Rowland Feilding on a Sketchy Stretch of No Man’s Land; Robert Graves is Home in Pursuit of Nancy; Cynthia Asquith Fends Off Her Own Pursuer

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Rowland Feilding, largely because his battalion has moved to a quiet sector as it recovers from November’s fighting. But his letter of today, a century back, instead of looking back to those battles, looks ahead–ahead in time to the Christmas leave he had recently been expecting, and then ahead in space to the uncannily flimsy barrier between his men and the Germans. With each new sector comes a new store of incident and observation.

The brigadier has just rung up to say that the Major-General will not allow two C[ommanding] O[fficer]’s away at the same time… it is rather a blow. Still, if I am not home for Christmas, I shall hope to be there a few days later, but I feel I cannot ask the children to postpone their Christmas tree.

The line we are holding is different to any I have seen before. It consists of a string of outposts traversing country which is very undulating. In my sector a road cuts our trenches at right angles; then, crossing Noman’s Land, continues through the German line… the only indication that you are nearing the front is a barricade of wire, which has been thrown across the road to prevent accidents.

There is a story that, before this barrier was erected, the doctor of one of the battalions which preceded us, having returned with a mess-cart full of provisions… failed to recognize his bearings and, passing between two outposts, entered the enemy’s domain.

The enemy kept everything but the mess-cart and the driver, whom they sent back with a note to the English Colonel.

“Thank you very much,” the note said…[1]

 

Robert Graves had rather an easier time getting leave, since he is, temporarily, the C.O. So it was off home to London for another weekend, a century back.

…in the early hours of Saturday 15 December, Amy and Alfred were woken by pebbles being thrown at their bedroom window. It was Robert, who had turned up unexpectedly at Red Branch House for another short leave. Fairies and Fusiliers had now been published, to generally good reviews; and he had brought with him a number of friendly letters from ‘Birrell, Mrs. Masefield and others’, but his principal aim in coming south was to see Nancy; and later that day Robert went into town to meet her, returning home very late.[2]

Graves is in love, and, naturally, extremely enthusiastic about it. Happily, Nancy Nicholson seems to share both sentiments, but it’s not clear whether she–only eighteen, but a passionate feminist and extremely assertive about her independence–completely shares Graves’s view of their situation. Graves may swagger and fancy himself a rebel, but he has some very conservative instincts, too… he might shock his parents with outspokenness or an unsuitable match, but he’s not about to attach himself to Nicholson without benefit of marriage. Just as the ill-fitting rebel takes great pride in his honorable service with a proud old Regiment, the young lover was quite cognizant of the fact that cohabitation (implying sex) before marriage–or even the appearance of such grave irregularities–would be socially ruinous. He’s a sort of Bohemian, perhaps, but not that sort.[3]

Something will have to be done, then, and soon…

 

Speaking of love affairs, let’s check in with Cynthia Asquith and her close family friend Bernard Freyberg. I’ve become intrigued with the remaining Asquiths and their circle, largely because Cynthia’s diary is so interesting… But since these London goings-on should remain a sideshow to writing that concerns the war more directly, I am resisting spending the time to figure out exactly who everyone she mentions actually is…

But what seems to be happening is that Cynthia, while evidently flattered by Freyberg’s attentions, is trying to keep the affair simmering rather than boiling all the over the place. And all the while she is keeping an eye a possible affair involving her unmarried younger brother-in-law…

Saturday, 15th December

Freyberg arrived—Mary H. cross-questioned me about him yesterday. He did the great man unbending stunt with Gabriel with great success… He told me all was well with Oc as far as Betty was concerned—she had confided in him walking home from a dinner at the Leeds the night before. He had been extolling Oc and she said, ‘I am very, very fond of him,’ which was a cue easily taken, so he said, ‘How fond?’ and the tale was told…

I suppose, if Oc hadn’t been recalled, all would now be settled and the Old Boy would have had to stomach a lowering of the average of beauty amongst his daughters-in-law. It’s very wonderful that he should prefer beautiful paupers to plainer heiresses.

That’s quite a line. Betty Constance Manners, who has now confessed her love for Oc Asquith, the youngest of the three brothers and the commander of the Hood Battalion, is not a near relation of Diana Manners, nor as beautiful, perhaps, as Cynthia herself or Raymond‘s wife Katherine (née Horner). But if there is one thing more difficult than figuring out who in English literature/history was considered most beautiful when and why (Manners is an exception), it’s figuring out who in English literature/history was considered sufficiently wealthy

Nevertheless, Cynthia Asquith’s Christmas is looking up:

The second post brought me a letter from Margot Howard de Walden enclosing a £200 cheque, as a Christmas present. It gave me quite a shock, but such an agreeable one! It is most angelic of her.

Now, what about Cynthuia’s own… situation with Freyberg? He is still dogging her every step, and she has confessed enjoyment of his attentions–he is “very, very attractive“–but she also seems to want to resist any consummated infidelity.

So far from being a gooseberry, Mary went to the other extreme and felt too ill to come to dinner, thus leaving me to a very long tete-à-tete and exposing me to a veritable tir de demolition.

The French phrase–“demolishing barrage” must have the effect of the later “carpet bombing.” A rolling barrage? A final assault of all guns? In any event, the Romantic “siege” has intensified.

Is this a mutually enjoyable game, or a social quandary balanced on the edge of abuse?

It is true that I read him all the purple patches out of Henry V, but it was only a postponement. However, all was not lost—I locked my door.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 242-3.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 188-9.
  3. It's amusing to note that a famous party occurred in London at about this time a century back (Whelpton puts it shortly before the 18th, when the Lawrences left town), at which D.W. Lawrence, H.D., Richard Aldington and several friends--members of several overlapping love triangles and extra-marital affairs--cavorted in an entirely more "modern" way...
  4. Diaries, 380.

A Gathering at Mrs. Colefax’s: Nichols, the Sitwells, Graves, Sassoon, and Sorley; Eliot and Huxley too; and Cynthia Asquith is Very Glad She Went

At precisely 5 o’clock in the afternoon of today, a century back, a reading–to benefit charity, as well as, naturally, the stature of the participants–began in Mrs. Colefax’s drawing room, in Argyll House, King’s Road, Chelsea. The eminent Edmund Gosse presided, insisted on speed, and then immediately launched into a rambling introduction memorable only for the fact that he broke off to scold a late arrival–T.S. Eliot, coming straight from work. Gosse then read a poem or two by the absent Robert Graves, and, after ceding the limelight, kept the attention of the crowd by “snapping” at the other poets throughout the night.[1]

Next came Robert Nichols, opening with a poem of Gosse’s (yes, that sort of thing flattered Gosse) and following with several of his own. Nichols was either a compellingly dramatic reader and performer, or he made an ass of himself by screaming and capering. It depends on whose account you favor–Sassoon’s opinion of his friend seems to state the former sort of opinion, but the language rather implies the latter. Nichols also read two poems by Charles Sorley, who has now been dead for twenty-six months. These didn’t, alas, make much of an impression–When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead was evidently not on the bill.

Other performers included all three Sitwells–Osbert (still an unwounded and inexplicably free-and-easy-in-London subaltern of the Guards), Edith, and Sacheverell–as well as the actress Viola Tree, Irene Rutherford Mcleod, and Aldous Huxley. Irene Macleod impressed several of the onlookers, if more with her performance–“fierce, rapt”–than her work. It’s not clear what she read, but her next volume of poems will be dedicated to Aubrey de Sélincourt, classicist and fighter pilot, now languishing in a German P.O.W. camp.[2] Huxley had been rejected for military service because of his eyesight, spent some time at a desk job in the Air Ministry, and was now a young teacher at Eton and tending toward pacifism. He was probably thrilled to be there, but he did not take kindly to Gosse, whom he described as “the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen.” And while we’re at it we’d better get Huxley’s other much-quoted mot out of the way: it’s a description of Nichols, who, Huxley wrote, “raved and screamed and hooted and moaned… like a Lyceum Villain who hasn’t learnt how to act.” Which sounds like a hatchet job–or just a broad-for-effect version of Sassoon’s opinion. Nichols, however, had been previously put down by Vita Sackville West, and with much deadlier efficiency.

