Toward Langemarck: More Gas for the Master of Belhaven; Kate Luard’s Saddest Sight; Harry Patch and Edwin Vaughan Arm for Battle

Today, a century back, was another eve of battle in the Ypres Salient. We begin with the Master of Belhaven, as the German artillery, surely aware of the new preparations, fire gas shells into the British support areas.

We were badly gassed last night. About midnight the Huns started off and we had to wear our gas-helmets for four consecutive hours. He is not content with firing .77 gas-shells, but is sending the gas over in 5.9 shells now. This is simply horrid, as the amount of gas liberated from one shell is so great that it is still highly concentrated at a considerable distance from where the shell burst. By bad luck the very first gas-shell that arrived last night burst just outside our dug-out. We were asleep at the time but woke at the crash and with the debris falling on the roof. In less than ten seconds the place was filled with concentrated phosgene. The first mouthful simply seized me by throat like a swallowing a spoonful of cayenne pepper. In the dark I was rather slow getting my gas mask on, and could not get the nose-clip to go on right. The result was that I got quite a lot of the horrible stuff. Within ten minutes I was feeling pretty bad–great difficulty in breathing and a dreadful sinking pain in the heart; the latter going rather fast and every now and then missing out a beat, which gave the sensation of sinking through the floor. This morning I am feeling very sick with a dull aching around the heart that is very uncomfortable. The bombardment is becoming intense again…[1]

 

Ypres is a cozy place, and if the smaller guns can’t reach the hospitals a few miles back, the big guns can–and so too the bombers, as Kate Luard reports. Few people can have had as much experience with the pathos of death from wounds as she has, but new situations can still bring home the depths of suffering which ripple outward from each of these torn bodies. Usually her duties as a nurse include easing the death of hopelessly wounded young men, and then providing what comfort she can to their parents–but not at the same time.

Wednesday, August 15th, 11.30p.m. This has been a horrid day. He bombed a lot of men near by and all who weren’t killed came to us. Some are still alive but about half died here. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is happening to-night. An officer boy is dying with his father (a Colonel) sitting holding his hand. The father happened to meet the Ambulance bringing him in, and the boy’s servant stopped him and told him his son was inside. He’s staying here to-night, and has just been pacing the duckboards with me, saying, ‘The other boy is a darling, but this one is the apple of our eye. I knew it must happen.’

…The Colonel’s boy died at 12.30.[2]

 

Going forward now are thousands of men from fresh divisions that have rotated into the line since the battle’s terrible first week. Edwin Vaughan now commands a platoon of the 8th Royal Warwickshires, the143rd Brigade, 48th (South Midland) Division. They are slated to support the new attack in the northern bulge of the Salient, near Saint-Julien, just south of Langemarck.

August 15

I could not sleep, but lay awake thinking and wondering about the attack, fancying myself blown to bits, or lying out on the wire with a terrible wound. It was not until dawn that I dozed off and slept fitfully until 9 a.m. The whole day we were busy, examining gas-masks, rifles, Lewis guns, field dressings, iron rations, identity discs, etc, and trying to joke with the troops despite the gnawing apprehension that was numbing our minds. Early in the evening I changed into Tommy’s uniform and tried to prepare for every contingency—spare laces and string in one pocket, spare pencils in another, scissors in my field dressing pochette, rations and cigarettes in my haversack with my maps, small message maps stuffed into my respirator satchel, and a pocketful of revolver ammunition. I also saw that my rosary was sewn into my tunic with the sovereign that Marie had given me for luck, and that my holy medals were firmly attached with my identity discs to my braces. We handed our money and decent cigarette cases over to CQMS Braham so that if anything happened to us Jerry would not have them. Then we mingled with the troops and talked lightly of tomorrow’s excitement.[3]

 

The 20th (Light) Division has recently taken the place of the 38th (Welsh) Division, so the 7th Duke of Connaught’s Light Infantry–among them a nineteen-year-old infantryman named Harry Patch–are assembling tonight in the area overrun by the comrades of David Jones and Hedd Wyn on the battle’s opening day. After taking up their burdens–as part of a Lewis gun team, Patch was issued a large amount of ammunition to carry along with the gun’s spare parts, his personal equipment, rations, water, and revolver–they crossed the Yser Canal at around 11:00 p.m.and headed toward the Steenbeck to take up positions for their early morning assault. [4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 367.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 144-5.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193.
  4. The Last Fighting Tommy, 89.

Edwin Vaughan in Slaughter Wood; Jack Martin in the Noxious Saps; Lord Dunsany Remembers Francis Ledwidge

Edwin Vaughan is almost there:

August 12 Sunday. We had sudden orders in the forenoon to move up nearer the line, and after a hurried packing we marched off at 2.30 p.m. Straight up to Pop and out on the Ypres road with my nerves tingling, unable to talk for excitement and drinking in the real atmosphere of war. We were part of the never-ending stream now, welling up into the great reservoir behind Ypres which was swelling and deepening until the dam should be loosed and all the men and guns and shells should pour out on to the enemy lines…

But the eve of battle is not battle–and it is predictably shabby. Their home for the next few days will be

…a nondescript camp consisting of bivouacs, tents, huts and tarpaulin shelters into which we stowed the troops as best we could. For our combined mess and bedroom we had a small hut with a table and a couple of forms. It was a baleful place for the shell-holes and shattered trees bore testimony to the attentions of the German gunners. Amongst the trees was a great concentration of tanks—and the name of the camp was Slaughter Wood![1]

 

Jack Martin‘s experience has been somewhat difficult to integrate with the rest, here. But he is a rare voice from the ranks and our only engineer, and in this capacity his diary sometimes takes us to new depths, as it were. He and the rest of his company of sappers live, now, like moles in their tunnels, working by day and sleeping by night–or the other way around. This has always been unpleasant and dangerous, but the new German technique of firing different gas shells at all hours has made it even more dangerous–and unimaginably unpleasant.

The Huns have made some fierce counter-attacks on our left today… This evening we have heard that we are to be relieved tomorrow. Thank God. Although we have spent most of our time in the comparative security of the saps, this period in the line has been most trying and exhausting. By day and night the Hun has kept up a continual harassing fire, mainly of HEs and gas shells. The entrances to the saps are covered at night with double gas curtains which are daily saturated with some mixture intended to neutralise the poison…

Owing to the gas curtains being kept down at night and the ventilation shaft being shut, the air in the tunnels becomes most fetid. Seventy or eighty men crowd in one of these galleries, mainly with wet clothes, and all in a filthy dirty condition, breathing the same air over and over again, their bodies stewing in the close, damp atmosphere and exuding all manner of noxious odours–this alone is sufficient to make us ill. It is positively choking to enter the tunnel in the early morning… you choke and splutter and gasp for breath… But foul air is better than poison gas, and dugouts are to be preferred to shell holes.[2]

 

Lastly, today, a century back, was a Sunday. It seems to have been the Sunday on which Father Devas, chaplain of the First Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, kept his vow of saying a funeral mass for Francis Ledwidge–Frank, to his friends–thirteen days after he was killed by a shell while road-making on the first day of the battle.[3] It must have been around now, too, that Ledwidge’s patron, Lord Dunsany, an officer of the same regiment serving on garrison duty, learned of his protegé’s death. Dunsany will see Ledwidge’s second book through to publication, but he is also at work on a volume of his own, a collection of slight, lightly fantastic war-themed short stories. These generally feature lightly drawn every-soldier characters–the book is full of soft-focus celebrations of British steadfastness and gentle wish fulfillment. But one soldier, at least, is drawn from life.

 

The Road

The battery Sergeant-Major was practically asleep. He was all worn out by the continuous roar of bombardments that had been shaking the dugouts and dazing his brains for weeks. He was pretty well fed up.

The officer commanding the battery, a young man in a very neat uniform and of particularly high birth, came up and spat in his face. The Sergeant-Major sprang to attention, received an order, and took a stick at once and beat up the tired men. For a message had come to the battery that some English (God punish them!) were making a road at X.

