A Novel Premonition for Elinor Brooke; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard Under German Bombs; Vera Brittain is at War at Last; Rudyard Kipling and the Efficacy of the Mob–and Charles Sorley Sees the Blindness

As the day dawns over Sussex today, a century back, Elinor Brooke reaches a crossroads in her war.

I was trudging uphill, feeling spikes of stubble jab my ankles, and then, just as I reached the top, the sun rose–huge, molten-red–and at that moment I knew–not thought, not feared, knew–that Toby wasn’t coming back.[1]

This is Elinor’s diary entry, in Pat Barker’s novel. Elinor is fictional, but her position–from the intuition, to the death of her brother, to the long struggle she will have to learn of its circumstances and make sense of it all–is very familiar.

 

And it still goes on. Edmund Blunden is fortunate to be in reserve today.

A fairly idle day… read Leigh Hunt… There was a big bombardment again this evening. Some of our party went over I suppose–God help them in the mud. Just as we were settling down for the night, Boche came over. Our knees knocked and teeth chattered, but nothing fell on us…[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, is closer to the action–and dodging bombs from the same German raiders. 1917, as Blunden recently observed, is not 1916. In some ways it feels as if in just two short years we have come from a 19th century world beginning to be troubled by machine guns to the cusp of mid-century schrecklichkeit. All we’ll need are stronger engines and bigger bombs.

We are so much in the thick of War up here that no one talks or thinks of anything else…shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. The last are much the worst. He dropped five at dinner-time about 70 yards away, and came over with some more about 10.30 to-night and some more later. There’s no sort of cover anywhere and it is purely beastly. Shelling is nothing to it. The Sisters are extraordinarily good in it.[3]

 

Nor is Vera Brittain far from the bombs–but then again she has felt the bombs land in London, too. She writes to her mother today, a century back, from her new assignment in the great British base complex in the Pas-de-Calais.

24th General Hospital, Étaples,
France, 5 August 1917

. . . I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of a hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods. It is all huts & tents; I am working in a hut & sleeping under canvas, only not in a tent but in a kind of canvas shanty, with boarded floor & corrugated iron roof.. .The hospital is frantically busy & we were very much welcomed. . .

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases… The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, & one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings. My half-forgotten German comes in very useful, & the Sisters were so glad to know I understood it & could speak a little as half the time they don’t know what the poor things want. It gives one a chance to live up to our Motto Inter Arma Caritas, but anyhow one can hardly feel bitter towards dying men. It is incongruous, though, to think of Edward in one part of France trying to kill the same people whom in another part of France I am trying to save…

Well, Malta was an interesting experience of the world, but this is War.[4]

Rarely is the epistolary first draft–especially to Mother, rather than to one of her fellow members of the Lost Generation–better than the coming memoir, but I think that’s the case today. There is a swelling of strings as Vera finally reaches France–the place that killed Roland, Geoffrey, and Victor, and that still has Edward in its clutches–and there is an excellent evocation of the sounds of the bombardment, too, which works nicely amidst the others, here–but the effect of her description of France is less powerful than the simple antithesis she used in the letter:

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.[5]

 

Finally, there’s a remarkable letter of today, a century back, from one to another of two titans of the turn of the century: the bard of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and one of its dashing New World practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt. If not for the fact that they are not 19th century men, and that they are discussing sons (the present Kermit Roosevelt and the ever-present-through-his-absence Jack Kipling) and geopolitics… and if I didn’t despise this newly ubiquitous (at least in American pop culture) term, then I would describe this letter as a founding document of “bro” culture. Kipling’s writing has rarely been so off-putting, so ingratiatingly chummy, so eager to be brutal.

I have come a long way–through reading the man’s fiction, history, and private letters–to understanding Kipling much better than as the facile, solemn Imperialist chest-thumper of the familiar caricature… but a few paragraphs of this letter bring that old idea back with a vengeance. Kipling is full of blustery, silly talk as he updates the former president on his son’s adventures in England (Kermit Roosevelt is about to go out to Mesopotamia attached to a British Machine Gun unit); then there is unsolicited “expert” military advice (Kipling worries that the new American generals are too eager, and will fruitlessly spend their first small forces instead of building up for a “big push”), and there are helpful suggestions such as these:

I fancy that before you’ve done, in the U.S.A., you will discover as we have that the really dangerous animal is the Hun in one’s own country no matter what he pretends to be. You hold a good many hostages for his good behaviour and I sometimes wonder whether, if the U.S.A. took toll from her own unnaturalized Germans for every Hun outrage committed on the U.S. and on France, it wouldn’t have a sedative effect…

Don’t worry: Kipling is not suggesting that German Americans be killed in retribution for U-boat sinkings, only that a few officially sponsored riots in German American neighborhoods (I believe one applicable analogy would be to the pogrom) might just do the trick.

…It’s what the Hun comprehends perfectly. We have bled him badly in men, and if we can use up a decent percentage of his 1919 class this winter by exposure in the trenches as well as direct killing, he will feel it more.

But of course I’m being squeamish: anti-German-American riots were quite within the realm of possibility. And I just passed Kipling’s casual assertion of the righteousness of retributive atrocity without comment. Why? Because that describes the activities of uniformed soldiers? Because that’s different than casually advocating violent demagoguery and mob violence as strategic tools to an ally which is, ostensibly, a multi-ethnic democracy? Because my century-late outrage would be better served by letting Kipling’s endorsement of such things stand on its own rather than surrounding it with fussy complaint? “Bettered the instruction” indeed.

Worst of all, Kipling’s strategic guesstimates are accurate:

What he seems to funk more than most things is the stringency of the new blockade now that the U.S.A. is imposing it and neutrals can’t feed him as much as they used to. We’ve got another twelvemonth of trouble ahead of us I expect but it won’t be all on one side.[6]

This is the sort of letter, from one figurehead of imperial warfare to another–and from one older man willing to sacrifice his son to another–that might have re-affirmed Siegfried Sassoon‘s faith in the righteousness of his protest…

 

But back to this treatment of “Huns:” not Germans who are armed and dangerous in the trenches opposite, but German emigrants, civilians living in America, posing no threat and powerless to defend themselves. The analogy to wounded prisoners is not precise, yet it seems a coincidence worth exploring that Vera Brittain’s first encounter with helpless Germans also began today, a century back.

