Siegfried Sassoon Takes the Measure of His Foe

The big guns of pacifism–or, at least, of resistance to this war in its current form–have been called in to help Siegfried Sassoon. And the statement has been written… but not yet released. Sassoon hesitates. And although he will portray himself as putty in the hands of forceful intellects like Middleton Murray and, especially, Russell, his diary entry of today, a century back, makes it clear that he is girding himself and taking the measure of the opposition before he commits to his assault.

June 21

A long statement of the war-aims etc by Belloc in Land and Water leaves me quite unconvinced. He argues from the point of view of British rectitude: and it is that which I am questioning. Worst of all he argues on the assumption that ‘the next few months’ will bring a military decision; he has done this since 1915, so one cannot put much faith in him.

I am revolting against the war being continued indefinitely; I believe that Carson, Milner, Lloyd George and Northcliffe intend the war to continue at least two more years. To carry out the scheme of ‘crushing Kaiserism and Prussianism’ by means of brute force, the war must go on two more years.

The swirling mess of historical ironies here is impossible to untangle: Sassoon may be heading into conspiracy-theory territory, but he’s not quite wrong about anything he claims, and in fact his assessments are eminently sensible, and would have been shared by many realistic strategists. No one can make a real claim to having predicted the see-sawing effects of Russian collapse, American participation, and the catastrophic “success” of the German Spring offensive–just as no one could have predicted what became of “Kaiserism” after armistice and abdication.

What follows seems to be on much less solid ground–but that may be in part because none of it “became” history.

If they stated our terms definitely, once and for all, and those terms were the ones we went into the war to enforce, the German people would realise that they had been enforced, and would insist on the war being stopped…

It is obvious that nothing could be worse than the present conditions under which humanity is suffering and dying. How will the wastage and misery of the next two years be repaired? Will Englishmen be any happier because they have added more colonies to their Empire? The agony of France! The agony of Austria-Hungary and Germany! Are not those equal before God?[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 176-7.

Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

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.

Frank Richards is an Officer for a Day; Wilfred Owen is Healed in Body

The Royal Welch Fusiliers pride themselves on being a fine old regiment, full of their full two centuries of service. And the two Regular battalions–the 1st and 2nd–insist not only on maintaining a tradition of trench-fighting aggression, but on keeping up at least some of the old formalities and disciplines of the prewar army. But time waits for no battalion–or, perhaps, intramural rivalries are just the sort of happy old traditions too crucial to stand on old ceremony.

In any event, the two Regular Battalions, though in different divisions, found themselves close by in reserve today, a century back. It was a rare opportunity for fraternizing, and, as Doctor Dunn’s chronicle attests, all’s fair in war and tugs of war:

The 1st Battalion… invited us to their sports. Every Regular Soldier, and all officers who could be spared, went over. With “Ginger” Owens, our Mess Sergeant, and “Big Dick,” Richards–a signaller, two sterling fellows–as makeweight, we won an inter-Battalion tug-of-war for officers…[1]

That would be our own Frank Richards. His matter-of-fact description of the day is interesting in its understatement and framing:

a tug-of-war was arranged… twelve aside. Only ten of our officers were present, so Owens and I made up the number. After a long pull we were the victors. We spent a very pleasant evening, the First Battalion having a wet canteen…

Is the tug-of-war not such a big deal to him, or is this pride? He may be a humble signaller, averse to rising in the ranks despite many opportunities to do so, but he’s a strong and trusty man, and the officers chose him… Or is it ironic understatement, along the lines of “in the war I’m just a humble soldier, but for the tug of war I’m apparently a temporary gentleman?”

Some clue is offered by Richards’s tale of the aftermath of the field day. After that “wet” evening at the canteen, he, Owens, and another old soldier pal called Lane attempted the long walk back from the 1st Battalion’s camp to their own. They departed already “three sheets to the wind” and with a bottle of whiskey yet in hand. After drinking the bottle, they decided that a short nap would be in order, and passed out some miles short of their own battalion’s billets.

I was woke up some time during the night by what I thought was heavy rain falling. I was still half drunk and muddled and for a moment did not know where I was… Lane in his half-drunken condition had got up and had been mistaking the both of us for a shell hole. But Lane had unwittingly done us a good turn, saving us from a court-martial for desertion. We arrived back just in time to move off with the Battalion who were marching towards the line to make an attack the following morning…[2]

Colorful and amusing. But, as the last line makes so clear, there is another sort of pressure on this memory: retrospection forcing foreshadowing. Richards’s memory is off, but only by a day–the 2nd Royal Welch are slated to attack on the 27th.

