Wilfrid Ewart in Bourlon Wood: What They Asked Us to Do Was Impossible; Doctor Rivers in Another Doctor’s Hell

The Battle of Cambrai has seen an unprecedented advance, a failure to break through, and stiff German resistance in another torn and terrible wood. The Guards have been called in, now–on both sides.

Although Cambrai is one of the few battles not to feature in his novel Way of Revelation, it provided the most harrowing moments of Wilfrid Ewart‘s war experience. At first light, three companies of the First Scots Guards were ordered to clear Bourlon Wood.

This of course was sheer open fighting, and quite different than anything we had done before except on field days.

But it didn’t last long. Machine guns pinned down one flank of the assault, and after several hours of stationary fighting it became clear that the British were outnumbered, and the attackers withdrew.

Then orders came up that they must try again, at two o’clock.

This was at 1.15, so there was not much time to arrange it, and I had the wind up as never before, feeling certain that it was impossible to take the place owing to the machine-guns which were supposed to be rushed with the bayonet…

It is now, I think, that the poor planning of the Cambrai offensive–the first few hours markedly improved in conception and execution, the rest abandoned to foolish hopes–becomes most clear.

There was a short and quite useless machine-gun barrage, no artillery. Just after we had gone over, Tyringham tried to stop us, as the Command realized the hopelessness of it, but it was then too late.

One company was “laid out together trying to rush the machine-guns.” The two guns then turn on Ewart and two men, out in front of his platoon, only fifteen yards away. They throw themselves down behind “a young oak-tree.”

The machine-gun fired absolutely point blank, but could not quite reach us on account of the tree… two Lewis Gunners… kept firing for all they were worth…working their guns in the open until they were killed. Every man was killed one after the other…

By this Ewart probably means every man among the Lewis gunners and their support teams. He is pinned down between the Germans and his men, watching the one kill the other, helpless. Some of his platoon are able to withdraw, it seems, but the Germans now begin throwing phosphorous grenades among the wounded, “which set light to them and burnt them up.”

Ewart and the two men are soon alone, and make a desperate retreat, crawling for the rear. One makes it, then the next is hit heavily (he will die of his wound). Ewart goes last.

I waited about five minutes and then did a lightning sprint on my stomach, and by all natural laws ought to have been hit–the bullets were knocking stones up into my face… It was an experience I shall never wish to repeat… what they asked us to do was impossible.[1]

The First Scots Guards were relieved that night, and due for a longer rest; but their Battle of Cambrai was not yet over.

 

So goes the latest of the war’s bloody battles. But what of those who have survived the earlier battles, their bodies undestroyed and yet not intact?

A good deal of the literature of the war has focused on the question of psychological trauma–“shell-shock”–and how it was diagnosed, treated, experienced, remembered, and written. We have, first and foremost, the poetry of the surviving soldiers who struggled with “shell shock” or post-combat “neurasthenia.” These are the most primary of sources, of course, but “shell shock”–with its dramatic traumas, unstable psyches, and uncertain social reception–calls out for third party treatment, as it were. The novel remains one of the best tools we have for exploring the human mind, and especially for depicting the attempt of one mind to reach another, over particularly terrible gulfs of experience. One series of such attempts, mediated through the mind of Dr. Rivers, becomes the central subject of Pat Barker’s incomparable Regeneration trilogy.

Readers of this project may remember that Dr. Rivers–pioneering neurologist, skilled and sensitive therapist, and father-figure-hero to Siegfried Sassoon–is currently on leave in London after a staff dust-up at Craiglockhart, and working on an academic paper about his work with “war neuroses.” Today, a century back (in the novel, at least), he takes the cruelest sort of busman’s holiday, going to the National Hospital to observe the methods of of Dr. Lewis Yealland, who has boasted of a 100% cure rate for cases of hysterical war neurosis. Readers of Regeneration will certainly remember this scene–it’s awful. Yealland is the villain of the piece, but as far as I can tell it (not far at all! caveat!) Barker represents his methods more or less accurately. Yealland takes patients who have been shocked/traumatized into mutism or who exhibit physical contortions that cannot be explained by physical injuries and he shocks them–literally–back into health.

Yealland believes, as most men once did, that such symptoms are merely the result of a failure of nerve–of a sort of hysterical cowardice rather than damage that has been done to honorable and healthy human beings. So, armored with contempt–Barker portrays him as so thorough a bully that he has no idea he is, in fact, torturing war victims–Yealland uses physical pain and pressure, including electrical shocks and even cigarette burns to force men to speak or unbend their twisted limbs.

It works: they walk again, and speak; they even go back to war.

Enough summary–if this sounds bearable, then read the book. You will come to see the scene–once its horrors are half-forgotten–as a clever piece of fiction, and a major step toward what becomes the most important theme of the trilogy. Not Sassoon’s growth or the renunciation of his protest, but Rivers’ journey from mere saint to fellow martyr: he becomes a witness to the harrowing of the lost generation, one of the few older men in Britain who, through their proximity to the minds of traumatized men, sufferer the war themselves.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Scots Guard, 148-9.
  2. See Regeneration, 223-35.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Edmund Blunden Behind the Heroics; Siegfried Sassoon’s Editorial Impression on Wilfred Owen’s Anthem

Edmund Blunden missed his battalion’s last tour in the front lines of the Salient, as he returned from a signalling course only to be kept with the reserve. But…

This time I was wanted; my horse was sent back, and the Adjutant, Lewis, told me to go up immediately to the new front with him. No one knew, except in the vaguest form, what the situation was, or where it was.

Suddenly, therefore, I was plucked forth from my comparative satisfaction into a wild adventure. Lewis, a reticent man, hurried along, for the afternoon sun already gave warning, and to attempt to find our position after nightfall would have been madness. First of all he led his little party to our old familiar place, Observatory Ridge, and Sanctuary Wood, where we expected those once solid trenches Hedge Street and Canada Street; never was a transformation more surprising. The shapeless Ridge had lost every tree; the brown hummock, burst and clawed
up, was traversed by no trenches. Only a shallow half-choked ditch stood for Hedge Street or Canada Street, with the entrance to the dugouts there in danger of being buried altogether…

The eye was hurt with this abrupt skeleton of isolation. But farther off against the sunset one saw the hills beyond Mount Kemmel, and the deep and simple vision of Nature’s health and human worthiness again beckoned in the windmills resting there.

But Blunden will not be in the very front: with his new signalling expertise, he will be behind the fighting companies, coordinating communications from the headquarters dugouts, which are

…a set of huge square pillboxes on a bluff, which the low-shot light caused to appear steep and big.

This would bring us up to today, a century back,[,ref]See the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex, page 101 of the available pdf.[/ref] and Blunden now cedes the stage to the man of the hour.

What the companies in the forward craters experienced I never heard in detail. Their narrative would make mine seem petty and ridiculous. The hero was Lindsay Clarke… He took charge of all fighting, apparently, and despite being blown off his feet by shells, and struck about the helmet with shrapnel, and otherwise physically harassed, he was ubiquitous and invincible. While Clarke was stalking round the line in his great boots, poor Burgess in a pillbox just behind was wringing his hands in excess of pity, and his headquarters was full of wounded men. With him sat one Andrews, a brilliant young officer, not of our battalion, carrying on some duty of liaison with brigade headquarters. But as even we hardly ever had certain contact with him, his lot was not a happy one.

With this ominous note we will leave Blunden and return to Blighty, but Blunden’s is praise of Clarke is emphatically ratified by the ordinarily staid Battalion War Diary:

Capt. Clark counterattacked on our own front & gave the enemy no chance, running out into No Man’s Land to meet him after which he safeguarded our left flank by clearing the Germans from a dugout on the road. Our front therefore remained intact. Enemy’s artillery was of unprecedented violence and our casualties were heavy.

 

At Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen produced another chatty and upbeat letter to his mother today, a century back–but with one crucial difference. After the news of Edinburgh society dinners, boy scout meetings and guest lectures of various sorts (ergotherapy in action!) comes this:

I am to be boarded today, and am waiting to be called in at any moment. Dr. Brock says I shall be given an extension.

I had one horrid night since I last wrote.

I send you my two best war Poems.

Sassoon supplied the title ‘Anthem’: just what I meant it to be….

Will write soon again. Your very own Wilfred x[1]

Given both the battle in Flanders and our dependence on Owen’s letters for actual dates, we have heard little of what Owen and Sassoon are up to in their writing and editing sessions. But it is now clear that the student has hurtled past the master.

While Owen, waiting for that medical board, enclosed “Anthem for Doomed Youth” in a letter to his mother, Sassoon was writing to Robbie Ross, bitterly mocking his new roomate in what only pretends to pass itself off as humor:

I hear an RWF friend of mine has had one arm amputated and will probably lose the other. As he was very keen on playing the piano this seems a little hard on him, but no doubt he will be all the better in the end. At least the Theosophist thinks so.

Love from Siegfried

Did you see my poem in the Cambridge Magazine for September 22?[2]

Sassoon is alerting Ross to the fact that he has just published “Editorial Impressions:”

He seemed so certain “all was going well,”
As he discussed the glorious time he’d had
While visiting the trenches.
One can tell
You’ve gathered big impressions!” grinned the lad
Who’d been severely wounded in the back
In some wiped-out impossible Attack.
“Impressions? Yes, most vivid! I am writing
A little book called Europe on the Rack,
Based on notes made while witnessing the fighting.
I hope I’ve caught the feeling of ‘the Line,’
And the amazing spirit of the troops.
By Jove, those flying-chaps of ours are fine!
I watched one daring beggar looping loops,
Soaring and diving like some bird of prey.
And through it all I felt that splendour shine
Which makes us win.”
The soldier sipped his wine.
“Ah, yes, but it’s the Press that leads the way!”

 

An effective satire, perhaps, but very mid-1917. The future of war poetry is with Owen, not Sassoon. His “Anthem” was worked over by Sassoon, and profited from his suggestions–their joint session, by the way, makes for an unusually effective scene of “literature in action” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration. But the poem is Owen’s work, and it is powerful. When finished, it will read like this:

 

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

At the medical board, Owen, despite and because of his good health, is granted a reprieve–an extension of his time at Craiglockhart under Dr. Brock’s care. More time with Sassoon, and more time to write.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 495-6.
  2. Diary, 187.

Isaac Rosenberg’s Daughters of War; Francis Ledwidge’s Gods of Greece; Siegfried Sassoon Declares the Death of Youth

Some days we make do with an update and a diary excerpt or two… other days three important poets are writing about their minds and their methods.

Isaac Rosenberg posted a letter to Eddie Marsh today, which probably included a draft of his difficult, sui generis, mythological poem “Daughters of War.” It also contained an attempt to allay the perplexity the poem would cause:

I am now fearfully rushed, but find energy enough to scribble this in the minute I plunder from my work. I believe I can see the obscurities in the ‘Daughters’, but hardly hope to clear them up in France… The first part, the picture of the Daughters dancing and calling to the spirits of the slain before their last ones have ceased among the boughs of the tree of life, I must still work on. In that part obscure the description of the voice of the Daughter I have not made clear, I see; I have tried to suggest the wonderful sound of her voice, spiritual and voluptuous at the same time. The end is an attempt to imagine the severance of all human relationship and the fading away of human love. Later on I will try and work on it, because I think it a pity if the ideas are to be lost for want of work. My ‘Unicorn’ play is stopped because of my increased toil… It is to be a play of terror—terror of hidden things and the fear of the supernatural. But I see no hope of doing the play while out here. I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces.[1]

Of the play, more anon, I hope. And this almost touching personal detail is a reminder of just how difficult it must be to write poetry in the trenches, especially as a private. Of course he gestures and grimaces–and many writers talk to themselves, at their leisure, in rooms of their own…

As for “Daughters of War,” the poem has been long in gestation–Rosenberg sent an early draft to Gordon Bottomley in December–and it has been growing in power. Like the ancient poets who dreamt Valkyries and Amazons–and like David Jones and his Sweet Sister Death–Rosenberg summons up female embodiments of war’s power.

