George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Siegfried Sassoon Urges Robert Graves Not to Answer; Duff Cooper Restored to Paradise; Thomas Hardy Passes on Jane Austen; Max Plowman is Soul-Sick but Accepting; Ivor Gurney on Sea Chanteys and Machine Guns; Hedd Wyn on the March

Siegfried Sassoon needs his friends. Alone in a hotel in Liverpool–where his Regiment has told him to stay while awaiting a decision about his protest–Sassoon is “in a state of mind which need not be described.”[1] Technically, that state of mind belonged to George Sherston, but Sassoon himself reached out to Robert Graves, as yet unaware that Graves is currently rigging his own medical board so that he can ride to Sassoon’s rescue. (Graves has already begun working, by letter, to thwart Sassoon’s hopes for a public showdown on the matter of the war’s conduct.)

Sunday night [15 July 1917] Exchange Hotel, Liverpool

Dearest Robert,

No doubt you are worrying about me. I came here on Friday, and walked into the Orderly Room feeling like nothing on earth, but probably looking fairly self-possessed. Found ‘Floods’ there (the C.O. away on holiday).

Of course I was prepared for the emergency (and Tony Pryce had also been told). F. was nicer than anything you could imagine, and made me feel an utter brute. But he has a kind heart. They have consulted the General, who is consulting God—or someone like that. Meanwhile I am staying at the Exchange, having sworn not to run away to the Caucasus.

Their friendship is now strained, as Sassoon must realize, for through all of Graves’s inconsistencies and caprices, he has been very proud to serve in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and has had a hard climb toward acceptance by his fellow officers. There would be a bitter irony in this, perhaps lurking under the surface of his exasperated but loyal response: Sassoon, whose easygoing manners, social fitness (he rode and hunted), and obvious courage (Graves was brave too, but this came as a surprise to his comrades) had won him immediate popularity in the regiment, is throwing it away now, and might even harm Graves’s hard-won position through their association.

Sassoon does not guess just how much their relationship will be transformed by his protest, but he is working hard here both to connect and to reassure (himself as much as Graves). There is the note of kindness, the sharp humor (“God–or someone like that”) and, most of all, the rather touching (or artful? Surely both!) reference to Graves’s lilting, friend-besotted poem of last summer. No, their planned jaunt to foreign parts is as far away as ever–and no word on whether Sassoon has a acquired a piccolo.

Then the letter continues with a reaffirmation of purpose: it’s as if Sassoon changes his mind, mid-letter, about whether he hopes Graves will interfere–before, of course, in the final line, seeming to demand that he doesn’t.

No doubt I shall in time persuade them to be nasty about it. I don’t think they realise that my performances will soon be very well known. I hate the whole thing more than ever—and more than ever I know that I’m right, and shall never repent of it.

Things look better in Germany, but Lloyd George will probably say it’s ‘a plot’. These politicians seem incapable of behaving like human beings. Don’t answer this.

S.S.[2]

Siegfried doth protest too much. (Ha!)

It’s hard to read between the lines of century-old letters, and hard to resist the pull of ex post facto historical knowledge… but it’s still almost impossible not to see this as an indication of Sassoon’s continued willingness to have his course shaped–and now corrected–by his friends. Graves recently wondered if “S.S. will let them hush it up”–but this letter seems to be written from a just-subconscious instinct to, at the very least, entertain the motion…

 

Following in Sassoon’s turbulent wake, a hodgepodge of notes and updates. First, Max Plowman, on his own journey from trench-fighting toward anti-war activism (although in his case the pre-trench phrase was also pacifist, rather than fox hunting), writes to his friend Hugh de Selincourt.

…I have come to think the Army has had all the useful service it will ever get out of me. –I don’t quite know how it has happened–whether the biff on the head has had little or much to do with it–but I know I shall never be anymore use in the Army. I’m too tired of it–too entirely soul sick of it. And the physical weariness is merely a reflex. –I’m sorry, in a way, because I should like to have stuck it out to the bitter end & this sometimes seems to me the fruit of a kind of moral cowardice or at least vacillation[3]

Plowman, who has just had a course of conversation with Dr. Rivers, is convinced that the war is wrong and yet driven to “see it out” and to take his chances. So far so much like Sassoon. But Plowman is also willing, at this stage, to acknowledge the state of his health and he shows little interest in attempting to make a public show of his war-weariness. Just like Sassoon–except without the fashionable friends and grandiose gestures toward political poet-martyrdom. But neither is Plowman, even with the excellent medical care and his own steady good sense, able to shake the feeling that to be worn down and finished with war is a kind of defeat…

 

In a lighter vein, it would appear that one of the war’s lesser-known casualties was a Thomas Hardy essay on Jane Austen:

July 15, 1917

Dear Symons:

I am sorry to tell you that some jobs other than literary that I have in hand prevent my writing anything about Jane Austen, even if I could add to the good things that have been said about her by so many. However you can do well enough without me…

Sincerely yours,

Ths Hardy[4]

 

And Ivor Gurney, writing once again to Marion Scott, has music on his mind even though his mood is not as high as it usually is when he discusses his first artistic love. Today, a century back, he answers her request for a melody.

My Dear Friend:

…I am sorry you are sick again, but hope this will be the final lookback and a short one, on your journey toward health…

Tomorrow “The Old Bold Mate” will come to you. It has been a grind to write it, please excuse the writing so scrappy and obviously hurried. The whole thing was more distasteful to me as it might have been the writing of something I loved, and even then I find it hard to settle all the details, which is the real meaning of setting stuff on
paper.

A grind to write it out for Scott, perhaps–and there is something in Gurney’s tone which suggest that it is not the song but rather his spirits which are difficult to conquer–but the song itself was written long ago. Early in his time in the Gloucesters, Gurney had composed a melody for a short lyric of John Masefield’s (properly known as “Captain Stratton’s Fancy”). Even now, a century back, Gurney’s air is being sung in German prisoner of war camps, the tune taught to his fellow inmates by Will Harvey. It’s a lighthearted song, a latter-day sea chantey good for male fellowship and the clouding over of present tedium with imagined adventure. But like all good songs of high-living, it’s not without its regrets: the penultimate line of Masefield’s poem is “So I’m for drinking honestly, and dying in my boots.”

But this is one of those days where we can watch mood and melody change almost in “real time.” Gurney’s luck changes in a matter of minutes, and he picks up his pen once again:

My Dear Friend: They have attached me but 5 minutes agone to 184 MGC; that’s my address for a bit, probably permanently, unless I turn out a dud.

This is a far, far better thing than I have ev — er done, and when one thinks of the Winter . . . .

True, it is a pity to lose so many good friends, but I console myself by thinking how many of those would have jumped at the chance. Thank you for the papers, very much:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

The hope, here, is that the work in the Machine Gun Company will be lighter–and survivable. Gurney will elaborate, soon, explaining that a machine-gun crewman is “better fed… does not do fatigues… usually gets a dug out in Winter; does not go into the front posts… as I have said or hinted, [the Machine Gun Corps] is a safer service, on the whole.”[5]

 

Which should remind us that sensations of comfort and discomfort are as relative as anything else in human history.

No sooner has Duff Cooper recounted his daily travails as a cadet–all that drill and army food hardly leaves a fellow with the energy to play tennis of an afternoon!–then he receives yet another leave. Having hied himself to London without delay, Cooper gets to spend today, a century back, amidst luxury and comfort, love and beauty.

Oh the joy of waking in soft sheets and turning over to sleep again. At 9:30 I was called with tea and toast, at 10 a man came to cut my hair and shave me after which I returned to bed and book. These details, once the regular routine of my life, now seem rich luxuries and noteworthy. I got up slowly and had finished by half past 12 very soon after which Diana came to me, fresh and lovely as the morning which just before her arrival has been freshened and cleaned by a short, sharp storm with thunder…[6]

 

And today, a century back, Hedd Wyn and the 15th R.W.F. left Fléchin, France and marched toward Flanders, where they will receive advanced assault training in camps closer to the front lines.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 505.
  2. Diaries, 181.
  3. Bridge into the Future, 68-69.
  4. Collected Letters, V, 221.
  5. War Letters, 175-7.
  6. Diaries, 56-7.

Edward Brittain on Victor Richardson, and What Remains; Ivor Gurney on Food and Fatalism; Patrick Shaw Stewart Lolls and Reads

First, today, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first to her since the death of Victor Richardson. There is something still clinging to this letter of the Romantic idealism that has always marked this group of friends–but not much. Edward is not in a mood to be sentimental about cruel wounds, or to fool himself about pain.

Roker, Sunderland, 11 June 1917

Dearest Vera —

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live; I have a horror of blindness, and if I were blinded myself I think I should wish to die. The idea of long years without the light of the sun and the glory of its setting and without the immortal lamp of life is so abhorrent to me — and the thought of that has been hanging over me these 2 months — that I cannot altogether deplore the opening of the gates of eternal rest to that Unconquerable Soul, although I loved him in a way that few men can love one another. I am so very glad that you were near and saw him so nearly at the end; in a way too I am glad not to have been there; it is good to remember the cheerfulness with which he faced the living of a new life fettered by the greatest misfortune known to men.

Yes, I do say Thank God he didn’t have to live it. We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again: you find me changed, I expect, more than I find you; that is perhaps the way of Life. But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother

Edward[1]

 

So life goes on, even if there is nothing but love to get down behind in the mud and push.

Ivor Gurney, today, is thinking of life–and food… and poetry… and food again… and ends.

