Edward Brittain on Victor Richardson, and What Remains; Ivor Gurney on Food and Fatalism; Patrick Shaw Stewart Lolls and Reads

First, today, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first to her since the death of Victor Richardson. There is something still clinging to this letter of the Romantic idealism that has always marked this group of friends–but not much. Edward is not in a mood to be sentimental about cruel wounds, or to fool himself about pain.

Roker, Sunderland, 11 June 1917

Dearest Vera —

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live; I have a horror of blindness, and if I were blinded myself I think I should wish to die. The idea of long years without the light of the sun and the glory of its setting and without the immortal lamp of life is so abhorrent to me — and the thought of that has been hanging over me these 2 months — that I cannot altogether deplore the opening of the gates of eternal rest to that Unconquerable Soul, although I loved him in a way that few men can love one another. I am so very glad that you were near and saw him so nearly at the end; in a way too I am glad not to have been there; it is good to remember the cheerfulness with which he faced the living of a new life fettered by the greatest misfortune known to men.

Yes, I do say Thank God he didn’t have to live it. We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again: you find me changed, I expect, more than I find you; that is perhaps the way of Life. But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother



So life goes on, even if there is nothing but love to get down behind in the mud and push.

Ivor Gurney, today, is thinking of life–and food… and poetry… and food again… and ends.

11 June 1917

My Dear Friend: Out of the line once more, but for once, not hungry, for the Lord and the ASC have been kind to us, and liberal gentlemen have bestowed cake upon me…

Yes, the College Mag. and the TLS have arrived. I am sorry I forgot to thank you. If there are any complementary copies please send them to Mrs Chapman and Mrs Hunt…

Today there are orgies of cleaning, and men brush and polish frantically at brass and leather. The weather is beautiful, and there is plenty of water to wash with, so we are not unhappy. Also there is plenty to eat…

Gurney is writing to Marion Scott, of course, and he includes several rondels in a similarly light-hearted vein. But see the last lines–light-heartedness is a passing mood, in the trenches, and never the note of resolution.


1. Letters

“Mail’s up”! the vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind
(His wife, his sister, or his lover.)
Mail’s up, the vast of night is over.
The grey-faced heaven Joy does cover
With love, and God once more seems kind.
“Mail’s up”! The vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind.

2. Shortage

God God! No Jam! No Bread!!
No Butter!!!
Whatever are we coming to?
O desolation, anguish utter —
Good God! No jam, no bread, no butter.
I hear the brutal soldiers mutter.
And strong men weep as children do.
Good God! No jam, no bread,
No butter!
Whatever are we coming to?

3. Paean

There’s half a loaf per man today?
O Sergeant, is it really true?
Now biscuits can be given away.
There’s half a loaf per man today;
And Peace is ever so near they say.
With tons of grub and nothing to do.
There’s Half a Loaf Per Man today!
O Sergeant is it Really True?

4. Strafe (1)

I strafe my shirt most regularly.
And frighten all the population.
Wonderful is my strategy!
I strafe my shirt most regularly;
(It sounds like distant musketry.)
And still I itch like red damnation!
I strafe my shirt most regularly
And — frighten all the population………….

5. Strafe (2)

The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute.
We crouch and wait the end of it, — or us
Just behind the trench, before, and in it.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
(O Framilode! O Maisemore’s laughing linnet!)
Here comes a monster like a motor bus.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
We crouch and wait the end of it — or us

I wonder if the proofs are with Sidgwick and Jackson yet. That will interest me, and also (when the time comes) to know what Gloucester people think. Last night I read some to a friend of mine, and was surprised to find how little I cared for them, and how remote they seemed. As for Spring 1917, it is as I thought long dull, and unvaried…

With best wishes; Yours sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]


Finally, today, an update from Patrick Shaw Stewart, now with the Royal Naval Division in France. It’s a discursive letter, and I’ll make some cuts to get us to the good parts… who could he be reading, now that he’s reached the Western Front at last?

…The battery commander is out, so I am lying flat on my tummy in the grass outside his habitat in the amiable sun, waiting till he comes in; one of the pleasanter phases of war. When I have written to you, and X, and Y, and Z, I will
go on with Tom Jones, which I am in the middle of and which is far and away the best book I ever read. Messrs Meredith and James are simply silly beside it, and as for the Victorians ——–. I got through Sense and Sensibility the other day, by the way, not bad, but not half as good as Pride and Prejudice, or Emma.

I did tell you about our time up the line? It was quite agreeable, good weather (though a lot of mud), and a quiet time, very few casualties. I had rather luck having a chain of posts very much advanced in a rather well-known place, so far advanced as to be clear of mud and also clear of shelling. The only trial was that I hardly got a wink of sleep—one has to re-acquire the habit of sleeping in a sitting-position on a petrol tin in the later half of the morning…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 355.
  2. War Letters, 168-70.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 198-99.

Siegfried Sassoon Arrives in Oxford, A Stretcher Case; Ford Madox Ford Makes a Fib, and We Spot a Shaky Case of Shell Shock

Siegfried Sassoon has returned once more to England’s shores. He has not been blessed, exactly, with a blighty one, but he is home nevertheless. And once the bureaucracy has borne one as far as Blighty, it will let him bide, even if he is swiftly cured from his illness.

August 2

Reached Southampton about noon. Got on train and came to Oxford about 4 p.m.—No 3. General Service Hospital at Somerville College. Paradise.

The identical paradise that Vera Brittain forsook last spring, to find her own way into the military hospital system. But Sassoon has lived a charmed life so far, as he admits: A riding accident spares him 1915’s battles, German companies flee from him while British batteries hold their fire, these heroics get him held back from the slaughter-scapes of High Wood, and now an infection whisks him more or less painlessly from the fringes of the Somme to the groves of Academe.

Strange thing getting landed at Cambridge in August 1915 and Oxford in August 1916.

Indeed. Lest we hypothesize that Sassoon was not yet contemplating a fictionalization/novelization of his war, his diary now slips easily into the 3rd person:

Lying in a hospital train on his way to London he looks out at the hot August landscape of Hampshire, the flat green and dun-coloured fields—the advertisements of Lung-Tonic and Liver Pills—the cows—neat villas, and sluggish waterways all these came on him in an irresistible delight, at the pale gold of the wheat-fields and the faded green of the hazy muffled woods on the low hills.

“He” will make use of these observations very shortly, in a poem entitled “Stretcher Case:”

He woke; the clank and racket of the train
Kept time with angry throbbings in his brain.
Then for a while he lapsed and drowsed again.

At last he lifted his bewildered eyes
And blinked, and rolled them sidelong; hills and skies,
Heavily wooded, hot with August haze,
And, slipping backward, golden for his gaze,
Acres of harvest.

Feebly now he drags
Exhausted ego back from glooms and quags
And blasting tumult, terror, hurtling glare,
To calm and brightness, havens of sweet air.
He sighed, confused; then drew a cautious breath;
This level journeying was no ride through death.
‘If I were dead,’ he mused, ‘there’d be no thinking—
Only some plunging underworld of sinking,
And hueless, shifting welter where I’d drown.’

Then he remembered that his name was Brown.

But was he back in Blighty? Slow he turned,
Till in his heart thanksgiving leapt and burned.
There shone the blue serene, the prosperous land,
Trees, cows and hedges; skipping these, he scanned
Large, friendly names, that change not with the year,
Lung Tonic, Mustard, Liver Pills and Beer

Hm. Are these humdrum advertising signs only welcome signals of normalcy? The English Countryside is still absolutely “good;” poetry has not undergone that much of a revolution (nor will it ever). But the human impositions on that world are no longer mere… impositions. Can we read these not just as soothing tonics to the soldier’s bilious psyche, but as signals of inattention, signposts of the experiential gulf?

Perhaps I am getting us ahead of ourselves, but I do think the ambiguity is there. There is license, and distance: the “Brown” of the poem shares Sassoon’s view, but not necessarily his views. If he–wounded, we would assume, not simply ill–rejoices in thanksgiving at seeing the green and well-advertised land, I think we might still exercise our reader’s distance, and wonder if he will find Blighty truly serene, and truly to his liking. He awakes from a bad dream and black thoughts, and seems to forget them. but do we? We certainly haven’t been brought up to ignore a nightmare of death as drowning…

To bolster my terribly bold reading, here is the rest of the diary entry:

People wave to the Red Cross train–grateful stay-at-homes–even a middle-aged man, cycling along a dusty road in straw hat and blue serge clothes; takes one hand off handlebars to wave feeble and jocular gratitude. And the soul of the officer glows with fiery passion as he thinks ‘All this I’ve been fighting for; and now I’m safe home again I begin to think it was worth while’. And he wondered how he could avoid being sent out again…

Well, that’s one type of ambiguity, for certain.

