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.

Rowland Feilding Before Messines; Jack Martin Goes up the Line; Phillip Maddison to Test his Courage; A New Brief and a Fine Old Book for C.E. Montague; A Short Life of Francis Ledwidge

Early tomorrow morning will see one of the most dramatic “shows” of the war, and the most successful British opening to date. Rowland Feilding, has been heavily involved in the preparations for the battle, organizing a last-minute raid–a “success” despite the losses involved, as a number of Germans were captured–and nearly being blinded himself when a heavy-caliber German shell fell nearby during the retaliatory bombardment. Last night, a century back, Feilding’s battalion was relieved, and will spend the battle in a supporting role, giving him time to describe much of the action in a long letter to his wife. He sets the scene for her, and for us:

The village [Wytschaete] tops the crest of the Messines Ridge, and the breastworks, which we have occupied since we came from the Somme, last September, run across the swampy fields to the west of and below it, with the hospice (or convent)—represented by a heap of bricks—standing out prominently against the skyline, beyond the Petit Bois…

That evening (June 6) we tea’d in the open, about half a mile behind the fire-trench, our artillery shooting hard over our heads all the time, but eliciting no reply from the enemy. The Brigadier called and congratulated us on the success of the raid. He was in the best of form, and indeed everybody was very cheerful and full of confidence. It was very edifying to see the almost exhilarated state every one was in, both officers and men, seeing what a colossal business lay immediately before them. Later, we had dinner in the open… The 6th Connaught Rangers were to be broken up for the battle in order to provide “mopping up” and carrying parties for the attacking battalions, thus leaving me personally with very little to do, and after dinner I moved to my Battle Headquarters—a deep mined dug-out in Rossignol Wood, above which I am now writing this letter. The wood reeked of gas shells, to which the enemy further contributed during the night.[1]

 

Jack Martin, a signaler with the 122nd brigade, will be going forward soon after midnight.

This afternoon we were all ordered to pack everything in our valises, except fighting kit, and hand them to the care of the QM… I joined the Forward Party and moved up the line.

…It was a wretched night–the strain of waiting was great–our guns were going continually–Fritz was ‘nervy’…

Crowded into a forward trench, the men now have to endure bombardment from the German artillery which, although the extent of the underground preparations seem not to have been guessed, must realize that some sort of attack is in the offing.

I was crouched down in the trench with my back to Jerry when a small shell landed almost on the parapet a matter of only inches from my head. The trench came in on top of me, and, but for the fact that it was strongly revetted, I should have been completely buried. When the smoke and dirt had cleared away, the other fellows were surprised to see me pick myself up unhurt. Aitken said, ‘That one had got your name on it, Joe,’ ‘Yes,’ I replied,’ but it was the wrong number.’ It gave me a terrible shaking but it might have been worse.[2]

 

Henry Williamson is safe behind the lines on the now-quiet Somme front, but he has sent his alter ego north, and placed him behind the lines at Messines. The talk in the transport section of Phillip Maddison’s turned somewhat morbid. Never mind that thousands of Germans were about to die and thousands of British infantry go over the top–the transport men, though currently fairly safe, have to bring up ammunition through an interdiction barrage. They too are frightened, and they begin to talk of their mothers. Phillip, even though he is so close to the place his courage failed in 1914, decides that he feels confident–because “he himself had broken away” from his mother and because he has the love of the faithful Lily: “if he hadn’t the thought of Lily to keep him going, he would be windy himself.”

With nothing to do as midnight passes and with his confidence buoyed both by the love of Lily and by his assessment–rather perceptive, this–that the German counter-barrage will be enfeebled and directed elsewhere, Phillip begins to contemplate a walk toward the front…[3]

 

One of the wonders of this project, in a small way, is the realization that even when great and terrible events are in the offing, “ordinary” life goes on for the soldiers even as it does across the experiential gulf. C.E. Montague has just received a welcome reassignment: instead of being a glorified assistant propagandist and minder of journalists (many of whom were far less skilled than he, not to mention his unusual moral and physical courage), he “was now to hold a position of some authority… better than showman-work however variegated.” He is now an ‘assistant press officer,’ and will have more freedom to choose his own course and no direct involvement in the dissemination of propaganda.

So late tonight, Montague will pack several well-known journalists into cars and head for Messines. But first he sits down to write a letter to his wife. To whom, of course, he cannot mention the coming battle, even at this late hour. Instead, he discusses what any good literary soldier does in his spare time–in this case his reading of the master of malign fate (and of brave human resistance against it) is at once exasperated and grateful:

June 6, 1917

I have gone on with The Return of the Native, admiring it more than ever. . . . I had forgotten how directly Hardy’s pessimism is declared in the description of Clym Yeobright, where he says that mankind’s enjoyment of life must decline, and the view of life as ‘a thing to be put up with’ prevail, and that we shall all cease to admire beauty of face as distinct from full expression of experiences mainly painful and disillusioning. What perversity it is. Life only seems to me to be more of a wonder and glory and ecstasy, the more I see of it, and I feel it specially when reading Hardy’s own descriptions of beautiful-natured people like his faithful lovers, and of lovely places.[4]

 

Finally, today, Francis Ledwidge is in France, far enough from Messines and surely in ignorance of tomorrow’s huge attack. But even if he knew he would still use an infantryman’s rare hours of leisure to attend to his growing poetic reputation. He wrote today an extremely long letter to Professor Lewis Chase, from which I will excerpt a few choice rambles:

B.E.F
France, 6th June 1917

Dear Sir,

Your letter of May 15th reached me this afternoon. I have to thank you for introducing my books into your University library and for the interest which you take in my poems and will endeavour to supply you with what details you require of myself and my work for the composition of your proposed lecture. You will, of course, understand that I am writing this under the most inept circumstances between my watches, for I am in the firing line and may be busy at any moment in the horrible work of war.

I am on active service since the spring of 1915, having served in the Dardanelles and the First British Expeditionary Force to Serbia… Some of the people who know me least imagine that I joined the Army because I knew men were struggling for higher ideals and great empires, and I could not sit idle to watch them make for me a more beautiful world. They are mistaken. I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions…

I am of a family who were ever soldiers and poets… I have heard my mother say many times that the Ledwidges were once a great people in the land, and she has shown me with a sweep of her hand green hills and wide valleys where sheep are folded which still bear the marks of dead industry and, once, this was all ours.

These stories, told at my mother’s doorstep in the owl’s light, are the first things I remember except, perhaps, the old songs which she sang to me, so full of romance, love and sacrifice. She taught me to listen and appreciate the blackbird’s song, and when I grew to love it beyond all others she said it was because I was born in a blackbird’s nest and had its blood in my veins. My father died when I was two…

The “Poet of the Blackbirds” goes on to describe his family and his early life.

There were four brothers of us and three sisters. I am the second youngest. For these my mother laboured night and day, as none of us were strong enough to provide for our own wants…

I was seven years of age when my eldest brother died, and though I had only been to school on occasional days I was able to read the tomb-stones in a neighbouring grave-yard and had written in secret several verses which still survive. About this time I was one day punished in school for crying and that punishment ever afterwards haunted the master like an evil dream, for I was only crying over Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” which an advanced class had been reading aloud.

It was in this same class that I wrote my first poem, in order to win for the school a half holiday…

Much as I would like to use the sheer bulk of the letter to enhance the slight irony of writing one’s life story on the brink of a major attack, patience dictates that we must skip the tale of Ledwidge’s early literary development. After a short and unhappy apprenticeship to a Dublin grocer, Ledwidge returns home.

