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...

J.R. Ackerley Bids His Brother Farewell; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XVI: Ivor Gurney and the Protest of the Physical Against the Exalted Spiritual; Charles Scott Moncrieff in Amiens; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Line

It’s another one of those unexpectedly bountiful days in which a central writer is busily writing important poems while other diarists insist upon having the sort of experiences we can’t leave unrecorded…

 

Briefly then, through our first two. We find Charles Scott Moncrieff ill and in Amiens… and distinctly unimpressed. Perhaps it is the mark of the true Francophile (or, at least, the self-consciously discerning tourist) to be breezy about attractions like the great cathedral:

No. 1 N.Z. Stationary Hospital,
B.E.F., Amiens,
14th February, 1917.

. . . I went out to-day and saw the Cathedral, which certainly is very perfect and harmonious, walked the streets for a couple of hours and bought some books…[1]

 

And my own desire to forgo lengthy typing and move on to two important sonnets and a stark first-hand tale of loss and death will contribute, now, to Edwin Vaughan‘s persistent experience of anti-climax. Tonight, a century, back, he will reach the front line trenches at last, and I’ll cut down his diary by more than half…

It as a long and winding trench, which rather bewildered me, for the scattered sentry posts seemed to face in all directions… We hit the front-line trench at right angles, and almost opposite was another cellar into which Hatwell had disappeared in a moment.

I hardly noticed the troops melting away into different directions, but suddenly found myself quite alone outside the cellar. For a quarter of an hour I sat up against the side of the trench, soaking in the atmosphere. It was quite dark and damp, around my feet the mud was six inches deep, and above me I could see only the faint outline of the parapet all jagged and broken with bricks and stumps and over it the dim silhouette of loose wire. Occasionally a huge rat would scamper past, or a couple of men would stagger by, swearing gently at their load of sandbags or stakes. All was deathly quiet except for the low voices in the dugout or the faint click of a bayonet against a steel hat.[2]

Vaughan later tours the positions on the line, finding a number of men quietly and efficiently doing their work, the sentries watching the Germans intently, all business. Returning to the dugout, Vaughan reconsiders his attitude:

 When we had been out of the line, I had despised these officers and NCOs and criticized the men, but now I realized that I was the most useless object in the Company… still confused, wondering and fearful.

I drank several whiskies and dozed for an hour or two…[3]

 

Now for poetry. Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back, continuing his new project of a counter-Brookean sonnet sequence.

14 February 1917

My Dear Miss Scott:

…The fates have been kind to me, and still leave me as canteen attendant; which means that though freezing one has time to oneself, and are off those confounded cleaning parades, which so gnaw at my life.

How are you and your influenza now? There can be little gadding about for you anyway, yet who knows what February may bring — that sometimes is so kind and smiles like Spring. Well, good luck to both of us, as I fancy cold is little good to either. And your book, tient-il? If you can sit up and refound musical literature, things will not be so bad; it would be like a Nice Blighty, which I do most heartily desire the Lord to send myself. Anyway do not get too ill to write…

This, I’ll wager, is Gurney being charmingly/winkingly, rather than obnoxiously/obliviously, self-centered.

There is more literature in this letter, but not yet. The literal translation of the pretty name of this place is The Star, and there are Earthworks all round, remains of 1870. Soon we go up again to the trouble; soon Fritz will be hurling high explosive compliments at us with gusto, and we close to the parapets. Well, tres bien, if there is no soft job, the hard one must do, but the first is better.

The title of the book I would prefer to be “Songs from Exile, or Songs from the Second Fifth” as subtitle. That is the real title, and besides, the second needs writing up to which I am unwilling to do.