As for the Sitwells, only Sacheverell’s poetry impressed, but Edith’s work with the Wheels anthologies had forged an all-important link between “society” and Modernism. This, “the first recorded sighting of the three Sitwells operating publicly as a team,” was something of a coming out party for the artistically ambitious siblings.[3]

Among the literary lights in the audience was Arnold Bennett, who enjoyed the occasion and found Eliot’s choice of light verse–The Hippopotamus (which is indeed charming and light, for a half-realized and possibly self-deceiving satire on the Church of England)–to be the “best thing” about the evening. And of course it would be, as well, in any account that looked back on the day in the fullness of time and literary-consensual retrospect. T.S. Eliot! Months after “Prufrock!” Reading a satire as second-fiddle to a syphilitic third-rater and some absent “Georgian” war poets! Come on!

But Eliot wasn’t Eliot yet–he was an American of indeterminate talent whom no one, really, had read. His strange ascent had barely begun, while Robert Nichols was selling a ton and had surely achieved peak Robert Nichols. It was his show: he would have seemed the one to bet on. Not schoolboyish Huxley, who would soon give up poetry, and probably not the three slightly freakish Sitwells, at once too outré and suspiciously like aristocratic enthusiasts rather than major talents. And certainly not the amusing American banker, either: despite the English affinity for light satiric verse, it has hardly been a typical route to poetic world-conquest.

Eliot, however, enjoyed himself. After having written a purposefully obscene and nevertheless nasty letter to Ezra Pound about his invitation (“Shitwells,” etc.) he will soon manage a faintly preening letter to his mother.

I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience… It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it…[4]

 

Which brings us to another attendee, whose judgment in most things I’ve recently come to trust. Cynthia Asquith gives us the most balanced–and most thorough–review of the evening:

Wednesday, 12th December

…Went with Mamma to the Poets’ Reading at Mrs Colefax’s. Somehow it was ever so much better than Elizabeth’s Parnassuses—smaller, more intime, and above all shorter. All the poets were young and most of them had fought in the war. It was very moving. I liked Nichols enormously, with his bright, intensely alive, rather stoat-like face. He read again in the same intensely passionate dramatic way: I like it, but a great many people don’t. As well as his own, he read two—as I thought—very beautiful poems by Sorley who was killed at twenty years of age. Gosse was in the chair and acquitted himself quite well. Three Sitwells, all looking very German—Osbert, Sacheverell, and Edith—all read from their works. The author of ‘Prufrock’ read quite a funny poem comparing the Church to a hippopotamus. There was a young man called Huxley, and a very remarkable, fierce, rapt girl called McLeod who read her own clever poems beautifully. Siegfried Sassoon didn’t appear, but his poems were read by this girl. Mamma was very much moved by the war poems. I was very, very glad I went. Dined with Freyberg at the  Trocadero again and we went on to play poker at Ruby’s—I won £3 2s. Freyberg took me home and found his way into the hall with me.[5]

All very interesting, not least in the sincerity of emotion in Asquith’s reaction to the reading. Jaded as I am by the years on this project, it’s hard not to see a society charity reading as something of a hollow performance (especially when, as we know, but Asquith didn’t, that the young poets present had seen very little of the worst of the war, compared to those who were absent). But Cynthia Asquith, who actually went to this and many other charity-literary events, know of what she writes, and was moved.

So much for the famous evening at Mrs. Colefax’s. And afterwards? It doesn’t seem, judging from Asquith’s diary, that Freyberg attended the reading, although at least one later writer assumes that he did.  It would have been interesting, certainly, to have him and his V.C. lording it over the doubly-absent M.C. of Sassoon. Regardless, Freyberg’s pursuit of the hesitating Asquith will shortly encounter Sassoon as something of an intellectual obstacle. If Freyberg wasn’t there, then Asquith surely discussed the reading with him at dinner, and Freyberg knows the poetry well enough to have at least have an opinion (which is not to say, of course, that he knows it well). Remarkably, even as flirtation (and/or unwanted advances) continues between the two, their disagreement on the whys and wherefores of Sassoon’s position will soon come between them, and his anti-war war-hero literary cachet will turn Sassoon into a shadow rival to Freyberg and his  muscular/dashing appeal.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. It should be noted here at the outset that this gathering is crying out to be the focal point of a trendy (if minor-key) potted literary history... but as far as I know its only wholly-owned chapter, even, is the one in Ricketts's book. The problem is that for all the writers, celebrities, and diarists present, no one wrote a very full account, or recorded much about what was actually read. No program survives, and so the evening remains only half-imaginable.
  2. Mcleod and de Sélincourt will marry after the war; her poetry seems to stop as his career (Herodotus, Livy, etc.) takes off; they will have two daughters, and become, naturally, the in-laws of Christopher Robin.
  3. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 78.
  4. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, 241.
  5. Diary, 379-80.

Georgian Poetry the Third; Wilfred Owen’s Busy Month; Sassoon and Nichols Together in the Country; the Rout at Cambrai Continues, with Phillip Maddison; We Meet Lady Cynthia Asquith, as she Entertains a New Zealander, and Doubts

December! First of the last months! I wasn’t sure we would make it to December, 1917, but somehow we have. In celebration, there will be an entire volume of “month poems,” some excellent and topical, some indifferent and timeless, in rather a b ad way: December 1917 will see the release of Georgian Poetry III, a volume notable for bringing several of our poets together, at least between two covers. Later this month Isaac Rosenberg, finishing his own works in the alphabetical layout, will happen upon Siegfried Sassoon and read him for the first time.

 

Now Sassoon is, in one important way, a very generous soul: he is generous to his readers, especially those who came afterwards and interest themselves in his solipsism. There are the two piles of autobiography, the letters, the poems, and… ah, but he has been neglecting the diary. It was a place for notes on combat, cris de couer, and, once upon a time, his sporting doings.

So, now that he is a poet of protest no more but not yet a Mad Jack returned unto the bosom of the only men worth having as comrades and followers, what is the post-Rivers, pre-redemption Sassoon to do? Which of the various Siegfrieds will come to the fore?

So far, at least, he is having his cake and eating it too. Visiting his mother, he is at once George Sherston, fox-hunting man, and Siegfried Sassoon, habitué of London literary drawing rooms:

Went on leave November 29. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Weirleigh. Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday…

Which means Nichols will depart tomorrow, a century back, with their somewhat inevitable, somewhat unlikely friendship cemented; and then, on Monday, the diary will resume its oldest form: a hunting journal.[1]

 

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Sassoon’s other recent friendship–a far more momentous one–has reached a period of enforced cooling, as Wilfred Owen has been exiled to Scarborough and all-day duties as a Camp Commandant (not that Owen wasn’t trying to keep things simmering). Owen is on his own again, but he has begun–he has been started, as it were, and he is refreshed, driven. For those who didn’t follow the link above and read all of Georgian Poetry, then, here is a shorter and more aspirational document, looking ahead to the month’s accomplishments:

 

And what of the ongoing war?

 

For The Master of Belhaven, today was a day of false alarms. Standing-to from 5 a.m. until 9, they expected news of the assault of the German Guards Divisions, but his batteries, on the far flank of the Cambrai action, eventually stood down.[2]

 

So our war story, for the day, is carried on best in fiction. Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison had yet another climax–and anti-climax–to his manifold military experiences. His Machine Gun Company is called into the line to stem the German counter-attack: the British near-breakthrough of November 20th has become a German near-breakthrough, and Williamson seems to take a cruel pleasure in depicting the routed and panicked men who stream back past “286 M.”

Phillip himself, though “windy” and teary, is back in heroic mode, fighting in his pyjamas and helping to hold the line on what was, by all accounts, a desperate day. But in a bitter irony–Williamson perhaps intends this as a microcosm for the belated bureaucratic reckoning which will come for the commanders at Cambrai–Maddison’s commander, Teddy Pinnegar, is blamed for the Machine Gun Company being in the wrong place, even though this happens as a result of Phillip’s decisions during last night’s march… It’s all very confusing.

The day ends with Phillip guilty, feverish, diagnosed with trench fever by an American doctor, and sent to Blighty–not grateful, as he has been in earlier, more fearful times, but rueful that he has let his commander down and is going home sick rather than with a heroic wound. The climax of the book’s non-military action will come in England over the next few weeks, as the war and Phillip’s romantic escapades come together at last.[3]

 

Finally, with the new month, I’d like to introduce one more–just one more!–society diary.

