Kipling’s Tales of the Rout at Cambrai; The Master of Belhaven Learns of the Debacle; The Darkness of Toby’s Room; Jack Martin and Edward Brittain in Italy

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is back in the swing of things, with his battery to the south and east of the Cambrai conflagration.

All day the heavy battery cannonade was kept up, and rumours were received of trenches lost and even batteries captured. Late this morning I got a situation report, and found things were worse than we had realized. The Hun had penetrated our line to a depth of 8,000 yards in places, and some batteries were lost, including A/107, which is sad, as it belongs to our division… it is the first time we have lost any of our divisional artillery.[1]


This is the fight that the Guards are still fighting. They have been defeated–driven back, at least, in the impossible task of holding a salient improvidently grabbed, while massively outgunned. Kipling sings the Second Irish:

The dawn of the 30th November was ushered in by single shells from a long-range gun which found them during the night. Half an hour after they had the order to move to Heudicourt and had digested a persistent rumour that the enemy were through at Gonnelieu, telegrams and orders began to pour in. The gist of them was that the line had undoubtedly cracked, and that the Brigade would move to Gouzeaucourt at once. But what the Brigade was to do, and under whose command it was to operate, were matters on which telegrams and orders most livelily conflicted…

And so it is the part of the Imperial Bard to describe a… well, an inglorious retrograde movement, perhaps, if not a rout. But then that is the benefit of choosing the size of your story: this is a British embarrassment, but still a proud day, of sorts, for the Second Irish Guards:[2]

Over the ridge between Gouzeaucourt and Metz poured gunners, carrying their sights with them, engineers, horses and infantry, all apparently bent on getting into the village where they would be a better target for artillery. The village choked; the Battalion fell in, clear of the confusion, where it best could, and set off at once in artillery formation, regardless of the stragglers, into the high and bare lands round Gouzeaucourt. There were no guns to back them, for their own were at Flesquières. As was pointed out by an observer of that curious day — “‘Tis little ye can do with gun-sights, an’ them in the arrums av men in a great haste. There was men with blankets round ’em, an’ men with loose putties wavin’ in the wind, and they told us ’twas a general retirement. We could see that. We wanted to know for why they was returnin’. We went through ’em all, fairly breastin’ our way and — we found Jerry on the next slope makin’ prisoners of a Labour Corps with picks an’ shovels. But some of that same Labour Corps they took their picks an ‘shovels and came on with us.”

They halted and fixed bayonets just outside Gouzeaucourt Wood, the Irish on the left of the line, their right on the Metz-Gouzeaucourt road, the 3rd Coldstream in the centre, the 2nd Coldstream on the right, the 2nd Grenadiers in reserve in Gouzeaucourt Wood itself. What seems to have impressed men most was the extreme nakedness of the landscape, and, at first, the absence of casualties. They were shelled as they marched to the Wood but not heavily; but when they had passed beyond it they came under machine-gun fire from the village. They topped the rise beyond the Wood near Queen’s Cross and were shelled from St. Quentin Ridge to the east. They overran the remnant of one of our trenches in which some sappers and infantry were still holding on. Dismounted cavalry appeared out of nowhere in particular, as troops will in a mixed fray, and attached themselves to the right of the thin line. As they swept down the last slope to Gouzeaucourt the machine-gun fire from the village grew hotter on their right, and the leading company, characteristically enough, made in towards it. This pulled the Battalion a little to the right, and off the road which was supposed to be their left boundary, but it indubitably helped to clear the place.

The enemy were seen to be leaving in some haste, and only a few of them were shot or bayoneted in and out among the houses. The Battalion pushed in through the village to the slope east of it under Quentin Mill, where they dug in for the night. Their left flank was all in the air for a while…

Tanks were used on the right during the action, but they do not seem to have played any material part in the Battalion’s area, and, as the light of the short and freezing November day closed, a cavalry regiment, or “some cavalry,” came up on the left flank. The actual stroke that recovered Gouzeaucourt had not taken more than an hour, but the day had cost them a hundred and thirty men killed, wounded and missing…

This is a tale that will need salting–or sweetening–with rough and ready humor, if it is not to leave a terrible taste in the mouth of any believer in the B.E.F.

A profane legend sprang up almost at once that the zeal shown by the Guards in the attack was because they knew Gouzeaucourt held the supplies of the Division which had evacuated it. The enemy had been turned out before he could take advantage of his occupation. Indeed, a couple of our supply-trains were found untouched on rail at the station, and a number of our guns were recaptured in and around the place. Also, the Divisional rum-supply was largely intact. When this fact came to light, as it did — so to say — rum-jar by rum-jar, borne joyously through the dark streets that bitter night, the Brigade was refreshed and warmed, and, men assert, felt almost grateful to the Division which had laid this extra “fatigue” on them.

