Edmund Blunden Marches Back to the Line–Through Gas and Failed Patrols–and Has a Tooth Out; The Master of Belhaven Walks Back from the Firing Line, Through Searching Gas Shells, and Has a Tooth Out

We seem to be converging upon the coming battle in space, time, and experiential theme. Edmund Blunden, too, will go forward on the first day of Third Ypres, and several of the tales he tells about the days before chime closely with others we’ve heard. These are among the more powerful sections of his memoir, as his steady, dreamy, innocent style must put its head down and trudge forward into a muddy, deathly tide, a literary enactment of the effect of attrition on young minds.

It’s difficult to match his vague chronology, here, with the bare details of his Battalion Diary, but I believe that either the patrol described below or the march to the front line that follows took place today, a century back.

He begins on the foul Yser Canal, a notable landmark–and logistical obstacle–between Ypres itself and the front lines.

The Yser Canal had been drastically rearranged. New bridges crossed it, powerful works, carrying real roadways. On the far side, the old bank which alone afforded cover from view and splinters had been hewn through for the roadways and other tracks. Great heaps of warlike material stood up naked and unashamed; batteries glinted and bellowed in transparent air. These gay grimaces had not failed to upset the enemy, who was tearing up the old ground and venerable shelters with long-range guns. The best bridge, No. 4, was a ferocious target, but at the Ypres end the new solid crossing was swollen with dead mules tipped on the wayside. The water below, foul yellow and brown, was strewn with full-sized eels, bream, and jack, seething and bulged in death. Gases of several kinds oozed from the crumbled banks and shapeless ditches, souring the air. One needed no occult gift to notice the shadow of death on the bread and cheese in one’s hand, on the discoloured tepid water in one’s bottle.

Ypres in the late summer of 1917 will in many ways be the most horrible place yet: there is more gas, more water and mud, and still that terrible crowding that comes from the holding of a small “salient” and taking fire from three sides.

And the German troops are alert and efficient. This next episode sounds almost exactly like what has just happened to the 15th Royal Welch, although Blunden’s 11th Royal Sussex are further to the south:

On one of the preliminary evenings our new colonel, with his usual bad luck, sent forward from C Camp an officer fresh from England, and one or two men with him, to patrol the land over which our assault was intended, giving a special eye to the enemy’s concern with some ancient gunpits there. This officer took with him his set of the maps, panoramas, photographs, and instructions which had been served round with such generosity for this battle.[1] He never returned. The next night a seasoned officer from another battalion, patrolling the same ground, disappeared.

It was believed that these had been taken prisoner, but I was not much inclined to that view when, the third night, I was sent up with one or two old hands to see what I could see. We reached the very sketchy front line before it was quite dark, soon afterward crawled over the top, and were carefully making our way through our own wire — not that its puny tendrils needed much care! — when with a crash and flame on all sides at once a barrage began. Shells struck so fast that we seemed to be one shell hole away, and no more, from the latest, and as we dodged and measured our length in wild disorder, we drifted a long way into No Man’s Land. The barrage followed our direction and when it stopped, as we lay panting and muttering in the smell of explosive mixed with that of the dewy weeds and broken clods, I saw that we were a few yards from a sap, and I heard stealthy movement in that sap. This might have been the secret of my predecessors’ misfortune. After the shelling we were not much good for observation or offence, and found out no more…

Blunden was lucky to escape, as it seems that the lightly-held German front line has become an entrapment ground for British patrols–either this was a terrible coincidence or the German positions are held in such a way that they can spot enemy patrols, call in effective barrages, and possibly sally forth to kill or capture the survivors.

And Blunden’s long night wasn’t over yet.

I determined that we must rest the few hours till day in the Canal Bank. In order to save us a weary search among blown-in dugouts, and others specially allotted already, I called upon the Canal Bank Major, who was supposed to be in control of the accommodations. No sooner was I inside the sandbag porch than a shell knocked the porch in and some more of my nerve system with it…  There is a hypocritical tunelessness about a gas shell in flight and in explosion. With that, there was the thought of being pitched bleeding into the gummy filths and mortifications below. At last we were in a “small elephant” dugout, and I stretched myself on the dusty boards. I woke with a stiff neck in slightly gasiferous sunlight, mechanically receiving a mug of lurid tea with a dash of petrol from one of my invincibles.

Blunden escapes to return to his unit, but almost as soon as he is back they are marching up toward the front-line positions from which they will attack. First, though, a more quotidian experience of courage for pain:

I could dilate upon other drama that occurred toward July 31, 1917; there was, for instance, that tooth of mine, which our Irish doctor painfully extracted for me by muscular Christianity in the wood, surely the last afternoon there; all my signallers off duty stood round with a hideous pleasure, and one or two begged to offer their compliments on so great a fortitude! But the battle cannot be postponed longer. I had to thrust aside my Cambridge Magazine with Siegfried Sassoon‘s splendid war on the war in it; sent my valise along to the dump; and fell in, wondering how Sassoon could pass one or two technical imperfections (as I thought them) in his fine verse.

This, I think, is something other than irony. But it is very striking indeed: while Sassoon is beginning his long sojourn of self-discovery in the safety of Scotland, a young poet about to be ordered forward into the glutinous mud of Flanders is reading “To Any Dead Officer” and “The Redeemer.”

In the latter–written after nightmarish night work in the autumn of 1915–a Christ-like soldier is weighed down by his load, under fire, as he trudges through the mud. The poem ends with this couplet:

And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!’

“To Any Dead Officer,” which connects the death of his friend Orme this May with the poet’s decision to protest the war, ends with the line.

I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

It’s striking, and awful: the endings of the two poems perfectly foreshadow Passchendaele, which will include both the war’s worst mud and an increasing awareness of the miseries of death in failed attritional “pushes” are beginning to overwhelm traditional means of glorifying military sacrifice…

Back, for a moment, to Blunden:

The spirit of battle was not rampant among us that turgid, thirsty night; our route was complicated by design and accident, and the companionship of numbers of tanks and other troops confused us. The unfamiliar way was now narrow as a lane, now broad and undefined as a football ground, sometimes dark, then lit whitely to a distance. At last we occupied trenches on the scene of our proposed business.[2]

He’s ready, then, not for the “show,” but for the next bad deal.

 

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven has been serving his guns steadily not far behind our Salient infantry, preparing to aid them in the great assault. In another strange coincidence, he too is suffering dental agonies today, a century back, and he too must risk the German gas shells–but then again the Salient is a very small place.

…It is always the same thing–one works out everything in good time, and then at the last moment the programme is altered. I am suffering excruciating agony with my tooth. I could not even lie down last night, and have had absolutely no sleep whatsoever. We commenced the barrage at 5.15 this morning, and have been making a dreadful noise. It was really just like the Somme…

On the way to meet his colonel for a ride to the dentist, Hamilton, walking alone in the rear, is twice knocked down by near misses from a German 5.9. Picking himself up, he runs into the colonel, who is himself trying to nonchalantly dodge the shells.

It was really extremely funny; as we walked (very fast) down the road, a gas-shell fell 50 yards behind us, and this happened four times in about two hundred yards. These gas-shells make very little noise arriving, and burst on the ground with a little “pop” like pulling the cork out of a bottle… There was no smoke, either black or white; just the dust thrown up by the shell striking the dry ground, and a small cloud of yellow green vapour–much the colour of jade…

The comedy ends with the artillery, however, as Hamilton will now meet up with a ‘very rough-handed’ and incompetent dentist…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This is a serious breach of protocol, naturally.
  2. Undertones of War, 214-9.
  3. War Diary, 352-3.

Siegfried Sassoon is Signed and Sealed; Duff Cooper is Beside Himself; The Irish Guards in a Doll House Garden

Topographical models are becoming something of a theme, as well as an irresistible literary device. They might stand for the increasing professionalism and preparation of the British staff, or–just as well–for the monstrously perverse allocation of time and skill that this war of attrition has demanded: pilots, photographers, surveyors, cartographers, and skilled artisans and artists devote themselves to producing detailed simulacra so that they next costly and non-war-winning assault can be rehearsed in precise detail.

