Hugh Quigley Signs Off; Wilfred Owen has a Chat with H.G. Wells; Thomas Hardy Despairs of Progress

Well, Hugh Quigley has burned bright and brief, here. I have to confess that, due to oversights and backlogs and such-like failures of the will, I had never read the book until it was almost too late–namely this August, well after he began writing, a century back.[1] So I could have made a bit more of Quigley, here, and gotten to know him through (in two senses) his writing. But perhaps not too much, or too well: his verbosity, his combination of Romantic idealism, frequent illusion, and chronologically torturous meditations on actual events was not a great fit for this project–they are more like sermons than letters. But it is a fascinating book, and I wish I knew more about him. In any case, it’s over. Today, a century back, Quigley wrote his valedictory from a hospital in Scotland (the location for literary war letters in 1917).

It’s hard to even summarize the many pages of philosophical musing, rhetorical posturing, and (yes, another trio of adjective-noun pairs! It’s infectious) proto-historical flag-planting that he managed to write, so we’ll make do with brief excerpts and long ellipses. It’s somewhat uncanny that he closes his reflections today, given what this date signifies to us–though it is of course the very last November 11th that will mean nothing to anyone then and there.

Glasgow, 11 November, 1917

Perhaps when the matter remains by me I might resume my ideas concerning the Passchendaele Ridge battle, not the historic, but the purely individual–something of the soul and nothing of the material. What can be the value of any thought expressed as a form of literature, even in embryo as it is in my letters, when it deals with mere ephemeral attributes, things, passing, even now past and gone to a limbo unregretted perhaps, vague monuments to perverted endeavour? I can still see those guns ranged along the Menin Road; their heads crowned with laurel leaves, which, on nearer approach, were bits of green paper strung on nets. A curious association, that of the laurel leaf: Ariosto and Tasso were crowned with it to express a love of serene, sun-flooded beauty; now we crown them to express our admiration of nature not beautiful, but strictly utilitarian…what lives?–is it the image or the gun?

True, the references to epic poets of the Italian Renaissance were not strictly necessary–although, as perhaps Quigley knows, Tasso used contemporary military knowledge when he wrote his epic, which was “based on historical events” (as we would say) and has a whole sub-plot involving siege warfare, artillery, and an enchanted wood… but never mind! Despite his elaborate style Quigley is getting to the heart of the question. Are we here for true facts recorded (i.e. the gun) or the varieties of human experience, as transmuted into literature?

But Quigley is not really interested in such pedestrian questions–he flies above the fray, so to speak, and looks down from a great height, too high for binaries such as history vs. literature or the horror of war vs. the rightness of the cause.

The sin of war is not surface; it goes to the very heart and centre of being, for the thought is ever poised of life dormant given to death–death a present thing… This reflection destroys every longing for the unattainable, for the glory, for the radiant unknown, and centres on the body itself, a grovelling physical fear rarefied and intensified to spiritual debasement.

The matter at hand, for him, is philosophical. Or spiritual, although not expressly religious. So maybe it’s literary-spiritual? In any event, the horror that Quigley found, in war, was tempered not only by the consolations of literature but redeemed, at least potentially, by the beauty that a committed Romantic might wrest from it by means of his art…

That attempt to answer intuitively the call of the beautiful in nature, even in the bleak horror of shell-holes, seemed the essence of life to me, the only thing worth seeking in the misery of this war. The call was everywhere, a fascinating thing; even within the fetid, slimy horror, of shell-holes it vibrated, for even there beauty smurred the filth with pure green and brought grass over it to hide the wound. But the final beauty of all lay in the spirit itself…

A glorification of the spirit undoubtedly, but if one neglected this spirit and faced reality, then life would have been unbearable in its bleak misery… The visionary triumphed over the warrior, and war itself became an abstraction, known only to a nightmarish imagination.

After a good deal more on philosophy, both historical and personal, as well as his Idealism and a none-too-subtle criticism of British generalship, the book comes back in its final paragraph to a less ambiguous position on the war:

War has ennobled the man to the angled, has stamped in gold the finest part of him, yet at what a price, what an agony, what a desecration of life! With that note of horror I shall close, for if every one could visualize always this horror and know its human application, war would absolutely cease, and our ruddy generals find a new occupation other than that of spreading an aureole round hell. There is only one thing real in life, and that is eternity. War remains at best a nauseous blasphemy.[2]

 

After such a peroration, no letter of Wilfred Owen to his mother could seem prolix or high-flown. But today’s brief note is very much down to earth, anyway–or to the earthen pavements of literary London, and the giants who walk it.

Dearest Mother,

I have just lunched with Ross, H. G. Wells, & Arnold Bennett. Wells talked exclusively to me for an hour over the coffee, & made jokes at the expense of the Editor of the Daily News, who joined us. I think I can’t honestly put more news under one penny stamp!

Your W.E.O.[3]

 

Speaking of literary eminence, and writers inclined to look down on human affairs from a height (ah, but this one doesn’t overwrite!) we have a letter today from Thomas Hardy, still the one elder held by our war poets in unbesmirched renown. The letter happens to be to Hamo Thornycroft, uncle of Siegfried Sassoon, and it lays bare a not entirely surprising despair, which is itself unsurprising in its effects–he is tired of London and correspondence, but he writes still, and wonders about the course of the war:

My dear Thornycroft:

Many thanks to the shade of Ovid for jogging your elbow to write—for to tell the truth we have been so benumbed by the events of the times as to have almost given up writing letters—or rather I have, for my wife still manages to keep on—unless some friend gives me a lead. However we are quite well, though London seems to get further & further off. We were there two days in the summer, & there was not time to do much, or see anybody, as you will imagine…

Do you think the raids will go on? They must cost our enemies an amount out of all proportion to the results. As to the war generally, it is not exhilarating to think that Germany is in a better position (or seems so, at the moment) than she was in three years ago, after all our struggles.

Kindest regards to all.

Yrs always sincerely

Thomas Hardy[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. It turns out that the title, Passchendaele and Somme, is inaccurate, and was probably stuck on this short collection of long, high-flown letters just to get the Two Most Disastrous Names next to each other in a bookshop window--Quigley was on the Somme before he was in the Passchendaele battle, and apparently saw no significant action there.
  2. Passchendaele and the Somme, 170-185.
  3. Collected Letters, 507.
  4. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 231-2.

Edwin Vaughan’s Longest Day, at Langemarck Ridge; Hugh Quigley’s Purpose; Thomas Hardy Praises a Dead Officer and a Living Poet

Two brief pleasant snippets, today–hopeful, literary–before we read a long and terrible day of battle.

 

We have been recently reminded–by his new acolyte Wilfred Owen, no less–that Siegfried Sassoon admires Thomas Hardy above all living writers. This missive, then, will bring him much happiness.

Max Gate, Dorchester, Aug. 27, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

We were beforehand with you in respect of To any Dead Officer, for we cut it out of the Cambridge Magazine—not knowing that it would be reprinted. Many thanks for sending it all the same, as I have now two copies, one for lending to people who never return things. I am not clear as to where you are, so send this line through my friend Thornycroft.

Sincerely yours

Th: Hardy.

P.S. I need not say how much I like the poem.

T.H.[1]

To receive, at some point soon, a note of admiration from the great Hardy–routed through his sculptor uncle in order to reach him in golfing retreat from pacifist outrage at a war hospital for shell shocked officers–will be a nice representation of the conflicted position Sassoon is in…

 

“I am inclined to think you are causing yourself too much discomfort about me.” With these words we’ll belatedly begin reading Hugh Quigley’s diary-in-letters. The diary begins some months ago, but it is my hope that it will be a valuable addition to this project over the coming weeks, as Third Ypres morphs into Passchendaele.

Quigley is not there yet, but he came out in June and has been under fire on the line in France. He has written enough, it would seem, to have arrived at the need to write a major statement of purpose and declaration of his state of mind. This is, then, to put the analytical cart before the expository horse for us, but, alas, we go strictly by the dates:

Bertincourt, 27 August, 1917

After all, the worse I can get just now goes to a hardening. All I want you to consider is this: that so far I have told the unvarnished truth, coloured bareness in places, given sordid things a new gleam which might enliven them to my idea, but make them more squalid still perhaps to yours, but I have never consciously said things were well with me when they were not…

Thus I don’t want you to lay too much stress on any sickness you think to find in my letters; it is a mood rather than a condition…

One could easily  say: “I am in the pink”, etc., in every screed, but what’s the good of that? That has no value to anybody, least of all to the man who writes it. A letter, as I conceive it, is at best a picture… of the writer, and as such should be inherently true…

So far, war has remained a romance to me…

If I can keep patience, the cards will fall to me soon and give me a winning hand. I am sure of that…[2]

 

Edwin Vaughan has evolved a similar commitment to truth-in-reportage. But his diary has very little of the tract about it–it’s less a disquisition on truth to mood than a novel narrated by its moody protagonist. Vaughan is concerned to record each dip and dive of his spirits as it occurs, affording equal attention to his external experience and the emotions that shape it. Vaughan has now spent a long night and day under fire just behind the British front lines. An attack is planned, and his company is to be in reserve–but in the Salient there is really nowhere to hide…

August 27

In the rations came a gift from General Fanshawe which consisted of a special meat and vegetable meal in a self-heating tin called ‘Auto bouillant’. They were remarkably good and the troops blessed Fanny for a hot meal. There were also a lot of cold cooked rabbits in the rations! I said to Dunham jokingly. ‘You hang on to my rabbit, I’m going to eat that on Langemarck Ridge.’

Just after midnight I made my way over to the Boilerhouse where Pepper now had his HQ. He was in fairly cheerful mood but ridiculed the idea of attempting the attack. The rain had stopped for the time being, but the ground was utterly impassable being covered with water for 30 yards at a stretch in some parts, and everywhere shell-holes full of water. He showed me the final orders which detailed zero hour for 1.55 p.m.—a midday attack! My instructions were that at zero minus 10 (i.e. 1.45) I was to move my troops forward to the line of the Steenbeck. Then as the barrage opened Wood was to rush forward with three platoons to the gunpits while I reported to Colonel Hanson in the pillbox next to the Boilerhouse. While we were talking a message arrived from Brigade: ‘There is a nice drying wind. The attack will take place. Render any final indents for materials forthwith.’

Pepper read this out to me in a tone which implied ‘This is the end of us!’ Then he scribbled a few words on a message pad and tossed it across saying, ‘Shall I send that?’ He had indented for ‘96 pairs Waterwings. Mark III’. I laughed and bade him ‘cheerio’. As I went out, I met the CO moving up to his HQ. He stopped for a moment while I explained why I had done no work. Then I said ‘It doesn’t look very promising for the attack. Sir.’ ‘No,’ he said, seriously, ‘but it’s too late to put it off now.’ Then we parted and I returned to my blockhouse.

Wood was still lying on his bed in a fuddled state with eyes staring out of his head, and as I turned in I thought to myself bitterly, ‘What chance have we got of putting up a show tomorrow! My only officer out of action already and me commanding a company in which I don’t know a single man and only about two NCOs by sight. Thank God Merrick is a sergeant major I can hang my shirt on!’

…at 10 o’clock I went up to HQ to see if there were any new instructions. I took with me an old oilsheet with which to cover that distressing body at Steenbeck. My impression that his chest was white had been erroneous, for he is coal black but had dragged his tunic open to try to staunch his wound, and now a more or less white vest was exposed. I covered him up because I was frightened of his unnerving me when I passed him for the last time at zero hour.

…As the hands of my watch whirled round I busied myself with totally unnecessary enquiries and admonitions amongst the troops in order to keep my mind free from fear.Then from my wrist in lines of fire flashed 1.45, and feeling icy cold from head to foot I took my troops out and through the ominous silence of the bright midday we advanced in line to the Steenbeck Stream.

My position in the centre of the Company brought me right into my oilsheeted friend; I had grimly appreciated this when an 18-pounder spoke with a hollow, metallic ‘Bong’; then came three more deliberate rounds: ‘Bong! Bong! Bong!’ An instant later, with one mighty crash, every gun spoke, dozens of machine guns burst into action and the barrage was laid. Instantaneously the enemy barrage crashed upon us, and even as I rose, signalling my men to advance, I realized that the Germans must have known of our attack and waited at their guns.

