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.

Rowland Feilding Before Messines; Jack Martin Goes up the Line; Phillip Maddison to Test his Courage; A New Brief and a Fine Old Book for C.E. Montague; A Short Life of Francis Ledwidge

Early tomorrow morning will see one of the most dramatic “shows” of the war, and the most successful British opening to date. Rowland Feilding, has been heavily involved in the preparations for the battle, organizing a last-minute raid–a “success” despite the losses involved, as a number of Germans were captured–and nearly being blinded himself when a heavy-caliber German shell fell nearby during the retaliatory bombardment. Last night, a century back, Feilding’s battalion was relieved, and will spend the battle in a supporting role, giving him time to describe much of the action in a long letter to his wife. He sets the scene for her, and for us:

The village [Wytschaete] tops the crest of the Messines Ridge, and the breastworks, which we have occupied since we came from the Somme, last September, run across the swampy fields to the west of and below it, with the hospice (or convent)—represented by a heap of bricks—standing out prominently against the skyline, beyond the Petit Bois…

That evening (June 6) we tea’d in the open, about half a mile behind the fire-trench, our artillery shooting hard over our heads all the time, but eliciting no reply from the enemy. The Brigadier called and congratulated us on the success of the raid. He was in the best of form, and indeed everybody was very cheerful and full of confidence. It was very edifying to see the almost exhilarated state every one was in, both officers and men, seeing what a colossal business lay immediately before them. Later, we had dinner in the open… The 6th Connaught Rangers were to be broken up for the battle in order to provide “mopping up” and carrying parties for the attacking battalions, thus leaving me personally with very little to do, and after dinner I moved to my Battle Headquarters—a deep mined dug-out in Rossignol Wood, above which I am now writing this letter. The wood reeked of gas shells, to which the enemy further contributed during the night.[1]

 

Jack Martin, a signaler with the 122nd brigade, will be going forward soon after midnight.

This afternoon we were all ordered to pack everything in our valises, except fighting kit, and hand them to the care of the QM… I joined the Forward Party and moved up the line.

…It was a wretched night–the strain of waiting was great–our guns were going continually–Fritz was ‘nervy’…

Crowded into a forward trench, the men now have to endure bombardment from the German artillery which, although the extent of the underground preparations seem not to have been guessed, must realize that some sort of attack is in the offing.

I was crouched down in the trench with my back to Jerry when a small shell landed almost on the parapet a matter of only inches from my head. The trench came in on top of me, and, but for the fact that it was strongly revetted, I should have been completely buried. When the smoke and dirt had cleared away, the other fellows were surprised to see me pick myself up unhurt. Aitken said, ‘That one had got your name on it, Joe,’ ‘Yes,’ I replied,’ but it was the wrong number.’ It gave me a terrible shaking but it might have been worse.[2]

 

Henry Williamson is safe behind the lines on the now-quiet Somme front, but he has sent his alter ego north, and placed him behind the lines at Messines. The talk in the transport section of Phillip Maddison’s turned somewhat morbid. Never mind that thousands of Germans were about to die and thousands of British infantry go over the top–the transport men, though currently fairly safe, have to bring up ammunition through an interdiction barrage. They too are frightened, and they begin to talk of their mothers. Phillip, even though he is so close to the place his courage failed in 1914, decides that he feels confident–because “he himself had broken away” from his mother and because he has the love of the faithful Lily: “if he hadn’t the thought of Lily to keep him going, he would be windy himself.”

With nothing to do as midnight passes and with his confidence buoyed both by the love of Lily and by his assessment–rather perceptive, this–that the German counter-barrage will be enfeebled and directed elsewhere, Phillip begins to contemplate a walk toward the front…[3]

 

One of the wonders of this project, in a small way, is the realization that even when great and terrible events are in the offing, “ordinary” life goes on for the soldiers even as it does across the experiential gulf. C.E. Montague has just received a welcome reassignment: instead of being a glorified assistant propagandist and minder of journalists (many of whom were far less skilled than he, not to mention his unusual moral and physical courage), he “was now to hold a position of some authority… better than showman-work however variegated.” He is now an ‘assistant press officer,’ and will have more freedom to choose his own course and no direct involvement in the dissemination of propaganda.

So late tonight, Montague will pack several well-known journalists into cars and head for Messines. But first he sits down to write a letter to his wife. To whom, of course, he cannot mention the coming battle, even at this late hour. Instead, he discusses what any good literary soldier does in his spare time–in this case his reading of the master of malign fate (and of brave human resistance against it) is at once exasperated and grateful:

June 6, 1917

I have gone on with The Return of the Native, admiring it more than ever. . . . I had forgotten how directly Hardy’s pessimism is declared in the description of Clym Yeobright, where he says that mankind’s enjoyment of life must decline, and the view of life as ‘a thing to be put up with’ prevail, and that we shall all cease to admire beauty of face as distinct from full expression of experiences mainly painful and disillusioning. What perversity it is. Life only seems to me to be more of a wonder and glory and ecstasy, the more I see of it, and I feel it specially when reading Hardy’s own descriptions of beautiful-natured people like his faithful lovers, and of lovely places.[4]

 

Finally, today, Francis Ledwidge is in France, far enough from Messines and surely in ignorance of tomorrow’s huge attack. But even if he knew he would still use an infantryman’s rare hours of leisure to attend to his growing poetic reputation. He wrote today an extremely long letter to Professor Lewis Chase, from which I will excerpt a few choice rambles:

B.E.F
France, 6th June 1917

Dear Sir,

Your letter of May 15th reached me this afternoon. I have to thank you for introducing my books into your University library and for the interest which you take in my poems and will endeavour to supply you with what details you require of myself and my work for the composition of your proposed lecture. You will, of course, understand that I am writing this under the most inept circumstances between my watches, for I am in the firing line and may be busy at any moment in the horrible work of war.

I am on active service since the spring of 1915, having served in the Dardanelles and the First British Expeditionary Force to Serbia… Some of the people who know me least imagine that I joined the Army because I knew men were struggling for higher ideals and great empires, and I could not sit idle to watch them make for me a more beautiful world. They are mistaken. I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions…

I am of a family who were ever soldiers and poets… I have heard my mother say many times that the Ledwidges were once a great people in the land, and she has shown me with a sweep of her hand green hills and wide valleys where sheep are folded which still bear the marks of dead industry and, once, this was all ours.

These stories, told at my mother’s doorstep in the owl’s light, are the first things I remember except, perhaps, the old songs which she sang to me, so full of romance, love and sacrifice. She taught me to listen and appreciate the blackbird’s song, and when I grew to love it beyond all others she said it was because I was born in a blackbird’s nest and had its blood in my veins. My father died when I was two…

The “Poet of the Blackbirds” goes on to describe his family and his early life.

There were four brothers of us and three sisters. I am the second youngest. For these my mother laboured night and day, as none of us were strong enough to provide for our own wants…

I was seven years of age when my eldest brother died, and though I had only been to school on occasional days I was able to read the tomb-stones in a neighbouring grave-yard and had written in secret several verses which still survive. About this time I was one day punished in school for crying and that punishment ever afterwards haunted the master like an evil dream, for I was only crying over Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” which an advanced class had been reading aloud.

It was in this same class that I wrote my first poem, in order to win for the school a half holiday…

Much as I would like to use the sheer bulk of the letter to enhance the slight irony of writing one’s life story on the brink of a major attack, patience dictates that we must skip the tale of Ledwidge’s early literary development. After a short and unhappy apprenticeship to a Dublin grocer, Ledwidge returns home.

I took up any old job at all with the local farmers and was happy. I set myself certain studies and these I pursued at night when I should be resting from a laborious day. I took a certificate of one hundred and twenty words a minute at Pitman’s shorthand, and soon knew Euclid as well as a man of Trinity College…  I read and studied the poets of England from the age of Chaucer to Swinburne, turning especially to the Elizabethans and the ballads that came before the great Renaissance. I thirsted for travel and adventure, and longed to see the Italy of Shelley and the Greece of Byron. But the poems of Keats and his sad life appealed to me most.

The young poet, in his own estimation at least, begins to mature:

I began to pick faults with Longfellow and Tennyson…

I burned many copybooks which contained fugitive pieces of my own because I thought it were better for them to die young and be happy than live to be reviled.

