Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement, “To Any Dead Officer;” Henry Williamson is Blighty Bound; Herbert Read’s Theories of Courage

Before we get to a statement–and a poem, and a memoir’s context for the two–we have two brief updates.

 

For the past week Henry Williamson has bounced about the hospitals of northern France. He believes that he has gotten a “whiff” of phosgene gas from German gas shells–but he may also just be sick, or run down. In any event, he finds it pleasant to be out of the line and hopes to be able to parlay the sick time into reassignment. In this he may well be lucky, as in the name of efficiency sick and wounded officers can no longer count on returning to their unit. Most fear and deplore this change, but Williamson (and probably his C.O. as well) would welcome it.

Dear Mother,

Please get those protectors for armpits in my new tunic at once–big ones under the lining–you probably know by this time that I am for England on the first boat which leaves any time… Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno…

This hospital is a bon place–I live on champagne and fried plaice & chicken now!!

Love Willie.[1]

Williamson, whose intestinal health has long been an issue, can look forward to a lengthy recovery in Blighty…

 

Herbert Read is in rather a more bloody-minded state, and with sharper tales to tell. Or not: restraint in what he writes to Evelyn Roff is a point of pride–Read is a very purposeful sort, and he thinks twice about describing the war without a theoretical grasp of how such war tales might fit in with his theories of Modern literature. (He seems less concerned that a policy of mentioning, but not describing, certain experiences might not help their budding relationship flourish.)

Nevertheless, he has something to say, and it is the confirming converse of Williamson’s lonely experience: what makes it all worthwhile are the men. And what defines a man’s worth is the way in which he carries himself through danger.

15.vi.17

My present location is not too bad. We are now in the third week of our period in the line… and rather terrible days they were. But you can have no desire for me to ‘paint the horrors.’ I could do so but let the one word ‘fetid’ express the very essence of our experiences. It would be a nightmare to any individual, but we create among ourselves a wonderful comradeship which I think would overcome any horror or hardship. It is this comradeship which alone makes the Army tolerable to me. To create a bond between yourself and a body of men and a bond that will hold at the critical moment, that is work worthy of any man and when done an achievement to be proud of.

Incidentally my ‘world-view’ changes some of its horizons. I begin to appreciate, to an undreamt of extent, the ‘simple soul’. He is the only man you can put your money on in a tight corner. Bombast and swank carry a man nowhere our here. In England they are everything. Nor is the intellect not a few of us used to be so proud of of much avail. It’s a pallid thing in the presence of a stout heart. Which reminds me of one psychological ‘case’ which interests me out here: to what extent does a decent philosophy of life help you in facing death? In other words: Is fear a mental or a physical phenomenon? There are cases of physical fear–‘nerves,’ ‘shell-shock,’ etc. There are also certainly cases of physical courage… and there are, I think, men who funk because they haven’t the strength of will or decency of thought to do otherwise.

But I would like to think there was still another class (and I one of them) whose capacity for not caring a damn arose not merely from a physical incapacity for feeling fear, but rather from a mental outlook on life and death sanely balanced and fearlessly followed. But perhaps I idealize…[2]

Perhaps he does. Read has a good deal of trench experience by now, but he has not suffered the same sort of trench trauma–or string of losses of friends both fond and beloved–that has overburdened “Mad Jack” Sassoon. But it is an interesting break down of different types of courage–and an intelligent one. Cursed are dullards, blessed are the philosophers, strong of will–so it’s also a flattering one. But it asks no larger questions…

 

Today’s main event is Siegfried Sassoon‘s completion of a draft of his statement against the war.

It thus happened that, about midnight on the day my portrait was finished, I sat alone in the club library with a fair copy of the ‘statement’ before me on the writing-table. The words were now solidified and unalterable. My brain was unable to scrutinize their meaning any more. They had become merely a sequence of declamatory sentences designed to let me in for what appeared to be a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top’; and, at the moment, the Hindenburg Line seemed preferable in retrospect. For the first time, I allowed myself to reflect upon the consequences of my action and to question my strength to endure them. Possibly what I disliked most was the prospect of being misunderstood and disapproved of by my fellow officers. Some of them would regard my behaviour as a disgrace to the Regiment. Others would assume that I had gone a bit crazy. How many of them, I wondered, would give me credit for having done it for the sake of the troops who were at the Front? I had never heard any of them use the word pacifist except in a contemptuous and intolerant way, and in my dispirited mood I felt that my protest would have a pretty poor reception among them. Going to a window, I looked out at the searchlights probing the dark sky. Down below, the drone of London rumbled on. The streets were full of soldiers getting what enjoyment they could out of their leave. And there, on that sheet of paper under the green-shaded lamp, were the words I had just transcribed.

‘I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’

This is the soon-to-be-famous opening of the published statement–I’ll include the rest when the newspapers get it. But Sassoon, using the privileges of the memoir writer, embeds the public breakthrough in a web of private doubt. Clean breaks and simple strong feelings are never to be his way…  Who is he doing this for, again?

To the soldiers it didn’t matter, one way or the other. They all wanted it to stop, but most of them would say that the Boches had got to be beaten somehow, and the best thing to hope for was ‘getting back to Blighty with a cushy wound’. Then I remembered that night, early in 1914, when I had been up in this room experiencing an emotional crisis in which I had felt that my life was being wasted on sport and minor poetry, and had imagined myself devoting my future to humanitarian services and nobly prophetic writings. On that occasion I had written some well-intentioned but too didactic lines, of which a fragment now recurred to me.

Destiny calls me home at last
To strive for pity’s sake;
To watch with the lonely and outcast,
And to endure their ache . . . .

Much had happened since then. Realities beyond my radius had been brought under my observation by a European War, which had led me to this point of time and that sheet of paper on the table. Was this the fulfilment of that feeble and unforeseeing stanza? . . . And somehow the workings of my mind brought me a comprehensive memory of war experience in its intense and essential humanity. It seemed that my companions of the Somme and Arras battles were around me; helmeted faces returned and receded in vision; joking voices were overheard in fragments of dug-out and billet talk. These were the dead, to whom life had been desirable, and whose sacrifice must be justified, unless the War were to go down in history as yet another Moloch of murdered youth…

I went back to the statement on the table with fortified conviction that I was doing right. Perhaps the dead were backing me up, I thought; for I was a believer in the power of spiritual presences. . . .

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

The words came into my head quite naturally. And by the time I went to bed I had written a slangy, telephonic poem of forty lines. I called it To Any Dead Officer, but it was addressed to one whom I had known during both my periods of service in France. Poignant though the subject was, I wrote it with a sense of mastery and detachment, and when it was finished I felt that it anyhow testified to the sincerity of my protest.

The dead officer is Orme/”Ormand” killed so recently in a pointless attack on the Hindenburg Line, his death described to Sassoon by Joe Cottrell. The poem, which Sassoon of the memoir would clearly prefer that we use to mark this day’s work, a century back, rather than the didactic “statement,” continues as follows:

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
  I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
  Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
  Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
  Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
  No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
  Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
  Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
  Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
  Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
  Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
  I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
   “Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
  With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
  It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
  And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
  Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
  Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 163.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 97-8.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52-4; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

Frank Richards is an Officer for a Day; Wilfred Owen is Healed in Body

The Royal Welch Fusiliers pride themselves on being a fine old regiment, full of their full two centuries of service. And the two Regular battalions–the 1st and 2nd–insist not only on maintaining a tradition of trench-fighting aggression, but on keeping up at least some of the old formalities and disciplines of the prewar army. But time waits for no battalion–or, perhaps, intramural rivalries are just the sort of happy old traditions too crucial to stand on old ceremony.

In any event, the two Regular Battalions, though in different divisions, found themselves close by in reserve today, a century back. It was a rare opportunity for fraternizing, and, as Doctor Dunn’s chronicle attests, all’s fair in war and tugs of war:

The 1st Battalion… invited us to their sports. Every Regular Soldier, and all officers who could be spared, went over. With “Ginger” Owens, our Mess Sergeant, and “Big Dick,” Richards–a signaller, two sterling fellows–as makeweight, we won an inter-Battalion tug-of-war for officers…[1]

That would be our own Frank Richards. His matter-of-fact description of the day is interesting in its understatement and framing:

a tug-of-war was arranged… twelve aside. Only ten of our officers were present, so Owens and I made up the number. After a long pull we were the victors. We spent a very pleasant evening, the First Battalion having a wet canteen…

Is the tug-of-war not such a big deal to him, or is this pride? He may be a humble signaller, averse to rising in the ranks despite many opportunities to do so, but he’s a strong and trusty man, and the officers chose him… Or is it ironic understatement, along the lines of “in the war I’m just a humble soldier, but for the tug of war I’m apparently a temporary gentleman?”

