Edward Brittain’s Heavy Work; Ivor Gurney Impressed at the Keyboard; Wilfred Owen Requires a Reputation

We have been following–at least a little–the superstitiously strained epistolary connection between Vera and Edward Brittain, now so close in distance but so far from confident about their chances of ever seeing each other again. A century back, she will not know that he is safe–that he has been safe up until the point of writing–until she gets this letter.

France, 2 October 1917

A line to tell you that I am alright. We were suddenly called upon to go up again and take over our former sector for another 4 days much to our disgust, but fortunately most of us are back again and for the moment well behind the line in the same place as we were at the end of July and beginning of August. I am expecting leave any day but I’m afraid I shall not be able to see you on the way as we now go by C. I haven’t heard from you since I wrote last but I expect you are very busy owing to this continual pushing… Some time I will tell you all about what we have done in the 2nd half of September during which we only had 3 1/2 days out of the line, which is heavy work for the salient
when straffing.[1]


Ivor Gurney is thrilled to be in Blighty–safe, able to rest, clean–but as he is also, as he wrote in excitable fashion to Marion Scott yesterday, oppressed by the hospital atmosphere:

Allons, I am nothing but grumbles because staying in bed makes me unfit in no time — a bundle of oppressed nerves; and those ruddy drawing room ballads set me afire.

In a letter to Herbert Howells of today, a century back, he enlarges upon this theme:

…I am in the devil of a temper. I am not quite sure whether the gas has not slightly aggravated my ordinary thickheadedness and indigestion. If this is so, then there’s hope for the Wangler: if not, then no hope; I should be merely a Lucky Blighter soon to be cast out into outer darkness again.

Anyway, I am that spoilt pet of Society, an accompanist that can read at sight. But O! what that same Pet has to endure! The rapturous soulfulness that disdains tempo. The durchganging baritone that will not be stayed long by interludes of piano, whose eager spirit is bars too early for the fray. The violinist that will play songs—not only the voice part but any choice twiddly bits that a careless writers has left to the piano. The universal clamourous desire for ragtime.

There is something funny, certainly, about the skilled musician and composer being implored to hammer out popular tunes for the benefit of the hospital–and something very sad and worrisome about the way in which his psychological state is disregarded while his allegedly not-much-worse-than-a-cold symptoms of being gassed are attended to.

Gurney next discusses Edinburgh.

Enbro is indeed a magic name. Its glamour is increased (as usual) by distance and denial. 16 miles and regulations of the most strict. I wonder which was Henley’s hospital? There are many memories round this city, but the dearest to me are those of R L S, that friend of Everyman. Henley and the Great Sir Walter…[2]

Alas, again, that it is gas inhalation that has brought him to the outskirts of Edinburgh, and not the underlying and exacerbated psychological problems that plague him–he might have been in more salubrious company. But I forget: Gurney is an enlisted man, and no gentleman, however temporary. He would under no circumstances end up at Craiglockhart, or in Siegfried Sassoon‘s good graces…


Speaking of those graces and their salubrious and salutary effects, here is Wilfred Owen:

Tues. Aft.
2 October 1917

I have rescued these sheets from under a few feet of later accumulations. I have been quite well all week save for a cold. Nothing has been announced about my Board. Clearly I have another 3 weeks yet—before leaving—or having another board. Have been to School again. Am going to do Hiawatha with them now.

Then follows an ugly bit of casual racism about a Japanese envoy encountered on a visit to the fleet. Then this:

I have before me a letter, (as the novelists say,) from Lady Margaret Sackville to Sassoon, shyly presenting him with her war poems—some of them very fine. She is the great Patroness of Literature, and I am going to ask her for something for the Magazine…

Next comes a combat officer’s perspective on literary pacifism–and if it is mild and middling (as we might expect), it is very much a combat officer’s perspective–an undecorated combat officer.

I have never been much convinced that there was any serious accusation of cowardice hanging over Owen regarding his performance in the line this winter–but it is still clear that he feels he could have done better, and must do better when he returns to action. It will take generations before there is widespread understanding that to experience psychological symptoms after prolonged combat does not indicate any weakness of character. Nevertheless, hanging about with “Mad Jack” Sassoon and his MC (the ribbon may have floated down the Mersey to the sea, but the aura remains) may be having an effect on Owen’s sense of self in more than merely poetic ways:

Read Wells’ article in today’s Mail. Most important. I enclose it. As for myself, I hate washy pacifists as temperamentally as I hate whiskied prussianists. Therefore I feel that I must first get some reputation of gallantry before I could successfully and usefully declare my principles.[3]

In the article in question Wells does not argue for present pacifism but rather for a postwar solution that will prevent the re-emergence of militarism: ‘I have always insisted that this war must end not simply in the defeat but in the disappearance of militant imperialism from the world . . .”

We don’t need to indulge heavily in historical irony here. A famous writer advocates something like a League of Nations to prevent militaristic “bloodbaths,” and a gentle poet–already committed to the position that any true Christian ethic requires resistance to militarism–decides that he must be recognized for excellence in violence before he publicly espouses pacifism…


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 375-6.
  2. War Letters, 212-4.
  3. Collected Letters, 497-8.

Wilfred Owen on the Next War; Hugh Quigley Confronts the Landscape; Kate Luard Allows a Late Night; Herbert Read’s Mock(ing) Letter

Today, a century back, presents us with a broad range of experience in four snippets.

Wilfred Owen is still writing copiously: this time it is a long, poetry-enclosing letter to his mother, which begins in the old style of detailed reports on his doings, in this case a long description of a visit to the home of some decidedly fashionable Edinburgh householders. But he is soon on to his new topic–Siegfried Sassoon.

Many thanks for Father’s Views (of Aberystwyth). Wish I had his views of S.S. I will copy out one or two of my recent efforts in Sassoon’s manner.

Even without such a clue, identifying poems such as “The Next War” as being heavily influenced by Sassoon is shooting critical finish in the biographical barrel. Or, given the quotation that heads the poem, simply being handed a dead fish.


The Next War

War’s a joke for me and you,
Wile we know such dreams are true.
– Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,–
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,–
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for Life; not men, for flags.

If this poem still feels somehow light, despite the subject matter, it’s for a promising reason: Owen’s lyrical apprenticeship has left him ready to write fluid and pleasant verse, his prosodic skill a tool that may have surprising applications. Owen’s letter continues:

…I find it well received by the public and praised by Sassoon with no patronizing manner but as a musical achievement not possible to him. He is sending copies of the Hydra to Personages!

Last night I had a consultation with Dr. Brock from 11 to midnight!

I asked him (for the first time) when he meant to have me boarded. He said there were no instructions given to him yet; and wasn’t I quite happy where I am? Very well . . .

I still have disastrous dreams, but they are taking on a more civilian character, motor accidents and so on.[1]

He is on his way to recovery–and therefore the current slow course is judged to be best. This is very lucky for Owen, but one wonders exactly what these nightmares were like. He doesn’t tell his mother, of course, and he didn’t tell Sassoon. Is his sleep merely “disturbed,” as we would say? Or does he wake screaming, terrified, every night, several times, as was common at Craiglockhart? It’s hard to wangle a clear explanation of trauma, isn’t it…


Herbert Read, writing to–and to impress–Evelyn Roff, strikes another pose today, this time the sarcastically self-aware world-weary officer in repose. Well, no, not repose, exactly…


We are now ‘enjoying’ a rest! That blessed word ‘rest’. It has terrors for us almost equal to any the line can produce. It means a constant scrubbing and polishing… a continual state of qui vive, for safety releases all kinds of horrors upon us: fellows with red hats and monocles who seldom molest us in our natural haunt…

And then there are the tasks, which Read writes with the same strenuous jauntiness, of drilling the troops, both slovenly veterans and raw recruits, back up to the standards of non-combat duty and, worse, of reading their letters:

…two or three weary subalterns have to wade through two or three hundred uninteresting letters every day. Comme ci: ‘Dear old pal–Just a line hoping as how you are in the pink of condition as this leaves me at present. Well, old pal, we are out of the line just now in a ruined village. The beer is rotten. With good luck we shall be over the top in a week or two, which means a gold stripe in Blighty or a landowner in France. Well, they say it’s all for little Belgium, so cheer up, says I: but wait till I gets hold of little Belgium.

From your old pal, Bill.

And so on…[2]


Kate Luard, too, has been enjoying a rest–or, at least, a few days without dire trouble. But this phase of the war presents very little of interest to a working nurse on an afternoon at liberty.

I went with P. for a walk and saw a great many Tanks in their lair; hideous frights they are – named Ethel, Effie, Ernest, etc.

With her own preferred leisure activities so curtailed, will she soften her administrative heart to others? Yes, of course–and with ulterior motives, too.

Sunday, September 2nd.

The weather has not cleared up enough yet for Active Operations, so we are still slack. General S. told me to-day the exact drop in the numbers of daily casualties, and it is a big one. We have a piano in our Mess salved from 44. It brings the M.O.’s and their friends in every evening about 9 p.m., which is really bed-time, but one mustn’t be too much of a Dragon in these hard times. And last night I let them keep it up till 10.30, as it was a good and cheery cover for some rather nasty shelling that was going on, and had been all day – on both sides and beyond us (behind us as we face the line). It went on all night too, and lots of casualties were brought in; 6 died here, besides the killed in the Camps. Of course in one interval he must needs turn up overhead too. I only slept about an hour all night.[3]


Finally, today, our second reading of Hugh Quigley, and the second one in which we must be led through the analysis of an experience without having read the details. But we are familiar, I think, with the war in general, and judging from that, this all seems to make very good sense indeed:

One can never decide definitely about anything there; there is not time, even, for decent thinking; always on the move should be our war-cry. I have seen a vast chunk of France now and I don’t feel inclined to enthuse about its beauty. The same monotony of streamless plains. A new brand of nostalgia enters the system: one longs for a purling brook, a clear lake, and a whole village. I have seen enough ruins to send our feather-brained sentimentalists into the last stages of delirium.

