question. Cruel as this is, it’s important to recognize that there is still no fundamental questioning of the meaning and the worth of all this suffering. She is not sure if Victor should wish to be dead, but she is confident that he will feel a sense of achievement at having matched his decorated school friends in military valor:

I suppose he is disfigured very much. His lovely eyes — I can’t bear to think they will never any more look ‘right into one’s soul’ as Mrs Leighton said they did. It is a terrible way to have bridged the gulf that lay between him & you — & Roland. I wish Roland were here to be with him & give him the strength he will so much need if he lives…

it is very hard to feel I can do nothing for him in return at the time of his greatest need. . . Anyhow. I know that you will make him understand, better than any letter could, my indescribable sorrow & regret–one can’t call it pity, as pity is not a sufficiently reverent feeling for one of those who ‘so marvellously overcame’. If there is anything I can do for him–anything at all–you will tell me, won’t you? It places all of us who cannot fight under a burden of debt almost more than we can bear–to feel that we owe our safety to the fives & sight & strength of such as you & Roland & him. I feel I could never repay it enough, even if trying to meant giving up practically all I ever meant to be or do. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were looking at me out of Eternity, imploring me to try to give Victor some of the comfort He would have given him if He had been here.[9]

 

We’re almost done, today, but here we have a different sort of irony of separation, of “sacrifice” and suffering and far-off emotion. Siegfried Sassoon is safely back, unaware that today is another spasm of intense violence, and that his battalion is caught up in it. It’s a particularly nasty irony that his reports from today are thus overshadowed by exactly what he now feels increasingly empowered too protest.

He has been working on another new poem, “To the Warmongers,” which begins:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss…

But the abyss is still there–and not yet taken. Two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch, in support of the 4th Suffolks, will once again move up from the Hindenburg Tunnel to attack along the Hindenburg Trench. A trench mortar barrage dropped neatly into the trench, clearing the German barricade and allowing the charging Suffolks to push back the defenders. The two companies of the 2/RWF came up and were at once employed in bringing up German prisoners from the deep dugouts. There is a long, detailed narrative of the intimate trench fighting in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle, growing grim as the two companies are held up and then located by the German trench mortar and rifle-grenade parties.

Sassoon’s friends “Binge” Owen and the pianist Ralph Greaves–both survivors of a late night in Amiens only three weeks ago–were now directing the fighting. One bomb hit a barricade and exploded next to Greaves’ right arm, mangling it. Owen was killed a few minutes later. Further attacks failed, although Captain N. H. Radford will remember hearing a Staff Captain give a fanciful heroic account of the “forcing of the barricade” only two weeks later, and remark that “that kind of myth outlives denial; it has appeared in print as fact.”[10]

The other two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch attacked later in the day, repeating a failed attack by another battalion, and with poorly coordinated artillery support. And in the open. They fared even worse. Frank Richards, a company signaler with B company, was in the assembly trench, and had a clear view of the attack:

From our parapet across to the objective our dead were laying thick, and for the first fifty yards it would have been impossible for a man to have walked three paces unless he stepped on a dead man. In the afternoon we attacked but were held up by machine-gun and rifle-fire the same as the previous battalions: not a man got further than halfway. The fortunate ones got back to their own trench, but the majority were laying where they fell… We brought our wounded in during the night, the enemy not firing a shot.[11]

 

We’ll end the day with Sassoon, in London, and trying somehow to move from personal experience to some reasonable appreciation of the “big picture:”

April 23 (In the Ward) —

Morning sunshine slants through tho many tall windows of the ward with its grey-green walls and forty white beds. Daffodils and primroses, red lilies and tulips make spots of colour…  Officers lie humped in beds smoking and reading morning papers; others drift about in dressing-gowns and slippers, going to and from the washing-room where they scrape the bristles from their contented faces. The raucous gramophone keeps grinding out popular airs…

Everyone is rather quiet. No one has the energy or the desire to begin talking war-shop till noon. Then one catches scraps of talk from round the fire-places.

‘barrage lifted at the first objective’
‘shelled us with heavy stuff’
‘couldn’t raise enough decent N.C.O.s’
‘our first wave got held up by machine-guns’
‘bombed them out of a sap’—etc etc.

There are no serious cases in this ward; only flesh-wounds and sick. No tragedies of gapped bodies and heavily bandaged faces; no groans at night, and nurses catching their breath while the surgeon deals with some ghastly gaping hole. These are the lucky ones, whom a few days of peace have washed clean of the squalor and misery and strain of ten days ago. They are lifting their faces to the sunlight: the nightmares have slunk away to haunt the sombre hearts of the maimed and shattered.[12]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 128.
  2. I've taken some supplementary information from Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 127-130, but there are some military historical errors in her account, so it's possible that some of what I have quoted is off-base; if so, sincere apologies!
  3. Powell, A Deep Cry, 241.
  4. Pound, A. P. Herbert, 153.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. I have not unraveled the exact relative positions of these different units; despite the lack of major salients it is a difficult attack to visualize... and for most of our writers, it seems, Arras was a terribly quick battle. Although Alf Pollard, as it happens, will persist and more than persist.... in any event, apologies for the less-than-thorough military history here.
  7. Fire-Eater, 212-14.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation; see also here.
  9. Letters From a Lost Generation, 341-2.
  10. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 330-38.
  11. Old Soldiers Never Die, 229-30. There is likely hyperbole here in terms of the number and the concentration of men killed.
  12. Diaries 159-60.

Siegfried Sassoon Bombs Busily Along; Charles Carrington’s Half-Conscious Nightmare; Alf Pollard Finds the Germans, and Loses Some Men; Vera Brittain’s Immense Fact and General Malaise

We are surrounded by the Battle of Arras. We’ll finish in Malta, where Vera Brittain waits for news, and most of the post will follow Siegfried Sassoon‘s latest turn as “Mad Jack” in the developing battle. But we’ll begin with two other members of the supporting cast, each within a few miles of Sassoon, and each sharing important aspects of his experience.

The Battle of Arras, now in its second week, is neither trench-warfare-as-usual nor a matter of major “over the top” assaults, those strange aberrations in military history in which lines of troops abandon their subterranean life in order to move over open country, their shoulders hunched against the shell fire. Instead we have something rather like the tough, ceaseless, street-by-street urban warfare of later wars, with the trenches and strongpoints standing in for ruined cities. The weather, a cruel abridgement of the recent turn toward spring, only increases the misery.

 

Charles Carrington has been in the battle since near the beginning, but he remembered tonight, a century back, as one of the worst:

After many exacting days and freezing nights we finished with a night attack against two German outposts on 16th April, the date of Nivelle’s offensive that was to have finished the war. Our petty skirmish was for us as deadly as the greatest battle was for him. Again it was dark and wet, with a drizzle that turned to snow until before dawn a blizzard was blowing. Two of our companies blundered into one another and opened fire. The assaulting party ran into uncut wire which they could not see. They dug themselves in and waited for dawn when the Germans cleverly slipped away. That night my horse, impressed for duty as a pack pony to carry ammunition to the front line, died of exposure and so, very nearly, did its master, to whom the whole episode was a half-conscious nightmare of fluttering trench-mortar bombs, the kind we called ‘grey pigeons’, coming down through driving snow…[1]

 

And Alf Pollard, back in the nick of time, is out in front of the battle, and looking for more of a fight. The Honourable Artillery Company are north and east of Arras, where the advance has already taken several lines of German trenches–but not yet the local section of the Hindenburg Line.