Advancing behind the main attack, Vaughan and his men soon reach the Battalion HQ blockhouse he had visited in the morning.

At the Boilerhouse I sent Wood on to the gunpits with three platoons, while I grouped my HQ staff under shelter of the concrete wall before reporting to the CO. I found him peering round the corner of the pillbox watching the attack
and I stood beside him. With a laboured groaning and clanking, four tanks churned past us to the Triangle. I was dazed, and straining my eyes through the murk of the battle I tried to distinguish our fellows, but only here and there was a figure moving. In the foreground I saw some of Wood’s men reach the gunpits, but the bullets were cracking past my head, sending chips of concrete flying from the wall; the CO pulled me back under cover and I heard him muttering ‘What’s happened? What’s happened?’

Then, standing on the road in front with drums of ammunition in each hand, I saw Lynch shaking and helpless with fear. I ran out and told him to go forward. ‘Oh, I can’t. Sir, I can’t,’ he moaned. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ I said, ‘you will be safer in the gunpits than you are here—right in the barrage.’ ‘Oh, I can’t walk,’ he cried, and I shook him. ‘You know what your duty is,’ I told him. ‘Are you going to let Rogers and Osborne and the rest go forward while you stay here?’

‘No, Sir!’ he said, and ran across the road. Before he had gone three yards he fell dead…

The hours crept on; our barrage had lifted from the German line and now was falling on Langemarck Ridge. At last, when sick with the uncertainty and apprehension the CO, Mortimore, Coleridge and I were huddled in the tiny cubicle of HQ, a runner arrived with a report from Taylor that the attack was completely held up: ‘casualties
very heavy’…

It is time, then, to send up the reserves. There’s little that I could add to this culminating experience of Vaughan’s war-so-far–somehow, once again, death and misery and fragmenting minds mix with the hollow laughter of a grim, evil slapstick. This is the clutching, scrabbling, desperate, muddy futility that will make “Passchendaele” rival any of the other horror-evoking place names of the British war.

It was then 6.30 p.m. With grey face the CO turned to me saying, ‘Go up to the gunpits, Vaughan, and see if you can do anything. Take your instructions from Taylor.’ As I saluted, backing out of the low doorway, he added forlornly: ‘Good luck.’ I called up my HQ staff and told them that we were making for the gunpits, warning them to creep and dodge the whole way. Then I ran across the road and dived into the welter of mud and water, followed by Dunham and—at intervals—by the eight signallers and runners.

Immediately there came the crackle of bullets and mud was spattered about me as I ran, crawled and dived into shellholes, over bodies, sometimes up to the armpits in water, sometimes crawling on my face along a ridge of slimy mud around some crater. Dunham was close behind me with a sandbag slung over his back. As I neared the gunpits I saw a head rise above a shell-hole, a mouth opened to call something to me, but the tin hat was sent flying and the face fell forward into the mud. Then another head came up and instantly was struck by a bullet. This time the fellow was only grazed and, relieved at receiving a blighty, he jumped out, shaking off a hand that tried to detain him. He ran back a few yards, then I saw him hit in the leg; he fell and started to crawl, but a third bullet got him and he lay still.

I had almost reached the gunpits when I saw Wood looking at me, and actually laughing at my grotesque capers. Exhausted by my efforts, I paused a moment in a shell-hole; in a few seconds I felt myself sinking, and struggle as I might I was sucked down until I was firmly gripped round the waist and still being dragged in. The leg of a corpse was sticking out of the side, and frantically I grabbed it; it wrenched off, and casting it down I pulled in a couple of rifles and yelled to the troops in the gunpit to throw me more. Laying them flat I wriggled over them and dropped, half dead, into the wrecked gun position.

Here I reported to Taylor and was filled with admiration at the calm way in which he stood, eyeglass firmly fixed in his ashen face, while bullets chipped splinters from the beam beside his head. He told me that the attack had not even reached the enemy front line, and that it was impossible to advance across the mud. Then he ordered me to take my company up the hard road to the Triangle and to attack Springfield. He gave his instructions in such a matter-of-fact way that I did not feel alarmed, but commenced forthwith to collect ‘C’ Company men from the neighbouring shell-holes. Of all my HQ staff, only Dunham was left—the others had been picked off, and were lying with the numerous corpses that strewed the ground behind us. I sent Dunham all the way back to the Boilerhouse to lead the platoon from there up to the stranded tanks.

So many of our men had been killed, and the rest had gone to ground so well, that Wood and I could only collect a very few. The noise of the firing made shouting useless. I came across some of ‘C’ Company and amongst them MacFarlane and Sergeant Wilkes. I said to MacFarlane, ‘We’re going to try to take Springfield, will you come?’

‘No fear!’ he replied. ‘We’ve done our job.’

‘What about you, Wilkes?’

‘No, Sir. I’m staying here.’

Finally Wood and I led 15 men over to the tanks. The fire was still heavy, but now, in the dusk and heavy rain, the shots were going wide. As we reached the tanks, however, the Boche hailed shrapnel upon us and we commenced rapidly to have casualties. The awful spitting ‘coalboxes’ terrified the troops and only by cursing and driving could my wonderful Sergeant Major Merrick and myself urge them out of the shelter of the tanks.

Up the road we staggered, shells bursting around us. A man stopped dead in front of me, and exasperated I cursed him and butted him with my knee. Very gently he said ‘I’m blind. Sir,’ and turned to show me his eyes and nose torn
away by a piece of shell. ‘Oh God! I’m sorry, sonny,’ I said. ‘Keep going on the hard part,’ and left him staggering back in his darkness…

Perhaps it can’t get worse than that. The attack continues, the German position is overrun, the garrison surrenders, only to be mowed down by their own guns as they are sent to the rear. Vaughan calls off any further advance and takes stock of the prize.

It was a strongly-built pillbox, almost undamaged; the three defence walls were about ten feet thick, each with a machine gun position, while the fourth wall, which faced our new line, had one small doorway—about three feet square. Crawling through this I found the interior in a horrible condition; water in which floated indescribable filth reached our knees; two dead Boche sprawled face downwards and another lay across a wire bed. Everywhere was dirt and rubbish and the stench was nauseating.

On one of the machine gun niches lay an unconscious German officer, wearing two black and white medal ribbons; his left leg was torn away, the bone shattered and only a few shreds of flesh and muscle held it on. A tourniquet had been applied, but had slipped and the blood was pouring out. I commenced at once to readjust this and had just stopped the bleeding when he came round and gazed in bewilderment at my British uniform. He tried to struggle up, but was unable to do so and, reassuring him, I made him comfortable, arranging a pillow out of a Boche pack. He asked me faintly what had happened, and in troops’ German I told him ‘Drei caput-—others Kamerad,’ at which he dropped back his head with a pitiful air of resignation…

I picked up a German automatic from the bed and in examining it, loosed off a shot which hit the concrete near the Boche’s head; he gave a great start and turned towards me, smiling faintly when he saw that it was accidental. Then he commenced to struggle to reach his tunic pocket; I felt in it for him and produced three pieces of sugar. Taking them in his trembling hand, he let one fall into the water, gazing regretfully after it; another he handed to me. It was crumbling and saturated with blood so I slipped it into my pocket whilst pretending to eat it. I now produced some bread and meat; he would not have any, but I ate heartily sitting on the wire bed with my feet in the water and my hands covered in mud and blood. Dunham was sitting near me and pointing to the shapeless mass of mud-soaked sandbag I asked, ‘What the hell are you carrying in there Dunham?’

‘Your rabbit. Sir!’ he replied stoutly. ‘You said you would eat it on Langemarck Ridge.’

But The Three Musketeers this isn’t. The worst of it, now, is that there can be no evacuation, for either side, from such a tenuous forward position.

But when he had peeled off the sacking, we decided to consign the filthy contents to the watery grave below. Now with a shrieking and crashing, shells began to descend upon us from our own guns, while simultaneously German guns began to shell their own lines. In my haversack all this time I had been carrying a treasure which I now produced—a box of 100 Abdulla Egyptians. I had just opened the box when there was a rattle of rifles outside and a voice yelled ‘Germans coming over. Sir!’ Cigarettes went flying into the water as I hurled myself through the doorway and ran forward into the darkness where my men were firing. I almost ran into a group of Germans and at once shouted ‘Ceasefire!’ for they were unarmed and were ‘doing Kamerad’.

The poor devils were terrified; suspicious of a ruse I stared into the darkness while I motioned them back against the wall with my revolver. They thought I was going to shoot them and one little fellow fell on his knees babbling about his wife and ‘Zwei kindern’. Going forward I found that several of the party were dead and another died as I dragged him in. The prisoners clustered round me, bedraggled and heartbroken, telling me of the terrible time they had been having, ‘Nichts essen,’ ‘Nichts trinken,’ always shells, shells, shells! They said that all of their company would willingly come over. I could not spare a man to take them back, so I put them into shell-holes with my men who made great fuss of them, sharing their scanty rations with them…

From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell-holes, and now the water was rising about them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning. Horrible visions came to me with those cries—of Woods and Kent, Edge and Taylor, lying maimed out there trusting that their pals would find them, and now dying terribly, alone amongstthe dead in the inky darkness. And we could do nothing to help them; Dunham was crying quietly beside me, and all the men were affected by the piteous cries.

How long, I wondered, could this situation last. No message had reached me from HQ and at any moment the Boche might launch a counter-attack to recover Springfield. My pitiful defences would be slaughtered in a few minutes, and behind us, as far as I knew, was no second line, though somewhere in rear was the 4th Berks Battalion in reserve. We had no Very lights and only the ammunition that we carried in our pouches. In desperation I returned to the pillbox and commenced to flash messages back to HQ—knowing all the time that they could not be read through the rain and mist.

Suddenly, at 11.15, there came the squelching sound of many bodies ploughing through the mud behind. Wildly wondering whether the Boche had worked round behind us, I dashed back yelling a challenge; I was answered by
Coleridge who had brought up a company of 4th Berks. ‘To reinforce us?’ I asked.

‘No. To relieve you’—and my heart leapt…

No–this is the worst, the discovery of what has become of the wounded as Vaughan and the survivors of his company retrace their steps across the battlefield.

The cries of the wounded had much diminished now, and as we staggered down the road, the reason was only too apparent, for the water was right over the tops of the shellholes. From survivors there still came faint cries and loud
curses. When we reached the line where the attack had broken we were surrounded by the men who earlier had cheered us on. Now they lay groaning and blaspheming, and often we stopped to drag them up on to the ridges of earth. We lied to them all that the stretcher-bearers were coming, and most resigned themselves to a further agony of waiting. Some cursed us for leaving them, and one poor fellow clutched my leg, and screaming ‘Leave me, would you? You Bastard!’ he dragged me down into the mud. His legs were shattered and when Coleridge pulled his arms apart, he rolled towards his rifle, swearing he would shoot us. We took his rifle away and then continued to drag fellows out as we slowly proceeded towards HQ. Our runner was dead beat and we had to carry him the last part of the way.

I hardly recognized the Boilerhouse, for it had been hit by shell after shell and at its entrance was a long mound of bodies. Crowds of Berks had run there for cover and hadbeen wiped out by shrapnel. I had to climb over them to enter HQ, and as I did so, a hand stretched out and clung to my equipment. Horrified I dragged a living man from amongst the corpses. The shallow passageways and ruined cubicles were filled with wounded, amongst whom the medical staff were at work…

After reporting to his C.O., Vaughan is sent back to report to the brigadier.

…I went out and walked with Coleridge down the shell-swept road to St Julien, where, at the crossroads, a regular hail of shells was keeping most of the traffic out of the mud. But we were past caring, and walked through them unscathed. Before we reached Cheddar Villa our runner was killed and we dragged him out into a hole.