I am beginning to overcome the lice nuisance…

Quigley goes on to discuss his reading–Conrad–and to weigh the best philosophical approaches to a soldier’s life:

The Epicurean idea is the best: make the most of a good thing when you have it and let the future go to the devil. In fact, a Stoic-Epiucurean would have a glorious time just now, and the old Cynic antagonist fill the trenches to every one’s satisfaction; but the doubt arises, would he do for fighting? Too canny, perhaps; too bald in his perception of facts. The barbarian is the darkest fighter after all; he goes right at it…

On a roll, now, Quigley discusses H.G. Wells, wartime sunsets, memorial language, Corot, and, memorably, his impressions of the battlefield around Achiet-le-Petit:

…not a tree was visible anywhere, yet such a perfect gradation of soft greys from rose to pale blue as I have never seen or even dreamt. We seemed to enter a dim world of fairy, grey warriors going into a new Valhalla, where all harshness and ruggedness had been smoothed down into quiet loveliness, and a peaceful contentment taken the place of violent action; where the spirit could forget yearning and find its faintest desires broaden out into a graciousness as if heaven were earth, and earth a kindlier God. It was morning, morning in full summer, when we went there, and a veil of rose lay over the earth, touching a far town–Achiet-le-Grand–to a golden mystery of wall and tree, and outlining with silver the broad road that led from it in the direction of Bapaume.[4]

But now, I think, we can with rare precision discuss absence as well as presence. We can, that is, gather something of what Quigley has not read. He goes on to claim that he has “lost all taste for pure landscape”–yet still he describes it. He hasn’t seen the worst of war, but it is still striking to note what his description of the road to Bapaume lacks. We might compare it to Sassoon’s “Blighters,” the very poem which Vivian de Sola Pinto, himself approaching the line in France, had recently committed to memory :

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
“We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”
I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,”
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 490.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 107-8.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 155.
  4. Passchendaele and the Somme, 105-112.

A Very Bad Day for Kate Luard; A Momentous Meeting Between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon

David Jones, Brielen, August 22nd, 1917

Kate Luard‘s hospital has had a number of close calls, and several nursing sisters at a nearby hospital had recently been wounded. But neither shell nor bomb had yet taken the life of one of her charges.

August 22nd, 6 p.m. This has been a very bad day. Big shells began coming over about 10 a.m. – one burst between one of our wards and the Sisters’ Quarters of No. 44 C.C.S., and killed a Night Sister asleep in bed in her tent[1] and knocked three others out with concussion and shellshock. Another laid out the Q.M. Stores in the Australians and many more have had narrow shaves. The D.M.S. came up and was just saying he would close down No. 44 and the Australians and we would carry on with increased Staff from the other two, when two more came crashing down. The Q.M.G. (Army H.Q.) was there too and instantly said all must clear, patients and personnel. The patients have now gone and we are packing up for St. Omer to-night. I shall apply for leave when I get there.

Luard will write a fuller account of this awful day when she finds an additional few moments of calm:

The business began about 10 a.m. Two came pretty close after each other and both just cleared us and No. 44. The third crashed between Sister E.’s ward in our lines and the Sisters’ Quarters of No. 44. Bits came over everywhere, pitching at one’s feet as we rushed to the scene of action, and one just missed one of my Night Sisters getting into bed in our Compound. I knew by the crash where it must have gone and found Sister E. as white as paper but smiling happily and comforting the terrified patients. Bits tore through her Ward but hurt no one. Having to be thoroughly jovial to the patients on these occasions helps us considerably ourselves. Then I came on to the shell-hole and the wrecked tents in the Sisters’ Quarters at 44. A group of stricken M.O.’s were standing about and in one tent the Sister was dying. The piece went through her from back to front near her heart. She was only conscious a few minutes and only lived 20 minutes. She was in bed asleep. The Sister who shared her tent had been sent down the day before because she couldn’t stand the noise and the day and night conditions. The Sister who should have been in the tent which was nearest was out for a walk or she would have been blown to bits; everything in her tent was; so it was in my empty Ward next to Sister E. It all made one feel sick.

Then we offered to put up their Night Sisters and they came over; three of them so badly shell-shocked that I got the C.O. to have them sent down to Boulogne there and then in an Ambulance. This went on all day..[2]


Back in Scotland, among the recovering shell-shocked survivors, Wilfred Owen, reports the big news to his mother, describing his second meeting with Siegfried Sassoon. Although she usually seems to hear things first and at great length, Owen also wrote to his cousin Leslie Gunston today–Gunston he would have been most suitably impressed with (which is to say jealous of) Wilfred’s meeting with an actual poet. But this letter to his own dear mother… it’s a long letter, and fulsome, and we shouldn’t read too much into a single missive… yet Wilfred is singularly distracted… could having his poetry read by Sassoon be more important, even, than the subsequent report on his progress?

22 August 1917 Craiglockhart

My own dear Mother,

…The most momentous news I have for you is my meeting with Sassoon. He was struggling to read a letter from H. G. Wells when I went in. Wells is thinking of coming up here to see him & his doctor, not about Sassoon’s state of health, but about Wells’ last book you wot of: God the Invisible King. Sassoon talks about as badly as Wells writes; they accord a slurred suggestion of words only. Certain old sonnets of mine did not please S. at all. But the ‘Antaeus’ he applauded long & fervently, saying So-and-so would like to read this. And a short lyric, done here, he pronounced perfect work, absolutely charming, etc. etc. & begged I would copy it for him, to show to the powers that be. The last thing he said to me was Sweat your guts out writing poetry.

He also warned me against early publishing. He is himself 30. Looks under 25.

So there we have it: a rejection of Owen’s juvenilia, praise for recent work, and a sovereign prescription for poetic effort. “Sweat your guts out” might be considered either a useless cliché or an invigorating crystallization of advice, but it certainly chimes with that final note on early publishing: there is work to be done, in Sassoon’s opinion, before any declarations of success can be made.(The letter to Gunston, apparently continued after this letter was completed, is very similar. It does, however, confirm that the “perfect” lyric is the very old-style-Sassoonish “The Nymph” and asks Gunston to send any of Wilfred’s old manuscripts that might be in his possession.)

Sassoon is flattered to have a fan and a Craiglockhart sidekick, but he must also realize now that Owen, at the very least, is no talentless dilettante. These are guts worth the sweating out…

I shall be able to tell you much more when I get home…

Perhaps–but, if Owen is already overwhelmed, the rest of the letter is distracted to the point of fragmentation. Perhaps he has already begun to redirect some of his literary energies from letters toward verses.

The Field Club are going to the Zoo this afternoon. I missed the last outing.

I am being forced to repeat my Biological paper next Monday.

German is getting on.

Saw Ch. Chaplin again.

Keeping very well, and generally sleeping well. The Barrage’d Nights are quite the exception…

Had a Model Yacht Regatta this morning. Thought how Father would have liked to compete.

Your own Wilfred x


When Wilfred returns, tomorrow, to the unfinished letter to Leslie Gunston, one more detail of the conversation will occur to him:

Sassoon admires Thos. Hardy more than anybody living. I don’t think much of what I’ve read. Quite potatoey after the meaty Morals.

Potatoey? Perhaps–but nourishing, in any case. Hardy’s satires are satires in a deeper sense than Sassoon’s, and although Sassoon is wise enough to see that, despite their common early preference for pretty lyrics, Owen has more talent than he for bringing the power of positive emotion–love both idealized and erotic–into verses that deal with war’s brutality. Sassoon can see that, and coach that, but he can’t show it–his own most effective war poetry is driven by anger and swift cutting sarcasm. But Hardy’s later poetry can show a deeper irony of outrage, rooted in the world’s frustrated hopes rather than just one young man’s fury.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. This was Sister Nellie Spindler, twenty-six years old.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 150-1.
  3. Collected Letters, 486-8.

Siegfried Sassoon Struggles to Read Wells and Agrees to Read Some Wilfred Owen; The Master of Belhaven Watches His Own Shells Hit

Today, a century back, marked the second meeting between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. We have noted that both men recognize the various distances of inclination–social, literary, etc.–between them, and that Sassoon certainly does not mind playing the upper class mentor, the man of the literary world, the published poet. It seems almost too perfect, then, that when Owen dropped by today–a restrained three days after their first encounter–he found Sassoon

struggling to read a letter from Wells; whose handwriting is not only a slurred suggestion of words, but in a dim pink ink!

So the published poet knows a great author, too… and that “dim pink ink” is perfect, somewhere between Waugh and Seuss…

The second meeting advanced their relationship as far as Owen admitting that he wrote poetry and Sassoon allowing that he would be willing to have a look at those poems. Owen was very pleased with the steady success of his efforts, yet he must have also realized that the youthful sonnets (his youth having extended until January’s harrowing introduction to warfare) would not be likely to win approval. So, returning to his room, Owen set to work. As he will explain to Leslie Gunston,

After leaving him, I wrote something in Sassoon’s style, which I may as well send you, since you ask for the latest.

The Dead-Beat (True—in the incidental)

He dropped, more sullenly, than wearily.
Became a lump of stench, a clot of meat.
And none of us could kick him to his feet.
He blinked at my revolver, blearily.

He didn’t seem to know a war was on.
Or see or smell the bloody Trench at all . . .
Perhaps he saw the crowd at Caxton Hall,
And that is why the fellow’s pluck’s all gone—

Not that the Kaiser frowns imperially.
He sees his wife, how cosily she chats;
Not his blue pal there, feeding fifty rats.
Hotels he sees, improved materially:

Where ministers smile ministerially.
Sees Punch still grinning at the Belcher bloke;
Baimsfather, enlarging on his little joke.
While Belloc prophecies of last year, serially.

We sent him down at last, he seemed so bad.
Although a strongish chap and quite unhurt.
Next day I heard the Doc’s fat laugh; “That dirt
You sent me down last night’s just died. So glad!’’

