Ford Madox Hueffer. is still scribbling gallantly through the barrage, today. Evidently up early, he has another classically dawn-themed poem for us today… Or not, actually. As soon as we pass the title we find not a hymn but a chilling, charming nursery rhyme:
The little girls are singing, “Rin! Ron! Rin!”
The matin bell is ringing “Din! Don! Din!”
Thirty little girls, while it rains and shrapnel skirls
By the playground where the chapel bells are ringing.
The stout old nuns are walking,
Dance, little girls, beneath the din!
The four-point-ones are talking,
Form up, little girls, the school is in!
Seven stout old nuns and fourteen naval guns
All around the playground go on talking.
And, my darling, you are getting out of bed
Where the seven angels watched around your head,
With no shrapnel and no Huns
And no nuns or four-point-ones. . .
Getting up to catch the train,
Coming back to tea again
When the Angelus is sounding to the plain
And the statue shells are coming from the plain
And the little girls have trotted home again
In the rain . . .
Darling, darling, say one funny prayer again
For your true love who is waking in the rain.
The Salient, 7/9/16
This rhyme is one of the best surprises this project has recently provided. How very charming! Hueffer really is very good. He can do more or less anything, it seems, except those genres requiring modesty. Is he thinking of Violet Hunt, his would-be wife, with this rhyme, when all his letters of this vintage only complain of her? Or is there another? Well, presumably shortly after drafting the poem, he turned to another task at hand. He is to provide a preface for Hunt’s latest novel, Their Lives. Naturally, Hueffer, having worked out the lyric impulse with his Albade, now subsumes his own persona and place in order to better support Hunt’s work:
I took the proofs of this books up the hill to read. From there I could see the gas shells bursting on Poperinghe; it was a very great view…
And while I was looking at that great view, perceiving the little white mushrooms of our own shells suddenly existing in the dark line under [Wytschaete]–miles and miles away–and then turning down my eyes and reading… it occurred to me that violet Hunt’s characters… were Prussians. Their cold materialism, their absence of any shading, their direct methods of wanting a thing… these are characteristic of… l’Ennemi.
Is this the most openhanded way to pseudo-blurb one’s pseudo-wife’s book? “But I was just making a comparison….” Hmm. Hueffer continues, less as a loyal Janeite than as a blunderous Great White Male attempting gallantry toward lady novelists:
This attempt to apply the method of Jane Austen… gives to Their Lives the character of a work of history. It is history–and it makes it plain. For that horrible family of this author’s recording explains to me why today, millions of us, as it were, on a raft of far-reaching land, are enduring torture it is not fit that human beings should endure, in order that–outside that raft–other eloquent human beings should proclaim that they will go on fighting to the last drop of our blood.
I have never accused Hueffer/Ford of simple self-centeredness–this is complex self-absorption, dating back to his childhood influences and manifold anxieties:
This may sound a little obscure: but if the somnolescent reader will awaken to the fact that selfishness does create misery he may make a further effort of the imagination and , and see that the selfishness of the Eighties–of the Victorian and Albert era–is the direct Ancestor of… Armageddon. Those fathers, and particularly those mothers, ate the vines of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Self-help Smiles; our mouths are filled –are burned–by minenwerfer.
Yes, that is a bit obscure. Somehow we’re reviewing a novel of manners (apparently) and have gotten to a sentence that combines Ruskin, high priest of 19th century British aesthetics, and the feared German trench mortar. Together at last!
But this is very Fordian. He has roped in his celebrated past (and his extreme Englishness, always an odd facet his character, considering his German roots, fluency in French and German, and otherwise extreme Continental-ness) and his precious present. Ford now borrows more directly from the experiences recounted yesterday, a borrowing which reminds us of a through-theme in all of these different writings of yesterday and today: they are all very different, but they are all firmly situated on his side–the Somme side–of the experiential gulf. As a writer of light verse, or letters, or literature, or a preface to a novel, he is writing always as a soldier. I have been there–I am “there” now–and you, reader, are not.
Most of the great books of the world are unpleasant books. And whilst I write, the Boches are shelling out of existence the rather ugly little church close at hand. ‘C… r … r… ump!’ go the 4. shells into the mediocre but sacred edifice… Then, in the silence after the shell has burst, whilst you are saying ‘Thank God!’ because it has not hit you, you hear the thin, sifting sounds of the stained glass dropping down the aisles. There is no reason why the Boche should object to our having a church in our village. They are just destroying it… Truly, Our Lord and Saviour Christ dies every day–as he does on every page of this book, and in every second of this 7-9-16.
