Siegfried Sassoon Endures a Torrent of Drivel; Charles Carrington Chooses a Tank of Filth; Herbert Read Misses Out on Fear

We begin today with a brief update on Siegfried Sassoon–or, really, on his unbelievable Theosophist roommate.

7 October 1917, Craigockhart,

Dearest Robbie,

I am much relieved that the new poems have passed safely  through your judgment…

Rivers is back, and I hope he will get me a room to myself, as I can’t do anything with a prosy Theosophist there all the time–he maddens me with his stilted talk. When I told him our casualties (by official reports) were 102,000 for
September, he remarked ‘Yes, Sassoon, it is the Celestial Surgeon at work on humanity.’ But he may provide material for a poem some-day…[1]

Perhaps–but he will certainly provide material for the coming memoirs and novels…

 

But Ypres looms. Even those, like Herbert Read, who have missed the worst of Passchendaele seem to be able to put their finger on the essence of its late-war-of-attrition misery. This next letter sounds so much like the recent accounts of Carrington and Blunden that it feels almost like plagiarism. It’s not, though: it’s just that everyone is having the same experience. There is a really frightening unity of events here: the battalion successfully advances under a smothering barrage, and even holds its gains against counter-attacks, but it is nearly destroyed in doing so, and those who survive hardly more fit to continue than those who were maimed; the only fit officers are those who were left out of the initial attack and then sent forward to pick up the pieces…

When I arrived behind the line I found that the Battalion were in the thick of the fight. I had to stay behind until they came out, along with two others who had straggled in. All such stragglers for all the Brigade were billeted together–about 15 of us. We have a large mess-hut wherein some passing genius has built a wide open old-English fireplace of bricks. Fuel in plenty appears miraculously, so, as the weather is vile and tempestuous we build the fire high and sit around it in a circle. We were rather quiet, not knowing what has happened to our friends. Vague rumours come down to us every now and then. So-and-so is killed, so-and-so is wounded. The ——- have only two officers left out of the twenty that went into action. I hear that Col is wounded, but still ‘carrying on’. That sounds like him. Later someone comes down with shell-shock. He seems distracted and does not know anything definite. Some he has seen killed, others wounded. A few grim details he can give us. The attack was a great success–all objectives taken and so on. But for all we want to know we shall have to wait until they come out. The latest rumour says that is tomorrow and that we are going back to reorganize. We can only hope so.

Read, whose army career is intermittently difficult to follow, is something of a fire-eater himself (he led a raid this summer, and has been decorated for valor), so this next thought is certainly believable on its face. I think, however, that it touches on something deeper, something that helps explain why the war still goes on and why, a century on, it still fascinates:

I feel a little ashamed of having escaped it all. There is always a regret in not having shared dangers with friends. Perhaps one is jealous of their experiences…[2]

 

Charles Carrington has missed none of his comrades’ dangers, of late. Yesterday, a century back, he spent a long day crouching in the positions gained during the assault on October 4th, and we left him to his own devices. Today his increasingly exhausted and jumpy company are still waiting for their relief.

It seemed so quiet this morning that headquarters sent us orders to do salvage work. The wounded had all been brought in; the stretcher-bearers were collecting and burying the dead; I sent men to help in this and to collect arms and equipment. But during the morning it rained once more, and at times there was some shell-fire, at which the poor wretched men returned to their shell-holes. They got the worst of the weather; but we in our wooden shed right on the skyline soon began to attract the shells. The Colonials on our right were expecting trouble. Suddenly a signal went up, three little lights pale against the rainy sky, red and green and white. It was the SOS. Then both barrages fell and the ‘crumps’ burst all about the valley. Though it turned out to be a false alarm, the artillery never altogether died away, and as the afternoon wore on, the enemy’s guns searched the Stroombeek valley and the ridge whereon we were. Luckily the men in the open lower down the slope were in little danger.

And, as a few days ago, Carrington’s attention becomes fixed on one aspect of his surroundings. It’s not that he doesn’t describe the men and what they are going through, but it’s almost as if he has come to understand that the men hardly matter in such a grim war of attrition–it’s the shells, and what might save a man from their force and fragments. Carrington is a very frank writer, and perhaps this switch from close description to a sort of leisurely descriptive aside is just a lapse of attention to style–“now the pill-box bit, I guess.” But it feels almost as if it substitutes for further description of feeling: the experience is so overwhelming, the exhaustion so complete, that we will now stare at the wall for awhile.

Pill-boxes had begun by being concreted cellars in farm houses; they grew gradually into keeps of reinforced concrete in the midst of the wreckage of ruined houses; in the third stage the ruins were scattered by shell-fire and the square boxes of concrete were left standing alone. We had found in the vestibule of this mansion a little kennel door leading to a tiny cellar perhaps six feet in each dimension, half its depth being below ground-level. This closet was concreted over, and being watertight, had naturally filled up to ground-level with rain-water. At some time or other it had been used as a latrine, and the smell from it was prodigious.

When a second time the S O S was sent up (as far as we could-see, without reason) and again our barrage fell and the German retaliation came crashing round us, I began to look for cover. A near whizzbang decided me. Smell or no smell, I would explore the funkhole. I crawled in and found a ledge round the kennel and a few boards just above water-level stretched across the corners. It was safe from anything less than a direct hit from a 5’9. But if I let my hand drop carelessly or hung my foot over the edge of the board it fell into two feet of stagnant green water, fetid and slimy sewage. The smell of it was midway between a septic tank and a tidal river in an industrial town, and it had a staleness all its own.

Thorburn almost jeered when I crept into this tank, but when later in the evening a third SOS went up from the Colonials, and the shells fell closer than ever, Serjeant Walker and I went to earth together, and before long Thorburn swallowed his pride and joined us.

This is just one more incident, one more indignity, one more disgusting detail, but it really can stand as metonymy for Passchendaele–a place so awful that a septic tank is a welcome shelter. Even the men of 1916–men who put up humorous signboards and collected flowers to decorate the trenches–would be aghast.

To-night the battalion was to be relieved. We were already far enough back not to be continually on the alert. We sat and waited from seven o’clock till midnight crouched on boards, this dank pool three inches from the seats of our trousers and the roof three inches above our heads. Since an excursion or two showed that the men were not under fire, there was nothing to do beyond exchanging a few routine messages with headquarters about the relief. We sat and talked, sticking a candle-end on a ledge to light up the slime on the damp walls and our own unshaven faces.

One caller came to us, ‘Davy’ Jones, a little racecourse tout, a man of unlimited impudence, a singer of scurrilous songs, owner of the company Crown and Anchor board, always in trouble, but always well forward in action.
For once he was beat. He had been to headquarters on some errand or other (we had made him an acting section leader) and was standing in the little trench outside when two 5‘9’s came over together and burst on the parapet. With that curious uncertainty of shell-fire, they had almost blown the ground from under his feet without hurting him. But he was badly shaken and had lost his impudence. We brought him into our funkhole and made a fuss of him until the shelling was over.

And at the close of the day, exactly like Edmund Blunden, yesterday, Carrington and his comrades find themselves drawn to wistful reminiscences of better times. But not the endless summer of 1914, or cricket on the lawn, or school games, or English meadows… who can remember that anymore?

We soon fell into a sentimental conversation,

‘Of old unhappy far-off things
And battles long ago.’

Jones and I talked of our old fights, of Ovillers and Gommecourt, and the good times in summer out at rest, and of the friends who had ‘drawn their full issue’ long before…

At last our relief came. Section by section the relieving regiment arrived and replaced each of my groups with a platoon. Thorburn saw to the section reliefs; it was my place to ‘hand over’ company headquarters and explain the tactical situation…

I was full of anxiety to cross the Steenbeek and get away, being terribly frightened of being hit now at the last minute. We passed the Winnipeg road and the old Langemarck trench line, left on our right Janet Farm, where the doctor plied his trade, then crossed the little bridge over the Steenbeek among the rusting remains of twenty-two tanks lying dead in the bottom of the valley, and reached the road, where at last there was a firm foothold to find unless you trod in a shell-hole…

Terrified, Carrington jumps on a truck when shelling begins, and is separated from his sergeant and his men. Eventually he finds his way, alone, to the bivouac. “Edmonds'” account ends with an irony less bitter than most:

Serjeant Walker and all my stragglers came in. Cold, damp and utterly despondent I crept into my valise and slept.

It seemed to me that I had been feeble, inactive, and unnerved, but for my part in this battle I was given the Military Cross and a captaincy. I had expected a court-martial.

Casualties to the Battalion:

Killed        4 officers, 81 other ranks.
Wounded 6 officers, 171 other ranks.
10             252

The total, 262, being about half of those who took part in the battle. At this stage of the war, in order to avoid the disproportionate death-rate among officers, only sixteen per battalion went into action. This time ten were hit. My company set out with three officers, seventeen N.C.O.’s and ninety-two men. One officer, two N.C.O.’s and forty-four men survived the attack unhurt.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 189-90.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 109-110.
  3. A Subaltern's War, 170-85.

Withdrawals and Approaches: Charles Carrington, Hugh Quigley, Edmund Blunden, and Guy Chapman near Passchendaele Ridge

Before we turn to the tribulations of Charles Carrington on the Steenbeek, we must look to our immediate rear, where we have such a build-up of memoir writers in the support lines of the Salient that poetry can pass from one to the next…

 

First is Hugh Quigley, soon headed back toward the front lines. A fell mood is upon him:

The Canal Bank, Ypres, 6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in the molten sky, slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream: I was lying in the hospital trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, too, is on the way back in. His last tour had been harrowing, although of course it could have been worse. All of his unsurpassed talent for knitting together Gothic horror and pastoral idyll in close company on the page is exerted here, as he describes the withdrawal and then the time in reserve:

After the most vigorous display by the Bosch artillery that I have yet had to cast my eye upon and a narrow escape from being pulled under in a swamp on the way out (I was in such a hurry to get out of the barrage that my foot missed the dead man I was going to use as a duckboard),  we came back to this Corydonian spot for a B.E.F. rest. We feed in a barn which smells most pleasantly of hops…

Or not–not yet: this is not the studied, sumptuous memoir bur rather a contemporary letter to his school friend Hector Buck, which soon more fully embraces the usual tone of frenetic gaiety:

A bevy of milkmaids flitters about and warbles dithyrambs in the sunny air; at times they cease to warble but make a noise exactly similar by working an obese and crotchety cream separator. Since I knew they were on the go I have broken my vow and shaved; but even then my Charms are not availing.[2]

The memoir also fills us is in on how Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex were really spending their time out of the line: drilling, marching, shooing on rifle and pistol ranges, and practicing for some of the least Arcadian recourses of the war.