…when I told the Matron of my work in Malta, she remarked with an amused, friendly smile that I was “quite an old
soldier…” but… I was hardly prepared for the shock of being posted… to the acute and alarming German
ward…

Although we still, I believe, congratulate ourselves on our impartial care of our prisoners, the marquees were often
damp, and the ward was under-staffed whenever there happened to be a push — which seemed to be always — and the number of badly wounded and captured Germans became in consequence excessive. One of the things I like best to remember about the War is the nonchalance with which the Sisters and V.A.D.s in the German ward took for granted that it was they who must be overworked, rather than the prisoners neglected. At the time that I went there the ward staff had passed a self-denying ordinance with regard to half days, and only took an hour or two off when the work temporarily slackened.

From the moral high ground Vera Brittain now wields a satirist’s sword with great skill:

Before the War I had never been in Germany and had hardly met any Germans apart from the succession of German mistresses at St. Monica’s, every one of whom I had hated with a provincial schoolgirl’s pitiless distaste for foreigners. So it was somewhat disconcerting to be pitch-forked, all alone — since V.A.D.S went on duty half an hour before Sisters — into the midst of thirty representatives of the nation which, as I had repeatedly been told, had crucified Canadians, cut off the hands of babies, and subjected pure and stainless females to unmentionable “atrocities.” I didn’t think I had really believed all those stories, but I wasn’t quite sure.[7] I half expected that one or two of the patients would get out of bed and try to rape me, but I soon discovered that none of them were in a position to rape anybody, or indeed to do anything but cling with stupendous exertion to a life in which the scales were already weighted heavily against them.

At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained gauze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Attached to the ward was a small theatre, in which acute operations were performed all day by a medical officer with a swarthy skin and a rolling brown eye; he could speak German, and before the War had been in charge, I was told, of a German hospital in some tropical region of South America. During the first two weeks, he and I and the easy-going Charge-Sister worked together pleasantly enough. I often wonder how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the theatre — as we did all clay at frequent intervals — in that foetid stench, with the thermometer about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor. After the “light medicals” that I had nursed in Malta, the German ward might justly have been described as a regular baptism of blood and pus.

This is inhuman and horrible, but the point–Brittain’s point, and now mine–is that it is also deeply humane.

One tall, bearded captain would invariably stand to attention when I had re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heels together, and bow with ceremonious gravity. Another badly wounded boy — a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England — held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims — that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.

And Kipling, to some degree, had. But we’ll leave today with another voice, one which has greater personal authority than anyone who has spoken yet. The wounded Germans may be dying in English hands, but Charles Sorley had studied in Germany, and fought Germans, and been killed by Germans. In the memoir, Vera Brittain enlists the young dead poet against the cruel masters of war:

Somewhere, I remembered, I had seen a poem called “To Germany,” which put into words this struggling new
idea; it was written, I discovered afterwards, by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915 :

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Barker, Toby's Room, 85.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 78.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 137.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 268-9.
  5. Testament of Youth, 372-3.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 467-8.
  7. Which is about right. The British press ran with a great many entirely invented atrocity stories, and propaganda and myth made an ugly marriage of convenience with stories like the ones Brittain mentions. And yet there was a tendency after the war--an inevitable after-effect of government lies--to disbelieve all stories of German atrocity and assume a rough moral equivalence. There wasn't--which was at least in part due to the fact that Germany occupied enemy territory, and believed itself to be under existential threat; neither of these things were true in the same way of Britain. But German atrocities, especially during the invasion of Belgium, were very real. They should not bear on the claim to humane treatment of wounded soldiers, but even if pacifists between the wars emphasized the horror of war in general rather than of particular forms of armed aggression, it is bad history to discount the deliberate violence meted out by the German army to French and Belgian civilians.
  8. Testament of Youth, 372-77.

Arthur Graeme West on War and Fate; C.E. Montague Visits a Busy Hospital; Kipling Fulminates Against the Hun; Edmund Blunden Approaches the Line, and Begs to Differ

Charles Montague‘s full-time tour of the front lines and reserve areas takes him, today, a century back, to a Casualty Clearing Station. I don’t know which one, but there is a decent chance that he crossed paths with Kate Luard–two things we know about her hospital is that it specialized in abdominals and that she herself specializes in nursing men with horrible and near-hopelessly gangrenous wounds.

Oct. 5. Shown round by C.O. and chief surgeon. See roomful of badly wounded having their gashes dressed under anaesthetics.. . . ‘Resurrection room’, where cases, impossible to operate upon when received, are seen to by Sister and others, and wonderfully rendered capable of operation in a few days. H—— has done 19 big abdominal operations in a day at times of pressure. Have had 125 operations done in a day…[1]

It would be very nice if that Sister were Sister Luard, and if she were able to offer him one of yesterday’s beers. But there were a great number of C.C.S.’s, and no shortages of heroic Nursing Sisters and serious abdominal wounds. Given that he is free from association with any ordinary unit, I’m not sure how one would track Montague’s movements…

 

Arthur Graeme West has seen a good deal of war, now. And it is evident that he considers this an important qualification to hold certain opinions. He likes several of his comrades–fellow company officers–well enough, but today he discourses on how the combat officer is beginning to suspect the unreasonableness of his position… and the extent to which these suspicions fall short of his own complete emancipation from early-war assumptions of justice and right.

Thursday, Oct. 5th, 1916

Dull. I observed several more features in the common opinions concerning the war. G said: “Fancy all this trouble being brought on us by the Germans.” Universal assent.

Then B……, the captain, remarked that it was really very silly to throw pieces of lead at one another, and from this
someone developed the idea that our civilisation was only a surface thing, and we were savages beneath the slightest scratch.

What no one seems to see is that our country may be at any rate partially responsible, or that those who, like conscientious objectors, refuse to debase themselves to the level of savages are worthy of any respect, intellectually, if not morally.

Well, I agree! But what would confidential opinion polls restricted to front-line infantry battalions say? I very much doubt that the “England shares responsibility” numbers would be up out of the single digits even now… Propaganda is a powerful thing. Like nationalism, like peer pressure, like lifelong habits of mind.

Silly things, anyway, polls. We should be grateful, then, that when we are trying to puzzle out right and wrong and what must be (must be) and what is so wrong that any decent man must protest–even at a tremendous cost of social capital–that we have literature to rely upon. And one writer in particular keeps popping up…

One observes again the “It had to be!” attitude, which Hardy notes about the D’Urberville family.