Space beats the ruddy freedom of their limbs,
Their naked dances with man’s spirit naked
By the root side of the tree of life…

I saw in prophetic gleams
These mighty daughters in their dances
Beckon each soul aghast from its crimson corpse
To mix in their glittering dances :
I heard the mighty daughters’ giant sighs
In sleepless passion for the sons of valour
And envy of the days of flesh,
Barring their love with mortal boughs across–
The mortal boughs, the mortal tree of life.
The old bark burnt with iron wars
They blow to a live flame
To char the young green clays
And reach the occult soul; they have no softer lure,
No softer lure than the savage ways of death.

We were satisfied of our lords the moon and the sun
To take our wage of sleep and bread and warmth–
These maidens came–these strong everliving Amazons,
And in an easy might their wrists
Of night’s sway and noon’s sway the sceptres brake,
Clouding the wild, the soft lustres of our eyes…

 

Next to this wrenching vision, full of sex and death, the melodious prose and harmonious rhymes of Francis Ledwidge seem to come from an entirely different war, a different era. They don’t, of course–they come from the same day. These are very different sensibilities: our two poets in the ranks and out of the working classes share very little else than those three facts of their identity.

Ledwidge wrote another letter to the prominent writer Katherine Tynan today, a century back, and it begins with a strange confusion.

19.6.17

This is my birthday. I am spending it in a little red town in an orchard.

Actually, it is not his birthday. Which goes a longer way to show one of the larger cultural and social gaps among our writers than a ream of commentary about Ledwidge’s rural roots or Lord Dunsany‘s reflexive condescension towards his Irish “peasant” protégé. It seems that birthdays were little regarded in rural County Meath a century and another score of years back, and even when he enlisted Ledwidge did not know the date of his birth. His mother, flustered, confused his and his brother Joe’s, or so the story goes. Our Frank Ledwidge was born on the 19th, but of August–his twenties have two months left to run.

Again I think of how this sort of confusion might have arisen in Rosenberg’s family too, with an absent father and Yiddish-speaking mother, or how Ledwidge and his surviving siblings might have shared, like Rosenberg and his brother, the “family suit.” But for such similarities there are more striking differences. Rosenberg is a child of the London slums. And Ledwidge?[2]

There is a lovely valley just below me, and a river that goes gobbling down the fields, like turkeys coming home in Ireland… I was down here earlier in the spring, when all the valley wore its confirmation dress, and was glad to return again in the sober moments of June. Although I have a conventional residence I sleep out in the orchard, and every morning a cuckoo comes to a tree quite close, and calls out his name with a clear voice above the rest of the morning’s song, like a tender stop heard above the lower keys in a beautiful organ…

If you go to Tara, go to Rath-na-Ri and look all around you from the hills of Drumcondrath in the north to the plains of Enfield in the south, where Allan Bog begins, and remember me to every hill and wood and ruin, for my heart is there. If it is a clear day you will see Slane Hill blue and distant. Say I will come back again surely, and maybe you will hear pipes in the grass or a fairy horn and the hounds of Finn…

Ledwidge also enclosed three new poems, “The Find,” “Stanley Hill,” and “The Old Gods:”

I thought the old gods still in Greece
Making the little fates of man,
So in a secret place of Peace
I prayed as but a poet can:

And all my prayer went crying faint
Around Parnassus’ cloudy height,
And found no ear for my complaint,
And back unanswered came at night.

Ah, foolish that I was to heed
The voice of folly, or presume
To find the old gods in my need,
So far from A. E.’s little room.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon has not written in his diary since beginning to work on his “declaration.” Today, a century back, he is very much still in declaration mode, railing angrily at the waste of the war and the evil cynicism of those who prolong it.

June 19

I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as ‘an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb’. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts.

And the ancient wars on which they base their arguments did not involve such huge sacrifices as the next two or three years will demand of Europe, if this war is to be carried on to a knock-out result. Our peace-terms remain the same, ‘the destruction of Kaiserism and Prussianism’. I don’t know what aims this destruction represents.

I only know, and declare from the depths of my agony, that these empty words… mean the destruction of Youth. They mean the whole torment of waste and despair which people refuse to acknowledge or to face; from month to month they dupe themselves with hopes that ‘the war will end this year’.

And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words
convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes.

The soldiers who return home seem to be stunned by the things they have endured. They are willingly entrapped by the silent conspiracy against them. They have come back to life from the door of death, and the world is good to enjoy. They vaguely know that it is ‘bad form’ to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth about the war…

The diary continues, wandering into violent territory as Sassoon decries the bloodthirstiness of women and imagines a mob awakening to “lynch” the “dictator” who has plunged it into war.

The soldiers are fooled by the popular assumption that they are all heroes. They have a part to play, a mask to wear. They are allowed to assume a pride of superiority to the mere civilian. Are there no heroes among the civilians, men and women alike?

Of the elderly male population I can hardly trust myself to speak. Their frame of mind is, in the majority of cases, intolerable. They glory in senseless invective against the enemy… They regard the progress of the war like a game of chess, cackling about ‘attrition,’ and ‘wastage of man-power’, and ‘civilisation at stake’. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance.

Soldiers conceal their hatred of the war.
Civilians conceal their liking for it…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 375; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 359-61.
  2. See Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 183.
  3. The Years of the Shadow, 294-6.
  4. Diaries, 175-6.

Alf Pollard’s Finest Hour; Max Plowman Meets an Interesting Man; Siegfried Sassoon Between Cussedness and Martyrdom; Beauty and Ugliness From Olaf Stapledon; Edwin Vaughan in Amiens

For two days, now, Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company have been back in the line near Gavrelle, on the Arras front.

I was in support to the First Battalion Royal Marines and did not anticipate that I should have anything to do at all. Consequently I disposed the whole of my Company in dug-outs and, retiring to my own, relaxed into much needed slumber.

I slept right through the barrage and the initial onslaught…

Of course he did, and with good classical precedent! Alexander the Great and many other heroes demonstrated their perfect confidence by sleeping late on the day of battle. But Pollard is awoken with a message ordering him to form a flank defense:

It was obvious that something had gone wrong. I must act at once.

Pollard emerges into a “curious hush,”  like the calm before the storm. But–he is a natural warrior, you see–his heart is pounding and his instincts tell him that he is in danger. The Marines have advanced up ahead, but Pollard’s is the last company on the Division’s left, and it would seem that the next Division over had failed in its attack and now a German counter-attack is threatening the unnamed unit directly to Pollard’s left.

I was at the limit of my own trench, which was the extreme left of the Divisional front, wondering what I should do next. Suddenly a bombing attack started from the direction of Oppy Wood. Bang! Bang! Zunk! Zunk! I could see the smoke from the explosions nearly a mile away. Fritz was attacking down the trench.

A few minutes later, Pollard sees the British troops resisting the counter-attack suddenly break and run.

Panic! Sheer unaccountable panic! …The sort of thing the greatest psychologist in the world could not explain; a sudden terror which affected the whole force simultaneously. It was a sight I hope I never see again. For a brief moment it had its effect on me.

For “what seemed like some minutes,” Pollard relates, he remained “shaking” and indecisive. But it was really only a few seconds: the Germans could now turn the flank of his own division, and something must be done.

Then the curious feeling came to me… that I was no longer acting under my own volition. Something outside myself, greater than I, seemed to take charge of me. Already under this mysterious influence I ran forward.

Pollard takes control of the strange troops and orders them to spread out and fire their rifles, more to regain their confidence than to hit anything. Then, leaving both these leaderless and recently panicked troops (he is confident that “The British Tommy does not do that sort of thing twice in a morning”) and his own company–his own command–behind, he explores down the trench the Germans had been attacking, followed by his runner and one more man, an ad hoc volunteer. They push up the trench away from his defensive line, and are joined by one more man. Pollard’s orders are simply to hurl their few bombs around the next traverse whenever he fires his pistol. For two hundred yards the trench is empty.

Then suddenly, as I entered one end of a stretch of trench between two traverses, a big Hun entered the other, rifle and bayonet in his hand. I fired; he dropped his rifle and clapped both hands to his stomach. Almost instantaneously with my shot I heard the whizz of Reggie’s bomb as it passed over my head. A second man appeared behind the first. I fired again and he dropped like a stone. Bang! Bang! The two other bombs thrown by my followers exploded one after the other.

The third man saw the fate of his predecessors and turned to go back. Those behind, not knowing what had happened tried to come forward. I fired again. Bang!  Zunk! went the remaining bombs of our small store. That was enough. The next instant the Hun attack was in full retreat.

This is an excellent example of several things. First, of the importance of on-the-spot tactical leadership–even irresponsible, desperately chancy leadership, so long as it seizes the initiative. Second, of the continued importance, albeit in a (literally) narrow category of actions (fighting along a trench, rather than “over the top”) of old-fashioned reckless aggression, a.k.a valor. (The charging maniac routing a timid multitude in a narrow space is a tired trope of action movies, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.)

And if we examine those two points we realize that this action is important because it is exceptional–it’s a brave, reckless gamble, and very successful. But Pollard is not leading a storming party against a key gate or a forlorn hope against a breach; he is not inspiring the rest of the men who can see him as he charges across an open battlefield. He is winning a local action fought below ground level; at most he is stabilizing a front of a few hundred yards in a several-hundred-mile trench system. It’s a reminder that even exceptional valor can’t win wars anymore.

The valor is the same; it just doesn’t apply. Pollard isn’t just exceptionally good at fighting–he is also, necessarily, fortunate. In the good old days, half the potential Achilleses of the army weren’t killed by the artillery before they got into hand-weapon range. But Pollard has to first be lucky not to have been killed by weapons aimed in his general direction by calm men hundreds of yards or even a few miles away; only then can he begin being heroic in a convenient bit of trench.

Finally, this is an excellent example of what John Keegan will call “Zap-Blatt-BanzaiGott im Himmel-Bayonet in the Guts” history. Except Pollard’s Huns don’t even get to say that much.

In other words, this is an exciting tale, but I don’t think we can blithely accept its unspoken premise: that since the terms of the fight–kill or be killed, in essence–are set, we need give no further thought to the consequences of all this shooting and bomb-hurling. And what happens next–the four men press on without any bombs (grenades) but are able to collect enemy and grenades during a fortuitous lull in enemy action, then continue fighting by dodging around corners–is uncannily like a video game. Which is not to condemn video games for being violent: it’s to condemn true stories in which deadly violence goes completely unquestioned.

I’ll paraphrase the rest of the tale. Pollard and his three-man army press on into German territory though he proudly confesses that “discretion had gone to the winds”–a pointed word-choice given discretion’s proverbial counterpart. Why this recklessness?

…my blood was up. I felt a thrill only comparable to running through the opposition at Rugger to score a try.

He leaves one man with a collection of rifles by a barricade–this reminds him of Robinson Crusoe’s fantasy of solo defense–and, with the other two, makes ready to defend their gains with bombs. They do; soon “the air was thick with bombs” and though they throw nearly all they have, Pollard will not retreat. Then, providentially, the German attack breaks off, when one of Pollard’s friends–“Sammy,” a junior officer who seems to have figured out, without orders, that he should go up in support of his vanished company commander–arrives with the company and a large supply of bombs and ammunition. A more determined German attack is driven off, there are short digressions on different sorts of grenades and on Sammy’s coolness under fire (connected, surprisingly, to his descent from “the fighting tribes of Israel”), and then that’s that–Pollard has saved the day. He is eventually ordered to assume command of the position, then relieved after nightfall.

Pollard’s memoir is self-serving and self-aggrandizing–but that’s obvious, and so the notes of humility are, well, worth noting. They are either little nods to convention–“I should take the occasional breath while blowing my own horn,” “I wouldn’t want to court nemesis through hubris”–or, just possibly, symptoms of a much larger madness. We have seen Pollard note that “his blood was up,” admit that to press on was illogical, and mention in passing that he left his own command without clear orders in order to push on alone, to be followed by only three willing men.

That all seems plausible–but it read very differently when Siegfried Sassoon did a very similar thing. Why? Perhaps if Sassoon were to have been given a high military honor (he wasn’t, in part because the Royal Welch tried not to ask for honors for non-professional soldiers, in part because no high-level officers were near the spot, and in part because the position wasn’t held after he left it) he would have written a more heroic account. (Or perhaps not; Sassoon has been disillusioned for some time; Pollard, never.)

