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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

20 November 1917

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

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

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

And she did not.

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Rowland Feilding’s Circuitous Identification; A Reprieve and a Safe Delivery for the Family Tolkien; Wilfred Owen Comes Out with a Key, and Sends “Asleep.”

Just three short notes today from (or about) three of our officers–but one gives a good excuse for us to read a poem.

The shortest comes from Rowland Feilding, who is impressively true to his commitment to tell his wife everything–horrors and fears included. But that doesn’t preclude a bit of light comedy, when such a thing presents itself.

November 16, 1917

One of my officers, in censoring his men’s letters a day or two ago, came upon the following:

“Dear Brother,–

I can’t tell you where I am, but I am at the place which I’ve left to go to the place where I’ve come from.”

I think that should baffle the censor, don’t you?[1]

 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had rather a heavier day, today, a century back, but with greater joys at the end of it.

The scheduled family medical event was another Board, which determined that his recovery from his latest bout with fever has been too slow. Tolkien was declared “20 per cent disabled,” a ruling which would have come to him as the lifting of a great weight: this classification made it very unlikely that he would ever face enemy fire again. Tolkien was sent back to the Lancashire Fusiliers depot at Thirtle Bridge, for at least two months more of “home service” before his next assessment.

And on returning to base he learned that his wife Edith had gone into labor in a Cheltenham nursing home. It will be a difficult delivery, and there are fears for her life, but Tolkien was unable to get leave to see her. It must have been a terrible day, for any husband and prospective father, but especially for one so fiercely committed to the romantic ideal of marriage.

And it ended happily: John Francis Reuel Tolkien will be born, healthy and strong, and his mother will make a relatively swift recovery.[2]

 

And finally, today, an unusually revealing–and predictably obscured–letter from Wilfred Owen. He has just spent several days visiting with his cousin Leslie Gunston, his closest friend and poetic fellow-dreamer in earlier years. But Owen had moved beyond his old friend and kinsman, and there was a new distance between the two. It’s not just that Gunston writes hackneyed verse while Owen has begun writing powerful poetry, and it’s not just his fancy new London friends. It also seems to have something to do with new honesty: emboldened by his friendship with Sassoon and Robbie Ross, Owen  seems to have made his sexual preferences clear to his cousin for the first time.

My dear Leslie,

I did not think to send back a driblet of your Ink so soon, but I have indeed carried off the key.

Had it been the key of my box I should surely have left it with you. As it was I left you the key to many of my poems, which you will guard from rust or soilure. . .

At this point the censorious editors of his letters cut in, omitting twenty-two words. It seems very likely that these announced Owen’s homosexuality as the “key” to his early poems, the love lyrics which he and Gunston would often write as parallel exercises. To “come out” even in so roundabout a fashion was courageous, and Owen must have trusted his friend and cousin, for the letter continues on as if their continued easy fellowship will not be affected by the news.

Good of you to send me the Lyric of Nov. 14th. I can only send my own of the same date, which came from Winchester Downs, as I crossed the long backs of the downs after leaving you. It is written as from the trenches. I could almost see the dead lying about in the hollows of the downs…

your W.E.O.[3]

Owen also gamely and loyally informs Gunston that he asked Harold Munro about Gunston’s rather awful The Nymph–although of course he could be fibbing. Even so, he does not mention doing anything specific to get The Nymph into the Poetry Bookshop, where after all it wouldn’t belong.

But if Gunston doesn’t realize how far Owen’s poetry has moved beyond their joint adolescent imitations, then perhaps he will be happy to receive drafts from his successful cousin, rather than chagrined that they are of such a different quality than his own productions…

In any event, the poem is called “Asleep,” and although it is nothing of Owen’s strongest and has quite a bit of the young man’s lyricism that drenched his pre-Sassoon work (although perhaps the erotic element will now be clear, for the first time, to the “key”-possessing Gunston), it is still the work of a veteran and a fast-developing poet:

 

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.

There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.

And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intruding lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making,
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars,
Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old,
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 225.
  2. Chronology, 102; I'm not completely sure if young Tolkien was actually born today or tomorrow, a century back.
  3. Collected Letters, 507-8. The censor is Owen's brother Harold, who ruthlessly but incompetently suppressed information about his brother's sexuality

Jack Martin on a Just Punishment; Wilfred Owen Among the Literary Lights; Siegfried Sassoon Disabuses Lady Ottoline Morrell

Jack Martin, now waiting for reassignment to Italy, has an amusing story today, a century back, of generalship-as-moral instruction:

Had a practice stunt on the dunes repelling imaginary Austrians. I was running a Visual Station and of course we had divested ourselves of our equipment but the runners had to keep theirs on. Presently the Brigadier came along and after a few enquiries said ‘A shell has now dropped here and killed those men who are wearing their equipment. So they can get back to their billets at once…’ We leave here on Monday but I haven’t heard any details yet.[1]

Primary school teachers would greet this particular adverse stroke of artillery-fortune with approval, I think.

 

But the main action is not behind the lines in France today, but rather at home, in London and Edinburgh. Wilfred Owen’s letter, written tomorrow (a century back) to his mother, tells the tale best.[2] It’s a bit like one of those irritating “which living writers would you most like to eat dinner with?” questions. Except that he actually is:

Had a memorable dinner at the Reform last night, & stayed talking with Ross till one A.M. I and my work are a success. I had already sent something to the Nation which hasn’t appeared yet, but it seems the Editor[3] has started talking of me, and Wells told me he had heard of me through that Editor! H.G.W. said some rare things for my edification, & told me a lot of secrets. I only felt ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh at Arnold Bennett. Wells is easily top dog when it comes to jests, and I’m afraid I took his side, and told Bennett I disapproved of his gaudy silk handkerchief!

…I got Bennett into a corner about Sassoon. I think they ‘noticed’ me because I stood up to them both politely when they shook hands to go, and argumentatively….[4]

 

Yesterday I quoted Siegfried Sassoon‘s biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, on how Sassoon treated the visit of Lady Ottoline Morrell much as he had Robert Graves’s: by going about his business–namely playing golf–and only afterwards paying her some attention. But there was another sense in which LadyOttoline’s visit was similar to Graves’s: there were hard feelings deriving from an explicit clarification of sexual orientation.