So it is. People will not really move a finger to mould even their own lives outside the rules of the majority or public opinion. No one sits down to consider the rightness of his every action, and his judgments on political action he takes from the papers. Independent judgment in private or public affairs is the rarest thing in the world.

We did no thing all day but rest. I read “Tristram Shandy” and wrote letters. S.O.S. signals came through at night, just at dinner, and perturbed us somewhat. They were soon cancelled.[2]

I’m fond of this young fulminator, now. Moody and self-righteous, sure. But any man who cites our great seer’s great 19th century novel of Cruel Fate even as he is reading the great anarchic-but-Anglican comic novel of the prior century has my sympathies.

 

Now about that propaganda. It sometimes seems as if Rudyard Kipling is in need of rehabilitation. Much about his politics is loathsome, but there are depths and layers to his patriotism and his imperialism–and even when he is defending a narrow and debatable place his literary darts are swift and true. Just a few days ago, I read him as putting a brave face on his young nephew’s journey into harm’s way. But… perhaps even his monumental talent, floating top-heavily upon a flawed human being, has been swamped by the seas of war, and capsized.

Today’s letter is in some ways unremarkable–it’s a business letter, advising a friend on his propagandistic duties. They must combat the creeping heresy that peace could bring with it a resumption of normal international and commercial relations. We cannot allow ourselves to be thinking of an easy peace…

But on the other hand, this letter might show Kipling unhinged–a virulent nationalist who sounds like (and here we abuse our historical position) a latter-day fascist. Is Kipling merely writing out, for another writer’s benefit, the somewhat extreme arguments put forth by those who fear that any slackening of anti-German feeling may signal a weakening of morale? Exaggerations, sure, but there’s a war on, so we’ll excuse it…

But it’s not clear that Kipling is playing a part… in which case he is to–borrow the sort of adversarial metaphor he proves himself comfortable with, today–foaming at the mouth.

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex/5th October 1916.
Private.
Dear Colvin,

…Here is my suggestion for attack;–

There is no question of “hate” involved now in our relations with the Hun, whatever may have been the case at the opening of the war. One hates people whom it is conceivable that later one may care for–people, at least, of like passions with ourselves. The Hun is outside any humanity we have had any experience of.

I will break in here, just to break in–there is no paragraph in the letter, but these turns of phrase demand emphasis, if not commentary.

Our concern with him is precisely the same as our concern with the germs of any malignant disease. We know by experience of death and physical impairment that where these germs get foothold, they are inimical to human life. That is the law of their being. Therefore, we clean out, sterilize, flush down etc. etc. all places where they can get a foothold. In the case of sleeping sickness we cut down a belt of jungle 200 yards wide round villages and beside roads to prevent the tsetse fly carrying infection. It is monotonous and expensive work, but we have no animus against the germs or the flies. They are merely scientific facts. We only do not desire to die or be crippled. Therefore, we have to take certain precautions which have been proved efficacious. If the Hun trades with the Empire, it means the presence of Huns on some pretext or another within the Empire. A Hun inside the Empire, in any capacity has been proved hurtful to the lives and peace of our Empire’s human beings. Therefore, it is inexpedient to trade with the Huns; not because trade per se is evil, but because trade furnishes the medium for conveying the danger.

So for the metaphors of infection. Now for the military comparisons. Where the Hun enters a land he instinctively goes underground commercially as he does in war. He has then to be bombed at vast expense of energy out of his commercial Thiepvals. We cannot afford to leave a single commercial Hun machine-gun behind us in the advance of our Empire, however skilfully the weapon may be disguised; however deeply it may be buried. You see? We have the complete revelation of Hun character in his military operations…[3]

 

I often write of the “conflict of the generations” or the “experiential gulf,” and if we might imagine these two concepts as sharply-curving Gothic arches, Kipling is at the apex of the vault. Yes, he knows war quite well, for a non-warrior. Yes, he lost his only son. But he is old, and he is safe, and he hasn’t been there.

Edmund Blunden, most gentle of our young soldier-poets, has never yet been in the mood to rail at the old and out-of-it. But what would he say, if he could read Kipling’s opinions of the Germans–the young Germans who held that warren of tunnels at Thiepval, and were just shelled, bombed, and bayoneted out of them? What would he have written in response, if he could read them today, a century back, as his battalion returns to the front, bound for Thiepval itself?

Well, there just a few sentences that are really proper to today, a century back, but these just happen to touch on stale jests and hatred.

We marched to Martinsart Wood, with its huge howitzers, its mud, its confusion of hutments and tents and bivouacs, and yet its sylvan genius lingering in one or two steep thorny thickets… the men spent hours in contemplating those big guns and their shells chalked with monotonous jokes about the Kaiser and Crown Prince.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 145-6.
  2. Diary... 137-8.
  3. Letters, IV, 404-7.
  4. Undertones of War, 100.

Ford Madox Hueffer Imagines Peace, with “No Shrapnel and No Huns/And No Nuns or Four-point-ones;” Rowland Feilding Hits the Ground Running; Two Asquiths at the Crossroads; Bim Tennant Prepares for Action

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:

Albade

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…[1]

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.[2] 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.[2]

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.

Attd. 9/Wclch
19th Div, B. E. F.
7/9/16

Dear Conrad,

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…[3]

 

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…[4]

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.”

fricourt crossroads

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,[5] 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 . . .[6]

 

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[7]

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.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Can we count this as another Lucretian moment of Epicurean contentment? Probably not.
  2. War Prose, 189-90.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 75-6.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 110-12.
  5. Maurice Hankey, elder brother of Donald Hankey.
  6. Life and Letters, 293-4.
  7. Memoir, 226.

Vera Brittain: I Feel Almost Angry; John Adams’s Baptism of Mud; Trench-ward Steps for Saki and Doctor Dunn; Olaf Stapledon on Censorship

First today, the deepening epistolary quarrel between Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. After that, three short bits, as two of our writers take steps toward the front. Finally, a long letter on life in the trenches from John Bernard Adams.

We know that Roland–perhaps depressed, seemingly roiled by half-articulated jealousies–has just written to Vera after a long, er, fallow period. But that letter has not yet arrived. Vera, today, is at the end of her patience. She has tried, recently, direct appeals, coy pouting, and devotional enthusiasm–all to no avail.

