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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

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

 

And what of the ongoing war?

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Saturday, 1st December

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

Ivor Gurney is Back in Harness; Rowland Feilding’s Connaught Rangers Confess; Sapper Martin in Lombardy

We have another day of minor movements, today, as three of our writers look ahead to coming things.

Ivor Gurney, writing to Herbert Howells today, a century back, is making ready to leave the hospital. His touch of gas–and touch on the keyboard–have kept him out of the fray long enough to miss the rest of the year’s fighting. And to see his book in print…

17 November 1917

My Dear Howells…

Well; here am I, back in harness, and hot to be sent to Command Depot. (Dear old Army!) The notices of my book were out yesterday, and you will probably receive one soon. Could you collar the Morning Post reviews anywhere? The New Statesman? New Age? Nation? Possibly you might see one lying about and collar the bit. It is a crime, but here excusable, I think…

Pte Gurney I.B. 24I28I
B Co
4th Reserve Battallion T.F.
Gloucester Regiment
Seaton Delaval
Northumberland

(Hear, hear!)
So write sometime.

A horrid rumour has reached me that we shall get our embarkation leave next Thursday and be off on the next draft. If so, I shall apply for a commission, just after the 6 days. (Shudders of surprise after) Farwell. Au Revoir. Auf Wiedesehn. Goodbye:

Yours ever I.B.G.[1]

So Gurney is in high spirits–and contemplating a commission. Most of the reviews are not yet out, but they will be generally favorable. As for that commission, well, we shall see…

 

Sapper Jack Martin‘s diary has, over the last few days, begun the most interesting account I’ve read of a new and sideways movement: a body of British troops moves neither up the line nor west toward rest or blighty, but south and east,  to Italy. His long train had whisked the battalion from the mud and misery of Northern France to the pleasant autumn of the Riviera over several days, and then, two evenings ago, a century back, they had crossed into Italy.

Yesterday was a day of food-related misunderstandings, with gifts of jam and nuts and fruit going back and forth and a search for familiar sorts of bread. There is a swift resorting to stiff English stereotypes, as Martin decides that the soil is “too fertile,” which leads the men to be deplorably lazy. He is impressed, however, with the industry of the women-folk and the cleanliness of the houses, and there is an interesting comment tacked on to the end of a predictable description of the English soldiers clowning around by adding vowels to the end of all of their words in order to “speak Italian:”

They couldn’t understand any hilarity amongst men going to war. This particular type of wonderment we found all the way along the march. It has been said that an Englishman takes his pleasures sadly, but it should also be remarked that he can take the serious business of life jocularly.[2]

Today, a century back, they left the rails at Asola, in Lombardy, and began a long march which Martin will describe as “in the nature of an Elizabethan progress.” Marching through a marketplace of enthusiastic Italians, past their Brigadier, who took their salute from his hotel balcony, they marched 17 1/2 miles, the first few accompanied by “crowds of children.” They will have sore feet, after their long train journey–but they also have white Italian bread, and “sausages and potatoes in a Trattoria outside the billet.” Which sounds a great deal better than bully beef or a wan omelet in an Estaminet–but perhaps that is my own prejudice, or the stale palate or long (literary) familiarity with the British soldier’s French diet.[3]

 

And then there’s France, where the Somme region will not be quiet for much longer. Rowland Feilding will write of tonight, a century back, that “the whole battalion flocked to confession” in a converted barn in Ervillers. They did so because the orders had been given to pack up and prepare for a march to the front, first thing tomorrow morning.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 230-1.
  2. This observation seems to have been added at a later date.
  3. Sapper Martin, 129-35.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 226.

Lord Dunsany Gets Off with a Scratch–and a Jab; Patrick Shaw Stewart Thinks Big; Doctor Rivers Departs, and Just Possibly Worries About Sassoon’s Soul

Lord Dunsany‘s follow-up explains yesterday’s profuse profession: It didn’t end up being a “last letter”–but he had reason to think it might have been. In an envelope marked “Fit and Well,” Dunsany hastens to explain himself:

My Darling Mink,

It is your bad luck to get flattering expressions of devotion from me when I see something bad ahead as I thought I did last night. However, nothing bad came, though I am sick of this square peg in a round hole business, which is good for neither. I am excused all duty for forty-eight hours at least and I write this far enough from the Boche. I did not go sick but I started talking to an officer of the R.A.M.C., and before I knew where I was one of his orderlies had innoculated me in the chest with anti-tetanus serum which I enjoyed so much last time. I don’t know why unless that while crawling about I had stepped with my left hand into a coil of old barbed wire (British).

