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.

May Cannan’s Lamplight; Max Plowman on an Unostentatious Hero and his Just Reward

For poem of the month, this month, we have a choice between one of the most powerful single poems of the war–Isaac Rosenberg‘s “Break of Day in the Trenches”–published this month but written this summer–or the elegiac and somewhat trite “Lamplight,” by May Wedderburn Cannan. Well, it’s December–I’ll include Cannan’s poem of regret. (But we looked at Rosenberg’s poem when it was written.)

 

Lamplight

We planned to shake the world together, you and I
Being young, and very wise;
Now in the light of the green shaded lamp
Almost I see your eyes
Light with the old gay laughter; you and I
Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days,
Setting our feet upon laborious ways,
And all you asked of fame
Was crossed swords in the Army List,
My Dear, against your name.

We planned a great Empire together, you and I,
Bound only by the sea;
Now in the quiet of a chill Winter’s night
Your voice comes hushed to me
Full of forgotten memories: you and I
Dreamed great dreams of our future in those days,
Setting our feet on undiscovered ways,
And all I asked of fame
A scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,
For the swords by your name.

We shall never shake the world together, you and I,
For you gave your life away;
And I think my heart was broken by the war,
Since on a summer day
You took the road we never spoke of: you and I
Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days;
You set your feet upon the Western ways
And have no need of fame –
There’s a scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,
And a torn cross with your name.

It will be the task of Max Plowman, then, to return us to prose. One of my biggest regrets about the way in which we read through the Somme battle, here, was how little of Plowman’s memoir I was able to include–Subaltern on the Somme is only dated by the month, and I was not able to obtain the battalion diary and link more incidents to dates.

But today’s letter, at least, allows us to drop anchor and consider one of the most considerable minor characters of the memoir.

On Active Service
Friday. 1st December. 1916.

My Dear Janet,

Forgive me–though it looks as if I were a ‘base’ hare I’m not really–I’m a ‘forward’ hare. And a very grateful one too–ever so glad to get your letters, quietly blessing you too for thinking of things like food for mind body & estate. I’m keeping the cocoa rations & mittens. Some day (when you feel a current of warm air) you’ll know it’s a prayer for his patron saint (St Jeanne) wafted over to you from some nose-biting trench. I always try & make a small collection before I go into trenches nowadays & though it usually means finding oneself an unholy beast of burden…

For instance, when we went up last, about a month ago, I took a packet of raisins D. had sent me, two tins of cigarettes, some oxo cubes & a sack full of Shell Dressings. Oh & 8 pairs of socks. As a result I’m still here. Whether that’s a blessing or not I’m not quite so sure, but since one didn’t enlist to go sick I suppose ‘the answer is in the affirmative’…

We were only “in the line” actually 8 days (two spells of 4 each) but about a dozen officers got “trench feet” & I don’t know how many men. I gave about half my socks away to men but the other half saved me…

The place was a nightmare of mud & deep shell-holes full of water…

We will go back a few days into the “November” section of Plowman’s memoir and read about this tour in just a moment. But first, Plowman has a curious writerly note to make.

If only I could get decently wounded now I should be most awfully glad I’d been out here. Sum it all up & I think nothing has surprised me except the way in which some of the men “stick it.” And that will always be a romance in my mind. I’ve a little corporal I’m thinking of at the moment. He’s a wisp of a man with a groggy knee which sent him home after Ypres last year & has never really got well, & a faint treble voice…

I’d willingly have given him a V.C. if it had been mine to give it, just for “carrying on” & helping & encouraging men to do likewise when he himself was dead-beat. It was a wonderful show. Unfortunately he’ll get nothing beyond an extra stripe just because our regiment’s not in good odour… But I never shall forget fellows like him & if I ever get the chance I’d sooner write about them than any other side of the war…[1]

“Romance?” There’s a hardy word, a concept that carries on doing what good it can do despite the obviously adverse circumstances. Well, reader, Plowman followed through:

Corporal Jackson… Odd the way that man always seems to be the first in the trenches and the last out. I noticed, too, that directly we get into the trenches his nonchalant air disappears and he becomes keen on whatever job falls to him. When I went to see him just now, he told me in his piping, far-away voice exactly how he was holding the post and what he should do if there was any trouble, showing clearly that he had worked the whole situation out for himself. He is my best N.C.O.

And his value only increases as Plowman’s men become more exhausted and demoralized.

It is early morning before we find the camp on the hill. As we enter wearily, ominous shoutings and groanings come from all directions. These sounds tell the tale. The men are crying out with the pain in their feet. But there is nothing to be done now and, dog-tired, I am on the point of dropping into a tarpaulin-covered hole, when I remember my platoon. What can I do for them? Well, at least I ought to see how they are. Wandering round alone I come on a coke-fire burning at the end of one of the shelters. A dark figure stands by tending it. It is Jackson.

“Hullo! What are you doing?”

“Only looking to this fire, sir. I thought if I kept it going on this side, the wind ‘d blow the heat through.”

“Where are they?”

“They’re all in there. There’s only Collins and Roberts bad. The sergeant’s pretty fair. He’s inside. Shall I fetch him?”

