Siegfried Sassoon Paints the Emerald Isle; Rowland Feilding Admires the French

A quiet day today, with only two writers to hear from. First, Rowland Feilding describes life “on a course.” He is an experienced senior officer, so he is sent now to learn not from elderly “dug-outs” or fulminating drill sergeants, but from the French, who are still the senior ally when it comes to land warfare. Feilding is no fool, and instead of rivalry or mild prejudice we get frank admiration for the seriousness and professionalism of the French. They are war-weary too, but with the Germans occupying French territory, there is no lack of clarity about war aims.

February 8, 1918.

Cours Supérieure d’Infanterie, Secteur 220, Vadenay.

It is like being at school again. We go to the lecture room at 8.30, or earlier, each morning, and are lectured to—in French, of course—for 3 1/2 hours, or more! Will you believe me when I tell you that I have sat through 4 1/2 hours of it to-day? In the afternoons we are motored to see different Army Schools, etc.

I am much struck with the thoroughness and efficiency of these Frenchmen, and the serious way—in contrast to ours—that they go about the war. I wonder if they overdo it. And the voluminous literature that is handed to us here to digest almost throws our army (which I have always thought held the record in this particular) into the shade. But it is an interesting and valuable experience, and I am being most hospitably treated, and am already getting into the French ways of eating and living.

The Commandant—Major Lemaire—is a very animated Frenchman of great personality, though small in stature;—a devotee to his profession and to France! He is so full of energy that he seems to be on springs…

Though between his lectures and sometimes during them he laughs and jokes almost incessantly, he has his troubles, and these are serious. For all his property and that of his wife is in the northern part of France, which has been devastated by the enemy so that he has only his pay–600 francs a month, out of which he supports himself and his wife, and her parents, and, I believe his own as well! He was in the trenches till a month ago and was severely wounded in the chest at Douaumont (Verdun). Hence his presence here. As he said to me when I first came, “I am no embusqué,”[1] and threw open his chest to show me the wound as he said it.

The one discomfort is the cold, since this is a woodless and coalless country, and one cannot get a fire very often. The French do not seem to mind, or else have got “habitué” (as they say) to this kind of hardship. Gardner and I have not, and we slink back from our evening walks with any old end of timber we can find, discarded from the Back Area defences, to warm our frigid billet. Saturday afternoons and Sundays are kept for “repos” and all are heartily glad of it…[2]

 

And Siegfried Sassoon, his bags packed (or, at least, his book list assembled), had the last hunt of his Irish idyll. It was a good enough hunt, it seems, but the main literary opportunity was to wax rhapsodic (to his diary) about the glories of the scenery. Sassoon really does landscape well…

…we scrambled about over walls and rough places… The country all round looked beautiful–shining with water and grey villages, and white cottages, and the green fields, and soft, hazy, transparent hills on the horizon–sometimes deep blue, sometimes silver-grey.

And that was that: luncheon with friends, a farewell to Limerick, an afternoon train to Dublin, then an overnight ship to London.

There is a long chapter in the Memoirs detailing the characters and scenery of this fox hunting interlude from the point of view of “George Sherston,” and it borrows from the diary (not least the above passage) but not for the purposes of expanding on “Sherston’s” inner life. It’s a chapter more in the manner of Surtees than Barbusse, to use two of yesterday’s touchstones. At the end of the chapter, we learn that Sherston/Sassoon made the Dublin train with “30 seconds to spare…” and then the book hops over his leave to begin again at the end of the next journey…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I.e., malingering, or serving as a R.E.M.F.; he wouldn't be in such a safe job if weren't recovering from a wound.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 250-1.
  3. Diaries, 210-11; Complete Memoirs, 584.

Siegfried Sassoon Gallops with a Ghost; Isaac Rosenberg is Still a Harassed Mortal

Sometimes I strive mightily to produce awkward effects of juxtaposition, as if readers always need to be reminded that two very different people were in very different situations, even on the very same day in the very same war! And sometimes the reminder can be more effectively achieved just by allowing the writers’ conditions, rank, and locations to affect their writing–or their ability to even write at all.

Siegfried Sassoon professed, recently, to being in a state of unthinking bliss-carefree and pleasantly dull, happy to have the sturm und drang of protest behind him and to be living the “outdoor” life of physical exertion and no (perceived) ethical and intellectual challenges to cloud his mind. He drills, he hunts…

January 30 (Limerick, Kilfinny Cross) Drove thirteen miles in taxi to meet. A fine, breezy morning, with drifts of sunshine. Rode Sheeby’s little white-faced bay horse (rather lame all day, and slow, but clever jumper)…

Found at 2 o’clock at Durrach and ran down wind to Croome Gorse, through there and over the river at Caherass, straight through the demesne, and on toward Killonehan… he was viewed going into Adare Deer Park, and they picked him up after forty minutes, and killed him in Adare village, in the Police Station!

…Very amusing day and got to know some jolly people.[1]

A jolly day indeed, if rather off-putting to latter-day proponents of animal welfare. But Sassoon is a human being as well as a literary construct, and the historical record shows more elision between his binary selves than his prosy self-representations generally allow He wrote more than a diary, today–he wrote verse, too. And yet this proof of the co-existence of the indoor “writing” Sassoon with the fox hunter is more of a muddying of the waters than a melding of fire and ice. He wrote–but he wrote about fox hunting, and a fox hunting friend:

 

Together

Splashing along the boggy woods all day,
And over brambled hedge and holding clay,
I shall not think of him:
But when the watery fields grow brown and dim,
And hounds have lost their fox, and horses tire,
I know that he’ll be with me on my way
Home through the darkness to the evening fire.

