Dr. Dunn on Passchendaele: Unburyable Corpses and Magical Light; George Coppard in Blighty; Phillip Maddison at Cambrai; The Master Learns the Cathedral

Today, a century back, George Coppard, shot through the leg during the battle of Cambrai, arrived at Birkenhead Borough Hospital:

It was not a fancy place, but after the turmoil of war it seemed as near to heaven as I was likely to get. Britain was still celebrating the victory of the the Third Army [at Cambrai] and the bells of the churches had rung out in praise. At that time the tank thrust was regarded as the first real turn of the tide against German might… fresh from the fray, I attracted my little share of attention from the visitors and nursing staff… but there was trouble ahead.

And not just with the strategic failures at Cambrai; Coppard’s wound, which has severed the femoral artery and been staunched by his own none-too-sterile thumb, was both too deep to easily repair and liable to infection…[1]

 

Cambraiis no victory–but at least it took us away from Passchendaele. Remember Passchendaele? Tens of thousands of infantrymen are still there, holding the miserable wasteland into the winter. Today brings one of the most striking passages in Dr. Dunn’s narrative of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers. He[2] has been on leave and, returning, is struck anew by the sheer wretchedness of the battlefield. Dunn would never make such a dramatic statement, but… only men could make such a hell.

At dawn I went with Radford round part of the line. Many scarcely recognizable dead lie about, a few of them Germans. Passchendaele is not quite levelled… Mud flows through entrances, and rain drops through the cracked cemented-brick floors roofing the cellars, on to the occupants… When the position is overlooked the men are pinned down by day, and numbed with cold by day and night… In the morning some of our planes came over in an objectless-looking way…

A rapidly filling cemetery… is a most unrestful place. It is the labour of a squad to keep the dead in their graves. A sapper officer was killed and buried in the morning; his tormented body had to be reburied twice during the day.

The next line comes as a shock. But should it?

But for all the havoc up here the effect of a glint of sunshine on the waste is magical.[3]

 

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is in Amiens, on the way back from an officers’ course in England.

Let’s see: misery, destruction, attrition, mass death… all modern and unavoidable, now. But perhaps one of the more overlooked ways in which the Great War qualifies as the first modern war is that the regular rotations of leaves and courses–and habits like tourism while on military journeys–rarely stop.

I had a good lunch there and went to see the Cathedral with an excellent guide-book. I spent an hour there and discovered all sorts of interesting things that I did not know before…

He will reach his batteries, still on a quiet sector of the Somme, after midnight…[4]

 

Finally, today, Henry Williamson is still in England on Home Service, but Phillip Maddison, his tireless alter ego, is drawing nearer to the cauldron of Cambrai. His “diary,” which fills several pages of the novel Love and the Loveless at this point, is an improbably knowledgeable (he is still, despite his brush with greatness, a mere lieutenant charged with resupplying a Machine Gun Company currently in reserve) crib from the history books, explaining all the movements of, for instance, the Guards in Bourlon Wood.

But tonight the company moves up, and Williamson writes a long scene full of many familiar elements–the confusion of a night relief, the misery of a march under fire–and some stranger ones, such as the description of horses and mules “screaming” through their gas masks. When the German counter-attack breaks through, Phillip will be, as always, on the scene.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 130.
  2. I believe it's Dunn himself; it's sometimes difficult to tell who the "speaker" is.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 417.
  4. War Diary, 414.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.

Partridge for Dr. Dunn; Lady Feilding is All of a Dither

Edmund Blunden‘s 11th Royal Sussex withdrew from the line in the Salient yesterday afternoon, and overnight the Royal Welch limped back to their reserve billets, ten miles behind the lines, led by their last surviving Company Commander–and their doctor.

By 4 o’clock the last of us was in. Radford had to be helped at the finish. After fifty-six foodless hours and seventy-three sleepless hours of almost incessant movement, I could only take some clear soup before sleeping. At 11.30 I was called, and breakfasted on a plump young partridge someone had sent up. Was food ever more enjoyed![1]

 

Henry Feilding, with the Guards Division, remains in the Salient–but his sister Lady Dorothie Feilding remains on a prolonged leave/honeymoon. And thus we get a second glimpse of English upper class pleasures persisting during the war (albeit in Ireland and France)–first partridge, and now horseflesh.

Lady Dorothie wrote to their mother today, a century back, about a newfound passion. She has always been a hunting enthusiast, but now her husband has introduced her to thoroughbred ownership.

Had a most amusing 2 days at the Curragh & I enjoyed myself disgustingly, our 2 little nags ran awfully well. ‘Sister Barry’ won her race but was dead heated by another gee owing to her fool jockey making a mistake. But that was good anyway. Then ‘Judea’, the one we pin all our hopes on was a close second in the big race the turf Cub Cup. I got so excited I nearly burst & am all of a dither still.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 404.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 219-20.

Dr. Dunn, Frank Richards, and Edmund Blunden at Third Ypres: Six Men Dead by a Chance Shell, Six by Deliberate Bombs, One by a Bullet; Trauma, Murder, and Angels in the Rocket-Lit Sunset

As yesterday became today, a century back, most of the remaining 2/Royal Welch were grabbing a few hours of sleep in their makeshift line of shell-holes and captured German pillboxes. Dr. Dunn’s day will hardly be any less eventful, although some relief is given to him and to Captain Radford when one Major Kearsey arrived from the Battalion reserve to take command. Within a few hours of dawn they were back into piecemeal combat, advancing into new holes left by more recently retreated Germans. But British “bite and hold” tactics must still contend with the German “defense in depth,” and the fighting is much more reminiscent of the platoon-driven tactics of the next war than of the “lines” of infantry attacking “lines” of trenches which were the common conceptual coinage of even last year’s battles. To advance means to find and eliminate those strong points that held out yesterday, and soon the Royal Welch, pushing out from Jerk Farm, take a number of prisoners in a now-isolated pillbox.

We will hear more about these men in a moment, but Dr. Dunn’s narrative proceeds quickly toward the late afternoon. If yesterday’s narrative involved an admirable suppression of his own very active role in commanding the battalion, today concludes with an admirable confession of what the day’s combat did to him.

In a lull not long after 5, a delusive lull, I went out to look for Mann’s body. Some Australians told me where about it was, and added that “one of our fellows is taking care of his ring…” Radford seemed to be amused at the game of I-Spy among the shell-holes that followed. Doubtless the snipers much enjoyed it, and perhaps a German artillery observer; I didn’t, much, until it was over. It was the longest quarter-hour of my life. Beginning near 6 o’clock there was half an hour’s sustained shelling of H.Q., so accurate, so concentrated, that my confidence in a new shell-hole as the safest shelter was shaken. I came to date a failure of nerve from impressions taken then.

In other words–slightly less old-fashioned words–Dunn chose to become a combatant (in violation of the laws of war) and help save his battalion from what otherwise may have been a collective failure. And in doing so, he pushed himself to the point of exhaustion and was exposed to so much trauma–“shell-shocked” by the physical facts of shelling but also psychologically affected by the experience–that he will suffer a stress reaction in the near future.

 

Frank Richards‘s account of today, a century back, is more detailed, and no less focused on the danger that the doctor–and he himself–faced.

Major Kearsley, the Doctor and I went out reconnoitring. We were jumping in and out of shell holes when a machine-gun opened out from somewhere in front, the bullets knocking up the dust around the shell holes we had just jumped into. They both agreed that the machine-gun had been fired from the pillbox about a hundred yards in front of us. We did some wonderful humping and hopping, making our way back to the bank. The enemy’s artillery had also opened out…

Richards also tells the tale–with obvious relish–of a timorous platoon officer (unfortunately paired with a “windy” sergeant) who has to be forced forward to take a German position. When this officer–“The Athlete”–balks in confusion and sends back for orders, Richards is sent to carry verbal instructions–an awkward task, to send a trusted, more experienced private to give orders to a young and hesitant second-lieutenant. Richards delivers the message, and then, returning from the newly-captured pillbox to the H.Q. unit, he becomes a near witness to a war crime:

The enemy were now shelling very heavily and occasionally the track was being sprayed by machine-gun bullets. I met a man of one of our companies with six German prisoners whom he told me he had to take back to a place called Clapham Junction, where he would hand them over. He then had to return and rejoin his company. The shelling was worse behind us than where we were…

I had known this man about eighteen months and he said, “Look here, Dick. About an hour ago I lost the best pal I ever had, and he was worth all these six Jerries put together. I’m not going to take them far before I put them out of mess.” Just after they passed me I saw the six dive in one large shell hole and he had a job to drive them out…

Some little time later I saw him coming back and I know it was impossible for him to have reached Clapham Junction and returned in the time… As he passed me again he said: “I done them in as I said, about two hundred yards back. Two bombs did the trick.” He had not walked twenty yards beyond me when he fell himself: a shell-splinter had gone clean through him. I had often heard some of our chaps say that they had done their prisoners in whilst taking them back, but this was the only case I could vouch for, and no doubt the loss of his pal had upset him very much.