“No. That’s all right. How about yourself? Where are you going to sleep? Is there any room there?”

“No, sir, but I shall be all right. There’s several of them want looking to. I’d as soon be here. I’m getting dry.”

I bid him good night, and go back to the officers’ shelter, thinking of heroism and wherein it consists. This is the unostentatious kind. Here’s a wisp of a man with a permanently troublesome knee. He has just come from trenches, said to be worse than Ypres in 1914, where he has done two men’s work, besides helping crocks out of the mud, supporting them and carrying their rifles. Under the foulest conditions his spirits have never November flagged. I have heard him whistling when no other bird on earth would sing; and now, when by all the laws of Nature he ought to have dropped half-dead, he has appointed himself to the role of Florence Nightingale, and has not even left himself room to lie down. I cannot sleep for thinking of him. The Lady of the Lamp. The Gentleman of the Brazier.

An unostentatious hero, a corporal beyond price, a man to compare with Sidney Rogerson’s similarly fire-starting Corporal Robinson. But this is a war story–a Great War story–and as such it must be ironic.

Later, Max Plowman, our conscientious, left-leaning friend-of-the-working-man saunters up to tell Jackson that he has done him a good deed. Or tried to. Will Jackson get a medal? No, because the battalion is out of favor, regardless of the merits of its men. But still, it’s a nice gesture, right?

When I told Jackson this morning I had put his name up, but no recommendations were to be forwarded, he looked bored and unconcerned; rather as if I had betrayed his confidence to fools. I had.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 58-9.
  2. Subaltern on the Somme, 88, 140, 170-3, 186.

Phillip Maddison Writes, but not to Father; Rowland Feilding on Deep Dugouts, Glistening Seals, and the Hell of Mametz Wood; Donald Hankey Neat as a Pin

Phillip Maddison, wounded on the First of July, reached England a few days ago. He has endured the agony of early treatments for large flesh wounds–scraping, probing, tweezers. And he is in shock, it would seem–or despair. He has written only a brief note, telling his family that he is alive and wounded, and then a field postcard to the keeper of his local pub.

Today, a century back, chided by a nurse, he brings himself to write to his mother. Still, he pretends that only two visitors are allowed, and asks her to bring his sister with her. The scene immediately shifts to his father, near their suburban London home.

On the Saturday afternoon of July 8, Richard Maddison was working in his allotment, with a satisfaction based on two thoughts that gave him a calm feeling: one, that his son was at least out of the battle, with wounds that were not so severe as to lead the authorities, in whom he had implicit trust, to send for his mother and himself; two, that the benefit of sub-soiling he had done upon his rods of land was to be seen in the healthy appearance of the growing crops.

This minor reverie is then interrupted by Lily Cornford, the troubled, winsome, soft-focus girl who loves Phillip. She registers as merely an intrusion for Richard Maddison until she reveals that she is now a hospital volunteer. Then her inquiry is acceptable, and, when she blushes, and becomes a “Vision.” Lily has heard that Phillip is wounded, and is reassured by his father’s bland confidence.

Richard Maddison is distracted, pleased by the pretty young woman’s attentions. We are left for a moment watching him savor the expansive feeling that these attentions bring–watching, if we’ve been reading, with something of the snide derision that his son (or, rather, the author) might feel. Only a foolish old Victorian Polonius would have “implicit trust” in the authorities that sent waves of half-trained soldiers into intact wire and machine guns…

The puncturing of this mood is, by Williamsonian standards, fairly subtle. Lily moves on and, a few minutes later, one of Richard Maddison’s fellow special constables (these middle aged men were tasked with enforcing blackout restrictions and watching for Zeppelins) brings home the meaning of the encounter: the whole neighborhood knows more about Phillip’s condition than his father does.[1]

Henry Williamson‘s fiction is usually even more obvious: he’s the ham-handed man-child caught axe-grinding once again… really! It can be very heavy going indeed. He aims to comment on every aspect of the war, borrowing from his own war experience only when it’s conventionally exciting and otherwise throwing Phillip into every possible battle and using the public record for the details. At the same time he bears down, for thousands of pages, in exhaustive scrutiny of the salient facts of his actual personal life. These are, essentially, twofold: his fickle, immature, and changeable character (“Phillip” is always high-minded, but alternately clownish and noble, courageous and cowardly), and his father’s responsibility for molding that character.

Which is why it is good to read Williamson, here. Going into the details of why we have what writing we do have from these century-back soldiers breaks the fourth wall of the project, as it were: suffice it to say that few nasty or whingeing letters from serving soldiers are preserved, and fewer published. And we don’t have much in the way of complaint about one’s parents. I often make reference to one Philip Larkin poem, here, but there’s another one that serves just as well as a reminder of what British writing c. 1916 (or 1930, by which time almost all of the seminal novels and memoirs had come out) is too polite to encompass. And mum and dad–dad especially–did a number on Henry Williamson.