But that’s not the real difference. Pollard ends the chapter by noting that he has “often wondered what would have happened had Fritz come over the top instead of sticking to the trench.” It’s obvious: “Fritz” would have killed or captured him, and he would hen have been blamed for abandoning his men to go gallivanting into enemy territory. But though Pollard “wonders,” I don’t think he really believes it might have happened: just as he portrays his courage, modestly, as a force that overtakes him without his volition (after a humanizing, but brief, struggle with fear he becomes a “natural” or “inspired” warrior), he seems to trust completely in Providence. He can humbly acknowledge that he was fortunate to get the opportunity for heroism that he did–because he does not doubt that, on some level, he deserved it.[1]

 

And I too trust in provvy–that lesser Tyche that attends the scriveners of Clio. What I mean is: Pollard is a war hero, and I don’t mean to suggest that there is any point in denying or protesting that. But I don’t like the way he chose to write about the war, the way he elides death and suffering. So I would hope that reading and research would provide some apt rejoinders from today, a century back. And we are indeed fortunate–all two and a half of our regular pacifists have shown up for duty.

 

Max Plowman wrote to his friend Janet Upcott today, a century back, from the Bowhill Auxiliary Hospital for Officers. He is physically sound… but the after-effects of shell-shock may linger. At least, he feels healthy enough, yet he has been in one hospital or another for three months, now.

…Tell me Jane–honest, candid, sober, true… what your idea of this place is–or rather was before you got this? Did you think it was a sort of private lunatic asylum? My only reason for thinking it may be is that from asylums, I believe, the question that recurs to me is heard more often than from anywhere else. “Why do they still keep me?” –As a matter of fact I asked that so long ago that I’ve got tired of asking it, & now I’m beginning to get settled here for the duration I suppose I really shall soon be turfed out. I think the Doctor here has decided that normally I should have the hide of a rhinoceros & the nerves of a hauser, so if I’m really going to wait for that unhappy state to transpire, I’m sure the next time I leave here will be about 1947 in a long black box.

Still of course I don’t complain so far. The Ducal Mansion is perhaps preferable to snow on Vimy Ridge & I have no doubt that I have missed a good deal worth missing when I see that all my old company officers are now back or dead.

The letter continues, rambling and ruminating about the conduct of the war, the cynical way in which the vested interests seem disinterested in peace, and the foolish criticisms of military operations by those who have never fought in the trenches. Like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is at once aghast at the waste of the war and the complacency of the high command and yet keenly interested in the new tactics that had showed promise at Arras. And like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is working on his first collection of poetry–in that endeavor he’s a bit behind, but in another matter he takes precedence.

I met one rather interesting man up here. a Dr ______ who’s a professor of Psychology at Cambridge. He’s at Craiglockhart Edinburgh from which this place is an offshoot. I was talking to him about Freud’s book on dreams & he lent me Hart’s Psychology of Insanity as an introduction to it…

This would be Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, and thus our second prefiguring of Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Rivers is real, and he’s a remarkable man, combining in his modest person the Victorian adventurism of the heroic age of science, 20th century psychoanalytic healing, and timeless humanity and courage. Those who are interested in learning a bit more about this man–Cambridge professor, Freudian, South Pacific anthropologist, pioneering neurologist, and shell-shock-doctor-to-the-writers–can seek out more information easily enough, or read Barker’s historical fiction trilogy.

Amusingly, even though Plowman is our first writer to meet Rivers and be struck by his unique charisma (after all, he is the only person Plowman wants to discuss), and although he will be far from the best poet to do so, his initial reaction to the good doctor is to take offense at Rivers’s disinterest in poetry:

But I gave him up when he said he could no longer read poetry; not, really, because I wanted to inflict mine on him, but because now & from henceforth & for evermore I will not trust a mind which has become so divorced from nature it cannot appreciate poetry. The more you think either of words or the amoeba–either of material, mind, matter or Mumbo Jumbo the more amazing it becomes to here a confessedly learned man admit & say: “You know I can’t appreciate poetry now–my appreciation of the exact use of words is too great…” The sight of an exact word is the worst nightmare I can think of so far…

Yours ever

Max.[2]

 

Another officer with experience bombing more or less alone up an enemy trench, with pacifist or anti-war opinions (he would he the “half-pacifist,” in my dubious math, above), and with a future in medical care for a condition… let’s say “associated with” shell shock is, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, now recovering in London after being shot through the shoulder.

April 29

A lovely morning after a sleepless night. The trees outside have become misty with green since last night. I am just emerging from the usual beautiful dream about ‘not going back’–‘war over in the autumn’—‘getting a job in England’, etc. These ideas always emanate from one’s friends in:England, and one’s own feeble state of mind when ill, and fed up, arid amazed at being back in comfort and safety.

Things must take their course; and I know I shall be sent out again to go through it all over again with added refinements of torture. I am no good anywhere else: all I can do is to go there and set an example. Thank heaven I’ve got something to live up to. But surely they’ll manage to kill me next time! Something in me keeps driving me on: I must go on till I am killed. Is it cussedness (because so many people want me to survive the war)–or is it the old spirit of martyrdom—’ripe men of martyrdom’, as Crashaw says?[3]

This question–or this tangled skein of questions–will occupy us quite a bit over the coming months…

 

It’s been a long day, but I still feel that reading Olaf Stapledon is well worthwhile. This is a young man who rowed with Julian Grenfell, who could easily have spent much of the last few years enthusiastically killing Germans until they killed him–but he had chosen only to risk the latter, while trying instead to save the wounded victims of the war.

A few ago, a century back, he had appended to a previous letter a description of “a pretty dance with three cars that got stuck in a badly shelled spot.” This may be Olaf’s most explicit description of personal danger in his letters to Agnes, and it underscores how infrequently–though he agonizes about different types of pacifist commitment and often discusses the political and philosophical underpinnings of his actions–he mentions the mortal risks ambulance crews take.

One of them had to repairs done to it before it could be moved. We were four hours at it, alternately working & seeking cover as the bombardment varied in seriousness. All the cars were badly peppered by we got them all away without serious harm to them & no damage to ourselves, though we had some quite narrow escapes. The convoy has been “cited,” which means that we paint the croix de guerre on each car.

Then, today, there is the happier news that the ambulance unit is in rest–or, rather, “repos–” their first full-unit rest in eight months.

Our last day at the front was rather eventful because they bombarded our village with some success and the main street was literally strewn with dead and wounded… One shell accounted for about twenty men… It was an ugly business…

Next day we left with our division for repos, and just after we had cleared out a shell fell in the yard where we kept most of our cars. It would have done much damage had we been there, and probably would have killed a good number of us. So our departure was lucky…

Our present spot is very peaceful and the spring weather has come. Yesterday in memory of ancient days with you I wore a celandine in my buttonhole. That is a little spring rite with me…

There is no sound of war at all, but much singing of birds and bleating of sheep. And yesterday we heard the cuckoo and saw him lazily flap across a little glade. Oh  Agnes, there is such a lovely lovers’ walk down a little narrow valley…

There are cowslips and periwinkles, violets and wood anemones. We revel in all such things after months of winter, and after a surfeit of war…[4]

 

Finally, today, I would be courting Nemesis myself if I omitted a visit to the cathedral. With his battalion still in rest billets, Edwin Vaughan has been taking his ease in Amiens, still close to the front lines on the now quiescent Somme. Yesterday it was a bath at the Hôtel Belfort and lunch at the Hôtel du Rhin; today, breakfast in bed and late mass in the Cathedral… and nothing to say about it. Lunch at ‘L’Universe,’ ices, “luxurious haircuts and shampoos,” dinner at the Hôtel du France, and a late night–not a bad little war, altogether.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 217-24.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 63-5.
  3. Diaries, 162. Richard Crashaw is a metaphysical poet of the 17th century.
  4. Talking Across the World, 221-3.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 105.

Alf Pollard’s Enthusiasm for the Game; Isaac Rosenberg’s Aching Feet; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Summoned; Wilfred Own Describes His Longest Tour

We have four letters today, in more or less a representative distribution: two to mother, one to a patron, and one to a comrade.

But the first letter-to-mum is an unusual one, from an unusual (here, at least) writer. Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. have a lull in the action today, and he is able to fill mater in on his latest doings.

Dearest Ladybird,

Here we are again, out once more. I have had some most interesting and exciting times since last writing, including going over the top again. I am once more in charge of the Company as the man senior to me got laid out with a bullet. I shall probably be a Captain again in a day or two but one never knows as somebody else senior may be sent along. You see, the present arrangement of the government is that all promotions are by seniority irrespective of fighting qualities. So really one has no chance of being more than a Second Lieutenant whatever one does. However I don’t care a bit what rank I am.

I had a most exciting adventure in a Hun trench the other day. I cut through their wire and got into their trench thinking it was unoccupied, but soon discovered it was full of Huns and consequently had to beat a hasty retreat. I got out all right fortunately. I heard a rumour that the Brigadier has recommended me for a bar to my M.C. in consequence of this little business so if you keep your eyes glued on the paper you may shortly see my name in it. Don’t think I have been taking any unnecessary risks because I have not. I have merely done what I have been asked to do.

Well, dear old lady…

Best of spirits and having a good time. By the way, I gave killed another Hun. Hurrah!

Well, cheerioh!

This letter is one of the few Pollard takes the trouble to preserve, and he does so with an explanatory comment, namely

…because it throws such a clear light on my attitude towards war… I thoroughly enjoyed going into action… People tell me I must have a kink in my nature; that my zest to be in the forefront of the battle was unnatural. I do not agree with them…[1]

No, he assures us, he is merely very highly motivated to win the war, and believes that the British Army can, and soon. If this is a gambit to convince those horrified by enthusiasm for killing into accepting what we might term the “realism” of his statements, it’s not a very good one.

Yes, it’s a war, and it is much more deeply illogical to believe that your side is in the right and yet still hope to bring about a satisfying conclusion without violence. But this is a pacifist’s dilemma, and it doesn’t explain the enthusiasm for personal violence. Invoking the common terminology of war and sport–“keen to win”–does nothing to show that there is some moral through-line from the young officer excited to get his name in the paper for killing people and the responsible adult who seeks to defeat German militarism and liberate France and Belgium, accepting that there will be a price to pay for this, in blood.

Then there is the question of the “kink.” I don’t think a discursus into human evolutionary biology and the sociology of violence is necessary here, but it’s tempting… Briefly (and sloppily), this is indeed a “kink…” and yet it is quite natural. Most of us are by nature (as well as nurture) horrified by direct physical violence unless driven to it by some extreme emotion–terror, jealousy, even rage have some clear evolutionary benefits. But we don’t generally kill without passion–we could hardly have evolved in small, cooperative groups otherwise. And yet, some people lack this inhibition… some of them may become violent sociopaths or psychopaths, others may lead normal lives unless they are at some point given a handful of weapons and asked to go and hunt down other people, for God and for Country. Presumably their sang froid during hunting for food over the thousands of generations of Prehistory preserved their genes despite their danger to the group–after all, they win decorations and bounties get their names preserved among the valorous…

Apologies for the fast-and-loose “science” without careful hypothesis or actual evidence, which is , of course, not science at all. But I do think a glance at the animal and the “early man” beneath the recently-civilized human being yields plausible explanations… What put me in mind of this, actually, was Pollard’s choice of the phrase “forefront of the battle.” This was probably borrowed, perhaps at some remove, from translations of ancient epic: nothing could be more Homeric than the idea that the best men–those who are the leaders of contingents, those who earn fame and glory and prizes–fight literally before (i.e. “in front of”) the rest of the men in the battle, those lesser men who prefer less direct, less deadly, missile-weapon-oriented conflict.