On the afternoon of the 16th, a Brigade Major carefully examined this trench system through his binoculars, and, failing to observe any signs of life, came to the conclusion that Fritz must have fallen back even further. He at once issued orders that patrols were to be sent out.

Pollard volunteers, and asks to take only four men, since he has more experience with small patrols and, like Sassoon, likes to gallivant more or less on his own. But he is required to take an unwieldy twelve, as per staff orders. The thirteen men set out after nightfall, in moonless, rainy darkness. Feeling their way slowly between Gavrelle and Oppy Wood, they eventually reached the German line without encountering any signs of life, noisily cut their way through the wire, and reached the parapet of the trench. Almost by chance Pollard discovers that they are at the entrance to an occupied German dugout–the trench system is strongly held, but the sentries are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, sheltering from the cold rain.

The patrol has achieved its object, so Pollard withdraws–only to discover, back in No Man’s Land, that one of his men is missing. Two others have been left holding a hole in another portion of No Man’s Land while the remaining eight are now told to wait for him on a small ridge between the lines. Pollard takes a runner and goes back to the edge of the German trenches to look for the missing man–and this time they are discovered.

Someone challenged me sharply from the trench. I spun round in time to see the flash of his rifle. I fired two shots and heard him yell as I hit him.

The firing gave the alarm. Men were appearing in the trench like magic. Reggie and I were caught like rats in a trap. It would have been impossible to have broken our way out through the wire without offering a sitting target to the enemy.

There was only one thing to do. I seized Reggie by the arm and ran. Down the parapet we fled was fast as our legs would take us. Star-shells were going up in all directions. By their light I could see that the trench was of a pattern known as island traversed. That meant that here were two trenches parallel with one another joined at short intervals by cross-cuts. At intervals along the parapet were squares of concrete which I knew to be machine-gun emplacements. I realised it was a position that would take a lot of capturing.

We must have covered well over a hundred yards before I spotted it. It was a miracle that I saw it at all–just a narrow gap in the wire entanglement left so that the holders of the trench could get out easily if they wished to. I darted into it with Reggie close on my heels. It zig-zagged through both lines of wire. In a moment we were free of our cage…

Pollard and Reggie crawl back toward their lines, now sheltered by the thick belts of wire. But when the firing drops, they know a German patrol is coming after them. Pollard outfoxes the patrol by sheltering under the wire–so close to the German lines that the Germans overlook them. This is one of the places where Pollard’s memoir feels indistinguishable from a boy’s story of play-war–he is thrilled at the success of this simple stratagem, hiding by the seeker’s home base.

Once the patrol returns to its trenches, Pollard and Reggie meet up with the main group of their own patrol on the little ridge. They return to their own lines and all is well–the German line has been located and confirmed as being in an active state of defense, and Pollard, his eyes on bigger prizes, casually notes that they “gave me a bar to my Military Cross for that show.”

But this is sketchy sort of decoration, despite Pollard’s relish in describing his exploit. “He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line,” as the citation will read–apparently all the other patrols sent out failed to find the Germans. But there is no mention in Pollard’s account of the missing man. Worse, he does mention that he simply forgot to pick up the two others who had been left on their own, and these are later learned to have been found by the German patrol that Pollard and the runner eluded. One was killed, another was taken prisoner, and the original man seems to have remained missing–not the most successful of all patrols.[2]

 

The action of today, a century back–a “bombing stunt” along the tunnels and trenches of the Hindenburg Line, fills an entire chapter of Siegfried Sassoon‘s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. So we’ll read it instead in its entirety in its first written form, his diary of tonight, a century back:

April 16

At 3 a.m. the attack began on Fontaine-les-Croisilles. I sat in the First Cameronians H.Q. down in the tunnel until nearly 6, when I was told to despatch twenty-five bombers to help their B. Company in the Hindenburg front line. I took them up myself and got there just as they had been badly driven back after taking several hundred yards of the trench. They seemed to have run out of bombs, failing to block the trench etc, and were in a state of wind-up. However the sun was shining, and the trench was not so difficult to deal with as I had expected.

My party (from A. Company) were in a very jaded condition owing to the perfectly bloody time they’ve been having lately, but they pulled themselves together fine and we soon had the Bosches checked and pushed them back nearly four hundred yards. When we’d been there about twenty-five minutes I got a sniper’s bullet through the shoulder and was no good for about a quarter of an hour. Luckily it didn’t bleed much. Afterwards the rest of our men came up and the Cameronians were recalled, leaving me to deal with the show with about seventy men and a
fair amount of bombs, but no Lewis-guns.

I was just preparing to start bombing up the trench again when a message camp from Colonel Chaplin [of the Cameronians] saying we must not advance any more owing to the people on each side having failed to advance, and ordering me to come away, as he was sending someone up to take over. I left the trench about 9.45. Got wound seen to at our Aid Post in the tunnel, walked to Hénin—and was told to walk on to Boyelles. Got there very beat, having foot-slogged about four kilometres through mud. Was put on a motor-bus and jolted for an hour and a half to Warlencourt (20th Casualty Clearing Station) and told to expect to go to England. Written about 7.30 p.m. with rain pelting on the roof and wind very cold. I hate to think of the poor old Battalion being relieved on such a night after the ghastly discomforts of the last six days. The only blessing is that our losses have been very slight. Only about a dozen of my party to-day—most of them slight. No one killed. My wound is hurting like hell, the tetanus injection has made me very chilly and queer, and I am half-dead for lack of sleep, sitting in a chair in my same old clothes—puttees and all—and not having been offered even a wash. Never mind—‘For I’ve sped through O Life! O Sun!'[3]

And so the diary ends, for today. Sassoon is once again a hero, and he is wounded, and, managing to ride the falling edge of adrenaline and the rising tide of pain and exhaustion, he is writer enough to smoothly end the diary with an appropriate quotation, from Robert Graves‘s “Escape.” But what has this action-packed account omitted, and what has it emphasized?

The main points are confirmed by another writer in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–as are the two necessary interpretive conclusions:

April 16th–At 3.A.M. the attack of two days ago was repeated… This was another dud show… Sassoon, a very stout man, was wounded in Tunnel Trench: his craving to renew the attack was not allowed.[4]

Sassoon was very brave, once again, and once again unnecessarily aggressive. We’ve seen enough of his moody self-doubt and in the diary to recognize that he is not playing a role, here–or not playing it in any dishonesty to himself, if that makes any sense. If it’s a performance, as all social endeavors to some degree are, then it’s all method…

Whatever Sassoon’s thoughts about the war, whatever his feelings about the wrecked bodies he has passed to get to this point, the battalion commands his loyalty, and his responsibility is to lead. He doesn’t talk about his men often–it seems like a dubious cliché, but I do think this burden of leadership was assumed, in both senses, by men of his social position, right along with the code of behavior that forbade complaining about it–but whenever he does it is clear that he is highly motivated by his determination to do right by them. If physically leading the way and taking the greatest risks is not always quite a satisfactory answer to the entire question, well, neither was it a bad start. Tonight, a century back, Frank Richards spoke to

an old soldier and one of the few survivors of old B Company who had taken part in the bombing raid. He said, ‘God strike me pink, Dick, it would have done your eyes good to have seen young Sassoon in that bombing stunt… It was a bloody treat to see the way he took the lead. He was the best officer I have seen in the line or out since Mr. Fletcher… If he don’t get the Victoria Cross for this stunt I’m a bloody Dutchman…”[5]

A good officer–and a fox hunting man with a Dutchman’s name.