Lady Cynthia Asquith has few connections to anyone we know. Except that she is a daughter of two “souls,” her mother a Wyndham (the grace on the right) and her father Hugo Charteris, the Earl of Wemyss; her brothers Yvo and Hugo (“Ego”) have both been killed in action; she is a confidante of D.H. Lawrence, secretary to J.M. Barrie, daughter-in-law of the ex-Prime Minister (her husband, Herbert Asquith, still serving in uniform and most evidently away from home was Raymond‘s younger brother), and, generally, friends with all of the smart set of society still left in England.

Which includes Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealandish interloper on the group who has earned his stripes (and stars) as a member of the Argonauts and, now, a hero of the Naval Division’s land battles. Lady Asquith will become a prolific author, but already, a century back, it’s clear that, surrounded by war and loss, she knows how to write warriors very well. Ardent lovers, however, are another thing altogether…

Saturday, 1st December

Went down to Brighton by 11.40 to spend the day with Freyberg. He met me at the station. He is staying at the Royal York, but we drove straight to the Metropole for luncheon. He was looking better and had a fine appetite. With his youthful face and the insignia of his anomalous rank (his medals and preposterous number of gold stripes), he is very conspicuous and much stared at—obsequious deference from the waiters. I insisted on taking him to Professor Severn, the phrenologist, but he was hopelessly out about him, marking him low for self-esteem and concentration…

We walked to dinner at the Metropole. He told me of his wonderful swimming exploit in Gallipoli, when he swam for four hours and landed naked and alone, and crawled quite close to the enemy’s trenches and lit torches. His eyes shine and he becomes poeticised talking of military adventures, and I was touched to see his eyes fill with tears once when he was talking about his men. I find him very, very attractive.

He drove me to the station to catch the 9.40. He made love to me all day with simplicity and sweetness, and I don’t know what to do. Several times he said he thought he had better not see me any more, and I suppose I ought to take him at his word: it is the candle that should withdraw, the moth cannot, but it would require considerable unselfishness on my part. I should hate to give him up altogether—conscience tells me I should. He kept asking me if I would have married him had I been free. I enjoyed the day very much—injudicious as it was.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. War Diary, 414-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.
  4. Diaries, 374-5.

Vera Brittain on Night Duty and Edward in Italy; Back to the Front for Carroll Carstairs; Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols Sing for their Society Supper, but Wilfred Owen Misses the Party

It’s an unsettled sort of day, today, a century back, with new experiences that are none too welcome. We have, first off, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first from Italy.

I am rather disappointed with this part of the country — we are close to where Vergil was supposed to be born and the city forms the adjective so often applied to him (even in Tennyson’s ode to Vergil) – it is flat and not specially interesting apart from its novelty.

Mantua, that is: and a much more mainstream deployment of a decent classical education than some of the heroically obscure place-references of Patrick Shaw Stewart and the other argonauts. But what clever chap can resist such a minor violation of the rules about revealing military locations?

We marched through the city yesterday — it is old, picturesque and rather sleepy with narrow streets and pungent smells; we have been accorded a most hearty reception all the way and have been presented with anything
from bottles of so-called phiz, to manifestos issued by mayors of towns; flowers and postcards were the most frequent tributes. Some of the country we passed through was very fine; apres la guerre finie there are several places where you and I might like to stay a while…

But Vera has other things to worry about, today–or rather tonight.

That same evening I was sent on night-duty to an acute medical ward. Since each of my previous night-duties had become a sharp, painful memory of telegrams and death and brooding grief, I did not welcome the change, and wrote to my mother in a sudden fit of despondency, deepened by the renewed recollection that Edward, my fellow-survivor, was far away and depressed:

“I feel very old and sad these days, though Sister ‘Milroy’ . . . tells me she feels like my mother when she goes out with me, though she’s only eight years older. I wonder if I shall ever be eight years older, and if the next eight could possibly be as long as the last three. I suppose I am saturated with War, and getting thoroughly war-weary, like everyone else.”[1]

 

Carroll Carstairs, our American officer of the Grenadiers, was in the area as well, returning to the line after leave.

Trains! French trains… I watched the smoke from the engine drift into separate wisps that looked like shrapnel bursts. Leaning back in my seat, I felt myself being carried along by destiny itself.

The drums reminded me that I was back again, feeling, in the process of a slight readjustment, unreality in the midst of the greatest reality. While I was away the Battalion had moved by route march from Ypres to the Somme.[2]

Which is but a way of indicating that we will, shortly, as well.

 

But first, once again, to London. Today’s most interesting event, from a war literature point of view, was a crossing-of-paths between the two most significant soldier-poets of 1917, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols. Robert Graves is the key node between the two of them, having been enthusiastically talking them up to each other for months and very hopeful that the three shall form a musketeerish bond, but he is on duty in Wales, and actually in command of the garrison of the Royal Welch at Rhyl. Which was perhaps a good thing, as the three together might have made for an explosive stew of intense eagerness and disparate social anxieties.

Instead, the two poets met with the capable Robbie Ross to smooth the way. Tonight, then, was yet another soldier-poet dinner at the Reform Club, and it might very well have gone badly. Nichols’s Ardours and Endurances has been “the hit of the season,” but Sassoon’s assessment was not favorable. He is surely correct that Nichols was “not as good as Sorley,” and posterity has certainly agreed–but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. But it should be fairly obvious that the poems will not wear that well: they are pretty, but they ring hollow in too many places. Nichols was (too) confident in his talent, but then again he knew himself to be a lightweight in terms of military service compared to Sassoon, that well-known fire-eater and wearer of the MC, and that easily could have been a point of unpleasantness.

Had Nichols suspected that Sassoon knew himself to be the better poet–or if he knew how much Sassoon shared Graves’s scorn for his personal failings (i.e. Nichols’s adventures with shell shock and venereal disease)–it might have degenerated into a butting of heads or a competition in offense-taking. And Nichols had either missed–or chosen to overlook–the rather pointed use of the word  “ardours” in “Fight to the Finish,” which suggests that Sassoon recognized him for a bit of a phony and was willing to take a shot at him in print.

So, again, it was lucky that they had Robbie Ross, “expert conversational masseur.” The dinner went well and the friendship began, but the three did not retire thereafter to Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, the decadent chambers to which Wilfred Owen had recently been initiated. No: they had been set up! Ross, after dining with them, duly delivered the two poets to a literary gathering at the home of Sibyl Colefax, “a rising society hostess, a ‘duchess-snob’, who liked to collected literary lions.”

Once they arrived, the poets, bait for the real prey–society eminences–learned that they were expected to perform. Nichols had done such a public reading before, and was a happy ham. He went first, melodramatically declaimed his verses, and then, even worse, was followed by a piano interlude of ragtime tunes played by Ivor Novello. Sassoon was thus perfectly primed to displease, and he certainly tried to, reading “The Hero, “The Rear-Guard,” and the famously controversial “They,” with its soldier “gone syphilitic” and blunt mockery of conventional religion.

It’s hard to tell if this was Sassoon just being “tough,” or, rather, whether he was trying to needle Nichols (who had seen nothing as horrible as the Hindenburg Tunnel, but did indeed know the horrors of syphilis). If Sassoon was “genuinely impressed” by Nichols, as one biographer has it, he was also irritated by his performance, which caused Sassoon “acute discomfort.”

But in any case Sassoon was a poor reader and he was out of every one of his various elements–this was not the sort of crowd that would either be impressed by a minor gentleman-sportsman from Kent with an MC, charmed by the handsome young jock-aesthete, or approving of quiet aloofness as a substitute for active wit.