The gun was fired. It was one of those unlucky shots that come on days when our luck is out. The shell, a 5.9, lit in the midst of the British working party. It did the Germans little good. It did not stop the deluge of shells that was breaking up their guns and was driving misery down like a wedge into their spirits. It did not improve the temper of the officer commanding the battery, so that the men suffered as acutely as ever under the Sergeant-Major. But it stopped the road for that day.

I seemed to see that road going on in a dream.

Another working party came along next day, with clay pipes and got to work; and next day and the day after. Shells came, but went short or over; the shell holes were neatly patched up; the road went on. Here and there a tree had to be cut, but not often, not many of them were left; it was mostly digging and grubbing up roots, and pushing wheelbarrows along planks and duck-boards, and filling up with stones. Sometimes the engineers would come: that was when streams were crossed. The engineers made their bridges, and the infantry working party went on with the digging and laying down stones. It was monotonous work. Contours altered, soil altered, even the rock beneath it, but the desolation never; they always worked in desolation and thunder. And so the road went on.

They came to a wide river. They went through a great forest. They passed the ruins of what must have been quite fine towns, big prosperous towns with universities in them. I saw the infantry working party with their stumpy clay pipes, in my dream, a long way on from where that shell had lit, which stopped the road for a day. And behind them curious changes came over the road at X. You saw the infantry going up to the trenches, and going back along it into reserve. They marched at first, but in a few days they were going up in motors, grey busses with shuttered windows. And then the guns came along it, miles and miles of guns, following after the thunder which was further off over the hills. And then one day the cavalry came by. Then stores in wagons, the thunder muttering further and further away. I saw farm-carts going down the road at X. And then one day all manner of horses and traps and laughing people, farmers and women and boys all going by to X. There was going to be a fair.

And far away the road was growing longer and longer amidst, as always, desolation and thunder. And one day far away from X the road grew very fine indeed. It was going proudly through a mighty city, sweeping in like a river; you would not think that it ever remembered duck-boards. There were great palaces there, with huge armorial eagles blazoned in stone, and all along each side of the road was a row of statues of kings. And going down the road towards the palace, past the statues of the kings, a tired procession was riding, full of the flags of the Allies. And I looked at the flags in my dream, out of national pride to see whether we led, or whether France or America. America went before us, but I could not see the Union Jack in the van nor the Tricolour either, nor the Stars and Stripes: Belgium led and then Serbia, they that had suffered most.

And before the flags, and before the generals, I saw marching along on foot the ghosts of the working party that were killed at X, gazing about them in admiration as they went, at the great city and at the palaces. And one man, wondering at the Sièges Allée, turned round to the Lance Corporal in charge of the party: “That is a fine road that we made, Frank,” he said.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 190.
  2. Sapper Martin, 93.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 189.

Kate Luard in the Slough of Despond; Rest for David Jones and Waxing Madness for the Master of Belhaven; Vera Brittain is Back on the Job; Wilfred Owen is Self-Published; Francis Ledwidge Remembered

We are all over the place once again, today: living well in Scotland, miserable in the mud of the salient, and coming to war-torn France for the first time. But we’ll begin near Ypres, where the battle is now in its fifth day.

Kate Luard keeps a “diary” in the form of letters written to be circulated amongst her many family members in England, so there is a compromise in her writing between an unvarnished honesty of expression and the recognition that what she writes will leave her hands and be read by many people, perhaps with varying opinions on the conduct of the war. She tells the truth–but she seems to think carefully of how she is presenting the suffering in her hospital.

The editors of her letters, however, have also included some private letters to individual siblings, and one of these shows that even the masterfully composed Senior Sister is struggling to keep her composure amidst the horror of Third Ypres–and willing to write more frankly of it. Or perhaps it’s the other way round: the act of writing about pain and suffering and death, every day, helps Luard keep a lid on her emotions, but writing to her sister Georgina nearly punctures the seal, letting out a torrent of grief. Nearly… but she saves it, in part, with the tried-and-true Fussell maneuver of adapting the literary heritage to new circumstances as a way of staving off the overwhelming. She’s the first of our writers to use a now-indispensable literary reference–Bunyan’s “slough of despond”–to describe the mud of the current campaign.

Sat, Aug 4, 1917

William Blake, “Christian in the Slough of Despond”

Dearest G,

Yours of Tue 31st arrived today with incredible speed. Yes, it is now chiefly ubc (utter bloody chaos) of the ghastliest and in the most midwinter conditions of night and day pouring rain and sloughs of despond underfoot–inside the wards as well as out. And all the Push a washout, literally. I think I’m getting rather tired and have got to the stage of not knowing when to stop. When I do I immediately begin to cry of all the tomfool things to do! But outside my Armstrong hut one can keep smiling. It is the dirtiness & wasted effort of War that clouds one’s vision…[1]

 

Not far away, the Master of Belhaven‘s battery enters its fifth day of continuous firing. The costs mount.

We were shelled again last night… A third man in my battery had gone off his head. I have been feeling horribly ill myself all day… It is all owing to the beastly gas… I wish I could get news of Bath. I am very worried about him.[2]

Hamilton’s concern is genuine, even to his unrealistic expectations: the hospitals are overwhelmed, and when they can send information about badly wounded or dying men, they send it homewards, rather than back to the front. But I think it is a strange sort of lifeline: with his lungs attacked by gas and his duty–as he sees it–compelling him to force broken men (those overwhelmed by “shell shock” to the point of nervous breakdown) to remain under fire, he needs to feel compassion about someone, somewhere…

 

There was relief for others, however. Today also marked the turn of David Jones and the rest of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers to slog back from the lines to reserve billets along the crowded Yser Canal. There,

they were given chocolate and cigarettes, hot food, clean clothes, and a fresh colonel, R. H. Montgomery. Here Jones heard from the survivors of the assault…what they had endured and learned who among his acquaintances had fallen. Their experience scoured his imagination differently than if he had fully shared it… He may have experienced survivor’s guilt…[3]

He surely did–I don’t think that sensitive men who survived major assaults just because they were on the right list and their friends on the wrong one ever escaped a sense of guilt. The “bureaucratic near miss” can occasion as sense of pious exaltation when the savaged unit that one was not with is a strange one–but when it is your friends and comrades that the paper-pushers have separated you from…

At some point in the next few days Jones will sketch one of his surviving comrades (at right) “writing something” in an apparent moment of repose.

 

Speaking of writing things, the section of Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room in which we are privy to Elinor Brooke’s diary continues today. Elinor is in the English countryside near Lewes, when she hears what she first believes to be the sound of thunder. But it is the roll of the guns in Flanders, where her brother Toby is serving with the infantry.[4]

 

There is something of Vera Brittain in the fictional Elinor Brooke, and–coincidentally–today, a century back saw Brittain in Boulogne, en route from London to her first posting at a hospital in France. She had abruptly left the V.A.D. in May, coming home from Malta intending to marry and care for Victor Richardson, but Victor had died soon after and her brother Edward has been sent back to France, leaving her isolated from the suffering members of her own generation. She soon decided to try to return to nursing, but, having broken her contract, had to apply for reinstatement.

Testament of Youth shares with so many young soldier’s memoirs the general expectation that all older administrative and staff types are either cold fish bureaucrats or self-righteous hypocrites–surely her misery will not be understood by officialdom.

I was interviewed by a middle-aged woman with a grave face and an “official” manner, who sat before a desk  frowning over a folder containing my record. She motioned  me to sit down, and I told her that I wanted to join up
again.

“And why,” she asked peremptorily, “did you leave Malta?”

I trembled a little at the sharp inquiry. Breaches of contract were not, I knew, regarded with favour at Red Cross Headquarters, and were pardoned only on condition of a really good excuse. My own reason, which could not help sounding sentimental, was not, I felt certain, a “good excuse” at all. But I could think of no plausible alternative
to the simple truth, so I told it.