But no–I’ve sold Kipling short. Or underestimated his loyalty to the twists and turns of the tale. He is a very great historian, in the old-fashioned sense,[3] and when a bitter day slews toward maniac joy and then back again, he leans into the curves…

One grim incident stays in the minds of those who survived — the sight of an enormous Irishman urging two captives, whom he had himself unearthed from a cellar, to dance before him. He demanded the jigs of his native land, and seemed to think that by giving them drink his pupils would become proficient. Men stood about and laughed till they could hardly stand; and when the fun was at its height a chance shell out of the darkness to the eastward wiped out all that tango-class before their eyes. (‘”Twas like a dhream, ye’ll understand. One minute both Jerries was dancin’ hard to oblige him, an’ then — nothin’, nothin’ — nothin’ — of the three of them! “)[4]


Some time ago we opened another entire European front–but then things became busy. Remember Italy? I had intended to give some of Sapper Martin‘s itinerary, as a sort of modern take on the ancient form, because nothing says “timeless military misery” better than a long, long march. But, as the narrative has been without excessively necessary details, I have been passing him over–I merely want to note, then, that his march reached 148 miles, today, a century back, at the end of its second week.[5]


But Martin is not our only man headed to the front lines in northern Italy. Edward Brittain was able to give his sister Vera an update today as well, on the occasion of his birthday. And, as you know, an army marches on its stomach, even in Italy…

Italy, 30 November 1917

We are fairly close to the line though not within artillery range; we expect to be closer very soon; at present it does not seem that we shall suffer from artillery anything like as much as we did in the salient… We have had some very hard marching lately but the men have stuck it wonderfully well. . . We have managed to buy a turkey for my birthday dinner to-night for the absurdly small sum of 7 liras…

In time there will be E.F. Canteens as in France, I expect, but at present we suffer from our dissimilarity in taste from the Italians. 22 seems rather old in some ways but young in others, e.g. I have only 1 subaltern younger than me.[6]

Happy Birthday, then, to twenty-two-year-old Edward Brittain.


And then there is fiction, which can choose many forms of escapism–or brutal realism. I mentioned Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room two days ago, and Elinor Brooke’s conviction that Sassoon’s decision to go back to the horrors of war was the only possible one. Today, her [fictional] diary describes what she herself is doing for the war effort: an art student before the war, she now assists Henry Tonks, the artist and toweringly influential teacher at the Slade, in his work. Working as artists and recorders of the war’s damage, they draw the faces of mutilated soldiers, in order to aid in pioneering attempts at reconstructive plastic surgery.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 414-5.
  2. I have taken the liberty of changing the great man's paragraphing.
  3. I.e. with the emphasis on story, on narrative, and not on any 19th century balance of facts or, still less, with any 21st century expectation of striving for unbiased perception.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 218-220.
  5. Sapper Martin, 149.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 383.
  7. Toby's Room, 233-6.

Vera Brittain and Dorothie Feilding Are Both Best Pleased with Their Boys on the Staff; Raymond Asquith Goes for a Grenadier; Tolkien the Fusilier Returns to His Mariner

Raymond Asquith wrote a letter to Conrad Russell today, a century back. Most of it discusses society news, specifically the surprise engagement of Venetia Stanley and Edwin Montagu–surprising not least because Stanley had been until recently the (chaste) paramour of his father, the prime minister.  Ah well! Then he springs a surprise:

I have been in camp here for three months, not getting much forwarder, so far as I can judge, either in military efficiency or in prospects of foreign service. So I am now exchanging into the Grenadier Guards, which may sound to you a queer thing to do for a middle-aged middle-class chap like me. But a good many men of my kidney are doing the same thing. It seems to be about the only way of getting properly trained and decently treated by the W[ar]. O[ffice]. and certainly provides the best (and last) chance one is likely to have of being killed on a fairly warm day. I fancy the Huns will be stiff before Xmas don’t you?[1]

This is slightly tongue in cheek (the “middle-aged middle class” bit, I mean, the last few lines being even cheekier). But not that much, actually: Asquith is a great wit–the, er, soul of the “coterie”–and we can trust to the precision of his jokes. He’s thirty-seven, and just about as middle aged as he is middle class.

He is wealthy, well-positioned, fluent in the best society, the son of the sitting Prime Minister… is that really the middle class? Well… yes. He’s at the tip-top of it, perhaps, but in the Grenadier Guards he will be a man with a job and a short family history, and many of his brother officers will bear titles and/or five-century pedigrees and live entirely off of their estates.

And he’s right: exchanging into one of the Guards regiments, which have mostly resisted expansion and thus can lay a real claim (as opposed to the untested prewar claim deriving from their “prestige”) to being more efficient than other units, is his only chance now to get himself killed before the weather turns.


A sweeter relief, today, for Vera Brittain. A card is one thing, but what could be better than a letter “long and intimate?”

I received the long & intimate letter from Roland which I so much desired & also another little one besides. Both came by the same post first thing this morning, but I had no time to read them until 2.0. This has happened more than once & is very tantalising, though I rather like it in one way. Having an unopened letter of his in my pocket gives me the same sort of stirred-up anticipatory feeling that I get before meeting a person I care for greatly & haven’t seen for a long time, or an exam., or an occasion like Speech Day.

Just after lunch I opened them both. ‘‘I have just been reading your first letters over again. There is so much in them that I read & then forget–so much both written & unwritten. Mother was very right (she usually is in those sort of things) when she said that you would be able to write the best possible love-letters. Your letters to me are like an interrupted conversation; and I remember afterwards in odd moments what you said, and wonder sometimes if you get tired of talking to a phantom in the void who does not answer or show that he has understood.”