Every your loving,

Pony[1]

So Lord Dunsany has been on either a dangerous patrol or a raid–and all is not as well with his battalion as it recently seemed to be… but he had survived, and with nothing worse than illness, a cut hand, and a needle-jabbed chest. Not something, perhaps, for a young soldier who’s an old soldier to write home about, but Dunsany, though he is nearly forty, has seen little front-line action so far, and so he did indeed write home. Which says more about the Dunsany’s marriage than anything I’ve read yet.

 

Speaking of younger old soldiers, Patrick Shaw Stewart is once again a battalion commander. Which he jokes about in writing to Ronald Knox:

Meanwhile, Oc Asquith has gone on leave and left me in command, by Jove! No nonsense from the junior officers, I can tell you. My first action was to put myself in for immediate promotion to Lieutenant-Commander, sound, don’t you think? My second, to place a man who has just arrived from spending three years in England, more or less, and who is senior, not only to all my company commanders, but to myself, handsomely—to place him, I say, second in command of a company.[2]

That first bit must be a joke… but the second probably isn’t. It’s all upside down in France nowadays…

 

Thirdly, finally, and even more off-kilter, today, a century back was Doctor Rivers’s last day at Craiglockhart. If, that is, Pat Barker’s date-in-a-novel is correct. Then again, even if this was indeed his last day, the novel indulges in some minor fudging of dates, keeping Sassoon around for a last talk with his mentor and father-figure-hero when he was in fact on his way to London for a leave-between-the-Medical-Boards. This provides an opportunity, in the novel, for a last talk between hero doctor and poet patient, in which they discuss Lady Ottoline’s recent visit. Rivers, who will return for Sassoon’s Medical Board (as well he might, considering what happened last time) sees in Sassoon’s bitter summary of his discussion with Morrell less an insight about his sexuality (Barker assumes, quite logically, that Sassoon’s homosexuality was no secret from Rivers) than a new worry, namely that Sassoon’s “peace” with the war has left him dead inside:

…perhaps he’d just given up hope. At the back of Rivers’s mind was the fear that Craiglockhart had done to Sassoon what the Somme and Arras had failed to do. And if that were so, he couldn’t escape responsibility.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147-8.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 203.
  3. Regeneration, 220-1.

Rowland Feilding on Sniping and Humor; Wilfred Owen’s Sunday Out

A quiet day of it, today, with just two brief updates. First, Rowland Feilding reports to his wife on the war of attrition in a quiet sector of the Somme.

My young sniping officer tells me he had a shot this morning, but his would-be victim signalled a “miss,” raising and lowering a stick above the parapet. I have known them do this before with a shovel. Our enemy evidently has some humour in spite of what people say.

A dark and deadly sort of humor, and one clearly common among the front fighters of both sides, if not yet among their civilian populations. It’s almost, though, as if any lighter subject turns Feilding’s next thought home, where truly modern warfare–a return of something akin to “total warfare,” largely absent from Europe for centuries–is advancing all the time.

Life in London must be getting more and more deadly. I fear it is becoming daily, more and more, a struggle for existence. I hope you do not have to stand in the queues to get your sugar and tea, and I pray that you are not starving yourself.[1]

He also prays, surely, that the Zeppelins and the Gothas do not get her.

 

And for Wilfred Owen, life goes on–despite the ominous significance of his return to health, and despite his new status as a friend of not only Siegfried Sassoon but also Robert Graves. His latest letter to his mother has nothing whatsoever to do with them–or with poetry–really, but since it is a light day I’ll include the whole of the day’s description. This is a young man’s letter with rather too much in the way of fine phrasing (as Sassoon writes of Owen, somewhere)–but it shows Owen touchingly happy. He’s enjoying himself among his now-numerous local friends, with no thoughts of the trenches, either those behind or those ahead.