Our only other piece of business, today, is a brief note from Wilfred Owen.

24 May 1917

41st Stationary Hospital

My own dearest Mother,

I feel normal today. Am sitting on the bed in the one Kimono left in this Rag Time Hospital. Have just had your Sat. evening (May 19) Letter, full of gracious truths: the most pleasing being the tales of your gardening. I am sure it will do you good, and I may indeed get Leave before the Summer falls, now that it is likely I am out of the ‘Area’ of the 2nd Battalion…

I am astonished at my Balance at Cox’s, but not so astonished as you.knowing it is deceptive. There have been, a number of Mess Bills, & other cheques drawn lately which are not yet entered at the Bank Moreover my Military Wardrobe will want renewing if there is another winter campaign.

On the other hand I confess—I mean I profess with pride—that I have not run into any kind of danger of losing moneys. My first Mess Bill for Jan. was £6: which I consider disgraceful for the kind of stuff we got…

It is evidently Trench fever I had, but I feel fine today…

Your own W.E.O.[3]

So Owen is cured of his fever; but this does not change the awkward fact that he is now in a Stationary Hospital which has been established to specialize in treating cases of “shell shock…” His frustrations mount, but there is no clear indication yet how the Army intends to recognize or treat his “neurasthenia…”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the infantry Knew, 347.
  2. Old Soldiers Never Die, 235.
  3. Collected Letters, 463-4.

Alfred Hale’s Indignity and Despair; A Probable Whopper from Henry Williamson; Duff Cooper and FOMO; Rowland Feilding En Famille; A Bad Dream for Siegfried Sassoon, but Thomas Hardy Doubles Down

Alfred Hale‘s first day in his new job as an RFC batman was… not good. But whether a say like this reads as unmitigated disaster or bitter farce has much to do with how much time has elapsed before one comes to contemplate it.

Hale has been assigned to look after the comforts of officers, and yet, even though he feels his own toilet to be essential both to his sense of well-being and his self-worth, he is incapable even of shaving himself. There are no barbers to be found, and his safety razor has been stolen. Hence this scene of military bathos:

The more I dipped my razor in the collapsible cup, the more it acted up to its name, till I had hard work to keep what little water I could in its bottom portion, so to speak. And my face? Well, the more I tried to get my beard off, the more my chin bled, till I was forced to stop. Yes, that army razor could cut fast enough, and no mistake…

Further humiliation awaited on the parade ground. Hale did not yet know that, as a batman, he could skip morning drill, during which both his incompetence and his butchered face drew the attention of the NCO in charge. And it got worse. Hale was then interviewed by a Captain Ross, and Hale–too bitter and focused a writer to refrain from shriving himself even as he is ground down by an antagonist–bungles it.

I was asked if I had ever been anything in the shape of a domestic servant, and on my replying in the negative, was told off to be a batman. But that was not before I had made an utter ass of myself by whining out that I had had a Public School education, and would like something clerical to do. This very foolish remark brought down on me a withering look from Ross, and I subsequently came to the conclusion that I had far better have stood silently on my dignity, without a word, and thrown the whole responsibility involved in giving me unsuitable work to do on Ross and those in authority behind him…

But standing on my dignity alas, was the last thing I was capable of that morning…

If all this occurred on the Sunday morning, 20 May, it was little wonder that I was well-night abandoning myself to despair that evening out for a walk at the crossroads, and when leaning over the gate leading into the wood, and that it seemed about the limit of things when I was met on my return to camp by Bailey and Lloyd and accused of staying out too long..

Hale’s first description of this despairing walk, given before a full accounting of the morning’s humiliations, sounds even worse: “I had some pretty bad moments, needing all the philosophical courage I could muster to overcome them.” Is this a self-pitying and melodramatic account of desperation and misery, or is Hale telling us that he was nearly suicidal?[1]

 

Henry Williamson is an irresistible point of comparison, since so much is so different about the two men and yet this central dynamic of misfitting, embarrassment, and intense writing of their own humiliations is so similar. Williamson is, for all his three years in the military, still so young, while Hale seems much older than his forty-two years. Williamson’s social background is quite humble for an officer while Hale is extremely unusual in being a Public School enlisted man (the days of the Public Schools Battalion being long gone)–the world is turned upside down.