Was he trying to shock the bourgeois? Perhaps, but one should credit him with a more nuanced appreciation of class: this wasn’t that crowd either. These were experienced high society women, flying far above the mere bourgeois, and three and a half years into the war. Lady Cynthia Asquith only recorded Sassoon’s shyness and prominent ears, while Vita Sackville-West, not surprisingly, saw through the ambitious Nichols, calling him “a horrid little bounder.”[3]

But what does that signify? At least the poets performed, and the ladies had something to say. Sassoon still had some dwindling notoriety as a protest poet, and some might notice that his poems “shocked” to good effect. Nichols was popular, and he delivered the goods, no matter that they are second-rate. The two will soon be invited back again, to enliven our last blogging December with their tales of the war’s largest literary waymeet…

 

Unfortunately for Wilfred Owen, however, his luck has run out–or it hasn’t yet run away enough for such things. He was in London too, today, a century back, on the way back home after visiting his cousin Leslie Gunston, and went to the Poetry Bookshop, where he was pleased to exchange winks with Harold Monro when a customer spoke of Sassoon. But then he was off to Shrewsbury, unaware that Sassoon and Nichols were with Ross…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 392; Letters From a Lost Generation, 382.
  2. Generation Missing, 118.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 423; Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 128-131.
  4. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Ethel Hermon Writes to Her Laddie; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVII: Re-Read by Read; Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw Stewart and the Huntress Hunted; Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Alf Pollard All Draw Near to Battle

We have a full complement of disparate subjects today: grief on the home front, idle high society, and a new wave of soldier-writers going forward in France.

 

We’ll begin in England, where the toll of April 9th is still being felt–except where it has yet to become known.

In 2008, Anne Nason published a book of letters written by her Grandather, Edward “Robert” Hermon, to her grandmother Ethel. Nearly 600 letters tucked away in a desk drawer had remained there for almost a century, until after the death of her mother, the Hermons’ second daughter, Mairy. For Love and Courage contains most of those letters, but the even greater number of letters that Ethel sent to Robert did not survive–letters to serving soldiers are hard to store away in desk drawers, and few made it out of the war even when their recipients survived. All of Ethel Hermon’s letters to Robert were lost except for one, written today, a century back, in ignorance of the fact that the man to whom she writes has been dead for three days.

Laddie my own,

I got a lovely letter this morning, 52, written on the 7th & doubly appreciated as you must have been feeling far more like going to bed that writing to me. You must be having a desperate, strenuous time, so laddie, do spend your spare minutes in a bit of rest & not in writing.

I know, of course, now that you must have been in the front line when the show started on Monday… All surmise is quite useless, I know, & yet one simply can’t help thinking & picturing things…

I could read so easily between the lines that you knew big & strenuous things were in front of you & I do so hope & pray you’ll come thro’ them safely laddie my own…

My best of everything to you dear, dear laddie.

Yours ever,

Ethel[1]

This letter will be returned to Ethel Hermon in the coming days, the envelope marked “Killed in Action.” When his effects reach her, they will include a card she wrote for her “laddie” this summer, enclosing a lucky clover. The double hole made by the bullet passing through is visible on either side of the center fold.

 

In London, Eleanor Farjeon waits to find out where Helen Thomas has gone, so that they can mourn together the man they both loved.

I went back home, to wait for the next news. It came in the morning, in Helen’s letter forwarded from the
Billingshurst post-office. She did not say much, only that she had had the telegram, was coming to her sister Mary’s in Chiswick, and would be returning almost at once to High Beech, and wanted me to go with her. I got in touch with Mary and was told the train Helen would take to Loughton next day.[2]

One thing her sister Mary seems to have helped Helen with is mailing some of the letters she had composed a few days earlier, informing their friends of Edward‘s death:

Post Mark: Battersea S.W. 11.15p.m. 12 April 1917

High Beech, nr. Loughton, Essex

My dear Emily & Gordon,

I wanted to be the one to tell you that Edward was killed on Easter Monday.

You will know how desolate I feel, in spite of the perfect union of our souls which death only completes. He lives on.

Helen[3]

 

 

Herbert Read is a fascinating case–a fierce intellect and by now an experienced infantry officer, but he is a young northerner in a northern regiment, and seems far from the turmoil stirring among London-based artists. But it’s hard to tell just where he is: he has been difficult to include here, too hard to pin down to particular dates. A slew of recent letters have been, essentially, philosophy-addled love letters, and I am to be praised for omitting them despite my eagerness to discuss him…

But today’s letter–also to the young woman he admires–goes a long way toward demonstrating both that he will eventually be very interesting to compare with Siegfried Sassoon and that he is not “there,” yet. It’s 1917, and Read has served in the trenches before (his first tour came to a premature end after he was injured by barbed wire, and it’s been a slow path back), and he’s a fiercely independent skeptic and cutting edge modernist… in theory. But look whom he’s quoting…

12.iv.17

Three weary days have passed, waiting rather impatiently for orders to proceed up the line. I was inoculated this morning–and now umteen million germs are disporting themselves in my blood, making me somewhat stiff–and cross.

But I really feel extraordinarily calm and happy–very different sensations from those that accompanied my former ‘coming out’. Then I felt reckless with the rest–and rather bacchanalian. Didn’t care a hang what happened. And, in a way, I don’t care a hang this time, but it’s a different way, a glad way. And it rather troubles my soul to know why? Because, as you may know, I’m not exactly a warrior by instinct–I don’t glory in fighting for fighting’s sake. Nor can I say that I’m wildly enthusiastic for ‘the Cause’. Its ideals are a bit too commercial and imperialistic for my liking. And I don’t really hate the Hun–the commonest inspiration among my comrades. I know there are a lot of nasty Huns–but what a lot of nasty Englishmen there are too. But I think my gladness may be akin to that Rupert Brooke expressed in one of his sonnets:

Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour,
      And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping!
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
      To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;
      Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
      And all the little emptiness of love.

But the real surprise is still to come: Read sees himself as less disillusioned than Brooke. And it’s a fair reading–at least of the last four lines. But, in the context of the last two years’ celebration of Brooke, an odd one. Which Read may belatedly realizes, as he glosses the verses:

Though I must say I’m not yet so ‘fed up’ with the world as the sonnet implies. I haven’t yet proved ‘the little emptiness of love.’

A good point to make, since he’s writing to a girl.

The half-men I still have with me in goodly numbers. And I’ve still faith that there are hearts that can be moved by honour and ideals. But England of these last few years has been rather cold and weary, and one finds little left standing amid the wreckage of one’s hopes. So one is glad to leap into the clean sea of danger and self sacrifice.

So, then, he’s half-rejecting the fastidious and hypocritically extroverted self-loathing that informs Brooke’s casting of the 1914 world as “dirty?” And despite the fact that he can substitute two more brutal years of war for Brooke’s hatred of peacetime England, he is still eager to die for his king and country?

But don’t think that I am laying claim to a halo. I don’t want to die for king and country, If I do die, it’s for the salvation of my own soul, cleansing it of all its little egotisms by one last supreme egotistic act.

All this is rather melodramatic; and forgive me if it is morbid. It is only a mood and has more to do with inoculation than anything else…[4]

Well that’s a nice way to wiggle out at the end. He quotes Brooke, but he doesn’t want to die; he isn’t fed up with love and doesn’t hate the small men of little England enough to seek sacrifice… but nor does he like England, either, though he might die for it, except not for it but for himself in some neo-Romantic sacrificial mode. Except it’s just the germs talking.

 

Will not any member of the old Coterie stand up for the glamorous, cynical, privileged, pre-war social-aesthetic staus quo?

Well, as it happens, I have been waiting for a good opportunity to introduce here a new acquisition, namely the diaries of Duff Cooper, who is essentially the last of the men of the “Coterie” not in his grave or in uniform. I didn’t get the book initially because, well, he’s not in uniform. (Cooper has a job at the Foreign Office.) He’s not a bad writer, but he comes off, in his diary, as a bit of a rake (pretty accurate) and a bit of a dope (not entirely accurate). In retrospect, I should have consulted him on the loss of so many of his friends, especially in the Royal Naval Division and the Grenadier Guards. But today, in the midst of tracking the grief caused by the attack at Arras, he is here for painful counterpoint only. Society–like strategy–being drawn into our trench narrative largely for the purpose of dark ironic comparison.

Diana Manners is the muse of the wits of the Coterie, the Queen of the clique, the shining light, just as Raymond Asquith, probably her only equal in social skill, had been (despite his marriage to Katherine Horner) the “king” of their circle. But Asquith is dead, along with many of their friends. Katherine’s brother Edward is with the cavalry in France, and only Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw-Stewart, back in England after his long sojourn in the East, remain as intra-Coterie suitors for the elusive Diana.