He’s jumped each stile along the glistening lanes;
His hand will be upon the mud-soaked reins;
Hearing the saddle creak,
He’ll wonder if the frost will come next week.
I shall forget him in the morning light;
And while we gallop on he will not speak:
But at the stable-door he’ll say good-night.

 

A hunting poem, and an elegy of sorts–and so therefore a war poem as well. The subject of the poem is surely Gordon Harbord, killed in August, and evidently much on Sassoon’s mind. Harbord had been the most beloved of Sassoon’s hunting friends, and his death, which he learned about while at Craiglockhart, seems to have loomed very large for Sassoon. In Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man Harbord will become Stephen Colwood, and take on the shape of a surrogate brother for Sassoon (his death is moved up to 1915, when Sassoon’s actual brother died) and becoming one of the spurs to “Sherston’s” breakdown and protest.

But all that is to complicate a simple poem, an elegy for a lost friend. Sassoon’s life may be pleasant now, but he comes home to write these thoughts, confirming that even away from the war reminders of its destruction are unavoidable.

 

I don’t know what Isaac Rosenberg would make of a fox hunting elegy. A sickly private in the trenches in winter, he is trying to survive, and to keep himself alive in the memories of his friends and patrons. By writing even a short note he may feel, perhaps, as if he is keeping alive his own sense of himself as a writer. He writes to Gordon Bottomley, today, but can do little else, whatever he might plan or dream…

Dear Mr. Bottomley

I have been in the trenches some time now & it is most awkward to get letters away… I had the Georgian Book sent me & though I had to send it back I had just time to gallop through it & seeing yours made me very anxious to know what has been happening to you…

My address is

Pte I Rosenberg 22311

4 Platoon A. Coy

11th KORL BEF

Im writing this in the line & have no light or paper. There is a lot I’d like to write–

So yes, here a private from the slums looks very different from an independently wealthy subaltern free to hunt several days a week. But I don’t have to do the dirty work of underlining all this with a black pen–the censors took care of that, too: whatever reason Rosenberg gives (after that dash) for not being able to write more, it must have been deemed to be of military value–the next line is struck out by the censor’s pen.

…I have Balzacean schemes suggested this time. I just write this to let you know Im still a harrassed mortal.

IR[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 207.
  2. Liddiard, Poetry out of My Head, 117.

Miners and a Black Book; Max Plowman Hears from Rivers; Siegfried Sassoon Rides the Emerald Isle; Isaac Rosenberg is Not Strong

Two very different publications of today, a century back, are worth noting. The Nation, one of the few periodicals willing to publish “anti-war” poetry, ran Wilfred Owen‘s poem Miners. The poem was written, despite its unusual pararhyme, in a matter of hours, promptly submitted, and is published now only two weeks after the event–a topical and quietly political work, and as such a confirmation of Owen’s complete and Sassoon-influenced departure from his youthful aestheticism.

And The Imperialist, Noel Pemberton-Billing’s histrionic nativist scandal sheet, ran an article claimingthat German intelligence held a “black book” which contained the names of 47,000 British gay men and lesbians who had been blackmailed and compromised. This might be insanity (quite literally, in the case of Pemberton-Billing’s assistant Harold Spencer), but Pemberton-Billing’s ridiculous lies played ably enough on existing hatreds for the political effects to be distressingly real. The Imperialist specialized in anti-German polemic (with virulent anti-Semitism lumped in for good measure) and was prepared to exploit not just homophobia but class resentment, using salacious allegations to get traditional folks all worked up against fancy London types and their immoral goings on, which must of course conceal deep disloyalty to a vague and negatively-defined ideal of British greatness…

So Wilfred Owen has gotten a poem in the paper–and earned two guineas for it–and on the very same day that the gay literary community he has just had the privilege of joining comes under siege.

 

Elsewhere, today, Max Plowman wrote to his close friend Hugh de Selincourt. The letter opens with an apology for not having written sooner–it runs along the lines of the “I wrote the simple letters first” excuse.

…My dear, I feel rather like a snake that has forgotten to shed its skins for the past few years & now begins the healthy business. I didn’t expect my self-assertion to have that effect particularly but it seems to be happening… I see now that preface & my Right to Live (in large measure), & those little topical verses, very much as signs of irritation the snake has with skins which did not fit it. Bitterness comes through low living & I see now that mine was all the more acute because I thought the low living inevitable…

Plowman eventually moves past this high-minded metaphorical mode and writes of reading about bellicose speeches given by leading politicians in both Germany and Britain.

And then it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t my duty to stand between men with consciences of tanned hide & try & filter the stream of lies & hypocrisy they poured at one another…

In any actual fighting for peace I feel I should now be useless… I’ve got to start more or less where I left off 3 years & more ago & work like a galley slave to catch up.

He has come to see his service as an infantry officer–as A Subaltern on the Somme, in fact–as an unbecoming interlude in the life of a politically aware pacifist. But, of course, he is still an army officer, under arrest and awaiting trial–at least in the loose and philosophical sense of the word, if not necessarily the juridical.

…What shall I tell you about my affairs? …I live in a top room of a large house… & there I have my meals brought me as I don’t want to inflict my necessarily chilling company on the “Mess”, & all day long (subject to conditions) I do just what I damned well please. And this will last I think until next Friday when I go for my ordinary Board. I expect to be put under arrest any day after that… the charge will be “Refusing to obey an order.”

What is to be done? And who might be able to help?

Oh you know I wrote to X——-? He did not reply but evidently sent my letter on to Dr ________, F.R.S. (The Camb. psychological Professor) we were both under at Edinburgh.