That task accomplished in inimitable fashion, Hueffer continues his string of letters to Conrad. I hazarded yesterday that he is using Conrad as a sort of writer’s notebook, in much the same way that other writers have written sequentially to their family and counted it as a diary. Today this sense deepens, as Hueffer/Ford turns to the question of memory, memoir, and the urge to record.
19th Div, B. E. F.
I wrote these rather hurried notes yesterday because we were being shelled to hell and I did not expect to get thro’ the night.
I wonder if it is just vanity that in these cataclysmic moments makes one desire to record. I hope it is, rather, the annalist’s wish to help the historian—or, in a humble sort of way, my desire to help you, cher maitre!—if you ever wanted to do anything in “this line.”
Bully for my intuition of yesterday, then, but this is something better: Hueffer, who after all knows a great deal about a great deal and has written a series of historical fictions (how perfect for a man we are investigating, as it were, for dramatizing the facts of his own experience), is very much aware both that date-marked impressions (“the annalist’s” work) are already “creative” rather than perfectly factual and that they are the raw stuff from which a historian constructs narratives further removed from immediate experience.
Or, to return to a modest mode, these “annals” of a war might help a novelist with the little details of his trade. And, again, remind him of what his friend has experienced and he has not.
Of course you wd. not ever want to do anything in this line,—but a pocketful of coins of a foreign country may sometimes come in handy. You might want to put a phrase into the mouth of someone in Bangkok who had been, say, to Bécourt
There you wd. be! And I, to that extent, shd. once more have collaborated.
Next, another perfect observation. We may try–nobly!–to produce a Great War “battle piece.” But that’s overwhelming–only a meandering, intense, fractured four-volume novel could really capture this war… It’s a matter for the accretion of daily detail.
This is a rather more accidenté [uneven; perhaps something like “messed up”] portion of the world: things in every sense “stick out” more in the September sunlight. The Big Push was too overwhelming for one to notice details; it was like an immense wave full of debris…
It is curious—but, in the evenings here, I always feel myself happier than I have ever felt in my life.—Indeed, except for worries, I am really very happy—but I don’t get on with my superior officers here & that means that they can worry me a good deal in details… However, these things, except in moments of irritation, are quite superficial…
So Ford. He will not be able to maintain this level of productivity, which is good, as our attentions are needed elsewhere. Back on the Somme, the Guards Division is beginning to move, and we have several officers to keep tabs on. First, Rowland Feilding, even though he has moved away from the Guards, as expected. I’ll let his rapid-fire letters to his wife tell the story of the beginning of his first command:
September 6, 1916. Morlancourt.
There was Brigade Battle training to-day, and on my return to billets I found my orders. I am to assume temporary command of the 6th Connaught Rangers, belonging to the 47th Brigade, 16th (South Irish) Division, who, I find, are not far from here, at Carnoy… I am to join it this afternoon. I will write again to-morrow, if I get the chance, and tell you how things are going.
September 7, 1916. Carnoy.
I reported to my new Brigadier (47th Brigade) last evening. He is General George Pereira, Grenadier Guards… I had tea and dinner with him, and found that he knows many of the family well. He has told me to put up a Major’s crowns. I am of course on probation, and I have not an easy task before me; therefore, I shall require all your prayers. What would I not give for the opportunity of a few words with you! I have hated having to make this great change without consulting you, and even without your knowledge.
My new battalion is one of the two which captured Guillemont four days ago:—as hard a nut to crack as there has been in this battle, so far. It was the battalion’s first attack, so it has not done badly; though the casualties have been heavy, both the Colonel and Second in Command having been killed.
I think we shall very soon be going out for a long rest, which I understand is overdue.
September 7, 1916 (Evening). Carnoy.
My new battalion, or rather the remnant of it, was bivouacking when I joined it, on a slope alongside the ruins of Carnoy, amid a plague of flies, reduced (apart from officers) to 365 other ranks, and very tired after the capture of Guillemont, in which it had taken a prominent and successful part, though the toll had been so heavy.
Since General John Ponsonby had first suggested the possibility of my being appointed to the command of a New Army battalion, I had hoped that I should perhaps be allowed a week or two with the officers and men, to get to know something of them before taking them into action: and certainly, in ordinary times, one would not expect a battalion straight out of one exhausting attack, and so punished as was this one, to be ordered back, without rest, into another. Yet such is the case.