I took up any old job at all with the local farmers and was happy. I set myself certain studies and these I pursued at night when I should be resting from a laborious day. I took a certificate of one hundred and twenty words a minute at Pitman’s shorthand, and soon knew Euclid as well as a man of Trinity College…  I read and studied the poets of England from the age of Chaucer to Swinburne, turning especially to the Elizabethans and the ballads that came before the great Renaissance. I thirsted for travel and adventure, and longed to see the Italy of Shelley and the Greece of Byron. But the poems of Keats and his sad life appealed to me most.

The young poet, in his own estimation at least, begins to mature:

I began to pick faults with Longfellow and Tennyson…

I burned many copybooks which contained fugitive pieces of my own because I thought it were better for them to die young and be happy than live to be reviled.

Georgian Poetry” (with my three excluded) contains, I think, the best poems of the century…

The letter continues in high good spirits, but it’s an open question whether the late switch to a torrent of unrelated anecdotes and quirks is produced because the poet is flattered to be the subject of academic interest, or because he knows that a fighting soldier who might wish to be remembered should give potential biographers as much, and as quickly, as he can.

I get more pleasure from a good line than from a big cheque. Though I love music I cannot write within earshot of any instrument. I cannot carry a watch on account of the tick, real or imaginary, and might as well try to sleep under the Bell of Bruges as in a room where a clock stands… I have written many short stories and one play which is declared a success by eminent playwrights who have read it…

The letter closes with several poems, including “Rainy Day in April,” “The Wife of Llew,” and Pan. Ledwidge assures the professor that the best is yet to come…

 

Tomorrow, the mines go up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 183-88.
  2. Sapper Martin, 70-1.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 153.
  4. C.E. Montague, 161-2, 172-3

Siegfried Sassoon at the Reform; John Masefield in Mametz Wood; Rowland Feilding Risks an Irish Derby; Wilfred Owen Avoids a Breakdown

Siegfried Sassoon,continues to recover from his shoulder wound–and to take advantage of certain… advantages… of his position. Dining out from his London hospital, his old contacts with the world of literary eminence now put the heroic young poet in the way of some of the leading lights of London literature.

May 2

Lunch with Robbie Ross and Roderick at Reform. Talked to Wells and Arnold Bennett—the latter very affable… Sat in Hyde Park 3.30-4.30 in warm sun—very pleasant…[1]

 

One literary luminary that Sassoon does not know is John Masefield–which would be awkward, considering that Sassoon’s best pre-war work, “The Daffodil Murderer,” was a satire of his work. Now the prosy shoe is on the other poetic foot, and while Sassoon lunches at the Reform Club, working on his literary rolodex, Masefield is tramping about the ruined areas of the Somme, working on a war book. He is close to the scene of Sassoon’s earlier bout of heroics, but much closer, in location and tone, to David Jones.

I went today up to Mametz Wood, where a German machine gunner once had a nest in a tree. He was killed in his nest & stayed there till he fell to bits, but his nest is still there & two kestrels have built in it, & there are violets in blossom below & wood anemones. I believe every tree & nearly every bush in that big wood is dead, & the same in every wood in the battlefield; most of the big trees cut down by the fire & the rest blasted.[2]

 

Rowland Feilding is far from such horror, and yet not far enough. Any experienced commander must worry, now, that even the war’s most pleasant and convivial scenes might suddenly become killing grounds.

May 2, 1917. Birr Barracks {Locre).

The battalion has twice played football lately against battalions of the Carson (36th) Division, and I am sorry to say got beaten both times.

On the second occasion there was a big crowd of soldier spectators—certainly 2,000 or 3,000. The ground was the best that could be found, but was rather “close up,” and would not have been chosen had this large attendance
been foreseen. Moreover, the day (Sunday) was the clearest of days, as it happened.

When I arrived, the sight of the crowd, I confess, made me anxious. A hostile aeroplane overhead with wireless apparatus; a German battery behind; a sudden hurricane bombardment with shrapnel; and considerable damage might have followed. And I was the senior officer present.

But to stop a match in process of being cleanly fought before a sporting audience between the two great opposing factions of Ireland, in a spirit of friendliness which, so far as I am aware, seems unattainable on Ireland’s native soil–even though in sight (or almost in sight) of the enemy–was a serious matter; and I decided to let the game go on…[3]

 

Last and not least, today, is Wilfred Owen. He is safe, once again–but that is not to say that all is well, precisely.

2 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mother,

Here again! The Doctor suddenly was moved to forbid me to go into action next time the Battalion go, which will be in a day or two. I did not go sick or anything, but he is nervous about my nerves, and sent me down yesterday—labelled Neurasthenia. I still of course suffer from the headaches traceable to my concussion. This will mean that I shall stay here and miss the next Action Tour of Front Line; or even it may mean that I go further down & be employed for a more considerable time on Base Duty or something of the sort. I shall now try and make my French of some avail . . . having satisfied myself that, though in Action I bear a charmed life, and none of woman born can hurt me, as regards flesh and bone, yet my nerves have not come out without a scratch. Do not for a moment suppose I have had a ‘breakdown’. I am simply avoiding one.

This seems like wisdom, although we must take it only tentatively, coming as it does from a young man just diagnosed with a “nerve”–i.e., psychiatric–condition writing to his mother–and hard on the heels of a rather dramatic statement about his confidence in his own destiny.

But Owen really does not seem troubled, despite the state of his nerves. Should he be upset not to be going into action?

At the first Ambulance I arrived at in the Car, a Corporal came up to me with a staid air of sleepy dignity that seemed somehow familiar. And when he began to enter in a Note Book my name & age, we knew each other. It was old Hartop of the Technical! Bystanding Tommies were astounded at our fraternity. For the Good old Sort brought back in an instant all the days of study in Shrewsbury, and the years that were better than these, or any years to come… He was reading the same old books that we ‘did’ there. I was jolly glad to see them again, & to borrow…

Reading material thus acquired, Owen does work back to the subject of his current status. He seems to be reassuring himself–and his mother–that his hospitalization for nerves is a war wound honestly come by. It is, of course, as we have learned–he is suffering from posttraumatic stress, an after-effect of both physical concussion and emotional trauma. But there was little consensus on this matter, then, and Owen can’t help but think of what he is experiencing in terms of the more desirably incontrovertible bullet wound:

If I haven’t got a Blighty in this war, I will take good care not to get a Blight, as many have done, even from this Regiment. I should certainly have got a bullet wound, if I had not used the utmost caution in wriggling along the ground on one occasion. There was a party of Germans in a wood about 200 yds behind us, and his trench which we had just taken was only a foot deep in places, & I was obliged to keep passing up & down it. As a matter of fact I rather enjoyed the evening after the Stunt, being only a few hundred yds. from the Town, as you knew, and having come through the fire so miraculously; and being, moreover, well fed on the Bosche’s untouched repast!!

The next line is a good one, especially for us: Owen is startled by what we might term the historical immediacy of the written word:

It was curious and troubling to pick up his letters where he had left off writing in the middle of a word! If we had gone down from the line next day all would have been very well, but we were kept up (in another part of the line) for 9 days after it: under incessant shelling…

Your last Parcel has arrived, and I enjoyed the Munchoc right well. I had some compensation for lost parcels in being given a parcel sent to an officer who was wounded the first day he joined us. It is a regimental custom never to send Food Stuffs back after Officers who go down to Hospital! I shall soon want some more Players. Nothing else yet!—Don’t omit to address C.C.S. 13…

How strange that the fact that I am in Hospital means that all cause of uneasiness about me is removed from you!

