A Quiet Day, Siegfried Sassoon at a Barrie Play, and Cynthia Asquith Opts for Genius

A quiet day, today.

For John Lucy, still holding the line near Cambrai, it was only “fairly quiet… except for bombing in the main trench.”[1] The battle, in other words, is falling back from fury to the more subdued viciousness of confused, close-quarters attrition.

 

For Siegfried Sassoon, still on leave, it was a quiet day in town. After his weekend with Robert Nichols and then some disappointing hunting, he lunched at leisure and then went to the theater with Robbie Ross to see Barrie’s Dear Brutus.[2] Yes, one of Barrie’s not-Peter-Pan plays. But it sounds like it should’ve struck a chord: “The setting is a country-house with a garden bathed in midsummer moonlight, owned by an aged Puck known as Lob.”

Lob? That Lob? Well, no, not exactly that Lob. But the play also features an enchanted wood, an unhappy artist, and “a disdainful female aristo,” and it shows Barrie’s interest in a less literal sort of male “arrested development…”[3]

 

For Cynthia Asquith, today brought yet another encounter with Bernard Freyberg, hero of the Naval Division. I think she thinks she can’t really figure him out, even though she can. Freyberg is a talented soldier, exceptionally brave and neither too brilliant to bear the shackles of army life not too dull to blaze his own path into the higher ranks still occupied almost exclusively by pre-war officer… but it’s doubtful that he is a “genius…”

Wednesday, 5th December

…I went to stay one night at Seaford House—lunching with Margot and Lord Howard de Walden. Freyberg called for me there and we dined at the Trocadero, and sat till late listening to music. He interested me enormously. He has the stamp of a high calling which I have hardly ever recognised in anyone. I believe him to be a genius. He said he would ‘do his damndest’ to forget me when he went out. I have never had the type of admirer who hates the ‘yoke’ and I respect him for it, and yet he wants the friendship side of the relationship and complains of loneliness. But I don’t think he should be degraded into the role of a ‘sentimental friend’, even if it could be more than that—which is out of the question—he could never ‘share a woman’. This he said: he also often says it would never do for him to marry, he considers it ruin to a soldier’s career in peacetime. I adore his consuming ambition, and long for him to get a division. He would be comparatively safe then. As a brigadier I’m afraid he exposes himself as much as any subaltern. I am so afraid he may get broken by fighting with some stupid superior—he would never obey what he thought a mistaken order. He swears suicide if he is either maimed or a failure. There is a distinct touch of the melodramatic in him, but I don’t mind that, and I like his grimness varied by startling gentleness…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There's a Devil in the Drum, 386.
  2. Diaries, 197.
  3. See here.
  4. Diaries, 376-7.

Edmund Blunden Cudgels His Brain; A Tart Thank You from Thomas Hardy; David Jones Under Fire; Edwin Vaughan in the Mire

And now for something completely different from Edmund Blunden:

Several poems of the usual quiet melancholy type have made their appearance, and two or three I have left broken off through lack of heart to go on. I had half a mind to turn Roman Catholic whilst walking round Omer Cathedral the other day, but I can’t convince myself. I don’t know what to do. Aunt Maude writes saying that I haven’t written lately–but I have. Still, tomorrow evening I will cudgel my brains for flippancies about this most damnable war ‘such as her soul loveth.’ For she seems to think that the war is merely an opportunity for us poor devils to show our courage and cheerfulness: I see in it an opportunity for battle-murder and sudden death, and ‘Good Lord, deliver us!’ But I think things have got beyond him

As with nearly all letters complaining about aunts, this one is to his mother, and even the whimsy seems a bit more wearisome–nice Anglican boys do not drop offhand hints about conversion…  but he shrugs it off, in the end:

Forgive this writing which is obviously that of a pale wretch gibbering through the iron bars of his cage at the bright unthinking people passing by…[1]

 

Thomas Hardy has a bit of a bone to pick with his old friend J.M. Barrie–but he does so delicately, once more cloaking his preferences and disinclinations with the fusty, fussy mantle of age. Although, to be fair, it is true that he is not young…

Max Gate, Dorchester
23 June 1917

My dear Barrie:

It was so kind of you to concoct the scheme for my accompanying you to the Front-or Back-in France. I thought it over carefully, as it was an attractive idea. But I have had to come to the conclusion that old men cannot be young men, & that I must content myself with the past battles of our country if I want to feel military. If I had been ten years younger I would have gone. . . .

I hope you will have a pleasant, or rather impressive, time, & the good company you will be in will be helpful all round…

Always sincerely yrs
Thomas Hardy.[2]

 

No–“pleasant” would not be the word, and the slight dig of changing “front” to “back” is a point well taken. David Jones, for instance, spent today, a century back “huddled in a dugout” throughout seven hours and fifteen minutes of continuous shelling.[3] Not pleasant at all.

 

As for Edwin Vaughan, his day was far less terrifying, beginning as it did with relief and a march to the rear. And yet it was notably unpleasant…

After a few hundred yards we turned off on to a slippery path through thick trees and after sliding and crashing down with clatter of rifles and tin hats and loud cursing, we at last spied the glow of cookers above us among the trees, and were met by Braham who was waiting to guide the troops to their bivvies. Thankfully we followed him inch by inch up a slippery bank to where the cookers stood promising hot pontoon.

I was the last to climb the greasy bank and had just reached the top when my feet slipped and down I went, rolling over and over until I was messed with sticky mud from head to foot. I cursed loudly and foully as I recovered my tin hat from a pool, and had another shot at the bank. I finished the last part on my knees, and by the time the cooks had directed me to the troops’ bivvies, they were already installed and the other officers had gone on with Braham to their quarters.

So savagely I decided to be a martyr, and I stopped to see the troops draw their pontoon. Standing by the cookers like a brown ghoul I watched the troops one after another file into the flickering light of the fire which played on their muddy clothes, the black faces and dirty ducks of the cooks and on the dripping tree trunks. Over all the rain fell with a steady swishing through the leaves.

I waited until all the Company were served, then had a mug of stew, after which I set off through the trees in the direction indicated by the cooks as the officers’ lines…

They started to jeer at me for my muddied appearance but I assumed a superior attitude as I told them that I was the only one who had remained to see the troops comfortable. Then I howled ‘Mess!’ and Martin appeared with a huge plate of stew. As I ate, Martin stood watching me and chaffing me about my ‘muddy look’. Being Martin he was allowed to do so, but when he commenced to pick bits of mud out of my hair I had to get cross and send him away…[4]

Muddy, but relieved–in both senses–Vaughan fell asleep as dawn broke.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 74-5.
  2. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 220-1.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones and the Great War, 157.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 167-9.

Thomas Hardy Will Not Go For a War Writer; Olaf Stapledon Will Not Judge

First, today, a quick note to readers: for much of the next three weeks I will be on vacation–on holiday, that is–with my family (in England and Wales!) I’ve worked ahead and set the posts to be published each day, but I may not be able to check in regularly. Everything should be fine, but if there is any website snafu, please send me an email and I will try to fix it as soon as possible. There may be some problems with links to recently-published posts.

And if there are any big revelations in the next few weeks about the events of June/July 1917, they will not, alas, be discussed in a timely fashion here…  Thanks for reading!

 

Just two letters today: an inevitable crossing of paths and then some maintenance work on one of the longest and strongest bridges ever built over the “experiential gulf” from France to peaceful places.

For the last few months, John Buchan has been working like a Trojan as the first Director of the Department of Information. Way back in 1914, efforts were made to enlist the grand old men of English literature in a more amateurish sort of propaganda effort, and the greatest of them gently but firmly resisted, producing “war writing,” but only in his own voice and after his own fashion.

But now Thomas Hardy has been approached once again, and perhaps more cleverly–he has been asked to make an official visit to France (which would have put him in the way of C.E. Montague) alongside his friend James Barrie and Sir Owen Seaman of Punch.

I don’t think he wants to go, or see the war, or be seen trotting along in harness, implying support for the General Staff and all the unfatalistic vagaries of patriotism–but he need not say so outright.

Max Gate, Dorchester.
1 June 20; 1917

Dear Colonel Buchan:

I appreciate your thought of me: & there are many things that would have led me to embrace eagerly the opportunity of visiting the fighting lines in France in such attractive company. But I remember that I am not so young as I was, & am compelled to give up almost all enterprises nowadays that comprise travelling more than a few miles, though I am as well as anybody of my age.

I am endeavouring to console myself by thinking that in the past I have studied a good many battlefields and battles of the flint-lock & touch-hole period & that it is really not worth while for me to open up an investigation of modern scientific warfare, but to leave it for those who are young in these days, or unborn.

I must thank you for your consideration in sending the passport form, which shall be returned if required: otherwise I will keep it to show what I was on the brink of doing at 77. . .

Most sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy[1]

Hardy is yet only 76, but, war-wise, he’s a century-back sort of man. The Napoleonic Wars are worth writing about… these present calamities seem only lamentable evidence of human folly and cruelty…

 

And who better to balance Hardy than one of the young and most forward-looking. Actually, Olaf Stapledon is not so terribly young, but he seems young in his sweetness and ardor, and he is certainly the most forward-looking of our crew. But today’s missive to Agnes is not an idyll or a love-letter or a runnel of purest science fiction–it’s about regular everyday horror and suffering, and it’s the second recent letter in which a note of despairing sarcasm has inflected his usually sunny prose.

SSA 13
20 June 1917

…We are now further from the front than the convoy has ever been before… It is lovely peaceful hilly country with rivers for bathing and woods and “hanging” gardens…

Yesterday Sparrow went off on a call and got a man who had just had his legs cut off at the thigh by a train, cut off almost at the hip. Seems unnecessary for that sort of thing to happen now, doesn’t it…

Today, let’s be frank, we have startled this peaceful place by a display of a very bloodstained car. (Bloodstained! the little word one uses for a hanky that has a spot on it!)