This next episode–gas training–makes it possible, using the Battalion War Diary, to date this description fairly securely to today, a century back:

It was even a pleasure here to see Williams, the divisional gas officer, and his same old sergeant, at their kindly, deadly work again. I forget what type of gas it was that Williams discharged upon us, leaving it to us to get our helmets on or pass out. However, I believe it was not at full strength, for some hens poking about in the stubble did not suffer. Perhaps God tempers the gas to the Ypres hen.

But here is a point of interest not only specifically to this project but to the entire genre of the war memoir. Several of our writers involved in Passchendaele have–even while describing its horrors at great length–begun to refuse to dwell firmly in their evolving historical moment. In 1917 the war has become too much to bear–or its young wager-victims have become too prematurely old to live without the melancholy shoring-up of reminiscence:

Our minds receded with actual joy to the 1916 war, and particularly that season when we were within the kindly influence of Bethune. When had we heard the word “a bon time” since? How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on, singing, toward the Somme! When we left this camp of disastered 1917, to be merged again in the slow amputation of Passchendaele, there was no singing. I think there were tears on some cheeks.

More prosaically, Blunden reports that he was passed over for promotion at this time–“the General would not hear of it, claiming that I was too young. My offences against propriety of speech and demeanour were in any case sufficient to spoil my chances…”–but also that he will be given a company nonetheless (to command as First Lieutenant, rather than a Captain).

Before that I had had a special duty to do. It was to act as “Tunnel Major” in Hedge Street Tunnels — to regulate the very limited and fiercely coveted accommodation there, and the traffic in and out. This took me back to the accursed area again, and even while I made my way there the evil nature of the place displayed itself. Going up by way of Zillebeke, I was obliged to stop. An “area shoot” began, a solid German bombardment for an hour on a chosen space, enclosing several battery positions. This shelling was so concentrated and geometrical that, leaning against the side of our old trench just beyond its limit, one was in safety. But the area covered was treated as with a titanic roller and harrow. About half an hour after this shoot began, from the very middle of the furnace two artillerymen suddenly emerged, running like demons but unwounded.

Outside the large dugout which I was to supervise a quartermaster-sergeant’s body was lying. Men were afraid to pause even a few seconds at this point and bodies were not quickly buried…

I found the tunnels crammed with soldiers on business and otherwise. The Colonel and Adjutant of the R. F.’s, who had taken our place in the Tower Hamlets sector a fortnight or so before, were occupying a new and half-finished dugout; they used me very hospitably. The Colonel remarked, pouring me out a drink, “We no longer exist.” I asked how: he explained that their casualties had been over 400.

Our experience had been only the prelude to their full symphony…[3]

 

Guy Chapman‘s symphony, as it happens–it was his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which greeted Blunden, though Blunden does not recall the young officer’s name.[4]

On our third evening in Hedge Street we welcomed a very young, very fair and very shy subaltern from the Royal Sussex, who were to relieve us the next day. His battalion had preceded us at Tower Hamlets and had suffered a like experience. Late that evening a 6-inch How-battery commander came in to ask for accommodation and stayed to dinner. He was a pale bald man with a near fair moustache. He thumped on the table and recited Kipling for our entertainment.

This next bit, then, would be proper to tomorrow, a century back:

On the next day I showed our incoming tenant from the Sussex over his noxious habitation. As we bade him good-bye, he shyly put a small paper-covered book into my hand. The Harbingers, ran the title, ‘Poems by E.C. Blunden.’ It went into my it along with the battered Shakespeare, the torn Evan Harrington, and Sir Thomas Browne.[5]

 

Finally, though, we must skip ahead, more in the geographical than the anticipatory sense. We left Charles Carrington (the “Edmonds” of A Subaltern’s War), yesterday, about to grab a few hours overnight in the A Company dugout. After two long sleepless days and nights, he was exhausted, jumpy, and not too proud to simply sleep in a place of greater safety, “a little bit of narrow trench partly covered with a sheet of iron.”

After dawn, Carrington/Edmonds continued to lay as low as he decently could.

I determined quite basely to take shelter for a few hours in C company’s pill-box, and presently plucked up courage and squattered across through the stream to it.

This pill-box was the only piece of good cover in the battalion area. Imagine a small room ten feet square and six feet high with walls of thick rough concrete. There is only one opening, the door, over which a waterproof sheet is draped. The furniture consists of four bunks made of wire stretched on wooden frames. Signallers and officers’ servants have made a little hutch under the lee of the outer wall. Inside, live Marriott and Flint, a serjeant, and as many other people as are thought to deserve refuge. During the day Newsom and Wolfe each pay a visit to get some rest. I come first and stay longest. After all, the headquarters of a front-line company make quite a good command-post for a support company commander, and Thorburn’s position is within shouting distance and full view by daylight. On such a little journey had we lost our way last night.

Flint is something in the same exhausted state as myself; Marriott, who came up from reserve with Thorburn and Wolfe after the attack, is very cheerful and doing most of the work…

Descriptions of pill-boxes will be a major feature of “Edmonds'” narrative from here on out, with loving attention both to their horribleness and their precise degree of protection against different armaments.

But war narratives can never be truly predictable: today passes pleasantly and amusingly, with a tone of light comedy, however much strained, by tension, toward hysteria:

Marriott welcomed me cordially enough, and found me the dry corner of a bed, where I tried to get an hour’s sleep, but with little success. After a time he came into the pill-box, grinning, to ask me to take away some men of mine who were creating a disturbance in his trench. I went out and found the ten ration-carriers of last night all roaring drunk. The poor devils had got lost, just like everyone else, had wandered all night, and finally decided that the company was annihilated. Not without good sense they decided not to starve. They did their best with a whole company’s rations, but a whole company’s rum defeated them. Hither they had wandered very happy and very sleepy, but rather inclined to sing themselves to sleep. We saved the rest of the food and rum, and sent over the
remains, plenty for my handful of men.

It was difficult to know what to do with these men. One or two were helpless and comatose, one or two were incurably cheerful, the others varied from one extreme to the other. To arrest them and send them down the line would bring shell-fire on them and their escort, besides weakening the outposts. I stormed at them in my severest manner, promising them all courts-martial and death sentences. Some understood me and sobered a little, but Bridgwater and two or three others only blinked and looked more amiable than ever. If I had had any laughter in me I should have burst out laughing, too. We brought most of them round to a condition soon where they could go back to the company. The hopeless cases we left to sleep it off. There were no shooting parties at dawn, after all, as a sequel to this episode.

During the rest of the day I remained almost entirely in the pill-box. The shell-fire gradually increased as it had done yesterday, but we had no direct hits, any one of which would have done for us. Marriott kept up a running fire of conversation all day, little jokes and reminiscences, sly hints about my company and the rum, comparisons of our men with the Colonials, anecdotes of the day and of old battles. He had a N.C.O. in the pill-box with him, as orderly serjeant, one of those professional humorists without whom no company could hang together. The queer turns of his dialect, and an attractive little stuttering in his speech, an acute street-arab sense of humour, combined with the
manners and deference of a gentleman, made him perhaps a perfect example of the urban soldier. The stories flowed out of him all day, his adventures with long-forgotten brigadiers, ‘madamaselles’ or serjeant-majors, his friends and their idiosyncrasies, love and war and the weather, the bitterness of things, red tape and bad language.
(I cannot refrain from quoting ‘that our armies swore terribly in Flanders.’) He could tell a tale against a staff officer always with tact enough not to scandalise the officers present. If I were Dickens and could write down what he said,
my fortune as a novelist would be made. But I’m afraid the jokes that made us reel with laughter would be flat to-day. One jumped at any excuse to be gay, and to laugh meant to forget that open door, facing the wrong way, through which a shell might come at any moment to burst in the midst of us…

But relief from anxiety through laughter is temporary–relief from the front line, by another battalion, is what they crave.

At dusk when we were all ready the orderly arrived again. Where were the Berks? we asked. Not yet come up. But he had brought instead a large rough mongrel sheep dog, trained to carry messages through fire. Marriott grew quite despondent. “I thought they were going to send up the Berkshires,” he said, “ but all we’re going to get now is barks”; at which we laughed uproariously. The Berks never did come, but before long a company of another regiment began to arrive. I collected my gear (we were in full marching order), and splashed through the stream to Thorburn, who had had another day’s shelling and felt a little neglected. We headed back a second time to the jumping-off line, where we were now to be reserve company. Marriott withdrew his men to our position in the shell-holes by the Stroombeek.

As Thorburn and I ploughed through the mud after our men, we passed one of the relieving platoons going forward. Their subaltern gripped me by the arm.

“Who are you? Where are you going? Where’s the front line? Have you seen A company?” he asked all in a rush.

“Keep straight on,” I answered jauntily, “follow the tape. Your captain’s up there. We’ve just been relieved.”

“Don’t go! ” he said. “Don’t leave us! For God’s sake, show us the way.” I had met someone more frightened than
myself. My confidence came back to me in a moment. This man was in a shivering funk.

“God damn it!” I said. “You’re all right. You’re much stronger than we were. There’s a good dugout up there—you can’t miss it.”

And I shook him off and walked on. I wonder what state that poor devil was in at the end of his tour. But I had only gained a momentary confidence, and before morning was sinking back into the same apathy of suppressed fear as before.