Then there is the sharp difference in personality: Williamson the impulsive clown, full of bluster and manic energy, while Hale is steady but so inward that he must seem irretrievably obtuse. They will never fit in; they will constantly put their feet in it. And they will write about it in shame and wonder…

One thing does separate them, though, in a temporary rather than an absolute way. Hale is an innocent while Williamson is an experienced army man. He saw a good deal of combat, in 1914 and 1915, but he has lately managed the system very well. Through illness, promotion, retraining, and transport work, Williamson has strung together several years out of the actual trenches. And this string of excerpts from different letters shows his proudly practical approach to his own war service:

18 May

Dear Mother, Am awfully tired… last night we ran into a barrage of tear and phosgene shells… my eyes are very painful and for the moment Im fed up…

19 May

…Well this is my fourth month and not a sign of leave yet–oh my hat I am bored stiff–I love the life (except the strafes of course)… Thank God I’m a transport officer & dont go up again to the awful slaughter they call our front line–with the Bosche grinning 1000 yds away…

20 May

Am going down the line a bit for 5 weeks to do a Signalling Course–why I dont know–I am very fed up with losing my Transport job but don’t worry–they won’t get me in the infantry…

And then something very strange enters the letters. Given Williamson’s penchant for dishonesty and his inability to resist expanding upon his military exploits (good practice for his formal fictionalization of war experience, later on) we must assume that this is a very tall tale:

I have just returned from special duty in London.[2]

Huh? Why would a lieutenant commanding the transport section of a machine gun company near the front lines be sent all the way to London? Williamson will make another reference to going to the War Office, as if someone had made him a special courier of secret information. But this is extremely unlikely, especially since his diary shows no absence from France. If he really did go on “special duty” he would have to have been there and back in a day. Anne Williamson notes that there is no confirmation of this extraordinary fact, and it seems to seal the case that Henry Williamson doesn’t write anything else about such a trip other than the two bare mentions in the letters. About nearly everything else that happens he repeatedly brags, in his letters, or elaborates, in his fiction.

So Williamson must be making this up, presumably to obscure the real reason that he has been sent on a signalling course–and that reason, roughly, must be his superiors’ unhappiness with his incompetence as a transport officer, and perhaps also his strange and socially unacceptable behavior.

 

From two achingly awkward men, then, to one of the smoothest. But Duff Cooper, even as he uses his decision to join the army to dramatic effect in his relentlessly dramatic affair with Diana Manners, is not going to lie to himself (or his love, or his diary) about his motivations.

The following account is consistent with his private reasoning, and very believable: what makes a century back different from our own, in social terms, is not so much the power of the Fear Of Missing Out (a new acronym, but not a new phenomenon, as we will see) as its deadliness, particularly to the upper classes, who no longer do much dying for their country.

Tonight the same took place as last night… I confessed to her that I was really glad to join the army which made her cry–she was so white and darling and pathetic. I explained to her that it was no nonsense about dying for my country or beating the Germans that made me glad to join, but simply the feeling I have had for so long that I am missing something, the vague regret that one feels when not invited to a ball even though it be a ball that one hardly would have hoped to enjoy.[3]

 

Penultimately–Siegfried Sasson still awaits us in Sussex–we have Rowland Feilding among old friends. This has been a long war, and I had no memory of reading of Feilding’s time billeted with this particular French family. But there’s a link below, happily…

May 20, 1917 (Sunday). Coulomby.

The rest is already beginning to work marvels with the men, and although we have so far had only two days of it, the cheered-up look and the renewed freshness in the battalion is surprising to see.

We had a football match this afternoon, and won it: and this morning (Sunday) we had Church Parade in an orchard. I must say I felt very proud of the battalion. The men had all groomed themselves up like new pins. The mud of the trenches had entirely disappeared…

This afternoon I rode with Booth, my Adjutant, to Lumbres, and called on the Avots. About five seconds after I had rung the bell the door was opened by Madame Avot herself. She recognized me at once and gave me such a welcome. She called for her husband, and Jean (who used to follow me about on his bicycle), and the little girl. There was a rush along the passage as they all came bounding out to meet me. I might have been the head of the
house returning from the war. It was indeed most touching. The last time I had seen them was on that night when they all waited in the road to say good-bye as we marched past their gate on our way to Loos. Jean and his sister were small children then. To-day Jean is dressed like a man, and both he and Edith are as tall as myself…

I was skurried into the drawing-room. Madame Avot began asking me all sorts of questions—about you, and about the children. She remembered everything about all of you. We started in broken French. Then we got into broken English. She asked, “How is the cheeky one?’’—referring to a description I had once given her of A—— . I had forgotten the episode till she reminded me. I had tried to describe the three children, and incidentally had said that one of them was a cheeky little thing. She did not understand, and I searched for a word, but could not find any appropriate translation for the word “cheeky.” She has since then learned to use the word herself.