This brutal tale is tied up too neatly. Unless, of course, that is exactly how it happened.

 

The day’s traumas are far from over. Richards has had a very lucky war so far: not a scratch on him and, as he is usually just behind the attack with the signallers, very little in the way of immediate deadly violence to perform. When he is hit today, it is only a spent piece of shrapnel that hammers him on a thickly-padded part of his leg, and he escapes with a painful bruise and a temporary limp. Which means that he can continue carrying messages over a most uncertain battlefield.

During the afternoon the Major handed me a message to take to A Company, which consisted of the survivors of two companies now merged into one under the command of a young platoon officer… The ground over which I had to travel had been occupied by the enemy a little while before and the Company were behind a little bank which was being heavily shelled. I slung my rifle, and after I had proceeded some way I pulled my revolver out for safety. Shells were falling here and there and I was jumping in and out of shell holes. When I was about fifty yards from the Company, in getting out of a large shell hole I saw a German pop up from another shell hole in front of me and rest his rifle on the lip of the shell hole. He was about to fire at our chaps in front who had passed him by without noticing him. He could never have heard me amidst all the din around: I expect it was some instinct made him turn around with the rifle at his shoulder. I fired first and as the rifle fell out of his hands. I fired again. I made sure he was dead before I left him…

This little affair was nothing out of the ordinary in a runner’s work when in attacks.

Returning after giving the message, Richards found Kearsey still in command and Dunn “temporarily back in the R.A.M.C.” After carrying another message to the hesitant “Athlete,” Richards is going forward once again alongside Kearsey when they are caught by a German machine gun, and the major is shot through the leg. Richards dresses the wound and helps Kearsey back to where Dunn and Radford and the H.Q. section were stationed.

The Major said that the Battalion would be relieved at dusk and he would try to stick it until then; but the Doctor warned him, if he did, that it might be the cause of him losing his leg.

He then handed over the command to Captain Radford, who said that he would much prefer the Doctor taking command, as he seemed to have a better grip of the situation than what he had. But the Major said he could not do that as the Doctor was a non-combatant, but that they could make any arrangements they liked when he had left…

Richards accompanies the Major back toward the CCS, and so misses what, precisely, those arrangements were…

Even though the battalion has acquitted itself well–it will shortly be withdrawn, with congratulations heaped upon its few remaining officers–both accounts are framed by implied criticisms of the British staff at brigade and division level (and higher).

Earlier in the day, Richards glimpsed an Australian brigadier in a shell hole, having come forward to see for himself what is happening to the men under his command.

It was the only time during the whole of the War that I saw a brigadier with the first line of attacking troops…[1]

Dunn praises the Australians as well, and in a precise parallel of Richards’ observation, he sees a medical officer from the divisional staff treating the wounded in the front line, and also notes that it was the only time he saw such an august medical personage actually treating the wounded under fire.[2]

 

The Royal Welch will soon be out of it, as will the 11th Royal Sussex. But they have been in the thick of it, too, only a mile or so due south (just on the other side of the chateau that was enfilading the Welsh yesterday). Edmund Blunden was a witness, not so long ago, to one of the worst direct hits we’ve seen; today, a century back–and hardly back with the battalion after a long spell of rest, training, and reserve–he was once again.

There is a special sort of terror in sitting in a pillbox that is very strong and very secure–but not strong enough, and with a door facing the wrong way.

Never (to our judgment) had such shelling fallen upon us. For what reason? The Germans had clearly no idea of letting the British advance any farther along the Menin Road. Their guns of all calibres poured their fury into our small area. Reports of casualties were the principal messages from the front line, and we had no reason to think them exaggerated, with such a perpetual rain of shells. The trenches immediately about our pillboxes were already full of bodies. One man in my headquarters died of shock from a huge shell striking just outside. We endeavoured to send off a pigeon, but the pigeon scared by the gunfire found his way into the dugout again, and presently a noise under the floorboards led to his discovery. The men thought that many shells struck the pillbox. The only question seemed to be when one would pierce it, and make an end.

Next door, so to speak, the adjutant, doctor, and their helpers had a slightly worse position, more exposed to enemy observation. The Aid Post was hit, and the doctor continued to dress the wounded though with only an appearance of protection; the wounded came in great number. I went over to ask for orders and information; Lewis was in an almost smiling mood, and quizzed me about “coming to dinner.” Old Auger, the mess corporal, winked at me over the Adjutant’s shoulder, and raised a tempting bottle from his box. I returned, and presently the firing decreased. Lewis called on us to see how we were, and told me that he really meant some sort of dinner would be going soon, and I was to be there. Colonel Millward had just rejoined, from leave, and I had seen him in the headquarters just now; evidently, I thought, the news he brings is promising. A runner visited me, and went back over the fifty yards to the other pillbox — his last journey. He had arrived in the doorway there, and joined the five or six men sheltering there, including the doctor, consulting about something, when the lull in the shelling was interrupted. I was called on the telephone (we had some inexhaustible linesmen out on the wire) by Andrews at the forward station.

“I say, hasn’t something happened at your headquarters?”

“Not that I know of—all right I believe.” (The sound of shelling had long ceased to impinge.)

“Yes, I’m afraid something’s wrong: will you find out?”

My servant Shearing hurried across, and hurried back, wild-eyed, straining: “Don’t go over, sir; it’s awful. A shell came into the door.” He added more details after a moment or two. The doctor and those with him had been
killed.

Curiously, given Richards’s account of the murder of six German prisoners, six men of the Royal Sussex were killed by this shell–the doctor and five “Other Ranks.”[3]

 

This is the worst of the day’s narrative. And yet only a paragraph later Blunden inserts what has always been for me one of the most memorable pastoral incongruities of the whole war:

During this period my indebtedness to an Eighteenth Century poet became enormous. At every spare moment I read in Young’s Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, and I felt the benefit of this grave and intellectual voice, speaking often in metaphor which came home to one even in a pillbox. The mere amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.

We were relieved in broad daylight, under observation, but nobody refused to move. The estimate of casualties was 400, and although the real number was 280 or so, the battalion had had enough…

By the end of today, a century back, Blunden has picked up on Dunn’s theme for today: the limits of mental endurance in even the bravest men. And the bitterness of the staff’s indifference to their suffering.

The battalion assembled in the neighbourhood of a small and wiry wood called Bodmin Copse, with tumult and bullets and sometimes shells in the air around…

A steady bombardment with big shells began, and luckily most of them fell a few yards short, but the mental torture, especially when, after one had been carefully listened to in flight and explosion, another instantly followed as though from nowhere, was severe. The trench around me was slowly choked and caved in.

Maycock came up with a train of mules carrying Royal Engineers’ material and petrol cans of water to a point near Bodmin Copse, a star turn for which he earned the General’s stern reproof on account of his not obtaining a receipt for the deliveries.

But gentle Blunden cannot end on that note. No: instead, we see yesterday’s incongruous beauty once again:

The eastern sky that evening was all too brilliant with rockets, appealing for artillery assistance. Westward, the sunset was all seraphim and cherubim.[4]

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 251-60.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 400-04.
  3. This according to the Battalion Diary; I have not tracked the men through the CWGC or ascertained whether there is a record of the adjutant being killed today.
  4. Undertones of War, 241-5.

Frank Richards and Doctor Dunn on a Day of Battle for the Royal Welch: Desperate Measures under the Rockets’ Glare; Phillip Maddison Finds Balance; Ivor Gurney Overjoyed, Isaac Rosenberg to Return

The Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers is currently bereft of famous poet officers–Siegfried Sassoon is in Scotland while Robert Graves is with the depot in Wales–but two of their acquaintances are very much with the Regiment today, a century back, in one of its worst days in the Salient. It is a day of combat, and crisis, and an unusual confusion of roles. Dr. Dunn, we must remember, is both currently the battalion medical officer and subsequently the chief chronicler–but he has not been a fighting soldier for many years.

At the risk of aggravating Dunn, we’ll let Graves introduce the day’s story, even though it is not quite standard historical procedure to begin with hearsay before examining the eyewitness account. Ironically, however, Graves’s more dramatic rendering–based on reports he will get later from other members of the battalion–is probably more plainly true than the doctor’s account. Graves might self-aggrandize and take liberties with local truths, but he seems intent on giving the characters of the Regiment their due–especially when they themselves fail in to sing their own deeds quite loudly enough.