Brigade HQ was an elaborate concrete blockhouse with many rooms; I found Beart (the Brigadier Major) and Walker (Intelligence Officer) interrogating a German major. Beart greeted me cheerily and told me to go through to the Brigadier, so raising the blanket of an inner door I entered a small room lit by numerous candles. At a table covered by a clean cloth and bearing the remains of a meal sat Sladden, our Brigadier, and Watts, General commanding 145 Brigade. Sladden peered up at me, asking ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Vaughan of the Eighth, Sir,’ I replied, and he cordially bade me sit down while he poured me a whisky. He was very bucked to learn that we had come from Springfield and he asked me numerous questions about the intensity and accuracy of the barrage and the present dispositions of the enemy…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 224.
  2. Quigley, Passchendaele and the Somme, 103-5.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 219-231.

Duff Cooper Adores Amidst the Intolerable; Robert Graves Learns of Siegfried Sassoon’s Protest and Leaps into Action

Just two brief updates, today, a century back. First, Duff Cooper, miserable cadet but happy man is back in camp. So far, at least, the happiness which came to him in a sort of romantic-religious epiphany is holding, sustained by infusions of glory from the divine object of his affections…

July 9, 1917

I slept badly last night as the beds are really intolerable but I was and remain happy. I have already had three letters from Diana, almost in the form of a diary like Swift’s to Stella, telling me all she has done since I left, and all full of love, wit and strangely enough wisdom, most beautiful documents which even at this distance increase my adoration of her.[1]

 

And in today’s episode of learning-about-Siegfried-Sassoon‘s protest, the main contestant is Robert Graves. Sassoon hinted at the coming protest in a letter Graves received at the end of June. But although the word is going out to many friends-of-Siegfried, he will not in fact mail a copy of the published protest until tomorrow. But Robbie Ross is in the know, and through him Robert Graves found out today, a century back.

His response was swift–impulsive, perhaps, but also focused and practical.

It’s awful about Siegfried: and he did it without consulting his friends or saying anything about it to anyone sane. In strict confidence, I may tell you that as soon as I heard I wrote to the dear old Senior Major at Litherland imploring him not to let the Colonel take S. seriously but to give him a special medical board and more convalescent home till I can get an opportunity for getting hold of him to stop him disgracing himself, his regiment and especially his friends.[2]

Self-interest, friendship, and esprit de corps, all acting in concert–at least in Graves’s view.

Also starring in today’s episode, back in London, is Ross himself. Now dealing with various petitioners after spreading the word, he is also dealing with the rueful–or, at least, playfully contrite–Sassoon, who wrote today asking “have you recovered from the shock, dear Robbie?”

Probably; he, too, will be involved in taking measures to protect Sassoon. And it was sometime around today that Ross received a visit from Herbert Farjeon–himself a conscientious objector–to discuss Sassoon’s situation. Farjeon is involved because he is the husband of Sassoon’s cousin Joan Thornycroft, and therefore Hamo Thornycroft’s son-in-law (and so also a stone’s throw from Thomas Hardy, as it were). And, of course, he is Eleanor Farjeon’s dear brother Bertie. That time at the ballet seems very long ago indeed, doesn’t it?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 56.
  2. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 382.

A.A. Milne on the Wires as the Warwicks Attack; Siegfried Sassoon Takes in the Countryside; John Ronald Tolkien Realizes that “Something Has Gone Crack”

Today, a century back, is A.A. Milne’s first full day as Battalion Signals Officer for the 11th Royal Warwickshires, a position which, for an amateur officer, required an unusual combination of technical expertise and individual responsibility. While many subalterns knew little more than drill and basic infantry tactics and were responsible only for carrying out the orders handed down by their superiors, signallers roamed the parallel trenches between the lines, working with wiring and often composing the crucial messages they alone could pass from front to rear. If they were rarely exposed to the raking machine-guns of a general assault, their work not only involved many long hours exposed to harassing fire but inevitably sent them into the worst bombardments, once enemy artillery had cut their lines.

Milne didn’t write enough about the war to become a major “category” of interest here, but his experience today is both harrowing and informative. He didn’t write much, but his account of today’s action (which will carry on into tomorrow) will stand as a beautiful example of that autobiographical sub-genre which we might call “terror recalled with humor,” and it also provides us with a good sense of what a signals officer does during an attack. Which is doubly useful because Tolkien holds the same position with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, and writes even less about it.

Milne’s day began early. By four a.m. he and his men were laying a reinforced line that will be essential to this evening’s planned attack. Without real-time communications, there will be no way for the battalion commander, Col. Collison, to adjust the attack plan as it develops, or to provide reinforcements or call for artillery support. The new line out from the headquarters dugout toward the companies was, accordingly, “elaborately laddered according to the text books, and guaranteed to withstand any bombardment.”

It didn’t. As the Warwicks made ready for the attack, a heavy bombardment–ordered at a much higher level, so Col. Collison’s requests for its cancellation were ignored–alerted the Germans to the coming attack, and as darkness fell a counter-bombardment tore into the Warwickshires. It was accurate and damaging. Nevertheless, the assault began on schedule, at 10:30 p.m.[1]

Almost immediately, all communication–not only the lines forward to their companies but also those back to Brigade–was knocked out. It was an “exceedingly dark” night, too, and German shells were falling between headquarters and the attacking companies. With the lines cut, the hoary “fog of war” became, for the men in the headquarters dugouts, a total blackout. Milne was hunkered down between the command groups of his battalion and a neighboring battalion of the North Lancashires, and when a sergeant from that battalion went to check on the progress of the attack, he “was blown out of existence.” Tthey were occupying old German dugouts whose entrances faced the barrage, and a shell had exploded right on the steps.[2]

The communications failure was not Milne’s fault, as Col. Collison is careful to note: “Milne’s signallers had done all that was possible” to keep the telephone connections running. There was just too much artillery.

While Collision acknowledges that being bombarded for an hour before the moment of their “surprise” night attack “had somewhat shaken their composure,” he heaps praise upon a battalion which was under-officered and consisted of relatively few experienced survivors and many recent replacements. Despite being cut off and battered, they attacked as planned. Not that Milne or Collision could know that at the time.

Milne sat within sight of his commanding officer, and so could wait for orders. But what should he do, on his own initiative? Last month, just barely to the south and west of this same ground, we saw signallers in the same situation ordered to become runners. And should Milne be repairing his lines, or offering to get messages through by some other means?

We sat there completely isolated. The depth of the dugout deadened the noise of the guns, so that a shell-burst was no longer the noise of a giant plumber throwing down his tools, but only a persistent thud, which set the candles dancing and then, as if by an afterthought, blotted them out. From time to time I lit them again, wondering what I should be doing, wondering what signalling officers did on these occasions. Nervously I said to the Colonel, feeling that the isolation was all my fault, `Should I try to get a line out?’ and to my intense relief he said, “Don’t be a bloody fool.”

They waited, cut off, as midnight passed.[3]

 

With these sorts of battalion- and brigade level attacks continuing to take place almost daily–and continuing to be repelled by unmolested machine-gunners–there is reason to forgive a certain sort of thoughtful despair. Ben Keeling, from whom we’ve had scarcely a letter, penned a brief note, today, a century back.

12 August, 1916

I may be knocked out in the next few days. If so, this is just a last line to you, dear. I don’t anticipate death, but it is all bloody chance out here. If there is any sort of survival of consciousness, death can hardly fail to be interesting, and if there is anything doing on the other side, I will stir something up. Nirvana be damned!

Love from Ben[4]

I suppose we have learned, now, that “lighthearted” and “foreboding” can coexist in a single sentence.

 

Next we have a much longer letter–one about a foreboding realized, and written with a heart anything but light. It is a nice (i.e. interesting, i.e. symbolically weighty) coincidence that Milne and Tolkien are going about exactly the same work in such proximity of space and time. But John Ronald Tolkien is in a different part of the front-line cycle. In reserve, now, he has time to write, and to think of losses that are less about the ceaseless viciousness of nemesis than about the person that was lost.

This letter, to Geoffrey Bache Smith, is an important one, showing as it does Tolkien’s first attempt to grapple with the meaning of the death of Rob Gilson, and thus the violent dissolution of their high-hoped schoolboy literary fellowship, the TCBS.

Tolkien’s writing will come to show an unusual combination of studied humility and ambition, of apparent simplicity underscored by an unyielding refusal to segregate imaginative literature from theological commitment. Or, rather, his writing has already begun to show this understated complexity.

12 August 1916
11th, Lancashire Fusiliers, B.E.F., France

My dear old Geoffrey,

Thank you indeed for Christopher’s letter. I have thought much of things since – most of them incommunicable thoughts until God brings us together again if it be only for a space.

I don’t agree with Chris – although of course he does not say much. I agree most heartily of course with the part you underlined – but strangely enough not in the least now with the part I marked and commented. I went out into the wood – we are out in camp again from our second bout of trenches still in the same old area as when I saw you — last night and also the night before and sat and thought.

I cannot get away from the conclusion that it is wrong to confound the greatness which Rob has won with the greatness which he himself doubted. He himself will know that I am only being perfectly sincere and I am in no way unfaithful to my love for him – which I only realise now, more and more daily, that he has gone from the four – when I say that I now believe that if the greatness which we three certainly meant (and meant as more than holiness or nobility alone) is really the lot of the TCBS, then the death of any of its members is but a bitter winnowing of those who were not meant to be great – at least directly. God grant that this does not sound arrogant – I feel humbler enough in truth and immeasurably weaker and poorer now. The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands — a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things.

To some ears this might sound not so much arrogant as heartless. But, as always with Tolkien, it is consistent with his faith. In fact I think it underscores a less-than-obvious way in which the epic temperament and a deep trust in God’s designs run together. There is tragedy, of course, and awful suffering, and failure. But these things aren’t “great”–they can’t be heroic, that is, without being part of some larger victory.

I’m not sure that’s right. That is, I’m not getting at the heart of the matter.

Tolkien’s point is, simply, that there are no mistakes in this sort of thing. Rob Gilson might have seemed like he would be great–a great writer, an “instrument” of beauty–but it is clear now that he isn’t. Wasn’t. Hasn’t been.

This, again, is terribly clear-eyed. Tolkien will not gainsay history, which is providence revealed. But back to the letter:

The greatness which Rob has found is in no way smaller — for the greatness I meant and tremblingly hoped for as ours is valueless unless steeped with the same holiness of courage suffering and sacrifice – but is of a different kind. His greatness is in other words now a personal matter with us – of a kind to make us keep July 1st as a special day for all the years God may grant to any of us – but only touches the TCBS on that precise side which perhaps – it is possible – was the only one that Rob really felt – ‘Friendship to the Nth power’. What I meant, and thought Chris meant, and am almost sure you meant, was that the TCBS had been granted some spark of fire – certainly as a body if not singly – that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war (which is for all the evil of our own side in the large view good against evil).

Yes, that explains the situation better. First, there is the common greatness of Rob Gilson and the nineteen thousand other men who died on a day that Britain has “kept,” now, for a century. Tolkien’s assessment of the meaning of his death is of the sort that I would generally lump with the “conventional,” the common response, a century back–there is “greatness” in “sacrifice” and in the battle of Allied “good” against Central “evil,” etc., and the scare quotes are all mine. (Isn’t it interesting, though, that, knowing Tolkien’s coming literary preoccupation with evil and with the sacrifices that must accordingly be borne by the good, I want to resist my usual habit of summarizing this viewpoint and moving briskly on toward disillusion and protest.)

Second, Tolkien carefully lays aside this “greatness” to reconsider their youthful hopes. That spark, that kindling light, is quintessential Tolkien: his great heroes will always carry a divine spark, and descriptions of illumination will become a ubiquitous fictional crutch.[5] What he needs to recognize–and what he would like Smith and Wiseman to recognize, is simply that whatever spark is left is theirs to shelter until it can catch and burn brightly. Rob is dead, and it’s no use pretending that what few moments he was given–to write, to create–somehow fulfills their high mutual destiny.[6]

This is a principled resistance to sentimentality. The effort made, Tolkien now allows his emotions to reach the page.

So far my chief impression is that something has gone crack. I feel just the same to both of you – nearer if anything and very much in need of you – I am hungry and lonely of course – but I don’t feel a member of a little complete body now. I honestly feel that the TCBS has ended – but I am not at all sure that it is not an unreliable feeling that will vanish – like magic perhaps when we come together again. Still I feel a mere individual at present – with intense feelings more than ideas but very powerless.