So, thanks to fiction, we are reminded here of a sobering fact: some wounded soldiers were miserable and depressed. Some blamed their parents for their predicament–fairly or no. Williamson/Maddison is in the army because the Territorials, just before the war, seemed an easy way to find the social acceptance and manly aura that he craved–and this craving stemmed from his father openly despising him as a weakling and Mama’s boy. It’s fiction, but, hey–it’s plausible. Today, a century back, somewhere, a young officer was suffering not only the misery of his wounds but the wounds of his unhappy childhood. And a father–a stiff, unpleasant father–was suffering the wound of his son’s skilfully nasty flanking fire: that postcard to a publican, that pretty girl who knows more, who cares more than he does…

 

Back to the front, now, with Rowland Feilding, who reports to his wife on the aftermath of the Somme.

July 8, 1916. Bois des Tallies.

Yesterday I went off alone to visit Fricourt, which our troops captured last Monday. There was a picture of the village two or three days ago in the Daily Mirror, which I saw yesterday. The picture showed a church and a street
of battered houses. It was not the Fricourt of to-day, which has no church, nor even a house standing. There remain just fragments of walls: that is all.

As you enter the village from this side you pass the cemetery. The tombstones—practically all—have been shattered and scattered broadcast. Scarcely a grave could be recognized by its nearest and dearest, save through its position. In one case, near the roadside, a shell has fallen upon one of those elaborate and rather pretentious family vaults so much in vogue in France, pulverizing the great black granite slab which covered it, and exposing the coffin shelves below. What a sudden and rude awakening for those sleeping bodies, and how undreamed of when they were laid in their highly respectable bourgeois tomb!

Heavy rain began to fall at midday, and continued in torrents at intervals throughout the afternoon, and all last
night. I had gone to Fricourt to look for Percy Clive, but when I reached the place I found that heavy fighting was in
progress before Mametz Wood, about a mile in front, and that his battalion was in it. So I had to postpone my visit.
The wounded were being carried back in streams, all covered from head to foot with the mud in which they had
been fighting, slimy and glistening like seals. It looks more and more as if Hell cannot be much worse than what our
infantry is going through at the present moment.

I should break in here, for a moment–Feilding has gone to report on aftermath, to do some prompt battlefield tourism, and he has found instead a fierce battle in progress. Percy Clive, a liberal MP and fellow Grenadier Guardsman, is now with (and, I believe, commanding) the 7th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, part of the 17th Division. It has fallen to that unit–“The Northern Division”–together with the 38th or “Welsh” Division to drive the Germans from the steep, still-in-fact-wooded Mametz Wood.

Mametz Wood, before

Mametz Wood, which awkwardly straddles a dividing line in the trench map system

This attack will be one of the worst–the bloodiest, the most futile. Overly-complex plans, delays both avoidable and inevitable, and staunch German resistance to attacks that could not be less surprising led to several bloody repulses, yesterday and today.

This is an area that concerns our literary war very closely: in the map at right we can see “The Quadrangle,” in which one trench was single-handedly captured, and then relinquished, by a buccaneering Siegfried Sassoon. That area has been taken now, but the over-matched soldiers of the Northern and Welsh divisions had to attack from there and positions further east up the steep hillsides (note the contour lines) into the Wood.

David Jones and the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers were in the area but missed the attacks–today and tomorrow they will be in brigade reserve, just behind the lines. The day after tomorrow, they will go forward. And yes, it will be “hell,” but with Jones writing, it will be a far stranger, more rich, and more terrible place than that stock comparison suggests.

And in what may be my single greatest sin of omission, I did not discuss Wyn Griffith‘s memoir yesterday.[2] Griffith is another Welshman (in both senses–he was bilingual and more firmly fixed to Wales than many of the 15th RWF or “London Welsh”) and another very good writer. Although he had been an officer in Jones’s battalion (the two may never have interacted directly) he was now on the Brigade staff of the 115th Brigade, 38th Division.[3]

mametz wood, east

Mametz Wood, eastern half, showing Caterpillar Wood

Griffith watched yesterday’s disastrous attack from a position of relative safety and terrible helplessness. No detached observer, like Feilding, he was part of the chain of command that should have been able to adapt the battle to changing circumstances. But not at this point of this war: “brigade” was close enough to the battle to see what needed to be done, but not high enough in the chain of command to make it happen. Telephone and telegraph wires were cut, artillery plans were not to be trifled with, and ill-conceived attacks ground on…

Griffith was in Pommiers Redoubt (just to the south of the positions shown in the map at right–this attack occurred over the junction of four different maps), which had an excellent view of the futile advance down and up the little valley between Caterpillar Wood and Mametz Wood. The Welshmen were raked by enfilading machine-gun fire from the right as well as stiff defensive fire from the wood itself. There was no supporting barrage, no smoke screen… but this was yesterday, a century back, and I omitted it because the only way to do it justice would be to include an entire chapter of Griffith’s book.

Up to Mametz is one of the best memoirs (I know I write this a great deal), but, as the title suggests it falls in between those whose scale approach autobiography and those which describe only a few days or weeks of particular intensity–it is the story of his war, up to Mametz Wood. I very much recommend reading it, but little is to be gained right now from a mid-sized excerpt, so I will just bring us up to date and include one short but representative comment.