On this day (18th) they were back at the mining village of Burbure, though they were further south a few days ago at the junction of the French & British lines…

The next part of the letter was not written until the 21st. On that same Monday night that he mentioned in the last paragraph he was wakened at 1.30 in the morning by an orderly with a note from headquarters ordering him to pack up all his things and take a party of 50 men off to report to the Headquarters of the VIIth Army…

I don’t know quite what the Staff appointment means–perhaps it is that they have discovered how intelligent he is. I wish they would keep him there till the end of the war; and for himself, capable as he is at anything, military science would just suit him, and it seems a pity to run the risk of wasting a brain like his on the dirty work.

Ah–the first we’ve heard in quite some time of this argument. Intellectual brilliance should save a man from the trenches! I had presumed it subsumed: too much good sense, whatever the remaining prejudices of Vera’s provincial young-ladyhood and the inevitable snobbery of the young bright college striver. Or, if not entirely subsumed, then more recently worn away by the rigors of nursing… isn’t she herself abandoning her brilliant intellect for the emotional immediacy and physical drudgery of probationer nursing? But no–if only Roland could be rescued!

So what should we conclude? That Vera is willing to claim a higher right to life for the cleverest officers because they are superior to the mere men she is even now coming to care for in sickness and death, or that a few months of loving a man in the trenches–and the recent long-letterless ordeal–has weakened any reasoned resolve to apply her general social and philosophic principles to one specific Beloved.

Time will tell! But… it’s the latter, of course. There are no atheists in foxholes… and perhaps we can say (with the same metaphorical inexactitude) that there are no socialists among the women waiting for the desired letter or the feared telegram.

War is hard–in the trenches and in the hospitals. And hope is needed.

I had another strenuous night to-night. I heard that Dr Sawdon said Johnson would never be able to walk again (though he does not know this yet)…

I felt dreadfully depressed by this; his desire to make efforts to walk is so pathetic. I do hope there may be some faint chance for him still.[2]


And, well, here’s a transition, from the true middle class to the aristocracy, and a sea change in temperament as well. Yet their positions are in many respects quite similar. Anyway. Without further ado, quite a cocktail from Lady Feilding today: some casual racism/orientalism, some freelancing military research, and then the universal joy of family reunions, even in the worst of times.

July 24th

Father dear–

I have at last found news for you about your anti-aircraft guns. The ones you mention have done very well indeed & been a great success. Their only fault was the range the ammunition had. Their present shell fuse only lasted 2,000 yds so were very apt to burst prematurely, but now a new lot with 8,000yd fuses have been served out to them…

The crews are A1 men & the various invention of Osbaston’s a great success. I hope this will interest you & am sorry to be so long answering your questions about it.

After discussing stories of her father’s service in Alexandria, she moves on to sensitively discuss the cultural contributions of French colonial troops in Belgium. Egypt, Algeria–pretty close! We’ll soon hear a different appraisal of the Algerian regimental bands.

I’d give a lot to hear Alouette, there [are] some Algerian troops just rolled up here & with the rippingest regimental band. All sorts of snake charmers instruments & tomtoms & weird things. It’s rather like marching to a fat old lady being pinched at regular intervals till she squeaks who also is being walked just fast enough to make her wheeze.

If they attack with the band they ought to do great things & terrify the enemy to a suitable state of pulp before leaving their trench.

Much love mon cher monsieur Da

Such a big hug – Diddles

Just after writing this letter, Dorothie made good use of her connections and took impromptu leave to hitch a ride with an artillery Major to the southern portions of the British line. There she was able to see both of her brothers in the army (a third is in the navy).

Hurrah hurrah

I saw Tubby & Peter… both as fit as fleas I am mad with joy at Tubby getting that staff job.

Ah, so there’s the connection to Vera Brittain that I’ve been plumping for. Who could blame anyone for being “mad with joy” to see a man they love pulled back from the front line trenches?

Lady Feilding will expand on this description in a letter to her mother–and it gives a fairly strong sense of the lengths to which an officer might go to please a young Lady:

I want to tell you about my day with the boys. Major Lumsden, the kind man, sent his car all the way up here for me & sent me back at night. Also went to endless trouble collecting the 2 boys for lunch & the afternoon & hacking them down to their lines, Rollo smothered in swanking staff bands & full of bounce & looking too well for words. Honestly really & thoroughly well & in great spirits. Peter too with hardly a scab left & full of smiles. We pottered about all the afternoon & Lumsden took us all to see the big Coventry 15 inch Howitzers he is in charge of…Yr loving DoDo[3]

A nice day out with her endangered brothers, and who can blame her? But less well connected officers must wait their turn for leave, and regular British nurses cannot take random afternoons off… As for enlisted men, they are generally kept within walking distant of base even when in reserve, and only see a few days of leave a year…


A final note, today: John Ronald Tolkien found time amidst his training to finish and date The Happy Mariners, a poem which we discussed when he began it.


References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 202-3.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 223-4.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 94-6.