We took up our position on the right half of the jumping-off line, quite near headquarters. There were about twenty-seven men to organise in four sections, and place in the best shell-holes. For company headquarters Serjeant Walker, Thorburn and I found an old incomplete pill-box called on the map Cluster House. It was one of those early German efforts made of concrete on the western and of wood on the eastern side, so that in case of capture it would give no cover against German shell-fire. But it gave shelter from the rain, and here we settled. To make some amends to Thorburn for the twenty-four hours duty he had taken alone, I sent him to battalion headquarters to sleep, where they found him a corner of some kind. Walker took the top bunk in the little room, I took the lower one, but could only doze for an hour or two, in spite of the fact that I had not had eight hours’ sleep out of the last ninety. It was very cold and I was acutely aware of my wet knees.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 133-4.
  2. More Than a Brother, 12.
  3. Undertones of War, 246-9.
  4. Blunden's poetry will soon be well known; Chapman published his memoir five years after Blunden's Undertones.
  5. A Passionate Prodigality, 207.
  6. A Subaltern's War, 170-77.

Carroll Carstairs in the Thick of It; Eddie Marsh Sees a Desert Sandstorm

Today we continue to follow the adventures of two distinguished aesthetic types: the young American Carroll Carstairs (albeit a young American of the British Grenadiers) and the London art-and-poetry mover-and-shaker Eddie Marsh. They are, of course, in rather different circumstances.

First, Carstairs, in the Salient, with a precise chamber piece on bombardment:

Our new Company Headquarters was an exceptionally large and powerfully built pillbox. A hole in its side made by a direct hit from a British heavy enabled one to measure the thickness of its walls—three to four feet in depth. The floor was uneven with fallen debris and masonry and the air was foul. Eaton was writing a requisition of some sort
in his notebook. The pay-sergeant had arrived about rations. The room was crowded with runners, orderlies, servants, stretcher bearers and the sergeant-major. I observed them with a kind of expectancy as the first British, shell, like tearing silk, came whizzing overhead. In a breathless second every gun in the crowded British area had opened fire. It was a signal for which the Boche was waiting, as shell after shell came crashing around us. Our pill-box, solid though it was, trembled like a frightened man when a shell landed with more than ordinary proximity. On and on it went, this demoniac uproar that sundered air particles and spun them into everlasting reverberations. The earth was splitting up—splitting its sides—what a joke! Blinding flash after flash lighted up the faces of the men, too appalled to be scared. The angry clang of metal struck against the exterior of the pill-box or whined through the air in an agony of search, while we waited for the shell that would send us to eternity. But hell itself can get out of breath, and there came a gradual let up.

Dawn showed no paler than the faces of officers and men.

With the morning light we found a German corpse in our pill-box half buried in clay and mortar. Hence the terrible stench. With great difficulty he was dug up, and given as decent a burial outside as haste permitted.

Eaton and I went along slits that had now a welter of fresh shell holes around them, while the company itself had miraculously escaped. The men gazed at us with white expressionless faces and I thought how like death a face became when utterly wearied out.

About four in the afternoon our artillery was hard at it again. Guns—guns—guns the whole world was made up of them. Thunder cut up for cannon mouths, thunder at last free of the heavens and running wild over the earth—lightning, sneaking under the earth and kicking it full of holes. All night the earth shook and the air vibrated with the noise of guns and shells—English guns and German shells in an endless, terrifying din of reiteration.

A direct hit on our pill-box rocked the place like a boat caught in the trough of the sea.

There was no sleep for anyone…[1]

 

Eddie Marsh, private secretary to the new Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill, has a rather different view of the war as he catches up on the last few days of his diary:

Tuesday, 19th

Left Paris after luncheon and drove through Chantilly and Compiegne, the junction of the Aisne and the Oise, which Lord French used always to speak of as ‘Gompienny, the junction of the Iny and the Wheeze’…

We then motored via Ghelles and Attichy to Noyon—the scenery of the Aisne valley, till about Attichy, was most lovely and peaceful—then we came to the trench-warfare scenery—blasted like the Somme, but now all overgrown with all sorts of wild flowers…

Next day we started at 8.30, with Captain Hall as bearleader. We motored to Albert, and on to Arras on the other bank of the Ancre, so as to pass the scene of Freyberg’s exploit at Beaucourt. We walked over part of the ground, all rank with weeds and wild flowers, and with bits of barbed wire everywhere…

But privilege is not just position–it’s also information. The V.I.P. knows what everyone else must simply be content to assume: there will be another attack tomorrow.

The Scherpenberg is the sister-hill to Kemmel—not so large, and about five miles to the West. They are the only hills for miles and command magnificent views. At three o’clock there was to be a Corps barrage, in preparation for to-morrow’s battle. We went up and watched it from the windmill at the top of the hill. The windmill is in full work, and felt exactly like being on a ship at sea. The old Belgian miller kept coming up and down past us and giving orders in shrill uncouth Flemish. In a field at the foot of the hill a man was calmly ploughing, and about two miles farther off the barrage was going on. Punctually at three there was a line of flashes on a long front, from just beyond Ypres on the left to Kemmel on the right. We couldn’t hear the guns, as the wind was the wrong way—but the whole country beyond the line of flashes became veiled in what looked just like a desert sand-storm, dotted with great bursts of black or white smoke, in the air or on the ground. The Huns answered, but not very vigorously. Both sides sent up ‘sausages’, till there were eight or nine in the air, and a few aeroplanes went up, but not nearly so many as I expected, and I was disappointed that they didn’t attack the sausages . . .

And that is that–it’s as far as Marsh’s diary goes:

For some reason which I can’t remember, I wrote no more.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Generation Missing, 100-103.
  2. A Number of People, 261-4.

Kate Luard Prepares for Battle; Ivor Gurney Welcomes the Spring; Edward Thomas Reassures; C.E. Montague Estranged from Sacrifice

Everywhere in the British sector of Northern France there is an air of tense expectation. Kate Luard‘s Casualty Clearing Station at Warlencourt has just begun to take in large numbers of the wounded from the preliminary bombardments around Arras. She describes the “Preparation-for-Theatre” (i.e. pre-op) Ward:

Here the number of battered men, generally from 50 to 60, never seems to grow less, as although they are carried when ready to the operating Teams in the Theatre, their places are continually filled by others.

All the layers of sodden or caked stiff clothing are cut off, pyjamas or long flannel pinafore gowns put on… Hot blankets, hot-water bottles, hot drinks, subcutaneous salines and hypodermics are given them, as also in the Resuscitation Ward to which all the apparently hopeless cases are taken…

It often happens that no M.O. can be spared for this tent, so a great deal of responsibility is thrown to us…

Once when I was cutting off a split boot of a man wounded in the head, chest, and the other thigh, half his foot came off in it–a detail overlooked in the Dressing Hut and the Field Ambulance with all his other injuries…

What we have had so far is child’s play to what is to come…[1]

 

Edward Thomas is an inexperienced artillery subaltern, but he too knows that a grim test awaits. The firing plans his battery has been practicing since they arrived on the Arras front as well as the escalating bombardments of the last two days would make it abundantly clear (even if there had been total information security) that a major assault is only days away. Which is significant, but no sufficient reason to give up reading, looking for beauty, or tracking the progress of spring.

A dull morning turns misty with rain. Some 4.2s coming over at 10. Air flapping all night with great sails in strong gusty wind (with artillery)–thick misty windless air. Sods on f/c’s dugout begin to be fledged with fine green feathers of yarrow. Sun and wind drying the mud. Firing all day,… Beautiful pale hazy moonlight and the sag and flap of air. Letters to Mother and Helen. HAMLET.[2]

Thomas is reading Shakespeare, and perhaps a bit too tired to combine reading-recording with humor: the play has not destabilized his letters to his wife or mother in any noticeable way…

The letter to Helen is, in fact, notably calm. Thomas expands on the bare observations of the diary in a way that makes it clear that his primary purpose in writing is to steady and reassure:

5 April 1917
Dearest,

This is the second day, a much better day so far, beginning misty and turning warm. We have been firing faster, but I have sat in the sun at my job most of the time and got warm. I slept pretty well in the dug-out till our guns began. The other firing all night merely flapped and flapped like great sails in the heavy misty air. I woke hearing a wren sing and many blackbirds. The clods on my little hole where I work between 3 and 4 guns are getting fledged with fine green yarrow shoots all feathery.

The old dog this morning was delighted with running after Horton’s stick and bringing it back. He laid it down and started gnawing it, and then barked for it to be thrown again. His barking delighted us very much. I don’t think I had heard a dog bark in play for these three months. Then he went down into a shell-hole and drank the water in it.

The Somme pictures are absurd, compared with what I could tell you in five or six minutes and shall do someday I hope.

Goodbye. I am all and always yours Edwy.[3]

And the letter to his mother is, despite a similar calm acknowledgment that they are two days into the pre-assault bombardment, notably domestic:

5 April 1917
Dear Mother,

We are now in the thick of it, though not quite in the middle. This is the second day, and a beautiful day it is, sunny and misty, the sun sometimes failing behind the mist and coming through again quite warm, which I have enjoyed as I sat out on the bank between No. 3 and No. 4 guns while we fired. Yesterday was cold and slippery and dirty and I got clean tired out by the end when I was relieved at 9.30 p.m. after beginning at 5.30 a.m. I moved into the battery position to a dug-out I have been strengthening, because any day the Hun might see the wisdom of laying our street flat with the ground. It is a little damp in the dug-out but wonderfully quiet except when our No.1 and No.2 guns fire straight over it. All the other artillery only makes the air flap heavily all night. It is nice to wake up practically out of doors and hear the wrens in the copse. For the dug-out is dug out of a bank and not down into the ground, so that the light of day reaches it, and it has the advantage of lying across the line of fire of our own and the enemy’s guns, with the entrance not facing either.

I live for the moment in trousers concealed by rubber boots almost to the waist. This shortens the time of dressing and undressing by a quarter of an hour, as I have no boots or breeches to lace up. Otherwise I remain civilised and clean so far.

He’s a good boy, Edward is. But he returns, after this faint smile, to recent developments and the near future: his eight pseudonymous poems are being well reviewed, and the big push is only days away.

I have just seen quite a respectable review of the Annual in the Times and I hear there will be one in the New Statesman . . .