The climax of the book–emotionally and operationally, as it were–will come in two days’ time. Yesterday, however, Griffith was the right-hand man to a quiet hero of the war. This was the brigadier, Horatio Evans, who felt he had no choice but to go along with the foolish staff plan of attack. But after a morning of senseless slaughter (another cliche, but merited here), in which scores of men had been killed in order “to prove to our command that machine guns can defend a bare slope,” Evans sacrificed his career to save the remainder of his attacking battalions.

A further advance was being ordered by staff officers–located six miles back–and the brigadier decided to refuse. But his lines were cut, and so it was Griffith who remembered seeing an artillery observation officer with a separate telephone line, ran and found him, brought his Brigadier to verbally refuse the order, and then ran back up to the assembly trenches, through shell-fire, with the written order to stand down, all the while “feeling perfectly safe in the hands of Destiny.”

Hundreds of men were saved, and Brigadier Evans was soon sent home, as he had predicted to Griffith–“they want butchers, not brigadiers.”[4]

He had saved the Brigade from annihilation. That the rescue, in terms of men, was no more than a respite of days was no fault of his, for there is no saving of life in war until the eleventh hour of the last day is drawing to an end.[5]

 

So today, while Rowland Feilding looks for his friend, that friend’s 17th Division is facing machine-gun fire in “knee-deep mud.” Griffith’s brigade has been sent back–he is filling in for a wounded Staff Captain, and spends the day on the phone “parrying all demands from Division”–but other elements of the 38th division are struggling forward at the same time. They will miss their timing for a planned night attack–another intervention of providence or destiny, and likewise temporary.

Tomorrow, in a farther-off echo of the 38th Division getting rid of Brigadier Evans, Haig will fire the divisional commander of the 17th (although he was responsible neither for the German defense, the weather, nor the British plan of attack, which originated either with Haig’s staff or at the Corps or Army level) for this delay.

Ironically, the delay caused by replacing the general who was sacked will put off the assault by another day, giving the German defense more time to prepare.[6]

 

Cutting back to Feilding makes him seem cold-hearted, but there it is. His “hell” may be unimaginative, but the image of wounded, beslimed infantry “glistening like seals” certainly isn’t, and this is an experienced soldier at war: he can do nothing to relieve the sufferings of other men even in a hell so proximate, so he gets on with his day. He continues to tour the recently-captured German front lines around Fricourt and gives us an excellent closing-of-the-circle on a subject of much discussion these last few weeks: the German dugouts that were responsible for the survival of so many of their gunners on July 1st.

I mentioned to a machine-gun officer, whom I met, that I might be going on leave in a day or two, and should like a
souvenir from Fricourt. Said he, “I think I can help you then,” and took me to a place his men had just discovered.

british-troops-at-an-entrance-to-a-german-dugout-in-dantzig-alley-fricourt-july-1916-from-somme-1916

British Troops in a German dugout-entrance, Fricourt, July 1916

I have seen many dug-outs, but this beat them all. It might almost be described as an underground house, where instead of going upstairs you went down, by one flight after another, to the different stories. There were three floors, the deepest being 60 feet or more from the door by which I entered. The entrance hall—so to speak—was the brick cellar of a former house. There were two entrances, one of which, however, could only be recognized from the inside, since the doorway had been blown in. The other door, by which we entered, had been partly closed by a shell, a hole being left just big enough to crawl through on hands and knees.

The German occupants had evidently abandoned the place in a hurry, in the fear—entirely justified—that they might be buried alive if they stayed there. They had left everything behind. The floors were littered with every kind of thing, from heavy trench mortar bombs to grenades, the size of an egg, and from steel helmets to underclothing.

10362-14

An unusual souvenir

Many rifles hung from the wooden walls of the first flight of stairs. The nooks and corners of the rooms were occupied by sleeping-bunks, and from one of these I picked up the French Alphabet de Mademoiselle Lili, par “un papa,” delightfully illustrated, which I will send home to the children.

As I returned to camp I passed many fresh troops on their way up to the line. What a bad start for them in these
deluges of rain! One meets nowadays on the roads many wagons returning from the direction of the line, loaded with “swab” equipment. The troops of the new army wear pieces of cloth of different colours to distinguish their Divisions and Brigades. A battalion—I think of Royal Fusiliers—which I saw marching up, fresh and clean and full of life and vigour, a day or two before July 1, had pieces of pink flannel over their haversacks, displayed in such a way as to be recognizable in battle by our aeroplanes.

