Ivor Gurney Hears the Music of the Stars; Siegfried Sassoon Stands Up a Board and Still Fails to See the Moon

Another digressive letter from Ivor Gurney of today, a century back, contains one of the nicest expressions of his musicality. And by “nice” I mean something that I can more or less grasp–only actual musicians would be able to follow much of his discussions with Marion Scott, and these I generally puzzle over, than omit. But not only can we grasp this one, perhaps, but we might even connect it to his war–to something, at least, that he sees before him:

Last night — O lucky me! — a Scottish Rifle sat up besides the stove with me, which glowed and made believe it was a fire. And he had travelled and could talk, and we had the same politics and the same tastes. His eyes were steady, his laugh open and easily provoked, and a smile that could not be long checked being chiefly an affair of the eyes. O well, it must have been 12.30 when we illicitly walked under the stars, watching Orion and hearing his huge sustained chord…

Gurney then writes into the letter a bass and treble clef, fitting them out with the chord he heard: a grand D Major, with the F# only present in the bass.

From this heavenly synesthesia,[1] he segues directly into verse, quoting Hilaire Belloc, then Yeats, and then delivering himself of this programmatic declaration:

The great test of Art—the Arts of Music, Writing, Painting anyway is to be able to see the eyes kindly and full of calm wisdom that would say these things behind the page. I will not try to write verse in England. Once out there, it will leak from me in vulgar streams.

With best wishes,

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[2]

 

And there we must leave Gurney to traipse only a few miles away to another War Hospital on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The segue is not poetic, alas, but a question of “out there–” in two senses. We will learn that the path back to the trenches can take different turns for different men and, more curiously, that it must have been clear in Scotland last night, and cloudy tonight…

Today, a century back, is the big day for Siegfried Sassoon: he recently announced his readiness to return to active service, his protest notwithstanding, and Dr. Rivers agreeably arranged a Medical Board, which is intended to end the fiction of his having a (symptomatic) “war neurosis” and pronounce him fit for duty. So off to the board he goes… or off to the waiting room, at least.

Even if you don’t know the story, you can probably guess that Sassoon–Mad Jack, the quiet poet, the petulant schoolboy–is not going to proceed according to plan.

I regret not using more of Sherston’s Progress lately, because it’s really good stuff… my excuses are that Sassoon puts few dates into it, that these are often slightly off, that he writes this section in a much more openly “binary,” flash-forward-ridden way, and that it is still, technically, a fictionalized memoir rather than a “straight” personal history.[3]

But in volume three of Sherston’s memoirs the fiction is growing thin. Rivers is Rivers, too influential to be damned by faint pseudonym. And although poetry–and therefore Owen–doesn’t enter into Sassoon’s account of “Sherston’s” stay at “Slateford,” everything else is more or less exactly where it should be. He tells us of his intolerable roommate, the relief of getting a lonely garret to himself, the consolations of literature as the weather turns against golf, etc. And very nicely, too. But about today he has different feelings.

There are two ways of telling a good story well — the quick way and the slow way. Personally I prefer a good story to be told slowly. What I am about to tell is not a good story. It is merely an episode which cannot be left out. A certain abruptness is therefore appropriate.

Well, rats! But this is protesting too much, isn’t it still a good story?

On the appointed afternoon I smartened myself up and waited to be called before the medical board. I was also going to tea with the astronomer, who had promised to let me have a look at the moon through his telescope. But I was feeling moody and irritable…

Sassoon–or, rather, just barely, Sherston–wonders if he didn’t perhaps have a touch of a cold coming on, which might explain… no, no, it doesn’t. He doesn’t let himself off and, as promised, he skips the story.

The Board was running late, he didn’t like to be kept waiting, and so he walked out: Lt. Siegfried Sassoon, M.C., former prominent pacifist and alleged neurotic, “cut” the Medical Board that was to decide his fate, with the excuse that the army shouldn’t make him late for tea.

The story is missing its middle, but it has a lovely last word. Naturally, when “Sherston” arrived, the astronomer’s telescope was not working (though, in a wry detail, Sassoon got instead a glimpse at a mysterious instrument and a lecture on the precise measurement of “infinitesimal fractions of a second”). The conclusion?

So even the moon was a washout.

But one point we can certainly take away from Sassoon’s treatment of the episode: there’s no need to over-complicate the story. A cold? An adamantine sense of social propriety? Others suggest, plausibly, a “fit of pique.” But isn’t it plausible that Sassoon wasn’t quite sure about his decision, or that he wanted more time with Rivers, the father figure who had recently abandoned him for his own sick leave, and knew that Rivers would cover for him?

In any case, that is precisely what happened. Rivers was furious with Sassoon–the only time, “Sherston” tells us, that he was so–but before the interview is over he laughs, forgives, and agrees to schedule a new Board in a month’s time.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which reminds me more than a bit of Tolkien, who will cast his cosmological creation in musical terms, with heavy emphasis on starlight--and who brings Orion recognizably into the stars of Middle Earth.
  2. War Letters, 225-6.
  3. Another reason, I think, is that I once read Sassoon's laying-open of his youthful follies as a commendable effort in biographical soul-shriving. I'm not so sure, now: he stays in control of the effort, and seems at times to be almost political in his careful revelations, as if he is revealing what he must in such a way that he will earn commendation, while keeping the most embarrassing stuff safely hidden...
  4. Complete Memoirs, 551-2. See also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418.

Hedd Wyn’s War Begins; Francis Ledwidge to Marsh and Ypres; Hardy at a Party; Sassoon and Read and Ford Gazetted

There are many limitations placed on this project–by prudence, by the persistent finitude of time, by the scope of my interests and inclinations–and so a great many worthy writers are completely absent from it. Among the many entire classes of writers whose Great War experience has been summarily excluded are all of those not writing in English. And although this exclusion, more than most of the others (I have not fought very stiffly against the class and gender biases inherent in the traditional core of “Great War Writers,” for instance) makes a good deal of sense–I expect, sadly, only the same monolingual fluency that I possess–it still seems regrettable.

Hedd Wyn (National Library of Wales)

But then again sticking to the English language does not really exclude many important British Great War poets. In fact, it may exclude nor more than one. And it’s that very one whom I wish most to write about–so I will.

This is not only because the story of Ellis Humphrey Evans, alias Hedd Wyn, alias ‘Fleur de Lis,’ is a very interesting one. No–I  also have more sheepishly personal reasons. Today, a century on, I have planned to be in Wales, seeing the sights, trying not to be seen seeing the sights in a shallowly touristic sort of way, and even trying perhaps, to pick up a little of the language. Which is beautiful and, had the “Jingos” have taken their anti-Germanism to a logical extreme, a much more proper language for use by British soldiers fighting Saxo-Prussian imperialism. So, fellow Anglophones, forgive (and enjoy) the coming “month poem,” yn y Gymraeg.

But first, a bit about its author. Evans–a harmless shepherd in the literal as well as the figurative sense–was not eager to go. He was a chapel man and a pacifist, but, after having been drafted in 1916, he entered the army rather than pursue an uncertain course as a conscientious objector. He did this at least in part because it would preserve a possible family exemption from the draft (for doing essential food-production work) for his younger brother.

In early 1917 Ellis Evans began his training at the Royal Welsh Fusilier depot at Litherland, arriving within a few days of when Siegfried Sassoon–who would not have noticed him, in any case–was posted abroad from the same camp.

A family story has it that he overstayed a recent leave and was taken away by military police to be sent to the War. That would have been last month; by today, a century back, the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers are in Fléchin, France, training for the coming offensive.

While working as a shepherd Evans had pursued a bardic career in the Welsh tradition–his chosen name Hedd Wyn means “blessed (literally ‘white’) peace”–winning prizes at several local eisteddfodau and writing pastoral (again!) and Romantic-inflected poems. For the past few months he has been working on a lengthy ode, suitable for submission to the National Eisteddfod, and he has–or will–mail it home within a few days of today, a century back. But Yr Arwr is lengthy and not, to my knowledge, satisfactorily translated, so our month poem will be another recent poem called, appropriately enough, “war.”

 

Rhyfel

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.

 

War

Woe that I live in bitter days,
As God is setting like a sun
And in his place, as lord and slave,
Man raises forth his heinous throne.

When he thought God was gone at last
He put his brother to the sword.
Now death is roaring in our ears,
Shadowing the shanties of the poor.

The old and silenced harps are hung
On yonder willow trees again.
The bawl of boys is on the wind.
Their blood is blended in the rain.[1]

 

It is appropriate in many ways that Hedd Wyn’s first adjacent fellow poet here would be Francis Ledwidge–himself a proud Gael, and a poet of the working class conflicted about serving the English colonial master.[2] But there the similarities begin to fade. Although Ledwidge began in humble circumstances as an English-language poet from the Irish peasant class, he has risen, these last few years, with the help of a lord.

Today, a century back, Ledwidge wrote to Eddie Marsh, discussing which poems of his might appear in the next Georgian Poetry–Ledwidge is already a veteran of the second anthology. And he is a veteran soldier abroad, well-versed in keeping home in his thoughts, even in the trenches:

Just now a big strafe is worrying our dug-outs and putting out our candles but my soul is by the Boyne cutting new meadows under a thousand wings and listening to the cuckoos at Crocknaharna. They say there will be peace soon.

So they have been saying. The next bit is probably not begun in jest–Marsh will indeed visit the front, when Churchill does, but perhaps he will not have the eyes to see the sights (or the lights, as it were) quite like Ledwidge:

If you visit the Front don’t forget to come up the line at night to watch the German rockets. They have white crests which throw a pale flame across no-man’s-land and white bursting into green and green changing into blue and blue bursting and dropping down in purple torrents. It is like the end of a beautiful world![3]

Ledwidge, with his Gamgee-esque enthusiasms intact, will soon be marching North, from a quiet French sector over clogged roads toward Ypres.

 

And now one further break with convention. I have come across (in a biography of Thomas Hardy) a literary party at the home of J.M. Barrie that will take place at some point this month. Arnold Bennett will describe it, and in doing so he puts Hardy in exactly the light I have always imagined him. The party begins with friendly conversation between the Hardys and Barrie and Bennett. Later,

When darkness had fallen, they stood outside one of the windows, watching the searchlights: then more famous authors arrived, not without arising some irony in Bennett: “The spectacle of Wells and G.B.S. talking firmly and strongly about the war, in their comparative youth, in front of this aged, fatigued and silent man–incomparably their superior as a creative artists–was very striking.”[4]

It is characteristic of mere sorcerers that they fail to recognize a true wizard brooding in their midst.

 

And what if the actual fighting writers had been there? Ah, well–we can assume that Wells and Shaw would assume more modesty before a quiet young beribbonned officer than before the quiet, old, invisibly laurelled poet. Speaking of soldier poets…

 

Herbert Read and Siegfried Sassoon–a farmer’s son from Yorkshire and a gentleman of private means from Kent–have never met. And neither one has met the great shambling broken-down smoldering runaway firework-seller’s handcart that is Ford Maddox Hueffer.[5] Nevertheless, in what surely must be my most pompous and tenuous “crossing of paths” yet, these two most successfully aggressive trench fighters in all of modern poetry’s pantheon and this shell-shocked soon-to-be-the-author-of-perhaps-the-greatest-Modern-English-Novel were published alongside each other today, a century back: although one is training for an assault in France, another is rebelling against England, and another has been quietly stashed in a training unit, all three appeared in the London Gazette, each officially promoted to full lieutenant.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I have copied a strong translation, by A.Z. Foreman, from here--the link has spoilers.
  2. An only slight less apt and perhaps more interesting point of comparison would be Isaac Rosenberg, whom I recently placed alongside Ledwidge...
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 184.
  4. Blunden, Thomas Hardy, 155-6.
  5. I have been several months behind in his biography--but I hope to being him back in shortly!
  6. I discovered these facts in three biographies: presumably the Gazette itself is somewhere to be circled in red and marked with triple exclamation marks, but I haven't checked!!!.