This is, to coin a phrase, rather over the top. Enthusiasm and the conscious attempt to ape Sassoon’s style has perhaps overwhelmed Owen’s better judgment–or perhaps this is, on some level, a canny ploy. The too-obvious imitation and the burst of energy both flatter the new mentor and provide him good material to work with. This draft of “The Dead-Beat” is not a good poem–but there is good stuff here to work with. And work they shall…



From the shell-shocked to the shelling, now: today’s entry in the War Diary of the Master of Belhaven describes a rare sight–a unique opportunity–even for this long-experienced artilleryman:

Once again a dated drawing by David Jones made in the rear of the Ypres Salient accords nicely with words written further ahead in the same area

To-day has been a red-letter day. This morning it was my day for calling on the battalion commander whom we cover. I went to the O.P. first and checked my registration… From there I went to the tunnels and saw the colonel of the 12/Royal Fusiliers. I had lunch with him, and he told me that one of his subalterns had discovered a place from which a German battery could be seen…They did not know the least where it was on the map, but they showed me the exact spot from which it could be seen. I was rather horrified to hear that it was… only 20 yards from a German post. However, the subaltern who was told off to take me there assured me that they had a complete understanding with the Hun infantry, and that we should not be sniped.

The unwritten laws of war are torturous and strange. The infantry, exhausted in the midst of an offensive, agree, essentially, to “live and let live.” This we have seen. And each tolerates their own artillery as an arm that should support them and come to their rescue but can also, for reasons inscrutable to mere infantry, cause them trouble by awakening the opposing guns–which, except during an actual attack, are far, far more dangerous to them than the infantry opposite.

And yet this British battalion–or a few of its officers, at least–are willing, in this case, to risk their beneficial truce with the German infantry by advising their own artillery to make good an oversight in the private war of counter-battery fire… of course in actual operational logic this makes sense: there is a war to win, and with good infantry-artillery coordination an enemy unit can be destroyed. And yet this increases the risk to the lives of the infantry by involving them in a battle which might otherwise take place (literally) over their heads…

The Master of Belhaven now journeys to the true front lines, a rarity for an artillery battery commander.

We went all through Shrewsbury Forest and I was able to really appreciate how badly we had crumped the back of the Hun position. Not a tree was left more than two feet high, and the whole place was just one mass of shell-holes touching each other. We quickly reached the place we were making for, and I was not a little astonished when my guide pointed out a tree 30 yards off, and said that the Hun sentry was there. It is really a most extraordinary situation, neither side has any sign of a trench–both are sitting in shell-holes a few yards apart…

We stood in a shell-hole and looked down on the Hun back-country, a truly wonderful view…

Hamilton’s guide points out the German battery, which takes a moment to locate with field glasses. But although much of the battery is camouflaged, one gun is clearly visible, and once he sees it, Hamilton can, with his map and a telephone connection back to his battery, fight an entirely new kind of action. Lying within yards of the German infantry he can bring down the fire of his guns, thousands of yards back, onto the German battery and correct their fire precisely and in real-time. Artillerymen are rarely this effective, and almost never do they get to see the immediate result of their effectiveness. No longer firing into the sky with math and a map to guide him, the Master is killing men with guns, now.

I fired my salvo of smoke-shells as I had arranged with Rentell. There was no doubt about them. They sent up a vast column of smoke… I at once gave a correction by guess, switching onto the hostile battery. After some time I got the guns definitely on to the gun that I could see. It was such a wonderful sight to see Huns walking about in the open. I next put a salvo of high explosive close to my target, and having located the place I at once gave them five rounds of gunfire from all guns. The range was exact, and so was the height of the bursts. My twenty-five shells arrived almost simultaneously and simply plastered the Huns who were moving in the trees. After that I ranged a single gun with high-explosive non-delay on to one of the German guns; the range was 4,800 yards; all the same the shooting and laying were excellent, round after round falling within a few yards of the target. One shell hit a wheel and brought the gun down on its axle; shortly afterwards another shell fell right into the German ammunition dump beside the gun. It blew up with a tremendous explosion and wrecked the whole place. When the smoke cleared away I could see the gun lying on its side pointing the opposite way to what it had before.

Hamilton continues firing into the other gun emplacements, but his telephone wire soon fails, and this ends the “shoot.” Congratulations begin to flow in immediately… Hamilton’s description omits whatever he was able to see of the reactions of the German artillerymen to the sudden concentration of accurate fire on their battery. Looking for the destruction of the guns he doesn’t see, perhaps, either the destruction or the escape of the men who had been manning them.[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 371-3.

Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…


Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.


But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.


And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.


Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?


As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]


The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.


References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

Siegfried Sassoon at the Reform; John Masefield in Mametz Wood; Rowland Feilding Risks an Irish Derby; Wilfred Owen Avoids a Breakdown

Siegfried Sassoon,continues to recover from his shoulder wound–and to take advantage of certain… advantages… of his position. Dining out from his London hospital, his old contacts with the world of literary eminence now put the heroic young poet in the way of some of the leading lights of London literature.

May 2

Lunch with Robbie Ross and Roderick at Reform. Talked to Wells and Arnold Bennett—the latter very affable… Sat in Hyde Park 3.30-4.30 in warm sun—very pleasant…[1]


One literary luminary that Sassoon does not know is John Masefield–which would be awkward, considering that Sassoon’s best pre-war work, “The Daffodil Murderer,” was a satire of his work. Now the prosy shoe is on the other poetic foot, and while Sassoon lunches at the Reform Club, working on his literary rolodex, Masefield is tramping about the ruined areas of the Somme, working on a war book. He is close to the scene of Sassoon’s earlier bout of heroics, but much closer, in location and tone, to David Jones.

I went today up to Mametz Wood, where a German machine gunner once had a nest in a tree. He was killed in his nest & stayed there till he fell to bits, but his nest is still there & two kestrels have built in it, & there are violets in blossom below & wood anemones. I believe every tree & nearly every bush in that big wood is dead, & the same in every wood in the battlefield; most of the big trees cut down by the fire & the rest blasted.[2]


Rowland Feilding is far from such horror, and yet not far enough. Any experienced commander must worry, now, that even the war’s most pleasant and convivial scenes might suddenly become killing grounds.

May 2, 1917. Birr Barracks {Locre).

The battalion has twice played football lately against battalions of the Carson (36th) Division, and I am sorry to say got beaten both times.

On the second occasion there was a big crowd of soldier spectators—certainly 2,000 or 3,000. The ground was the best that could be found, but was rather “close up,” and would not have been chosen had this large attendance
been foreseen. Moreover, the day (Sunday) was the clearest of days, as it happened.

When I arrived, the sight of the crowd, I confess, made me anxious. A hostile aeroplane overhead with wireless apparatus; a German battery behind; a sudden hurricane bombardment with shrapnel; and considerable damage might have followed. And I was the senior officer present.

But to stop a match in process of being cleanly fought before a sporting audience between the two great opposing factions of Ireland, in a spirit of friendliness which, so far as I am aware, seems unattainable on Ireland’s native soil–even though in sight (or almost in sight) of the enemy–was a serious matter; and I decided to let the game go on…[3]


Last and not least, today, is Wilfred Owen. He is safe, once again–but that is not to say that all is well, precisely.

2 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mother,

Here again! The Doctor suddenly was moved to forbid me to go into action next time the Battalion go, which will be in a day or two. I did not go sick or anything, but he is nervous about my nerves, and sent me down yesterday—labelled Neurasthenia. I still of course suffer from the headaches traceable to my concussion. This will mean that I shall stay here and miss the next Action Tour of Front Line; or even it may mean that I go further down & be employed for a more considerable time on Base Duty or something of the sort. I shall now try and make my French of some avail . . . having satisfied myself that, though in Action I bear a charmed life, and none of woman born can hurt me, as regards flesh and bone, yet my nerves have not come out without a scratch. Do not for a moment suppose I have had a ‘breakdown’. I am simply avoiding one.

This seems like wisdom, although we must take it only tentatively, coming as it does from a young man just diagnosed with a “nerve”–i.e., psychiatric–condition writing to his mother–and hard on the heels of a rather dramatic statement about his confidence in his own destiny.

But Owen really does not seem troubled, despite the state of his nerves. Should he be upset not to be going into action?

At the first Ambulance I arrived at in the Car, a Corporal came up to me with a staid air of sleepy dignity that seemed somehow familiar. And when he began to enter in a Note Book my name & age, we knew each other. It was old Hartop of the Technical! Bystanding Tommies were astounded at our fraternity. For the Good old Sort brought back in an instant all the days of study in Shrewsbury, and the years that were better than these, or any years to come… He was reading the same old books that we ‘did’ there. I was jolly glad to see them again, & to borrow…

Reading material thus acquired, Owen does work back to the subject of his current status. He seems to be reassuring himself–and his mother–that his hospitalization for nerves is a war wound honestly come by. It is, of course, as we have learned–he is suffering from posttraumatic stress, an after-effect of both physical concussion and emotional trauma. But there was little consensus on this matter, then, and Owen can’t help but think of what he is experiencing in terms of the more desirably incontrovertible bullet wound:

If I haven’t got a Blighty in this war, I will take good care not to get a Blight, as many have done, even from this Regiment. I should certainly have got a bullet wound, if I had not used the utmost caution in wriggling along the ground on one occasion. There was a party of Germans in a wood about 200 yds behind us, and his trench which we had just taken was only a foot deep in places, & I was obliged to keep passing up & down it. As a matter of fact I rather enjoyed the evening after the Stunt, being only a few hundred yds. from the Town, as you knew, and having come through the fire so miraculously; and being, moreover, well fed on the Bosche’s untouched repast!!

The next line is a good one, especially for us: Owen is startled by what we might term the historical immediacy of the written word:

It was curious and troubling to pick up his letters where he had left off writing in the middle of a word! If we had gone down from the line next day all would have been very well, but we were kept up (in another part of the line) for 9 days after it: under incessant shelling…

Your last Parcel has arrived, and I enjoyed the Munchoc right well. I had some compensation for lost parcels in being given a parcel sent to an officer who was wounded the first day he joined us. It is a regimental custom never to send Food Stuffs back after Officers who go down to Hospital! I shall soon want some more Players. Nothing else yet!—Don’t omit to address C.C.S. 13…

How strange that the fact that I am in Hospital means that all cause of uneasiness about me is removed from you!