But will the models actually help? We seen some of our officers ratifying the idea, and others doubting it. And how about Rudyard Kipling‘s Irish chorus?

His Majesty the King came on the 6th July to watch a brigade attack in the new formation. It was a perfect success, but the next week saw them sweated through it again and again in every detail, till “as far as the Battalion was concerned the drill of the attack was reduced almost to perfection.” In their rare leisure came conferences, map- and aeroplane-study, and, most vital of all, “explaining things to the N.C.O.’s and men.” They wound up with a model of a foot to a hundred yards, giving all the features in the Battalion’s battle area. The men naturally under-
stood this better than a map, but it was too small. (“‘Twas like a doll’s-house garden, and it looked you would be across and over it all in five minutes. But we was not! We was not!”)[1]

The follow-up question would be, then, whether the models helped less by making the visualization of tactical detail possible than by increasing confidence. But every false inflation of morale is a double or nothing gamble…

 

Duff Cooper, meanwhile, remains mired in misery.

July 6, 1917

…This morning I had a telegram from Diana saying ‘Be brave darling, already I feel derelict’. I had indeed need of her exhortation. Never have I felt so miserable as this morning… There were really moments when I could have cried. The strangeness, roughness, and degradation of it all appalled me. I wrote to Diana and told her how unhappy I was. The worst of all was to think that these lovely summer months which I ought to be spending with her are being wasted.[2]

Now that does sound horrifically spoiled, privileged… even weak. Which is to say that I am grateful for the publication of diaries (intrusive? perhaps, but remember how Duff behaved with Diana’s diary!) as an antidote to too many well-managed memoirs. This is how he felt, privately–and precisely today–a century back. It’s something quite close to emotional history…

So let Duff write exultantly of sexual farces at house parties, idealistically about love, frankly about the allure of war, and despondently about the lumpy beds and sad loneliness of training camp… it will be interesting reading.

 

Lastly, today, the continuing story of Siegfried Sassoon. There is no diary entry today–in fact he will be abandoning his diary for some time. Which is, frankly, quite a blow. We will now have no way of keeping tabs on him except through the letters of his many friends, the letters of the new friends he will shortly make, the letters of his literary frenemies, the memoirs of his many friends, his doctor’s notes, his several appearances in major newspapers and journals, an insightful later novel, his own memoir, and his other memoir.

But I digest.

Sassoon did write something in his diary today, a century back: he copied into it a letter that he has just posted.

If it has been a meandering journey from decorated officer to military rebel, this, today, was much the most firm of several hesitantly fateful recent steps.

Copy of letter to the C.O of the Third R.W.F. Sent off July 6th.

I am writing you this private letter with the greatest possible regret. I must inform you that it is my intention to refuse to perform any further military duties. I am doing this as a protest against the policy of the Government in prolonging the War by failing to state their conditions of peace.

I have written a statement of my reasons, of which I enclose a copy. This statement is being circulated. I would have spared you this unpleasantness had it been possible.

My only desire is to make things as easy as possible for you in dealing with my case, I will come to Litherland immediately I hear from you, if that is your wish.

I am fully aware of what I am letting myself in for.[3]

There are several unlikely statements in that letter–but the last sentence stands out among them in its naiveté.

Sassoon will now also begin informing his eminent friends, but not as swiftly, and not all at once…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, the Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 129.
  2. Diaries, 55.
  3. Diaries, 177.

Edward Brittain Faces Another July First; Rowland Feilding and La Belle France; Robert Graves on the Isle of Wight–and What is Siegfried Sassoon Up To?

Now that Edward Hermon is dead, Rowland Feilding is probably our most consistently uxorious writer. He writes faithfully and fully, concealing nothing of his feelings or–once the demands of military secrecy are met–of the danger that he is (or has recently been) in. But today, a century back, he is safely in the rear… and he has something else to confess, namely a raging crush on a local girl.

June 30, 1917. Bollezeele (near Zeggers Cappel).

I am getting rather bitten with agriculture. No wonder these peasants get rich;—or, if they do not (and I really do
not know), I should say there must be something radically wrong with the whole system of land tenure in this country. They are the most industrious and the thriftiest people I have ever seen…

I am sure it must be impossille for those who have not seen it to realize what cultivation means in France and Belgium, or to picture the seas of corn and potatoes and roots, extending as far as the eye can reach and further; the forests of hops, weedless; without a barren patch or a neglected spot anywhere. In the farm where I am billeted there is a farm-hand—a girl of about eighteen. She sleeps on the straw, on the floor of a stable. She is up, bursting with life and spirits, each morning at five o’clock; and she works, at top pressure, without ceasing, till dark. Then she returns to her straw. She is slim, but has the strength of an average man. She handles the farm horses with a single rein (attached to one ring of the bit only), and by word of mouth. Apparently, she neither eats nor drinks.

It is the “manure” season. That is to say, it is the time of year when they carry out the loathsome liquid accumulation of the past twelve months and spread it over the fields, and so wrapt up is this girl in the work, that you would think she revelled in it.

She moves always at the double—whether through the chicken run, whence every bird flies scared and panic-stricken at her wild approach, or through the manure heap (for she never goes round it). Each time I pass her she
looks up with full face and a cheery grin. I don’t suppose she ever washes, and she must reek of manure, but she fascinates me because of her extraordinary vitality. It is quite exciting to watch her at her work.

But, as I look upon her, I despair of the English as an agricultural nation.[1]

 

Before returning to France we need to visit the Isle of Wight, where Robert Graves has recently been ensconced in a Victorian palace (it was one of Queen Victoria’s retreats) to convalesce at his leisure. His ailments are quite real–exhaustion, damaged lungs, and semi-undiagnosed shell shock–but, as he tells the story, he is still eager to enjoy himself.

Along with several new compatriots, Graves founded “The Albert Edward Society,” a college-style faux secret society in “mock honour” of the prince consort. They ate strawberries and drank wine, “sang bawdy songs” and otherwise celebrated their being alive to celebrate bygone days–Graves, after all, is impetuous, irrepressible, creative, and twenty-one years old.

In Good-Bye to All That he calls the society the “Royal Albert Society” and gives several more examples of concurrent high jinks and clevernesses, including changing the labels on the paintings in the gallery, dressing up a piece of driftwood as a drowned sailor, and defending the society from boorish intrusion by outdoing all the efforts of the intruders at telling filthy stories. Which makes a lousy anecdote, since Graves is not at liberty to repeat the story he told to win the day… his point, however, is that he is no longer quite the prude he once was.

In keeping with the guiding principle of his memoir, Graves also throws in entertaining stories that chime with perceived reading-public interests and drops whatever names he can. Therefore he mentions A.A. Milne (slightingly) and he tells of his interactions with a curious colony of French Benedictines in exile on the island who strike him as urbane and humane, despite not keeping poetry in their library. Graves has the sad task of describing to one of these monks what his native Béthune looks like now. And, as if in an echo of the several young Anglican officers who have become Catholics or are moving in that direction, Graves claims that these interactions–and his general esteem, pace the skill with filthy stories, for the monastic life–brought him some way in a similar direction: “Catholicism ceased to repel me.” Which is vintage Graves, whether or not the self-centeredness and backhanded snark are intended…[2]

Graves’s letters from this period, however, mostly concern his efforts to advance his poetry and that of his friends.

30 June 1917
Osborne, Isle of Wight

Dear old Sassons,

Without doubt a great poem: poor little Orme, he’d have been awfully pleased with it. The simple effect would be strengthened by a more regular sweep in the first half of each verse: as it stands it would worry people who didn’t know much about poetry: it breaks the flow of sense.

Trusting to your good nature I’ve pencilled in some tentative suggestions…

Mindful of my constant impositions on the patience of others, I will not excerpt from the individual word-queries and quibbles of scansion that Graves then lists…

…I know you’ll forgive these remarks, because you’ve patched up poems for me before now. And without my corrections it is a great poem, so you needn’t notice them…

Robbie has my Fairies and Fusiliers manuscript if you happen to be in town and want to see what I’ve been at.