“I came home meaning to marry a man who was blinded at Arras,” I said, “but he died just after I got back.”

To my surprise, for I had long given up expecting humanity in officials, a mask seemed to drop from the tired face before me. I was suddenly looking into benevolent eyes dim with comprehension, and the voice that had addressed me so abruptly was very gentle when it spoke again.

“I’m so sorry. … You’ve had a sad time. Is there anywhere special you want to go?”

I hated England, I confessed, and did so want to serve abroad again, where there was heaps to do and no time to think. I had an only brother on the Western Front; was it possible to go to France?

It was, and she arrived yesterday. Today, typically, she is alone in observing the notable anniversary:

Our train next day did not leave until the afternoon, so I spent the morning in the English Church at Boulogne commemorating the Third Anniversary of the War. The Chaplain-General to the Forces, once Bishop of Pretoria,
preached to the packed congregation of officers and nurses a sermon to which I only half listened, but I paid more
attention to the prayers and the collects:

“Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take Thou vengeance of our sins;
spare us, good Lord, spare Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us for ever.”

A phrase from my Pass Mods, days at Oxford slipped into my mind; I had quoted it not long ago to Edward in a
letter from Malta:

“The gods are not angry for ever. . .

It came, I thought, from the Iliad and those quiet evenings spent with my Classical tutor in reading of the battles for sorrowful Troy. How like we were to the fighters of those old wars, trusting to the irresponsible caprices of an importuned God to deliver us from blunders and barbarisms for which we only were responsible, and from which we alone could deliver ourselves and our rocking civilisation!

But I did not, at the moment, allow my thoughts to pursue the subject thus far. Dreaming in the soft light that filtered through the high, stained-glass windows, I saw the congregation as a sombre rainbow, navy-blue and khaki, scarlet and grey, and by the time that the “Last Post ” — with its final questioning note which now always seemed to me to express the soul’s ceaseless inquiry of the Unseen regarding its ultimate destiny — had sounded over us as we stood in honour of the dead who could neither protest nor complain, I was as ready for sacrifices and hardships as I had ever been in the early idealistic days. This sense of renewed resolution went with me as I stepped from the shadowed quiet of the church into the wet, noisy streets of Boulogne. The dead might lie beneath their crosses on a hundred wind-swept hillsides, but for us the difficult business of continuing the War must go on in spite of their departure; the sirens would still sound as the ships brought their drafts to the harbour, and the wind would flap the pennons on the tall mast-heads.[5]

 

Two disparate notes to close a troubling day. There was triumph, of a sort, for Wilfred Owen. He “plunked” a pile of freshly-printed copies of The Hydra “outside the Breakfast Room Door” at Craiglockhart Hospital. It’s his first gig as an editor, and he has written several short pieces for the magazine as well. He’s proud–his “ergotherapy” is going well. But this isn’t just about literary success or professional rehabilitation–it’s about class, too (it usually is). Owen is not yet aware of his famous new fellow-patient, but as this anecdote suggests, he is already excited about the magazine’s providing new social opportunities.

I have had so far one poetical contribution—from a Guards Officer—which he timidly brought up to my room with his own towering person. I was trotting around the room talking to the furniture in German at the moment; but I affected what dignity I could, and tried to look as if I had 10/6 in my pocket, and fifty more contributions on my desk…[6]

 

Lastly, today, a very different sort of note to a mother. This is from Father Devas, chaplain of the First Royal Inniskillings, to the mother of Francis Ledwidge:

4th August 1917

Dear Mrs Ledwidge

I do not know how to write to you about the death of your dear son Francis. Quite apart from his wonderful gifts, he was such a lovable boy and I was so fond of him. We had many talks together and he used to read me his poems… The evening before he died he had been to Confession. On the morning of the 31st he was present at Mass and received Holy Communion. That evening while out with a working party a shell exploded quite near to them killing seven and wounding twelve. Francis was killed at once so that he suffered no pain. I like to think that God took him before the world had been able to spoil him with its praise and he has found far greater joy and beauty than ever he would have found on earth. May God comfort you and may his Holy Mother pray for you. I shall say a Mass for Francis as soon as I can.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Many thanks, as ever, to Caroline Stevens, for the text of this letter and for all her work in preserving and publishing her great aunt's legacy. See Unknown Warriors, 204-5.
  2. War Diary, 360.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 164.
  4. Toby's Room, 83.
  5. Testament of Youth, 366-9.
  6. Collected Letters, 480.
  7. Curtyane, Francis Ledwidge, 189.

The Eve of Battle, and Other Matters: Alfred Hale Abandoned to His Fate; Siegfried Sassoon Has His Day in the House; Wilfred Owen Regales His Mother; Isaac Rosenberg a Georgian at Last; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard in the Salient at the Stroke of Midnight

It’s the eve of battle–the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, first phase of Third Ypres, to be precise–and we are all over the place.

First, and least relevant to the coming battle, Alfred Hale received a remarkable letter from his father today, a century back:

I saw Colonel Crommelin this morning, and he told me that he had written to your CO and that the answer was “not very satisfactory… It will depend very much upon yourself, i.e., “whether you show alertness and keeness in your work” which might be a reason for giving you a step upwards. Colonel Crommelin added… that commissions are reserved for those who have done something to earn them, such as having been out at the front, and who show capability. I spoke to him about the cook and his ways, and he said that this kind of thing is always the case, and that the only thing to do is to use considerable tact with people of that sort. This is just what an educated man can do.

Incredibly, Hale’s father (his son, Alfred, is, again, forty-one years old) has been to a recruiting colonel and both asked for a commission for his son and complained that Alfred was being bullied by a cook…  And the italicized emphasis is mine– Hale, because I read him in Fussell, first, usually looms large as a sort of comic anti-hero, an oblivious Tramp or an Edwardian Gentleman Good Soldier Švejk. But at times like this it is perhaps well to be reminded how monumentally clueless and self-centered he is: his father, after failing to belatedly use influence to advance his career, must remind him that experience and competence are also frequently considered in matters concerning sudden change of status that skip a man ahead of a few million of his countrymen.

The letter goes on to state that even though Hale, the younger, is no good as a batman, he should probably stick to the work, as the only alternative is indoor clerical work “and I doubt if that would suit you.” Even more incredibly, Hale takes this letter promptly to his own officer, whose exasperation was no doubt heavily ameliorated with an admixture of baffled bemusement…[1]

 

And while father has paid a call on behalf of Alfred, Mother has at last been to visit Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart War Hospital. And he is doing very well: not only is he making progress on his classical allegory Antaeus, but today he gave a lecture to the Field Club–entitled “Do Plants Think?” (which sounds remarkably modern but was in fact–or was also–eminently Victorian)–and he has now taken up the editorship of the next issue of The Hydra, the hospital’s well-funded literary magazine.

Monday, 30 July 1917, 11 p.m.

My own dear Mother,

The Lecture was a huge success, & went on till 10.20!! At least I was answering cross-questions until that time…

I have only once since getting through the Barrage at Feyet felt such exultation as when winding up to my peroration tonight…

The ‘only once’ was when I saw you gliding up to me, veiled in azure, at the Caledonian. I thought you looked very very beautiful and well, through the veil, and especially on the night of the concert. But without the veil I saw better the supremer beauty of the ashes of all your Sacrifices: for Father, for me, and for all of us…

This is the point where a commentator feels some pressure to acknowledge the unusual fulsomeness of the prose here, and the peculiar intensity of Owen’s regard for his mother. A traditional–and surely misguided and oversimplified–response is to place the relationship in the context of Owen’s homosexuality (which is not openly revealed in his surviving letters, but is nonetheless a secure part of his historical identity, as such things go). It is undeniable that he was a much-loved, much doted-on, and promising eldest son who grew to repress his sexual feelings… but that is not a very nuanced description and doesn’t quite explain why the two would write and (presumably) enjoy reading such perfervid prose. It’s about style, in other words, and anything sexual is smothered well beneath, as under the overstuffed cushions of a horse-hair sofa…

The other thought that occurs to me is that this is like reading the letter that Marie Leighton would have loved to receive from her understandably standoffish son, but never will.