Siegfried has been absurdly fortunate: not only is he safely wounded, but none of his men are killed or badly hurt. And the chance he wanted so badly fell into his lap, and he took it… it almost seems as if the half-committed pacifist, half-despairing lost boy of the last few months stamped his foot in willful insistence until the war begrudgingly gave him exactly what he wanted…  But the rough narrative of a successful fight won’t remain the full story–it’s only the brassy initial theme, and the undertones and variations won’t stay silent for very long. The war has given him horror, too, and no sure solace: if death-defying aggression can salve his conscience now, the memory of it will not last forever. Does Sassoon recognize this as clearly as he recognizes his good luck in merely not being killed?

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t. Given the constraints of this project and the length of his memoir, there’s no real way to take it on here, except to point out to readers this excellent opportunity to see what “voice” can do–or, rather, how much an author’s control of irony and tone from his secure position of future knowledge can influence our sense of the meaning of events, even if they are, in terms of factual detail, recounted fairly faithfully. Sassoon will not pretend to understand the mood that produced this bombing stunt, nor will he condemn it. But he does deflate his own heroics with more jabs than are strictly necessary.

Some very brief excerpts, then, beginning when Sassoon goes ahead of his own men and meets up with a corporal of the Cameronians, the unit which he is meant to support:

(Looking back on that emergency… I find some difficulty in believing that I was there at all.) For about ten minutes we dodged and stumbled up a narrow winding trench…

…we went round the next bay. There my adventurous ardour experienced a sobering shock. A fair-haired Scotch private was lying at the side of the trench in a pool of his own blood… I slung a couple of combat at our invisible enemies, receiving in replay an egg-bomb, which exploded harmlessly behind me. After that I went bombing busily along, while the corporal (more artful and efficient than I was) dodged in and out of the saps–a precaution which I should have forgotten… in this manner [we] arrived at our objective without getting more than a few glimpses of retreating field-grey figures. I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business. This, curiously enough, was the first time either of us had spoken since we met.

Does the skill of the self-satire make us forget the blood? Is it lurid, absurd? Is it remarkable that the clueless toff is good at bombing Germans out of their trenches, or only that he is such a clueless toff in the first place, and can’t provide a more conventionally meaningful narrative? (Or is that the point, that this sense of boyish silliness can’t coexist in the same rational narrative as the suffering and death from which it is inextricable? Where are the bodies? Who are the men killed or wounded by Sassoon’s bombs? Can they really exist in a story that plays alliteration for laughs and turns men hunting other men into figures of drawing room comedy?)

Ignoring Jeeves, Bertie trips blithely on:

The whole affair had been so easy that I felt like pushing on… I thought what a queer state of things it all was, and then decided to take a peep at the surrounding country. This was a mistake which ought to have put an end to my terrestrial adventures, for no sooner had I popped my silly head out of the sap than I felt a stupendous blow in the back between my shoulders…

Sassoon comes to, and finds his own sergeant binding a neat bullet wound. (And I am reminded that Sassoon himself will note that he felt as if he were being ministered to by a well-trained servant, a characterization which no doubt prompted my Wodehouse reference, above.)

After a short spell of being deflated and sorry for myself, I began to feel rabidly heroical again, but in a slightly different style, since I was now a wounded hero, with my arm in a superfluous sling…

So, overly enthusiastic heroism? Proper, “very stout” aggression?

But what if it tips over into something else? The Sassoon of the diary doesn’t seem to realize that charging on, shot through the shoulder, beyond his objective–the very act that got him in hot water over the summer–is close to crazy. He will, though…

It did not occur to me that anything else was happening on Allenby’s Army Front except my own little show…[6]

 

Far away from all this, Vera Brittain is busy with her duties as a nurse in Malta, but she has also been pining, restive. Malta was a charming and wonderful novelty, her first experience of foreign living. But it’s also a base hospital on a safe island–demanding work, but far from the center of the action. The mails are slow, and her conversations with Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow lag weeks behind their actions. She cannot know whether they have been involved in the spring offensive. She is neither near the front nor near the young men she feels most close to.

When she picked up her diary today, a century back, for the first time in many weeks, it was to report her reawakening wanderlust:

April 16th Malta

Had a short letter from Miss Lorimer to say she is going out as an orderly to one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Salonika. I want to go there more than ever.[7]

And then she wrote to Geoffrey Thurlow, who–though she cannot know this–has missed the initial Arras attack, but is about to be thrown in to the next desperate effort to shove the Germans back just a little bit more.

Malta, 16 April 1917

You are really a good correspondent; Mother says you are ‘most faithful’ to her too. Not like Victor, whose letters are few & far between, & very short when they do come. To me, at any rate, he conveys most by what he leaves unsaid. I have been rather anxious about him this last week, for last time I heard of his whereabouts he was at Arras, & I feel sure he must have been in the great battle–which at present we here only know of as an immense Fact, shorn of all its details. I hope you didn’t get into, even the fringe of it.

That is well put. For us the immense fact remains, outlined or obscured by clouds of innumerable details… but we still have to make a story.

I have been off-duty for a day or two with a bad throat & general malaise, but am back again to-night. I am beginning to be glad that I came out when I did, and not straight into the kind of weather that is just beginning. The nights are still quite cool but the days are getting very hot . . . The sirocco is blowing to-night in a hateful way, rushing down the stone verandah, & making the doors & shutters creak & groan. To me this particular wind always seems fraught with sinister things; it hides the stars, so that the night is as black as ink, & makes the men peevish & sends their temperatures up.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 144-5.
  2. Fire-Eater, 203-9.
  3. Diaries, 155-6.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 329.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 227.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 440-5.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 339.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 334-5.

Blackbirds for Edward Thomas; A Bad Report and a Chiff-Chaffing for Henry Williamson; A Gruesome Shortfall for Edwin Vaughan’s Warwickshires

Before we continue with Edwin Vaughan’s harrowing tour in the line we will catch up with Henry Williamson’s latest effort at self-sabotage… but before that, we should begin with Edward Thomas‘s early spring bird count. Yesterday, a century back, Thomas saw rooks nesting and heard partridges and “pipsqueaks.” Today, it was a

Blackbird trying to sing early in dull marsh. A dull cold day… I was in position all day.[1]

It seems an ominous addition after the uplifting larks, but then again, I suppose, nature is indifferent to its poetic resonances…

 

When we last saw Henry Williamson, on the night of the 10th, he was dining with Canadian officers–and overindulging. Whether by coincidence or unusually swift action, he was in hot water by the next afternoon.

His diary entry for the 11th:

Note from G.O.C. Brigade to attend at 4 oclock. Saw damning report from Capt. King ‘incompetent, useless etc’ Road shelled a bit.