Sunday, 21 October 1917 Craiglockhart

My dearest Mother,

It was a puzzle and a mystery to many, the party of six that assembled this afternoon at the Braid Hills Tram Terminus, and began a saunter into the Pentland Hills. People saw a married lady, an obviously unmarried young man in a reckless soft-cap, a well-dressed boy with violet eyes and tie, (wonder where his mother learnt that?) an ill-dressed thin boy, with an intellect behind his parchment forehead; a fat little knave apparently with a large apple stowed under each cheek in case of emergency; and a tall awkward boy, very nervous of himself. What spirit drove us together? The spirit of Stevenson it was; and he was with us at his gayest all the time.

He caused the finest wind the Pentlands can produce to come and play with us; and October spared us the last of her sun-remnants. When we beheld the Cottage to good advantage, we sat in the lee of a haystack and ate sandwiches. We then sang songs, and told tales, every now and then leaping about and prancing for joy.

It was already darkening when we reached Colinton and had tea, and quite dark when we took the Edinburgh road; and so we took it in good style with songs and dancing, whistling and holloing. Until the meteors showered in heaven; and we fell calm under the winter stars, and some of us saw the pale pathway of the Spirits for the first time.

And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so firm beneath us, we worshipped God in our hearts; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.

That was my way of spending Sunday.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 217.
  2. Collected Letters, 502.

E.A. Mackintosh to Sylvia, Diana Manners to Duff, Olaf Stapledon to Agnes

We have a strange trio, today: three pieces each addressed to objects of affection, but otherwise most unlike each other in both form and content.

We don’t hear from E.A. Mackintosh all that often, and he has been for many months now living a quiet life training cadets in Cambridge. But today, a century back, he bridges recent poems we’ve seen from Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon, writing of–and to–a young woman he met in Cambridge, and also of the dead men he left behind.

 

To Sylvia

Two months ago the skies were blue,
The fields were fresh and green,
And green the willow tree stood up,
With the lazy stream between.Two months ago we sat and watched
The river drifting by–
And now—you’re back at your work again
And here in a ditch I lie.

God knows—my dear—I did not want
To rise and leave you so,
But the dead men’s hands were beckoning
And I knew that I must go.

The dead men’s eyes were watching, lass,
Their lips were asking too,
We faced it out and payed the price–
Are we betrayed by you?

The days are long between, dear lass,
Before we meet again,
Long days of mud and work for me,
For you long care and pain.

But you’ll forgive me yet, my dear,
Because of what you know,
I can look my dead friends in the face
As I couldn’t two months ago.

October 20th, 1917

There are plenty of poetic contexts in which the dead speak–the ancient epics would be incomplete without their ghost scenes, and Paul Fussell reminds us that Thomas Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance anticipated this sort of war writing with many poems in which the dead pose ironic questions of the living–but this is still uncannily close to Sassoon’s most recent poem. It’s a literary device, sure, but it’s also something like a collective hallucination–a repressed, British, literary version of trauma-induced mass hysteria. I overstate for effect, of course, but after all, so do the poems: neither Mackintosh nor Sassoon are literally hearing voices, but they dwell on the thoughts of dead men, and seem compelled to write about them, and to be drawn back to danger by an impossible wish for fellowship with the dead.

 

Diana Manners is also thinking of dead men, and of another man who is not far now from going out and discovering “Death’s plans.” She writes to Duff Cooper, still training in England:

Arlington Street 20 October

I am so sad about poor “Lucky Pixley” and for the first time in my life a little remorseful that I wasn’t nicer and didn’t come up from Chirk two days earlier though he begged me to. If only one happened to know Death’s plans…

For the time being she will simply have to continue defying them by demonstrating sang froid during air raid warnings:

Last night just as I was starting for Edwin and Alan’s farewell (they leave tomorrow for India) and Maud Cunard was in the hall to fetch me, the raid warning was given. Till 9.30 I argued with Her Grace. I had no case save that the guns had not begun — a poor one for they didn’t begin even when Piccadilly Circus was demolished and a knot of the proletariat killed, not even when the élite, represented by General Lowther, had his hat blown off.