Of course the TCBS may have been all we dreamt – and its work in the end be done by three or two or one survivor and the part of the others be trusted by God to that of the inspiration which we do know we all got and get from one another. To this I now pin my hopes, and pray God that the people chosen to carry on the TCBS may be no fewer than we three…

I do however dread and grieve about it – apart from my own personal longings – because I cannot abandon yet the hope and ambitions (inchoate and cloudy I know) that first became conscious at the Council of London. That Council was as you know followed in my own case with my finding a voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of everything for me:— I have always laid that to the credit of the inspiration that even a few hours with the four always brought to all of us.

There you are – I have sat solemnly down and tried to tell you drily just what I think. I have made it sound very cold and distant – and if it is incoherent that is due to its being written at different sittings amongst the noise of a very boring Company mess.

Send it on to Chris if you think it worth while. I do not know what is to be our move next or what is in store. Rumour is as busy as the universal weariness of all this war allows it to be. I wish I could know where you are. I make a guess of course.

I could write a huge letter but I have lots of jobs on. The Bde. Sig. Offr. is after me for a confabulation, and I have two rows to have with the QM and a detestable 6.30 parade – 6.30 pm of a sunny Sabbath.

Write to me when you get the ghost of a chance.

Yours
John Ronald.[7]

 

 

Finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon is back amidst the English countryside. Released from the hospital in Oxford, he will have an extended convalescent leave. You wouldn’t necessarily expect that being back among the bosom of his family–it’s off to see Uncle Hamo, today–would mean a sudden lapse of writing (Sassoon is a diarist, after all, not a letter-writer). But in Sassoon’s case it does.

Perhaps a volume of his diary has gone missing, but I think we should take the ensuing quiet as an analogue of that situation: others stop writing letters to their loved ones when they are back together; Sassoon stops writing letters to his estranged self when he is drawn back into the unthinking peace of rural privilege…

In any event, this will be the last diary entry for quite some time.

August 12

From Oxford to Burford–nineteen miles along the Gloucester road. A grey village climbing a hill—-with brown and golden and yellow and silver-green of harvest-fields all around. And the little Windrush running under a bridge at the lower end of the wide street. Uncle at the Bull Inn. The Priory—a good old house…

Sassoon is back in the Shire(s), and his uncle, the prominent sculptor and friend-of-Hardy Hamo Thornycroft, is doing his best Tolstoy/Levin, pitching in with the peasants. This is in no way a set-up for a subsequent blooming of the experiential gulf or the conflict of the generations…

Uncle had been harvest-working: I passed the field, but many of his oat-stooks had collapsed. Brown kitten and brown fodder-trusses. Shipton spire half a mile off among dark-green trees. Old man driving Bus up to Burford…

Child running to his father (soldier on leave?) with little arms reaching up, very pathetic and humanly sweet. Very old small woman at the Bull, shrivelled and wrinkled, but erect… Boy-scouts falling in with bugle; sailor-boy at attention on right-flank. End of a good day.[8]

Yes, a good day, but Sassoon isn’t blind to the tensions of being home. The gentle condescension toward his uncle becomes something more conflicted when Thornycroft basks in the reflected glow of his nephew’s Military Cross. In a letter of today to Sydney Cockerell, Sassoon admits that he himself is “intensely satisfied” with his decoration. But can a veteran of the trenches and a witness to so much horror and pointless suffering sit idly by while old men sing the glories of battle?[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Col. Collison includes a detailed battle plan of the attack--his attack, as it was essentially a battalion effort, with minimal support from neighboring battalions and light artillery--in his published diary. See Collison, With the 11th Royal Warwicks in France, 1915-16, 101-2.
  2. Col. Collison seems to put this event a day or two earlier, noting that it was the North Lancashires' RSM who was killed on the dugout steps. Frankly, especially on yesterday's evidence, he is more likely than Milne to be correct.
  3. Milne's autobiography, It's Too Late Now, quoted with "adaptations" in Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 175. Collison, With the 11th Royal Warwicks in France, 1915-16, 100-6.
  4. Keeling Letters, 311.
  5. Tolkien's various lights are ordinary, fantastical, metaphorical, and, in a strange combination of all three, there are dozens of descriptions of eyes giving off or projecting light... in fact, such is his obsession with the carrying of light from heavenly regions into the fallen world that he probably leaves a flank open to accusations of sub-creative Gnosticism. But this is a terrible tangent, and surely there are papers on this subject somewhere...
  6. This sets Tolkien apart, it seems to me, as a quintessential sort of friend; a category of mourner and flame-carrier most distinct from the several mothers we read here, who publish the writings of their dead sons as proof of their uniqueness, their (implied, their maternally irrefutable) greatness.
  7. Letters, 9-10.
  8. Diaries, 101.
  9. Quoted in Egremont, Siegfried Sassoon, 108.

Lord Dunsany and the Trumpets of Peace; Noel Hodgson and the Theology of Sacrifice; Gas and Smoke at Ypres; Thomas Hardy and a Coincidental Kiss; Edward Brittain Makes a Pilgrimage

…on Sunday morning I heard a triumphant sound, and looking out of the window I saw a triumphant sight. Poets may picture Victory with her trumpet, walking the field of battle, but who has seen with his eyes anything quite so like her as I saw them? I saw one corporal going alone through Dublin, blowing the Cease Fire every now and then on his bugle.

Both sides seemed to obey him.[1]

And so Lord Dunsany pipes peace back into Dublin. He will not linger for the retribution that Britain will now mete out to the rebels.

 

I have been neglecting Noel Hodgson a bit of late. Back from hospital, he is with his battalion, the 9th Devonshires, in reserve. Sunday and reserve means, of course, Church Parade. The Rev. Ernest Courtenay Crosse gave

one of his inimitable sermons–if you don’t stop a bullet–bon; if you do & get a blighty–très bon; but if you get killed it is more bon still–for though you may not realise it, you give your life for others.

Did this sort of sermon reach many men? It’s difficult to tell. On what, really, could opinions differ more dramatically than religion-combined-with-institutional-lecturing-combined-with the society-of-men-in-combat-combined-with-the-fear-of-death? Many officers seem to be of the opinion that such sermons were good for the men–simple, to the point, something to cover your fears with, something to move forward on, etc…

They themselves might have finer feelings, of course–but the British class system was surely tolerant of the idea of such dual messaging. The chaplain spoke in useful simplicities to the men while befriending the officers. Hodgson’s biographer, Charlotte Zeepvat, notes that the previous chaplain had been “killed on the battlefield while attending to the wounded”–surely the most efficacious message of all. But Crosse was quite young, and soon became intimate with “Smiler” Hodgson and the tight-knit subalterns of the 9th Devonshires.[2]

 

And here’s a curio: Thomas Hardy, the flinty old poet that the young subaltern poets will continue to respect, writing to Hamo Thornycroft, the sculptor and uncle of Siegfried Sassoon. Hardy writes to praise Thornycroft’s bust of himself, but this is close to immodesty, so he must choose another work to praise even higher. He chooses a sculpture called “The Kiss,” which, oddly, bears the same title as Sassoon’s most recent poem.

My dear Thornycroft:

We are much struck with the photographs. That of my head shows what a good & forcible likeness the bronze is. I must try to live up to such a reproduction of life: but I feel a feeble person beside it.

My wife says that your marble “Kiss” is the most beautiful thing in the Exhibition, with all the distinction of Greek art at its best…

Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy.[3]

 

From Wessex, now, to Ypres. We haven’t read the Master of Belhaven much in recent weeks, as his unit, like many artillery units, has settled into a rhythm. A rhythm which was disrupted, today, a century back, by a German gas attack, long suspected to be in the works.

Kemmel, 30th April, 1916

The gas attack came off at last, and was very serious while it lasted… At 1 a.m. I had just lain down int he hope of getting an hour’s sleep, when the gas alarm syren[4] on Kemmel Hill started… terrific rifle and machine-gun fire started from the trenches, followed a few seconds after by all the field-guns on the front. I laced up my boots as quick as possible and lit the lamp. I was only just in time. Suddenly the cattle and dogs set up a piteous noise and we smelt the chlorine gas. Helmets were put on immediately, but not before I could feel the irritation in my throat.

The night was very dark, and it was very difficult to get about with the goggles over one’s eyes… We had never expected to be shelled so far back as this, and consequently has not prepared any dug-outs…

There was a terrible scene with the local inhabitants, who had hysterics, and got in our way. They had not got enough masks to go round, and had refused to send away their children as I had frequently warned them for the last two days. It was not till the gas-cloud was just on us that they could be persuaded to fly to Dranoutre. The gas being very heavy travels along valleys, so I told them to keep to the ridge. Apparently they were not caught, as they had mostly turned up again this morning.

With our helmets on, we could not taste the chlorine, and in the darkness it could not be seen: but we knew it was on us by the way the howls of the dogs and the bellowing of the cattle ceased…

Next, news arrives at Hamilton’s command post that the Germans have seized a small salient of the British line (not the salient, of course, which is miles around, but a small protuberance that had affected fields of fire or the aesthetic appeal of certain trench maps). Hamilton begins interdiction fire, lobbing shells into the open areas that German reinforcements would need to traverse. Soon, news comes that the British positions positions have been retaken. Hamilton begins an immediate analysis.

The way in which the Germans got into our trenches is rather interesting, as it is the first time I have heard of this method being used, except by poachers. The gas-cloud was accompanied by dense volumes of smoke. Under cover of this, the Germans came out of their trenches, crossed No Man’s Land, which at this place is only 30 yards wide, and stood on the top of the parapet. They worked in pairs, one man holding a very powerful electric torch, the other having his rifle ready. As they stood on our parapet, the man with the lamp flashed it on to one of our men in the trench beneath him, so blinding him for a moment. The other man than shot him at point-blank range. This ruse was so successful that all our men in that part of the trench were almost immediately shot down…

This, we should note, is hearsay–Hamilton himself is thousands of yards away. Did it really happen like this? I don’t know, but it sounds rather too fearfully effective for a new and less-than-ubiquitous tactic.

In any case, the grim fights to the death are being conducted at a remove. Hamilton’s account of his own activities today, a century back, is that of a man writing in the aftermath of a rush of excitement, but not terror or mortal combat:

I found Birch in great spirits, having had only three casualties, all gassed. He was really the funniest sight I have ever seen. I am sure he has set up a record for battery commanders. He actually fought a battle in his pyjamas!! His get-up was positively the limit; a cap, a cloak, his pyjamas showing under his cloak, and bedroom slippers!

…Some very gallant things were done to-day. A sentry in the front line, on first smelling the gas, gave the alarm to the other men by striking his gong before putting on his gas-helmet. The restful was that he fell dead…

We have had about 500 casualties, I think, in our division. The gas cases were dreadful to see; most of them will die.[5]

Death, comedy, horror, heroism, all in alternating sentences. It sounds callous or unhinged, but it’s the essence, I think, of the immediacy of daily writing–it’s why the not particularly literary diary of a not particularly noteworthy soldier is worth reading. Steadfast changeability, as it were.

722

 

Finally, today, we have Edward Brittain’s account of a pilgrimage.

France, 30 April 1916

On Sunday April 9th, 3 weeks ago to-day. . . I bicycled from the town, which you must now know, through 4 villages . . . to the place where Roland’s grave is, going in a Northwesterly direction all the way.

Thus the requirements of censorship are complied with. Edward is telling Vera that he bicycled out from Albert–home of the ever-diving Golden Virgin–to Louvencourt.

It was a fine but dull evening . . . and about 6 o’clock I was coming up the hill from the valley south of the village. I came upon the small military cemetery quite suddenly before I was quite in the village as it is at the southern end where 2 roads meet and run together through the village. It is very small and the graves are in neat rows all close together; I should think there are about 50 or 60 buried there; some are French but most are English. . . There were several men about looking at the graves and I asked one when I first came up where the officers’ graves were and he pointed them out to me.

There are more graves, now at Louvencourt Military Cemetery, but not so many that Roland Leighton‘s grave is difficult to find.