11 June 1917

My Dear Friend: Out of the line once more, but for once, not hungry, for the Lord and the ASC have been kind to us, and liberal gentlemen have bestowed cake upon me…

Yes, the College Mag. and the TLS have arrived. I am sorry I forgot to thank you. If there are any complementary copies please send them to Mrs Chapman and Mrs Hunt…

Today there are orgies of cleaning, and men brush and polish frantically at brass and leather. The weather is beautiful, and there is plenty of water to wash with, so we are not unhappy. Also there is plenty to eat…

Gurney is writing to Marion Scott, of course, and he includes several rondels in a similarly light-hearted vein. But see the last lines–light-heartedness is a passing mood, in the trenches, and never the note of resolution.

Rondels

1. Letters

“Mail’s up”! the vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind
(His wife, his sister, or his lover.)
Mail’s up, the vast of night is over.
The grey-faced heaven Joy does cover
With love, and God once more seems kind.
“Mail’s up”! The vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind.

2. Shortage

God God! No Jam! No Bread!!
No Butter!!!
Whatever are we coming to?
O desolation, anguish utter —
Good God! No jam, no bread, no butter.
I hear the brutal soldiers mutter.
And strong men weep as children do.
Good God! No jam, no bread,
No butter!
Whatever are we coming to?

3. Paean

There’s half a loaf per man today?
O Sergeant, is it really true?
Now biscuits can be given away.
There’s half a loaf per man today;
And Peace is ever so near they say.
With tons of grub and nothing to do.
There’s Half a Loaf Per Man today!
O Sergeant is it Really True?

4. Strafe (1)

I strafe my shirt most regularly.
And frighten all the population.
Wonderful is my strategy!
I strafe my shirt most regularly;
(It sounds like distant musketry.)
And still I itch like red damnation!
I strafe my shirt most regularly
And — frighten all the population………….

5. Strafe (2)

The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute.
We crouch and wait the end of it, — or us
Just behind the trench, before, and in it.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
(O Framilode! O Maisemore’s laughing linnet!)
Here comes a monster like a motor bus.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
We crouch and wait the end of it — or us

I wonder if the proofs are with Sidgwick and Jackson yet. That will interest me, and also (when the time comes) to know what Gloucester people think. Last night I read some to a friend of mine, and was surprised to find how little I cared for them, and how remote they seemed. As for Spring 1917, it is as I thought long dull, and unvaried…

With best wishes; Yours sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Finally, today, an update from Patrick Shaw Stewart, now with the Royal Naval Division in France. It’s a discursive letter, and I’ll make some cuts to get us to the good parts… who could he be reading, now that he’s reached the Western Front at last?

…The battery commander is out, so I am lying flat on my tummy in the grass outside his habitat in the amiable sun, waiting till he comes in; one of the pleasanter phases of war. When I have written to you, and X, and Y, and Z, I will
go on with Tom Jones, which I am in the middle of and which is far and away the best book I ever read. Messrs Meredith and James are simply silly beside it, and as for the Victorians ——–. I got through Sense and Sensibility the other day, by the way, not bad, but not half as good as Pride and Prejudice, or Emma.

I did tell you about our time up the line? It was quite agreeable, good weather (though a lot of mud), and a quiet time, very few casualties. I had rather luck having a chain of posts very much advanced in a rather well-known place, so far advanced as to be clear of mud and also clear of shelling. The only trial was that I hardly got a wink of sleep—one has to re-acquire the habit of sleeping in a sitting-position on a petrol tin in the later half of the morning…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 355.
  2. War Letters, 168-70.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 198-99.

Ford Madox Hueffer Imagines Peace, with “No Shrapnel and No Huns/And No Nuns or Four-point-ones;” Rowland Feilding Hits the Ground Running; Two Asquiths at the Crossroads; Bim Tennant Prepares for Action

Ford Madox Hueffer. is still scribbling gallantly through the barrage, today. Evidently up early, he has another classically dawn-themed poem for us today… Or not, actually. As soon as we pass the title we find not a hymn but a chilling, charming nursery rhyme:

Albade

The little girls are singing, “Rin! Ron! Rin!”
The matin bell is ringing “Din! Don! Din!”
Thirty little girls, while it rains and shrapnel skirls
By the playground where the chapel bells are ringing.

The stout old nuns are walking,
Dance, little girls, beneath the din!
The four-point-ones are talking,
Form up, little girls, the school is in!
Seven stout old nuns and fourteen naval guns
All around the playground go on talking.

And, my darling, you are getting out of bed
Where the seven angels watched around your head,
With no shrapnel and no Huns
And no nuns or four-point-ones. . .

Getting up to catch the train,
Coming back to tea again
When the Angelus is sounding to the plain
And the statue shells are coming from the plain
And the little girls have trotted home again
In the rain . . .

Darling, darling, say one funny prayer again
For your true love who is waking in the rain.

The Salient, 7/9/16

 

This rhyme is one of the best surprises this project has recently provided. How very charming! Hueffer really is very good. He can do more or less anything, it seems, except those genres requiring modesty. Is he thinking of Violet Hunt, his would-be wife, with this rhyme, when all his letters of this vintage only complain of her? Or is there another? Well, presumably shortly after drafting the poem, he turned to another task at hand. He is to provide a preface for Hunt’s latest novel, Their Lives. Naturally, Hueffer, having worked out the lyric impulse with his Albade, now subsumes his own persona and place in order to better support Hunt’s work:

I took the proofs of this books up the hill to read. From there I could see the gas shells bursting on Poperinghe; it was a very great view…[1]

And while I was looking at that great view, perceiving the little white mushrooms of our own shells suddenly existing in the dark line under [Wytschaete]–miles and miles away–and then turning down my eyes and reading… it occurred to me that violet Hunt’s characters… were Prussians. Their cold materialism, their absence of any shading, their direct methods of wanting a thing… these are characteristic of… l’Ennemi.

Is this the most openhanded way to pseudo-blurb one’s pseudo-wife’s book? “But I was just making a comparison….” Hmm. Hueffer continues, less as a loyal Janeite than as a blunderous Great White Male attempting gallantry toward lady novelists:

This attempt to apply the method of Jane Austen… gives to Their Lives the character of a work of history. It is history–and it makes it plain. For that horrible family of this author’s recording explains to me why today, millions of us, as it were, on a raft of far-reaching land, are enduring torture it is not fit that human beings should endure, in order that–outside that raft–other eloquent human beings should proclaim that they will go on fighting to the last drop of our blood.

I have never accused Hueffer/Ford of simple self-centeredness–this is complex self-absorption, dating back to his childhood influences and manifold anxieties:

This may sound a little obscure: but if the somnolescent reader will awaken to the fact that selfishness does create misery he may make a further effort of the imagination and , and see that the selfishness of the Eighties–of the Victorian and Albert era–is the direct Ancestor of… Armageddon. Those fathers, and particularly those mothers, ate the vines of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Self-help Smiles; our mouths are filled –are burned–by minenwerfer.

Yes, that is a bit obscure. Somehow we’re reviewing a novel of manners (apparently) and have gotten to a sentence that combines Ruskin, high priest of 19th century British aesthetics, and the feared German trench mortar. Together at last!

But this is very Fordian. He has roped in his celebrated past (and his extreme Englishness, always an odd facet his character, considering his German roots, fluency in French and German, and otherwise extreme Continental-ness) and his precious present. Ford now borrows more directly from the experiences recounted yesterday, a borrowing which reminds us of a through-theme in all of these different writings of yesterday and today: they are all very different, but they are all firmly situated on his side–the Somme side–of the experiential gulf. As a writer of light verse, or letters, or literature, or a preface to a novel, he is writing always as a soldier. I have been there–I am “there” now–and you, reader, are not.

Most of the great books of the world are unpleasant books. And whilst I write, the Boches are shelling out of existence the rather ugly little church close at hand. ‘C… r … r… ump!’ go the 4.[2] shells into the mediocre but sacred edifice… Then, in the silence after the shell has burst, whilst you are saying ‘Thank God!’ because it has not hit you, you hear the thin, sifting sounds of the stained glass dropping down the aisles. There is no reason why the Boche should object to our having a church in our village. They are just destroying it… Truly, Our Lord and Saviour Christ dies every day–as he does on every page of this book, and in every second of this 7-9-16.[2]

That task accomplished in inimitable fashion, Hueffer continues his string of letters to Conrad. I hazarded yesterday that he is using Conrad as a sort of writer’s notebook, in much the same way that other writers have written sequentially to their family and counted it as a diary. Today this sense deepens, as Hueffer/Ford turns to the question of memory, memoir, and the urge to record.

Attd. 9/Wclch
19th Div, B. E. F.
7/9/16

Dear Conrad,

I wrote these rather hurried notes yesterday because we were being shelled to hell and I did not expect to get thro’ the night.

I wonder if it is just vanity that in these cataclysmic moments makes one desire to record. I hope it is, rather, the annalist’s wish to help the historian—or, in a humble sort of way, my desire to help you, cher maitre!—if you ever wanted to do anything in “this line.”

Bully for my intuition of yesterday, then, but this is something better: Hueffer, who after all knows a great deal about a great deal and has written a series of historical fictions (how perfect for a man we are investigating, as it were, for dramatizing the facts of his own experience), is very much aware both that date-marked impressions (“the annalist’s” work) are already “creative” rather than perfectly factual and that they are the raw stuff from which a historian constructs narratives further removed from immediate experience.

Or, to return to a modest mode, these “annals” of a war might help a novelist with the little details of his trade. And, again, remind him of what his friend has experienced and he has not.

Of course you wd. not ever want to do anything in this line,—but a pocketful of coins of a foreign country may sometimes come in handy. You might want to put a phrase into the mouth of someone in Bangkok who had been, say, to Bécourt
There you wd. be! And I, to that extent, shd. once more have collaborated.