Do not hawk this letter about! Nay, I would rather you told no one I am a Casual again!

Your very own Wilfred[4]

We will keep a close eye on Owen and his nerves.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 163.
  2. Letters From France, 268.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 169-70.
  4. Collected Letters, 453-4.

Edward Thomas Entrains for the Front; If Francis Ledwidge Had a Golden Pound

Francis Ledwidge has his head in the game, still–the game of sentimental, home-loving poetry, that is. I think we can put him firmly, now, in the camp of those whose poetic instincts serve to insulate them from the horrors of the war, rather than those seeking to turn their poetry to the task of grappling with what they experience.

Had I A Golden Pound

(after the Irish)

Had I a golden pound to spend,
My love should mend and sew no more.
And I would buy her a little quern,
Easy to turn on the kitchen floor.

And for her windows curtains white,
With birds in flight and flowers in bloom,
To face with pride the road to town,
And mellow down her sunlit room.

And with the silver change we’d prove
The truth of Love to life’s own end,
With hearts the years could but embolden.
Had I a golden pound to spend.

February 5th, 1917.

 

Edward Thomas is a new officer rather than an old soldier, but it seems that he intends to do the opposite–or, rather, to continue to do what he has been doing and use his poetic gifts to refract and consider what he sees before him. But it is a halting beginning, to say the least. He arrived in France with an injured ankle and a nearly empty wallet, but even an artillery officer needs to walk a great deal, and he has been searching for new shoes. Finding none in the army stores or in the Havre shops that fit, he “bought low soft boots” on February 2nd and then returned to camp. Rather than drinking or visiting brothels, as many others were doing, Thomas had an “argument with Thorburn about morals, shame, whether poets must go through not only ‘sin’ but ‘repentance’–Dante, Shakespeare. Cold supper in our cold tent-iron ration and cheese and marmalade.”

The 3rd featured more of the same, as well as work preparing the guns and readying the battery for its move up to the front. Yesterday, a century back, the orders came. And naturally it was another case of “hurry up and wait:”

At 11 came warning to move at 5.30. Packing, Censoring, New servant…  Started at 4.45 for station with guns–held up 1 1/2 hours by train across road–2 hours at station doing notion, 1 1/2 hours entraining guns–platform all cotton bales and men singing ‘The nightingales are singing in the pale moonlight’… Sgt Major did practically all the work…

Men quite silent after first comic cries of ‘All tickets’ and imitating cattle…

The fact that soldiers were often transported to the line in train trucks designed for animals is mentioned by scores of memoir writers. An irresistible minor joke, or bit of dark irony… And at least the men are not baaing, voicing themselves as sheep to slaughter, as the French infantry will do.

As we start at 11 suddenly the silent men all yell ‘Hurray’ but are silent before we are clear of long desolate platform of cotton and trampled snow and electric light.

This is the sort of note that could very easily become a great poem.

And today, a century back, the journey continued:

Snow. Gradually flatter and poplars regular as telegraph poles, orchards, level crossings, children. Buchy at 10 a.m…. Amiens at 2… Pale sky and crimson sun at sunset. Doullens at 8. Guns all the time… A restless night.[1]

Not long ’till the line, now.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 159-60.

Ivor Gurney: New Bard of the Barracks-Room; Francis Ledwidge Is In France and Isn’t; Edwin Vaughan Knows Fear and Grows Venturesome

Francis Ledwidge is enduring his first winter in the trenches France, and he faces the task like a true poet. A true poet of one particular, fiercely rooted sort. Tell us, Francis, about your experiences, and about the trenches:

In France

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

February 3rd, 1917.

Before we get to Ivor Gurney‘s letter, we should catch up with Edwin Vaughan, prodigy of bathos. Since he joined his battalion while it was in rest, he still awaits his first trip up the line. Yesterday, a century back, he prepared for this momentous step:

Although the morning was spent in final packing, I did not feel at all excited; I think it was the long waiting that calmed me down, for we did not parade until 5 p.m…

But fate had another anticlimax in store, although one that Vaughan did not protest too much. While the battalion was indeed going into trenches, he learned that his company would be the one in reserve, in charge of rations and unlikely to face hostile action. Anticlimax, yes, but at least a gentle immersion into danger.

With little chance of being killed–or of discovering that he isn’t mentally tough enough for the ordeal of bombardment–Vaughan’s diary fills once again with lesser evils. Hatwell, the company commander Vaughan has quickly learned to detest, is quick to turn their simple supply mission into a fiasco. He goes up with the ration party, but fails to issue contingent orders to his platoon commanders, and there is complete confusion as elements of the party get lost, run into frightened French soldiers they can hardly communicate with, argue with them about their duties, get lost again, and then learn, once Hatwell returns, that their quarters had been moved and thus there is more marching ahead.

I was too utterly lost in bewilderment at my first night in the trenches. It was so eerie and dull, no lights, no shots or shells, no raids or mines–just darkness, duckboards and rations…

At the end of the long night there is little to be done:

I issued rum to the troops, then to myself, and turned in–still marveling at the ridiculous attempt at warfare I had just witnessed.

That was last night. Today, however, a century back, Vaughan is disconcerted to be reminded of his status as a newcomer.

On comparing notes with the others, I found that I was the only one who had been at all at a loss the night before…

And tonight it will be Vaughan’s turn to go up to the line himslef. His honesty and careful attention to detail in his diary make him a very fine writer–as far along in the recording of experience as he is short of actual experience.

At 6 p.m. Thomas and I set out with the Company to carry the rations up the line… as I walked beside Thomas I had no qualms of fear, when he said in a low voice, ‘If they start shelling, we will have to split up….’

At that, my teeth started to chatter, and I had to stop talking, for my voice trembled so. I don’t think I was really frightened physically, but there was a curious dread of the unknown and an excitement of the imagination. As we marched down the exposed lonely road to the communication trench, I heard in the far distance a curious musical moan which with a gradually changing key came nearer and nearer until, immediately overhead, it made a noise like an emptying drain and then died away. I asked Tommy what that was and he replied ‘Oh! Just one for the back areas.’ ‘One what?; ‘Shell, of course!’ So I had heard my first shell, and it was quite pretty…

At first I was afraid to leave the vicinity of the trench lest any danger should catch me in the open, but after a while I grew more venturesome and went across with Johnny to a belt of broken wire around which the snow was uneven, with scattered rubbish. Here we found the grave of a Frenchman, with the equipment lying beside it, from which I collected the rapier-bayonet as a souvenir. Then we played about in the snow, exploring dumps and shell-holes and graves until an hour later when the troops returned and we marched back…[1]

It remains for us to guess: is this the absurd–but natural–combination of fear and exhilaration which rules front-line life, as tightening fear and careless abandon slosh in turn through the stressed nervous system, or is it another literary anticipation of an ironic twist?

And is it similarly twisted, on my part, to be more worried for Vaughan when he is larking about in the snow than when he is creeping up toward the line–or is it merely the product of long reading in these sorts of books?