So, today, a loud combination: arm-waving petulance-as-flirtation, self-pity, and role-playing with the literary touch-stone of their relationship, her assumption of thecharacter of Lyndall from Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.

Of course you don’t really deserve a letter. Sometimes, when after a particularly grey and monotonous day, I wish for a letter from you to cheer me up, and don’t get it, I feel almost angry–though more with life in general than with you. With you I never can be quite angry. For the more chill and depressed I feel myself in these dreary November days, the more sorry I feel for you beginning to face the acute misery of the winter after the already long strain of these many months. When at 6.0 in the morning the rain is beating pitilessly against the windows and I have to go out into it to begin a day which promises nothing pleasant, I feel that after all I should not mind very much if only the thought of you right in it out there didn’t haunt me all day. Rain always depresses me; still more rain where there are dead. And I am always thinking of Lyndall’s words ‘How terrible it must be when the rain falls down on you.’

I don’t think she can go on much longer in that vein–but at least she levels out. She is surely very worried about his silence, and about what it could mean, so she has been casting about in trying to attract a response (not knowing yet that she already has). Now, calmed, she writes as she has usually written–thoughtfully, to a correspondent she trusts. But she does not neglect another plank of her platform–she may not be in the trenches, but she is part of the war now too:

I have only one wish in life now and that is for the ending of the War. I wonder how much really all you have seen and done has changed you. Personally, after seeing some of the dreadful things I have to see here, I feel I shall never be the same person again, and wonder if, when the War does end, I shall have forgotten how to laugh. The other day I did involuntarily laugh at something & it felt quite strange. Some of the things in our ward are so horrible that it seems as if no merciful dispensation of the Universe could allow them and one’s consciousness to exist at the same time. One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at—it was the first after the operation—with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born…

I am just going back to duty. To-day is visiting day, and the parents, of a boy of 20 who looks and behaves like 16 are coming all the way from South Wales to see him. He has lost one eye, had his head trepanned and has fourteen other wounds, and they haven’t seen him since he went to the front. He is the most battered little object you ever saw. I dread watching them see him for the first time.[1]

Which is to say both “please let this not happen to you” and “this has not happened to you, so do not despair, and do not grow distant.”

 

Two change of address notifications today as well. First, Doctor Dunn has arrived with the second battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. From now on, his “Chronicle”–the right word, really–will combine contemporary records, ex post facto reminiscences, and his own memories.

November 7th–Harley Street. Harbison, who had been Medical Officer for over a year, returned to the Ambulance… The assembler of this Chronicle succeeded him.[2]

And Hector Munro, the finest short-form humorist in all the cavalry, is ready to depart. I’m not sure we can trust the sentiment in his letters to his sister, but then again perhaps there is wry humor behind “too good to be true:”

Tidworth, Nov. 7th, 15.

After the long months of preparation and waiting we are at last on the eve of departure and there is a good prospect of our getting away this week. It seems almost too good to be true that I am going to take an active part in a big European war. I fear it will be France, not the Balkans, but there is no knowing where one may find oneself before the war is over; anyhow, I shall keep up my study of the Servian language. I expect at first we shall be billeted in some French town.[3]

 

One more brief bit: I love to keep track on the various responses to the awkward fact of having one’s letters–especially one’s love letters–read by strangers. Olaf Stapledon, our dreamy and philosophically sturdy Quaker, takes it lightly, and yet does not deny censorship its due weight:

Friends’ Ambulance Unit

7 November 1915

…Don’t let the censoring grieve you; one gets quite hardened after a bit. Yours to me are never censored, not any letters to me. It grieved me once that everything I write to you must be read by someone else, but I have long since got used to it, and spend my pity no longer on us but upon the unfortunate who has to do the censoring. Of all thankless tasks there is none more trying surely! When we are done with wars we will be done with censoring.[4]

 

Finally today, a very long selection from one of John Bernard Adams‘ letters home. He is in the trenches near Givenchy, and adapts the letter into a “trench routine” piece, striving, with that characteristic blend of military detail and enthusiastic lyricism, to give us a sense of the strangeness of a life of comradeship and loneliness, eagerness and passive suffering, boredom and sudden thrilling danger.

7th November

[Beginning on October 29th,] We were three days and three nights in the trenches. Each officer was on duty for eight hours, during which he was responsible for a sector of firing-line and must be actually in the front trench. My watch was 12 to 4 A.M. and P.M. Work that out with ‘stand to’ in the morning and also in the evening and you will see that consecutive sleep is not easy…

Imagine a cold November night—with a ground fog. What bliss to be roused from a snug dug-out at midnight, and patrol the Company’s line for four interminable hours. It is deathly quiet. Has the war stopped? I stand up on the fire-step beside the sentry and try to see through the fog. ‘Pip-pip-pip-pip-pip’ goes a machine-gun. So the war’s still on…

I gaze across into No Man’s Land. I can just see our wire, and in front a collection of old tins—bully tins, jam tins, butter tins—paper, old bits of equipment. Other regiments always leave places so untidy. You clean up, but when you come into trenches you find the other fellows have left things about. You work hard repairing the trenches: the relieving regiment, you find on your return, has done ‘damn all,’ which is military slang for ‘nothing.’ And all other regiments, it seems, have the same complaint.

‘Swish.’ A German flare rocket lights up everything. You can see our trenches all along. Everything is as clear as day. You feel as conspicuous as a cromlech on a hill. But the enemy can’t see you, fog or no fog, if you only keep still. The light has fallen on the parapet this time, and lies sizzling on the sand-bags. A flicker, and it is gone; and in the fog you see black blobs, the size and shape of the dazzling light you’ve just been staring at.

‘Crack—plop.’     ‘Crack—plop.’ A couple of bullets bury themselves in the sand-bags, or else with a long-drawn ‘ping’ go singing over the top. Why the sentries never get hit seems extraordinary. I suppose a mathematician would by combination and permutation tell you the chances against bullets aimed ‘at a venture’ hitting sentries exposing one-fourth of their persons at a given elevation at so many paces interval. Personally I won’t try, as my whole object is to keep awake till four o’clock. And then I shall be too sleepy. Only remember, it is night and the sentries are invisible.