This weekend–life goes on–they are all at a house party in Scotland. Don’t worry–in a few days I will attempt an even more gruesome juxtaposition of the romantic high jinks of the idle rich and what is going on in the trenches.

April 12, 1917

We spent the morning in Diana’s room reading The Egoist.[5] It was delightful–while Patrick and I enjoyed the contemplation of Diana–but he watched both our faces all the time. He had a cryptic telegram this morning to say his orders had arrived and he will probably have to go back to London tomorrow and to France on Monday. I am so sorry. I am very fond of him. I do hope that his luck will not desert him. His death now would matter to me more than anyone’s and would be a terrible blow to our small diminishing society.

Which is to say that the leading contender can afford to be magnanimous to the man on the outside looking in… but the campaign is not won yet.[6]

 

It is once again Siegfried Sassoon‘s turn to look for a solution to his confusion in the direct and deadly challenge of battle. Well, almost his turn. Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers draw within sight of the battle front.

April 12 10 p.m.

Moved to St Martin-Cojeul, a demolished village about four kilometres north-west of Croisilles, three kilometres south-east of Wancourt where the Germans counter-attacked to-day. We take over an old German third-line trench from the 17th Manchesters. Arrived about 3 o’clock in wet weather after a fine morning. The snow has gone and left bad mud. The British line is about a mile in front of us. A dead English soldier lying by the road as we came to the village, his head hideously battered. I visited the underground Dressing Station this evening, and got my hands seen to.[7] Several wounded in there—one groaning with broken leg. A few five-nines dropped in the village, which is the usual heap of bricks. Absolute desolation—and the very strong line of German wire which they left. They have cut down even the pollard willows by the river.

Writing this in a tiny dug-out, but luckily it has a stove. Just room for Kirkby and self to sit. He is asleep. Rations getting very short. Only one meal to-day, and that scrappy to a degree. Casson and I finished our last orange to-night but feeling fairly fresh (just the usual trench-mouth). A fair amount of grumbling going on all round… Quite impossible to sleep as it is bitter-cold, and nowhere to lie down.[8]

 

Lastly, today, as Sassoon leads an inexperienced platoon toward the Hundenburg line, two other officers–one battle tested, one tried only in the ordinary cauteries of trench-holding–are rejoining their old units, each of which has lately seen action.

 

Wilfred Owen missed his battalion’s last action in hospital with a concussion, but he will not miss its next. With the recovered Owen marching at the head of his platoon, the 2nd Manchesters moved back up to the line today, a century back, in support of recent gains before the Hindenburg Line on the southern end of the British sector.[9]

 

And, near Arras, Alf Pollard hopped from one train to another, rushing to bring his draft of replacements back to the Honourable Artillery Company before the rumored supporting attack could begin without him. However, he hopped too quickly, and the men he was supposed to be leading missed the train.

This is only a comic mishap: the important thing is that he is there, and cannot be accused of missing an attack, as he once missed an assault in order to visit his mother. The draft? No big deal…

“Where are they?”

“I’ve lost them,” I said innocently.

The Adjutant was horrified… I laughed. What did I care about the draft now that I was back with my beloved battalion.”

There’s no question mark in the text. The H.A.C. will go up to the line tomorrow–not for an attack, but to hold trenches, for a few days, at least…[10]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 351.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 261.
  3. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 283.
  4. The Contrary Experience, 89-90.
  5. Meredith's novel, not the modernist periodical!
  6. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50.
  7. Sassoon has some infected scratches; he has not been wounded.
  8. Diaries, 153.
  9. Collected Letters, 452.
  10. Fire-Eater, 202-3.

Ivor Gurney on Ledwidge and the Poor Folk; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Foiled by Diana; Wilfred Owen on England, and the Abode of Madness

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been too long in Limbo. Or, more accurately, in Macedonia, which is no one’s idea of either a glamorous or a crucial theater of war. His society there is limited mostly to French career officers. It could be worse, one would think, but Shaw Stewart has different standards: his ambition is to scale the heights of English society… and today, a century back, at long last, he arrived back in England. Instead of staying in London or going to visit his family he went straight for Belvoir, where Diana Manners was ensconced. Sometimes, brilliant or beautiful people–brilliant, beautiful, and frequently not-so-nice people–get what they deserve. Manners is or was the muse to many men, and many of these have been killed–Raymond Asquith was the greatest loss. But just because the suitors are being winnowed by war does not mean that Diana is ready to give up bow, quiver, and pack.

One assumes that Shaw Stewart was invited, but Manners was not looking forward to the visit, and “feared he was going to propose to her.” A telegram to another beau, Duff Cooper, joked “Pray God with me to face this great ordeal and to let me triumph.” But she was evidently more than a match for a single gallivanting officer.  Without having proposed, Shaw Stewart will move on tomorrow from Belvoir to Panshanger, where Lady Desborough is throwing the third of four consecutive weekend parties. Shaw Stewart will get to mix with lords, politicians, society belles, and the ghostly absence of her two elder sons, his friends Julian and Billy.[1]

 

Just a brief note on Edward Thomas‘s war diary for today, a century back. He merely jotted a few lines, but these nevertheless convey the strange ways in which officers in a different sort of Limbo–Codford is a staging camp, and orders for France may appear at any point, now–spend their days scattered among disparate activities. Thomas inspected latrines, issued pay to the men of the battery, wrote letters, learned to ride a motorcycle, and received, with a letter from his wife Helen, an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.[2]

 

Ivor Gurney has been writing prolifically to Marion Scott, of late, and today another of our poets crosses his pen:

O tis cold! but this barn is pretty strawy, and my oil-sheet is over my legs, and I go straight on. Merely through boredom I have turned out another masterpiece today. Also having seen the Observers appreciation of Ledwidge’s description of the robins note as being like tiny cymbals, I looked for a robin, found one, heard it — and dont agree, altogether. He must have thought a lot to have written that description — it being too out of the way to be spontaneously observed. Now please turn back to the back of page one, where further grace will flow from my pen.

Interesting, both in the critique and the unusually confident note of humorous self-deprecation. It feels like Gurney has put his finger upon one more way that the poetry of 1917 is betwixt and between: we cannot get by without robins (not to mention larks and nightingales)–but are we really listening to them anymore?

But Gurney is unique among our poets in the quality of his ear. He is–we shouldn’t for a moment forget this–a trained musician and a composer, and sounds are his province. His mood is light today, as he trips from the usual parcel-thank-yous to joking about the dearth of local musical facilities… and yet we could almost read this as a most grave lament.

I think everything you have sent me has arrived now. There are no stragglers left. Binyons verses, for which I thank you are here also, but — O I need a piano; though two verses are pretty well settled in me. For the sum of one franc I got an hour on a faint toned piano yesterday; but that was not good enough, and there was no Bach, my fingers were stiff and my mind wandering allways . . .

I should leave it there… it’s beautiful and sad, and not altogether crazy–there must be many officers in safe jobs behind the lines with regular access to pianos… But Gurney is a private, and isolated, here: Marion Scott is a faithful friend and a great help in his work, but her connections are relatively humble and run through the musical world. Gurney is far from the seething centers of war poetry–Clitherland Camp, Eddie Marsh’s office, the Poetry Bookshop–and his craft is still happily Georgian. But his opinions are, naturally, beginning to show a certain disenchantment. His latest poems have sung the scenery of his beloved Gloucester, but today he turns to the people:

 

Poor Folk

We wonder how the poor get on in England,
Who wonder how the troops get on in France.
We’re better off than many folks in England,
Although we’ve got to face the Great Advance…

Oh when at last there comes the Judgement Day,
I’ll ask of God some questions that he must
Answer me well. Or I’ll choose rather to be
Some free spirit of Hell, or merely dust.

As how the poor who fight so well in France,
Die with a smile for England in some ditch.
Seem never really to get a proper chance —
Their wars and justice made for them by the rich.[3]

 

And finally, today, Wilfred Owen. His last letter described his first, intense experience of the front line, and it marked a major watershed in his writing. But history too can tense and slacken as experience distends and relaxes (the emotional rhythm, too, of regular trench service) and today’s letter, although still that of a changed man, moves back toward a more familiar register.