The next day–we’re up to yesterday, a century back, now–he pleaded his case before a more sympathetic tribunal:

Dear Mother,

Am quite well and fit, but a rather unhappy as I fear I will lose my job—there has been trouble, but anyhow I don’t think I shall lose much, it is all work and no pay. So don’t be astonished if I go to the artillery or the A[rmy]S[ervice]C[orps]—I have had more during the last week than I got in 4 months in the Flemish sector. By God, it’s awful—we are shelled day & night—the roads are barraged and 12 inch How[itzer]s knock hell into us all day & night, but our guns knock the Bosche to hell & back…

Well I am just going along a  —– awful road with a little river along it (the only one here) & expect to get a blighty one… Well Cheero dear old thing…

This is a strange, almost recklessly cruel letter. He makes it clear that he has blundered and may lose his job; then he emphasizes (and probably exaggerates) his nightly danger, and then he shares a presentiment that he will be… safely wounded?

So is he dramatizing in order to give his mother relief in his next letter–a sort of manipulation that both the real Henry and the fictional Phillip are very prone to–or is he glossing over something like a suicidal mood?

His diary seems to demonstrate the latter:

Artillery ominously quiet early morning… Am taking Ammunition through Miraumont tonight. Have a presentiment…

But nothing happened, last night, except for (once more?) bungling his job:

Took 16 mules thro Miraumont. Got lost. Lost 2 mules. Arrived back at 3 o’clock dead beat…

So what will he tell his mother, today, hard on the heels of a letter that hinted at dejection and a shell with his name on it?

Dear mother,

Please send me April magazines. Have seen the March ones. The mud is awful—3 mules drowned in shell craters last night, it is terrible. Men lie down in the mud & ask to be allowed to die they are so exhausted & beat, it takes one 7 hours to go 4000 yards cross country. The Ger has an 8.2 armour piercing shell here… & has already killed ½ my drivers & mules & destroyed nearly all my waggons damn him. Love William. Don’t forget 1. Sweets (caramels etc) 2. Magazines (including Motor Cycle & Motorcycling) 3. 1 pair pyjamas. 4. Sox.

It’s a day-to-day life on the line, and in Williamson’s mind.

On the back of this letter is a (terrible) poem, containing–as a representative example–the line “are you weaving dreams of glory tinged with fames effulgent glow?”[2]

Evidently, he has entirely forgotten his baleful presentiment of a day before…

His diary for today adds little—another resupply trip, tonight—but it provides one important contextual fact: the Germans are now withdrawing in this sector, too, and this event allows us to find our place in Williamson’s enormous novel. In Love and the Loveless Phillip Maddison goes forward past happy British soldiers, and is given a copy of the Corps Summary of Intelligence—“Comic Cuts” to the sardonic troops—which is quoted at length. So instead of a letter to mother, his fiction reproduces an official document… strange.

But I’m more interested, naturally speaking, in two observations which surround the quotation:

Before going to sleep, he wrote in his Charles Lett’ Self-Opening Pocket Diary and Note Book for 1917 by candle-light, Heard a chiff-chaff in Miraumont, among some willows.

He didn’t–or, that is, this is fiction, an addition to the novel that is not based on the contemporary diary or his letters home. Williamson is a strange bird, but he always was a birder and a rambler and an amateur naturalist (one thing he very much shares with Edward Thomas, so different though they otherwise are). And after he quoted intelligence report, more birds–and no more writerly subtlety:

Then through the moonless dark came the cries of flighting mallard, flying west to the peaceful marshes of the Ancre. They would be nesting soon, he thought. For birds, the spring meant love–for men, the spring offensive, and the kiss of bullets.[3]

 

Between the contortions of Williamson and the horror that is to come, let’s have a bit of nearly-fatal slapstick. In the middle of the night, a century back, Wilfred Owen “was going round through pitch darkness to see a man in a dangerous state of exhaustion.” He then “fell into a kind of well, only about 15 ft.” but hit his head “on the way down.”

I am formally obligated to leave us in some suspense as to the outcome of his tumble, but even my cleverness in omitting the first person pronoun will probably not conceal the fact that he will live to tell the tale.

 

Now to darker doings. Edwin Vaughan has been back from a course for only a few days, but already he has been nearly killed, hastily buried four men, and almost cracked up when he mistakes another man for the risen dead. Today, at least, is the last day of their tour in the front line, and it passes pleasantly enough. Almost.

…we were to be relieved at 7 p.m., a thought which made us very bright and cheerful throughout the day.

At 5 p.m., as we sat in our dugout, a message in Playfair code was handed up by a signaller. It took some time to decipher and it was 5.15 p.m. when Holmes read out the following message: ‘Our heavy artillery will bombard enemy front lines, commencing 5.20 p.m. Withdraw advanced posts.’

Of course it was impossible to withdraw our posts, which were half an hour’s crawl away…

A few minutes later, Vaughan’s section of the line is bracketed by their own guns, firing short.

…Now they rained upon us; all along the trench we could hear them falling, as we sat with fixed grins upon our faces, trembling in every limb… a louder, fierce screech swooped upon us and a terrific crash flung us in all directions and into darkness.

It felt quite pleasant to be dead…

Reader, he has not died. Coughing out a mouthful of dust, Vaughan and his comrades in the company command dugout learn that they have

had a miraculous escape, for the shell had hit the corner of the cellar and blown it in… no one had been touched except Browne–Holmes’ servant–who had been hit in the back by a flying brick.

Our guns had now ceased fire, but we could hear them receiving a few shells from the Germans. I now found that during the few seconds when I had believed myself dead, I had closed my note book, snapped round the elastic and returned the pencil to its socket.

The command dugout now prepares for their relief, and while Browne is sent to alert the NCOs nearby, Vaughan begins piling sandbags over the hole in their roof.

After a few minutes Browne returned, rather white in the face, saying that he could not find the NCO’s dugout. This was only ten yards away… Holmes guessed that Brown was shaken up by the shelling, so he laughed and said, ‘Come on then, I’ll help you to search for it, perhaps someone’s pinched it.’ And they set off together down the muddy trench.

I was just finishing off the roof, when Browne came tumbling in moaning and laughing hysterically. He stared at me screaming ‘Oh God! It is. It is.’ Then we slung him in a chair, gave him a tot of rum, and ran off down the trench to the mine shaft which had been occupied by Sergeant Phillips, Sergeant Bennett, Corporal Everett and Corporal Hollins.

They are all dead, killed by their own artillery. And my guesswork work yesterday turns out not to have been very accurate: I erred in assuming that the Corporal Bennett who was killed yesterday is the Lance-Sergeant Bennett listed in the CWGC database as being killed today. He’s not: he’s his brother.

The last task before withdrawing to reserve then, will be the exhuming and reburial of the four men.

We started at once to pull away the wreckage of the entrance, and had just come to Sergeant Phillips, when Jerry started his “blue pigeon” strafe…

As we worked down the sides, we realized (in the darkness) that the beams and sides were splashed with blood and flesh. The stench of lyddite and fresh blood was ghastly, and the foulness of our groping in the dark cannot be described. At last we could stand it no longer, and regardless of consequences, we lit a candle and commenced working by its shaded light. This evoked a showed of ‘pineapples’ and bullets which continued to fall until we had cleared the shaft.