Edward Hermon Has a Pow-Wow; Siegfried Sassoon Would Dose the Fighting Man With Dreams; Edward Thomas Reckons with War and Death; Edwin Vaughan’s Poor Jerry

A busy day, today, with thoughtful letters from Edward Thomas and poetry from Sassoon. But I do want to begin with Edward Hermon–Ethel’s Bob, and the C.O. of the 24th Northumberland Fusiliers–who describes a jolly little gathering with some of the brass.

…had quite a pleasant day. Saw Richardson & Temple & old Trevor lent me a horse. Met the Corps Commander and the Div. Commander. The former a most charming old gent. Perfect manners & most pleasant.

If this puts you in mind, as it does me, of Meriadoc Brandybuck meeting Theoden of Rohan, I’m afraid that the resonance is more apt than we might hope. This little get-together is not social–it is on the eve and the edge of a great tumult. The charming old gent is coming down to issue his detailed orders for the coming battle of Arras.

I wish we were together for just one night as I could tell you so much more than one could write & lots that would interest you, but if speech is silver, silence is golden.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, away south on the quiescent Somme front and able to write unreservedly in his diary, is in a reflective mood. He will have a lot to say in the coming days, so let’s review, shall we?

March 30 (Hotel Belfort, Amiens)

Alone at last after a typical ‘war evening’. After yet another ‘lorry-journey’ in rain and westerly wind, I got to this town again for a ‘final jolly’. On 30 March 1914 I was looking forward with acute anxiety to the Atherstone point-to-point meeting (to be held next day). All my world was centred[2] in the desire to steer old Cockbird first past the post in some wily, jolly race over hedge and ditch.

And I did it. And the world went on just the same! On 30 March 1916 I was in the trenches at Fricourt-Mametz, hating the Germans for killing my friend, and wondering if they’d kill me.

But they didn’t! And tonight I’ve been guzzling at the Godbert restaurant with a captain of the Dublin Fusiliers, and a captain of the Cameronians, and three other Welsh Fusiliers; and the bill was 250 francs; and we drank Veuve Clicquot; and the others have gone into the dark city, to look for harlots; and I’m alone in my room; looking out of a balconied window at the town; with few lights, and the Moon and silver drifts of cloud going eastward; and the railway station looming romantic as old Baghdad. And next week we march away to ‘hazards whence no tears can win us’.

Sassoon next writes a short prose piece that amounts to a reverie proposing remedy by reverie. “Dream Pictures” imagines that he might console homesick soldiers, bored by the same old letters and the dull news, by giving them “a healthy dose of domestic sentimental recollection” which would “turn them loose in some dream-gallery of Royal Academy pictures of the late-nineteenth century.

I would show them bland summer landscapes, willow and meadowsweet reflected in calm waters, lifelike cows coming.home to the byre with a golden sunset behind them. I would take them to gateways in garden-walls that they might gaze along dewy lawns with lovers; murmuring by the moss-grown sundial; I would lead them twixt hawthorn hedgerows, and over field path stiles; to old-world orchards where the lush grass is strewn with red-cheeked apples, and even the wasps have lost their stings…[3]

That’s just in case you thought it was the latter-day English professors making too big a deal about the “consolations of the pastoral…”

 

Edward Thomas is dutiful both to his sense of others’ claim on his time–if he is free from work, he should write to those who love him–and to his own commitment not to write poetry at the front. His diary receives many of the observational fragments that might become poems. But some make it into his letters, try though he might to stick to the stuff of prose.

First, though, a letter to Eleanor Farjeon. He has acknowledged that she loves him; now he treats her as an intimate friend, striving to do her the honor of a frank, clear, straightforward letter. The poetry will sneak into the next letter, when he can still, almost paradoxically, write freely as he writes down.

March 30

My dear Eleanor,

Another penultimate letter before I shall be unable to write from press of work. And first I must thank you for sending the apples and also for the apples themselves, which arrove today.

It was a good post, a parcel also from Mother and letters from Helen and Mother…

Everything is useful, and will be especially in the time to come when I have to take up food for perhaps considerably over 24 hours and pig it in noise and darkness and worse. Subalterns are told nothing but I happen to know what is intended, only not what difference this rain may make. I say this rain, but a most lovely cold bright evening, clear and still, has just passed, with many blackbirds singing. I fancy though that the Easter weather is not really beginning yet. I wish it was. I should welcome a warm night…

You will hear soon enough about what is doing, before I can tell you…

The town is catching it badly now and we are well away—touch wood—though we aren’t in a paradise or the bagpipes wouldn’t have played what they did last night. The crossings and corners are dirty places. But the Hun must be confounded with our numbers, though you might think he couldn’t fire without hurting more than the open fields. Luckily he often does…

In a strange burst of high spirits, the letter ends with a different sort of verse: Thomas segues suddenly into a folk song–one evidently known to Farjeon (they are both connoisseurs).

It isn’t nice, though, going up in the cold dawn. If only one could keep warm without being burdened with clothes and all sorts of ornaments—glasses, maps, waterbottles, haversacks, gas-helmets, periscopes etc., so that a trenchcoat isn’t wide enough and if you have to throw yourself down you feel like an old woman
home from marketing and still more so when you get up—while you on shore and a great many more are sleeping warm and dry— oh. Don’t forget your old houseboat mate, Fol-de-rol-de-riddlefol-de-rol-de-ri-do. Who is ever yours

Edward Thomas[4]

And straight from that bit of whimsy to this letter, to both his mother and his younger brother Julian.

Beaurains, 30 March 1917

Dear Mother,

I will write you another letter to-night because I have nothing to do but be in the battery till the Major and Captain come back from dinner. One has always to be here and to-night is my turn…

Nothing much is happening yet, though the firing seldom ceases. However, to-day has been a better day, with plenty to do and after much cold rain plenty of sunshine to do it in as the evening came on. Which somehow reminds me I ought to be writing to Julian, which I should have done had I not your parcel and your letter today to thank you for. The parcel came safe and was welcome as ever. A plain cake would be very nice whenever you can send it. The chocolate etc. will be most useful on days when I am up at the O.P. and do not want to have to carry more food than is necessary. Your letter and Eleanor’s and Helen’s give me a very clear picture of their visit with Myfanwy…

In other words Thomas, though writing from a dugout near Arras and helping to bombard the Germans, is in receipt of three letters describing the same evidently uneventful family visit. Few men are as tethered to home.

And yet he snaps the band, in a way, without even turning the page. He writes to his brother, now, man to man. Instead of discussing daily life and parcels he takes on the simple subject of war. Nothing more than war and death and killing and suffering and happiness and misery, in a paragraph.

Now I will write to Julian.

My dear Julian I am sorry I have not written specially to you till I had one to answer and that I have had for a week now. There is not much really to tell you that I can tell you or that it would be permissible or profitable to tell you till it is all over. We are having a dirty long picnic, you know, with many surprising and uncomfortable things in it….

War, of course, is not altogther different from peace, except that one may be blown to bits and have to blow others to bits. Physical discomfort is sometimes so great that it seems a new thing, but of course it is not. You remember cycling in the rain towards Salisbury. It really is seldom quite a different thing than that. Of course, one seems very little one’s own master, but then one seldom does seem so. Death looms, but however “it comes it is unexpected, whether from appendicitis or bullet. An alternation of comfort and discomfort is always a man’s lot. So is an alternation of pleasure or happiness or intense interest with tedium or dissatisfaction or misery. I have suffered more from January to March in other years than in this. That is the plain fact. I will not go into it any more. I hope I do not seem to be boasting. I am too often idle and inefficient and afraid to want to boast.

I cannot talk about books…

Give my love to Maud and the baby and everyone.

P.S. I was just going to tell you not to take too seriously my request, for Epsom Salts when the order was given ‘Battery. Action.’ and now we are giving 167 rounds at a hostile battery over there in the dark.

Ever your loving son

Edwy[5]

 

One brief final note. Edwin Vaughan has had a few days in billets, but his battalion has just marched up to some of the new territory now being entrenched by the British. His task tonight, a century back, was to supervise the putting out of new barbed-wire emplacements.

It was a very quiet and lonely scene, the slope of snow down from behind us, nothing visible but the whiteness of the earth merging into the grey of the sky. The line of little men at their noiseless tasks and the cold moonlight over all. As I sat drinking in this scene, Breeze touched me on the arm, ‘There’s someone declared peace’, he said and pointed across past the last stake.

Covered with snow, as with a sheet, lay the body of a Boche, looking calm and, I somehow felt, happy. Yet the sight of him made me feel icily lonely. It seemed such a terrible thing to lie alone, covered with snow throughout the night, with never a sound until we came along, and tapped and clipped and never spoke, then went away forever. It seemed so unfriendly, and for a long time I sat wishing we could do something for him.

Later on, as his men line up to march back, he notices a man of his platoon carrying a pair of boots.

I asked him where he got them. He said brightly ‘Jerry up on the hill, Sir.’ My poor poor Jerry. We marched back and left him.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 346.
  2. I link to this not because the date is right but because it is, I think, my longest expostulation on the pre-war Sassoon.
  3. Diaries, 146-7.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 259-60.
  5. Selected Letters, 155-7.
  6. Some Desperate Glory, 73-4.

A. A. Milne and the Earnest Young Knight; Robert Graves Arisen; Herbert Read is for a Hardy Pessimism

On his way to France to join the 11th Royal Warwickshires, A. A. Milne had traveled with a very young subaltern–young, and a younger son, and now the only son. His parents had given him

…an under-garment of chain-mail, such as had been worn in the Middle Ages to guard against unfriendly daggers, and was now sold to over-loving mothers as likely to turn a bayonet-thrust or keep off a stray fragment of shell; as, I suppose, it might have done. He was much embarrassed by this parting gift, and though, true to his promise, he was taking it to France with him, he did not know whether he ought to wear it. I suppose that, being fresh from school, he felt it to be ‘unsporting’; something not quite done; perhaps, even, a little cowardly. His young mind was torn between his promise to his mother and his hatred of the unusual. He asked my advice: charmingly, ingenuously, pathetically.

Milne is thirty-four, a married man and a professional writer and editor, far removed from this schoolboy view of army life. And yet the boy is not wrong. Foolish to be so bothered, sure, but how can that be helped? He is right to anticipate shallow judgment by his peers and to imagine a system still shaped by notions of honor and fair play. It’s sad, for us, to see the word “sporting” affecting life and death decisions; and it should be–but how can it be otherwise? There is no handy porter to cart away all our excess cultural baggage when war beckons.

Interestingly, the practical question of whether the weight of this chain-mail corselet is worth the protection it provides (a mithril coat neatly dodges this conundrum) is not raised. This is a question of honor, and sporting behavior–there is a sense that it is wrong not to expose the body to harm when seeking to do harm. Is this entirely bizarre? A little, but there is a faint echo of similar, more familiar ethical questions nonetheless.