…No need to think of another winter in the trenches, doomed though I am to endure it. Good enough to enjoy the late summer and autumn. And then, who cares?[1]


Second-and-last, today, an interesting problem has arisen. In my grand old calendar for this project there is a note to discuss Ford Madox Hueffer‘s reading, since he gives today’s date as the day he was reading a particular book. But in comparing a few accounts of these days and weeks in a few different books, I’ve stumbled on several discrepancies. So today, instead of playing double-reader and literary enthusiast, there is some wearisome historical sleuthing to do.

It seems to be the case that Ford/Hueffer was tossed about by a shell, concussed, and suffered memory loss soon after his arrival on the Somme. Or so he said, repeatedly: there are a number of references in his writings, and some include reference to “July.” His most prominent biographer, Max Saunders, suggests the date of the 28th/29th, although if he has a specific rationale other than the terminus post quem of a July 28th letter that doesn’t mention the shelling, he is not explicit about it.[2]

But this doesn’t match with a different date mentioned by Ford in a (very interesting) piece which appears in another book edited by Saunders. Ford wrote about what he was reading while on the Somme, specifically The Red Badge of Courage, several of his friend Joseph Conrad’s books, and Henry James’s What Maisie Knew. The piece, “Literary Causeries: IV: Escape…,”[3] emphasizes how strong an effect literature can have over the mind: Ford finds when interrupted in the middle of reading Crane that he had expected the soldiers on the hillside to be wearing blue and grey, not khaki. And yet at the same time Ford asserts that he can tie these moments when the literary world and the real world were both so vivid to specific days, dates Ford claims that he remembers because of details like a battalion move. One of these is August 2nd, 1916, when he writes that his battalion was “in and around the town of Albert.”

There’s a problem with asserting the July 28th/29th date for the epoch-making, fiction-shaping memory loss, and then also including Ford’s claim that he has a very sharp memory of reading a particular book in a particular place four or five days later. Saunders, in the footnotes in the Dual Life, relies on an earlier biographer who viewed these records, and then hazards a guess based on fictional descriptions and other, later writings by Ford.[4] Not having all the books at my disposal, I went to the Battalion War Diary, which Saunders, writing before the internet had yielded up such bounty, did not consult. Alas, the 9th Welch (as they style themselves) did not keep elaborate records: most days are recorded in a line or two, and their diary does not record the names of officers wounded, as others do. Still it offers us essentially incontrovertible place-date connections.[5]

The War Diary does not disprove the idea of Ford being wounded on the 28th or 29th. In fact it gives it some circumstantial support: there was a small-scale attack planned for the 28th, then called off when “great artillery activity commenced.”[6] The diary is somewhat defensive, as it was not much to the credit of the battalion (although, from another point of view, much to the credit of its officers) that they did not leave their trenches to attempt a planned attack. The next day, the 29th, the Germans again shelled the Welch positions during the afternoon, when they were preparing to be relieved by the 10th Royal Warwickshires. It is perfectly possible that Hueffer/Ford, then assigned to the transport, could have been hit, especially on the 29th, when he would have been even more likely to be up close to the line, assisting in the relief. But there is no direct evidence–and, really, a local bombardment on the trenches need not have anything to do with a bombardment by heavier, longer-range guns on the support lines, where Hueffer/Ford was stationed.

So it’s possible. I don’t know if these records influenced the conclusions of Saunders and his predecessor biographers, or what pertinent information I may be missing. What is not possible is that Ford would find himself today, a century back, reading What Maisie Knew near Albert. His battalion had already marched through Albert and Amiens on the 31st, and were in rest billets at Béhencourt, several miles further back. So Ford claims to remember a date, in error, after what Saunders claims is the date that Ford claimed he lost his memory. Got it? Ford, of course, doesn’t ever write of losing his memory while specifying the precise date on which this occurred. Different moods…

On the balance, Saunders may be right and Ford–in his assertion that on August 2nd and 5th he was with his battalion, reading–is probably wrong. (I wonder if we shall find that Ford has mistaken a month, somehow, from his notes). One way to suss this out would be to try to find records of his medical travails. In a letter of September 7th, Ford will describe a bleak comedic interlude of being bounced around between various units which are not able to treat a man suffering from anterograde amnesia and dental pain, and the only hard information that he gives is not quite right.In the letter, he is shuttled between a Field Ambulance and CCS #36. Later, he will write this:

After I was blown up at Bécourt-Bécordel in ’16 and, having lost my memory, lay in the Casualty Clearing Station in Corbie, with the enemy planes dropping bombs all over it and the dead Red Cross nurses being carried past my bed, I used to worry agonisingly about what my name could be…[7]

But CCS #36 isn’t in Corbie–CCS 5 and 21 were; CCS 36 was in Heilly, a few miles to the north, and much closer to the position of his battalion. So perhaps he was indeed blown up on the 29th and then, two days later, when his battalion marched back into reserve, sent to various medical facilities, including CCS #36. Perhaps he was in both places, and confused. Yet it still seems fair to ask if there really dead Red Cross nurses carried past his bed… that detail, I believe, also appears in his fictional version of events. Will fiction-rooted-in-experience leak back into memory?[8]

It’s hard to tell, and not really a question for today (a century back), both because it is beyond our brief and because I have run out of time to research. But if anyone has a quick line to a source with Red Cross casualties–most medical records from the Great War are long gone, but the killing of female nurses by enemy bombs was not a common occurrence–I would appreciate knowing about it.

It seems pretty clear is that Ford’s recollection of reading James today, a century back, is incorrect, and thus this probably shouldn’t have been left un-footnoted in Saunders’ edition of War Prose. Ford is something of a knowing charlatan, but I haven’t read much that calls into question the “essential truth” (if we may) of his fictions about the Great War. Of course you can’t take your complaints about dating and CCS-numbering to the reading of a great Modernist novel starring a man named Tietjens, not Hueffer or Ford, but this does cast somewhat grave–and Graves-like–doubts on Ford’s veracity about his war experience, on which some of the positive reception of his novel rests.

And then there is Saunders. I was inclined to let him off easy on his assertion of July 28th-29th. I was pleased, after all, to find the date and to get a chance to write a little about Parade’s End, which is a fantastic book and–if I am to get it in here–needs dates to be connected to its scenes.

But I just ran down one more book, and now I fear that I have been had. The letter of July 28th which Saunders uses is to Lucy Masterman, but there are two more letters to her dated–by Richard Ludwig, editor of the published Letters–as “[August?]” and placed before another one dated the 23rd. One of these makes light of a near-miss, but neither make mention of being tossed about by a shell, or traumatized or concussed in any way. Time passes in these letters–they certainly do not read as if they were both written in close succession in the third week in August. By the 23rd Ford and his battalion have moved from France to Flanders and he is dating very cogent letters… so where is our “three weeks” of lying about in hospitals and struggling with memory problems?

Saunders makes no reference to these two letters, and then he dwells on the alleged “three weeks simply erased from his life” after July 29th, and suggests that this period was central to Ford’s identity and his development of new literary techniques.[9] I, too, want to verify (more or less) and date (I like dates!) this important Great War Literature Experience–and I appreciate the instinct to make literary hay with it–but there are a number of reasons, now, to doubt the specifics that Ford provided, after the fact, about these weeks on the Somme. Saunders is either sloppy or disingenuous, which is a little too much like Ford’s sloppy disingenuousness.