Pollard is not insane, nor is his happy warrior pose “unnatural,” but he is very unusual: he has the mentality of a Homeric hero, someone who values glory–“winning”–so highly that the taking of lives doesn’t really enter into the moral calculus, even though they recognize that in other contexts killing is wrong. Although Pollard is capable of recognizing the brutality and sadness of war, he is also more than capable of forgetting it. He does not see the unavailing suffering of other men as detracting from the meaningfulness of glory or the positive valence of skillful, violent action–and this, now, is beginning to put him at odds with several writers more prominent in this project.[2]

But we can continue to explore this attitude in subsequent posts. Pollard’s letter is also included in the memoir at this point because he wishes to connect his realistic “attitude towards war” with his exceptional talent for it. He can’t really claim to be modest, but he can argue that what he does next is all in the service of winning (which he could have phrased as “ending”) the war…

 

We followed several units-with-writers during the attack of the 23rd, and of course failed to discuss many others. One of these was the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, badly mauled during the advance. Two of the remaining “Argonauts” of the Gallipoli expedition are still with the Division–Bernard Freyberg now commands a brigade, while Arthur “Oc” Asquith, Raymond‘s younger brother, commanded the Hood battalion in the assault, leading it close behind the British barrage in the assault on Gavrelle. The attack was successful, but at the cost of nearly 200 casualties, including seven officers killed outright. Today, a century back, Asquith wrote to his old comrade Patrick Shaw Stewart. Shaw Stewart had schemed successfully to leave his cushy post in the East to return to the battalion, and danger. But there has been rather a long interlude, spent largely in futile pursuit of the divine Diana, followed by a stint on a refresher course at Le Touquet. Now he is summoned directly.

My dear Patsy,

Come as soon as you can. I lost 3 Company C.O.s the day before yesterday.

Love, yrs Oc.[3]

 

Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother. It was his first letter in a long while, and in it he describes the longest, hardest time of his service in France (we have drawn on this letter already). The 2nd Manchesters, down on the southern part of the British line, made an assault more than two weeks ago, before Owen had rejoined from hospital. Since then they have not been in an attack, but–no doubt due to the concentration of force for the Battle of Arras–they have remained an awfully long time in front-line trenches.

25 April 1917  A. Coy., My Cellar

My own dearest Mother,

Immediately after I sent my last letter, more than a fortnight ago, we were rushed up into the Line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench…

The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole…

This we have already read–but it is worth re-reading, as Owen will be dealing with the after-effects for a long time to come.[4]

 

And finally, today, and we get a rare update from Isaac Rosenberg, writing to Eddie Marsh:

My Dear Marsh,

My sister wrote me you have been getting more of my ‘Moses’. It is hardy of you, indeed, to spread it about; and I certainly would be distressed if I were the cause of a war in England; seeing what warfare means here. But it greatly pleases me, none the less, that this child of my brain, should be seen and perhaps his beauties be discovered. His creator is in sadder plight; the harsh and unlovely times have made his mistress, the flighty Muse, abscond and elope with luckier rivals, but surely I shall hunt her and chase her somewhere into the summer and sweeter times. Anyway this is a strong hope; Lately I have not been very happy, being in torture with my feet again. The coldness of the weather and the weight of my boots have put my feet in a rotten state. My address is different now

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon
120th Brigade Works Coy
B.E.F.

There is more excitement now, but though I enjoy this, my feet cause me great suffering and my strength is hardly equal to what is required.

I hear pretty often from G Bottomley and his letters are like a handshake: and passages are splendid pieces of  writing. Have you seen Trevellyans ‘Annual’ which G.B. writes me of.

Rosenberg is a strange bird, and this is a strange letter. He writes to thank Marsh for any efforts he might be making on behalf of his poetry–“Moses” is conceived of as a major work. But the affectation of ease and middle class bonhomie and faux-classicism sits oddly alongside of the infantryman’s complaints about his feet… although surely Rosenberg knows this. So what is he up to?

Perhaps not much, other than making clear a fairly obvious fact: privates in labor battalions can’t do much to improve their large-scale literary undertakings, but hope to keep up their tenuous connections to the world of literary patronage nonetheless. Alas, too, that his connection to Gordon Bottomley came so recently–the “Annual” which Rosenberg is rather obviously hoping to have sent to him is the same publication for which Eleanor Farjeon edited eighteen poems by “Edward Eastaway.”

Do write me when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 199-200.
  2. Which is not to say that Pollard wouldn't have held the more popular belief in 1917--he would have, by far. War heroes are popular; they always have been, and even if 1916 and 1917 and the Western Front were, to mangle some metaphors, the cradle of the grave of that illusion--even if skepticism about the virtues of violence will grow in the aftermath of this war, and remain higher than before it--the idea that talented warriors should be praised was many times more popular than the idea that they should protest the pointless murder they were involved in both perpetuating and risking. (And then, of course, there is Siegfried Sassoon, who wants to win a medal for just the sort of stunt Pollard describes, and also thinks that the war is pointless murder...
  3. Jebb, Edwardian Meteor, 226.
  4. Collected Letters, 452-3.
  5. Collected Works, 315-6.

Siegfried Sassoon Bombs Busily Along; Charles Carrington’s Half-Conscious Nightmare; Alf Pollard Finds the Germans, and Loses Some Men; Vera Brittain’s Immense Fact and General Malaise

We are surrounded by the Battle of Arras. We’ll finish in Malta, where Vera Brittain waits for news, and most of the post will follow Siegfried Sassoon‘s latest turn as “Mad Jack” in the developing battle. But we’ll begin with two other members of the supporting cast, each within a few miles of Sassoon, and each sharing important aspects of his experience.

The Battle of Arras, now in its second week, is neither trench-warfare-as-usual nor a matter of major “over the top” assaults, those strange aberrations in military history in which lines of troops abandon their subterranean life in order to move over open country, their shoulders hunched against the shell fire. Instead we have something rather like the tough, ceaseless, street-by-street urban warfare of later wars, with the trenches and strongpoints standing in for ruined cities. The weather, a cruel abridgement of the recent turn toward spring, only increases the misery.

 

Charles Carrington has been in the battle since near the beginning, but he remembered tonight, a century back, as one of the worst:

After many exacting days and freezing nights we finished with a night attack against two German outposts on 16th April, the date of Nivelle’s offensive that was to have finished the war. Our petty skirmish was for us as deadly as the greatest battle was for him. Again it was dark and wet, with a drizzle that turned to snow until before dawn a blizzard was blowing. Two of our companies blundered into one another and opened fire. The assaulting party ran into uncut wire which they could not see. They dug themselves in and waited for dawn when the Germans cleverly slipped away. That night my horse, impressed for duty as a pack pony to carry ammunition to the front line, died of exposure and so, very nearly, did its master, to whom the whole episode was a half-conscious nightmare of fluttering trench-mortar bombs, the kind we called ‘grey pigeons’, coming down through driving snow…[1]

 

And Alf Pollard, back in the nick of time, is out in front of the battle, and looking for more of a fight. The Honourable Artillery Company are north and east of Arras, where the advance has already taken several lines of German trenches–but not yet the local section of the Hindenburg Line.

On the afternoon of the 16th, a Brigade Major carefully examined this trench system through his binoculars, and, failing to observe any signs of life, came to the conclusion that Fritz must have fallen back even further. He at once issued orders that patrols were to be sent out.

Pollard volunteers, and asks to take only four men, since he has more experience with small patrols and, like Sassoon, likes to gallivant more or less on his own. But he is required to take an unwieldy twelve, as per staff orders. The thirteen men set out after nightfall, in moonless, rainy darkness. Feeling their way slowly between Gavrelle and Oppy Wood, they eventually reached the German line without encountering any signs of life, noisily cut their way through the wire, and reached the parapet of the trench. Almost by chance Pollard discovers that they are at the entrance to an occupied German dugout–the trench system is strongly held, but the sentries are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, sheltering from the cold rain.

The patrol has achieved its object, so Pollard withdraws–only to discover, back in No Man’s Land, that one of his men is missing. Two others have been left holding a hole in another portion of No Man’s Land while the remaining eight are now told to wait for him on a small ridge between the lines. Pollard takes a runner and goes back to the edge of the German trenches to look for the missing man–and this time they are discovered.

Someone challenged me sharply from the trench. I spun round in time to see the flash of his rifle. I fired two shots and heard him yell as I hit him.

The firing gave the alarm. Men were appearing in the trench like magic. Reggie and I were caught like rats in a trap. It would have been impossible to have broken our way out through the wire without offering a sitting target to the enemy.

There was only one thing to do. I seized Reggie by the arm and ran. Down the parapet we fled was fast as our legs would take us. Star-shells were going up in all directions. By their light I could see that the trench was of a pattern known as island traversed. That meant that here were two trenches parallel with one another joined at short intervals by cross-cuts. At intervals along the parapet were squares of concrete which I knew to be machine-gun emplacements. I realised it was a position that would take a lot of capturing.

We must have covered well over a hundred yards before I spotted it. It was a miracle that I saw it at all–just a narrow gap in the wire entanglement left so that the holders of the trench could get out easily if they wished to. I darted into it with Reggie close on my heels. It zig-zagged through both lines of wire. In a moment we were free of our cage…

Pollard and Reggie crawl back toward their lines, now sheltered by the thick belts of wire. But when the firing drops, they know a German patrol is coming after them. Pollard outfoxes the patrol by sheltering under the wire–so close to the German lines that the Germans overlook them. This is one of the places where Pollard’s memoir feels indistinguishable from a boy’s story of play-war–he is thrilled at the success of this simple stratagem, hiding by the seeker’s home base.

Once the patrol returns to its trenches, Pollard and Reggie meet up with the main group of their own patrol on the little ridge. They return to their own lines and all is well–the German line has been located and confirmed as being in an active state of defense, and Pollard, his eyes on bigger prizes, casually notes that they “gave me a bar to my Military Cross for that show.”

But this is sketchy sort of decoration, despite Pollard’s relish in describing his exploit. “He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line,” as the citation will read–apparently all the other patrols sent out failed to find the Germans. But there is no mention in Pollard’s account of the missing man. Worse, he does mention that he simply forgot to pick up the two others who had been left on their own, and these are later learned to have been found by the German patrol that Pollard and the runner eluded. One was killed, another was taken prisoner, and the original man seems to have remained missing–not the most successful of all patrols.[2]

 

The action of today, a century back–a “bombing stunt” along the tunnels and trenches of the Hindenburg Line, fills an entire chapter of Siegfried Sassoon‘s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. So we’ll read it instead in its entirety in its first written form, his diary of tonight, a century back:

April 16

At 3 a.m. the attack began on Fontaine-les-Croisilles. I sat in the First Cameronians H.Q. down in the tunnel until nearly 6, when I was told to despatch twenty-five bombers to help their B. Company in the Hindenburg front line. I took them up myself and got there just as they had been badly driven back after taking several hundred yards of the trench. They seemed to have run out of bombs, failing to block the trench etc, and were in a state of wind-up. However the sun was shining, and the trench was not so difficult to deal with as I had expected.

My party (from A. Company) were in a very jaded condition owing to the perfectly bloody time they’ve been having lately, but they pulled themselves together fine and we soon had the Bosches checked and pushed them back nearly four hundred yards. When we’d been there about twenty-five minutes I got a sniper’s bullet through the shoulder and was no good for about a quarter of an hour. Luckily it didn’t bleed much. Afterwards the rest of our men came up and the Cameronians were recalled, leaving me to deal with the show with about seventy men and a
fair amount of bombs, but no Lewis-guns.

I was just preparing to start bombing up the trench again when a message camp from Colonel Chaplin [of the Cameronians] saying we must not advance any more owing to the people on each side having failed to advance, and ordering me to come away, as he was sending someone up to take over. I left the trench about 9.45. Got wound seen to at our Aid Post in the tunnel, walked to Hénin—and was told to walk on to Boyelles. Got there very beat, having foot-slogged about four kilometres through mud. Was put on a motor-bus and jolted for an hour and a half to Warlencourt (20th Casualty Clearing Station) and told to expect to go to England. Written about 7.30 p.m. with rain pelting on the roof and wind very cold. I hate to think of the poor old Battalion being relieved on such a night after the ghastly discomforts of the last six days. The only blessing is that our losses have been very slight. Only about a dozen of my party to-day—most of them slight. No one killed. My wound is hurting like hell, the tetanus injection has made me very chilly and queer, and I am half-dead for lack of sleep, sitting in a chair in my same old clothes—puttees and all—and not having been offered even a wash. Never mind—‘For I’ve sped through O Life! O Sun!'[3]

And so the diary ends, for today. Sassoon is once again a hero, and he is wounded, and, managing to ride the falling edge of adrenaline and the rising tide of pain and exhaustion, he is writer enough to smoothly end the diary with an appropriate quotation, from Robert Graves‘s “Escape.” But what has this action-packed account omitted, and what has it emphasized?