Friday, 19 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

We are now a long way back in a ruined village, all huddled together in a farm. We all sleep in the same room where we eat and try to live. My bed is a hammock of rabbit-wire stuck up beside a great shell hole in the wall. Snow is deep about, and melts through the gaping roof, on to my blanket. We are wretched beyond my previous imagination—but safe.

Last night indeed I had to ‘go up’ with a party. We got lost in the snow. I went on ahead to scout—foolishly alone—and when, half a mile away from the party, got overtaken by

G A S

It was only tear-gas from a shell, and I got safely back (to the party) in my helmet, with nothing worse than a severe fright! And, a few tears, some natural, some unnatural.

Here is an Addition to my List of Wants:

Safety Razor (in my drawer) & Blades
Socks (2 pairs)
6 Handkerchiefs
Celluloid Soap Box (Boots)
Cigarette Holder (Bone, Sd. or 6d.)
Paraffin for Hair.

(I can’t wash hair and have taken to washing my face with snow.)

Coal, water, candles, accommodation, everything is scarce. We have not always air! When I took my helmet off last night—O Air it was a heavenly thing!

…I scattered abroad some 50 Field Post Cards from the Base, which should bring forth a good harvest of letters. But nothing but a daily one from you will keep me up…

Owen moves now to a brief but telling self-survey of how a combatant’s attitudes might change. There is too much here to even begin to unpack. Better to let the writer unburden himself and see what still troubles his mind in the next letter…

We have a Gramophone, and so musical does it seem now that I shall never more disparage one. Indeed I can never disparage anything in Blighty again for a long time except certain parvenus living in a street of the same name as you take to go to the Abbey.

They want to call No Man’s Land ‘England’ because we keep supremacy there.

It is like the eternal place of gnashing of teeth; the Slough of Despond; could be contained in one of its crater-holes; the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it—to find the way to Babylon the Fallen.

It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer.[4]

I have not seen any dead. I have done worse. In the dank air I have perceived it, and in the darkness, felt.

Those ‘Somme Pictures’ are the laughing stock of the army—like the trenches on exhibition in Kensington.

No Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.

To call it ‘England’!

I would as soon call my House (!) Krupp Villa, or my child Chlorina-Phosgena.

Now I have let myself tell you more facts than I should, in the exuberance of having already done ‘a Bit.’ It is done, and we are all going still farther back for a long time. A long time. The people of England needn’t hope. They must agitate. But they are not yet agitated even. Let them imagine 50 strong men trembling as with ague for 50 hours!

Dearer & stronger love than ever. W.E.O.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Edwardian Meteor, 221.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 155.
  3. War Letters, 122-3.
  4. This letter, too, will be the basis for--or shows the first metaphorical feeling toward--a later poem.
  5. Collected Letters, 428-9.

Tom Kettle Writes “To My Daughter Betty;” Raymond Asquith on Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Lady Desborough, and Notre Dame D’Amiens

I haven’t yet written of the Irish writer and politician (and “wit… scholar… orator,”[1] barrister, journalist, and economist) Tom Kettle–and I’m sorry for it. Like Francis Ledwidge, he was an Irish patriotic active in the drive for Home Rule who nonetheless saw it as his duty to fight for Britain against Germany. Unlike Ledwidge, Kettle was famous and influential, a friend of Joyce and a member of Parliament. Thirty-four at the outbreak of war, he chose nonetheless to serve as an infantry officer. Yesterday, a century back, knowing that his battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was about to go into battle for the first time, he wrote a sort of political testament, explaining how his service–and possible death–in a British uniform should further the cause of Ireland. Today he addressed the possibility of his death in a more personal way while also placing it in the largest possible context: he wrote to his three-year-old daughter, and of salvation.

 

To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

 In the field, before Guillemont, Somme
September 4th, 1916

 

And I should leave it there–and would, but for a crossing… not of paths, but of references. A century on, we wreak mischief on the mischievous. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, still far off in the East, wrote a letter today, a century back, in which he enclosed the citation for his Croix de Guerre. He has been honored for his courage and general usefulness as the liaison officer to the French 17th Colonial Division–which is no mean honor, unless of course it is more or less pro forma for a well-liked and well-connected officer…[2]

High praise from the far-flung French–but he is being cut down rather closer to home. Raymond Asquith, Shaw-Stewart’s less-than-intimate friend and pseudo-rival (Asquith may feel as if Shaw-Stewart is the newer, inferior model of the socially climbing Eton-Balliol society wit) is full of opinions today.

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
4 September 1916

. . . I’m glad you approved my contribution to Ettie’s book–an almost impossible thing to write even tolerably and probably, after she has doctored it, even less presentable than it originally was. She told me that she was going to cut out a bit in which I had said that Billy was insolent (as he most assuredly was) and as far as I recollect, the excision is bound to make nonsense of some of the least infelicitous paragraphs.

“Ettie” is, of course, Lady Desborough, mother of Julian and Billy Grenfell and society queen of the prior generation (she is to the Souls as Diana Manners is to the Coterie). Lady Desborough was always more than a bit much, and she is now assembling a memorial book for her sons, who were both killed last year. This trajectory–from hostess and symbol of society living to semi-public mourner and keeper of her sons’ flame–is now all too common.

Asquith is rude here, but hardly as rude as he could have been. He has submitted with near-grace to writing panegyric for two younger friends about whom he had a mixed sort of appreciation, to say the least. “Ettie’s” transmutation–from carefully eccentric inspiration for various pseudo-artistic men to full-time whitewasher of her sons’ memory–might be risible if it weren’t, in almost the correct classical sense, tragic. Asquith is much younger than Lady Desborough and positioned as an older friend of her sons rather than a younger admirer of her… but he has son of his own now. He is writing, after all, to the wife of a serving soldier and the mother of a boy who will have to go, if the war lasts into the mid-thirties…

So the fun-making, here, is in a minor key.

But there are other targets of opportunity in this mopping-up operation.

She also told me that she was going to put in Dunrobin and some of Bron’s houses as places where B and J and I had had fun together—which perhaps lends some colour to your charge of snobbery. As a matter of fact Ettie is a snob in the same simple harmless sense as Patrick [Shaw Stewart]. She meant to give her sons the best mise-en-scène from a worldly point of view which could be had and I suppose she wants people to know that she succeeded as she certainly did. She promised me the book but has not sent it–probably it is too big to travel.[3]

So our Shaw-Stewart, mailing home his citation, is only a harmless sort of snob. It’s an odd comparison–or, rather, Asquith is working with an odd definition of “snobbery.” He is citing Desborough–wife of a lord, lady in waiting, famous personality, wealthy landowner in her own right–with social climbing (or aesthetic scene-setting), and then declaring this to be a forgivable sin. It’s not that she looks down, but that, for her sons, she looks around, and arranges…

If that is snobbery, what, then, do we call a political scion hobnobbing with royalty?

I had a pleasant enough sojourn in A[miens]. Oliver and I and Sloper got the Prince to lend us his car. We went in on Saturday afternoon, got excellent rooms with soft beds and hot baths, and had several very well cooked meals and some drinkable champagne. The town was seething with other officers from the division and we rollicked about on Saturday night visiting the ladies of the town who provided a certain amount of amusement, but without (you will be glad to hear) any loss of chastity on my part or indeed on that of most of my companions.

amiens

Notre Dame D’Amiens in 1916, with sandbags (Imperial War Museum)

With Ettie Desborough and her sons and Patrick Shaw-Stewart thus taken care of–and a favor from the Prince of Wales to clear the palate[4]–the cantering rhythm of Asquith’s letters now resumes.

On Sunday night we drove back again and today in rain and wind have resumed the ordinary drudgery arid beastliness of life. It was pleasant to get back even for 24 hours to the decencies and indecencies of civilisation. The cathedral is very beautiful, but the first thing one instinctively looked at on seeing it was the sandbag barricade in front of the doors to see whether it was properly built according to the classical canons of trench architecture.

Tomorrow we have a Brigade Field Day. Yesterday there was a successful British attack on Ginchy and Guillemont[5] and if they capture Lenze-Wood (I don’t know yet whether they have done or not) comparatively open fighting may set in.