Do not hawk this letter about! Nay, I would rather you told no one I am a Casual again!

Your very own Wilfred[4]

We will keep a close eye on Owen and his nerves.


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 163.
  2. Letters From France, 268.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 169-70.
  4. Collected Letters, 453-4.

Robert Graves Informs Robert Nichols; Siegfried Sassoon Closes Another Loop; Ford Madox Hueffer Hymns the High-Life; Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller on a Live Wire and Mr. Britling; Richard Aldington Tells Off and Tells a Joke

February, it seems, will rival January as a cold and miserable month that nonetheless provides a great deal of interesting war writing. Poets writing to other poets! Poets reading original acenturyback sources! Tall tales of the troops that are actually funny! More Mr. Britling! Scabrous poets lashing out at all the other poets they can name!

The first piece of… several… today, comes from Robert Graves to his new friend Robert Nichols. Nichols is out of the war, we may recall, and has flatteringly asked Graves–with tongue-in-cheek preciousness–to inspire his poetry by “feeding my faun with cherries.”

2 February 1917

My dear Robert,

What a ripping letter! I wrote you one a day or two ago and though it’s a bad habit I must write another. You’re lucky, to be able to be so happy in England: I couldn’t while the war lasts…

A friendly letter, or a critical one? Mostly the former. With Graves it’s always possible that what might seem like a sharp reference to the experiential gulf–“you’re a civilian now, friend, oh-so-happy in England, while I’m a soldier”–is merely careless, and it certainly seems as if he is otherwise enthusiastic about this new relationship.

Next, Graves ups the ante by writing Nichols not prosy notes to inspire his poetry but rather a poem of his own. This is the revised version of the draft poem “To Robert Nichols” that made up much of today’s letter:

Here by a snowbound river
In scrapen holes we shiver,
And like old bitterns we
Boom to you plaintively:
Robert how can I rhyme
Verses for your desire—
Sleek fauns and cherry-time,
Vague music and green trees,
Hot sun and gentle breeze,
England in June attire,
And life born young again,
For your gay goatish brute
Drunk with warm melody
Singing on beds of thyme
With red and rolling eye,
All the Devonian plain,
Lips dark with juicy stain,
Ears hung with bobbing fruit?
Why should I keep him time?
Why in this cold and rime,
Where even to dream is pain?
No, Robert, there’s no reason:
Cherries are out of season,
Ice grips at branch and root,
And singing birds are mute.

Next, Graves presumes to preach to Nichols, affecting a frank, hale-fellow voice to knock (fairly, however) Nichols’s rather old-fashioned approach. We are Sorley‘s children, now, Robert!

Look here, Robert; I’ll risk your being annoyed, if you are you’d be no friend of mine, but nowadays one doesn’t ‘view the constellations quietly, quietly burning’, at least not after one’s left school. ‘Moral austerity’? Sorley talks of the spiky stars that shine: less luxuriant, sharper, more effective.

Call me a grandmother: I like being ragged. But oh, Robert, you’ve got all the qualities of a poet if you want, and it seems such a rotten stunt for you to sit in a kimono to view constellations quietly, quietly burning, and read Bridges. You want to get away from all that into a new method…

I don’t apologize for this. I mean it and I feel Somme trenches give me the right even to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit if I feel so inclined.

Yours affectionately


Well, there you have it, quite openly in that last paragraph. There are many bases for asserting authority in poetry. But in war poetry, there is one only–experience. Having fought in “the Somme trenches,” Graves can criticize without restraint all poetry up to and including that which is divinely inspired… and his humorous hyperbole only half-covers the fact that he is less-than-half joking.


Siegfried Sassoon, left behind in Litherland Camp and not party to this new poetic friendship, is moping about and reading. ah, but who? One young but old-fashioned poet, and one fallen soldier–each of them one of our sources. Or, rather, one of them a source I came to late in his lie=fe and should have used more, and the other more of a source-to-come.

February 2

And now reading Charles Lister‘s letters in the hut and feeling deadly tired and depressed. I suppose I’ll worry along somehow in France. How, I don’t quite know.

Wilfrid Gibson’s new poems arrived today. He seems to be laying himself out to be a sort of Crabbe (modernised on Masefield Lines). Some of it is very good, but diffuse…

Charles Lister, another of the well-born young men who swarmed into the Royal Naval Division at the start of the war, was a friend of Patrick Shaw-Stewart and Rupert Brooke, and the third of the “Argonauts” to die. Lister’s father published his son’s letters, and while these will not have anything like the influence of Charles Sorley on the younger poets, it is another early case of a feedback loop.

Sassoon is reading one of the books we might read (and have read a bit of) in order to understand the experience of the war. His writing of his own life, therefore–not just in the memoir but in the near-“real-time” of his diary–is now influenced by Great War life-writing.

To reverse chronological course and restore our sense of future-mastery, I’ll note that it’s also interesting that he’s reading Wilfrid Gibson, who is most definitely a Georgian poet, but not–not yet–a war poet. But he will be. Although this project has seen numerous young men accepted despite severe vision problems, Gibson, already in his late thirties when the war broke out, was several times refused when he attempted to volunteer. But 1917 will bring increasing demands for men, and, accordingly, a loosening of such restrictions… so even as Sassoon reads the words of an Edwardian young man now long dead, he is reading the diffuse Georgian poetry of a poet who will soon know war.


Some weeks ago we dispatched the ailing Ford Madox Hueffer to the south of France. Another one of those hospital nightmares? Oh no, my friends!

…we had lived like gentlemen. A peeress of untellable wealth and inexhaustible benevolence had taken, for us alone, all the Hôtel Cap Martin [in Menton, on the French Riviera]–staff, kitchens, chef, wine-cellars. We sat at little tables in fantastically palmed and flowering rooms and looked, from the shadows of marble walls, over a Mediterranean that blazed in the winter sunlight. We ate Tournedos Meyerbeer and drank Château Pavie, 1906. We slept in royal suites… You looked round and remembered for a second that we were all being fattened for slaughter… But we had endless automobiles at our disposal and Monte Carlo was round the corner.

Yes, fattened for the slaughter–perhaps. But having pushed hard to see actual service in France, Ford is now hoping to escape the trenches, and one imagines that others who have gotten as far as the Riviera will as well. But surely not all.

There is so much to comment on, here–and letters to go before we sleep–but let’s try to register three critical touches.

First, it’s safe to say that Ford’s gambling in Monte Carlo–he won steadily using a mathematical system devised by a brilliant friend, then got bored and gambled it away again–alongside various eccentric aristocrats puts Sassoon’s fox hunting and golf to shame as an activity unbecoming an officer who is supposed to be disabled…

Second, a comparison to George Coppard‘s birthday memory is illuminating. For an enlisted man to land at an English aristocrat’s hospital where he will be pampered for a few weeks and given free cigarettes is “dead lucky;” but for an officer and high-liver like Hueffer/Ford to be moved to a similar admission–“untellable… inexhaustible… fantastically”–it takes Monte Carlo, succulent meats, fine Bordeaux, and endless automobiles…

Third, Ford is a bit of a genius. He will write the one and only High Modernist masterpiece dealing with the war, but that, in many ways, sprung fully-formed out of his possibly exaggerated shell shock and (other) modernist commitments. As this scrap of memoir makes clear, he might have been considered instead the forerunner of the realist-absurd World War Two style, or even of Post-Modernism in its beautiful chaos phase. By which I mean Heller, and then Pynchon–who else? If some of Ford’s descriptions recall the earnest efforts of Milo Minderbinder, this transition from French beachfront merriment to hard-edged despair is something that Tyrone Slothrop might have experienced (Ford would have added a trained octopus and mysterious femme fatale if he had known he could get away with it):

…On the 2nd of February, 1917 I had stood on that platform. There had been an icy wind and snow falling. I was going up the line again. If you have asked me then whether I felt despair I should have denied it–mildly. I had been conscious of being dull and numbed in a dull, numb station. All France up to Hazebrouck in Flanders was deep in snow. I was going to Hazebrouck in Flanders.[2]


But back to earth, now, with an unlikely pair: young lovers whose warrior half is not a warrior but a pacifist medic, firmly rooted in his dreams of the stars. Half a world away, today, a century back, Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller wrote to each other. I don’t often include much from Agnes’s letters–they tell of civilian life in Australia, and often engage Olaf in philosophical discussion–but today her question (ought America to join the war?) brings in the text-of-the-moment:

…there was a little paragraph in Wells’ book “Mr. Britling Sees It Through” which made me want America not to fight. It was where the young American explained that his country will betray her trust if she allowed herself to be drawn into war. He said America was the field for humanity to make a fresh start in, to turn over a new leaf, & it would be wrong got her to go back to the old lines. Do you think that?

Up until a few weeks ago. Oh, apologies–she was asking Olaf.

It would seem that although Olaf and Agnes are half a world away, they are on the same side of that generational gap, the biggest stumbling block on the approach to the experiential gulf. Never has Agnes Miller sounded so much like Vera Brittain (the Vera Brittain of 1914 and 1915).

Have you read “Mr. Britling” yet? I want to read it again to myself. We are going to discuss it at one of the Seekers meetings this year. Hugh’s letters made me cry. Dad said after reading one very harrowing one, “Well, it’s quite understandable that the men themselves wouldn’t see beyond their own trenches. They wouldn’t take a broad view.”–& I wanted to burst out indignantly, “No & why should they? Poor men! Why should anyone see beyond all the filth of it. They were not meant to, war is not the right way. It’s all a hideous madness.”–but I couldn’t have said anything without bursting into tears, so I said naught.