While we sat in the drawing-room the little—now big —girl (what a long time the war must have lasted for her
to have grown like this) handed round chocolates…

It all reminded me of that evening in August, 1915, when she did these same things, and her husband, whose English was very, very limited in those days, edged up to me and kept saying, “Am I not lucky to have such a wife?”

It’s not often that we hear Feilding mention his children, but who could resist, in the circumstances? And he is true to form here in bringing the subject back to the excellence of wives…

 

Siegfried Sassoon is having a fine old time, outwardly. At Chapelwood Manor, in Sussex, he is recovering from his shoulder wound in an atmosphere of privileged leisure.

All possible kindness had been showered on me, every opportunity was there for healthy contentment and mental relaxation, and the fine early summer weather made the place an earthly paradise. But somehow or other I had only achieved superficial felicity, for the contrast between this luxurious and delightful existence and my lurid experiences on the Arras battlefield had been with me all the time. My mind dwelt continually on the battalion with which had been serving. Since I left it, ten officers had been killed and fourteen wounded. It wasn’t surprising that this undermined my complacency about my own good fortune…[4]

That would be Sassoon looking back, and the retrospective balance is salutary. But here is how it felt in the moment, today, a century back:

May 20

When I woke early this morning to hear the bird-voices, so rich and shrill in the grey misty dawn, piping hoarse and sweet from the quiet fragrance of the wet garden and from the green dripping, woods far off—lying in my clean white bed, drowsy and contented, I suddenly remembered ‘At zero the infantry will attack’—Operation Orders! Men were attacking while I lay in bed and listened to the heavenly choruses of birds. Men were blundering about in a looming twilight of hell lit by livid flashes of guns and hideous with the malignant invective of machine-gun fire. Men were dying, fifty yards from their trench—failing to reach the objective—held up.

And to-night the rain is hushing the darkness, steady, whispering rain—the voice of peace among summer foliage. And men are cursing the downpour that drenches and chills them, while the guns roar out their challenge.[5]

This is a man who is not a peace with himself. And why should he be, with the war going on? And what should he do?

Well, he should write. A letter from a literary hero is on its way to Sassoon, with praise that may either confirm him in his sense that it is his duty to satirize the war with as sharp a pen as possible, or, cross-grained as he is, may prod him to write something more, something different. And lest we think that Thomas Hardy‘s praise of Sassoon’s verse was merely politesse or kindness to an old friend’s nephew, he mentions Sassoon in passing in a letter of today to another old friend, Florence Henniker.

Max Gate, May 20, 1917

My dear Friend:

…People are in strangely irritable moods I fancy. I said very harmlessly in a poem (sonnet) entitled “The Pity of It” that the Germans were a “kin folk, kin tongued” (which is indisputable) & letters attacking me appeared, denying it! The fact of their being our enemies does not alter their race…

The young poets you allude to—I imagine you mean the “Georgians” (an absurd name, as if the Georgians were not Shelley Scott, Byron, &c.)—are I think or some of them, on a wrong track. They seem to forget that poetry must have symmetry in its form, & meaning in its content.

I have read young Sassoon’s book dedicated to me. I think the poems show much promise…

Always yrs affectionately
Th: H.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 64-9.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 153-4.
  3. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 48.
  5. Diaries, 170-1.
  6. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 214-5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Malta, 7 May 1917

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

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

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

Dear Old Peter

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

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

Thine

Joe[1]

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never such innocence again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Phillip Maddison’s Off-Hand Heroics; J.R. Ackerley on the Attack

This morning, a century back, another major attack–another “phase” or renewed effort of the Battle of Arras–lurched into motion at 3:45. The objective is Bullecourt, a town on the Hindeburg Line to the south and east of Arras, and Henry Williamson‘s 208 Machine Gun Company is firing in support. Documents relating to Williamson’s participation–including the hortatory order of the day promulgated by the Divisional General two days earlier–can be seen here, in Anne Williamson’s excellent article on his service with 208 MGC.

But Henry Williamson also described the attack in his novel, once more illustrating the liminality of history and literature while at the same time intentionally blurring the line with the heel of his own writing hand, as it were.[1] Since he is with the transport of a Machine Gun Company, Williamson is several layers behind the attacking troops, amidst the supporting artillery. As is Phillip Maddison, when the barrage begins.