A few days later I passed a wagonload of salved equipment returning from the line. It was interleaved with the same pink flannel, now no longer fluttering gaily, but sodden and bedraggled, and caked with sticky clay.[7]

 

Here’s a pretty comparison. Rowland Feilding writes to his wife; Donald Hankey–who has been in the fighting, and buried many men in the days following–writes to his young niece. Hankey has escaped the slaughter once again and, apparently, been sent on a course. See, then, what of the war can be written to a young lady, and how it can be safely garbed in familiar lineaments–the horror story, the religious lesson–without either quite meeting the scale of wartime killing head-on or, otherwise, abandoning some form of truth for utter falsehood:

July 8, 1916

My Dear Eileen,

Thank you for your letter, and please thank Kathleen for hers. When I got your letter I was living in a “dug-out,”  which was a horrid dark place without any windows, which was full of rats. The rats used to eat my breakfast and my candle, and even my clean socks! But now I have gone to school again. Fancy an old fellow like me going to school! But to school I have gone, and it is very nice too! The school is called the 24th Army School, and if you want to write to me you must put on the envelope

2nd LIEUT. HANKEY, 1st R. War. Rgt.
No. 2 Mess, 4th Army School,
B. E. F., France.

There are about 200 students at this school, and some of them are even older than me! We learn all there is to know about killing Huns without getting killed ourselves, and this is very important because a lot of people were killed the other day. Only one must remember that as they died doing their duty, God took care of them, and took them home with Him.

Well, I am sitting in a great big garden, with a great big house just near, and yesterday I went to a funny old French town to get my hair cut and buy some trousers, because when I came here I was covered with mud, and all my clothes had holes in them. And I had lost my walking stick, but now I am as neat as a new pin. But whether wet or dry, ragged or neat, I am always

Your affectionate uncle and godpapa[8]

 

One final note: for the past three days, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien, now with his battalion’s headquarters at Bouzincourt, has been near the battle, but not in it. Two companies of his battalion have gone forward to hold trenches near Usna Hill, but Tolkien, as the signals officer, stayed back. And in Bouzincourt he crossed paths, rather providentially, with his friend and fellow TCBS-ite G.B. Smith. The three “talk as often as they can, ‘discussing poetry, the war, and the future. Once they walked in a field where poppies still waved in the wind despite the battle that was turning the countryside into a featureless desert of mud’.”[9] The two know nothing, yet, of the fate of Rob Gilson.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 319-21.
  2. I also missed, yesterday, the first attack of the 13th Royal Fusiliers--Guy Chapman's battalion--on La Boisselle. It's described in A  Passionate Prodigality, 95-100. Chapman himself was left out of the attack, but he includes disturbing second-hand evidence of the murder of German prisoners. The Somme is overwhelming...
  3. To review: there are four battalions to a brigade, three brigades to a division. Thus the 38th Division had twelve battalions--each a New Army formation created by one of three different regiments.
  4. Evans was slightly wounded yet stayed at his post for the next several days--he seems to have guessed that the wound would be used as an excuse to send him permanently away from the battalion.
  5. Up To Mametz, 206.
  6. In a detail impossible to miss--and perhaps not coincidental--the Welsh Division was at this time commanded by Major General C. G. Blackader.
  7. War Letters to a Wife, 88-90.
  8. Letters of Donald Hankey, 338-9.
  9. Chronology, 83, quoting Carpenter's Biography, 83.

A Joyful Reunion for Vera Brittain; A Telegram for the Hodgsons; Siegfried Sassoon in a One-Man Assault

Today, a century back, Noel Hodgson‘s family received this telegram.

Deeply regret to inform you that Lieut. W.N. Hodgson Devonshire Regiment was killed in action 1 July. The Army Council express their sympathy.

There’s no softening such a dreadful blow. But the survivors of the 9th Devonshires’ advance tried their best. These letters will start arriving in the days that follow:

“I can truthfully say that he is the greatest loss the Regiment has sustained… It is difficult to say who will miss him most in the Regiment, the officers or men, he was so popular with all.”

“I joined in the love & admiration which all who knew him felt for him. His sound common sense, his wonderful presence of mind, & his real courage made him an ideal officer. I don’t think there was anyone in the Battalion we could less have afforded to miss.”

“In losing your brother, I have lost my very best friend… He was beloved by everybody.”

Most touchingly, Noel’s mother, Penelope, will receive this note from one of her son’s men, asking for a picture of him:

“The Boys was all very fond of him & They told me how he got killed & I was so sorry to hear. . . . Mr Hodgson was my officer when I first enlisted & he was so very kind to us giving us sweets & smokes & we chaps thought the world of him.”[1]

I don’t know much about what Noel’s sister, Stella, thought or wrote after learning that her premonition had come true.

 

To set against her pain, here is another sister’s happiness. The heartless, opaque workings of the war machine seem to produce only cruel ironies–but not today. Today, an accident of medical evacuation provides Vera Brittain with unlooked-for joy.

July 5th

There was an early morning convoy of officers into J [ward], which had been got ready with frantic haste the day before. I Went on duty in 32 as usual, & had not been there many minutes when suddenly I saw Miss George, who ran up to me & said “Do you know your brother’s in J?” Edward in J! I scarcely knew where to turn–what to do & think. It was like some impossible novel that he should have come to my hospital. I had just told Miss Berkeley, who was very pleased & sympathetic but suggested that the work in that ward would have been very heavy & I had better wait a while before going, when Matron, kind for once, rang up to say my brother was in J & I could go to see him. Sister said I needn’t hurry back–busy though we were–& I went, in haste. . .