And Olaf, who will receive this letter in a month or two, is writing to Agnes about a book he is reading,

about feminism and marriage and love and the evolution of a nobler kind of society. The point of it all is really very simple, namely that women… must become free & independent economically and spiritually.

The world could do with more such. But he’s not here because he’s a good lad and a conscientious liberal–he’s here because he’s a good writer. Here’s a lovely metaphor:

Dear, you know how an electric wire conveys a current, and how if the current is too strong for it the wire fuses–goes white hot and breaks. Well, all this poor letter writing business is our electric wire, and it is too thin a wire for the current of understanding and sympathy and love that has to pass along it, that must pass along… When we meet, girl, there will be such a lot to learn of one another… The best thing I have learnt in these years of war is the sense of the supreme worth of sincerity in human thoughts and feelings…[3]


It’s been a long day and this is perhaps too much, but in guilt–or righteous concession–over the extent to which my dislike for Richard Aldington‘s personality and fiction informs my reading of his letters, I must include this one (to F.S. Flint, as usual). Aldington is certainly warming to the task:

My brave,

I fear my letter worried & annoyed you–but you must permit me a “grouch” occasionally. “The flesh is sad, alas”–& I have no books to read. Sometimes I wish you were here. One can “wag the beard” quite freely while working & we could discuss cadence & quantity & rhythm to the sound of pick and shovel…

So the weather is cold with you? Imagine! Here it is subtropical. We live on iced champagne & salads. The R.F.A. wear nothing but their trousers & socks. It is reported that the R.S.F. have abandoned all clothing except Japanese
umbrellas & fans.

The amazing thing is that in spite of the heat my shaving and tooth brushes are stiff with ice each morning. I have to thaw my towel before it will bend, the jam in tins is covered with a “crust” of ice &…but why continue? You think I
exaggerate? Come & see!

A yarn. Quidam barbarus–a certain Hun, taken prisoner at X on the 11th of Z was asked by a Tommy how long the
war would last. “Two years more,” quoth Fritz, “then we beat you with the bayonet. You’ll only need one ship to take your lot back then.” “Ho,” said our compatriot in wrath “and your blankety blank lot’ll go ’ome in a copulating perambulator.”

This was told me by one who vowed he’d seen it. No doubt the yarn appeared last June in the Journal & last
Saturday in The Evening Standard, but it’s new to me & maybe to you. I hope you’re edified.

See, that’s funny. And the joke requires three participants: the German stooge; the earthy lower-class Briton, profane but, on his best behavior, searching for euphemism; and the well-bred ear, there to appreciate the word-substitution (which was not a new necessity among those who frequently salted their speech with the earthy latrinogrammatic first-resorts represented by “copulating,” but seems to still give a frisson to the middle classes) as well as the metrical superabundance that makes “copulating perambulator” such a joy to find in a sentence that could have been, in a less eloquent age, “screw you, buddy.”

Finally, Aldington, for all that he is an enlisted laborer, now, is a very productive writer, and not only of letters. I’ve already excised about ten literary name-drops from this one, but it now becomes clear what Aldington is up to:

I wrote an article in malicious mood on modern English poetry in which I abused decisively & praised ironically some score of our villainous pundits of the pen. Still it was a poor affair–I lack verve & venom…

What do you think? A new Dunciad in prose with Abercrombie & Kipling & all that lousy crew round Monro elegantly dished and derided.

Perhaps this is what Aldington currently believes that his lowly stance in a copulating navvying unit might help him achieve: it’s a good crouch from which to chuck heavy objects at the marble busts atop the world of poetry. Kipling, popular master of the waning empire; Abercrombie, the reigning Georgian; and Harold Monro as the portfolio-holder for the rising-unmoderns.

Or he just wants to heap invective on a major modernist who has criticized–and critically!–Aldington’s recent translations from the Greek:

…a propos, that fatted imbecile of destruction, Eliot… Slay me this imbecile with a note to ’Arriet. “The Greeks put intelligence on their tombstones” quotha. Many, and the Yanks cannot even get it into the periodicals of their intellectual élite. Consult H.D. and use information and indignation here supplied to expose this festering lunatic, this bunion on the souls of Pound, this comPound [sic], this insult to God!

If you need it borrow some money from H.D. She usually gets a “check” about the 10th” of the month. Call

Cheer up! Why I may be blown to bits to-morrow. Then you can write my biography.


Well, he sounds like he’s having a good time…


References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 65-66.
  2. War Prose, 65-7.
  3. Talking Across the World, 203-4.
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 180-2.

A New Year’s Rumpus Near Dranoutre; Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon Golfing and Reading and Clowning, but Never Precisely When They Claim to Have Been; A Poem From Robert Frost for Edward Thomas

It’s New Year’s Eve, so let us celebrate the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Sixteen. We have minor literary dishonesty, fatal bureaucratic logic, and New Year’s Greetings delivered with High Explosive.

Well enough–representative enough. Has it really been a year? Yes, exactly–that’s a big part of the point of the running “imperfect tense” centennial.

But has it felt like a year? Did the four and a half months of the Somme feel like four and a half months? Or is it already the short, intense period of history–a mental month or two–that it had become when first encountered it as a thematically unavoidable “battle” in Britain’s experience of the war? I’m not in a very confident frame of mind about all this. Sometimes this project feels as if it allows a true reliving of the experience of forgetting recent events “in real time,” but not so much of the experience of remembering how things should feel after the “actual” amount of time has transpired from event to event.

This is, in other words, an interesting exercise, but a few minutes a day (or even, on my end, a few hours) isn’t enough to trick the brain into time traveling… it’s an analogy, not a transformation or mental journey. Perhaps something of the method of “The Notion Club Papers” or “Time and Again” might work, trapping intellectual argonauts in period clothes with only letters and newspapers to read, daily slipped under the door… but we are, in the end, reading, and forgetting…

Back to the texts–there are, not surprisingly, some digressive ruminations on the passing of the year. Enough, surely. And since the fortune of the spreadsheet (of my half-thought-through dragnet research, that is) has once again provided a nice array of contemporary writing, I should get to it.

First, unavoidably, the opinion of the Army Commander–higher than division, higher than corps, lower only than Field Marshal Haig–has been added to Edwin Dyett’s conviction and sentence:

I recommend that the sentence be carried out. If a private had behaved as he did in such circumstances, it is highly probable that he would have been shot.

H Gough
General Commanding Fifth Army

This is indeed overwhelmingly likely. Or, rather, it is overwhelmingly likely that if a private had behaved in such a way and a personal enemy among his platoon noncoms had complained, he would have been shot.

But what if a man with known bad nerves–nerves “earned” after long combat, rather than an immediate inability to cope with combat–was sent back out anyway, and broke down, and had friends? Or sympathetic superiors? Well, that’s more of a question. Many ordinary men in the ranks (such as the petty officer whose words doomed Dyett or the men in Manning/Bourne’s company who want to see a frequent deserter shot) would agree. They are sticking it out, after all… but many others have so far preserved enough of what humanity they brought to war to see their way toward mercy…


There’s another bitter juxtaposition here between Dyett and Siegfried Sassoon. They are, in a way, opposite officers: a man sentenced to be shot as a coward for avoiding battle, and a man awarded an MC for aggressive heroics and later sent back as a punishment for being too aggressive and advancing beyond his unit to engage the Germans. The one is a man with no friends left in his battalion, the other an attractive poet with friends and admirers everywhere.

And yet Sassoon is beginning to realize that circumstance is all. He doesn’t doubt his own courage–although he is beginning to question its source and its meaning–and he has begun to see that the war grinds down everyone, not just the timorous or wasp-waisted.

And so, when he came to write his (second set of) memoirs, he dwelt on the passing year by mentioning his enthrallment with H.G. Wells’s Mr. Britling Sees it Through.

On New Year’s Eve I was alone in my hut reading Mr. Britling Sees It Through, which was more of a revelation to me that anything I had met with, and seemed to light up the whole background of the War. Someone was speaking his mind fearlessly; and since it happened to be the mind of H. G. Wells I devoured his pages in a rapt surrender of attention. Finally I came to a startling passage that checked my rapid reading. For several minutes I sat staring at the words. Then I copied them carefully into the small notebook in which I recorded my nocturnal rumination. I was in the panoramic and retrospective state of mind induced by New Year’s Eve, and this was what one of England’s most powerful imaginations told me.

‘It is a war now like any other of the mobbing, many-aimed cataclysms that have shattered empires and devastated the world; it is a war without point, a war that has lost its soul; it has become mere incoherent fighting and destruction, a demonstration in vast and tragic forms of the stupidity and ineffectiveness of our species…’

And so Sassoon-the-memoirist chooses his book of the year, and suggests that Mr. Britling’s dawning awareness of the chaotic cruelty of the war has struck him as an important truth.

Which it did–four days ago. Today, a century back, was not a beautiful day. But it was too nice for reading books and dwelling on calendrical milestones…

December 31

Played golf at Formby and got rather wet. Robert (with niblick) played the fool and rather annoyed my serious golfing temperament.[2]

It’s amusing–but not quite funny–that Sassoon is thus caught date-fudging in his memoir. Which is, again, a very minor sin. But this diary entry also proves that Robert Graves was not inventing his tale of annoying Sassoon on the links, but merely misremembering its location in time by a month.

So Graves, who so often alters past events for effect, has done nothing here but mistake his memory to no rhetorical purpose, while Sassoon, the slithy tove, borrowed straight from his diary and purposefully changed the date, in order to turn that day’s reading into Deep Thoughts at the Close of the Year.

It’s been a low dishonest year, no?

And still Edwin Dyett waits to join the rest of the casualties of the Somme.


Penultimately, we have a letter from Edward Thomas to Robert Frost. What does that halcyon Christmastime at home look like when a man writes to his most-valued intellectual soulmate?

31 xii 1916. High Beech

My dear Robert,

I had your letter & your poem ‘France, France’ yesterday.

That poem, which will not turn up in Frost’s upcoming books of verse, I found here:

France, France I know not what is in my heart.
But God forbid that I should be more brave
As a watcher for a quiet place apart
Than you are fighting in an open grave.