About 3.44 a.m., in the hush of darkness beginning to give way to a spectral pallor in which he could see the wire of the reserve line across the sunken road as a blackish mass, a lark rose in song above him. It was followed by another, and a third; and he waited, with the stillness of expectation, while the singing grew faint and shrill as the birds flew toward the paling stars. There was a great ragged orange flash, oval and instant, from the four 9.2 howitzers in the chalk quarry on his right, and while the flash went through his eyes into his mind the sky became one great raging sea of light.

It goes on, and it is rather well done, if overwrought: these mid-war larks sing on throughout the massive bombardment, “like the jingling of frailest silver chains” amidst the mixed ordnance. Edward Thomas‘s battery is somewhere nearby, contributing its four howitzers to the din.

But this is only preamble. There is, of course, a fierce German resistance, which includes accurate interdiction fire meant to prevent the British from supporting and supplying attacking troops, and to suppress any return fire when the German counterattacks come. There are many casualties among the men and mules of 208 MGC, and a comrade of Williamson’s, 2/Lt. A. C. Montford, is killed.

The attack fails–not least because the German counter-attack, coming from the down-slopes behind the Hindenburg, is quick and fierce–and Williamson’s diary has little else to say.

Thursday, 3 May: Z Day. Zero hour 3.45. Intensive barrage right up North & down to Bullecourt. Rumours of failure – prisoners in cages – walking wounded. 187 Brigade smashed up, ¾ Coy missing at evening. No shelling in rear areas. 7th Div. again attacks in evening. Montford killed.

But in fiction today becomes another moment for young Phillip Maddison to wander into heroism. There is a Montfort in the book, and he is killed, as in life. But there is also a Lt. Fenwick, who is reported lying badly wounded next to a Sergeant Butler.

One of the strange continuities of Williamson’s many-volumed novel is Maddison’s habit of going on long, improbable, unauthorized rambles through no man’s land (or even into the enemy’s rear). These seem to encapsulate Williamson/Maddison’s in-betweenness. He is neither boy nor man, neither working class enlisted man nor socially assured officer, both enthusiastic adventurer and sullen incompetent…  and he likes long walks in the country, whether in pre-war peace or mid-war pauses. In company, he is all good-will and blunders waiting to happen; but alone he can do great things…

Today’s invented action–it seems pretty clearly to be a fictional aristeia placed within a life-structured narrative, rather than a “version” of something that did occur, since Williamson, to my knowledge, mentions nothing like it–is a bit different. Maddison hears the report of the wounded men and immediately recognizes that they are lying in an area he knows well because of a previous unauthorized stroll, on a quiet day before the battle, right up to the face of the new German defenses.

This earlier brave-but-irresponsible ramble has equipped him to be unusually decisive, and once on course he is completely effective. Leaving his transport section and the excited survivors of the barrage, Maddison journeys up from his safe post in the rear, finds both wounded men in the danger zone, and brings them in under fire. He knows the map, so he goes. We get no real insight into why this petulant boy-officer is ready to exceed his duties in this way–he just goes, and does it. And just as the birds brought him up to the barrage, the birds bring him home.

From the echoing ruins of Croiselles white flashes of field-guns seemed to increase the singing of two nightingales on the hillside…

It’s a strange episode, all things considered. Williamson seems to be making the point that Phillip Maddison’s impetuosity can be a force for good as well as bad.

Certainly his sense of military propriety remains skewed–he doesn’t bother to report in that he has saved two men of the company, an MC-worthy action, even if one unlikely to be so recognized in an oft-reprimanded muleteer officer.

And so, next morning, the C.O., a socially generous and easygoing captain who has, nevertheless, frequently had cause to chew out his wayward transport officer, compliments Phillip with a touch of bemusement:

“Good effort, Sticks! You’ve got plenty of guts, to out there alone, in full view of the Boche.”

“Honestly, skipper, it was no more than going for a walk on Blackheath, on an August Bank Holiday evening…”

Phillip makes an awkward joke about women and that long ago-ago August, and just like that, the heroic episode is over.[2]

 

Just a bit to the north, and in real life, the 8th East Surreys are in the first wave of the same attack. The battalion, we may recall, includes two brother officers. It was J.R. Ackerley’s brother Peter who did not die in that February attack–he almost did, and I almost wrote it wrong. But Peter lived, and is recovering from his wound, although he did not return his brother’s watch. So today, a century back, it is the younger (though militarily senior) Ackerley’s turn:[3]

…I had to take my men over the top again, to capture the village of Cérisy[4] (what remained of it) in another sector of the line, and swapped my brother’s unreliable wrist-watch for that of my second-in-command, who was remaining in reserve. He lent it reluctantly; it was an engagement present from his fiancée. I promised to return it.