This would be the first book of poems, which Scott is preparing for him. Now, then, for nos. 2 and 3 of the counter-attack on Rupert Brooke:

Home-sickness

When we go wandering the wide air’s blue spaces,
Bare, unhappy, exiled souls of men;
How will our thoughts over and over again
Return to Earth’s familiar lovely places.
Where light with shadow ever interlaces
No blanks of blue, nor ways beyond man’s ken —
Where birds are, and flowers; as violet, and wren,
Blackbird, bluebell, hedgesparrow, tiny daisies,
O tiny things, but very stuff of soul
To us . . . so frail. . . Remember what we are;
Set us not on some strange outlandish star.
But one love-responsive. Give us a Home.
There we may wait while the long ages roll
Content, unfrightened by vast Time-to-come.

The direct appeal to the reader here is striking, but perhaps not to every taste. We might dismiss it as almost maudlin, and hardly much of an improvement upon Brooke–a romanticizing of soldierly estrangement and suffering in exchange for a romanticizing of soldierly sacrifice.

So leave aside the ending, if it doesn’t suit; it’s the stuff of the appeal that matters. Until recently, Gurney has been dreamily, gauzily idealizing the countryside of his native Gloucestershire whenever he picks up his poet’s pen. Which is all very nice, but far from the war, no? But now he is bringing that loyalty to bear, mobilizing the stored energy produced by all that beauty, those lightly lovely birds and flowers, to say something about the war. We might miss it, if we didn’t have the Brookean intertext (apologies!): this isn’t about death and the harm-obscuring vision of a foreign-field-that-might-be, neatly adorned with English birds and flowers. It’s about drawing connections from a trench-that-is–a real trench, in a real corner of an actual French field–a trench that shelters living, frightened Englishmen all the way back to the memories of Home that might sustain them… These are day-dreaming, homesick men, looking for solace. They are not ghosts, yet, and they don’t seem enamored of the idea of their death, beautiful and meaningful or otherwise. Gurney is sacrificing his present comfort, his strength, his health; he’s not willing to dwell prettily on the likelihood that he will be dead soon, and call that a sacrifice as well…

If this sonnet re-connects to England in a different way, the next one–taking the sharply divided Petrarchan form–works around that new connection until it’s an unyielding grapple that forces us to confront the dreary misery of real soldiering…  before releasing us, suddenly, to remind us what the homesick man relies upon most: not thoughts of England, but other Englishmen.

 

Servitude

It it were not for England, who would bear
This heavy servitude one moment more?
To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor
Of filthiest hovels were noble to compare
With this brass-cleaning life. Now here, now there
Harried in foolishness, scanned curiously o’er
By fools made brazen by conceit, and store
Of antique witticisms thin and bare.

Only the love of comrades sweetens all.
Whose laughing spirit will not be outdone.
As night-watching men wait for the sun
To hearten them, so wait I on such boys
As neither brass nor Bosches may appall.
Nor guns, nor sergeant-major’s bluster and noise.

 

This is something new indeed. The old sonnet (Gurney’s spelling is… unusual) refurbished rather than merely dusted off. Only the love of comrades–and the brutal opposition of all things red-tabbed and unfeeling, explosive and chickenshit–could breathe new life into the form. But I should hush and let the poet explain:

These Sonnetts. For England. Pain. Homesickness. Servitude, and one other; are intended to be a sort of counterblast against “Sonnetts 1914”, which were written before the grind of the war and by an officer (or one who would have been an officer).

Thus far, Gurney’s claims are both radical and traditional. Down with the officer class and the privileged poet? Perhaps, but, so far, only on the strength of a claim to an alternate source of authority: these are the poems of a veteran, and of a soldier–one who bears the grind, and grinds no one in return.

Better, even:

They are the protest of the physical against the exalted spiritual; of the cumulative weight of small facts against the one large. Of informed opinion against uninformed (to put it coarsely and unfairly) and fill a place. Old ladies wont like them, but soldiers may, and these things are written either for soldiers or civilians as well informed as the French what “a young fresh war” means. (Or was it “frische (joyful) Krieg”. I cant remember, but something like it was written by the tame Germans in 1914.) I know perfectly well how my attitude will appear, but — They will be called “Sonnetts 1917.”

A counter-blast indeed, although a fairly restrained one, given what poetry will come. The civilians themselves are not attacked, and the sensitive among them are invited to join the side of virtue, of solidarity.