Some clue is offered by Richards’s tale of the aftermath of the field day. After that “wet” evening at the canteen, he, Owens, and another old soldier pal called Lane attempted the long walk back from the 1st Battalion’s camp to their own. They departed already “three sheets to the wind” and with a bottle of whiskey yet in hand. After drinking the bottle, they decided that a short nap would be in order, and passed out some miles short of their own battalion’s billets.

I was woke up some time during the night by what I thought was heavy rain falling. I was still half drunk and muddled and for a moment did not know where I was… Lane in his half-drunken condition had got up and had been mistaking the both of us for a shell hole. But Lane had unwittingly done us a good turn, saving us from a court-martial for desertion. We arrived back just in time to move off with the Battalion who were marching towards the line to make an attack the following morning…[2]

Colorful and amusing. But, as the last line makes so clear, there is another sort of pressure on this memory: retrospection forcing foreshadowing. Richards’s memory is off, but only by a day–the 2nd Royal Welch are slated to attack on the 27th.

Our only other piece of business, today, is a brief note from Wilfred Owen.

24 May 1917

41st Stationary Hospital

My own dearest Mother,

I feel normal today. Am sitting on the bed in the one Kimono left in this Rag Time Hospital. Have just had your Sat. evening (May 19) Letter, full of gracious truths: the most pleasing being the tales of your gardening. I am sure it will do you good, and I may indeed get Leave before the Summer falls, now that it is likely I am out of the ‘Area’ of the 2nd Battalion…

I am astonished at my Balance at Cox’s, but not so astonished as you.knowing it is deceptive. There have been, a number of Mess Bills, & other cheques drawn lately which are not yet entered at the Bank Moreover my Military Wardrobe will want renewing if there is another winter campaign.

On the other hand I confess—I mean I profess with pride—that I have not run into any kind of danger of losing moneys. My first Mess Bill for Jan. was £6: which I consider disgraceful for the kind of stuff we got…

It is evidently Trench fever I had, but I feel fine today…

Your own W.E.O.[3]

So Owen is cured of his fever; but this does not change the awkward fact that he is now in a Stationary Hospital which has been established to specialize in treating cases of “shell shock…” His frustrations mount, but there is no clear indication yet how the Army intends to recognize or treat his “neurasthenia…”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the infantry Knew, 347.
  2. Old Soldiers Never Die, 235.
  3. Collected Letters, 463-4.

Vera Brittain’s Next Worst Day, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVIII: Geoffrey Thurlow and Safety, Vera Brittain and The Dead, and the Maimed; Alfred Hale Appeals to the Recruiter; Isaac Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump; Scott Moncrieff Adrift; Home Service for Tolkien

We’ll begin with a few May Day updates on our writers–none of them, today, in the bloom of health or fitness. Last will come Vera Brittain, who absorbs yet another blow. And with her writing we will move from the day to the month, and compare two very different poems about the new dead of this third wartime spring.

 

Alfred Hale has some tenuous connections to our regulars. He was an Oxford friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams (the idol of Ivor Gurney) and a very minor composer and arranger in the same style, and he attended Uppingham school, albeit years before Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, and Victor Richardson. Now forty-one, his life of single, artistic, privileged pottering about is not unlike what some of our young men might have aged into, but for the war… and there’s the rub. Hale is most conspicuously different from our other informants in that he was immediately and completely horrified by the idea of going to war, and has done his best to avoid it. He was glad to have failed an early physical with the Navy, and he dodged the first draft by stalling and then ageing out–but the new rules are sweeping up even disinclined forty-something non-sporting country gentlemen. Today, a century back, he does his best not to impress.

‘As to my being over age, that had been settled against me by the recent Act… the rejection… was another matter. If I could bet a rejection certificate… from the Naval authorities, well and good…. But I was advised to act quickly.’ Thus the very courteous Recruiting Officer… A very nice old recruiting sergeant was also sympathetic. I was never likely to be much good as a soldier, that he saw with half his professional eye, and he hinted as much if he did not say so.

But Hale is caught in a predictable trap: the Navy has only to remark, with raised institutional eyebrow, that his failure to measure up to its high standards is no guarantee that the Army will likewise reject him. Hale leaves the matter in the hands of his solicitor, but little hope remains.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, wounded at Arras, is still in hospital in France–and he is not well. His leg is mangled and, to judge from today’s letter, his spirit has been damaged as well.

No. 20 General Hospital, Camiers,
1st May, 1917.

In the evening I heard a great swell of hundreds of men’s voices singing some of the popular Catholic hymns—“Jesu my Lord, my God, my all”—and some others. Presently my priest came in, the one who wrote to you; he tells me they have Benediction every day of the week in one of the huts, but yesterday for a weekday must have been enormously attended. He agreed to bring me Holy Communion this morning, which I was very grateful for. At night I had not such a bad time, thinking rather than sleeping, but still feeling this awful inability to control or co-ordinate my thoughts, which is, I suppose, a result of the shell shock. I find it so hard to grasp that this great nocturnal space bounded by the four corners of my bed—and with so much always new and unknown in it—has just the one inhabitant. . . .[2]

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien went once more before a medical board. The verdict: “He is improving but requires hardening.” This will mean, in practice, an extended period of home service, in Yorkshire, with time to write and his wife nearby.[3]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary has shown hints of strain, of late–not surprising, given that she has helped to lead a hospital through several weeks of intense and emotionally draining work as the casualties of Arras passed through. But now that the most terribly wounded have died and most of the others have been moved to larger hospitals further in the rear, there is time for relaxation–and for psychological letdown.

May Day and a dazzling day and very little doing in this Hospital. G. and I celebrated the occasion by going to the woods in the morning, starry with anemones and never a leaf to be seen, but blue sky and fresh breezes and clear sunshine. It is all a tremendous help, physically and psychically…

Some of us and Capt. B. have been having a bad fit of pessimism over them all lately, wondering what is the good of operations, nursing, rescues, or anything, when so many have died in the end. But even a few miraculous recoveries buck one up to begin again.

A Suffolk farmer boy is dying to-night…

I had a letter from a brave Glasgow mother, full of gratitude and incoherence, ending up, ‘And don’t forget to let us know how you are keeping.”[4]

This string of ups and downs–one day’s record–is not very representative of her writing style (the daily diary entries are often composed as topical letters). But it is, I think, emotionally accurate. Sister Luard is–she must be–enormously mentally tough, but the enormous suffering and the constant loss takes its toll nonetheless. It’s striking that there is no answer suggested here–no invocation of religion or patriotism. Just the increasingly common question, but especially vivid coming from a nurse so close to the front lines: what is this all for? What is the good of continuing in a policy which reduces so many men to such a state?

A fair question. But there’s nothing for it but to go on–and take whatever solace one can from the lives that can be saved.

 

And so to Vera Brittain.

May 1st

Had two cables–one to say that Victor’s eyesight was hopelessly gone, the other–an hour later–that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd…

Sat out on the rocks’ edge in front of Night Quarters & suddenly something seemed to tell me to go home. Nothing much doing in Malta–& chances of Salonika seemed further off than ever; decided to go home for Edward’s sake & Victor’s, & if he wishes it, to devote my life to the service of Victor, the only one (apart from Edward, who is different) left of the three men I loved. For I loved Geoffrey… I spent the rest of that day on the rocks, feeling all the time that I was not alone but that Geoffrey was there & if I looked up I should see him standing beside me. . . .

A letter from Geoffrey arrived the same day–“By one of those curious chances which occurred during the war with such poignant frequency,” as she will later write. Once could also see it as one more example of the war’s uncanny literariness–but perhaps we remember the cruelest ironies best.

His last letter to me–dated April 20th–arrived that evening. He told me they were going up “for a stunt” in two or three days, & said his only fear was that he should fail at the critical moment, & that he would like to do well for the School’s sake. Often, he said, he had watched the splendour of the sunset from the school-field. And then, perhaps seeing the end in sight, he turned as usual to his beloved Rupert Brooke for comfort & finished with

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

My dear dear Geoffrey!

Vera is ready with an apt–and devastatingly sad–counter-quotation. Geoffrey, before battle, quoted “Safety;” she, drawing from the same sonnet sequence that has framed these middle years of the war, quotes “The Dead:”

He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.[5]

Looking back, Brittain will remember the hours of “suspended physical animation” on the rocks as a time of almost numinous intensity, but Geoffrey’s ghostly presence will prompt a memory that makes much more concrete how she now might “serve” her surviving friend:

And all at once, as I gazed out to sea the words of the “Agony Column” advertisement, that I had cut out and sent to Roland nearly two years before, struggled back into my mind.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

I even remembered vaguely the letter in which I had commented on this notice at the time.