While sexual attraction does not seem to have ever been an important element in the Graves-Sassoon relationship[5]–Graves had a crush of some sort but was not interested in sex, while Sassoon was not physically attracted to Graves–Graves opened a rift in the relationship when he announced his love for Nancy Nicholson. In this case, Lady Ottoline had evidently cherished certain hopes, but Sassoon will now definitively disabuse her. Today, a century back, they had a long walk and a short answer, in which “he told her quite specifically that he could ‘only like men, that women were antipathetic to him.'”

This wasn’t any lighthearted clearing of the air–“but, darling, I’m gay!”–but rather a fairly nasty encounter. Sexual preference aside, Sassoon has frequently shown a contempt for women bordering on (or making lengthy inroads into) misogyny, and he also apparently told Lady Ottoline, who was even more eccentrically dressed today than usual, that she was too “artificial” to take seriously. Sassoon, as self-absorbed as most poets and also as self-absorbed as most thoughtlessly immature young men, seems to be exhibiting merely a doubled cruelty, rather than any subtle binary vision. Lost in all this, too, is the context: he may have mocked Lady Ottoline behind her back the whole time he accepted her hospitality and made use of her connections, but adding this belittling sting to his rejection of her may not just be callousness or callowness–he is also clearing his flank as he retreats, leaving no question that he no longer wants anything to do with the pacifist/protest movement…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 123.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 280-1.
  3. H.W. Massingham; the poem in question is "Miners," to be published in January.
  4. Collected Letters, 507.
  5. This with all this with the usual caveats about reading between the lines in situations where openness about homosexuality was not possible, plus the usual complexity of parsing lines of love in tumultuous relationships.
  6. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418-9.

An Unwelcome Arrival, A Literary Lunch, and a Rueful Transfer

Wilfred Owen‘s first day in London as the new find/friend of Siegfried Sassoon began well: he lunched with Robbie Ross, who was both a central hub of literary London and the most important contact that a young gay Englishman could make. And it seems to have gone well: Owen left with an invitation to dine at the Reform Club tomorrow.[1]

 

As for Sassoon, left behind at Craiglockhart instead of among new friends and old in London, he found yet another reason to bemoan his company and circumstances, today, a century back: Lady Ottoline Morrell, his erstwhile friend and Pacifist/protest backer, has stubbornly insisted on visiting him in Scotland, despite the fairly obvious “I don’t really want to see you” tone of his recent letters.

Having failed to put off Ottoline’s threatened visit… he made the most of her stay. Though she felt neglected and complained bitterly of his thoughtlessness in booking her into one of Edinburgh’s most expensive hotels… he had accorded her exactly the same treatment as he had Graves, that is, fitted her round his games of golf.[2]

And just as Owen’s London literary life will hit a new high tomorrow, Sassoon’s relationship with Morrell will reach a new low.

 

And finally, today, there was an exchange of ordeals for Alfred Hale, our poor (but independently wealthy), clumsy (but musical), hopelessly incompetent airman. After two miserable months as a batman serving a Royal Flying Corps officer at a training facility–which meant long days of chopping wood and tending the officers’ stoves–“he was shunted to clerical work.” This would seem like a reprieve–but not so fast, dear reader. Hale may not be a hale or hardy outdoorsman or gifted with the skills and personality of a capable servant… but he is also utterly befuddled by machines, even those as simple as the typewriter or telephone…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 280-1.
  2. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418-9.
  3. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 119.

Wilfred Owen Writes to Siegfried Sassoon, Father-Confessor, Colonel, and Prophet; Lord Dunsany Dines with the Company

Today, a century back, two days after writing, then shelving a way-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen sat down once again to write… a still-pretty-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon. I don’t think it needs much more introduction (or commentary).

5 November 1917

Mahim, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury

This was not the photograph in question, but rather the Philpot portrait (Fitzwilliam Museum); but see below

My dear Sassoon,

When I had opened your envelope in a quiet comer of the Club Staircase, I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by’ (as you would recommend for such effusions) until I could think over the thing without grame.[1]

I have also waited for this photograph.

Show some rich anger if you will. I thank you; but not on this paper only, or in any writing. You gave—with what Christ, if he had known Latin & dealt in oxymoron, might have called Sinister Dexterity. I imagined you were entrusting me with some holy secret concerning yourself. A secret, however, it shall be until such time as I shall have climbed to the housetops, and you to the minarets of the world.

 

There is indeed a slight resemblance between the heretical sun king and the rebel poet

Smile the penny! This Fact has not intensified my feelings for you by the least—the least grame. Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.

What’s that mathematically?

In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.

If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life–however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze. It is some consolation to know that Jupiter himself sometimes swims out of Ken!

If this sounds like a poem, that’s because it soon will be, a long effort entitled “This is the Track” and containing the lines:

To be a meteor, fast, eccentric, lone.
Lawless; in passage through all spheres.
Warning the earth of wider ways’, unknown
And rousing men with heavenly fears.

This marks the end of surely one of the most courageously sustained effusions that Sassoon has ever been subjected to. He must be writhing–and also flattered. Returning to the letter at hand, we find Owen, confident that his outburst of adoration will not have spoiled the friendship, returning to earthly matters:

To come back to our sheep, as the French never say, I have had a perfect little note from Robt. Ross, and have arranged a meeting at 12.30 on Nov. 9th. He mentioned staying at Half Moon St., but the house is full.

I have ordered several copies of Fairies & Fusiliers, but shall not buy all, in order to leave the book exposed on the Shrewsbury counters…

The connection between Sassoon and Owen is intense and important, even if it is not fully reciprocal. Sassoon esteems the young poet, and if he does not seems quite capable of intense warmth without intense passion, he clearly “values the relationship,” as we would say in our mercenary way. And Owen professes love for regard, friendship, and reading/editing/poetic fellowship–these things are the most important.

But Owen is not some blithe innocent or fashionably fancy-free poetic adventurer; he’s an ambitious poet, and Sassoon’s gift of entree into the literary world by means of associations with Roberts Ross and Graves is very welcome too… And it’s endearing that Owen reports his little scheme for drawing attention to Graves’s new book. With self-consciousness of his silliness, sure–but he still reports it.