To be sure, it’s not that I think Ford is a despicable liar, nor that I’m sure that he is unduly dramatizing his war, as many of his detractors have been. He was over forty, and he went into the infantry, and to France. The trauma, I think, is real. Mostly real. Anyone with weeks near the lines might be shell-shocked. But it’s not, er, good to go about asserting dates and numbers that are in fact incorrect, and these alleged three weeks are going to be hard to find in the near future, I suspect…

So today, a century back, I’m not sure if Ford was lying abed with symptoms of psychological trauma. He may have been, but it seems very unlikely. And he certainly wasn’t reading Henry James on a hill near Albert…

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 100-101.
  2. See Saunders, ed., War Prose, 3-4, and Ford Madox Ford, A Dual Life, II, 2.
  3. Spoiler alert: Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (Paris) (9 March 19--), pp 3, 11; collected in War Prose, 231-2.
  4. Some method! Since I don't have all the books before me either, I can't exactly cast stones, although I can certainly cast bloggy aspersions on authors of actual books, who should be held to higher standards. Having just discovered the discrepancy while preparing this post, I don't have the time to get all the books and figure it out, and time will move on. But all praise to the National Archives for peddling well-digitized war records at reasonably prices...
  5. Incontrovertible in that it is a contemporary record, and also "official" and in the keeping of several people who share responsibilities--it is counter-signed, etc. But I would trust most dated, contemporary records, even without the stamp of official stamps: Harold Macmillan, for instance, noted today, a century back, that he was reading A Winter's Tale today, a century back. (Webb, From Downing Street, 220.)
  6. Page 67 of the Battalion War Diary, as available on line from the National Archives.
  7. Saunders, A Dual Life, II, 2,3. See also War Prose, 4-5.
  8. There are other details of post shell-shock hospital trauma that appear in the novel and which Saunders would trace to Ford's "Corbie-phobia" and his late July/early August experiences, including another Helleresque raving patient-in-the-next bed (see Sassoon's experience). But these should probably be "rejected" as fictional, now. Rather, they should be recognized for what they always have been: not disguised autobiography but fiction that draws heavily on war experience...
  9. Dual Life, II, 2.

Siegfried Sassoon on the Eve of the Hunt; Kate Luard and Olaf Stapledon on the Evil One’s Inventions and the Highest of Causes; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Throws Down the Reading-List Gauntlet

Siegfried Sassoon sat down to the ordinary discipline of diary writing today, a century back, for the first time since the burial of David Thomas. He has news for his beloved friend’s unavenged spirit…

March 25th

Snow yesterday, and the country all in white. Today it has melted and the wind is south-west. I walked across to the hill looking over the Somme by Sailly-Laurette. A grassy juniper-dotted platform two hundred feet above the river, a steep bluff dropping down to it. A chain of steel-grey lakes by the river, and narrow pale-brown or buff levels of marshland. The hills rise gently beyond the river with its lines of trees and huddle of trees and huddle of slated and tiled roofs, church-tower, etc. Up here I find some purple flowers with yellow centres, scabious. About an inch long-shaped like gentians.

Tomorrow I am off to do six days in the trenches with C Company.[1]

This, as both he and Robert Graves have made clear, is a volunteer assignment. The new colonel–Stockwell/Kinjack, is keen to put Sassoon’s grief to tactical use.


From a dreamy poet about to turn independent aggressor we segue–not without a certain logic–to Olaf Stapledon, dreamiest of all the staunchly committed pacifists. He writes not to any mere “cousin,” but to his intended, Agnes:

Friends’ Ambulance Unit
24 March 1916

…Look you, cousin, it is no use you talking about this work as being part of the one great cause. “The one great cause” is really getting humanity across this age of war with as little damage as possible. The other, the Allied cause, is a great cause, & to be left out is lonely. But the other is the higher…

This seems like ironclad logic. Stapledon has thrown in his lot with the Quakers, but he declares himself a free-thinker, a humanist and pacifist in a specific, dedicated sense. He will risk himself, but not to kill.

What excuse have I to be here save that I must not fight for that cause? I ought to be ashamed to be here if I felt it right to help that cause. At the front I daresay we have more work than the men in the trenches, but less suffering and danger, far less. I have been in no real danger since–ages ago. I think we disagree about the war… Remember that you hear one side. Think what the Germans are hearing. Don’t trust newspapers much…

Agnes, if after all we disagree about the war,–I believe we partly do–and if secretly you would be prouder of me fighting although you are half a pacifist, why then we have found our first real difference perhaps. Well, it can’t be helped, but I would gladly be your soldier if I honourably could…[2]

One might point out that driving ambulances to the aid of allied troops (and, it’s true, to any captured or overrun Germans) may be a form of pacifism, but it is not neutrality. Ironclad logic is not necessarily correct logic. This, again, is a well-brought-up young lad who rowed in an eight with Julian Grenfell at Oxford: he might have leapt at the chance to hunt people instead of beasts; he might be spitting gore and German feathers from a blood-stained mouth. So to speak.

Instead, he is living under canvas in winter and driving into barrages to retrieve the war’s victims, and gently pointing out to his beloved that you can’t believe everything you read in the papers… Would he be better off back home in England, preparing himself to face jail and derision for a firmer refusal to see the war through?


Kate Luard is another figure of the medical middle grounds. Although she is an eminently practical woman and a professional while Stapledon is a boyish fantasist, they nevertheless share certain fundaments of outlook. She too will accept risk–bombs regularly fall on Lillers–and discomfort in order to care for the wounded; she too expresses sympathy for all the war’s victims, allied or German, and knows very well that propaganda is not to be believed–and she too has no doubts about the greater rightness of the allied cause and her place in abetting it.

Yesterday, a century back–and today–it was the evils of war rather than the staunch heroism of the British soldier that were uppermost in her thoughts.

Thursday, March 23rd. There are two very ill and interesting men in the Surgical… one a chest… one has a broken arm in a bath, and a broken knee under continuous drip: bomb wounds. Grenades are truly an invention of the Evil One[3]

Friday, March 24th. Snowing hard this morning and to-night, and men are lying out in the cold slush the better to kill each other. Isn’t it insane and immoral beyond description?[4]


Yes, yes it is. But this project, like any non-clinical, non-technical piece of writing, must flirt with entertainment at the expense of total moral commitment (not that there were any dangers on that score). They went, they wrote–and we want to know what it was like. So let’s do something lighter.

Yesterday we read Raymond Asquith‘s barely concealed blustering non-concealment of his worries that Patrick Shaw-Stewart has stolen away the attentions of Diana Manners. But letters lag, and Patsy was already a week gone, reassigned to Salonika. Today, a century back, Shaw-Stewart wrote to his sister of his very Asquith-like reading:

I have read quite a lot: Homer and History by Walter Leaf, The Geographical Aspect of Balkan Problems by some female don (very dry), Macaulay’s History (progress made), finished Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale (a triumph), Thais again, La-bas by Huysmans (mostly about devil-worship), A. E. W. Mason’s Mystery of the Villa Rose in Spanish, Edgar Vincent’s Modern Greeks, Henry James’s Washington Square, some Lucretius, and a lot of Eddie’s new Georgian Poets, which I think are better than the old. We had a submarine scare, but the sea looked so warm and inviting, and my Gieve waistcoat so saucy when inflated, that I was quite disappointed it didn’t develop.[5]

Just a little light reading…


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 46.
  2. Talking Across the World, 134-5.
  3. Perhaps. But the devil has been credited with many such inventions--I doubt that Luard here is intending an allusion to Ariosto, the 16th century epic poet who attributed the knighthood- and romance-destroying invention of firearms to Satan. Rather, she is bemoaning particularly complex wounds. But the return of the grenade has been occasioned by the dominance of artillery on the battlefield, and shrapnel wounds are hardly prettier. Or is it the devil's work, perhaps, that has brought so many accidents from so many ill-made grenades? There is a great deal of room, these days, for diabolical inspiration.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 47-8.
  5. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 163-4.

Old Sergeant Montague on His Great Adventure; Kipling Welcomes Henry James; Vera Brittain Charts Her Course Toward London

First, today, an amusing-and-informative letter from C.E. Montague, venerable volunteer sergeant, to his friend Allan Monkhouse:

24th (Service) Battn., Royal Fusiliers, Clipston Camp, Notts, July 28, 1915

I am a beast not to have written sooner, … but I have never been so busy in my life as during the last few weeks. I am a sergeant now, with all sorts of intricate duties and rituals to behave correctly in; and it is the sacred army tradition that you are not to be told beforehand how to perform new duties, but are to find out by committing all the possible blunders, and some that are almost impossible, in trying to do them as you would in a new-made world of your own. But it is a great adventure and I earn two bob a day…

We have nearly finished our brigade training (the second stage) here and are to move to Salisbury Plain next week for the divisional, or final, stage, after which we are told that we may hope to go out either to Flanders or the Dardanelles. It is a good healthy life here, with about 18 miles marching and three or four hours manoeuvring or drilling on most days, and it is a wild joy to get away from parade-ground niceties to the freer movement of field-days in big hilly heather, where one can get into more human relations with one’s little commando, who are all charming curiosities.[1]


From our oldest writing ranker to a matter of two larger literary lights. (This is of ancillary interest, I admit, but I want us to keep an eye on Kipling, as he will be moving shortly.)