Yes: a great deal has changed since she wrote that letter, to Roland, which scoffed at the quaintly Victorian self-sacrifice of certain old maids.

There is one small, terrible change in her quotation of her own letter in the later memoir.[6] In the letter, she writes of “a business arrangement, with an element of self-sacrifice which redeems it from utter sordidness. Quite an idea, isn’t it!”

In retrospect, the final exclamation point becomes a question mark.

“Quite an idea, isn’t it?” Was it, Geoffrey? wasn’t it? There was nothing left in life now but Edward and the wreckage of Victor–Victor who had stood by me so often in my blackest hours. If he wanted me, surely I could stand by him in his.

She decides to try to come home.

That night–quiet as all nights were now that so few sick and wounded were coming from Salonika–I tried to keep my mind from thoughts and my eyes from tears by assiduously pasting photographs of Malta into a cardboard album. The scent of a vase of sweet-peas on the ward table reminded me of Roland’s study on Speech Day, centuries ago.

And, a century on, I suppose we must be grateful, in some aesthetically presumptive and heartless way, for the terrible things that happened to good writers.

Surely, surely there must be somewhere in which the sweet intimacies begun here may be continued and the hearts broken by this War may be healed![7]

Vera Brittain will soon begin the poem that will serve us for a first “month poem” today:

 

In Memoriam G.R.Y.T.

(Killed in Action, April 23rd, 1917)

I spoke with you but seldom, yet there lay
Some nameless glamour in your written word,
And thoughts of you rose often—longings stirred
By dear remembrance of the sad blue-grey
That dwelt within your eyes, the even sway
Of your young god-like gait, the rarely heard
But frank bright laughter, hallowed by a Day
That made of Youth Right’s offering to the sword.
So now I ponder, since your day is done,
Ere dawn was past, on all you meant to me,
And all the more you might have come to be,
And wonder if some state, beyond the sun
And shadows here, may yet completion see
Of intimacy sweet though scarce begun.

Malta, May 1917.

 

This is a good poem; also, a traditional one. A poem about an individual, a dead man remembered not for his death or its horror or pain or futility but for his life. Which is right, and good, and we should all have friends like Vera Brittain to remember us, and to draw on hopeful traditions that see a possibility of love and friendship after death.

 

But there are other ways to see the dead, and to write them. Another poem written this month, a century back, is Isaac Rosenberg‘s Dead Man’s Dump. It’s neither a short poem nor a very long one, but it’s almost too harrowing to read in its entirety. It draws on Rosenberg’s experience working in a labor battalion in the aftermath of battle. A few stanzas, then:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, 37.
  2. Diary, 128-9.
  3. Chronology, 100.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 120-1.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 340.
  6. I am relying, of course, on two different transcriptions of a hand-written letter I haven't seen...
  7. Testament of Youth, 342-46.

Ivor Gurney Sings of Pain and Beauty; Edward Thomas Goes for Socks

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back, from the misery of mud season.

7 March 1917

My Dear Friend: Still in trenches, still in the mud, and watching lucky—and some unlucky—people going out with trench feet, and men almost weeping for exhaustion and sheer misery, stuck to the knees with some distance of torment still to traverse. Why do not I fall ill? God knows! The soul in me is sick with disgust, and hospital now would be a good stroke of business. The unfortunate part of it for me is that the ordinary and best way to face these things, is to face them; whereas my mind, by inclination and long training can only try to turn away and remember such things as a certain Spring evening at Minsterworth when all was gold save the shadows of golden trees black on the ground of orchards: and FWH. was with me.

Gurney is writing to a dear friend and his most crucial reader/editor/promoter/patron–who also happens to be wracked with several different sorts of chronic illness, including a recent and dangerous influenza. So the irony here is two-sided, and miserable: he hopes she is well, but he wishes he weren’t.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the war of attrition operates on several levels. The enemy’s attempt to cause “wastage” by means of shelling, snipers, raids, and local stand-off attacks with machine guns and mortars is the first stage of attrition, but then there are the steady physical and psychological pressures of trench conditions, too. Every man will succumb, eventually, to some form of “shell shock,” but there are vastly different tolerances. It’s not a matter of courage, as most experienced officers and doctors are now beginning to recognize, but an aspect of constitution…

Gurney, who has not yet been in the intense bombardment of a major assault but has endured months of lesser dangers, is less impressed with his own emotional tolerance of occasional bombardments than he is annoyed at his physical robustness. In these conditions, with his personal health history being none so robust, why can’t he go badly, honorably ill?

There is a great variance between different regiments, different commanders, different doctors in handling things like colds and fevers and possible flu and trench feet–and variance too in the strategic pressures of the moment to keep men in the line or see to their fitness for later dates. In a slack unit there is the possibility that neglecting the care of the feet–the slow, safer version of the self-inflicted wound–is a sure ticket out of the line, so now trench feet is beginning to be looked upon as a form of malingering or a mark of inept leadership.

And Gurney, though he is wearing down, is not so lucky as to have earned some respite, nor yet so desperate as to risk hastening it. If he were a trusted officer, Gurney might get a rest… but as he is, he needs to endure…

The letter takes a strange turn, now. After proposing an “alteration” to one of his poems, Gurney then writes what would seem to be a love song:

Song of Pain and Beauty

O may these days of pain.
These wasted-seeming days,
Somewhere reflower again
With scent and savour of praise.
Draw out of memory all bitterness
Of night with Thy Sun’s rays.

And strengthen Thou in me
The love of men there found.
And eager charity,
That, out of difficult ground
Spring like flowers in barren deserts, or
Like light, or a lovely sound.

A simpler heart than mine
Might have seen Beauty clear
Where I could see no sign
Of Thee, but only fear.
Strengthen me, make me to see Thy Beauty always
In every happening here.

Please write anyhow. When we get back in rest, I may be able to think more clearly, and see exactly what I want to say in my final sonnett. And O, for the days when, with cigarettes, biscuits and milk all round me, and a good fire and a piano, I shall joyfully attempt to say what is in me in music.

This isn’t, perhaps, a love poem written to Marion Scott, a woman thirteen years older and considerably higher in social class, but it is notably a love poem written, and sent to Marion Scott, and seemingly quite rooted in the poet’s here and now.

In a contemporary letter to a friend Gurney describes Scott’s letters as “most valuable things to me, as they talk of all the things I try to remember, and so give me something to feed on.” Is she, then, more than “a most valuable critic?”

Yes, but that does not mean that we are necessarily slipping toward Romantic love. Gurney–at loose ends in so many ways–is wise with the wisdom of suffering and knows that he will only be able to endure future trials if he has a store of memories upon which to draw. (This is not the first time that a writer in trenches planning to draw on of happy memories has reminded me of Frederick the Mouse.)

But then again, Marion Scott is very much to Gurney no matter which way one looks at the relationship: friend, but also editor and agent…and so the letter, which has just come close to a very unreserved statement along the lines of “I need you”–and he does–switches course once again. Scott has done great work in getting Gurney’s songs published and performed, and recognized, and thanks are due: a “friendly little note” from one of the leading composers in Gurney’s favored English throwback style is no small thing.

I am glad they are going to do my two songs. Vaughan Williams wrote me a friendly little note, in his queer writing. We are to know each other afterwards . . . Afterwards; toujours apres le guerre.

They are shelling this place, but no-one takes any notice, being too fed up. Fires are forbidden in daylight, but it is better to die by a fire than live without one.

And as for snipers, who cares for those. Why yesterday one of our heavies landed 6 shells about 30 yards on our left, just behind our own lines. Cheerful Tommy Atkins takes not much notice; it is only a Baimsfather incident.

Yours sincere friend              Ivor Gurney[1]

 

There is no need, really, to check in on Edward Thomas, today–he is in a black mood. But we have standards: no socks are left unmentioned.

A cold raw day with nothing to do except walk round to 244 to get a pair of socks…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 140-44.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 168.

Poets in Peril: Edward Thomas Gets Dressed Early, and Wilfred Owen is Aimed At; Patrick Shaw Stewart Works the System

Edward Thomas is not the sort for dry self-deprecation, exactly. But he isn’t the sort for harrowing self-reflection, either. This is, I think, just plain description of what other writers might gin up into a stark tale of terror in the pre-dawn darkness.

Shelling heavy from about 5 a.m. I only dressed because I thought it would be better to have my clothes on… our artillery really made most of the noise, and I being just wakened and also inexperienced mistook it.[1]

Over breakfast, Thomas continues yesterday’s letter to his wife Helen:

2 March. 6.30 a.m.

We are still being bombarded. But the Colonel and I have to go out to a village to see a man about a dog, you know, so I am having breakfast. I dressed soon after 5 because I thought it would be better if anything happened, to have my clothes on, and lying in bed warm one merely wondered which way It would come, whether through the ceiling or through which window or wall. Nothing fell on the house, though fragments were whistling over all the time and the house shook. However I heard men whistling in the street. Also when I got up and decided I would change my shirt etc. and shave and clean my teeth and eat my apple and drink my glass of water etc., these things sent the time along. The whistling outside of course made me certain the attack wasn’t with gas shell. It is still going on, but more intermittently. At present it is very misty and I can see nothing but the garden tree and the stone dog on the wall.