As things are at present arranged I may see exciting things within 3 or 4 days. But of course the future is obscure and we do not know what the Hun will do, or if he is where we think he is—if he is, he is having a bad time. I do not mind how bad if it helps to end the war. Goodbye . . .

Ever your loving son

Edwy[4]

 

C.E. Montague and Edward Thomas must have known each other at least in passing, English journalism being a smallish world, and they share a subject today, a century back. But whereas Thomas is reticent about his atheism and capable still of the simple hope that the latest effort will help end the war, Montague is thoroughly miserable and completely negative about the course the war has taken. He does not deny Christ–in fact he associates Christian virtue with the faithfulness of the soldiers he so admires–but that also requires aligning those who control the course of the war with the persecutors and executioners of God.

Diary
April 5, 1917 (eve of Good Friday)

…Still, we may win. The multitude of men who think of nothing but serving hard and faithfully unto death, who do not hope for distinctions or promotions, may carry the world into safety and a new life. Hundreds and thousands of them will die, after this Good Friday, more painfully than on a Cross. Our hope is that in them, as in Christ, a
worse world may die into a better, and larger life come out of death, and mankind be ennobled by losing its noblest men—the old mystery of the Cross and of evolution.

I seem to have lost my chance of thus following Christ. There seems to be no hope of getting back to my battalion. Because I am 50 I must live among the embusqués [shirkers] and not with the friends I love and honour since I came to know the depth of their courage and patience in the trenches. It is cheap even to murmur against it. It is like trying to combine my ignominious safety with a little easy aspiration after self-sacrifice. But I do mean it.

Cavalry moving up all the roads. Procession of Red Cross trains up St. Pol-Arras line. Push put off from 8th to 9th.[5]

Skeptical and disenchanted, Montague is now voicing–privately–the newer sort of protest. But despite the bitterness about the slaughter he does not consider “turning pacifist” or otherwise refusing to continue to be party to the passion of the Tommy. In fact, the key to his bitterness is his estrangement from his original unit–the same thing that so many others, in other moods, identified as the best thing about the war. Montague was too old and too sickly for the rigors of combat, and so he was denied, after short service in the trenches, what almost all of our writers crave: the unmatched intensity of the fellowship of combat infantry. To “murmur” from safety would only compound the betrayal he feels (although it was not his choice to leave). Montague, now tasked with escorting VIPs in the battle zone, even forswears what his friends all remark upon: that he seeks danger whenever his cushy job permits. He doesn’t want to play at martyrdom–it would be disloyal, almost blasphemous. And yet given how much emphasis is on “small unit cohesion” the ready paradigm–as he notes, tomorrow is Good Friday–doesn’t really fit. It’s not Christ who is going to his passion alone; it’s a whole platoon of disciples, going together at the behest of the gods of war, hundreds of times over…

 

Finally, today, Ivor Gurney‘s Gloucesters are stationed far to the south of the coming Arras attack, but they will be in action soon nonetheless. There is fighting to be done as new positions are established opposite the Hindenberg line.

Private Gurney is still uncertain of the date of the coming attack (he is uncertain even of today‘s date), but he is nevertheless certain of some things: art, beauty, and Gloucestershire. He writes, as so often, to Marion Scott.

April 4 or 5th

I thought we were going over the top tonight, but it has been postponed — a state of things which will inevitably lead to souloutpourings. My state of mind is — fed up to the eyes; fear of not living to write music for England; no fear at all of death. Yesterday we had a little affair with a German patrol, which made me interested for 5 minutes; after which I lapsed into the usual horrid state of boredom. O that the Nice Blighty may come soon! I do not bear pain and cold well, but do not grumble too much; so I reckon that cancels out. One cannot expect to have everything, or to make one’s nature strong in a week. It snowed like anything yesterday, but today has been quite beautiful, and I have strolled about chatting of Maisemore Wood and such-like things of beauty…

My dear friend, it has been very kind of you to write to my friends as you have, and I know they are grateful. It is something to know that my father realises his trouble and sacrifice have not been all wasted. He has been only too good always; especially considering the difference of our temperaments, and my long wasted time. Surely my life must lead to something. Surely the apprenticeship has almost passed?

I am afraid there are no poems again. The conditions are against it…

Here we are called up.

Goodbye: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

Ah, but that was only April 4th, and he has lived to fight, at least, another day.

Next day

…This morning was beautifully sunny, and daisies are poking their heads out here and there — without steel helmets! O the Spring, the Spring! Come late or early, you must give hope ever to the dwellers in the house of flesh…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 108-9.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  3. Letters to Helen, 94.
  4. Selected Letters, 162-3.
  5. C.E. Montague, 167-8.
  6. War Letters, 152-3.

Edward Hermon’s Cozy Hut; Siegfried Sassoon’s Brain Grows Sluggish; Wilfred Owen is Like a Starving Jaguar; Edward Thomas on the Beauty of Ruins; Vera Brittain Doubts the Papers

Today will feature a profusion of short letters, but we’ll start with our uxorious battalion commander Robert (Edward) Hermon, writing his nearly daily letter to his wife. At least four of our regular contributors make ironic reference to the weather on this first day of spring, but Hermon gets the gig, as only he includes a charming sketch of a Nissen hut–another reminder that 1917 might look to some of us more like 1944 than 1915.

Spring commences, so I see in my diary. Result, biting wind & snow showers punctuated, however, by bright sun…

The old Hun still retreats south of Arras but remains where he was to the north of the town… He is an old beast as I hear he has gone so far as to hack down even the fruit trees in the gardens in Péronne & leave them lying on the ground. Pure wanton destruction. Didn’t even want them for firewood.

Our huts are called ‘Nissen…'[1]

 

 

Hermon’s gentle irony and firm disapproval of the war meld in Siegfried Sassoon‘s mood into a petulant sarcasm. He is not yet happy in the Second Battalion, and evidently taking advantage of their turn in reserve to escape as often as possible.

Eight days passed in this place, without event except changes of weather… This afternoon I’m off to Amiens for a night…

News of ‘Fall’ of Péronne and other places seems to ‘fall’ rather flat. My brain is steadily getting more sluggish as my body grows healthier with air and exercise. Life is reduced to a series of efforts to keep clean, warm, well-nourished and dry.[2]

 

Which, one might point out, is easier at the Hôtel de la Poste than in a trench–or even a Casualty Clearing Station. Wilfred Owen, who has yet to have Sassoon’s chance at forming firm wartime friendships (and then elevating the most intense of those relationships to high Romantic companionship), is wisely concerned to recover from his concussion before he is sent further back, and thus eventually into the general pool of replacement officers liable for reassignment to a new battalion. But he is not so low that he doesn’t worry about his essential supplies…

21 March, 13th Casualty Clearing Station

My dearest Mother,

I am getting up today, and perhaps by the time you receive this I shall be starting back to overtake my Battalion, if it is not chasing along too fast…

I am not moving down to a Base—fortunately, perhaps, because anyone going further back than here becomes detached from his battalion, and is returned somewhere else.

There is no proper village here, and I am miserably in want of Books, not to say Letters. It is not worth writing to the Battalion, which for all I know may be openly warfaring, or perhaps is now already clean wiped out.

One of the sisters brought me some novels, about as palatable as warm water to a starving jaguar…

A good line. Serious readers, these boys. But I break in also to call attention to an odd, oblique sort of crossing of paths.

I suppose you did not see Bernard Shaw’s accounts of his visit to the front, appearing in the Glasgow Herald. He says he put black things like collar-studs into his ears. So very like collar-studs that I have been using mine as such for some time!

Shaw is writing (in the Glasgow Herald of March 5th, 1917) about the tour upon which he was conducted by C.E. Montague, the privately disenchanted fire-eater of the press-minding corps….

In my next parcel I should like some Harrison’s Pomade & some more Paraffin.

Fondest Love, Wilfred x[3]

 

Meanwhile Edward Thomas, erstwhile (unknown) fellow Artists’ Rifles cadet of Owen’s, is moving backward rather than forward: his battery has completed its first regular tour in what for them counts as the front line. In the artillery, remember, only the forward observers share the discomfort and regular danger of the front line troops, while the guns are thousands of yards behind. But any battery that is close enough to engage the enemy is close enough to be engaged in return, and counter-battery bombardments can happen at any time, so the strain of being in the firing line is considerable.

This, however, Thomas does not dwell on. Instead, as so often, his diary moves quickly from notes on his movement and state of mind to what seem to be notes for possible future elaboration. The sights of No Man’s Land, the irresistible larks, and the strange beauty of destruction… Thomas professes in some of his letters to have no plans to write about all this, yet he can’t help but note what he sees. And is not the reversal of ordinary word order a sure sign of a poetic frame of mind?

At last 260 relieved us. Great pleasure to be going back to sleep and rest. No Man’s Land like Goodwood Racecourse with engineers swarming over it and making a road between shell holes full of blood-stained water and beer bottles among barbed wire. Larks singing as they did when we went up in dark and were shelled. Now I hardly felt as if a shell could hurt… Beautiful was Arras… coming down from Beaurains and seeing Town Hall ruin white in sun like a thick smoke beginning to curl…[4]

 

Finally, we go far away to Malta, where Vera Brittain writes to her brother Edward. She is gaining experience, and has reached an amusing (ah, the obnoxiousness of historical irony) middle ground: she has not yet learned to distrust the newspapers completely, but she is too clever by half not to notice what is missing from their accounts of a sudden surge forward on the Western Front…

Malta, 21 March 1917

I am not any longer in the surgical block I told you about as I have been put on night duty for a month, & have gone to the eye & malaria block where I first started life at this hospital….. I have to go round every four hours doing eyes, which keeps me quite wakeful. At first I felt horribly responsible at being in sole charge of so many people, but now I have got used to it, especially as none of them are really very ill.The first night I was on there was terrific wind & thunder & lightning all night. It was most eerie going round in a blustering darkness with a hurricane lamp which occasionally blew out, with thunder crashing around. . .