The main points are confirmed by another writer in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–as are the two necessary interpretive conclusions:

April 16th–At 3.A.M. the attack of two days ago was repeated… This was another dud show… Sassoon, a very stout man, was wounded in Tunnel Trench: his craving to renew the attack was not allowed.[4]

Sassoon was very brave, once again, and once again unnecessarily aggressive. We’ve seen enough of his moody self-doubt and in the diary to recognize that he is not playing a role, here–or not playing it in any dishonesty to himself, if that makes any sense. If it’s a performance, as all social endeavors to some degree are, then it’s all method…

Whatever Sassoon’s thoughts about the war, whatever his feelings about the wrecked bodies he has passed to get to this point, the battalion commands his loyalty, and his responsibility is to lead. He doesn’t talk about his men often–it seems like a dubious cliché, but I do think this burden of leadership was assumed, in both senses, by men of his social position, right along with the code of behavior that forbade complaining about it–but whenever he does it is clear that he is highly motivated by his determination to do right by them. If physically leading the way and taking the greatest risks is not always quite a satisfactory answer to the entire question, well, neither was it a bad start. Tonight, a century back, Frank Richards spoke to

an old soldier and one of the few survivors of old B Company who had taken part in the bombing raid. He said, ‘God strike me pink, Dick, it would have done your eyes good to have seen young Sassoon in that bombing stunt… It was a bloody treat to see the way he took the lead. He was the best officer I have seen in the line or out since Mr. Fletcher… If he don’t get the Victoria Cross for this stunt I’m a bloody Dutchman…”[5]

A good officer–and a fox hunting man with a Dutchman’s name.

Siegfried has been absurdly fortunate: not only is he safely wounded, but none of his men are killed or badly hurt. And the chance he wanted so badly fell into his lap, and he took it… it almost seems as if the half-committed pacifist, half-despairing lost boy of the last few months stamped his foot in willful insistence until the war begrudgingly gave him exactly what he wanted…  But the rough narrative of a successful fight won’t remain the full story–it’s only the brassy initial theme, and the undertones and variations won’t stay silent for very long. The war has given him horror, too, and no sure solace: if death-defying aggression can salve his conscience now, the memory of it will not last forever. Does Sassoon recognize this as clearly as he recognizes his good luck in merely not being killed?

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t. Given the constraints of this project and the length of his memoir, there’s no real way to take it on here, except to point out to readers this excellent opportunity to see what “voice” can do–or, rather, how much an author’s control of irony and tone from his secure position of future knowledge can influence our sense of the meaning of events, even if they are, in terms of factual detail, recounted fairly faithfully. Sassoon will not pretend to understand the mood that produced this bombing stunt, nor will he condemn it. But he does deflate his own heroics with more jabs than are strictly necessary.

Some very brief excerpts, then, beginning when Sassoon goes ahead of his own men and meets up with a corporal of the Cameronians, the unit which he is meant to support:

(Looking back on that emergency… I find some difficulty in believing that I was there at all.) For about ten minutes we dodged and stumbled up a narrow winding trench…

…we went round the next bay. There my adventurous ardour experienced a sobering shock. A fair-haired Scotch private was lying at the side of the trench in a pool of his own blood… I slung a couple of combat at our invisible enemies, receiving in replay an egg-bomb, which exploded harmlessly behind me. After that I went bombing busily along, while the corporal (more artful and efficient than I was) dodged in and out of the saps–a precaution which I should have forgotten… in this manner [we] arrived at our objective without getting more than a few glimpses of retreating field-grey figures. I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business. This, curiously enough, was the first time either of us had spoken since we met.

Does the skill of the self-satire make us forget the blood? Is it lurid, absurd? Is it remarkable that the clueless toff is good at bombing Germans out of their trenches, or only that he is such a clueless toff in the first place, and can’t provide a more conventionally meaningful narrative? (Or is that the point, that this sense of boyish silliness can’t coexist in the same rational narrative as the suffering and death from which it is inextricable? Where are the bodies? Who are the men killed or wounded by Sassoon’s bombs? Can they really exist in a story that plays alliteration for laughs and turns men hunting other men into figures of drawing room comedy?)

Ignoring Jeeves, Bertie trips blithely on:

The whole affair had been so easy that I felt like pushing on… I thought what a queer state of things it all was, and then decided to take a peep at the surrounding country. This was a mistake which ought to have put an end to my terrestrial adventures, for no sooner had I popped my silly head out of the sap than I felt a stupendous blow in the back between my shoulders…

Sassoon comes to, and finds his own sergeant binding a neat bullet wound. (And I am reminded that Sassoon himself will note that he felt as if he were being ministered to by a well-trained servant, a characterization which no doubt prompted my Wodehouse reference, above.)

After a short spell of being deflated and sorry for myself, I began to feel rabidly heroical again, but in a slightly different style, since I was now a wounded hero, with my arm in a superfluous sling…

So, overly enthusiastic heroism? Proper, “very stout” aggression?

But what if it tips over into something else? The Sassoon of the diary doesn’t seem to realize that charging on, shot through the shoulder, beyond his objective–the very act that got him in hot water over the summer–is close to crazy. He will, though…

It did not occur to me that anything else was happening on Allenby’s Army Front except my own little show…[6]

 

Far away from all this, Vera Brittain is busy with her duties as a nurse in Malta, but she has also been pining, restive. Malta was a charming and wonderful novelty, her first experience of foreign living. But it’s also a base hospital on a safe island–demanding work, but far from the center of the action. The mails are slow, and her conversations with Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow lag weeks behind their actions. She cannot know whether they have been involved in the spring offensive. She is neither near the front nor near the young men she feels most close to.

When she picked up her diary today, a century back, for the first time in many weeks, it was to report her reawakening wanderlust:

April 16th Malta

Had a short letter from Miss Lorimer to say she is going out as an orderly to one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Salonika. I want to go there more than ever.[7]

And then she wrote to Geoffrey Thurlow, who–though she cannot know this–has missed the initial Arras attack, but is about to be thrown in to the next desperate effort to shove the Germans back just a little bit more.

Malta, 16 April 1917

You are really a good correspondent; Mother says you are ‘most faithful’ to her too. Not like Victor, whose letters are few & far between, & very short when they do come. To me, at any rate, he conveys most by what he leaves unsaid. I have been rather anxious about him this last week, for last time I heard of his whereabouts he was at Arras, & I feel sure he must have been in the great battle–which at present we here only know of as an immense Fact, shorn of all its details. I hope you didn’t get into, even the fringe of it.

That is well put. For us the immense fact remains, outlined or obscured by clouds of innumerable details… but we still have to make a story.

I have been off-duty for a day or two with a bad throat & general malaise, but am back again to-night. I am beginning to be glad that I came out when I did, and not straight into the kind of weather that is just beginning. The nights are still quite cool but the days are getting very hot . . . The sirocco is blowing to-night in a hateful way, rushing down the stone verandah, & making the doors & shutters creak & groan. To me this particular wind always seems fraught with sinister things; it hides the stars, so that the night is as black as ink, & makes the men peevish & sends their temperatures up.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 144-5.
  2. Fire-Eater, 203-9.
  3. Diaries, 155-6.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 329.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 227.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 440-5.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 339.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 334-5.

Wilfred Owen’s Sonnet on the Unknown Soldier; Edwin Vaughan Meets a Madman; Victor Richardson to Vera Brittain: a Boy No More; Edward Thomas’s Most Beautiful Letter

We have a frightening short scrap on shell shock, today, and three letters from soldiers. Each of the two longer letters, different in tone but oddly parallel, will find a space for unvoiced love and for the repurposing of poetry–both Victor Richardson and, even yet, Edward Thomas, write themselves into a new light. As does Wilfred Owen, with verse of his own.

Since Owen’s is a lighter sort of new light, let’s start with him.

Perhaps it’s the concussion; perhaps it’s the leisure time in bed, but Owen is once again writing to a sibling about his bucolic post-war dreams:

24 March, 13th Casualty Clearing Station

My dear Colin,

In my walk this afternoon, considering at leisure the sunshine and the appearance of peace (I don’t mean from the news) I determined what I should do after the war.

I determined to keep pigs.

It occurred to me that after five years development of one pig-stye in a careful & sanitary manner, a very considerable farm would establish itself.

I should like to take a cottage and orchard in Kent, Surrey or Sussex, and give my afternoons to the care of pigs. The hired labour would be very cheap, 2 boys could tend 50 pigs. And it would be the abruptest possible change from my morning’s work…

This, young Colin Owen must be thinking, is madness, a result of that knock on the head. After all, big brother Wilfred has been raised to be a young gentleman, and considers himself an aspiring highbrow poet-aesthete!

Perhaps you will think me clean mad and translated by my knock on the head. How shall I prove that my old form of madness has in no way changed? I will send you my last Sonnet, which I started yesterday. I think I will address it to you.

Adieu, mon petit. Je t’embrasse. W.E.O.

SONNET—with an Identity Disc

If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the Heart of London; unsurpassed
By Time forever; and the fugitive, Fame,
There taking a long sanctuary at last,
—I’ll better that! Yea, now, I think with shame
How once I wished it hidd’n from its defeats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That mourn around the quiet place of Keats.
Now rather let’s be thankful there’s no risk
Of gravers scoring it with hideous screed.
For let my gravestone be this body-disc
Which was my yoke. Inscribe no date, nor deed.
But let thy heart-beat kiss it night & day . . .
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

This is private.
I stickle that a sonnet must contain at least 3 clever turns to be good.
This has only two.[1]

That’s about right–the yoke, the deed/screed rhyme… but perhaps by the time we come to the lips wearing away the inscription on the identity disk the joke has been too fully-sprung. But it is clever, and a good sign–this is no renunciation of Keats, or of love poetry in the best Romantic mode. Despite the jokes and the self-deprecation this is a love sonnet which takes up an ironic condition of the front line soldier-poet–the desire for fame, the likelihood of an unknown grave–and makes a lovely-sounding thing out of hope and fear.

 

While Owen is making clever jokes in the leisure of his concussion, Edwin Vaughan is coming to know how prolonged, repeated, unbearable concussions can affect a man. A group of replacements has reached his battalion, including a man named Corbett.

He it appears was a splendid NCO until he was badly wounded on the Somme in 1916, after which he went quite silly. Whenever he goes into the line he goes mad, though he never shows fear. At one time he secured a dugout, and if any stranger or undesirable visitor entered it, he hammered the fuse of a dud 9.2″ shell with an entrenching tool, until he was again alone…[2]

 

We’ll close with another letter from Edward Thomas, but first, I want to spend a little time on one of the letters written to Vera Brittain. She is far away in Malta, but the three young soldiers she cares for are all once more heading toward battle. Her brother, Edward–wounded on the first day of the Somme–is the safest, still working on training courses and yet to rejoin a fighting battalion. Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson, however, are in infantry battalions in France, preparing for the offensive. Victor Richardson, the sturdy, smiling Third Musketeer of Uppingham Days, has been an officer in the trenches for quite some time now–and he doesn’t write, any longer, from a subordinate or suppliant position. This is the first letter to Vera, I think, in which he assumes intellectual equality and writes as if they were essentially the same age.

France, 24 March 1917

My dear Vera,

Mrs Leighton has just sent me Rhymes of a Red Cross Man. They are indeed excellent, but their vivid realism is oppressive at least I find it so just now. With regard to ‘Pilgrims’ it is true in part. It is true that none of us would wish those we love to do other than ‘smile and be happy again’. But none of us wish to die… I venture to say that there is not one officer, warrant officer, N.C.O., or rifleman who looks on death as ‘The Splendid Release’. That is the phrase of ‘a Red Cross Man’ and not of a member of a fighting unit.

So Victor is no longer willing to accept uncritically the views that surround him. Vera has tended patronize him–he’s the fondly regarded lesser light, never as bright or as high-flying as Roland or her brother. But although she is by now “accustomed… to the sudden tragic maturities of trench life” she is surprised to see the sweet boy she remembers write now like tough-minded officer, too wise for easy answers. Victor, sounding more like Roland than he ever has, continues:

I often wonder why we are all here. Mainly I think, as far as I am concerned, to prevent the repetition in England of what happened in Belgium in August 1914. Still more perhaps because one’s friends are here. Perhaps too, ‘heroism in the abstract’ has a share in it all.