There is another break in the narrative as he goes about his business:

I’ve been to — and back. From what the others say I gather that the bombardment was not so bad, as a lot of the noise was From us and not To us. I am new, you see. Well anyhow I was not upset.

A small statement, again, signifying much: “I am, happily, proving to be considerably brave.”

It was quite nice to be going out in the misty frosty morning and picking a place to put a gun in a hurry.

Now I must try to see 244 today and get a letter from you which is probably waiting.

It is now 11 and I am having a second breakfast — (the first having been at 6.15) of marvellous good thick hard shortbread that Herrington has had sent him.

I hope you are all well, all of you, and enjoying many things. This goes off on March 2.

All and always yours Edwy[2]

In the afternoon Thomas viewed the rubble of the Faubourg Ronville, which looks very different–more ruinous, somehow–in his sparse notes-for-future-consideration than it will in the relatively crowded vignettes of his letters:

…its whistling deserted ruined streets, deserted roadway, pavement with single files of men. Cellars as dugouts, trenches behind and across road. Dead dry calf in stables. Rubble, rubbish, filth and old plush chair…[3]

 

Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen is back from his transport course–he arrived yesterday, to be precise. March will be a month of the rejoining of units, a mustering in preparation for the Spring Offensive. But Wilfred has not been in a battle before, and he is happy with his new surroundings. His battalion, the 2nd Manchesters, are in trenches north of the Somme, near Fresnoy–part of the long section of the line that has just been relinquished in favor of the Siegfried Stellung. What could go wrong?

Nothing, for the moment. But we do have, from yesterday, an amusing parcel-post vignette:

1 March [1917] My Dug-Out

Dearest Mother,

Have just reported at B.H.Q. Dug Out. Find myself posted to B. Coy… this is a glorious part of the Line, new to us, and indeed, to the English (sh!) Most comfortable dug-outs, grass fields, woods, sunshine, quiet. True we are in reserve today, but I hear the very front line is a line, and a quiet one.

…It was in an astonishing way I had your parcel. A man rose up from a hole in a field holding it above his head. It was a fine moment. I soon rushed down & tore it open. Socks most specially valuable, as my servant forgot to put any spare in my Trench Kit. Likewise, I took no Cigarettes, hoping to find 50 in the Parcel. Lo! here are thousands! How good of you all…

I shall not touch the goodies until the very front line is reached…

Yours as ever, but slightly happier than usual. W.E.O.

So all things are sunny but–as the fact that socks are once again welcome would indicate–not really expected to remain so. But irony abounds, of course. Owen’s letter of today, a century back, begs for details of what battle looks like from one who had seen it: mother has been to the “Somme” pictures.

2 March 1917          B Coy’s Dug-Out

My dearest Mother,

I am in a good warm Dug-Out, decorated with French postcards, picturing embraces, medals, roses and mistletoe!

Is it possible I was living civilly no more than 2 days ago? From letter of last night I hear you have seen the illusory War Films. However, they must hint at the truth, and if done anywhere on this Front, would not be quite devoid of realism. But, as you know, a just idea of the First Place could best be got by a tour around Purgatorio.

Did you see any Shell-bursts?

And did they bang tins or whack drums?

Did you see any Red X at the front?

Under no circumstance do we! A good half of their work is done by S. Bearers of our own Coys.

But that’s as far as that joke will go. Owen is back in the line, and, battle or no, there are risks. Which he doesn’t hide from his mother, though he softens them into epistolary chuckles.

You don’t mention Dug-Outs snipers. I was marked by one of the Pests yesterday. His ‘Direction’ was good, only his ‘Elevation’ slightly high. A curious thing was who first hissed ‘Get down. Sir!’?

One of my old Fleetwood Musketry Party! Quite a few are with me…

‘Colin’s’ socks are splendid things…

Ever your fondest Wilfred

 

But a letter of the same day (written to his younger brother Colin, evidently before the letter to mother) makes a different sort of tale out of the near-miss; it also paints a generally more warlike picture of this section of the front:

2 March 1917     B Coy Dug-Out

My dearest Colin,

This is the first time I have written from a Dug-Out. I am in a French one now. We have straw to sleep on, but it is pretty lousy—after the poilus!

There is a gas-alarm on just now, but I don’t really expect it. The air is too still. Just this moment, and since I sat down, a tremendous artillery strafe has opened up. We all remark to each other that it seems there is a war on. I went up to the Front Line with a Fatigue Party for digging. Let me tell you in confidence that I was for the first time a Target.* I ran over the top to get to the head of the Party in the Trench, & stood a moment to shout an order, when a bullet went Ping, a good 3 ft. over my silly head.

Owen–a good big brother, an excitable correspondent, or perhaps just a very diligent writer of personal history–will gloss that asterisk tomorrow. It’s as close as we’ll come to a real point in time, a century back:

Next day. Where you see the * I left off because the order came ‘Stand to Arms!’ What a commotion! We half expected an attack, but nothing happened. I have no paper to write more, but this letter should be interesting circumstantially.

Dearest love to you, sweet my Brother. W.E.O.[4]

 

While we’re in the habit of flagrant rule-breaking, we’ll look ahead to a letter of tomorrow–describing, therefore, today–by  Patrick Shaw-Stewart:

I have had my Board yesterday morning, and they passed me for General Service with the recommendation that I should not be sent back to the East. That was my own suggestion: they would quite certainly have passed me for anything I jolly well liked. That being so, I shall in a day or two probably be informed of it officially by the W.O., whereupon I will communicate with Freyberg, who will apply for me. It will all take some time probably: nothing is done in a hurry in the British Army.

Please don’t be perturbed about my inside. It is very well indeed, and in this country (and presumably in France), I should never give it a thought. In Gallipoli, and places like that, of course it has been occasionally dickey with little goes of “dysentery” and jaundice and what not, but nothing to what most people have out here, and nothing which would have been worth mentioning, except with an ulterior object. I feel more and more that I have been right to play my last card to get out of Salonica and back to France. In fact, I think I have conducted the personal problem of this war with exceptional felicity, and made the best of both worlds. Please try and agree with me…[5]

Well, it’s hard not to. This will not be the last rigged medical board we shall see, but it’s hard to believe that Shaw Stewart is cheating His Majesty out of too much when he emphasizes his stomach troubles to escape further French Liaison duty on the Salonika front–and hard to doubt his character (in this matter) when the result of the rigged exam is to get him sent to a much more dangerous assignment, under the command of more or less the last of his original comrades, those Argonauts of 1914. Shaw Stewart saw Gallipoli, but he has seen little else in the last two years, while Bernard Freyburg has become a hero with a V.C. The future–even of the over-educated officers of the Royal Naval Division–is in France.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 166-7. This description is under the heading for yesterday, a century back, but in light of the letter, below, clearly refers to today.
  2. Letters to Helen, 83-84.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 167.
  4. Collected Letters, 439-442.
  5. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 193-4.

Siegfried Sassoon Between Loathing and Sacrifice; Rum Jars Aloft for Rowland Feilding; Edward Thomas is Shy Under Fire, or a Bored Dog in a Waiting Room; Henry Williamson is Safely Across; Tolkien to Yorkshire, and Hospital

Today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien came before a medical board in Lichfield. He is still wracked by “pains in his legs and occasional fever,” and the board acknowledged these symptoms, declaring him unfit for even home service for two months and sending him to an officers’ convalescent hospital in Harrogate, Yorkshire, for the next month.[1]

 

Henry Williamson, meanwhile, is returning to the fray. When we read his departure letter, he was setting up a blazingly obvious code to inform his mother of his whereabouts. Today, a century back, we get a clue about why he might be confident in such transparent ruses: this letter, duly signed by the writer on its envelope, has also been approved by “Field Censor 828.” And the censor’s counter-signature? Well, it’s identical to the author’s…

208 M.G.Coy B.E.F. France. Tuesday 27 Feb ’17

Dear mother,

Just a line to let you know we had a safe crossing… I have seen Tanks: they are wonderful things…

By the time you get this I shall be round about the place where Charlie is now…

You ought to hear the artillery here: it is one continuous quaking and heaving of the earth, with blood red flashes always before one–always, always, always. My experiences with the LRB were nothing compared with this now. Must shut up now, as am very busy. Yours with love, Harry.[2]

Cousin Charlie Boon is nowhere, now–but his remains are buried near Beaumont Hamel. Williamson is our least reliable letter-writing narrator, but there could be no more typical observation from someone in his position (a good deal of experience in and just behind the line, but not since the huge buildups of the Somme) at this point in the war: the routine daily “hates” now exceed the intensity of bombardments that, in 1914, had seemed hellishly intense.