We have just heard of the taking of Bapaume & Peronne–surely a great triumph. . . . From all accounts there don’t seem many casualties, or even to have been much of a fight. One can hardly believe it possible after the sanguinary struggles for a few yards; it almost seems as if there must be some ruse at the back of it on the part of the enemy…

One hesitates, after so often having seen our national optimism weighed in the balance & found wanting, to accept the favourable interpretations of these events which one finds expressed in some of the papers. What is the meaning of it all, do you think?[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 340.
  2. Diaries, 144.
  3. Collected Letters, 444-5.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 171.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 325-6.

Edward Thomas Can’t Stay to Tea; Kate Luard Plates her Moss; Bob Hermon Admires the New Knights; Covering the Retreat with Rudyard Kipling and Charles Carrington; St. Patrick’s Day in France and Revolution in England

The bad nights are spreading, a century back. From the Somme north to Arras, where Edward Thomas is roiled by nightmares.

A horrible night of bombardment, and the only time I slept I dreamt I was at home and couldn’t stay to tea… Then the most glorious bright high clear morning… A beautiful day, sunny with pale cloudless sky and W. wind, but cold in O.P. Clear nightfall with curled, cinerous cloud and then a cloudless night with pale stains in sky over where Bosh is burning a village or something…[1]

 

No, that’s not right–nightmares aren’t the real story. Most of our hardy souls are doing what they can to treat late winter as if it might be early spring. Kate Luard likes nothing better than wildflowers (especially if she can take a long walk and gather them herself), but an experienced Nursing Sister makes do.

Saturday, March 17th, and no sign of any buds out anywhere in these parts. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin…[2]

 

No, no, that’s not quite right either. Actually, many of our writers who are not yet engaged in combat are able to appreciate all that is traditional and right with the war. No need for winter or spring when chivalry abides! Any guesses whom Bob Hermon has just laid eyes on?

There’s been some wonderful air fights here today. There is a Hun who flies a bright scarlet machine & is real hot stuff. He seems to be a sort of star flyer & does most of the fighting. He is a real gallant fellow & we all admire him.[3]

The Red Baron himself.

 

But there is, of course, a ground war on. One of the reasons that Richtofen has been released to roam is that the German aircraft are getting their first crack at what will become a crucial task of tactical air power: covering the movement of infantry. Let’s step back two days (and south to the Somme) to see how the Guards are getting on with following up the German withdrawal:

Captain Alexander took our two forward companies… the German shelling was intense. They used 5.9’s and larger, as they were firing from a long way back. The trouble for the 2nd Irish Guards companies developed almost at once on their left, where their patrol was fired at by machine-guns from a German trench on the edge of the wood. Their own 1st Battalion, trying to push out of Sailly-Saillisel, was hung up, too — they heard and saw it — for the same reason. The Division could have driven through at the cost of fairly heavy casualties, but nothing was to be gained by wasting men in rushes on hidden machine-guns that can lay out thirty good lives in two minutes. The Scots Guards got on into the wood without much trouble at first, till they, too, ran on snipers between tree-stumps and up and down the defaced trenches, or opened some single machine-gun slinking from cover to cover. It was all slow “feeling,” with alternating advances at walking pace, and long checks — “something like drawing a gorse for wolves instead of foxes…”

As they worked their way more into St. Pierre Vaast Wood came the sensation, which there was no mistaking, that they were being played with by the Hun, and losing touch as he intended them to do. Certain vital trenches would be controlled by a few snipers and machine-guns; a sunk road offering shelter would be plastered with heavies, and a full company would be held in it, digging for more cover, by dead accurate long-range fire; while far and far behind the orderly German withdrawal of the main body continued in peace.

On the 17th March, for example, “we were never really in touch with the enemy’s rear-guard during the day except for one or two snipers…”

Which brings this narrative-of-a-period to today. But a little analysis of the general effectiveness of the German withdrawal is worth our while, too:

Here is the comment of the time and the place on our advance: “The German retreat was conducted very skilfully. One cannot say that we caused them to leave one position an hour before they intended. They inflicted upon us a considerable number of casualties (twenty in this battalion, while on our left the 1st Battalion lost considerably more). On the other hand, we saw no evidence that in the actual retirement we had even damaged one German. They left little or nothing behind.”

And the professional judgment is equally fair. “But of course it must be remembered that the task of the (German) regimental officers was an easy one, however difficult it may have been for the Staff. Given time, there is no difficulty in withdrawing battalions from trenches by night, for a few snipers and machine-gunners, knowing the ground, and retreating from trench to trench, can hang up an advance indefinitely unless the troops advancing have strong reserves and are prepared for heavy losses.”

This last was not our situation… things had to be done as cheaply as possible…

We are generally in sure hands when Rudyard Kipling takes up the military narrative–this is a work of memorial devotion, remember, and he suppresses his polemical opinions unless he feels that they are an echo of the those of the officer corps he is writing about. But we are in excellent hands when the worst of the war must be invoked on the scale of the battalion history–neither pointillistically subordinated to a grand narrative nor awash in the subjectivities of the personal.

The advance of the Second Irish Guards

…led them into a stale hell which had once been soil of France but was now beyond grace, hope, or redemption. Most of the larger trees in St. Pierre Vaast were cut down, and the smaller ones split by shell or tooth-brushed by machine-gun fire. The ground was bog, studded with a few island-like formations of fire-trench, unrevetted, unboarded, with little dug-outs ten or twelve feet deep, all wet and filthy. There were no regular latrines. Numberless steel helmets and heaps of stick-bombs lay about under foot. The garrisons must have been deadly uncomfortable, and there was good evidence that the enemy had economised men beyond anything that we dared. The ground had been cut to bits by our fire, and in one place yawned what had been a battery position wiped out, unseeing and unseen, weeks ago, as the dead teams round it testified. Very few booby-traps were left behind. The Battalion lost only five men in all through this cause.[4]

 

After several nights in No Man’s Land as patrols pushed into the old German lines, Charles Carrington too learned, today, how successful the German withdrawal had been:

This time, the morning of the 17th March, they really had gone. My captain went forward for orders and presently sent me back word to bring the company over the top, by daylight… to the German front line.

I cannot explain the consternation caused by this order. For two years no one had raised a hand over the parapet by daylight unless in the stress of battle and covered by an artillery barrage. Tired as we were… we were exhilarated. Open fighting had come…

It had not, of course, but Carrington remembers the high mood of the next few days as they pursued the Germans east toward the new line of defenses–which the British officers all knew of, of course, even if they could not realize its strength. There was the thrill of moving and of seeing cavalry units trotting about over open country. But this was not a victory:

The main German forces had gone when we moved forward, having burnt every house, blown up every church, public building and ancient monument, broken every bridge and culvert, mined every crossroads, polluted every well. They had carried away all the able-bodied men and women into captivity, leaving the old and feeble concentrated in one or two villages; and–which seemed to distress the French most–they had even found time to ring-bark the apple-trees in the cider orchards. The country was dead, laid waste with a destructive fervour worse than anything in the Thirty Years War… When we marched into Peronne… we saw a huge notice erected on the town hall: ‘NICHT ARGERN NUR WUNDERN’, ‘Don’t be angry, only wonder!’ Indeed it puzzled us a good deal. We were not angry but delighted that so large a region of France should be liberated and if we had any astonishment left it was at the ingenuities of German barbarity. What they had not destroyed they had defiled…

The sequel is not prettier, and it is a good deal bloodier than Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards:

On the first day we lost two officers from my mess, one shot by a German sniper when leading the advance guard, the other caught by a booby trap. In a German dugout he had sat down in a chair and had drawn it up to the table, thus igniting the fuse of a concealed bomb…[5]

 

So it goes. In the strangeness of this advance, many things are forgotten. What was missing from Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards today? (Other than deadly booby traps, which surely varied by location).

It says something about the English perspective of the officers that St. Patrick’s Day went unmentioned in the history of an Irish unit. Not so with the First Inniskillings, out of the line resting near Corbie after several days of following the German withdrawal, and counting among their number the poet Francis Ledwidge:

In the morning there was an issue of shamrock to all the Irishmen. The Australians, who happened to be going into action that day, also asked for shamrock and wore it in their caps. Most of the forenoon was taken-up with a church
parade…  In the afternoon, the Inniskilling fife and drum band played in the village to the great delight of the French children, who crowded around them. The men got up a concert for themselves in the afternoon. The officers went into Corbie, that night for dinner. The rations were greatly stepped up in honour of the feast and there was a good dinner too, in the mess, after which most of the men also went into town to sample the estaminets. These kept
open very late, as they did on Christmas Day. Despite the army concessions, however, commemorating their patron saint in such a setting inevitably made the Irishmen melancholy.[6]

 

And here’s a good example of why I hardly mention (or don’t cover at all, really) grand strategy and international affairs, despite their enormous influence on the war: their immediate effects are almost never felt by fighting soldiers. But here’s a strange example, in a tale told by the officer currently narrating in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. He began a long-awaited leave today, a century back, taking a train to the coast and then a boat for England:

We had a fine crossing–to what? On debarking we were ordered to report at once to our local police, and be in readiness for any emergency.

Uniquely, the officers on leave found themselves marshaled to deal with expected unrest, as the government feared a rising in sympathy with the early stages of the Russian Revolution. There is sympathy, at first, in the officer’s voice–“the political air was sharpened” by privation and the wealth of war profiteers, by “the slaughter of the Somme.” And then much less sympathy: the conclusion, looking back from a later point in time, is that a wicked alliance of convenience has formed between armchair theorist liberals and trade unionists that will pressure the government into foolish concessions “to the serious hurt of the Army.”[7]

 

That is surely enough for today–unless you would prefer to close the day with Edward Thomas, in a quiet mood, writing a long letter to his wife Helen, and reflecting in relative tranquility on last night’s anxieties.

17 March 1917 Arras

Dearest

This has been quite a good day at the O.P. [Observation Post] and after a bad night of heavy shelling. The morning was bright and clear and all day long the sun shone and the sky has been pale and without a cloud. I have been drawing little panoramas.

Those I had done last time are more interesting now because the Old Hun has been destroying many of the buildings on the skyline. Tonight he is burning something away in that direction. The sky is lit up with two big glows beyond the crest. It hasn’t been tedious at all, and now we are installed in our dug out which hardly anything could penetrate. It is so small that if one moves the other five have to.