Georgian Poetry” (with my three excluded) contains, I think, the best poems of the century…

The letter continues in high good spirits, but it’s an open question whether the late switch to a torrent of unrelated anecdotes and quirks is produced because the poet is flattered to be the subject of academic interest, or because he knows that a fighting soldier who might wish to be remembered should give potential biographers as much, and as quickly, as he can.

I get more pleasure from a good line than from a big cheque. Though I love music I cannot write within earshot of any instrument. I cannot carry a watch on account of the tick, real or imaginary, and might as well try to sleep under the Bell of Bruges as in a room where a clock stands… I have written many short stories and one play which is declared a success by eminent playwrights who have read it…

The letter closes with several poems, including “Rainy Day in April,” “The Wife of Llew,” and Pan. Ledwidge assures the professor that the best is yet to come…

 

Tomorrow, the mines go up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 183-88.
  2. Sapper Martin, 70-1.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 153.
  4. C.E. Montague, 161-2, 172-3

Alfred Hale’s Indignity and Despair; A Probable Whopper from Henry Williamson; Duff Cooper and FOMO; Rowland Feilding En Famille; A Bad Dream for Siegfried Sassoon, but Thomas Hardy Doubles Down

Alfred Hale‘s first day in his new job as an RFC batman was… not good. But whether a say like this reads as unmitigated disaster or bitter farce has much to do with how much time has elapsed before one comes to contemplate it.

Hale has been assigned to look after the comforts of officers, and yet, even though he feels his own toilet to be essential both to his sense of well-being and his self-worth, he is incapable even of shaving himself. There are no barbers to be found, and his safety razor has been stolen. Hence this scene of military bathos:

The more I dipped my razor in the collapsible cup, the more it acted up to its name, till I had hard work to keep what little water I could in its bottom portion, so to speak. And my face? Well, the more I tried to get my beard off, the more my chin bled, till I was forced to stop. Yes, that army razor could cut fast enough, and no mistake…

Further humiliation awaited on the parade ground. Hale did not yet know that, as a batman, he could skip morning drill, during which both his incompetence and his butchered face drew the attention of the NCO in charge. And it got worse. Hale was then interviewed by a Captain Ross, and Hale–too bitter and focused a writer to refrain from shriving himself even as he is ground down by an antagonist–bungles it.

I was asked if I had ever been anything in the shape of a domestic servant, and on my replying in the negative, was told off to be a batman. But that was not before I had made an utter ass of myself by whining out that I had had a Public School education, and would like something clerical to do. This very foolish remark brought down on me a withering look from Ross, and I subsequently came to the conclusion that I had far better have stood silently on my dignity, without a word, and thrown the whole responsibility involved in giving me unsuitable work to do on Ross and those in authority behind him…

But standing on my dignity alas, was the last thing I was capable of that morning…

If all this occurred on the Sunday morning, 20 May, it was little wonder that I was well-night abandoning myself to despair that evening out for a walk at the crossroads, and when leaning over the gate leading into the wood, and that it seemed about the limit of things when I was met on my return to camp by Bailey and Lloyd and accused of staying out too long..

Hale’s first description of this despairing walk, given before a full accounting of the morning’s humiliations, sounds even worse: “I had some pretty bad moments, needing all the philosophical courage I could muster to overcome them.” Is this a self-pitying and melodramatic account of desperation and misery, or is Hale telling us that he was nearly suicidal?[1]

 

Henry Williamson is an irresistible point of comparison, since so much is so different about the two men and yet this central dynamic of misfitting, embarrassment, and intense writing of their own humiliations is so similar. Williamson is, for all his three years in the military, still so young, while Hale seems much older than his forty-two years. Williamson’s social background is quite humble for an officer while Hale is extremely unusual in being a Public School enlisted man (the days of the Public Schools Battalion being long gone)–the world is turned upside down.

Then there is the sharp difference in personality: Williamson the impulsive clown, full of bluster and manic energy, while Hale is steady but so inward that he must seem irretrievably obtuse. They will never fit in; they will constantly put their feet in it. And they will write about it in shame and wonder…

One thing does separate them, though, in a temporary rather than an absolute way. Hale is an innocent while Williamson is an experienced army man. He saw a good deal of combat, in 1914 and 1915, but he has lately managed the system very well. Through illness, promotion, retraining, and transport work, Williamson has strung together several years out of the actual trenches. And this string of excerpts from different letters shows his proudly practical approach to his own war service:

18 May

Dear Mother, Am awfully tired… last night we ran into a barrage of tear and phosgene shells… my eyes are very painful and for the moment Im fed up…

19 May

…Well this is my fourth month and not a sign of leave yet–oh my hat I am bored stiff–I love the life (except the strafes of course)… Thank God I’m a transport officer & dont go up again to the awful slaughter they call our front line–with the Bosche grinning 1000 yds away…

20 May

Am going down the line a bit for 5 weeks to do a Signalling Course–why I dont know–I am very fed up with losing my Transport job but don’t worry–they won’t get me in the infantry…

And then something very strange enters the letters. Given Williamson’s penchant for dishonesty and his inability to resist expanding upon his military exploits (good practice for his formal fictionalization of war experience, later on) we must assume that this is a very tall tale:

I have just returned from special duty in London.[2]

Huh? Why would a lieutenant commanding the transport section of a machine gun company near the front lines be sent all the way to London? Williamson will make another reference to going to the War Office, as if someone had made him a special courier of secret information. But this is extremely unlikely, especially since his diary shows no absence from France. If he really did go on “special duty” he would have to have been there and back in a day. Anne Williamson notes that there is no confirmation of this extraordinary fact, and it seems to seal the case that Henry Williamson doesn’t write anything else about such a trip other than the two bare mentions in the letters. About nearly everything else that happens he repeatedly brags, in his letters, or elaborates, in his fiction.

So Williamson must be making this up, presumably to obscure the real reason that he has been sent on a signalling course–and that reason, roughly, must be his superiors’ unhappiness with his incompetence as a transport officer, and perhaps also his strange and socially unacceptable behavior.

 

From two achingly awkward men, then, to one of the smoothest. But Duff Cooper, even as he uses his decision to join the army to dramatic effect in his relentlessly dramatic affair with Diana Manners, is not going to lie to himself (or his love, or his diary) about his motivations.

The following account is consistent with his private reasoning, and very believable: what makes a century back different from our own, in social terms, is not so much the power of the Fear Of Missing Out (a new acronym, but not a new phenomenon, as we will see) as its deadliness, particularly to the upper classes, who no longer do much dying for their country.

Tonight the same took place as last night… I confessed to her that I was really glad to join the army which made her cry–she was so white and darling and pathetic. I explained to her that it was no nonsense about dying for my country or beating the Germans that made me glad to join, but simply the feeling I have had for so long that I am missing something, the vague regret that one feels when not invited to a ball even though it be a ball that one hardly would have hoped to enjoy.[3]

 

Penultimately–Siegfried Sasson still awaits us in Sussex–we have Rowland Feilding among old friends. This has been a long war, and I had no memory of reading of Feilding’s time billeted with this particular French family. But there’s a link below, happily…

May 20, 1917 (Sunday). Coulomby.

The rest is already beginning to work marvels with the men, and although we have so far had only two days of it, the cheered-up look and the renewed freshness in the battalion is surprising to see.

We had a football match this afternoon, and won it: and this morning (Sunday) we had Church Parade in an orchard. I must say I felt very proud of the battalion. The men had all groomed themselves up like new pins. The mud of the trenches had entirely disappeared…

This afternoon I rode with Booth, my Adjutant, to Lumbres, and called on the Avots. About five seconds after I had rung the bell the door was opened by Madame Avot herself. She recognized me at once and gave me such a welcome. She called for her husband, and Jean (who used to follow me about on his bicycle), and the little girl. There was a rush along the passage as they all came bounding out to meet me. I might have been the head of the
house returning from the war. It was indeed most touching. The last time I had seen them was on that night when they all waited in the road to say good-bye as we marched past their gate on our way to Loos. Jean and his sister were small children then. To-day Jean is dressed like a man, and both he and Edith are as tall as myself…

I was skurried into the drawing-room. Madame Avot began asking me all sorts of questions—about you, and about the children. She remembered everything about all of you. We started in broken French. Then we got into broken English. She asked, “How is the cheeky one?’’—referring to a description I had once given her of A—— . I had forgotten the episode till she reminded me. I had tried to describe the three children, and incidentally had said that one of them was a cheeky little thing. She did not understand, and I searched for a word, but could not find any appropriate translation for the word “cheeky.” She has since then learned to use the word herself.