Olaf than receives letters from Agnes–the mail between Australia and France, never swift, has been irregular of late–but even when being flattered he is careful to keep to his principles…

Cheers! Two long letters from you… you must not say I am a soldier when I am not, but only a rather militarised civilian engaged in clearing up the mess. You say a lot again about war & me in one of those letters. I don’t know whether the thing I am doing is right or wrong, but it seemed right when I began… Don’t be too hard on the fellows that don’t do anything. They may be right in their own cases…[2]

The wise know that it is not always best or easiest to do what is asked, or to do what everyone else is doing… and the good fight hard against the instinct to think less of those who do otherwise, and less…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 220.
  2. Talking Across the World, 231-2.

Edward Thomas: “The Artillery is Like a Stormy Tide;” Edward Hermon is Likely to be Pretty Busy; Siegfried Sassoon Feels Elation and Absolute Confidence; A.A. Milne Debuts a Comedy

Tomorrow will be Easter, and particularly well-suited to pondering life and death, pain and sacrifice. Today, a century back, our two Edwards at Arras–though Edward Hermon goes by “Robert”–both write pre-battle, pre-bedtime letters to their wives.

My darling,

I’ve had a rather strenuous time in the line these last three days & so beyond a postcard I haven’t been able to do much for you, old dear.

We have been in for three days during which time our guns have been most particularly active. The result being that one hasn’t known a moment’s peace. The bottom of the trenches has had water & mud over it to the depth of the top of my field boots. Last night I was relieved, thank goodness, & the adjutant, the Doctor and I walked back here together getting in at 6 a.m. (My town residence.)

Three more weary, mud-bespattered officers it would have been hard to find. I just flung myself down on the bed and slept as I never slept before with guns blotting off in all directions close to me without ever hearing a sound till Buckin woke me about noon. I hadn’t had six hours’ sleep in the three days, been damned nearly killed once & was what you call pleasantly weary, but it’s a wonder how very quickly a few hours’ sleep revives one…

The guns make life quite unbearable in the house & now I’m down in a cellar where I’ve got my orderly room & a nice brazier of coke & am really quite warm & comfortable tho’ it sounds hardly so…

I go in the line again tomorrow…

My own dear lass, I must go to bed now as I must store up what energy I can, as I shall probably need it these next few days as I’m likely to be pretty busy so far as I can see. Give the dear little Chugs my love & a kiss from Dad & with all my love to you old dear, & your dear old face to love.

Ever your Robert.[1]

 

Edward Thomas managed a few lines in his diary–including one striking line that places the poet of roads and trees and rainfall more firmly in the ruin-scape than he has ever been–and then wrote once more to Helen.

Up at 6 to O.P. A cold bright day of continuous shelling… Infantry all over the place preparing Prussian Way with boards for wounded. Hardly any shells into Beaurains. Larks, partridges, hedge-sparrows, magpies by O.P. A great burst in red brick building in N.-Vitasse stood up like a birch tree or a fountain. Back at 7.30 in peace. Then at 8.30 a continuous roar of artillery.[2]

Saturday
Beaurains
April 7 or 8 1917

Dearest,

Here I am in my valise on the floor of my dugout writing before sleeping. The artillery is like a stormy tide breaking on the shores of the full moon that rides high and clear among white cirrus clouds. It has been a day of cold feet in the O.P. I had to go unexpectedly. When I posted my letter and Civil Liabilities paper in the morning I thought it would be a bad day, but we did all the shelling. Hardly anything came near the O.P. or even the village.

So he was safe–but that is not news, for the letter is written. But what does he see?

I simply watched the shells changing the landscape. The pretty village among trees that I first saw two weeks ago is now just ruins among violated stark tree trunks. But the sun shone and larks and partridges and magpies and hedgesparrows made love and the trench was being made passable for the wounded that will be harvested in a day or two. Either the Bosh is beaten or he is going to surprise us. The air was full of aeroplane flights. I saw one enemy fall on fire and one of ours tumble into the enemy’s wire. I am tired but resting.

Yesterday afternoon was more exciting. Our billet was shelled. The shell fell all round and you should have seen Horton and me dodging them. It was quite fun for me, though he was genuinely alarmed, being more experienced. None of us was injured and our house escaped. Then we went off in the car in the rain to buy things.

The near misses are coming thick and fast–and see how both men, so different in temperament and literary refinement, laugh off the shell that almost got them, emphasize their great weariness, and tread lightly on the way in which hard work and danger will come hand in hand over the next few days. But not too lightly–he does mention the ways being made for the wounded. Does this terrify Helen with its reminder of possible mutilation, or is it a welcome suggestion that he may be honorably and not too dangerously wounded, and carried home?

We shall be enormously busy now. Rubin goes off tomorrow on a course of instruction and may be a captain before long, our sergeant major has left with a commission. One officer has to be at the O.P. every day and every other night. So it will be all work now till further notice—days of ten times the ordinary work too. So goodnight and I hope you sleep no worse than I do…[3]

 

The third of our officers in France today is Siegfried Sassoon–younger, unmarried and unattached, possessed of a very different psychological makeup. Hermon and Thomas are both brave: Hermon no doubt expected to be just as stolidly brave as he was bred to be, while Thomas was perhaps mildly surprised and relieved to find that he withstood shellfire better than most.

But Sassoon is… fickle. He is certainly brave, but in a curious way he has shown a lack of ability to be the sort of brave that this war demands: enduring, under constant pressure, despite the inability to reply to the danger or to funnel nervous tension into bursts of physical activity. In the Second War they might have made him a fighter pilot or a commando, but an infantry subaltern of the Great War is more akin to a bomber pilot, tasked to fly again and again, in tight formation, through the black flak and nightmare fighters.

Sassoon has forgotten this. He is ready for action, ready to leave behind the introvert poet, the budding anti-war activist, the romantic sulker, and become ‘Mad Jack’ once again. It’s a short few days of marching from bitter moods to combat euphoria.

And yet Sassoon, though on the way up (in two senses of the phrase), still has eyes for the birds: blackbirds confirmed! And could he bring a darkling thrush to Edward Thomas at Beuarains?

April 7 7 p.m.

We are now at Saulty, a village just off the Doullens-Arras road (about twelve miles from Arras)…

I am sitting on a tree-stump, in the peaceful park of a big white chateau which one sees among the trees. The sun is looking over the tree-tops now, and birds singing a way off, and a few little deer grazing; nothing to remind me of the battle, except the enormous thudding of guns from eastward. The brown of the trees and undergrowth grows purple, and the birds sing, thrushes and blackbirds, while a few rooks flap overhead. The bombardment must be terrific. Three Army Corps are reported to be attacking between Arras and Lens. We move to our final concentration area to-morrow (Easter Sunday!)—about four miles from here.

The next paragraph is as nice a blend of insight and bemused resignation as we are likely to find. And another good reminder for we-who-would-understand-the-war: if even a self-studying diarist can’t begin to comprehend his own emotions, how are we to make sense of it all?

I don’t suppose anyone would believe me if I said I was absolutely happy and contented. Of course this is written after a good meal of coffee and eggs. But the fact remains that if I had the choice between England to-morrow and the battle, I would choose the battle without hesitation. Why on earth is one such a fool as to be pleased at the prospect? I can’t understand it. Last year I thought it was because I had never been through it before. But my feeling of quiet elation and absolute confidence now is something even stronger than last summer’s passionate longing for death and glory.

I keep such music in my brain
No din this side of death can quell.[4]

(I never wrote truer words than those.)

This battle may be nothing at all, or it may give me a fine chance. I only hope we are in the forefront of it. Sitting in support and getting shelled is no fun at all. I may even be left out, awful anticlimax for the hero!

The men seem very cheery and have done the forty-odd miles well. These occasions when soldiers are on the verge of hell always seem to show them at their very best. Of course the officers are very prone to a sentimental ave atque vale frame of mind. For the men it is a chance of blighty, and anything for a change.

Aeroplanes are humming in the clear sky, and the sun is a glint of crimson beyond the strip of woodland. And still that infernal banging continues away on the horizon. Holmes, has applied for me to go to the First Battalion, but I
suppose I’ll stay here now.[5]

 

And here’s a quirky reminder that life goes on, even in wartime–never really an inappropriate reflection, from either angle, lately. London is still London, and even with the cost of the war, and conscription, and rationing, and shortages, life–and the show–must go on. For Alan Milne, like Tolkien a victim of “trench fever” in the last months of the Somme, a long convalescence has let him get on with his writing.

And his big break has come quickly: tonight, a century back, on forty-eight hours leave from his new job as a signals instructor, Milne saw the premier of his first play, a comic one-act called Wurzel-Flummery, at the New Theatre in London. The setting was ideal: his play appeared between two other short plays by J.M. Barrie, and the theater was filled with soldiers on leave, eager to be entertained. It was a signal success…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 350.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  3. Selected Letters, 164-5.
  4. The first lines of his 'Secret Music,' written in December and shortly to be published.
  5. Diaries, 151-2.
  6. Thwaite, A.A. Milne, 181.

Isaac Rosenberg is Feeling Poorly; Siegfried Sassoon Posts Robert Graves; Ivor Gurney on Severn and Somme; Olaf Stapledon on a Pleasure-Loving Prophet; The Irish Guards Break a Truce

All the poets are busy as bees, today. First, Isaac Rosenberg got a rare letter into the mail–to Eddie Marsh, of course. Each man is different, and Rosenberg may be both sickly and hypochondriac… yet it’s hard to see the predicaments of the soldier–as opposed to the officer–in Rosernberg’s worries. There is no question of leave, or of getting books published… Rosenberg has written a tremendous poem and learned that it has been published in a reputable periodical–but that news goes by in a line, and his lungs take up an entire paragraph… can Marsh get him away from the army?

[Postmarked January 18, 1917]
My Dear Marsh

My sister wrote me she would be writing to you. She’d got the idea of my being in vile health from you’re letter addressed to Dempsey St, and naturally they at home exaggerated things in their minds. Perhaps though it is not so exaggerated. That my health is undermined I feel sure of; but I have only lately been medically examined, and absolute fitness was the verdict. My being transfered may be the consequence of my reporting sick or not; I don’t know for certain. But though this work does not entail half the hardships of the trenches, the winter and the conditions naturally tells on me, having once suffered from weak lungs, as you know. I have been in the trenches most of the 8 months Ive been here, and the continual damp and exposure is whispering to my old friend consumption, and he may hear the words they say in time. I have nothing outwardly to show, yet, but I feel it inwardly. I don’t know what you could do in a case like this; perhaps I could be made use of as a draughtsman at home; or something else in my own line, or perhaps on munitions. My new address is

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon F. Coy
40th Division
Works Battallion
B.E.F.