Of Corporal Everett we found no trace; he must have been struck by the shell and blown to atoms. Bennett was badly shattered and most of his head was gone, whilst Hollins, who had been sitting with his rifle between his knees, was unrecognizable and the twisted rifle was buried in front of his body.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 93-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 117-8.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 42-8. The only discrepancy between this account and the records is that it is Bennett who is missing while Everett was buried. Perhaps Vaughan and his men mistook one mangled body for another, or perhaps one identity disc was lost while another was found. I'm not sure why Corporal Bennett, who was killed yesterday, is not mentioned. I suppose there is the barest possibility that Vaughan, working back over his diary notes of a traumatic few days, made some sort of mistake and assigned the same surname to two memories, thus creating a story of two brothers killed within a day of each other. But, although I do suspect Vaughan of heavily editing his story after the fact to achieve various effects without indicating where and why he is doing so (of making a "diary" into a "memoir," that is), it seems extremely far-fetched to imagine that he would run so far away with a confusion--the story continues, tomorrow--and even more improbable that he would consciously invent something like this. It is much more sensible to assume that he is correct, and that there has been a record-keeping error at some point after Corporal Bennett's death and up through my desultory searches of the CWGC database...

Robert Graves Rejoins the Second Royal Welch; George Coppard is Dead Lucky; Francis Ledwidge on the Somme

Last night, a century back, was one of ill-omen for our most literary battalion. “Tibs” Crawshay, highly-respected C.O. of the 2nd Royal Welch, was shot and wounded while out in no man’s land diligently inspecting the barbed wire. In one account it is a German patrol that took the “unlucky” shot, but rumor has it that he was fired on by nervous sentries of a neighboring battalion.[1]

And who is more likely to spread piping-hot rumors than Robert Graves, just now arrived with the battalion and tacking on a post-script to yesterday’s letter to Siegfried Sassoon:

PS. I have just arrived at the Second Battalion. James Cuthbert is commanding Tibs was shot last night through the arm and thigh by a bloody fool of a 20th Royal Fusilier: I don’t think he’s bad… We are at ‘freeze’ in both senses. Young Jagger has flu. Everyone else I know is on leave…[2]

This experience is common even to men like Max Plowman, still on his first tour but briefly absent at an Army School. For Graves, gone since July, the situation is even more stark–his best friend left behind, and none are here to smooth his path.

Actually, Graves does have friends. He is infuriating, but he has proven himself brave and generally competent, and that means a lot. And the battalion itself has changed, with fewer of the horsey, anti-intellectual career officers that had railed at his unconventionality but accepted a quiet sportsman like Sassoon. The most important friend he will have, however, is one of our most important informants: today is not so much a crossing of paths as a conjoining of two–Graves is now back within the purview of Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle.

I found the Second Battalion near Bouchavesnes on the Somme, but a very different Second Battalion. No riding-school, no Battalion Mess, no Quetta manners, no regular officers, except a couple of newly arrived Sandhurst boys. I was more warmly welcomed this time; my supposed spying activities had been forgotten…

Dr. Dunn asked me, with kindly disapproval, what I meant by returning so soon. I said I couldn’t stand England any longer.

Melodramatic, but perhaps not untrue. Graves is known to be brave, in trenches, and it is certainly another point in his favor that he has returned to the battalion in the miserable depths of winter rather than milk his injury for more time at the depot. He is, as it were, now proven to be operationally as well as tactically courageous. And his worst tormentors are gone–it’s safe, then, for him to be made safe, and Dr. Dunn steps in.

He told the acting C.O. that I was, in his opinion, unfit for trench service, so I took command of the Headquarter Company and went to live with the transport, back at Frises, where the Somme made a bend…

We lived in dug-outs, close to the river, which was frozen over completely but for a narrow stretch of fast-running water in the middle. I have never been so cold in my life. I used to go up to the trenches every night with the rations, Yates being sick; it was about a twelve-mile walk there and back.

Graves’s other memories of this period include focus on the cold, including inter-Company football played on the frozen river and piping hot dinners eaten in billets so cold that “ice had formed on the edge of out plates before we finished eating.”[3]

 

And two more brief updates for today, a century back.

George Coppard‘s engaging tale of life as a teenage machine gunner is of limited usefulness, here, because he did not keep a detailed diary and can apply few specific dates to his memoir. But everybody remembers his or her birthday! Coppard, shot in the foot by a pal, was cleared of wrongdoing and has been recovering at Lady Butler’s private hospital in Hereford.

I was dead lucky to have struck that hospital. I’ll never forget the food and perquisites we Tommies had there. Her Ladyship personally issued the daily ration of twenty cigarettes or an ounce of pipe tobacco per man. On my nineteenth birthday, I had a surprise birthday cake.[4]

 

Francis Ledwidge’s burgeoning prominence as a poet has not kept him from shipping out once again. It’s his first tour in France after a long odyssey in Gallipoli, Serbia, Macedonia, and Egypt. After a week of drill and instruction his battalion of the Royal Inniskillings had moved to a camp near Trônes Wood, on the Somme, for further combat training. This afternoon, a century back, they began their march to the front line. For men who had not seen France before this would have been a sobering–not to say awful–march: over a rutted road and then over miles of the old Somme battlefield, muddy and cold, safely traversed only by slick and icy duckboards. Men slipped into the mud whenever the duckboards tilted, and even tying sandbags over boots for better traction was of little avail. “After a horribly wearisome journey, they reached their line, consisting of a series of shell-holes connected by a shallow trench.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 293; Good-Bye to All That, 238.
  2. In Broken Images, 64.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 238-9.
  4. With a Machine Gun, 105.
  5. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 171.

The Last Day of the Somme: Sidney Rogerson and Edmund Blunden on the Men Who Marched Away; Vera Brittain’s Boys at the Front Write Their Survival

thiepval-shutterstock_149296949-768x576

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

We have come to the end of the Battle of the Somme. There will be no more major attacks this year, and the eyes of the General Staff are fixed on a different area of the front as their plans for 1917 develop. This is only practical: the attraction of the Somme had been, in part, its unspoiled aspect. But now it is a ruined country, shelled and trampled, its vegetation and its drainage destroyed, every trench marked on the artillery maps of both sides. Much of the German defensive system as it existed on July 1st has been seized by the British and French, but not anywhere near fast enough to prevent the building of even more secure fortifications a few miles further on–and certainly not fast enough for a “breakthrough” by cavalry (or the newfangled, very fragile tanks). Thus the limited tactical victories of the Somme amounted to a strategic defeat, although in the largest strategic sense the allies have at least won a draw: the bleeding of the German Army on the Somme slowed its attritional offensive at Verdun, thus easing France’s dogged defensive effort.

So the battle is over, and the stalemate continues. This being a miserable war of attrition, the dying on the Somme will drag on for nearly two more years. Numbers are difficult to pin down, and too large to carry much impact: over a million men became casualties during the battle, and more than 300,000 lost their lives on the Somme between July 1st and today, a century back.