While we sat in the drawing-room the little—now big —girl (what a long time the war must have lasted for her
to have grown like this) handed round chocolates…

It all reminded me of that evening in August, 1915, when she did these same things, and her husband, whose English was very, very limited in those days, edged up to me and kept saying, “Am I not lucky to have such a wife?”

It’s not often that we hear Feilding mention his children, but who could resist, in the circumstances? And he is true to form here in bringing the subject back to the excellence of wives…

 

Siegfried Sassoon is having a fine old time, outwardly. At Chapelwood Manor, in Sussex, he is recovering from his shoulder wound in an atmosphere of privileged leisure.

All possible kindness had been showered on me, every opportunity was there for healthy contentment and mental relaxation, and the fine early summer weather made the place an earthly paradise. But somehow or other I had only achieved superficial felicity, for the contrast between this luxurious and delightful existence and my lurid experiences on the Arras battlefield had been with me all the time. My mind dwelt continually on the battalion with which had been serving. Since I left it, ten officers had been killed and fourteen wounded. It wasn’t surprising that this undermined my complacency about my own good fortune…[4]

That would be Sassoon looking back, and the retrospective balance is salutary. But here is how it felt in the moment, today, a century back:

May 20

When I woke early this morning to hear the bird-voices, so rich and shrill in the grey misty dawn, piping hoarse and sweet from the quiet fragrance of the wet garden and from the green dripping, woods far off—lying in my clean white bed, drowsy and contented, I suddenly remembered ‘At zero the infantry will attack’—Operation Orders! Men were attacking while I lay in bed and listened to the heavenly choruses of birds. Men were blundering about in a looming twilight of hell lit by livid flashes of guns and hideous with the malignant invective of machine-gun fire. Men were dying, fifty yards from their trench—failing to reach the objective—held up.

And to-night the rain is hushing the darkness, steady, whispering rain—the voice of peace among summer foliage. And men are cursing the downpour that drenches and chills them, while the guns roar out their challenge.[5]

This is a man who is not a peace with himself. And why should he be, with the war going on? And what should he do?

Well, he should write. A letter from a literary hero is on its way to Sassoon, with praise that may either confirm him in his sense that it is his duty to satirize the war with as sharp a pen as possible, or, cross-grained as he is, may prod him to write something more, something different. And lest we think that Thomas Hardy‘s praise of Sassoon’s verse was merely politesse or kindness to an old friend’s nephew, he mentions Sassoon in passing in a letter of today to another old friend, Florence Henniker.

Max Gate, May 20, 1917

My dear Friend:

…People are in strangely irritable moods I fancy. I said very harmlessly in a poem (sonnet) entitled “The Pity of It” that the Germans were a “kin folk, kin tongued” (which is indisputable) & letters attacking me appeared, denying it! The fact of their being our enemies does not alter their race…

The young poets you allude to—I imagine you mean the “Georgians” (an absurd name, as if the Georgians were not Shelley Scott, Byron, &c.)—are I think or some of them, on a wrong track. They seem to forget that poetry must have symmetry in its form, & meaning in its content.

I have read young Sassoon’s book dedicated to me. I think the poems show much promise…

Always yrs affectionately
Th: H.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 64-9.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 153-4.
  3. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 48.
  5. Diaries, 170-1.
  6. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 214-5.

Alf Pollard’s Happy Day; Edward Brittain Learns of Geoffrey Thurlow’s Death

Yesterday, Alf Pollard led an improvised, four-man counter attack that defeated a German assault and saved an entire division’s position. He writes about the morning after in two different places in his memoir. One follows immediately upon descriptions of yesterday, but it begins a new section, entitled “Book Three: Afterwards.” The other is the very beginning of the entire memoir, which begins today and then flashes back to 1914. So it is not a stretch to say that the book is built around yesterday’s heroics and today’s reward.

The morning of the 30th April, 1917, was bright and sunny. I was awakened at ten o’clock from a deep refreshing sleep by “Bun” Morphy, at that time second in command of the battalion, who burst into my tent in a state of the deepest agitation.

“Get up at once, Pollard!” he called in his rich Irish brogue.” The Divisional General wants to have a word with you!”

I rolled over in my flea-bag and smiled up at him. Bun was a favourite with all of us.

“I’m afraid he’ll have to wait,” I rejoined. “I can’t possibly get up at present. I haven’t any pyjamas on.”

It was lamentable, but it was true. We were lying under canvas at St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Arras, having only arrived from the line at three o’clock that morning after sixteen days in action. We were all dead tired. Our spell “up the line” had been particularly strenuous. In addition, I had picked up a slight dose of gas on the way down. Fritz was shelling the Arras-Douai road and I was too overjoyed at our relief to bother to don my gas-mask. The camp was a welcome end to a long march; the Mess tent a pleasing centre. Several whiskies were needed before I fully realised I was back at rest. I was a bit tiddley-boo before I retired in search of my bed.

I found my tent all right. I found my flea-bag, properly laid out for me by my servant. The devil of it was I could not find my pyjamas. Perhaps I ought to confess that my search for them was rather perfunctory. I have often wondered why I bothered to undress. I had not had my clothes off for sixteen days; one more night would have made very little difference. As it was, I stripped naked and crept in between the blankets.

Pollard’s memoir begins as a light comedy, then–and it remains a comedy, in the old technical sense. It is a story in which, though the characters are challenged, all comes right in the end.

Bun was too excited to grasp the situation.

“Never mind your pyjamas,” he declared impatiently. “The General’s waiting for you, I tell you.”

The General would have continued to wait as far as I was concerned. Fortunately he eased the situation by coming to my tent in person accompanied by Colonel Aspinall, his G.S.O.1. How should one salute a general when in the nude? King’s Regulations makes no provision for such a contingency. I merely sat upright and hugged my blankets to my chin. Bun clicked his shining spurred riding boots to attention.

“This is Pollard, sor,” he boomed.

I realised the feelings of a rare specimen at the Zoo being shown off to two interested fellows. Colonel Aspinall fitted his eyeglass to his eye. The General held out his hand.

“I’m proud to meet you, Pollard. I’ve been hearing all about what you and Haine[1] did yesterday and I want to tell you I’m recommending both of you for the Victoria Cross.”

The Victoria Cross!—the highest honour that any citizen of the British Empire can achieve. For a moment the tent whirled round me, the pole and the seams of the canvas hopelessly intermingled with khaki and field boots. In a daze I accepted the General’s hand, forgetting all about my nakedness.

The full title of the book is, naturally, Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C. 

“I—I’m sure it’s most awfully good of you, sir,” I stammered. All my life I’ve always stammered in moments of great excitement. “It’s most awfully good of you. Er—” I was at a loss for words; then I remembered. “I’m frightfully sorry I can’t stand up, sir. As a matter of fact I couldn’t find my pyjamas last night and—er——”

Major-General Lawrie was a very tactful man. He appreciated my embarrassment.

“I quite understand,” he interposed. “You’ve not had time to dress. Have your bath and we’ll have a chat later.”

He turned to leave the tent. Colonel Aspinall’s eyeglass dropped with a faint click. I felt that he was smiling. A moment later I was alone with my thoughts. The V.C.!

Had anyone told me on August Bank Holiday 1914 that I should ever receive the V.C. or even the D.C.M., or even that I should ever be a soldier, I should have roared with laughter…

But laughter is where it ends up. His subsequent account of today, a century back, notes that there was much laughing among the officers and men of the H.A.C. And why not? They had saved the day, yesterday, and today they were out of the line and safe. And two of their officers had won the Victoria Cross. Why shouldn’t they laugh?

Here is the official citation:

On 29 April 1917 at Gavrelle, France, the troops of various units had become disorganized owing to the heavy casualties from shell fire and a subsequent determined attack with very strong forces caused further confusion and retirement. Second Lieutenant Pollard realized the seriousness of the situation and with only four men he started a counter-attack with bombs, pressing it home until he had broken the enemy attack and regained all that had been lost and much ground in addition. This officer’s splendid example inspired courage into every man who saw him.