Next, another perfect observation. We may try–nobly!–to produce a Great War “battle piece.” But that’s overwhelming–only a meandering, intense, fractured four-volume novel could really capture this war… It’s a matter for the accretion of daily detail.

This is a rather more accidenté [uneven; perhaps something like “messed up”] portion of the world: things in every sense “stick out” more in the September sunlight. The Big Push was too overwhelming for one to notice details; it was like an immense wave full of debris…

It is curious—but, in the evenings here, I always feel myself happier than I have ever felt in my life.—Indeed, except for worries, I am really very happy—but I don’t get on with my superior officers here & that means that they can worry me a good deal in details… However, these things, except in moments of irritation, are quite superficial…[3]

 

So Ford. He will not be able to maintain this level of productivity, which is good, as our attentions are needed elsewhere. Back on the Somme, the Guards Division is beginning to move, and we have several officers to keep tabs on. First, Rowland Feilding, even though he has moved away from the Guards, as expected. I’ll let his rapid-fire letters to his wife tell the story of the beginning of his first command:

September 6, 1916. Morlancourt.

There was Brigade Battle training to-day, and on my return to billets I found my orders. I am to assume temporary command of the 6th Connaught Rangers, belonging to the 47th Brigade, 16th (South Irish) Division, who, I find, are not far from here, at Carnoy…  I am to join it this afternoon. I will write again to-morrow, if I get the chance, and tell you how things are going.

 

September 7, 1916. Carnoy.

I reported to my new Brigadier (47th Brigade) last evening. He is General George Pereira, Grenadier Guards… I had tea and dinner with him, and found that he knows many of the family well. He has told me to put up a Major’s crowns. I am of course on probation, and I have not an easy task before me; therefore, I shall require all your prayers. What would I not give for the opportunity of a few words with you! I have hated having to make this great change without consulting you, and even without your knowledge.

My new battalion is one of the two which captured Guillemont four days ago:—as hard a nut to crack as there has been in this battle, so far. It was the battalion’s first attack, so it has not done badly; though the casualties have been heavy, both the Colonel and Second in Command having been killed.

I think we shall very soon be going out for a long rest, which I understand is overdue.

 

September 7, 1916 (Evening). Carnoy.

My new battalion, or rather the remnant of it, was bivouacking when I joined it, on a slope alongside the ruins of Carnoy, amid a plague of flies, reduced (apart from officers) to 365 other ranks, and very tired after the capture of Guillemont, in which it had taken a prominent and successful part, though the toll had been so heavy.

Since General John Ponsonby had first suggested the possibility of my being appointed to the command of a New Army battalion, I had hoped that I should perhaps be allowed a week or two with the officers and men, to get to know something of them before taking them into action: and certainly, in ordinary times, one would not expect a battalion straight out of one exhausting attack, and so punished as was this one, to be ordered back, without rest, into another. Yet such is the case.

To-day, within twenty-four hours of assuming command, I am to move up in front of Ginchy, preparatory to attacking that village the day after to-morrow…[4]

There’s not much to add, really. Feilding didn’t have a chance to consult with his wife, but at least he could reassure her that he would be safer in a new command. Now he is replacing a colonel who has been killed, and leading exhausted men back into battle…

 

But it wouldn’t be much safer with the Guards Division. Raymond Asquith gives us some detail on the purpose of the Guards field day that Feilding, understandably, glossed over. But then his story, like most of his stories, takes a quick twist:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
7 September 1916

Our 5 minutes notice to move has been cancelled again, as one guessed it would be, and we are continuing our strenuous training. Yesterday we had a Brigade Field Day under John Ponsonby illustrating all the newest and most elaborate methods of capturing German trenches with the minimum of casualties. It involved getting up at 5 a.m. but in other respects was funny enough. The “creeping barrage” i.e. the curtain of shell fire which moves on about 50 yards in front of the advancing infantry, was represented by drummers. The spectacle of the whole four battalions moving in lines across the cornfields at a funeral pace headed by a line of rolling drums, produced the effect of some absurd religious ceremony conducted by a tribe of Maoris rather than a brigade of Guards in the attack. After it had gone on for an hour or two I was called up by the Brigadier and thought at first that I must have committed some ghastly military blunder (I was commanding the Company in Sloper’s absence) but was relieved to find that it was only a telegram from the corps saying “Lieut. Asquith will meet his father at cross roads K.6d at 10:45 a.m.”

fricourt crossroads

The fateful crossroads. Or not–it’s a bit too far from the front line to make sense, but it’s the right map reference, I think…

So I vaulted into the saddle and bumped off to Fricourt where I arrived exactly at the appointed time. I waited for an hour on a very muddy road congested with troops and lorries and surrounded by barking guns. Then 2 handsome motors from G.H.Q. arrived, the P.M. in one of them with 2 staff officers, and in the other Bongie, Hankey,[5] and one or two of those moth-eaten nondescripts who hang about the corridors of Downing Street in the twilight region between the civil and domestic service.

We went to see some of the captured German dug-outs and just as we were arriving at our first objective the Boches began putting over a few 4.2 shells from their field howitzer. The P.M. was not discomposed by this, but the G.H.Q. chauffeur to whom I had handed over my horse to hold, flung the reins into the air and himself flat on his belly in the mud. It was funny enough.

The shells fell about 200 yards behind us I should think. Luckily the dug-out we were approaching was one of the best and deepest I have ever seen–as safe as the bottom of the sea, wood-lined, 3 storeys and electric light, and perfect ventilation. We were shown round by several generals who kept us there for 1/2 an hour or so to let the shelling die down, and then the P.M. drove off to luncheon with the G.O.C. 4th Army and I rode back to my billets.

In the morning I went to an improvised exhibition of the Somme films–really quite excellent. If you haven’t seen them in London I advise you to take the earliest opportunity. They don’t give you much idea of a bombardment, but casual scenes in and on the way to the trenches are well-chosen and amazingly like what happens.

This morning we did some battalion training. It is certainly much easier and pleasanter commanding a Company than a platoon. You tell your subordinates what to do and then canter about the country damning them for not doing it.

Tonight we do some operations in the dark and tomorrow another brigade field day. The books and food you speak of have not yet arrived, but I have received 3 cakes of “Violette’ soap which smells very good.

The weather has become lovely again—bright sun with a touch of autumnal crispness in the air . . .[6]

 

Finally, Bimbo Tennant writes home with slightly forced good cheer. That is, his good cheer always seems to come from the heart, but here it trips up among the competing needs to inform, to be quick about it, and to reassure.

Sept. 7th, 1916.

… We are expecting to leave this place to-day and go off somewhere to make a road; but we have just got the message to ‘ stand-by,’ that is, wait in readiness, so whether we go or not, we don’t know. The news is universally good, the Brigadier said two days ago the 5th September was the most successful day of the war, so everyone is very bucked at the outlook. If there is an attack the C.O. has ordered me to be at Battalion Head-quarters, helping him and the Adjutant. This can lessen your anxiety considerably, darling Moth’; we are just going to march off after all, so good-bye–from Devoted Son[7]

This is good news, but headquarters units remain vulnerable to counter-barrages during an attack and often suffer casualties when trying to move forward to restore order or press the attack. In other words, this is hardly unalloyed reassurance, with an attack in the offing.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Can we count this as another Lucretian moment of Epicurean contentment? Probably not.
  2. War Prose, 189-90.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 75-6.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 110-12.
  5. Maurice Hankey, elder brother of Donald Hankey.
  6. Life and Letters, 293-4.
  7. Memoir, 226.

A. A. Milne Goes Forward Under Fire, with Jane Austen Holding his Train; Disaster for the Warwicks, and Mercy; Max Plowman Ponders the Gulf and the Writer’s Task; Edward Thomas Burns his Bridges; Wilfred Owen is Better at Rapid

As the clock turned over to today, a century back, A. A. Milne, signals officer of the 11th Warwicks, was sitting in a command dugout alongside his colonel and the rest of the headquarters and signalling sections. They were waiting for news of the battalion’s attack, which had begun an hour and a half before. They had another two hours to wait.

It was about two o’clock in the morning that a runner got through. The attack, as was to be expected, was a complete failure…

Advancing into machine gun and artillery fire, the Warwicks took heavy casualties and “were obliged to return to their original trenches.” Only one officer and eleven men were recorded in that day’s Battalion Diary as killed, but many of the 39 “missing” were also dead, lying between the German and British lines or in the German trenches themselves. The battalion commander, Col. Collison, will remember that three officers died, two were seriously wounded, and another was taken down the line suffering from shell-shock. At least 111 men were wounded.

But Collison and Milne didn’t know this at the time time. They knew almost nothing–which was a problem. And Milne was the communications officer.

“Am I to go back, sir?”

“No.” He caught the Major’s eye. The Major got up and strapped on his revolver. It was all too clearly the moment for me to strap on mine…

“Use your common sense,” said the Colonel. “If it’s impossible, come back. I simply cannot lose three signalling officers in a month.”

I promised, but felt quite unable to distinguish between commonsense and cowardice. The whole thing was so damned silly.

Milne knows, I think, that isn’t so much a brave confession as it is a nice little nutshell. He had wanted this rare independence to choose his own course. But, now–how was he to know where his duty lay? It’s somewhere between heroism and cowardice, out there in the dark.

Milne had to try, at least, to run a new line forward now, in the middle of the night, under fire. But he has only been in command of the signalling section for a single day–who should he choose to help him?

I told my sergeant that we were now going to run out a line, and asked him to pick two men for me. I knew nothing of the section then, save that there was a Lance-Corporal Grainger who shared my passion for Jane Austen, unhelpful knowledge in the circumstances.