I walked up along the path and stood in front of the grave……..  And I took off my cap and prayed to whatever God there may be that I might live to be worthy of the friendship of the man whose grave was before me…….. But I did not stay there long because it was so very clear that He could not come back, and though it may be that He could see me looking at His grave, yet I did not feel that He was there.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Patches of Sunlight, 288.
  2. Zeepvat, Before Action, 174.
  3. Letters, V, 159.
  4. I feel compelled to put the rare [sic] down here.
  5. War Diary, 183.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 252.

Siegfried Sassoon on Leave; Edward Thomas Between a Love Lyric and a Hard Place; The Afterlife of Charles Sorley II: Unquiet Graves; Kate Luard is Losing One Patient, While Another Struggles On

A strange day, today, of poetic discoveries, lengthy disquisitions, and exquisite avoidances.

First, Edward Thomas. I haven’t been certain how to handle the odd overlaps–and silent interstices–of his many writings, and now things get complicated. There are letters a-plenty, but he has also been writing poems–including, for the first time, love poems. And he has been, for three months now, carrying on something very close to a love affair with Edna Clarke Hall.

The two had met sixteen years before, when both were already married, and already unhappy. There had been an attraction–a fairly intense attraction–some get-togethers, with others present, and, then, nothing more for fiftreen years. Edna now lived, now, a century back, and as hap happened to hap, within walking distance of Hare Hall Camp. She had two children, but she was lonely–her husband spent the week in London, working as a barrister and directing charities that cared for the children of prostitutes. Thomas turned up one day in November, and the friendship was rekindled. They began meeting for walks and wide-ranging talks–Clarke Hall was a successful painter and an amateur poet–and for… well, who knows what else.

There has been no scandal, but Thomas does not discuss the relationship in his letters. Were the meetings “innocent?” Or were the two already emotionally or sexually intertwined? We don’t know, and we won’t know–it’s not even clear whether they met only a few times or regularly, for months. If it really was an “affair” (although, again, there is a region of connection–and infidelity–that swells for miles on either side of the thin line of sexual betrayal) then it is hardly likely that Thomas would write to his circle of friends about it. They were all men who knew his family, who had heard him lament not only his incompatibility with his wife but his poor treatment of her. All except for Eleanor Farjeon, who loved him but had nevertheless been accepted by Helen Thomas as a family friend and fellow unrequited lover. Another strange complication. But anyway: no letters about Clarke Hall, yet.

And by the same token, as this relationship suddenly, er, blossoms anew, Thomas could hardly not have written poetry about it. He had written very little that could be described as love poetry, until, suddenly, last week, “Those Things That Poets Said,” which despairs of love’s future, and “No One So Much As You,” which certainly does not. There was even a playful poem on Valentine’s Day which certainly sounds like the sort of thing a courting, flirtatious poet would write.

She is most fair,
And when they see her pass
The poets’ ladies
Look no more in the glass
But after her.

On a bleak moor
Running under the moon
She lures a poet,
Once proud or happy, soon
Far from his door…

There’s the straight goods. But Thomas is wily, slippery. Here’s the last stanza:

She is to be kissed
Only perhaps by me;
She may be seeking
Me and no other; she
May not exist.

A coy glance to the lover, and a rude gesture to the biographical critic…  But back to the second poem. It begins:

No one so much as you
Loves this my clay,
Or would lament as you
Its dying day.

You know me through and through
Though I have not told,
And though with what you know
You are not bold.

None ever was so fair
As I thought you:
Not a word can I bear
Spoken against you.

Who was this to? What was it about? Today’s letter to his wife may be a gentle laugh and shake of the head. But we are suspicious folk, and it smacks rather of painful reading…

Thursday 24 February 1916 Hare Hall, Gidea Park, Romford

Dearest

Fancy you thinking those verses had anything to do with you. Fancy your thinking, too, that I should let you see them if they were. They are not to a woman at all. You know precisely all that I know of any woman I have cared a little for.

This is probably quite true–or can be meant as completely true, in the moment. Thomas was neither a fink nor a coward, and he had made a point of discussing the original relationship with Clarke Hall with his wife Helen. He even openly discussed a more distressing infatuation with a schoolgirl. So they do discuss their problems, and his attractions to other women. But has he mentioned, yet, the return of Edna?

And however truthful he may have been so far, the letter continues with a curveball. (A googly? Apologies for national idiomatic lapses.)

They are as a matter of fact to father. So now, unless you choose to think I am deceiving you (which I don’t think I ever did), you can be at ease again. Silly old thing to jump so to conclusions. You might as well have concluded the verses to Mother were for you. As to the other verses about love you know my usual belief is that I don’t and can’t love and haven’t done for something near 20 years. You know too that you don’t think my nature really compatible with love, being so clear and critical. You know how unlike I am to you, and you know that you love, so how can I? That is if you count love as any one feeling and not something varying infinitely with the variety of people.

I’m just going to leave that last paragraph alone. There’s a whole marriage there, decades of misery, probable blind-spots and half-truths, and either a tongue-in-cheek avoidance of the issue or an unbearable condescension and shutting-down of the woman who has stood quite a lot from him over the years. Either way, it’s too much for this blog… So let’s sweep this all under the rug for now, o.k. Edward?

Thank Bronwen for her letter and give her a large kiss.

We are all fairly deep in snow today. I got one snowball in the ear but luckily only on the flesh of the ear…

I am all yours Edwy[1]

 

Two short notes to cleanse the palate:

T. E. Hulme is going after Bertrand Russell again in The New Age today (available here), but I am happy enough to admit a lapse of interest in this almost-completed political-philosophical run.

And our Siegfried is on leave, due to have arrived in London this morning at Waterloo at 10 a.m. He will spend the night tonight, a century back, with his Uncle Hamo Thorneycroft, the sculptor and friend of Thomas Hardy. Thence he will go to the family home, Weirleigh, where he must see his mother–for the first time since the death of Uncle Hamo’s namesake, Siegfried’s brother, Hamo Sassoon.

 

And now, ladies and gentleman, Robert Graves, in the grip of a new and most significant enthusiasm.

24 February 1916

My dear Eddie

I am sorry to hear that you never got my long letter written in January all about how much I loved Georgian Poetry, and kindred subjects. An eight sheet letter gone west! And I’ll never be able to recapture my first fine, careless rapture after the first reading of the splendid book which is perhaps the most treasured possession I have out here…

If you think this is laying it on thick, well: it gets thicker. Graves is awfully young, sometimes. He may believe that he is being reasonably complimentary instead of obsequious, and even if this is a miscalculation, the fawning is interspersed with Graves’s gawkily appealing (sometimes in the “can’t… look… away…” sense) overconfidence. He writes that he loves “nearly every piece in it… and most of all Rupert‘s ‘Heaven’ and ‘The Great Lover’ and ‘The Soldier’ and all the rest.” And yet he intersperses criticisms of Masefield and Bottomley.

Here’s the thing, though: this letter comes not so much to praise Eddie Marsh as to sound the gong of his impending burial. Well, that’s over-dramatic. But still, Graves isn’t writing to thank a mentor for guidance but rather to pass on a recommendation of his own:

I’ve just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorley whose poems have just appeared in the Cambridge Press (Marlborough and Other Poems, 3s. 6d.) and who was killed near Loos on October 13th as a temporary captain in the 7th Suffolk Regiment. It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age and having spent just the same years at Marlboro’ as I spent at Ch’house. He got a classical scholarship at University College, Oxford, the same year as I was up and I half-remember meeting him there.

“Half-remember?” This seems more of a wishful crossing of paths than even half a memory of one. Would it be possible to run down the lists of who sat for which scholarship exam on which day? Perhaps… but 1913 was so long ago.

In any event, Graves is very serious in his enthusiasm for Sorley’s new book, writing “Don’t you like this:” and then copying out for Marsh almost the entirety of All the Hills and Vales Along. He follows this up with opportunistic literary criticism:

He seems to have been under Rupert’s influence rather in his method. Listen:

Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say,
“Come, what was your record when you drew breath?”
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.

Well, perhaps, perhaps not. Sorley loathed Brooke, and this, the second of his “Two Sonnets,” is unusual, not a typical example of Sorley’s tragically early “late” style. Graves, however, is smitten with the story of Sorley as much as the poetry. Or at least its stark outline.

He wrote that out here in June: he came out, like me, in May.

What waste!

Graves’s next subject is of course his own work. He brags a bit about having become a competent lecturer, repeating the familiar line about “how to keep happy, though in the trenches.” But what he really want to talk about is poetry. He is confident that he will soon have a book of verse in print, and he proposes–or tells Marsh that he has proposed to Monro–the new catch phrase ‘C’est la guerre‘ as a title. The phrase has

been consecrated by countless instance of French and Belgian fortitude in trouble and is perhaps the best-known expression in all the allied armies. It has a laugh and an apology in it and expresses just what I want, an explanation–an excuse almost–for the tremendous change in tone and method and standpoint which you must have noticed between the first and last parts of the verse-cycle, a hardening and coarsening and loss of music.[2]

It does seem like a good title–but it does not seem as if publishers are as sanguine as Graves. Still, things are moving: only yesterday, Robert’s father, Alfred Perceval Graves, who has been handling his son’s poetic affairs, noted that Marsh had arranged to see some of Robert’s poems printed in the Westminster Gazette–and claimed credit for revising them.[3]

So enthusiasm, and even a bit of rivalry, with Charles Sorley, now three months dead. Graves’s more or less flatly incorrect idea that Sorley was influenced by Brooke is nonetheless revealing: Graves is not the only person to read Sorley’s poems in the modest volume prepared by his parents, but he will be both an important advocate for Sorley’s work and something of a disciple. Brooke is dead, and he has a death-grip on the popular image of war poetry. But Sorley has sketched out the path away from such gauzy, inspirational, empty-calorie war poems, and Graves is eager, now, to help make that path a well-traveled highway.

 

Before we get to today’s piece of not-that-short short fiction, an update from the recent tribulations in Kate Luard’s hospital. Sister Luard had taken a moment early this morning to write an exultant note about the nearly miraculous improvement shown by one of her patients–the long-hopelessly ill but tenacious “Medical boy”–after steady doses of Atropin. Later in the day, she wrote again.

Thursday, February 24th

The world is still fast bound in frost and snow and we have some very sick men in. The poor boy in the Medical succeeded in dying this afternoon after a hideous illness of a fortnight.

One patient sinks, and another rises.

The Flying boy is better, thank Heaven. The drip treatment is doing wonders with his leg, and he is getting over the shock…

Don’t look up “The Drip Treatment” if you don’t really want to know.

But I think it’s worth breaking in again to note just how unique Luard’s position is, here. She is betwixt and between: behind the front lines, yet far from safe; not a civilian but not a soldier either; not quite as old as young soldiers’ mothers, but too old to be a sister or a sweetheart. And it’s that last one that’s really new–who do we have that can sympathize with both the clueless mothers and their sweet, suffering children?

When I showed him the bit in the C. in Chief’s communiqué about him in The Times to-day he said: ‘If mother sees that I expect she’ll feel bucked.’ Poor Mother–she writes such jolly letters to him, which he insists on my reading to him–anxious one day because he hasn’t written, and relieved the next because he has. Evidently she thinks each day he may have to be looked for or not have come home…[4]

 

And since it’s been a nice short post, let’s include an entire story–or “sketch, rather”–written by Noel Hodgson today, a century back. No need to read it, of course, but it’s a pretty good piece. It’s in the “trench veteran explains the life to the folks at home” vein, and it anatomizes one of the everyday stressors of trench duty, the dangerous drudgery of the working party. This is the sort of work that got Roland Leighton killed.

There is mud, and muddled communications, a heavy front-load of bureaucracy for a young subaltern and dangerous physical loads for his men. This is a relatively cheerful piece, balancing realism with the implicit requirement to show high morale in adversity among the common British soldiers… but it makes clear the misery of these fatigues.

The sketch is notable, too, for certain claims that will become typical of Great War first-person writing, whether explicitly autobiographical or fictional. One of these is the simple, yet gratingly paradoxical “you–you to whom I am writing–cannot know what it’s like.” Well, Hodgson puts it better: “Now begins one of those lamentable progresses of which no conception can be gained by anyone who has not made them.” And yet you are writing, and we are reading, and we are not doing so to be at one with out hopeless ignorance across an experiential gulf of time and space… Also, Hodgson will not be the last writer to reach for Bunyan, and describe no man’s land as a “slough of despond.”