Not mine to say you shall not think of peace.
Not mine, not mine. I almost know your pain.
But I will not believe that you will cease
I will not bid you cease, from being slain.

Thomas continues:

I like the poem very much, because it betrays exactly what you would say & what you feel about saying that much. It expresses just those hesitations you or I would have at asking others to act as we think it is their cue to act. Well, I am soon going to know more about it…

…at the end of the week or soon after I shall have my last leave. After all we are going to have smaller guns than we thought & we shall be nearer the front lines a good bit & are beginning to make insincere jokes about observing from the front line which of course we shall have to do. I think I told you we were a queer mixed crowd of officers in this battery. As soon as we begin to depend on one another we shall no doubt make the best of one another. I am getting on, I think, better than when I was in my pupilage. The 2 senior officers have been out before. Four of us are new. I am 3 years older than the commanding officer & twice as old as the youngest. I mustn’t say much more.

Notice how undramatic that was. Frost is in New Hampshire, writing of France, and his heart; but Thomas will actually be there, in the flesh, in weeks, and near the front lines. That is the news, and that’s all it is, now–perhaps it can be written about once it is experienced, but it looms so near, now, that speculation about the experience seems almost indecent.

So, then, Christmas?

I was home for Christmas by an unexpected piece of luck. We were very happy with housework & wood gathering in the forest & a few walks. We had snow & sunshine on Christmas day. Mervyn’s holiday coincided with mine. Some of the time I spent at my mother’s house & in London buying the remainder of my things for the front. I am very well provided…

A pleasant visit home–and the special mention of Mervyn is because Frost had taken charge of the boy in America for several months. But we learn now that Thomas was only home three days, and yet he spent one in London getting kitted out? It hardly sounds like Helen Thomas’s recollection at all…

Edward Thomas’s letter now returns to his and Frost’s joint concerns–their newest books (his first book of poetry), walking and reading and writing:

It is nearly all work here now & in the evenings, if I haven’t something to do with my maps for next day, I am either out walking or indoors talking. When I am alone—as I am during the evening just now because the officer who shares my room is away—I hardly know what to do. I can’t write now & still less can I read. I have rhymed but I have burnt my rhymes & feel proud of it…

I tried to begin ‘The Shaving of Shagpat’ just now, but could not get past the 3rd page. I could read Frost, I think. Send me another letter, though I expect it will find me over the sea.

Goodbye all, & my love.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas.[3]


It seems most appropriate, though, to close the year with a short, simple letter. This is from Rowland Feilding to his wife, and perhaps it does well to balance the dark thoughts which have overcome our writers of late. And yet even with a confident and high-spirited man like Fielding “joy” can only be ironic and “peace” is fit only for the bitterest of sarcasms… but there must be hope, still:

December 31, 1916 (Midnight).
Derry Huts (near Dranoutre).

It is midnight. As I write all the “heavies” we possess are loosing off their New Year’s “Joy” to the Germans, making my hut vibrate. The men in their huts are cheering and singing “Old Lang Syne.”

The rumpus started at five minutes to twelve. Now, as it strikes the hour, all has stopped, including the singing, as suddenly as it began. The guns awakened the men, who clearly approved. The enemy has not replied with a single shot in this direction.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Death For Desertion, 62.
  2. Diaries, 111.
  3. Elected Friends, 170-1.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 142.

Siegfried Sassoon Sees Mr. Britling Through; The Thomas Family’s Christmas Comes to an End

Two poets, today, one in the intimate struggle of family life; the other alone with his reading.

First, Siegfried Sassoon, still lowering and at Litherland camp.

December 27

Medical Board gave me another month’s home service…

Another sharp frost and thick fog this morning. Reading Curzon’s Monasteries in the Levant which Meiklejohn sent me at Christmas. More amusing than Eothen, but Doughty’s Arabia Deserta spoils one for every other book of that sort.

I heartily agree–there will be subsequent editions of Doughty’s bizarre masterpiece carrying an introduction by T.E. Lawrence, so there’s another Great War writing connection for us. But, while it’s extremely appropriate that Sassoon-at-loose-ends is reading heavyweight Victorian travel literature, he is also reading something rather hotter off the presses. But this diary entry will take its sweet time getting there:

…Those four months away from the Army blotted out the slight sense of discipline I had managed to acquire, much against my will. I want to go off and play golf and be independent and alone, all the time! My absurd decoration is the only thing that gives me any sense of responsibility at all. And the thought of death is horrible, where last year it was a noble and inevitable dream. And nothing left but to watch the last flare-up, and try to dodge through to the end, the victory that is more terrible than defeat—exhaustion, and blind men with medals, and everyone trying to clean up their lives, like children whose little make-believes have been smashed  and ruined in the night.

This is as close as Sassoon will get to sounding like mid-60’s Dylan; but he’s under a rather different influence: the book of the year (it’s that time, for critics, isn’t it? Or have I missed it?) is certainly H.G. Wells’ Mr. Britling Sees it Through. Sassoon now copies out a lengthy quotation from the book, which he is in the middle of reading:

Mr Britling says: ‘Everywhere cunning, everywhere small feuds and hatreds, distrusts, dishonesties, timidities, feebleness of purpose, dwarfish imaginations, swarm over the great and simple issues . . . It is a war now like any other of the mobbing, many-aimed cataclysms that have shattered empires and devastated the world; it is a war without point, a war that has lost its soul, it has become mere incoherent fighting and destruction, a demonstration in vast and tragic forms of the stupidity and ineffectiveness of our species.'[1]

Word perfect–Sassoon was copying carefully.

I can’t do H.G. Wells justice in just a few paragraphs here. I hardly know the breadth of his work, and like most Americans I think of him as a founding father of Science Fiction first and foremost… and very little after that. But Mr. Britling was a major book, a real attempt to use the novel to wrestle with, for lack of a better term, current events. And there is a Wells-like figure at the center of the book: Mr. Britling is a man of letters, given to sweeping pronouncements in newspaper articles, late-night fits of writerly inspiration, and serial affairs that seem, implausibly, to hardly intrude upon his home life.

But Mr. Britling is not Mr. Wells (Sassoon does not copy down quotation marks to show that Mr. Britling, rather than a narratorial or authorial voice, is speaking; his editor does add them later). Mr. Britling has something Mr. Wells does not: a seventeen-year-old son.

The course of the book’s events are easily summarized: we get an extremely idyllic Summer of ’14 (seen through the eyes of an American visitor), which includes casual witty brilliance, highly competitive amateur sports, and a benevolent, endearingly self-serious German tutor. This is followed by much time in Mr. Britling’s mind as he adjusts to the realities of the war. His young secretary (i.e. personal assistant) joins up, taking a commission, but his own boy idealistically enlists in Kitchener’s Army, in the ranks. He is underage, so he will be stuck safely in training, unable to serve overseas for more than a year… and Mr. Britling goes on planning (and only rarely completing) self-important think-pieces on the war.

And then things begin to unravel–young Hugh Britling had lied about his age in order to avoid the need for parental consent for combat deployment, and he is sent to France in 1915. The 1914 confidence about Empire and the thrill of rising to the challenge begin to fall flat with the bloody balls-up of the Battle of Loos. And Mr. Britling writes on…

I suppose I will stop there, since my paltry summary has reached the spot, more or less, from which Sassoon quotes. No spoilers, of course… although this book was published months ago, a century back. But you know what must happen.

What’s of more interest to us–or of more direct interest–is how the book affected our writers.

It certainly seems to be something like the consensus best “state of Britain” novel of 1916, and they are all reading it: Wilfred Owen was reading something by Wells in November, likely Mr. Britling, as was Isaac Rosenberg, more recently. Robert Graves will shortly (in terms of the lived chronology of his memoir) discuss the book and its author in his usual fashion–which is to say inaccurately, and with an eye for stirring up trouble. And reader Richard Hawkins reminds me that Gilbert Frankau, an author whom I have more or less abandoned here (not because I don’t like his writing–I don’t, but it’s instructive–but rather because there are just not enough dates), will also remember meeting Wells at about this time. Frankau, too, will take a pot-shot at him, too, in his memoir.

Virtually every novel and memoir by a Great War combatant addresses the question of what I have been calling “the experiential gulf” and “the conflict of the generations.” They must comment–wryly, sadly, in still-hot fury–on the ways in which fatuous old men on the home front fail to understand/stereotype/disrespect the young men in uniform while at the same time being complicit in, and often profiting from, their senseless slaughter. So it’s… perhaps “amusing” is not the best word… that Frankau treats Wells dismissively as a cynical anti-imperialist who welcomes the destruction of the war while Graves mistakes the man for the creation and makes Wells into Mr. Britling and Mr. Britling into a chirping optimist, an embodiment of the smug older generation who are staggered by the war but can’t even bear to face that fact… Wells was nothing so simple, nor was his creation.

I shouldn’t drone on about Wells’s book. The quotation Sassoon uses, above, is fair and representative: it’s about Mr. Britling’s hesitant, increasingly despairing attempts to cope. He’s not smug, after a while; nor does he fail to see how terrible the war has become. Graves didn’t read the book–or didn’t read far enough–and simply used it as something that sounded like it should attract his derision… but it shouldn’t. It’s not a great book, and the ending is not, to my mind, very satisfactory. But that is because it was written during the dark middle of the war–it could hardly end in despair (and still be publishable, or artistically true to its aspirations to speak for some general type of English mind) and it certainly couldn’t end on an uplifting note…

It’s interesting, then, that Sassoon is moved by the lesson this middle-aged intellectual places at the heart of his novel about a middle-aged intellectual, and striking that Sassoon then puts it to his own purposes, namely preparing to go out to France again with a grim heart and clear eyes…

But Sassoon, too, is fibbing, albeit in a much more venial way. When Sassoon comes to memoir-ize his diaries–not in the “George Sherston” trilogy but in the later series of memoirs in propria persona–he rewrites the date of this intense encounter. (Did these silly fellows, who dreamed big and expected to die young, not imagine posthumous publication of their private writings?)