We know who this is. I can’t be certain, actually, that X is Sassoon, but it certainly sounds like him. In any case, Sassoon and Plowman shared a doctor who was a Cambridge professor and an FRS–W.H.R. Rivers. Thus it must be Rivers who, as we will read below, is willing to help with Plowman’s “case.” But in what way, exactly? Is this another offer to “cure” a patient by thinking him through the ramifications of his pacifism?

Plowman and Sassoon are both writers, both young officers troubled by all that they have seen. And Plowman was even quite literally shell shocked before being sent to Rivers to be treated. But as that distinction suggests, the differences in the manner and motivation of their pacifist protests are considerable.

______wrote the day I came here saying he was at Hampstead & would like to know if he could be of any use… which is extraordinarily decent of him, don’t you think? If I were to have any trouble with the Medical people he might be an excellent Court of Appeal. He says X—–has returned to duty & is quite happy in it, & of course as X——-merely acted on the question of British war aims he was to be satisfied. A queer half-way house, but I daresay it was useful…[1]

This logic is a bit hard to follow. What is “useful,” to Plowman? Does he want Rivers to help shunt his protest aside, and have it be deemed an after-effect of shell shock? I don’t think so. I think he may want the opposite–but does he imagine, then, that Rivers offers to help him to pacifist martyrdom by asserting his sanity and full recovery from shell shock?

Well, at the very least it’s clear that Plowman is not at the stage where he desires any sort of half-measure. He won’t fight any more, and his objection is not on the score of war aims, a minor detail in the monstrosity of war without end…

 

Speaking of Siegfried Sassoon, as I think we probably have been, it’s quite true that he is back on duty and “quite happy:”

January 26

Motored with two Irishmen to a place eighteen miles from Cork—Roore’s Bridge—to meet of the Muskerry Hounds. A grey, windy day, southwest wind. Rode a chestnut of J. Rohan’s—good performer. A poor day’s hunting, but very enjoyable. Fine country—along the River Lee–a wide, rain-swollen stream, flowing down long glens and reaches. The whole landscape grey-green and sad and lonely. Ireland is indeed a haunted, ancient sort of land. It goes deep into one’s heart.[2]

 

Finally, today, another writer both slightly connected to all of the turmoil of literary London–he has long been in touch with, and occasionally helped by, Eddie Marsh–and very far away from it. Isaac Rosenberg writes to remind his old patron that he still lives, however miserably, and that he still reads, and writes. After a long bout of illness, Rosenberg is back in the trenches, and it is not going well.

My dear Marsh,

I have been in topsy turveydom since I last saw you and have not been able to write. Even now it is in the extremest difficulties that Im writing this. I wanted to talk about the Georgian Book which I had sent over to me but have not had time to more than glance through. I liked J. C. Squire poem about the ‘House’ enormously and all his other poems. Turners are very beautiful and Sassoon has power. Masefield seemed rather commonplace, but please don’t take my judgment at anything because I have hardly looked at them. I am back in the trenches which are terrible now. We spend most of our time pulling each other out of the mud. I am not fit at all now and am more in the way than any use. You see I appear in excellent health and a doctor will make no distinction between health and strength. I am not strong…

Yours sincerely

I Rosenberg[3]

Rosenberg does not ask, but it is unlikely that there are any strings near enough to Marsh’s hand (through Winston Churchill’s) to pull him all the way out of the trenches…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 93-4.
  2. Diaries, 206.
  3. Collected Works, 320-1.

Diana Manners’ Unwanted Caresses; Siegfried Sassoon Goes West; Max Plowman Exposes a Propagandist

It’s probably time to move on from the solipsistic diaries of Duff Cooper–at least as far as his mourning for Patrick Shaw Stewart is concerned. But… just one more! I find Cooper’s mix of self-pity, self-criticism, and wildly inconstant levels of self-awareness to be strangely fascinating. Cooper is back to London, again, today, and restored to the full glow of Diana Manners‘s attention. But is all well with them?

I met Diana at King’s Cross in the evening and we dined together at the Rendezvous. She doesn’t feel Patrick’s death as I do. We had a passionate drive after dinner. She gives me her caresses as a nurse gives sweets to a child–most when I am most unhappy which is not really when I want them most.[1]

 

Meanwhile, Siegfried Sassoon has finally gotten an assignment. He had endured a medical board only after winning from Dr. Rivers the assurance that he will be sent overseas–back to France, to endure the worst alongside the men for whom he had protested. Well… and perhaps he will, one day. But the War Office answers to no man, and there were no truly binding “promises” exchanged. Sassoon is heading west, not east, to garrison the nearest restive part of the Empire.

January 7 (New Barracks, Limerick)

Left Liverpool 10.30 Sunday night and arrived Limerick this morning. Weather cold and snow on ground. Came across with Attwater and Hickman (the Quartermaster).

About 120 officers here. Four who were in France with First R.W.F. in 1915-16, C. D. Morgan, Freeman (both wounded for second time up at Ypres in October), Dobell and Garnons-Williams. Also J. V. Higginson who went out with me in November 1915. Very glad to get away from Litherland. Had been there since December 11 and done nothing but play golf and eat expensive dinners at the Adelphi.

Bells tolling from Limerick Cathedral; much nicer than sirens from Bryant & May’s factory.[2]

Well, so far so good: but of course a sleepy garrison, in good hunting country and equipped with numerous friendly acquaintances, will be preferable to the all-too-familiar Litherland. His spirits are rising… but will he write?