‘Tap—tap—tap.’    ‘There ‘s a wiring party out, sir. I’ve heard ’em these last five minutes.’ Undoubtedly there are a few men out in No Man’s Land, repairing their wire. I tell the sentries near to look out and be ready to fire, and then I sent off a ‘Very’ flare, fired by a thick cartridge from a thick-barrelled brass pistol. It makes a good row, and has a fair kick, so it is best to rest the butt on the parapet and hold it at arm’s length. Even so it leaves your ears singing for hours. The first shot was a failure—only a miserable rocket tail which failed to burst. The second was a magnificent shot. It burst beautifully, and fell right behind the party, two Germans, and silhouetted them, falling and burning still incandescent on the ground behind. A volley of fire followed from our awaiting sentries. I could not see if the party were hit; most of the shots were fired after the light had died out. Anyhow, the working party stopped. The two figures stood quite motionless while the flare burned.

The Germans opposite us were very lively. One could often hear them whistling, and one night they were shouting to one another like anything. They were Saxons, who are always at that game. No one knows exactly what it means. It was quite cold, almost frosty, and the sound came across the 100 yards or so of No Man’s Land with a strange clearness in the night air. The voices seemed unnaturally near, like voices on the water heard from a cliff. ‘Tommee—Tommee. Allemands bon—Engleesh bon.’ ‘We hate ze Kronprinz.’ (I can hear now the nasal twang with which the ‘Kron’ was emphasized.)  ‘D—— the Kaiser.’ ‘Deutschland unter Alles.’ I could hear these shouts most distinctly: the same sentences were repeated again and again. They shouted to one another from one part of the line to another, generally preceding each sentence by ‘Kamerad.’ Often you heard loud hearty laughter. As ‘Comic Cuts’ (the name given to the daily Intelligence Reports) sagely remarked, ‘Either this means that there is a spirit of dissatisfaction among the Saxons, or it is a ruse to try and catch us unawares, or it is mere foolery.’ Wisdom in high places.

Really it was intensely interesting. ‘Come over,’ shouted Tommy. ‘We — are — not — coming — over,’ came back. Loud clapping and laughter followed remarks like ‘We hate ze Kronprinz. ‘ Then they would yodel and sing like anything. Tommy replied with ‘Tipperary…’

I have had my baptism of mud now. It tires me to think of it, and I have not the spirit to write fully about it! The second time we were in these trenches the mud was two feet deep. Even our Company Headquarters, a cellar, was covered with mud and slime. Paradoses and communication trenches had fallen in, and the going was terrible. The sticky mud yoicked one’s boots off nearly, and it felt as if one’s foot would be broken in extricating it. We all wore gum-boots, of blue-black rubber, that come right up to the waist like fishermen’s waders. But the mud is everywhere, and we get our arms all plastered with it as we literally “reel to and fro” along the trench, every now and again steadying ourselves against slimy sand-bags. One or two men actually got stock, and had to to be helped out with spades; one fellow lost heart and left one of his gum-boots stock in the mud, and turned up in my platoon in a stockinged foot, of course plastered thick with clay…

There is more, but the long letter–rewritten, perhaps, but I know not how much–is followed in the text not only by a bone-weary repetition of its themes, but also by the memoir writer’s restoration of the one experience he has omitted from the letter.

Weariness. Mud. The next experience (not mentioned in my letter) was Death. On our immediate right was “C” Company… a great place for “mining activity.” One evening we put up a mine; the next afternoon the Germans put up a counter-mine, and accompanied it with a hail of trench-mortars. I was on trench duty at the time, and had ample opportunity of observing the genus trench-mortar and its habits. One can see them approaching some time before they actually fall, as they come from a great height (in military terms “with a steep trajectory”), and one can see them revolving as they topple down. Then they fall with a thud, and black smoke comes up and mud spatters all about. Most of them were falling in our second line and support trenches. I was patrolling up and down our front trench. We were “standing to” after the mine, and for half an hour it was rather a “hot shop.” I was delighted to find that I rather enjoyed it: seeing one or two of the new draft with the “wind up” a bit steadied me at once. I have hardly ever since felt the slightest nervousness under fire. It is mainly temperament. Our company had four casualties: one in the front trench, the three others in the platoon in support. “C” Company suffered more heavily.

At 6.0 Edwards came on duty, and I was able to go in quest of two bombers who were said to be wounded. Getting near the place I came on a man standing half-dazed in the trench. ”Oh, sirrh,” he cried, in the burring speech of a true Welshman. ”A terench-mohrterh hass fall-en ericht in-ter me duck-out.” For the moment I felt like laughing at the man’s curious speech and look, but I saw that he was greatly scared: and no wonder. A trench mortar had dropped right into the mouth of his dug-out, and had half buried two of his comrades. We were soon engaged in extricating them. Both had bad head wounds, and how he escaped is a miracle. I helped carry the two men out and over the debris of flattened trenches to Company Headquarters.

So, for the first time I looked upon two dying men, and some of their blood was on my clothes. One died in half an hour—the other early next morning. It was really not my job to assist: the stretcher-bearers were better at it than I, yet in this first little bit of ”strafe” I was carried away by my instinct, whereas later I would have been attending to the living members of my platoon, and the defence of my sector. I left the company sergeant-major in difficulties as to whether Randall, the man who had so miraculously escaped, and who was temporarily dazed, should be returned as “sick” or “wounded.”

Another death that came into my close experience was that of a lance-corporal in my platoon. I had only spoken to him a quarter of an hour before, and on returning found him lying dead on the fire-platform. He had been killed instantaneously by a rifle grenade. I lifted the waterproof sheet and looked at him. I remember that I was moved, but there was nothing repulsive about his recumbent figure. I think the novelty and interest of these first casualties made them quite easy to bear. I was so busy noticing details: the silence that reigned for a few hours in my platoon; the details of removing the bodies, the collecting of kit, etc. These things at first blunted my perception of the vileness of the tragedy; nor did I feel the cruelty of war as I did later.

Weariness. Mud. Death. So it was with great joy that we would return to billets, to get dry and clean, to eat, sleep, and write letters…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 183-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 165.
  3. The Square Egg, 89.
  4. Talking Across the World, 109.
  5. Nothing of Importance, 27-36.