We have been put at 3 hours notice to move, but that happens so often that I don’t think it means anything.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chesterton, albeit via Wikipedia.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 173-4.
  3. It is--Google claims it is over 600 pages but, despite its being long out of copyright, does not reproduce it. Lady Desborough's "Pages from a Family Journal" was privately printed and seems to be quite rare.
  4. Which isn't snobbery, I realize. I fail to score a point on Asquith on the counter-riposte: for Asquith to pretend he were not acquainted with the prince and that borrowing his car would not be useful would be a truer sort of snobbery.
  5. There was, and the Master of Belhaven was firing in support--Blunden's battalion's failed attack was on a different portion of the front).
  6. Life and Letters, 291-2.

Two Artists’ Rifles Going Nowhere: Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas Pine for Leave

We spend today in dreary Romford (or en route thither), where both of our poets in the Artists’ Rifles–unbeknownst to each other–catch up on their letter-writing. Wilfred Owen will be writing to his mother, of course, but Edward Thomas produced three variously chatty letters to his friends. Some highlights:

His letter to Gordon Bottomley mostly concerns the selection and publication of Thomas’s poems. But there is an amusing little bit in which the poets have a snicker at the society types who–at times, but indifferently–sponsor them.

Have you been wishing you were one of Elizabeth Asquith’s great bards who performed to a guinea audience? The Observer says nothing about them & a lot about Lady So & So,————& Mrs What d’jecall.

Serves them right…

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[1]

So that would be Elizabeth, daughter of the P.M. and socially precocious teenage half-sister to Raymond Asquith. This feeble archness might seem to be an indication that Thomas is rushing through the letter. But there’s subtext, here: this awkward reference to the matter of singing for one’s supper–especially in the vicinity of the government–seems to draw attention to the semi-subtle efforts by Thomas’s friends to secure some government patronage for him. Thomas, as ever, is prickly and conflicted…

In his letter to Walter de la Mare, Thomas first touches on the same general themes I’ve omitted from the letter to Bottomley, above: leaves and visits and how they are unlikely to happen. Then spring:

…There is still no leave to be had except on special grounds, but I hope to see you before long & to find the children unable to whoop. They should have some fine days on the coast. Here we are finding nests & expecting the cuckoo.

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[2]

Nothing too controversial there–but we wouldn’t go two letters without a mention of some bird or another.

And Thomas’s letter to Eleanor Farjeon is, as so often, both less guarded and less… respectful. With her, too, he broaches the subject that he is too genteel (or passive-aggressive) to discuss directly with de la Mare: the prospect of some sort of Civil List award or pension, in recognition of his writing.

16 iv 16

My dear Eleanor,

Thank you for the typed copies of Baba’s verses. I am on my way back to camp now after an unexpected week end. Unexpected but struggled for. There is still no regular leave, and I fear no hope of Easter leave. Still, it might come off…

There is no news. We have had a poor week, with only one day’s real work, which is quite another thing from having a holiday, though we did spend most of the time out of doors, doing no more work than we liked. It makes us feel unnecessary, and also helps the bad impression they have of us map-readers as truants, which we don’t want to maintain…

Things are moving in connection with the Civil List. But the opinion is that I am too young for a pension. A grant seems more possible. They are collecting letters from the great on my behalf.

How are you now?

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[3]

 

Wilfred Owen is unaccountably much the busier (or more bustling) of the two would-be officers. Two days back, he reported on his progress:

Wed. [14 April 1916] Y.M.C.A. [Romford]

Dearest Mother,

I have a few minutes. They shall be Yours.

Yesterday we had an Oral Exam, in the form of an Interview with a no. of Officers. Apparently I made a satisfactory impression. I answered successfully the 3 Questions put to me. We also had another Written Exam, in which I have done pretty well, being above the average, and top of my Room. I can never beat a young blood of 17, but as he is going into the Scots Guards, and the Army is his family profession I am not annoyed…

Owen’s letters are, thus, usually limited to descriptions of his own activities and inquiries about his family. Today, however, he too admits to camaraderie. A nascent “characters of the company” piece, then:

I was suddenly struck the other day to realize that my Section, thrown together by pure chance, contains some desirable fellows. First Muff-Ford, Artist: then a Journalist & Reporter, then an Actor, now well established, tho’ quite young, and taking no end of money. He has promised me a job after the War…

Then Briggs, of the 5th Manchester, chemical student at Leeds. He is quite my closest chum: a boy of admirable industry, in work, inquiring mind, a hater of swank, malice, and all uncharitableness, and very Provincial.

This spark King, poetical aspirant. Public School Exhibitioner in Classics, sportsman, gamester, wag, has something of a ‘Set’ about him. I am partly of them, but my variable moods, and relapses into solemnity, won’t do for them.

There are rumours of Week-end Leave…

Today, a century back, Owen’s chatter is all of this potential leave…

Sunday, 16 April 1916 Romford

My Dearest Mother,

Very many thanks for the Letter received on Friday, which duly—or unduly—enclosed 10s. This I have not yet cashed but during next week hope to do away with it at one blow, and more than that, because there is a promise of 4 days Leave to 50% of the School. Preference is given to married men, and such as live at a distance. I am almost certain to get it… Shall I come home?

…There is no change in our position, and no foreknowledge of events when we ‘leave School’. Still there, is every reason to think that the Gazette will follow immediately after it.

“The Gazette” indicating, here, the award of a commission to officer cadet Owen. This is–and has been, since he volunteered–Owen’s immediate career goal: to be an officer, holding His Majesty’s commission. This would also represent–although these traditional terms are changing, under the enormous pressure to expand Britain’s historically small army, faster than society can quite acknowledge–a social achievement. Owen’s mother Susan has a firm and fixed idea of her family’s decayed gentility, and for her eldest to become an officer would be a significant reparation of family status.

Depend upon it I shall bestir myself to obtain this Leave, and heavily exaggerate the distance from here to Shrewsbury. Ah! The long time it seems since I saw you I cannot exaggerate. We said ‘Till Easter’ and till Easter it shall be; though I lie knavishly to the Orderly Room, and under the seat of a carriage all the way.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 265.
  2. Poet to Poet, 219.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 194.
  4. Collected Letters, 390-2.

Siegfried Sassoon Romancing the Birds; Edwards Hermon and Thomas Seek Reassurance From Disappointment; John Adams Comes Down from School; Raymond Asquith and Vera Brittain Are Back to Work, and Miserable

And then, some days, a half-dozen writers have something interesting. First, Siegfried Sassoon, who has apparently picked up on my century-late ragging on his neo-Medieval Romanticism and redoubled his efforts. He is sounding more Arthurian than Tolkienian today, however:

January 9

I lay abed late and went out well rested about 11 to a sunny morning and a great cawing of rooks who had settled on the half-ploughed stubbles east of our remote Montagne. Not a cloud in the sky; and the cold air smelling wintry and good, a morning for the larks, but I could hear none aloft; only a few flocks of small finches; and once I saw some sort of hawk hovering near a clump of thorn-bushes round a solitary oak; there the small birds were congregated, chattering among the twigs, till Lord Merlin stoops and stands on the topmost branch of their oak. For a while he surveys the world, till I scare him off his perch, and he wings away to the valley, where the bells of Airaines come up to me, very Sabbath-like in the stillness and clarity of the morning. On my right hand the sun and the dark ploughland, and further on the rich brown gloom of the woods, swept by faint winds and laced with flickering light.

And on my left, sunshine and yellow plains of stubble, straw-coloured, hued like pale honey, with two inky rooks and a few strips of covert, purple and grey and russet with chestnut, hazel and ash.