Was it sporting for knights in heavy armor to plunge around a battlefield hacking through their unarmored inferiors in order to attempt to brain, capture, and ransom a similarly invulnerable aristocrat? Is it precisely the same when a fighter pilot swoops in between AA fire to fire a rocket as when an operator at a console ten thousand miles away performs the same task?

But this is only a small part of the equation, really: armor was largely abandoned because it was ineffectual, and the notion of “unsporting” followed (after they whittled chivalry down and ran it up and down the playing fields of Eton for a while). Hardly (and not, in fact, entirely) had the last cuirassiers set aside their breastplates when the infantry were once again donning their steel helmets, remarking on their medieval aspect, and complaining about the weight. In fact, just yesterday, in a letter I omitted, Raymond Asquith was mocking an apparent suggestion from Arthur Conan Doyle that the infantry should carry steel shields. And unbeknownst to the men currently fighting, there are plans well advanced to return armor to the battlefield, in the form of the first tanks…

But back to Milne’s story of the boy and his chain-mail. It is, alas, not an idle story, but neither does Milne turn it to comedy or an object lesson. Instead it’s another bittersweet prelude to meaningless disaster. Today, a century back, the 11th Warwickshires were at their ease, camping in an orchard near Bécourt[1]–about two miles west of Mametz Wood–when Milne and the other new subalterns first heard the sound of guns not as distant thunder, but as incoming rounds.

I do not know whether he took my advice… Anyway, it didn’t matter; for on the evening when we first came within reach of the battle-zone, just as he was settling down to his tea, a crump came over and blew him to pieces…

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

But just why it was a pleasant death and a fitting death I still do not understand. Nor, it may be, did his father and mother; even though assured by the Colonel that their son had died as gallantly as he had lived, an English gentleman.[2]

This is a letter written this summer, a century back, but we have already heard this note of bitter irony about how a pointless death in a wood behind the lines can be written up as “gallant” and gentlemanly. And we will see more of that Horatian tag, too. Others will take it on more literally: “to die for (one’s) fatherland/country” would be the literal translation of the end of the line, but it is interesting that Milne seems to make the point that “country” and “class expectations” are inseparable–it is the gentlemanly death alone that the youth imagined to be sweet and fitting.

 

One gets the sense that Dr. Dunn appreciated and tolerated Robert Graves rather than liking him wholeheartedly. But since the doctor had played some role in the nearly-fatal mistake of treating Graves’s wound as fatal, it would be, well, unsporting not to give Graves a good line upon his resurrection.

July 31st. …When the death of Bowles and of Graves was reported through the Field Ambulance, nine days ago, the customary letters were written to their kin. Now Graves writes to the C.O. that the shock of learning how much he is esteemed has recalled him from the grave, and that he has decided to live for the sake of those whose warm feelings he has misunderstood.[3]

 

Lastly, we check in with an infrequently-appearing yet very significant writer. Herbert Read is by now a long-serving subaltern–although he has been some months in the trenches, he has missed the Somme after being injured by barbed wire. Unfortunately, little of his early-war writing can be dated, hence his rare appearances here.

Today, however, we have a letter–one of many written to the woman who was at first a “casual” university friend but is now becoming something much more important. As we come to read more of these letters–published subsequently as a sort of substitute diary-in-letters–we may indeed see something of the “process of getting familiar with death and nothingness… in all its unconscious fatality.”

This might read like an introduction to a letter that demonstrates shock at the suddenness of death in battle or bombardment, but it’s not. We’ll get there, but Read is now in Rugeley Camp in Staffordshire (one of the former haunts of John Ronald Tolkien) and far from the noise of war. It’s his reading–he’s a radical, a Nietzsche-enthusiast, and a devout young Modernist–rather than the war itself that provides evidence of personal developmental. And evidence, too, that you can take the bright boy out of timelessly rural England,[4] but you can’t rural England out of the boy…

31.vii.16

I think a pessimistic attitude is essential to all clear thinking. By a pessimistic attitude I mean a realization of the imperfections and limitations of Man. The belief in the ‘divinity’ of mankind has resulted in all that false idealism and romanticism which is the curse of literature, philosophy and art…

Read name-checks many of his philosophical and literary enthusiasms, here–Bergson, Croce, Sorel, Henry James, the Imagists–before coming to a writer more dear to the heart of this project.

And now for your attack… on Hardy and Meredith… I refuse to have them condemned on the flimsy grounds of morbidity… Hardy’s Jude the Obscure… [is] an absolutely faultless presentation of the animal in mankind… and also, in the character of Jude, a presentation of the finer aspirations of mankind. And in the heroine you have, it seems to me as a mere man, one of the finest female characters ever conceived.

And besides, in all of Hardy’s novels, there is a fine pagan spirit which you must admire–a revelation of the essential cruelty of nature, and of the damning blight of religious creeds.

Which, after all, is good mental conditioning for the godless intellectual youth bound for the trenches…

Read continues on to defend Meredith and praise James before he breaks off with this:

I don’t know if all this is boring you. I will another time, if you like, pull the Wells-Bennett school to pieces. Also give you my own ideas on the novel. For I am going to attempt one as soon as this beastly war is over.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Perhaps Bécourt Wood itself.
  2. Thwaite, A.A. Milne, 173-4. A cursory search of the CWGC site does not locate a subaltern of the 11th Royal Warwickshires killed today, a century back. It seems much more likely that the records (or recollections) are off by a day than that the incident was concocted...
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 246.
  4. Read's account of his childhood on a big Yorkshire farm--yes, that's about as far as you can be from Hardy's Wessex poverty and still be "timelessly rural England," but still--is the most beautiful that I have read, and I've read a few.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 73-4.

Conflicting Reports on Robert Graves; Rowland Feilding on Servants and Bombardments; Edward Thomas Learns to Teach

While Robert Graves lies in a hospital in Rouen, beginning to recover from his near-fatal chest wound, his parents are in a state of terrible confusion and anxiety. First there was a letter declaring him wounded; then, yesterday, the dreaded telegram from the War Office, which reported him in hospital “with gunshot wound penetrating chest seriously ill.” Today, a century back, three letters arrived all at once:

Crawshay’s letter reporting that Robert had died of wounds, a letter from the Matron of the Rouen hospital saying that Robert’s condition was serious… and a letter from Robert himself saying that his temperature was normal, that he was losing very little blood, that he was recovering his appetite, that he was sleeping better, and that he was being well looked after.

It seemed impossible to make sense of these contradictory reports…

Alfred Graves, Robert’s Father, rushed into London and did what he could to discover the truth. He went to 10 Downing Street and found Eddie Marsh, but Marsh could not sort out the truth. On the whole it seemed hopeful that he was wounded and not dead, but everyone was, to understate the obvious, “dreadfully concerned.”[1]

 

As the Somme battle appears to pause (it doesn’t, really, only we have no writers with the units presently at the cutting edge), we will continue to imitate a well-functioning machine and re-supply ourselves with those previously neglected troops not in combat. Today it is the turn, first, of Rowland Feilding.

I have belatedly noticed that this chapter of Feilding’s published letters is entitled “Flotsam and Jetsam–” although technically a naval phrase, this is precisely the evocative chapter title that another veteran of the Somme will use to encompass a time of meeting, touring, viewing, and scrounging upon a water-logged field of battle. Feilding is an officer of the Guards, and not given to scrounging. But he is also detached from his battalion–his over-enthusiasm for seeking combat during quiet periods had, apparently, got him shifted to a non-combat job–and his work with a rear echelon unit[2] leaves him plenty of time to tour the battlefield and write, to his wife, about everything that he sees.

Yesterday, Feilding’s wandering got him into rather a tight spot.

I walked with two other C.G. Officers to a point opposite Contalmaison and Pozieres, and watched a
terrific bombardment of the latter place by the enemy’s artillery…

Then, my companions being bent on sightseeing turned off to the left, while I struck out alone, in the opposite direction, across country, towards Carnoy, where I had some men at work.

I chose the safest route—as I thought! I worked my way to Mametz Wood; then past Bazentin Wood to Flatiron Copse, and on through Caterpillar Wood.

Then, suddenly, the enemy opened one of those promiscuous hurricane bombardments, and I found myself in the middle of the picture! I was out in the open when it started, but continued in the direction I was going, trying to look dignified, though in reality feeling rather foolish as I walked among the flying pieces towards some heads which I saw silhouetted against the skyline, some 400 yards away.

These I found belonged to two Gunner Officers and about five men who were sheltering in a trench…

Now where, amidst these familiar place-names, would be the safest place to wait out a barrage?

They invited me into an old German observation post which they were using as a telephone dug-out, and which, being covered with a layer of rails and sandbags, was at least splinter-proof.

I went in, expecting to remain perhaps a quarter of an hour. I stayed, marooned, for 3 1/2 hours! Shells of every calibre—thousands of them, often many in the air together, high explosive and shrapnel—burst on the ground and in the air. They plunged all around our little shelter. One burst on the parapet, 3 feet from the door; another (a dud) landed a foot or two short of the dug-out, penetrated deep into the ground, and made the place shiver. Over and over again, bits of steel and a deluge of soil from a bursting shell rattled into the trench outside. I cannot tell you how annoyed I felt with myself for having got caught in so awkward a situation. What folly to get killed sightseeing, and what a fool to have risked it just as I was going home on leave!

Feilding, needless to say, escapes this bombardment and takes up his pen. But I believe he feels that he owes the bombardment something, that some tribute must be paid to the Gods of Chance in token of their mercy.

Shall I analyse my sensations during a long and heavy bombardment? If I tried to do so I think I should say that
for the first hour the feeling is one of apprehension: for the second, of indifference; and, for the third and after, of
sleepiness. The soporific effect of a bombardment is very strange.

So that was yesterday. Today, a century back, Feilding very politely turns from one of our core experiential interests (what was being under a bombardment really like?) to one of many lingering social interests, namely the special relationship between well-born officer and working-class “other rank” detailed to serve him. Feilding does not use the term “batman,” so I would guess that either the Grenadiers have a different term or that it is generally considered slightly declassé.

July 26, 1916. Near Fricourt

My servant is always asking me to take him with me, “in case,” as he puts it, “anything should happen to me.” So to-day I took him to Carnoy. He is like a wild man, and is always thirsting to “pop over the sandbags.” He assured me this morning that if ever I have to do so (which it begins to seem doubtful if I ever shall) he would like to be by my side; and this, I think, is not mere talk.

He is a very gallant fellow, and last year I believe was recommended for a decoration, though it was refused (he says) because of his previous character. He has not always been a paragon of virtue. But what a reason, if true, to refuse a man recognition of his bravery! He has been out ever since August, 1914, and was at Landrecies in the 3rd Battalion. He has never been more than a private, though he has soldiered all his life, having enlisted at sixteen under a fictitious age. His father claimed him back on that occasion. He is now twenty-six. He told me to-day that he would never be a corporal. Knowing that many men refuse the stripes for various reasons, I asked him—what was his? He answered, characteristically,—that it was because he would never then be able to ask even his best friend, if the latter were a private, to go into a pub with him and have a drink!

He describes to me his “crimes,” which, according to him, were mere peccadilloes, such as “Looking contemptuously at the sergeant-major!” But I have little doubt that he has given much trouble on occasion.

His conversation is sometimes, but not always, entertaining…

This morning I took him along the old German front line, past the craters, where the whole surface has been so violently distorted by the mining operations and the shellfire of nearly two years, and where the trenches are   battered almost flat.