I wrote a poem some while ago which Bottomley liked so, and I want you to see it, but Im writing in most awkward conditions and can’t copy it now. ‘Poetry’ of Chicago printed a couple of my things and are paying me. I should think you find the Colonial Office interesting particularly after the war.

I hope however it leaves you leisure for literature; for me its the great thing.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

 

So there we have some sharp contrast for another friend-of-Eddie, a man whose illness has brought him six months of hunting, writing, and semi-military idleness, with no objections from bureaucracies or medical boards. Siegfried Sassoon, today, is playing friend and writer, poet and patron. First the observation, then the work:

January 18

Gulls were flapping and calling; the tide was low; the sea level; ships—one full-rigged—and steamers and a liner slipped along, grey ghosts across the water, and the houses ashore were grey ghosts too—only they did not move. So I stood on the sandflats between the two with a quiet cloudy hazy sky overhead and a little frosty wind blowing the smoke from the north. Then the sun began to come out, as I stood on the huge, green-stained sewer-pipes, and the mud-flats were beaten-silver with level water creeping in as level as a sheet, and across the Mersey mouth the sea was shining pale coppery-gold. Then the sun went in again, and the arena of sand and sea was drab. And some soldiers flapped and wagged their signal-flags—tiny figures hundreds of yards away along the shore; crusted with melting ice.

This afternoon I sent Robert’s new poems to the Chiswick Press. Only nine of them—but the best work he has done, or will do for some time, I am afraid.

A Captain from the Second Battalion, on leave, was here last night. He said the soldiers in France regard the end of the war in the summer as certain. It will be a successful Push and victory, or else—failure and a patched-up peace![2]

This will be Goliath and David, a small private edition of Graves’s recent poems, and this will not be Sassoon’s last about-face on the likely outcomes of the war.

 

I suppose we might also have had updates on Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen, but nothing much is going on with either of them. It’s only all the rest of the major war poets will all be represented today. I need Chrissie Hynde to ask the crowd if they can handle another guitar hero…

In this case, the next poet up is Ivor Gurney, writing once again to Marion Scott. The letter begins with a long, rambling discussion of poetry good and bad, dropping many familiar names. But then come two poems, sandwiched (pun intended) around the inevitable discussion of parcels, which are so much more important to enlisted men of limited means than they are to officers. But many war poets actually in the combat zone are more likely to think of home than the dangers and vicissitudes of their days. Poetry isn’t “escape,” but it is an act of meaningful remembering… and Gurney on the Somme resides in an intensely idyllic Gloucestershire.

 

Song

Only the wanderer
Knows Englands graces
Or can anew see clear
Familiar faces

And who loves Joy as he (Who loves fair joy as he?)
That dwells in-shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.

Your brown bread parcel came three days ago on the 7th. It was tres bon. Bread and biscuits first rate and most acceptable; particularly as the rations did not turn up one day. How good it was to get bread not dust dry to eat.  What is in the stuff to keep it grateful to eat?

 

West Country

Spring comes soon to Maisemore
And Spring comes sweet.
With bird-songs and blue skies,
On gay dancing feet
But she is such a shy lady
I fear we’ll never meet.

Some day round a comer
Where the hedge foams white
I’ll find Spring a-sleeping
In the young-crescent night
And seize her and make her
Yield all her delight.

But theres a glad story
That’s yet to be told.
Here’s grey Winters bareness
And no-shadowed cold

O Spring, with your music
Your blue, green, and gold!
Come shame this grey wisdom
With laughter and gold.

All these lispings of childhood do not prevent terrific strafing on the left, where Hell is apparently combined with the angry gods to make things thoroughly uncomfortable.

With Sassoon and Thomas it usually seems as if the poetry comes from an entirely different part of the brain, even when poetry and prose share the same notebook sheet. But Gurney’s poems-in-letters are remarkable documents. It’s true, of course, that no written work is historically “immediate:” everything is filtered as it is written down, even if only seconds elapse. But rarely do we get poetry explicitly written during a bombardment, and Gurney’s letter seems to present military experience and poetic desire as a sort of experiment in counterpoint. Dreams of Severn meadows, and thundering death along the Somme…

But Gurney is thinking of his poetry, now. He is focused, and he has direct questions for Scott, asking to be compared to his friend Will Harvey, languishing in a POW camp. And not his immediate heroes, the Georgians? Perhaps not yet.

Would you mind telling me candidly sincerely as possible, what you think of my things were they collected in a book and compared to F W Hs? Personally, I think there is nothing of mine so good as “Flanders”. And also, perhaps, “If we return”, but outside those, I think my things are better on the whole and more poetical. Do you think there is too much regret in mine? His book has a fine spirit, is mine too much the confession of being unwillingly a soldier? Is there too much of a whine? I would not be out of it — right out of it — for anything: this gives me a right to talk and walk with braver men than myself and an insight into thousands of characters and a greater Power over Life, and more Love. But if I get knocked out—with the conviction sometimes of being able to write the finest sort of songs — then “deevil a ceevil word to God frae a gentleman like me.” But it is not good to let this appear since the forfeit of Life is paid by the noblest so often. After all (I take pride in it) there are not many chronic dyspeptics writing verse at the —. I think this is a title of Pride, and gives me excuse to be a little selfish…[3]

 

Even the non-poets are deep in poetry today, a century back. Olaf Stapledon, idle with his ambulances in Belgium, is spurred by poetry to write perhaps his most effusive and sensual letter yet.

… I have been sitting in front of the fire reading Walt Whitman, that astounding boisterous pleasure-loving prophet! I have hardly read him at all till now, & now it is a time to do so… His stuff seems haphazard and undisciplined, but it is fine vigorous stuff whether one likes it or not. He seems rather obsessed by sex… Yet the tone is as pure as the blue sky. And his obsession only consists in reading sex into rocks, atoms & stars…

This, actually, is an influence on Stapledon’s writing that now seems obvious. Whitman! Of course. But as far as today, a century back, Whitman seems less a shaper of his worldview and prose style than a goad and a license to write deliriously to Agnes of such topics as “your outstretched bare arm,” many repetitions of the word “beautiful,” and a full physical accounting of himself. Oh, the body electric!

 

Enough of poets and their hesitant pride, dreamers and their passions. Shall we close with humor, and history?

Alan Milne is thirty-five, today, and still recovering from trench fever. But he had a nice birthday present in the form of a note from none other than J.M. Barrie, informing the Punch contributor and sidelined signal officer that would be willing to arrange the production of one of his plays. Wurzel-Flummery will appear on a double-bill with news plays by Barrie in April, a first professional production for Milne.[4]

 

But let’s not forget that there is a war on–more or less. So goes another one of the brilliant bits of historical close-focus in Kipling’s History of the Irish Guards. He takes a notable incident and draws it out, implying that it might stand (ah but how could it? It is an incident…) for an entire period in the life of the battalion. Shall we live and let live, or shall we get on with it? And shall we keep up with the sporting metaphors, even now, in the midst of the war’s third winter?

For the moment, things were absurdly peaceful on their little front, and when they came back to work after three still days at Maurepas, infantry “fighting” had become a farce. The opposing big guns hammered away zealously at camps and back-areas, but along that line facing the desolate woods of St. Pierre Vaast there was mutual toleration, due to the fact that no post could be relieved on either side except by the courtesy of their opponents who lay, naked as themselves, from two hundred to thirty yards away. Thus men walked about, and worked in flagrant violation of all the rules of warfare, beneath the arch of the droning shells overhead. The Irish realized this state of affairs gradually — their trenches were not so close to the enemy; but on the right Battalion’s front, where both sides lived in each other’s pockets, men reported “life in the most advanced posts was a perfect idyll.”

So it was decided, now that every one might be presumed to know the ground, and be ready for play, that the weary game should begin again. But observe the procedure! “It was obvious it would be unfair, after availing ourselves of an unwritten agreement, to start killing people without warning.” Accordingly, notices were issued by the Brigade — in English — which read: “Warning. Any German who exposes himself after daylight to-morrow January 19 will be shot. By order.” Battalions were told to get these into the enemy lines, if possible, between 5 and 7 a.m.

They anticipated a little difficulty in communicating their kind intentions, but two heralds, with three rifles to cover them, were sent out and told to stick the warnings up on the German wire in the dusk of the dawn. Now, one of these men was No. 10609 Private King, who, in civil life, had once been policeman in the Straits Settlements. He saw a German looking over the parapet while the notice was being affixed, and, policeman-like, waved to him to come out. The German beckoned to King to come in, but did not quit the trench. King then warned the other men to stand by him, and entered into genial talk. Other Germans gathered round the first, who, after hesitating somewhat, walked to his side of the wire. He could talk no English, and King, though he tried his best, in Chinese and the kitchen-Malay of Singapore, could not convey the situation to him either. At last he handed the German the notice and told him to give it to his officer. The man seemed to understand. He was an elderly person, with his regimental number in plain sight on his collar. He saw King looking at this, and desired King to lift the edge of his leather jerkin so that he in turn might get our number. King naturally refused and, to emphasize what was in store for careless enemies, repeated with proper pantomime: “Shoot! Shoot! Pom! Pom!” This ended the palaver. They let him get back quite unmolested, and when the mirth had ceased. King reported that they all seemed to be “oldish men, over yonder, and thoroughly fed up.” Next dawn saw no more unbuttoned ease or “idyllic” promenades along that line.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 313-4.
  2. Diaries, 120-1.
  3. War Letters, 118-120.
  4. Thwaite, Milne, 180.
  5. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 113-14

Song Time is Over for Francis Ledwidge; Thomas Hardy on Low Spirits, and Spiritualism; A Punch-Up for Milne; Max Plowman on the War of Attrition, the Morale of Aggression, and the Atrophy of Humanity

We have several literary cameos today, a century back, but let’s begin with a double stroke of Max Plowman-related good fortune. First, it seems that we can date a section of his memoir, A Subaltern on the Somme, to precisely today, a century back.[1] Second, he is addressing a subject that was of sharp relevance only a few days ago–the idea of maintaining the “moral” ascendancy in No Man’s Land even when no offensive was in the works, generally by means of raids on the opposing trenches.