Rudyard Kipling had written apologetically last week to Henry James, in order to smooth over a misunderstanding about his inability to write something for an anthology aimed at stimulating American sentiment in favor of the allies. The (nominally) secret reason that the fecund Kipling can’t produce something is that he will shortly head to France as a correspondent. Today, however, he wrote to James with hearty congratulations.

Brown’s Hotel, London, W. July 28, 1915

We couldn’t love or admire you more than we’ve done all these years but today’s news in The Times makes us all very proud.

This would be the news that Henry James had taken British citizenship, presumably in order to deepen the perplexity of later generations of students of English Literature.

You don’t know what it means or what it will go on to mean not to the Empire alone but to all the world-of civilization that you’ve thrown in your lot with them.

Ever affectionately,



And finally, today, a letter from Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton. Her nursing career advances:

Buxton, 28 July 1915

I am hoping that you will get an early chance of leave for convenience sake as well as for all the other things too, as I really don’t know what I may be doing in the fairly near future… This present Hospital is of course only a temporary affair—though the temporariness may be either long or short according as things turn out. It is not really a Military Hospital, but a civilian Hospital with a military side; it affords however a very satisfactory combination of usefulness to other people with training for myself while I am seeing about other things to do. I am at present very necessary where I am but they expect to be much slacker after the autumn has begun–of course the Hospitals are everywhere but an overflow Hospital more so than most…

I heard a day or two ago that there is a faint chance of my getting into a large London Hospital as a V.A.D. The Hospital is an immense place at Camberwell (No I. London General); it has been established I think since the beginning of the War but has recently been greatly extended & contains over a thousand beds. They have to make a necessary increase in the nursing staff & want more V.A.Ds…

I should love to go there as they get all the wounded straight from the trenches and the V.A.Ds have all the
minor dressing to do. Fully trained nurses are rather scarce just now, and it is counted that two V.A.Ds take the place of one trained nurse (though I don’t think they do really, I had no idea what a capable person a trained nurse was till I went to the Hospital)…[3]

Thus begins Vera’s journey toward becoming a V.A.D.–a member of a Voluntary Aid Detachment. Although the V.A.D. had existed before the war as an outlet for the Edwardian enthusiasm for volunteer work, it had swiftly become the rough feminine equivalent of the volunteer military units that formed in the immediate aftermath of the declaration of war. The ranks of the V.A.D.s are now swelling, and providing a huge corps of second-line nurses. These women lack full training, and as such never receiving the rank or privileges of pre-war nurses–which makes some sense, given that half-trained medical personnel seem somehow more frightening than the half-trained soldiers they will be ministering too. And yet the best men of Kitchener’s Army were absorbed into the upper ranks of the Regular Army without much prejudice attaching to their status, at least for the duration… The doors, for women, opened more slowly and less completely.

Interestingly, Vera Brittain’s diary entry for today is more about the current experience of nursing than her professional future:

Nursing seemed rather lighter altogether to-day. I seemed to get things done quicker. I also began to feel less antipathy to Smith, the man in 5, who has had his great shaggy moustache shaved off, and now looks quite a young man (which he is, only 27) and one who would be very good-looking if he were well. I feel sorry for him now in spite of his incessant ingratitude & grumbling; after all one doesn’t know what he may have been through. I helped Nurse Olive to wash him again to-night.[4]

No, one doesn’t know. And one strains to find out…


References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C. E. Montague, 113.
  2. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 308-9.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 134-5.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 225.

The Afterlives of Julian Grenfell II: Henry James Weighs In; Henry Farnsworth Goes Twice into No Man’s Land; Lord Desborough Replies to Kipling; Rowland Feilding on Patrols and Plover’s Eggs; Vera Brittain Entertains the Wounded, and Struggles

More reactions, today, to the death of Julian Grenfell. Many knew him as a bright and fairly unconventional young man, but thought of him primarily as the son of remarkable parents: Ettie Desborough, dominant spirit of the “Souls,” and her husband Willy Grenfell, Lord Desborough, the athlete, politician, Late Victorian culture hero and social fixture. With the publication of “Into Battle” this is beginning to change.

No less a literary light than Henry James wrote today, a century back, of

those extraordinarily living and breathing, ringing and stinging, verses… I seem almost to have known your splendid son even though that ravaged felicity hadn’t come my way… What great and terrible and unspeakable things! but out of which, round his sublime young image, a noble and exquisite legend will flower.[1]

And Lord Desborough has begun returning his letters of condolence. He had written two days ago to Lord Kitchener, who had inquired repeatedly after Grenfell, one of the millions of young men in his stewardship as Secretary of State for War, with the news of Julian’s death. Desborough had mentioned then too that “there was some particular bit of work he was very pleased about, but I never heard what it was.”

This, I thought at first, was a reference to “Into Battle”–but that was probably because I misread “Kitchener” for “Kipling.” But I realize now that it is a reference to a military action. Perhaps the bereaved father is hoping that the great war minister can crown the glory of Julian’s death with another decoration? Today’s letter makes that fairly clear:

My dear K

You cannot think how grateful Ettie and I are to you for your letter, it takes away one’s sorrow.

You were so fond of Julian that you will be pleased to read what Billy’s Colonel Maclachlan wrote to him.

‘Julian has set an example of light hearted courage which is famous all through the Army in France, and has stood out even among the most lion-hearted’.

There was a piece of work he did the last day which pleased him very much, some observation he took under a heavy fire which he thought turned the situation, but were were told not to let him talk about the war so we shall never really know….

All that can be done now is to see that Julian and his like shall not have laid down their lives in vain: each in the way that is open to him,

Your ever Willy[2]


Next we check in with Henry Farnsworth, one of our two Americans in the French Foreign Legion:

May 30, 1915

Dear Papa:

Your funds and those of Aunt Alice arrived at the same time and were both more than welcome, I being entirely out and Sukuna having lost his last 80 francs a week before. You can hardly imagine the joys of cooking eggs and fresh vegetables…

I am writing in cantonnement, having arrived last night from six days in the trenches. This time it was for our section a very peaceful session. Most of the time there was not even the crack of a rifle to break that peculiar brooding silence that pervades the inactive portions of the front…

Here we have adequate shelters and shells are negligible quantities. Sukuna and I are now recognized patrolmen, and go out whenever it is the turn of our section. We made two this last few days, one a cumbersome affair of fifteen men, with the intention of capturing any Germans that might be prowling about in front of the lines. The other, seven of us, including two corporals and a sergeant. It was to carry French newspapers into the German lines. We could not get through the barbed wire, there being an incredibly bright moon, so we stuck them on a stick on their barbed wire. Although plainly visible from our own lines, the Germans have ignored them…

Farnsworth now writes to his sister, to whom he is generally more forthcoming, especially about any thing that Papa might look upon as less than heroic, dishonorable, or, simply, as a dumb move. He also has confided in her his ambition to write a novel. In this second description of the patrols he certainly shows a novelist’s ability to manage a narrative

May 30, 1915 Dear Ellen:

We arrived last night from the trenches—I… succeeded in persuading the doctor that I needed a day of rest. Hence, while others are cursing…  I write in peace; also I have gotten a sheaf of straw and am very comfy.

This throws a glimpse into the side of military life not much advertised at present. A species of low and self-contained cunning is a thing one learns from association with old Legionnaires. The strange thing is that nobody thinks any the worse of you for these self-given holidays. It goes without saying that in the trenches one does one’s work without a murmur and well, and thus stands in with corporals and sergeants. For the trench loafers the trick is not so easily turned.