“They seem to have caught it badly here,” I said.

“Yes, sir,” he replied. “They’ve certainly had something to go on with.”

We passed a tunnelling company encamped. He said that some of our transferred men were there, so I told him to go and find out if there were any of my old Company of the 1st Battalion among them.

He immediately beckoned to a man with bright red hair, calling out, “Hey, Ginger.” This man, by luck, turned out to be an old No. 4 Company man, who had been transferred from us on the road to Loos. As we walked away, since he appeared to be on such intimate terms with this man, I asked him his name, which I had forgotten.

He said, “he did not know,” never having met him before. “ I had to call him something, sir,” he said, “so I called him Ginger.”

What reward for such loyalty and entertainment value?

We passed a group of four French skeletons—or rather what had been skeletons till the receding tide of war left them exposed to the traffic in the “fairway.” Till July they had lain undisturbed in Noman’s Land, in their old uniforms of two years ago. To-day, after the passage of many troops, their bones are scattered, though identifiable by the scarlet rags which still adhere. To-morrow I shall send my servant to bury them, as well as any others he can find. I know of many.[3]

 

And finally, today, we stray a bit further from the line to catch up with Edward Thomas. Thomas, after much lamenting of his own poor presence in the class room, is finally progressing as an instructor. But no sooner had he decided to throw up the safe life of non-commissioned instructing and try for an artillery commission than he had been assigned to lecture regularly on map-reading. This respectable assignment weakened his recently-flexed resolve, as he wrote last week:

I can’t make up my mind whether to go at once. But if they do make me an instructor I shall feel thoroughly justified
in staying.

Despite more uncertainty–or because it is out of his hands–Thomas’s recent letters to Eleanor Farjeon have lately been far from abject. There was a brief leave, and thus time to see his family, and her, and the Russian ballet. Even the stress of moving house, which has put Helen Thomas into emotional difficulty, Thomas seems to be taking in better stride. He continues to write poems here and there, and to send them to Farjeon for criticism and typing. He jokes about his contentment, now, but it is surely due to the thought that neither teaching as a sergeant nor a commission will be disastrous for either himself or (financially, at least) for his family.

Thursday, July 26 Hut 15

My dear Eleanor,

I suppose it is the fact of measles getting into the camp, coupled with a strong cool wind, that makes me more cheerful. Two out of the 4 Companies are already isolated, or several of their huts are. We are still clear but are working with a platoon that is half infected already. If I get away this Saturday I shall be lucky, and it may be my last for some time. Well, we are working anyhow and this morning I actually lectured for nearly an hour on scales. Think of it. I shall have to do it again and again till I am not afraid, and then try something more interesting. But Lord how I did dislike it, looking from face to face to see if anyone was inclined to grin, and fixing a stern gaze on the face most inclined.

However it is over now, and somehow or another I have been clearer with my section this week. Gradually we do learn a little of how to teach. You were quite right, I did see things from a bit of an attitude when I saw them so black. Now I see them really grey…

Goodnight. I have some exam, papers to look over now. This is a recent addition to our work. We really earn our 1/5 a day now.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 155-6.
  2. He seems to have moved from a tunneling company to a labor battalion.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 95-98.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 206-7.

Greengages for the Resurrected Graves; Siegfried Sassoon Blanks his Mind on the March

Colonel Crawshay of the Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, has a difficult task, today. Among many letters he will write is this one:

22/7/16

Dear Mrs. Graves,

I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss.

He was hit by a shell and very badly wounded, and died on the way down to the base I believe. He was not in bad pain, and our doctor managed to get across and attend him at once.

We have had a very hard time, and our casualties have been large. Believe me you have all our sympathy in your loss, and we have lost a very gallant soldier.

Please write to me if I can tell you or do anything.

This letter, then, is on its way to Wimbledon, where Robert Graves‘s family resides. Graves, although salvaged from the human scrap heap at the dressing station yesterday, is in no condition to protest the exaggeration of his death.

Heilly was on the railway; close to the station was the hospital–marquee tents with the red cross painted prominently on the roofs to discourage air-bombing. It was fine July weather and the tents were insufferably hot. I was semi-conscious now, and realized my lung-wound by the shortness of breath. I was amused to watch the little bubbles of blood, like red soap-bubbles, that my breath made when it escaped through the hole of the wound. The doctor came over to me. I felt sorry for him; he looked as though he had not had any sleep for days.[1]

I asked him: ‘Can I have a drink?’

‘Would you like some tea?’

I whispered: ‘Not with condensed milk in it.’

He said, most apologetically: ‘I’m afraid there’s no fresh milk.’

Tears of disappointment came to my eyes; I expected better of a hospital behind the lines.

‘Will you have some water?’

‘Not if it’s boiled.’

‘It is boiled. And I’m afraid I can’t give you anything alcoholic in your present condition.’

‘Some fruit then.’

‘I have seen no fruit for days.'[2]

Yet a few minutes later he came back with two rather unripe greengages. In whispers I promised him a whole orchard when I recovered.[3]

 

As “George Sherston” and the Flintshire Fusiliers–a.k.a. Siegfried Sassoon and the 1st Royal Welch (coming out now after a less destructive turn in the line on the Bazentin ridge)–marched down to rest billets, Sherston struggles with the newest bad news: “David Cromlech” has been reported dead. It was a long day’s march, and Sassoon’s actual diary entry is very short; but here retrospection and fictionalization provide an explanation.

So it will go on, I thought; in and out, in and out, till something happens to me… Yesterday afternoon I’d heard that Cromlech had been killed up at High Wood. This piece of news had stupefied me, but the pain hadn’t begun to make itself felt yet, and there was no spare time for personal grief when the Battalion was getting ready to move back to Divisional Rest. To have thought about Cromlech would have been calamitous.

“Rotten business about poor old ‘Longneck’,”‘ was the only comment that Durley, Dottrell and the others allowed themselves. And after all he wasn’t the only one who’d gone west lately. It was queer how the men seemed to take their victimization for granted. In and out; in and out; singing and whistling, the column swayed in front of me… But it was a case of every man for himself, and the corporate effect was optimistic and untroubled. A London editor driving along the road in a Staff car would have remarked that the spirit of the troops was amazing. And so it was. But somehow the newspaper men always kept the horrifying realities of the War out of their articles, for it was unpatriotic to be bitter, and the dead were assumed to be gloriously happy. However, it was no use worrying about all that; I was part of the Battalion, and now I’d got to see about getting the men settled into billets.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I'll switch, now, from the first edition of the memoir, much of which is available elsewhere on the internet, to the substantively similar but more consciously theatrical and thus easier-to-read revised edition.
  2. This, it seems to me, is an anticipation of Frodo's "No taste of food... [is] left to me."
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 219-20.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 363-4.

The Royal Welch Prepare Once More: Guns Before Mametz Wood, Men Below High Wood, and Siegfried Sassoon Forsakes Saintly Joan for Doubting Thomas; Tolkien Sees to the Stewing of Conies

There is a rhythm to this war, and although the tempo has picked up–no more four-day tours and slow rotations into rest–the alternation of wrath and respite continues. Today, a century back, is the quiet before yet another storm–and yet another wood–for Robert Graves, Frank Richards, Dr. Dunn, and the rest of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers.

An early morning operation to-morrow is substituted for yesterday’s cancelled night operation against High Wood. It looks like “the goods” this time… by midnight the units of the Brigade were moving to their assembly positions.[1]

 

John Ronald Tolkien‘s Lancashires were further back, a few days into the rest/reserve section of the cycle. After physical training, the entire Brigade was inspected by the Divisional general. Tolkien’s responsibilities did not end there, however: as company mess officer he had to see to the purchasing of dinner for six and oversee its preparation by the company’s batmen, or soldier-servants. These were capable, stout-hearted men whose loyalty and resourcefulness Tolkien was coming to admire.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, left behind by his battalion, is in a contemplative mood.

July 19th

An evening of massed stillness, and smoky silhouettes… everything was quiet—the balloons swinging slowly aloft their noses pointing toward the German lines, and a few aeroplanes droning like huge insects, only the distant thud of gunfire broke the peace, and that sounded more like someone kicking footballs—a soft bumping, miles away.

Low in the west pale-orange beams were streaming down on to the far-stretching, country; the sky mostly veiled with hueless cloud…

But I’d found comfort for awhile in being something like my old solitary self—leaning over a rough wooden bridge to gaze down into the dark-green swaying glooms of the narrow river. full of weeds… thinking my own thoughts, undisturbed by the mechanical chatter of my daily companions…  And the Battalion are still up beyond Mametz…

This evening ended clear-skied after all; and I walked up and down by the green wheat and puffed a cigar, and dreamed about my old horses, I don’t know why. And the silver-white tents glimmered across by the village… and men talked and sang rather peacefully in the sober stillness. The place is strewn and piled with endless shell-boxes, which are burned and used to make little bivouacs. And the shells have all flown away to smash Germans.

I wonder what Thomas Hardy would think of the life out here. How the Pre-Raphaelites would have loathed it. Ten years ago I was busy writing my first lot of poems–Joan of Arc and things like that—under their weary influence. If I’m alive in July 1926 I’ll be a decent poet at last.[3]

Amusing: a cleaner break with the pre-Raphaelites than Ford Madox Hueffer‘s recent recycling of his own meditations on their influence. Is Sassoon right? Well, his poetry is beginning to change, true–but that’s a lot of colorful (literally) description, above, for a man who seems interested in forswearing pictorial beauty. Will he be able to forsake prettiness entirely, and write his own “Dead Boche?” And with the grim precision of latter-day Hardy?

 

Rowland Feilding, meanwhile, continues to find quite a bit of spare time for battlefield tourism. Today, interestingly enough, he is beside Mametz Wood–“Happy Valley,”very close to where the 2/RWF recently watched massed artillery batteries ply their trade. The weakness of the British artillery and the excellence of one particular French gun–the far-famed 75–are commonplaces of the military history of 1916. Feilding’s letter home, today, testifies to these facts.

July 19, 1916. Bois des Tallies

Captain George Lane (Coldstream Guards), who is Camp Commandant to the Guards Division, and Colonel Balfour, turned up to-day, having come over in a car to see this battlefield.

Kernes Lloyd and I went with them. We motored first to Albert; then to Fricourt. Then we walked along the line
of craters to Mametz. From there we motored to Mametz Wood, which was the scene of very heavy and wonderful
fighting a week or ten days ago. Here we were fortunate enough to come upon two French 75-mm. batteries in action, firing at top speed. I had always wished but never seen this before at close quarters. The 75 is the French
field gun, and though it looks almost like a toy, is the best balanced and the most perfect of weapons, the terror of the enemy, and, worked as it is worked by the French gunners, is probably the quickest firing gun of its type in the field.

The Captain, a Frenchman possessing very striking features, after the “cease fire,” seeing how interested we were, walked up to us, saluted grandly, then ordered one more round to be fired—“to demonstrate the mechanism”; then, saluting again, he picked up the last shell-case, and, with a bow, offered it to Colonel Balfour. It was a pretty little piece of by-play, and I shall never forget his face, or the grandiloquent manner in which he presented the souvenir.[4]

This is the preparatory bombardment for the next attack on High Wood, scheduled for early morning tomorrow.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 229-30.
  2. Chronology, 85.
  3. Diaries, 95-7.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 93-4.