Amusing–as she intends it to be. But Manners drops any mask in the next bit of the letter, writing openly of the grim psychological state of two of their mutual friends.

I got away in the end and found myself between Alan and Edwin, the latter divine, in the mood of the doomed, speaking bravely enough of his thankfulness for two Heaven-given years with his wife, of his reliance on me to look after her widowhood, and of several significant omens that signalled his approaching death. His fear has been quelled by complete resignation. Alan was little better — ashy-white with an unshakeable belief that he would be left to die at Aden. . . . After dinner I talked to Winston a great deal about you.[1]

 

Finally, today, a sort of frozen omen, in the shape of a very different letter-from-a-fiancé. Olaf Stapledon, separated from her by half the world, will not know for weeks that his beloved Agnes has been writing letters that hint at growing despair that their long engagement will ever come to anything. Olaf, all unknowing, writes to her of the earnest educational activities he is undertaking whenever his ambulance work allows him free time.

SSA 13
20 October 1917

. . . I am busy at present, what with the ordinary run of work plus various educational enterprises on the convoy, plus a sudden keen literary fever, plus the building of a new shell-proof dugout (great fun) plus a football match this afternoon, plus a car that has got some indeterminable disease that gives me a lot of trouble. The educational enterprises are Tindle’s occasional essays (the last on “Past & Present”), & a small industrial history class consisting of “Sparrow,” the quaint old bird, “Gertie,” the second cook and formerly a printer, and one Evans, a rather pharisaical but genial young journalist who was once second cook but is now our orderly. That little class is great fun. We talk about the Roman bath, the British village and the Saxon homestead, from which you may gather that we have only just begun. I draw wildly inaccurate maps & charts for them, and illustrate with sketches of ancient British coins etc., and they comment, question, and are made to expound what they have read; also they write essays & we criticise them all together…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Autobiography, 158.
  2. Talking Across the World, 253.

Siegfried Sassoon Will Return to France, But Not Acquiesce; Edmund Blunden Bestrides the Becrumped Duckwalks of Ypres

Siegfried Sassoon was not in the best of moods when Robert Graves recently came to visit. He was reminded, surely, of Graves’s role in sending him to Craiglockhart, and irritated by how easy Graves has found it to make his peace with the war, as it were. But the friendship endures, and is sustained by another, now:

19 October, Craiglockhart

Dearest Robert, I am so glad you like Owen’s poem. I will tell him to send you on any decent stuff he does. His work is very unequal, and you can help him a great deal.

Seeing you again has made me more restless than ever. My position here is nearly unbearable, and the feeling of isolation makes me feel rotten. I had a long letter from Cotterill to-day. They had just got back to rest from Polygon Wood and he says the conditions and general situation are more bloody than anything he has yet seen. Three miles of morasses, shell-holes and dead men and horses through which to get the rations up. I should like the people who write leading articles for the Morning Post (about victory) to read his letter.

This letter from Cotterill may have undercut the last of Sassoon’s resistance to returning to active service, but Sassoon has clearly been nearly ready to find a way to come in from the cold. In any case, even old Joe Cotterill, the quartermaster of the 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, has scant influence on Sassoon compared to the man he sees daily, respects most of anyone, and can only not disappoint by giving up his protest:

I have told Rivers that I will go back to France, if they will send me (making it quite clear that my views are exactly the same as in July—only more so).

This is at once wishful thinking and specious logic. Sassoon–a man hopelessly unable to either outwit or out-muscle the ponderous bureaucracy of the war–is writing to the very friend most instrumental in having helped that bureaucracy shuffle him neatly aside, and yet he is imagining that he can both keep his opinions and negotiate the terms of his return. It takes a strange form of bullheadedness to refuse to understand the official illogic of a system whose callous officiousness one had previously protested:

They will have to give me a written guarantee that I shall be sent back at once. I don’t quite understand how it is that Rivers can do nothing but pass me for General Service as he says, because I am in the same condition as I was three months ago, and if I am fit for General Service now, I was fit then.