Best love

Robert

And then–this very same day, a century back–Graves received a letter from Sassoon which seems to have given a general sketch of his intention to protest against the war. Graves will spend a good deal of time in his memoir emphasizing Sassoon’s poor health–exhaustion, shell shock, general malaise. But this sounds like how he has been feeling at this time. Sassoon himself has hardly made any physical complaints, and sees himself as aggravated and motivated rather than ill. The two men may, of course, have reasons to differ about the etiology of Sassoon’s intent to protest…. but I would not be surprised if the (lost) letter to Graves read something like Sassoon’s fictionalized account of this period:

Back at Butley, I had fully a fortnight in which to take life easily before tackling ‘wilful defiance of military authority’. I was, of course, compelled to lead a double life, and the longer it lasted the less I liked it… it wasn’t easy to sustain the evangelistic individuality which I’d worked myself up to in London. Outwardly those last days of June progressed with nostalgic serenity. I say nostalgic, because in my weaker moods I longed for the peace of mind which could have allowed me to enjoy having tea out in the garden on fine afternoons. But it was no use trying to dope my disquiet with Trollope’s novels or any of my favourite books. The purgatory I’d let myself in for always came between me and the pages; there was no escape for me now…[3]

No, no escape. But he was only passive north-by-northwest, as the warning-shot letter to Graves demonstrates.

Graves wrote back, clearly alarmed, but neither aware that Sassoon has actually written his protest and set the wheels in motion to have it read out in the House of Commons, nor that he had not yet actually published it.

It is only too much like Sassoon to do what he has in fact done: taken several steps toward dramatic action, then wandered off with the act uncompleted, the rebellion hanging fire but liable to set itself off at any time. Graves seems to suspect something like this:

I have just posted a letter I wrote this morning but your new one has come. Look here, why don’t you come and see me down here…

I want to know what characteristic devilment this is. Are you standing as a pacifist MP? That’s the most characteristic thing I can think of next to your bombing Lloyd George.

Yours,

R

But the alarm has only begun to ring, as Graves’s post-script–as usual, critical of a mutual friend–shows:

I’ve also written on Sorley. Bob Nichols of course is not Sorley but he’s next best, a devout admirer.

I’ve a copy of my new poems here.[4]

So Graves is alerted… but has not not yet leapt into action. He will act, and soon–as a loyal friend, if not always a true one.

 

The idea of the protest, remember, is to stop the madness. Edward Brittain has just returned to it. And he too writes two letters, today, both to his sister Vera.

France, 30 June 1917

I have arrived at the transport lines and shall be starting for the trenches in half an hour or so. The battalion is apparently just at the place where one would wish it wasn’t, as the papers have not failed to mention the place every day for the last week or so…

Opposite Lens, in other words, where the British staff is convinced that a hasty offensive might unseat “demoralised” the German defenders.

And not only is Brittain’s new battalion in the area of contemplated operations–it is slated to attack. An entire year–less about ten hours–after his wounding, after months and months of rehabilitation, and waiting, and training, he is suddenly thrust back into the very forefront of the war.

France, 30 June 1917
A dug-out

8.45 p.m.

The unexpected has happened again and I am in for another July 1st. If it should be that ‘Ere the sun swings his noonday sword’ I must say goodbye to all of this — then good-bye. You know that, as I promised, I will try to come back if I am killed.

It is all very sudden and it is bad luck that I am here in time, but still it must be. All the love there is in life or death to you, dear child.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 197-8. This, too, must put one in mind of The Spanish Farm Trilogy--but there, it being a (good) novel, the "girl" is a woman with a spirit to match her physical energy, and a full life half-hidden from (and imagined by) the decorous English officer...
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 175; Good-Bye to All That, 250-4.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 488-9.
  4. In Broken Images, 71-2.
  5. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 362-3.

Scott Moncrieff Returns to London; Alfred Hale Endures Parental Bluster; Wyn Griffith in Red Tabs with Royalty; Vera Brittain on “The Profound Freemasonry” of Those Dead Beyond the Gulf

Today, a century back, we have rather a potpourri of four updates–and none are from the trenches.

First, we witness Charles Scott Moncrieff, now back in London, returning to a familiar literary orbit.

14th June

. . . Broadway (a brother officer here) is very good and faithful to me. He comes down after breakfast in a dressing gown and again (for messages) before he goes out. He has got me this writing pad. Colin came this afternoon and brought a great armful of roses. . . . My friend Robert Ross was in before Colin—fresh from a week-end with the Asquiths—and gave me a novel and a promise of all the latest poetry and other books. I was glad to see him as I wanted an expert’s eye cast on the portraits in this room. . . . I expect a good many brother officers this week. Broadway finds them. He is more obliging than words can say. This place is doing me a lot of good and I feel better already. Our surgeon is like the young villain in Hardy’s Laodicean—he looks about 14 but is very able…[1]

Reading Hardy, depending on Ross’s taste, Asquiths at arm’s reach… and, though he doesn’t mention it in this letter, he is also being regularly visited by Ronald Knox. It’s a small world… which I believe I’ve noted before.

 

While Moncrieff is returning from the war seriously wounded, Alfred Hale is slowly headed toward France. So slowly that he is still in the adjusting-to-training-camp stage. And it turns out that even our Old Man of the Air Force has parents. Hale may live a solitary life of privilege–before conscription that is–and see camp as an ordeal rather than an adventure, but he’s only 41… and he still has parents who write him their worries, reminding us that the generational gulf is, in terms of years on this earth, relative, and not absolute…

14 June: A letter from my father. A cousin had come to see him on Draft leave. He seemed to be bored with the War, especially with the prospect of death before his time from bullets or exposure… all of which surprised and shocked my father. ‘It didn’t matter how long the War lasted, but we must have a military victory at all costs’. (This last the burden of all letters from home)…

Hale senior also tells his son that at least his work as a batman is “setting free an abler man.” But Hale isn’t so sure. “Was I really doing that? Unfortunately, I much doubted it…” Nor is Hale accepting the idea that his music “must gain” from experience. He is fairly certain, in fact, that innocence of certain things is highly preferable…[2]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith has recovered, to some extent, from the overwhelming disillusionment and horror at the murderousness of war that he felt after the death of his brother. Or perhaps he has just become more practical… and honest in his balance of emotional reaction and natural self-interest. In any event, he was very happy to be reassigned to the divisional staff a few days ago, replacing a wounded officer in an intelligence job running “an advanced information centre.” Griffith puts on his red tabs “with delight… I felt proud and important in red. Besides, I would be drawing pay at the rate of £400 a year, a tremendous jump for me.” And today, a century back, his elevated status put him in the way of royalty:

… the King and the Prince of Wales visited the headquarters on 14 June. The King shook hands with all the senior members of the corps and divisional staffs…[3]

 

A wounded young man of letters returning to the literary world, a middle-aged musician learning further humiliations, and a one-time trench fighter content to be on the staff. The war brings many changes–until the changes stop.

Vera Brittain comes to the end of the road, today, with Victor Richardson.

Five days after [his death] Victor was buried at Hove. No place on earth could have been more ironically inappropriate for a military funeral than that secure, residential town, I reflected, as I listened with rebellious anger to the calm voice of the local clergyman intoning the prayers: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all those who have died for their country…”

Eternal Rest, I reflected, had been the last thing that Victor wanted; he had told me so himself. But if, thus prematurely, he had to take it, how much I wished that fate had allowed him to lie, with other winners of the Military Cross, in one of the simple graveyards of France. I felt relieved, as I listened to the plaintive sobbing of the “Last Post” rising incongruously from amid the conventional civilian tombstones, that Edward had not been able to come to the funeral. The uncomprehending remoteness of England from the tragic, profound freemasonry of those who accepted death together overseas would have intensified beyond endurance the incommunicable grief which had thrust us apart.

But when, back in Kensington, I re-read the letter that he had written in reply to mine telling him of Victor’s death, I knew that he had never really changed towards me, and that each of us represented to the other such consolation as the future still held.