Which leads to an even more speculative thought: Owen, a station master’s son who never made it to University, is socially fortunate to ascend to the editorship of a journal that will be contributed to by men better-born and University-educated. Yes, it’s at a shell shock hospital, but it’s still a press and a budget and a readership. And isn’t this just where Roland might be, now, if he had lived?

This is a letter of parentheses. It is itself a parenthesis between my work. I must have the Magazine ready
by tomorrow morning.

Your own W.E.O.[2]

 

And speaking of well-connected men of private means who are writing letters from Craiglockhart War Hospital, here is Siegfried Sassoon, writing to Lady Ottoline Morrell. Is Sassoon being less than honest about how far his last two weeks have taken him from the pacifist resolution toward which she had encouraged him? And does he aim to please with a display of snobbery? Yes, yes he is, and yes he does.

My dear Ottoline,

I am quite all right and having a very decent time. Letters aren’t interfered with. It’s simply an opportunity for marking time and reading steadily…

There is just time (it’s a short letter) for some nasty remarks about other patients before he introduces the mentor who will come to supplant all previous ones:

My fellow-patients are 160 more or less dotty officers. A great many of them are degenerate-looking. A few genuine cases of shell-shock etc…

My doctor is a sensible man who doesn’t say anything silly. His name is Rivers; a notable Cambridge psychologist. But his arguments don’t make any impression on me. He doesn’t pretend that my nerves are wrong, but regards my attitude as abnormal. I don’t know how long he will go on trying to persuade me to modify views.

Yours ever,    S.S.

I have got lots of books, and go in to Edinburgh whenever I like.[3]

 

At around 7:00 the same evening that Sassoon was denying his savior in this letter to one of his sponsoring semi-disciples, the Labour M.P. Hastings Lees-Smith rose to read out Sassoon’s “Statement” to the House of Commons. He was answered by government ministers who made pointed references to the author’s current whereabouts…

As Sherston, Sassoon brushes off this episode with brittle attempts at humor, emphasizing the irrelevance of the proceedings without making it clear that his decision to accept his second medical board rendered his protest irrelevant. Graves had bluffed him by declaring that he might be involuntarily committed but never court martialed, and Sassoon had folded, handing the army a perfect defense against the charges in his statement: he was now a brave officer suffering from shell shock who had fallen into the clutches of unscrupulous operators on the left…[4]

 

Briefly, we also have Isaac Rosenberg, resuming his acquaintance with Eddie Marsh, his patron/friend and Sassoon’s friend/patron. Marsh may have had a hand in rescuing Sassoon, and now he will take a hand in elevating Rosenberg into one of the most important wartime poetic anthologies. I have just been discussing class and schooling… so it seems pointlessly cruel to abide by my usual practice of letting the editors’ decisions on correcting mistakes of punctuation and spelling stand. But consistency is its own reward…

My Dear Marsh

Im glad youve got your old job again and are Winston Churchills private sec. once more, though it will be a pity if it will interfere with your literary prjects. I thought that would happen when I heard hed become Minister of Munitions. I can immagine how busy you will be kept and if you still mean to go on with your memoir and G.P., you perhaps can immagine me, though of course ray work pretty much leaves my brain alone especially as I have a decent job now and am not so rushed and worked as I was in the trenches. I will be glad to be included in the Georgian Book, and hope your other work wont interfere with it.[5]

 

Another aspiring Georgian–more self-assured but less far along in personal poetic development–is Edmund Blunden, now just behind the front lines in the Salient, where he has received a package from home which included a novel and book of poems by Leigh Hunt. Late tonight he will take out his diary to record his thoughts, and give us century-back life writing to the very moment:

Heavy rain again for part of the day. . . . Since we have been in, we have been quite unlucky and have had between forty and fifty casualties. The weather looks none too promising–but perhaps ‘everything will come out in the wash’. . . . So far all quiet. But how these tunnels reek! I finish the page on the stroke of twelve, which brings on tomorrow.[6]

Thus Blunden in the moment. Like the War Diary of the 15th Royal Welsh, he matter-of-factly plays down a high toll in the skirmishing and bombardments that have preceded the assault. When he comes to write the memoir, however, there is much more attention to the collateral psychological damage, as well as to another cruel fact of the coming assault. Although it had been postponed for several days on the advice of a meteorologist, it will soon begin to rain steadily.

Nature tried her hand at a thunderstorm; then the last colourless afternoon arrived. Before that a number of our men had been killed, and all drenched and shaken. That afternoon I saw the miserable state of a little group of houses called La Brique, now the object of a dozen German guns, and, escaping death, I well understood the number of bodies lying there. Presently I stood with my friend Tice looking over the front parapet at the German line. Tice, though blue-chinned and heavy-eyed, showed his usual extreme attention to detail, identifying whatever points he could, and growing quite excited and joyful at the recognition of Kitchener’s Wood in the background. To-morrow morning———. The afternoon grew pale with cloud. Tice went along one trench and I along another, with some such absurd old familiarity as “See you in the morning, old boy.”[7]

 

Finally, and only a few miles away–for the nurses have won their way back to the forward abdominal hospital–Kate Luard is writing at precisely the same moment:

Monday, July 30th, midnight. Brandhoek. Cars came for us at 5 p.m. and here we are. By the time you get this it will be history for better or for worse… everything is organized and ready up to the brim… We have 33 Sisters altogether, and they are all tucked into their bell-tents with hankies tied on to the ropes of the first ones to be called…

The din is marvellous. Some Grandmothers (15-inch guns) on each side of us are splitting the air and rocking the huts… The illumination is brighter than any lightning: dazzling and beautiful. Their new blinding gas is known as mustard-oil gas; it burns your eyes–sounds jolly, doesn’t it?–and comes over in shells. I wonder how many hundreds or thousands have got only four more hours to live, and know it?[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 97-8.
  2. Collected Letters, 478-9.
  3. Diaries, 185.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 519.
  5. Collected Works, 318-9.
  6. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 76.
  7. Undertones of War, 169-170.
  8. Unknown Warriors, 132-3.

The Master of Belhaven Goes Back to the Front; Edwin Vaughan is On His Way As Well; Patrick Shaw Stewart in Command

There is a bit of a lull, today, in our preparations for Third Ypres, but the preliminary bombardment continues. Only Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, has a story for us today, and if he is away from the line it is not for pleasant purposes. Last night, a century back, a clumsy dentist treated an excruciating tooth by attempting to kill the nerve. It didn’t work. What follows is something like a sick parody of the war’s planning and execution.

A nightmare of a night. Instead of getting better, my toothache was much worse by the time I went to bed, and the M.O. gave me some morphia. Then, just as I was going to sleep, a Hun ‘plane came along and dropped bombs all round the camp… The next thing I remember is someone shaking me violently and shouting “Gas attack!” and pushing my gas-helmet into my hands. I woke up just enough to realise that the tent was full of phosgene, and by instinct at once put on the gas-mask, after which I promptly went to sleep again with the thing on.

Hamilton goes to another dentist, who determines that the first one had treated the wrong tooth. He then extracts the true offender, discovering an abscess beneath. After this lovely day in the rear, Hamilton returns to his battery, stumbling over the slippery duckboards to run into his servant, Bath, “very badly shaken.” In his brief absence the German batteries have found their range, and the captain he had left in charge has been wounded by shrapnel. It is too late to move, and they must now begin the battle knowing that the German batteries know where they are…[1]

 

Many others are coming to the Salient, now, in order to sustain the assaults that the current front-line battalions will launch whenever the weather is deemed favorable. Edwin Vaughan and his battalion had, up until three days ago, been enjoying a nice long rest. Then came the orders for the front, and it was packing, marching, and a train journey north.