The sergeant volunteers and picks a different man. Out they go into the night, following the major (probably the battalion’s second in command) toward the attacking companies.

We dashed. The Major went first–he was going to “reorganize the troops”; I went second, God knew why; the sergeant and the signaller came behind me, running out a line neatly and skilfully… From time to time the Major flung himself down for a breather, and down we flopped and panted, wondering if he would get up again. To our relief each time he was alive, and so were we. We passed one of the signal-stations, no longer a station but a pancake of earth on top of a spread-eagled body; I had left him there that evening, saying “Well, you’ll be comfortable here.” More rushes, more breathers, more bodies, we were in the front line. The Major hurried off to collect what men he could, while I joined up the telephone. Hopeless, of course, but we could have done no more. I pressed the buzzer…

The phone, unexpectedly, works.

I asked to speak to the Colonel. I told him what I knew. I ordered—what were telephones for?–a little counter-bombardment. Then with a sigh of utter content and thankfulness and the joy of living, I turned away from the telephone. And there behind me was Lance-Corporal Grainger.

“What on earth are you doing here?” I said.

He grinned sheepishly…

“I though I’d just like to come along, sir.”

“But why?”

He looked more embarrassed,

“Well, sir, I though I’d just like to be sure you were all right.” Which is the greatest tribute to Jane Austen that I have ever heard.[1]

 

This story pleases me immensely. Any self-respecting, Pooh-reading Janeite should end it there, in triumph. But delving into this action has raised some interesting issues. We have two witnesses writing this attack, but neither of them were really eyewitnesses at all. The attack was hundred of yards ahead of them, in a shell-stricken night. Milne tells his own story, but Collison tries to tell his battalion’s, and for that he must rely on the testimony of the single surviving officer he was subsequently able to interview.

The attack, Colonel Collison explains, was made with two companies in front. One, despite the loss of three officers, seemed to penetrate the German line. But even that is not certain. The other company was stopped well short of the trenches, and a supporting company lost its way and headed off at an oblique angle.

It must have been easy enough for the forewarned Germans to counter this very localized inroad into their front line. “It is certain that these bold spirits were all either killed or captured,” writes Collison. It was his plan–he, that is, drew up the plan he was ordered to draw up, and remained, blind and helpless, in the position that duty required him to maintain, while other men tried to carry it out.

His diary could be filled with defensive self-justification or a lament for the uselessly slaughtered. But neither of those approaches would serve much of a purpose. Rather, both his personal diary and the official Battalion War Diary testify to Collison’s decency and humanity–and to the free-thinking nature of his command. There is no protest, no dramatic gesture. But the War Diary, written in the clear hand of a clerk (or perhaps the adjutant) on an official army form, makes it perfectly clear that their orders were self-defeating: they were to attack just after–but not in coordination with–that barrage by the heavies. To write that this “no doubt advertised our intended attack” in the official record is a stinging rebuke. It suggests that Collison would have been morally justified in calling off the attack, but, realistically, that option was not open to him. Men were going to die, futilely. But nothing would prove the futility of their deaths unless orders were followed, and so they died.

Collison’s diary also provides a name for the body found by Milne, if we can allow for Milne’s having positioned a man described not as a signaller but as a “headquarters orderly” in that advanced command/signalling position. He was Private Saunders–William Richard Saunders–and Collison, too, steps aside from enumerating the day’s losses to remember a Warwickshire family tragedy: he tells us that Saunders had enlisted alongside his father, who had recently been killed.[2] But that’s it–that’s all the colonel can do, writing later on, to remember what was a very bad day for his battalion.

If the story has taken rather long in the telling, the whole affair… only lasted a few minutes…[3]

Collison even wearily compliments the Germans on their competent defense, but then again, he reminds us, they had been well-warned.

 

Much more remarkable is the Battalion Diary, presumably written today, a century back, or shortly thereafter. It makes it clear that sympathy for the plight of the 11th Warwicks was rather more widespread than we might have guessed:

At daybreak many of our men were still finding their way back to our trenches. The Germans showed themselves + shouted friendly remarks to our men + appeared anxious for a peaceful spell. Our stretcher-bearers went out and fetched in wounded men. For some hours the situation was very quiet…”

And it gets more interesting still. The end of that sentence is crossed out rather heavily–not merely stricken through, but then again not blacked or inked out. I’m confident restoring at least this much:

+ both sides sat[?] or stood[?] on the parapets quite f [3-6 letters illegible].

I wish I could make out the last word, but it seems clear that the Germans were merciful. If they had dead and wounded to evacuate they would have had a much easier time of it–they were in their own trenches. Instead, they took pity on the men they had shot down during the night and allowed for their rescue. Six weeks into the Battle of the Somme they craved some respite, some re-establishment of common humanity.

All this was duly described, then this honesty was regretted. Such an informal truce was, after all, against standing orders. Given Collison’s example of restraint, it wouldn’t do to fulminate–but this would seem to be a pretty clear example of front fighters on both sides united in passive resistance to the best efforts of their generals to get them all killed.

 

 

We have a letter today from Max Plowman on the happy occasion of his survival of his first tour in the front-line trenches. Or, more precisely, on his return to billets to discover a longed-for book in a parcel sent by his friend Janet Upcott. It’s Meredith, and it’s “a treasure.” The pleasure of having good reading to look forward to–his batman had neglected to pack other books when they came to the front–sends Plowman off on a rant about the newspapers.

I find there’s very little one can read out here. The newspapers on the war are nauseating… Whether the general censorship is to blame or not I don’t know but it’s all unreal–the horror & terror & misery are all ‘written down’ or covered with sham heroics by cheap journalism. Moreover, more than ever, I mistrust communiques. They are the window dressing of whitewash & varnish–true as a description of London would be which said “It was quite a large town, bigger than Oxford having many important & interesting churches in it of which St. George’s Hanover Square was considered by many to be the most interesting”. I’m not grumbling–no doubt these things are unavoidable but they look foolish from here & the armchair critic is made ridiculous. Truth has been sunk so deeply down the well now one wonders how long it will take to draw her up again. I should be glad if I thought I had the memory & luck & balance of mind & power of description to help in that direction but I don’t think I have.
This is a combination of a prayer and a writerly statement of purpose, the piety of a doubting writer mustered up and clutched close and slipping away through his fingers. But not all the way away…
Of course only fools believe the newspapers–I mean believe the Germans are cowards who won’t face bayonets–believe soldiers enjoy this kind of war–believe each British soldier who’s killed finds a beautifully tended grave and all the rest of the rot… One hates the vacuum that’s created and the journalistic blather is like a grinning mask on the face of death or a ballet dancer’s skirt on the figure of victory.
This lunging flèche seems a little too aggressive–the writer is back on the attack, but two such different metaphors!
Sorry!–I’ve been writing dull platitudes! Well I’ve been very frightened Janet. Shell fire is a very terrible thing, much more terrible than I had ever troubled to imagine… The men who decided to fire heavy guns on soldiers in trenches must have been possessed by the devil. To sit in an inferno of noise & light & wait to be blown to nothing with small earthquakes all round is a disgusting experience. Its stupidity strikes everybody up there…

The sympathy between Milne’s experience and Plowman ‘s writing is remarkable: “so damned silly” and “stupidity,” the disgust at propaganda and the frank contradiction of ostensible norms and orders shown by the Warwicks and their foes…

Plowman then goes on to describe the very slight wound he had received the previous Wednesday. That was a good joke, of course, but the relief that follows his first tour in the trenches is most sincere. Plowman describes this in a passage from his memoir:

Still alive

It is marvellous to be out of the trenches: it is like being born again. The cloud of uncertainty that hung above us every moment while we were under fire, putting its minatory query before the least anticipation, is lifted, and we are free to say, “In an hour’s time,” without challenging Fate with the phrase. When freedom to anticipate is being persistently challenged, one understands as never before how much man lives by hope. To be deprived of reasonable expectation — even of the next moment — is the real strain. I had not thought of that. Certainty, even of violent death, would often come as a relief. It is the perpetual uncertainty that makes life in the trenches endurance all the time. “Stick it” has become a password: intelligibly the right one. We have to forget “I shall.” It is this constriction of hope that depresses men in the trenches. “If” stands before every prospect, and it is no small “if” in this war. But here we are, alive again, like men redeemed from the grave. We have left the trenches behind.

Instinctively we feel as if we have earned the right to go home. We gave Death the chance. Death did not take it and we’ve escaped alive. What about it? Isn’t the war finished — at least for us? Some of these men have put their lives in pawn a hundred times. Haven’t at least they earned the right of respite? Surely you who live walled round by safety would not demand of these men that they shall keep on offering Death their lives till he accepts? Surely, despite your grey hairs, you’d rather leap from seats of assembly and run into the breach yourselves? I hope you would, but now I am wondering whether you’ve imagination enough to know what’s happening. I should like to remind army commanders, cabinet ministers and other members of parliament, that soldiers only respect those in command over them who are themselves willing to hazard their lives. Napoleon knew this. It behoves them to remember. If they are content merely to prescribe our fates, let them be assured that their share in the honours of posterity will be the award of con- tempt.

Anyway we are alive again for a time — most probably — though three men have been killed in a cook-house that was standing here when we left, but has since been shelled out of sight. Peace will come some day, bringing to some men, if not to us, its almost unthinkable reprieve. Peace might even come to-day. Who can tell?[4]

It’s a bit manipulative to segue back and forth from letter to memoir, but at least I can comfort myself knowing that its quality would provide some solace to the century-back Plowman. Here is how today’s letter concludes:

I wish I could come home & tell you all I know, now while the impressions are fresh because I suppose if I “stick it” long they’ll all get dull & in the desire to “get on or get out” I shall forget what war is really like & be as inarticulate as the rest when I do get back. But… I’m awfully glad I did get out here. This is a rotten letter because it tries to emphasise the terror & horror of the war which one can only vaguely realise in England…[5]

Well, it’s a tall order.