Vera then gives her brother the final words of the present chapter of her memoir, ending Edward’s fervent assurance of true brotherly love

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live…

Yes, I do say ‘Thank God he didn’t have to live it.’ We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again… But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother.

Edward[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 95.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 153.
  4. Testament of Youth, 359-61.

Vera Brittain and Victor Richardson

Throughout the last week Vera Brittain has been spending as much time as she can with Victor Richardson, the best school friend of her brother and her dead fiancé. She intends to marry him, despite the knowledge that he will be blind and disfigured for the rest of his life. She will marry him also because of his wounds, out of affection and pity and a sense of higher duty. Vera has been torn for years between an urge toward self-realization and various notions of service, but nothing has been quite right. After the double blow of Geoffrey Thurlow’s death and Victor’s terrible wound, she made an impulsive decision that in retrospect seems both tragically unwise and inevitable–but don’t they all?

She will love, and serve, and “sacrifice” herself for Victor–sacrifice in a way that is neither traditional, exactly, nor modern and liberated. It’s tragic and romantic, in keeping with the religion of her adolescence. So she has sat by his side for a week, and made plans about a future life that they might share.

Until yesterday, when delirium suddenly set in and the condition of Victor’s brain injury suddenly worsened. His family was called in, but soon he seemed to stabilize, and sleep, and so both families went home to the Brittains’ new flat.

Next day, just before breakfast, his father was summoned to the public telephone on the ground floor of the flats; my parents had not yet had a private telephone installed. The message was from the hospital, to say that Victor had died in the early hours of the morning. The Matron had tried to call us during the night, but could get no reply; apparently the night-porter’s attitude towards his duty was similar to that of my orderly in Malta.

I still remember that silent, self-imposed breakfast, and the dull stoicism with which we all tried to eat fried bread and bacon.

I can’t help but be reminded of Eleanor Farjeon, and what crossed her mind as she bobbed in the wake of the news that Edward Thomas was dead: now we must eat, especially now–because we must live.

Victor Richardson was twenty-two. Vera Brittain, still just twenty-three, has much experience in going through the motions of continuing to live:

Immediately afterwards we went down to Chelsea; on the way there the aunt and I bought a sheaf of lilies and white roses, for our minds were still too numbed to operate in any but the conventional grooves.

Victor’s body had already been taken to the mortuary chapel; although the June sunshine outside shone brilliant and cheerful, the tiny place was ice-cold, and grey as a tomb. Indifferently, but with the mechanical decorum of habit, the orderly lifted the sheet from the motionless figure, so familiar, but in its silent unfamiliarity so terrible an indictment of the inept humanity which condemned its own noblest types to such a fate.

I had seen death so often . . . and yet I felt that I had never seen it before, for I appeared to be looking at the petrified defencelessness of a child, to whose carven features suffering and experience had once lent the strange illusion of adulthood. With an overwhelming impulse to soften that alien rigidity, I laid my fragrant tribute of roses on the bier, and went quickly away .

Back at home, the aunt, kind, controlled, too sensitive to the sorrows of others to remember her own, turned to me with an affectionate warmth of intimacy which had not been possible before and would never, we both knew, be possible again. “My dear, I understand what you meant to do for Victor. I know you’d have married him. I do wish you could have. . . .”

“Yes,” I said, “I wish I could have,” but I did not tell her that the husband of my imagination was always Roland, and could never now be Victor. The psychological combats and defeats of the past two years, I thought, no longer mattered to anyone but myself, for death had made them all unsubstantial, as if they had never been. But though speech could be stifled, thought was less easy to tame; I could not cease from dwelling upon the superfluous torture of Victor’s long agony, the cruel waste of his brave efforts at vital readjustment. As for myself, I felt that I had been malevolently frustrated in the one serious attempt I had ever made to serve a fellow- creature. Only long afterwards, when time had taught me the limits of my own magnanimity, did I realise that his death had probably saved us both from a relationship of which the serenity might have proved increasingly difficult to maintain, and that I had always been too egotistical, too ambitious, too impatient, to carry through any experiment which depended for its success upon the complete abnegation of individual claims.

When Victor’s young brother had been sent for from school and the family had gone back to Sussex, I wandered about the flat like a desolate ghost, unable to decide where to go or what to do next. Only when twilight came could I summon sufficient resolution to write to Edward in the dim drawing-room, and to copy into my quotation-book Rupert Brooke’s sonnet “Suggested by some of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research”:

Not with vain tears, when we’re beyond the sun,
We’ll beat on the substantial doors, nor tread
Those dusty high-roads of the aimless dead.
Plaintive for Earth; but rather turn and run
Down some close-covered by-way of the air.
Some low sweet alley between wind and wind,
Stoop under faint gleams, thread the shadows, find
Some whispering , ghost-forgotten nook, and there
Spend in pure converse our eternal day;
Think each in each, immediately wise;
Learn all we lacked before; hear, know and say
What this tumultuous body now denies;
And feel, who have laid our groping hands away;
And see, no longer blinded by our eyes..[1]

 

It’s not so much that the influence of Brooke lingers, as that it remains dominant across large swathes of the English poetry-reading public. The new books are coming out, and Gurney is reading Sassoon who has been influenced by Sorley. But that is, as yet, a tight-knit group…

Still, Vera Brittain’s own writing doesn’t need the influence of other writers to express emotions alien to Brooke. She will write a poem, too, in the coming days, the latest in a series of memorials for young men she loved, in one way or another:

 

Sic Transit

V.R., died of wounds, 2nd London General Hospital, Chelsea, June 9th, 1917
I am so tired.
The dying sun incarnadines the West,
And every window with its gold is fired,
And all I loved the best
Is gone, and every good that I desired
Passes away, an idle hopeless quest;
Even the Highest whereto I aspired
Has vanished with the rest.
I am so tired.
London, June 1917

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 357-9.

Alfred Hale Endures, as far as Thetford; Vera Brittain’s Anxieties and Victor Richardson’s Hopes

Alfred Hale “had a somewhat better night” on his second night in barracks, but his second full day as a soldier was another adventure in class distinction and social abasement. Detailed to join a labor battalion at Thetford, Hale takes the underground to Liverpool Street Station, where he is handed a piece of cake and marched longingly past the First Class passengers.

…first class compartments, the society of Deans, and the chance of partaking of an expensive luncheon on board an express train on the Great Eastern Railway were, I then supposed, henceforth to be denied to me for some time to come, even though I happened to be a shareholder of the Railway Company…

Nothing happened in the train worth recording, except that our sergeant talked a great deal with a man in the compartment, not in khaki, about the probable duration of hostilities. By doing so, and in other small ways, he somehow unintentionally made me feel even more socially inferior… than I had hitherto felt.

It gets no better at Thetford, where the camp is slow to process new arrivals. Although Hale is able to benefit from his means–he finds a cottage where they will sell him dinner–he is still alone and bewildered both my military customs and the inscrutable bureaucracy. And, for that matter, he is bewildered by any way of making headway in the world other than the narrow one he has so long pursued.

But back in camp, I must needs get into a muddle as to which dining marquee I was to sleep in. In the place where we had had tea that afternoon, on a table reposing solitarily by themselves, lay my kit-bag and other effects. Where had the others gone to? What was I to do? I felt more miserable than ever, and badly needed help and advice from someone in authority with common sense.[1]

Instead he finds an abusive sergeant. Somehow or other he figures out where to go, how to lay out his bedroll, how to locate the latrines and, eventually, how to sleep in an open tent, with a dozen strangers…

 

Vera Brittain is coming home, but it will take time. In a letter of today, a century back, to an uncle, she writes of her feelings for her brother:

Malta, 7 May 1917

…One might have surmised, but could not have anticipated, that everything that made the world worth while for Edward would be so suddenly wrecked; I can feel his need of me as strongly across all these miles as if he had actually expressed it, and as long as he is in this world his need of me will come before everything else; whether it ought to or not is beside the question. So you see how desperately anxious I am to get home before he goes back
into the vortex that has robbed him of everything…

Edward, meanwhile, was writing to Vera. We have already drawn on the condolence letters which provide details of Geoffrey Thurlow’s fate, summaries of which fill much of this letter. Harder to bear, in some ways, is the news of Victor Richardson:

…Tah was told last Wednesday that he will probably never see again, but he is marvellously cheerful. I went up. to town on Saturday and came back last night; I was with him quite a long time on Saturday evening and yesterday morning and afternoon. He is perfectly sensible in every way and I don’t think there is the very least doubt that he will live. He said that the last few days had been rather bitter. He hasn’t given up hope himself about his sight and occasionally says ‘if I get better . . . ’[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 48-52.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 352-3.