This is, again, strangely obtuse coming from a man with such a gift for viciously exposing official hypocrisy. Sassoon loves Rivers and hates the War Office, but he doesn’t imagine that just because the War Office cynically sent a more-or-less healthy protester to a hospital, a doctor in its employ won’t sacrifice his own integrity… but I took him to task over this only two days ago.

This next line should be taken, I think, as a joke, on Rivers’s part. (That, in any event, is how Pat Barker plays it.)

He says I’ve got a very strong ‘anti-war’ complex, whatever that means. I should like the opinion of a first-class ‘alienist’ or whatever they call the blokes who decide if people are dotty. However we shall see what they say. Personally I would rather be anywhere than here.

Sassoon realizes–at least on a slightly subconscious level–that he has lost the fight over making his own mental state relevant to his opinions. And so his mind returns to the trenches.

It’s too b….y to think of poor old Joe lying out all night in shell-holes and being shelled (several of the ration-party
were killed) but, as he says, ‘the Battalion got their rations’. What a man he is.

And as for Graves? Is Graves a real man? Sassoon pulls no punches, here:

O Robert, what ever will happen to end the war? It’s all very well for you to talk about ‘good form; and acting like a  ‘gentleman’. To me that’s a very estimable form of suicidal stupidity and credulity. You admit that the people who sacrifice the troops are callous b….rs, and the same thing is happening in all countries (except some of Russia). If you had real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce as you do.

Yours ever Sassons[1]

Is it sadness and confusion or sheer effrontery to end a letter that contained the news of his decision to abandon his protest with an attack on his friend for his own acquiescence?

 

And speaking of the trenches, Edmund Blunden and his 11th Royal Sussex left them tonight, a century back. It’s been a (short) while since we’ve had a harrowing, flare-smeared Ypres night relief:

But as yet we are not relieved. The most dangerous moment of the tour is to come. Upon the arrival of the “guides,” there was the usual process of sorting one another out by company headquarters, and some mistake led to a certain amount of noise. The moment was when my company was halting in the open, near Hunwater Dugout. At once the Germans fired so many illuminants that the ground with its pools was like a jeweller’s shop; I shouted to my anxious men to stand fast, but one or two were new or nervous, and ducked or moved on; then the enemy’s machine guns played, the informing white lights multiplied, were repeated farther off; red lights, bursting into two like cherries on a stalk, went up by the dozen. There seemed now no doubt that a box barrage of the highest quality would come down on us, and my skin felt in the act of shrivelling. To our amazement, the German guns held their peace; the streaming bullets raced over a little longer, then slackened, and we went with sober minds on our way. It seemed a long way, as all night journeys in the Salient did, but we knew we had been lucky this time, and as we picked our way between the roaring batteries and the greasy roadside wreckage, we rejoiced. Finally a number of short leafy trees in the mist showed that we were on the borders of life again; it was Voormezeele, and our camp was at hand — Boys Camp. A hot meal awaited all, and I suppose the surviving officers still reckon that night’s roast pork in the flapping, icy marquee as particularly notable among Quartermaster Swain’s many capital performances…[2]

A few days hence, Blunden will craft a comic version of the horrors of this tour in one of his schoolboy-baroque letters to Hector Buck. If we skip some of the more toweringly referential sentences (not to mention the cricket bits), there is a nice bit of purple-prosey description of night work with the battalion:

…The tents flap wildly in the teeth of the nor’easter, the mud stretches unimaginably that way and this, stolchy and skin-deep; the too thoughtful foeman tries to vary our dull existence with bombing beanos when the raspberry-coloured moon ariseth…

we string along the becrumped duckwalks in a darkness that may be felt, a remnant manages to find its way up to the foremost shellholes and lies down in them. The previous tenants quit as fast as the sludge will allow… meantime the scorbutic Blunden is crawling around trying to find the ruins of Potiphar Farm or Usedtobe Castle in order to get his correct dispositions back to a Fuming and nail-nibbling C.O. Ruins are not, so he falls back on lesser symptoms of bygone villages; such as a contortion of metal which proves a Brewery lost…