Tolkien Puts Names to an Image, and Middle Earth Begins; Alan Seeger is an American in Paris Once More

This project proceeds on a number of assumptions, several of which I first struggled to enumerate about a year ago. Much of our attention is on writers who wrote about the war in one fashion or another. But others didn’t–they fought, came home, and eventually wrote of other things. So, the assumption which governs our interest in those authors whom we associate with non-war-writing contexts is that the war will nevertheless influence their writing–perhaps in some subtle way. And it’s a good assumption, but not an uncontroversial one. Mightn’t some strong-willed writers resist the malign influence of horror? Or, more simply, can some creative minds come through unscathed, and write what was always there to be written, fictional worlds not so much formed by the trenches as preserved from them?

Tolkien is a good test case. He is on the verge of entering the army, but he is looking backward–backward, and very far away: today he wrote a text to accompany an image he had painted two months earlier, the “pivotal” The Shores of Faëry, which Tolkien would later label the ”First poem of my mythology of Valinor.”[1]

He is once again on a self-appointed philological rescue mission: there is an all-but-lost fragment of Germanic mythology which discusses Guingelot, the ship made by Wade, father of Wayland, and Tolkien has decided to “re-discover” it. Crucially, he does this by situating the myth in a new realm of his own imagining. This is the grain of sand; the realm of “Faery” is the oyster shell.

For the first time, part of this realm has an invented name–Valinor–to go with the image of two light-bearing trees and the snow-capped sacred mountain (Taniquetil). Tolkien has begun–before his war has begun–to find the key to his own aesthetic happiness: he will meld together his fascination with inventing languages (the first lexicon of “Qenya” is underway) and his love of mythology. Also fueling the forge is his love of nearly-lost causes, not only Wade’s obscure ship, but the almost-as-recondite 9th century star Earendel.

East of the Moon, west of the Sun
There stands a lonely hill;
Its feet are in the pale green sea,
Its towers are white and still,
Beyond Taniquetil
In Valinor.

Comes never there but one lone star
That fled before the moon;
And there the Two Trees naked are
That bore Night’s silver bloom,
That bore the globèd fruit of Noon
In Valinor.

It goes on, formal and stately. There is a rigorousness to this daydreaming scholar and soldier to be, a refusal to be hurried or to be turned aside by literary fashions. This will serve him very well–although perhaps in other matters than the writing of formal verse.

So a great sequence of myths will spring up around this story, these words, this color-saturated place. For now, perhaps, it’s enough to note that the central figure stands alone on the “pebbled strand” of a faëry England, and–like Edward Thomas yesterday but in such strikingly different poetic form–the lone man contemplates a journey into the hazardous unknown.

West of the Sun, east of the Moon
Lies the haven of the star,
The white town of the Wanderer
And the rocks of Eglamar.
There Wingelot is harboured,
While Eärendel looks afar
O’er the darkness of the waters
Between here and Eglamar —
Out, out, beyond Taniquetil
In Valinor afar.

He will go east before he has a chance to dream his way much further into the West. At the War Office, Tolkien’s commission has been formalized.[2]

 

Alan Seeger has begun a diary, which now tracks his experience of the first real mid-war lull on the French front. Leave! And, unlike many of the men of the Foreign Legion, he has something of a home to return to–he had lived the Bohemian life in Paris for several years before the year.

La Neuvillette, July 8.–Our last six days in the trenches were broken by the most memorable, extraordinary, and happy event since we enlisted. On the evening of July 3rd the sergeant came quite unexpectedly to get the names of all Americans wanting permission of 48 hours in Paris! We could hardly believe such good fortune possible. But it seems the American journalists in Paris had made up a petition to get us a Fourth of July holiday, and the Minister of War had accorded it. We fairly danced for joy. To see Paris again after almost a year’s absence!

We were to leave immediately. So packing our sacks we walked down the boyau [communications trench] about night fall to the poste du commandement, where we left all our equipment and got our individual permissions…

Joy to walk in the streets of Paris again.

Notable absence of men in Paris; many women in mourning. A great many wounded soldiers on congé de convalescence, almost all wearing the old dark blue capote and red trousers. A little malaise and discouragement among the Parisians, probably at the absence of good news from Arras, the certain prospect of another winter’s campaign, and the great weariness of the war, which it is difficult for them to realize so far from the front.

An eye-witness report on French morale. Ah, but how do you feel, Alan?

The visit did me good, on the whole, for with all its bringing home the greatness of the sacrifice I am making, it showed me clearly that I was doing the right thing, and that I would not really be so happy anywhere else than where I am. The universal admiration for the soldier from the front was more than any pleasure. It was a matter of pride, too, to salute the officers in the street, especially the wounded, and feel the fellowship with those who are doing the noblest and most heroic thing that it is given to men to do…

Interesting. This would read as insufferably haughty if it were public writing, but it seems instead to be evidence that Seeger, as we have recently speculated, belongs in the Grenfell category of unreconstructed war enthusiasts. No “changing motivations” here.

Back to the first line trenches again. Then came down here to second line, where we are cantonné in a big glass factory just at the point where the Aisne canal crosses the route nationale. Factory knocked to pieces by bombardment. Very near Reims, where I hope to get permission to go for a day before we leave. The specialty of this place is beer, which the soldiers bring out from Reims every day at three o’clock.

Rumors of great changes in the regiment which have been going about for a long time, seem now to be coming to a head. The Russians, it seems, are to be sent to the Russian army or allowed to join a French regiment. The same with the Belgians. What is left of us after this drain will be joined with what is left of the 1er Etranger after their charge at Arras, and formed into a single régiment de marche. To put through this reorganization will probably mean our going to the rear for a certain time… Vamos á ver![3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 84; Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology, 70.
  2. A warning to myself, however, against undue portentousness. Tolkien also wrote, today and tomorrow, "The Princess of Ni," a very slight Goblin-Feet-esque fairy song. In this world it could only be considered juvenilia, utterly unsuited to the true high tone, just struck, of Valinor. But, if we might look not ahead into time (a violation of the rules) but, instead, out across into a different world, we would discover that it was re-identified there as a bit of Hobbitish nonsense verse, marganilia rather than juvenilia (in the margins of the Red Book rather than the Book of Ishness, as Tolkien calls his watercolor-filled notebook), under the revised title The Princess of Mee.
  3. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 127-9.

Charles Sorley: Cherries and Poetry under the Scorching German Sun

5 July 1914

Very many thanks for your letter…

Your Moselle plan has bucked me tremendously. Would it worry you very much to take a not quite final promise to partake? The reason is that I’m not really free for the first week in August, being booked for uninspiring visits…

Charles Sorley, our knowledgeable youth abroad, writes today to a school friend, A. J. Hopkinson, who had propose that they travel together later that summer. Sorley has spent the semester studying in Germany (he is now at the University of Jena) and plans to go up to Oxford in the fall.