J.R. Ackerley in Captivity; Kate Luard Helps a Prisoner in Vain; Alfred Hale’s Ordeal Begins

First, today, J.R. Ackerley, a prisoner in a German hospital, managed to write–while lying on his belly, perforce–a card to his brother:

Dear Old Peter

just a line to let you know that I am wounded and a prisoner in Germany–which has successfully killed my War-goose.

The wound is not bad, but inconvenient, being in the bottom!

Thine

Joe[1]

 

It could be worse, as it is in this parallel experience from Kate Luard.

A poor old Boche with the lower part of his face missing came in this morning (no tongue or lower jaw); dying of thirst apparently; he nearly went mad with joy when I succeeded in getting two feeders of water and brandy down with him, but means of india-rubber tubing on the spout, but he died later.[2]

 

With such experiences awaiting even willing recruits, is it any wonder that Alfred Hale, ready but far from willing, fears the worst of military service? But he is far from horror, as of yet, and the indignities he will experience will be slightly more subtle than Ackerley’s wound, though they come in swift and unyielding succession. Hale is due at Town Hall, Ealing, at 9 a.m., to see about continuing to contest his call-up.

…I ate a good breakfast, somewhat after the manner of the condemned criminal’s last meal, I suppose.

Arrived outside Town Hall, I spoke to one of the sergeants who were waiting there till the Recruiting Officer arrived… The Recruiting Officer was very pleasant to me as before. It seems I need not have turned up before Monday, but if I wished to go today he had no objection. he rather struck me, in fact, as having no objection to anything, except possibly being routed out of a very comfortable job and sent out to the trenches, say…

Surely it is so. But today is the beginning of Hale’s ironic katabasis, and the Recruiting Officer is for the moment spared. With withering irony Hale describes how he is bounced bureaucratically about–he is too old, or he had been, at one point in the implementation of conscription; no one, least of all himself, really wants him in the army–and then inducted, it seems, more or less because that’s how the flipper-and-bumper rituals of military/bureaucratic hierarchy spat out this particular ball. And it’s more about the angle in than the actual characteristics of the input: the enthroned colonel at the top of the building is annoyed either by his manner or by the perceived cheekiness of his appeal, so Hale is in.

After trooping upstairs and down, then marching with other draftees to the train, Hale arrives in a barracks in Hounslow for his medical exam. Everyone is still being very pleasant–after all, who should be unhappy on a fine day in London, so far from Flanders?

By this time I was quite at my ease and trying hard to treat the whole matter as a joke, and it was very helpful the way all these kind people backed me up and were ready to joke along with me. Meanwhile one of the orderlies looking out of the window exclaimed, ‘There go a batch of conscientious objectors’. ‘With a Bible in each hand, I suppose?’ suggested another scornfully. And then it came to my turn, I was sent through a door…

Which is where his comfort evaporates. Once undressed, the pleasant forty-two-year-old musical gentleman wearing nothing but his shoes is weighed and examined, and no jejune comparison to a lamb (or a more suitably aged but similarly meat-marketable beast) is necessary:

Having been weighed… I found myself in a very large room of the canteen variety… At a small table to one side sat two medical men in khaki, who took not the slightest notice of me…

Bullied by the eye-exam orderly, Hale forgets to produce his spectacles, is flustered by the doctor’s implication that he is flubbing the exam on purpose, remembers the spectacles, and successfully retakes the exam.

But by this time I had begun to lose my nerve, all my former calm of mind leaving me bit by bit. The doctor took me aside, and I was in a pretty trembling fright, with my heart beating up and down like a sledge-hammer, when he further examined me.

Which is when Hale has the deplorable timing to mention that he would like to go for an officer.

‘I am passing you C2’, was the reply.. ‘They want officers for the Labour Companies, don’t they?’–this to the other doctor. But the remark had to be repeated twice, as the old gentleman seemed to have fallen asleep.

Well that seems alright then–not fit enough for the front-line infantry, but perhaps an officer’s life a bit further from the trenches.

The long day’s journey continues on to the tailor’s, where, after much initiating into the profane vocabulary of the professional NCO, he gets his first rough khaki… and it is still only lunch time.

It was here that I first experienced making the one plate do for both meat and sweet.

Never such innocence again.

And, indeed, before Hale is released on his own recognizance for the afternoon, he learns that the doctor was wrong–C2 men will not be allowed to apply for commissions. This is neither the first nor the last of the eminently avoidable traps that the clueless Hale wanders into, but it’s a bad one–despite his social status and unsuitability for physical labor, he is now bound to the military world’s lower caste. But old reflexes are far from extinguished: Hale duly tips the apologetic, rheumatic sergeant who gives him the bad news.

The true “Catch-22” is, appropriately, a business-machined evil hammered into being by a later bureaucracy, rising to dominance in the Second War and only first scientifically described at the beginning of the 1960’s. In 1917, Alfred Hale is like a silent film schlemiel uniquely skilled in choosing to seat himself on whatever pile of lumber has already been attached to a crane. It is very lucky for him, then, that he also seems to have a cinema tramp’s gift for provoking the kindness of near-strangers.

Going home for a few hours, Hale allows his thoughts to wander melodramatically.

In the train, the white may blossom on the trees, as we passed along, made me very sad. I thought of what I knew was happening elsewhere, and this glorious May sunshine and riot of white colour over all. It was like a great white light that shone on a tragedy, and made pain and death and suffering show up worse by way of contrast.

Arriving back at the barracks that evening, Hale has his first conversation, as an enlisted man, about when the war might end. Then a kindly NCO teaches him how to salute, and one of his barracks-mates instructs him in the mysteries of “making myself snug for the night” by placing his overcoat over his blanket.

Like any good children’s story–or any good narrative of innocence–we end the chapter by going to sleep. Or trying to.

How I missed my sleeping-suit and linen sheets and pillow-case! That is perhaps one reason why I could not sleep. And what a place to find oneself in, me of all people too![3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 1.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 122.
  3. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 38-46.

Edward Thomas Contemplates the Moles; Henry Williamson Prepares for France; Wilfred Owen’s Happiness

The Citadel in Arras in More Recent Days

First, today, a century back, Edward Thomas seems in better spirits. Is it the weather?

A dull morning turns sunny and warm. Chaffinches and partridges, moles working on surface.

The birds provided a bit of their usual sort of uplift, it would seem, and then the moles complicate matters. But Thomas is drawn into the human world as he goes about his business. He notes the “beautiful 18th century citadel” in which some of their units are housed, and he discusses the battery’s disposition with his colonel. But those moles are on his mind, and at the end of the short diary entry, he returns to them:

“Does a mole ever get hit by a shell?”[1]

 

Today, a century back, Henry Williamson–busiest of our fictionalizers and possessor of one of the longest and most peripatetic military careers we have seen–is headed back to the front. Although he packed his alter-ego Phillip Maddison off to France in December and sent him on a tour of the Somme battlefield, Williamson himself has only reached as far as Southampton. Like his hero Maddison, Williamson now commands the transport company of a machine gun unit–208 Machine Gun Corps. And, since he carefully preserved a great deal of paperwork from this job, we shall be hearing not only more of mice and men these coming weeks but of mules and machine guns as well.

Before boarding his ship–a tricky matter, given the mules–Williamson posted a letter to his mother.