 

Finally today, just a bit more from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott, enlarging on his quick pen-portraits of the men in his section–enlarging, most agreeably, into verse:

3 February 1917

My Dear Friend: The boys are nearly all asleep — eight of us in a room, say, 14 feet by ten, with a large stack of wood, a fireplace and equipment. Outside it is bitterly cold; in here, not so bad; and good companionship hides many things. A miner, an engineer, a drapers assistant, a grocer, an Inland Revenuist, and a musician among
them…

Firelight

Silent, bathed in firelight, in dusky light and gloom
The boys squeeze together in the smoky dirty room.
Crowded around the fireplace, a thing of bricks and tin
They watch the shifting embers, till the good dreams enter in

That fill the low hovel with blossoms fresh with dew
And blue sky and white cloud that sail the clear air through.
They talk of daffodillies and the blue bells skiey beds
Till silence thrills with music at the things they have said.

And yet, they have no skill of words, whose eyes glow so deep.
They wait for night and silence and the strange power of Sleep,
To light them and drift them like sea birds over the sea
Where some day I shall walk again, and they walk with me.

The letter gets even better:

But O, cleaning up! I suppose I get as much Hell as any one in the army; and although I give the same time to rubbing and polishing as any of the others, the results — I will freely confess it — are not all they might be. Today there was an inspection by the Colonel. I waited trembling, knowing that there was six weeks of hospital and soft-job dirt and rust not yet all off; no, not by a long way. I stood there, a sheep among the goats (no, vice versa) and waited the bolt and thunder. Round came He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Looked at me, hesitated, looked again, hesitated, and was called off by the R.S.M.[2] who was afterwards heard telling the Colonel (a few paces away from me) “A Good man, sir, quite all right. Quite a good man, sir, but he’s a musician, and doesn’t seem able to get himself clean.” When the aforesaid RSM came round for a back view, he chuckled, and said “Ah Gurney, I am afraid we shall never make a soldier of you.”

It is a good thing they are being converted to this way of thought at last; it has taken a long time. Anyway the R.S.M. is a brick, and deserves a Triolet.

He backed me up once;
I shall never forget it.
I’m a fool and a dunce
He backed me up once
If theres rust I shall get it
Your soul, you may bet it
Yes, all sorts [and in?] tons. . . .
He backed me up once
I shall never forget it.

(Triolet form quite forgotten. Please let me have it.)

…Fire went out long ago, while I was hammering out “Firelight”. It is too cold to think, write or read. Then sleep. O if I could but dream such things as would mean escape for me. But I never dream, one way or the other; Please excuse writing:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

If Gurney can be a little frightening in his more extreme emotional states, he is really very winning as a lovable “parade’s despair,” playing the role of a hapless but well-looked-after private even while demonstrating how prolific and unusual he is: he can toss off verse–light verse, yes, but what of it?–and sharp, funny little vignettes with great facility and a graceful but nonetheless thoroughgoing empathy. So here’s to the kind RSM, and the deep-eyed, silent men of the infantry…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 21-22.
  2. Regimental Sergeant Major--an enlisted man of the highest rank, his dignity, as opposed to that of a private soldier, utterly Olympian.
  3. War Letters, 125-7.

Max Plowman’s Men Want to Go Home; Rowland Feilding’s Endure Heroically

Sometimes these writers really do cooperate. What better time for a two-pronged assault on the question of morale–of psychological endurance–than at the beginning of a long, cold winter?

First, today, a letter from Max Plowman to Janet Upcott addresses the Christmas season–and war’s constraints thereupon–as well as a grimmer seasonal matter: in early winter death feels final and the war’s grip eternal. When and how will it end?

 

10th Bn West Yorkshire Regt., B.E.F.
14th December, 1916

My Dear Janet,

This is to bring you seasonable wishes… alas! we’re short of officers & the overdue “leave” will have to wait. I hope you’ll have a very merry time wherever you are–meet the right people upon whose chests the war does not sit too heavily & have enough nice food & good presents to feel it was worth while hanging up your stocking. –I don’t know a bit where I shall be. Very likely in the trenches where if I hang mine up it will be to dry!

Yesterday I heard a rather interesting lecture… he went on to tell us how we had to keep the pot boiling all through the winter substituting “minor offensives” for the major ones so that we might still find ourselves “top-dog” when the spring comes. And then he expressed the old view I heard when I first took to a “Sam Browne.” That our main object in life was to kill as many “pure-blooded Huns” as possible & that was the only way to win the war. Somehow that seems to me a most childish idea, characteristically English. Personally I feel if that is our only hope–well we haven’t one at all because the ruling German has so much business sense that whatever happens he will always see–his instinct for autocratic government will enure that–that the governing military class is the best protected.

This musing on Grand Strategy circles back from the official enemy–those German militarists–to the adversary closer to the English infantryman’s heart–the staff.

I wonder whether “the Red Hats” really believe all they appear to. For instance, that it’s certain that the ultimate decision of the wear will come in the west… More & more I feel the war will end as I hoped–in the sort of stale mate which leaves both nations so disgusted with the whole business they’ll recognize its supreme futility…

This is orthodox pacifism and historical wisdom–and something awfully close to treason in a serving officer.

Meantime I feel consistently like the man our soldiers constantly sing about whose view of the whole business was:–

“Oh my! I don’t want to die
I want to go home.”

I always feel it infinitely pathetic that they should sing that.

I’ve really no news Janet so you must forgive a dull Xmas letter…

Shall I ever see the end of this “innings” Janet? Do say “yes.” I seem to have been out here a whole lifetime & though I’ve done nothing yet it gets monotonous. The feeling of never being free of the army day nor night is tireing & did you know I had the reputation of being a “hardworking subaltern”!! I begin to feel it an unenviable one…

Yours ever

Max[1]

 

We have one more letter today, a century back, from Rowland Feilding to his wife. It begins with a tragedy in miniature, but not one that leads toward disillusionment. Feilding has been in a mood of high regard for his men, lately, but he is also simply a responsible officer determined not to miss the larger picture, however terrible individual fates can be.

This is not quite the same as the reflexively loyal positive thinking of Edward Hermon: this is an observation of the importance–and the great strength–of morale, in winter, in the trenches. Call it esprit de corps, call it unit cohesion, but the importance of psychological maintenance work–draining the sumps, shoring up the crumbling walls–is enormous.

The old-fashioned tendency to attribute perceived differences in group temperament to “national characteristics” has not worn well, and for good reason. But then again even slightly different cultures can manifest differently, creating sharply different in moods in different groups undergoing similar experiences. Perhaps the Irish are wonderfully tough and uncomplaining, and perhaps this is a good battalion formed from a Regiment (and a local area) with a strong sense of the value of stoic endurance and mutual aid.

And then we have the position and disposition of our observers: from a subaltern in a Yorkshire company (Plowman) to the English commander of an Irish battalion, we see a very different appreciation of morale. But whether they are smiling cheerfully at a passing Lt. Col. or singing songs of frank war weariness in the hearing of their company officers, they all endure.

December 14, 1916. Curragh Camp

I have for many weeks past been working to get some good company sergeant-majors out from home. One in particular I have been trying for—a Sergeant-major McGrath, reputed to have been the best at Kinsale. His Commanding Officer very kindly agreed to send him to me, although he wrote that he regretted parting with him. McGrath arrived the day after I returned from leave, and within half an hour of his reaching the fire-trench was lying dead, a heavy trench-mortar bomb having fallen upon him, killing him and two others, and wounding two more. Now, is not that a case of hard luck “chasing” a man, when you consider how long others of us last? I never
even saw him alive.

I visited the fire-trench just after the bomb had fallen. It had dropped into the trench, and the sight was not a pleasant one. It was moreover aggravated by the figure of one of the dead, who had been blown out of the trench on to the parapet, and was silhouetted grotesquely against the then darkening sky.