Well, ahem. But there are more ironies before we get to where we are going, today. On the march to the front, last night, Ackerley saw an old friend.

He was now a brigade major and what we contemptuously called a “Brass Hat.” Seated upon his horse by the wayside he beckoned me out of the line of march. In a low confidential voice he said he supposed that, as an old campaigner, I had no illusions about what lay ahead, and offered me an immediate job with him on brigade staff, out of harm’s way. He begged me to accept it.

Whatever the reason–and Ackerley will not obfuscate–this is quite bizarre. Even if the offer had taken place a day or two before the attack, even if it were not quite so direct, it’s hard to imagine such gross favoritism being so openly displayed–and it put Ackerley in an impossible position.

He had always been fond of me, I knew, indeed he had a crush on me, I think, for I was a pretty young man, and wanted to save me from a fate, of the prospects and hazards of which he doubtless knew far more than I, since brigade headquarters had planned it. “You’ve done your bit already,” said he gently. But I too was a mounted officer. I had a huge mare named Sally, larger than Titchy’s, the largest I had ever seen… and whenever I was perched upon her back I became more arrogant and conceited than I normally was. Titchy’s offer would certainly have attracted me if the bloody fool had made it earlier. But how could a company commander abandon his command on the very eve of battle? That would have been seen as plain cowardice, and cowardice should never be plain. Smiling down at him rather disdainfully from my superior mount, I thanked him and declined…

Ackerley’s account of the battle is, here,[5] brief and bitterly comic:

Suffice it to say here that mine was one of the only two companies to reach our first objective, the crest of a ridge. No special merit, however, should be inferred from that statement; we only ran forward, dashing from shell-hole to shell-hole; doubtless we happened to find more shell-holes than other companies involved…

This is wry sarcasm–and also reasonable tactical criticism. But although he likes to paint himself as a hapless pawn of circumstance, innocent of military knowledge or instinct, Ackerley immediately realizes that two companies can’t hold a line with their flanks in the air.

It’s instructive, perhaps, to compare everything about this account–the tactics, the role of the young Company Commander, the reaction of the Tommies, and the result–with Alf Pollard‘s recent Victoria Cross-winning gambit. The overused adverb “diametrically” comes to mind…

What to do? Heaven knew. I sent a runner back to battalion headquarters with an urgent request for reinforcements and sent my men to digging themselves in as they lay. While they were scratching away, like hens, with their trench tools, at the hard French soil, the Germans counter-attacked in considerable strength, firing from the hip as they advanced. The very sight of them was enough for my company. Rising as one man they deserted me and bolted. I bolted after, shouting “Stop!”–not that I wanted them to. The vain word may well have taken on a shriller note when a bullet struck me in the bottom, splintering my pelvis, as was discovered later, and dealing me a wound where, my father had sometimes remarked, echoing Siward, no good soldier should bear one. With a flying leap that Nureyev might have envied I landed in a shell-hole which already contained one of the things I most detested, a corpse, and was soon to harbor another wounded officer named Facer, and a man bleeding to death of a stomach wound. When dusk fell on that foolish and revolting day I was taken prisoner.[6]

Until this merciful and bathetic day’s end–no rescue and no nightingales for Ackerley–his experience was heading from an inverse-Pollard toward a recent Wilfred Owen. But there would have been nothing that even Ackerley’s penetrating irony could do about the prospect of spending a night in a shell hole among the dead and the dying.

instead, he is marched back “at bayonet point and parched,” grabbing the canteens of dead men but finding only neat rum. When he reaches the German aid station he is almost killed by a British aircraft dropping a bomb. Fittingly, then, given his attitude toward the war, Ackerley will precede Kurt Vonnecut into the exclusive club of major 20th century writers who were also allied infantryman captured by the Germans, then nearly killed by the bombs of their own side’s aircraft. Ackerley’s reminiscences will be without reliable dates, now, for some time…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There is an article comparing--no doubt with greater insight and accuracy--the fictional and the historical aspects of today in Williamson's writing, behind a pay wall at the Henry Williamson Society.
  2. Love and the Loveless, 133-9.
  3. Ackerley gets the date wrong in his memoir, recalling the date as "Two months later, on April 3," but Peter Parker's biography has the correct date, which the battalion war diary, available here, corroborates.
  4. Chérisy, not Cerisey on the Somme.
  5. He refers the reader to another book, Hindoo Holiday, for a fuller account.
  6. My Father and Myself, 95-6.

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.