Dear Mother,

It is 10 oclock Sunday morning, & we have got to Southampton Docks… We are expecting to sail tonight… We shall be in France on Monday morning and I expect we shall go right up the line.

I hope you got the blankets: will you have them washed: they are my own private property. Will you get my British warm from Jerry, and gave it dry cleaned. Tell him I want you to send it out here but dont do so until, and if, I write you.

Williamson is swiftly back to one of his old selves–self-important and grasping. He indicates that his unit will be on some unusually direct course into unusually great danger, although there seems no reason to think this. He is bustling and rather short with his devoted mother, and then his swagger continues as he condescends to explain his cryptographic brilliance for his mother’s benefit:

By the way, when you see a letter of mine with an X at the top, you will know it has a message in it: probably the place we are at: and if it is Ypres I will put a dot under the letters thus ‘Y.es, p.resently we r.e.turn ever s.o. wet.’ Reads Ypres, see?[2]

Cunning. Williamson’s letter then makes some bold predictions about prices and the war’s future, and he signs off in a manner that demonstrates the root of his persistent social troubles better than many paragraphs of analysis:

Well goodbye & my love to everyone. I only send my kind regards to my own people: others you can give no message to until I actually write, but I [don’t] mind you giving them my address. I am waiting for them to move, comprenez? Well, best of love, Harry.

PS. The mules are very good up to now…[3]

 

And from Wilfred Owen, today, we have a fragmentary letter that hints at richer explanations to come: he discusses–for the first time in a long while–his poetry.

Sunday, 25 February 1917 [Advanced Horse Transport Depot]

Mine own Mother,

Just had your letter of Tuesday 20th…

My ‘Happiness’ is dedicated to you. It contains perhaps two good lines. Between you an’ me the sentiment is all bilge. Or nearly all. But I think it makes a creditable Sonnet. You must not conclude I have misbehaved in any way from the tone of the poem (though you might infer it if you knew the tone of this Town.) On the contrary I have been a very good boy…

“Happiness” is a strange production, possibly the first poem Owen has written since his harrowing first tour in the trenches. It is indeed a “creditable” sonnet… and sentimental, too. The explanation for the form and title is that he had agreed with his cousin Leslie Gunston some time ago to write poems on set topics… is it, then, even about the war? Not necessarily–and, yes.

Ever again to breathe pure happiness,
So happy that we gave away our toy?
We smiled at nothings, needing no caress?
Have we not laughed too often since with Joy?
Have we not stolen too strange and sorrowful wrongs
For her hands’ pardoning? The sun may cleanse,
And time, and starlight. Life will sing great songs,
And gods will show us pleasures more than men’s.

Yet heaven looks smaller than the old doll’s-home,
No nestling place is left in bluebell bloom,
And the wide arms of trees have lost their scope.
The former happiness is unreturning:
Boys’ griefs are not so grievous as our yearning,
Boys have no sadness sadder than our hope.

The sonnet is creditable in part because it is smoothly written and nicely varied–it’s good verse. It conforms, too, to one school of sonneteering, using the octet to pose a question and the sestet to answer it–and it’s the answer that makes it clear that this is indeed a war poem.

If it’s trite to hymn happiness and evoke heaven, at least the opening line of the sestet gives a deft twist to the form. The poem hints, in its pretty and conventional way, at the same permanent loss of innocence that Larkin will one day describe…

When the letter picks up after a missing sheet, Owen is damning the popularity of cheap and morally worthless souvenirs:

…I have no intention of collecting souvenirs of any description. What England will need will be an anti-souvenir…[4]

Yes, it will. And the Owen of six weeks ago seemed unlikely to furnish it with one. He’s a bit less unlikely–but a crucial bit–now.

 

Finally, today, a century back the German army began a long-planned withdrawal to a completely new defensive position, known (to them) as the Siegfried Stellung and called by the British the Hindenburg Line. By withdrawing a few miles, the Germans gave up only a thin slice of ravaged French territory and gained a better-sited, carefully constructed, in-all-ways-tactically-superior defensive position. The British, who had been wasting lives and resources to scratch forward on the old Somme front and points northwards, will in the coming days pick up and walk forward into what had been the German rear–where thousands of booby-traps awaited–and begin constructing a new line of their own, under observation and under fire, in the location of their opponents’ choosing. Moles working on the surface indeed…

If it felt like a moral victory to move forward, the men who had seen their friends die to win positions that were now of no account may instead have felt anger and foreboding… and the move clearly showed that the German High Command, in possession of enemy territory, was willing to conduct a more strategically cogent form of attritional warfare…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diaries, (Childhood), 165.
  2. This is silly, and wouldn't pass any censor bothering to do his job; but then again it is a common dodge and some readers failed to pick up on it. But that was a whole book that Sapper Martin sent...
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 87-88.
  4. Collected Letters, 437-8.

Siegfried Sassoon Pines for Simplicity; Edmund Blunden on the March

A quieter day, today, with just two poets on the move. Or one: Siegfried Sassoon is still stuck in camp in Rouen, quarantined–though apparently not too closely–with the measles.

What sensitive young man doesn’t wish, at times, to suffer less in his soul, to be more like the dumb beasts? Ah, but to take one’s pretty, simple friend as the epitome of such animal contentment is… something that most sensitive not-quite-so-young men would find, on second thought, perhaps a bit condescending…

February 24

To-night returning from my twilight walk, among the glooming pines with the young thin moon and a few stars overhead, suddenly I felt an intense craving for simplicity; or even for stupidity. Just to be a good boy (like Bobbie Hanmer) and to have done with this itch to pull everything to shreds. For there is something very alluring in that Sunday-evening peacefulness of heart, where a church-bell rings, and the landscape twinkles with cottage-lights.

Bobbie Hanmer can kneel down every night and say his simple prayers to nothing, and fall asleep content to die or lose an arm or a leg for king and country. For him all England’s wars are Holy. His smooth head is no more perplexed with problems than a robin in a hedgerow. He cocks his bright eye at you like a bird, bless him. To-night I felt l should like to be the same: and all my unhappiness and discontent and hatred of war and contempt for the mean ways of men and women and myself seemed so easy to put away and forget: my morbid heresies
seethed like a lot of evil books that one might push into a dark shelf to gather dust. And even the ranks of solemn, brooding pines took on a sort of tenderness, and there was homeliness in the lights of the camp; and I couldn’t hear a bugle anywhere.

I think this craving for something homely is a feeling that overcomes all others out here; even my pseudo-cynical heart is beginning to be filled by it. I am not so angry with the world as I was a week ago. Soon I shall be utterly domestic, asking no more than a fireside and a book by Trollope, and the parson in to supper.[1]

 

We’ll see. The only other bit I have is a passage from Edmund Blunden that matches up with his battalion’s movements for today. It’s a quick piece of prose, and it reminds us of something that, reading so much in these books, I often forget: sometimes they are written not for posterity or latter-day historians or war-book-readers, but for other men who were there, and once knew each step of these marches…

With a sudden surprise order to return to the trenches these, affectionate times came to an end. We marched that great march of the British from Poperinghe, past hop-gardens and estaminets, past shattered estaminets and withered fields and battery shelters and hearths dripping with rain to that screened corner by Ypres Asylum, thence turning along Posthoornstraat into Kruisstraat, a suburb of Ypres where, we heard, the inhabitants had longest lingered on and sold wines against the fates.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. Undertones of War, 146-7.

Rowland Fielding Reports on a Raid: Murder–and Mercy; Vera Brittain Misreads Her Brother; Charles Moncrieff is Back from Amiens, and (Vyvyan) Holland

This will be one of those “three points of an obtuse triangle” sorts of days. There is a minor update, down at the end, on Charles Scott Moncrieff, and a heartfelt, revealing, but not very warlike letter from Vera Brittain to her brother Edward. And then there is the war, in the shape of Rowland Feilding‘s report to his wife on the fate of the raid conducted by his battalion (“his” in the double sense of affiliation and command) yesterday, a century back.

February 20, 1917. “Doctor’s House,” Kemmel.