Victor Richardson believes, now, that “the attitude of 90% of the British Expeditionary Force” is one of cheerful resignation, as typified in “a marching song to the tune of Auld Lang Syne that the little old men have been heard to sing:

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here.”

And “here” is France, with the Spring Offensive growing ever nearer.

But not near enough for his taste:

The situation as far as we are concerned is at present only slightly changed, but I hope that on the day of the hunt it will alter considerably. You speak of being anxious about Geoffrey Thurlow. At the present moment I would gladly change places with him. He is probably well away and over the country by now, and open warfare has none of the terrors of breaking new ground…

Edward doesn’t seem to enjoy his Musketry Course. Just as I did he is taking it far too seriously. I can’t define exactly how he has changed since July 1st. In that one day I think he aged ten years. I wonder if I shall be the same: I don’t think so somehow or other, but it is quite impossible to say.

I can quite understand your desire to wander further. I am a restless spirit myself–in fact you yourself once accused me of being a rolling stone.

Well, Vera, I may not write again–one can never tell–and so, as Edward wrote to me, ‘it is time to take a long long adieu’.

Ever yours

ah[3]

This “valedictory resignation” will make Vera Brittain feel, when she reads this letter, that Malta and France–with more and more U-boats between them–are impossibly far apart. The old romantic idea that fierce feelings of closeness can stave off separation is getting harder to sustain.[4]

 

Finally, today, Edward Thomas wrote to his wife, Helen.

Arras
24 March 1917

Dearest,

I was in that ghastly village today. The Major and I went up at 7.30 to observe; through the village was the quickest way. I never thought it would be so bad. It is nothing but dunes of piled up brick and stone with here and there a jagged piece of wall, except that the little summerhouse placed under the trees that I told Baba about is more or less perfect. The only place one could recognize was the churchyard. Scores of tombstones were quite  undamaged.

Now is this Thomas’s writerly restraint, or the fact that he is unwilling to–or simply not interested in–frightening his wife with grim visions. If scores of tombstones were quite undamaged, others surely, were wrecked, and graves were damaged… and few of our writers avoid such horrific bounty as the irony and horror of ancient graves disturbed by modern war. Thomas would seem to prefer this–and yet, as his narrative moves on, he avoids neither destruction nor death.

All the trees were splintered and snapped and dead until you got to the outskirts… No Man’s Land below the village was simply churned up dead filthy ground with tangled rusty barbed wire over it… On the way we saw a Bosh fight two of our planes. He set one on fire and chased the other off. The one on fire had a great red tail of flame, yet the pilot kept it under control for a minute or more till I suppose he was on fire and then suddenly it reeled and dropped in a string of tawdry fragments.

Our new position—fancy—was an old chalk pit in which a young copse of birch, hazel etc. has established itself.

Fancy–why? This turns out to be a complicated question. Edward Thomas is something of a chalk-pit enthusiast, and he described and considered the symbolism of several chalk pits in his prose, and then in his poem “The Chalk-Pit.” This is a poetic dialogue (the form heavily influenced by Frost) in which two speakers discuss the resonances of an empty chalk pit–a man-made dell now overgrown with trees.

Then two more figures are invoked: a “man of forty” remembering coming there with “a girl of twenty with… hair brown as a thrush.” So it would seem as if Thomas is not just recalling any one of the chalk pits in the English countryside which they may have walked by in recent years, but the time of his long-ago courtship with Helen. The poem may also–although this would imply a strange sort of deceit–remember Thomas’s infatuation, some nine years before, with a teenage girl he met while away from home working on a book.[5]

But all that is rather too much, and it’s not certain that Thomas is even thinking of his poem. But a chalk pit is an evocative place, an old work of man that has been reclaimed by nature and thus “can be admired without misanthropy,” a most characteristic line. The chalk pit and its trees are Thomas’s ideal context:

…a silent place that once rang loud,
And trees and us–imperfect friends, we men
And trees since time began; and nevertheless
Between us we still breed a mystery.

And now–fancy–he will be living in one while he assists in bombarding the new German positions east of Arras.

Our dug out is already here, dug by the battery we are evicting. It is almost a beautiful spot still and I am sitting warm in the sun on a heap of chalk with my back to the wall of the pit which is large and shallow. Fancy, an old chalk pit with moss and even a rabbit left in spite of the paths trodden almost all over it. It is beautiful and sunny and warm though cold in the shade. The chalk is dazzling. The sallow catkins are soft dark white.

What quotidian concern could cast a pall over this lovely scene?

All I have to do is to see that the men prepare the gun platforms in the right way, and put two men on to digging a latrine.—I am always devilish particular about that.

This is a rambling letter to a wife, I know–it’s not a gripping account of modern war. But it’s all one song, as another sage once said, and it means something–something important–that Thomas writes so much, here, and so beautifully. Their marriage has been a troubled one, and if Helen is close to his heart theirs is not an intimate intellectual relationship; he rarely writes his poetry with or to her. But now he nearly is–this is as close to verse as he has gotten, since he came to France.

There are a few long large white clouds mostly low in the sky and several sausage balloons up and still some of our planes peppered all round with black Bosh smoke bursts. I ate some oatcakes for lunch just now. They were delicious, hard and sweet.

And it’s not just this sort of prose, and the chalk-pit and the trees–we have a thrush, too, and our sudden bloom of snowdrops to carry on. Am I overselling it? Probably. I’ll need an ellipsis for the paragraphs that keep track of parcels and acquaintances…

The writing pads were quite all right, though no longer so necessary after Oscar had sent me half a dozen…

…this particular place has never been shelled yet, so though I hear a big shell every now and then flop 200 or 300 yards away it feels entirely peaceful. But I can’t get over the fact that there is no thrush singing in it. There is only a robin. I don’t hear thrush ever. All the bright pale or ruddy stems in the copse and the moss underneath and the chalk showing through reminds me of Hampshire…

The wheat is very green in some of the fields a little behind us and they are ploughing near our orchard. I hope the old woman will get back to her cottage and apple trees and currant bushes and snowdrops and aconites and live happily ever after.

It is very idle of me to sit here writing, but the men are all at work and I can’t help them except by appearing at intervals and suggesting something obvious that ought to be done…

Now I have had tea and oatcakes and honey and also a cake from Burzard’s Mrs Freeman sent me. I am having an agreeably idle evening, but then I am up with the lark tomorrow for 24 hours at the O.P. No letters today and tomorrow I shan’t get them if there are any. Never mind. All is well.

I am all and always yours

Edwy

A timeless letter, a brave sally against loneliness, and the gulf, and misanthropy. A long moment of peace and love stolen from the war, and a record of coincidence between poetry and life… but with a post-script:

The latest is that perhaps we shan’t go in to the chalk pit. The general is always changing his mind.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 446.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 64.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 326-8.
  4. Testament of Youth, 334-6.
  5. Longley, Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 236-9.
  6. Selected Letters, 153-5.

Edwin Vaughan Digs In, and Reverses Course; Charles Scott Moncrieff in Amiens; Siegfried Sassoon’s Lamentations; Alf Pollard and His Jolly Old Revolver

Last night, a century back, Edwin Vaughan gave up on trying to bury a number of British corpses lying out near their lines. Today he will deal with the after-effects of a more successful burying party.

This morning, carrying out a few improvements to our dugout, we started to level up the ground under our table which is very rickety. The earth was spongy, and we started digging with entrenching tools, but we struck an old blue tunic, and when we gave it a tug, the resistance–and an unpleasant smell–warned us that we had a guest, so we apologized and patted the earth back. As we replaced the table, a message was brought up by a signaller that I was to report to HQ at 6 p.m. to proceed on a course.[1]

And just like that, Vaughan, who only reached his battalion early in the new year and has had all of two days actually in front line trenches, is off on a “refresher course.” We’ll see him next month…

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, mildly ill and recuperating in Amiens, took his turn as a tourist today. This is a young man at pains to show that he is no ordinary tourist… but he isn’t. Scott Moncrieff knows France and the French better than most Britishers…

16th February, 1917.

. . . With the aid of a very useful little ten sous handbook and map I made my way round le viel Amiens yesterday. It is rather dull. There is one church, St. Germain, faintly interesting, and the Belfry, and an old timbered house in the Passage Gossart—closed and tumbling down, of which I should like to get you the pattern of the corbel, rather worn, but seems to be clusters of fruit with animals between. There is a hedgehog—very distinct, at the end, also a monkey reaching for fruit. . . There is a rumour that the British line now extends to Soissons—I don’t suppose there’s anything in it—but I should like to see Soissons. I’m afraid it is one of the Villes Martyres. France is a very wonderful country: this tiny fraction that we are soldiering in, Normandy, Picardy, Artois and Flanders, is so full of interest, and then there are hundreds of other provinces, each with its own characteristics, and all sunny and pleasant. . . . [2]

 

And in another great cathedral town and British base, Siegfried Sassoon arrived and ran straight into the pain and despondency he has been anticipating. Rouen’s Infantry Base Depot (where he will await assignment to a particular battalion) is a great place to wallow in misery and bureaucratic limbo, but even if Sassoon had had some hopes of keeping his spirits up until he got his chance to go up the line and attempt some sort of reckless beau geste, the misery of the war came companionably to meet him on his first night in France.

Not long after arriving, Sassoon lost his way in the huge camp and stumbled into a Guard Room tent. There–and this “almost certainly did occur”[3]–he came upon this sight:

A man, naked to the waist, was kneeling in the middle of the floor, clutching at his chest and weeping uncontrollably. The Guard were standing around with embarrassed looks…

“Why, sir, the man’s been under detention for assaulting the military police, and now ‘e’s just ‘ad news of his brother being killed. Seems to take it to ‘eart more than most would. ‘Arf crazy, ‘e’s been, tearing ‘is clothes off and cursing the War and the Fritzes. Almost like a shell-shock case, ‘e seems.”[4]

Or so “George Sherston” is told in Sassoon’s memoir. This sort of suffering is what Sassoon has been expecting–but not so soon. Even as he begins to hate the war–as he prepares to hate the war–it sneaks up and catches him with a surprise barrage. There’s another, reason, too, for this scene to affect him: it is also almost an externalization of his own bottled-up spirit-in-turmoil. Sassoon lost his brother, after all, and yet he is an officer and a very well-mannered gentleman and would never cry out like this…

But he’ll write a poem, taking this misery and putting it to use–standoffishly, in terms of voice; ironically, in terms of mood… and politically.

 

Lamentations

I found him in the guard-room at the Base.
From the blind darkness I had heard his crying
And blundered in. With puzzled, patient face
A sergeant watched him; it was no good trying
To stop it; for he howled and beat his chest.
And, all because his brother had gone west,
Raved at the bleeding war; his rampant grief
Moaned, shouted, sobbed, and choked, while he was kneeling
Half-naked on the floor. In my belief
Such men have lost all patriotic feeling.

 

You know who hasn’t lost all patriotic feeling? Alf Pollard, that’s who.

If Sassoon is an on-again off-again fire-eater and deeply conflicted thinker-about-the-war, Pollard know what he wants out of the war–“fun” and medals–and, more to the point, how he wants to write it: as stuffed with cliché and cheerful violence as his pockets are stuffed with Mills bombs…

Dearest Mater,

I expect you have wondered why the devil I have got slack in writing again. As a matter of fact I have been unable to. The battalion have had about the hardest time they have ever had while I have been with them…

I had a difficult reconnaissance to do which was fortunately successful… The result of my report was that we went over the top the next night to capture the trench in front. There was practically no resistance on our right, but, on the left flank, where I happened to be in command, they tried to stop us. I was the first man over the Hun parapet and landed right on top of two Huns who tried to do me in, but fortunately I managed to finish them off with my jolly old revolver. Hand-to-hand fighting was rather fun but we soon cleared them out.

The only man senior to me got killed leaving me in command. I discovered a party of Huns behind me at one time but settled their hash after about two hours, and settled down.

We held the trench for several days… I got hit three times, but only slightly, so I stayed where I was. I had my steel helmet dented in at the front to a hole as big as a fair sized egg and then I had it smashed in at the back, and finally I got hit just below the shoulder blade in the back. The effect of all this only lasted about forty-eight hours and now I am quite fit again with the exception of recurrent headaches.