 

Although Siegfried Sassoon and Rowland Feilding still await us below, I want to first include a good chunk of a very long letter from Edward Thomas to his wife Helen. She is so often invisible in conversations (here, not least) about his mental and artistic mind, that it’s worth paying attention to how he unburdens himself to her.

This letter is long enough that it reminds us of something that is true of even the shortest note: that it is not so much evidence of a moment in time as a transcript of a short period during which a great deal–much, much more than can ever be recorded–goes on in a writer’s mind. Thomas loves his wife, but he has not always been open with her. It is, also, no simple thing to discuss depression, and danger, and the deep and inscrutable changes that war works on a personality, especially with someone who has suffered so much in the past from the shifting, jagged edges of his personality. But he tries, and in the letter’s changes of course and pausings for second efforts we can perhaps see more of this marriage (viewed from his side) than we have hitherto:

Diary observations covered at great length in this letter:

Arras | 27 February 1917

Dearest,

Only a word now. It is a fine sunny morning, but so was yesterday and they made full use of it. The guns here covered an infantry raid and you could not hear a word for over an hour. Then German prisoners began to arrive. Later on hostile shells began to arrive but they were hardly so alarming as they didn’t make anything like the same din. In the afternoon I had to go out to see if a certain position was visible to the enemy. This was the first time I was really under fire. About four shells burst 150 yards away, little ones–and then in the street fell a shower of machine gun bullets I confess I felt shy, but I went on with my field glass and compass as far as possible as if nothing had happened. This makes the heart beat but no more than if I were going to pay a call on a stranger.

This is not much different from yesterday’s letter to his friend Bottomley. Thomas is doing his best to preserve honesty without being unduly alarming.

I try to console myself by reflecting that you cannot escape either by running or by standing still. There is no safe place and consequently why worry? And I don’t worry. What did disturb me was an English 18 pounder firing when I had only gone 3 yards past the muzzle. They do that sort of thing. The order comes to fire and they fire, damn them. But I slept very well last night.

And that, briskly, is the record of a crucial, successful trial. Thomas has been tested by gunfire and found that he can handle it well, without any immediate crumbling of self-confidence or sanity. I really think that he had been fairly certain that he would weather the guns well enough, perhaps on the ironic assumption that a man who makes heavy weather of ordinary life may shrug off mortal peril better than men otherwise untested…

This morning is quiet again, though it is beautifully fine.

I haven’t settled to my fate here yet. I shall wait for a good opportunity of letting the Colonel know I want to get back. They are trying to drive an English plane back with shrapnel just overhead. It looks dangerous but neither the Huns nor we hit a plane once in 10,000 rounds, I believe. I’ve nothing to do this morning except try to settle a billeting question for 244…

They are a nice lot of officers here, better than 244’s, only I being temporary or uncertain I don’t get on as well as if I were going (for all I know) to remain. Still no thrushes singing here only chaffinches.

I’ve rather a rotten servant here, never has hot water, has a watch that is sometimes half an hour wrong, and never understands anything I say.

I have only once heard from Mother. Her parcel has not arrived. I wonder does she worry much. I I hope not.

You have had Eleanor there by this time and lost her too.

This wandering train of thoughts has taken an unfortunate series of switches: from his own domestic position, to servants, to mother, wife, and Eleanor Farjeon, the ever-helpful friend…  at this Thomas checks up, and makes an effort to assess his position.

But it becomes harder for me to think about things at home and somehow, although this life does not absorb me, I think, yet, I can’t think of anything else. I don’t hanker after anything I don’t miss anything. I am not even conscious of waiting. I am just quietly in exile, a sort of half or quarter man—at Romford I was half or three quarter man. Only sometimes I hear the things I really care for, far off as if at the end of a telephone. What I really should like is more hard physical exercise. I am rather often bored though and for fairly long periods. I am rather like a dog doing what it doesn’t want to do—as Belloc said of me years ago when I was going about with him on various errands of his before we could settle down to lunch together. The fact is it is a sort of interval in reality, a protracted railway waiting room. Yet of course not always merely that…

I have just walked up to 244 and found no one in but letters from you and Irene both written after she had been to see you. I don’t think I will write much more. I have just seen an English plane shot down and set afire by a German; another fell near here almost at the same time and also one yesterday. The machine gun bullets came down and cut a telephone wire close by. It has turned dull and chilly and I feel damnably like early spring. The pilot of the plane managed to right it soon and came down in a spiral, though flopping—I did not go to see his fate—he was well within our lines, so was the other.

He sounds tired, doesn’t he? Has he just seen a man die, or not? He’s not certain. It sounds like depression. Often Thomas plans his letters, or writes with the easy command of a man who has long written less-than-perfectly, but always cogently, and on a deadline. But not this letter–he once again piles into a blind alley that he should have seen coming. And when he gets going again it is easy to see the mental connection he omits. This war is going nowhere, fast, and their son will soon be old enough to fight.

I hope Mervyn will join an OTC. It could be a good thing in many ways. The war isn’t over yet even if the Germans are evacuating some dirty ground,[3] and Mervyn would be much more likely to get a commission if he had been to an OTC.

But I am depressed. Lots of food and too little exercise and spring. Tea will do me good and they will make some soon, if the others don’t come in.

We were sitting round the fire this evening talking about the way things are done in the Army, and I was saying we should suddenly have to signal (?) important orders to the batteries to fire instead of preparing them for probable targets—when in comes an urgent message ordering 244 and also another battery we know nothing about to open fire tomorrow. Good Lord, I hope we win the war. It will prove God is on our side…

All is well really.

All and always yours | Edwy[4]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, stuck in Rouen base camp with the measles, may have made an early foray into prose fiction, today.[5] It would be a bit too much to post the entire sketch “Reinforcements at Rouen”–the first of three sketches–but here is a telling excerpt. See if you can identify the protagonist:

Meanwhile this discerning young officer watched the crowd and tried to fit things together. He had loathed the business of coming out again, had talked wildly to his pacifist friends about the cruel imbecility of the war and the uselessness of going on with it. He came out with his  angry heart, resolved to hate the whole show, and write his hatred down in words of burning criticism and satire. Now he is losing all that; he has been drawn back into the Machine; he has no more need to worry. ‘Nothing matters now.’ He must trust to fate: the responsibility of life has been taken from him. He must just go on until something happens to him. And through his dull acquiescence in it all, he is conscious of the same spirit that brought him serenely through it last year; the feeling of sacrifice…

The man knows where he is going. There are two more sketches in the diary, but these likely date a few days hence–Sassoon did not always use the diary pages sequentially. Each will give rise to a very different poem, one a lacerating satire, the other a religious-romantic reverie…

 

Finally, Rowland Feilding, still unsure whether punishment awaits for permitting fraternization, once more reminds us that there is a war going on. He is diligent, and evidently concerned to prove that my decision to give “trench mortars” their own “tag” was a sound one.

February 27, 1917. Curragh Camp (Locre).

I have written to you much of the staying powers of the men—how they have stood night after night and day after
day in the wettest or most Arctic weather, behind these flimsy breastworks. You cannot dig trenches in this locality because you get drowned out. So you bank up sandbags and stand behind them. And the enemy flattens these every day or two with his “rum-jars” ; and we do the same to his.

“Rum-jar” is the soldiers’ name for the German canister which is their simplest form of heavy trench-mortar bomb. Picture a cylindrical oil-drum, 15 inches long and about 11 inches in diameter, flat at both ends, and filled with high explosive. That is the “rum-jar.” In the dark if you spot it coming, you can just distinguish it in the air, by the fizzling of the fuse.

But it arrives silently, and is not easy to detect, till it lands with a mighty bang. I once spoke slightingly of these things, but I spoke foolishly. It is true that, as a rule, they do little if any damage, because the effect is very local;  but if one happens to hit a man or a collection of men it blows them to bits. And these things come in hundreds, and are a perpetual menace to the men in the front line, day and night, often for four days and nights together, and more.