I with my Headquarters officers reached Shamus Farm at about 4 o’clock yesterday morning, in a dense fog. The men of the raiding parties were already filing in and out of the ruins, loading up with Mills grenades and  smokebombs and all the other paraphernalia necessary for the undertaking. The green oval patches were being stripped from their sleeves, and everything by which the battalion might be identified, such as letters, regimental numerals, and cap badges, were being collected and put away in sandbags. Each man, as he completed these preliminaries, passed silently into the communication trench leading to the firing line, where all was absolutely still—uncannily so.

…At seven o’clock I passed along the fire-trench, where the raiders were now waiting for the moment of Zero. Most were cheerfully tucking green miniature Irish flags into their caps or buttonholes, and all seemed full of confidence.

What follows is both a quick tactical sketch and a litany. It’s not that it’s inaccurate, or unclear: Feilding was there, just behind the attack, in command, and he’s clear-headed and a good writer. We could hardly have a better vantage point on a raid. And yet the sequence–a position on the line, a rush, a report of wounds and deaths; repeat–is something between black comedy and threnody. Why are all these men going forward, one after another, to be torn by bullets and shrapnel? Because that was the plan, and they stick to it.

At 7.15 the three parties, comprising 9 officers and 190 other ranks, without any preparatory bombardment, scaled the parapet, and made a wild dash across Noman’s Land. At the same moment our artillery opened, according to
programme, and put a box barrage round the selected section of the enemy trench.

The centre party reached the German wire, but found it uncut, having—perhaps owing to the fog—missed the gap. 2nd Lieut. Williamson, second in command of the party, was killed as he neared the wire, and 2nd Lieut. Kent, commanding, was wounded in the arm but continued firing with his revolver at the enemy, holding up his wounded arm with his free hand. When he had fired off his six rounds he lay down and reloaded. J. White—a private—then stood up and bombed the enemy in the trench. This party found a covering group lying out in front of the German wire, which however fell back into the trench as our men approached.

The right party had no casualties till it reached the wire. Then 2nd, Lieut. Bradshaw, second in command, was wounded, and a minute or two later was hit again and killed. 2nd Lieut. Cardwell, commanding the party, was also wounded severely by a stick bomb, which blew away the calf of his leg. His men then threw all the bombs they were carrying across the wire into the German trench, after which, seeing that the party on their left was retiring, and having lost both their officers, they fell back.

The first wave of the left party started off well under 2nd Lieut. Cummins, a very gallant young officer whom I had put in command in place of the original commander, who was the officer I have mentioned as being absent on a course. The Sergeant, Hackett, was almost immediately killed. The party met with heavy opposition, and some of the men behind them faltering. Captain Garvey, who was in charge of the assaulting parties, ran out across Noman’s Land to rally them.

He fell wounded, and Lieut. T. Hughes, commanding the left support, ran forward to help rally the waverers. Private John Collins did the same. This man acted with great dash, rushing recklessly towards the German trench, shouting “Come on the Connaughts”—a cry which some of the enemy took up. Sergeant Purcell and Privates Twohig and Elwin also did their best to encourage the others, the latter standing up and firing with his rifle at the Germans, who now began freely to expose themselves, till he fell, shot through the neck.

At last, prudence–or is it free will, or some sort of permission to abandon foolish and painful hopes and refuse further profligacy?–reasserts itself.

Hughes showed great gallantry, again and again exposing himself; then, recognizing that the raid had failed, he fell back, and with the aid of Cummins and two privates—King and Healy—carried Garvey back to the shelter of our trench.

In the meantime the enemy had been retaliating violently upon our front line and communication trench with high explosive and shrapnel, as was to be expected.

Less expected is the sequel:

After some two hours the firing on both sides died away, and by 9.30 all was quiet. An incident then took place which I think was as remarkable as any that this most unchivalrous of wars can have yet produced.

Our dead and many of the wounded still lay out in Noman’s Land, when the fog lifted and the German trench became clearly visible. As I stood in the middle of the fire-trench a man came running to me and reported that the enemy had allowed what he called “an armistice,” for the purpose of collecting the wounded who were lying in front of the right extremity of the section.

I hurried along the trench and found that this was literally true. Already parties of men were out dressing the wounded and carrying them back to our line. One of my officers and a German were bending together over a wounded man alongside the enemy wire. The Germans, in considerable numbers, were lolling over and even sitting upon their parapet, watching the proceedings. My own men were doing the same. As the stretcher-bearers started to move the dead the enemy called out to “leave the dead alone,” but no notice was taken of this.

I asked how this extraordinary state of affairs had originated. I was told that the Germans had called out in English, “Send out your stretchermen,” and that a number of volunteers—stretcher-bearers, real and self-constituted (the latter of course stretcher-less)—had immediately climbed over the parapet.

I noticed Private Collins. He is one of the “wild men” of the battalion. He was sauntering about with a pipe in his mouth, wearing a bomber’s waistcoat, the pockets bulging with bombs. This was obviously out of order under
the circumstances, and was only asking for trouble;—in fact the Germans, I had been told, when they issued their invitation to the stretcher-bearers had stipulated (rather naturally) that the latter should come unarmed.

I told Collins to put down his bombs, which he did rather sheepishly, as though he had suddenly remembered for the first time that he had them on. Then, after a parting warning, I moved off towards the left section of the trench, to see how things were faring there.

The “armistice” had spread, and the scene, if possible, was more remarkable than that which I had left. The distance between the enemy’s trench and ours is considerably less here than on the right, being not more than 40
yards at the narrowest point.

I found numerous Germans—almost shoulder to shoulder—leaning over their parapet, exposed from the waist up:
on our side it was the same. All were interestedly watching the stretcher-bearers at work in Noman’s Land. A German officer was walking excitedly up and down along the top of his parapet, shouting in perfect English to my men to “get their heads” down or he would open fire, at the same time gesticulating vigorously with his arm.

The whole proceeding was of course highly irregular, and the last of our wounded and dead having by this time been recovered, I ordered, the men below the parapet, and a second or two later every head on both sides had disappeared: both the German trench and ours had become normal, and the war had re-started.

Thought I to myself, “These people cannot always be so bad as they are painted”: then I proceeded to take stock.
But the enemy had exacted payment for his generosity. The officer I had seen near the German wire was missing,
as were one or two others.

There may be something to be said in the case of the officer. He had foolishly neglected to remove his revolver (or rather revolvers, since he had two) before going out, and having looked into the enemy’s trench was perhaps fair game.

At the same time, by what subterfuge he and the others were inveigled into becoming prisoners, I do not know, and shall not know till the war is over; if then.

 

This letter has read largely like an official report–Feilding must describe the truce to someone, just not those in a position to disapprove of so unwarlike an action. The next letter reads very differently, and shows the strain that he has been under: he is, after all, both the commander of a battalion that he couldn’t protect and a subordinate to generals who will punish this breach of murderous decorum. And although he had no volition in the matter of the “raid,” he cannot feel that he doesn’t have responsibility for the losses.

February 20 (Night).

I fly to you when I am in trouble, and I am feeling very sick at heart, to-night. Ivan Garvey—the ideal Company
Commander—the bravest, the cheeriest, the most loyal and perfect of men, was reported a few hours ago to be dead of his wounds. How readily he undertook the work when I first proposed it to him!

As I passed the Aid Post yesterday, on my way back from the line, I went in, and found him asleep under morphia, so did not get a chance to speak to him. Nobody thought he would die then. Priestman, the Brigade Major, who had been by my side during the affair of the morning, had seen him earlier before I was able to get away from the fire-trench. He told me he was semi-conscious then, and that he had thought he (Priestman) was me. I like to think that he asked for me.

My God! if the people at home could actually see with their eyes this massacring of the cream of our race, what a terrible shock it would be to them! But we must see it through. All are agreed upon that.

Nine of my best officers went over yesterday. Three of these are left to-day. And, in addition, one more of my Company Commanders (Fitzgerald) is gone, as the result of this enterprise. He was wounded while cutting the gaps through our own wire, preparatory to the raid, so severely that he too may die.