While the victims of daily attrition in trench warfare could usually be carried back and buried, many of the bodies of the attacking troops on the Somme were lost. They died in the open and were accidentally buried, or they disintegrated in the rain and shellfire, or were picked clean by vermin, or entombed by heavy caliber shells and mines. And many more were hastily buried near where they died, their bodies never located for reburial in a proper cemetery. For these reasons–and because of the lasting impact of the Somme on the British psyche–an unusual memorial was built, beginning in 1928, to commemorate the Missing of the Somme.

the virginThe architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, hit upon something new when he designed the Memorial, something powerful and appropriate to both the awfulness of Great War combat and its liminal position between the “heroic” past and the modern age. Its arches nod to the triumphal arch tradition but do not embrace it–it is both squat and stretched, rejecting classical form. There is a hint in its shape and brickwork of that great accidental monument of the battle, the Basilica in Albert topped by the leaning Virgin, skewing a message of mercy and peace over the endless battlefield. There is also its total absence of heroic imagery–or of any figural imagery at all, anticipating the black marble of more recent monuments to calamity. And then there is the fact that, from certain angles, the tall arch looks like a face frozen in a scream.

grwatu1kxfmrg6hwxoea_thumbBut most of all–and here Lutyens’ influence on later works of memorial art and architecture is very great–there are the names. The monument boasts no allegorical or representative figures; but on it are inscribed the names of 72,246 British and Commonwealth troops who died on the Somme and have “no known resting place.”

 

 

 

 

Appropriately enough, our writers for today, a century back, seem to have agreed to celebrate the bare fact of their survival. Sidney Rogerson did not see any of the major actions of the battle, just one difficult tour in scratch trenches surrounded by the bloody, muddy wreckage. But that was enough–for an entire book, among other things.

For the first and last time the battalion fell in at the bottom of the lines, in full marching order over greatcoats, with blanket in pack and a waterproof sheet over all. Punctually at 10.45 a.m. Colonel Jack gave the command, “Battalion will advance in Companies from the left, D Company leading.” And it began to rain…

But Rogerson–or his muse, or the special providence of his wartime experience–has a knack for wringing good cheer from even the most sodden march. His battalion soon finds itself required to wait in the rain, for transport, in a desolate area, with their “cookers”–the kitchen-wagons that are their only source of hot food–trapped in traffic hours behind. Which is when his company’s irrepressible scrounger, plunderer of the dead, and half-mad non-com comes to the rescue.

And the battalion were actually delving into haversacks for their bags of biscuits and bully, when Corporal Robinson  achieved his miracle, for which alone, had he no other claim to fame, his name should be remembered. Lying about in the mud were some logs and splintered pieces of tree trunks. Under Robinson’s direction, his platoon collected a number of these, and, standing them up, placed them end to end to form a sort of triangular tunnel… with infinite care Robinson whittled with his jack-knife into the heart of logs where the wood was still dry…

At first no one paid much attention… But when his log-pyre was built… I wandered over to take a closer look. What exactly happened or by what alchemy he managed it I do not know. All I can say is that in a few seconds the puny, carefully-sheltered flame flickering in the heap of tinder had swelled swiftly…  in a very few minutes the Battalion, open-mouthed, gathered round a bonfire which both for size and heat would have done credit to an English village green on a dry Guy Fawkes’ night!

Is Rogerson laying it on a bit thick with his casting back not just to English village life but to the vocabulary of alchemy and magic, royalty and their loyal servants? Perhaps… but it’s hard not to be warmed, a bit, by this century-old blaze.

The obvious envy of the other Companies puffed me up with pride till I felt very much like the happy monarch in a fairy tale whose court magician has unexpectedly produced a marvel at the auspicious moment. Notwithstanding that I had had nothing whatever to do with it, I identified myself at once with Robinson’s triumph, chaffing Palmes and Hawley that they had to come to B Company to be taught how to make themselves comfortable…

Even the Battalion gods in the person of the Colonel and Major Maclaren descended from Olympus so far as to come across and warm themselves.

After lending both Robinson and “some incandescent logs” to the other companies “with a certain ostentatious magnanimity,” three more fires are blazing, and the rain, defeated, stops.

Thus in an incredibly short space of time the whole scene had chanced, and from dropping dejectedly about… the men regained their spirits and their energy, and laughter and song rose from the circles round the fires.[1]

The book ends a few pages later, as Rogerson’s battalion marches into an unspoilt village where they will have a month’s rest. But since the heart of his book is this appeal to communal resilience, I think the happy battalion, singing around its bonfires, makes the best coda to the Twelve Days on the Somme.

 

Edmund Blunden, too, is marching away from the Somme, with remarkably similar sentiments.

So we have come north. It is midnight, with intense stars and darkness, and one has rarely felt the frost strike sharper (the ponderous journey scarcely having aided the body to repel the climate); but we have come north, and the ground is solid and clean. The battalion detrains at an unknown siding and its forerunners guide it in to unknown M Camp. I am warmed by the sight of my old confederate, Sergeant Worley, in the exit of the siding; he gives his usual candid views on the situation, but is on the whole favourable to it; and we go along the cobbled road between level fields. Suddenly turning aside we find the Quartermaster and Transport Officer, Swain and Maycock, who, stamping their feet, rejoice with me, and Maycock seizes my shoulders with gloved hands and pretends to dance. These invincible officers have a pleasant surprise for us, and although it is midnight, there is soon a sound of revelry. In a large wooden tavern a cheerful Belgian girl, under the argus-eyed direction of a masculine mother, is soon running hither and thither among the veterans from colonel to subaltern with some of the best victuals ever known. Rave on, you savage east: and gloom, you small hours; we will take our ease in our inn, by the red-hot stoves. We have come through.[2]

 

Yes, Blunden has come through–and so have many others, including Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson. But Vera Brittain, who will soon be warned by her brother that their two great friends have both been in the area of the recent battles, will have to learn piecemeal–and by fortune of the mails–of their fates. Today, as if to observe the end of the Battle of the Somme (which is, of course, a historical convenience that can only be identified after the fact), both Geoffrey and Victor wrote to Vera. Victor first:

Billets, France, 18 November 1916

Thank you so much for your letter. I was delighted to get it and to find that you had not forgotten my existence which is rather what one expects on Active Service. One soon learns that people are remembered in 9 cases out of 10 so long as they are actually present. Afterwards–no. It is inevitable that it should be so.

I am very glad to hear you are feeling better & are not as worried by the climate as you expected to be. I hope by now that you are quite well…

Victor is still fairly new to France, and his letter has a boyish swagger to it. He seems to think himself an old hand and a happy warrior–he is considering applying for a Regular Army commission. He’s glad, in any case, that he’s not among the detested Territorials, as they’re not proper soldiers…

I hope Thurlow will not get hit again. I expect he has been in this latest show which seems to be about the biggest thing the British have done…

He has indeed.

France, 18 November 1916

Since my last letter much has happened — we have been to the War again and the weather treated us abominably: however our Bde did well taking an important Hun trench — we didn’t go over the top but had to clean up and hang on to the trench. Luckily we had no officer casualties tho’ there were many among the men. But as our no. of officers is at present the irreducible minimum perhaps this accounts for it…

But Thurlow will spare Vera the rest of this experience, however mild or difficult it was. Instead, some harmless scenes of billets life…

This village has an interesting old castle and church and is a thoroughly delightful place. Our billets are luxurious and to find oneself in a bed once again is perfect bliss; the people too cannot do enough for us. How long we remain here I cannot tell…

Yesterday we went into a large town with a glorious cathedral, by motor lorry, and spent most of our time shopping new boots puttees caps etc: if this goes on our accounts at Cox will fast ebb out. However the shops there were perfectly priceless and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves!

Once more we are talking about ourselves. Haven’t heard from Victor Richardson for some time: hope he is all right.[3]

They are all alright, for now. We’ve made it to winter.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Rogerson, Twelve Days on the Somme, 156-9.
  2. Undertones of War, 126.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 291-3.