 

Finally, today, a century back, we check in with Sassoon’s opposite number, Max Plowman. Plowman’s medical board is behind him, and his course of protest has been chosen, but not yet embarked upon, at least as far as the army is concerned. He writes again to Mrs. Pethick Lawrence of the Women’s International, to report on the doings of a political enemy. (Who this redacted enemy is, I’m not sure.) Although I don’t really understand what’s going on here, it’s very interesting to see the same sort of scene playing out once again: a fire-breather, a propagandist, a cynical double-standard, and the war’s indifferent and insidious assault on truth…

I have just seen your enemy–the blatant beast… the occasion was a lecture… which about 1000 newly-conscripted boys are compelled to attend. His object is to explain to them with the aid of maps what would happen to them if peace were made now. I thought of the Women’s International when after carefully describing German atrocities in Belgium & picturing how much worse they would be in England, he appealed to them to tell their women folk what they had heard & added that if the women knew what had happened in Belgium they would see to it that no conscientious objector dared to show his contemptible face in the street–an odd comment on the fellows in gaol which nevertheless received the loudest applause…  He has already been lecturing for the past 6 weeks. I am glad to think that my letter of resignation may be interpreted as a direct response to his mendacity.

Yours ever sincerely

Max Plowman[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 64.
  2. Diaries, 201.
  3. Bridge into the Future, 91.

A Brother and a Friend Lost at Ypres; Lord Dunsany Pleads for the Poets; Frederic Manning Dodges Delusion

After a long week of Ypres memoirs, all of our recent mainstays are in reserve. But the battle goes on, and if our writers aren’t in it, they can still suffer its losses. Today we have a memorial and then two new losses; this attempt to chronicle the most attritional of the war’s battles is beginning to take on the form of its object.

Lord Dunsany is back in France, on the Hindenberg Line–we know this because this is where he writes the latest and last in a series of prefaces and introductions for his protege Francis Ledwidge, whose new, posthumous collection, is entitled, inevitably, “Last Songs.” Dunsany had seen the volume into the press before he left for France only a few days ago, perhaps feeling that the preface should be written closer to the line, where Ledwidge had spent his last days. Or, perhaps, he wrote it now in order that such a very martial dateline might give his work the authority to suggests what he now does:

Writing amidst rather too much noise and squalor to do justice at all to the delicate rustic muse of Francis Ledwidge, I do not like to delay his book any longer, nor to fail in a promise long ago made to him to write this introduction. He has gone down in that vast maelstrom into which poets do well to adventure and from which their country might perhaps be wise to withhold them, but that is our Country’s affair.

This is an argument that should rile a democracy (Dunsany, of course, is a Peer of the aristocracy in this democracy). It would overturn, too, the strange situation that underlies our fascination with the war–that so many talented, privileged young men went to miserable deaths. The ironies ripple out in different directions–Ledwidge was talented, but not privileged; democracies will indeed come to find many ways, both open and underhanded, to shield the best and the brightest (and the richest and the most privileged) from the worst of future wars; and it won’t be the poets who are carefully preserved for the good of the nation, or even of poetry.

He has left behind him verses of great beauty, simple rural lyrics that may be something of an anodyne for this stricken age. If ever an age needed beautiful little songs our age needs them; and I know few songs more peaceful and happy, or better suited to soothe the scars on the mind of those who have looked on certain places, of which the prophecy in the gospels seems no more than an ominous hint when it speaks of the abomination of desolation.

He told me once that it was on one particular occasion, when walking at evening through the village of Slane in summer, that he heard a blackbird sing. The notes, he said, were very beautiful, and it is this blackbird that he tells of in three wonderful lines in his early poem called “Behind the Closed Eye,” and it is this song perhaps more than anything else that has been the inspiration of his brief life. Dynasties shook and the earth shook; and the war,
not yet described by any man, revelled and and wallowed in destruction around him; and Francis Ledwidge stayed true to his inspiration, as his homeward songs will show.

I had hoped he would have seen the fame he has well deserved; but it is hard for a poet to live to see fame even in
times of peace. In these days it is harder than ever.

Dunsany.

October 9th, 1917.

 

Lady Dorothie Feilding is still in Ireland with her new husband, so this coming news will take some time to reach her.

Her younger brother Henry, a subaltern in the Coldstream Guards, led his company today, a century back, on the northern flank of the renewed attack. This extension of Passchendaele/Third Ypres is dignified with the title of the Battle of Poelcappelle, and it went much as most of the fighting recently had gone.

First, the torrential rain stopped just in time to allow the attack to proceed, albeit over a horrible morass that made progress very difficult. Nevertheless, under a heavy barrage, the Guards, on the left of the British push, generally carried their objectives. But, of course, at great cost. This is Ypres–still a salient, still easily reached by a huge concentration of German guns–and if mud and barrage made the defender’s trenches uninhabitable, many hardened pillboxes survived long enough to pour devastating fire onto the advancing troops.

The historians of the Guards (we will read the account of a different battalion, below) give the general impression that their success turned to disaster due to the failure of a Newfoundland battalion of the 29th Division on their right. Held up by rain and mud, they were late in starting and driven back by the occupants of several pillboxes, whose machine guns were now able to take the Guards in flank.

Henry Feilding’s 2nd Coldstreams had led the assault at 5.20. His commanding officer will write, in the unmistakable, stilted prose of a letter of condolence, that

He was commanding the company on the right of the assault and got into a heavy German barrage. I cannot tell you what a loss he is both as a friend and a soldier. It was the first time that he commanded a company in action, and he was doing so well. He was full of enthusiasm for this first attack and I only wish he could have seen the successful ending of such a great day for the regiment, but all the officers of his company fell wounded before reaching the final objective.[1]

Once again, “all the officers” were hit. Henry Feilding was carried from the field and will die in a field hospital in two days, aged twenty-three. Dorothie’s elder brother Hugh died last year at Jutland, while the eldest of her siblings and the last of her brothers (there were seven sisters, Dorothie is fourth of ten), Rudolph, Viscount Feilding, remains with the Coldstreams.