Yes: I continue to excerpt letters so as to stress–or, if you like, to gin up–the false irony of their confident expectations that the first week in August will bring continued sun and fun. It will not!

The letter goes on to chat a great deal about books (Hopkins has asked for reading recommendations in German, and Sorley, reveling in his expertise, gives a very full answer) but, even amidst the descriptions of German student life, there is no mention of that Archduke, his murder seemingly already half-forgotten.

The same day that Sorley wrote this letter, the Austrian envoy Alexander von Hoyos met with the Kaiser in Berlin and reported back that “if we really saw the necessity for military action against Serbia, he would think it regrettable if we did not take advantage of the present moment, which is favourable from our point of view.”[1] But back to Sorley:

Here I close the information bureau : but it’s open again at any time if you want. But it isn’t a good bureau, for I’ve been busying myself almost entirely with Faust and Egmont and the better of Goethe’s efforts : so I’m not up in modern prose and drama, though I can give you a tip or two in their poetry–Rilke and Hölderlin. I have been having–if a less ορθρο-φοιτο[2] etc. life than you–quite a good average time since I last wrote… also a visit from my Eltern [3]livened up things considerably. We saw Midsummer Night’s Dream performed in a wood, and I wished the performance to last for ever….[4]

Sorley tells everyone about this performance–it’s not as if he were struggling to fill a letter and falling back on the same “interesting things I have done here in Germany” vignette that he plopped into other letters. That’s not his style, really, and he has plenty of other things to tell Hopkinson. Much though I push little agendas by cherry-picking telling details from individual letters, Sorley’s repeated mentions of this naturally-set and accidentally naturalistic performance of Shakespeare indicate how much it really did affect him.

But this is a summer mornings letter, not one of our summer-night’s-performance accounts:

Jena is at present a swamp of perspiration and Gewitter,[5] but the (physically) melting humanity there are still treating me very nicely. I still get up and play tennis with the lark, swim, eat, sleep, and walk across mountains, and bathe myself in Abendrot.[6] I live on fresh cherries and wear only a shirt and shorts and sandals like some beast in Alice through the Looking-glass. I should be quite happy if only I could sing–were it never so little. Foul as the corps-students mostly are, I love to hear them at “Gaudeamus igitur.”

This paragraph is–by coincidence rather than influence–very much like some of the letters of Rupert Brooke, one of which we will look at tomorrow. Brooke, too, is a scholarly and polite son of the professorially inclined upper middle classes who likes to dress down. (Although we might consider shorts, shirt and sandals normal summer attire, this represented a steep step down from trousers, waistcoat, jacket, tie, and hat–so perhaps a good “translation” would be “torn tank top, boxers, and flip-flops.”) Brooke and his fellow “Apostles” had enjoyed affecting a sort of primitive life–a very part-time pre-hippyish existence–at Cambridge and after. Like Brooke, Sorley enjoys the escape from buttoned-up English convention, but knows that he is on holiday and has no real intentions of escaping it–and like Brooke he is able to laugh at himself playing the noble rustic or cultured savage.

And then there is Gaudeamus igitur, “Let us therefore be joyful.” This medieval Latin poem had become the most popular (yes, most popular of quite a few) of the student songs in German (and other) universities. More irony: Sorley is reacting to the sense of joyful fellowship that those brutish, brawling, militaristic corps-cadets can muster in their singing–characteristically, he sees the good as well as the bad in a band of young (German) men singing in unison–but primarily to song’s echo of the same youthful exuberance he has been feeling:

Let us rejoice, therefore,
While we are young.
After a pleasant youth
After a troubling old age
The earth will have us.

It’s a good song, with less bullshit about it than school songs of more recent vintage: gather ye rosebuds and cherries and semesters abroad while ye may, you lucky bright young things.

But medieval monk-scholars do not forget what might slip the minds of the children of the fortunate 19th century: Vita nostra brevis est:

Our life is brief
Soon it will end.
Death comes quickly
Snatches us cruelly
To nobody shall it be spared.[7]

But it’s only July.

…Best of luck in Marburg. You’ll probably get much more out of your three weeks than I out of my semester, for Satan tempts me and I cut many lectures to lie by the tennisplatzen and make silly jokes to the scorching German sun. Summer makes me lazy but I’ll buck up the first week in August… You may take it for practically certain that I will…[8]

References and Footnotes

  1. Quoted in Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 43.
  2. The explanation of this tag will be held for thirty days, pending correspondence from any readers currently enrolled in Intensive Ancient Greek.
  3. Parents (Ger.)
  4. This ellipsis is Sorley's; this paragraph break is not.
  5. Thunderstorms (Ger.)
  6. Sunset--by now you've figured out that Sorley is tossing German merrily about like the best sort of ebulient, pretentious semester-abroader.
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaudeamus_igitur
  8. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 203-6.

Shylock in Weimar

May 2nd, 1914

Charles Hamilton Sorley was a very clever boy. The writings of a precocious teenager are usually either brash or precious, maddeningly naive in their enthusiasms, so overconfident as to seem ridiculous with any passage of time.  Charlie Sorley, though, is charming enough–and serious enough, and rigorously self-aware–to dodge this doom. The son of a professor, a star student at Marlborough (and football player, and classical skeptic, and OTC member, and a surreptitious mainstay of the school magazine), Sorley earned a scholarship to University College, Oxford in December 1913.  He seems to have been unusually self-contained, socially successful yet fond of taking long solitary runs, happy both at home and at school. He once decided to walk home from school at the beginning of vacation, a trek of over a hundred miles which he accomplished in three days.  Instead of spending a lazy final term at Marlborough he went to Germany in January to spend a few months working up the language and pursuing a haphazard and self-organized–but serious–program of study. An astonishingly not-irritating young man! With Sorley taking himself off alone at eighteen to Schwerin and then Jena, learning German well enough to attend lectures, reading seriously and studying ancient Greek on his own, it is impossible not to think of today’s pointless gap years and academically derisible study abroad programs. It is easy enough to slip into “it was a different time, a better time, when boys were serious…” but that is all-but-complete rubbish. The lack of chaperones or Student Services is indicative of a time when university was a rare privilege and all classes expected more or less adult behavior from older teenagers as opposed to a serene fecklessness well into the 20s (not that the rich didn’t produce many such). Maturity and immaturity broke differently, then and there–dreaminess and idealism where we might expect surliness or cynicism, but a willingness to shoulder the adult burdens of work, independence, and military service that are much more rare now, at least in the privileged and highly educated classes of the Anglophone West. We will be parsing maturity quite a bit, this summer (and, I hope, rejecting the term as too broad and redolent of psychobabble), so let’s just not that Sorley was unusual, for his time or any other.