Zero Hour

[This is the second post for today, a century back–if you have not yet read the first, you may wish to scroll down…]

7:30 A.M., July 1st 1916 was the climactic moment of Britain’s war. This dramatic historic statement is actually fairly close to an objective claim. Since 1914, enormous social engineering and strategic planning had been devoted toward this year, this attack, this day, this very minute. So if there is ever a moment in the midst of this century-on reading/examination/commemoration of the war to take a moment to pause and reflect, this is it.

At 7:30 the barrage did not cease but rather “lifted,” moving off of the German front-line trenches and on to supporting positions. The first waves–variously arrayed in front-line trenches, newly-dug assembly trenches, support trenches that had become makeshift assembly points when German fire made the forward positions untenable, or lying out in no man’s land with their own artillery bursting just in front of them (and sometimes short)–now stood up under their ponderous burdens of arms, ammunition, tools, and supplies, and began to move forward. Most of the men were instructed–a fact made very familiar through retelling–to walk slowly, keeping their spacing, and not run. They must stay behind their own barrage and, after all, the German guns will have been silenced…

A very great moment in history…

 

But then of course the moment, like an archaeological artifact that cannot bear handling, crumbles apart as we try to comprehend it. Even the biggest, most sharply defined chunk of history shifts its shape once its moment is past and its place in the chronicle becomes subject to interpretation. So we will shrink from the size of it, and give way–at least for a little while–to some of the prevailing interpretative “meanings” of the First Day on the Somme.

As it happens, there was a writer not far from the epicenter. Not of the attack, per se, but of its future as vignette, stereotype, and historical parable. The moment when thousands of men came out of their trenches–expecting a walkover (though we have seen that many doubted this) but greeted instead with withering fire–has come to be viewed as the epitome of either the courageous and spirited innocence of the New Armies or the shocking ignorance and blithe wastefulness of their generals. Or both. And, while we’re at it, this moment was a necessary part of allied strategy: however badly the attack was executed, it was incumbent upon the British army to contribute, to try–before France buckled at Verdun or Russia collapsed–to break the German lines in a new section of the front.

But there is a great deal to read today–too much for us to dwell on strategy or the battle for the historiography of military strategy. And I promised a writer at an epicenter.

 

E1851.1-2

A True Relic of the Somme

A few days ago, Captain Billie Nevill came home from leave, bringing with him two footballs (some stories have four). He kept one himself and gave one to Bobby Soames, the best friend of J.R. Ackerley, another platoon commander of the 8th East Surreys. The balls were emblazoned with slogans–“The Great European Cup… East Surreys vs. Bavarians, Kick Off at Zero!” and brought forward when the battalion assembled for the attack.[1]

The idea was something like this: Nevill’s company had seen a good deal of trench warfare, but they had never walked across a battlefield before. Perhaps following a football–or competing in the race to kick multiple footballs, as the story is usually told–would help overcome the strangeness of the moment and get them across 300 yards of No Man’s Land.

This is the sort of thing that inspires both incredulous disgust and enthusiastic celebration, even emulation. In the ten-second course of locating the above image (courtesy of the National Football Museum), I stumbled upon reports of re-enactments and even of a commemorative football tournament. How thrilling to treat war like a great game! But men died while this ball was in the air!

J.R. Ackerley followed one of those balls as his platoon attempted to advance over what John Masefield will call a “bare and hideous field” from which “little could be seen but the slope up to the enemy line.” Since he was there, he gets the last word:

The air, when we at last went over the top in broad daylight, positively hummed, buzzed, and whined with what sounded like hordes of wasps and hornets but were, of course, bullets. Far from being crushed, the Germans were in full possession of senses better than our own; their smartest snipers and machine-gunners were coolly waiting for us. G.H.Q., as was afterwards realized, had handed the battle to them by snobbishly distinguishing us officers from the men, giving us revolvers instead of rifles and marking our rank plainly upon our cuffs… [The German defenders] were thus enabled to pick off the officers first, which they had been carefully instructed to do, leaving our army almost without leadership.[2]

Many of the officers in my battalion were struck down the moment they emerged into view. My company commander was shot through the heart before he had advanced a step. Neville, the battalion buffoon, who had a football for his men to dribble over to the “flattened and deserted” German lines and was then going to finish off any “gibbering imbecile” he might meet with the shock of his famous grin (he had loose dentures and could make a skull-like grimace when he smiled), was also instantly killed, and so was fat Bobby Soames, my best friend…

How far I myself got I don’t remember; not more than a couple of hundred yards is my guess. I flew over the top like a greyhound and dashed across through the wasps, bent double. Squeamish always about blood, mutilations and death, averting my gaze, so far as I could, from the litter of corpses left lying about… my special private terror was a bullet in the balls, which accounts psychologically… for the crouched up attitude in which I hurled myself at the enemy. The realization that I was making an ass of myself soon dawned; looking back I saw that my platoon was still scrambling out of the trench, and had to wait until they caught up with me. My young Norfolk servant, Willimot, who then walked at my side, fell to the ground. “I’m paralyzed, sir,” he whimpered, his face paperwhite, his large blue ox-like eyes terrified. A bullet, perhaps aimed at me with my revolver and badges, had severed his spine…

Then I felt a smack on my left upper arm. Looking down I saw a hole in the sleeve and felt the trickling of blood. Then my cap flew off. I picked it up and put it on again; there was a hole in the crown. Then there was an explosion at my side, which sent me reeling to the ground. I lay there motionless. Griffin and one of the men picked me up and put me in a deep shell-hole. Griffin then tried to unbutton my tunic to examined and perhaps dress my wound. I was not unconscious, only dazed, and I had by now a notion of what had happened. It was another instance of the credulity of the time–my company commander’s contribution–that we officers had been told to carry a bottle of whisky or tum in our haversacks for the celebration of our victory after the “walk-over.” Some missile had struck my bottle of whisky and it had exploded…

I remember perfectly well… resisting Griffin’s attempts to examine me. I lay with my eyes closed and my wounded arm clamped firmly to my wounded side so that he could not explore beneath my tunic. I did not want to know, and I did not want him to know, what had happened to me. I did not feel ill, only frightened and dazed. I could easily have got up, and if I could have got up I should have got up. But I was down and down I stayed. Though my thoughts did not formulate themselves so clearly or so crudely at the time, I had a “Blighty” one… my platoon, in which I had taken much pride, could now look after itself.

My injuries where indeed of shamefully trivial nature, a bullet had gone through the flesh of my upper arm, missing the bone, and a piece of shrapnel or bottle… had lodged beneath the skin of my side above the ribs…[3]

There are two nearly separate things to consider here. First, the bitter brilliance of Ackerley’s account of himself. Given his frankness (and the not inconsiderable fame of the book) there is little use holding to our “no spoilers” policy: this description is written later, at a time when publishers welcomed greater psychological acuity and anatomical precision. But leaving that aside (or not), Ackerley is significant for what he is willing to admit he was: terrified, human, flawed–and, again, terrified. I often refer to Paul Fussell here, and talk about how accurate war writing requires throwing over the old “elevated” diction. It does, but it also requires a willingness to dig beneath the surface: men don’t “fall,” they die; and they are not wounded and plunged into a terrible but uncomplicated physical anguish–they may also be horrified into irrationality by the sudden violation of their body.

Second, there is Ackerley’s version of what had already become a leading Story of the Somme. Other accounts differ, to say the least, but the more heroic tale told by Lt. Charles Alcock–which has Nevill reaching the German lines and beginning a grenade fight before being shot through the head–is suspect as well. Alcock included this detail in a letter to Nevill’s sister, and we know by now that this quintessentially painless death appears far too often in letters to survivors. So too do the details that a man “fell” either immediately or in glorious proximity to the enemy. Most were hit in “No Man’s Land,” that wasteland which seems by its name and nature to renounce purposeful heroism and cry out for modernism and meaninglessness.

Most of the Surreys, however, advanced through it. Although Ackerley, Soames, and Nevill never reached the German trenches, the following companies did.[4]

 

somme positions 3This happened near Carnoy (see the map at left for the relative location of the writers discussed today). Ackerley and the East Surreys were part of the 18th Division’s assault on the southernmost of the line of low ridges which dominated the center of the battlefield. They were, in a sense, at the turning point of the battle, at least as it played out. They had gentle slopes ahead of them, instead of the nasty, banked little hills and narrow valley to the north, and as the day went on it became clear that the German artillery behind that sector had been mostly eliminated by the British bombardment. The machine-gunners still shot down their hundreds, but the ruins of Mametz village were taken. On the East Surrey’s right, the 30th division swept forward and took the village of Montauban, their first day’s objective (the dotted-and-dashed line shown at right).

In fact, the entire assault of XIII Corps–commanded by Major General W.N. Congreve, Billy Congreve‘s father–was notably successful. If most of the rest of today’s account dwells on death and disaster, this part of the assault is perhaps a more accurate foreshadowing of the war to come. A line of German trenches could indeed be taken, but the assault troops will find themselves staring across open country toward a second complete trench system, with a third under construction behind. And the day’s successes had come at the cost of 6,000 casualties to the two victorious divisions.

 

But we get ahead of ourselves. We must move a few thousand yards to the left, where Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devonshires faced that spur of the sinuous hill which held the village of Mametz.

somme_276_mid

This photograph from Masefield’s “The Old Front Line” shows Mametz in 1916 or 1917. The white lumps of chalk show where trenches have been dug; the photograph makes it difficult to appreciate the tactical importance of the gradual rise in the ground.

John Masefield’s description of this section of the line is worth quoting:

All the way of the hill, the enemy had the stronger position. It was above us almost invisible and unguessable, except from the air, at the top of a steep climb up a clay bank, which in wet weather makes bad going even for the Somme; and though the lie of the ground made it impossible for him to see much of our position, it was impossible for us to see anything or his or to assault him. The hill is a big steep chalk hill, with contours so laid upon it that not much of it can be seen from below. By looking to the left from our trenches on its western lower slopes one can see nothing of Fricourt, for the bulge of the hill’s snout covers it. One has a fair view of the old English line on the smoothish big slope between Fricourt and Becourt, but nothing of the enemy stronghold. One might have lived in those trenches for nearly two years without seeing any enemy except the rain and mud and lice.

The Devonshires had two terrible disadvantages. The first was that they were attacking from further back, and had to go over the top on the reverse slope behind their own front line. Thus they were only just reaching their own side of the shallow valley between the lines when the German machine-gunners were recovering. The second was that the village, however thoroughly its housing stock had been destroyed, had been converted into a fortress by the German defenders, with linked cellars and fortified machine gun nests. Captain Martin had studied the lay of the land, and to him the result was far from unguessable.

…as the Devons topped the rise and moved downhill, they were in full view of any enemy who might have survived the bombardment.

mansel copse to mametz

Mansel Copse is at the center, along the blue line which indicates the British Line. Due north is the “shrine” which housed a machine gun.

A single machine-gun, built into the base of the crucifix at the edge of the village, exactly where Capt. Martin had forecast, was only 400 yards away–easy range for a competent machine gunner… scores of men went down, among them Capt. Martin, killed at the exact spot by Mansel Copse that he had predicted from his model would be where his company would be doomed.[5]

All the accounts do not match up perfectly, but the basic facts of the martyrdom of the Devonshires is not in any real dispute.