But what I saw was inspiring, nevertheless. The sentries stood like statues. At the spot where the bomb had burst—within 40 yards of the Germans—officers and men were already hard at work in the rain, quietly repairing
the damage done to our trench, and clearing away the remains of the dead; all—to outward appearance—oblivious
to the possibility—indeed the probability—of further trouble from the trench-mortar, trained upon this special bit of trench, that had fired the fatal round.

What wonderful people are our infantry! And what a joy it is to be with them! When I am here I feel—well,
I can hardly describe it. I feel, if it were possible, that one should never go away from them: and I contrast that scene which I have described (at 1s. 1d. a day) with what I see and hear in England when I go on leave. My God! I can only say: “May the others be forgiven!” How it can be possible that these magnificent fellows, going home for a few days after ten months of this (and practically none get home in less), should be waylaid at Victoria Station, as they are, and exploited, and done out of the hard-earned money they have saved through being in the trenches, and with which they are so lavish, baffles my comprehension…

I can never express in writing what I feel about the men in the trenches; and nobody who has not seen them can ever understand.[2] According to the present routine, we stay in the front line eight days and nights; then go out for the same period. Each Company spends four days and four nights in the fire-trench before being relieved. The men are practically without rest. They are wet through much of the time. They are shelled and trench-mortared. They may not be hit, but they are kept in a perpetual state of unrest and strain. They work all night and every night, and a good part of each day, digging and filling sandbags, and repairing the breaches in the breastworks;—that is when they are not on sentry. The temperature is icy. They have not even a blanket. The last two days it has been snowing. They cannot move more than a few feet from their posts: therefore, except when they are actually digging, they cannot keep themselves warm by exercise; and, when they try to sleep, they freeze. At present, they are getting a tablespoon of rum to console them, once in three days.

So far morale. But, as so often, the very strong feeling of corporate identity–“us”–finds its opposition–“them”–not across No Man’s Land but rather far behind the lines. Farther, even, then Montreuil, where the Staff is ensconced. Feilding, with his Guards association and past service as a regular, is less likely than most to rail at bad planning (though he is honest and critical when he encounters it). But his time with the infantry seems to be changing–or at least amplifying–his political commitments.

Think of these things, and compare them with what are considered serious hardships in normal life! Yet these men
play their part uncomplainingly. That is to say, they never complain seriously. Freezing, or snowing, or drenching rain; always smothered with mud; you may ask any one of them, any moment of the day or night, “Are you cold?” or “Are you wet?”—and you will get but one answer. The Irishman will reply—always with a smile—“Not too cold, sir,” or “Not too wet, sir.” It makes me feel sick. It makes me think I never want to see the British Isles again so long as the war lasts. It makes one feel ashamed for those Irishmen; and also of those fellow countrymen of our own, earning huge wages, yet for ever clamouring for more; striking, or threatening to strike; while the country is engaged upon this murderous struggle.

Why, we ask here, has not the whole nation, civil as well as military, been conscripted?

The curious thing is that all seem so much more contented here than the people at home. The poor Tommy,
shivering in the trenches, is happier than the beast who makes capital out of the war. Everybody laughs at everything, here. It is the only way.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 60-1.
  2. A fairly common sentiment. But if it is strictly interpreted then we are engaged in an exercise either essentially futile or, I would hope, valuable but asymptotically impossible to complete. Since Feilding took the trouble to write hundreds of pages of careful reporting on his experiences to his wife, we might hope that he believes some measure of understanding is possible...
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 133-6.

Rowland Feilding is All in For Ireland; Sidney Rogerson’s Twelve Days Begin; Catching Up With Vera, Victor, Geoffrey and Edward; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XIV: Mud and Cake

We have another book beginning today–a tightly-drawn arc across the twilight sky of the Late Somme. Sidney Rogerson, the officer who will write Twelve Days on the Somme, fits our usual profile: bright, young, middle-class, talented with pen and pencil. At Cambridge at the outbreak of the war he volunteered early but did not reach the front for almost two years. In July he was posted to the 2nd West Yorkshires, a Regular battalion which had been shredded on July 1st, attacking toward Ovillers. He is now a twenty-two-year-old company commander with several months’ experience holding a grim but quiet sector near Vermelles, where his battalion was brought back up to strength. It was a section of the old Loos battlefield, and there they had to dig new trenches, periodically unearthing the horrors of the war’s first two years. Rogerson has seen a lot, but he has, as of yet, a century back, no experience of battle.

It was a cold night… the three of us, with soot-blackened faces and aching lungs, lay in our flea-bags and smoked, and sipped whiskey and water out of tin cups, and cursed and discussed the latest rumours–wonderful rumours that we were to entrain for Italy, for Salonika, for any other front but the Somme.

rogerson-1

A sketch made by Rogerson today, a century back, included with a reissue of his memoir.

It was the evening of November 7, 1916, when the Somme offensive was spluttering out in a sea of mud. The place was Citadel Camp… near the one-time village of Fricourt…

A rap on the tent canvas and the announcement of “Battalion Orders, sir,” brought us back to reality with a bump…

The sector we were to take over from the Devon Regiment was at the very apex of the salient formed by the offensive, a little to the left of Lesboeufs Wood, and almost exactly opposite what was left of the village of Le Transloy. As the crow flies, Citadel Camp was little more than six miles behind this line, yet such were the conditions that this comparatively short distance had to be accomplished in two stages… Having passed the gist of these instructions on to Company Sergeant-Major Scott, I turned in to get as much sleep as possible.[1]

A short, sharp campaign-length memoir will continue tomorrow…

 

Let’s use the rest of today, then, to catch up with two of our old-established correspondents.

When we last heard from Rowland Feilding, he was expressing some reservations about commanding an Irish nationalist politician. Let’s jump back a bit, and see how it goes. Feilding, though an Englishman, is a Catholic (like all the Feildings, apparently), which helps explain his sudden posting to command an Irish battalion. Still, this is the British army, run by Englishmen (with a strong helping of Scots), and the Easter Rising is hardly a half-year ago.

October 26, 1916. Butterfly Farm (in Brigade Reserve).

Stephen Gwynn arrived to-day. He has just been in to lunch. He is the very antithesis of the Irish politician as popularly represented by the Tory School. He is old for a Company Commander—fifty-two. All the more sporting therefore to have come out in that capacity, especially since he seems to have had a hard tussle with the War Office Authorities before they would consent to send him.

 

October 29, 1916 (Sunday). Butterfly Farm.

We have our tails up to-day because we have just heard that Private Hughes, of this battalion, has been awarded the V.C. for his behaviour at Guillemont. It is something to have a V.C. belonging to your battalion!

 

October 31, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

… How war alters one’s preconceived ideas! You know the sort of impression one is apt to get in England of the Irish Nationalist M.P.  Well, ours here!–you should see him–a refined, polished, brave gentleman; adored by his Company, which he commanded before, earlier in the war. Knee-deep in mud and slush; enthusiastically doing the duty of a boy of twenty. I have seldom met a man, who, on first acquaintance, took my fancy more…

 

By today, a century back, Feilding is branching out into Gwynn’s small fellowship of nationalists-in-imperial-service.

November 7, 1916.

I enclose two newspaper cuttings. They quote what were probably the last writings of Kettle, a talented Nationalist
member of Parliament, who belonged to this Brigade… I think his ode to his child is very fine.[2]

Feilding includes an excerpt from Kettle’s “political testament,” and then his “To My Daughter Betty.