 

An hour behind the 2nd Coldstreams were the 1st Irish Guards. Captain Raymond Rodakowski, mentioned several times in Kipling’s chronicle of the battalion, was the second-in-command of No. 1 Company, which waded through the muddy, waist-high Broembeek and spent two hours in drawing even with the first wave ahead of them.

Rodakowski had been Robert Graves‘s first school friend, the “first Carthusian to whom I had been able to talk humanly.” Humanly, and supportively: Rodakowski also told him that he was “a good poet, and a good person”–(“I loved him for that”)–and encouraged Graves to take up boxing. This put an end, eventually, to the worst bullying and helped Graves find his own idiosyncratic path through Charterhouse.[2]

After the long slog through the exhausted Grenadiers ahead of them, the Irish Guards now prepared to carry on the assault, attacking Houthulst Forest:

The companies deployed for attack on the new lines necessitated by the altered German system of defense — mopping-up sections in rear of the leading companies, with Lewis-gun sections, and a mopping-up platoon busy behind all.

Meantime, the troops on the Battalion’s right had been delayed in coming up, and their delay was more marked from the second objective onward. This did not check the Guards’ advance, but it exposed the Battalion’s right to a cruel flanking fire from snipers among the shell-holes on the uncleared ground by the Ypres-Staden line. There were pill-boxes of concrete in front; there was a fortified farm buried in sandbags, Egypt House, to be reduced; there were nests of machine-guns on the right which the troops on the right had not yet overrun, and there was an almost separate and independent fight in and round some brick-fields, which, in turn, were covered by the fire of snipers from the fringes of the forest. Enemy aircraft skimming low gave the German artillery every help in their power, and the enemy’s shelling was accurate accordingly. The only thing that lacked in the fight was the bayonet.

The affair resolved itself into a series of splashing rushes, from one shell-hole to the next, terrier-work round the pill-boxes, incessant demands for the Lewis-guns (rifle-grenades, but no bombs, were employed except by the regular bombing sections and moppers-up who cleared the underground shelters), and the hardest sort of personal attention from the officers and N.C.O.’s. All four companies reached the final objective mixed up together and since their right was well in the air, by the reason of the delay of the flanking troops, they had to make a defensive flank to connect with a battalion of the next division that came up later. It was then that they were worst sniped from the shell-holes, and the casualties among the officers, who had to superintend the forming of the flank, were heaviest. There was not much shelling through the day. They waited, were sniped, and expected a counter-attack which did not come off, though in the evening the enemy was seen to be advancing and the troops on the Battalion’s right fell back for a while,  leaving their flank once more exposed. Their position at the time was in a somewhat awkward salient, and they readjusted themselves — always under sniping-fire — dug in again as much as wet ground allowed, and managed in the dark to establish connection with a battalion of Hampshires that had come up on their right.[3]

Kipling, with admirable economy, explains why it is that these battles continue to take such a high toll of the officers: unlike the waves-and-trenches battles of 1915 and 1916 (where officers were killed in high numbers because they were in front, and dressed distinctively) these “affairs” are tactically complex. And difficult to write about, given that few diary-keepers survive unscathed…

More than most, the advance on Houthulst Forest had been an officer’s battle; for their work had been broken up, by the nature of the ground and the position of the German pill-boxes, into detached parties dealing with separate strong points, who had to be collected and formed again after each bout had ended. But this work, conceived and carried out on the spur of the moment, under the wings of death, leaves few historians.

So, once again, the now-familiar toll:

Every Company Commander had been killed or wounded during the day… The battle, which counted as “a successful minor operation” in the great schemes of the Third Battle of Ypres, had cost them four officers killed in action on the 9th, one died of wounds on the 11th, seven officers and their doctor wounded in the two days forty-seven other ranks killed; one hundred and fifty-eight wounded, and ten missing among the horrors of the swampy pitted ground.

Raymond Rodakowski was one of the four officers killed outright.

 

The tenuous Irish theme continues, today, as it was in Cork that Frederic Manning‘s career as an officer received yet another check: once again his alcoholism had led to serious problems, in this case some sort of breakdown and hospitalization. At today’s “’confidential”Medical Board, however, he seems to have escaped a more serious embroilment, perhaps in both the medical and bureaucratic senses: the doctors ruled that Manning was almost fit to resume light duty; moreover

Crossed out in their report was another diagnosis, “delusional insanity”… Manning, probably with some
official encouragement, decided to salvage what honour he could.[4]

 

Another coincidence can serve as the segue to a last brief note. Manning was Australian, although serving with an English unit in Ireland. And it was not the Irish Guards or the Inniskillings that mounted a raid on “Celtic Wood” this morning, a century back, but an Australian battalion. This distinct set-piece of today’s bloodletting a few miles away on the southern flank of the battle has a whole short book of its own, Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith’s The Anatomy of a Raid. The raid-in-force was a bloody disaster: 85 Australians, leaving trenches near Polygon Wood, attacked the Germans in Celtic Wood at dawn. 14 returned, and the rest were never heard from again. The “Anatomy” is a careful inquiry into what happened–and to why no inquiry into this one-disaster-among-many had taken place before.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 220.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 43.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 211-13.
  4. Marwil, Frederic Manning, an Unfinished Life, 184-5.