Charlotte Zeepvat adds a third factor that spelled disaster:

If the War Diary of 2nd Gordon Highlanders is correct in saying that their own advance did not begin until 7.30am, then for three minutes the 9th Devons were the only moving target near the road. They came under heavy fire
immediately from the open ground to the right…

As they drew nearer no man’s land they also came into view of the German lines just ahead and the firing increased, both from there, and in the distance from Fricourt Wood. According to the Adjutant, Lieutenant Hearse, there was also an intense artillery barrage…

But the machine guns were the worst:

…the combined effect of machine-gun fire from several directions was devastating. The Official History estimated that half of the battalion’s casualties occurred before they reached Mansel Copse.

Before, that is, they crossed their own front line. If the exact details of who saw Captain Martin’s model and who failed to act upon it may be in doubt, the details of his death are fairly secure. Private Jack Owen, a member of Hodgson’s bombing unit, remembered that

Capt. Martin was the first to fall. He had gone 15 yards when he was shot through the head above the right temple. He turned his head to the left, flung out his right arm and fell dead on his back.

Zeepvat comments that Martin was probably killed by a sniper rather than a machine gun. “Even allowing a margin of error, [this] leaves no possibility that Martin could have reached no man’s land.”

The battalion’s chaplain, Ernest Crosse, who had befriended the tight group of young subalterns and given them communion yesterday, had volunteered to come forward instead of remaining with Divisional headquarters. He watched the assault alongside the medical officer and came forward immediately to aid the wounded. In his diary, he “described finding Martin’s body on the little track road, which was invisible from the shrine but a horribly easy target from Mametz Trench.”

Martin’s death thus rises toward the classical definition of the overused and meaning-sapped “tragedy:” the prophetic warner, unheeded, is struck down by implacable fate before he can complete–or even begin–his work.

The Devonshires advanced nonetheless, but so many men went down so quickly that their commander committed his reserve company only a few minutes into the battle. Some of them penetrated all three trench lines (of the German front line trench system–no one came near the “German Second Line,” which was another multi-trench system a few miles further back) and reached Hidden Wood and their day’s objective. But not enough.

William_Noel_Hodgson_(For_Remembrance)_cropped_and_retouched(2)

Noel Hodgson

And not Noel Hodgson. The brave young bombing lieutenant, already decorated; the loving brother and new uncle who had yet to meet his niece; the erstwhile scholar who had been working through the epics in his spare hours; and the promising poet who had so recently appealed to God for help today, was shot and killed.

In one story, “he is said to have reached as far as the third German line, keeping his men supplied with bombs, ‘and was then mortally wounded, a bullet passing through his throat. His last words, addressed to his sergeant, were: “Carry on; you know what to do.'”

But that is a third-hand account, tinged with the hopeful sort of heroism that tends to dominate survivors’ accounts to grieving families. It describes Hodgson as he was during Loos, and as he should have been during a successful assault. Charlotte Zeepvat writes that

It was even comforting to think he played his part and died in the thick of battle, but other evidence tells against it. Lieutenant Colonel Storey’s initial report to brigade, hastily hand-written on 2 July, names Noel Hodgson as one of three officers to be killed right at the start in the initial barrage of machine-gun fire, with Duncan Martin and William Riddell.

Is this somehow more cruel? It seems so. Yet we can make another story of it, and one that fits better with the testimony of Hodgson’s brother officers, and of Chaplain Crosse:

‘I found his body together with that of his faithful servant, Weston, in the afternoon of the battle in what was the hottest comer of the battlefield. He was hit in the neck & leg by bullets, probably from a machine gun.’

This suggests that Noel was hit first in the leg and went down, then, as Private Weston tried to help him, a second round of bullets firing at the same height took them both. This was the account his mother, Penelope, accepted:

‘He was shot in the morning charging across with his bombers & his faithful servant was found by his side, also shot, with a half-opened bandage in his hand.’

This, as Zeepvat reminds us, is Alfred Frederick Weston, alias ‘Pearson’, who had been the subject of one of Hodgson’s sketches: “He is my servant, and if he were Commander-in-Chief the war would be over in a week. But I should get no baths, so I’m glad he isn’t.”

Noel Hodgson was certainly brave, and some of the Devonshires gained their objective this morning. But Hodgson died within minutes of “Zero,” “within the area bounded by the two arms of Mansel Copse, before he could reach the British front line, never mind the German third.”[6]

You never can know which letter–and which hot bath–will be the last. And sometimes Frodo and Sam are ridden down even before they make it out of the Shire.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.[7]

 

 

Rob Gilson, who with Ronald Tolkien and other school friends had founded the TCBS, a youthful “society” devoted to supporting each other’s creative efforts, left the trenches at 2 and a half minutes after zero–7:32:30, give or take–in his battalion’s third wave. This was a few miles to the north-northwest, where the low hills were indented by those steep, narrow little valleys.

Having watched the enormous mine go up at the Schwaben Höhe redoubt on their left, the Cambridgeshires (11th Suffolks) were to advance up “Sausage” valley, across several hundred yards of No Man’s Land, to take the German lines on the spur at the top. This was very bad ground, and the plan depended upon German defensive fire having been eliminated. It wasn’t.

sausage valley

Sausage Valley. This map–which like all similar “screen shot” detail maps that I include, comes from the invaluable archive at McMaster University–shows the July 1st trench positions, but was later in the possession of a Lt. Hayter of the Royal Engineers, who added the notes about water sources.

 

Private W. J. Senescall, one of the men on the spot interviewed years later for Martin Middlebrook’s collective chronicle, recalled the scene:

The long line of men came forward, rifles at the port as ordered. Now Gerry started. His machine guns let fly. Down they all went. I could see them dropping one after another as the gun swept along them. The officer went down at exactly the same time as the man behind him.[8]

But this officer was not Gilson. Rob Gilson survived this first advance over no man’s land, leading his men “perfectly calmly and confidently.”

Such reports and recollections, as we have seen, are impossible to correlate; their sum–or, rather, their common ground–impossible to comprehend. But both, surely, are as honest and as accurate as they can be. This sort of confusion is the nature of battle, especially this sort of battle. Timing is especially difficult to harmonize between different accounts, but the devastation of the German defensive fire, once the gunners returned to their firing positions, is not.

After some minutes–a handful, or twenty, or ninety–Gilson’s company was deep into no man’s land, probably sheltering, now, and moving forward bit by bit when possible. Machine guns, firing from the heights on both sides of the valley, trench mortars (the “sausages” of Sausage Valley), and the reawakened German artillery had brought down scores of men in the Cambridgeshires alone, and some thousands throughout the twelve battalions of the closely packed 34th division.

rqg5-2

Robert Quilter Gilson (Cambridge University Library)

They may have penetrated the German front line, and their advance may have stretched out over something like an hour and a half–the accounts differ. But sometime around nine o’clock, if not long before (the minutes proverbially stretching into experiential hours), Gilson’s batman was hit, and wounded. Then the C.O. of the company too was hit, and Gilson took over, leading the next stage of the advance.

Then, finally, Rob Gilson was hit by a shell-burst, and killed alongside the company sergeant-major. Or he was terribly wounded by the shrapnel, and managed to drag himself back toward the lines before he died. Recollections differ.

Six of the Cambridgeshires’ sixteen officers were killed; nine were wounded–over 500 men were casualties. The 34th division had one of the worst positions and took the heaviest casualties of any today, a century back–6,380.

Gilson’s last letter and his Field Service Postcard–proclaiming him to be “quite well” as of June 30th–will arrive shortly at his home in Birmingham. There, this morning, a century back, his family is now preparing for Sports Day at King Edward’s School, where the TCBS had come together and where Gilson’s father is headmaster. Gilson, like Ackerley, had chosen not to send a formal “last letter.” He told a friend that “[i]t is no use harrowing people with farewell letters… Those who survive can write all that is necessary.”

Instead, then, the letter-that-turned-out-to-be-last had talked of the beauty of gardens and of gunfire. But it did not obscure the truth of war with patriotic bromides: “It would be wonderful to be a hundred miles from the firing line once again.”

A telegram from the Army will follow that letter within the next few days.

 

Tolkien, whose own battalion is marching up now to relieve the assault troops, will have the good fortune to cross paths with his friend G.B. Smith in the coming days. Smith, too, was in the battle today, and his battalion had been mauled as it tried to hold a paltry advance some two miles to the north-east of Gilson’s battalion, in the Leipzig Salient. Smith was lucky to come through unscathed. The two will, of course, wonder about the fate of their fellow member of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society. Although Gilson’s body would be almost in sight of their positions, it will be two weeks before the news of his death filters back to them, through the printed casualty lists.[9]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, whose battalion will support the attack with carrying parties, has been hunkered down in his dugout, an advertising slogan running in his head:

…Then the bombardment lifted and lessened, our vertigo abated, and we looked at one another in dazed relief. Two Brigades of our Division were now going over the top on our right. Our Brigade was to attack ‘when the main assault had reached its final objective’. In our fortunate rôle of privileged spectators[10] Barton and I went up the stairs to see what we could from Kingston Road Trench. We left Jenkins crouching in a corner, where he remained most of the day. His haggard blinking face haunts my memory. He was an example of the paralysing effect which such an experience could produce on a nervous system sensitive to noise, for he was a good officer both before and afterwards. I felt no sympathy for him at the time, but I do now. From the support-trench, which Barton called ‘our opera box’, I observed as much of the battle as the formation of the country allowed, the rising ground on the right making it impossible to see anything of the attack towards Mametz. A small shiny black note-book contains my pencilled particulars, and nothing will be gained by embroidering them with afterthoughts. I cannot turn my field-glasses on to the past.

Perhaps not, but he does peer down through his binocular bifocals and clean up the diary a bit. I’ll quote from the memoir[11] and correct from the original diary when necessary…

First, the diary:

July 1st, 7.30 a.m.

…The air vibrates with the incessant din—the whole earth shakes and reeks and throbs–it is one continuous roar…  Attack should be starting now, but one can’t look our, as the machine-gun bullets are skimming.

Inferno–inferno–bang–smash!

And, from the memoir, a version of the battle’s first few minutes, as witnessed from a trench opposite Fricourt:

7 45. The barrage is now working to the right of Fricourt and beyond. I can see the 21st Division advancing
about three-quarters of a mile away on the left and a few Germans coming to meet them, apparently surrendering. Our men in small parties (not extended in line) go steadily on to the German front line.

Brilliant sunshine and a haze of smoke drifting along the landscape. Some Yorkshires a little way below on the left, watching the show and cheering as if at a football match. The noise almost as bad as ever.[12]

 

Sassoon was able to see some of the small successes in this part of the line, but further to the north few of the British troops made progress. Those who entered the German lines were in most cases soon driven out again. Had he been a bit higher or further back he would have been able to see Rob Gilson and the Cambridgeshires in their futile run up Sausage Valley. Further to the north was the spur of La Boisselle, and beyond it “Mash Valley”–the natural complement to Sausage. Beyond that, the spur of Ovillers and Nab Valley (latterly “Blighty Valley”).

Nab Valley was assaulted by troops of the 70th Brigade. The 9th York and Lancs, who had moved forward into recently-dug assembly trenches, would be the first wave, while the 11th Sherwood Foresters would attack as a second wave later in the morning, moving through the German front lines and on toward Mouquet Farm.

But the German artillery had not been destroyed, and it had the new trenches accurately mapped and measured. By the time the 11th Sherwood Foresters–one of their platoons led by Edward Brittain–moved forward, they had to pass many dead and many wounded screaming and crying out in the assembly trenches. They could have had few doubts about what would await them as they went over the top.