I am wondering if a letter has come for me at last. I think in any case I will keep this till I do hear, though Bronwen’s letter implied that there was nothing abnormal.

To cram this little room still more the men insisted on dragging in one of the box spring mattresses from the other place. They had to cut it to fit it in at all, and now three of us are sitting on it; we have a door up, a fire going, one candle alight and can only hear the rustle of a Daily Mail.

Now it is 11 p.m. I have to be awake till 12. Then I sleep until 6 unless I am wanted which I shall be unless the night is quite quiet. So far there has only been a distant roll now and then as I sat reading ‘Julius Ceasar’, warm in front because of the fire, cold behind because of a door leading up into the street.

I dreamt (almost for the first time since I left home) last night — a very feeble dream, that I was at home but did not stay to tea.

I don’t know who was there. I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea. I think Baba asked if I wouldn’t stay to tea.

Every hour the telephonist tests the line to see if it is O.K. He has just done it and there is another hour to go before I begin to lie on those very bouncy springs…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 101.
  3. For Love and Courage, 338.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 120-1.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 138-42. Carrington, writing later, is careful--I think that's an appropriate qualification--to represent the innocence/confidence that still obtained, in his experience, in 1917, and only a few paragraphs after the booby traps he is making claims once again for the effectiveness (and gloriousness) of cavalry...
  6. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 173-4.
  7. The War the Infantry Knew, 304-5.
  8. Letters to Helen, 84-7.

Edward Thomas is at Home in France, but One Does Not Stroll Here

The February doldrums have arrived at last. Not to worry–Siegfried Sassoon is bound for France, several of our rare-and-unusual writers are about to appear, and the Germans themselves are up to something. But today, a century back, there is almost nothing to share from our writers save these two letters from Edward Thomas.

Edward Thomas, who pretty much always repays close reading. So, first, to his parents–with a frank opening as to why exactly they are so fortunate as to receive another letter after only a few days’ interval.

Dainville, 13 February 1917
Dear Father and Mother,

This is only a note written partly because I have nothing to do this morning—so far as I know yet—and I have a slight chill (everyone else has already had it) and do not feel inclined to go out. It is very fine though. The thaw has begun without the rain which would have infallibly come with it in England. I suppose we may see something green soon besides the artificial overhead covering for the guns which they have made green even in winter for some reason or other.

Since I told you I had been out on a trench reconnaissance we have had little to do except superintend the digging which prepares for taking up our new position. But the Captain has just said we may be going to shoot this afternoon and certainly tomorrow.

This does not mean we are in our position but that we have temporarily taken over from another battery just behind our billets and are going to work their guns till further notice. Our own guns and stores, as a matter of fact, have not come on to us yet, and apparently they are not going to be ours any longer but to go to the battery we replace, the worst of it is that half my own private kit is with the stores and it may be a very long time before we receive it. So could you also send me a little mending wool for my socks? My servant washes for me and can mend too and I can therefore do with less underclothing than I anticipated.

An excellent servant–but I think we can safely classify this as a variation on the request-for-socks letter, certainly the most forlorn and frugal (from an officer, at least) that we have yet received. But there is much to see.

…I like this country, open and rolling, with villages up on the slopes above the streams—like the one behind us with its church spire smashed but otherwise not badly damaged. The villages closer up to the trenches of course are all battered about and only a few old natives hang on in their homes.

My hands are all burning and chapped, I suspect through wearing gloves, which I never used to do. If you could send me something to rub on them it would be a boon.

Next comes the sketch of accommodations, another common feature of these early letters, and a boon to anyone who likes fine writing–or lists:

I sleep and live in a biggish room with whitewashed walls, tiled floor and a window looking on the road, and a stove and a mirror opposite the door. Four of us sleep here and all eat here—the other two sleep in a dug-out just over the road. We have a dirty kitchen adjoining where our cook prepares good but monotonous meals. The walls are hung with our field-glasses, helmets, waterbottles, towels, sticks, and coats when we are indoors; and round the walls stand our boots, suit-cases, washing things and some stores, also two bombs left behind by a trench mortar battery. The mirror and stove are quite genteel. Otherwise things are a bit grimy. Over the door remains a  photographed group of old French people in their best clothes—the family occupies the rest of the house but is almost invisible…

At this moment—nearly 11 a.m.—the crumbs from breakfast remain mixed with a spoon and fork. One other officer is writing like me, the rest are out. Now the servant has come in to clear the crumbs. I suppose my thinking about them set him moving towards them…

Last, a familiar reminder, from a writer with limited time to write, and evident hopes of returning to (re)write his war:

I wonder if you would mind keeping my letters, so that I might some day, if I wished, use them as a supplement to my diary?

Give my love to my brothers and everyone.

Ever your loving son

Edwy

 

And once again–slightly more intimate and much more impish–he follows a letter to his parents with a letter to Elanor Farjeon:

Dainville,13 February 1917
My dear Eleanor,

This is my idlest morning. It is sunny and mild, but I have got the chill that everyone has had in turn and I shall not go out till I must, which will probably be this afternoon, for we have a shoot on then. My servant is a gem. He is a carpenter from Oxford named Taylor, rather slow but extraordinarily good-humoured and thoughtful and ingenious. He washes and darns for me and pillages wood[1] to keep our stove going and in between he keeps up a slow stream of nice rustic remarks. He won’t lose anything if he can help it. He is the most devoted thing I have met since we lost our dog. He mutters ‘They put upon good nature, don’t they. Sir’ but though I tell him not to listen to anyone but me he goes on being put upon without complaint.

Condescending, yes; but Thomas, at least, has a long record of seeking to understand working men as they are. Next he truly enters his element, describing the countryside for Farjeon’s eye. Note the rhythm of presence and absence.

This is a fine hilly country with trees only on the roads and in a few woods. The villages lie along the slopes above the streams, with tiled roofs and mud in brick walls, and churches with towers and short spires something like Sussex, but often shell-bitten. There are hardly any hedges. You see nothing yet but snow and field telephone posts and barbed wire entanglements. No cattle out, no sheep. Then the straight main road lined with young trees leads past our window to the town and the cathedral. There we are to be in an orchard on the outskirts. Looking out of the window we see our dug-outs just across the road, beyond that a short slope of snow and posts and the trees lining a road on another hill a mile off. It is a somewhat dangerous position, but all the shells fall fairly well behind us, being aimed at a battery some hundreds of yards away. They had one of their guns hit yesterday, but the men were all in cover and no one was hurt. You could bury several horses in the shell holes. It is not what is called a healthy spot, but as these buildings are isolated they are hardly worth making a target of and only an accident will demolish them.

Here I will rather spoil the effect by inserting a paragraph of pace-changing commentary so that the reader may recruit him or her herself before carrying on instead of stumbling blindly through to the end of the paragraph. I am told that these days such interruptions are a necessary cosmetic surgery, a painless insertion of tiny artificial balloons into our sagging, internet-depleted attention spans. So let’s see–the cathedral he can see nearby is Arras, but the way.

It is nice to have sun without rain, but it would not matter which the weather was if I had no chill and my boots were a good old pair that didn’t make me feel as if my feet were artificial wood. There is not much traffic on the road, but small parties do use it and despatch riders and a farm cart or two go along. I haven’t had the curiosity to go into town yet and have only seen the cathedral with fieldglasses. Partly it is the lack of perfectly comfortable boots. Partly, of course, one does not stroll here, but only moves with an object.

Oh but that is not whimsy–that is the thought of a man pleasantly surprised to find himself happy in a cage, but nevertheless insistent on acknowledging the existence of the cage. Another agonizingly true jest follows:

Do you know I have not had a letter—nor has anyone—since leaving England, so that I am more egotistic than usual, as I am the only person that I really know exists, apart from these strangers round me.

As a teenager would put it, he is utterly alone.

We are strangers who just talk insincerely and humorously when we are not talking shop. But we have come to a modus vivendi. T[horbum] and I get on when it is pure talk between us two, but he is intolerable to live with, being dismal, timid and clumsy.

I should like to know you were well and what you were doing. I suppose letters will begin some day. And how are your nieces, and do you ever see Maitland?

Thomas does have some time on his hands, doesn’t he! The letter swerves back into complaint against his intolerable fellow-officer, and ends by literally marking time…

I have to admit I have joined the majority against T—. He is the most unpleasant presence imaginable in our midst. He was born with the most dismal face and voice ever was, and no doubt he is not happy in this frivolous coarse crowd… He hurts us and we hurt him—only his hurting us is no satisfaction to him as our hurting him is to us. I used to think I was dismal till now.—And perhaps I sound like it still, so I will be off. In fact I have just found it is 12 and not 11, I have to take a party along at 12.30.

Yours ever | Edward Thomas[2]

It’s her birthday, too. But he forgot…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Thomas, new to France, does not know "scrounge!"
  2. Selected Letters, 138-141.

Ben Keeling and the Comforts of Fate; Raymond Asquith’s Stout and Eerie New Home; R.H. Beckh’s Billets

A brief letter, today, from Ben Keeling. Keeling is an unusual character, an early volunteer who has become a thinking man’s sergeant-major. He has moved in literary circles, so I’ve had to trim this letter just a bit (removing his thoughts on “Bertie” Russell and Stephen Graham) in order to reveal its timeless core concerns: parcels, postcards, filth, and fate.

14 August, 1916

A chance to get off a letter to-day. Thank you very much for letters and parcel received. I got a good sleep in an old German dugout last night, but the night before was half in and half out of a hole in the chalk at the side of the trench. You might always put a candle in parcels. Sometimes they are plentiful and we can buy them easily, but when one wants them most they seem to be scarcest. Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me for some days, though I will try to send field postcards. I will leave one ready written for each day with my Q.M.S., who will probably get to hear each night if I am all right. But even this arrangement easily may go wrong. I have been pretty busy of late and also rather tired till to-day, as we have had parades at 3.30 a.m. on two successive days. But we have had good chances of bathing which has been pleasant in the heat…

Flies are a bit bad here and have begun to get a taste of the familiar smell of dead men again. But have nothing very bad as yet. What a blessed and comforting doctrine the idea of fate is! It does somehow enter into the soul of the soldier. I see no one around worrying about going into battle.