To-day, within twenty-four hours of assuming command, I am to move up in front of Ginchy, preparatory to attacking that village the day after to-morrow…
There’s not much to add, really. Feilding didn’t have a chance to consult with his wife, but at least he could reassure her that he would be safer in a new command. Now he is replacing a colonel who has been killed, and leading exhausted men back into battle…
But it wouldn’t be much safer with the Guards Division. Raymond Asquith gives us some detail on the purpose of the Guards field day that Feilding, understandably, glossed over. But then his story, like most of his stories, takes a quick twist:
3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
7 September 1916
Our 5 minutes notice to move has been cancelled again, as one guessed it would be, and we are continuing our strenuous training. Yesterday we had a Brigade Field Day under John Ponsonby illustrating all the newest and most elaborate methods of capturing German trenches with the minimum of casualties. It involved getting up at 5 a.m. but in other respects was funny enough. The “creeping barrage” i.e. the curtain of shell fire which moves on about 50 yards in front of the advancing infantry, was represented by drummers. The spectacle of the whole four battalions moving in lines across the cornfields at a funeral pace headed by a line of rolling drums, produced the effect of some absurd religious ceremony conducted by a tribe of Maoris rather than a brigade of Guards in the attack. After it had gone on for an hour or two I was called up by the Brigadier and thought at first that I must have committed some ghastly military blunder (I was commanding the Company in Sloper’s absence) but was relieved to find that it was only a telegram from the corps saying “Lieut. Asquith will meet his father at cross roads K.6d at 10:45 a.m.”
The fateful crossroads. Or not–it’s a bit too far from the front line to make sense, but it’s the right map reference, I think…
So I vaulted into the saddle and bumped off to Fricourt where I arrived exactly at the appointed time. I waited for an hour on a very muddy road congested with troops and lorries and surrounded by barking guns. Then 2 handsome motors from G.H.Q. arrived, the P.M. in one of them with 2 staff officers, and in the other Bongie, Hankey, and one or two of those moth-eaten nondescripts who hang about the corridors of Downing Street in the twilight region between the civil and domestic service.
We went to see some of the captured German dug-outs and just as we were arriving at our first objective the Boches began putting over a few 4.2 shells from their field howitzer. The P.M. was not discomposed by this, but the G.H.Q. chauffeur to whom I had handed over my horse to hold, flung the reins into the air and himself flat on his belly in the mud. It was funny enough.
The shells fell about 200 yards behind us I should think. Luckily the dug-out we were approaching was one of the best and deepest I have ever seen–as safe as the bottom of the sea, wood-lined, 3 storeys and electric light, and perfect ventilation. We were shown round by several generals who kept us there for 1/2 an hour or so to let the shelling die down, and then the P.M. drove off to luncheon with the G.O.C. 4th Army and I rode back to my billets.
In the morning I went to an improvised exhibition of the Somme films–really quite excellent. If you haven’t seen them in London I advise you to take the earliest opportunity. They don’t give you much idea of a bombardment, but casual scenes in and on the way to the trenches are well-chosen and amazingly like what happens.
This morning we did some battalion training. It is certainly much easier and pleasanter commanding a Company than a platoon. You tell your subordinates what to do and then canter about the country damning them for not doing it.
Tonight we do some operations in the dark and tomorrow another brigade field day. The books and food you speak of have not yet arrived, but I have received 3 cakes of “Violette’ soap which smells very good.
The weather has become lovely again—bright sun with a touch of autumnal crispness in the air . . .
Finally, Bimbo Tennant writes home with slightly forced good cheer. That is, his good cheer always seems to come from the heart, but here it trips up among the competing needs to inform, to be quick about it, and to reassure.
Sept. 7th, 1916.
… We are expecting to leave this place to-day and go off somewhere to make a road; but we have just got the message to ‘ stand-by,’ that is, wait in readiness, so whether we go or not, we don’t know. The news is universally good, the Brigadier said two days ago the 5th September was the most successful day of the war, so everyone is very bucked at the outlook. If there is an attack the C.O. has ordered me to be at Battalion Head-quarters, helping him and the Adjutant. This can lessen your anxiety considerably, darling Moth’; we are just going to march off after all, so good-bye–from Devoted Son
This is good news, but headquarters units remain vulnerable to counter-barrages during an attack and often suffer casualties when trying to move forward to restore order or press the attack. In other words, this is hardly unalloyed reassurance, with an attack in the offing.