 

And finally, today, Vera Brittain. Although she is far away in Malta–a matter of a few weeks rather than a few days, mail-wise–she continues to be the central node in a four-way, high-intensity epistolary friendship. One letter now on its way to her was from Victor Richardson, in the trenches after years of delays, and brimming with enthusiasm–at last the ability to write a proper trench letter! He then fills her in on the nature of his battalion and of all the familiar German presences–whizz-bangs, 5.9s, machine guns, trench mortars, etc.–before modestly concluding that “the above notes on trench life might possibly interest you. I have so far come across nothing more gruesome than a few very dead Frenchmen in No Man’s Land, so cannot give you very thrilling descriptions.”

This sort of sweet, derivative stuff was expected from Victor, who than guilelessly goes on to write about how Roland must have had similar experiences… But Geoffrey. a more intimate friend, whom Vera sees as deserving more intellectual respect, has done her a dirty deed, writing two similar–and yet different–letters. In his letter to Edward Brittain he manfully pulls no punches. Or, rather, he does–but he makes clear what exactly he is leaving out. A night-time relief over muddy open ground quickly turns nasty:

We got into a bit of a mess… we slipped & fell over a waste of mud & it was almost the last straw when I fell over on top of a mule long dead & got covered with–well you know what… The trenches were frightfully muddy so much so that men got stuck for hours on end before they could be dug out — unlike the liquid mud at Ypres.

Vera, to what would be her considerable indignation, gets what we must call a sanitized version of this adventure. With a properly poetic overture, of course. There are worse symbols of Rupert Brooke‘s current status, a century back, than his being adored but bedraggled with both foul mud and sweet cake…

France, 3 November 1916

I quite agree about one’s friends: abroad they mean far more to one than at peace in England & after the War people will be more sincere I think than before.. . . I should love to see Malta and all its reminiscences of the Past and glorious colourings tho’ the heat must be appalling.

Yes! I love Rupert Brooke & took him up with some of the other verses which Edward gave me, to the trenches the last time but owing to wet, mud and squashed cake in my pack, which, the cake, seemed to permeate everything my edition is somewhat dilapidated now tho’ the dearer for that. We had a fairly bad time of it & when relieved at 8 one night we didn’t get back here until 9 the next morning so you can understand how far we came.. .

To start with the entire Coy got out to go back over the top at the same time instead of by platoons at intervals & the Huns started shelling so I got on & took all the available men & went on which was the only thing to be done, feeling very ‘windy’. Well! I had been over the land by day & as there were no landmarks, by night it was difficult to find the way so we plunged on splashing thro mud & crump hole. I halted & heard Wilmot’s voice behind & found almost the entire Coy. following: later we came across Daniel & we all egged on. The trenches were full of sticky mud & some men got in for 16 hrs without being able to get out. We got up the hill & finally got on duckboards & by this time we were rolling along asleep for the most part — however with much effort we struggled into camp — 10 miles is a long way to come after a tour in trenches don’t you think?

I snipped and cut at the letter to Edward, above, and then realized that for several stretches it was word for word the same as the foregoing paragraph. Except for one thing: Vera is spared the dead mule.

Well! This morning I spent in spring cleaning & as I had fallen flat twice I was literally covered with mud from head to foot! Also my servant got hit so have been showing my new laddie how to carry on–but these domestic details must be horribly boring.

 

Then–only three days back, now!–Vera, writing in response to her brother’s letter about Victor at last going to France, anticipates Victor’s letter to her rather nicely.

St George’s Hospital, Malta, 4 November 1916

It seems queer still to think of Victor at the front. I don’t wonder he thinks his regiment a marvel after what he has been used to; any form of active service must be quite a godsend after the P.B.s [Provisional Battalions] & the old women there that he has been used to…

She too, meanwhile, has moved from the probationary frustrations of England to the real responsibility of overseas:

I like this hospital immensely & cannot say anything good enough about the Matron & Assistant M. There are the fewest possible conventions & the greatest possible freedom; all the rules are so Sensible that no one dreams of breaking them. As for the nonsense about V.A.Ds being unable to be left on duty without a Sister no one thinks anything of it here; if they did the Sisters couldn’t get off duty as often there is only one to each block. It is
a frequent occurrence to have charge of anything between 50 & 100 patients for a whole afternoon or evening & sometimes for a whole day when the Sister has a day off… It makes me laugh to think how in some wards at the 1st London I wasn’t allowed to give a single medicine…

But by the time this gets to Edward, his time for musing on the new responsibilities of others will be long past. Two days ago Edward began a response to an older letter of Vera’s; and as we reach today, a century back, he has news to give–he has recovered enough from his July 1st wounding to expect immediate reassignment.

I will most certainly send you a cable if anything of the least importance happens to Tah or Geoffrey… I don’t know if Father has forgiven you for going to Malta but he never says anything about it now if he hasn’t because he knows my opinion on the subject…

Nov: 7th

Such a lot of things seem to have occupied me that this had been a bit out of it for 2 days. Had a letter from W.O. [War Office] this morning telling me to report my address to Hqrs. London District, Home Guards, Whitehall and that I should have medical board ‘shortly’, after which I must proceed at once (in italics) to the 3rd Battalion at Sunderland, so I expect I shall go about the end of this week or beginning of next…

This post has been rather a melange–or a run-on–but even though I have largely avoided discussing Marie Leighton and her book about her son Roland, this bemused paragraph about the book’s reception is pretty interesting…

…Various people are writing to Mrs L. via Hodder and Stoughton with ref. to Boy of my Heart. One was a girl whose fiance was killed after being in France a week and who thought he was just like Roland. Another was an officer of the delightful name of Gerald Wynne Rushton who first wrote some weeks ago, saying that he was badly wounded and was going to have a serious operation and if it turned out badly and he was dying she must come and see him (in Dublin if you please) before he died. He has however got over the operation and now wants to meet Mrs Leighton, but his glamour has rather disappeared since he enclosed a very rotten poem of his in his last letter. Another is a Flying Officer who writes in the handwriting and style of a man of 50 but is really 19. His name is Reginald Lowndes but he always signs himself Reg. . . . In his letters he explains what an awful sinner he is which he says is due to being badly brought up and having a very worldly mother; he is pleased to think that he and Roland would have been great friends and he seems to admire him very much and Mrs Leighton…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 3-9.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 129-31.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 283-8.

The Royal Welch in the Somme Mud; Rowland Feilding Takes to the Irish

Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch were holding a debatable bit of line near Combles, albeit one with distractingly winsome toponyms: “Hazy Trench,” “Misty Trench,” and others “were figments of the Staff imagination, but the names had a colloquial use in pointing out the whereabouts of the groups of shell-holes that served the Germans well for concealment and defence.”[1] Frank Richards, still a signaler with the battalion, is full of anecdotes about this period, including tales of how he founnd a body in a tree, was impressed with the cool courage of the hated bully of an officer he calls “The Peer,” and heard a story about a group of enlisted men driving a coward–but one of their own–out into shell-fire… but I since I can’t really affix any of these to a particular date, I will refer the interested reader to pages 206 and following of Old Soldiers Never Die.

With not much going on elsewhere, we can catch up with Rowland Feilding, today. We’ll go back more than a week, and get in step with his own game of epistolary catch-up. Feilding remains a faithful correspondent, but since taking over command of a battalion–the 6th Connaught Rangers–he has had less time for long descriptive letters to his wife. We don’t, perhaps, know Feilding all that intimately, but I hope readers will have a sense of his careful probity, his concern for unbiased observation–of himself as well as others–and what probably seemed to his fellow officers to be a slight stiffness or formality of manner.