The material effect, as I have said, is small, but the constant stress is tiring to the morale, as it is intended to be, and, added to the other strains of trench life—the artillery strafes and the mines and other horrors which the poor infantry have to undergo, is very tiring to them. Yet, through it all, they stand, frozen and half-paralysed by the cold and wet, with no individual power of retaliation beyond the rifle which each man carries, and which is about as much use against the weapons by which he is tormented as a pop-gun.[6]

Feilding closes with two light amusements, tales of the disconnect between fighting units and their generals that are more in the nature of drawing room comedy than deadly and barely-concealed opposition. In one, a deserving sergeant gets a made-up citation and his officers get caught out; in another, a brigadier reconciles himself to his lot in life. But this has been a long day, and Feilding’s book is well worth seeking out…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 99.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 88.
  3. See the note two days back on the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.
  4. Selected Letters, 141-44.
  5. I originally assumed that he had, based on the way the diary was subsequently published--but working a head a few days it became clear that some of or even all of these experiences may date to next Sunday, a century back...
  6. War Letters to a Wife, 159-60.

Robert Graves Saves the Day… or the Day, at Least, Has Been Saved; Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon Are for the Birds; Richard Aldington Reads Frederic Manning; Edmund Blunden Blushes to His Boots; a Strange New Job for Charles Moncrieff

A six-writer-day today, but never fear: they’re mostly writing pithily.

First, it would seem that today, a century back, was the day that the raid of the 2/RWF was officially postponed. Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle confirms that the battalion has long resisted the bad plan, the likely waste of men, and the impossibility of digging in in ground that is awash in mud on the surface yet still frozen beneath. What the chronicle neglects to mention is that Robert Graves was the temporary CO during the last conference on the raid–in fact, Captain Graves is not mentioned at all, and, therefore, does not feature as the hero of the hour.

Instead, we get circumstantial confirmation today of the next milestone in Graves’s career. In Good-Bye to All That Graves notes a long night’s work, soon after his appearance at the raid conference, which ended in exhaustion and a diagnosis–from the very same writing Dr. Dunn who did not dwell upon his temporary command–of bronchitis. On the way out to the hospital, Graves sees a dead man–a suicide: “the miserable weather and fear of the impending attack were responsible for his death.”[1] Dunn confirms that on the 22nd the 2/RWF came out of the line and “one man had committed suicide” while over 130 had to be hospitalized for illnesses related to the weather.

So, while he doesn’t have the date to give in his memoir, it was therefore today, a century back, when Graves, relieved of his very temporary command, was one of the men sent down the line sick. It will be a long journey away for Graves, heading first for No. 8 hospital, Rouen, but not ending there…

And there is one more brutal note: one of the battalions of the relieving brigade inherited the poorly planned, postponed raid. When they launched it, “all went well until the raiders rose to their feet to make the assault, then they were raked by machine-guns and got no further.”[2]

No, no, one more note, before we leave the Royal Welch: today, a century back, the 2/RWF welcomed–perhaps not officially in exchange for Captain Graves, “a fine white goat from the Wynnstay Hills,” a gift from the reserve battalion back in Britain… Battalion parades have been sadly lacking in ceremony for quite some time, and will now be better fitted to honor Regimental Tradition…

 

I’ve been missing bashful Edmund Blunden, and there’s an anecdote that can be matched with today (via the Battalion Diary) which shows him at his bashfullest…

A thaw came on, and dirty rainstorms swept the bleak village ends. I felt how lucky I was to have received almost at that moment a pair of new and ponderous Wellingtons, though my size in boots was different; and in these I worked with Worley on a new plan for putting up barbed wire in a hurry, which we had ourselves pencilled out. The Divisional General rode by one morning as we were beginning, with our squad of learners, and when he returned we had put up quite a maze of rusty inconvenience. The good old Duke — no, the General — called me all trepidant to him, smiled, asked my age and service, liked the wire, and passed into the village. At lunch Harrison also smiled upon me. “Rabbit, I hear you were wiring this morning. . . . The General said you surprised him. He asked me, ‘Who was that subaltern in the extraordinary boots, Harrison? Well, he got up that wire very quick. We went down the street, and there wasn’t a yard of it: we came back and there was a real belt.’ — You’ve found another friend.” He began to laugh very heartily as he added: “Those boots, Rabbit!” This painful memory must be exorcised by being noted here. I presented my batman shortly afterward with a pair of new jack-boots.[3]

 

Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon are separated by eight years of age that, due to their different family circumstances, seem like twenty-five; one is–or could be, were it not for the war–a carefree youth, while the other is a long-burdened family man. They are very different in outlook, temperament, and artistic commitment… despite a few friends and acquaintances in common it’s hard to imagine them getting along very well at all.

But they are both poets of a traditional bent, both have always spent a great deal of time outdoors, and both are in France and yet away from their units and stuck in big impersonal situations (Thomas on temporary assignment as an orderly officer with a larger unit, Sassoon quarantined in Rouen’s huge base camp with measles). Both are pining for home–or action–and spring. And so their diaries, today, make for an uncomfortably close antiphony.

Sassoon: “My fifth night in this squalid little ‘compound’… Four of my fellow patients play cards all day; their talk is all the dullest obscenity.”

Thomas: “Cold and wet… Office work and maps. Court of Inquiry on gassing of 4 men. Am I to stay on here and do nothing but have cold feet…?”

So far, so similar. Sassoon is more histrionic, more misanthropic (for Thomas, despair is too serious a thing to leave at the mercy merely of uncongenial company) and keyed up to protest, while Thomas has yet to experience combat or intense danger, and does not associate his unit with an ideal of world-defying fellowship.

So Sassoon complains a bit more–and has more time on his hands to complain–and the rest of his diary entry for today rails against the stupidity (now a favorite word of Sassoon’s) of the war, the reduction of the soldier from “a noble figure” to “a writhing insect,” and the pointlessness of religion. Which eventually becomes a bit much even for Sassoon, and so he acknowledges that he is frustrated and angry, and writes that “such things come from a distempered brain: an infantry officer only sees the stupidest side of the War:”

Distempered indeed:

Yet I should loathe the very idea of returning to England without having been scarred and tortured once more. I suppose all this ‘emotional experierice’ (futile phrase) is of value. But it leads nowhere now (but to madness).

It’s very bad: Sassoon also quotes Conrad twice. And ironic, of course, that the 2/RWF, the unit to which he will be assigned once his measles are gone, was almost in action today–an action in which they would have been more like insects than heroes.

Thomas, in Arras, is pithier: “What is to be done?”

The complaints are only roughly parallel, but the two poets’ searchings for solace in today’s diary entries are very similar–they look to the birds. Thomas:

No thrushes, yet, but a chaffinch says “Chink” in the chestnut in our garden…[4]

And Sassoon:

There are miles of pine-woods on one side of the camp; I went a walk among the quiet sterns yesterday… The silence, and the clean air did me good… I can see God among the pine trees where birds are flitting and chirping.[5]

But for Sassoon–an infantry officer, as he reminds us–the straight line from birds to spring does not describe an uplifting course: spring means the Spring Offensive. Nevertheless, these poets are for the birds, and tomorrow they will remain closely attuned.

 

Richard Aldington wrote again to F.S. Flint today, and once again we find that while infantrymen suffer the casual cruelty of shelling, they are better positioned than most to administer the casual critical cruelty of criticism: a man who carries all his belongings makes serious choices when he chooses to read, or to withhold the space for reading. Aldington is yet to see the front line, and so he presumably has at least some time to read, and though he must carry his pack, he isn’t stripping it down to the barest trench-essentials…

The good news is that he has read a fellow Imagist, and a fellow Writer That We Read… the bad news for this letter’s recipient is that it’s not his best pal Franky Flint.

My dear Franky,

If I wished to torment you I could invent all sorts of terrifying yarns about the fate of your m.s. You are too sensitive about it. And in any case, know that I respect always poems & H.D.’s letters. Your manuscript is in my pack & will remain there until it is crushed by many route marches, when I will solemnly devote it to Vulcan…

Ah but Aldington is only twitting Flint, here. He has just written that he read and liked the poems; this letter, evidently, is gentle mockery for Flint’s having inquired too soon, showing anxiety before the appreciative return-letter could possibly reach him.