Sassoon is a beloved friend–loudly and enthusiastically beloved, but still not the be-all-end-all. There is also Owen’s family, and the society of his many friends and contacts from his ergotherapeutic activities.

I am spending happy enough days with my Mother, but I can’t get sociable with my Father without going back on myself over ten years of thought.

What I most miss in Edinburgh (not Craiglockhart) is the conviviality of the Four Boys (L. vivere—to live) Someday, I must tell how we sang, shouted, whistled and danced through the dark lanes through Colinton; and how we laughed till the meteors showered around us, and we fell calm under the winter stars. And some of us saw the pathway of the spirits for the first time. And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so safe beneath us, we praised God with louder whistling; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.

Which, if the Bridge-players Craig & Lockhart could have seen, they would have called down the wrath of Jahveh, and buried us under the fires of the City you wot of.

This would appear to be one of the more open–though still oblique–references to homosexuality in Owen’s edited letters: the fire-buried city in question is surely Sodom, one of the two “Cities of the Plain” which another of our writers (and soon-to-be-path-crosser) will eventually choose as the euphemistic title of the fourth volume of the first English translation of the greatest French novel (or simply novel) then being written (or at any point). Got it?

To which also it is time you committed this letter. I wish you were less undemonstrative, for I have many.adjectives with which to qualify myself. As it is I can only say I am

Your proud friend,

Owen[2]

 

A much less dramatic/interesting/significant letter will play the “secondly, and anticlimactically” role, today. But Lord Dunsany‘s correspondence with Lady Beatrice is suddenly available these days, and perhaps we will wring some insights from it eventually. As it is, however, he seems a bit… aloof.

My Darling Mink,

The officers of D. Company gave me a dinner last night at the Club. We walked back  arm in arm with me in the middle, either to show that that was their natural and usual way of going home, not a necessity, or else to show that if ever I wanted help to get home after dinner, I should have it…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A helpful note from the editor explains that "SS cannot explain this word."
  2. Collected Letters, 504-6.
  3. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 146.

Robert Graves Responds to Siegfried Sassoon’s Latest Provocation, and Writes of Courage, Mutiny, and Fairy Teas; Vivian de Sola Pinto Gets a Blighty After a Bangalore; Frederic Manning’s Last Bender Begins

Siegfried Sassoon is still, technically, supposed to be recuperating from… some sort of mental or neurological condition related to outspokenness. But as he awaits a second chance at pleading himself fit for duty and putting his protest behind him, he seems to spend a great deal of time managing his friendships. Which would be easier if he didn’t have a habit of turning about face and writing cutting letters.

Robert Graves, who can often seem grandiose, unreasonable, and unreliable when telling his own story, comes off as measured, rational, and steadying when he writes to Sassoon.

My dear Sassons,

I don’t remember if I told you that I’ve managed to get struck off the Gibraltar draft and am now waiting orders for Egypt which may come in any time, and then I’ll still be a fortnight in England before going out–then once in Egypt I get a medical board and so on to the land of Canaan. My book is due this week or next…

Graves next passes on an interesting bit of gossip: he has just heard, by word of mouth from an old comrade, about the mutiny at Étaples. So the censorship holds. Graves–here’s an interesting twist on Regimental esprit de corps–is both sympathetic to the mutiny–“(you know how badly they are treated at the Bull Ring)”–and proud that the Royal Welch Fusiliers were considered steady enough to be called in to quell it:

Rather a compliment for the First Battalion being chosen, but rather a rotten job. . . .

Don’t be silly about being dotty: of course you’re sane. The only trouble is you’re too sane which is a great crime as bring dotty and much more difficult to deal with. That’s the meaning of an anti-war complex. You see what other folk don’t see about the rights and wrongs of the show. Personally I think you see too much.

One imagines Graves taking a deep breath before continuing his response to Sassoon’s letter.

About ‘good form’ and ‘acting like a gentleman’. You are purposely perverse in attributing those things to my lips. What I said was ‘The Bobbies and Tommies and so on, who are the exact people whom you wish to influence and save by all your powers, are just the people whose feelings you are going to hurt most by turning round in the middle of the war, after having made a definite contract, and saying “I’ve changed my mind…”

You can only command their respect by sharing all their miseries as far as you possibly can, being ready for pride’s sake to finish your contract whatever it costs you, yet all the time denouncing the principles you are being compelled to further. God know you have ‘done your bit’ as they say, but I believe in giving everything…

‘If you had real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce as you do.’ Sorry you think that of me–I should hate to think I’m a coward. I believe though in keeping to agreements…

It’s quite a letter. Graves segues to more news–the casualties in the 2nd Battalion at Polygon Wood (which Sassoon has learned of from Cotterill)–and then draws a line across the letter.

Below the line comes literary gossip, an awkward “thanks awfully”–a twenty-pound loan seems to have come along with Sassoon’s insulting letter–and a final bit of news that is impossibly unwarlike:

This afternoon, after a busy morning with the Fusiliers, I am going down to Rhyl for the Fairies, not the fairies with rouged lips and peroxide hair but the real fairies: the colonel’s kids have invited me to a special nursery tea and tiddlywinks. It’s going to be great fun. They call me Georgy Giraffe and consider that I must be a damn sight finer fellow than their father who is only 5′ 6″ tall.

Goodbye

God bless you

Robert[1]

 

After such a letter between two of our central figures, updates on two peripheral ones will seem an anticlimax. But the war goes on, and any night in the war of attrition can be a turning point for those on the spot of a bombardment or a raid.

Vivian de Sola Pinto has been in the line near Gouzeaucourt for a month, now, with a Kitchener’s Army battalion of the R.W.F., and he has just been given a dicey task. A “Bangalore Torpedo”–a “new toy” of the “Brass Hats” (which gives us a fair idea of where this is heading!)–has been dropped in No Man’s Land, and Pinto is ordered to take a patrol out to retrieve it. The “torpedo” is a long explosive-filled pipe designed to blow a deep tunnel-like opening into the enemy’s wire obstacles. It is, like so many new toys, dangerous and unwieldy.