October 17, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

I feel, though I have written many letters, that I have told you really very little about the battalion I am commanding.
But now that I have got to know it, and to be proud of it, I think I must try and give you some idea of the people I am with, and the atmosphere I live in.

First of all, then, I find both officers and men magnificent—plucky and patient, keen and cheerful. Since I came here I have introduced gradually many innovations—notions I learnt from the Guards. I have tightened up the discipline a lot. Inferior men might have resented it; yet I have not once encountered from any rank anything but the most loyal and whole-hearted co-operation.

These Irishmen have, in fact, shown themselves the easiest of men to lead; though I have an idea, as I said once before, that they would be difficult to drive. I have heard it said, and have always believed, that there is no such thing as a “bounder” in Scotland, and I think I have learnt here that the same may with truth be said of Ireland. The result is that the officers’ messes of the Division, though they include many diamonds in the rough, are pleasant places to live in—full of good will and good cheer. Among my lot I have a successful trainer of race-horses, an M.F.H., an actor, a barrister, a squireen or two, a ranker from the Grenadiers, a banker, a quartermaster from the 9th Lancers, a doctor from Newfoundland;—members, in short, of many professions; a lot of boys too young to have professions:—and a Nationalist M.P. is coming!

I feel particularly pleased with them all to-day. The fact is that the very right and proper policy of the Brigadier, and of the whole Brigade, of tormenting the enemy, is beginning to take effect, with the result that the latter, yesterday, broke away from his previously peaceful habits, and retaliated. Indeed, he seemed considerably annoyed, and pounded our front line severely with heavy trench mortars, etc., and the area, generally, with artillery. He blew in a considerable length of our breastworks, and altogether, for some hours, was very nasty.

But the officers and platoon sergeants handled the men cleverly, with the almost miraculous result that the casualties were so trifling as not to count. As soon as it was dark all set to work to repair the damage, and, though the Germans used their machine-guns freely, the men laughed, and went on filling sandbags. One or two wags amused themselves by signalling the “misses” with their shovels—as they do on the range; and by daylight the trenches were again presentable.

This morning all was quiet once more, and the sun was shining. The men were in the best of spirits, with grins
on the faces of most of them. They knew they had done well; and in spite of a large number of direct hits on the fire-trench, and many more close shaves, the casualty list had totalled only four wounded, three of them slightly. Such is the glorious uncertainty of shell and trench-mortar fire! This morning one of my corporals killed a German and wounded another in Noman’s Land. The latter crawled back towards his line, and, as he neared it, three of his friends came out after him. My men then acted in a manner which would perhaps nowadays be regarded as quixotic, so relaxed—thanks to our opponents—have the rules of this game of war become.

They did not shoot.

It’s always interesting to get a report from the front lines on the state of attritional warfare–and very intersting that the Brigade-level “hate” brought retaliation in kind, but not a total abandonment of humane (and, strictly speaking, un-[total]-warlike) behavior between infantrymen.

Do I have only a thin excuse to work in this nine-day-old letter on a slow day? Sure; but Feilding wrote another one, and now we find out a little more about what it’s like for an English officer to command an Irish Nationalist politician in an Irish battalion in an English brigade of the British Army during a European war:

October 26, 1916. Butterfly Farm (in Brigade Reserve).

Stephen Gwynn arrived to-day. He has just been in to lunch. He is the very antithesis of the Irish politician as popularly represented by the Tory School. He is old for a Company Commander—fifty-two. All the more sporting therefore to have come out in that capacity, especially since he seems to have had a hard tussle with the War Office Authorities before they would consent to send him.

A promising beginning? We’ll hear more from Feilding about Gwynn soon, but it’s worth noting the rarity of this situation: only five Nationalist M.P.s (apparently) served during the war. A small world indeed, so it’s not surprising to learn that Gwynn had collaborated with his late friend and colleague Tom Kettle on both a book of ballads and a recruiting drive.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 268.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 127-9.

Tom Kettle, Rowland Feilding, and the Irish Division Move Up for the Attack; Raymond Asquith, Bimbo Tennant, and the Guards are Not Far Behind

The assault on Ginchy has hitherto failed. But it will continue. The Guards Division have been warned to move, and they have practiced attacking their objectives under cover of a rolling barrage. Other units, however, will be in for it first.

Today it was the Irish Division–already badly bloodied in the taking of Guillemont a few days before, that moved once more into the front lines. A New Army Division largely made up of Irishmen, the 16th Division had formed in 1915, and this late phase of the Somme was the first great test both of their fighting ability and their loyalty, in troubled times, to Britain.

With the division were Tom Kettle, lieutenant in the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and Rowland Feilding, the new commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers. We’ll begin with Feilding’s account of today’s action, but I want to leave room now for a large image of a map. This one is up-to-date, with the German trenches corrected up to the observations of September 3rd. It not only gives us a view of the places to be assaulted but also a clear representation of the progress of the battle: Mametz Wood, the paramount hell of mid-July, falls on the western border of this map; Ginchy, today’s target, is near the center right of the excerpt.

ginchy, 9-3-16

 

 

 

 

But it’s easy, these days, to zoom in and snap just the right area (thanks to McMaster University).

Picking the map excerpt is the strategic equivalent of “emplotting” a narrative by choosing particular aspects on which to focus. But time is really subjective; distance, less so, and the map scales do not lie. Each of those larger numbered boxes is one thousand yards across–Ginchy is two months of fighting away from Mametz Wood, but less than four miles. In between are the little forests of the Bazentin ridge and its southern slopes–Trones Wood and Delville Wood, each called “hell” in their turn–and, just left of the upper edge of the excerpt, a red ribbon shows a German trench still running through High Wood. The British are within sight of the fabled German Third Line, but the approaches are still not clear. Some of these places were objectives for the first day of the battle, July 1st. Even if they are taken now, the Germans have had more than two months to strengthen that third line and build newer defenses further back. It’s not a good situation.

 

Now to Feilding’s letter to his wife. It begins with a grim tour of the battlefields show on the map above.

September 8, 1916. In Trenches, facing Ginchy.

At 5.50 last evening I paraded my 250 Irishmen, who, before moving off, were addressed by the Senior Chaplain of the Division. Then, kneeling down in the ranks, all received General Absolution:—after which we started to move forward, timing our arrival at Bernafay Wood for 8.20, when it would be dark.

At Bernafay Wood we were met by a guide, who led us through Trones Wood—that evil place of which doubtless you have formed your own conception from the newspaper descriptions of the past two months. Thence, to what once was Guillemont.

All former bombardments are eclipsed by the scene here. Last year, in the villages that had been most heavily bombarded, a few shattered houses still stood, as a rule: last month, occasionally, a wall survived. But to-day, at Guillemont, it is almost literally true to say that not a brick or stone remains intact. Indeed, not a brick or stone is to
be seen, except it has been churned up by a bursting shell. Not a tree stands. Not a square foot of surface has escaped mutilation. There is nothing but the mud and the gaping shell-holes;—a chaotic wilderness of shell-holes, rim  overlapping rim; and, in the bottom of many, the bodies of the dead. Having reached this melancholy spot, we left the cover of a battered trench which we had followed since leaving Trones Wood, and took to the open.