You fill me with nostalgia when you speak of your evenings with Yeats, discussing Claudel & Peguy & Gide. Why man alive, I could talk with battalions & battalions of men & not find one who had ever heard of Claudel or even of Yeats…

Have you seen Manning’s poems? You don’t mention them, so I imagine you haven’t. Some of them are really fine, some quite good, & a residue rotten; but there is enough good stuff in the book to make it quite worth while. You must get a copy when it comes out…[6]

Yes; Frederic Manning’s biography (in both senses) is such that I have more or less missed the writing and publication of his poems. Aldington mentioned the book in that recent letter (and he surely does rate the poetry above Flint’s) but it is striking that Manning, who moved in the literary world before the war but has had a checkered career in the army, somehow managed to get Eidola (1917) published early this year, when he spent most of the autumn on the Somme. But then again Ivor Gurney is attempting the same feat…

 

Finally, today, a brief update from Charles Scott Moncrieff:

22nd February, 1917

. . . A new and strange job. I relieved Campbell Johnson last night in the Command of a Prisoners of War Company and am in a very comfortable little hut with tables and chairs, china plates, a lamp, etc. Near my hut is a large cage containing 500 Germans—who do the most amazing amount of work in various ways, and seem clean and good and docile.[7]

A strange job indeed, but the comfort will matter: whether commanding the prisoners or returning to hospital[8] when his illness flares up, Moncrieff will have a great deal of time to himself. While our poets in the trenches struggle to commit anything to writing, he will be able to further the work he did during his leave in establishing himself as a critic and essayist.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 242-3.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 299-300.
  3. Undertones of War, 146.
  4. War Diaries, (Childhood), 163.
  5. Diaries, 133-4.
  6. Imagist Dialogues, 190-1.
  7. Diaries, 125.
  8. Scott Moncrieff's poor health, although he bears it stoically in his letters, might be looked upon as essential preparation for the major work he will one day take up...

Isaac Rosenberg, Strained and Weak; F.S. Flint is Read (by Richard Aldington) and Freely Given (by Ford Madox Hueffer)

Today is a day of literary letters, headed back across the channel in loose formation, nodding to each other in terse recognition, and speeding their pleas to the same few destinations. First, a wilting off-shoot of the Georgian/Dymock set–and after him the Modernists.

Isaac Rosenberg had written to Gordon Bottomley in early January about his plans–lousy and otherwise–and his reading.  He was fairly chipper, then, even about his miseries: “I fancy it was a touch of the flue… I wonder if Aeschylus as a private in the army was bothered as I am by lice.” Less so, in a letter postmarked today, a century back:

Dear Mr Bottomley

Your letters always give me a strange and large pleasure; and I shall never think I have written poetry in vain, since it has brought your friendliness in my way. Now, feeling as I am, castaway and used up, you don’t know what a letter like yours is to me. Ever since Nov, when we first started on our long marches, I have felt weak; but it seems to be some inscrutable mysterious quality of weakness that defies all doctors… I believe I have strained my abdomen in some way…[1]

Still, the letter included a “sketch” of “Louse Hunting,” and all was not as dark as Rosenberg’s mood. Not long ago Eddie Marsh had written–informally, of course–to Rosenberg’s adjutant, with the result that he will be transferred, probably at some point this month, from the “works” battalion to a less labor-intensive job in a trench mortar unit.[2]

 

It’s a small literary world: Bottomley is good friends with Edward Thomas and central to the now far-flung Dymock crew. Rupert Brooke was the strongest connection between Dymock and the Georgian Anthology, but Bottomley and de la Mare are others, and even if Thomas has avoided Marsh’s influence they are known to each other. And Marsh, of course, is not intervening lightly in Rosenberg’s military career–he was also a crucial early patron. Between Bottomley and Marsh there are few promising young writers of somewhat traditional verse more than one friendly letter away.

But oh yes–there are other literary microcosmoi, and with our advantage of historical vantage, we know that another small world considering au courant and modern will grab the stage and boot Georgian Poetry into the footlights. Or footnotes.

The Modernists, grouped around a few small journals,[3] see the Georgians more as almost indecently exposed targets of opportunity, prim ladies showing a touch of ankle while the Imagists are stripping to their all togethers to describe. Although Richard Aldington ceded his editorial post at The Egoist to his wife, H.D., when he went for a soldier, he still knows who and what to read.

Yesterday, a century back, Aldington wrote to F.S. Flint, his good friend and fellow subaltern in the Modernist enterprise; today, the august Ford Madox Hueffer, something of an elder statesman among the young ruffians (how’s that?) aimed a missive at the same target. We may set a record, today, for box-barrage-style name-dropping.

Although Aldington could hardly be more unlike his fellow poetical footslogger Ivor Gurney in either personality or poetic  predilection–Gurney has made a literal Dymock pilgrimage–the two rising poets and private soldiers offer the same criterion for poetic appreciation: is it pack-worthy?

My dear Franky,

I carried your poem and Manning’s poems in my pack for I know not how many kilometres–what more devotion to
literature can you ask? I am immensely pleased by your poem, & as I wrote to H.D., feel that it justifies amply your months of silence… Certainly, compel Monro to print the poem in a chap-book & add any “dug-outs” you have…

The horrid thought strikes me that, if U.S. goes to war, Amy will insist on writing and publishing patriotic verse. This must be barred strenuously–we have foreborn to intrude our nationalism, to “let wrath embitter the sweet mouth of song”; so must she. I have sent H.D. a few scraps of vers libre put down from time to time recently. They may not be much good, for I think they are lazy due to a state of intoxication derived from the happy discovery that one can boil Quaker Oats in one’s “billycan”…

This concern–that Amy Lowell will influence the decline of Modern poetry in America even as she has helped to elevate in England, fades into yet another reverie about war’s end. A popular topic, this winter:

I am back for “a rest”, having shed no blood of my own or anyone else’s, save when I gashed my thumb on a bullybeef tin. And poor May Sinclair will go on thinking I’m an ’eroe”! What women have to answer for! After the war–when everything will of course be ideal–we must rendez vous in your earthly paradise & idle long days in sun and long grass… I desire my Horatian otium cum dignitate [leisure with dignity] just as much as ever. If I get back you will not find me a rampagious & lustful legionary, but the same apostle of pastoral culture as of old. Old books, old wine, old pictures–young women & young songs…

Well, I will conclude this empty raving…

Au revoir, old lad, & a hundred congratulations on your fine piece of work.

R.

“Empty raving,” quotha? Naturally, but this is something a man–a ponderous master like Ford Madox Hueffer–could do with a lighter sort of brio, especially if he is behind the likes of drunken junior Modernist officer cadets like Manning…

Attd. IX Welch, No. 6, 1.B.D.
B.E.F., France
19.2.17

I very ungraciously didn’t answer yr. letter–wh. reached me in the far South. However, I was lazy there–where the Mediterranean spurts up into the rosemary and lavender. But this is the bare, cold & trampled North, with nothing
but khaki for miles & miles…Bare downs… & tents… & wet valleys… & tents…& AAC guns… & mud… & bare
downs…& huts…& bare downs…& RFC…& mud…& motor lorries… & mud… & bare downs.

And I am promoted to Adj.–& run a Bn. much as I used to run the Eng[lish] Rev[iew]–It’s the same frame of mind, you know, & much, much easier–or more difficult, according to one’s mood…

Surely this great literary effort must in effect be some sort of preamble?

I want to ask you a favour: I somehow pine to publish a vol. of poems before the war ends or I am killed. Cd. you, do you think?, arrange for someone to publish:

Antwerp
The Old Houses
Two or three poems written in the trenches & other nasty places
& Heaven

in one volume? And could you collect and arrange them, somewhat in that order?

…I fancy it wd. make a pretty good volume. I have got rather a good one written to the dead of the Welch Regt & so on…. Let me know?

I do admire yr. work very much–you know. “Cadences” is an ever so beautiful volume.

And here’s the funny bit. “I admire your work very much.” Enough to schlepp it? Surely yes? You are, after all, an officer, with a servant, who hasn’t been in trenches in months, you must have trunks of books…

I gave it to some people in Mentone–not because I.did not value the gift, but because it wd. spread yr. fame a little–& because in my valise here it wd. only disintegrate amongst revolvers & straps & the mud in wh. one lives.

Goodbye, my dear.

I am personally very happy in this sort of life: in the end it suits me better to write:

“O.C. Canadaous will detail a fatigue party of 1 NCO & 10 men at 4:30 a.m…” than to watch the Mediterranean foam spattering over rosemary and lavender–for I don’t believe I am really, really Highbrow–as you truly are.

But God bless you, all the same…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, ed., 89-90.
  2. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, ch. 18.
  3. E.G. Blast, tied to various writers we read here, including Ford, below; and the newer Wheels, featuring the Sitwells and other Grenadier Guardsmen, several Imagist Anthologies... and yes, there are also people like Pound and Eliot being published, somewhere, presumably...
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 182-6.