July 29, Sunday. I was in a heavy sleep—probably owing to the champagne, when Crash! Crash! Crash! and something ripped through the roof of the carriage and smashed a window. In the pale light of dawn I saw Edgerton stooping to lace his boots.

‘What was that?’ I asked, following suit.

‘Shells or bombs,’ he replied. ‘We must be somewhere near Ypres.’ The train was at a standstill and as we climbed down on to the deserted siding, a dishevelled RTO hurried along the train.

We may have seen this fellow before.

‘Poperinghe’ he said in reply to our enquiries. ‘There’s a guide waiting for you on the road; get away as soon as you like, they have been shelling us all night.’ Nothing loath, we hurried our troops on to the cobbled road and marched away before any more shells fell.[2]

 

Lastly, today, a century back, we check in with Patrick Shaw Stewart, who wrote to Ronald Knox with some interesting career news:

In a great hustle because Oc. has gone on leave, and Mark Egerton is going to Artillery for three days and I have to command the Hood Battalion! Lord bless my soul! I hope there won’t be any crises.

This is not as shocking as it might sound: the Hood Battalion is in a quiet sector of France, far from the Ypres Salient. Still, Shaw Stewart–though an impressive intellect, a capable man, and a standout scholar–is not yet thirty years old, has less than two years in uniform, and has been with the battalion for only a few months. And yet he now commands a force of some five to eight hundred men…

Yesterday I arose (for the second time) from a bed of very little sickness, diagnosed as mild trench-fever—even the friendliest doctor couldn’t give me a temp, of more than 100.2 the second go, and now I have no more excuse for bed. We are going into reserve for a few days, which fulfils my military ideal of No Fighting and No Training… will write properly soon.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 353-55.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 182.
  3. Patrick Shaw Stewart, 199-200.

Edmund Blunden Marches Back to the Line–Through Gas and Failed Patrols–and Has a Tooth Out; The Master of Belhaven Walks Back from the Firing Line, Through Searching Gas Shells, and Has a Tooth Out

We seem to be converging upon the coming battle in space, time, and experiential theme. Edmund Blunden, too, will go forward on the first day of Third Ypres, and several of the tales he tells about the days before chime closely with others we’ve heard. These are among the more powerful sections of his memoir, as his steady, dreamy, innocent style must put its head down and trudge forward into a muddy, deathly tide, a literary enactment of the effect of attrition on young minds.

It’s difficult to match his vague chronology, here, with the bare details of his Battalion Diary, but I believe that either the patrol described below or the march to the front line that follows took place today, a century back.

He begins on the foul Yser Canal, a notable landmark–and logistical obstacle–between Ypres itself and the front lines.

The Yser Canal had been drastically rearranged. New bridges crossed it, powerful works, carrying real roadways. On the far side, the old bank which alone afforded cover from view and splinters had been hewn through for the roadways and other tracks. Great heaps of warlike material stood up naked and unashamed; batteries glinted and bellowed in transparent air. These gay grimaces had not failed to upset the enemy, who was tearing up the old ground and venerable shelters with long-range guns. The best bridge, No. 4, was a ferocious target, but at the Ypres end the new solid crossing was swollen with dead mules tipped on the wayside. The water below, foul yellow and brown, was strewn with full-sized eels, bream, and jack, seething and bulged in death. Gases of several kinds oozed from the crumbled banks and shapeless ditches, souring the air. One needed no occult gift to notice the shadow of death on the bread and cheese in one’s hand, on the discoloured tepid water in one’s bottle.

Ypres in the late summer of 1917 will in many ways be the most horrible place yet: there is more gas, more water and mud, and still that terrible crowding that comes from the holding of a small “salient” and taking fire from three sides.

And the German troops are alert and efficient. This next episode sounds almost exactly like what has just happened to the 15th Royal Welch, although Blunden’s 11th Royal Sussex are further to the south:

On one of the preliminary evenings our new colonel, with his usual bad luck, sent forward from C Camp an officer fresh from England, and one or two men with him, to patrol the land over which our assault was intended, giving a special eye to the enemy’s concern with some ancient gunpits there. This officer took with him his set of the maps, panoramas, photographs, and instructions which had been served round with such generosity for this battle.[1] He never returned. The next night a seasoned officer from another battalion, patrolling the same ground, disappeared.

It was believed that these had been taken prisoner, but I was not much inclined to that view when, the third night, I was sent up with one or two old hands to see what I could see. We reached the very sketchy front line before it was quite dark, soon afterward crawled over the top, and were carefully making our way through our own wire — not that its puny tendrils needed much care! — when with a crash and flame on all sides at once a barrage began. Shells struck so fast that we seemed to be one shell hole away, and no more, from the latest, and as we dodged and measured our length in wild disorder, we drifted a long way into No Man’s Land. The barrage followed our direction and when it stopped, as we lay panting and muttering in the smell of explosive mixed with that of the dewy weeds and broken clods, I saw that we were a few yards from a sap, and I heard stealthy movement in that sap. This might have been the secret of my predecessors’ misfortune. After the shelling we were not much good for observation or offence, and found out no more…

Blunden was lucky to escape, as it seems that the lightly-held German front line has become an entrapment ground for British patrols–either this was a terrible coincidence or the German positions are held in such a way that they can spot enemy patrols, call in effective barrages, and possibly sally forth to kill or capture the survivors.

And Blunden’s long night wasn’t over yet.

I determined that we must rest the few hours till day in the Canal Bank. In order to save us a weary search among blown-in dugouts, and others specially allotted already, I called upon the Canal Bank Major, who was supposed to be in control of the accommodations. No sooner was I inside the sandbag porch than a shell knocked the porch in and some more of my nerve system with it…  There is a hypocritical tunelessness about a gas shell in flight and in explosion. With that, there was the thought of being pitched bleeding into the gummy filths and mortifications below. At last we were in a “small elephant” dugout, and I stretched myself on the dusty boards. I woke with a stiff neck in slightly gasiferous sunlight, mechanically receiving a mug of lurid tea with a dash of petrol from one of my invincibles.

Blunden escapes to return to his unit, but almost as soon as he is back they are marching up toward the front-line positions from which they will attack. First, though, a more quotidian experience of courage for pain:

I could dilate upon other drama that occurred toward July 31, 1917; there was, for instance, that tooth of mine, which our Irish doctor painfully extracted for me by muscular Christianity in the wood, surely the last afternoon there; all my signallers off duty stood round with a hideous pleasure, and one or two begged to offer their compliments on so great a fortitude! But the battle cannot be postponed longer. I had to thrust aside my Cambridge Magazine with Siegfried Sassoon‘s splendid war on the war in it; sent my valise along to the dump; and fell in, wondering how Sassoon could pass one or two technical imperfections (as I thought them) in his fine verse.

This, I think, is something other than irony. But it is very striking indeed: while Sassoon is beginning his long sojourn of self-discovery in the safety of Scotland, a young poet about to be ordered forward into the glutinous mud of Flanders is reading “To Any Dead Officer” and “The Redeemer.”

In the latter–written after nightmarish night work in the autumn of 1915–a Christ-like soldier is weighed down by his load, under fire, as he trudges through the mud. The poem ends with this couplet:

And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!’

“To Any Dead Officer,” which connects the death of his friend Orme this May with the poet’s decision to protest the war, ends with the line.

I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

It’s striking, and awful: the endings of the two poems perfectly foreshadow Passchendaele, which will include both the war’s worst mud and an increasing awareness of the miseries of death in failed attritional “pushes” are beginning to overwhelm traditional means of glorifying military sacrifice…

Back, for a moment, to Blunden:

The spirit of battle was not rampant among us that turgid, thirsty night; our route was complicated by design and accident, and the companionship of numbers of tanks and other troops confused us. The unfamiliar way was now narrow as a lane, now broad and undefined as a football ground, sometimes dark, then lit whitely to a distance. At last we occupied trenches on the scene of our proposed business.[2]

He’s ready, then, not for the “show,” but for the next bad deal.