But Pinto, fortunately, will not even get as far as being blown up mid-salvage:

…shortly after 10 p.m. (in army language 2200) I crawled into no-man’s-land with a dozen men, including one of our sergeants and a corporal from the party which had dumped the torpedo It was a very dark mild night and a little soft rain was falling. Corporal Jenkins had just whispered to me, ‘I think it was somewhere about here,’ when a German flare went up and heavy machine-gun fire opened on us from several directions. We flung ourselves on our faces and I felt a sharp stab in my right forearm. It was clear that Jerry knew where we were and that the immediate task before me was to get my party out of the trap before they were all killed or captured…. three of our men were dead and most of the rest were wounded. Amid a hail of bullets we managed somehow to get the whole party back to our wire. This was a nightmare experience as we had to make several journeys to carry the dead men and help the wounded…

My right arm was now bleeding profusely, but I tied my handkerchief round it and did my best to help with my left. At last I found myself sitting exhausted on the fire-step in our front line and trying to tell Captain B—— what had happened. Then I lost consciousness and knew nothing till I was awakened by a severe jolting and realized that once more I was on a stretcher and being carried to an advanced dressing station. There they… extracted the bullet from my arm.

When I awoke I found my arm in a sling, was told that the bone was splintered and that I had a nice Blighty…[2]

Pinto will reach Camberwell General just in time for the next Zeppelin raid…

 

And, finally–though this occurred in the evening, well before Pinto’s bloody patrol–Frederic Manning was absent from his battalion’s mess tonight, a century back, in Cork. Given his recent drinking bouts and near-total collapse, this was rather worrisome to his commander, one Major E.F. Milner…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 85-6.
  2. The City That Shone, 208-9.
  3. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.

Robert Graves De-Dedicates Siegfried Sassoon; Eddie Marsh Rededicates Himself to Winston Churchill, and Heads for Belgium

Robert Graves begins his letter to Siegfried Sassoon of today, a century back, with an apology: he has belatedly changed the dedication of Fairies and Fusiliers, his upcoming collection of poetry. Instead of being dedicated to Sassoon it will be the entire Royal Welch Fusiliers who share the honor.

Dearest Sassons,

If you’d been anyone else you’d have thought me a first-class four-letter man for changing the dedication like that, but you know it wasn’t meant for anything, except that I was afraid at the last moment of a dedication to an individual for fear of jealousy from Gosse, Ross, Marsh, Masefield or anyone like that of my ‘friends and lovers’ not to mention the family. Also, I thought that to point my devotion to the regiment would strengthen my expression of hatred for the war.

“I was afraid… fear… jealousy… hatred:” excuses, excuses. It also seems possible that this has something to do with the newest “lover,” Nancy Nicholson. She is, in most senses, Graves’s first lover, and not one that he would think Sassoon likely to approve of. But whatever his motivation, Graves is abjectly apologetic:

…I’m so sorry for my stupidity.

Well; but he must apologize: he is also asking Sassoon to read his proofs. This awkwardness taken care of, updates on mutual friends and comrades follow, including a mention of the luckless Julian Dadd:

Poor Julian was ill since he was discharged, brainfever due to worry about Ginchy where he somehow thinks he didn’t do well enough, but he’s in a good place I hear…

In other words, a mental breakdown of some sort. This sort of news can’t really be avoided–Sassoon is still in touch with other members of the regiment–yet it is still difficult to wade through. And any news of Graves’s current activities can only remind Sassoon not only that Graves is still “doing his duty” while he is playing golf, but also that Graves gave up a similarly cushy posting to a rest home on the Isle of Wight in order to come and deal with Sassoon’s protest. So Graves cutting to the chase is perhaps not, for once, unwelcome:

I do my best to cheer up the listless atmosphere of Litherland with wry jokes and my usual grotesques…

Sassons, I’d like you to tell me honestly are these shellshock fellow-patients of yours getting on our nerves? I’d be very unhappy if I thought they were: you talk of golf with lunatics, but I hope to God it’s not as bad as that. Damn Rivers, why should he go and get ill like that and leave you?

Yes, the inimitable Rivers, overworked and ill, has gone on a lengthy leave–an important interlude not only, perhaps, in his actual life, but in the fictional life he is given in Pat Barker’s Regeneration: he gets to reconnect with his mentor, check up on illustrative old patients, and observe the sickening methods used by less humane doctors to “cure” their patients’ neurological and psychological symptoms.

We can all, perhaps, agree, on the silver lining of Sassoon’s situation.

No, not all the golf:

…But one thing good is that you’re writing again… Stick to it and show me something good before New Year. Try… to cut down the slang as much as possible..

Another paragraph of advice ensues, but, since I imagine that, after rolling skyward, Sassoon’s eyes would not alight on the page again until the next paragraph, I will skip thence:

Some unknown friend has sent me the Loom of Youth: what an amazing book! I’m going to find out if Alec’s poetry is as good as his prose: he must be a wonder boy: he is I believe old Gosse’s nephew…

Sassoon has, presumably, heard about this book from Owen–although it is also possible that Owen would be unwilling, this early in their friendship, to emphasize the ground-breaking subject matter. But that would only be a sort of false irony: Graves, despite his own schoolboy crush (and later enthusiasm for the scandal-courting properties of writing about adolescent homosexuality), is about to embark on an exclusively heterosexual odyssey. If we were to assign labels–an unsatisfactory business at best–he is straight while Waugh, Sassoon, and Owen are, at least at this point in their lives, gay. In any event, Loom of Youth has clearly undercut Mr. Britling as the book of the moment…

Graves’s letter ends in bathos:

Robert Nichols will write to you for my proofs when you’re done. I have been all the week with a travelling medical board, as military representative, and have watched the fat old doctors passing the twisted weedy old syphilitics up from C3 into A: my only duty an occasional signature.

Tired. Goodbye.