Doctor Dunn was what they call a hard-bitten man; he had served as a trooper in the South African War and won the D.C.M. He was far more than a doctor; living at battalion headquarters he became the right-hand man of three or four colonels in succession. When his advice was not taken this was usually afterwards regretted. On one occasion, in the autumn fighting of 1917, a shell burst among the headquarters staff, knocking out adjutant, colonel, and signals officer. Dunn had no hesitation in pulling off the red-cross armlets that he wore in a battle and becoming a temporary combatant officer of the Royal Welch, resigning his duties to the stretcher-bearer sergeant. He took command and kept things going. The men were rather afraid of him, but had more respect for him than for anyone else in the battalion.[1]

Today, a century back, would be that occasion. The 2/R.W.F. were in support of the second day’s push (of this new phase of Third Ypres, that is), and spent the early morning waiting as the battle raged to their east. It is only after they receive their orders, around 8.15, to attack at noon that we learn just how things are with the battalion. This is the collective account narrated by Dunn, now:

Poore called a conference of Company Commanders; the C.O. had gone on leave when we came out of rest. C and D companies were under their own commanders, Radford and Coster; but owing to leave, Battle Surplus, and the inexperience of subalterns, Moldy Williams had been transferred from C to B, and Hywel Evans from B to A., both only the previous day.[2] A shortage of maps caused some confusion to begin with…

A simplified battle plan is hammered out, and the battalion was soon marching over the Menin Road. Dunn, at this point following the battalion and tending to the wounded, saw a man desert for the rear, and noted that he was later arrested (whether he was shot for desertion is not made clear). This lone incident does more than a lengthy situation report to remind us just how hopeless and terrifying it would have felt to march over the shattered German defenses.. and toward the deep lines of still-intact German defenses…

Nevertheless, the battalion eventually reached its starting point “without serious loss.” But as they were forming up–without artillery support or a sure sense of where the enemy was–they came under machine gun fire. To some degree, their progress to this point is evidence of the success of the “Bite and Hold” tactics: it is the second or third day of an offensive, reinforcements are getting nearly intact nearly to their starting points, and the counter-attacks are not in the ascendancy.

But this is still the salient, with German artillery on three sides and German machine guns in hardened pillboxes nearly everywhere. Two officers, including Coster, were soon killed. Their maps proved to be incomplete. With McMaster University‘s archive available online, we can find their position on a map that is probably quite similar to the ones they were using. Dunn’s sketch of the tactical situation is actually a minor masterpiece of tactical clarity, and the Welch can be precisely placed, arrayed roughly north-south along the left middle of the excerpt above, in the mess of old trenches and pillboxes near Carlisle Farm (square 15) and under fire from the Polderhoek Château (bottom of 16) on their right. Pinned down and cut off from their own H.Q., the companies falling out of touch with each other and no clear objectives in sight, they continue to take casualties. The irony of Dunn’s precise record of their whereabouts is that it bears no tactical fruit. He knows–and he tells us–where he was, but confusion about the whereabouts of everyone else–including the Germans–will continue throughout the day.

Meanwhile, accurate enemy fire is constant, and no advance is possible.

When the Companies lay low the Germans held their fire, but any movement, even by one man, drew a very accurate fire. In these circumstances A and B ceased to shoot at their unseen enemy.

Several more company and platoon officers were wounded, and the Welsh lost touch with the Scottish and Australian troops around them.

At about 1.30, the doctor’s narrative returns to the first person, and the battalion’s leadership takes a direct hit.

…I, finding nothing more to do for the time being, and having had no food since last night’s dinner, was sent in the same direction to seek my servant. He and another man, with the heedless coolness which was so common, had lighted a fire on the enemy side of a pill-box, and made tea. They were about to give some to a young Australian with a bad belly wound. After stopping them I was trying to placate him when Signaller Barrett came and told me that while Colquhoun was talking to Poore and Casson, the Assistant Adjutant, a 5.9 burst along them, killing all three. That happened about 2 o’clock.

Dunn is not in command of the battalion, per se–he is permanently outside the chain of command, and quite unusual in being a doctor with combat service in a previous war. But someone needs to go forward from HQ and find the company commander who now must take over. Dunn will not explicitly acknowledge his heroism, here, but he seems to allude to the strangeness of the moment–as well as the general surrealism of prolonged battle–with this memory of the mind’s habit of recalling harmless happy moments to compare with some horrifying present vision.

Thereupon, I went to look for Radford about the Reutel road where I had seen him an hour before. On the way, two men suddenly rose into the air vertically, 15 feet perhaps, amid a spout of soil about 150 yards ahead. They rose and fell with the easy, graceful poise of acrobats. A rifle, revolving slowly, rose high above them before, still revolving, it fell. The sight recalled, even in these surroundings, a memory of boyhood: a turn that thrilled me in a travelling circus at St. Andrews…

He did not, perhaps, take time for the theatrical gesture of removing his red cross armbands. Or perhaps he did, to give the Germans a sporting chance of killing him while he considered himself a combatant, and modestly omits to tell us?

In any event, according to Dunn’s account he almost immediately found Radford, a company commander at the beginning of the day but now the senior combat officer, and stayed with him while he wrote out a report to be sent back to Brigade. Dunn does not mention Radford being in command, but he implies it… and then Radford vanishes from the narrative for some time, and the narrative slips into the passive voice.

The worst of the day is over, but there is still much consolidation to be done:

When the light failed A and B Companies were reorganized… After dark a sudden commotion was caused by D Company falling back on the Reutel road. They reported that the enemy was massing in Polygon Wood, and that they had very little ammunition left. The decision to fall back was made in consultation with the O.C. their Australian comrades…

But who made this decision with the Australian commander? It sounds like it was Dunn, as Graves suggests.

 

Let’s work back a bit, and see how Frank Richards saw this afternoon. Richards is the consummate old soldier, and not above tarting up a yarn for the benefit of his readers,[3] but he was indisputably an eyewitness to these events, serving as he did with the signallers of the battalion, and thus often alongside the headquarters contingent, or bearing messages to and fro.

Richards’s account of the terrible hour around noon is more direct and more, dare we say, cinematic:

A few minutes later Dr. Dunn temporarily resigned from the Royal Army Medical Corps. He told me to get him a rifle and bayonet and a bandolier of ammunition. I told him that he had better have a revolver, but he insisted on having what he had asked me to get. I found them for him, and slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he commenced to make his way over to the troops behind the bank. I accompanied him. Just before we reached there our chaps who were hanging on to the position in front of it started to retire back. The doctor barked at them to line up with the others. Only Captain Radford and four platoon officers were left in the Battalion and the doctor unofficially took command.

Radford’s presence is something of an embarrassment, then–why is this company commander not in active command of the battalion? And hence, perhaps, Dunn’s professional modesty is a cloak for the honor of a brother officer? But neither is there any suggestion that Radford failed to do his duty or did not fight well. It’s tempting to assume that he was momentarily overcome (as so many people would be in such a situation), but it is also possible that, given the force of Dunn’s character and his long service as a sort of consigliere to the colonel, it just seemed natural to Radford to continue commanding a consolidated line company and leave the direction of the battalion to the doctor.

In any case, no one hints that Dunn so any moral quandary in ceasing to be a healer–technically sacrosanct, even if those badges that he may or may not have removed were not often respected–and picking up a rifle and directly ordering men to wound and destroy those opposite. War is madness.

Back to Richards:

We and the Australians were all mixed up in extended order. Behind everyone had now left the standpoint and we all lined up behind the bank, which was about three feet high. We had lent a Lewis gun team to the 5th Scottish Rifles on our right, and when it began to get dark the doctor sent me with a verbal message to bring them back with me if they were still in the land of the living. When I arrived at the extreme right of our line, I asked the right hand man if he was in touch with the 5th Scottish. He replied that he had no more idea than a crow where they were, but guessed that they were somewhere in the front to the right of him. I now made my way very carefully over the ground. After I had walked some way I began to crawl. I was liable any moment to come into contact with a German post or trench. I saw someone moving in front of me, so I slid into a shell hole…

I waited in that shell hole for a while, trying to pierce the darkness in front. I resumed my journey, and, skirting one shell hole, a wounded German was shrieking aloud in agony… he must have been hit low down, but I could stop for no wounded man. But I saw two men in a shallow trench but did not know if they were the 5th Scottish or the Germans until I heard some good Glasgow English. When I got in their trench they told me that they had only just spotted me when they challenged. The Lewis-gun team were still kicking and my journey back with them was a lot easier than the outgoing one.