Of the last six days in the lines, rien a signaler [nothing to report] except two patrols, which lacked nothing but the Germans to make them successful. Between the lines is a broad fertile field of beet sugar and clover. It grows high enough to hide a man crawling on his stomach, and in spots, even on all fours. It is here that the patrols take place. The first was an attempted ambuscade…  The next night seven of us were detailed to carry French papers, telling of Italy’s declaration of war, into the German lines. We crawled from 9 o’clock till 11:30, and succeeded in sticking papers on their barbed wire. They have since then steadily ignored them, much to our disgust.

There is a certain fascination in all this, dull though it may seem. The patrol is selected in the afternoon. At sunset we meet to make the plans and tell each man his duty; then at dark our pockets are filled with cartridges, a drawn bayonet in the belt, and our magazines loaded to the brim… All along the line the sentinels wish us good luck and a safe return. In the petit poste we clamp on the bayonets, blow noses, clear throats, and prepare for three hours of utter silence. At a word from the chief we form line in the prearranged order. The sentries wish us luck for the last time, and the chief jumps up on the edge of the trenches and begins to work his way quickly through the barbed wire. Once outside he disappears in the beet weeds and one after another we follow. Then begins the crawl to the appointed spot. We go slowly, with frequent halts. Every sound must be analyzed. On the occasion of the would-be ambush, I admit I went to sleep after a while in the warm fresh clover where we lay. It was the Adjutant himself who woke me up with a slight hiss, but as he chose me again next night, he does not seem to have thought it a serious matter. Then, too, once home we do not mount guard all the rest of the night, and are allowed to sleep in the morning; also there are small, but pleasing discussions of the affair, and above all the hope of some night suddenly leaping out of the darkness hand to hand with the Germans.

It’s time now that I began cooking Sukuna’s and my midday meal of eggs, so good-bye, my dear, and love to all.



Rowland Feilding writes home today, a century back, with a brief “all in a night’s work” vignette. It’s a very similar story to Farnsworth’s–and yet both more bloody and less vividly told:

May 30, 1915, Support Trench, Le Rutoire.

Out in Noman’s Land, close to the German line, grows a tree, which, though small and insignificant considered as such, is the only object in the broad and desolate and otherwise treeless space intervening here between the German trenches and our own. This tree, therefore, has achieved a notoriety which it most certainly would never have done otherwise. It is known as the “Lone Tree” and, I daresay, is as famous among the Germans as among our troops. Last night a patrol of No. 1 Company, which was engaged in examining the enemy’s wire, bumped suddenly into a hostile advanced post near it, and lost two killed, while a third man was wounded, but was got away.

To-day was very quiet. I lunched at Battalion Headquarters in in the cellar under the ruins of Le Rutoire farm, and ate plovers’ eggs from home.[4]

I have a correction to make, by the way, after more studious attention to Burke’s Peerage. Rowland Feilding is not a second cousin to Dorothie and Rudolph/Rollo/Tubby, but of the previous generation (though slightly older), so a first cousin once removed.


Vera Brittain is busily engaged with end-of-term events at Oxford. But these have changed. This term, the buildings of her college, Somerville, had been given over to convalescent officers. Two days ago she took part in a program of entertainment for them. She wrote about this in her diary and, as so often, then reworked some of the same phrases in a letter to Roland Leighton.

It all seemed so terribly wrong–to see these fine well built men crippled & invalided, their strong capable bodies rendered, temporarily, at least, useless, all for the sake of no one quite knows what…

To Roland she wrote today, a century back:

I went with a few other Somerville people to give an entertainment to the wounded soldiers at Somerville… it was a mixture of singing, dancing, & more or less elementary acting. I had some of the singing to do. The majority of the wounded at Somerville are not very bad cases, most of them were able to sit in the garden, where we gave the entertainment, and those not quire so well sat in the windows or the rooms all round. But of course most of them were cripples & bandaged in various ways, and I don’t know when anything has made me so sad as the combination of the music, the lovely garden on a glorious afternoon, and these fine specimens of humanity with their once strong bodies broken & helpless. One feels at such times that no cause is great enough to excuse the wrong that made them like that…[5]

Vera then veered away from the subject–she mentions conscription, actually, asking Roland’s opinion of the dramatic measure that is only beginning to be seriously considered. So the letter turns to contemplate those safe young men, and avoids pushing too far these dark thoughts of what happens to those already in khaki. And yet: in the diary she had gone just a little bit further toward despair, and–despite their pact of total honesty–she held back a little on the exact nature of her agony:

The worst of it was that, as officers & even Tommies at a distance give something of the same impression, every soldier I saw reminded me of one. As I stood watching them & observing their different injuries, I could imagine him with a wrecked & broken body struggling to walk with the help of a padded stick…

They all looked quite cheerful, especially those in the windows round, but I was thinking of all who never come back, whose crushed & broken bodies lie lifeless on the fields of Flanders, past all the loving redemption which is given to these & such as these at Somerville.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, His Life and the Times of his Death, 1888-1915, 266-7.
  2. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 312-3.
  3. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 151-6.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 17-18.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 114.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 202-3.

The Master and the Regulars; Pooh on Armageddon; Vera (shows) appeals to Edward; Donald Hankey Adopts a Gospel of Tough Love; Osbert Writes for Money

Before we get to the Master (that’s Henry James!)[1] a word on the Regulars: as I mentioned in a post a few days ago, we will need, now that war is upon us, to find a few committed diarist/letter-writers/memoirists who were serving in the army when the war began. Their accounts will allow us to follow the fighting in France, day by day, while our poets are still in school, or dithering, or just beginning their training. The regulars will be joined, in a few weeks, by a number of volunteer nurses.

So please do bear with this week of cacophonous posts: we meet a few more people, now and soon, and then try to keep the other balls slowly rolling while we follow our Regulars to France. There we will keep a close eye on one or two at a time and letting each voice speak several times a week.


As for today, a century back, the reactions to yesterday’s momentous events began. Henry James, the suddenly superannuated master of the civilized novel, wrote that

The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton feat of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for my words.[2]


And now to a brace of one-and-future Regular Officers:


August 5, ’14

The Gospel says: ‘Love your enemies.’ That means: ‘Try to make them your friends.’ It may be necessary to kick one’s enemy in order to make friendship possible. A nation may be in the same predicament, and be forced to fight in order to make friendship possible.[3]

These were the thoughts that Donald Hankey jotted down in his notebook today, a century back. Hankey, twenty-nine, entered into the same soul-searchings and deliberations as so many other young Englishmen with a somewhat unusual perspective. From a wealthy middle class background, he attended Rugby (overlapping with Rupert Brooke, although Hankey was older) but then went on to the Royal Military Academy. His army career, however, was very short, due both to illness and an antipathy for military life, and Hankey spent most of his twenties as a student of religion and home-front missionary in some of England’s poorest urban neighborhoods. He had also traveled, tried foreign mission work, and wrote–both a scholarly book on Christian doctrine (the result of his studies at Oxford) and as a travel journalist.

So Hankey would need to square his English gentleman’s desire to enlist with his very serious commitment to a life lived for the gospel. He had experience living outside of the usual haunts of a privileged life–he had traveled to Australia in steerage and he made a habit of pursuing his missionary work in the clothes of a poor laborer or farm worker. This seems to have been a high-minded attempt to bridge the famous English class gap and bring the good news without its distancing effect, although it’s hard to imagine this sort of class-drag not causing some resentment. Hankey wasn’t really trying to pass, however–he still lived well when he was not working–but rather saw his attempt to mix with those less, er, fortunate then himself as essential experience for his chosen path in life.

It was his intention to eventually become an ordained minister, in fact, that led him to consider the unusual step of not seeking a commission but rather enlisting in the ranks. His military expertise might be more valuable if he served as an officer, but wouldn’t a gentleman ranker gain invaluable insights into the lives of the lower classes by fighting alongside them, insights that would enable him to be a better future shepherd of their souls? Hankey will waver for a few days.


Hankey was a thoughtful Christian, both a student of his religion and a man determined to make actual sacrifices (of financial and social comfort) in order to serve his God. Many of the writers who set the tone of English public discourse about the war in its early weeks were, however, willing to put God and religion to use–it was patriotism first and religion wherever it was useful. (It should not need pointing out, after all these years, that all the combatant nations claimed god for their side–the Germans even created a hot little corner of the military souvenir resale market by asserting this fact on their belt buckles, which read Gott Mit Uns.)