Is this, then, a “political” gesture? Not really–certainly not primarily. I don’t think these sonnets would have arrived just because Brooke’s themes–the beauty of sacrifice, the moral cleanliness of heading off to war–now feel outdated. There’s a poetic axe to grind, too.

Gurney had initially admired Brooke’s sonnets, after crossing paths with them in Edward Thomas’s review, but he had later turned rather decisively against them, writing one of his own first sonnets in a mood of resistance that both presaged this “counter-blast” and invoked Hardy.[4] As Thomas realized, as Sorley damningly pointed out, Brooke was “far too obsessed with his own sacrifice.” Gurney has come to write not of the soldier’s (i.e. the officer’s) inner beliefs but of the men who are two and a half years into shouldering a painful, nasty burden–and of his love for them.

But that’s not all, folks. Unless he misdated one or another of his letters (not unthinkable at all), Gurney received a letter from Scott and then sat down to write her another:

14 February 1917

My Dear Friend:

Thank you so much for your letter of the 5th of Feb…

…Most of the spare time till now has been in cleaning, always cleaning equipment. For anyone with more sensibility than the yokel it is a life infinitely full of pain. Whether the wind blows gales of icy needles with the temperature below zero; always the same. And no fires now, in most billets: From this, you will gather that “Rest” is merely a technical term. If you will take the trouble to copy out all those things one by one, please do so, and thank you — but dont write shorter letters because of it.

I shall be content if you attend to all matters of punctuation and merely ask my opinion on doubtful points. The name, as I have said is

Songs in Exile

or Songs from the Second-Fifth

The first poem will be To Certain Comrades; the last poems, the five sonnetts. (Perhaps an Envoi also.) Any poem you think needs correction, send on, and fear nothing…

So the sonnets are to close his first volume.

Gurney seems to wander, now, in his thoughts, but he was also discussing books in the previous letter, and it would seem now as if Scott has inquired after his reading. And who am I to delete a reference that suits my notions of Honesty and Influence in Great War Literature? After that, Gurney trails off into his post-war hopes–he is a composer too, we must remember.

“Under the Greenwood Tree” is perfectly charming, and very Shakespearean in feeling I think. Hardy is a marvel…

With these beautiful days it becomes more of a loss to feel music and books so far away, and my county. And the days slipping past so quickly in which I ought to acquire technique and get rhythm into my mind. Once I get back, for a while I will simply reek songs; mere exudations; while I study hard Wagner and Rachmaninoff and the Russians; also the 3 B’s and Folk Song for pleasure; and Chopin for piano technique. But, Time, you are so slow, and hold the secrets of doubtful things not yet disclosed…

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[5]

 

Last and certainly not least, it’s a terrible day in the life or a writer whose great reputation rests far from his war writing. When we last heard from J.R. Ackerley, he was recounting his wounding during the disaster of the First Day on the Somme (he also later wrote verse about that morning). There are few dates in his memoir, and little in his written record that can fix him here, a century back. But today, well, there is.

In the meantime, Ackerley has recovered from the Somme–in body, at least–and learned to live awkwardly as an undeserving hero. And he has been promoted.

Yet so strange are we in our inconsistencies that I was not happy in Blighty and, in a few months’ time, got myself sent back to France.

So he has been enduring this brutal winter, but not alone: nearly two months ago, his brother Peter–older, but behind in his military progress due to an injury–joined him in the 8th East Surreys. So elder saluted younger, “gladly and conscientiously.” As our J.R. Ackerley–younger brother Joe–notes with cold irony, the only reason that he has obtained the rank of captain and Company Commander is because everyone else was killed on July 1st.

And then we come to today, a century back, and a very local attack to be mounted on a German position near Miraumont.

In front of my trenches, some four or five hundred yards away and slightly to the left, there was a bulge or salient in the German lines known as Point 85. It was a tiresome object, for it commanded a dangerous enfilading position down the trenches of the battalion next door.

Just the sort of thing for a quick surprise rush attack, needing only a platoon, and a likely subaltern to lead it.