Skeptics might point out that when an attack fails (in the neighboring division), awarding rare and famous awards to two men who helped to prevent a disaster (rather than achieve an intended victory) is a good way of deflecting criticism. That’s a likely story, but it is hardly on point–pretty much any decoration may arrive through some combination of ulterior motives, but that does not necessarily detract from the valor it rewards. My complaint is more simple: The H.A.C. is now at the “climax of our fame” and proud of having protected the position without taking heavy casualties…

But Pollard does not describe what casualties they did take. I’m not sure, actually, that he mentions any casualties in his Regiment that day at all (one of the three companions in heroism–each was awarded the DCM–a soldier from the neighboring division, is killed today). There were probably few–the CWGC notes only five men of the H.A.C. killed yesterday near Arras, and perhaps none of these were in his company. But I don’t know. Nor do we hear a thing of the Germans Pollard shot and bombed–did they die immediately? Did they suffer? Were they given aid? Taken prisoner? Deliberately killed as a potential threat to the rear? I don’t know.

My point is, again, that it’s a comedy: Alf Pollard is a callow boy at the start of the war, and a hero at the end. He’s done good, and everyone who matters has a happy war–bravery, success, recognition. The people who die to make this happen do not make an impact on the narrative. Pollard will even go on to marry the girl who has spurned his advances throughout–the V.C. helped with that as well. So not only a comedy, but more, er, “proof” that there is something to the evolutionary argument for reckless aggression.

But I get ahead of myself, and that is against the rules. We will hear from Captain A.O. Pollard, V.C. a few more times, and he will continue to represent a literary style more popular than that of the vast majority of the writers we read here. Pollard, just like Sassoon or Owen, deserves to be read in context, and examined alongside (rather than condemned for) his assumptions: a general will write a forward for his book, pitching it as a how-to guide for boys, all of whom “must long to receive the Victoria Cross.” And perhaps it is. But it’s worth asking how the author of a book so staunchly enthusiastic about war might fare when the chances for such happy heroism vanish and the memories fade. And it’s also fair to ask what the literary and historical qualities might be that recommend further reading of this book for those who aspire to recognition that can be earned in more humane and less dire circumstances than the Victoria Cross.[2]

 

And, of course, even being able to look to the future, as Pollard can, is a gift of Providence–or an omission of Fate. Or happenstance. Edward Brittain writes to his sister Vera today, a century back, with more bad news.

Brocton Camp, Stafford, 30 April 1917

Dearest Vera —

I only heard this morning from Miss Thurlow that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd–a week ago to-day–and  I sent you a cable about noon. No details are known yet as his people only got the War office telegram on Saturday evening; I have been afraid for him for so long and yet now that he has gone it is so very hard—that prince among men with so fine an appreciation of all that was worth appreciating and so ideal a method of expression…

Always a splendid friend with a splendid heart and a man who won’t be forgotten by you or me however long or short a time we may live. Dear child, there is no more to say; we have lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained? Truly as you say has patriotism worn very very threadbare.

Victor seems to be much better; Mother will be able to tell you more about him than I can as she sees him every day. She says his voice has come back just as it was before and that he speaks quite sensibly though his memory is not yet very good. He has asked for me to come and see him again and I hope to get up next Saturday.

He doesn’t seem to realise that he is blind yet but thinks he has a bandage over his eyes; I am rather afraid of what may happen when he finds out. I will write again in a day or two as soon as I hear any more about Geoffrey. This is an unlucky place–I was here when Roland died of wounds, when Tah was blinded, and when Geoffrey was killed.

Good-night, dear child.

Your affectionate

Edward[3]

The letter will take weeks; a telegram arrive in Malta tomorrow.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Haine's actions preceded Pollard's--he slept late, you may remember--and so we skipped the regiment's initial heroics.
  2. Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C., 12-21, 227.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 346.

Lady Feilding and the Gas Attack; Hope for Kate Luard’s Glorious Boy; Visitors for Siegfried Sassoon; Henry Williamson: Wasting Mules, Skyhigh Verbiage, and Safe Souvenirs

As we catch up with several writers who have not been on the front lines at Arras, we have a few shorter updates, today, as well as an overdue missive from Lady Feilding.

In something like a literary crossing of paths, Thomas Hardy wrote to Edmund Gosse, today, praising his new book. Gosse, meanwhile, was visiting with a young family connection also known to Hardy through the younger man’s uncle, Hamo Thornycroft. Siegfried Sassoon is evidently pleased to be so distracted:

April 26

My sixth day in this hospital. Roderick came this afternoon. And afterwards Robbie and Edmund Gosse, who was in delightful good humour.[1]

 

Sassoon’s battalion, meanwhile, is out of the line, though far smaller than it was when he left it. In reserve, but knowing that they will soon march again, the 2nd/Royal Welch engage in one of the milder ironies of industrial warfare’s waste.

…moved to Blairville. Socks, dozens of pairs, are being thrown out all over the camp, the result of a consignment from the Welfare Association having been delivered. Those in the packs of the dead were just thrown out, and shirts too, all good, to rot or be burned.

Our casualties for the tour are 13 officers, 4 of them killed, and about 120 other ranks out of a trench strength of 350.[2]

 

Two days ago, a century back, Henry Williamson was once again in trouble. After a visit from a military vet, who found some of the mules under his care “apparently neglected, and wasting away,” he was “straffed like hell” by his superiors.

There is no mention of this latest bump in the road in a letter he then wrote to his mother. Instead he produced a long, strenuously literary, sentimental letter, full of swooping birds (at least six different species are mentioned) and melodramatic and ominous sights. A brief sampling:

In the vast blue above the newly arrived swallows wheel and call and from yonder grim and black wood the cuckoo sings. Spring is here with its promise of life and hope–and Death.

…I ‘spose the blue-tits will soon vibrate with the thunder of the guns–tons of earth will be blown skyhigh in huge black fountains–the shrapnel will burst in white soft clouds above the wire–Hell itself will be let loose, and soon the beauty of the spring will disappear, and shattered trees and torn earth alone be left–and among it, pathetic little bundles of wasting flesh will strew the ground… and the sky will still be blue, and at night the stars will shine out…

All that, perhaps, in lieu of “I got yelled at at work again today, mum.”

But by today, a century back, the elevated mood has come back toward earth, while a more familiar epistolary persona is in evidence:

The souvenirs Williamson sent home… but where are the German hand grenades?

Dearest,

Just got your letter saying you got helmets–good…Thanks for toffee & Cycling. Aren’t those helmets good souvenirs? the spikes screw on top. The flat fellow is Bavarian. Write soon send Kentish Mercury.

Love Harry. PS Guns going like hell.[3]

What became of the pickelhaubes, I do not know…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Dorothie Feilding is in Flanders, as ever, and not on the Arras front, where things are most active. But just as “minor surgery” is surgery on someone else, there is no point objecting that someone under attack is not actually part of the day’s major offensive.

Perhaps as a response to the allied push, the Germans in Belgium launched a gas attack, not, apparently, to screen or support any major operations, but simply to damage and disconcert their enemy and perhaps take any trenches that might be abandoned or lightly held. It began three days ago, with clouds of gas–probably primarily phosgene–rolling over the lines and into the rear areas where the Munro Ambulance Corps was stationed. The scale of the attack prompted a brief telegram to her mother at home on the 24th, stating, concisely, “All well Dorothie.” Today, a century back, she elaborated in a letter to her father.

Lady Feilding generally shrugs off being almost killed by shellfire, preferring a blithe and rather daffily dismissive style. But either because of that frighteningly brief telegram or because this new experience was far more frightful than the familiar ambulance-driving under shrapnel fire, she narrates the hours after the attack in detail.

My dear Colonel

Things have been moving here just lately but I haven’t had time to write you much about them, also I was waiting till the events had been duly recited in the communique before writing about them, as it is always wisest.

This having been done I will now tell you more about it, also the rubber bath has come before I forget to thank you for it. It is a dashed fine one & I am very grateful to Mr Da.