Now we are out again resting, covered in glory. The Brigadier very kindly informed me that he has recommended me for a medal, so you will probably see me down for an M.C. in the next list of honours..

I want some thick socks also a new torch…

Heaps of love.[5]

Pollard follows the quotation of his letter with the remark that “The M.C. materialized in due course,” and he quotes the citation, for good measure. For Pollard, the strategic reasoning behind the raid is neither here nor there–his is not to reason why–and the difficult winter conditions are mentioned only when it comes to the impossibility of improving trenches in frozen ground. He is a yarn-spinner and a glory-hound, not a complainer… but he does have some interesting comments about morale.

One of the problems with disillusionment and disenchantment is that it is bad for morale. In certain cases, low morale might save lives–there would be no unnecessary attacks, the men opposite might “live and let live.” But in others–and there are many voices which consider this the far more typical case–low morale leads to slack discipline, more casualties from frostbite and trench feet and carelessness around snipers and, if the Germans opposite are fire-eaters, a greater chance of damaging raids. Most of the writers who will become gravely disillusioned during this year will either bottle it up (like C.E. Montague), compensate with risk-taking and attempted heroism (like Sassoon) or suffer psychologically (like Wilfred Owen).

One wonders if Pollard’s men hated him for endangering their lives by choosing to lead such ventures. But if they didn’t, they surely respected his courage–and if they, too, preferred action to inaction, he would have been an easy man to follow… hatred is bad, but pride is not much less important than good trenches and regular nourishment…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 34; I'm getting paranoid, now, about Vaughan's truthfulness. This story is far from impossible, but it's still very unlikely. It would be hard for a man to be killed and entombed in a dugout or cellar without a heavy caliber shell being responsible, but then that would have collapsed the whole thing upon him. It could then have been rebuilt, with the body coincidentally just below the new floor level, I suppose... unlikely, again, but not impossible. If this were a trench and not a dugout, it would be more likely that this man was casually and quickly buried after being killed nearby. But, famous as the French were (among the British), for burying men near trenches or even in filled-in shelters in trench walls, digging beneath the floor of a dugout--but only a few inches--to bury a corpse seems... unlikely. But stranger things have happened.
  2. Diaries, 124.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, 323.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 396-7. As Moorcroft Wilson notes, details of this section of the memoir are knowingly fudged; I'm not sure what her conviction that the incident is "almost certainly" true is based on, but I instinctively agree: Sassoon is much more prone to shifting details when he writes in prose about himself than when he writes verse inspired by external events... so I don't see why we would think that he didn't see such a scene upon his arrival in Rouen, given the poem, below. However, it's uncomfortably nestled among changes and shifting detail; I'm not sure if anyone has remarked on how close the next complaint  in the memoir follows Robert Graves's disgusted anecdote of his own recent return to France--both are horrified by new Welsh officers of a certain social background bragging about their exploits in brothels...
  5. Fire-Eater, 187-88.

Edward Hermon on Foolishness-Chucking; The End of Manning’s Middle Parts of Fortune

When I began this project I was tormented with the possibility of simple failure: what if, on one quiet day, all the sources fell silent? What if all down the many rows of The Big Spreadsheet there was not a letter, not a diary entry, not even a biographer’s note?  So I spread a wide net, and, especially in the first year, we followed several early warriors who were not really writers at all. And there’s no danger–save technological catastrophe–of failure now. There are battalion diaries to fall back on, and I have found (and left mercifully all but unopened) a few secondary history books which are designed much like tear-off daily calendars…

And yet, with the Somme, there was so much to cover in the lives of our current group of writers that I introduced few new voices. And this winter, with so many dead and so many others home in England, it might yet come to pass that an entire day slips through the cracks, as far as actual words from our writers goes. And it almost did, today.

In order to prevent this–and to fill in the gaps left by the Somme (though there is no replacing the voice of Noel Hodgson, and no one remotely like Saki or Raymond Asquith)–I will introduce a few new diarists during the winter. One, Stanley Spencer, was probably riding on a truck, just today, a century back, which would have been rather a weak post…

But, happily, we do have one letter today, which I had almost overlooked. It’s short, but meritorious. Afterwards, I will take the rest of today to close some unfinished business… at great length.

 

Edward “Robert” Hermon is an affectionate husband and a conscientious officer, but he’s neither a towering intellect nor a scintillating writer. Yet these four attributes taken together do constitute a certain amount of charm–it’s the sheer number of his letters that are the problem. Writing nearly every day to his wife Ethel, he gives us something more like one side of an ongoing, loosely-jointed conversation than a series of descriptive letters.

But today he does his duty: a sharp, declarative, state-of-the-war letter–and a reminder that the majority of British officers have yet to feel any sharp challenge from encroaching despair or disillusionment. Hermon is an Old Etonian of thirty-eight, but he sounds older–eminently Victorian. He hits the Vitai Lampada note here, and hard.

10th December 1916

Things certainly do look bad just at present but they will come right in the end… We are all right here & if the folk will really buck up at home & play the game & chuck all the damned foolishness till the war is over, it will be alright. We are bound to win in the end so long as the navy remains top dog…[1]

As this letter reads almost like a parody of the form (picture Graham Chapman in a Sam Browne belt dictating with curled underlip), it’s tempting to dismiss these sentiments as unreflective and dangerous–the war is not, after all, either a game or a process with a predetermined outcome. And yet these general sentiments were surely much prevalent than the selection of sources, here, would indicate. Hermon’s views were “majority” views, a century back, however much they will come to seem like a rear-guard action against the all-conquering spread of anti-militarist/disillusioned/at-the-very-least-humane war writing.

 

But onward disillusion, for if it was never in the historical majority, it will still have its day–in this case, literature is better-written by the minority party, snatching disenchantment from the jaws of victory… (let’s consider this mot not quite perfected).

I left us hanging, in November, about the outcome of Frederic Manning‘s The Middle Parts of Fortune. The climax of the action was the brutal attack at the very end of the Somme battle which left the protagonist, Bourne, bereft of his two mates–Shem, wounded and headed for Blighty, and young Martlow dead.

But Bourne lives on, and the end of the “battle” of the Somme does not mean the end of trench combat. Manning’s novel is one of the most effective war novels I know, and if we find ourselves today, a century back, between its events and its writing, we also have contemporary poetry by Manning that directly addresses the book’s major themes. It’s a good time, then, to read what happens to Manning’s fictional alter ego. And we will note out at the outset that one advantage of the novel with an author-like protagonist is that it may be brought to an end at a different time and in a different manner than, say, a memoir…

After the battle, Bourne enters a period of grim, lonely despondency. He is well-respected–“liked” might be going too far–by many men and noncoms, but the fact that he will soon be sent home to train for a commission keeps many of them at arm’s length. In a surprising (and really quite cunningly prepared) literary move, the task of watching Bourne’s back falls to the Thersites of the battalion, “Weeper” Smart, a whining, pessimistic, physically powerful, widely-disliked brute.

Bourne is a man apart–his education has always set him above his fellows, and now his pending elevation to officerhood does–but he has been a decent soldier. Weeper Smart, since he complains at everything and thinks the worst not only of his fate but of everyone who collaborates in confirming it, is the ultimate arbiter of this fundamental criterion of a man’s worth. Bourne may be a lance-jack now and an officer to be, but he is no traitor to his fellow infantrymen, those dispossessed of freedom and dignity, the despised of the earth.

Although it was possible to date the battle, the novel is then vague about the passage of time. Several tours in the front line and several rest periods go by, so at least a few weeks pass. I am comforted in my lack of definitive research by the knowledge that Manning’s biographers didn’t bother to work out what might have happened to him after the disastrous attack of November 13th… Since Manning’s own whereabouts are a question, and since the book is vague, I don’t think it can be said with meaningful certainty whether the end of the novel is set in late November or early December. Which is good, since we’re running out of time: the novel closely tracks Manning’s actual experience, and he will be back in England before Christmas–shell-shocked, gassed, and ready for officer training. Now or never, then.

In addition to excerpting from the last scenes of the novel, I want to apply what little we know of Manning’s contemporary, century-back intentions. In a letter from this period he makes strides toward defining a new sort of heroism, one that is poised between the outmoded idea of successful, aggressive heroism and the “disillusioned” or complete rejection of the traditional terms of heroism in favor of furious fixation on the miseries and mortality of the infantry (that growing genre, mentioned above, which will be identified, pejoratively, as the literature of “passive suffering,” yet eventually win the battle of the syllabus).

Manning still values discipline and uncomplaining submission to orders, no matter how ineffective or unjust–but he sets himself aside. This is his voice, but it is also the voice of Bourne, among and apart from the rural laborers who fill the ranks of his battalion, respecting and selectively idealizing them, yet condescending:

I think the heroism of these men is in proportion to their humiliations; the severest form of monastic discipline is a less surrender. For myself I can, with an effort, I admit, escape from my immediate surroundings into mine own mind; but they are almost entirely physical creatures, to whom actuality is everything; that they can suffer as they do and yet respond to every call made upon them is to me, in some measure, a vindication of humanity.

Hence the best in the worst, and the emergence of “Weeper” Smart.

Some weeks back–before the battle, but after many chapters establishing the routine of the war, and particularly Bourne’s close friendship with Shem and Martlow–Weeper establishes himself as a principled outsider. He is the proud malcontent of a certain sort of folktale, or perhaps a Cynic philosopher.

That infantrymen share absolutely–whatever they possess–with their buddies, their closest mates, is expected. But the circle may or may not extend further than this smallest group. Bourne, feeling the need for a spree (and a gesture against the entrenched class-segregation of the army) has splurged on champagne, and the three men bring it back to their billet, when Weeper, who shares the space, accidentally intrudes on the party.

“Give us your mess-tin, Smart, and have a drink with us,” said Bourne.

Up went Weeper’s flat hand.

“No, thank ‘ee,” he said abruptly. “Tha needst not think a come back ‘ere just to scrounge on thee. If a’d known a would ‘ave stayed out yon.”

“Give me your tin,” said Bourne. “You’re welcome. It’s share and share alike with us. Where’s the sense of sitting alone by yourself, as though you think you are better than the next man?”

“A’ve never claimed to be better nor the next man,” said Weeper; “an’ a’ve got nowt to share.”

Bourne, taking up his mess-tin without waiting for him to pass it, poured out a fair share of the wine: he felt ashamed, in some strange way, that it should be in his power to give this forlorn, ungainly creature anything. It was as though he were encroaching on the other man’s independence. “You don’t mind taking a share of my tea in the morning,” he said with a rather diffident attempt at humour.

“A’ve as much reet to that as tha ‘ast,” said Weeper sullenly.

And then he was ashamed immediately of his surliness. He took up the mess-tin and drank a good draught before putting it down again, and breathing deeply with satisfaction.

“That’s better nor any o’ the stuff us poor buggers can get,” he said with an attempt at gratitude, which could not quite extinguish his more natural envy; and he moved up closer to them, and to the warmth and light.[2]

This small gesture comes to mean a lot. When Martlow is killed, Smart is moved–very much against his nature–to speak words of consolation to Bourne. And then he begins to look after him.

 

Manning’s decision to write a novel set in the cold murderous mud of the fall of 1916 perhaps had much to do with a desire to humanize–or to refract through several characters–the sheer effort of will that it took to survive with spirit or psyche relatively intact. Were he only writing poetry–like these verses, composed during this very period–we would have a narrower sense of his experience:

Grotesque

These are the damned circles Dante trod.
Terrible in hopelessness.
But even skulls have their humour.
An eyeless and sardonic mockery:
And we.
Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke.
That murks our foul, damp billet.
Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
As a choir of frogs
In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.

But upon breaking that harsh poet’s “we” into several subjects, we get something different.

Some weeks after the failed assault that killed Martlow and wounded Shem–sometime around now, a century back–the battalion is back in trenches. Once again Bourne’s special destiny comes to the fore. He had refused to return to England before the attack–it would have felt like a betrayal–but now it seems that his deliverance from the ranks can come at any time.

Should a man in that position be spared, protected from disaster? One thinks of Roland Leighton, due for Christmas leave, but leading from the front.

Or should such a man take precisely the ordinary chances, so as not to bestir Nemesis? One things of the plot of any war story which hinges upon “one final mission.”