Edward Thomas in Arras (and Wales); Siegfried Sassoon in Quarantine; Charles Moncrieff in Church; David Jones in Fragments; Rowland Feilding in Expectation of Disaster

There is anticlimax, and then there is anticlimax. Siegfried Sassoon, after months of girding himself for the return to battle, arrived at the base camp in Rouen two days ago, only to witness misery, mourning, and estrangement. Once he found his billet things hardly improved–he ignored his fellow officers and read Hardy and Chaucer. At least he was on his way to his battalion… until today, a century back, when he was sent to the hospital with the measles. The German measles…

 

One literary subaltern into hospital in a French cathedral town; another almost out: Charles Scott Moncrieff, who has seen more of the war than Sassoon, has not shown the same inclination toward protest or despair. With only intermittent letters it’s hard to guess at the roots of a man’s personality. But one readily available explanation is his faith:

I got away from Hospital on Sunday morning, and heard Mass at the Cathedral. There was a very small congregation, mostly grouped round the sides of the choir. It was bitterly cold, but we all sang lustily. . .[1]

 

Carreg Cennin

Edward Thomas has been writing briefly but faithfully in his “War Diary” since arriving in France. It contains his movements, his thoughts, the petty annoyances of his fellows, the sage sayings of his batman, a record of letters sent and received, and–best of all–compressed observations, notebook jottings for future poems. (Thomas, barely two years a poet, has from the very beginning been in the habit of reworking his observations into poems, often long after they were noted down.)

Today, there is a lovely bit, taking an artilleryman’s day on the Western Front and overlaying it with old rambles in Wales. In the poet’s mind, one medieval ruin evokes another, and we might see the old ruin shading into Faerie, while the recently smashed old building stands for the horrors of modern war.

Arras Town Hall

Afternoon to Arras–Town Hall like Carreg Cennin. Beautiful small white square empty. Top storey of high house ruined cloth armchair and a garment across it left after shell arrived. Car to Mendicourt and back by light of star shells…[2]

What will the poet make of such things?

 

Speaking of London-born, Welsh descended, Wales-loving poets, David Jones wrote a letter to a friend today, a century back. The letter made its way to Jones’s father, who copied a passage from it and carried the quotation around with him. It’s the only bit from Jones’s letters home that remains:

I am glad you called to see my people. I often wondered how they really took the war. I thought I knew what it was to love them before I left home — but I know now in truth… At any rate I shall see you in what our fathers called “the green fields of AvalIon’.

Like so many other soldiers, Jones was unable to save the letters he received at the front–but he, too, would record a short scrap from a letter: his mother once wrote “Really, David, the spelling in your last letter was a disgrace to the family–a child of four would do better.’’[3]

 

Finally, today, Rowland Feilding has grim news–more for himself than for his wife, Edith. There is a raid planned for tomorrow. And, he fears, it is not planned well. You can’t judge a leader from his letters, but Feilding makes both a fetish of complete honesty in these letters to his wife and an honest attempt at living up to that ideal. He feels he has no choice but to play his role, and it is tearing him up, so he writes home for solace. One could almost miss the fact that he is not likely to suffer in his own body the effects of this needless and ill-planned assault. He is heartbroken that he will have to send his men into such a thing.

February 18, 1917. “Doctor’s House,” Kemmel.

It is late at night, and at half-past three to-morrow morning we set off on a rather desperate enterprise, for the proper conditions for which we have been waiting many weeks; so long, in fact, that the programme has begun to
lose its bite.

The intention is to raid the enemy at three points in daylight, in a fog, or, failing a fog, under cover of a smoke cloud, without preliminary bombardment.

The weather so far has been entirely and persistently inappropriate to our purpose. The days have been clear and sunny; the nights bright with stars; and the wind has blown from the east into our faces, so that an artificial fog has been out of the question. Hence the long delay. To-night it seems that we may have the conditions we have wished for.

I am not entirely satisfied with the arrangements. First, Roche, the Trench-Mortar Officer, in whom I have complete faith, was sent away on a fortnight’s course, for a rest—much against his own will as well as mine—before the cutting of the enemy’s wire, which had been entrusted to the medium mortars, was anything like completed; and without him I do not quite trust the rest, either to make the necessary gaps, or to keep them open, when made, against the enemy’s repair work.

Secondly, I have lost two of the principal officers whom I had detailed for the raid—both leaders of assaulting parties; one wounded; the other away on an officer’s course (the curse, often, of us Battalion Commanders, since we have no option in the matter, and are obliged to send away officers when called for, however little we can spare them). I have applied for this officer back again, and have been refused him. Consequently, though the raid has been well practised over a replica of the German trench which I have had prepared behind our line, the training of these two important adjuncts has been thrown away.

These are bitter ironies of modern war. This raid has no strategic purpose, but it is necessarily conducted by a unit that lives under the impersonal thumb of the a bureaucracy created by the needs of grand strategy and an industrial war of attrition. They practice, good–but a surprise assault must depend to a great degree on leadership (in the simple old sense of the word), and the same bureaucracy that requires the raid strips the commander of the men he needs. One hand gins up courses for the long haul while another hurls a unit forward in hope of small local advantage.

Finally, a one-minute’s intense lightning Stokes mortar bombardment which I asked for at Zero has been vetoed, Pereira’s view being that this would alarm the Germans in the front line and bring them to their posts. It would doubtless bring him to his post, but he is apt to forget, I think, that all men are not like himself.

However, for better or worse, we tackle the job tomorrow morning, and all preparations having been completed in so far as is feasible under the circumstances, we have been having a game of Bridge; and now I am off for a few hours’ sleep before starting.[4]

Feilding will be too busy tomorrow, in any case, to write.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 125.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 163.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 150.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 151-2.

Charles Scott Moncrieff is Up Again, and Down; Wilfred Owen Burns the Midnight Petrol; Edward Thomas Observes; John Buchan is Drafted

After a long convalescence, Charles Scott Moncrieff has been back on front line duty for a few weeks. At the end of January, he described his position, near Soues:

. . . On this plain we have among the mud, scarred with last summer’s shell holes, mile upon mile of wooden pathways, boards placed end to end like dominoes, and zigzagging over the country. The effect, especially by moonlight on the snow, is extraordinary. . . . I am still at Headquarters. We get very well looked after in the way of food, etc., having a Mess Corporal who scours the country in search of stores.

That night his battalion went up in relief of two others which had attacked German positions. Moncrieff’s battalion of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers then “consolidated,” the new position “and have, I think, given general satisfaction.” Today, a century back, there is more news:

9th Feb.

A great many changes and excitements. We came out of trenches on the 4th, and got a wire that evening that Campbell Johnson would take command of a company of German prisoners near by, and that Major Pennyman would return to us. C. J. went off in the morning to take a court martial, so I was in command for a few hours. Next day the Colonel returned. I meanwhile had been rather seedy, so on the 7th, as the regiment was coming out for their 12 days’ rest, I was buzzed down to Amiens in a motor ambulance and landed here in hospital. To-day I am as yellow as a guinea…

I am glad to have an opportunity of seeing this town. It is practically out of bounds for the troops outside. It is ridiculous my going sick so soon, but it happened very opportunely (while the regiment is resting), and I hope for nothing better than to rejoin in about a fortnight. The sunlight through the glass looks very bright and cheery. I believe in trenches we had 25 degrees of frost one morning, and being mostly out of doors, or just indoors, it is felt all the more. . . .[1]

This is at least the third time that Moncrieff’s service has been interrupted by ill-health, so it remains to be seen if his confidence in the short duration of his illness is warranted…

 

From a Scotsman, then, to a Shropshire lad being discommoded by a Scotsman. Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother today from his enviably safe new billet on a transport course well behind the lines. It’s a light letter, and his joy at not being amidst the frozen mud and shell bursts of the front line shines through the minor complaints. Owen notices that he is not quite the personally conservative mama’s boy he had been before the trenches… all that violent death has a liberalizing effect on one’s sense of quotidian risk.

My own dear Mother,

I am in a hut now, because the Scot disturbed me by rolling in every midnight, and when at last he got into our bed, his three sheets did not somehow add to the warmth.

Last night I burnt a petrol lamp under my bed!! I don’t know what Risk is, now.

In the morning, the top blanket was stiffish with frost. Don’t think I suffer. Every detail of this blessed Life is sweet and precious. 3 more weeks of it yet!

…no more now but my perfect Love to you.

W.E.O. X X X[2]

 

Finally, today, three brief notices:

 

Edward Thomas and his battery marched up through the bitter cold today, a century back, toward their first position behind the lines near Arras. His diary, written hastily at the end of the day, is a series of notes, aides-memoires for a writer too busy to write.

…(Remember Berneville courtyard, with ruined pigeon house by well and church behind what was manor house.) Graveyard for 3 ‘Mort pout la patrie’ below our billet. A wonderful night of all the stars and low full moon.[3]

 

Richard Aldington, pioneer private, is still writing busily. A letter to F.S. Flint today was relatively short, with only time for a few slanders of literary rivals–but it included two poems! Which, by the time the letter was archived, were “no longer with letter.”[4]

 

And it was today, a century back, that John Buchan officially joined the war effort. He was appointed, by cabinet minute, to be the first director of the new Department of Information.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 123.
  2. Collected Letters, 432-3.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 161.
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 183.
  5. Smith, John Buchan, 200.