We know what will happen, and Ackerley’s tone and voice erase any doubt…

…my brother got the job. Did he actually volunteer for it? It is one of the many things I am not clear about, but I fancy that he did. At any rate it is the sort of thing he would have done–and the very thing he wanted… he must have been longing to prove himself, and here was a situation which would have appealed to the actor in him, drama indeed, the lime-lit moment, himself in the leading role, all eyes on him. At all events, the result was that I had to make arrangements for him and his platoon to take off from my front line…

The stage was therefore fatefully set, and my brother bungled his entrance.

The newcomer is unaware that the jumping-off point, his brother’s dugout in Boom Ravine, is–much like the deep dugout not far away which recently sheltered Wilfred Owen–under the thumb of the German artillery. It is a German dugout, and thus deep and safe, but with its location is precisely known. So the shells never miss by much. What’s worse,

Unknown to him, the poor boy’s watch had stopped… his troops could be heard chatting, coughing, grousing, and clattering their equipment in the ravine above, all the welcome he got was a rough ticking off from Major Wightman who sent him flying back upstairs to deploy and silence his men.

I remember my brother when he returned standing before me in the candlelight, bunched up in his Burberry and equipment, loaded with hand-grenades and stuck about with a revolver, wire-cutters and Very pistol, his cap set jauntily at an angle. His visit, now that he was late, was of the briefest…

I offered him a quick drink, I remember; he said, “No thanks, I’ll take my rum with the men,” Then, could we swap watches, his own being unreliable. He would return mine afterwards, he said.  A heroic remark, and as I helped him strap on my watch, probably we both saw it unbuckled from his dead wrist. But then it was impossible to speak the most commonplace word or makes the most ordinary gesture without its at once acquiring the heavy over-emphasis of melodrama…

Then my brother’s hand thrust out to shake my own, his twisty smile, my “Good luck,” his jocular salute. “Don’t worry, sir,” said he to the Major as he left. It was his only piece of self-indulgence. His thin putteed legs retreated up the dugout steps and the sack curtain swung to behind him. I never saw him again.[6]

Ackerley doesn’t so much mask his grief as shrug his shoulders at it. What can be done?[7]

Peter Ackerley was shot during an attempt to take point 85, a tiny preliminary to a larger assault a few days hence. The battalion war diary notes that the attack began at 5:45.

5 minutes later a counter barrage opened up… Phone lines were cut immediately and runners were sent to HQ. The situation was very obscure and 2/Lt Ackerley was wounded and about 6 of his men were seen to have reached point 85.

When exactly he died is not clear… but his brother, Joe, our observer in the trench, our writer, seems certain that his brother has been killed

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 124.
  2. This is one of the many details that I find strange... are these fixed bayonets? If so, why, in the middle of the night? Or are both worn loose on a man's webbing? This section of the diary reads like stage directions for an atmospheric trench play... but then again there is all that stuff about "The Theater of War..."
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 27-30.
  4. But Gurney's opinion of Hardy wavered over time as well. These dramatic shifts in critical allegiance could--but needn't--be connected to general mental instability. It's more just, I think, to represent Gurney as a man of passionate moods, broadly construed.
  5. War Letters, 128-2.
  6. My Father and Myself, 80-4.
  7. A spoiler, for those not familiar with Ackerley: the memoir, written long after, is regarded as a masterpiece, but the war figures only for its most horrible, salient days. Immediately after the story of Peter's raid Ackerley launches into a long disquisition on the nature of history and literature. He reads his 30-year old manuscript describing today and wonders what could have been "true" then, what is "true" now, and what remains in his memory... an excellent contribution to the discussion of "binary vision," not less valuable for being brief and agnostic. I'll have more on this tomorrow; I have also edited the original post so as to do less damage to... history while still following the effect of Ackerley's literary choices.