On New Year’s Eve I was alone in my hut reading Mr. Britling Sees It Through, which was more of a revelation to me than anything I had met with, and seemed to light up the whole ground of the War. Someone was speaking his mind fearlessly, and since it happened to be the mind of H.G. Wells I devoured his pages in a rapt surrender of attention. Finally I came to a startling passage that checked my rapid reading. For several minutes I sat staring at the words. Then I copied them carefully into the small note-book in which I recorded my nocturnal ruminations. I was in the panoramic and retrospective state of mind induced by New Year’s Eve, and this was what one of England’s most powerful imaginations told me.

I suppose it’s not impossible that Sassoon was still reading the book four days later, but as he is working directly from his diary, it certainly seems to be the case that he is moving the reading-event in order to make it serve more precisely as his reflection upon the year. (Which is amusing given his actual diary entry on the 31st, which we will see in due time–it mentions nothing more reflective than a grumpy game of golf.) So, a minor point, but… BOO! He was not copying this out on New Year’s Eve, but rather today, a century back…

After the quotation, as above, Sassoon then gathers himself for retrospective reflection. It’s amusing, again, that the older Sassoon condescends to his younger self while fudging the timing of his experiences for a slight dramatic effect:

The words are alone on the flimsy little page. I didn’t venture to add my own commentary on them. But I am moderately sure that I remarked to myself, ‘That’s exactly what I’d been thinking only I didn’t know how to say it!’ Nevertheless I had already written on a previous page, ‘The war is settling down on everyone…'[2]

Compared with most of my cogitations, this was quite explicit…

And so Sassoon at simultaneously gives himself credit for finding the true 1916 mood in himself as well as in Wells’s pages and cuts his young self down:

The diary indeed discloses very little of my actual state of mind about the War. Some of its entries suggest that I was keeping my courage up by resorting to elevated feelings. My mental behavior was still unconnected with any self-knowledge, and it was only when I was writing verse that I tried to concentrate and express my somewhat loose ideas…

So we shouldn’t trust the diaries, but we can trust this one novelist-over-forty (fifty, even!), but we can (implicitly) trust the later memoirs? It’s going to be quite a year…


And today, a century back, Edward Thomas left his family at High Beech to return to “Tintown,” Lydd, and his artillery training. Comparing letters to memoirs is especially strange when they are written by two women who loved the same man–or, rather, when he is writing to one woman and being written about by the other.

First, Eleanor Farjeon’s correspondence with Thomas around this Christmastime, which she had done so much to make so miraculous:

I had sent to High Beech my own budget of presents to add to the gaiety, and with Edward’s I enclosed as a Christmas card a new London-Town Nursery Rhyme:


Saint Mary, ax. Saint Mary, ax.
Saint Mary, ax your fill.
Saint Mary, ax whatever you lacks
And you shall have your will.—
O bring me a Rose, a Christmas Rose
To cUmb my window-siU.—
You shall have your Rose when Heaven snows.
Saint Mary, sleep until.

Thomas responded on Christmas Day, from the bosom of his family:

Christmas High Beech

My dear Eleanor, I am bloated with your presents. But that is not their fault. The apples were and are delicious, and the poem is I think one of your very happiest. Why do I like the last line so much? What does the ‘Until’ remind me of? Or is it just that it reminds me of something else that is good?

…The Christmas tree is afoot. It is 5.50, and Baba has no suspicions. Goodbye. I hope we shall meet next Christmas time.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas

Thomas wrote to Farjeon again, yesterday, a century back, but kept the letter as he left High Beech, posting the Christmas one instead. Then, tonight, back at camp, he found a second parcel (or, rather, the first, sent when Farjeon still thought he would be unable to get Christmas leave) and wrote a new note.

R.A. Mess,
Tintown, Lydd
27 xii 16

My dear Eleanor, I only found your cake this morning. It is very good. If you and a cup of tea would appear it would be excellent— only of course I shouldn’t mind whether it was or not. I am going to send you in exchange some verses I made on Sunday. It is really Baba who speaks, not I. Something she felt put me on to it. But I am afraid I am meddling now. A real poem would include and imply all these things I am writing, or so I fancy.

These verses we shall read in two days, when he sends them to “Baba,” his daughter Myfanwy. The next line, well… bear it in mind when we read his wife Helen’s reminiscences:

…It is curious how I feel no anxiety or trouble as soon as I am back here, though I was so very glad to be at home.
I will just copy out the verses and send this off.

Goodbye. Oh, the Christmas tree was a great success. Baba went pale with surprise as she came into the room and found it. Thank you.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[3]


From Helen Thomas’s memoir I will excerpt with a heavy hand, as she writes a great deal over the same few days between the writing and the posting of this letter… but there is no surprise here: a wife surprised by the sudden return of her soldier husband will write  intensely, and intimately… his visit was only three days, but here it seems longer. For Helen the visit is a miraculous in-gathering of the family, but also a chance for their often tense marriage to find a moment of calm before the the war pulls them apart.

…in the evenings, when just outside the door the silence of the forest was like a pall covering too heavily the myriads of birds and little beasts that the frost had killed, we would sit by the fire with the children and read aloud to them, and they would sing songs that they had known since their babyhood, and Edward sang new ones he had learnt in the army–jolly songs with good choruses in which I, too, joined as I busied about getting the supper. Then, when Myfanwy had gone to bed, Bronwen would sit on his lap, content just to be there, while he and Merfyn worked out problems or studied maps. It was lovely to see those two so united over this common interest.

But he and I were separated by our dread, and we could not look each other in the eyes, nor dared we be left alone

The days had passed in restless energy for us both. He had sawn up a big tree that had been blown down at our very door, and chopped the branches into logs, the children all helping. The children loved being with him, for though he was stern in making them build up the logs properly, and use the tools in the right way, they were not resentful of this, but tried to win his rare praise and imitate his skill. Indoors he packed his kit and polished his accoutrements…

And I knew Edward’s agony and he knew mine, and all we could do was to speak sharply to each other. ‘Now do, for goodness’ sake, remember Helen, that these are the important manuscripts, and that I’m putting them here, and this key is for the box that holds all important papers like our marriage certificate and the children’s birth certificates, and my life insurance policy. You may.want them at some time; so don’t go leaving the key about.’ And I, after a while, ‘Can’t you leave all this unnecessary tidying business, and put up that shelf you promised me? I hate this room, but a few books on a shelf might make it look at bit more human.’ ‘Nothing will improve this room, so you had better resign yourself to it. Besides, the wall is too rotten for a shelf’ ‘Oh, but you promised.’ ‘Well, it won’t be the first time I’ve broken a promise to you, will it? Nor the last, perhaps.’

Oh, God! melt the snow and let the sky be blue. The last evening comes. The children have taken down the holly and mistletoe and ivy, and chopped up the little Christmas-tree to burn. And for a treat Bronwen and Myfanwy are to have their bath in front of the blazing fire. The big zinc bath is dragged in, and the children undress in high glee, and skip about naked in the warm room, which is soon filled with the sweet smell of the burning greenery. The berries pop, and the fir-tree makes fairy lace, and the holly crackles and roars. The two children get into the bath together, and Edward scrubs them in turn – they laughing, making the fire hiss with their splashing. The drawn curtains shut out the snow and the starless sky, and the deathly silence out there in the biting cold is forgotten in the noise and warmth of our little room. After the bath Edward reads to them. First of all he reads Shelley’s The Question and Chevy Chase, and then for Myfanwy a favourite Norse tale. They sit in their nightgowns listening gravely, and then, just before they kiss him good night, while I stand by with the candle in my hand, he says: ‘Remember while I am away to be kind. Be kind, first of all, to Mummy, and after that be kind to everyone and everything.’ And they all assent together, and joyfully hug and kiss him, and he carries the two girls up, and drops each into her bed.

And we are left alone, unable to hide our agony, afraid to show it. Over supper, we talk of the probable front he’ll arrive at, of his fellow-officers, and of the unfinished portrait-etching that one of them has done of him and given to me. And we speak of the garden, and where this year he wants the potatoes to be, and he-reminds me to put in the beans directly the snow disappears. ‘If I’m not back in time, you’d better get someone to help you with the digging,’ he says. He reads me some of the poems he has written that I have not heard — the last one of all called Out in the Dark. And I venture to question one line, and he says, ‘Oh, no, it’s right, Helen, I’m sure it’s right. ’

Thomas never does seem interested in Helen’s thoughts about his writing. There are others for that… friends. And she knows this, and–as if to assert her primacy, her one prior and unassailable claim, Helen Thomas’s memoir moves from the intimacies of poetic language to the greater intimacies of marriage, of sexual companionship…

And I nod because I can’t speak, and I try to smile at his assurance. I sit and stare stupidly at his luggage by the wall, and his roll of bedding, kit-bag, and suitcase. He takes out his prismatic compass and explains it to me, but I cannot see, and when a tear drops on to it he just shuts it up and puts it away. Then he says, as he takes a book out of his pocket, ‘You see, your Shakespeare’s Sonnets is already where it will always be. Shall I read you some?’ He reads one or two to me. His face is grey and his mouth trembles, but his voice is quiet and steady. And soon I slip to the floor and sit between his knees, and while he reads his hand falls over my shoulder and I hold it with mine.

‘Shall I undress you by this lovely fire and carry you upstairs in my khaki greatcoat?’ So he undoes my things, and I slip out of them; then he takes the pins out of my hair, and we laugh at ourselves for behaving as we so often do, like young lovers. ‘We have never become a proper Darby and Joan, have we?’ ‘I’ll read to you till the fire burns low, and then we’ll go to bed…’

That would have been last night, a century back.

So we lay, all night, sometimes talking of our love and all that had been, and of the children, and what had been  amiss and what right. We knew the best was that there had never been untruth between us. We knew all of each other, and it was right. So talking and crying and loving in each other’s arms we fell asleep as the cold reflected light of the snow crept through the frost-covered windows.