 

Will Streets, of the 12th York and Lancs–in the 94th Brigade, the 31st Division, and the 8th Corps, on the left, or northern, flank of the 4th Army’s assault–faced a similar situation, but even worse. The first two companies of the battalion went over at Zero Hour, 7:30, and were immediately raked by massed machine gun and artillery fire. His D Company was slated to move up and through the first wave at Zero plus twenty, or 7:50. But the first wave had already been destroyed. Another member of the battalion remembered:

The first line all lay down and I thought they’d had different orders because we’d all been told to walk… They were just mown down like corn. Our line simply went forward and the same thing happened…. a lot of the first line were stuck on the wire, trying to get through. We didn’t get to the German wire, I didn’t get as far as our wire. Nobody did, except just a few odd ones… Only a few crept along. I lay down. We weren’t getting any orders at all; there was nobody to give any orders, because the officers were shot down.[13]

 

Charles Carrington had a very good view of this disastrous attack, aimed at Serre–until he didn’t. We’ll close this post with his description of the scene at 7:30, which illustrates both the necessity of taking a strategic view of the huge battle, and the impossibility of making any sense of it from afar:

Let us narrow our gaze to Hunter-Weston’s 8th Corps…. Twenty-nine infantry battalions, ‘went over the top’ on this narrow frontage, which is to say that the action of this corps alone was comparable to the British share of the Battle of Waterloo….  Wellington… won a decisive victory for a loss of 7,000 British killed and wounded; Hunter-Weston…. lost 15,000 men in a day, without securing a foothold in the German front at any point; and his was one of six British corps–six battles of Waterloo in a row, and four of them massive defeats.On the left, the two attacking divisions of the Third Army (56th and 46th) failed in their attempts to pinch out Gommecourt Wood, since only the right-hand claw of the pincer got a hold. It was this episode that I witnessed.

The morning of Saturday, 1st July, broke clear and fine… We stood to at 6.30 and as I left the village for our forward trench–wildly excited at actually being in the centre of a great battle–the air quivered with bombardment of a new intensity, to which the Germans gave the name of drum-fire. Gusts of shrapnel were stripping the trees of their leaves, which lay in a carpet on the ground as if it were autumn…

Ten minutes before zero I sent the code-message by landline to brigade and, half an hour after zero, reported again that the poisonous smoke-cloud was blowing steadily away. No need for us to put on gas-masks. At 7.30 someone said: “There they go!” and on our left we had glimpses of a few men of the London Scottish in their hodden-grey kilts, running forward into the smoke. That was all. That and a growing hullaballoo of noise. On the right towards Serre, no visibility. You could hear the battle but you couldn’t see it.[14]

 

Finally, here is John Masefield’s collective evocation of Zero Hour. He will write it next year, but it seems almost post-war–mournful and elegiac, if still proud. But 7:30 AM on July the First, 1916 is not a moment that a future Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom can overlook.

Our men felt that now, in a few minutes, they would see the enemy and know what lay beyond those parapets and probe the heart of that mystery. So, for the last half-hour, they watched and held themselves ready, while the screaming of the shells grew wilder and the roar of the bursts quickened into a drumming. Then as the time drew near, they looked a last look at that unknown country, now almost blotted in the fog of war, and saw the flash of our shells, breaking a little further off as the gunners “lifted,” and knew that the moment had come. Then for one wild confused moment they knew that they were running towards that unknown land, which they could still see in the dust ahead. For a moment, they saw the parapet with the wire in front of it, and began, as they ran,[15] to pick out in their minds a path through that wire. Then, too often, to many of them, the grass that they were crossing flew up in shards and sods and gleams of fire from the enemy shells, and those runners never reached the wire, but saw, perhaps, a flash, and the earth rushing nearer, and grasses against the sky, and then saw nothing more at all, for ever and for ever and for ever.[16]

 

The next post, scheduled for noon, will track several of our writers into the later morning as the battle unfolds.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This is silly, but: had group play turned out slightly differently--up the Welsh!--and had Iceland not played giant-killer, then the Eurocup might have produced an England-Germany match-up on the centennial...
  2. This fact, as well as several other elements of Ackerley's account (which was written much later) may not be accurate. Other sources report that some officers were specifically instructed to dress like their men. Nevertheless, proportional casualties among subalterns were, as throughout the war, considerably higher than among enlisted men.
  3. My Father and Myself, 76-80.
  4. See Hart, The Somme, 187.
  5. Middlebrook, The First Day, 125.
  6. Zeepvat, Before Action, 194-201.
  7. This is the last verse of Hodgson's last poem, Before Action.
  8. The First Day on the Somme, 125.
  9. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 151-6.
  10. The Epicurean perspective once again!
  11. Purely, I must admit, exhausted at this point, because I have a better-scanned copy of it...
  12. Diaries, 85; Complete Memoirs, 331-2. Amusingly, the diary lacks the "almost." Judicious...
  13. Hart, The Somme, 137-8.
  14. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 113-4.
  15. This is a romanticizing generalization: the attacking troops were told to walk, and they were too heavily laden in any case to run, over broken ground, for more than a few steps.
  16. Masefield, The Old Front Line, 25-6.

J.R. Ackerley and Billie Nevill Go Out; Three Poems from Edward Thomas, Turning and Turning War-Ward; Robert Graves in a Coy Competition with Siegfried Sassoon; Kate Luard and Another Bombing Victim; Raymond Asquith in the Salient’s Filth

A bit of a long post, today, but it’s another gamut-runner, and brief enough for that. We go from poetry of quiet beauty all the way to “sheer abomination undiluted by a single touch of beauty, grandeur or sentiment.”

Two days ago, Edward Thomas went sick once again. But with “sick call” comes a relief from duties, and so he took up his pen. First came “It was upon,” a sneaky sonnet that looks back, and forward. It’s no poetic innovation to go to the natural world in contemplation of the future–nor, indeed, to thresh the old store of bucolic/agricultural imagery to come up with some symbol of change. But Thomas goes deep into the subject, rifling the old English farmer’s word hoard to come up with the evocative “lattermath,” which refers to the second or third mowing of grass, for hay.

It was upon a July evening.
At a stile I stood, looking along a path
Over the country by a second Spring
Drenched perfect green again. ‘The lattermath
Will be a fine one.’ So the stranger said,
A wandering man. Albeit I stood at rest,
Flushed with desire I was. The earth outspread,
Like meadows of the future, I possessed.

And as an unaccomplished prophecy
The stranger’s words, after the interval
Of a score years, when those fields are by me
Never to be recrossed, now I recall,
This July eve, and question, wondering,
What of the lattermath to this hoar Spring?

Then, yesterday, a century back, Thomas wrote “Women he liked,” a.k.a. “Bob’s Lane.” Here once again an ominous mistrust in futurity creeps in around the edges of the landscape.
Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob,
Old Farmer Hayward of the Heath, but he
Loved horses. He himself was like a cob,
And leather-coloured. Also he loved a tree.
For the life in them he loved most living things,
But a tree chiefly. All along the lane
He planted elms where now the stormcock sings
That travellers hear from the slow-climbing train.
Till then the track had never had a name
For all its thicket and the nightingales
That should have earned it. No one was to blame.
To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails.
Many years since, Bob Hayward died, and now
None passes there because the mist and the rain
Out of the elms have turned the lane to slough
And gloom, the name alone survives, Bob’s Lane.

This one is a good one, a who-but-Thomas one. He has yet to see France, but he knows, of course, that those well-drained lands will be pounded to mud by infernal machines and so draw forth from good English Protestants, well-versed in their Bunyan, the inevitable reference to the “Slough of Despond” in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

But it’s not just such felicitous word choice: this is Thomas’s whole poetic persona being dragged toward war. It’s not quite a mind of metal and wheels pondering gunpowder under the eaves of ancient Fangorn, but it’s close.

The cob-like, tree-loving farmer here is another Lob, and his environs could almost be Adlestrop–and off-stage, as it were, the steam train lurks. It’s hard not to see in the slow-climbing train a portent of technological-aided disaster…

Finally, today, “There was a time.”
There was a time when this poor frame was whole
And I had youth and never another care,
Or none that should have troubled a strong soul.
Yet, except sometimes in a frosty air
When my heels hammered out a melody
From pavements of a city left behind,
I never would acknowledge my own glee
Because it was less mighty than my mind
Had dreamed of. Since I could not boast of strength
Great as I wished, weakness was all my boast.
I sought yet hated pity till at length
I earned it. Oh, too heavy was the cost.
But now that there is something I could use
My youth and strength for, I deny the age,
The care and weakness that I know—refuse
To admit I am unworthy of the wage
Paid to a man who gives up eyes and breath
For what would neither ask nor heed his death

It’s hard, of course, not to read this as coming straight from Thomas, rather than allowing for the assumption of a poetic mask. The speaker feels his age, but not in the flexingly heroic Tennysonian sense. He is still frustrated, still pitiable, but perhaps approaching a certain sort of peace. Or perhaps not. But in any case, as Edna Longley points out, the introvert has metamorphosed, however grudgingly, into a soldier. His choice of “wage” makes us think of Brooke, and realize (not for the first time) that this is not a metaphor that should be taken lightly.

There is no assumption of heroic or sacrificial “meaning” here, no perching of a dubious poem atop a hollow cairn of patriotic assumptions and religious implications: “[h]ere he acknowledges war as a paradoxical saviour, a perversely accepted test.” “Perverse” is exactly right. It doesn’t feel right because it can’t be right, but it’s acceptable all the same. The thinking man, the skeptic, the non-joiner has joined, and will fight–and possibly give up eyes and breath–for… well, he’s not sure for what. Thomas has fallen into step, and with a grimace he picks up something of the traditional language of the happy volunteer. But this language he takes “a little more seriously while still contesting it.” [1]

 

It’s a poetical sort of day: Robert Graves wrote to Siegfried Sassoon as well, a century back, and we get a bit of insight into the balance of power, as it were, in their friendship. Graves, recovered from his operation and stuck in camp, pines for camaraderie, but it would seem that Sassoon’s close-to-the-vest maneuvers on his own recent leave have left Our Robbie feeling a bit miffed:

23 June 1916

Bloody Litherland

Dear Sassons,

It is with bitter disappointment that I hear that you’ve been in Blighty on lave and dined with Eddie and never let me know. God! man, I’d have come down from John o’ Groats if you’d told me.

This is indeed an awful place. I’m so restless and enthusiastic and want-to-get-back-to-the-boys-ish that I have succeeded at one time or another in offending most of the more considerable people here…

Ah, so perhaps the young poet begins to recognize some of the foolishness of the war?

Roll on the trenches! I head you’ve been risking your precious life again among them craters: I am pleased, damn pleased, you’re doing so well; wish to hell I was with you–go on risking, and good luck. It’s a man’s game.

A bit forced? No: very, very forced, and nothing like the wiser-than-he-once-was ironist of Goodbye To All That. I’m tempted to instruct you, dear readers, to see the forgoing as a bit of a put-on, a jest made “in character.” But I don’t think so. Graves likes Sassoon and he really (probably) does hate camp enough to want to be back at war, but the competitive edge of their friendship–the desire to be close but also to surpass–is very keen. In fact there’s more edge than blade… some of the forced jollity here must be because Graves is leading up to a bit of a gloat: next, he shares some of the reviews–positive, if not unreservedly so–of his first book, Fairies and Fusiliers. Take that, self-published Siegfried!