 

Meanwhile, back in England, Wilfred Owen continues with his training. It’s musketry, now, the hoary British army term for rifle-shooting. Let’s let Wilfred observe himself under observation:

Sat. Night [13 August 1916] Mytchett Musketry Camp

Dearest of Mothers,

Just had your Letter which came, as you designed, tonight. It came refreshingly, comparable to the cool rain that broke over this desert this evening…

My own shooting, alas, is the least of my cares. But it is a bit of a worry, because, in duty bound, one strafes the men for bad shooting, and is never sure of not doing worse than the worst of them. They keep a relentless watch on my Target. I have so far got a Pass every day, but I only do well in Rapid! I can get off 5 rounds in 30 secs, scoring 3 bulls and 2 inners, 17 marks out of 20. If allowed more time I do less well. It is an interesting point of my psychological ‘erraticness’…[6]

 

And one more brief, melancholy note, from Owen’s erstwhile fellow Artists’ cadet. Tonight, a century back, Edward Thomas is making a bonfire of books and letters that he can’t take with him. Two months after his landlady evicted him from his shack-study in his garden in Steep, his wife and children will be moving to a new cottage at High Beech. Thomas will continue to move among different barracks and camps, and soldiers–even soon-to-be-officers–must travel light.

I thought I should be accused of making a beacon for Zeppelins last night, I had such a huge bonfire…[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. From Milne's autobiography, It's Too Late Now, quoted and "slightly adapted" by Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 175-77.
  2. I can't corroborate this. Private Saunders' father is listed by the CWGC as Joseph Saunders, but I can't find a good match for him in their records.
  3. Milne's autobiography, It's Too Late Now, is quoted in Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 175; Collison, With the 11th Royal Warwicks in France, 1915-16, 100-8. The Battalion Diary is available online.
  4. A Subaltern on the Somme, 54-5.
  5. Bridge Into the Future, 47-9.
  6. Collected Letters, 404.
  7. Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 270.

Robert Graves’s Manic “Escape” from Hades; Max Plowman Watches Dawn Over Delville Wood

Both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves are home in England, both recuperating from lung troubles–Sassoon’s occasioned by a fever, Graves’s by a German 5.9-inch shell. And both, now, can turn their attention to poetry, and to their friendship. Today, a century back, Graves wrote to Eddie Marsh, the poetic impresario whose attentions have chivvied along both that friendship and that poetry.

Graves begins by apologizing to Marsh for not having written earlier, claiming a half-written letter, lost in the shuffle of his voluminous correspondence–doubled, after all, by his reading of all the condolence letters to his parents, plus the overjoyed follow-ups celebrating his resurrection.

Mostly rather tedious. But three lovely ones today, the first from old Siegfried… as I’m going to be able to travel in ‘a week or ten days’, the medico says, I’m going to lug him up to Harlech (I hope you liked the Harlech part of the Caucasus letter; I wrote it within 50 yards of the dead Bosche in Mametz Wood!) and we’ll have high old primmitive times together…

I never knew S.S. was in England. I’m so relieved he’s out of it.

I’ve had ridiculously little pain, the worst being when they tear the sticking plaster that holds my leg bandage in position… I’ve not had a thousandth part of what I suffered when they cut my nose about at Millbank: that made this a beanfest by contrast.

Distracted, and back onto the Lazarus theme (prompted by one–no doubt more than one–of his second raft of letters) Graves now launches a spree of desultory classical allusion:

As a matter of fact, I did die on my way down to the Field Ambulance and found myself just crossing Lethe by Ferry. I had only just time to put on my gas-helmet… To cut short a long story, old Rhadamanthus introduced himself as my judge but I refused to accept his jurisdiction. I wanted a court-martial of British officers: he was only a rotten old Greek. He shouted out: ‘Contempt of Court’ but I chucked a Mills bomb at him which scattered the millions of the mouthless dead in about two seconds…

The fantasia continues–he puts a gun to Charon’s head, escapes, dopes Cerberus with the hated ‘plum and apple’ ration jam, and comes back to himself being labeled a hopeless case by the Ambulance doctor: “(and this part of the tale is true, truer even that then rest).”

But this more than a joking letter; this is the beginning of a unique poem, as those of you who caught the allusion to Sorley (or followed the link) might have guessed. “Escape” is a poem that Elizabeth Vandiver warns us to take both seriously and humorously. If old Robert Graves can’t roll together classical allusion, violent death, and good dark humor, who could? And why not? The joy of being restored to life might very reasonably express itself in the desire to make a good joke and a meaningful poem out of the fruits of a Public School barely survived and a trench warfare education…

And if he was dead, or very nearly dead and silenced, well, no matter: he is alive now. And a live Grave is a mouthy Graves.

But before we get to the poem, I would be remiss not to include one more bit of the letter that redounds greatly to the credit of Eddie Marsh. Not only is his inbox awash in poems from Graves, Sassoon, and Rosenberg, but he is sending these foolish young men just the right sort of reading recommendations:

I’m afraid, great as is the love I bear you, Jane Austen is too hard a nut to attempt to bite at with these weak jaws. Thanks awfully tho’. I have my Sorley here: he’s my chief standby.[1]

Sorley will be of more immediate help, it’s true. But alas that young Robert is too callow, still, to find his way to the Janeites.

 

Escape

(August 6, 1916. Officer previously reported died of wounds, now reported wounded: Graves, Captain R., Royal Welch Fusiliers.)

    … But I was dead, an hour or more.
I woke when I’d already passed the door
That Cerberus guards, and half-way down the road
To Lethe, as an old Greek signpost showed.
Above me, on my stretcher swinging by,
I saw new stars in the subterrene sky:
A Cross, a Rose in bloom, a Cage with bars,
And a barbed Arrow feathered in fine stars.
I felt the vapours of forgetfulness
Float in my nostrils. Oh, may Heaven bless
Dear Lady Proserpine, who saw me wake,
And, stooping over me, for Henna’s sake
Cleared my poor buzzing head and sent me back
Breathless, with leaping heart along the track.
After me roared and clattered angry hosts
Of demons, heroes, and policeman-ghosts.
“Life! life! I can’t be dead! I won’t be dead!
Damned if I’ll die for any one!”[2] I said….
Cerberus stands and grins above me now,
Wearing three heads, lion, and lynx, and sow.
“Quick, a revolver! But my Webley’s gone,
Stolen!… No bombs … no knife….
The crowd swarms on,
Bellows, hurls stones…. Not even a honeyed sop …
Nothing…. Good Cerberus!… Good dog!… but stop!
Stay!… A great luminous thought … I do believe
There’s still some morphia that I bought on leave.”
Then swiftly Cerberus’ wide mouths I cram
With army biscuit smeared with ration jam;

And sleep lurks in the luscious plum and apple.
He crunches, swallows, stiffens, seems to grapple
With the all-powerful poppy … then a snore,
A crash; the beast blocks up the corridor
With monstrous hairy carcase, red and dun,
Too late! for I’ve sped through.

O Life! O Sun!

This is a very clever poem. Graves has already written his near-death, “official death,” and unofficial resurrection as a black comedy of modern war and its attendant bureaucracies. Now he writes something equally compelling, and almost as realistic–a dip into myth.

As befits a learned Carthusian, the references here are quite specific. We are familiar with the idea of the journey to the underworld, perhaps we know the Styx and Lethe–even Cerberus, Charon, and the rest. But the riffs will now come fast and furious. That ellipsis? The classical beginning in medias res. The restoring touch of Prosperine? We must remember that she is not just the kindly Queen of Hades, but also that she was a young woman stolen from sunny life amidst her mother’s fields, condemned to return again and again, youth and joy abrogated, to half-years in hell.

And that “sop” should not be lost amidst the manic inventiveness of the chase scene. We may be chuckling as Graves flickers stiffly and hurriedly across the screen with those Tartarean Keystone Cops in full cry after him; we might giggle as he haplessly tries to sooth the slavering pooch–but that “honeyed sop” is a precise reference to the Aeneid, exactly the Sibyl’s method of spiriting Aeneas past this guardian of Hell’s gate.

So is this a joke? A light-hearted dream narrative? A learned game? Sure, fine, I guess–but it’s more than just these things. Graves grates on many readers because he can play fast and loose with the truth, and because he so often chooses anecdotal sprezzatura over historical accuracy. He fibs.

A just complaint, as far as it goes, but the point–Vandiver’s point, which I am enthusiastically ratifying, here–is that this is a different case. This is poetry, not prose, and we don’t have to choose between “Graves literally believed that he descended to Hades and drugged a three-headed dog” and “the poem is a ‘dream sequence.'” Of course it’s not literally true, but the poem, for all its humor, is also true testimony from a strange middle ground. The poet’s stance, if there must be one, is “who are you to label me dead, leave me for dead, and then tell me, when I awoke from unconsciousness with a jagged hole in my lung, that I never had been dead?” He begins with an assertion–I was dead–and he does not give it up.

Graves at his worst is an intentional troublemaker, an accidental boor, an eye-rolling travesty of a self-appointed seer. But at his best, he prefigures a certain sort of clever young Briton’s nearly holy foolishness. This is the comic spirit that will begin to rise in the next generation with Spike Milligan, the same one that George Harrison will identify as passing through the Beatles and on to Monty Python. And this is no small thing: it has been a great boon to pessimists everywhere who wish, on occasion, to unclench into life-affirming giggle. That’s a bit beside the point, I suppose, but this poem should remind us of the usefulness of Graves to this project: silliness and subversion do not necessarily relinquish all claim to the representation of reality.