I reported to the Doctor that there was a gap of about 100 yards between the 5th Scottish Rifles and we; and he went himself to remedy it. The whole of the British front that night seemed to be in a semi-circle. We had sent some S O S rockets up in the air… they were only used when a situation was deemed critical, and everybody seemed to be in the same plight as ourselves…[4]

Dunn remembers these rockets as well:

Twice between dark and midnight the S O S went up in the Reutel direction, and was repeated by other units. It was a red-over-green-over-yellow parachute grenade at the time, a pleasing combination of colours hanging about the fretted outline of pines that stood in dark relief against a clear night sky. Each time the gunners on both sides opened promptly…[5]

 

These are two true stories of one battalion’s role in a major attack. We can also read, for a strange sort of leavening, Henry Williamson‘s fictional account of the attack. Williamson is still convalescing in England, but Phillip Maddison, for all that his (fictional) presence at nearly every major offensive is beginning to wear thin, witnessed the battle from his position with the supply train of a Machine Gun Company and described it in his patented “History Painting” style. Williamson is working from published histories, of course, so it is not surprising that he echoes the accounts we have just read. In fact, it’s quite useful, since Maddison consciously takes up a middle position between an army that is–in some quarters at least–beginning to despair and a propaganda machine that churns on without acknowledging the ratcheting tension of 1917.

Maddison writes in his pocket diary that “there ‘were persistent rumours of hundreds of thousands killed,'” yet he spent many evenings of the battle regularly hearing optimistic reports–internal army propaganda, essentially–read out to the troops by the rear-area ammunition dumps. So the army is preaching success to its own rear elements (who may or may not know about the disturbances at Étaples) even though they can look to the East and see precisely what Dunn and Richards have been describing: the colored SOS signals going up “again and again.”

For Phillip, at least, weariness is leading toward maturity: he begins to see a balance between the alarmist rumors of total collapse and tens of thousands of men killed and the sanguine army announcements. Under the tutelage of “Westy,”–the old heroic officer whose ex post facto facts about the Passchendaele campaign are clunkingly parachuted into the narrative at this point–Maddison is starting to see the war for what it is: a grim attritional battle that, at this moment, is narrowly tilted in the allies’ favor by Plumer’s operational initiatives.[6]

 

Finally, today, three short notes. In contradistinction to the misery of the Salient, let’s spend just a moment with Ivor Gurney, who is safely out of it all, for a few weeks at least, with a blighty touch of gas.

26 September 1917

My Dear Friend: To write to you on common notepaper, white and smooth, to be in between sheets white as snow—yesterday, but I smoke in bed! — and to hear noises domestic and well known flurries and scurries about one — how sweet are all these!

And to be within 17 miles of Enbro, that old city of Scott and R.L.S.; such is my nature that this last idea in fact is sweetest of all.

Ward 24, Edinburgh War Hospital, Bangour, Scotland is my present address. Only slowly and uncertainly is the conviction leaking in through the strong covering of frost and use that I am really in Blighty…

With time on his hands, Gurney’s letters ramble even more than usual, but he returns in the end to the simple theme of a soldier’s thankfulness at being somewhere safe and quiet–and clean:

Clean sheets, clean clothes and skin; no lice; today’s papers; ordinary notepaper. . . What next?

Good bye, and all good wishes for all good things:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[7]

 

Many others will be coming to Blighty too. When Ronnie Knox converted to Catholicism last week, his father, an Anglican bishop, determined to cut off all contact with him for at least a year. But Bishop Knox will shortly be abrogating this policy in order to pass along a telegram. Ronnie’s older brother Eddie, an officer with the 2/4th Lincolns, was shot in the back today, a century back, by a German sniper somewhere east of the Menin Road, under those same SOS flares.[8]

 

And, of course, for every man that comes home, another most go back to take his place. In London, today, Isaac Rosenberg bid farewell to his family and belatedly caught a train back to the coast, his leave over. When he returns, he will be transferred from his assignment as a laborer attached to the engineers and sent back into the line.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 260-1.
  2. What would Siegfried Sassoon have thought, in his room at Craiglockhart or out on the links, or wherever he is right this moment, were he able to listen in to this conference in real time?
  3. He will have the assistance in this of the very best, namely his one time battalion superior Robert Graves.
  4. Old Soldiers Never Die, 246-251.
  5. The War the Infantry Knew, 392-400.
  6. Love and the Loveless, 286-7.
  7. War Letters, 205-6.
  8. Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 139-40. Eddie Knox was a talented satirist and frequent contributor to Punch. But he had not felt able to write amusing poems from the trenches and thus sidesteps the label of "war poet." He will survive the war, and his daughter Penelope will write the biography of him and his brothers from which this information derives--as well as several of the best 20th century British novels.
  9. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 171. His actual departure may have come two days later, after missing or being unable to take several trains. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 373.

Vera Brittain and the Troop Train, then London and the War Unreal; A Disastrous Day for the Second Royal Welch

Vera Brittain‘s homeward journey has been, for the last few days, something like a maniacally condensed version of the Grand Tour. But she left Paris late last night; and today, a century back, she is back in the war.

May 27th

Woke up at 5.0 when train stopped at Amiens. Seething crowd of British and French officers and soldiers, most of them in a trench-state. Thought of Roland, Edward and Geoffrey as having been here; don’t think Victor ever was. Felt very near the war…

Brittain and the young nurses in the Red Cross train are cheered by young British troops, headed for the front–an experience which will shortly give rise to a poem:

The Troop Train

(France, 1917)

As we came down from Amiens,
And they went up the line,
They waved their careless hands to us,
And cheered the Red Cross sign.

And often I have wondered since,
Repicturing that train,
How many of those laughing souls
Came down the line again.

 

A predictable–which is to say irresistible–spark for the Romantic imagination. Or the realist, really–what else is there to think of, knowing what she knows and having seen what she has seen of soldiers’ bodies, as she passes so briefly through the central rail junction of the British Western Front?

A few hours later, after detraining and embarking in Boulogne, she is disorientingly far from the war once again:

…The white cliffs seemed to appear very quickly; it seemed like a dream to be seeing them again, or else a dream that I had ever left them…

One more quick train and she was in her parents’ new London flat by supper-time.

…pausing only to learn that Victor was still alive and still progressing, I threw off my dilapidated garments and jumped into a hot bath…

After supper I settled down luxuriously to smoke–a new habit originally acquired as a means of defence against the insect life in Malta–and to talk to my father about the hazards and adventures of my journey home. My parents took a gratifying pleasure in my assumption of worldly wisdom and the sophistication of the lighted cigarette…

Sitting before the open French windows of the big drawing-room, I looked out upon the peaceful, darkening square with a sense of unbelievable repose. Between the flats and the turmoil of London lay a long unspoilt area of wooded parkland; the great trees stretched eastward as far as I could see. Hidden by the cool green of their new spring foliage, innumerable birds twittered softly on the topmost branches. The War with its guns and submarines, its death and grief and cruel mutilations, might have been as innocuous and unreal as time and the smooth, patriotic selections of school history-books had made the Napoleonic campaigns of a century ago.[1]

A challenge to literature, then… and to the history-book-compilers of the future.

And naturally I can’t resist picking up on the “century ago.” So, a century from Waterloo to the Western Front–how much progress have we made? Since this whole project is, in a sense, an attempt to address the broader question of writing about war, it doesn’t make much sense to attempt an answer here. And on the narrower question of history textbooks I have little to add. The average American school child learns precious little about World War One, given the shorter participation of the United States and the war’s location in between the Civil War (about which the American schoolchild may still learn lies and obfuscations, especially about the racial terror of its aftermath) and the ever-fascinating and morally unambiguous Second World War.

Still, it is surely correct to say that the history books are aware that making war “innocuous” is a disservice to, among other capitalizable abstractions, History, Humanity, and Truth, and that, compared to the books of a century back, there is less knee-jerk glorification of all things warlike and far more attention to the human costs of war. And it is also correct to say that this has something to do with the efforts of Vera Brittain, Siegfried Sassoon and the rest…

But are we doing well enough? Will any aged eminences send satisfactory praise for our rendering of all that is cruel and despicable about what we have done in the past?

Well, well. But Vera Brittain didn’t come home to muse on the ironic dislocations of physical and temporal proximity–she came home to help her family, and to be with Victor. Visiting hours begin tomorrow.

 

That troop train was too far from the front–by a day’s military logistics or so–for the Tommies waving to the Red Cross nurses to be thrown into the meat grinder today. So it’s a poetic near-miss, as it were, for a crossing of the paths of Vera Brittain and the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were already at the front and bound for the offensive, today, on a stubborn sector of the Hindenburg Line.

Siegfried Sassoon‘s day, though he can’t know it, is nevertheless wracked by a particularly vicious irony of proximity. He is in green and pleasant environs, not only unspoilt by the war but far from any direct reminders of it. And not so very far away, many of his comrades are being shot down in another futile attack.

It was on 1.55 on what was a beautiful, sunny Whitsun in Picardie, with “the fallow” of No Man’s Land “gay with yellow and gold,” that the barrage opened up. The assault was impossibly well-named for a descent from pastoral sweetness into military disaster: A and C companies of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers attacked from “Plum Lane” toward a section of “Tunnel Trench.”