 

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven has been serving his guns steadily not far behind our Salient infantry, preparing to aid them in the great assault. In another strange coincidence, he too is suffering dental agonies today, a century back, and he too must risk the German gas shells–but then again the Salient is a very small place.

…It is always the same thing–one works out everything in good time, and then at the last moment the programme is altered. I am suffering excruciating agony with my tooth. I could not even lie down last night, and have had absolutely no sleep whatsoever. We commenced the barrage at 5.15 this morning, and have been making a dreadful noise. It was really just like the Somme…

On the way to meet his colonel for a ride to the dentist, Hamilton, walking alone in the rear, is twice knocked down by near misses from a German 5.9. Picking himself up, he runs into the colonel, who is himself trying to nonchalantly dodge the shells.

It was really extremely funny; as we walked (very fast) down the road, a gas-shell fell 50 yards behind us, and this happened four times in about two hundred yards. These gas-shells make very little noise arriving, and burst on the ground with a little “pop” like pulling the cork out of a bottle… There was no smoke, either black or white; just the dust thrown up by the shell striking the dry ground, and a small cloud of yellow green vapour–much the colour of jade…

The comedy ends with the artillery, however, as Hamilton will now meet up with a ‘very rough-handed’ and incompetent dentist…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This is a serious breach of protocol, naturally.
  2. Undertones of War, 214-9.
  3. War Diary, 352-3.

Kate Luard in the Salient; A Raid of the Royal Welch Comes to Grief; Gas for the Master of Belhaven

A major offensive is imminent. This we know from the sound of the guns that all of our writers in or near the Ypres Salient have been reporting for days now–but confirmation comes with the arrival of Kate Luard, who has always aspired to be as near as possible to the worst of the war.

July 25th. Brandhoek. We got to Railhead (Poperinghe) about 5 p.m. The station was busy being shelled. Everyone was turned out of the train about 1 1/2 miles before the station… The R.T.O.[1] had been shelled-out… He thought we wouldn’t be allowed up any farther, but here we are. We got a rousing welcome from the C.O… Ten other Sisters arrived to-day… I shall probably have 30… we are for Abdomens and Chests–8 Theatre teams.

…It is a brilliant starlight night and the battle line, four miles away, is blazing with every conceivable firework and the noise is terrific. Is anyone going to sleep?[2]

This is the closest she has been to the enemy guns–too close, as it will turn out.

 

And David Jones and Hedd Wyn are closer.

On the morning of 25 July, D Company, with Jones helping to guard the flanks, participated in a raid on Pilckem Ridge and was forced to retreat, suffering heavy casualties and 16 men taken prisoner.[3]

This is how Jones’s biographer summarizes the information-gathering raid made less than a week in advance of the battle. Dilworth borrows the matter-of-fact tone from the battalion diary of the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, but that terse account obscures a big disaster on a small scale. Trench raids were supposed to take prisoners, not lose them, and even if planners expected that the raid might involve taking a few casualties, losing sixteen men–the 2nd lieutenant commanding and fifteen “other ranks,” perhaps the whole of the primary raiding party and possibly as much as a fifth or a sixth of the company’s fighting strength–meant complete failure. The Germans had evidently been prepared to entrap the hapless raiders–a level of mastery over the battlefield which did not bode well for the coming assault.

I do not know which company Hedd Wyn has been assigned to, so there is only roughly a 25% chance that he, too, was involved in this fight; but the news of the loss of men at night in No Man’s Land would have been a new element of his experience. To the worries about enemy shells and snipers and gas would now be added the nagging suspicion that even when the British artillery had the upper hand the Germans opposite were superior trench fighters. For Jones, despite his long experience of the front lines, this was another bad night in a very bad week.

 

The same could be said of Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, with his batteries near Blaupoort.

I woke up with a start at 5 o’clock this morning with a feeling that something was very wrong. There was a fearful pain in my throat as if I had swallowed a spoonful of mustard powder. I realized at once that the place was full of gas… This new mustard-oil gas is the very devil. It is not very poisonous itself, but it produces violent hay fever in a few seconds, and then they send phosgene, which is deadly. The real danger is that the mustard gas paralyses the nerves of the nose and one cannot detect the phosgene until it is too late.

But Hamilton’s worries are deeper and broader than possible death from a gas barrage. He must also prepare a firing plan for the coming assault.

It is the most complicated thing I have seen yet. I am very nervous that these young N.C.O.s won’t understand what to do…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Railway Transport (or Traffic) Officer
  2. Unknown Warriors, 129-30.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 161.
  4. War Diary, 351.

David Jones and Hedd Wyn Together on the Worst Night of All; Siegfried Sassoon and the Healing Rivers; Kate Luard Returns to No. 32; Llewelyn Wyn Griffith Wins his Way to Rhiw, on Llyn; Max Plowman on the Coming Generation; Will Harvey’s Comrades Tunnel Out; Isaac Rosenberg’s Immense Trust

This is one of those rewarding but vexing days of overabundance. A very big day for one of our central writers and what may be an unrecognized conjunction of two others are both busily trespassed upon by the smaller doings of several others. The three principals are all men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, too: David Jones and Hedd Wyn can be found, tonight, a century back, in the same section of trench, only hours after Siegfried Sassoon arrived[1] at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Sassoon is, technically, a prisoner remanded to medical treatment, but since both Robert Graves and a second officer detailed to accompany him missed the train, he came to Edinburgh himself.

And thus, for his lightly fictionalized alter-ego George Sherston, ended the second volume of his autobiography. With his arrival at “Slateford War Hospital,” near Edinburgh, the third volume, Sherston’s Progress, begins.

But first, for us, that crowd of less momentous military-literary events…

 

Max Plowman, another shell-shocked infantry officer, another anti-war writer and poet and, by this evening, a century back, a man with whom Sassoon will have an important mutual connection–is in a slightly different place, vis a vis pacifism, than our Siegfried. And might we suggest that it is a more advanced stage?

…My view is that the war is a national calamity for which we are all responsible–either actively or passively or hereditarily–& that everyone really suffers it most where he is most alive. Clods almost purely in their skins & so upwards. And if anybody enjoys it he is to be pitied most of all…

But the damned nuisance about it is that after a certain age you can’t change your skin with the ease & frequency of a jolly young snake.–It’s useless to revile circumstances (unless they’re the direct result of one’s own behaviour). Even if we of this generation have to suffer life, I don’t doubt but that Life knows her way, & that the coming  generation will reap what we’ve sown…[2]

This is high-flown stuff, and beside it Sassoon’s quick capitulation from his campaign of attempted martyrdom, and of course it is disastrously prescient. But it doesn’t quite address the question that Sassoon tried–and failed–to address: yes, but what is one mere lieutenant to do about it?