There was the dear, in bed, in blue pyjamas, struggling with a breakfast tray with one hand. The other sleeve was empty, & the arm below it stiff & bandaged. We could neither of us say much. . . but he smiled & seemed gayer & happier than he had been all through his leave. I think the splendid relief of having the great deed faced & over was uppermost in his mind then, rather than the memory of all he had been through on that day–hereafter to be regarded as one of the greatest dates in history. It was not till a little while afterwards that I,[2] & all who loved him realised that July 1st had changed him utterly & added ten years on to his life.

I learnt Edward’s story by degrees. His battalion took part in the main attack. As far as I remember, about 17 men & 2 officers came through unscathed. . . . Edward’s beloved Captain Harris was “missing” for ages; Edward thought he must have been blown up by a shell, but his body was found, long afterwards. He was wounded by shrapnel in the stomach, & when two of the attacking party stopped to pick him up & carry him in, he told them to “Go on & not bother about him.” At least one can be thankful that this episode of his heroism came to light. It is such things that help us to live through this War.

Edward himself had to lead the first wave of his company. They were not the very first to attack, and while they were waiting to go over the parapet, whole crowds of wounded began to come in & block up the trench, & not only this, but a certain battalion got into a panic & came running back. What with the blocked trench the sight of the wounded, the panic began to communicate itself to Edward’s men. Had it not been for him they would never have gone. Twice he had to go back to rally them. Finally he got them over the parapet. . . . He was wounded for the first time when about 90 yards along “No Man’s Land” by a bullet through his thigh; he tried to go on but could not; he fell, & crawled into a shell hole. Quite soon a shell burst very close to him & either a bit of this or a machine-gun bullet went through his left arm above the elbow. It seemed a far worse pain than the bullet in his thigh had been; he thought his arm had been blown off for the first time lost his nerve & cried out. He noticed when he had lain there about an hour a half that the hail of machine-gun bullets was getting less & thought he would try & crawl back. I think it was that crawl back among the dead which aged him more than anything; he says what made more impression on him than anything was seeing the dead hand of a man whose flesh was beginning to turn green & yellow, though he had only been killed that morning.[3]

This is not just a sister’s admiring account: Brittain will be one of a raft of officers who are awarded the Military Cross for courageous leadership during the debacle of July 1st.

 

And as Vera Brittain was hearing the first details of how her brother won his MC, Siegfried Sassoon was bidding for a bar to his own. A night attack on Mametz Wood was launched in the wee hours of this morning, a century back, but it ground to a halt amidst confusion. The Royal Welch, however, had seized Quadrangle Trench from the Germans, and Sassoon–who had once again been left behind with his depleted company, came up with supplies and ammunition. There was a German sniper firing on the Welch as they sought to deepen the trench, and Sassoon used this fact as an excuse to go forward without orders.

What happened next is a major part of his little legend, an experience that was both something like a pinnacle for the fox-hunting-man-become-infantry-officer and, perhaps, the start of the next chapter, in which he finds himself driven to query the war he sees before him.

Sassoon went forward alone, with a bag of bombs, looking for the sniper. He found instead a trench full of Germans–and they ran, probably assuming that they were being attacked by more than one man. Here is the earliest and most matter-of-fact description of his one-man charge, from his diary:

I went across from our bombing-post to where Wood Trench ended, as there was a Bosche sniper: the others fired at the parapet, so they didn’t see me coming. When I got there. I chucked four Mills bombs into their trench and to my surprise fifty or sixty (I counted eighty-five packs left on the firestep) ran away like hell into Mametz, Wood. Our Lewis-gun was on them all the way and I think they suffered. (Ask someone else about this show!)[4]

This is a tale that will grow in the telling–Robert Graves will have Sassoon clearing out the trench and then sitting down to read some poetry in the deserted German trench, a story that is “almost certainly apocryphal”–but it also seems to have begun strangely foreshortened. This was quite a deed, and Sassoon, despite having implicitly disobeyed orders (his assignment was to stay with his company and resupply the forward companies) was recommended for another decoration. (He didn’t get it–the trench, after all, was not held, and the overall attack was not a success).

It really does seem as if Sassoon was thrilled with the adventure but didn’t quite decide to cast it in heroic terms until a little later. He was exploring, he was angry at the sniper… but he did indeed clear out an enemy trench, single-handedly. When he came to write a letter to Eddie Marsh, he sounds very much the happy–nay, the exultant–warrior:

Eddie, I chased 40 Bosches out of a trench by Mametz Wood all by myself. Wasn’t that a joyous moment for me? They ran like hell and I chucked bombs and made hunting noises.[5]

And here–at some length–is how the exploit came to be written when Sassoon produced the “Memoirs” of “George Sherston.” The hunting noises remain–and were there, perhaps, from the start. But hindsight makes something very different of this innocent’s violent adventure.