At last he sees that there is nothing for it except compass bearings so he drops his compass into one or two pools of water and goes back to Company HQ. This place is usually an old Bosch pillbox with the typical Bosch smell and a large doorway facing right towards the Bosch gunners, machine-gunners, minnymen, snipers, and whatso else there be that crump, zonk, bump, plonk, or in any other way soever worry, annoy, or badger the nonchalant Englishmen. But mark you, there is no means of getting into the dugout except this doorway, screened though it be with two or three ground sheets and some German equipment: and once inside, the unguarded foot suddenly falls lovingly into about 18 inches of Hunwater, with noisome bubbles winking at the brim…

And with the shells comes an amusingly over-the-top parody of bureaucratic “Bumf.”

The arrival of a muster of 5.9’s just outside the door causes the last drain of whisky to jolt off the pro-table and vanish for ever in the seething depths. And then up comes some paper warfare – ‘You will submit a Raid Scheme’ or ‘s e c r e t. The Battalion will not be relieved for 25 years’ or ‘The 333rd course for intending Landscape Painters will assemble at Medicine Hat on the 1st April 1918. Coys, will detail 50 young & intelligent men each, with if possible some knowledge of wombat culture, gingernut-fancying and love cages, to report at Bn. HQ at 2 a.m. today. Rations for 1920 will be carried and the men will have a bath before they leave the front line.

(Sd) Napoleon Buonaparte
Lt, & A/Adjt 6 p.m.’[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 191-2.
  2. Undertones of War, 253-4.
  3. More Than a Brother, 13-14.

Rowland Feilding on Cleanliness and a Brilliant Corporal; David Jones (Re-)Draws Leave

Just two days ago, a century back, Rowland Feilding wrote to his wife about the new procedures for enlisted men going on leave. There is more attention now to cleanliness–which could be seen both as a sensible public health measure and a sort of propaganda of the body, a way to censor the physical condition of the men at the front as well as their words:

They are cleaned up and fitted with good clothes before they leave, so that they do not arrive at Victoria covered with the mud of the trenches. Each man, too, has to have a certificate that he is free from vermin; so I hope they arrive sufficiently pure and spick and span, though I am sure they cannot give half so much satisfaction in the streets of London as they would if they arrived muddy.

Today’s letter is what we might call a “reserve piece,” a pleasant discourse on the pleasures of life in the rear. And yet it’s of a piece with several of our recent posts from the Passchendaele trenches that emphasized the sanity-saving effects of humor. Feilding has discovered that a bombing corporal–“and a good one too”–is  also “a buffoon of a high order.” Lance-Corporal Pierpont is a clown and a contortionist, and, on this day of battalion sports, a goalkeeper of great repute (though notable more for his incessant working of the referee than for any particular skill on the goal line) but these skills seem to shade into something of a sorcerer’s powers:

Amongst other facilities which he possesses, or is believed to possess… is that of being able to judge exactly where a trench-mortar bomb is going to fall. His friends in his platoon collect around him when the German “rum-jars” are flying about, and he advises them what to do to dodge each one as he sees it coming through the air–signalling with his arms whether to move right or left along the trench, or to stand still.[1]

There is something remarkable about this combination of abilities: the magical corporal is a prodigy of body, wit, and will, and his influence over the minds of men–the referee, the laughing comrades–may extend even to missiles. But then again interpreting the sights and sounds of those terribly slow incoming mortar bombs can in fact be an art and a science rather than a more purely mystical art–it’s a very different claim than that of the charmed man who may be immune to bullets or whizz-bangs.

 

But back, now, to the lice…

Today, a century back, saw another of our enlisted poets go on leave. David Jones had actually been granted leave ten days ago, but he had refused it, knowing that his parents were just then moving house and not wanting “to spend his leave helping with unpacking and advising on the placement of furniture and the hanging the family pictures.” An “incredulous adjutant” and a helpful orderly-room sergeant arranged for Jones to swap places with one of the men in the next leave rotation, remarking that begging to have leave moved back was rather rare–and bad luck, in a superstitious world. But Jones survived his ten days of supererogatory duty and is now on his way to London. And, despite the precautions taken in Feilding’s battalion (not that the Royal Welch don’t also make efforts to fumigate their men) he is teeming with lice…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 213-4.
  2. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 167.