Well, good-bye. Peaceful Colchester seems in another world now.[1]

 

Raymond Asquith, facing not battle but only the relentless, tacit pressure to write upbeat letters home, has, at least, rather fancier parcels to be thankful for.

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
14 August 1916

Your gifts are as various as, and far more valuable than those of Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. The socks look very soft and alluring. The treacle tart was in excellent condition and won loud applause at our subterranean dinner table last night. My own view has always been that there should be more treacle in proportion to the pastry. Is there any technical objection to this? You ask about Mrs Gould’s cakes, but I can’t recollect having had any from her, certainly not for a very long time. Cicely has sent me several of those brown ones, which are quite good, but I think rather less so than they used to be in Pre-War days. I suspect some economy of material. The kind of cake I like is one which has a good many raisins in it and rather wet almond paste both on the top and surprisingly in the middle.

That is quite a treacly soliloquy. And now for a very amusing “Home Sweet Trench” bit:

Yesterday we came into the new line–the best trenches I have ever seen cut narrow and deep into the chalk, and dug-outs which would keep one safe from anyhing but the very heaviest poundings. The one I am writing in must be quite 20 feet below the surface and has several openings. But of course they have the defects of their qualities; very stuffy and clammy and as dark as hell. This one is a long kind of tunnel. Our Company Headquarters is in the middle of it. Battn. H.Q. at one end and a sort of Orderly Room and telephone place at the other with a couple of kitchens in recesses and bunks let into the walls here and there. You hear distant voices and see candles gleaming far away. It is very weird and reminded me rather of a side show at the White City where you wander about in passages with distorting mirrors on the walls or find yourself on moving footpaths or haunted swings or gazing into the eyes of a tattooed woman. It is also rather like a coal mine, a mortuary, a station on the Twopenny Tube or the murderer’s room in the Tussaud Chambers of Horrors . . .[2]

 

Finally, today, we have a poem, the second from R.H. Beckh:

 

Billets

Written on 14th August 1916

Green fields that are scented and sweet,
God’s sunshine, the air, and the trees,
Thy beauties we knew not before,
They were there, and who doubts them that sees?

But we, who bereft for a space
Of the joys that God meant us to share,
Have been living ‘mid sandbags, and scorched
Without shade from the sun’s ceaseless glare.

Great God! How to welcome the day
When the Trenches are left, and the trees
Promise hopes of a respite from heat,
And from breath-stifling odours release.

For how long? Just four days is the span:
And how fleeting yet heav’n born it seems–
Then again to the Trenches, our goal
And to plan for the Peace of our dreams.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Keeling Letters, 310-11.
  2. Life and Letters, 284-5.

Guy Chapman on Raiding and Loss; Alan Seeger on Absent Leaves and Leafy Bowers; Isaac Rosenberg Limps into France; Olaf Stapledon Challenges the Censor; Vera Brittain Gains and Loses Time with her Brother; Edith and John Ronald Tolkien Part

So I’ve been neglecting another excellent memoir. The major problems with reading Guy Chapman‘s A Passionate Prodigality are two: dates are few and far between, and it is very much in the style of Edmund Blunden‘s Undertones of War. Given that we have barely begun getting to know Blunden and his most beautiful of the war memoirs, it will be difficult for Chapman to find his own voice at the same time, as it were.

But minor Blunden though it may be, Chapman’s is still a very good book indeed, one of the best of the second rank of war memoirs. Chapman, a Kitchener’s Army subaltern in the Royal Fusiliers, has been out since July 1915 and has a good deal to tell us. He establishes several things very quickly: that he was very afraid to go to France and never entertained any “romantic illusions;” nor was he “resigned to self-sacrifice” or drunk on the wine of patriotism. Yet he went willingly enough because–and this is a major theme of the book–by the time the dust of enlistment-fervor settled, Chapman considered himself already welded into the framework of his battalion. And such is the utility of esprit de corps: form a disparate group into a military “unit,” and the bonds of fellowship and corporate pride (and social pressure, and the fear of being outcast) will ensure that the hesitating members of that group will be pulled along by the general obedience.

But Chapman uses a very different metaphor: he feels that he was “born into” the 13th Royal Fusiliers, and he would not be parted from his family.

It’s not unfitting, then–since Chapman first hoped to write a battalion history before settling on a memoir–that our first foray into the book is marked by the date of a death in that family. Chapman is not disenchanted so much as disgusted, in many ways, with the foolishness of the war. Early in his narrative–it is 1915, as his battalion is learning the ropes–he flashes forward to the spring of 1916, when “the costly and depressing fashion of raiding the other side” had been set by “the Canadians.”

I have read elsewhere of this idea that Canadian raids inspired a costly fit of large-scale raiding along the British front, but I don’t think I included it here–in any even,t other officers held the same belief as Chapman. Is this a sort of British Army scuttlebutt, in which rumors of new tactics by those naive roughneck Canadians are to blame for the end of any “live and let live” status quo? It would seem so, since the “fashion” must have been set among various divisional (and higher) staffs, but perhaps there really was some singular inspiration for the raids that are weakening and even demoralizing various units all along the front.

Such raids–especially when conceived as mini-attacks with bombardments that do more to warn the enemy than damage him–do seem pointless, unless it be a matter of relative morale and the “upper hand.” But that’s just the point: it seems even more lunatic to get men killed without even any hope of dislodging the enemy than it does to get (many more) men killed in an effort to win a few miles of trenches, and yet, as we have seen, there were numerous volunteers among the 15th Royal Welch, while officers of the Regular battalions clearly believed both that losses were worth the “moral” advantage of terrorizing the Germans opposite and that raiding provided individuals opportunity to prove their valor (and be rewarded for it). Nothing more primitive, nothing more probable.

In any event, Chapman has recently been on leave, and when he returned, the battalion Transport Officer was departing for his own leave and Chapman was detailed to step in as his replacement. So he took up an easy job–like a wise young subaltern, he let the experienced sergeant do all the work with the carts and beasts–and he missed the raid:

In spite of the Loos fiasco, we of course believed that the big push would succeed. After ten months in France, we were still in our state of primal innocence. But even in those early days the surprised mind woke momentarily to the thought, ‘but–it’s a life sentence.’

A night or so later, our raiding party crept out from the right company’s line and lay waiting for the 60 lb. T[rench]. M[ortar],’s to finish the breaking of the wire. A wind had risen during the afternoon and was now blowing across the front. The twenty-four men lay in the rank grass with Batty, Gwinnell and Perkins in front, waiting for the toffee-apples to lift and waver into the wire in front. The trench mortar fired; but the registrations had not been carried out when there was no wind. The breeze caught the bomb…

‘I say, guv’nor,’ said Private Billett to Gwinnell: ‘I’m ‘it in the bleedin’ arm.’

‘Shut up,’ growled Gwinnell. ‘So am I.’

‘Are yer, guv’nor!’ returned Billett. ‘I’m sorry to ‘ear about that.’

Light comedy, friendly fire. Bitter ironies:

Gwinnell staggered up, with three wounds in the leg, Perkins hit in both arms; but Batty lay still. A splinter had gone straight through his brain. Eight other men were hit, and there was no more to be done about the raid. Gwinnell, bleeding from his wounds, shepherded the men back and brought in Batty’s body.

This would be lieutenant Francis Clive Batty-Smith, killed in action on June 4th, 1916, at age twenty-two.

The catastrophe wrenched many of us as no previous death had been able to do. Those we had seen before had possessed an inevitable quality, had been taken as an unavoidable manifestation of war, as in nature we take the ills of the body. But this death, at the hands of our own people, through a vagary of the wind, appeared some sinister and malignant stroke, an outrage involving not only the torn body of the dead boy but the whole battalion.

Yet though we all loved Batty-Smith, our mourning was short.[1]

 

Everyone is chatty today, so I will skip through the long, lovingly-argued (in both senses–Olaf Stapledon can’t write without remembering his regard for his beloved, nor without revealing his deep care for ethical nicety) discussion of the rightnesses and wrongnesses of the war. But this bit, weary though we may be, should be part of the story:

In your last letter you stated as cogently as it can be stated the official position with regard to the war…

You ask if I am sure my cause is right. No, not since conscription. But I know that if I join the army it will be to escape from an uncomfortable position, to shirk responsibility, and not to help the Allies. I won’t join the army (yet I am practically already in the English & the French armies. The difference is a shade only, but a vital shade), because the whole war (especially if we win) is the

[CENSORED]

by

[CENSORED]

and as I love England (more than many a soldier) I will not

[CENSORED]

even if to refuse means to be damned body & soul. Even if it were to mean shaming the girl I love, even if it were to mean slipping away from her altogether. It may be priggish and snobbish and unsociable and pigheaded and pharisaical and hypocritical and hyperidealistical not to fight. The kindly human thing just now may be to fight. But if I fight it will be be through weakness & selfishness and a wretched desire for applause, and because I shall have shut my heart to the great Spirit that is trying to realise itself in every mind and every nation and in all liberties and human institutions. The Spirit is a live thing & a lovable. To obey it is not selfish salvation-seeking. I wonder how much of that will get through.

Not a whole lot! We see now the plight of suspiciously non-conforming ambulancers, who are not trusted to write “on their honor” as officers generally are. Alas. Olaf?

It is scrappy stuff anyhow…

Well, friend, I guess we have found a pretty deep difference between us, through I hope we are so close as to be able to kiss and be friends over the chasm![2]

 

Isaac Rosenberg is starting to fly high as a poet, but today, his first day on the march in France, he came down to earth. Rosenberg holds enormous power in his mind, but he’s also a classic shlimazl. He wrote two poems on the troopship, but he also lost his socks…

So I’ve been in trouble, particularly with bad heels… you can’t have the slightest conception of what such an apparently trivial thing means.