Best love,

Robert[1]

 

By coincidence, we now begin a short period covered by a travel diary kept by Eddie Marsh, who has been Sassoon’s friend and advisor since before the war (he has also been of great help to Graves and to Isaac Rosenberg) as well as the essential organizer of both Georgian Poetry and semi-clandestine gay literary London society. He is also the private secretary to Winston Churchill–or had been, until Churchill’s ousting in late 1916. But Winston is back, baby, and so is Eddie:

‘…all my glory extinct,’ I served for the better part of a year in the West African Department (of the Colonial Office). But at last ‘came the dawn.’ My telephone rang, and it was Winston, announcing that Lloyd George had offered him the Ministry of Munitions, and would I come along? I went along.

It was delightful to be with him again…

The diary, which Marsh will later print “as a period piece,” shows an experienced public servant enjoying the ministerial life once more–and seeing the war with his own eyes for the first time in several years.

Sept. 13, 1917.

Crossed from Dover to Calais in the ‘P.11,’ starting soon after 9.30 and taking an hour. It was a perfect day and the
smoothest possible passage. We passed minesweepers, troopships, and several naval craft. The young Lt. whom I
talked to told me that the ship had lately got two ‘probables’ for destruction of submarines…

Later in the day, near Wytschaete Ridge, which had been reported “quiet,” Churchill, Marsh, and their escorts come come under fire–or a nearby battery does–from German shells.

Columns of smoke rose from the ground, 60-100 yards from us, and bits of shell fell quite close—5 or 6 yards off–while all the time our own shells were whistling and shrieking over our heads.

I was rather surprised at not feeling the least frightened—the only thing was that I was a tiny bit self-conscious, and perhaps a little unnecessarily anxious to keep up the conversation for fear the others should think I was rattled! The
landscape was extraordinary. There was a sudden line of demarcation between the fertile wooded country we had been driving through, and a tract of land where there was nothing but the black naked trunks of trees, with all their branches broken off short. The ground was practically all shell-holes, filled with water, and their edges all grown over already with vegetation, mostly a vigorous plant with flowers composed of masses of pink buds, which I happen to know is called persicaria…

Winston lent me his excellent field-glasses, through which I could see the emplacement of the Boche lines, about 3000 yards off in the plain—and several towns, including the utter ruin of Ypres, where I could make out no trace of the Cloth Hall or of the Cathedral.

Later, after a detour to see one of the Messines craters, they arrive at their first destination: Haig’s headquarters.

G.H.Q, is an ugly modern chateau, in nice green grounds with a pond and a little river. Sir Douglas doesn’t ‘do himself’ so well as Lord French did, when we stayed with him at St. Omer. There is no champagne here, the house is very cold, and the rear doesn’t lock![2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 83-4.
  2. A Number of People, 250-4.

The Black Chair of Hedd Wyn; Wilfred Owen’s Forbidden Verses; Love, Poetry, and a Neat Picturesque Writer

It is relatively rare that we can identify a particular day on which a dead man became a legend. But for Hedd Wyn, surely, it was today, a century back, when the winning bard at the Welsh National Eisteddfod was due to be chaired. Ellis Evans had won several local chairs during his lifetime, but nothing came close to the prestige of the national competition. This account is from the The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard:

In the afternoon meeting was to come the ceremony of chairing the bard. There was a hushed premonition in the circles round the stage that this beautiful and ancient ceremony was not to take place; and, after the reading of the adjudication by Mr. Gwyn Jones, the nom-de-plume of “Fleur-de-lys” was called out as that of the winner. In dead silence it was announced that the successful poet was “Hedd Wyn,” the shepherd-poet from Trawsfynydd, Merionethshire, but that he lay in a quiet grave somewhere in France. No words can adequately describe the wave of emotion that swept over the vast audience when the chair was draped with the symbols of mourning…

The Black Chair–carved, as it happens, by a Flemish refugee–will be brought back to Trawsfynydd, a belated cortege for the bard whose body was unceremoniously buried alongside his comrades. And there it remains, a once and now-recently-refurbished place of pilgrimage for readers of Welsh poetry.

 

By an odd coincidence, the rest of our writers, today, are also concerned with poetry–the poetry of one particular Englishman who was an officer of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (headquartered in Caernarfon, not all that far from Trawsfynydd). But the reviews on Siegfried Sassoon today are… mixed.

Wilfred Owen, of course, is a fan. But in another long letter to his mother reporting on his increasingly lively Edinburgh-based social life, there are many anecdotes to get through before we reach Sassoon. Expecting to be called on the carpet for a late night last night, Owen was instead told that he was expected to lunch with an Edinburgh philanthropist.

…So I went to lunch at their palatial house with two maiden sisters. The Misses Wyer. One of them took me over the Gardens and I gave my opinions and views… I went back to a marvellous pleasant Tea with the other Lady, who has travelled far and wide over the continents and the literatures. Then in sailed an enormous old lady of
the type of old lady I have but once or twice met—outside Thackeray—intellectual, witty, vigorous: told some good stories and eat a huge tea; an admirer of Alec Waugh’s book Loom of Youth!

This is fairly remarkable, actually. The Loom of Youth was currently experiencing a succès de scandale, a century back: a Public School memoir written while the author was still a teenager (not long after his expulsion from its thinly-concealed setting), it referred openly to love affairs between schoolboys. (This would have interested Owen, although it’s not clear from the letter–nor would it be, of course–that he knew this fact about the book). In an irony that might not surprise us, by now, Alec Waugh is currently an infantry subaltern in the Salient.[1]

Owen now turns to the master at hand:

But tonight Sassoon called me in to him; and having condemned some of my poems, amended others, and rejoiced over a few, he read me his very last works, which are superb beyond anything in his Book. Last night he wrote a piece which is the most exquisitely painful war poem of any language or time.[2] I don’t tell him so, or that I am not worthy to light his pipe. I simply sit tight and tell him where I think he goes wrong. He is going to alter one passage of this very poem for me.

No wonder I was happy last night, and that tonight I must get it off my chest before I sleep.

I realize that I promised a Sassoon Divergence, only to include other bits of Owen’s letter, but bear with me! The plot thickens here. After a paragraph on a completely different topic–the doings of the Field Club–Owen asks something of his mother. But is this motivated more by Sassoon’s interest or, just possibly, by Waugh?