The Working Party

The Brigade begins it, always. To us—“resting” in close billets comes a message, over the wire to our Orderly Room. It is a humble edifice of sandbag and brick, our Orderly Room, built with an eye to efficiency rather than to beauty, and measuring twelve feet by sixteen. Inside it this afternoon are a red-hot brazier, the regimental sergeant-major, the Orderly Room sergeant and his clerk, a dog, the telephonist on duty, with his relief asleep on the floor, and seated on a ration box that cheerful tyrant, the adjutant. All of them, except the sleeper and the dog, are smoking, the brazier in particular, and the atmosphere has attained a richness not known in civilian society. The telephonist has been conducting one of the unintelligible discussions pertaining to his kind for some minutes. This results in a pink paper being laid before the adjutant. Which reads;—

“O.C. 9th Devonshires,—You will find the following fatigues, 100 men and 2 officers to report to Lieut. Exe; R.E., at Hubert cross-roads at 6 p.m., 50 men and one officer to report to O.C. 2nd Aberdeen Highlanders at 6.30 p.m.

Y. Zedd, Capt., —th Inf. Bde.”

The adjutant presses down the tobacco in his pipe, “Parade states, Richards.” The sergeant hands him a bunch of papers, after a brief study of which he begins to write swiftly on a message pad.

Ten minutes later a second pink form is borne into the Headquarters of D Company; a batman hurries from
Headquarters and rouses a sleepy company-sergeant-major from his bunk, who crosses to Headquarters, and re-issuing shortly afterwards, lays hold on his orderly sergeant, with the result that Privates Jones, Smith, Robinson, and their fellows are warned by their respective section-commanders to “parade at 5.45 in fighting order and capes for working-party.” In the Army the “little fleas have lesser fleas” is reduced to a science, and is known as de-centralisation of command. Note that we say working-party—we are not conscripts, and “ fatigues ” are for prisoners, not for decent soldiers.

It is ten minutes to six, and fifty men, shrouded in the long capes which are the best gift the Government has ever made to their soldiers, are drawn up on the road, while a small rain filters down upon them. Presently in the growing dusk appears a subaltern, armed with an electric torch and a broom handle. The voice of the sergeant-major rings out, “Parade, ’tchun,” and the fifty men click into immobility. Turning sharply on his heels the sergeant-major salutes, “Working party present, sir; fifty men under Sergeant Grant.” “Thank you, sergeant-major,” says the subaltern, returning the salute, “we shall be back about midnight; warn the cooks.”

He turns to the line of cloaked figures . . . with a rattle of equipment and splash of boots in mud, the party moves off. On either side of the road are innumerable shell holes, most of which are relics of a notable offensive, during which this suffering country underwent twenty hours of the most appalling shell-fire in the history of the war. All along two miles of road are shattered houses, broken carts, ruined barns, and the countless potholes half filled with water, where the German shells burst on that fierce day. But at present all is peace, and the men step out cheerily with a cheerful noise of converse, in spite of mud and rain, till they arrive at a crossroads in the centre of a ruined village, where the completest chaos since the Fire of London appears to be in progress. The ration-parties of four regiments, four hundred men on working-party, two dozen limbered wagons, half a Field Company of R.E. are seething here, and two indefatigable R.E. officers and a M.P. Sergeant work like heroes to forestall confusion—and succeed. By eight o’clock all will be clear and orderly again.

“I think,” says our subaltern, “a short cut is indicated; advance in single file—left wheel,” and he leads the way among the heaps of blasted masonry, through the rent graveyard where a gaunt crucifix stands unshaken and protestant among the desolation, out on to a rough and broken road. The rain has ceased, and a strong breeze is driving ragged cloud-drifts over the fitful moon; one of the periods of quiet that often occur at night has settled upon the line, and even the whicker of spent bullets is not heard. Pipes and cigarettes are put out for safety’s sake, as we know how accurately the enemy has this road marked down, and at any moment a whirlwind of shells may punish a careless act. But to-night we are in luck and peace lasts till the party arrives in the reserve trenches, where two companies of the Aberdeens are stationed. Here the party is halted under cover of a bank, while the subaltern goes off to report. Soon he returns with adjutant of the Aberdeens, who shows him his task, the transportation of a vast pile of “doorsteps” to the front line. “Doorsteps” are contraptions of corrugated wood, seven or eight feet long and twenty inches wide, used for flooring muddy trenches.

These would more generally be referred to as “duckboards.”

The subaltern measures the heap with his eye; “two men to each doorstep,” he orders, and theleading couple lay hold on their burden. “One man can carry a doorstep,” suggests the adjutant. “Yes, but he can’t swim with it,” is the prompt reply, as the second pair lift their timber from the pile. The adjutant agrees, laughing, “Well, it’s your funeral, any way.”

Now begins one of those lamentable progresses of which no conception can be gained by anyone who has not made them. The trenches being water-logged the advance is over the open; the open ground happens to be a marsh, in which at every step the water flows in over the boot-tops; intersecting it are numerous ditches, some bridged by a narrow plank, some not at all, in which lurk some four or five feet of mud and water. Across this slough of despond staggers the long file of carriers, expanding and contracting like a concertina. The leading man falls down, dropping his end of the doorstep with a jerk that nearly dislocates his companion’s neck; into them bump the next pair and halt abruptly, with the result that doorstep No. 3 hits the rear member of the couple a severe blow on the back of the head. This happens all down the line, and a crackling fire of profanity accompanies it. Performing miracles of agility with his broom handle the subaltern gets the procession on the move once more. Naturally, each pair wait till their “next-ahead” has moved, with the result that they lose half-a-dozen yards, and by the time all are under way the line extends for two hundred yards. Then doorstep No. 7 falls, and when it is retrieved. No. 6 is already disappearing in the darkness. Immediately arises a plaintive wail of “Steady in front; not so fast, which ultimately reaches the subaltern’s ears. He halts the head of the column and ploughs back in the slough till he finds No. 7, to whom he addresses an admirably terse invective, and then joins up the broken centipede. Up-to-date they have advanced a bare four hundred yards and have been eighty minutes on the job. The first ditch how bars their progress, an affair of eight foot width, of which the banks are more treacherous than sloping ice, spanned by a single ten-inch plank, itself covered in mud. Privates Burns and Clatworthy, bearing the first doorstep, decide unanimously that any attempt to cross in couples will be disastrous. In the absence of the officer who is blasphemously regulating traffic in rear, they think it will be a sound plan to throw the doorstep over first and then cross singly. “One, two, three—’eave,” and a soggy splash announces the arrival of the doorstep on the further bank, Messrs. Burns and Clatworthy cross in high content, and discover to their dismay that the doorstep is not to be found.

“What’s up?” comes the hoarse query of Private Wood, with No. 2 doorstep. “ T’ blanky thing’s lost i’ the muck,” is the wrathful reply. “Damn fool,” says Wood dispassionately, and puts down his doorstep and sits on it. The subaltern now arrives fuming, and the errant timber is dug up, coated in slime, to the intense disgust of Burns and Clatworthy, and the grim satisfaction of Private Wood. Now is apparent the use of the long broom-handle, which is held by Sergeant Grant and the officer banister-wise beside the plank, to prevent the men falling off. One man does contrive to fall off, but only goes in waist deep. “Who’s yon?” asks Sergeant Grant fiercely, as the lamentable figure is hauled out like a cork from a bottle. “When Ah’ve gotten this—mud off me Ah’ll be Deakin,” is the gloomy response. “You’ll be deekin’ (looking) to find yer ain feet, laddie,” a Hibernian voice in rear proclaims, and a subdued laugh rumbles out of the darkness.

A cheerful bit–and notice how non-violent this piece has been. Is this the “live and let live” we have heard about, or does the working party not present a decent enough target to German machine-gunners in the front and reserve lines? Well, it doesn’t matter, for–in another very typical invocation of the strangely oblique relationship between the laboring infantryman and the dogs of war–it’s the artillery, pursuing its inscrutable motives, that decides whether danger and death will interrupt this slog.

So the pilgrimage continues, with infinite labour and little incident except on one occasion when a Boche gunner, finding time heavy on his hands, fires two shells on, to the Hubert cross-roads. Some signaller in the vicinity rouses a neighbouring battery, and a sudden bark from behind our trenches is followed by four wicked red snaps of shrapnel over some German billet far away. This is the policy of retaliation, which is an excellent policy for all except the person retaliated on, who is invariably entirely innocent of the original aggression. As a rule it is a case of “visiting the sins of the gunners upon the infantry.” On this particular occasion there must have been some Boches within the scope of our response who were hurt by our promptness, for no less than three salvoes burst soon after in the region of the reserve trenches of the Aberdeens. The British gunners, possessing ammunition and feeling piqued, promptly laid a barrage on to the German support line and caught a large wiring party on the hip. Our subaltern, taught by experience, passed back an order for all his men to drop their doorsteps and lie on them. Events fully justified his caution, for brother Boche began to traverse the Aberdeens’ front trench with machine-guns, and to plop a large number of trench-mortar canisters into the space between the front and the support lines. At length the hostility died down, and both sides turned to the laborious task of conveying their wounded back to the dressing stations.

Again: cheerful, with no narrator’s voice to lament or complain or point out foolishness. This is a grunt’s-eye-view setch, and if the grunt’s complaining is only of the cheerful British working man’s sort, well, then all is well with His Majesty’s Armies.

And yet it is very clear here that these men have been sent out to a job without the higher-ups taking any interest in their welfare. If their subaltern was new, or a fool, or too interested in courage and face, they would have taken heavy casualties. There is no heroism here but finishing the task, and the only answer to enemy fire is to lie down in the mud and hope for survival. “Passive suffering,” which will one day be a phrase invoked in the debate about Great War poetry, is clearly already a proper theme for even implicitly pro-war-effort fiction. How could it not be?

The carrying party rises stiffly and prepared to take up their burdens.

* * * *

At half-past twelve there may be descried on the road that runs between the crump-holes, a party of fifty men and an officer tramping homeward to the strains of “Turn the dark cloud inside out, till the boys come home.” Cheery little cigarette-ends gleam in the darkness, and the subaltern is smoking what was once a fine specimen of Fribourg and Treyer’s art in pipes. They are soaked to the waist, but the night is over and the day is approaching when no man can work—because the Boche sees him—so why be gloomy? Moreover, soup is in sight, and rum.

Into the ruined farm they swing, and halt smartly. “Left turn—by the right—there will be soup and rum issue at once—dismiss.” The men turn to the right, salute, and fall out in a babel of sound. From the cookhouse appear two men haling a steaming dixie, and the subaltern fetches from Headquarters a large stone jar. In the centre of the billet is a glowing brazier; steam of soup mingles with steam of drying trousers; blankets are unrolled and boots removed. In the doorway the subaltern measures out the 1-64 of a gallon of rum, to which each man is entitled, into a tiny mug, and each in turn tosses it off with “good health, sir.” The youngest soldiers cough and splutter at the raw spirit to the infinite diversion of the old hands, who ask them, “What’s your number?” well knowing what will be the result of an attempt to reply. Last of all the subaltern drinks his tot. “Good-night, boys, you worked very well,” and off he stumps to Headquarters, where his servant is ready for him with hot tea and dry breeches. The mail is in with several letters, which he reads while drinking his tea before the dying fire. Then a couple of blankets, bundle of straw, and Lethe, dreamless and deep.

In the Orderly Room the adjutant, sticky-eyed and blinking, is writing: “Work report. A party under Sec.-Lieut. Smith carried from Old Line to Orkney Terrace.”

It is over—till to-morrow night.

February 24th, 1916.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters to Helen, 81.
  2. In Broken Images, 39-40.
  3. Richard Perceval Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 143.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 43-44.
  5. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 51-9.