The Staff-Captain’s lecture

At the Town-hall we attend a lecture by a divisional staff-captain in a room which is used in the daytime as a school. The staff-captain is a tall fair man of aristocratic bearing, keen eyes and a genial manner. He is talking about the necessity for keeping the initiative, and pointing out the many ways in which troops holding the line may show themselves masters of the situation, even though the time for an advance over the German lines be delayed till the Spring. Our one object should be to prevent the enemy from ever feeling comfortable, and to this end we should keep patrols going and raid the enemy trenches whenever there is a chance. Morale is the great factor, and by keeping the initiative we shall help to destroy the German morale and so make the work of advance ten times easier than it would be if, through slackness, we allowed the other side to feel themselves “top-dog.”

He is tremendously keen, not in the least ominiscient, and adding to his keenness humour, and being himself obviously fearless, his words catch on. One sees the force of his argument, and the incitement to hold the advantage only seems like the encouragement of a good trainer who wants rugger forwards to use all their weight in the scrum and is able to show them how to do it.

It is not until the lecture is over that one reflects on his advice in terms of actuality. Then one sees a raid as a foul, mean, bloody, murderous orgy which no human being who retains a grain of moral sense can take part in without the atrophy of every human instinct.

I’ve a desire to go back and tell this gallant gentleman that unless he can infuse into my blood hatred such as I seem psychologically incapable of feeling towards an unknown enemy, much as I should like to be able to help keep the initiative, and quite ready as I am to sacrifice my life for this end, I honestly don’t see how it’s to be done.[2]

Thus Plowman–or rather the anonymous subaltern, who does not share his past as a pacifist who first chose the ambulances before opting for the infantry–mounts an effective challenge to militarism, and the moral degradation caused both by war in general and by the static grind of trench warfare in particular. The rugby analogy is apt–especially when discarded, since sporting metaphors inevitably palliate the nastiness of war.

This lecturer is not without his attractions–he is even admirable, in his proper place. Nor is he necessarily wrong to suggest that bloody-mindedness–and, more to the point, a red hand in the foray–is an important piece of any holistic (that is to say, not only strategic but moral, in the restricted sense of “pertaining to military psychology”) approach to winning the war. (I think he is wrong, but there is certainly a great deal of evidence that can lead one to conclude that the awful cost of constantly raiding, of prodding the sleeping dogs opposite into shooting or blowing up a portion of your own men, can be justified if it demoralizes the enemy and staves off the demoralization of your own infantry.)

But Plowman makes two good points, here.

First, even if raiding, with all its grim attritional “sacrifice,” is necessary to stave off defeat, how in God’s name will it bring about victory? He’s justified in asking this, and there is a harsh irony in the fact that readers of the main post-1930 line of Great War Literature will “know” that he is correct, while military historians–especially those of the post-war years and the revisionist schools of recent decades but, really, any historian who pays attention to the actual course of the war–will point out that it did work, more or less. There was little in the way of mutiny on the British side, and spectacular failures on the defensive were limited to the period of the one great German offensive–which so exhausted Germany that it lost the war.

That’s how it will “play” out, but none of the staff officers have foreseen this, and our subaltern is not wrong to wonder.

His second point, even if it is perhaps overstated, holds: how do you go out at night, every once in a while, looking for sleeping men to kill, just to demonstrate to yourself–and to them–that you are a killer to be feared, “without the atrophy of every human instinct?”

 

 

Francis Ledwidge, injured, ill and exhausted after the deprivations of the “Macedonian” campaign, has been recuperating, writing, and otherwise cooling his heels in barracks in County Derry. His latest poem will not make his second collection–already headed for the press, with an introduction written by Lord Dunsany–but it is timely nonetheless:

 

Song-Time is Over

I will come no more awhile,
Song-time is over.
A fire is burning in my heart,
I was ever a rover.
You will hear me no more awhile,
The birds are dumb,
And a voice in the distance calls
“Come,” and “Come.”

December 13th, 1916.

At the risk of reductive reading, “Song-Time is Over” was written right around the time that Ledwidge learned that several months of convalescence and training-camp duties were about to end. At some point in the next few days Ledwidge will be granted leave, pending embarkation. He will come home, and get to see his family in Slane for a few days, but by Christmastime he will bound for England, en route to France or Belgium, the origins of all foreboding distant voices, these days.

 

So we have a silence of the birds and an ominous summons for our Irish nature poet, and we have the opinion of Max Plowman, subaltern in France, on how the war might–or won’t–end.

What about an éminence grise, at home and plied for charitable contributions? Thomas Hardy wrote today, a century back, to Edmund Gosse (eminent man of letters and one of several points of contact between Hardy and Siegfried Sassoon), with his feelings on such matters.[3]

Max Gate, Dorchester. Dec 13, 1916

My dear Gosse:

Of course, if the slightest good is likely to be done by putting down my name as before, please do so, though my working powers will be nil. You will quite understand why it is that I shall be such a dead-head, for I am getting on in years, & far away. I have not been in London this year an unprecedented thing for one who was once half a Londoner.

However, if people should grumble at my figuring in your excellent work without working at it, I may be excused saying that I have been doing things down here for the same Cause. You may have seen in the papers about our dramatic efforts…  So I feel in the Red Cross business as it were, like the rest of you.

…Barrie, by the way, came to our performance, & Granville Barker was coming, but prevented by his military duties. Barrie has I think mellowed into a very nice fellow…

I am not in the best of spirits about the issue of the war; & a book my wife has been reading to me does not help me—Sir Oliver Lodge’s Raymond. Poor dear amiable man.

And thus Hardy corners me into discussing a book I had hoped to omit. No–that would be silly, and unfair. Rather, a book that I have no idea how to properly use, and so chose, in the earliest days of the project, to avoid.

Oliver Lodge’s son, Raymond, was killed early in the war, and the book–published in November and already heading toward its fifth printing–has a familiar opening section: there is a memoir of Raymond’s life, and extracts from his letters. And then–with perfect confidence that many or most among his readers, especially “other bereaved persons,” will not question this transition–Sir Oliver continues to pass along Raymond’s communications, detailing and explaining the messages from his spirit, after his death. The third section of the book mounts a defense of spiritualism against its skeptics. Poor man indeed, and poor millions of other bereaved parents. There are deep, forbidden pools of grief pocketed throughout Europe, now, and a tidal movement of spiritualism will link many of them into a wide, shallow, and dismal fen.

 I suppose you are never coming into Dorset any more, but if you do “after the war” you will know where to find us. I hope Mrs Gosse is well, & we send her best Christmas wishes—if it is not too dangerously near satire to send such messages in these ferocious times.

Always yrs sincerely
Thomas HardyThe Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 190-1." id="return-note-12729-4" href="#note-12729-4">[4]

 

Is there no cheering news, no reason to laugh? Always–it’s not all dark yet, even if it’s getting there. A.A. Milne, invalided home a month ago with “trench fever,” is not only out of the hospital but also “well enough… to attend the Punch Table dinnertonight, a century back.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A letter written tomorrow mentions a lecture "yesterday" which would seem to be the one related below. There are some differences in the accounts, but these can probably be chalked up to the vagaries of memory rather than either intentional fictionalization or a major confusion of events.
  2. A Subaltern on the Somme, 204-5.
  3. Which is good, because it would be hard to pass up on the chance to record a mental crossing of paths with the creator of Peter Pan, and get J.M. Barrie cross-referenced with Milne, Sassoon, and Plowman...
  4. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 190-1.
  5. Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 180.

A Failed Night’s Stalking for Siegfried Sassoon; Olaf Stapledon No Longer Fears His Love; Vera Brittain Looks to the Future

Siegfried Sassoon has once again failed to kill or capture anyone, despite his best efforts:

April 12

Did a moonlight patrol with Leigh 12.45 to 1.45 last night. Got right up to the German wire, but everything was very quiet and nothing to be seen. To-day it is raining and very unpleasant.[1]

 

Who needs segues? Here is Olaf Stapledon, ambulance driver, pacifist, and lover, writing about the third of those personal topics to Agnes Miller, his fiancée.

Friends’ Ambulance Unit
12 April 1916

. . . Agnes mine, think of it! Think of my quietly writing letters to you when time goes flying past and we are never together. You say I am to think of you as part of me, that cannot be divided from me by absence or death. Indeed I think of you so; but how it can be so we cannot say. Therefore we live in a curious longing for what really the time is! Agnes dear, it’s strange to think how we two have got mixed up together; it’s really a wonderful story, isn’t it. “Lovers” is a word that can mean so many different things, from “The Winter’s Tale” to Beatrice & Dante; from the “Brushwood Boy” to the Brownings; from “Peter Pan” to “Othello.” I know you far better now than when I saw you last. Once I was afraid of you, as one is afraid of Artemis. Then I ceased to fear because I know you better & you were to be won. Now I think I begin to fear again because I know you so much better still, & begin to realise Athena in you. She is the far greater goddess. Once I used to “lecture” you. Later I could not find an excuse for lecturing; now I think I dare not for shame, even if the excuse should ever come.[2]

Stapledon is clearly a visionary, a man ahead of his time… not only does he imagine new worlds and dare to question blind loyalty to national causes, but he takes his beloved down from her Artemisial pedestal and repents his earlier “mansplaining…”

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain writes to her brother Edward, musing on nothing less than change and the passage of time. It’s a longish letter, and Vera moves from her concerns about her own changing circumstances to the broader effort to construct a meaningful identity in the wake of Roland‘s death. She has music, and the memory of Roland, and she has the same long struggle between her eagerness to take up one of the few respectable, responsible, and useful positions that her social identity permits and her sense of her destiny as a practicing intellectual (i.e. a writer) rather than a nurse. But the main piece is in place: in lieu of Roland she has a small group of like-minded souls to care for, namely Edward and his friends Thurlow and Richardson. These three young officers will be the center of her emotional life as she moves forward.