Tolkien and Blunden in the Front Line, and Relieved–A Brother Buried and a Lost Dog Lost; George Coppard is Spared; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Gets a Partridge

For Edmund Blunden‘s 11th Royal Sussex and Ronald Tolkien‘s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, today, a century back, was the day after.

The Lancashires sat tight in Regina Trench most of the day, doing what they could to shore up the defenses of their new positions. Tolkien must have spent the day trying to establish, protect, and repair lines from the new positions to the rear. In the late afternoon they were at last relieved and began the long march back, in time for soup at Ovillers once more, and then a last stage to a rest camp near Albert, well in the rear.[1]

Blunden, still some hundreds of yards behind the new front line in yesterday’s headquarters post, picks up the tale of the Royal Sussex. I broke in yesterday to give the cold facts of their losses, but Blunden writes with restraint. He has signaled who among his friends will die, but we aren’t supposed to come out of it so lightly scathed, so eased by literature. We must come along with him and see the wreckage, learning its cost as he did:

Another day arrived, and the men in Stuff Trench had to eat their “iron rations,” for we could not supply them. We had also lost touch with our battalion doctor, who was somewhere toward Thiepval, that slight protuberance on rising ground westward; and the bearers of the wounded had to find another way out; yet, we were in possession of Stuff Trench, and the Australians southward held its continuation, Regina. That evening, gloomy and vast, lit up with savage glares all around, a relieving battalion arrived, one disposed to quarrel with us as readily as with the Germans. “Take the companies over to Stuff Trench,” said Harrison to me, “and see them settled in there.” Cassels came with me. We were lucky, the night being black, to find our way through that unholy Schwaben Redoubt, but by this stage our polarity-sense was awakened and we knew how little to expect of local identifications. At last, after many doubts, we had passed (in the darkness) a fragment of road metalling which assured me that all was right; the grumbling relief followed our slow steps, which we could not hasten even though one of many shells crashing into our neighbourhood caught a section of the incomers and the moaning cries might have distracted more seasoned tacticians.

At last Blunden has reached the real front, the zone of the worst suffering. Which is not his:

It was Geoffrey Salter speaking out firmly in the darkness. Stuff Trench—this was Stuff Trench; three feet deep, corpses under foot, corpses on the parapet. He told us, while still shell after shell slipped in crescendo wailing into the vibrating ground, that his brother had been killed, and he had buried him; Doogan had been wounded, gone downstairs into one of the dugout shafts after hours of sweat, and a shell had come downstairs to finish him; “and,” says he, “you can get a marvellous view of Grandcourt from this trench. We’ve been looking at it all day. Where’s these men? Let me put ’em into the posts. No, I’ll see to it. That the sergeant major?”

Moving along as he spoke with quick emotion and a new power (for hitherto his force of character had not appeared in the less exacting sort of war), he began to order the newcomers into sentry groups…

I always say that Blunden is gentle, and he is. But just because he doesn’t rage doesn’t mean he isn’t tough. He doesn’t look away from Salter and his terrible loss.

And yet life and fate and this awful war seem always to take a fond pity on Blunden, our harmless hobbit-shepherd, amazed and sometimes downhearted, but never despairing, always stoutly safe in mind and body, even amidst the ruins. We might be left to face Salter, to see what will happen when the stress of battle relents and allows him to feel what has happened–but no. For Blunden, as for many youths in fairy tales, there is a dumb beast to care for.

…stooping down to find what it was snuffing at my boots I found it was a dog. He was seemingly trying to keep me from treading on a body. I caught sight of him by someone’s torch or a flare; he was black and white; and I spoke to him, and at the end of a few moments he allowed me to carry him off. Cassells and myself had finished, and returned by ourselves by the shortest way; now the strain told, our feet weighed like lead, and our hope was out of action. I put down the dog, who came limpingly round the shadowy shell holes, stopped, whined, came on again; what was the use? he perhaps thought: that way, too, there is this maniacal sport of high explosive, and the mud is evidently the same all over the world; I shall stay here. Much I wished to adopt this dog, but now I could scarcely stoop, and I reflected that the mud and shell zone extended a long way on; so there he stayed; feebly I passed along.

Ah, but care for him he cannot. The war supervenes. But still–the dog turned his face away from horror, for a few moments.

If I was weary, what of Salter and his men? Still I hear their slouching feet on the footbridge over the Ancre by Aveluy, where a sad guard of trees dripping with the dankness of autumn had nothing to say but sempiternal syllables, of which we had our own interpretation. The shadows on the water were so profound and unnavigable that one felt them as the environment of a grief of gods, silent and bowed, unvisitable by breeze or star; and then we were past, and soon asleep in the lee of Aveluy Wood.

The account should end there; but since Blunden steels himself to the responsibilities of writing a dutiful sort of war-book and musters a closing paragraph for the chapter, I’ll let it stand:

The action at Stuff Trench on October 21st and 22d had been the first in which our battalion had seized and held any of the German area, and the cost had been enormous; not intemperate pride glowed among the survivors, but that natural vanity was held in check by the fact that we were not yet off the battlefield. The evenings were shutting in early, the roads were greasy and clogging, and along the wooded river valley the leaves had turned red and now had a frost-bitten chillier tinge; the ridges looked lonelier under the sallow clouds; but in mud and gloom the guns went on, and by our camp of tents at evening we saw the tanks crawl round and round in preparation for something new, and not even rumours of our being sent to Lens or Egypt were heard. Winter clothing was served out, shirts, vests, white leather gloves with fleece lining and a tape to keep them together.[2]

 

With the chapter thus ended, I think we can turn briefly for updates on two other writers. First, and most pressingly, George Coppard. After three days held in the special ward for suspected SIWs (self-inflected wounds), Coppard was cleared of wrongdoing today, a century back, and sent to Rouen, a familiar hospital way-station for Blighty. He had been accidentally shot by his “best pal” in the presence of other witnesses, so he was unlikely to be blamed, but the very fact that he was investigated shows that more and more men were going to extreme lengths to escape the miseries of the Somme.[3]

 

And speaking of non-combat shooting, why not a bizarre letter from Patrick Shaw-Stewart, long-moldering liaison officer on the Salonika front:

Hirsova, October 22 , 1916

The weather has been delicious here lately. I have had several afternoons among the partridges. I had two days in Salonica last week, and extravagantly invested in a 200-drachma gun: but I am worse off than before, for a lying thief of a Greek sold me a hundred cartridges loaded with buckshot…

Meanwhile, I have shot a quail (my first) with one of the buckshot cartridges, probably a record, I should say. On the face of it, I look like being here till all’s blue: but something tells me that I might conceivably find myself in England (at any rate for a few days) before the Winter’s out. One never knows, you know.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 94.
  2. Undertones of War, 109-11.
  3. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 178.