Sassoon could have a future as a second-rate sentimental nature writer. But then again we are here to see how the war affects (and effects) writing, and he is the veteran of only a few quiet days in the trenches. As he well knows. Or, better, as he knows but cannot yet understand. The point is that Sassoon’s loopy current mood is predicated–or so he will now claim–on his awareness of the grim future that must be in store:

O this joy of to-day! My voice shall ring through the great wood, because I am glad for a while with beautiful earth, and we who live here are doomed to fall as best befits a man, a sacrifice to the spring; and this is true and we all know it—that many of us must die before Easter…[1]

I heard yesterday that Bobbie Hanmer is under orders for the Mediterranean Force. If only he were coming out here, as he hoped. But he may be safer there. Small chance for any of us in these attacks out here when they begin…[2]

Here are two of our ironies–historical hindsight and the beauties of the military “outdoor life”–but temporally inside-out. First, Sassoon is being ironic on purpose, because he thinks he knows the future: a beautiful demise! (Rupert Brooke must be on his mind.) Second, he looks forward to spring (instead of backward at summer) because of what it will bring: warm weather, firm ground, and a major offensive. He is not wrong, but precipitate… the “big push” will not be ready until full summer…

 

John Bernard Adams, battalion-mate of Sassoon, has been away for a few weeks on a training course. Which, perhaps surprisingly, he enjoyed thoroughly. The cooperation of many officers freed from both the immediate social strictures of their regiment and the pressure of learning their jobs while in harm’s way had been both revealing and uplifting to Adams. The 1/Royal Welch are an old Regular battalion, and Adams was uninspired by the hidebound attention to duty he (of New Army vintage, if not battalion assignment) found there. But the course had reminded him of the idealism of the New Armies and the best sort of amateur enthusiasm: an eagerness to learn everything about waging war, how to best do what they had set out to do.

After this energizing interlude, re-entry to the battalion will not be smooth. But there are other delights to look forward to:

We returned to our units on Sunday, 9th January, 1916, by motor-bus, which conveyed us some sixty or seventy miles, when we were dropped, Sergeant Roberts, myself, and Lewis, my servant. Leaving Lewis with my valise, we walked in the moonlight up to Montagne, where I got the transport officer to send a limber for my valise. “O’Brien on leave” was the first thing I grasped, as I tried to acclimatize myself to my surroundings. Leave! My three months was up, so I ought to get leave myself in a week or so; in a few days in fact. My first leave!

The next week was rosy from the prospect. My second impression was like that of a poet full of a great sunset and trying to adjust himself to the dry unimaginative remarks of the rest of the community who have relegated sunsets to perdition during dinner. For every one was so dull! They groused, they maligned the Staff, they were pessimistic, they were ignorant, oh! profoundly ignorant; they were in fact in a state of not having seen a vision! I could not believe then that the time would come when I, too, should forget the vision, and fix my eyes on the mud!

Still, for the moment, I was immensely surprised, though I was not such a fool as to start at once on a general reform of everyone, starting with the Brigadier. For under the Commandant’s influence one felt ready to tell off the Brigadier, if he didn’t get motor-‘buses to take your men to a divisional concert instead of saying the men must march three miles to it. But, as I say, I restrained myself. A week of field days, of advance guards and attacks in open order, of battalion drill, company drill, arm-drill, gas-helmet drill; lectures in the school in the evening, and running drill before breakfast. Yet all the time I felt chafing to get back into the firing-line. I felt so much better equipped to command my men. I wanted to practise all my new ideas. Then my leave came through.[3]

 

Speaking of leave, Raymond Asquith has had ten days of it, and gives us today–in his patented world-weary style–the tale of his Return to the Line.

Boulogne.
9 January 1916

The channel was quite safe though rather rough and bumpy: wonderful storm clouds in the sky which never broke, and seagulls looking quite their best against sinister gleams, of weak yellow sunlight. Quite according to the routine of idiocy which regulates military life, the trains are arranged to start from here half an hour before the boats arrive, so I had (not unwillingly) to spend the night here and am going up to Gagne by 12.30 train this morning…

Grousing about the Staff indeed. But that’s not all. Asquith evidently has some apologizing to do:

I’m afraid that I was rather testy yesterday morning; what with the short night and the late cabs I was not even
civil to the servants, let alone as sweet to you as I should have been. You were a darling to me, Fawnia, all the time–and even your too-frequent fits of dewiness were more in the nature of a compliment than a reproach–or so I tried to construe them. From the first moment when you went out, and brought me a handful of collar studs, you were sweeter than honey, and I suppose I was rather a brute to make you spend so much time in flashy company.

A nice apology–or nice enough. Rudeness to the servants so often metamorphoses into testiness with the better half… It wouldn’t spoil the mood, though, if we repented on our repentance by averring that the night out was a necessary infusion of… another woman?

But somehow a good glass of wine and the sight of Dottie’s hard eye and dazzling skin, gives me the illusion of living fast and brilliantly which one rather needs under the circumstances…[4]

“Dottie,” of course, is Diana Manners, unofficial co-regent (with Asquith) of “the Coterie.”

 

From this flashy company we go to an update on the well-off and well-born but not-quite-with-the-popular-crowd Edward Hermon. Rather touchingly–or pathetically, take your pick–he is entirely down in the dumps because he has not been “mentioned in dispatches.” Hermon has been–at least to judge from his letters–both hard-working and high-spirited. He has been assiduous in training and caring for the members of his battalion, and he was praised by his superiors for his work in bomb school, which went off almost without a hitch.

On the 3rd, Hermon’s first reaction to being left off the list was rather raw:

It is no use having a wife unless one can use her in times of disappointment as well as in times of joy. As the time for the publication of the promised dispatch of ‘Mentions’ drew nearer the more certain I seemed to be that I should get my ‘Mention…’

I wanted it so much for your sake dearie… I knew it would give you so much pleasure that lately it has become almost a mania. Now for the present my chance has gone… I oughtn’t to worry you with this dearie, but it damned near broke my heart this morning.

Later the same day, he was already feeling abashed… and yet still bitterly disappointed:

In the first sort of flush of disappointment I am afraid I wrote you rather more than I ought but I had somehow made so sure about it… The General himself said… “We are going to give him a medal for this”, However there it is & it’s no good grousing.

These letters found their way swiftly to England, and today, a century back, Hermon has his wife’s response. Has he recovered from his unmentionable disappointment?

It is no good minimizing the fact that this has been the greatest blow I have ever had since I have been a soldier.I have certainly got over it now but I’ve had some rather bitter days this week. Chaytor and old Harry [General Rawlinson] are absolutely furious about it which is something…

No doubt; and, nevertheless, Hermon spends a long paragraph listing his accomplishments and proclaiming his worthiness of honor. It concludes

I cannot understand why I was left out & one can’t ask!

No, one can’t. The reasons, though, are fairly obvious: Hermon is an officer of King Edward’s Horse, a regiment of the Yeomanry (mounted territorials), and therefore viewed as neither fashionable nor particularly useful. And while he has seen a little action, it was only in a support role. This is war, and high honors are reserved for either combat troops or those with really good connections… one imagines, too, that General Rawlinson could have exerted himself, but chose not to.

And Hermon should stop complaining. His battalion has now been asked to contribute snipers and machine gunners to the support lines, and they have suffered their first casualties.

Do you remember Shaw, the man who lunched with us at Sandy’s after the London show? He was killed the day before yesterday. He was running our Maxim gun & was killed by shrapnel.[5]

 

So much for the unrewarded officer-laborers of France. Back to England, now, where Edward Thomas is writing to Eleanor Farjeon again. He has already received reassurance from his wife about his recent work–and he has yet to even expose it to possible un-mentioning–but he seeks more:

D Company
Artists Rifles
Hut 51
Hare Hall Camp

9 I 16

My dear Eleanor,

I did get home on Friday night after some difficulty. In future it looks as if the difficulty will increase. However we got a beautiful day yesterday and did the usual things, lit a fire in the study, chopped some wood, dug some parsnips, and had a walk at sunset…

I have written some more lines and amended those I sent you last. I am sending you both. Helen liked the lines about the war and wanted me to send them out but I am not going to entangle myself in that order of disappointments…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[6]

 

I tried to find some padding before this–some workable sort of transition. But what, really could there be?

It’s hard to go from the business of life–learning, hoping, aspiring, complaining–to the business of death. Grieving for the loss of Roland, Vera Brittain is now back to work at Camberwell Hospital, where she will be surrounded by unfortunate soldiers who are yet more fortunate than hers had been.

January 9th

Wandered about Camberwell alone, extremely miserable.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Here Sassoon himself will break in with a  prophecy-supporting footnote. For shame.
  2. Diary, 32-33.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 87-9.
  4. Life and Letters, 231.
  5. For Love and Courage, 154-7.
  6. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 181.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 305.