Summerhayes, Purley, Surrey, 12 April 1916

It is very strange to think of really leaving the Hospital next week, for these last six months have been so very very long that I can scarcely remember what life was like before then…  It will be a relief to get away from it too; nursing, but not so much nursing as the Camberwell Hospital, has become a sort of Old Man of the Sea to me–a sort of burden on my back, and I have a superstitious feeling that Life will bring me nothing satisfactory–no opportunities or openings of any kind–until I can get away from it. Perhaps it is because it is so associated with the bitter side of the most tragic thing that ever has happened or ever will happen to us. Tragedy uplifts truly enough, I think–but not until you can forget the bitter & remember only the lofty side of it…

Of course if the War ends soon, nothing else matters, but if it doesn’t I really think we shall in the end be having women in under Staff jobs, & such like. One never knows what may come in these days. Oh! how I should love to be at work in France in some capacity–except, of course, as a V.A.D.! I am longing to use some side of my mind now, even if it isn’t the literary side, after having used none at all.

This afternoon I have been playing over the slow movement from Beethoven’s No. 7 Sonata, & some of the Macdowell Sea Songs which you used to play. Whenever I sit down to the piano now I can always see you playing away, absolutely unconcerned by other people’s requests to you to come out, or listen a moment! If you were to die I think I should have to give up music altogether, for there would be so many things I could never bear to hear or play– just as now I cannot bear to play L’Envoi, or the ‘Liber scriptus proferitur’ part of Verdi’s Requiem, which for some reason or other I always connected with Roland’s going to the front. . .

You mean to me all that [Roland] meant and all that Victor means, rolled into one. . . When I think of Roland & you, I feel so proud to be so intimately associated with you both, and I feel so unworthy of the two of you. . . I wonder why His death had such a strengthening effect on you and such a weakening effect on me. Perhaps you needed sharpening–I don’t think I did, I was sharp enough before. Mrs Leighton is always warning me that if I am ever to be a success as a writer I must fight against bitterness & cynicism, both in my writings and in myself. You know, if the war ends & doesn’t sweep you away with everything else, I don’t think I shall want to have much to do with anyone but you for a long time–except the Leightons, & perhaps Victor and Thurlow.

I don’t know why I include Thurlow–whom I know comparatively little, and I don’t know why he interests me so much. Perhaps it is that incongruities always interest me–and to have the face of a leader of men strong almost to unscrupulousness combined with an almost entire absence of self-esteem, and an excessive reserve & nervy-ness & shyness, is certainly an incongruity.

All the same, in spite of his self-depreciation, he gives one the impression of immense, though latent, possibilities. But you don’t agree with this view, do you? I was much amused the other day because Victor expressed a desire to meet Thurlow, & in a letter to Thurlow I happened to mention this. I received a prompt reply in which he remarked that new people disturbed him and he was afraid he wasn’t quite so keen to meet Victor as Victor appeared to be to meet him!! What it must have cost him in the way of effort to take me to that concert! One felt all the time that he must have studied the etiquette of it all beforehand & was trying hard to remember! However he was brave enough to hope to see me again soon.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 54.
  2. Talking Across the World, 139.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 247-8.

Inferno at Hooge: Donald Hankey Takes One for the Honor of the Brigade and Billy Grenfell Leads the Charge; Congreve and Conan Doyle on the Aftermath of the German Assault; Lady Feilding Abandons the Afterlife; Ford Madox Hueffer Is Changing His Tune

Before we get to an overflowing daily cup of horror and death at Hooge, a brief note and a surprising letter.

First, in an echo of Henry James’s recent bureaucratic vote of allegiance, Ford Hermann Hueffer took a patriotic legal action today, a century back. He’s already English, despite the continental affinities and German ancestry and libels to the contrary. But his name sure ain’t. So,today, he changed it by deed poll. And no: not to the name under which he later became known and under which his great war novel is published. That would be too convenient! Unwilling, as of yet, to remove his surname, he instead swapped out his German middle name for that of his eminently English (what could be more eminently English than a pre-Raphaelite?) grandfather Ford Madox Brown. He had been using it for years anyway, but this officious change presages other official action. Almost there![1]

Next, Lady Feilding. Dorothie Feilding is often cast here as the gay socialite, an occasionally charming, occasionally wretched combination of flightiness and fearlessness. (Largely by dint of her own self-presentation, I hope it’s fair to say.) But, as several of her letters to her father have shown, she is far from mindless or shallow. And–as today’s letter to her mother demonstrates–she has not refused the challenge of matching the faith of childhood–Catholicism, in her case–with the present horrors of war.

Friday for sure July 29th I think
(30th really) [30 July]
Mother dear–

I got your long dear letter last night for which many thanks it was a help too because one’s poor mind & judgement is rather inclined to get lost in the dark & inclined to chuck it up at times.

What I mean is, that although the war brings one closer to prayers, doesn’t diminish one’s faith as a Catholic in the smallest degree, it makes one rocky over the root principle of any after life at all, or rather seeing the suddenness & completeness of death so often & so very close to one, somehow does away with the whole theory of a future of any kind. Why should there be one? There isn’t any need for one for us any more than for any other animal. But I do believe the need of religion in a race because it brings out alt the noblest & the best morally & incidentally stands for betterment & continuance of the whole race generally doesn’t it?

This, it seems, is–however friendly and polite–a wholesale apostasy. There is no future, so let us now give religion practical praise for it humanitarian effects.

Therefore I think that even if there is no future existence at all, one has no right to squander one’s life or let things slide, or humanity as a whole would go to pot.

See what I mean? It’s seeing Death in such numbers & such simplicity that makes me think this. Because somehow the fact of Death in the abstract has no ‘fear’ now like it used when one thought about it in the old days. But although still wanting to do the square thing on earth it doesn’t seem to not. It just doesn’t matter anymore somehow. I think people just live & do their best & then die & there’s an end of it–it seems so easy to believe in God but no need for heaven!

This is quite something. To write this to her mother–the mother of a full handful of children serving in danger zones–is to gently propose a complete break. Does Dorothie Feilding have it in her to be a rebel?

Dear me how complicated it’s all getting–I’d better leave it! Because after all I am one in many millions & I don’t really count or matter what I finks.

Have had a quiet day today–haven’t been shot at once & haven’t seen an obus nearer than 500 yds or found more than one ‘malade’ [patient] to conduct..

Much love

DoDo[2]

 

So Lady Feilding has lost her faith–at least the specific Christian faith in a tangible afterlife–because of her long experience with sudden death.

Now, reading is not living, and the traumas it conveys are impersonal (an uncrossable divide) and many orders of magnitude less intense. Reading here on a daily basis (bully for you!) is supposed to deepen your understanding of the past and increase your sensitivity to the literature of this period. Which, in turn, might make one more sensitive to the varieties of human experience.

Does literature humanize? Well, I suppose we’ve turned the flank of the very question I was going to get to (and will now permit to retreat, though Lady Feilding has helped us put it in enfilade): does all this miserable suffering, this pointless killing, challenge one’s faith? In god, in religion, in the afterlife, in political processes, in truth, in humanity?

 

A new devilry today, and a horrifying post-script to the efforts of the 3rd Division at Hooge. More than a week after he was on hand near the crater when a minenwerfer hit the bomb store, Billy Congreve is in reserve when the bad news comes in.

Early this morning the Germans attacked the 14th Division in Hooge, and have apparently captured the whole place. It’s too sickening. I heard the 8th R[ifle] B[rigade] are the people who lost it… We have no news at present of what actually happened, but there is a rumour that the Germans used Flammenwerfer–liquid fire.

This time the rumors were true. Today was the first time flamethrowers–a weapon of which it is especially hard to write–were used on British troops. Death is death, but there is something particularly fearful about men being engulfed in liquid flame. As a technology, flamethrowers are in their infancy, and will, mercifully, never really grow up,  never prove to be a broadly useful means of murder. The ammunition is enormously heavy, the range of the weapon is limited, and it is very dangerous to its users. But it is terrifying, more resistant than other weapons to measured and careful historical prose.

So, despite the reality of the Flammenwerfer‘s deployment today, a century back, and the very real death of scores of men as the German forces stormed the crater’s lip behind the flames, I’m going to turn the describing over to one of our highly colorful “historians,” Arthur Conan Doyle.

It is clear that the Germans mustered great forces, both human and mechanical, before letting go their attack. For ten days before the onset they kept up a continuous fire, which blew down the parapets and caused great losses to the defenders. On July 29 the 7th King’s Royal Rifles and the 8th Rifle Brigade manned the front and supporting trenches, taking the place of their exhausted comrades. They were just in time for the fatal assault. At 3:20 in the morning of July 30 a mine exploded under the British parapet, and a moment afterwards huge jets of flame, sprayed from their diabolical machines, rose suddenly from the line of German trenches and fell in a sheet of fire into the front British position.

congreve july 19 1915crop

Billy Congreve’s sketch showing the British positions (shaded) around Hooge. The German assault today focused on the crater, but then pushed south of the road.

The distance was only twenty yards, and the effect was complete and appalling. Only one man is known to have escaped from this section of trench. The fire was accompanied by a shower of aerial torpedoes from the Minenwerfer, which were in themselves sufficient to destroy the garrison. The Germans instantly assaulted and occupied the defenceless trench, but were held up for a time by the reserve companies in the supporting trenches. Finally these were driven out by the weight of the German attack, and fell back about two hundred yards, throwing themselves down along the edges of Zouave and Sanctuary Woods, in the immediate rear of the old position…

Congreve, Hooge

An earlier sketch, showing the relative position of Hooge, Zouave Wood, and Sanctuary Wood

The position gained by the Germans put them behind the line of trenches held upon the British right by two companies of the 8th Rifle Brigade. These brave men, shot at from all sides and unable to say which was their parapet and which their parados, held on during the whole interminable July day, until after dusk the remains of them drew off into the shelter of the prophetically-named Sanctuary Wood. [bottom right of Congreve’s sketch, at right.]

Another aggressive movement was made by the German stormers down the communication trenches, which enabled them to advance while avoiding direct fire; but this, after hard fighting, was stopped by the bombers of the Riflemen.