Robert Graves is Headed Back to France, and Siegfried Sassoon is Bereft; A Painful Initiation for Edwin Vaughan

There’s a bit of a muddle today about the whereabouts of Robert Graves, the sort of thing that could (should?) be dismissed as being of only “academic” relevance. But since I’m not terribly sure what that semi-slur means anymore, and since this entire project is an exercise in calendrical close-reading, it must be worth doing. At least a little!

Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his diary for today, a century back, that “Robert left for France to-day with nine other officers,” but the sources drawn on by Graves’s nephew and biographer suggest that he left camp yesterday, and spent his embarkation leave visiting friends and family. R.P. Graves has made some mistakes on dates before, but I think he’s likely to be in the right on this one, which would mean that Sassoon has either misdated his journal or is actually describing yesterday’s departure from Litherland. But I’m not sure why he would do that… in any event, it’s impossible to figure this out without violating my own rules on looking ahead. Suffice it to say that the different sources are quite entangled, and seem to lean on each other rather than on a foundation of fact… ah, the lures of textual criticism.

Whatever the case, the Two Fusiliers are once more separated, and certainly by today, a century back, Graves has left the Royal Welch depot en route for France. He either is or has been at home, in Wimbledon, and thence off to spend a day of his seventy-two hours of “last leave” at Charterhouse, visiting Peter Johnstone, the “Dick” of his schoolboy obsession.[1] Sassoon, interestingly, has taken it upon himself to see Graves’s recent poems printed–a rare instance of deliberate care-taking and non-self-centered behavior on Sassoon’s part.

This little pamphlet of verse he is getting out will keep his mind occupied and take away a little of the blankness of going out for the third time. We have had more than six weeks here together. Lucky to get that in these uncertain times. I wonder if he will really get killed this time. One never expects anything else, so perhaps the green of summer will bring relief. I don’t think it will. I don’t, I don’t. It was a raw drizzling day—suitable for the event.

Suitable–and yet recollections of the event differ in more than dates–and in less, too, in a way. Graves and Sassoon can surely be trusted to recall things that happened to them, and yet both imply that Graves went straight from Litherland to France (without explicitly stating so). In Sassoon’s fictionalized account of their parting in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, “David Cromlech”

…butted his way along the crowded platform with shoulders hunched, collar turned up to his ears and hands plunged in pockets. A certain philosophic finality was combined with the fidgety out-of-luck look which was not unusual with him. “I’ve reduced my kit to a minimum this time. No revolver. I’ve worked it out that the chances are five to one against my ever using it,” he remarked, as he stood shuffling his feet to try and keep them warm. He hadn’t explained how he’d worked the chances out, but he was always fond of a formula. Then the train began to move and he climbed awkwardly into his compartment. “Give my love to old Joe when you get to the First Battalion,” was my final effort at heartiness. He nodded with a crooked smile. Going our for the third time was a rotten business and his face showed it.

“I ought to be going with him,” I thought…[2]

In Good-Bye to All That the scene is quite similar:

I went back an old soldier, as my kit and baggage proved. I had reduced my original Christmas tree to a pocket-torch with a fourteen-day battery, and a pair of insulated wire-cutters strong enough to cut German wire (the ordinary Army issue would cut only British wire).

Graves also takes along the pack and clothes of an enlisted man, since Germans snipers will target conspicuous officers, and confirms that, having lost his revolver when wounded, he has not bought another–he plans to carry a rifle, should he be called upon to attack.

I also took a Shakespeare and a Bible… a Catullus and a Lucretius in Latin; and two light-weight folding canvas arm-chairs…

I commanded a draft of ten young officers. Young officers, at this period, were expected… to be roistering blades over wine and women. These ten did their best. Three of them got venereal diseases at the Rouen Blue Lamp They were strictly brought-up Welsh boys of the professional classes, had never hitherto visited a brothel, and knew nothing about prophylactics…[3]

The two writers having been there, and the two agreeing…  and yet R.P. Graves seems quite certain that Robert Graves was at liberty today and tomorrow, and left–without any mention of nine other officers–from Waterloo Station on the 22nd.