…I have been frantically busy lately… sweating about the country all abouts, so of course when the match is burning my fingernails my bloody verses insist on forcing themselves to be written by me: they flock on me in shoals and I can’t refuse them: I can’t give them a hurried birth and then strangle ’em straight away. They want washing and clothing and suckling ans what not in my precious time, and then what happened to my Regimental duties? …I hope you are still writing with the same sudden genius of your last trench-letter. How strange that you have all at once struck what you have been searching for for so long; but I suppose now you want another little cushy Flixécourt tour to give you the time and leisure and quiet.

Best of luck when the Delayed Offensive actually comes, and may I be there with you old man!

…I’m getting my latest things typed to send you. The rules of the ‘mutual admiration society’ demand a similar step on your part. Or write, at any rate.

Sorley is still selling, and The Times has labelled him ‘Enrolled among the English Poets’ for which God bless that usually bloody paper…

Ever your affectionately

Robert

Isn’t it splendid that the RWF have now twice been singled out for special mention in a daily communiqué?[2]

That post-script does help to ground us: even in the memoir Graves owned up to an enduring regimental pride. Love the war or hate the war, he wanted to be identified with an honorable and glorious regiment:”May I be there with you” and “pleased, damn pleased” may ring false because they are strained, but they are not supercilious or sarcastic.

 

Two brief bits, now, before our last letter of the day. First, a look ahead:

The 8th East Surreys, a battalion of Kitchener’s Army with a year in France but little in the way of sharp combat experience, went into the line today, a century back, opposite Montauban, a few miles east of Albert, on the Somme. Among their officers were J.R. Ackerley, an innocent, awkward, gay, poetry-writing, Public School lieutenant, and his friend Wilfred “Billie” Nevill, a bluff, confident, outgoing Public School athlete. Captain Nevill brought along a couple of footballs…[3]

 

And, with Kate Luard, a look back at one of the most common and–in its commonness, at least–confounding themes of our reading of the war’s “long second year.”

Captain—– of the Suffolks, who died here two days ago from a bombing accident, picked up a live bomb which had fallen short to throw it again, but he was just too late and it got him; he was buried yesterday; the Suffolks lined the road with their band, and followed 4 deep finishing up with 30 officers marching behind. They were awfully cut up about it.[4]

 

Finally, today, we catch up with Raymond Asquith. Yesterday, a century back, he wrote to his wife Katherine. He fills us in on a brief bit of savagery that we, with our focus on the subalterns of the Regular and Kitchener battalions, have missed. There has been bloody fighting in the familiar wasteland around Hooge, in  the Ypres Salient, and the tough Canadian troops so admired by their imperial forebears have suffered greatly. All chaff to whet the wit of Raymond–and yet he spares his wife (or seems to spare her) nothing of the beastliness, which is a significant choice.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
22 June 1916

. . . We came out of the trenches last night and marched into camp about 3 this morning. Now we are out, I suppose there is no harm in saying what I daresay you have already guessed–that we were pushed in to relieve the Canadians opposite Hooge. The Canadians had almost all been killed in the recent fighting there (which was unlucky for them) and hardly any of them had been buried (which was unlucky for us). The confusion and mess were indescribable and the stinks hardly to be borne. No one quite knew where the line was…

It was impossible to show ourselves for a moment without being shelled and there were no adequate arrangements for hiding. Sloper Mackenzie, Eddy Ward and another officer were shut up for 48 hours in a dug-out meant for 2 at the best of times and when half flooded as it was with blood and water and filth of every kind quite unfit for habitation. We did our best to clean out some of the muck but the process was so disturbing that poor Sloper was physically sick in the middle of it. I couldn’t endure sleeping there so got hold of an old stretcher and lay on it in a shell-hole outside, which I think saved my life, though it might easily have ended it.

One would have given anything for a bottle of verbena or a yard of ruban de Bruges… I never saw anything like the foulness and desolation of this bit of the Salient.

This reminds me very strongly of Vera Brittain‘s revelation as she picked through Roland Leighton’s kit–that, for him, always a fastidious boy, the filth of trench warfare must have been a torment. For Asquith, too, there is surely much truth–and perhaps still a little self-pleasing bravado–in his preference for danger over horrible discomfort and sensory misery.

There were 2 woods near to us on which we roamed about picking up gruesome relics in the dusk–Maple Copse and Sanctuary Wood–not a leaf or a blade of grass in either of them, nothing but twisted and blackened stumps and a mesh of shell holes, dimpling into one another, full of mud and blood, and dead men and over-fed rats which blundered into one in the twilight like fat moths.

To my mind it was a far more impressive sight than the ruins of Ypres, because it was sheer abomination undiluted by a single touch of beauty, grandeur or sentiment…

Goodbye, my blessed angel. This morning I took my boots off and washed for the first time these 8 days. It was delicious.

Asquith has already written about a bombardment with… delicious… Epicurean aesthetic detachment. Today, a century back, he catches up with Diana Manners and takes the story from there through the recent nastiness. Thus in one swift missive he gives her both the (safe) beauty of war observed, and its worst pits of filth.

23 June 1916

. . . But, 2 nights out of a dreary 7 did make me think of you perhaps harder than usual–one for beauty and one for ugliness. The first was on the shore of a biggish lake with poplars and a honey-coloured moon, and one of the most
crashing bombardments of the War going on all round, shells bursting in front and behind to right and to left, but not just where I was, so that I felt as safe as if it had been the Charge of the Light Brigade and could enjoy the spectacle as such, and fancy almost that the lake was “Sutton Waters” and wished that you were there to enjoy it too as you would have done intensely–at any rate for a little. After an hour or two the noise gets on one’s nerves like music. There was a gas attack too in the middle which was boring, and for 40 minutes we had to stumble about slobbering into rubber snouts like animals in a pantomime.

Another, night I was in a much worse place than this–the most accursed unholy and abominable place I have ever seen, the ugliest filthiest most putrid and most desolate–a wood where all the trees had been cut off by the shells the week before, and nothing remained but black stumps of really the most obscene heights and thickness, craters swimming in blood and dirt, rotting and smelling bodies and rats like shadows, fattened for the market moving cunningly and liquorishly among them, limbs and bowels nestling in the hedges, and over, all the most supernaturally shocking scent of death and corruption that ever breathed o’er Eden. The place simply stank of sin and all Floris could not have made it sweet. . . The only dug-out turned out to be a ‘dirt trap’ if not a death trap, awash with sewage, stale eyeballs, and other debris, so I spent 2 days on a stretcher in a shell hole in the gutter certainly, but-looking all the while at the stars with which you have so richly studded my memory.

As a “filth and abomination” piece (a new tag!) this could hardly be bettered. The witty tone, the framing with beauty makes it all the more upsetting, and marks it as Asquith’s own. One imagines what Tolkien would have done with this–or what he will do, in a sense. But where Asquith writes to the great beauty and talks of the stars she has given him–and writes after the fact, having endured–Frodo will call on the star-hanging goddess and unleash her light in the face of the filth personified.

So Asquith makes it witty/horrible and frames the filth with Diana Manners herself–and I avoid its details by making a Tolkien reference of dubious relevance.

Asquith has also given us, I believe, our first disembodied eye: it’s an image he spares his wife but deploys to shock the unshockable Diana Manners. And does seem to be specially shocking: we will see more of such eyes, in literature and in lived experience.

I should end with Asquith. He is no Tolkien, but in his own naughty way he does not shirk theodicy, here:

There is a great deal after all to be said for the existence of evil; it might almost be held to prove the existence of God. Who else could have thought of it?[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 304-6.
  2. In Broken Images, 51-3.
  3. Parker, Ackerley, 22.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 71.
  5. Life and Letters, 269-70.

Edward Thomas on a Half-Shaded Pond; Phillip Maddison Arrays His Women Friends; John Ronald Tolkien Follows the Road East; A New Job for Charles Carrington

Phillip Maddison, for all that he heard the guns of Jutland, has turned to other matters, writing three letters on three consecutive days to three women in his life. His creator and semi-doppelganger Henry Williamson is aligning his hero with the trajectory of the war, and clearing the decks for action.

First Phillip writes to Lily, the pure and troubled girl who loves him. The subject is those halycon days before the war, remembered through a fishing pole they had stashed in some bushes on that August Bank Holiday Saturday, to be fetched the following weekend, which never came. Phillip writes haltingly but honestly; he sends her a poppy and a marigold from the summer fields of the Somme, he mentions the last of the nightingales, and he tells her that their recent visit has restored his war-wearied love of the outdoors. She is spring, and hope, and purity.

Then, today, a century back, he writes to his cousin Polly, with whom he had a brief sexual affair. This letter is a strained effort at jocularity, an apology for ignoring her that implicitly pleads his soldier-before-battle status as an excuse for his shabby behavior. With Polly, then, he is the impulsive “bounder” Phillip, and with Lily the struggling, sensitive type who may yet win out.

In a third letter, dated tomorrow, he writes to Mrs. Rolls, a family friend and the mother of Helena, the neighborhood beauty who was the impossible love of Phillip’s youth. Here he affects maturity and knowingness, writing as a man of the world, the idea being that while he can’t write to the girl herself he can show the mother how much he has grown up and moved on. He struggles to the end of this letter, which is more forced, even, then his letter to Polly. And then he “lost confidence, and tore it up.”[1]

 

We have heard relatively little from Charles Carrington, who first came out to France with the new year. But as with many Kitchener’s Army battalions, his has been slowly acclimated to combat even while it is being preserved for the Big Push. And Carrington, it seems, will have a position of responsibility:

On the night of 5th June 1916 our whole battalion moved into No Man’s Land and dug a new front line, as I remember well, because our covering party had a fight with a German patrol… The German guns then opened fire as we dug, and wounded, among others, my friend Edward Carter, the adjutant. To my great surprise I was made his temporary substitute. I think I was a good platoon commander, and later a fair company commander, and I’m sure that at just nineteen years old I was a bad adjutant…[2]

An adjutant is a chief administrative officer, a sort of one-man-staff to the battalion commander responsible for organizing the work of a several-hundred-man battalion–a somewhat ridiculous position for a young man who would in the ordinary course of things be just starting out in work or University.

 

John Ronald Tolkien, by contrast, had stayed to finish his degree at Oxford, and has now been under arms for nearly a year. He is a relatively mature twenty-four-year-old subaltern, qualified to command an infantry platoon or a signalling unit. And he is married. Yesterday, a century back, he said farewell to Edith, long his love and recently his wife, and traveled down to London. Today he caught the 11:05 from Charing Cross Station for Folkestone, where he spent the night, with the shadow of France glowering in the east.[3]

 

And let’s end on a quirky note, with another short poem by Edward Thomas. This one might indeed show the way to his heart. No, that’s a fool’s quest–but it’s tempting to see a less-than-glorious natural scene jarred by a military metaphor as suggesting a sketch of his new war-forward mindset.

Bright clouds of may
Shade half the pond.
Beyond,
All but one bay
Of emerald
Tall reeds
Like criss-cross bayonets
Where once a bird called,
Lies bright as the sun
No one heeds.
The light wind frets
And drifts the scum
Of may blosson.
Till the northern calls
Again
Naughts to be done
By birds or men.
Still the may falls.

A military metaphor, and a falling note…

 

One brief postscript: today, a century back, a ship carrying British politicians and staff officers for a strategic meeting with Russia hit a mine in the North Sea, and sank swiftly, with many casualties. The news will begin to spread tomorrow…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 218-21.
  2. Carrington,Soldier From the Wars, 110.
  3. Chronology, 80.