He was at death’s door, and Persephone sent him back, to life and sun. For some months, at least.[3]

 

And how is Max Plowman this morning?

Dawn over Delville Wood

Morning breaks shrouded in mist: pale pink veils in the sky above announce the coming of the sun. We shall have seemed to have lived another day before the inhabitants of England awake. These hours between dawn and noon are the longest of the twenty-four. At home we breakfast at eight and try to cram in a day’s work before six. Here we breakfast at four or five, and the clock goes round on leaden wheels over the hours of our enforced idleness: the day’s work is never begun or ended.

The shelling goes on, now heaviest over Delville Wood. We go and look down over it, from the horseshoe bend in the trench on Smalley’s right flank, as the mist begins to clear. We can only guess very roughly the lie of our own and the German trenches: not a living thing is to be seen. The wood itself is just a collection of stakes stuck upright in the ground, looking like the broken teeth of some vicious beast. Shells drop everywhere, making little Etnas as they burst, but we cannot tell which are the hits.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 58-60.
  2. Amidst all this jocular classicism, there is another influence--Nietzsche, whom Graves has become fond of quoting.
  3. See Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles, 314-21. Her commentary on the poem is so good--she suggests a Wodehouse comparison for Graves's comedy, which is very good, but also proleptic--that I felt I need to exert myself. Hence the Keystone Cops (could Graves have seen them prior to this? I think so, but I'm not sure) and that George Harrison idea, for which I do not have a reference... In any event, Vandiver's book is essential for any Great War poem with classical allusions, but it's more fun with the fun ones...
  4. A Subaltern on the Somme, 47.

The Master of Belhaven Dodges Shells Again at Ypres; Olaf Stapledon Notices that Time Flies and the War Stays; Francis Ledwidge Wants to Live to Do Better; A Grisly Tale from Rudyard Kipling

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, has become our foremost arbiter of attrition. An artillery officer of middle rank, his battery dug in beside the walls of Ypres, he has a better understanding of local operations than an infantry battalion officer–yet the strategic situation is never really clear, and it is difficult to distinguish an uptick in violence from the preparations for a major attack.

Yesterday, he noted in his diary, “[a]s I am writing, the Huns putting literally thousands of shells into Ypres. They are going over my head in a continuous stream.” Today, a “horrid day,” was no better. A few miles ahead is the much-fought-over ex-town of Hooge, now under another concerted German bombardment.

The infantry reported that their trenches no longer existed at all, and that they were being badly shelled in their support and reserve trenches, into which they had withdrawn…

Soon after, the S.O.S. signal arrived, at the same moment as the S.O.S. rocket went up. Instantly every battery started the most intense rate of fire possible. This lasted in bursts, and periods of slower fire, from 4 o’clock til 7.10. By 5 o’clock all the telephone-wires were cut, in spite of the fact that most of them were in triplicate. It was a horrid sensation, being entirely cut off and unable to get any news of what was going on. I got through 400 shells in the three hours…

The little foot-bridge connecting the ramparts with the battery was under a hell of a fire and I had to run across it. I must admit I did not expect to reach the guns…

When I came back to the Mess at 9 p.m. for dinner I found a dreadful mess. The little ante-room full of wounded and men who were taking shelter from the shells, the road outside my door littered with dead horses and men…

And the master, again, is generally a reserved commentator. He is a sensible soldier who seems to sit down to his diary determined to record both honest reactions and a demonstration of his sang froid, practical intelligence, and commendably stiff upper lip. So it is significant that his writing so clearly indicates that the strain is beginning to show.

The noise is simply wicked, and my head aches. It is a real duel–they are firing as hard as they can–probably forty rounds a minutes–and the German shells are bursting all round. The house rocks like an earthquake, and the doors etc., are rattling, and it never stops! That is the dreadful part of it–there is no respite. Hour after hour, these violent explosions, that shake the ground and every nerve in one’s body…

I am not going to try and get a little sleep, but doubt if it is possible, with this row going on. However, I am so tired I cannot see or think any more![1]

 

Far away in Egypt, Francis Ledwidge is recovering from another sort of combat fatigue–or, perhaps, recovered, since he is once again writing poetry. He wrote to Lord Dunsany again today, a century back:

Ledwidge wrote to Dunsany on 14 February:

I enclose a few short poems which I ask you to read while I do a better one that is haunting me. You see I have come further south for more heat and sulphur baths as the doctors in the Citadel think these things are what I want mostly. Helwan is close to the lesser pyramids known as the Sakarrah group. There is another Sakarrah thousands of miles away where I wish to be.

Sakkarah, or Saqqara, is the site of many Old Kingdom monuments, including the step pyramid of Zoser/Djoser. The similarity of the place name to the Gaelic-derived name of a field on a farm in Slane, Ledwidge’s home village in Ireland, is an odd coincidence..

There are greater wonders at the Sakarrah of Slane now; for all across the field of that name the half daisies are waiting and watching for the further advance of Spring ere they open fully and hold up cymbals to the music of the rain, ‘Oh , to be in Ireland now that Spring is there!’ Is there any place like Ireland? Why even the fields have their names and traditions.

Somehow I don’t seem to get better of these pains at all. My back is very painful and weak still, but this place may improve it. It is my last chance anyway.

I used to think if I had a book published it wouldn’t matter how soon I died but now that I have one before the public I want to live to do better. I suppose such aspirations are really the striving of the soul for the greater things beyond its prison walls of the body.

An amusing bathos, next, as we see the wide range of support that Dunsany provides in his role as unofficial patron of the local “peasant” poet–from strivings of the soul to petty cash.

You are so good and obliging that I venture to ask you another favour. Will you send the best of the enclosed somewhere and in advance send my brother £2. I have no means of sending him any money from here and he wants £2 for some particular spring work. He is a student severe on himself and I like him to be able to pursue his studies so I subsidise all his necessities. Jenkins would do this but I thought it better ask you…[2]

 

Olaf Stapledon, meanwhile, continues his letter of yesterday to Agnes Miller, his far-flung fiancée. Many of our writers gripe almost constantly, but not Olaf. It is not at all like this serious, starry-eyed, buoyant-souled youth to produce a troubled meditation on the future, and the shadow that the war throws over his great romance.

If the war goes on for another year what will become of us? Somehow I have lately come to regard it as almost certain that it will end soon; but supposing it does not. My dear, how is one to live so long without you? In a year from now you will be nearly twenty-three and I nearly thirty-one. That is not late in life, for either of us, I know; and we are both very young for our ages. But all this time that we are not together is the best age of our lives, and it seems so sad a waste. It may be longer even than a year–who can tell how long?

…when I feel how time flies and the war stays,–why Agnes, it takes all the faith of mine (so different from my evangelical friend’s) to stop me from being childishly angry with the universe.[3]

 

And in a very different register, Rudyard Kipling has for us, today, in his role as official historian to the Irish Guards, a tale of boyish warfare that might have been pulled from fiction very much like his own. It’s just a bit more explicit, and less subtle, and history-not-fiction.

While in Brigade Reserve for a couple of days No. 1 Company amused itself preparing a grim bait to entice German patrols into No Man’s Land. Two dummies were fabricated to represent dead English soldiers. “One, designed to lie on its back, had a face modelled by Captain Alexander from putty and paint which for ghastliness rivalled anything in Madame Tussaud’s. The frame-work of the bodies was wire, so they could be twisted into positions entirely natural.” While they were being made, on the road outside Brigade Headquarters at Pont du Hem, a French girl came by and believing them to be genuine, fled shrieking down the street. They were taken up to the front line on stretchers, and it chanced that in one trench they had to give place to let a third stretcher pass. On it was a dead man, whom no art could touch.

We’ll allow ourselves to look forward into tonight, to conclude this ghastly lark:

Next night, February 15, between moonset and dawn, the grisliest hour of the twenty-four, Lieutenant Pym took the twins out into No Man’s Land, arranging them one on its face and the other on its back in such attitudes as are naturally assumed by the old warped dead. “Strapped between the shoulders of the former, for the greater production of German curiosity, was a cylinder sprouting india-rubber tubes. This was intended to resemble a flammenwerfer.” Hand- and rifle-grenades were then hurled near the spot to encourage the theory (the Hun works best on a theory) that two British patrols had fought one another in error, and left the two corpses. At evening, the Lewis-gun party and a brace of bombers lay out beside the kill, but it was so wet and cold that they had to be called in, and no one was caught. And all this fancy-work, be it remembered, was carried out joyously and interestedly, as one might arrange for the conduct of private theatricals or the clearance of rat-infested barns.[4]

Kipling really is excellent on the British fighting spirit. Not, perhaps, on the reality of it as it was experienced, but rather on how one might show the scrappy mettle of the still-undersized British army in the best, boyish light.

This ruse, especially considered as a package with its suggested similes of amateur theatricals (recall, of many possible examples, Slaughterhouse-Five) and rat-clearing parties (an opportunity for male bonding in Persuasion, and surely much farther back still) is another strong contestant for “most archetypal English activity ever.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 149-51.
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 144.
  3. Talking Across the World, 130-1.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 67-8.