…Will you do a sacred task for me? Wrench open the Cupboard of my Desk and withdraw from the top-shelf right-hand side, three port-folios—two are khaki, one is Harold’s gilt-stencilled velvet blotter. Upon your unimpeachable honour do not inspect the contents either of the cupboard or of the portfolios. But promptly pack off the portfolios under secure wrappings and plain address. I don’t care if you damage the cupboard-door. But don’t damage the hinges of your mind by wrenching the secrets of my portfolios. This sounds mysterious; but I am serious. Some of these verses will light my cigarettes, but one or two may light the darkness of the world. It is not a question of wheat and chaff, but of devils and angels. . . .[3]

And there the editor[4] notes, with maddeningly prim precision, that “we have omitted seventeen words.” It’s hard not to suspect that these bore on something that might have been deemed more profoundly embarrassing than mere poetic juvenilia. Or, rather, something in the subject matter of those poems seems likely to have been alluded to already…

Was it learning about Waugh’s book? Or is it in some way connected to Owen’s feelings for Sassoon? Or am I busy buttressing mole-hills for future development, while Owen has merely said something about his early writings that might rub a family member the wrong way (and allow some drama to creep into the published letters at the same time)?

 

Who knows? But if Ivor Gurney‘s opinions are to carry the day, it’s a good thing that Siegfried Sassoon has found this new gig inspiring other poets to renovate their style…

My Dear Friend:

…Do not copy any more Sassoon please; I have absorbed him. He is a neat picturesque interesting writer who occasionally reaches poetry…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. His thirteen-year-old brother Evelyn is, much to his irritation, now in school at Lancing College, since Sherborne School, the traditional family destination, had not only expelled his Alec for homosexual activity but was now outraged by the novel.
  2. A note suggests that this was "Dreamers," but if that were published in the Sept. 1st The Hydra then this must have been something else.
  3. Collected Letters, 491-2.
  4. Owen's brother Harold, generally an untrustworthy and censorious presence.
  5. War Letters, 195-6. This letter, posted on the 9th, seems to have been written on or before today, a century back, since a post-script is dated September 7th.

The Eve of Battle, and Other Matters: Alfred Hale Abandoned to His Fate; Siegfried Sassoon Has His Day in the House; Wilfred Owen Regales His Mother; Isaac Rosenberg a Georgian at Last; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard in the Salient at the Stroke of Midnight

It’s the eve of battle–the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, first phase of Third Ypres, to be precise–and we are all over the place.

First, and least relevant to the coming battle, Alfred Hale received a remarkable letter from his father today, a century back:

I saw Colonel Crommelin this morning, and he told me that he had written to your CO and that the answer was “not very satisfactory… It will depend very much upon yourself, i.e., “whether you show alertness and keeness in your work” which might be a reason for giving you a step upwards. Colonel Crommelin added… that commissions are reserved for those who have done something to earn them, such as having been out at the front, and who show capability. I spoke to him about the cook and his ways, and he said that this kind of thing is always the case, and that the only thing to do is to use considerable tact with people of that sort. This is just what an educated man can do.

Incredibly, Hale’s father (his son, Alfred, is, again, forty-one years old) has been to a recruiting colonel and both asked for a commission for his son and complained that Alfred was being bullied by a cook…  And the italicized emphasis is mine– Hale, because I read him in Fussell, first, usually looms large as a sort of comic anti-hero, an oblivious Tramp or an Edwardian Gentleman Good Soldier Švejk. But at times like this it is perhaps well to be reminded how monumentally clueless and self-centered he is: his father, after failing to belatedly use influence to advance his career, must remind him that experience and competence are also frequently considered in matters concerning sudden change of status that skip a man ahead of a few million of his countrymen.

The letter goes on to state that even though Hale, the younger, is no good as a batman, he should probably stick to the work, as the only alternative is indoor clerical work “and I doubt if that would suit you.” Even more incredibly, Hale takes this letter promptly to his own officer, whose exasperation was no doubt heavily ameliorated with an admixture of baffled bemusement…[1]

 

And while father has paid a call on behalf of Alfred, Mother has at last been to visit Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart War Hospital. And he is doing very well: not only is he making progress on his classical allegory Antaeus, but today he gave a lecture to the Field Club–entitled “Do Plants Think?” (which sounds remarkably modern but was in fact–or was also–eminently Victorian)–and he has now taken up the editorship of the next issue of The Hydra, the hospital’s well-funded literary magazine.

Monday, 30 July 1917, 11 p.m.

My own dear Mother,

The Lecture was a huge success, & went on till 10.20!! At least I was answering cross-questions until that time…

I have only once since getting through the Barrage at Feyet felt such exultation as when winding up to my peroration tonight…

The ‘only once’ was when I saw you gliding up to me, veiled in azure, at the Caledonian. I thought you looked very very beautiful and well, through the veil, and especially on the night of the concert. But without the veil I saw better the supremer beauty of the ashes of all your Sacrifices: for Father, for me, and for all of us…

This is the point where a commentator feels some pressure to acknowledge the unusual fulsomeness of the prose here, and the peculiar intensity of Owen’s regard for his mother. A traditional–and surely misguided and oversimplified–response is to place the relationship in the context of Owen’s homosexuality (which is not openly revealed in his surviving letters, but is nonetheless a secure part of his historical identity, as such things go). It is undeniable that he was a much-loved, much doted-on, and promising eldest son who grew to repress his sexual feelings… but that is not a very nuanced description and doesn’t quite explain why the two would write and (presumably) enjoy reading such perfervid prose. It’s about style, in other words, and anything sexual is smothered well beneath, as under the overstuffed cushions of a horse-hair sofa…

The other thought that occurs to me is that this is like reading the letter that Marie Leighton would have loved to receive from her understandably standoffish son, but never will.

Which leads to an even more speculative thought: Owen, a station master’s son who never made it to University, is socially fortunate to ascend to the editorship of a journal that will be contributed to by men better-born and University-educated. Yes, it’s at a shell shock hospital, but it’s still a press and a budget and a readership. And isn’t this just where Roland might be, now, if he had lived?

This is a letter of parentheses. It is itself a parenthesis between my work. I must have the Magazine ready
by tomorrow morning.