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.

A Raid on Potatoes; A Pair of Tales, and a Book of Poems, In Memoriam

Still recovering from the fighting around the Menin Road, we will back into October with the Second Royal Welch, who lost around a third of their strength–including 60 dead–during their recent, nearly officer-less spell in the line. But a few days away from the front can make a huge difference, and if wartime traumas make lifelong memories, then there is another sense in which psychological recoveries, however shallow, must be very brief.

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle recounts the march into reserve, praises the dead, and moves on into the light humor of reserve-area hijinks. This bit sure sounds like it could feature Frank Richards, but if he is the signaller in question he forebears to confess in his own memoir:

October 1st.–Two signallers making a midnight-raid on sacks of newly-dug potatoes were thwarted by the watchful, voluble, and scarcely placable farmer.[1]

 

Otherwise, things are quiet, but we will observe the rite of the “Month Poem” in slightly heterodox fashion. In addition to a single poem, we have first a tale–The Tale–then a whole book of poems, and then one plucked from another sheaf.

I mention “The Tale” only because it is nominally a war story, and because it is by the notable friend-and-collaborator-of-Ford-Madox-Hueffer Joseph Conrad. Set at sea in the early months of the war and published this month, a century back, it’s a sea story, really, a spooky tale of uncertainty and human darkness that borrows the backdrop of 1914 and shares–more, perhaps, than Conrad’s tales usually caught the popular currents–the mood of the fall of 1917..

 

And we have a book of poems. It is always so very difficult to follow the experiences of the bereaved more than a few days or weeks past the telegram that tells of the death of their husband or son or lover. For a while there are dates to be had from letters of condolence and such, but then, usually, nothing. Long grieving, without much to shape it, and a slog through remaining responsibilities; too little distance and calm, yet, to reflect and write about who and what has been lost. So we have heard little of the afterlife of Edward Thomas, and it will be years before Helen–or Eleanor, or Myfanwy–writes of him. But his friends have not been idle, and this month, a century back, his Poems will be published, almost all of them for the first time.

But I couldn’t pick one of those–Adlestrop, the Great English Poem; or Lob, or As the Team’s Head Brass, or even the handful of frank war poems. Thomas can’t really be reduced to one poem, or a handful–and besides, the whole corpus only makes for a few hours’ ruminative reading. They’re all there, at the link above, and elsewhere on the web, and in Edna Longley’s excellent editions–all except, of course, for the poems sprung from the observations and jotted images in his “War Diary” between January and April, which are not, because he did not live to write them.

 

So for one poem for this month, we’ll go to one of several written in hospital by Ivor Gurney–and there’s an unusual Conrad-in-Scotland feel, here, from our gentle Severnside poet:

 

Hospital Pictures. No. (l) Ulysses

A soldier looked at me with blue hawk-eyes.
With kindly glances sorrow had made wise
And talked till all I’d ever read in books
Melted to ashes in his burning looks.
And poets I’d despise and craft of pen.
If, while he told his coloured wander-tales
Of Glasgow, Ypres, sea mist, spouting whales,
(Alive past words of power of writing men)
My heart had not exulted in his brave
Air of the wild woodland and sea-wave.
Or if, with each new sentence from his tongue
My high-triumphing spirit had not sung
As in some April when the world was young.

Bangour Hospital.Oct 1917.[2]

 

Well, no, not one poem, and not “I can’t pick just one Thomas poem”–I’ve changed my mind.

Since April and youth have been mentioned, and since it’s only a tough four lines, hovering between expansive eulogy and complete silence, and since the manuscript has so much blank space, we’ll close with this, the poem that will from now on, thanks to Thomas’s editors, be referred to as “In Memoriam (Easter, 1915).” Thomas’s working title, seen below, is much better–only the date:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should

Have gathered them and will do never again.

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford.

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 405.
  2. War Letters, 229.