The guide was leading. I came next, and was followed by the rest of the party in single file. The moon shone brightly, and, as the enemy kept sending up flares from his trenches at intervals of a minute or less, our surroundings were constantly illuminated, and the meandering line of steel helmets flickered, rather too conspicuously, as it bobbed up and down in crossing the shell-holes.

I do not know if the Germans saw it or not. They soon started shelling, but as the ground we were passing over is commonly being shelled, there was nothing peculiar in that. We plodded on.

The guide soon began to show signs of uncertainty. I asked him if he had lost his bearings—a not uncommon thing on these occasions. He admitted that he had. I crawled past the body of a dead German soldier into the doorway of a shattered dug-out, and with an electric torch studied the map.

As we started off again the shelling increased, and once I was hit by a small splinter on the chest, which stung. The men began to bunch in the shell-holes. They are brave enough, but they are untrained; and 91 of my 200 fighting men were from a new draft, which had only just joined the battalion.

I shall not forget the hours which followed. Remember, I had only the slightest acquaintance with the officers, and as for the rank and file I did not know them at all;—nor they me.

The shells were now dropping very close. One fell into a group of my men, killing seven and wounding about the same number. My guide was hit and dropped a yard or two in front of me. I told him to lie there, and I would have a stretcher sent for him: but he pulled himself together, saying, “ It’s all right, sir,” and struggled on.

About 10.30 p.m. we reached our destination—only to find the rear Company detached and missing, as well as the medical officer and my servant. However, they turned up just before daybreak, having spent the night wandering
among the shell-holes.

At the position of assembly, which was at the junction between the Guillemont-Combles road (known officially as Mount Street) and the sunken road leading to Ginchy, we found things in a state, of considerable confusion. The battalion we had come to relieve had apparently thought it unnecessary to await our arrival, and as, consequently, there was no one to allot the few shallow trenches that were available, a sort of general scramble was going on, each officer being naturally anxious to get his own men under cover, before the daylight of the morning should reveal them to the enemy.

Luckily, the enemy was now quiet, and before it was light enough to see, the troops were disposed more or less in their “jumping off” positions, where they were to wait some forty hours or more for “Zero”—the moment of attack.

During the night a wounded Saxon crept into the trench close by me and I sent him to the rear.[1]

Feilding’s main concern here is to record, as simply as possible, what has happened to him–for his wife’s benefit and for his own. But he can’t avoid some commentary, and more-than-faint damning by implication. He has come from an elite, intact Division to one that is being thrown back in for its second action in days. Things, again, are not good.

Or is it the entire army that is breaking down? These small scale forward assaults against extremely predictable targets are murderous. Where is the tactical innovation? (Well, there is the creeping barrage, and something new is this way clanking.)

Worse, what has happened to command and control? What sort of brigade sends up a half-reconstituted battalion with a new O.C., a single guide, and no assurance that the battalion they are relieving will stay put? Feilding could note, too (but he wouldn’t–he is both reasonably trusting in the good offices of his fellow men and averse to complaining) that he–a temporary officer and a Catholic–has been ejected from the Guards to take command of an Irish battalion that is being used as cannon fodder. He might be right, too–being the odd Catholic officer on hand when an Irish battalion commander is killed surely has more to do with his promotion than any connections or merit. But we would be at least mostly wrong to suggest a nefarious use of the Irish Division. It seems awful that battered battalions are thrown back into an attack with so little respite, but many are, this late summer. And the Guards are only being held back, now, in order to be thrown in at what the generals hope will be a more decisive moment.

This is the Somme from bad to worse, declining from tragedy toward the sickening farce of a slasher film.

 

Tom Kettle’s 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were moving across the same map tonight, a century back. Before leaving the reserve lines Kettle wrote home. Kettle aspires to write–among many things–the history of his regiment. But now there is no time for anything other than provisional farewells. The first of these potential “last letters” was to his wife:

The long-expected is now close to hand. I was at Mass and Communion this morning at 6 o.c., the camp is broken up, and the column is about to move. It is no longer indiscreet to say that we are to take part in one of the biggest attacks of the war. Many will not come back.

Should that be God’s design for me you will not receive this letter until afterwards. I want to thank you for the love and kindness you spent and all but wasted on me. There was never in all the world a dearer woman or a more perfect wife and adorable mother. My heart cries for you and Betty whom I may never see again…

God bless and keep you! If the last sacrifice is ordained think that in the end I wiped out all the old stains. Tell Betty her daddy was a soldier and died as one.

Kettle struck a different note in letters to a friend and to his brother. There are few better descriptions of a soldier’s mind on the eve of battle–the dread and the keen anticipation, the beatific calm and the desperate anxiety, the sense of a barrier falling behind that these last letters must just slip beneath, and a swelling of fellow-feeling for the men who will share the coming cautery. And affirmation of faith and a wry uncanny reach for pagan mysticism…

I passed through, as everybody of sense does, a sharp agony of separation… Now it is almost over and I feel calm. I hope to come back.. If I live I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war and faced modern artillery, and know what an outrage it is against simple men…

We are moving up to-night into the battle of the Somme… I have had two chances of leaving [his battalion]–one on sick leave and one to take a staff job. I have chosen to stay with my comrades… I am calm and happy, but desperately anxious to live…

The big guns are coughing and smacking their shells, which sound for all the world like over-head express trains, at anything from 10 to 100 per minute on this sector; the men are grubbing and an odd one is writing home. Somewhere the Choosers of the Slain are touching, as in our Norse story they used to touch, with invisible wands those who are to die. . . .[2]

 

Under orders, but not yet ducking under the wands of the Valkyries, is the Guards Division. With any luck they will be the ones to punch through the German third line and open up a gap…

3rd Grenadier Guards
B.E.F.
8 September 1916

. . . We move either tomorrow or the day after. Probably tomorrow. We are only allowed 50 lbs. of kit, which is a bore. It would be awful to arrive in Berlin looking a perfect scarecrow. The noise of the bombardment makes me feel quite sick. I am so sorry for the wretched Hun .,. .[3]

That, of course, was Raymond Asquith to his wife Katherine. Bimbo Tennant, ironically, is still reassuring his mother that a recent illness was not serious. And then–this is unwisdom rather than irony–he gives her an epistolary tour of the ruins of the battle he is about to enter.

8th September, 1916.

. . . I received your wire last night, but as I have been feeling perfectly well for several days, I took no action about it. You must not be anxious like this… It is unfortunately impossible to be given sick leave out here; I promise you that, now, I am absolutely all right…

I rose at 5.40 and went up to last night’s place with [his battalion C.O.], only we went much further. It was awfully interesting, and I would not have missed it, though it is horribly grisly in places. The wastage of material all the way is something terrific. I saw a lot of machine-gun magazines lying about, still wrapped up in brown paper, as they came from the makers. We got back to breakfast, and I have seized about four hours’ sleep through the day since.

There are big guns all round us as I write, but none near enough to be unpleasant, as they were at Vermelles last year. We have nothing to do here, and it is quite fine, though wind-swept. I now hear that we shall probably take over the most newly won line to-morrow night, which will probably not be a very quiet locality. However, I trust implicitly in God, and am in very high spirits…

Now I must stop. My eternal love to you; I think of you every moment, and love you more than I can say. I hope there may be leave when we go into a quieter part of the line. . . .[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 112-14.
  2. A Deep Cry, 136-7; Housman, War Letters, 168.
  3. Life and Letters, 294.
  4. Memoir, 226-8.