Conan Doyle now describes the attempts at a quick local counter-attack, always tactically advantageous due to the difficulty of consolidating new positions under artillery fire.

The two battalions of the 41st Brigade, which had just been relieved and were already on their way to a place of rest, were halted and brought back. They were the 8th King’s Royal Rifles and the 7th Rifle Brigade. These two battalions had been eight days under incessant fire in the trenches, with insufficient food, water, and sleep. They were now hurried back into a hellish fire, jaded and weary, but full of zeal at the thought that they were taking some of the pressure on their comrades…

 

We have a man in the 7/Rifle Brigade. Donald Hankey had missed the Flammenwerfers by a matter of hours, and he and his battalion had just reached their billets near Vlamertinghe–at around 3:45 AM–when the orders came to return and prepare a counter-attack.[3]

This would be their first attack, and Hankey will soon write about it in a newspaper piece entitled “The Honour of the Brigade.”[4]

The battalion had had a fortnight of it, a fortnight of hard work and short rations, of sleepless vigil and continual danger. They had been holding trenches newly won from the Germans. When they took them over they were utterly unsafe. They had been battered to pieces by artillery; they were choked with burst sandbags and dead men; there was no barbed wire; they faced the wrong way; there were still communication trenches leading straight to the enemy. The battalion had had to remake the trenches under fire. They had had to push out barbed wire and build barriers across the communication trenches. All the time they had had to be on the watch. The Germans were sore at having lost the trenches, and had given them no rest. Their mortars had rained bombs night and day. Parties of bombers had made continual rushes down the old communication trenches, or crept silently up through the long grass, and dropped bombs among the workers. Sleep had been impossible. All night the men had had to stand to their arms ready to repel an attack, or to work at the more dangerous jobs such as the barbed wire, which could only be attempted under cover of darkness. All day they had been dodging bombs, and doing the safer work of making latrines, filling sandbags for the night, thickening the parapet, burying the dead, and building dug-outs…

They had not grumbled. They had realized that it was inevitable, and that the post was a post of honor. They had set their teeth and toiled grimly, doggedly, sucking the pebble which alone can help to keep at bay the demon Thirst. They had done well, and they knew it. The colonel had said as much, and he was not a man to waste words. They had left the trench as safe as it could be made. And now they had been relieved.

Well, I’ve already told you what happens next:

At last they reached the field where they were to bivouac… Away in the distance could be heard the incessant rattle of musketry, mingled with the roar of the big guns. No one heeded it. A motor-cycle appeared at express speed. The colonel was roused, the company commanders sent for. The men were wakened up. Down the lines the message passed: “Stack valises by platoons, and get ready to march off in fighting order; the Germans have broken through.’ The men were too dazed to talk. Mechanically they packed their greatcoats into their valises, and stacked them. The Germans broken through! All their work wasted! It was incredible. Water bottles were filled, extra ammunition served out, in silence. The battalion fell in, and marched off along the same weary road by which they had come. Two hours’ sleep, no breakfast, no wash, no drink.

Here’s where “patriotic propaganda” may intrude on what has been a fairly reserved “spirit of the battalion”/no rest for the weary piece. Or is it wrong to be so skeptical?

A captain said a few words to his men during a halt. Some trenches had been lost. It was their brigade that had lost them. For the honor of the brigade, of the New Army, they must try to retake them. The men listened in silence; but their faces were set. They were content. The honor of the brigade demanded it. The captain had said so, and they trusted him.

They lay down behind a bank in a wood. Before them raged a storm. Bullets fell like hail. Shells shrieked through the air, and burst in all directions. The storm raged without any abatement. The whistle would blow, then the first platoon would advance, in extended order. Half a minute later the second would go forward, followed at the same interval by the third and fourth. A man went into hysterics, a pitiable object. His neighbor regarded him with a sort of uncomprehending wonder. He was perfectly, fatuously cool. Some- thing had stopped inside him. A whistle blew. The first platoon scrambled to their feet and advanced at the double. What happened no one could see. They disappeared. The second line followed, and the third and fourth. Surely no one could live in that hell. No one hesitated. They went forward mechanically, as men in a dream. It was so mad, so unreal. Soon they would awake…

It appeared that there was a trench at the edge of the wood. It had been unoccupied. A couple of hundred yards in front, across the open ground, was the trench which they were/ attacking. Half a dozen men found themselves alone in the open ground before the German wire. They lay down. No one was coming on. Where was everyone? They crawled cautiously back to the trench at the edge of the wood, and climbed in… The storm raged on; but the attack was over. These were what was left of two companies. All stain on the honor of the brigade had been wiped out—in blood.

There were three men in a bay of the trench. One was hit in the leg, and sat on the floor cutting away his trousers so as to apply a field dressing. One knelt down behind the parapet with a look of dumb stupor on his face. The third, a boy of about seventeen from a London slum, peered over the parapet at intervals. Suddenly he disappeared over the top. He had discovered two wounded men in a shell hole just in front, and was hoisting them into the shelter of the trench. By a miracle not one of the three was hit. A message was passed up the trench: “Hold on at all costs till relieved.” A council of war was held. Should they fire or lie low? Better lie low, and only fire in case of attack. They were safe from attack as long as the Bosches kept on firing. Someone produced a tin of meat, some biscuits, and a full water-bottle. The food was divided up, and a shell bursting just in rear covered everything with dirt and made it uneatable. The water was reserved for the wounded. The rest sucked their pebbles in stoical silence.

The survivors of 7/Rifle Brigade held these trenches for the rest of an interminable, hot day. Stretcher bearers appeared

and took away one man, an officer. The rest waited in vain. An hour passed, and no one else came. Two were mortally hit, and began to despair. They would die before help came. For Christ’s sake get some water. There was none to be had.

After night fell, the survivors limped, or crawled back to their own lines, the honor of the brigade–if not quite the line itself–restored

So, now: what is this piece, “The Honour of the Brigade?” Does it belong here, today? Is it fiction? Personal history?

Well, the author has an opinion, which he tells us rather directly:

Note.—The action described in the above article has been identified by correspondents at the front, and so it is necessary to state that although based in the main on an actual experience, features have been freely borrowed from other occasions, and the writer has no authority for placing the construction that he has on the main event.

So we have permission, essentially, to use these descriptions as historical evidence–but only loosely.

This is too modest, however. I think Hankey is refusing to vouch for his stylistic choices more than he is denying his own reliability. It doesn’t read like history, so it can’t possibly be history…  but this idea we can firmly reject, with our very superior post-modern understanding of the genre.

As for the “features,” well, we would err in using specific events in the piece as battalion history. But why would we? And what are these pieces of evidence? Hankey prefers the impressionistic style, and exact events are hard to come by. Which, again, may lead to his demurral but sounds to us, a century on, like a fairly strong recommendation: if you want to know what flank was where on the map, read the battalion history, or Doyle’s quickie, or ask Billy Congreve–but if you want to know what the terror of that confused attack was like. Well.

So it doesn’t feel like a violation of historical principle to announce that the man wounded in the leg “is”–“was,” “represents”–Hankey himself. He has written a scrupulously modest “battle piece” in order both to express “what it was like” and to praise “the spirit of the battalion.” (By all accounts they fought well, despite their failure in an impossible assault.)

Writing in propria persona, after recovering from his wound, Hankey is again unduly modest:

As a matter of fact I wasn’t much good out at the front. I grumbled horribly. I had one good asset, which was that when things became dangerous my nerves (such is my perverse nature) stood quite still. But I had no aggressive valour. The day we charged I had no frantic desire to get at ’em! The whole thing seemed so absurd, and I started off knowing quite well that I should get hit, and not minding very much. The week before we had been under very heavy shell fire and lost a good many men; but that time I knew perfectly well I should not be hit! It was very odd. I felt absolutely certain about it, and wouldn’t have minded going anywhere.

Accounts by other survivors place more emphasis on Hankey’s valor:

Corporal Hankey was splendid. He was badly wounded early in the fight, and was advised to go to a dressing station. He stuck to his post, although the serious wound in the leg must have given him great pain. While he could hold his rifle he remained, and it was only when darkness fell that he would consent to go back. Many others were wounded two or even three times before they would give in.[5]

So Hankey is now a writer who has survived a long day in s scratch trench, bleeding copiously, desperately thirsty, and keeping his head down. This is the stuff of manly virtue and grim pride in the corporate achievements of the company, the battalion, and the brigade. It’s also the stuff of a long war of attrition.

 

Next to the immediacy of this experience, even history of the stirring-strains variety is pale stuff. Back to Conan Doyle:

There had been three-quarters of an hour of intense bombardment before the attack, but it was not successful in breaking down the German resistance. At 2:45 P.M. the infantry advance began from the wood, all four units of the 41st Brigade taking part in it. It is difficult to imagine any greater trial for troops, since half of them had already been grievously reduced and the other half were greatly exhausted, while they were now asked to advance several hundred yards without a shadow of cover, in the face of a fire which was shaving the very grass from the ground. “The men behaved very well,” says an observer, “and the officers with a gallantry no words can adequately describe. As they came out of the woods the German machine-gun fire met them and literally swept them away, line after line. The men struggled forward, only to fall in heaps along the edge of the woods.” The Riflemen did all that men could do, but there comes a time when perseverance means annihilation. The remains of the four battalions were compelled to take shelter once more at the edge of the wood. Fifty officers out of 90 had fallen. By 4 P.M. the counter-attack had definitely failed.[6]

 

We have one more man, however, in the 41st brigade, and he was among those fifty officers. The Hon. Gerald William Grenfell–Julian‘s little brother Billy–led a platoon of the 8th Rifle brigade on that doomed counterattack.

Julian and Billy as pages, 1897

Julian and Billy, dressed as pages for a fancy dress ball, 1897

Billy was killed in a charge to take trenches near the Hooge crater. Leading his platoon, he attempted to cross the 250 yards of open ground under terrific machine-gun fire. He had gone 70 or 80 yards when he pitched forward dead.

So Billy is dead too, now, in his first severe action. I know of only a few of his letters, and he had no defining production like Julian’s Into Battle. It’s almost as if the deaths now are coming too quickly to be properly registered–who is Billy? Who was Billy? He was an athlete and he had been a leading light in his class; he was a handsome, popular young man. Many of their mutual, friends found Billy at once more approachable and more brilliant than Julian (others, naturally, disagreed). But I really have no place to “put” him. He’s Julian’s little brother, dead in his first assault, no more than two months into his war.