C Company’s commander, T.R. Conning, led the assault. He “chaffed the stiff-limbed and the laggards, and gave some of them a hand to climb out.” But the wire was thicker than expected and barrage lifted too quickly–and without doing significant damage to the Germans in Tunnel Trench or the machine guns supporting them. Within minutes, 165 men of the 2nd Royal Welch were hit. About half of these were killed, and ten of the 11 officers who had gone over the top were casualties. The dead included both Conning and E.L. Orme (“Dunning” and “Ormand” in the memoir), both particular friends of Siegfried Sassoon.[2]

Sassoon is in Sussex, lolling uneasily about Chapelwood Manor, and thus in ignorance of the planned attack.

There were times when I felt perversely indignant at the “cushiness” of my convalescent existence. These reactions were mostly caused by the few letters which came to me from the front. One of Joe Dottrell’s hastily pencilled notes could make me unreasonably hostile… and inarticulately unfriendly.

Dottrell/Cottrell, the quartermaster, had written to Sassoon recently about the death of “Young Brock,” i.e. Lt. Brocklebank, his hunting friend, and he will shortly write again about today’s slaughter, spurring a deeper bitterness with his details of this “hopeless failure” and its cost.[3]

For Frank Richards–who adds the detail, unreported in Dunn’s chronicle, that Dr. Dunn himself spent the afternoon “wandering about No Man’s Land” under fire,aiding the wounded–this “disastrous day for all concerned” provided a retrospective irony rather than a simultaneous one. Captain Radford, the only officer in the attack still alive and unwounded, saw Richards that evening and remarked “Well, Richards, only you, Sergeant Owens and I are left out of that tug-of-war team of the day before yesterday.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 353-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the infantry Knew, 349-54.
  3. Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, 468.
  4. It was actually three days earlier, an error of Richards' memory. Old Soldiers Never Die, 238.

Siegfried Sassoon Joins the Second Battalion, in Several Frames of Mind; Unquiet Death Stalks Edwin Vaughan

After a long, slow train journey, a nasty night at Corbie, and a sticky tramp up to “Camp 13” at Chipilly, Siegfried Sassoon joined the Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers today, a century back.

He is not best pleased: his previous service had been with the First Battalion, and even finding his way to the one other Regular battalion of his own Regiment is not good enough to lift his spirits. (Many, indeed, were not so fortunate, in these days of expanding bureaucracy–he might have been sent to a Kitchener mob or even to some foreign, declassé regiment.) The chief appeal of the 2/RWF was to have been Robert Graves, but he is headed Blightyward, sick once again.

Will the dour and acid Sassoon of the Rouen sojourn remain utterly friendless, or will his gentler instincts (or the inevitable cycles of his changeable mien) prevail?

So far, at least, the former:

I was wearing my best friends, a pair of greased marching boots whose supple strength had never failed to keep the water out; how much those boots meant to me can only be understood by persons who have never shared my type of experience; I can only say that they never gave me sore feet; and if this sounds irrelevant, I must remind the reader that a platoon commander’s feet were his fortune.

Yes: when at long last he returns to a fighting unit of his regiment, after more than half a year a way, he sings a paean to his boots, preferring them to his human traveling companions, the two cadet officers he had “nothing in common with.”[1]

But as he points out, an infantry officer’s feet are very important… also, generally, are his friends.

Also, I have erred: those were the words of “George Sherston,” not Siegfried Sassoon. But as it happens, today, a century back, is the day that the exceedingly flimsy veil is rent by a draft–namely the draft of the foregoing passage of Memoirs of an Infantry Officer which made its way into Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle. I will wrest a slightly different bit from Dunn, to show that Sassoono does indeed remark on the men of his battalion, and not just the unsuitable officers.

I found myself in command of No. 8 platoon, which contained 8 Private Joneses.[2] Its total strength numbered 34, including 2 sergeants, 2 corporal and 6 lance-corporals. Eight of the 34 were Lewis gunners. These being deducted my compact little unit… seldom mustered 20 strong… A recent draft had added a collection of under-sized half-wits to the depleted Battalion. Several men in my platoon seemed barely capable of carrying the weight of their equpiment…[3]

Shorn of its sheen of fictionalization, this is still pretty harsh. At the very least it’s a less-than-ringing endorsement of the most literary battalion on the occasion of the arrival of its most appreciated litterateur…

But wait, there’s more! Here’s Sassoon in propria voce, taking the story from yesterday afternoon:

Left Rouen about 4 o’clock in sunlight… Got to Corbie at midnight… slept in Field Ambulance and went out to.Rest Camp at Chipilly next day to join Second R.W.F.

…My two R.W.F. companions are… quite dull and suitably impressed by the occasion. Everything seems conspiring to lower my spirits (our kits were lost and plundered on the way up…)

The poem he wrote is of a piece:

Return

I have come home unnoticed; they are still;
No greetings pass between us; but they lie
Hearing the boom of guns along the hill
Watching the flashes lick the glowering sky.

A wind of whispers comes from sightless faces;
‘Have patience, and your bones shall share our bed.
Their voices haunt dark ways and ruined places,
Where once they spoke in deeds who now are dead.

They wondered why l went; at last returning,
They guide my labouring feet through desolate mud.
And, choked with death, yet in their eyes discerning
My living Strength; they are quickened in my blood.

 

It becomes impossible to track down the “real” Sassoon–to fix him for than a few moments, here or there in the years, pen or indelible pencil in hand. When he was writing “Return,” at least, it would seem that a Sorley-inflected (but not Sorley-quality; indeed, wholly traditional and showing not a trace of his sharp recent satiric wit) poem about death and loss was the only thing that could express his true feelings. (Better, at least, then simple whingeing about uncongenial companions or slow trains.) It would seem, too, that his requirements of the Second Battalion are extremely unrealistic: it will not do unless it is officered by men he already knows and loves, despite the fact that many of these are dead or disabled…

But poetry is truth, right?

Ah, but what if the author himself returns to the poem and adds a footnote excoriating his own verse for its “entirely artificial emotionalism?”[4]

Sassoon is impossible, which is also to say that he’s never dull, even when he’s down. Let’s just give the last word to Frank Richards, old soldier and signaler of the battalion, and leave Sassoon for a better day:

Two new officers that had just arrived seemed of a far better stamp than some that we had had during the last few months, and one named Mr Sassoon, who was wearing the ribbon of the Military Cross, was soon very popular with the men of the Company he was posted to. He had been with the First Battalion before he came to us. The Battalion was doing the ordinary training… I had some glorious days in the villages some miles from the huts. We at least were getting all the enjoyment we could before going back to the blood-tub where we never knew what might happen to us.[5]

 

That’s more like it. But speaking of returning to the blood-tub:

Edwin Vaughan was also on the way up to the line last night, scrambling overland to rejoin his platoon in its scattered front-line posts. After a harrowing approach through machine gun and trench mortar fire, Vaughan had circled the posts, crawling through the viscous mud to visit each one and check in with the non-com in command. At one such post he found a normally reliable man–Corporal Bennett–in near panic (does that etymology lurk in Ledwidge’s recent pastoral?), begging to be relieved. But Bennett calmed down once Vaughan denied his request and explained that exceptions couldn’t be made. He was left in the post, in command of six men and Vaughan finished his tour and snatched a few hours of sleep in a dugout.

Early in the morning, a century back, Vaughan awoke and found a fellow officer making out a casualty report for Corporal Bennett:

A few minutes after I had left them a bomb had fallen amongst them. I told Holmes about Bennett’s nervousness and sudden return to fatalism and we agreed that he must have had a premonition.

But Vaughan’s description of his interaction with Bennett doesn’t mention a premonition or “fatalism.”

I’ve doubted details of Vaughan’s diary before–it seems to me to have been inconsistently “worked up,” with a lack of clear explanation of when it is and is not the plain daily diary it purports to be… but today’s tale actually seems to bolster the case that Vaughan is not always embroidering his experience.

First, although he is indeed “emplotting” events–turning a small disaster into a retrospective story of fate (or nerves and nemesis–it seems as if he is doing it as he writes. The story-fying of experience, that is, is taking place this very morning, a century back, and not later on (when the diary was recopied).

Second, because the CWGC database confirms some details of today’s account. One obvious question is why a corporal would be in command of a post of six men, and a possible answer is that he would if he had been formally invested with a sergeant’s responsibility by means of the arcane rank of “lance sergeant,” a sort of honorary half-promotion for corporals. I can’t find a Corporal Bennett at a close enough date, but there is a Lance-Sergeant Alfred Bennett of the Royal Warwickshires who is listed as having been killed tomorrow, a century back. That is a very small discrepancy, and it is even bolstered by the fact that Bennett has no known resting place. Many bodies were lost even in less difficult circumstances… I can’t quite match Bennet’s report of three other men being killed–and a fourth later in the day but, again, the database brings us fairly close: a few corporals and privates of the Warwickshires are reported killed today and buried at nearby cemeteries.