There wasn’t much wire in front of Quadrangle Trench. I entered it at a strong point on the extreme left and found three officers sitting on the fire-step with hunched shoulders and glum unenterprising faces. Two others had gone away wounded. I was told that Edmunds, the Battalion Observation Officer, had gone down to explain the situation to Kinjack; we were in touch with the Northumberland Fusiliers on our left. Nevertheless I felt that there must be something to be done. Exploring to the right I found young Fernby, whose demeanor was a contrast to the apathetic trio in the sandbagged strong-point. Fernby had only been out from England a few weeks but he appeared quite at home in his new surroundings. His face showed that he was exulting in the fact that he didn’t feel afraid. He told me that no one knew what had happened on our right; the Royal Irish were believed to have failed. We went along the trench which was less than waist deep. The Germans had evidently been digging when we attacked, and had left their packs and other equipment ranged along the reverse edge of the trench. I stared about me; the smoke-drifted twilight was alive with intense movement, and there was a wild strangeness in the scene which somehow excited me. Our men seemed a, bit out of hand and I couldn’t see any of the responsible N.C.O.’s; some of the troops were firing excitedly at the Wood; others were rummaging in the German packs. Fernby said that we were being sniped from the trees on both sides. Mametz Wood was a menacing wall of gloom, and now an outburst of rapid thudding explosions began from that direction. There was a sap from the Quadrangle to the Wood, and along this the Germans were bombing. In all this confusion I formed the obvious notion that we ought to be deepening the trench. Daylight would be on us at once, and we were along a slope exposed to enfilade fire from the Wood. I told Fernby to make the men dig for all they were worth, and went to the right with Kendle. The Germans had left a lot of shovels, but we were making no use of them. Two tough-looking privates were disputing the ownership of a pair of field-glasses, so I pulled out my pistol and urged them, with ferocious abjurations, to chuck all that fooling and dig. I seem to be getting pretty handy with my pistol, I thought, for the conditions in Quadrangle Trench were giving me a sort of angry impetus. In some places it was only a foot deep, and already men were lying wounded and killed by sniping. There were high-booted German bodies, too, and in the blear beginning of daylight they seemed as much the victims of a catastrophe as the men who had attacked them. As I stepped over one of the Germans an impulse made me lift him up from the miserable ditch. Propped against the bank, his blond face was undisfigured, except by the mud which I wiped from his eyes and mouth with my coat sleeve. He’d evidently been killed while digging, for his tunic was knotted loosely about his shoulders. He didn’t look to be more than eighteen. Hoisting him a little higher, I thought what a gentle face he had, and remembered that this was the first time I’d ever touched one of our enemies with my hands. Perhaps I had some dim sense of the futility which had put an end to this good-looking youth. Anyhow I hadn’t expected the Battle of the Somme to be quite like this. . . . Kendle, who had been trying to do something for a badly wounded man, now rejoined me, and we continued, mostly on all fours, along the dwindling trench. We passed no one until we came to a bombing post-three serious-minded men who said that no one had been further than that yet. Being in an exploring frame of mind, I took a bag of bombs and crawled another sixty or seventy yards with Kendle close behind me. The trench became a shallow groove and ended where the ground overlooked a little valley along which there was a light railway line. We stared across at the Wood. From the other side of the valley came an occasional rifle-shot, and a helmet bobbed up for a moment. Kendle remarked that from that point any one could see into the whole of our trench on the slope behind us. I said we must have our strong-post here and told him to go back for the bombers and a Lewis gun. I felt adventurous and it seemed as if Kendle and I were having great fun together. Kendle thought so too. The helmet bobbed up again. “I’ll just have a shot at him,” he said, wriggling away from the crumbling bank which gave us cover. At this moment Fernby appeared with two men and a Lewis gun. Kendle was half kneeling against some broken ground; I remember seeing him push his tin hat back from his forehead and then raise himself a few inches to take aim. After firing once he looked at us with a lively smile; a second later he fell sideways. A blotchy mark showed where the bullet had hit him just above the eyes.

The circumstances being what they were, I had no justification for feeling either shocked or astonished by the sudden extinction of Lance-Corporal Kendle. But after blank awareness that he was killed, all feelings tightened and contracted to a single intention — to “settle that sniper” on the other side of the valley. If I had stopped to think, I shouldn’t have gone at all. As it was, I discarded my tin hat and equipment, slung a bag of bombs across my shoulder, abruptly informed Fernby that I was going to find out who was there, and set off at a downhill double. While I was running I pulled the safety-pin out of a Mills bomb; my right hand being loaded, I did the same for my left. I mention this because I was obliged to extract the second safety-pin with my teeth, and the grating sensation reminded me that I was half way across and not so reckless as I had been when I started. I was even a little out of breath as I trotted up the opposite slope. Just before I arrived at the top I slowed up and threw my two bombs. Then I rushed at the bank, vaguely expecting some sort of scuffle with my imagined enemy. I had lost my temper with the man who had shot Kendle; quite unexpectedly, I found myself looking down into a well-conducted trench with a great many Germans in it. Fortunately for me, they were already retreating. It had not occurred to them that they were being attacked by a single fool; and Fernby, with presence of mind which probably saved me, had covered my advance by traversing the top of the trench with his Lewis gun. I slung a few more bombs, but they fell short of the clumsy field-gray figures, some of whom half turned to fire their rifles over the left shoulder as they ran across the open toward the wood, while a crowd of jostling helmets vanished along the trench. Idiotically elated, I stood there with my finger in my right ear and emitted a series of “view-holloas” ( a gesture which ought to win the approval of people who still regard war as a form of outdoor sport). Having thus failed to commit suicide, I proceeded to occupy the trench — that is to say I sat down on the fire-step, very much out of breath, and hoped to God the Germans wouldn’t come back again.