Your own W.E.O.[2]

 

And speaking of well-connected men of private means who are writing letters from Craiglockhart War Hospital, here is Siegfried Sassoon, writing to Lady Ottoline Morrell. Is Sassoon being less than honest about how far his last two weeks have taken him from the pacifist resolution toward which she had encouraged him? And does he aim to please with a display of snobbery? Yes, yes he is, and yes he does.

My dear Ottoline,

I am quite all right and having a very decent time. Letters aren’t interfered with. It’s simply an opportunity for marking time and reading steadily…

There is just time (it’s a short letter) for some nasty remarks about other patients before he introduces the mentor who will come to supplant all previous ones:

My fellow-patients are 160 more or less dotty officers. A great many of them are degenerate-looking. A few genuine cases of shell-shock etc…

My doctor is a sensible man who doesn’t say anything silly. His name is Rivers; a notable Cambridge psychologist. But his arguments don’t make any impression on me. He doesn’t pretend that my nerves are wrong, but regards my attitude as abnormal. I don’t know how long he will go on trying to persuade me to modify views.

Yours ever,    S.S.

I have got lots of books, and go in to Edinburgh whenever I like.[3]

 

At around 7:00 the same evening that Sassoon was denying his savior in this letter to one of his sponsoring semi-disciples, the Labour M.P. Hastings Lees-Smith rose to read out Sassoon’s “Statement” to the House of Commons. He was answered by government ministers who made pointed references to the author’s current whereabouts…

As Sherston, Sassoon brushes off this episode with brittle attempts at humor, emphasizing the irrelevance of the proceedings without making it clear that his decision to accept his second medical board rendered his protest irrelevant. Graves had bluffed him by declaring that he might be involuntarily committed but never court martialed, and Sassoon had folded, handing the army a perfect defense against the charges in his statement: he was now a brave officer suffering from shell shock who had fallen into the clutches of unscrupulous operators on the left…[4]

 

Briefly, we also have Isaac Rosenberg, resuming his acquaintance with Eddie Marsh, his patron/friend and Sassoon’s friend/patron. Marsh may have had a hand in rescuing Sassoon, and now he will take a hand in elevating Rosenberg into one of the most important wartime poetic anthologies. I have just been discussing class and schooling… so it seems pointlessly cruel to abide by my usual practice of letting the editors’ decisions on correcting mistakes of punctuation and spelling stand. But consistency is its own reward…

My Dear Marsh

Im glad youve got your old job again and are Winston Churchills private sec. once more, though it will be a pity if it will interfere with your literary prjects. I thought that would happen when I heard hed become Minister of Munitions. I can immagine how busy you will be kept and if you still mean to go on with your memoir and G.P., you perhaps can immagine me, though of course ray work pretty much leaves my brain alone especially as I have a decent job now and am not so rushed and worked as I was in the trenches. I will be glad to be included in the Georgian Book, and hope your other work wont interfere with it.[5]

 

Another aspiring Georgian–more self-assured but less far along in personal poetic development–is Edmund Blunden, now just behind the front lines in the Salient, where he has received a package from home which included a novel and book of poems by Leigh Hunt. Late tonight he will take out his diary to record his thoughts, and give us century-back life writing to the very moment:

Heavy rain again for part of the day. . . . Since we have been in, we have been quite unlucky and have had between forty and fifty casualties. The weather looks none too promising–but perhaps ‘everything will come out in the wash’. . . . So far all quiet. But how these tunnels reek! I finish the page on the stroke of twelve, which brings on tomorrow.[6]

Thus Blunden in the moment. Like the War Diary of the 15th Royal Welsh, he matter-of-factly plays down a high toll in the skirmishing and bombardments that have preceded the assault. When he comes to write the memoir, however, there is much more attention to the collateral psychological damage, as well as to another cruel fact of the coming assault. Although it had been postponed for several days on the advice of a meteorologist, it will soon begin to rain steadily.

Nature tried her hand at a thunderstorm; then the last colourless afternoon arrived. Before that a number of our men had been killed, and all drenched and shaken. That afternoon I saw the miserable state of a little group of houses called La Brique, now the object of a dozen German guns, and, escaping death, I well understood the number of bodies lying there. Presently I stood with my friend Tice looking over the front parapet at the German line. Tice, though blue-chinned and heavy-eyed, showed his usual extreme attention to detail, identifying whatever points he could, and growing quite excited and joyful at the recognition of Kitchener’s Wood in the background. To-morrow morning———. The afternoon grew pale with cloud. Tice went along one trench and I along another, with some such absurd old familiarity as “See you in the morning, old boy.”[7]

 

Finally, and only a few miles away–for the nurses have won their way back to the forward abdominal hospital–Kate Luard is writing at precisely the same moment:

Monday, July 30th, midnight. Brandhoek. Cars came for us at 5 p.m. and here we are. By the time you get this it will be history for better or for worse… everything is organized and ready up to the brim… We have 33 Sisters altogether, and they are all tucked into their bell-tents with hankies tied on to the ropes of the first ones to be called…

The din is marvellous. Some Grandmothers (15-inch guns) on each side of us are splitting the air and rocking the huts… The illumination is brighter than any lightning: dazzling and beautiful. Their new blinding gas is known as mustard-oil gas; it burns your eyes–sounds jolly, doesn’t it?–and comes over in shells. I wonder how many hundreds or thousands have got only four more hours to live, and know it?[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 97-8.
  2. Collected Letters, 478-9.
  3. Diaries, 185.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 519.
  5. Collected Works, 318-9.
  6. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 76.
  7. Undertones of War, 169-170.
  8. Unknown Warriors, 132-3.

Robert Graves on Siegfried Sassoon’s Protest; A Day in the Life of Duff Cooper; Francis Ledwidge Begs a Bog-Flower; Alfred Hale’s Post-Box Dismay

It was today, a century back, that Siegfried Sassoon received a telegram ordering him to report to the Royal Welch Depot at Litherland, near Liverpool. Meanwhile, his friends conspire to knock him off his tentatively-pursued course toward political martyrdom. Robert Graves, now moving to escape his pleasant confinement on the Isle of Wight, wrote to Eddie Marsh:

12 July 1917
(In bed, 12 midnight)

My dear Eddie

What an excellent and sensible letter!