Edward got up and made the fire and brought me some tea, and then got back into bed, and the children clambered in, too, and sat in a row sipping our tea. I was not afraid of crying any more…

I stood at the gate watching him go; he turned back to wave until the mist and the hill hid him. I heard his old call coming up to me: ‘Coo-ee!’ he called. ‘Coo-ee!’ I answered, keeping my voice strong to call again. Again through the muffled air came his ‘Coo,-ee’. And again went my answer like an echo. ‘Coo-ee’ came fainter next time with the hill between us, but my ‘Coo-ee’ went out of my lungs strong to pierce to him as he strode away from me. ‘Coo-ee!’ So faint now, it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death. Then with leaden feet which stumbled in a sudden darkness that overwhelmed me I groped my way back to the empty house.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 109-110.
  2. Siegfried's Journey, 40-41.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 236-237.
  4. Under Storm's Wing, 168-73.

Charles Scott-Moncrieff on Sinister Turnips; Ford Madox Ford and H.G. Wells and a Violet Problem; Ivor Gurney on an Old Soldier’s Larks and the Quiescent Muse; Wedding Bells for J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt

We have several letters today, all with bits-worth-reading. First, Charles Scott-Moncrieff, with his own take on a very popular subject of late: the naturalistic/fanciful description of a trench mortar duel.

22 March, 1916

We came out of trenches last night, and are lodged (as a support battalion) on the outskirts of the large town we are defending…

The chief amusement of our particular enemy there was, daily at teatime, to launch aerial torpedoes on to my Company headquarters. They are things like turnips with their leaves clipped into wings, which are fired out of some kind of trap, like clay pigeons. You hear the click as they start, and then gaze out over the fields to see where exactly it came from, and then yell downstairs to someone at the telephone to get the guns going, and then one’s voice is drowned by the torpedo arriving somewhere near the lobe of one’s right ear, and so on until the box of torpedoes is emptied, and we and the Germans both stop for tea, and in the middle a British shell comes sauntering overhead, hotly followed by a polite R.A. subaltern who asks (down the companionway) “Was that all right, sir?”

The worst of these trenches is that their French constructors having been badly shelled, gave up trying to improve them and took refuge in deep and dark caverns, which we inherit. They are clumsy and inconvenient, as one has to burn candles all day, and even then one cannot see much.[1]


For two more letters and a celebration we go, now, to England, and to two officers and one man who volunteered less than promptly and are thus among the latter waves of Kitchener’s army, and still in training camp.

Could we skip an update from Ford Madox Hueffer? We could, but this is interesting–strained nonchalance over looming scandal. Ford is writing to H. G. Wells, a friend perhaps already personally embroiled in the letter’s main topic, namely Ford’s marital problems with the woman–Violet Hunt, his co-author on the recent Zeppelin Nights–who is not technically his (Ford’s) wife…

3rd Batt., The Welch Regt.
Cardiff Castle,

My dear H. G.,

I am much touched by your letter—tho’ I do not really know what to make of it. I hadn’t the least idea that there was any difference between Violet & myself—or at least anything to make her face the necessity of talking about it. I, at any rate, haven’t any grievance against her & want nothing better than to live with her the life of a peaceable regimental officer with a peaceable wife.

Of course that is not very exciting for her & her enjoyment of life depends so much on excitement. But one’s preoccupations can’t, now, be what they were in the 90’s—or even three or two years ago.

That, I suppose, is the tragedy–but it is the tragedy–isn’t it?–of the whole of Europe…

This was rather a quick resort to context, no? What I mean to say is that Ford/Hueffer is not necessarily wrong–the pressure to join the army might very well strain a relationship to the breaking point, especially when there is no corresponding pressure–or desire–for a woman to give up literary life in London to become a camp-wife in the shires. But to play down a “wife’s” unhappiness with “one can’t party so hearty in wartime” and “ah, the tragedy of Europe” is either an attempt to avoid the issue or a fairly nasty underhanded swipe…

At any rate, it you see V., do impress her with the fact that, short of absence without leave or cutting parades, I shall always be & am [illegible] at her disposal. I have the greatest possible affection & esteem for her, there isn’t anyone else (but I don’t know what she has got into her always romantic head) and I am frightfully sorry that these bad years are such bad years for her. Anyhow there I am, expressed to the absolute mot juste.

“All is well, but please tell my wife that, due to the current phase of European history, I can’t quite deal with our problems.” This doesn’t sit right, does it?

I am not well-versed in Ford’s intimate history and lack the time this week to read up on it, but there must be several obfuscations here, and there are probably outright untruths. But anyway, how’s camp, Ford?

We are frightfully busy here… standing at attention in front of a battalion is, I mean, for a full twenty minutes, the devil of an affair. You try doing it in your study & see. But it melts away as an experience in a few minutes–& it is useful enough for the men & one’s poor soul too.

Well, God bless you and give my love to Jane. Yrs.[2]


From Glamorgan to Wiltshire, from officer to private, and from very… famous-writerly sorts of concerns to the ingenuous notes on camp life of a young musician and poet. Ivor Gurney writes today, a century back, to Marion Scott, his benefactor, friend and, increasingly, his patroness. It’s not that she is sending him large sums of money, but rather that she has been attentive and helpful in many small ways, and is plainly committed to keeping his nascent career from shriveling away under the steady oppression of army discipline.

22 March 1916

Pte Gurney, D.Co 215 Glosters, Park House Camp, Salisbury.

Dear Miss Scott: The beginning of this letter is to commemorate Tim Godding–one of the most original people in all this regiment, a big word.

Here am I, sitting on my bed, against my kit bag, half-reading Carlyle, little soaking through to my dull mind, when I become aware that a boxing match is being arranged. Tim Godding will be obviously somewhere near the top of this. And presently. “No, mate, I cant say as I can box, but I’ve had——— good hidings from one bloke and another………. ’

Is this a good “how about these tommies?” anecdote? Sure, but on a busy day this Tim Godding–apparently an old soldier, non-reader, and salt-of-the-earth sort of fellow–makes the cut on a lark:

Today also, when we were lying on our bellies, trying to load and reload and rereload with the quickness of those who get extra pay for it—though not likely to get the pay for those who have extra quickness—A skylark arose. Now Tim Godding has little bits of jargon, some of which I strongly suspect to be Hindustani. One of these is “Ipshi pris” , a sign of high spirits, of salutation to a passing battallion, or the crown of a joke; anything joyful. So Tim Godding half turned over, looked up to the first blue of spring—“Ipshi pris, skylark; ipshi pris”!

In deference to exhausted readers I will skip several more Tim Godding anecdotes and get to Gurney’s own feelings.

…Army life is for me full of long blanks of tedium. Would that I were sound in mind and body, and able to take all in that is to be taken! Hard for an artist to go self-condemned to partial blindness and deafness through that which might be so fruitful to him! But on the whole I take it as a price to be paid for my education, and dodder on as contented as maybe. But it is hard to long for beauty, and beauty obtained to remain unsatisfied—chronically discontent. But given time I think that my revenge on myself and my circumstances shall be long and sweet.

Last Sunday Crudlan and I lay out on a down so like our own; but the first violet had not yet arrived, whereas the woods must be happy-eyed with them at home—in Glostershire where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as kind as the soft airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home? And yet were I there the canker in my soul would taint all these. But at least I have reached the position of longing for work, and of blaming myself for part of my misfortunes at any rate.

This is a poet held fast in the ranks, a skylark in the case, alas. But even gentle Gurney is not above showing a soft-spot–ironic, sure, but present–for regimental tradition:

Now we are allowed to wear our honour, the back-badge: and great is the joy thereat. Today is the anniversary of that great day in Egypt when the rear rank of the double line faced about and the Old Braggs—28th Foot—repelled two attacks in blood and glory.

A few notes on his compositions follow, then this:

You ask me whether I will look at certain poems with a view to setting—after the war. The reason I do not write now, is not because there is a war on, but because I do not feel bound to write; when my mind compels me, then I will write; then and not before.

And then an out-of-context remark, evidently in response to Scott’s letter, which eerily foreshadows the coming debate about Great War poetry:

I am not altogether in agreement with the Russian attitude to Suffering. It is too passive.

In a review of Rupert Brooke’s “Letters from America”, I found that Henry James had written to this effect, in the preface…

With best wishes

Yours very sincerely Ivor Gurney.[3]


And finally, today, an unambiguously happy occasion. Today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien and Edith Bratt were married after early Mass in the Church of St. Mary Immaculate in Warwick. In the train, heading for Somerset and their honeymoon, the two took turns writing different versions of Edith’s new name on the back of a telegram.

This was the end of a long struggle as well as the beginning of a new life together: John Ronald and Edith had been in love for six years, and waited upon–and out-waited–the disapproval of Tolkien’s guardian, Father Francis Morgan.

Tolkien had moved cautiously, but, in the end, decisively. He did not tell his friends about the impending marriage until the date was agreed on–a mixed gesture seeking both a sort of permission and support–and although he had recently gotten his financial affairs in order with Father Morgan he had not managed to mention the marriage until it was two weeks away.

The three other boys of the TCBS each wrote from camp and trench to assure their friend that his marriage would not break up their fellowship. This was kind, but, in truth, how could they worry about such a thing, when it was so clear that what threatened all four–and had surely precipitated the wedding–was the likelihood that they would be involved in this summer’s offensive? Father Morgan wrote too, with approval and an offer to officiate at a wedding in Birmingham, Tolkien’s pre-Oxford home. But the plans had been laid.

Well then. The two young lovers have stood the test of disapproving elders and now must brave “the tragedy of Europe.” They will have one week of honeymoon–their first unchaperoned time together–before Tolkien returns to camp and Edith must uproot herself and follow her husband’s military movements.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Memories & Letters,118.
  2. Letters, 63-5.
  3. War Letters, 57-9.
  4. Chronology 79, Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, 86-7.