The trench was deep and roomy, with a fine view of our men in the Quadrangle, but I had no idea what to do now I had got possession of it. The word “consolidation” passed through my mind; but I couldn’t consolidate by myself. Naturally, I didn’t underestimate the magnitude of my achievement in capturing the trench on which the Royal Irish had made a frontal attack in the dark. Nevertheless, although still unable to see that my success was only a lucky accident, I felt a bit queer in my solitude, so I reinforced my courage by counting the sets of equipment which had been left behind. There were between forty and fifty packs, tidily arranged in a row — a fact which I often mentioned (quite casually) when describing my exploit afterwards. There was the doorway of a dug-out, but I only peered in at it, feeling safer above ground. Then, with apprehensive caution, I explored about half way to the Wood without finding any dead bodies. Apparently no one was any the worse for my little bombing demonstration. Perhaps I was disappointed by this, though the discovery of a dead or wounded enemy might have caused a revival of humane emotion. Returning to the sniping post at the end of the trench I meditated for a few minutes, somewhat like a boy who has caught a fish too big to carry home (if such an improbable event has ever happened). Finally I took a-deep breath and ran headlong back by the way I’d come.

Little Fernby’s anxious face awaited me, and I flopped down beside him with an outburst of hysterical laughter. When he’d heard my story he asked whether we oughtn’t to send a party across to occupy the trench, but I said that the Germans would be bound to come back quite soon. Moreover my rapid return had attracted the attention of a machine-gun which was now firing angrily, along the valley from a position in front of the Wood. In my excitement I had forgotten about Kendle. The sight of his body gave me a bit of a shock. His face had gone a bluish color; I told one of the bombers to cover it with something. Then I put on my web-equipment and its attachments, took a pull at my water-bottle, for my mouth had suddenly become intolerably dry, and set off on my return journey, leaving Fernby to look after the bombing post. It was now six o’clock in the morning, and a weary business it is, to be remembering and writing it down….

Alternately crouching and crawling, I worked my way back. I passed the young German whose body I had rescued from disfigurement a couple of hours before. He was down in the mud again, and someone had trodden on his face. It disheartened me to see him, though his body had now lost all touch with life and was part of the wastage of the war. He and Kendle had canceled one another out in the process called “attrition of manpower”. Further along I found one of our men dying slowly with a hole in his forehead. His eyes were open and he breathed with a horrible snoring sound. Close by him knelt two of his former mates; one of them was hacking at the ground with an entrenching tool while the other scooped the earth out of the trench with his hands. They weren’t worrying about souvenirs now.

Disregarding a written order from Burton, telling me to return, I remained up in Quadrangle Trench all the morning. The enemy made a few attempts to bomb their way up the sap from the Wood and in that restricted area I continued to expend energy which was a result of strained nerves. I mention this because, as the day went on, I definitely wanted to kill someone at close quarters. If this meant that I was really becoming a good “fighting man”, I can only suggest that, as a human being, I was both exhausted and exasperated. My courage was of the cock-fighting kind. Cock-fighting is illegal in England, but in July 1916 the man who could boast that he’d killed a German in the Battle of the Somme would have been patted on the back by a bishop in a hospital ward.[6]

It bears emphasizing, perhaps, that Sassoon seems to have killed no one, and also that he frames the episode not with killing or dying, but with the degradation of the already dead. If today, a century back, was the pinnacle for the innocent, aggressive, foolish fox-hunting boy who wanted to have reap glorious experience from war, it was also the day he saw–and decided to write a poem about–a corpse trampled into the mud.

 

Remarkably, today also featured a major action by the other Regular battalion of the Royal Welch. The Second Battalion–chronicled by Dr. Dunn, with Frank Richards in the ranks and Robert Graves about to join–is holding trenches near Givenchy. The raid, an elaborately-planned full-battalion action, was intended to avenge the destruction of nearly an entire company of the 2/RWF in the explosion of the mine that became Red Dragon Crater. Both Dunn and Richards describe the raid at length–43 prisoners were taken, including one whom Richards himself brought in, while seven Royal Welch Fusiliers were killed and forty wounded–but since this is an isolated action away from our main sources on the Somme, and since it has been quite a day already, I won’t include it here…[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 205-7.
  2. This is one of those points where Vera's diary hints that she fills up a bit some days afterwards--since the diary now lapses until August, it seems likely that the following sentences reflect a point of view some days or weeks on. But hey, when convenient, I'll ingenuously accept the heading date...
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 326-8.
  4. Diary, 89.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 269.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 341-6.
  7. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 218-221. Richards, Old Soldiers, 171-9.