On the 23rd about four am, Fritz suddenly started launching gas at us from the local metropolis up at N. The wind wasn’t very good for him, too much to the N with the result the gas came diagonally back from the lines & we here at no 14 got a very bad go of it. Jelly smelt it & woke up which was most intelligent of him; we all got up & threw on a few garments & of course hadn’t a gas mask in the house as ours were in the car, which that night happened to be in the other garage down in the town. There was the limousine here however & Jelly started that & then he went off with the ambulance up to the lines & the gas being very bad by then here I evacuated Winkie & Helene & the girl next door up to a hospital a few miles up the road. There I borrowed some gas masks & a spare driver as I was feeling rather faint & thought it best to have two drivers in the car. I left Winks & CO there & tore back to no 14 to find the gas had cleared away very quickly from there, as a matter of fact it had been following the road we took to the left & we were in it for 3 or 4 miles & so by bad luck got much more than the people who stayed here. By this time I was quite sure the Boche had overrun the sector as I couldn’t imagine our having it so bad & the lines being still tenable. As a matter of fact, the waves were very local & came in gusts. For instance, the main part of the town here got none. It just travelled down in long columns. I rushed up to our barracks & was awfully relieved to find them all ok. They had had very good masks & the main gas column had passed to the right of them & on our way.

Then we just worked like navvies all day till dark. Simply never an engine stopped all day & we were all pretty beat at the end of it. At the beginning, Boche had rushed our lines but we drove them out again as the commimique said & things are exactly as they were before now which is very satisfactory. The sector was very lucky to get off with the line in the old place.

It’s a dirty business gas & rather frightening; comes in great foggy waves & makes you cough your head off. Those poor, poor devils of men. I can’t tell you what it’s like to see them all lying about unconscious & in the most awful states. Much worse than blesses in a way because there is so desperately little you can do for them. In many cases they are alright for 12 to 24 hrs & then go down like logs. The Boche had a lot of casualties from our fire & we got some prisoners too.

I felt quite (fairly) alright the day itself after the 1st hour. Just rather cut. It didn’t work on me till 24hrs after when, at about 5am, I couldn’t breathe except like a scared rabbit & went down to get a drink & then felt awfully faint. This kept coming on at intervals all that day, so I went to bed in the afternoon & have been there ever since. I am quite all right again now & am getting up again now as I haven’t had a proper go of it since yesterday. It’s a beastly feeling–you can’t get a proper deep breath…

This is a long scrawl isn’t it?[4]

 

Finally, today, from behind the lines at Arras, Kate Luard reports on the status of a particularly affecting patient.

Thursday, April 26th, 10.30 p.m.

…The officer boy with the fractured spine isn’t going to die yet… I got the colonel to put him on the Evacuation list tonight to give him a chance to get X-rayed at the Base and perhaps recover…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 162.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 340.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 131-4.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 205-7.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.

Henry Williamson Approves German Strategy; Wilfred Owen Imagines a Retreat; Edward Thomas Writes, but Not Through His Hat; Edwin Vaughan Clowns Through His

A day of family letters once again. Henry Williamson seems to have dodged immediate trouble due to his either his drinking or his incompetence (actual and perceived) in managing men, maps, and mules; he hasn’t lost his job, and his Machine Gun Company is now following the German withdrawal. A letter of yesterday, a century back, used his dotted-letters code to indicate that they were in Bapaume. He also reported himself in good spirits, in receipt of no parcels from home, and determined to show that the fighting men knew the German withdrawal for what is was:

The newspapers amuse us here immensely–we read of the Ger being driven back by our chaos–in reality he is walking away of his own free will, as slowly and as fast as he likes to… this burning and ruining & poisoning is not for spite–that’s all rot–its only to hinder us (e.g. no water, therefore greatly increased transport difficulties) as much as possible.

This is true as far as it goes. But it is also a case of young Williamson preferring the contrarian point of view. It is hardly the worst excess of British propaganda to cry up the purposeful devastation of the abandoned areas as cruel. It is cruel. But war is cruel, and this is this war’s first organized retreat, and thus a reintroduction to a particular catalogue of cruelties as old as the Thirty Years War or the Chevauchées which were once a popular English pastime in the region.

But Williamson omits one detail which, although it fits the older models of long-term devastation, can’t be reduced to his argument of purely strategic concerns–i.e. slowing down the British advance in the present days and weeks. As several of our writers have remarked, the Germans have, in at least one area, deliberately destroyed the apple trees, not in order to deny their pursuers firewood or the sight of apple-blossoms, but so as to wreck the cider crop for years to come.

All this is forgotten, in any event, as Williamson’s letter of today, a century back, cheerfully focuses on two positives of the strange new situation. First, the post has at last caught up. Second, it must now fall behind again: the German withdrawal has been so well-managed that they must now be several days on the road in catching up and establishing new positions.

Dear Mother,

I think I received all your letters to date. Last night I received a parcel with some sox, match box, and butter scotch, for which many many thanks.

I have practically nothing to tell you except that I am not in the danger zone–the reason being that the old fellow has hooked it too quickly…

At times I get awfully fed up with this game, when I’m cold & wet, and moving to unknown billets with no accommodation, owing to our friend having struck a few matches to paraffin blocks & hey presto, no village: then its absolutely awful… the rain comes on about 3 times a week & puts everything in about 15 inches of mud.

Well cheero, don’t forget to write a bit, & don’t always write the same letter, your letters are always the same!!! Love to all, Harry.[1]

 

At the opposite end of the scale of subaltern maturity is Edward Thomas, also writing to his middle aged, middle class London/suburban parents.

244 Siege Battery
22 March 1917

Dear Father and Mother,

As things have been happening here lately I had better let you know all is well. I have been out for 24 hours in our new front line trenches—an Artillery officer always has to be there now—observing the ground and reporting flashes of hostile guns at night. It was a very interesting and very tiring experience as I had no shelter and had not been prepared for a night at all. It taught me a good deal about cold and dirt and mud and how the infantry live and also how to tell the sound of shells that are not going to harm you, which saves you from much useless anxiety. To be relieved at breakfast time was a pleasure that overcame everything and to see the town in the sun as I came down into it was most beautiful. I slept 16 hours after a wash and a meal and now I am on duty again. The one thing I could have had and did not was my map case to protect my map from rain and mud . . .

We do not know enough yet about the recent movements to be elated… I am sure you are Hopeful, Father, and I can only say I am willing to believe the best when I hear it.

Interestingly, the ever-open question of what, exactly, one can believe of what one reads in wartime newspapers now takes a personal turn as Edward Thomas picks up on what must have been a mention in a letter to him of the war correspondent William Beach Thomas. Beach Thomas, arrested in 1914 by the British Army for reporting from the war zone without permission, was briefly something of a hero of the free press. But lately he is a writer–with official access, controlled by the Army–popular on the home front but much mocked among the troops for his purple prose and lack of real knowledge of front line conditions.

Our Thomas comments:

I have been reading Beach Thomas on the ruins of Peronne, etc. I am very glad it is not my job and at the same time sure I could do it infinitely better. Julian is probably right in saying that he gets his stuff supplied to him and writes through his hat. It is a pleasure not to have to write through one’s hat.

This is a dry remark, yes, but it is also a quiet reaffirmation–just after his first real day under fire in trenches, no less–of the decisions that have brought Thomas to where he is. He could easily have been a war journalist, but then he would not have really experienced the war. More precisely, he would not have shared its experience–the danger not least but then again not all. But his refusal to ever consider looking for work in that line is also motivated from the opposite direction in terms of his personal history (the past rather than the future): he has written hack work, thousands of words, hundreds of times, and quickly, to the specifications of others. He sought to leave that behind when he began to write poetry, and the resulting need for cash was not least in his motivations for joining the army. He might have wanted the mud and rain and danger anyway, the feeling of fellowship on behalf of English earth, in French earth–but at the very least being a fighting soldier saved him from the irony of returning to paying writing work on such terms.

Instead, he can see for himself, and write of it as he chooses. So this phrase is worth more than a thick binder of Beach Thomas-style paeans to Tommy:

The infantry in the trenches were very amusing company and the way they settle down and make the best of an impossible situation is just as wonderful as I have always heard…

Good bye and my love to all.