Francis Ledwidge Dreams of Ireland; Hedd Wyn in the Salient

We take what may be a very welcome break from the travails of Siegfried Sassoon, today, for a letter from Francis Ledwidge to Katharine Tynan, the prolific and well-connected Irish writer. Tynan has just sent Ledwidge Lord Edward: a Study in Romance, her recent book on Edward Fitzgerald, the 18th century Irish nationalist. This book must have resonated strongly for Ledwidge, so soon after the Easter Rising, and in writing his thanks Ledwidge stints nothing of his talent for the lyrical evocation of Ireland:

20th July 1917

We have just returned from the line after an unusually long time. It was very exciting this time, as we had to contend with gas, lachrymatory shells, and other devices new and horrible. It will be worse soon. The camp we are in at present might be in Tir-na-n’Og,[1] it is pitched amid such splendours. There is barley and rye just entering harvest days of gold, and meadow-sweet rippling, and where a little inn named In Den Neerloop holds its gable up to the swallows, bluebells and goldilocks swing their splendid censers. There is a wood hard by where hips glisten like little sparks, and just at the edge of it mealey leaves sway like green fire. I will hunt for a secret place in that wood to read Lord Edward. I anticipate beautiful moments.

I daresay you have left Meath and are back again in the brown wilds of Connaught. I would give £100 for two days in Ireland with nothing to do but ramble on from one delight to another. I am entitled to a leave now, but I’m afraid there are many before my name in the list. Special leaves are granted, and I have to finish a book for the autumn. But, more particularly, I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknahama. You have no idea of how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. Say a prayer that I may get this leave, and give as a condition my punctual return and sojourn till the war is over. It is midnight now and the glow-worms are out. It is quiet in camp but the far night is loud with our guns bombarding the positions we must soon fight for.[2]

This is wishful thinking, alas–but I don’t think Ledwidge really has any hope that somehow he, an ordinary infantryman, will be given special leave when his book comes out. And even if his own turn for leave is not too far off, the wistfulness of this letter is sharpened by the sure knowledge that there will be battle before there is any leave. That is the preparatory bombardment for the Third Battle of Ypres that mutters through the night…

 

A bombardment which Hedd Wyn too will soon be hearing. He has now joined the 15th Royal Welsh–the very same battalion as David Jones.[3] The 15th had been in rest but have now finished their march to the front, reaching–naturally–“Dublin Camp” on the banks of the Yser Canal…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The legendary "Land of Youth."
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 185-6.
  3. I have only just, very belatedly, realized this fact--there are so many writers and so many battalion numbers that I had been ignoring the homunculus who had been repeatedly suggesting that "15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers" was awfully familiar. It seems to be an overlooked overlapping of two sympathetic writers, unbeknownst to each other... I will write more about it in a few days.

Robert Graves on Siegfried Sassoon’s Protest; A Day in the Life of Duff Cooper; Francis Ledwidge Begs a Bog-Flower; Alfred Hale’s Post-Box Dismay

It was today, a century back, that Siegfried Sassoon received a telegram ordering him to report to the Royal Welch Depot at Litherland, near Liverpool. Meanwhile, his friends conspire to knock him off his tentatively-pursued course toward political martyrdom. Robert Graves, now moving to escape his pleasant confinement on the Isle of Wight, wrote to Eddie Marsh:

12 July 1917
(In bed, 12 midnight)

My dear Eddie

What an excellent and sensible letter!

About Sassoon first. It’s an awful thing–completely mad–that he’s done. Such rotten luck on you and me and his friends, especially in the Regiment. They all think he’s mad: and they’d be prepared to hush it up if the Army Council don’t get to hear of the bomb shop incident, but I don’t think S.S. will let them hush it up.

Graves is never shy of speaking ill of his friends in letters to mutual friends, nor of foregrounding his own self-pity, but despite these words he is committed to saving his friend what he justifiably believes to be an action both futile and embarrassing. For once Graves’s penchant for unreflective action will provide the results he desires.

The ‘bomb shop,’ by the way is a pacifist bookshop in London now selling Sassoon’s statement in pamphlet form. But it has yet–I believe–to be widely disseminated, hence Graves’s hopes of nipping the protest in the bud.

I don’t know what on earth to do now. I’m not going to quarrel with Sassons… I think he’s quite right in his views but absolutely wrong in his action… I’m a sound militarist in action however much of a pacifist in thought. In theory the War ought to stop tomorrow if not sooner. Actually we’ll have to go on while a rat or a dog remains to be enlisted…[1]

I only wish I’d known about S.S. in time: it would never have happened if I’d been there but I’ve not seen him since January…[2]

This, again, is both self-dramatizing on Graves’s part and highly likely (never mind the fact that the ridiculous “militarist in action/pacifist in thought” statement is no improvement on Sassoon’s quandary). When Sassoon is with his hunting friends, he hunts, and thinks little of politics or poetry. When he is with poets, he writes, and when he is with soldiers he fights. Alone, dispirited, and seeing little of his officer-peers and much of the older, socially and/or intellectually impressive pacifists, he has written a tract.

 

It is very much 1917, now. But not for everyone. How does the war look from the point of view of a new officer cadet? Duff Cooper takes pains today to record for posterity an ordinary day in the life:

This was really my first normal day here and as the others will probably be similar I will describe it. I got up at a quarter to six, before reveille and before anyone else in my room. Had a cold plunge, washed, shaved, and dressed. Breakfast roll call parade at five minutes to seven. Then breakfast and time after it to enjoy a swift cigar and a glance at The Times. Parade at 8.30–physical training which is very exhausting. Then a lecture, then more drill and musketry instruction. Lunch at 12:30. It amuses me at about 11:00 when the day seems half over to remember myself a little while ago sauntering down to the Foreign Office at this hour to begin my work–but it saddens me in the evening at about 8.30 when my beastly dinner is finished and there is nothing more to do, to think how at this hour in London I should be setting forth upon an evening’s pleasure.