And then another wrinkle: Vaughan claims to have buried all four of the men “in shell-holes behind the post where they were killed.” Were some of them reburied later, while Bennett, who appears on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, was never found? Very possible; I haven’t read ahead in Vaughan’s book yet, but perhaps that will clear things up to some degree.

So let’s move on, then, for the moment, genre sensors at the ready, to discover the reason that Vaughan gives these details:

After coming off duty, I was lying alone in the straw, and just dozing off, when I heard someone stop outside the cellar.  Sitting up, I saw the blanket slowly lifted and a head appeared in the dim light of the candle. I hardly repressed a scream of horror, and an icy numbness gripped me as I scanned–a blackened face, thick lips and acquiline nose, big eyes that stared at me, and a cap comforter drawn down almost to the eyebrows.  It was the face of the dead man that I had buried.

For fully half a minute we looked in silence at each other, then he asked me if I could tell him what time the rations would be up.  I laughed hysterically and made him come in so that I could dispel by conversation the awful fright that this appearance had given me. It was Corporal Harrison, his face blackened with wood-smoke but his every feature identical with that of the corpse.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 407.
  2. The paucity of family names in Wales seems to have been a never-ending source of humor to English observers. But it does stimulate an irresistible creativity in the way of cognomina...
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 306.
  4. Diaries, 143.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 221.
  6. Some Desperate Glory, 36-43.

Rowland Feilding Faces the Brass; Richard Aldington’s Odd Worms and Epitaphs; Edward Thomas Has a Birthday; Kate Luard is Back in Action

Those Great War generals are all bastards, right? They are donkeys sending lions over the top in pointless, badly-planned, unsupported raids, then spinning the results into victories in the press and lying to the staff so the same murderous tactics are inflicted on the poor bloody infantry again and again. Right? Well, no. Not all of them.

March 3, 1917. Derry Huts {near Dranoutre)

The Battalion Commanders were sent for this morning, to meet General Plumer, the Second (i.e. my) Army Commander, at Brigade Headquarters. We went in one by one, and had a tête-à-tête conversation with him.

When my turn came I found only Colonel Monck-Mason (temporarily commanding the Brigade during the Brigadier’s absence) and the Army Commander in the room.

The latter was very friendly, and very human. That is one of his many admirable qualities. He takes the trouble to know even his Battalion Commanders, and for this and other reasons has earned great confidence among the  troops of his army.

After shaking hands, he referred to the raid of February 19.

Rowland Feilding, competent and painstaking battalion commander, is about to get raked over the coals, it would seem.

He expressed the opinion that there should have been a preliminary bombardment by artillery, and asked me why this had not been done. Obviously, I could not enter into explanations, but he quickly turned to Colonel Monck-Mason, who replied that the trenches were too close together for that.

“Then,” said the General, “you should have had a trench-mortar bombardment.” Then he turned to me and said: “ I know all about your having asked for a Stokes mortar bombardment: General Pereira has told me.”

I felt I could see General Pereira telling him this, and explaining that it was he who had refused it; blaming himself, in fact, for the failure of the raid. Now, that is just Pereira all over, and I repeat it that you may know the man, and understand why every officer and soldier of his Brigade swears by him.

As one of my brother C.O.’s once said to me: “You know, if he trusts you, that he will defend you, and that no one will be allowed to belittle you except across his mangled corpse.” And the feeling in regard to Plumer among the fighting troops—I do not speak for his Staff who no doubt feel this also—is much the same.

We came here yesterday, into Brigade Reserve, to find that the enemy had been shelling the place with high explosive and gas, which latter still hangs heavily on the ground. One shell hit the house where my headquarters are, but the family (mother, baby and all) still cling on.

General Sir Herbert Plumer

(Midnight) I have just got my leave.[1]

Some small wartime tragedies, then, are not compounded by their sequels.

But Feilding is unusually fortunate in his generals, and not only the honorable and loyal Pereira: General Sir Herbert Plumer is one of the more unprepossessing generals the British have, but he is also the most innovative–a term which, though a shibboleth of our current culture, feels strange in its application to a Great War general. As it should, for it was an unusual trait among the many well-bred cavalry generals still struggling to cope with the reality of deep defense systems and the deeper realities of attrition. But Plumer has been thinking differently and, as we can see today, he is listening to the officers in the front lines. And even as they spoke, in fact, he is planning a major operation unlike any yet attempted on the Western Front…

 

To sing us back into the daily routine we have the matter-of-fact choral/chronicle voice of Dr. Dunn’s history of the 2/RWF. But today the chronicle is nearly as poetical as our poets. The battalion, long in the line and proud of its practical mien, does not neglect to notice the birds and the ruins:

March 3rd.–There is a coating of ice on still water. Today’s is the second great flight of starlings and of crows since we came here. Do French crows, like Scotch crows, start housekeeping on the first Sunday in March? We have scraped together a trench strength of 450 by taking in the Drums and other details usually left out. We marched by Eclusier. Near Feuillères a whizz-bang had stuck in the stem of a tree, projecting fore and aft. Enough of Clery is standing to make it ghostly. A village razed is not so sad to see as roofless, windowless, sagging walls; they give one creeps at night. On the wreck of one house a cat sat and blinked listlessly as we marched through…[2]

 

I know I shouldn’t pile relatively uneventful writings atop each other–especially when we still have “welcome back” and “happy birthday” entries to get to–but I can’t resist this letter of Richard Aldington‘s to F.S. Flint. Aldington is eager to be a good modernist: sentimental, but not. And in expressing his general indifference to the killing of older men (Aldington is twenty-four), he surprises with a more-than-modern bit of slang:

3/3/17
My dear Franky,

I emerged from several yards of mud to find among others your excellent & heartening letter. After a night in a somewhat lousy dug-out your poems were like sprays of fresh lilac & your unpublished letter a healthy dung-hill…

I got your parcel several days ago–of course just before we moved, so I had to eat the cake wolfishly in a single evening, instead of making it last it [sic] week. All the same I enjoyed it. Please thank your wife for her trouble…

During a recent thaw in a certain trench there was discovered a rough wooden cross. I scraped the mud off it & on it was written in indelible pencil the following–“here lies [sic] the remains of two unknown British soldiers. Heroes both!”

The next day about a mile from the same point I examined (as I always do if possible) another grave. On it was a little metal plate: “Ein unbekannte Deutsche soldat” [An unknown German soldier]. I thought of my friend Jacques Viguelle lying far away & of another friend Sergeant Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. I wonder if I shall ever see his grave…

I hope this talk of “worms & epitaphs” doesn’t depress you, but you know my mania for necrology. All wasted youth, broken hope, lost effort touches me deeply–and–you will think me very inhuman–I don’t mind when I see older men “clipped” & hear them moaning–it’s the boys, the dear heart of youth stabbed–that’s what hurts.

Cheer-o, old boy.

Keep the home fires burning – with your m.s.s.

Richard[3]

 

And, as promised, two brief observances. One, ironically, jollier than the other:

Edward Thomas is thirty-nine today, but the vagaries of the post have brought him nothing, and he perhaps feels justified, then, in omitting to mention the occasion or to write more than the minimum:

No post. Morning dull spent in office. But afternoon with Colonel to Achicourt to see O.P.s and then to new battery positions… saw my new quarters to be. Wrote to Mother and Helen…[4]

Finally, today, Kate Luard, the Nursing Sister, is back at the front. She arrived yesterday in a new camp at Warlencourt, behind the Arras front after a rough ride over terrible roads. The situation was primitive, and dangerous, and her great pleasure at the prospect of confronting these difficulties comes through in her writing:

This area hums with work… The Colonel has made a little compound for us, walled in with canvas all round… the kitchen is not finished yet and the Nissen hut not up, so we slept on stretchers in the Mess Hut of another C.C.S. just over the road…

Sister R. and I are going to search the country round for a cottage to take our laundry, and to look for possibilities of milk, eggs, and butter, as we are ten miles from shops.

A place a mile away is shelled every day, and they once had to evacuate the patients in the C.C.S. across the road for shelling. The guns sound very close, and last night one heard again the big shells reverberating through the air as they travelled. The German retirement will make a difference here. There was a very sharp frost again last night and it was hard, or rather impossible, to get warm.

If her further descriptions of the dumps and the road work were not enough, the fact that there is another several-hundred-bed Casualty Clearing Station just across the road clearly indicates that action is expected nearby. But there are also the guns: tomorrow’s diary describes tonight, a century back

We were cosily tucked up in bed with dozens of blankets, and our oil stoves burning in our canvas huts and I’d just put my lamp out, when big enemy shells came whizzing overhead from two directions. They burst a long way past us, but made a tremendous noise being fired (from a big naval gun they run up close to their line), and loud screams overhead. Our 9.2’s and 12-inch in the wood here kept it up all night with lions’ roars.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 163-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 301-2.
  3. Imagist Dialogues, 193-4.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 167.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 96.