He had never told his mother that he was leaving for France–only his sister, and at the last minute. Now, the thing done, he re-establishes contact, and asks her to send him some socks…[3]

 

And hence to a very different poet–and yet one in a very similar position. The Boston Brahmin, Harvard-educated Alan Seeger also serves in the ranks, and, although he has seen combat and long service in the Foreign Legion, he too knows that summer is likely to foreshorten his mortal span. And he, too, is driven to get his verse at last into print. He wrote to his “marraine” (godmother) in Paris, three days and a century ago:

June 1, 1916

What a bitter disappointment! After having worked feverishly on my poem and finished it, in spite of work and other duty, in the space of two days, behold the 29th comes and the 30th, and no permission [i.e.”leave”] arrives. It would have been such an honor and pleasure to have read my verses there in Paris; I counted on seeing you and getting a moment’s respite from the hard life here. To have raised my hopes and then left me in the lurch like that was certainly cruel…

Disappointed in leave and in poetry, Seeger nevertheless makes the best of his situation.

Meanwhile we have come back to première ligne [front line] and are again in the little camp where Colette was killed. Strange how quickly one forgets here on the front. For a few days after that disaster the men kept to the abris [shelters], but now we are again careless as before and are living outside in the fine weather, though the same thing may happen again at any moment. I have a charming little house, made by bending down saplings and tying them overhead into a leafy roof. In this I have made a bed out of four logs, fastened into a rectangle about three feet by seven, between which chicken wire is strung, and then spread with new straw; voilà a most clean and comfortable couch. All around are sylvan scents and sounds and the morning sun shine slanting through the heavy foliage.

Seeger’s letters home to America are generally very different from our usual France-to-England missives–he discusses poetry, or long-term plans, and naturally enough, given the weeks such letters would take to go and come. This letter, to Paris, shows him in a much more familiar light: first, leave disappointments; then, trench-description. Now for the parcels:

What have I to thank you for since my last letter? The briquet, I think, and the aluminum flask, both of which were exactly the right thing. You cannot imagine what pleasure it is to receive these parcels. You see now we are living entirely in the woods, and never go back to the village cantonments, so that it is extremely difficult to get little luxuries of any kind… the pleasure of receiving them comparable to nothing except that of a child opening his Christmas stocking. Is it not pathetic to be in a state where a man’s utmost possibilities of volupté [sensual pleasure] are confined to the vulgar sense of taste, the lowest of all?

Even a letter to America–to his mother–of today, a century back, has a peculiarly British tone:

This sector has one exciting feature which I have not found in others: the deep woods allow patrols to circulate between the lines in day light. There are frequent encounters and ambuscades. This is very good sport… The enemy are so pushing the game along all the fronts that our reserves will soon have to be thrown in. There is this comfort, that when we go, it will not be to sit in a ditch, wait, and be deluged with shells, but we will go directly into action, magnificently, unexpectedly, and probably victoriously, in some dashing charge, even if it be only of local importance.

Never mind: we are back from “sport” now to the Nietzsche-inflected battler-madness that runs like a counter-theme through certain literary young men of several nations:

In that moment, trust, as I do, in the great god, Chance, that brings us in life, not only our misfortunes, but our greatest bits of happiness, too. Think of so many who are ingloriously stricken by accident in time of peace. War is another kind of life insurance; whereas the ordinary kind assures a man that his death will mean money to someone, this assures him that it will mean honor to himself, which from a certain point of view is much more satisfactory.

And then there is this, one more letter of today, a century back, and once more to his Marraine:

June 4, 1916.

… I hardly think we shall be here much longer. I have a presentiment that we are soon going into action. The last rumor is that we are soon to go to Verdun to relieve the 2nd Moroccan division. That would be magnificent, wouldn’t it ? the long journey drawing nearer and nearer to that furnace, the distant cannonade, the approach through the congested rear of the battle-line full of dramatic scenes, the salutations of troops that have already fought, “Bon courage, les gars!” [approx. “go get ’em, boys”] and then our own debut in some dashing affair. Verdun nous manque. [We miss/long for Verdun] I should really like to go there, for after the war I imagine Frenchmen will be divided into those who were at Verdun and those who were not. . . .[4]

 

So Seeger expected leave and didn’t get it. When we last heard from Vera Brittain, her brother Edward’s leave (his first since going out to France) had just been canceled. But–there’s always a bureaucratic twist–it was reinstated at the last minute, and so Edward has given his family one of the war’s few types of truly happy surprises… and even those are bittersweet in retrospect.

June 4th-10th

Edward came back on leave for 5 days–so bitter-sweet & all too brief. Got leave from hospital for two days & stayed at the Grafton Hotel with him & Mother. He spoke in veiled but significant language of a great battle–another Big Push–soon to take place, & knew that he was to be in it. He said it would be somewhere in the region of Albert, where he is now. In spite of spending a lot of time with him I hardly had a chance of speaking to him at all, for there were always so many people about.[5]

 

As Vera Brittain releases her only brother to the wars, her thoughts must have lingered on the lover she lost. She might have thought, as she often writes that she did, of the future they might have had together. So only one year–and a marriage, and his death–separates her experience from that of Edith and John Ronald Tolkien. Last night, the still-nearly-newlyweds spent the night at the Plough and Harrow Hotel in Edgbaston. This afternoon, a century back, they said farewell, and Tolkien set first feet on the road to adventure. Or, rather war, and by rail–to London, first, and thence France.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chapman, A Passionate Prodigality, 13, 41, 82-4.
  2. Talking Across the World, 153-4.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 313.
  4. Letters and Diary, 201-6.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 325-6.
  6. Chronology, 80.

Edmund Blunden’s First Morning in the Line: Young in War, and Ancient as Troy; We Meet E. A. Mackintosh, and Read “To My Sister”

Last night was Edmund Blunden‘s first night in trenches. Today, then, would be his first morning. Blunden awoke in an officer’s dugout in C trench, in the reserve line near Festubert: the “Old British Line” of the Loos battle.

I am ashamed to remember that I was accused of sleeping ten hours. When I emerged the morning was high and blue and inspiriting, but the landscape cramped, tattered, and dingy. I washed ungrudgingly in a biscuit tin, and Limbery-Buse took me for a walk along the reserve line, explaining as we went the system of sentries and trench duty. At some points in the trench bones pierced through their shallow burial and skulls appeared like mushrooms. The men with whom I was now consorted instantly appeared good men, shy, quiet, humorous, and neat. The sand-bag walls did not look so mighty as the night before, but still I thought that they must be able to withstand a great deal…

This is innocence, of course, despite his surroundings. The war is still young…

…even that first morning I might have known; for the howling and whooping of shells suddenly began, and a small brick outbuilding between our trench and Festubert village behind began to jump away in explosions of dusty yellow smoke. The sight was attractive, until Limbery-Buse mentioned that Fritz might drop a shell or two short of his ruin, and in that event we were standing in the probable place of impact.

Young, but also of indefinite age, and so, in a sense, ancient:

One of the first things that I was asked in C Company dugout was, “Got any peace talk?” It was a rhetorical question. One of the first ideas that established themselves in my inquiring mind was the prevailing sense of the endlessness of the war. No one appeared to conceive any end to it. I soon knew that

Day succeeded unto day,
Night to pensive night.

Such as it was, the Old British Line at Festubert had the appearance of great age and perpetuity; its weather-beaten sandbag wall was already venerable. It shared the past with the defences of Troy. The skulls which spades disturbed about it were in a manner coeval with those of the most distant wars; there is little but remoteness about a skull. And, as for the future, one of the first hints that came home to me was implied in a machine-gun emplacement stubbornly built in brick and cement, as one might build a house…[1]

 

 

Ewart_Alan_Mackintosh

E. Alan Mackintosh

I haven’t yet found a good opportunity to introduce another subaltern poet–or, rather, poetic subaltern. Ewart Alan Mackintosh of the 5th Seaforth Highlanders–and St. Pauls, then Christ Church–had started writing poetry as a schoolboy, won a classical scholarship but generally loafed at Oxford, debating, paddling in the Torpids (that would be “club” rowing, I think, in American terminology–Mackintosh was not an athlete) and signing up eventually with the Officer Training Corps. This may have been only after an initial August 1914 rejection for… any guesses? Yup: Mackintosh looks bravely out at us in the photo at right, but he appears to squint in several others, and he evidently wore a pince-nez much of the time.

Nevertheless, he found his way into a Territorial battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders (Mackintosh was English by birth, but of Scottish extraction), with a commission dated January 1st, 1915. On August 1st he joined the 5th Seaforths in France, near Albert, and throughout autumn, winter, and spring he was in and out of the line, and writing verse when time allowed. It’s only today, a century back, that an action of his battalion and a dated poem conjoin…

In March their division–the 51st (Highland) Division–had taken over a new set of trenches from the French which included the “Labyrinth.” Not far behind their positions, then, is the Casualty Clear Station where Kate Luard now works. The early weeks were concerned with improving the position–something the Germans opposite were doing as well. On April 28th a German mine exploded under another battalion of the Seaforths, killing more than thirty. Revenge–in the form of a raid–was planned, and scheduled for tomorrow. Mackintosh, as the bombing officer, would have an important part.

In July, before coming to France, he had written out a legal will, giving his sister nearly all of his possessions and the responsibility of seeing his poems into print. Today, a century back, he wrote to her in verse:

To My Sister

If I die to-morrow
I shall go happily.
With the flush of battle on my face
I shall walk with an eager pace
The road I cannot see.

My life burnt fiercely always,
And fiercely will go out
With glad wild fighting ringed around.
But you will be above the ground
And darkness all about.

You will not hear the shouting.
You will not see the pride,
Only with tortured memory
Remember what I used to be,
And dream of how I died.

You will see gloom and horror
But never the joy of fight.
You’ll dream of me in pain and fear,
And in your dreaming never hear
My voice across the night.

My voice that sounds so gaily
Will be too far away
For you to see across your dream
The charging and the bayonet’s gleam,
Or hear the words I say.

And parted by the warders
That hold the gates of sleep,
I shall be dead and happy
And you will live and weep.

The Labyrinth, May 15, 1916

 

Finally, today, a century back, and after a short but halcyon interval in the hills of Wales, Robert Graves returned to London. In a few days he will report for a medical check-up to assess whether he can be cleared for active duty.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Undertones of War, chapter two.