The solution must be either that R.P. Graves has goofed (possible; I don’t have his sources) or that both Robert Graves and Sassoon are somewhat mistaken at least in the details of their memory. It’s funny, but the very fact that both Graves and Sassoon have a group of precisely ten officers seems to undermine their “facts:” surely one is the source for the other, and the source may be corrupt, for all that it is the remembering mind of the man who was there. The influence may even flow from one to the other and then back again… R.P. Graves, moreover, has dated family papers to support his view, which can be ranged directly against Sassoon’s diary.

For my part (heretical historian and narrative enthusiast that I am) the most convincing item is neither date nor document but rather the fact that both Graves and Sassoon seem to draw a straight line from Litherland to France in order to underscore a literary purpose.

Sassoon’s account in the Memoirs of seeing “Cromlech” off and thinking that he too should be in France is immediately followed by more idle dreaming about a hunt (outdoor Sassoon, pre-war Sassoon, mindless Sassoon, binary vision, etc.) and a scene in which he goes back to his hut and reads a Danish newspaper article questioning the conduct of the war–has this become a war of mutual aggression rather than a war in defense of Belgium?

A good question… but he had actually read the article in question on January 4th. The Memoir runs so close to his experience that even the wary reader would (and generally should) like to take it as a version of reality… but sometimes it’s a set-up, and dates are no more sacred than other facts, when it comes to “fictionalization:” this section is a dramatization not of January 20th, 1917, but of “George Sherston’s” change of heart, c. January 1917. His friend’s return to the line is paired with an eye-opening bit of reading to express two sides of the same particular sort of “disillusionment” that propels him back toward the war rather than away from it…

And Graves, for his part, is hurrying himself back to France because there are no particular comic episodes to wring from his family this time around, and because part of the effect of his anecdote of the Blue Lamp–the nastiness of the war in its seemingly cynical treatment of foolish young men–depends on the nine young officers (of the “Welsh… professional classes”) taking their chapel-bred virginity straight to the flesh-pots. Presumably they, too, spent a few days with their family before mustering again in London or Southampton.

But let’s get back to Sassoon’s diary. The change of mood may be emphasized by arrangement in the fictionalized memoir, but it was real, today, a century back:

No hunting to-morrow as it has been freezing all the week. And Robert’s gone.

April will come again, and sunrays be shafting among the hazels and beeches, and birds be flitting low and startled, and shallow brooks be juggling with the glitter of noon. Slowly the big white clouds will sail across to Lebanon and its blue-green slopes. And all the music of the earth and of men’s hearts must be destroyed, because man desires only the things that he had put behind him—killing, and the pride of women with child by a warrior. O their gluttonous eyes: I think they love war, for all their lamenting over the sons and lovers.When I go out again I will be mad as ever. And the others will laugh at my secret frenzy. But the loveliness of earth will be a torment and a sweet tumult in my heart. And I shall be longing for the humility of green fields and quiet woods. I shall be longing for lonely hills and skies flushed with morning glory. And nights that were one rich chord that echoes and murmurs from a thousand strings, and fades not, until the stars go out and the birds begin their merry jargon in thicket and garden.[4]

No hope for the war, but hope for poetry still.

 

Meanwhile, in France, Edwin Vaughan has been racking up behind-the-lines experiences. He has been thoroughly disappointed in his company and his company commander (“Lieutenant Hatwell… very small and quite inefficient, though full of bounce and bluff”) and he found a likeable fellow officer only to realize that he is a drunk. And today, a century back, Vaughan went through another rite of passage of the less-than-upper-class volunteer officer.

There was a football match at Sorel today: the mess was riding over en bloc, and although I had never been on a horse before, I did not like to refuse…

There followed half an hour of agony whilst Fat Dolly lumbered after the other horses, with me clinging to the saddle and swaying from side to side. I was a very unhappy spectator of the match…

Strangely, Vaughan’s major complaint after the ride was of a pounding headache; the usual complaints after a long first ride situate themselves somewhat lower…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 167.
  2. Complete Memoirs, 392-3.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 235-6.
  4. Diaries, 121-2.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 10-12.