A Rum Job for Robert Graves and the Royal Welch; Edward Thomas on Writing and on the Phone

Robert Graves is full of tall stories, and this one sounds a head too high to be true–but, as it turns out, it’s only a bit stretched.

Due to a strange concatenation of accident and illness, the twenty-one-year-old Graves, a schoolboy at the start of the war, found himself temporarily in command of a Regular Army battalion, the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. Not only that, but during the day or two of his tenure the Royal Welch were due to participate in small attack–which, of course, did not feel like a small matter to the men who were supposed to cross the thickly mudded expanse of No Man’s Land with little to no support..

Opposite our trenches a German salient protruded, and the Brigadier wanted to ‘bite it off’ in proof of the Division’s offensive spirit. Trench soldiers could never understand the Staff’s desire to bite off an enemy salient. It was hardly desirable to be fired at from both flanks; if the Germans had got caught in a salient, our obvious duty must be to keep them there as long as they could be persuaded to stay. We concluded that a passion for straight lines, for which Headquarters were well known, had dictated this plan; but found no strategic or tactical excuse.

This is a bit cynical, but it’s also a common complaint and not, on its face, completely unfair. We’ve just heard Rowland Feilding, a sober, experienced soldier, make similar complaints about a similar operation, if in very different terms. There have been other such operations bruited, attempted, even successfully carried out, all along the line, lately. It seems to be a particular scourge of this winter–with the Somme battle three months behind and the next major British effort nearly two months away, the middling sorts of generals want to tidy up their maps and generate reports of their success and efficiency.

Now I’m being a bit cynical, but the wasting of lives on small offensive operations that can’t achieve anything of strategic importance seems misguided enough; doing it in terrible conditions and in such a way that major-attack-like casualties are all but inevitable seems particularly unimaginative, brutish, and, on several levels, self-defeating. But bureaucracies really do work that way, sometimes; and machines built for big efforts often trundle on, on low power, when they should be off and held in readiness; and conservative institutions will continue to generate behavior that has long been valued and rewarded (planning and executing “attacks,” as opposed to efficiently minding the attritional store) even after they have been shown to be destructive.

Graves, in his own telling, stepped up and stopped the raid–or at least demanded that it be postponed due to the mud. In Good-Bye to All That he goes to a brigade conference–probably yesterday, a century back, perhaps today–and shocks the old brass by refusing to participate. He doesn’t deny–nor dwell upon–the fact that he is only continuing his battalion’s policy in recent days under other commanders: object vociferously to a murderous and pointless plan. The 2/RWF, who consider themselves still an elite Regular battalion, have proven time and again that they are an aggressive, highly motivated unit, and the feeling is that they have the moral authority to resist plans like this.

For Graves, the depravity of the Staff (the local staff, mind you, at Division level) is confirmed by the fact that they resorted–today, a century back–to what was essentially a bribe. He includes the carbon copy of a message form still in his possession when he wrote his memoir (I doubt that Graves would entirely invent such a thing) and carrying today’s date:

So yo ho ho and an extra ration of rum. Graves learns shortly after his performance at the conference that the raid has indeed been postponed, and he took full credit for it, linking the cancellation to his “decision” as temporary O.C. (Officer Commanding) 2nd R.W.F. to object to the plan.[1]

Which annoyed his comrades. Sassoon, a fellow Fusilier with better relationships with some of the other officers of the battalion than Graves could boast of, will complain, and Dr. Dunn will describe the battalion’s resistance to the raid without mentioning Graves’s part. Nevertheless, the Welch will not be sent forward to ruin, tomorrow, and will presumably have to forgo the 7 1/2 gallons of liquid courage that have been offered…[2]

 

And in a less contentious vein, today, we have Edward Thomas writing to Eleanor Farjeon, of billets and books. Death isn’t hovering behind the next Brigade Order here, and Thomas, in any event, is disposed to sharper, quieter cynicism.

Feb 21

My dear Eleanor,

Your letter has just found me out in —— I am right in the town now, temporarily (I hope) on the headquarters staff of the Group which our battery is under. I don’t know why I am transferred except the little Adjutant here is away and an officer was wanted in his place. I hate office work, but so far I have avoided most of it and just go about with the Colonel or supervise jobs such as the present one of moving into a new billet—a fine modern mansion in the new quarter. We could have a room apiece if we liked. Our own guns all round us are the chief annoyance at present…

My proofs sound as if they would be perfect. Thank you ever so much for reinstating that line in ‘Lob’ and separating ‘When he should laugh’ from its neighbour. I shall begin reading again when the book arrives. For a week I haven’t read a Sonnet a day. I couldn’t think of writing, or so it seems. Except letters, that is, and a very brief diary.

Which we will continue to read, although Thomas, like others, is often in the habit of expanding upon his diary’s observations in his letters. When he does this, I’ll forgo the diary…

Farjeon is concealing the truth, by the way, that the printer has done a slapdash job in setting “Edward Eastaway’s” Poems. But she is working hard on correcting them…

The next bit from Thomas is quite funny.

My Colonel…  thinks because I am a writer that I might be able to write a diplomatic letter to a Town Mayor. He seems to think the chief thing in writing is to make grammatical sentences.

This is precisely the fate that befell R.H. Mottram and a number of other writers–and those who let on that they speak good French are even more likely to spend their days shuttling between desk and local dignitary. But Thomas is suffering a worse fate, now, during his temporary assignment to an Artillery Group H.Q.: minding an uncongenial and vaguely threatening piece of technology:

Now I am left alone at dusk in the old billet, now empty, to hang on to the telephone till they can get through to the new billet. It would be annoying to have to hang on all night. You will chuckle cruelly at the idea of me at the telephone.—I believe you are going to bring out a book of parodies now. The line ‘The greyness of the twilight and myself’ is, I believe, very just although impossible…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 242-3.
  2. When he revises Good-Bye to All That, Graves will alter "hear the decision" to "hear of my stand at the conference." See also R.P.G., Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 350 n22; Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 299-300.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 250-2.

Robert Graves Rejoins the Second Royal Welch; George Coppard is Dead Lucky; Francis Ledwidge on the Somme

Last night, a century back, was one of ill-omen for our most literary battalion. “Tibs” Crawshay, highly-respected C.O. of the 2nd Royal Welch, was shot and wounded while out in no man’s land diligently inspecting the barbed wire. In one account it is a German patrol that took the “unlucky” shot, but rumor has it that he was fired on by nervous sentries of a neighboring battalion.[1]

And who is more likely to spread piping-hot rumors than Robert Graves, just now arrived with the battalion and tacking on a post-script to yesterday’s letter to Siegfried Sassoon:

PS. I have just arrived at the Second Battalion. James Cuthbert is commanding Tibs was shot last night through the arm and thigh by a bloody fool of a 20th Royal Fusilier: I don’t think he’s bad… We are at ‘freeze’ in both senses. Young Jagger has flu. Everyone else I know is on leave…[2]

This experience is common even to men like Max Plowman, still on his first tour but briefly absent at an Army School. For Graves, gone since July, the situation is even more stark–his best friend left behind, and none are here to smooth his path.

Actually, Graves does have friends. He is infuriating, but he has proven himself brave and generally competent, and that means a lot. And the battalion itself has changed, with fewer of the horsey, anti-intellectual career officers that had railed at his unconventionality but accepted a quiet sportsman like Sassoon. The most important friend he will have, however, is one of our most important informants: today is not so much a crossing of paths as a conjoining of two–Graves is now back within the purview of Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle.

I found the Second Battalion near Bouchavesnes on the Somme, but a very different Second Battalion. No riding-school, no Battalion Mess, no Quetta manners, no regular officers, except a couple of newly arrived Sandhurst boys. I was more warmly welcomed this time; my supposed spying activities had been forgotten…

Dr. Dunn asked me, with kindly disapproval, what I meant by returning so soon. I said I couldn’t stand England any longer.

Melodramatic, but perhaps not untrue. Graves is known to be brave, in trenches, and it is certainly another point in his favor that he has returned to the battalion in the miserable depths of winter rather than milk his injury for more time at the depot. He is, as it were, now proven to be operationally as well as tactically courageous. And his worst tormentors are gone–it’s safe, then, for him to be made safe, and Dr. Dunn steps in.

He told the acting C.O. that I was, in his opinion, unfit for trench service, so I took command of the Headquarter Company and went to live with the transport, back at Frises, where the Somme made a bend…

We lived in dug-outs, close to the river, which was frozen over completely but for a narrow stretch of fast-running water in the middle. I have never been so cold in my life. I used to go up to the trenches every night with the rations, Yates being sick; it was about a twelve-mile walk there and back.

Graves’s other memories of this period include focus on the cold, including inter-Company football played on the frozen river and piping hot dinners eaten in billets so cold that “ice had formed on the edge of out plates before we finished eating.”[3]

 

And two more brief updates for today, a century back.