In February he had written to the Master of Marlborough, reporting on his progress in German and enthusing about Germany–the people so nice, the language “glorious.”  Even their thunderous patriotism, which in England would seem to be the worst sort of mindless jingoism, is somehow attractive.  Over the next months his letters home to friends and family are full of reports on academic progress and weighty discussions–of nationalism, socialism, literature, and drama–interspersed with little vignettes and observations of German life.  Though thoroughly charmed by Germany and sorely–ha!–tempted to “go native,” he still saw the seamy side of romantic nationalism and of celebrating heroically violent postures. He remained an observer and kept hold both of his critical faculties and his Englishness (or, to be precise, English-bred Scottishness; since all books of a century back are very concerned with “blood” and “forbears,” we should note that Sorleys were lowland Scots of long standing, in England only from the time of the Professor’s appointment). He was also apparently without any of the casual anti-semitism that mars the writing of many of his British contemporaries, noting German hypocrisies about Jews, and commenting as well on the strange co-existence of intense studiousness in the gymnasiums with beery brawling among the younger students at the University and of hig regard for England and all things English and knee-jerk nativism.

We could, if we were so inclined, find beautiful ironies in the fact that Sorley spent much of the spring wrestling with Goethe’s Faust, the preeminent masterpiece of German literature.  He worked through it, reading and re-reading; he saw it acted; he thought and wrote about it for weeks more.  Too easy: many deals are yet to be made, and the devil comes in many guises, most of them only accidentally demonic.  But the main reason we won’t dwell here is that Sorley’s other literary interest that spring, his only temptation away from a life lived in German, was, naturally, Thomas Hardy.  We’ll return to this subject when Sorley catches up with Hardy’s most recent poetry, but it is no remarkable coincidence that this wise young scholar/writer/budding poet is deep into Hardy.  And yet a coincidence worth remarking on, no?

As he turned nineteen he was obsessed with Jude the Obscure, the last and most devastating of Hardy’s novels–reading and re-reading it (a meritorious habit), singing its praises in letters, mailing copies to friends,  even translating portions into German.  (This the source of one of his best jokes about German hypocrisy: reading “Jude” as the German word for “Jew,” his new friends were unwilling to read a book with a Jewish protagonist–except, of course, for the gospels).  Young Sorley was a good reader as well as an assiduous one, tracing the swelling theme of the ironies of fate in Hardy’s novels.  He wrote in late April that “All the fury with the world which comes down in a storm in Jude is only just traceable in the thinnest and finest irony that runs throughout The Trumpet Major.”[1]

This brings us to May 2nd, when Sorley took a day trip to Weimar, the “intellectual capital” of Germany. A letter of May 4th to his school friend A.E. Hutchinson opened with a giddy description of the bureaucratic wrangles it took to get himself installed as a student at Jena (“and so I am and remain until the 5th of August a stud. phil.”), then continued with an amusing account of dutifully “doing” Weimar by himself, seeing the sights (“Schiller’s discarded pyjamas”) then getting bored enough to buy, write, and send off a number of postcards. But the day is saved by the decision to go see a performance of The Merchant of Venice:

which I had always thought before was a most commonplace thing. Now I see it is far the biggest tragedy that Shakespeare ever wrote. The audience (especially a German audience) took part in the tragedy, because they laughed at Shylock and considered him a comic character throughout. As a glance at the life and methods of ordinary Christians it is simply superb. And the way the last act drivels out in a silly practical joke—while you know Shylock is lying in the same town deliberately robbed of all that he cared for—is a lovely comment on the Christian life.[2]

In a letter dated May 8th, Sorley recounts the “pilgrimage” to Weimar in more sober language.  He omits the scathing critique of Christian hypocrisy as well, yet in describing the same performance to his parents he repeats some of the same phrases–and why not?  The budding poet had, perhaps under Hardy’s influence, made a critical discovery.  He’s on to something here, and who among us doesn’t reuse the same clever bits in different contexts?

The audience (especially a German audience) took part in the tragedy, because they saw in Shylock only a common character and the villain rightly wronged. The acting of all the Christians was splendidly commonplace…  And the farce of the fifth act crowns the tragedy. It was a most effective use of anti-climax. Besides Shylock, the only other person who acted with distinction was Jessica… During the rest of the scene while the ring farce was in progress she stood apart a little, and I think she thought of Shylock. It was a remarkable and original performance.[3]

This should be a general reminder to readers to also go and see plays, I suppose. But what an experience: to sit there in the audience and to realize the existence of a new form of dramatic irony. There are two plays going on, and some mysterious and presumably accidental complicity of the actors. The rest of the audience is getting it all wrong, revealing something horrible about humanity: a German crowd laughing at the agony of a Jew, chuckling along where they should be groaning, or held, at least, by the complexity of Shakespeare’s intentions. And the young British student, watching his countryman’s play suddenly expand to incorporate the audience and its shallow laughter–a new spectacle, joint production of Shakespeare’s text, the actors’ capabilities, and the audience’s prejudices.  Enthusiastic as he as been about Germany, Sorley can’t be German now, and perhaps he will always hesitate longer in contemplation of the cruelty of one group to another, or the pain of any one person, any victim of fraud, or fate, or malevolence.

Good training for a poet.  And this would be good stuff to save up for a smashing literary paper at Oxford, no?  But here’s the last level of irony, for today, the inevitable, relentlessly treading historical kind… and we don’t even need our whole century back, not even the scant decades it will take to see how much enjoyment a German audience can take from real Jewish misery.

The simpler, more personal irony, is that Charlie Sorley will not, in fact, remain a “stud. phil.” in Germany through the fifth of August. Like hundreds of other young men, the late summer will be a time to consider whether to go up to Oxford at all.

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 154.
  2. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 160.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 164.