George Coppard Wounded and Under Suspicion; Max Plowman, Bayonet Instructor: Pacifist Principles, Grand Intentions, and an Unfinished Sonnet

The morning after being accidentally shot in the foot, George Coppard awoke in a casualty clearing station:

…I discovered that there was something queer about the place, which filled me with misgivings. None of the nursing staff appeared friendly, and the matron looked, and was, a positive battle-axe. I made anxious enquiries, and quickly learned that I was classed as a suspected self-inflicted-wound case. Unknown to me, the letters SIW with a query mark added had been written on the label attached to my chest. Here was a fine kettle of fish, and I was in a state of near-panic. The place was full of SIW cases, or suspected cases, and normal standards of kindness were not allowed to nurture there. Many cases of wounding, even blindness, had been caused by foolish curiosity of needless tampering with detonators, fuses, rusted-up bombs and other weapons away from the trenches. That alone cast dark suspicion on the unlucky victim, who, by carelessness, as opposed to a genuine accident, fell into the fearful SIW category. Whenever it was possible for a patient to do any kind of chore, he was set to work. If he had lost a foot, he could brood over his misfortune while peeling spuds, or any other task that he was able to do without the aid of two feet.

This is harsh–unless it is lenient. It’s what the British army, like many large and hidebound institutions, does: split the difference in suspicious cases and do not worry unduly about individual justice.

But Coppard’s tale of today, a century back, shows that I was off-base yesterday with my attempt to make a neat division between accidental bullet and grenade wounds.

One man told me that he had been tampering with what he thought was a dud bomb, and had lost his right hand. Of course, there were patients who had deliberately injured themselves in order to avoid further fighting. They were the blackest among those black sheep. The poor devils must have been in a dreadful state of mind to savage themselves, but I doubt whether severe mental stress was taken into account when pleading for mercy at the court martial which awaited them all.

In every unit there were always one or two men who were below standard, unable to control or hide their fears in times of danger. To be blunt, they ought not to have been soldiers at all, yet they volunteered for service. Events, however, proved too much for them, and they were to be pitied.

Three most anxious days passed…[1]

Coppard’s compassion is retrospective, but it also seems typical of the “Tommy” view at the time. Men who shirked were unacceptable; bounders and the sorts of cowards who sneakily cut corners to save themselves and endanger or burden their comrades were detested. But men who struggled every day to shore up the slipping, sliding, pounded walls of their will to resist generally had sympathy with the men who simply couldn’t do it. To condemn a man whose only fault was–as they recognized, and as their officers generally recognized, but couldn’t condone–to have a smaller stock of courage than his comrades was cruel and unfair.

So there is decency here, and empathy, but also a less exalted psycho-social phenomenon: the sight of men failing to master themselves probably gave heart to many others who felt themselves slipping but were not yet in circumstances so dire. Esprit de Corps improves when there is a demonstration of what disqualifies from membership in the group and, therefore, of what ensures it. So this is but “there but for the grace of God go I” and “I may be slipping, but thank God I haven’t slipped like that, yet.”

 

George Coppard is in hot water, but he intends to soldier on, and the fact that several men witnessed the accidental shooting–it was not his own gun–should save him from permanent ostracism and court martial. His sympathies have been roused, but he was young, and not a political man.

Max Plowman, by contrast, was a committed prewar pacifist who had joined the ambulance corps and then carefully and deliberately changed his mind: there were no half-measures in great wars of nations, and to take part in war without taking a hand in its violence began to seem an unacceptable half-measure. But Plowman, now a Subaltern on the Somme, will explain it better himself, in a letter of today, a century back, to the journalist and budding novelist Hugh de Selincourt:

…If I live Calidore[2] I mean to write my apologianot to contend with yours, not even to justify myself, but to see whether it will really hold water, to discover completely whether my evolution was a real one–to put on record, for my own satisfaction, the reason why I took courses that may otherwise seem–looking back casually—inexplicable. Perhaps it will all seem unimportant then–(it isn’t now),–perhaps I shall find much better things to do…

I want to exploit the fear of War. Do you think that degenerate or a sign if how far from grace I have already fallen? …After the war millions of men in every country will have one dominant conviction–that was is a loathsome inanity to be avoided at any cost. But they’ll be inarticulate in their knowledge. I want to start an International League of individuals sworn never to take up arms. It seems to me that only by such means can pressure be brought to bear on Governments who will then never know their armed strength. The working man never wants to fight. Can’t someone start an International League to give that one & only negative tenet a voice? I know it’s a million of miles from the Kingdom of God, but I feel like Shaw, that we’ve got to start right at the bottom…

Plowman has seen much of the trenches, but nothing of the very worst, yet, and his unit has long been at rest. So why this renewed commitment to pacifism now? What only-in-the-Great-War irony might enliven this Pacifist’s Letter of Intention?

A pretty theory coming from an Instructor in Bayonet Fighting, isn’t it? That’s what I am now, Calidore. The cheese rind of the logical conclusion isn’t it? Not by choice I add in mitigation. I was just “detailed.” They didn’t ask my preferences. And you know another gruesome irony is that “Physical Training & Bayonet Fighting” are one course. An epitome of War.

An epitome of war, and an excellent writer of letter and memoir. But the poetry isn’t quite there…

I never told you about the sonnet I wrote in the trenches did I? It’s very bad and not even finished. It’s over a month ago since I tried it so I can tell you just where I wrote it. In a “dug-out” after spending the morning in the front line at Hébuterne, about 10 miles north of Thiepval. It’s another one to that old Goddess of War. Here it is:

So thou art proven at last, thou Queen of Whores!
The last shred of seduction torn away,
As naked to the piercing eye of day
Thou standest, wholly garmented with sores.
O fruit of loveless passion, mindless deed,
What shall avail thee now, when thy fierce lust
Makes of the brave and skilled a nameless dust
And gives to the coward devilry the meed?

For flashing sword, the creep of poisoned air;
Instead of drums, the earthquake of crash and shell;
While men, like vermin, thread the bowels of earth
And crave the certainty of ancient Hell…

perhaps I shall finish it some day.

Perhaps I was unkind–the last four lines are pretty good. This one goes into our burgeoning basket of uncertain new work–hesitant starts to a new vocabulary of thoroughly-felt combat poetry. Such a poem must acknowledge the tradition it is rejecting, but if we are to feel the plight of the soldiers as we feel the singers of traditional lyric, we can’t just replace the heroic tone with caustic wit or bitter despair…

Plowman soon returns to his discussion of the proper course for pacifism. As fed up as he is, as devoted to the idea of a “League” against war, he recognizes both that the present German occupation of France and Belgium makes it too late to be a complete pacifist in this war (“I do not believe that when an armed man enters your neighbour’s house he will be moved to tears by your assurance that nothing would induce you to interfere”) and that he bears a duty to stand with his nation.

That’s blind idealism. And so I’m here in mud & blood & all the damned insanity of war & I wouldn’t be out of it, things being as they are, for I can see no alternative things being as they were. –I know that gradually the individual ideal must permeate the nation, but till then how can I, after benefiting by all the nation’s virtues, disclaim all personal responsibility for its sins?

…I’ve never really doubted that the war would only end with general exhaustion. But we shalln’t be as we were. Fools can only learn through suffering… and that suffering, by the way, includes, I believe, the misery of murder.

Wouldn’t I love to believe that the war was just a huge beast let loose upon us by a few crafty self-seeking devils of hell! …Wouldn’t I like to be able to say sincerely–To Hell with Belgium… I don’t know, Cally…. What would Doistoievsky… what would Meredith have done?–Yet I’ve only to imagine what would have happened if England hadn’t joined the Devils Dance to know I’m glad I’m here…

My love always…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103.
  2. The nickname is an allusion, I think, to Keats, one of Plowman's best-loved poets.
  3. Bridge Into the Future, 55-8.