But all this is not unusual. It is the toll to be expected from a raid when it is unsuccessful, and indeed often when it is successful; and the success or failure of a raid is largely a matter of chance.

I was present at the burial of some of the killed this afternoon, including that of two of my most promising young officers. That is the tragedy of the war. The best are taken. The second best are often left in the safe places.

General Pereira came and saw me this morning, and stayed some time. He was more kind and consoling than
I can say. Private Elwin, too, has died.[1]

I have been unable–in a cursory search–to find out anything more about the officer who strayed too close to the German wire. The story is so strange, and yet not unlikely. Was the German truce a ruse? Spontaneous mercy followed by spontaneous opportunism? Most likely, perhaps, is that the truce was a spontaneous act of mercy, and the later capture of the British officer was due to the action of German officers who, like Feilding, happened upon a truce in progress–and thought better of it.

Feilding tells the story of his small disaster as straight as it can be told, it would seem. And yet his dismay at the pointlessness of it, the bloodiness of the poor plan, poorly enacted, is so palpable that it feels worse than it was: I don’t know about the officer and the “one or two” other prisoners, nor do I know how many men were wounded. But, according to the CWGC, “only” ten men were killed: the three officers and the sergeant, Private Elwin, and five other men with one stripe between them.

Will there be any calling to account for the failure of the raid? Or, rather, for the “armistice” which followed? Or even for the failure of the armistice and the apparent capture of an officer wandering No Man’s Land in broad daylight? It will take a few days to find out.

 

From combat, then, to war as catalyst and background to young people’s self-discovery. Vera Brittain’s correspondence with her brother has been slowed by her posting to Malta, but the intensity of the exchange has only deepened. Today, a century back, Vera’s lofty mind dwells on the problem of sex…

Malta, 20 February 1917

You & I are not only aesthetic but ascetic — at any rate in regard to sex. Or perhaps, since ‘ascetic’ implies rather a lack of emotion, it would be more correct to say exclusive–Geoffrey is very much this, and Victor, & Roland was. What I mean by this is, that so many people are attracted by the opposite sex simply because it is the opposite sex–the average officer & the average ‘nice girl’ demand, I am sure, little else but this. But where you & I are concerned, sex by itself doesn’t interest us unless it is united with brains & personality; in fact we rather think of the latter first, & the person’s sex afterwards. This is quite enough to put you off the average ‘nice girl’, who would neither give you what you want nor make the effort herself to try & understand you when other men, who can give her what she wants, are so much easier to understand. . . .

That is Vera’s ellipsis[2] and it gives me a chance to cough meaningfully and swoop in before all this gets out of hand. She is both quite perceptive, here, and very, very dim. She would be a modern woman, engaging the boys on her own terms, and yet she is still very much a provincial young lady, blind to the complexities of real life.

Once again I preface this analysis with the warning that late 20th century categories (I don’t quite flatter myself that I am more up to date than that) can only clumsily be applied to the sexual identities of Edwardian and Georgian England. Pigeonholes are much nicer than closets, but still constraining.

Yet oversimplification is an expedient wickedness here–let sexual complexity suffer so that I am not guilty of leaving strategy to wither, unbefriended and oversimplified, all alone! It’s more or less accurate to say, simply, that the reason Edward Brittain is disinterested in nice girls is that he is gay. Or leave identity out of it, and stick to interest: he is probably far from being able or willing to acknowledge this even in a private way, but he is interested in… nice boys. Moreover, it seems very likely that Geoffrey is too–and quite possible that they have been interested in each other.

Asceticism? Perhaps, but that’s not really the question when it comes to Edward and the sexual appeal of young women. And as for Vera, there were many obstacles between Vera and Roland’s kiss or two and what should have followed–a formidable mother, all the ignorance and fear of their upbringing, a German machine gun. But Vera, although she subordinates the whole crew–herself and the three boys–to Roland, is still blinkered. She and he were “ascetic,” when it came to sex, but Edward is not necessarily the same way–he is necessarily secretive, and so we cannot know.

One might hope that she is wrong about his asceticism as well. There was certainly repression and dissimulation, but perhaps there was connection, too. Perhaps, in that brief, intense, training-camp friendship, there was pleasure given and taken between Edward and Geoffrey.

As for Victor, he fairly obviously has feelings for Vera, and I can’t recall him expressing much enthusiasm for intellectual rigor and sensual restraint. But he is bring roped in to the group–last, as usual, the dullest of the group. How, if it were the case that he felt physical passion for Vera, would he broach that subject? His please would fall on ascetic ears… But never mind; Victor is in France, and overlooked, and Vera is in Malta, disinterested in the possibly lustful glances of her fallen fiancé’s–and beloved brother’s–less brilliant friend.

I shouldn’t be too hard on Vera; it’s sad that the most important relationship she has in her life must have this silence near the center of it. I hope that Edward smiled tolerantly when he read her fond hopes for his future sexual happiness:

I think very probably that older women will appeal to you much more than younger ones, as they do to me. This means that you will probably have to wait a good many years before you find anyone you could wish to marry, but I don’t think this need worry you, for there is plenty of time, & very often people who wait get something well worth waiting for.

. . . I think the old saw about young women being so much older than young men for their age has always been very untrue & since the War is more so than ever… in the things that really count it is the boy who is grown-up; he has had responsibilities which under the present benighted system of educating women she has never had the fringe of — especially if he is at a Public School. The boy of eighteen or nineteen has probably — and since the War certainly, had to cope with questions of morality & immorality whose seriousness would astound her if she  understood it, and deal with subjects of whose very existence she is probably ignorant…

Exceptional as I was, I don’t think the I of the days before I had loved & lost Roland would satisfy the You of to-day.

Does she stray closer to the mark, at the end? Perhaps, but only to miss it and continue on…

I don’t think it’s a question of upbringing at all… of course it may be true that Father’s very Early Victorian attitude towards women may unconsciously have influenced & even reproduced itself in you a little–I have noticed occasionally a slight suspicion of patronage in your dealings with women; I don’t really think this is because you think their sex inferior so much as you realise their inferiority (as it probably is) to you in personality & brain. I, conversely, feel the same with many men! But it is necessary to be rather more careful in dealing with women, as if a man patronises a woman she always thinks it is because of her sex, whereas if a woman patronises a man, he (if he is acute enough to notice it, which he generally isn’t) never puts it down to his!

. . . It is such a wild stormy night & the sea is beating the rocks like anything. On this island, the land seems to shrink as one knows it better, & the miles & miles of sea between here & home to get longer & longer — though I can still write to you across them! But one begins to understand a little the significance of the Revelation — ‘And there was no more sea.’ For here sea is the very symbol of separation.[3]

 

Finally, today, Charles Scott Moncrieff‘s time as a sick man in Amiens is over–but it has proved to be personally fruitful. He will find a desk job with his unit and begin busily essay-ing and reviewing…

B.E.F., Shrove Tuesday, February, 1917.

I got back to the Regiment last night. I am Second in Command again for the present as the Colonel is taking the Brigade while the Brigadier is having measles…  I saw various friends at Amiens, including Vyvyan Holland, whom I had not seen for years, also the Sheepshanks who was in College with me, and Gibson of Lister House, who was 2nd in Command at Cimiez last year. I am living on the road that Herries and I galloped madly down on the morning of the Battle of Loos—on my 26th birthday. . . [4]

Vyvyan “Why? Why?” Holland is, since his brother Cyril was killed by a sniper in 1915, the sole surviving son of Oscar Wilde. Now an officer in the artillery, Holland is a committed Catholic and a writer and close with Robbie Ross, his father’s lover, friend and executor.

This puts Moncrieff in the outer orbit of another one of our central literary circles–and, with the friendship with Holland revived, he will come in closer. Given the discussion of Vera’s letter and our general level of prurience, it seems prudent to make the usually unremarkable remark that Holland, as it happens, was straight…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 151-7.
  2. Or the editor's?
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 320-2.
  4. Diaries, 125; Alas and apologies that I was not monitoring Moncrieff as early as 1915...