Or should a future officer get as much experience as possible, since Nemesis is a mental crutch and trench warfare practical reality?

There is a raid to be made by Bourne’s battalion. A raid–that strange deadly tactical fungus that grows from the humid soil of static trench warfare, to no one’s profit. There are no attacks in the offing, so the mere desire to “gain ascendancy in No Man’s Land” or to collect intelligence about the enemy opposite hardly seem like sufficient reasons…

Bourne, returning from a fatigue to company headquarters, meets with his company commander.

Captain Marsden looked up and saw him, muddy up to the thighs.

“Lance-Corporal, we’re to make a raid tonight. I believe you know something about the lie of the land up here. Do you wish to make one of the party? We’re asking for volunteers.”

“Lance-corporal Bourne is down for a commission, sir,” interposed Sergeant-Major Tozer, “and per’aps…”

“I know all that,” said Captain Marsden, shortly. “What do you say, lance-corporal?”

Bourne felt something in him dilate enormously, and then contract to nothing again.

“If you wish it, sir,” he said, indifferently.

“It’s not a question of my wishes,” said Captain Marsden, coldly. “We are asking for volunteers. I think the experience may be useful to you.”

“I am quite ready, sir,” said Bourne, with equal coldness.

There was silence for a couple of seconds; and suddenly Weeper stood up, the telephone receiver still on his head; and his eyes almost starting from their sockets.

“If tha go’st, a’m goin’,” he said, solemnly.

Captain Marsden looked at him with a supercilious amazement. “I don’t know whether your duties will allow of you going,” he said. “I shall put your name down provisionally…”

This is not subtle: the novelist’s limitless ability to inhabit the minds of his characters is contrasted with their hostile, fumbling interactions, while the prim speech of the officer comes to seem nastily schoolmarmish against the rough dialect and almost biblical directness of Weeper Smart’s declaration. Marsden makes some inscrutable–but nonetheless imperfect, compromised, and yet unchallengeable–judgment about Bourne and class and hierarchy and experience, but what is this to a man like Weeper Smart? It’s unworthy casuistry, the logic of oppression. Weeper speaks at once like an Anglo-Saxon out of the dark ages, for whom word becomes oath becomes spell, and with the tribal fealty of the Hebrew Bible–he is Ruth committing to Naomi, or God exhorting Joshua.

Then they went back to their several companies, with orders to assemble at nine o’clock by the junction of Delaunay and Monk trenches. Weeper and Bourne were alone together after a few paces.

“What ‘opes ‘ave us poor buggers got!” exclaimed Weeper.

“Why did you come, Smart? I thought it awfully decent of you,” said Bourne.

“When a seed that fuckin’ slave driver look at ‘ee, a said to mysen, Am comin’. A’ll always say this for thee, tha’lt share all th’ast got wi’ us’ns, and tha’ don’t call a man by any foolish nicknames. Am comin’. ‘T won’t be the first bloody raid a’ve been out on, lad. An’ ‘twon ‘a be t’ last. Th’ast no cause to worry. A can look after mysen, aye, an’ thee too, lad. You leave it to me.”

He was always the same; determination only made him more desperate. Bourne thought for a moment, and then, lifting his head, turned to his companion.

Weeper weeps no longer–but he’s smart. Clever, that is. And in his eyes Bourne is, however well-educated, merely a well-meaning innocent. Weeper feels duty bound to act as guardian angel to the man who shared his wine.

“I don’t suppose Captain Marsden meant to put things that way, you know, Smart. It’s just his manner. He would always do what he thought right.”

Weeper turned on him a fierce but pitying glance. “Th’ast a bloody fool,” was all he said.

It was enough. Bourne laughed softly to himself. He had always felt some instinctive antipathy against his company commander. “I’ll show the bastard,” he said to himself in his own mind; “if I get a chance.”

The question, then, is whether this is the sort of story in which men will have the upper hand, or the war?

Chance. They were all balanced, equally, on a dangerous chance. One was not free, and therefore there would be very little merit in anything they might do. He followed Weeper down into the dugout.

Yes, chance dominates, but how could that be otherwise? It’s the core experience of attritional war and the central theme of the book (note, again, the title, a sexual pun from Hamlet).

What is so striking about the last chapter of The Middle Parts of Fortune is the social redemption of Bourne. Not his reclamation by his proper class and education status–the coming officer’s commission that hangs over much of the novel–but the solidarity of his company. He has lost his two mates, and he waits to be elevated far beyond the rest of his comrades, but Weeper Smart cleaves to him, testifying, by deed–by his willingness to voluntarily share his peril–that Bourne’s efforts and intentions have been right. He may be an officer someday, but he is yet what he has been–a soldier of his company now.

The act–Weeper’s choice–is crucial, but more fundamentally it is the polyphony of the novel that permits this rounding of the perspective. It may well be fantasy–misfit educated rankers must have often dreamed of winning the respect of the roughest of their fellows–but in the novel it is a very effective device. In his own mind–and the novel delves often into his thoughts–Bourne can’t convince himself that he is not fundamentally alone. But Weeper Smart makes their fellowship true, for a moment, by an act even simpler than the words in which he commits to it. He will go out beside him, into No Man’s Land, on this night.

Before I include much of the last few pages of the novel, I want to bring in a few more bits of poetry that Manning wrote around now, a century back. The difference in emphasis–the difference in the potential for sympathy, empathy, and love–is very clear. On marching back from the line–a scene which also appears in the novel–he writes, in “Relieved:”

We are weary and silent.
There is only the rhythm of marching feet;
Tho’ we move tranced, we keep it
As clock-work toys.
But each man is alone in this multitude;
We know not the world in which we move.

Even more to the point is another contemporary poem entitled–in Greek–“Self-sufficiency,” which begins like this:

I am alone: even ranked with multitudes:
And they alone, each man.
So are we free.

And it closes:

I may possess myself, and spend me so
Mingling with earth, and dreams, and God; and being
In them the master of all these in me.
Perfected thus.
Fight for your own dreams, you.[3]

 

This is highfalutin’ stuff, but if there were a life-model for Weeper Smart he would not have bothered to look at whatever the educated lance-jack was scribbling, nor troubled himself, perhaps, over the Greek title. It wouldn’t have mattered. If we must convert the poem into a philosophical statement it would be, simply, “soldiers facing death are both completely dependent on their fellows and utterly alone.” Which Weeper has already demonstrated that he believes–and while he won’t write a poem about this belief, he will put his life on the line for it.

Back, then, to The Middle Parts of Fortune. A few paragraphs later, the two men are alone, together, in No Man’s Land.

Bourne found himself crawling over a mat of wire, rusty in the mud; loose strands of it tore his trousers to tatters, and it was slow work getting through; he was mortally afraid of setting some of the strands singing along the line. Every sound he made seemed extraordinarily magnified. Every sense seemed to be stretched to an exquisite apprehension. He was through. He saw Whitfield and the other man slip into the trench, and out the other side. Sergeant Morgan gave him the direction with his hand. Weeper passed him, and he followed, trying to memorise the direction, so that he would be able to find his way back to the gap in the wire. They crossed almost together, Weeper taking his hand and pulling him up the other side without apparent effort. The man was as strong as an ape. Then they wormed their way forward again, until they found their position, where the communication trench formed a rather sharp angle with the fire-trench. The fire-trench itself still showed the effects of their bombardment; after passing the communication trench it changed its direction in a rather pronounced way, running forward as though to converge more closely on the British line. They were now in a shellhole, or rather two shellholes, which had formed one: Weeper looking down the communication trench, and Bourne along the fire-trench.

But then the raid, inevitably, is detected.

Suddenly they heard a shout, a scream, faint sounds of struggle, and some muffled explosions from underground. Almost, immediately the machine-gun in front of them broke into stuttering barks; they could see the quick spurting flashes in front of it; and Bourne threw his bomb, which went straight for the crack in the curtain. Ducking, he had another ready and threw that, but Weeper had already thrown. The three explosions followed in rapid succession. They heard a whistle. The machine-gun was out of action, but Weeper, leaping towards its wreckage, gave them another, and rushed Bourne into the trench. They saw through the mist their own party already by the gap, and Weeper’s parting bomb exploded.

The officer, Mr. Cross, kills the first German they come upon, and then they secure a wounded prisoner. The raid, such as it is, has been successful. They just need to get back through their own wire barriers and into the safety of the trench.

Weeper was ahead when he and Bourne reached the gap in the wire. Star-shell after star-shell was going up now, and the whole line had woken up. Machine-guns were talking; but there was one that would not talk. The rattle of musketry continued, but the mist was kindly to them, and had thickened again. As they got beyond the trammelling, clutching wire, Bourne saw Weeper a couple of paces ahead of him, and what he thought was the last of their party disappearing into the mist about twenty yards away. He was glad to be clear of the wire. Another star-shell went up, and they both froze into stillness under its glare. Then they moved again, hurrying for all they were worth. Bourne felt a sense of triumph and escape thrill in him. Anyway the Hun couldn’t see them now. Something kicked him in the upper part of the chest, rending its way through him, and his agonised cry was scarcely audible in the rush of blood from his mouth, as he collapsed and fell.

Weeper turned his head over his shoulder, listened, stopped, and went back. He found Bourne trying to lift himself; and Bourne spoke, gasping, suffocating.

“Go on. I’m scuppered.”

“A’ll not leave thee,” said Weeper. He stooped and lifted the other in his huge, ungainly arms, carrying him as tenderly as though he were a child. Bourne struggled wearily to speak, and the blood, filling his mouth, prevented him. Sometimes his head fell on Weeper’s shoulder. At last, barely articulate, a few words came.

“I’m finished. Le’ me in peace, for God’s sake. You can’t…”

“A’ll not leave thee,” said Weeper in an infuriate rage.

He felt Bourne stretch himself in a convulsive shudder, and relax, becoming suddenly heavier in his arms. He struggled on, stumbling over the shell-ploughed ground through that fantastic mist, which moved like an army of wraiths, hurrying away from him. Then he stopped, and, taking the body by the waist with his left arm, flung it over his shoulder, steadying it with his right. He could see their wire now, and presently he was challenged, and replied. He found the way through the wire, and staggered into the trench with his burden. Then he turned down the short stretch of Delaunay to Monk Trench, and came on the rest of the party outside A Company’s dugout.

“A’ve brought ‘im back,” he cried desperately, and collapsed with the body on the duck-boards. Picking himself up again, he told his story incoherently, mixed with raving curses.

“What are you gibbering about?” said Sergeant Morgan. “Aven’t you ever seen a dead man before?”

Sergeant-Major Tozer, who was standing outside the dugout, looked at Morgan with a dangerous eye. Then he put a hand on Weeper’s shoulder. “Go down an’ get some ‘ot tea and rum, of man. That’ll do you good. I’d like to ‘ave a talk with you when you’re feelin’ better.”

“We had better move on, sergeant,” said Mr Cross, quietly.

“Very good, sir.”

The party moved off, and for a moment Sergeant-Major Tozer was alone in the trench with Sergeant Morgan.

“I saw him this side of their wire, sergeant-major, and thought everything would be all right. ‘Pon my word, I would ‘ave gone back for ‘im myself, if I’d known.”

“It was hard luck,” said Sergeant-Major Tozer with a quiet fatalism.

Sergeant Morgan left him; and the sergeant-major looked at the dead body propped against the side of the trench. He would have to have it moved; it wasn’t a pleasant sight, and he bared his teeth in the pitiful repulsion with which it filled him. Bourne was sitting: his head back, his face plastered with mud, and blood drying thickly about his mouth and chin, while the glazed eyes stared up at the moon. Tozer moved away, with a quiet acceptance of the fact. It was finished. He was sorry about Bourne, he thought, more sorry than he could say. He was a queer chap, he said to himself, as he felt for the dugout steps. There was a bit of a mystery about him; but then, when you come to think of it, there’s a bit of mystery about all of us. He pushed aside the blanket screening the entrance, and in the murky light he saw all the men lift their faces, and look at him with patient, almost animal eyes.

Then they all bowed over their own thoughts again, listening to the shells bumping heavily outside, as Fritz began to send a lot of stuff over in retaliation for the raid. They sat there silently: each man keeping his own secret.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 313.
  2. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 197.
  3. Marwil, Frederic Manning, 168-70.
  4. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 240-7.