Ever your loving son

Edwy[2]

 

Thomas also wrote to Eleanor Farjeon, today, a century back. The letter covers much of the same ground, as it were, but then again the differences in emphasis are telling:

March 22

My dear Eleanor,

…It was most interesting and amusing as well as infinitely tiring—I had to stand up in mud, wet and cold all night watching hostile flashes and listening to shells which I have learnt not to worry about when they are going over and not coming to me or near. The time hasn’t come for field postcards yet. We are still at the edge of the town and have no definite news when or where we move. So I am still in the orchard. The old Frenchwoman probably left it to live in a safe cellar at the edge of the town. This place hasn’t a safe cellar. Also I suppose a battery coming here made it unfit for her to stay. You have heard now that I collared that F and M parcel. I did not get any stomach-ache from it. The muscatels and almonds are just the things for my 24 hours in an observation post…

You know that village I told you about, the ghastly place, well it is just near there that I observe. I shall be sleeping in it soon, I expect. The Hun fires into it all night. When I was in the front trench, all night long his shell came whistling over to roost in — like flights of birds.

You have often heard of the mud out here, haven’t you? Well, I have been in it. It is what you have heard. You nearly pull your leg off, and often your boot off, at each step in the worst places—the stiff soft clay sucks round the boot at each step. The telephone wires are deep in this and have to be repaired in the dark. Imagine it. Now I have to go. Goodbye.

Yours ever,
Edward Thomas[3]

 

Wilfred Owen, still recovering from a fall and subsequent concussion, has rather more time on his hands. Writing to his sister Mary, he is in a pleasantly discursive mood–and he admits to an interestingly fanciful hobby.

Wednesday Mng. 22 March
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mary,

I am now really quite well, but am not getting up yet, as it is snowing and I couldn’t go out if I did dress. But we sit round the stove in Kimonos, padded with cotton, very pleasant wear. We are now about ten in the ward. One is an old Artist Rifle, but I never knew him, nor ever want to. They are none of them interesting, from any point of view
whatever.

I amuse myself with drawing plans for Country Houses and Bungalows, especially Bungalows. I worked my wits all day on one, and, within the prescribed limits, it is about perfect, for the intended occupant—solitary me.

Yesterday we saw that Owen was concerned to go back to his own battalion and not face the social dislocation of consignment to a replacement depot. Which is all very practical–yet he is still a loner at heart, at least in poetic fantasy.

You see I am thinking of sitting down under my own vine and living for use, some day, and a concrete presentment of the Vine should be incentive.

This passage rather winded me, yea wounded me. Mistress Browning:

Many fervent souls
Strike rhyme on rhyme, who would strike steel on steel.
If steel had offered, in a restless heat
Of doing something. Many tender hearts
Have strung their losses on a rhyming thread.
As children, cowslips. The more pains they take.
The work more withers. Young men, ay and maids.
Too often sow their wild oats in tame verse.
Before they sit down under their own vine.
And live for use.

Alas, near all the birds.
Will sing at dawn, and yet we do not take
The chaffering swallow for the holy lark.

Or words to that effect.
Adieu, sweet sister.

Your ever loving W.E.O.[4]

Even when these guys quote bits of poetry–this is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh–they find their way to a lark. But it’s fascinating to see Wilfred Owen, as yet a lonely soul, planning a poetic retreat for àpres-la-guerre–even if he can’t exactly afford it, and must occupy it alone. Hardship and deprivation have a way of focusing the future-fantastic urge…

 

We’ll close today with two unaccustomed things, at least as far as Edwin Vaughan‘s diary goes: camaraderie and frivolity.

We were all sent along to QM stores to draw a new kind of gas helmet. A rubber face piece with a tube leading to a canister of chemicals; the whole installed in a square satchel to be carried on the chest. The troops are quite annoyed at having ‘another bleedin’ present for the Christmas tree’. We of HQ have also been dished out with new tin hats fitted with a rail and hanging chain mesh to protect the eyes. We spent the afternoon putting on the gas-masks to make animal noises at each other, and saluting to make the helmets clank.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 101-3.
  2. Selected Letters, 150-1.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 256-7.
  4. Collected Letters, 445.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 63.

Robert Frost’s Mountain Interval, a Darkling Edward Thomas and the Missing Thrush; Siegfried Sassoon Anticipates the Blackbirds; Ivor Gurney on His Monument and His Prisoner Pal; Rowland Feilding Bangs the Gong

If you can hold on through the moody poets and sentimental verse, today, there is a bracing bit of trench doggerel waiting at the end…

First, though, Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon continue to record their adjacent poetic vigils. Sassoon, near Rouen:

February 23

The stillness of the pine-tree’s is queer. They stand like blue-green walls fifty or sixty feet high with the white sky beyond and above. They seem to be keeping quite still, waiting for the war to end. This afternoon, off the road by the training-ground, I found an alley leading downhill to a big shuttered red house that overlooks the valley and the distant wall of hills. It was so quiet along, the paths with.green moss growing-under the pine-stems. And chiffchaffs and tits chattering; and some Frenchmen chopping timber in a brown copse down below. It might almost have been England (though I don’t know what difference that would make).

Now that’s a striking parenthesis. Doesn’t the English countryside make all the difference? It was supposed to. The first time I read this next bit I missed the slide from observation to anticipation, but that makes all the difference too, in February, in France:

I could hear a dog barking in the stable-yard, a cow lowing, and hens clucking. These homely things come strangely when one is up to the neck in camps and suchlike. And it is good to think of spring being near, and daylight at 6 o’clock soon. Blackbirds scolding among bushes in gardens, and red sunsets fading low down, and the smell of late March, and daffodils shining in the dusk and the orchard grass.[1]

 

And now Thomas, in too February a mood to summon the sights and sounds of spring:

Chaffinch sand once… Partridges twanging in fields…

For a moment, there, I thought I had made an epochal literary discovery–until I realized that chaffinches and chiff-chaffs are not, in fact, the same bird. Nowhere close! Still, the poets are making similar observations…

Thomas’s eye is drawn, next, to human things–he is inspecting the “sordid ruin of an estaminet” in which some men are billeted, and he includes a long list of the litter to be found therein. The men he hardly seems to see, although they are there, but they are natural (as it were) to the scene of a much-shelled ruin. What strikes him later is the presence–and absence–of the birds.

2 owls in garden at 6. The shelling must have slaughtered many jackdaws but has made home for many more.

So while Sassoon anticipates the absent blackbirds, Thomas notes–as we will see, in a moment–their absence only after he notes the absence of birds that, seasonally speaking, might have been there. Owls, blackbirds, jackdaws…

Thomas does not have evening duties, and so he girds himself now to write a letter that he has probably been brooding over for some time. I wondered recently how it was that he could claim not to have read Robert Frost’s “Mountain Interval.” It seems that Thomas may have been carefully correct in his statement: he read all but the final poem before he left England, so he hadn’t “read it” in the sense of having not completely finished it. Until today:

Finished Frost’s ‘Mountain Interval’. Wrote to Frost.[2]

The letter:

My dear Robert,

It is going to be harder than ever for us to talk, I suppose. I did write you a week or so back after I first went & had a look round in the trenches… Well, I have read “Snow” today & that puts me on to you. I liked it. You go in for ‘not too much’ in a different sense from Horace’s yet your ‘not too much’ is just as necessary. But I can’t read much…

Is this loyal brevity? Terse praise? Something of a slap in the face? Exhaustion preventing a decent concealment of his adverse reaction?

I don’t know. And any letter from a soldier so new to the war zone will soon turn to describing “what it’s like.” But it is still hard not to see this quick transition as carrying the force of “no time for that sort of poetry now–I am almost in action, not reflection.”

We are living in rather a palace–a very cold dark palace–about 2000 yards from the Hun, in a city which is more than half in ruins already… I woke last night thinking I heard someone knocking excitedly at a door nearby. But I am persuaded now it was only a machine gun…

But I am very anxious to go back soon to my battery. They are only 3 miles away & when I walk over to see them it is something like going home…

A wan effort, so far, and now Thomas musters some intellectual effort in order to avoid offending Frost–to send the message that he misses him, that he wishes he could write a better letter.