Francis Ledwidge Dreams of a Portal; Raymond Asquith is Juiceless, Dastardly, and Sees But One Honorable Path; Thomas Hardy Reads Siegfried Sassoon

First, today, a letter from Francis Ledwidge, in the Citadel Hospital in Cairo, to his patron and regimental superior officer Lord Dunsany:

Many thanks for your book of writing paper. You will have received my other letter ere this letting you know I was admitted to hospital.

I am getting on first class except for my back which is still painful and very weak. The doctors in Giza hospital recommended me to be sent home but I have heard nothing of it here so far. I write an occasional little thing yet which you will read some day, but I lost a lot of manuscripts in the long retreat from the Balkan front.

Will such evenings as we knew at Dunsany, ever be again? I hope so, although for me a lot of thee old glamour has passed and my poetry is written for other reasons than at first. When I stand on the balcony here and look down at the city, with.all its pinnacles and mosques, as if the Gods were disturbed at a game of chess aeons ago, it seems to me that I have left this world and lie along the Yann with the inhabitants of Mandaroon, still wanting to return but unable to find the back door of that little shop, which to me is our doctor’s heart.[1]

This is flattery dear to my heart–most dear. Ledwidge is referring to two of Dunsany’s earliest fantasy stories, the lovely Idle Days on the Yann and the little cornerstone portal fantasy A Shop in Go-By Street. It’s funny to find the reference to these tales (not yet published, but clearly told to Ledwidge, or given him to read in manuscript) so soon after Buchan‘s Greenmantle went to Constantinople. Turkey and Egypt, and each conscripted for the genre-forming purposes of its overweening British author.

But this is a mellow, dreamy Orientalism, almost as far from Buchan’s nastily racist Hash Madness as you can get. But Ledwidge isn’t looking for adventure or dreaming of raising the world against Germany, and he almost slights his patron by insisting upon allegiance to reality–he doesn’t want to be swept away into a land of poets’ dreams, he just wants to get home to Ireland.

 

Raymond Asquith, too, is pining, but neither for the fields of Ireland or those other fields beyond the fields we know. He wants wit, and writes of course to Diana Manners.

19 January 1916

. . . I spent yesterday in legal work…  Iain Colquhoun–practically your brother-in-law now–was convicted. I don’t know that they will punish him much–probably only an official rebuke of some sort. I am sorry he did not get off, as I have seen a good deal of him this last week and am a trifle soppy about him–a perfect man of his type–insolent, languid, fearless and (in khaki at any rate) of a virile elegance which is most engaging. I give him absolutely top marks for deportment…

This is a pretty juiceless kind of letter you will say, but the fact is, Dilly I am pretty wretched and have been for some days, having been summoned to G.H.Q. whither I may proceed at any moment to do a little something–God knows what–among the bottle-washers and boot-boys of the staff. The P.M., in disregard of a perfectly explicit order from me to take no steps in that direction without my express permission, has tipped the wink to Haig, and here I am in the scrip. However, I fully intend to get out of it again when a suitable occasion offers, unless a month at St Omer leaves me too degenerate and flabby to take the necessary trouble, but I hope things won’t be as bad as that…

Naturally no one will ever believe that the job has been arranged without my knowledge and against my will, and everyone will think that I spent my 10 days’ leave in making a plot to avoid the Spring offensive.

A lesser man’s virility, his own juicelessness, fear of writing a boring letter to a social queen… Asquith is certainly down in the dumps. But he’s not being fatuous. Everyone will assume that the Prime Minister’s son, having stuck out a winter in the trenches, will now proceed into safe, prestigious work while the lesser sorts get cut down in the big show. Many of those everyones would do the same, and not fear being reviled in the street. No–they would be quietly looked down on by fighting soldiers and envied by many. And they would be safe, and earning more money, and enjoying greater prestige with many segments of the population… but not the fighting soldiers. With them, no. Money, prestige, safety, and… if not a whiff of betrayal than at least a miasma of dishonor. Raymond Asquith, always tip-top in everything he does, is not about to take what he sees as a slightly less than impeccably honorable career path.

So in self-defence I shall have to try and get back to the regiment when the fighting season sets in. After all, death is the only solution of the problem of life which has not so far been definitely proved to be the wrong one, and to be killed in action would gracefully set at rest many urgent and recurring anxieties. It has seemed to me of late that my only point was being a potential corpse. Without the glamour of the winding sheet I have no locus standi in the world…

Don’t think I am becoming heavy or heroic, Dilly. Nothing of the sort–I am as flippant and as dastardly as ever. But l am simply balancing my accounts in a purely commercial spirit…[2]

 

As Raymond Asquith prepares to toss his silver spoon back into the battalion dixie, Siegfried Sassoon continues his effortlessly graceful, apparently wholly unpremeditated (and there’s the charm of it) upward flight through the stratosphere of literary influence. Not only is he friendly now with Eddie Marsh, Edmund Gosse, and Robbie Ross, but he has come to the attention of a certain friend (and portrait-bust-subject) of his uncle, Hamo Thornycroft.

Max Gate | Dorchester | 19 Jan. 1916

My dear Thornycroft:

Strangely enough, I took particular notice of those verses by “S.S.” in The Times of a few days ago—reading them over twice & wondering whose they were. I thought their craftsmanship promising, & more…

Always yrs sincerely

Thomas Hardy[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 141.
  2. Life and Letters, 236-7.
  3. Letters, V, 42.

“Billets at Dawn;” Patrick Shaw-Stewart is Bound for Romance; Edward Thomas is Hunted by an Owl; Thomas Hardy Goes Bust

Lieutenant Claude Penrose, a Regular officer in the artillery, wrote a poem today, a century back. Don’t quote me on this, but I think it’s a variation on the “pantoum” form.

 

Billets at Dawn

The grey dawn wakes a wilderness;

No song of birds salutes the morn.

Seeing the land, a man could guess

The pain and sorrow it has borne.

 

No song of birds salutes the morn;

The rain-drops blur the window-pane.

Long time the bare brown fields have worn

The sullen glint of winter’s rain.

 

Seeing the land, a man could guess

That it was sore oppressed with war,

And one can hear the pitiless

Guns’ boom come through the open door.

 

The pain and sorrow it has borne,

Seeing the land, a man could guess.

No song of birds salutes the morn;

The grey dawn wakes a wilderness.[1]

The weather is not good. Nor the poetry–but the rounding repetition of the form is a nice fit for the sensation of late-winter doldrums.

 

If “Billets at Dawn” can stand as a rather pedestrian war poem–formal, traditional, light on specifics and literally booming–then Edward Thomas‘s effort of today, The Owl, is a good indication of the promise of more subtle approaches.

This is a poem in which a solitary walker describes nature–nothing more poetic, nothing more Edward Thomas–and yet the owl’s cry becomes something more:

No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
To feel a thrill of animal fear outside at night is not what it once was. This, I think, would be enough to qualify “The Owl” as a war poem–but the last stanza makes it very explicit. Unusually explicit, for Thomas at this stage:
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
It needs no great insight to guess that Thomas will be driven by the owl’s voice to share the fear and un-rejoicing that he has so far chosen to escape…

 

Patrick Shaw-Stewart, best known to us so far in his capacity as friend-and-comrade-of-Rupert, is perhaps a third poetic type: traditional, but aspiring to the heroic rather than the pastoral mode; a Public School boy and intellectual steeped in the classics, and therefore unable not to see war as Romantic. His poetry in due time… but he wrote a letter today, a century back, expressing his hopes for their expedition:

It is the Dardanelles, the real plum of this war: all the glory of a European campaign (and greater glory than any since Napoleon’s, if we take Constantinople and avenge the Byzantine Empire), without the wet, mud, misery, and certain death of Flanders. Really I think we are very lucky…  our base is Lemnos–a fortnight’s sea voyage, the most delicious thing in the world…  the luckiest thing and the most romantic.Think of fighting in the Chersonese (hope you got the allusion from the Isles of.Greece about Miltiades), or alternatively, if it’s the Asiatic side they want us on, on the plains of Troy itself! I am going to take my Herodotus as a guide-book.[2]

 

In lighter literary news, Thomas Hardy, Presiding Spirit of Poetic Wisdom, agreed today to sit for a portrait bust, to be done by his friend Hamo Thornycroft, Siegfried Sassoon‘s uncle.

Max Gate, Dorchester

24 Feb 1915

My dear Thornycroft:

It would give me the greatest pleasure to have my name associated with yours in the way you propose, & to feel that, whatever the short-comings of the sitter, the sculptor’s art will be sufficient to hand on his name to posterity, (I have, as you may know, always been an admirer of your virile style of presentation)…

We go to London at indefinite dates, & I think the best way would be for you to propose a time that is convenient.

When the war is over you will have your hands full enough of military & naval heroes, so I must slip in before that time comes!

Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Reprinted in Powell, A Deep Cry, 384.
  2. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 112.
  3. Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 82.

Edward Thomas Sees the Old New Year Outleant; Vera Brittain Dreams of Roland and Zeppelins; Thomas Hardy Scrawls a Note; Churchill Cuts His Teeth on a Pliant Prime Minister; Henry Farnsworth Will Go for a Legionnaire

The New Year

Edward Thomas

He was the one man I met up in the woods
That stormy New Year’s morning; and at first sight,
Fifty yards off, I could not tell how much
Of the strange tripod was a man. His body,
Bowed horizontal, was supported equally
By legs at one end, by a rake at the other:
Thus he rested, far less like a man than
His wheel-barrow in profile was like a pig.
But when I saw it was an old man bent,
At the same moment came into my mind
The games at which boys bend thus, High-Cockalorum,
Or Fly-the-garter, and Leap-frog. At the sound
Of footsteps he began to straighten himself;
His head rolled under his cape like a tortoise’s;
He took an unlit pipe out of his mouth
Politely ere I wished him “A Happy New Year,”
And with his head cast upward sideways Muttered–
So far as I could hear through the trees’ roar–
“Happy New Year, and may it come fastish, too,”
While I strode by and he turned to raking leaves.

I don’t suppose that I can be trusted to maintain critical detachment on this matter, but I think that this is pretty clearly a war poem. It was written today, a century back, on the first day of the second year of a war that some, at least, had been sure would end by Christmas. Why is this a war poem? Well, in part because Thomas, who will eventually (no real spoiler here) go to war, will nevertheless avoid writing poetry that deals with his combat experiences. It’s a bit trite, but perhaps this is both because he will instinctively stick to traditional themes and because the war has come to settle like a miasma on all his thoughts. So every poem resists the war, and yet is pervaded by its dark vapors…

But there are other, better reasons for treating this as a war poem. For one thing, Thomas is one of those sensitive and troubled souls who did not enlist right away, but lingered on in a state of agonized indecision. As we have seen, his letters show him constantly grappling, in several ways, with what England means to him and how he should respond to the implicit challenge to enlist. To teeter, to hover between home and the enlistment office is in many ways to inhabit a more troubled and war-warped state of mind than to be enlisted and in training. It might not even be utter idiocy to suggest that the war could haunt the mind of a man in limbo more than it would haunt a soldier new to the hell of actual combat. Thomas would have believed, at least, that some measure of peace of mind would follow on the decision to volunteer… and so this is a poem about the turning of the old year–in which he did not volunteer, although so many did–into the new, in which he will.

As for close readings, several of our writers have noted this winter the appearance in the streets and stations of London of badly wounded veterans, many of them amputees. Or, rather, the number of such amputees has become high enough that “they” are often seen by travelers.[1] And here is a man–old, it’s true, but perhaps that fact that points to the long future of the maimed–who is bent over and seems to have one single leg and one crutch. And yet he suggests a thing for boys to play upon…

And then, going back to pick over the beginning of the poem, one finds the tripod, and one man sighting another at a distance of some yards, and even perhaps that “rake,” a homely country noun become a deadly military verb.

Well, let’s not start the year off with over-enthusiastic over-reading. Edward Thomas has given us a New Year’s poem, thus sparing me from digging up others of the same ilk by lesser writers, and you from reading them. And it’s a typical Thomas poem: a gruff, toughly observed rural scene. With lots beneath the surface: it’s a war poem, too, and it doesn’t augur well.

 

As if Rupert Brooke’s cagey pursuit of his daughter was not trouble enough, the Prime Minister received a punchy holiday challenge, today, a century back, from the First Lord of the Admiralty.