Vera Brittain’s Next Worst Day, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVIII: Geoffrey Thurlow and Safety, Vera Brittain and The Dead, and the Maimed; Alfred Hale Appeals to the Recruiter; Isaac Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump; Scott Moncrieff Adrift; Home Service for Tolkien

We’ll begin with a few May Day updates on our writers–none of them, today, in the bloom of health or fitness. Last will come Vera Brittain, who absorbs yet another blow. And with her writing we will move from the day to the month, and compare two very different poems about the new dead of this third wartime spring.

 

Alfred Hale has some tenuous connections to our regulars. He was an Oxford friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams (the idol of Ivor Gurney) and a very minor composer and arranger in the same style, and he attended Uppingham school, albeit years before Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, and Victor Richardson. Now forty-one, his life of single, artistic, privileged pottering about is not unlike what some of our young men might have aged into, but for the war… and there’s the rub. Hale is most conspicuously different from our other informants in that he was immediately and completely horrified by the idea of going to war, and has done his best to avoid it. He was glad to have failed an early physical with the Navy, and he dodged the first draft by stalling and then ageing out–but the new rules are sweeping up even disinclined forty-something non-sporting country gentlemen. Today, a century back, he does his best not to impress.

‘As to my being over age, that had been settled against me by the recent Act… the rejection… was another matter. If I could bet a rejection certificate… from the Naval authorities, well and good…. But I was advised to act quickly.’ Thus the very courteous Recruiting Officer… A very nice old recruiting sergeant was also sympathetic. I was never likely to be much good as a soldier, that he saw with half his professional eye, and he hinted as much if he did not say so.

But Hale is caught in a predictable trap: the Navy has only to remark, with raised institutional eyebrow, that his failure to measure up to its high standards is no guarantee that the Army will likewise reject him. Hale leaves the matter in the hands of his solicitor, but little hope remains.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, wounded at Arras, is still in hospital in France–and he is not well. His leg is mangled and, to judge from today’s letter, his spirit has been damaged as well.

No. 20 General Hospital, Camiers,
1st May, 1917.

In the evening I heard a great swell of hundreds of men’s voices singing some of the popular Catholic hymns—“Jesu my Lord, my God, my all”—and some others. Presently my priest came in, the one who wrote to you; he tells me they have Benediction every day of the week in one of the huts, but yesterday for a weekday must have been enormously attended. He agreed to bring me Holy Communion this morning, which I was very grateful for. At night I had not such a bad time, thinking rather than sleeping, but still feeling this awful inability to control or co-ordinate my thoughts, which is, I suppose, a result of the shell shock. I find it so hard to grasp that this great nocturnal space bounded by the four corners of my bed—and with so much always new and unknown in it—has just the one inhabitant. . . .[2]

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien went once more before a medical board. The verdict: “He is improving but requires hardening.” This will mean, in practice, an extended period of home service, in Yorkshire, with time to write and his wife nearby.[3]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary has shown hints of strain, of late–not surprising, given that she has helped to lead a hospital through several weeks of intense and emotionally draining work as the casualties of Arras passed through. But now that the most terribly wounded have died and most of the others have been moved to larger hospitals further in the rear, there is time for relaxation–and for psychological letdown.

May Day and a dazzling day and very little doing in this Hospital. G. and I celebrated the occasion by going to the woods in the morning, starry with anemones and never a leaf to be seen, but blue sky and fresh breezes and clear sunshine. It is all a tremendous help, physically and psychically…

Some of us and Capt. B. have been having a bad fit of pessimism over them all lately, wondering what is the good of operations, nursing, rescues, or anything, when so many have died in the end. But even a few miraculous recoveries buck one up to begin again.

A Suffolk farmer boy is dying to-night…

I had a letter from a brave Glasgow mother, full of gratitude and incoherence, ending up, ‘And don’t forget to let us know how you are keeping.”[4]

This string of ups and downs–one day’s record–is not very representative of her writing style (the daily diary entries are often composed as topical letters). But it is, I think, emotionally accurate. Sister Luard is–she must be–enormously mentally tough, but the enormous suffering and the constant loss takes its toll nonetheless. It’s striking that there is no answer suggested here–no invocation of religion or patriotism. Just the increasingly common question, but especially vivid coming from a nurse so close to the front lines: what is this all for? What is the good of continuing in a policy which reduces so many men to such a state?

A fair question. But there’s nothing for it but to go on–and take whatever solace one can from the lives that can be saved.

 

And so to Vera Brittain.