George Coppard‘s engaging tale of life as a teenage machine gunner is of limited usefulness, here, because he did not keep a detailed diary and can apply few specific dates to his memoir. But everybody remembers his or her birthday! Coppard, shot in the foot by a pal, was cleared of wrongdoing and has been recovering at Lady Butler’s private hospital in Hereford.

I was dead lucky to have struck that hospital. I’ll never forget the food and perquisites we Tommies had there. Her Ladyship personally issued the daily ration of twenty cigarettes or an ounce of pipe tobacco per man. On my nineteenth birthday, I had a surprise birthday cake.[4]

 

Francis Ledwidge’s burgeoning prominence as a poet has not kept him from shipping out once again. It’s his first tour in France after a long odyssey in Gallipoli, Serbia, Macedonia, and Egypt. After a week of drill and instruction his battalion of the Royal Inniskillings had moved to a camp near Trônes Wood, on the Somme, for further combat training. This afternoon, a century back, they began their march to the front line. For men who had not seen France before this would have been a sobering–not to say awful–march: over a rutted road and then over miles of the old Somme battlefield, muddy and cold, safely traversed only by slick and icy duckboards. Men slipped into the mud whenever the duckboards tilted, and even tying sandbags over boots for better traction was of little avail. “After a horribly wearisome journey, they reached their line, consisting of a series of shell-holes connected by a shallow trench.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 293; Good-Bye to All That, 238.
  2. In Broken Images, 64.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 238-9.
  4. With a Machine Gun, 105.
  5. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 171.

A. A. Milne and the Earnest Young Knight; Robert Graves Arisen; Herbert Read is for a Hardy Pessimism

On his way to France to join the 11th Royal Warwickshires, A. A. Milne had traveled with a very young subaltern–young, and a younger son, and now the only son. His parents had given him

…an under-garment of chain-mail, such as had been worn in the Middle Ages to guard against unfriendly daggers, and was now sold to over-loving mothers as likely to turn a bayonet-thrust or keep off a stray fragment of shell; as, I suppose, it might have done. He was much embarrassed by this parting gift, and though, true to his promise, he was taking it to France with him, he did not know whether he ought to wear it. I suppose that, being fresh from school, he felt it to be ‘unsporting’; something not quite done; perhaps, even, a little cowardly. His young mind was torn between his promise to his mother and his hatred of the unusual. He asked my advice: charmingly, ingenuously, pathetically.

Milne is thirty-four, a married man and a professional writer and editor, far removed from this schoolboy view of army life. And yet the boy is not wrong. Foolish to be so bothered, sure, but how can that be helped? He is right to anticipate shallow judgment by his peers and to imagine a system still shaped by notions of honor and fair play. It’s sad, for us, to see the word “sporting” affecting life and death decisions; and it should be–but how can it be otherwise? There is no handy porter to cart away all our excess cultural baggage when war beckons.

Interestingly, the practical question of whether the weight of this chain-mail corselet is worth the protection it provides (a mithril coat neatly dodges this conundrum) is not raised. This is a question of honor, and sporting behavior–there is a sense that it is wrong not to expose the body to harm when seeking to do harm. Is this entirely bizarre? A little, but there is a faint echo of similar, more familiar ethical questions nonetheless.

Was it sporting for knights in heavy armor to plunge around a battlefield hacking through their unarmored inferiors in order to attempt to brain, capture, and ransom a similarly invulnerable aristocrat? Is it precisely the same when a fighter pilot swoops in between AA fire to fire a rocket as when an operator at a console ten thousand miles away performs the same task?

But this is only a small part of the equation, really: armor was largely abandoned because it was ineffectual, and the notion of “unsporting” followed (after they whittled chivalry down and ran it up and down the playing fields of Eton for a while). Hardly (and not, in fact, entirely) had the last cuirassiers set aside their breastplates when the infantry were once again donning their steel helmets, remarking on their medieval aspect, and complaining about the weight. In fact, just yesterday, in a letter I omitted, Raymond Asquith was mocking an apparent suggestion from Arthur Conan Doyle that the infantry should carry steel shields. And unbeknownst to the men currently fighting, there are plans well advanced to return armor to the battlefield, in the form of the first tanks…

But back to Milne’s story of the boy and his chain-mail. It is, alas, not an idle story, but neither does Milne turn it to comedy or an object lesson. Instead it’s another bittersweet prelude to meaningless disaster. Today, a century back, the 11th Warwickshires were at their ease, camping in an orchard near Bécourt[1]–about two miles west of Mametz Wood–when Milne and the other new subalterns first heard the sound of guns not as distant thunder, but as incoming rounds.

I do not know whether he took my advice… Anyway, it didn’t matter; for on the evening when we first came within reach of the battle-zone, just as he was settling down to his tea, a crump came over and blew him to pieces…

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

But just why it was a pleasant death and a fitting death I still do not understand. Nor, it may be, did his father and mother; even though assured by the Colonel that their son had died as gallantly as he had lived, an English gentleman.[2]

This is a letter written this summer, a century back, but we have already heard this note of bitter irony about how a pointless death in a wood behind the lines can be written up as “gallant” and gentlemanly. And we will see more of that Horatian tag, too. Others will take it on more literally: “to die for (one’s) fatherland/country” would be the literal translation of the end of the line, but it is interesting that Milne seems to make the point that “country” and “class expectations” are inseparable–it is the gentlemanly death alone that the youth imagined to be sweet and fitting.

 

One gets the sense that Dr. Dunn appreciated and tolerated Robert Graves rather than liking him wholeheartedly. But since the doctor had played some role in the nearly-fatal mistake of treating Graves’s wound as fatal, it would be, well, unsporting not to give Graves a good line upon his resurrection.

July 31st. …When the death of Bowles and of Graves was reported through the Field Ambulance, nine days ago, the customary letters were written to their kin. Now Graves writes to the C.O. that the shock of learning how much he is esteemed has recalled him from the grave, and that he has decided to live for the sake of those whose warm feelings he has misunderstood.[3]

 

Lastly, we check in with an infrequently-appearing yet very significant writer. Herbert Read is by now a long-serving subaltern–although he has been some months in the trenches, he has missed the Somme after being injured by barbed wire. Unfortunately, little of his early-war writing can be dated, hence his rare appearances here.

Today, however, we have a letter–one of many written to the woman who was at first a “casual” university friend but is now becoming something much more important. As we come to read more of these letters–published subsequently as a sort of substitute diary-in-letters–we may indeed see something of the “process of getting familiar with death and nothingness… in all its unconscious fatality.”

This might read like an introduction to a letter that demonstrates shock at the suddenness of death in battle or bombardment, but it’s not. We’ll get there, but Read is now in Rugeley Camp in Staffordshire (one of the former haunts of John Ronald Tolkien) and far from the noise of war. It’s his reading–he’s a radical, a Nietzsche-enthusiast, and a devout young Modernist–rather than the war itself that provides evidence of personal developmental. And evidence, too, that you can take the bright boy out of timelessly rural England,[4] but you can’t rural England out of the boy…

31.vii.16

I think a pessimistic attitude is essential to all clear thinking. By a pessimistic attitude I mean a realization of the imperfections and limitations of Man. The belief in the ‘divinity’ of mankind has resulted in all that false idealism and romanticism which is the curse of literature, philosophy and art…

Read name-checks many of his philosophical and literary enthusiasms, here–Bergson, Croce, Sorel, Henry James, the Imagists–before coming to a writer more dear to the heart of this project.

And now for your attack… on Hardy and Meredith… I refuse to have them condemned on the flimsy grounds of morbidity… Hardy’s Jude the Obscure… [is] an absolutely faultless presentation of the animal in mankind… and also, in the character of Jude, a presentation of the finer aspirations of mankind. And in the heroine you have, it seems to me as a mere man, one of the finest female characters ever conceived.

And besides, in all of Hardy’s novels, there is a fine pagan spirit which you must admire–a revelation of the essential cruelty of nature, and of the damning blight of religious creeds.

Which, after all, is good mental conditioning for the godless intellectual youth bound for the trenches…

Read continues on to defend Meredith and praise James before he breaks off with this:

I don’t know if all this is boring you. I will another time, if you like, pull the Wells-Bennett school to pieces. Also give you my own ideas on the novel. For I am going to attempt one as soon as this beastly war is over.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Perhaps Bécourt Wood itself.
  2. Thwaite, A.A. Milne, 173-4. A cursory search of the CWGC site does not locate a subaltern of the 11th Royal Warwickshires killed today, a century back. It seems much more likely that the records (or recollections) are off by a day than that the incident was concocted...
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 246.
  4. Read's account of his childhood on a big Yorkshire farm--yes, that's about as far as you can be from Hardy's Wessex poverty and still be "timelessly rural England," but still--is the most beautiful that I have read, and I've read a few.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 73-4.