Sure, but it ain’t exactly the trenches.

To go on with my day–lunch at 12.30, a cup of coffee in the canteen afterwards to take away the taste of lunch. Then at 1.45 the most exhausting and unpleasant parade of the day under the broiling sun–company drill. Then lectures… Just time after tennis to write to Diana before the post goes and to have a hot bath before dinner. The evenings are the times I feel depressed and long for good food and wine and pleasure and beautiful women…[3]

Ingenuous Duff! Yes, drill in the hot sun sounds unpleasant. And perhaps a cigar and the paper, and two baths, and three meals (however substandard) are all not much to crow about… but tennis! It seems like an invitation to mock the travails of officer cadets. It’s not–it’s an honest man’s diary… but still. There is no regimen of truly bad food and agonizingly hard drill that leaves men choosing to play tennis at the end of the day…

 

And then there’s that lost life of food, wine, and that one woman. But it’s only been about three weeks since Cooper saw Diana Manning.

For Francis Ledwidge, it has been about two years since the love of his life, Ellie Vaughey, died. “His” Ellie had already spurned him to marry another–an act which may have contributed to his decision to enlist–but her death shortly thereafter somehow brought the loss home to Ledwidge, causing him to break off a blooming new relationship with Lizzie Healy. So it has been two years, more or less, for the poet without much thought of love.

Today, a century back, after a long silence, Ledwidge decided to write to Lizzie again. Is it because hope is in his heart this summer, or is it because battle looms again? A foolish question… soldiers’ minds rarely believe in separating the two strains of feeling…

You will be surprised to hear from me again after a silence neatly three years long. The reason I write is because I have been dreaming about you and it has made me rather anxious. I sincerely hope that nothing troubles you in body or soul.

It must be quite beautiful on the bog now. How happy you are to be living in peace and quietude where birds still sing and the country wears her confirmation dress. Out here the land is broken up by shells and the woods are like skeletons and when you come to a little town it is only to find poor homeless people lamenting over what was once a cheery home. As I write this a big battle is raging on my left hand and if it extends to this part of the line I will be pulling triggers like a man gone mad.

Please, dear Lizzie, send me a flower from the bog, plucked specially for me. I may be home again soon. In fact I am only waiting to be called home. God send it soon.[4]

 

And finally, today–although I suspect that my fascination with Alfred Hale is not shared by many readers–one amazing little detail that adds a quirky grace note to today’s tales of a privileged, disgruntled early volunteer, a privileged latecomer to the military life, and a working-class soldier long in the ranks.

Hale is a man in his forties, belatedly conscripted and now very belatedly hoping to be rescued from the ranks by means of an unlikely special commission.

How? Well, he hopes his parents will obtain one for him.

From whom? The chief of the boy scouts, naturally:

12 July: Letter from my mother. Sir Robert Baden-Powell had taken no notice of appeal for help from my father in getting me a commission. How I watched the post every day just then…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This letter also mentions the "worst possible news about my friend Peter." This would Peter Johnstone, with whom Graves was--or had been--infatuated at Charterhouse. Unintentionally or not, Graves muddies the waters with his account of the incident in Good-Bye to All That, seeming to conflate a 1915 revelation about Peter's alleged homosexual activity with today's bad news that he had been charged with soliciting a soldier. Being a well-connected young man--the grandson of an Earl--Johnstone was remanded to a doctor's care rather than to prison. On which more later...
  2. In Broken Images, 77-8. See also R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 177-9.
  3. Diaries, 56-7.
  4. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 184-5.
  5. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 96.

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

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

Hedd Wyn (National Library of Wales)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rhyfel

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

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

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

 

War

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Isaac Rosenberg’s Daughters of War; Francis Ledwidge’s Gods of Greece; Siegfried Sassoon Declares the Death of Youth

Some days we make do with an update and a diary excerpt or two… other days three important poets are writing about their minds and their methods.

Isaac Rosenberg posted a letter to Eddie Marsh today, which probably included a draft of his difficult, sui generis, mythological poem “Daughters of War.” It also contained an attempt to allay the perplexity the poem would cause:

I am now fearfully rushed, but find energy enough to scribble this in the minute I plunder from my work. I believe I can see the obscurities in the ‘Daughters’, but hardly hope to clear them up in France… The first part, the picture of the Daughters dancing and calling to the spirits of the slain before their last ones have ceased among the boughs of the tree of life, I must still work on. In that part obscure the description of the voice of the Daughter I have not made clear, I see; I have tried to suggest the wonderful sound of her voice, spiritual and voluptuous at the same time. The end is an attempt to imagine the severance of all human relationship and the fading away of human love. Later on I will try and work on it, because I think it a pity if the ideas are to be lost for want of work. My ‘Unicorn’ play is stopped because of my increased toil… It is to be a play of terror—terror of hidden things and the fear of the supernatural. But I see no hope of doing the play while out here. I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces.[1]

Of the play, more anon, I hope. And this almost touching personal detail is a reminder of just how difficult it must be to write poetry in the trenches, especially as a private. Of course he gestures and grimaces–and many writers talk to themselves, at their leisure, in rooms of their own…

As for “Daughters of War,” the poem has been long in gestation–Rosenberg sent an early draft to Gordon Bottomley in December–and it has been growing in power. Like the ancient poets who dreamt Valkyries and Amazons–and like David Jones and his Sweet Sister Death–Rosenberg summons up female embodiments of war’s power.