May 1st

Had two cables–one to say that Victor’s eyesight was hopelessly gone, the other–an hour later–that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd…

Sat out on the rocks’ edge in front of Night Quarters & suddenly something seemed to tell me to go home. Nothing much doing in Malta–& chances of Salonika seemed further off than ever; decided to go home for Edward’s sake & Victor’s, & if he wishes it, to devote my life to the service of Victor, the only one (apart from Edward, who is different) left of the three men I loved. For I loved Geoffrey… I spent the rest of that day on the rocks, feeling all the time that I was not alone but that Geoffrey was there & if I looked up I should see him standing beside me. . . .

A letter from Geoffrey arrived the same day–“By one of those curious chances which occurred during the war with such poignant frequency,” as she will later write. Once could also see it as one more example of the war’s uncanny literariness–but perhaps we remember the cruelest ironies best.

His last letter to me–dated April 20th–arrived that evening. He told me they were going up “for a stunt” in two or three days, & said his only fear was that he should fail at the critical moment, & that he would like to do well for the School’s sake. Often, he said, he had watched the splendour of the sunset from the school-field. And then, perhaps seeing the end in sight, he turned as usual to his beloved Rupert Brooke for comfort & finished with

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

My dear dear Geoffrey!

Vera is ready with an apt–and devastatingly sad–counter-quotation. Geoffrey, before battle, quoted “Safety;” she, drawing from the same sonnet sequence that has framed these middle years of the war, quotes “The Dead:”

He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.[5]

Looking back, Brittain will remember the hours of “suspended physical animation” on the rocks as a time of almost numinous intensity, but Geoffrey’s ghostly presence will prompt a memory that makes much more concrete how she now might “serve” her surviving friend:

And all at once, as I gazed out to sea the words of the “Agony Column” advertisement, that I had cut out and sent to Roland nearly two years before, struggled back into my mind.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

I even remembered vaguely the letter in which I had commented on this notice at the time.

Yes: a great deal has changed since she wrote that letter, to Roland, which scoffed at the quaintly Victorian self-sacrifice of certain old maids.

There is one small, terrible change in her quotation of her own letter in the later memoir.[6] In the letter, she writes of “a business arrangement, with an element of self-sacrifice which redeems it from utter sordidness. Quite an idea, isn’t it!”

In retrospect, the final exclamation point becomes a question mark.

“Quite an idea, isn’t it?” Was it, Geoffrey? wasn’t it? There was nothing left in life now but Edward and the wreckage of Victor–Victor who had stood by me so often in my blackest hours. If he wanted me, surely I could stand by him in his.

She decides to try to come home.

That night–quiet as all nights were now that so few sick and wounded were coming from Salonika–I tried to keep my mind from thoughts and my eyes from tears by assiduously pasting photographs of Malta into a cardboard album. The scent of a vase of sweet-peas on the ward table reminded me of Roland’s study on Speech Day, centuries ago.

And, a century on, I suppose we must be grateful, in some aesthetically presumptive and heartless way, for the terrible things that happened to good writers.

Surely, surely there must be somewhere in which the sweet intimacies begun here may be continued and the hearts broken by this War may be healed![7]

Vera Brittain will soon begin the poem that will serve us for a first “month poem” today:

 

In Memoriam G.R.Y.T.

(Killed in Action, April 23rd, 1917)

I spoke with you but seldom, yet there lay
Some nameless glamour in your written word,
And thoughts of you rose often—longings stirred
By dear remembrance of the sad blue-grey
That dwelt within your eyes, the even sway
Of your young god-like gait, the rarely heard
But frank bright laughter, hallowed by a Day
That made of Youth Right’s offering to the sword.
So now I ponder, since your day is done,
Ere dawn was past, on all you meant to me,
And all the more you might have come to be,
And wonder if some state, beyond the sun
And shadows here, may yet completion see
Of intimacy sweet though scarce begun.

Malta, May 1917.

 

This is a good poem; also, a traditional one. A poem about an individual, a dead man remembered not for his death or its horror or pain or futility but for his life. Which is right, and good, and we should all have friends like Vera Brittain to remember us, and to draw on hopeful traditions that see a possibility of love and friendship after death.

 

But there are other ways to see the dead, and to write them. Another poem written this month, a century back, is Isaac Rosenberg‘s Dead Man’s Dump. It’s neither a short poem nor a very long one, but it’s almost too harrowing to read in its entirety. It draws on Rosenberg’s experience working in a labor battalion in the aftermath of battle. A few stanzas, then:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, 37.
  2. Diary, 128-9.
  3. Chronology, 100.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 120-1.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 340.
  6. I am relying, of course, on two different transcriptions of a hand-written letter I haven't seen...
  7. Testament of Youth, 342-46.