Winston Churchill was enormously creative in an enormously predictable way: he was a good political tactician who could dominate a room, but he seemed to arrive at his sense of world affairs by simply scaling up that personal, local domination and imagining Britain hurling its weight around as he did. Perhaps a boxing analogy is inevitable: he was canny and clever and quick, thus Britain could dominate opponents–no matter how much stronger the weight of their army-fists–by dancing about and landing its lighter blows with precision. Churchill was a disastrous strategist.

His political instincts were good, however, and he knew that the the time was ripe to push for approval of another scheme. The generals might be ready to plunge ahead when the weather broke, but politicians like Arthur Balfour were expressing the opinion that “driving the Germans back… to the Rhine by successively assaulting and capturing one line of trenches after another seems a very hopeless affair.” It’s a New Year! Time for a Bold Stroke! And the Naval Division, with its few inglorious days near Antwerp now in the semi-distant past, was like a shiny coin burning a hole in Winston’s pocket.

Churchill could see the slaughter on the Western Front coming, but he was blind to the unwisdom of underpowered outflanking movements. To send a smallish force toward the Ottoman underbelly was not a deft sidestep-and-jab but rather a windy, errant roundhouse that risked the balance of the body at arm’s length. The Naval Division would float like a butterfly, and sting like one too.

So: good politician and bad strategist. But what matters most here is that he’s a very good (very good-bad?) writer. The most quotable sentence of today’s memorandum to Asquith is the snappy “Are there not other alternatives than sending our men to chew barbed wire in Flanders?”[2]

Oh indeed, indeed–there are foreign field corners further off than Flanders that will soon be forever England.

 

Vera Brittain reflects on her momentous New Year’s Eve with Roland:

Friday January 1st London

Aunt Belle accompanied me to the station, full of instructions concerning Roland, that I “was to stick to this one” because she thought him so dependable. I cannot say much about this day, as it fades into the glowing unreality of the other two. No doubt we were right, & a dubious meeting to-day would have spoilt everything. Yet I would have given anything to have seen him again all the same; I felt I was just beginning–that he was allowing me to begin–to know a little of that real self of his which puzzles even his mother. When I did retire to bed it was not to sleep very much. Besides the usual dreaming & thinking, in my rather worked-up state I was suddenly seized with a creepy dread of Zeppelins, against which the London population have been warned… It was a perfectly clear & still night, cloudless & star-spangled, & I finally dropped off into a very troubled sleep with a mind confused between Roland & Zeppelins.[3]

Meanwhile, Roland was writing to Vera–we’ll read his letter tomorrow, when Vera receives it.

 

And in Dorset, Thomas Hardy was writing a letter which gives me a very slim excuse to mention one of our quietest correspondents. Siegfried Sassoon will become a mainstay of this project, but these days he is writing very little, and virtually nothing with a nice little date in an upper corner… so it’s hard to keep tabs on him. But today I am happy to report that Hardy was writing to Sassoon’s uncle, the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft.

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Thomas Hardy in 1914

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Hamo Thornycroft in the 1890s

Max Gate, Dorchester                Dec [January] 1 1915

My dear Thornycroft:

Warm thanks for your good wishes for the new year, which we reciprocate. Would that there were more confidence in my wishes in these troublous times…

Always sincerely,

Thomas Hardy[4]

 

It’s been a while since we heard from Henry Farnsworth–mostly because it’s been a while since he has accomplished anything. Let down–or possibly outright swindled–by the adventurer Bles, he has been licking his non-wounds in barefoot Majorca, having failed to get himself close to the war. But in December his resolve seems to have recalcified. There are always ways, and today he sat down to tell the family, one by one, what his plans now are:

Paris, January 1, 1915

Dear Mamma:

Your letters, which arrived in a large packet and with many re-addresses upon them, brought great joy to your son, who was, and had been for some weeks, more lugubrious than necessary. I hope in a few days now to be a “soldier of the legion,” — not St. Augustine’s, but not wholly despicable “for a’ that,” — and then my joy will be complete.

This, of course, is the French Foreign Legion, famous last refuge of the incurably belligerent, the war-haunted, the courageous damned and the damned courageous, and, now, the idealistically warlike young men of Harvard.

My name is already on the list… I have been promised by the French captain in charge of the recruiting to be one of those accepted. If not, I can join the Ambulance, as already written to Papa…

I spent some time this morning looking at the towers of Notre Dame, and thought of you again. Also this afternoon I am going to a concert of Cesar Franck, and was much struck by what you said about Rhodes, Rembrandt, and your taste in literature. To say the truth, I don’t think there is much sense in it, because all art is expression, and d’ Annunzio, whom I don’t know much about, by the way, has never tried to express the things that Rembrandt or any of his kind were interested in, but Dickens, Balzac, Gogol, and Dostoievski are nearer the same catalogue, though probably writers of the same epoch are the only ones who really hit the mark.

Is it a great surprise that a man who has spent his short adulthood chasing after war is drawn to the work of D’annunzio?  Well, perhaps not, but then again D’annunzio has only begun to transform himself from crazy, decadent poet to war prophet and hero…

This is, I suppose, the most solemn New Year we will ever see. Nothing can over-express the quiet fortitude of the French people…

And now, father.

Cafe des Deux Magots, Paris,

January 1, 1915

Dear Papa,

I am very sorry that I did not get your cable about Mr. Bird until yesterday, though for two weeks already I had been trying to join the Legion. Otherwise, I should have joined the American Ambulance…  However, I cannot draw back now, and as a matter of fact, I don’t want to, and even think it the wiser move in the long run. The American Ambulance, the one I can join, at least, works with the English army, and the French operations are much less known. Of course I may have to drill for two or even three months and that will delay matters, but on the other hand, a company of recruits was sent right into the first line after two weeks’ training, to replace a company that had been wiped out. The new volunteers in the Legion, those that joined during the month of September, were sent forward in November and have had heavy losses. That may mean that we shall be wanted to fill up gaps.

There will really be matter for an interesting book, if it turns out thus.

At the worst, we are bound to take part in the big spring campaign, when the serious offensive begins, and with a stroke of luck, I might be in at the death—the Prussian death, that is…

Is this a lamentable confusion of motivations, or a younger writer’s reasonable desire to see, and serve, and store up a winter’s worth of fuel for the muse, all at once? These are not, by the way, rhetorical questions. With Farnsworth, I have nothing to go on but the letters. Some of theses questions will be answered as we go forward; others, I think, are unanswerable.

As to personal matters, it is well that I at last got some mail from home. For the last month or three weeks I have been so morbid that almost anything might have happened. Among other things I imagined, or rather took for granted, that you all despised me, and that nothing but a sense of duty kept you from cabling me not to come home again. Reading the mail yesterday at Hottinguer’s was like coming out of ether.

With love,

Henry[5]

There is a third letter today, as well, to Henry’s sister Ellen, which repeats the news and the happy transformation wrought by his mail catching up with him but then dwells rather on the romance and cultural ambiance of Mallorca and the south. Would he rather talk about books than armies? The elisions in the letter to his father cover no literary talk but include a lengthy analysis of the French and British contributions. Is it about war, or writing? Well, it’s easy enough, if not to be quite all things to all people, then to be a writer to one’s mother and sister and a businesslike responsible militarysort of man to father.

The frank admission of depression begs the question: his primary goal all along was to see the war as a writer or correspondent. The autumn’s plan of joining a half-assed multinational cavalry unit was, it would seem, a regrettable interlude, at the very least a case of foolish enthusiasm and probably a case of the innocent-abroad-in-the-clutches-of-malefactors. And now it’s the Foreign Legion.

Did Farnsworth commit himself to the Legion while he was in the throes of depression, cut of from his family, swindled out of his money, and several months into a failure to make something of himself? Or is he merely doubly relieved–to be going to war at last and to feel, courtesy of the transatlantic mail, back in the bosom of his family?

Either way, he’s in the army now.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Of the roughly 60,000 British soldiers wounded in the war so far something like 6,000 would have received wounds serious enough to require discharge as an "invalid" and perhaps another 12,000 would have been returned to non-combat duties. There would have been many amputees in the first category and some in the second, but I am already extrapolating loosely from the official statistics... suffice it to say that there must have been several thousand amputees traveling through London, the inevitable rail hub, in the last months of 1914 alone.
  2. Brown, 1914, 287.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 145.
  4. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 74.
  5. Letters of Henry Weston Farnsworth, 83-91.

John Lucy Forswears Kipling; Julian Grenfell is Interrupted

John Lucy continues the tale of the Royal Irish in their trenches before Neuve Chapelle.

The next day, 24th October, we suffered another severe bombardment, worse if anything than that of the day before. The shelling began early in the morning and we crouched miserably under it all day long. It was so intense…

And so, in recounting his second day of trench warfare, John Lucy is already bumping up against the limitations of the form. When to spend the word hoard in description? How to move the reader without so much repetition that she is deadened into insensibility? His solution, going forward, will be to begin omitting the rationale for his own actions. This is either cunning or accidental, a sort of after-image of shell shock in the mind of the reflecting writer.

Machine guns were now sited on the Irish position, and the enemy artillery had become more accurate. Two days ago they had taken over trenches which had not been entirely linked up. Now,

In the undug gap between us and the left company corpses of dead runners and stretcher-bearers lay piled on each other.

To relieve the tedium, and to confess his own failing nerve to a sympathetic sergeant, Lucy moves around the traverse into a neighboring bay. Two senior non-coms–the sergeant and an old corporal who has been telling humorous stories to distract his men–chide Lucy about his old habit of reciting Kipling.

Unpacking Kipling–the man, the “poet,” the writer, the public figure, the father, the bard, the symbol, the official voice of the Empire–will be the work of many posts. Kipling can be simplistic, but he’s never simple. When he sings the praises of the old regular soldier–not the newborn Tommy, cheerful and beloved defender of Belgium, but rather the despised old sweat of a hundred dusty and brutal colonial campaigns–he tends to skip homegrown patriotic sentiment and identify directly with the lonely lot of the out-caste soldier. But in the trenches of a new war, is this sort of verse enough?

Benson poked me in the ribs, and asked me laughingly: ‘How about the young British soldier?’ Biganne said: ‘Yes, how about him?’ I had been fond of reciting the ballad. It certainly seemed stupid now. Who wanted to die, die, die like a soldier? ‘To blazes with the young British soldier,’ I said, and we all laughed.

Cries of alarm brought us to our feet, and scattered us back to our various commands. The Germans had sprung a surprise…

Lucy’s company fired left, where the Germans had mounted a local attack. They had, according to rumor, rushed a British trench, bayoneted several men and taken several others prisoner. These men escaped when British shells distracted their captors, and order was soon restored.

But the Royal Irish, already depleted, stood to in anticipation of a night attack.[1]

 

A few miles to the north of what was rapidly becoming the Ypres Salient, the Royal Dragoons were resting after several days of fighting and moving. Julian Grenfell began a letter home. It will be one of the most-quoted letters of the war, but not here, and not today.

But only because he had hardly begun when he put it aside for three days…[2]

 

Lastly, two significant events in other lives.

Francis Ledwidge, a scant five days after his last-meeting-and-pondering-pedaling, enlisted today, a century back, in the 5th (New/Kitchener’s Army) Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Ireland remained first in his heart and mind, but now that he fought for the entire empire, supporters of the pro-war National Volunteers could never more accuse him of idle sentiment or cowardice. Here’s how he put it himself:

Some of the people who know me least imagine that I joined the Army because I knew men were struggling for higher ideals and great emprises, and I could not sit idle to watch them make for me a more beautiful world. They are mistaken. I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.[3]

More happily, Eleanor Farjeon’s brother Bertie, who had enlisted and then been invalided out of the army with severe varicose veins, got married today, to Joan Thornycroft. Yes! That Joan Thornycroft: daughter of the sculptor Sir Hamo Thornycroft, first cousin of Siegfried Sassoon, and attendee at the surely-soon-to-be-famous Ballet of the War Poets Trismegisti.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There's a Devil in the Drum, 226-30.
  2. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 228.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 83.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 102.