You know that life is in so strange that I am only half myself & the half that knows England & you is obediently asleep for a time. Do you believe me? It seems that I have sent it to sleep to make life endurable–more than endurable, really enjoyable in a way. But with the people I meet I am suppressing practically everything (without difficulty tho not without pain). I reserve all criticism just as I reserve all description. If I come back I shall boast of the book I did not write in this ruined city…

This is plaintive, a depressive writer’s twist on all the other versions of “if I should die” that are to be found in soldiers’ letters. And a little afterthought dash of humor will not sweeten the absence of the birds:

I daren’t tell a neutral more than that it is a small cathedral city. It is beautiful chalk country all round. What puzzles me is that I haven’t heard a thrush sing yet, & of course not a blackbird.

Do you write when you can to 244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France, if only because I am probably the only man in A[rras] who has read “Mountain Interval.’ My love to you all.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Sassoon imagines the blackbirds, soon; Thomas only imagines the slaughtered jackdaws…

 

One reason–though not the foremost–for the trough in the friendship between Frost and Thomas is that Thomas suspects that Frost is not exerting himself to get his (Thomas’s) book published in America. Ivor Gurney, in this way at least, is more fortunate in his friends. He writes once again to Marion Scott, who is almost solely responsible for the fact that his poems will soon be published.

Those whose interest in Gurney and his waxing poetic skills has been well-piqued should read on; others might want to skim his remarkably clear and brief poetic mission statement (the numbered list, below) and skip to the end…

23 February 1917

My Dear Friend: Soon we are to be at work again — after the Rest — that is we go into trenches; for myself there are not many regrets, for Resting is a tiring business; and though being shelled is not pleasant, yet the escape from death gives in itself some slight interest in life. Anyway, Spring’s first signs cannot be so far off now, and the cold relaxes a little…

Gurney then launches into the minutiae of proof-reading, answering Scott’s questions about his upcoming first boom of verse. But the specific leads to the general, and this major statement of purpose:

What I want to do with this book is

(1) To leave something definite behind if I am knocked out
(2) To say out what Gloucester is, and is to me; and so to make Gloucester people think about their county
(3) To have some good stuff in it, whatever one might say about the whole.
(4) To make people realise a little what the ordinary life is.

Anyway it was good fun, writing; and gave me something to do. “Hail and Farewell’ I think will stand; it is impossible for me to try and perfect these things, save after 6 months of life in peace and beauty…

From his book his thoughts turn to death, via Scott’s news of the death of a friend (from cancer, even in wartime) to thoughts of his own lost friend, Will Harvey, Gloucester poet, decorated front fighter, and German prisoner, and from there, well, where else but England?

I wonder how FWH has got on in his prison lately . . . My thoughts of England are first and foremost of the line of Cotswold ending with Bredon Hill, near Tewkesbury, and seen with him. Or the blue Malvems seen at a queer angle, from the hayfield, talking when War seemed imminent, and the whole air seemed charged with fateful beauty. For illness I can feel strong sympathy, but Death means not much to me. Either I do not care much, or care a great deal and am not separated…

This is one of those days where there is no way to keep up with Gurney. We’ll note these scattershot thoughts on such little matters as the Gloucestershire of the Mind which sustains him, and friendship, and the ubiquity of death in wartime…

A few more corrections and details follow, and then Gurney pauses, sniffs, and senses an omission (here, too, for I have avoided discussing the details of Gurney and Scott’s relationship; I still need to learn more).

It sometimes puzzles me what you find to interest you in my letters, since what is not verse, is either about verse or myself. You support all this very bravely, and deserve better things: but so much it means to me to cling to verse, the one interest (now cafe au lait is not possible) left to me in life, and so good to talk about it, that I fear you will have to suffer yet more.

All I can think of is — What an unholy waste of time this is, what a lot I have to learn…

As for my comrades — after the war I can be interesting about them, but not yet. Goodness knows I am fond of them — some of them; but I cling to life by deliberately trying to lose myself in my thoughts of other things; trusting to some innate pluck in me to save me at moments when pluck is wanted. This is not the way to make a soldier of oneself — just the opposite in fact; and increasing sensibility must balance the advantage gained by concentration of thought on other things. But though I were sure of saving my life if I altered, and losing it did I not, still I should be the same, having set all on the future.

Forgive all this egotism, and may your book and you progress cheerily. Continue, flourish and triumph, and put up a little longer with my cockeyed epistles. With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

Although he dates the first of these two poems “January 1917,” both were included in today’s letter to Scott. The first is strong, but sentimental–one Gloucestershire soldier’s paean to another. The second is very strange. Very charming, that is, but strange to find here.

Afterglow        to FWH

Out of the smoke and dust of the little room.
With teatalk loud and laughter of happy boys,
I passed into the dusk. Suddenly the noise
Ceased with a shock; left me alone in the gloom,
To wonder at the miracle hanging high
Tangled in twigs, the silver crescent clear —
Time passed from mind. Time died; and then we were
Once more together, in quiet, you and I.
The elms with arms of love wrapped us in shade.
That watched the ecstatic West with one desire.
One soul uprapt; and still another fire
Consumed us, and our joy yet greater made —
That Bach should sing for us; mix us in one
The joy of firelight and the sunken sun.

Praise

O Friends of mine, if men mock at my name.
Say “Children loved him”.
Since by that word you will have far removed him
From any bitter shame.[4]

I don’t doubt they did. But what children, here? I wish I knew more…

 

And finally, today, Rowland Feilding is waiting for the other shoe to drop after the failed raid and informal armistice of last week. He may even be trying to edge out from underneath that dropping shoe. In the meantime, some light verse:

February 23, 1917. Curragh Camp (Locre).

The battalion is out of the trenches for eight days. The weather has completely changed, and there is a dense fog, which is almost constant.

I have applied for twenty-one days’ leave, to which I am entitled. I feel I want a little time and opportunity to
freshen up.

I found the following poetic effort, the other day, posted up by the gas gong at S[trong].P[oint]. 10.

To H.M. Troops

If the German gas you smell.
Bang this gong like blazing hell.
Put on your helmet.
Load your gun,
And prepare to meet
The ruddy Hun.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 134-5.
  2. War Diaries, (Childhood), 163-4.
  3. Elected Friends, 179-80.
  4. War Letters, 136-9.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 157.

Edwin Vaughan Approaches the Line, With Nightmares of His Own Demise; Francis Ledwidge Dreams of Fairies

Edwin Vaughan is due to see the front line at last. Denied first by being posted to a battalion at rest, then again when the battalion was sent into trenches but his company was kept in battalion reserve, he will at last have a chance to see the elephant, if only while leading up a ration party.

On the 4th another officer had taken the rations up to the companies in the line. He returned late, after the “terrific rumble and growling” of a barrage, to report that the enemy–Vaughan, oddly, specifies the German regiment–has attacked three times, apparently either a raid or a local effort to seize some trench (more likely a raid, as the Germans were not at this time much interested in advancing their line). This is all a little too specific and certain, but then again that is in the nature of rumors, and it is quite possible that previous raids have identified the Germans opposite. The truth of the matter is of less moment than how it affected Vaughan:

This story seriously disturbed my rest: it brought danger so close to me. I lay awake for hours, thinking that I might have been in the line during that barrage and attack… Then how would I have acquitted myself? I saw horrible pictures of myself lying dead in a shattered trench, or helplessly bleeding to death in a shell-hole with no power to call for help. And not less terrible I saw myself on the road, panic-stricken and unable to go forward with the rations.

No–no less terrible; men have been shot for less.

Devoutly I wished that the war would be over before our turn came to go into the line.

It will not be. But late the next night Vaughan is sent up not with but rather after a ration party, ordered to catch them up on a bicycle. This is surely a strange first approach to the line.

I started off in great fear, fully expecting a repetition of last night’s barrage. The cold was terrible, and I had no gloves… the handlebars… felt like white-hot metal… on every side gaped great black holes, and the snow around was blackened with debris, or yellow with explosive.

Very shortly I sniffed a curious, sweet, choking smell, and falling from my bicycle, I dragged out my gas-mask with numb fingers and pulled it over my head…

I sped on, almost mad with panic, passing no one on the way except two limbers, whose masked drivers were urging their teams into a stumbling trot, until, at last, I felt that my head and heart were bursting, and falling off my bike on to the side of the road I dragged off my helmet and took great gulps of air, not caring whether it were gas-laden or not.

As a matter of fact the air was now quite clear and being close to the trench, I left my bike and walked along to it…

A hero’s welcome? Not in this war book.