So forgive a desperate and rather maudlin connection, a weird attempt to grasp at chords of memory: Billy, like so many boys of his age, had seen and read Peter Pan.

He was a public school boy, a scion of the aristocracy, a confident and cheerful young elite. He promised to be an excellent officer as well. Earlier this month he had written that “Darling Julian is so constantly beside me, and laughs so debonairly at my qualms and hesitations. I pray for one-tenth of his courage.” He seems to have received it, and more.

As his platoon assembled in a sjallow trench, preparing to assault strong, uphill positions over an old battlefield well marked for the artillery and machine guns, he might have had a moment of pause. A moment of fear. It’s one thing to act up to the expectation of fearlessness on the playing fields, and even in the trenches. But to realize that you are about to charge into the open is to be alone. What did he feel?

Back to Peter Pan.

Peter Parker, in The Old Lie, his book on “The Great War and the Public School Ethos,” brings two scenes into play. One puts Billy Grenfell in company with Wendy, mother to the Lost Boys. Both exhort their troops as they stare into the face of death. Grenfell, before today’s charge, is reported to have said “Remember you are Englishmen. Do nothing to dishonour that name.” And Wendy, with the boys about to walk the plank:

These are my last words. Dear boys, I feel that I have a message for you from your real mothers, and it is this, “We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen.”

Close, but then again Admiral Nelson gave similar advice another century back. More striking, perhaps, than the similarity in these (reported) exhortations, are Peter Pan’s thoughts at the moment he has grown up enough to lead by sacrifice. Stranded on a rock, buying time for Wendy’s escape, he experiences his first moment of fear. And masters it, with words that–maudlin, maudlin, but what can I do–will echo through this war:

To die will be an awfully big adventure.[7]

So a children’s play seems awfully prophetic–but the juxtaposition relies heavily on an uncertain foundation. The report of Billy Grenfell’s last words is second or third hand, and I have yet to see it securely sourced. So too the description of his gallant charge, which I have taken from Viola Meynell’s book on Julian Grenfell.[8] I’m not sure that it isn’t more or less imaginary, based, in all likelihood, on the posthumous praise of brother officers, whose letters to next-of-kin tended to portray even hopeless actions as meaningfully infused with valor and dash and certainty. But, then again, there is no reason to suspect that he did not say something quite like Wendy, or think like Peter, or lead from the front and die in the commission of an act of gallantry, like his big brother.

But Billy is dead, and with him die the details, as well as the subjectivities of his experience. The writer who survives can write a waist-high pile of memoirs, while the man who is wounded–like Donald Hankey–can tell the story of that day, one way or another (or both). But–and here’s the strange perspective that this project grants–death is not only the extinguishing of a life and the beginning of new misery for those who loved the dead: it’s also an event horizon for war writing.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, 486.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 97-8.
  3. Kissane, Without Parade, 150-2.
  4. "The Honour of the Brigade" is available here, in what must be an American edition, its honor bereft of its "u."
  5. See The Letters of Donald Hankey, available here.
  6. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol. II; available here.
  7. See Parker, The Old Lie, 91.
  8. Meynell, Julian Grenfell, available here.

Francis Ledwidge Rests Unquiet; Vera Prepares to Go Down, and Fields a Shocker; Edward Thomas Cycles Between Poet Friends and Life Choices; We Bid Farewell to Morgan Crofton

Francis Ledwidge will dream a troubled dream tonight. This is hardly surprising: things have not been going well for the young Irishman. His assumption that the difficult decision to fight for Britain would be rewarded by honorable service in a short war and better employment afterwards was looking increasingly foolish; he had lost the love of his life to another man; and his first book of poetry had been many months in the press.

With his battalion’s embarkation looming, Ledwidge now ran a very good chance of being killed or wounded fighting for the empire whose rule he repudiated. To make matters worse, his patron Lord Dunsany had recently been recalled. Dunsany–a wealthy lord and a fantasist to boot–had been too independent for the army the first time around, and he was proving to be so again. His men may have loved him: there is a tale of a mock battle that ended with his company provisionless and many miles from camp, and the exhausted men ordered to fall out along a village street; then, a few moments later, their Lord and captain appeared, heavy-laden, after having bought up all the bread and butter and stout in village. This sort of thing might win the loyalty of one’s soldiers, but it is highly unlikely that Dunsany’s Regular appreciated his idiosyncratic and individual style.

So Dunsany was sent back to the Inniskillings depot in Ireland to train the newer battalions, and Ledwidge was now without a sympathetic eye among the battalion officers. Ledwidge’s heart was in Ireland, his body was in England, and his fate seemed to be over the water as well–in France, or, worse, the Dardanelles. Tonight, a century back, he dreamed of white birds over the ocean–an Elvish dream.[1]

 

From an old world poetic relationship between a “peasant” poet and his lord and patron, then, to a brave new world of poetic friendship: Edward Thomas has finished the draft of the loathed Marlborough book and is catching up on his letter-writing–there are three today to three other poets. But it is Robert Frost he thinks of most… Frost who has gone back to America, with Thomas’s son. America, which promises a new start…

The yearning to be away, to be writing, to be free for a moment from uncertainty and financial pressure, is terribly acute. But still not enough to overcome Thomas’s mighty inertia, and an Englishman’s sense that something must be done.

Three days ago Thomas had written to Frost, his problems “endless:”

15 vi 15

My dear Robert

This is chiefly to tell you that I have been re reading ‘Mending Wall’, ‘The Hired Man’, The Mountain’, & ‘The 100 Collars’ & liking them–enjoying them–more than I ever did. Do you imagine this is to atone for what I said of ‘Two Roads’? It may be, but I don’t believe it is.

I have been talking to my mother about going to America. She does not really resist much, but pretends to assume I mean after the war…

There is a weak alternative too–if some branch of the army will take me in spite of my weak foot: I believe the Royal Garrison Artillery might. Frankly I do not want to go, but hardly a day passes without my thinking I should. With no call, the problem is endless…

It all comes of not believing. I will leave nothing to chance knowingly. But, there, I suppose the believers calculate to the best of their ability…

I have finished the book.[2]

“Nothing to chance?” Frost would have smiled: “ah, but that would mean making a decision, Edward.”

And today, a century back, Thomas wrote again to Frost, declaring himself closer:

18 vi 15 Steep, Petersfield

My dear Robert,

These last few days I have been looking at 2 alternatives, trying to enlist or coming to America. Helen points out that I could try America & then enlist if it failed, but not the other way round. Is it asking you to prophesy if I ask you to say what you think I might do in New York & Boston? You see I must not think of coming over to see you & cut down trees if I can’t persuade myself there are definite chances of coming back with a connection or getting connections…

Nothing happened in town. I lunched with my agent who had no luck with my proverbs & could only suggest an anthology of amiable things said in English about Russia… Not me. I ran into de la Mare & I am afraid we gave one another hardish looks. Then I saw Davies who has got an idea that de la Mare is to be provided with a pension to eke out his £400 a year or so, & I confess to being sore at the thought of the dispensation…

If you can write soon.

Yours ever, Edward Thomas[3]

The rumor is true: although Walter de la Mare is much more comfortable than Thomas (one did not “eke” on £400 in 1915), he has won a pension of a hundred pounds a year that that will leave him free to write–or more free that is. Thomas is a good friend, and generous (as the fact of his confession shows), but he cannot help but give in to jealousy, here… de la Mare is lucky, and he has not asserted himself on behalf of Thomas’s poetic endeavors, either.

In his letter of today to Eleanor Farjeon, Thomas seems to try the old procrastinator’s trick of announcing a deadline, even though there is none but himself to enforce it:

Tomorrow and Saturday I shall wind up at home and then if the weather holds start cycling on Sunday towards Gloster though not much in a holiday mood.

I have got myself to the point of thinking that America is a chance and that I see no other. Waiting for something to turn up is of course quite in my line, but I have done a good deal of it, and if nothing does turn up before the end of July I shall begin to decide how many days I ought to give to New York and how many to Boston.

Frost can give me some introductions, he being well on his way, with his book in a 3rd edition out there…[4]

It’s almost as if the plan evolves slightly each time Thomas takes out a new page and readdresses the issue. To Gordon Bottomley:

18 June 1915 Steep

My dear Gordon,

…Now I am going to cycle & think of man & nature & human life & decide between enlisting or going to America before I enlist. Those are the alternatives unless something turns up out of the dark.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[5]

 

Vera Brittain‘s diary has dried up recently as she prepares for exams. But today she transcribes much of the latest letter from Roland Leighton, in the trenches. He rather ominously describes tinkering with a new sort of hand grenade and then tosses a different sort of bombshell into a post-script:

“It is possible that I may be able to get 6 days’ leave in the near future.’’ My mind suddenly felt confused & the approaching Plato paper went right out of it. Oh! when is “the near future’’? If it can only be soon–if it can only really happen. To look into those dark eyes, after all they have seen & I have felt–ah I no one can know what it would mean. Sometimes I have felt that I would forgive the future if it would only bring him to me once again– give me one hour to blot out wisdom. At other times I have thought I couldn’t bear to see him till the war is over, that though I am out for hard things there is just one I could not endure, & that is to live over again the early morning of March 19th on Buxton Station. But now that there is a chance I may have to do it, I know it is worthwhile. One is willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life…

I went to Plato feeling that this paper could be what it liked. As it happened it was a splendid one. I absolutely dreaded Unseens this afternoon; but I could do nearly all the Greek one & the whole of the Latin.