Wilfred Owen in Front of the Line; Edmund Blunden’s Theatrical Interlude is Over; Edwin Vaughan’s Drastic Disillusionment

We have another full day, today, with excerpts from Edmund Blunden and Edwin Vaughan that each get at one (or more) of the core questions of how wartime experiences are transformed into literature. But first, today, we should begin by finishing with Wilfred Owen‘s first combat experience. Lasting from the 12th to the 15th, that nightmarish slog-and-cower affair is over–but today, a century back, Owen wrote the letter to his mother that described it. I’ll omit most of what we have already read, but the beginning and end of the letter itself make it clear why this letter really is the foundation of his war-writing.

Tues. 16 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

My own sweet Mother,

I am sorry you have had about 5 days letterless. I hope you had my two letters ‘posted’ since you wrote your last, which I received tonight.

I am bitterly disappointed that I never got one of yours.

I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.

I held an advanced post, that is, a ‘dug-out’ in the middle of No Man’s Land…

The narrative of the days in the line follows. When Owen begins his conclusion by criticizing the performance of other officers it is clear that he is not being snarky but rather expressing a sense of great relief: tere but for the grace of God he would have gone…

The officer of the left Platoon has come out completely prostrated and is in hospital.

I am now as well, I suppose, as ever.

I allow myself to tell you all these things because I am never going back to this awful post. It is the worst the Manchesters have ever held, and we are going back for a rest.

I hear that the officer who relieved me left his 5 Lewis Guns behind when he came out. (He had only 24 hours in). He will be court-martialled…

Don’t pass round these sheets but have portions typed for Leslie etc…

Your very own Wilfred x[1]

There were moments in this letter when it felt like straight, unfiltered reportage. “Downloading,” as we like to call it. But of course this is never perfectly true–our minds don’t work like that. The letter begins with grand dramatic statements, and if it proceeds through an intense and fairly unadorned description of horror, it ends with an awareness of itself. With, that is, the letter as a sensitive (in several senses) record of what has been experienced.

 

Now from a war-poet a-borning to the middle of the war’s most beautiful and harrowing memoir. When we last read Edmund Blunden it was not long after his Ypres Christmastime. Early in the new year he saw the town itself, and was shocked by the reality of this battered crucible of the war in Belgium.

I had longed to see Ypres, under the old faith that things are always described in blacker colours than they deserve; but this view was a tribute to the soldier’s philosophy. The bleakness of time had found its proper theatre. The sun could surely never shine on such a simulacrum of divine aberration.

“Theatre,” as a matter of fact, crops up in the title of this chapter of the memoir–“Theatre of War”–and thence to Paul Fussell‘s book, where it did the same duty. Today, a century back, a new act opened as his battalion went back into the line:

The new year was yet very young when the battalion filed through Ypres to take over trenches at Potijze, which we came to know very well. It was not the worst place in the Salient. I had seen it already, and its arrangement was simple — a breastwork front line, running from the Zonnebeke road to a railway bank on the south; a support line; two good (or not too bad) communication trenches — Haymarket and Piccadilly. Battalion headquarters dugout was at Potijze Chateau, beside the road. It boasted a handsome cheval-glass and a harmonium, but not a satisfactory roof.

This headquarters also enjoyed a kind of Arcadian environment, for the late owner had constructed two or three ponds in the grounds with white airy bridges spanning them, weeping willows at their marges, and there were even statues of Venus and other amorous deities, although I did not examine them closely. The chateau itself, much injured as it was, was not destroyed, and in the upper story my observers gazed through a telescope on a dubious landscape; lucky these, whose day could not begin before eight and ended at four with the thickening of what little light there had been. Littered on the floor beside them were old maps of parts of the estate, some of great age, and registers of the number of woodcock, hares, rabbits, and I forget what, formerly laid low by shooting parties of this fine house. At least we had not done that![2]

No huntsman he. But note, too, “Arcadian–” a second Fussell chapter title. This should remind us that, although we lost many good men and good writers in 1916–and though in many ways the stereotypical or shorthand view of the British experience of the war is essentially that of 1916, remembering the Somme and forgetting much of what came after–some of the most essential writers still have much of their war still ahead of them. The spring of 1917 will be eventful, the autumn as awful as anything on the Somme.