I was astounded and chagrined to find in the dugout a strange crowd of officers who told me that my Battalion had been relieved some time before…

This was such an anticlimax and I was so annoyed that I walked back to my bike and then cycled home in an unhurried and serene fashion, not giving another thought to the possibilities of shelling.[1]

 

I can think of no smooth transition from Vaughan’s latest schlimazeling to Francis Ledwidge‘s latest poem, unless it is that counter-intuitive serenity. There is something heroic in being so completely immune to the atmosphere of a grim winter war.

 

Fairies

Maiden-Poet, come with me
To the heaped up cairn of Maeve,
And there we’ll dance a fairy dance
Upon a fairy’s grave.

In and out among the trees,
Filling all the night with sound,
The morning, strung upon her star,
Shall chase us round and round.

What are we but fairies too,
Living but in dreams alone.
Or, at the most, but children still,
Innocent and overgrown?

February 6th, 1917.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 23-4.

Ivor Gurney on Ledwidge and the Poor Folk; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Foiled by Diana; Wilfred Owen on England, and the Abode of Madness

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been too long in Limbo. Or, more accurately, in Macedonia, which is no one’s idea of either a glamorous or a crucial theater of war. His society there is limited mostly to French career officers. It could be worse, one would think, but Shaw Stewart has different standards: his ambition is to scale the heights of English society… and today, a century back, at long last, he arrived back in England. Instead of staying in London or going to visit his family he went straight for Belvoir, where Diana Manners was ensconced. Sometimes, brilliant or beautiful people–brilliant, beautiful, and frequently not-so-nice people–get what they deserve. Manners is or was the muse to many men, and many of these have been killed–Raymond Asquith was the greatest loss. But just because the suitors are being winnowed by war does not mean that Diana is ready to give up bow, quiver, and pack.

One assumes that Shaw Stewart was invited, but Manners was not looking forward to the visit, and “feared he was going to propose to her.” A telegram to another beau, Duff Cooper, joked “Pray God with me to face this great ordeal and to let me triumph.” But she was evidently more than a match for a single gallivanting officer.  Without having proposed, Shaw Stewart will move on tomorrow from Belvoir to Panshanger, where Lady Desborough is throwing the third of four consecutive weekend parties. Shaw Stewart will get to mix with lords, politicians, society belles, and the ghostly absence of her two elder sons, his friends Julian and Billy.[1]

 

Just a brief note on Edward Thomas‘s war diary for today, a century back. He merely jotted a few lines, but these nevertheless convey the strange ways in which officers in a different sort of Limbo–Codford is a staging camp, and orders for France may appear at any point, now–spend their days scattered among disparate activities. Thomas inspected latrines, issued pay to the men of the battery, wrote letters, learned to ride a motorcycle, and received, with a letter from his wife Helen, an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.[2]

 

Ivor Gurney has been writing prolifically to Marion Scott, of late, and today another of our poets crosses his pen:

O tis cold! but this barn is pretty strawy, and my oil-sheet is over my legs, and I go straight on. Merely through boredom I have turned out another masterpiece today. Also having seen the Observers appreciation of Ledwidge’s description of the robins note as being like tiny cymbals, I looked for a robin, found one, heard it — and dont agree, altogether. He must have thought a lot to have written that description — it being too out of the way to be spontaneously observed. Now please turn back to the back of page one, where further grace will flow from my pen.

Interesting, both in the critique and the unusually confident note of humorous self-deprecation. It feels like Gurney has put his finger upon one more way that the poetry of 1917 is betwixt and between: we cannot get by without robins (not to mention larks and nightingales)–but are we really listening to them anymore?

But Gurney is unique among our poets in the quality of his ear. He is–we shouldn’t for a moment forget this–a trained musician and a composer, and sounds are his province. His mood is light today, as he trips from the usual parcel-thank-yous to joking about the dearth of local musical facilities… and yet we could almost read this as a most grave lament.

I think everything you have sent me has arrived now. There are no stragglers left. Binyons verses, for which I thank you are here also, but — O I need a piano; though two verses are pretty well settled in me. For the sum of one franc I got an hour on a faint toned piano yesterday; but that was not good enough, and there was no Bach, my fingers were stiff and my mind wandering allways . . .

I should leave it there… it’s beautiful and sad, and not altogether crazy–there must be many officers in safe jobs behind the lines with regular access to pianos… But Gurney is a private, and isolated, here: Marion Scott is a faithful friend and a great help in his work, but her connections are relatively humble and run through the musical world. Gurney is far from the seething centers of war poetry–Clitherland Camp, Eddie Marsh’s office, the Poetry Bookshop–and his craft is still happily Georgian. But his opinions are, naturally, beginning to show a certain disenchantment. His latest poems have sung the scenery of his beloved Gloucester, but today he turns to the people:

 

Poor Folk

We wonder how the poor get on in England,
Who wonder how the troops get on in France.
We’re better off than many folks in England,
Although we’ve got to face the Great Advance…

Oh when at last there comes the Judgement Day,
I’ll ask of God some questions that he must
Answer me well. Or I’ll choose rather to be
Some free spirit of Hell, or merely dust.

As how the poor who fight so well in France,
Die with a smile for England in some ditch.
Seem never really to get a proper chance —
Their wars and justice made for them by the rich.[3]

 

And finally, today, Wilfred Owen. His last letter described his first, intense experience of the front line, and it marked a major watershed in his writing. But history too can tense and slacken as experience distends and relaxes (the emotional rhythm, too, of regular trench service) and today’s letter, although still that of a changed man, moves back toward a more familiar register.

Friday, 19 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

We are now a long way back in a ruined village, all huddled together in a farm. We all sleep in the same room where we eat and try to live. My bed is a hammock of rabbit-wire stuck up beside a great shell hole in the wall. Snow is deep about, and melts through the gaping roof, on to my blanket. We are wretched beyond my previous imagination—but safe.

Last night indeed I had to ‘go up’ with a party. We got lost in the snow. I went on ahead to scout—foolishly alone—and when, half a mile away from the party, got overtaken by

G A S

It was only tear-gas from a shell, and I got safely back (to the party) in my helmet, with nothing worse than a severe fright! And, a few tears, some natural, some unnatural.

Here is an Addition to my List of Wants:

Safety Razor (in my drawer) & Blades
Socks (2 pairs)
6 Handkerchiefs
Celluloid Soap Box (Boots)
Cigarette Holder (Bone, Sd. or 6d.)
Paraffin for Hair.

(I can’t wash hair and have taken to washing my face with snow.)

Coal, water, candles, accommodation, everything is scarce. We have not always air! When I took my helmet off last night—O Air it was a heavenly thing!

…I scattered abroad some 50 Field Post Cards from the Base, which should bring forth a good harvest of letters. But nothing but a daily one from you will keep me up…

Owen moves now to a brief but telling self-survey of how a combatant’s attitudes might change. There is too much here to even begin to unpack. Better to let the writer unburden himself and see what still troubles his mind in the next letter…

We have a Gramophone, and so musical does it seem now that I shall never more disparage one. Indeed I can never disparage anything in Blighty again for a long time except certain parvenus living in a street of the same name as you take to go to the Abbey.

They want to call No Man’s Land ‘England’ because we keep supremacy there.

It is like the eternal place of gnashing of teeth; the Slough of Despond; could be contained in one of its crater-holes; the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it—to find the way to Babylon the Fallen.

It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer.[4]

I have not seen any dead. I have done worse. In the dank air I have perceived it, and in the darkness, felt.

Those ‘Somme Pictures’ are the laughing stock of the army—like the trenches on exhibition in Kensington.

No Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.

To call it ‘England’!

I would as soon call my House (!) Krupp Villa, or my child Chlorina-Phosgena.

Now I have let myself tell you more facts than I should, in the exuberance of having already done ‘a Bit.’ It is done, and we are all going still farther back for a long time. A long time. The people of England needn’t hope. They must agitate. But they are not yet agitated even. Let them imagine 50 strong men trembling as with ague for 50 hours!

Dearer & stronger love than ever. W.E.O.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Edwardian Meteor, 221.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 155.
  3. War Letters, 122-3.
  4. This letter, too, will be the basis for--or shows the first metaphorical feeling toward--a later poem.
  5. Collected Letters, 428-9.