Now it won’t do much good to complain simply that each nation claimed right for their side, and backed that claim up with the most universal sort of appeal (fewer, even, than now, were those then willing to openly disespouse any sort of monotheism). If they were going to fight a bloody foreign war, how could they not claim that (their) God was with them?

Well, so: we’ll come back to this subject when more specific outrages against religion are committed. What I want to show today is that the knee-jerk assumption of divine backing for national policy got particularly sodden and sneaky-noxious when it was mixed with the late Victorian habit of couching patriotic sentiment in the pseudo-medieval language of chivalric warfare. These barrages of cant and gassy hypocrisy were so dense, especially in the war’s early days, that they infiltrated the edges even of the most resilient minds, those intelligences most swiftly and tightly masked against lies.

Everyone caught at least a touch of the gas–even Robert Graves, even Thomas Hardy. But here is the unadulterated stuff:

So shalt thou when morning comes
Rise to conquer or to fall,
Joyful hear the rolling drums,
Joyful hear the trumpets call,
Then let Memory tell thy heart:
“England! what thou wert, thou art!”
Gird thee with thine ancient might,
Forth! and God defend the Right!

The standard-bearer (see?) for this sort of imperialist, retro-phony horseshit was Henry Newbolt, best known for “Vitai Lampada” (thesis: cricket is like war, and the playing fields of Eton will literally teach you how to die well at your primitive machine gun, and earn undying glory–“vitai lampada” means “torch of life,” or, perhaps “eternal flame”–over the bodies of so many heathens). Newbolt was a very bad poet, and very popular (see here; scroll down for elitism!) but a professional writer of sporty doggerel can’t afford to be slow off the mark. Today–the first full day of the British war effort–his poem “The Vigil” appeared in the Times. Its last stanza, quoted above, gives a good sense of the rest (there are, for instance, several other exclamations to “England”).

This gives us, at least, the ability to ask, here at the beginning, what exactly “war poetry” is supposed to do. Drums, trumpets, sure, well–those won’t go up to the line of battle, anyway–but “gird” and “thou wert?”

What does it mean (to be a man far too old for active service and) to exhort the youth of England to risk their lives in an idiom that no one speaks any longer, and one that refers to an invented chivalric past? As it happens, Newbolt had written these lines sixteen years before, in alleged “mystical anticipation” of this, its initial publication on the day when thousands of young Englishman would begin to choose whether or not to gird themselves.[4] Unless we take the mysticism literally, we might then wonder what sort of sacred and heroic feelings can lie unblunted in a desk-drawer for almost long enough to raise new cannon-fodder from scratch and yet retain any real meaning: there is a very frightening thought–or un-thought–behind this poem, namely that whenever capital-W War comes, it is Joyful and Right.


From the heart of London, Osbert Sitwell wrote to his father. Although his autobiography mentions a sudden paternal offer of cash a few days earlier–and implies that he refused it–his father’s archives preserve a letter from today requesting money: “I hate worrying you about these things as I know how dreadfully the war will affect you… but one’s chance of survival in this war seems so small that it is not worth taking small risks on account of expense,” so please, Daddy Dearest, send me some money so that I might buy a new pistol and field glasses.

An unimpeachable request! And, considering the circumstances–Osbert’s constant high living and indebtedness–also a monumentally manipulative and cheeky one.[5]



And on the fictional outskirts of London, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, handed over the wheel of his car to his chauffeur, the better to ponder how the war will affect his fledgling cigarette company. (Not well.) In the back seat, cousin Francis, the gifted layabout and imaginary-best-friend-of-thedashing-secondary-character-who-is-not-a-stand-in-for-the-author, practices his Dutch and German–what could he be thinking of?

Rather awkwardly, today, a century back, marked the publication of an issue of Punch, the great and influential humor magazine, that had, of course, gone to press before the events of the Last Weekend. The magazine, like all major British cultural organs, would immediately toe the line and unstintingly support the war effort–so today, of all days, marked its only real anti-war gesture. You can’t even pick up a newspaper, a century back, without stumbling over situational ironies. He’s a rascal, that young A.A. Milne; here’s how his story began:


The conversation had turned, as it always does in the smoking rooms of golf clubs, to the state of poor old England, and Porkins[6] had summed the matter up…

“What England wants,” he said, leaning back and puffing on his cigar, – “what England wants is a war. (Another whiskey and soda, waiter.) We’re getting flabby. All this pampering of the poor is playing the very deuce with the country. A bit of a scrap with a foreign power would do us all the good in the world.” He disposed of his whiskey at a draught. “We’re flabby.” He repeated.” The lower classes seem to have no sense of discipline nowadays.” We want a war to brace us up.”

It is well understood in Olympus that Porkins must not be disappointed. What will happen to him in the next world I do not know, but it will be something extremely humorous; in this world however, he is to have all that he wants. Accordingly the gods got to work.

There’s not much more to the story: the gods get to work, and because one fat useless English club-man subscribes to the popular idea that cultural decadence can be sweated out in a war, hundreds of thousands are slaughtered.


Back to reality: today was also the day that a handful of fully equipped regular battalions began to move toward France.
The signal arrived at Dorchester at about 2.30 a.m., and we were underway 3.15. We started in pouring rain, the men in the best of spirits, singing at the top of their voices. I have forgotten what they sang, but it was certainly not “Tipperary,” which was already out of date in Quetta the previous year.

The Second Royal Welch (2/RWF) was an old regular formation, and these old sweats were too cool for Tipperary. A “humorist” will later sing it when the battalion appears to be lost on the march, but this was not a song, apparently, that real soldiers embraced, even at the beginning. A striking number of memoirs make reference to “Tipperary,” usually with a hard commitment one way or the other: either “Ah, but did we love that song!” Or “Real soldiers scorned that false stereotype of the carefree Tommy, and we only ever heard rookies or idiot civilians singing it.” History can be tricksy, and now you know: lightweight Great War buffs talk about Tipperary, but the real vicarious Tommies sigh at the affectations of the nubes.[7]

We need to meet yet another young officer, stationed today, a century back, as it happens, in Tipperary itself–yet another reminder that the war that until very recently had seemed to loom largest in possibility was civil war in Ireland.

Lieutenant Billy Congreve of the Rifle Brigade was twenty-three years old and extremely tall and skinny, looking more like a well-brushed and knobby-kneed school boy than a soldier. And there are lots of clearly pre-war pictures on the web, so enjoy. But he was a graduate of Eton and Sandhurst, the son of a VC and the older brother of a midshipman who were, by the time the news reached Ireland, already moving. With trouble on the horizon, Billy Congreve had recently started a diary, in which he will record his combat experiences, which will begin not long after those of the 2/RWF–few were as well-prepared or apt in the sudden new war. Still, Tipperary aside, the story of mobilization in Ireland is one that Congreve can hardly help reporting–in a journal he began in anticipation of war–in an ironic register:

Billy Congreve in a pre-war photo

We were all medically examined today and made wills–at least the men did. I didn’t, as I have nothing to make one about.
All the village is very perturbed. They follow us about and weep copious tears and utter long-winded blessings. Mr. Hegarthy came up to me with a somewhat alcoholic manner, and mysteriously ushered me into his holy of holies, a stuffy, dirty hole. Here he gave me whiskey of great merit (?) and potent beyond words, and a box of cigars. I had to take all this and many words of affection besides, I hope I played my part well.[8]


Considerably closer to the action was Lieutenant Edward Louis Spears, the rare British regular officer with fluent French, and conveniently located in Paris:[9] ,

I was ordered to the Grand Quartier General on August 5th, and was told I would be taken there in the liaison car leaving the War Office at 1.30 p.m…  Our departure caused some excitement. We piled into the car, a huge racing machine owned by a very nice man who had been mobilised as its chauffeur…

As the great doors swung open and the first British officer started for the front, a cheer burst forth from the hundreds of clerks, orderlies, etc., who had just marched back from dinner… and were leaning out of the windows or were still in the immense courtyard.

The driver stopped at a bazaar to buy two large Red Ensigns which were secured to the wind screen as a sign that the British really were in the war…[10]

Showing the flag indeed. By that evening, Spears had been presented to General Joffre, the French commanding general, and begun his work as official British Liaison.