 

Finally, today, our newest diarist completes his approach to the line. Edwin Vaughan‘s big day was yesterday, a century back. He left camp outside Rouen, bound for the front line trenches–or so he thought.

As I drove down in the rattling, bone-shaking old taxi, I tried hard to convince myself that the moment I had lived for had arrived and that I was now a real Service man. But this was difficult: there was no band playing, no regiment bearing the old colours into the fray, only little me…

As the semi-official truck-train jerked out of Rouen, it began to snow hard, and the bare truck wherein I, the only passenger on the train, sat on my rolled up valise, was soon full of whistling snow…

And yesterday brought neither relief, resolution, nor rest. Left on a bare platform for his 1 a.m. connection to a branch line, Vaughan spent several hours walking to keep warm.

The cold was intense, and in addition I was wet through, beastly hungry and over the boots in snow.[3]

Today proper began with another slow, freezing train journey, this time not alone but in a compartment Vaughan shared with a wordless, whimpering Hussar and two fighting rats.

Once again I am struck not just by the novelistic writing style but with the extreme compliance of the accidents of his experience with the expectations of the form. Vaughan, that is, seems both ready to write a “war book” and fortunate to be readily experiencing numerous “set pieces” that fit the bill. Part of this, at least, is a good reminder for us: it’s 1917, and while the “war book” is not as strongly constructed or familiar an idea as it will be next year (not to mention 1929), it’s quite possible now for men to come to the front full not of Tennyson, Malory, Newbolt, and Brooke, but of Barbusse, Sorley, and the letters and word-of-mouth experiences of disillusioned officers (though Vaughan has shown no direct influence of these, as of yet).[4]

The other side of the equation are Vaughan’s intentions: more than most, this diary is akin to a novelistic memoir. What will he focus on? What will he choose to omit?

In any case he is unusually aware of the way in which his expectations dominate his experience, and his writing is very much colored by the disappointment of those expectations. He writes, in other words, in a strongly ironic mode.

Today’s entry continues at some length. By 6 a.m. a small station and breakfast, then a journey by lorry up to division HQ “beside a driver who annoyed me by regarding this journey up the line as a matter of no especial importance.”

As we drove out of Sénapont on to the main road, I began to question the driver about the line, picturing the Battalion in the midst of fire and smoke. He told me about the locality in which they were stationed, and I, with my eyes prepared to meet a scene of wire entanglements, shell bursts and trenches, was confused by his references to the estaminets the men frequented, the girls they met, and the cushy time they were having. Finally I discovered that we were just outside of Abbeville and many many miles from the line! It was a drastic disillusionment and I did not know whether to be annoyed or relieved.

That’s enough quotation for today, but the let-down will continue: from taxi to train to train to lorry to mess cart, and from base to division to actual combat unit Vaughan finally meets the officers of his battalion, billeted in an old hotel in Arraines-sur-Somme. He is greeted generally with either rudeness or indifference, and of course the first person he meets is the standard-issue useless major who is being kept from interfering with the unit’s actual operations…

The clouds clear briefly when Vaughan “chummed up with a fellow called Hawkins,” and then settle again definitively when the hostesses–“vile hag”–stumbles in, straight out of Victor Hugo, except that in this case both of the little girls who work for her are starved and overworked… Vaughan has pulled off a minor masterpiece of approaching-the-line bathos.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 427-8. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209-217.
  2. Undertones of War, 136.
  3. Once again it is clear that Vaughan's diary is carefully dated, but not always composed on the day indicated.
  4. The term "disillusion" will appear, below... and I should add that my sense that the diary was not merely "transcribed" much later on but actually, to some significant degree, rewritten, is growing. As far as I know it is impossible to know what "belongs" to the date, what was written within a few days, and what may have been added or altered long after...
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 6-8.