 

Nor is this a question that Isaac Rosenberg–a mere private–can even dream of entertaining. There is no time or energy–no standing, really–to engage with questions more than a step or two from those of personal survival. But one of these, for a poet and artist like Rosenberg, is the question of artistic progress. He wrote, or perhaps posted, another letter to Gordon Bottomley today, a century back:

…I know my letters are not what they should be; but I must take any chance I get of writing for fear another chance does not come, so I write hastily and leave out most I should write about. I wished to say last time a lot about your poem, but I could think of nothing that would properly express my great pleasure in it; and I can think of nothing now… I wish I could get back and read your plays; and if my luck still continues, I shall. Leaves have commenced with us, but it may be a good while before I get mine. We are more busy now than when I last wrote, but I generally manage to knock something up if my brain means to, and I am sketching out a little play. My great fear is that I may lose what I’ve written, which can happen here so easily. I send home any bit I write, for safety, but that can easily get lost in transmission. However, I live in an immense trust that things will turn out well…

Do not write because you think you ought to answer, but write when you have nothing else to do & you wish to kill time, it is no trouble to me to write these empty letters, when I have a minute to spare, just to let you know that life & poetry are as fresh as ever in me…[3]

 

Meanwhile, yet another literary Royal Welch Fusilier–and a Welsh one, at that–headed home today, at least for a little while. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, enjoying the perquisites of a staff officer, went on leave, and will shortly be in Rhiw, on the Llyn peninsula in North Wales. “In lovely summer weather… I linked up into the clan and enjoyed myself. Rhiw worked its magic on us both.[4]

 

Then there is Kate Luard, who has completed two short postings at two different hospitals–her unit’s departure from the Arras area after the battle did not mean leave for her. Today, a century back, she rejoined Casualty Clearing Station No. 32. Which is itself on the move: a hospital specializing in abdominal wounds needs to be near where men will be climbing out of trenches and exposing their abdomens… Within two days Sister Luard will be writing about taking the train to Poperinghe, already familiar to us as the last stop before Ypres.[5]

 

And in Holzminden, Lower Saxony, Will Harvey and his comrades are taking a great deal of satisfaction in their recent work. It hasn’t all been sing-songs and poetry–they were digging in shifts the whole time. During the night, a century back, twenty-nine officers escaped the prisoner of war camp through a long tunnel dug from under a cellar floor all the way outside the camp walls. Ten will evade capture and make it all the way back to England. Harvey was not among the escapees, but shared in the general delight at their bullying Commandant’s discomfiture.[6]

 

Penultimately–though this is the most exciting bit, from my point of view–we come to the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. Strangely–and I do not know whether this means that I have missed blatant references to this fact or have in fact only been mildly obtuse about a conjunction which none of my sources have noticed either–I have only now realized that David Jones and Hedd Wyn are now marching into battle as part of the same battalion.[7] The 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers are the very same “1st London Welch,” which, as Jones will remind us, may have once been a Kitchener’s battalion with many Welsh-affiliated Londoners but is now a heterogeneous unit being replenished by conscripts from the hills of the old country.

Surely some scholars somewhere have noticed this proximity, but I had missed it entirely until a few days ago, and it is curious that in the recent biographies of Hedd Wyn and Jones (by Alan Llwyd and Thomas Dilworth, respectively) there is no mention of the fact that a chaired bard of Wales and the man who would one day work so hard to put the Welsh language and Welsh myth into the great British epic of the war went into battle side by side.

Or are about to go into battle, a century back. Tonight it is hard work and danger, merely. In any event, neither Jones nor Evans (the given name of the bard) were aware of the other. Had they been, Jones would have nothing to share of his own nascent writing, and he would not have been able to read Hedd Wyn’s. The true shepherd-poet Hedd Wyn, for his part, would not have known what to make of the little London artist with no Welsh and only a vague passion for the land of his fathers stimulated by brief childhood holidays…

And, of course, these were not the foremost elements of their identities tonight, a century back. It was a very bad night, and about the only thing that mattered, then, was that Jones, though a “parade’s despair,” was an experienced infantryman who had been through a terrible battle and many bombardments. Hedd Wyn has never yet been under fire. And it was no pro forma interdiction “hate” that fell on the laboring men of the 15/RWF: Jones will remember the night of the 23rd of July as ‘the worst of all.’

Sent up from reserve into trenches less than 200 yards from the Germans, the Welch were hard at work after dark digging new “assembly trenches” to hold the swell of troops before the coming assault. But gas shells were falling amongst the shrapnel and high explosive, so they had to work in suffocating gas masks. Nor were the masks enough, for some of the shells contained the new German blistering agent known as mustard gas…

Hedd Wyn would have seen a strange new sight, described by David Jones:

Colonel C. C. Norman… walked up and down in the open wearing no gas mask but ‘threatening blue murder on any man taking off his mask’, which they desperately wanted to do. Gas masks were ‘ghastly to wear for very long’, Jones recalled, ‘especially if one was exerting oneself–they became a filthy mess of condensation inside & you couldn’t see out of the misted-over talc of the eye-vents’. It was typical of Colonel Norman, who had already won the D.S.O., to stroll in the open amid falling shells. Like his predecessor, he was a man of‘outward calmness & immaculate attire as though he was paying an afternoon call in Belgravia’ –an attitude that was, for Jones, at once amusing, morale boosting, and ‘aesthetically right’. Among those digging

(And here we switch from quotation of Thomas Dilworth, Jones’s indispensable biographer, to his quotation of Jones himself.)

were new recruits who had come straight from Wales. One of them was a farmer’s boy; he couldn’t speak a word of English–when he’d dug his little hole he just got into it and snuggled up. You simply couldn’t budge him. The NCOs kicked his backside and so on but he just wouldn’t move. And it made it jolly difficult to dig the trench. The Germans. . . . must have known about the digging and got the range, but the shells were falling a few yards further on, on a hedge. But this chap was absolutely petrified. Then a nice chap. Sergeant Morgan, said ‘Lift him out and I’ll finish the trench and then you can put him back in.’ All this was in gasmasks. We dug all night. I thought this is the end…

This passage makes the new proximity of the two greatest Wales-minded poets of the war more striking. This, surely, was not Hedd Wyn himself–though why could it not have been? In any case it was one of his comrades, a boy he probably knew, a boy he had shared training with, and the long march to the front, and the shock and terror of this first miserable night under fire. Hedd Wyn has imagined much of what the war will be like, and written of it. But not this. What must he have imagined that night?

As for Jones, he may be mild-mannered, but in his heart he is a wild, thorough poet, able to admire the aesthetics of the old English tradition of exemplary leadership under fire (for which see, most of all, Horatio Nelson). It’s not surprising, perhaps that he was reminded, come morning, “as they covered the new trench with branches cut from the hedge behind it,” of Macbeth:

…The wood of Birnam

Let every soldier hew him down a bough.[8]

Side-by-side or separated by no more than a few hundred yards, Jones and Hedd Wyn both survived the night, and returned to the reserve line to labor and fight another day.

 

And so we come at last to “Slateford.”

In the train from Liverpool to Edinburgh I speculated continuously. The self-dramatizing element in my mind anticipated something sensational. After all, a mad-house would be only a few degrees less grim than a prison, and I was still inclined to regard myself in the role of a “ripe man of martyrdom.” But the unhistrionic part of my mind remembered that the neurologist member of my medical board had mentioned someone called Rivers… evidently some sort of a great man; anyhow his name had obvious free associations with pleasant landscapes and unruffled estuaries.

And we do not need to pull up short and wonder what the real name of “Sherston’s” doctor actually was: W. H. R. Rivers–uniquely in Sassoon’s memoirs–remains Rivers, whether he is treating Sassoon or Sherston.

Before I had been inside [Slateford] five minutes I was actually talking to Rivers, who was dressed as an R.A.M.C. captain. There was never any doubt about my liking him. He made me feel safe at one, and seemed to know all about me. What he didn’t know he soon found out.[9]

So begins the third book of “Sherston’s” Memoirs–the first in which the title contains not “Memoirs” but “Sherston.” Sherston’s Progress is a fairly predictable allusion to Bunyan, but it’s also a simply descriptive title. Today is the day that the muddled young man who has been a fox hunter and an infantry officer begins to grow up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unless he arrived several days ago, but I am fairly certain that this must have been the day, despite the oddity of allowing such a lull to an allegedly mentally compromised prisoner. Many thanks to Anne Pedley for confirming that this date is recorded in Sassoon's personal military record.
  2. Bridge Into the Future, 71-2.
  3. Collected Works, 376. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 96.
  4. Beyond Mametz, 154.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 129--with thanks to Caroline Stevens for more details on Luard's timeline.
  6. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 205.
  7. Many writers omit military details when they are uncertain (I am many times guilty of this myself), and I have written lately under the vague impression that Hedd Wyn was coming out as part of a new battalion of the Royal Welch, but that was a silly assumption--it is too late in the day for that. And, of course, once the battalion number is known it is very easy to note that that battalion has long been in France. But there are careless errors: on page 17 of the attractive new "Compact Cymru" edition of The Shepherd War Poet, we read that "Hedd Wyn's battalion, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers sailed to France on June 9th, 1917." No; he came out from Litherland in a group of replacements--the very same North Welsh farmers whose meaningless deaths Sassoon has just failed to bring to the notice of the man responsible for training them. They may have all gone to the 15th, or they may have been distributed among several different battalions of the regiment now serving in France.
  8. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-61.
  9. Complete Memoirs, 517.

Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement, “To Any Dead Officer;” Henry Williamson is Blighty Bound; Herbert Read’s Theories of Courage

Before we get to a statement–and a poem, and a memoir’s context for the two–we have two brief updates.

 

For the past week Henry Williamson has bounced about the hospitals of northern France. He believes that he has gotten a “whiff” of phosgene gas from German gas shells–but he may also just be sick, or run down. In any event, he finds it pleasant to be out of the line and hopes to be able to parlay the sick time into reassignment. In this he may well be lucky, as in the name of efficiency sick and wounded officers can no longer count on returning to their unit. Most fear and deplore this change, but Williamson (and probably his C.O. as well) would welcome it.

Dear Mother,

Please get those protectors for armpits in my new tunic at once–big ones under the lining–you probably know by this time that I am for England on the first boat which leaves any time… Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno…

This hospital is a bon place–I live on champagne and fried plaice & chicken now!!

Love Willie.[1]

Williamson, whose intestinal health has long been an issue, can look forward to a lengthy recovery in Blighty…

 

Herbert Read is in rather a more bloody-minded state, and with sharper tales to tell. Or not: restraint in what he writes to Evelyn Roff is a point of pride–Read is a very purposeful sort, and he thinks twice about describing the war without a theoretical grasp of how such war tales might fit in with his theories of Modern literature. (He seems less concerned that a policy of mentioning, but not describing, certain experiences might not help their budding relationship flourish.)

Nevertheless, he has something to say, and it is the confirming converse of Williamson’s lonely experience: what makes it all worthwhile are the men. And what defines a man’s worth is the way in which he carries himself through danger.

15.vi.17

My present location is not too bad. We are now in the third week of our period in the line… and rather terrible days they were. But you can have no desire for me to ‘paint the horrors.’ I could do so but let the one word ‘fetid’ express the very essence of our experiences. It would be a nightmare to any individual, but we create among ourselves a wonderful comradeship which I think would overcome any horror or hardship. It is this comradeship which alone makes the Army tolerable to me. To create a bond between yourself and a body of men and a bond that will hold at the critical moment, that is work worthy of any man and when done an achievement to be proud of.

Incidentally my ‘world-view’ changes some of its horizons. I begin to appreciate, to an undreamt of extent, the ‘simple soul’. He is the only man you can put your money on in a tight corner. Bombast and swank carry a man nowhere our here. In England they are everything. Nor is the intellect not a few of us used to be so proud of of much avail. It’s a pallid thing in the presence of a stout heart. Which reminds me of one psychological ‘case’ which interests me out here: to what extent does a decent philosophy of life help you in facing death? In other words: Is fear a mental or a physical phenomenon? There are cases of physical fear–‘nerves,’ ‘shell-shock,’ etc. There are also certainly cases of physical courage… and there are, I think, men who funk because they haven’t the strength of will or decency of thought to do otherwise.

But I would like to think there was still another class (and I one of them) whose capacity for not caring a damn arose not merely from a physical incapacity for feeling fear, but rather from a mental outlook on life and death sanely balanced and fearlessly followed. But perhaps I idealize…[2]

Perhaps he does. Read has a good deal of trench experience by now, but he has not suffered the same sort of trench trauma–or string of losses of friends both fond and beloved–that has overburdened “Mad Jack” Sassoon. But it is an interesting break down of different types of courage–and an intelligent one. Cursed are dullards, blessed are the philosophers, strong of will–so it’s also a flattering one. But it asks no larger questions…

 

Today’s main event is Siegfried Sassoon‘s completion of a draft of his statement against the war.

It thus happened that, about midnight on the day my portrait was finished, I sat alone in the club library with a fair copy of the ‘statement’ before me on the writing-table. The words were now solidified and unalterable. My brain was unable to scrutinize their meaning any more. They had become merely a sequence of declamatory sentences designed to let me in for what appeared to be a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top’; and, at the moment, the Hindenburg Line seemed preferable in retrospect. For the first time, I allowed myself to reflect upon the consequences of my action and to question my strength to endure them. Possibly what I disliked most was the prospect of being misunderstood and disapproved of by my fellow officers. Some of them would regard my behaviour as a disgrace to the Regiment. Others would assume that I had gone a bit crazy. How many of them, I wondered, would give me credit for having done it for the sake of the troops who were at the Front? I had never heard any of them use the word pacifist except in a contemptuous and intolerant way, and in my dispirited mood I felt that my protest would have a pretty poor reception among them. Going to a window, I looked out at the searchlights probing the dark sky. Down below, the drone of London rumbled on. The streets were full of soldiers getting what enjoyment they could out of their leave. And there, on that sheet of paper under the green-shaded lamp, were the words I had just transcribed.

‘I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’

This is the soon-to-be-famous opening of the published statement–I’ll include the rest when the newspapers get it. But Sassoon, using the privileges of the memoir writer, embeds the public breakthrough in a web of private doubt. Clean breaks and simple strong feelings are never to be his way…  Who is he doing this for, again?

To the soldiers it didn’t matter, one way or the other. They all wanted it to stop, but most of them would say that the Boches had got to be beaten somehow, and the best thing to hope for was ‘getting back to Blighty with a cushy wound’. Then I remembered that night, early in 1914, when I had been up in this room experiencing an emotional crisis in which I had felt that my life was being wasted on sport and minor poetry, and had imagined myself devoting my future to humanitarian services and nobly prophetic writings. On that occasion I had written some well-intentioned but too didactic lines, of which a fragment now recurred to me.

Destiny calls me home at last
To strive for pity’s sake;
To watch with the lonely and outcast,
And to endure their ache . . . .

Much had happened since then. Realities beyond my radius had been brought under my observation by a European War, which had led me to this point of time and that sheet of paper on the table. Was this the fulfilment of that feeble and unforeseeing stanza? . . . And somehow the workings of my mind brought me a comprehensive memory of war experience in its intense and essential humanity. It seemed that my companions of the Somme and Arras battles were around me; helmeted faces returned and receded in vision; joking voices were overheard in fragments of dug-out and billet talk. These were the dead, to whom life had been desirable, and whose sacrifice must be justified, unless the War were to go down in history as yet another Moloch of murdered youth…

I went back to the statement on the table with fortified conviction that I was doing right. Perhaps the dead were backing me up, I thought; for I was a believer in the power of spiritual presences. . . .

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

The words came into my head quite naturally. And by the time I went to bed I had written a slangy, telephonic poem of forty lines. I called it To Any Dead Officer, but it was addressed to one whom I had known during both my periods of service in France. Poignant though the subject was, I wrote it with a sense of mastery and detachment, and when it was finished I felt that it anyhow testified to the sincerity of my protest.

The dead officer is Orme/”Ormand” killed so recently in a pointless attack on the Hindenburg Line, his death described to Sassoon by Joe Cottrell. The poem, which Sassoon of the memoir would clearly prefer that we use to mark this day’s work, a century back, rather than the didactic “statement,” continues as follows:

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
  I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
  Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
  Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
  Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
  No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
  Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
  Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
  Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
  Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
  Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
  I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
   “Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
  With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
  It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
  And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
  Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
  Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 163.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 97-8.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52-4; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.