And finally, Vera Brittain:

Wednesday August 5th


All the news of last night was confirmed this morning.. war between England & Germany is formally declared…

The town was quite quiet when we went down, though groups of people were standing about talking & one or two Territorials were passing through the streets. Several Territorials & one or two Reservists were going off by train this morning & there was a small crowd on the station seeing them off. Close by us a Reservist got into a carriage & his father & a girl, probably his wife, came to say goodbye. The girl was crying but they were all quite calm…  Though excitement & suspense are wearing, I felt I simply could not rest but must go on wandering about.

…I showed Edward an appeal in The Times & The Chronicle for young unmarried men between the ages of 18 & 30 to join the army. He suddenly got very keen & after dinner he & Maurice wandered all round Buxton trying to find out what to do in order to volunteer for home service.  They were informed by someone at the Police Station that the best thing to do would be to telephone to the Territorial Headquarters at Chesterfield. They got on to a very interesting officer there, & told him they wanted if possible to be allowed to serve for a period as they did not want their service to interfere with their going to Oxford if it could be avoided…[11]

The “appeal” mentioned here is Lord Kitchener’s call for one hundred thousand volunteers to form what would soon be called the “New Army.” Kitchener was one of the few senior British politicians to voice the opinion that the that the war might last several years, and that a larger army–something at least closer to the relative scale of the continental conscript armies–would be needed. His appeal was well received: many more than a hundred thousand were ready, willing, eager to serve, and so Edward and his friend Maurice–and Roland too, of course–began their maneuvers upon the formidable British military bureaucracy, their goal being to seize a place in “Kitchener’s Army.”

Now, my fondness for young Vera Brittain should be apparent, and I hope I am conveying something of the rare mix of stubborn self-regarding intelligence and writerly sensitivity which she possessed even in 1914–but oh the cruelty of a young woman scorning! Just yesterday she was taunting her rejected suitor, Bertram, about his uselessness to his country–he had evidently not been in his school’s cadet corps–and today she opines that Roland, despite his cadet training, should be spared war, on account of his lofty beautiful brains…

References and Footnotes

  1. No, he's not important to this project, but why pass up a chance to sentence us to a booming sentence by the master of the incomparable whopper sentence?
  2. Quoted in this fashion by Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined, 1. Transcriptions of this letter differ somewhat widely; one site even attributes the quote to Paul Fussell...
  3. Hankey, A Student in Arms, 187.
  4. Hynes, A War Imagined, 25.
  5. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 53.
  6. I do not at this time know of any connection between this proto-Pooh and his namesake who flew under the call sign Red Six, but I fervently hope to discover one.
  7. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 5, 25.
  8. Congreve, Armageddon Road, 20--yes, another book entitled "Armageddon."
  9. Né Spiers--like Ford Madox Hueffer he kept his birth name until after the war, then published his most famous work--in Spears' case, an account of the first month of the war--under his newer and more English name. Spiers wanted his name to be "correctly" pronounced. And also not to reveal his Jewish ancestry.
  10. Spears, Liaison, 19.
  11. Chronicle of Youth, 87-88.

Chorus: War!

August 4th, 1914[1]

So today is the big day: As Germany invades Belgium, Britain declares war.

Rather than presenting any lengthy, informative, or thoughtful excerpts, today–everyone was too excited for solid information or deep thought, anyway–I thought a panoramic post might be in order. So, let’s check briefly in on the memories and whereabouts of many different writers–such an archive it will be when we fondly look back!

Ford Madox Ford–then and throughout the war still known as Ford Madox Hueffer–was at a “literary country-house party” in the north of England, hobnobbing with Wyndham Lewis and E.M. Forster, among others.[2] He was, in fact, quite near the Berwick-on-Tweed station from which his heroic/shambolic alter-ego, Christopher Tietjens, had departed yesterday, shepherding the perfidious Mrs. Duchemin through the “rout” to London… Ford himself would soon hustle back to the capital and turn his prolific pen to war-writing…

Francis and Riversdale Grenfell were together at Tidworth, where Francis–the career officer–was stationed. Rivy, whose financial career had recently ended in disaster, immediately moved to get his reserve commission transferred into his twin’s unit, the 9th Lancers.[3]

Cousin Julian was with his regiment in South Africa, but his mother, Lady Desborough, was dining in London, and–lest we think that the Great Soul was losing her touch, none other than Lord Kitchener dropped by to say hello, on his way to Whitehall to be made Minister of War.[4]

Edward Thomas was sitting with Robert Frost “on an orchard stile near Little Iddens when word came that the firing had started. They wondered whether they might be able to hear the guns from their corner of Gloucestershire…

At Cley-next-the-Sea on the north coast of Norfolk, Rupert Brooke woke from a nightmare about impending war to find that it had begun,” while deep in the Pyrenees, Wilfred Owen “climbed to the top of a hill and gazed both north to where he supposed the fighting might be, and south over the Pyrenees[5] to the safety of Spain, wondering in which direction his future lay.”[6]

Our bellwether of aged literary wisdom, Thomas Hardy, was discussing the rumours of war over lunch at Athelhampton Hall, Dorsetshire

when a telegram came announcing the rumour to be fact. A discussion arose about food, and there was almost a panic at the table, nobody having any stock… The whole news and what it involved burst upon Hardy’s mind next morning, for though most people were saying the war would be over by Christmas he felt it might be a matter of years and untold disaster.[7]

George Bernard Shaw, who will remain a voice of liberal/socialist/international reason (or nauseating pro-German treasonous rot, depending on your point of view) gave the traces a reassuringly firm kick by wiring his German translator: “you and I at war [;] can absurdity go further [;] my friendliest wishes go with you under all circumstances.”[8]

That same afternoon, Charles Carrington took a long Hampshire walk with his uncle,

round by Crondall and Crookham to discuss my future in a mood of great unreality. Presently a sweating soldier on a bicycle stopped us to ask the way to Colonel So-and-So’s house, and told us outright that he was carrying the mobilization order, an announcement that seemed fatal to our conversation. Late that night, after my usual bedtime, I rode down to the village street for news, to find three or four people staring blankly at a notice in the window of the post office: ‘War declared.'[9]

We have yet to meet Alfred Hale, the greatest of Paul Fussell’s discoveries (and we will not get to know him well for years, as he dodges service until 1917) but his monumentally aggrieved and solipsistically woeful memoir–a fascinating book most unlike any other–hits full stride in four sentences:

Rake. Night of 4 August, 1914. Out in the garden of my house at 11pm, listening to what I imagined to be a War signal : a gun fired at Portsmouth, very faint in the distance, the whole thing a climax to my various personal troubles. These troubles had chiefly to do with domestic servants. I had engaged a housekeeper…[10]

Ever so slightly less inclined to whingeing was Frank Richards, reservist of the Royal Welsh and current timberman’s assistant in a Welsh mine. Richards spent the evening of the fourth in Blaina, Monmouthshire, “having a drink at the Castle Hotel with a few of my cronies, all old soldiers and the majority of them reservists” and telling tall tales of their exploits as colonial soldiers when news came that “the Sergeant of Police was hanging up a notice by the post office, calling all reservists to the Colours. This caused a bit of excitement and language, but it was too late in the evening for any of us to proceed to our depots so we kept on drinking and yarning until stop-tap.”[11] Richards will be in France within the week.

Osbert Sitwell “arrived in London at six in the morning, and reported to the Reserve Battalion, already in course of formation. In the afternoon I went to say good-by to many friends, who, as it happened, were never to return to England. Two or three of the most confident I heard instructing their servants to pack their evening clothes, since they would need them in a week or two in Berlin…” later, near the palace, he “heard the great crowd roar for its own death. It cheered and cried and howled…”[12] By the evening he was moving between private clubs, and writing to his father of the big news.[13]

As word of the ultimatum and the likelihood of a declaration of war late in the day spread through the capital, thousands converged on Buckingham Palace, where the King and Queen and Prince of Wales appeared on the balcony to acknowledge the cheers of their subjects. I don’t know if any of our writers were in the crowd, but Henry Williamson’s Phillip Maddison was.[14]

A mile away, in Piccadilly, the modernist poet and philosopher T.E. Hulme was “sitting in the Café Royal with David Bromberg when news broke of the declaration of war on Germany…”[15]

Lady Diana Manners (Cooper) (i.e., née Manners, but best known as Lady Cooper, following a post-war marriage), a central figure of the “Coterie” and sister of the once-beloved of Julian Grenfell, was at The Woodhose, Rowsley, “playing the war game, then very much in fashion, elaborated by Winston Churchill into a pastime for strategists and involving hundreds of tin soldiers.” While the young men played on with their tin soldiers, she began to consider the mildly rebellious step of becoming a nurse.[16]

As for fictional future propaganda, Lord Dunsany’s Boer War veteran remains steadfast to his (dis)inclination: “Then came August 4th, and England true to her destiny, and then Lord Kitchener’s appeal for men. Sergeant Cane had a family to look after and a nice little house: he had left the army ten years…”[17]

Now, one of several exceptions to the Standard of Recruitment for this project’s protagonists–we generally follow writers prolific or professional who (will) either see active service or treat the recently wounded–is that I’ve admitted some interesting non-combatant writers provided that they 1) are active in war writing during the war; 2) are too old to fight themselves; and 3) have sons in uniform. One writer-you-may-have heard-of who fits this profile is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, aged 55 and semi-retired (from Holmes, at least, save that Last Bow) in Sussex.