After dinner came the Going-Down Play. It was as usual a sort of pantomime, representing expeditions of various Oxford celebrities to the Never-Never Land, & of course bringing in topical events. As Miss Rowe was stage-managing & Miss Sayers a leading light, I heard that it was unusually good even for a going-down play. The definite “take-offs” were simply excellent. Miss Sayers with her chorus became Dr Allen to the life…

I have learnt to love Oxford very dearly. Even if I do come back next October in the ordinary way, Oxford will
always mean more to me because I have felt about it as I have this term.[6]

 

So farewell to Oxford, and farewell today to another pillar of the first year on A Century Back. Morgan Crofton‘s opinions on the conduct of the war have grown quite acerbic over the past few months, and I’ve wondered whether the amount of time he seemed to spend away from his unit–he was often assigned to remain with the horses when the regiment was in the trenches–indicates that his attitude was perceived by the regimental authorities as less than excellent. Or perhaps the silences and similarities in his history and Dunsany’s are influencing my reading of each…

In any event, Crofton was reassigned today–back to England to train replacement troops. Later on he will be sent to Dar Es Salaam–not the hottest of the war’s hot spots. Today marks the final entry of the published diary, but let’s go back a few days and take a brief farewell tour of my favorite bluff baronet-ly diarist:

Tuesday June15

A topping day. Felt very like a schoolboy going home for his holidays. The leave papers were a very long time in coming…

At 11 o’clock the leave papers were still missing, so we decided to go ourselves to the office at Wardrecques to get them. Having said goodbyes all round we started at 12 o’clock…

The road was very dusty, the motor was very stuffy, and the day was sweltering, but none of us cared tuppence about such trivial irritations, and we hummed merrily along towards’ Boulogne and our boat. Halfway there a tyre burst with a terrific report. This was jolly and for half an hour we sat by the side of the road in the dust and glare waiting for repairs. Motor after motor rushed by covering us with a thick stifling powder…

We fetched up at Boulogne about 2.45, and at once boarded the packet Invicta. The sea was fairly calm…

We reached Folkestone about 5 o’clock, and at once boarded the London train which left at 5.30. Luxmoore, the padre Felling and myself shared a compartment and had an excellent dinner en route. Reached Victoria about 7.15.

 

Wednesday June 16

Got my hair cut, and had a general clean up….

 

Thursday June 17

Lunched with Torrie at the Cavalry Club, who said that he had fixed up my transfer to Windsor. He gave me a lot of instructions on the work which he wished done for the drafts.

And Crofton, who wrote a book on Waterloo during his hiatus from the army, leaves our centennial parade with a centennial flourish:

Friday June 18

The Centenary of Waterloo…

During the afternoon received at the Marlborough Club a telegram from the Adjutant General telling me to postpone my return to France.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 114-5.
  2. Elected Friends, 66-7.
  3. Elected Friends, 69.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 147-8.
  5. Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 249-50.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 210.
  7. Massacre of the Innocents, 274-6.

Morgan Crofton is Under Fire Near Ypres; Tolkien Writes of Lands Farther West

Two very different sorts today, as we move away from the height of Second Ypres and the dramatic death of Rupert Brooke, back toward the rhythm of trench warfare and the young writers’ approach to the line that will be basic rhythm of this project until September’s major battle.

John Ronald Tolkien is at work, these days, on two poems. Both may well be the sort of thing that a mature author would be embarrassed by–and yet both are true to the boy who is father to the man. Behold the collegiate versifier who is father to the fantasist. (Tolkien, by the by, will become an important exemplar of one minority position: that the horrors of the war might have little effect, in the end, on the writerly trajectory of some.)

The first, Goblin Feet, is unquestionable juvenilia–very silly, highly Victorian. All those happy Goblin feet must be regarded as little missteps for a man who will mount the world’s greatest literary objection to the idea of elves/faeries/goblins as diminutive, precious, or cute. And yet it’s a story of enchantment and loss–which is also a good six word description of Tolkien’s life’s work.

The second, too, is uncharacteristic–it’s a love poem about two real people, Tolkien himself and his intended, Edith Bratt. And yet You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play too aims for the as-yet-un-(sub)created ground of a fantasy world. The basic idea–showing the (acknowledged) influence of J.M. Barrie–is that Edith and John Ronald have always known each other, in dreams prior to reality. There is a land far away, but nearer than you might think, a place of happiness and romantic fulfillment and higher beauty…

So a boyish love poem, pretty and slight. But always, for the orphaned Tolkien–or, for those of you allergic to biographical criticism, the man who would create a world of surpassing beauty and then write until it was broken, drowned, twisted, and battered, age after age–there is that undercurrent of loss:

And why it was Tomorrow came
And with his grey hand led us back;
And why we never found the same
Old cottage, or the magic track
That leads between a silver sea
And those old shores and gardens fair
Where all things are, that ever were–
We know not, You and Me.

He will never get around to seeking publication for love poems about himself or Edith–or for anything openly biographical. So Edith and the poet will withdraw from this land indeed… but he will return to the Cottage of Lost Play.

 

Sir Morgan Crofton, on the fringes of battle for days now, would probably like to get a word in, even beneath the moonings of an undergraduate still months away from taking a commission. “Second Ypres” is still playing out, and his regiment, the 2nd Life Guards, have marched all night to reach the outskirts of Vlamertinghe, in what had recently been a rear area of the British section of the salient. Here, then, is a very long day under fire–fruitless and confused at the battalion level, surely, and yet part of a larger effort that succeeded in preventing a German breakthrough.

Tuesday April 27

We had considerable difficulty in finding the point where we were to meet the staff officer who was to give us our billets. It was by a railway crossing just through the village. The street of the village was hill of French and Canadian ambulance motors. Every house seemed to be used as a hospital. A ceaseless flow of wounded kept coming back from the district N and NE of the road, where the firing showed that considerable fighting was still going on…

We were all dog tired, so we crowded in [to a handful of tiny huts], put down our blankets on the floor and dropped into a heavy unrefreshing sleep. We received orders the last moment before we bedded down to say that we were to remain ready to move at a moment’s notice, and that on the following day we should probably have to go into the trenches.

We woke about 7 o’clock and at once set about getting some food. We discovered in a neighbouring field four Canadian Cookers, and from the NCO in charge we managed to get some hot coffee. We felt better after that, but we still felt very stiff and sore from the effects of our plank bed. We couldn’t get much news…

We had a scratch lunch at 12.30 of tinned tongue and the foulest tasting tea.

About 4 o’clock the first shell arrived. It came with a whoof and a crash bang into Vlamertinghe. This was followed by a regular shower of them. We all crowded out to watch. About 50 per cent didn’t burst, but those that did, threw up tall columns of dust and bricks. They seemed to fall right amongst the hospitals in the village. The Germans soon began to lengthen their fuzes. We could see the shells coming nearer and nearer, pitching and
bursting on the field and road which lay between us and the village.

We had just decided that the shelling wasn’t going to amount to much, when there was a roar and a crash. Hut No. 29, which was three from ours and which was occupied by the 1st Life Guards, flew into the air, in the midst of a column of black greasy smoke. There was no mistaking this portent. We were being shelled with high-explosive shells fired by an eleven-inch howitzer. Considerable confusion ensued, increased by the arrival of
two more of these tokens of regard. Hut 29 had entirely disappeared. In its place lay two dead men and another with both his legs blown off.

The order was given to fall in at once and march to a point previously fixed (a tree with a bushy top) where we were to lie down in extended order. Torrie told me to go on and act as a directing point. There was a great rush
to collect kits, belts, glasses, etc., and in the rush many went out without bothering to collect anything.

The shells now began to fall fairly fast all over the whole camp. Two or three pitched into Vlamertinghe, blowing up huge pillars of dust, black smoke and pink fluff from the pulverised bricks. Outside amongst the waggons and the men of the ammunition and supply columns, the panic was considerable. This was natural owing to the fact that most of these men were very young and hadn’t been under shellfire before. The fields were covered with loose horses galloping in all directions and dozens of little parties of men riding half-saddled or harnessed horses, all galloping.

As always, Crofton’s calm observation and forthright private description gives an excellent picture of combat–even, as so often, combat in which only the enemy’s guns are effective, or even engaged. But Crofton now shows how much simple calm and physical courage matter in confused situations. The situation is close to tragedy and close to farce:

I proceeded over the fields to the S, to take a position where I could be seen so that the Regiment could march on me. When I reached the rising ground which I had selected for my point, I turned to watch the excitement.
A shell burst with a terrific report about 10 yards behind two men who were running towards me; they both fell like dead men, and remained motionless. Then they started rolling away like mad, to what they considered a safe
distance before they resumed their upright flight.

There was a four-wheeled waggon, packed very high with chairs, tables and cooking pots. This was drawn at full gallop by four horses which were urged to greater efforts by their drivers. By way of taking a short cut, it dashed across a field in front of me. About half way across the intrepid drivers were confronted by a gully, five feet deep and nine across. In they plunged, the waggon rocking and clattering, over it went as it attempted to ascend the opposite side. Off the drivers flung themselves, unhooked the team, mounted and disappeared towards the setting sun in clouds of dust. A field-kitchen, belching smoke like a fire engine, and streams of soup pouring from it in cascades, rumbled past, also ventre à terre, [“belly to the ground, i.e. “flat-out”] the driver applying his whip like a threshing flail. Into the gully it plunged like its confrere of the four wheels, over went the kitchen, the mingled fumes of wood fire and soup rising into the evening air. Off sprang the driver, the horses were unhooked and off quicker than I can write this.

About 50 shells in all were put into the hutments, surrounding fields, and onto the Poperinghe-Vlamertinghe road. Every road leading from this area was now packed with long straggling columns of marching men, ambulances,
and supply waggons moving back. Shortly after 5.30 the shelling ceased. We took up our position about a mile and a half to the south and lay down in extended order in the fields round a large farm, in which, later in the
evening, we fixed our headquarters. Towards 7 o’clock parties were sent back to the hutments to remove any kit or belongings left behind in the haste of the departure. The evening was delightful, very clear and cool, after a blazing day.

About 10 o clock we heard the ominous sound of a motor cycle approaching us. Our worst fears were realised when its cessation was followed by a cry of Turn Out. We collected in the field outside, and heard that the Turcos [French colonials] were falling back in some disorder on Brielen, and we were ordered to go in as supports, and fill any gap which they might leave.

The moon was most brilliant, the night was as bright as day. We sat, awaiting the order to move. I was very tired, and dozed pleasantly off. At about 11.30 I was awoken and told that counter orders had arrived. We were to stay where we were for the night.[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Massacre of the Innocents, 214-7.