Space beats the ruddy freedom of their limbs,
Their naked dances with man’s spirit naked
By the root side of the tree of life…

I saw in prophetic gleams
These mighty daughters in their dances
Beckon each soul aghast from its crimson corpse
To mix in their glittering dances :
I heard the mighty daughters’ giant sighs
In sleepless passion for the sons of valour
And envy of the days of flesh,
Barring their love with mortal boughs across–
The mortal boughs, the mortal tree of life.
The old bark burnt with iron wars
They blow to a live flame
To char the young green clays
And reach the occult soul; they have no softer lure,
No softer lure than the savage ways of death.

We were satisfied of our lords the moon and the sun
To take our wage of sleep and bread and warmth–
These maidens came–these strong everliving Amazons,
And in an easy might their wrists
Of night’s sway and noon’s sway the sceptres brake,
Clouding the wild, the soft lustres of our eyes…

 

Next to this wrenching vision, full of sex and death, the melodious prose and harmonious rhymes of Francis Ledwidge seem to come from an entirely different war, a different era. They don’t, of course–they come from the same day. These are very different sensibilities: our two poets in the ranks and out of the working classes share very little else than those three facts of their identity.

Ledwidge wrote another letter to the prominent writer Katherine Tynan today, a century back, and it begins with a strange confusion.

19.6.17

This is my birthday. I am spending it in a little red town in an orchard.

Actually, it is not his birthday. Which goes a longer way to show one of the larger cultural and social gaps among our writers than a ream of commentary about Ledwidge’s rural roots or Lord Dunsany‘s reflexive condescension towards his Irish “peasant” protégé. It seems that birthdays were little regarded in rural County Meath a century and another score of years back, and even when he enlisted Ledwidge did not know the date of his birth. His mother, flustered, confused his and his brother Joe’s, or so the story goes. Our Frank Ledwidge was born on the 19th, but of August–his twenties have two months left to run.

Again I think of how this sort of confusion might have arisen in Rosenberg’s family too, with an absent father and Yiddish-speaking mother, or how Ledwidge and his surviving siblings might have shared, like Rosenberg and his brother, the “family suit.” But for such similarities there are more striking differences. Rosenberg is a child of the London slums. And Ledwidge?[2]

There is a lovely valley just below me, and a river that goes gobbling down the fields, like turkeys coming home in Ireland… I was down here earlier in the spring, when all the valley wore its confirmation dress, and was glad to return again in the sober moments of June. Although I have a conventional residence I sleep out in the orchard, and every morning a cuckoo comes to a tree quite close, and calls out his name with a clear voice above the rest of the morning’s song, like a tender stop heard above the lower keys in a beautiful organ…

If you go to Tara, go to Rath-na-Ri and look all around you from the hills of Drumcondrath in the north to the plains of Enfield in the south, where Allan Bog begins, and remember me to every hill and wood and ruin, for my heart is there. If it is a clear day you will see Slane Hill blue and distant. Say I will come back again surely, and maybe you will hear pipes in the grass or a fairy horn and the hounds of Finn…

Ledwidge also enclosed three new poems, “The Find,” “Stanley Hill,” and “The Old Gods:”

I thought the old gods still in Greece
Making the little fates of man,
So in a secret place of Peace
I prayed as but a poet can:

And all my prayer went crying faint
Around Parnassus’ cloudy height,
And found no ear for my complaint,
And back unanswered came at night.

Ah, foolish that I was to heed
The voice of folly, or presume
To find the old gods in my need,
So far from A. E.’s little room.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon has not written in his diary since beginning to work on his “declaration.” Today, a century back, he is very much still in declaration mode, railing angrily at the waste of the war and the evil cynicism of those who prolong it.

June 19

I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as ‘an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb’. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts.

And the ancient wars on which they base their arguments did not involve such huge sacrifices as the next two or three years will demand of Europe, if this war is to be carried on to a knock-out result. Our peace-terms remain the same, ‘the destruction of Kaiserism and Prussianism’. I don’t know what aims this destruction represents.

I only know, and declare from the depths of my agony, that these empty words… mean the destruction of Youth. They mean the whole torment of waste and despair which people refuse to acknowledge or to face; from month to month they dupe themselves with hopes that ‘the war will end this year’.

And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words
convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes.

The soldiers who return home seem to be stunned by the things they have endured. They are willingly entrapped by the silent conspiracy against them. They have come back to life from the door of death, and the world is good to enjoy. They vaguely know that it is ‘bad form’ to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth about the war…

The diary continues, wandering into violent territory as Sassoon decries the bloodthirstiness of women and imagines a mob awakening to “lynch” the “dictator” who has plunged it into war.

The soldiers are fooled by the popular assumption that they are all heroes. They have a part to play, a mask to wear. They are allowed to assume a pride of superiority to the mere civilian. Are there no heroes among the civilians, men and women alike?

Of the elderly male population I can hardly trust myself to speak. Their frame of mind is, in the majority of cases, intolerable. They glory in senseless invective against the enemy… They regard the progress of the war like a game of chess, cackling about ‘attrition,’ and ‘wastage of man-power’, and ‘civilisation at stake’. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance.

Soldiers conceal their hatred of the war.
Civilians conceal their liking for it…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 375; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 359-61.
  2. See Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 183.
  3. The Years of the Shadow, 294-6.
  4. Diaries, 175-6.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.