On August 4, when war seemed assured, I had a note from Mr Goldsmith, a plumber in the village: “There is a feeling in Crowborough, that something should be done.” This made me laugh at first, but presently I thought more seriously of it. After all, Crowborough was one of a thousand villages, and we might be planning and acting for all. Therefore I had notices rapidly printed. I distributed them and put them at road corners, and the same evening (August 4) we held a village meeting, and started the Volunteers…[18]

The old gents would continue to drill for some time–even in Britain, with its semi-official Eccentric Amateur mascot, the War Office was a bit bemused about what to do with such middle-aged enthusiasm. But they could get into little trouble marching around Sussex and being very proud of themselves… thank God for the Royal Navy.

Receiving the same exemption in order to appear here will be Rudyard Kipling, the prolific and polarizing semi-unofficial Storyteller-in-Chief of the British Empire. Today he was brief, writing three words in his wife Carrie’s diary, and choosing, we should note, the same Biblical noun that Vera Brittain had deployed yesterday: “Incidentally armageddon begins.”[19]


But let’s finish in Buxton, which Vera Brittain has made the indispensable check-point of the Last Summer. Her teenaged brother, Edward, had a sense of what the British army might need that was markedly more realistic than Doyle’s–and he even guessed, a bit, at what it might come to demand. Vera stayed up late to write at great length in her diary:

Tuesday August 4th

Late as it is & almost too excited to write as I am, I must make some effort to chronicle the stupendous events of this remarkable day. The situation is absolutely unparalleled in the history of the world. Never before has the war strength of each individual nation been of such great extent, even though all the nations of Europe, the dominant continent, have been armed before. It is estimated that when the war begins 14 millions of men will be engaged in the conflict. Attack is possible by earth, water & air, & the destruction attainable by the modern war machines used by the armies is unthinkable & past imagination.

This morning at breakfast we learnt that war is formally declared between France & Germany…

All day long rumours kept coming that a naval engagement had been fought off the coast of Yorkshire. I went up to the tennis club this afternoon, more to see if I could hear anything than to play, as it kept on pouring with rain. No one knew any further definite news, but we all discussed the situation. I mentioned Edward’s & Maurice’s keenness to do something definite & Bertram Spafford said they ought either to apply to Mr Heathcote or Mr Goodman, who were the chief Territorials here, or to go to the Territorial headquarters in Manchester. I told him yesterday that the fact of a strong healthy man like himself being absolutely ignorant of military tactics was a proof that our military system was at fault somewhere. He said that at the Manchester Grammar School, where he went, they had no corps, & that many men were in the same case as himself.

The war will alter everything &, even if I pass my exam., there would probably be no means to send both Edward & me to Oxford at the same time. There is nothing to do now but wait. When I got in I found Edward had procured an evening paper with the startling news that England had sent an ultimatum to Germany, to expire at midnight to-night, demanding the immediate withdrawal of her troops from Belgium…

Immediately after dinner I had to go to a meeting of the University Extension Lectures Committee. Small groups of people, especially men, were standing about talking, & in front of the Town Hall was quite a large crowd, as on the door was posted up the mobilisation order, in large black letters, ordering all army recruits to take up the colours & all Territorials to go to their headquarters. Edward has been reading the papers carefully & says that at present only the trained army & the Territorials are wanted & there is no demand for untrained volunteers. Though anxious to fight he says he will wait until he hears that people like himself are needed; he is of course very young & not overexperienced…

Stupendous events come so thick & fast after one another that it is impossible to realise to any extent their full import. One feels as if one were dreaming, or reading a chapter out of one of H. G. Wells’ books like The War of the Worlds. To me, who have never known the meaning of war, as I can scarcely remember the South African even, it is incredible to think that there can be fighting off the coast of Yorkshire…

To sum up the situation in any way is impossible, every hour brings fresh & momentous events & one must stand still & await catastrophes each even more terrible than the last. All the nations of this continent are ready with their swords drawn…[20]

References and Footnotes

  1. "The Fourth of August" is also the title of a poem by Binyon which does an excellent job of representing the cliched thoughts, images, and vocabulary of heroic war poetry at the war's outset. In twenty-eight lines we get splendour, purification, dilating hearts, "the grandeur of our fate," the glorious dead, nobility, heritage, immortal stars, hope, seed, flower, purgation, and divine suffering. It sounds old fashioned now, but then again that is (one of) the whole point(s) of this project: it will take time to find a way to write what war is really like, especially in verse.
  2. Ford, War Prose, 2.
  3. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell,187.
  4. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 235.
  5. Not through the mountains, but over? A penetrating, or rather a lofty, arcing poetic vision?
  6. Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 151-2. Hollis cites Hassall for the Brooke information, and a 1917 letter to mum for Owen's romantic whereabouts (which sounds a little different in Hibberd's reference to it, but anyway; you can't see through the Pyrenees, and mountainous as Bagnères-de-Bigorre is, it's a valley town--the start of climbs to the border passes and not within any easy hike of Spanish vistas. Brooke, incidentally, was staying with Frances Cornford, whose poem Charles Sorley recently misattributed to Laurence Housman! Small world! Good times!
  7. E.H. Hardy, The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 365.
  8. McLeod, The Last Summer, 111, 134.
  9. Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning, 47. Almost identical, not-interestingly-enough, to his earlier account in A Subaltern's War, 16. What is the significance of the first memoir's "roasting afternoon" and the later account's "sultry afternoon?" Dissertation to follow.
  10. Fussell, ed., The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 27.
  11. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 9.
  12. Sitwell, Great Morning, 327; both ellipses are his...
  13. Philip Ziegler, Obsert Sitwell, 51-3, has Osbert packing evening clothes as well, although on what additional evidence I'm not sure. It would be like Osbert to pack evening clothes and mention that "friends" did so, and also like a biographer to slew the "friends" detail back into Osbert without perfect authority. And why is he writing chatty letters to dad? Tune in tomorrow.
  14. Williamson, How Dear Is Life, 135.
  15. Another spoiling book title...  Ferguson, The Short, Sharp Life of T.E. Hulme, 182.
  16. Cooper, Autobiography, 113. I'm not sure what this game is--perhaps the H.G. Wells thing? Well, Churchill had other fish to fry that weekend.
  17. Dunsany, Tales of War, 92.
  18. This quote, from chapter 27 of Doyle's autobiography, I have shamelessly cribbed from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War website--an admirably thorough site with details on many authors that I don't have the resources to include here... do check it out, especially if your literary interests shade fantastic.
  19. Carrington, Rudyard Kipling, 492. Hundreds of others, no doubt, wrote of Armageddon. But this is not a bad time to note that a century changes the emphasis of a word even if its meaning stays more or less fixed. Indeed, "armageddon" may be a weak example of a common phenomenon, in which this war introduces specific phrases into a general associative meaning. American footballers, surely, did not labor "in the trenches" yet, and "lousy" was an insectiform reference. Armageddon will come to mean "disastrous conflict," but Vera and Rudyard were, if I may address my readership with statistical generalities and all apologies to individual outliers, better and more frequent bible readers than you. That unholy meaning was then, therefore, very much more to the fore. Of course, by tomorrow it will also be an ill-timed jest...
  20. Chronicle of Youth, 85-7.