Frank Richards and the Royal Welch Attack; A Memorable Day for Siegfried Sassoon; Lavish Praise for Francis Ledwidge; Tears on the Ward and Clinching Certitudes for Vera Brittain

I have made bold to correct Frank Richards‘ dating of tonight’s raid, based on the reports in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle. For the 4th, then, read the 5th:

On the night of the 4th February, C Company, made up to two hundred men, were sent in the line between Cuinchy and Cambrin to capture a large crater which was about sixty yards from our front-line trench. In the first place the enemy exploded a large mine and had rushed and occupied the crater… During the last fourteen days three separate attacks had been made on the crater but each one had failed. We could not afford to let the enemy hold the crater that distance from our front line: they would have been able in a short space of time to have driven mine galleries from there in under our front line and blown up hundreds of yards of our trenches. Four signallers were told off for the attack–two with the attacking party and two to remain with Lieutenant Stanway who was in charge of operations and who would be in the front line trench. We were issued with steel helmets, the first we ever wore, and arrived in the front line at 10.30 p.m.

After the failures of the earlier attacks, an utterly ancient but recently rather novel tactic was being attempted: surprise. Instead of alerting the enemy with an insufficient bombardment, the men of C company, 2/RWF were to slip quietly out into no man’s land at 11:00, approach the German position as stealthily as possible, and then rush the crater with grenades.

We left our trench and dashed silently for the crater, we singallers running our wire out; we could not keep pace with the rest of the company, who were soon ahead of us. They had reached over halfway before they were spotted. Then the enemy opened out with machine-gun and rifle-fire and bullets were now zipping around us. We had made it up before we left the trench that if one of us fell the other would carry on the best way he could; but luck was with us and we got safely across to the lip of the crater. The scrap was well in progress and I covered Paddy whilst he was fixing the lines to the instrument and establishing communication. At 11:30 p.m. the whole of the crater was captured, and we were consolidating our position…[1]

So far so good. There will be a German response, of course. But it is almost midnight, which can play the role here of built-in cliff-hanger…

Dr. Dunn’s multiple-author chronicle of the 2/RWF–a sort of informal and much more informative Battalion Diary–agrees with Richards’ account in most ways. Other than the day’s discrepancy, the one significant difference is that there may have been a “slight artillery bombardment” rather than no support at all. “Slight,” of course, would seem to be worse than nothing, but evidently half-surprise was achieved, and with it the lip of the crater…[2]

 

And some 60 miles more or less due south, serving with the other Regular battalion of the same regiment, is Siegfried Sassoon.

February 5

A memorable day. Brilliant sunlight and sailing white clouds all the morning. About 12.30 a German aeroplane came over and our anti-aircraft guns let off about two hundred shells—little puffs of white hanging aloft, dispersing slowly while the big hawk forged ahead and then turned and went back, superb and insolent. After lunch rode across to the Citadel under the same blue weather, startling the hares and partridges across the fallows and wheatlands, to find our batteries busily booming away at the Huns who had been playing hell with the trenches occupied by R.W.F. Got there at 4.30, and had some trouble getting up to C. Company and the front line, as the communication-trenches were very much knocked about. Found Greaves, Stansfield, Orme, and Wadd all serene, and no one hurt, though they had been peppered with trench-mortars etc from 8.30 to 3.30. I left them at 7.45, when all the stars were out and the young moon on her back, and an owl flitting across the trenches. Through the dusk came the loud rattle of Hun machine-gun fire on the left; the sky soared unheeding of the war-lines, and the trenches ankle-deep in wet clay, and men grimly peering from under their round steel caps. The mare brought me home straight as a die across the four miles of plough and mud–gloom all around and stars, stars, overhead, and hanging low above the hills—the rockets going up behind, along the line—brief lights soon burnt out—the stars wheeling changeless and untroubled, life and deathless beauty, always the same contrast.

kettle hat

Medieval Kettle Helm, from the Metropolitan Museum

Sassoon–ever a Romantic, still an innocent–is in transition, now. While the other battalion takes dozens of casualties in a tough little night skirmish, his day is “memorable” for the sun and stars and the moon as much as for a trench mortar attack that does no damage at all. For Frank Richards of the Second Battalion, the new steel helmets are important new bits of gear, issued against bullets and shrapnel; for Sassoon of the First Battalion, they are a stroke in this half-way sketch–peering grimly from beneath their steel caps, the Royal Welch might be serving Henry V rather than George. (The medieval appearance of men under the new steel helmets was remarked upon by many writers, although the blurring centuries suit David Jones better than anyone else.)

5030119_orig

British Infantry Helmet, c. 1916

 

Sassoon is not himself helmed, but neither is he any longer riding the unspoiled country of the rear. And yet he is still riding–still the battalion transport officer, and thus up and back from the rear elements rather than in the front trenches–and still beholding the world as a hunter and a poet. And yet the mortars are falling. Really, he’s stuck in between, close… but not there yet. His dreamy prose suits this state, I think.

So I still see the war as a looker-on; catching a glimpse of the grim places, and then ride back to village lights and evening talk with old Cotterill and the interpreter. But my time will come—never doubt it.[3]

 

oct20-2004 Ledwidge Pics

Francis Ledwidge, Promising New Peasant Poet

And far off in Egypt, Francis Ledwidge was still slowly recovering from the illness and exhaustion which laid him low at the end of the demoralizing campaigns in Gallipoli and Macedonia. But morale is a river with many tributaries, and what is sickness and defeat to a poet whose first book is receiving raves?

And no matter that most reviewers condescended by playing up the “peasant poet” angle–a rave is a rave, and Ledwidge was neither ashamed of his origins nor unaware of their pseudo-exotic appeal to the poetry-reading public. One review included his photograph and the following praise:

To start life as a farm labourer and to graduate as a road scavenger is not the usual prelude to a career of distinction, yet this is the record of Francis Ledwidge, a young Irishman . . . His first little volume of verse will win for him many friends. The poet’s lines are charged with human feeling, and are sure, to make their appeal…

Ledwidge was very pleased with this reception, and wrote today, a century back, to his patron, Lord Dunsany:

Thanks for Georgian Poetry to hand a few days ago, also for other parcel just received. Mr Marsh is to be congratulated on his selection of verse, but somehow I think he could have got better from Songs of the Fields. I am glad to be there all the same. I enclose three small things of many I have written in Greece and Serbia, some of them indeed under shrapnel.

I’m afraid I’m not getting better. My back is very painful and weak and I have a terrific headache. There are Navvy imps in my head. I am going somewhere for sulphur baths, perhaps these will do me good. My dreams are awful things and I hate going.asleep because of them. Sometimes I am lying in a coffin in a terrific dream. I will be all right again some time.

I wonder if I might trouble you for a small book of poetry. There is nothing to read here but prose and I have read the few books worth while…

But one can’t write with only self-praise, complaint, and humble requests. Entertain, peasant! How about a wry Irish anecdote about the way establishment Church of England chaplains treat the Roman Catholic Irish?

A ‘C, of E.’ chaplain who lives here called to see me one day because he had heard of my book. He seemed to be taking a great interest in me and promised me a book of poetry, but suddenly he saw on my chart that I was an R.C.and hurried from me as if I were possessed.

He never came over to me since although he has been in the ward many times. I wonder if God asked our poor chaps were they R.Cs or C. of Es when they went to Him on August 15th.

Thanks again for your thoughtfulness.[4]

From such individuals it would be unfair to make generalizations. But I’ve read a lot of Great War stuff at this point, and the consensus on the general uselessness (or worse) of the Anglican chaplains is… quite strong. Especially when they are compared to Catholic chaplains, whose presence tends to be sacramental, ubiquitous, and unstinting rather than consisting of Mr. Collins-like entrances followed by hem-hawing failures at general uplift…

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain.

Saturday February 5th

Strenuous day as there were two operations. The first was a dangerous case–an internal growth–and the man in poor health. He was at the theatre about 2 hours from 10.0, & got through the operation, apparently
rather to everyone’s surprise, & they said they did not know what would happen when he came round. He had not come round when I went off duty at 5.0; his mother, who had been sent for, was sitting by his bedside as he lay very pale & still. I thought of Roland lying pale & weak & unconscious after his operation, & I had to bend over my broom as I was sweeping the floor, so that the patients should not see the tears I couldn’t keep out of my eyes.

I had another letter to-night from Roland’s servant, giving a few more illuminating details of His death. It proves Him conclusively not to have thrown His life away recklessly or needlessly. He was hit because he was last man to leave the dangerous area for the comparative safety of the trench, and so was at the post where the Roland we worship would always have wished to be when He met Death face to face.[5]

“Proves conclusively” is hardly critical reading, and her later description of that terrible night’s events will be careful and fairly equivocal. But now, yes–she is looking for, and finding, the answers that she needs about the circumstances of Roland’s death. She needs to be sure of the past in order to search out the next step.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 140-2.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 180.
  3. Diary, 38.
  4. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 142-3.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 315.

Charles Sorley on Anniversaries and Hope, Loins and Lions, Austen and Gaskell, Apples and Flemish Cookery; Vera Brittain Prepares to be Overwhelmed, and Warns us Against Literary Failure

It’s time to catch up a bit with Charles Sorley. Two days ago, he wrote to a family acquaintance and then to his sister Jean.

Even for “Mrs. C. H. Turner” Sorley can spare a little bit of wit. But not any hope in futurity:

15 August 1915

Very many thanks for your letter and the white heather and the oatcakes and the other good things. You will now be able to take much of the credit of D Company’s magnificent charge (or strategical retreat) when it comes: it will be due to the white heather on the mess table…

We are still all flourishing here: fattening on your kind gifts: looking forward to a peaceful winter and trusting to the artillery to win the war in the spring, whence we shall return to civil life all the merrier for the jolly people whom we have met in our invasion into the army. This time last year–but no, I mustn’t. What bores all men will be in August twenty years hence!

To his sister, we can see–with relief, I think, that his thoughts turn quickly from foodstuffs to books:

Many thanks and belated for the parcel you sent about a week ago and your letter. The apples are always a good thing to have and these remained fresh.