About Sassoon first. It’s an awful thing–completely mad–that he’s done. Such rotten luck on you and me and his friends, especially in the Regiment. They all think he’s mad: and they’d be prepared to hush it up if the Army Council don’t get to hear of the bomb shop incident, but I don’t think S.S. will let them hush it up.

Graves is never shy of speaking ill of his friends in letters to mutual friends, nor of foregrounding his own self-pity, but despite these words he is committed to saving his friend what he justifiably believes to be an action both futile and embarrassing. For once Graves’s penchant for unreflective action will provide the results he desires.

The ‘bomb shop,’ by the way is a pacifist bookshop in London now selling Sassoon’s statement in pamphlet form. But it has yet–I believe–to be widely disseminated, hence Graves’s hopes of nipping the protest in the bud.

I don’t know what on earth to do now. I’m not going to quarrel with Sassons… I think he’s quite right in his views but absolutely wrong in his action… I’m a sound militarist in action however much of a pacifist in thought. In theory the War ought to stop tomorrow if not sooner. Actually we’ll have to go on while a rat or a dog remains to be enlisted…[1]

I only wish I’d known about S.S. in time: it would never have happened if I’d been there but I’ve not seen him since January…[2]

This, again, is both self-dramatizing on Graves’s part and highly likely (never mind the fact that the ridiculous “militarist in action/pacifist in thought” statement is no improvement on Sassoon’s quandary). When Sassoon is with his hunting friends, he hunts, and thinks little of politics or poetry. When he is with poets, he writes, and when he is with soldiers he fights. Alone, dispirited, and seeing little of his officer-peers and much of the older, socially and/or intellectually impressive pacifists, he has written a tract.

 

It is very much 1917, now. But not for everyone. How does the war look from the point of view of a new officer cadet? Duff Cooper takes pains today to record for posterity an ordinary day in the life:

This was really my first normal day here and as the others will probably be similar I will describe it. I got up at a quarter to six, before reveille and before anyone else in my room. Had a cold plunge, washed, shaved, and dressed. Breakfast roll call parade at five minutes to seven. Then breakfast and time after it to enjoy a swift cigar and a glance at The Times. Parade at 8.30–physical training which is very exhausting. Then a lecture, then more drill and musketry instruction. Lunch at 12:30. It amuses me at about 11:00 when the day seems half over to remember myself a little while ago sauntering down to the Foreign Office at this hour to begin my work–but it saddens me in the evening at about 8.30 when my beastly dinner is finished and there is nothing more to do, to think how at this hour in London I should be setting forth upon an evening’s pleasure.

Sure, but it ain’t exactly the trenches.

To go on with my day–lunch at 12.30, a cup of coffee in the canteen afterwards to take away the taste of lunch. Then at 1.45 the most exhausting and unpleasant parade of the day under the broiling sun–company drill. Then lectures… Just time after tennis to write to Diana before the post goes and to have a hot bath before dinner. The evenings are the times I feel depressed and long for good food and wine and pleasure and beautiful women…[3]

Ingenuous Duff! Yes, drill in the hot sun sounds unpleasant. And perhaps a cigar and the paper, and two baths, and three meals (however substandard) are all not much to crow about… but tennis! It seems like an invitation to mock the travails of officer cadets. It’s not–it’s an honest man’s diary… but still. There is no regimen of truly bad food and agonizingly hard drill that leaves men choosing to play tennis at the end of the day…

 

And then there’s that lost life of food, wine, and that one woman. But it’s only been about three weeks since Cooper saw Diana Manning.

For Francis Ledwidge, it has been about two years since the love of his life, Ellie Vaughey, died. “His” Ellie had already spurned him to marry another–an act which may have contributed to his decision to enlist–but her death shortly thereafter somehow brought the loss home to Ledwidge, causing him to break off a blooming new relationship with Lizzie Healy. So it has been two years, more or less, for the poet without much thought of love.

Today, a century back, after a long silence, Ledwidge decided to write to Lizzie again. Is it because hope is in his heart this summer, or is it because battle looms again? A foolish question… soldiers’ minds rarely believe in separating the two strains of feeling…

You will be surprised to hear from me again after a silence neatly three years long. The reason I write is because I have been dreaming about you and it has made me rather anxious. I sincerely hope that nothing troubles you in body or soul.

It must be quite beautiful on the bog now. How happy you are to be living in peace and quietude where birds still sing and the country wears her confirmation dress. Out here the land is broken up by shells and the woods are like skeletons and when you come to a little town it is only to find poor homeless people lamenting over what was once a cheery home. As I write this a big battle is raging on my left hand and if it extends to this part of the line I will be pulling triggers like a man gone mad.

Please, dear Lizzie, send me a flower from the bog, plucked specially for me. I may be home again soon. In fact I am only waiting to be called home. God send it soon.[4]

 

And finally, today–although I suspect that my fascination with Alfred Hale is not shared by many readers–one amazing little detail that adds a quirky grace note to today’s tales of a privileged, disgruntled early volunteer, a privileged latecomer to the military life, and a working-class soldier long in the ranks.

Hale is a man in his forties, belatedly conscripted and now very belatedly hoping to be rescued from the ranks by means of an unlikely special commission.

How? Well, he hopes his parents will obtain one for him.

From whom? The chief of the boy scouts, naturally:

12 July: Letter from my mother. Sir Robert Baden-Powell had taken no notice of appeal for help from my father in getting me a commission. How I watched the post every day just then…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This letter also mentions the "worst possible news about my friend Peter." This would Peter Johnstone, with whom Graves was--or had been--infatuated at Charterhouse. Unintentionally or not, Graves muddies the waters with his account of the incident in Good-Bye to All That, seeming to conflate a 1915 revelation about Peter's alleged homosexual activity with today's bad news that he had been charged with soliciting a soldier. Being a well-connected young man--the grandson of an Earl--Johnstone was remanded to a doctor's care rather than to prison. On which more later...
  2. In Broken Images, 77-8. See also R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 177-9.
  3. Diaries, 56-7.
  4. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 184-5.
  5. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 96.