I have not answered before because I have spent all my spare moments during the last week reading with avidity Cranford. I bought it in how-much-would-you-give-to-know-where: the only English book in the only bookshop left standing there: an English edition published in France, retaining the “loin” for “lion” misprint. That I had not read it before I count as a great gain, as it enabled me to read it now. Now you can never put in my epitaph “He had never read Cranford” nor reading it had he failed to enjoy it.” You can make the remark about Jane Austen, however.

Alack! It’s a little suspicious that Sorley reports on the 19th century lady novelists (not George Eliot, Charlie?), with however so much praise, to his younger sister. But perhaps this is merely an interest that he and his sister share rather than a gender-specific judgment. (And despite Roland Leighton‘s much-avowed feminism, his interest in women writers does not seem to have extended–unless I forget, which is oh-so-very-possible–much past Mother and Olive Schreiner.)

But I do hope young Jean speeds a copy of Persuasion toward the trenches…

The letter closes with a stern elder-brotherly warning against sentimentalism. All those suckers with their anniversary-themed navel-gazing:

I hope you are resisting the “this time last year I” epidemic, which is causing havoc out here. August will be henceforward a month to tread delicately–in a month of awful egoism and sentimentalism and inventions, especially when we get old.[1]

Awful!

That was two days ago, but now we reach the anniv… well, a century back. Today, Charles Sorley wrote two more letters. The first, to his father, is businesslike:

17 August 1915

We are looking forward to this time next month. By that time we shall have done our “three months’ hard” in the trenches and will be starting to think of “leaf,” as the sergeants call it. It is not impossible, however, that the Germans will interfere with our arrangements in that sphere.

All goes well. I touch wood (my pencil), but at present we have been twice as lucky as any other battalion in our Division in the way of losses in commissioned ranks. Shakespeare’s lie about “the rain it raineth every day” has held good for the last ten days. One somehow feels that the Germans score in rain: their sentries have umbrellas and their trenches are probably better paved; though ours are passable, and only sufficiently uncomfortable in wet to make us feel a well-off far-off sympathy with the sufferings of the troops out here last winter.

Hence to bed! It is 8.30 a.m.–till midday is my night-time.

Finally, a strange letter to a Miss M. S. Sorley, which is either a coded nickname for his manuscript memoir or, perhaps more likely, an aunt or cousin. With it he sends one of the more unlikely items of booty we have yet encountered:

17 August 1915

Many thanks for your letter which greeted me on our weekly return to our old farmhouse behind the lines. One comes back laden like a mule with all the appurtenances one had taken up eight days before, wherewith to fight rain or heatwaves or flies or “Alleymans”–whichever might turn out to be our most troublesome obstacles: slushing and swearing and tripping through the dark and shell-pitted roads with the vision of a few days’ comparative rest before one. So it was pleasant to hear from you and from that fine and windy country over which I roamed just two years ago.

I’m sending herewith–it strikes me it may interest you–a copy of The Imitation of Christ in Flemish. Two days ago we blew up an old half-ruined estaminet just in front of our trenches, which would have been a useful point of vantage for brother Bosch in case of him attacking. In consolidating the position and digging it in, I found among other things this book in the cellar (which had escaped the explosive) on the top of a barrel still half-full of beer (what can the Germans have been doing?) with some French recipes inside. Perhaps the phrase-book of which you speak would have enabled me to understand them, though I think that The Complete French Scholar price threepence which I already have is sufficient for my present needs–finding the way, billeting troops, saying “C’est la guerre” to all complaints of the natives…

Anyhow, there was a well decomposed body in that estaminet, who may have written this recipe and read his Thomas à Kempis with diligence daily. Or more likely ’twas a German body; and the canny publican and wife and child had fled at the first approach of Germans, leaving their Imitation and–much more wonderful–their recipes behind them. In any case it will answer for my contribution to the reigning passion for souvenirs; and your professional opinion may agree that it is quite a nice binding–for Belgium!

I cannot say where we are. But I think it’s a little south of where you say you were. I’m feeling very “fit”–sorry, you object to that word–but growing a little fat…

I do not insist that you should read this book I’m sending.[2]

 

Last and least, but not least significant, comes Vera Brittain‘s diary:

Tuesday August 17th

Mother had a letter from Edward in which he said he had heard from Roland, who really seemed to think he might get away on Aug. 25th. I still won’t think that it could be as near as a week to-morrow. If it is true, this diary will be quite inadequate to express what I shall feel. Sorrow is hard to describe, joy still harder, but the queer mixture of intense happiness with piercing agony practically impossible. If he comes it will be worse than ever after he has gone. And yet–“one is willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life.”[3]

Oh, she’s a writer indeed. Is this a diary? Yes. Is it a proto-memoir, almost-novel, a thing which, in a sharing of great and glad tidings, a moment of emotion recorded, looks ahead to readers and the challenges of revision? Yes, yes, yes it is. We will shortly be overwhelmed by this diary, and forced–a good reminder!–to confront it as literature rather than time-stamped evidence.

She will be overwhelmed by joy, perhaps swamped by prospective pain–will she be able to get it all down for us?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 297-8.
  2. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 299-301.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 234.

Roland Pines for Art and English Flowers, While Vera Prepares to Sacrifice Her Bloom; Private Lord Crawford Makes a Mountain out of Mattresses

An alarming letter–or pair of letters, actually–from Roland Leighton made their way to Buxton today, a century back.

Tuesday July 6th

I met the postman on my way to the hospital; he had two letters from Roland for me & one for Daddy. I took the two letters & put them in my pocket, & there they tantalised me the whole morning. For I never had a moment to look at them.

The first, written on July 2nd, told me that he was writing in a little room which overlooked grey-green cornfields, red-tiled houses, & a wooded ridge in the distance. The district was a colliery kind, and miners’ cottages dotted the road. He frequently sees the men going home. He is billeted in a house on top of a hill, where he is quite comfortable & has a real bed to sleep in. The proprietor is a small farmer “and Madame is the sage-femme of the village and announces it on an unnecessarily large brass plate on the door. She spends a large part of the time chasing Marie-Louise, aged 4, whose ideas of discipline are somewhat lax.” They have been there 2 days & probably stay another week. They are at the back of Festubert, Givenchy & La Bassée. He doesn’t know where they are going next. Just now they are about 10 miles from the firing line & are said to have been brought there to be used as a flying column & rushed off wherever they are wanted. At present they are resting. But he tells Daddy–not me–that he thinks they will be in for “something exciting” before long. Alas!

So Roland, the self-avowed feminist, is not above keeping the little woman in the dark while he writes bluffly to her father of coming danger. Disappointing. But he seems to be struggling–with his “identity,” we would say–and Vera is inclined to forgive.

…He wonders if one can be a soldier & an artist as well. “I often think how strange it is that no one here knows me in any other than my present role. Someone once called me a chameleon, long ago.

Oh damn! I know it! And I know
How the May fields…

and, knowing, still go on inspecting rifles & seeing that men wash their feet; and you meanwhile make beds & wash up greasy knives & forks: and both perhaps do it a lot better, if only because it is the last thing we should have imagined ourselves doing a year ago.”[1]

Interesting: Roland is now quoting Brooke back to Vera. The two lines are from “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” of 1912, one of the best regarded of Brooke’s poems. It’s a longing-for-England poem, but a much more honest one than the 1914 sonnets. In it, Brooke, writing from Berlin, compares the unsatisfactory German spring to his memories of lovely old England.

He writes in his best obnoxious sophisticate’s manner, clever and nasty about Germany, where he is “sweating, sick, and hot,” annoyed by German Jews (Brooke was a bitter anti-Semite, but this one was all for poetry–he wanted a cheap rhyme with “dews,”) and over-organized German flower beds. But interspersed with the grating snarkiness are just the things we would have expected–flowers, village scenes, a bevy of English place-names–and none denied their traditional due affection.

It’s tempting, as always, to read too much into a small choice. Roland, a serious young intellectual and an aspiring (if somewhat lumbering) poet, quotes the earlier, quick-witted and somewhat Bohemian Brooke, not the gormless and “damn”-less sacrificial prophet of the famous sonnets. And yet we can still read a chivalrous substitution for the absent English spring flowers of his heart’s desire.

Alas, then, that Vera is beginning to feel the strain of her own war work, and its effect on what we might, following Austen’s Mr. Eliot, think of as her “bloom.” It’s interesting, too, that she focuses so intently on what Roland tells her (and doesn’t tell her) of his own situation, and makes no comment on the last bit quoted above, in which he ponders the fate of the artistic dreams of such two as they, condemned now to bedpans and foot inspection.

Just yesterday, she had written this:

I have just been looking at myself in the glass; tiredness makes one positively ugly. As I have got to be continuously tired for many days to come I fear at this rate all I ever had of beauty will come to be a thing of the past. Such is war! Even attractiveness must be sacrificed to usefulness. I told Roland the other day that my roughened hands are not worth kissing now!

Will she remember that her nursing is supposed to be bringing them closer together? Both, indeed, as seeing to the feet of the soldiery.

Evening work at this hospital does not involve so much walking about as the morning & includes one or two really interesting things. I had to rub one man’s back, & paint another’s frost-bitten foot with a strong-smelling mixture of some sort. Preparing the suppers is quite strenuous as every one of those in bed has something different. I had to make cocoa, bovril, hot milk & toast, & did not leave till 9.0. It is splendid having so much to do.

Aha–so we end on a high note.

 

Now, what would Lord Crawford see in these sacrifices on the part of this keen and intellectually powerful young woman? He wrote the following on July 1st:

Nursing sisters keep arriving–there are now seven of them. We groan at the prospects before us, for the orderly is looked upon as a scullery maid and treated far worse, for he can’t turn up his nose and give warning.

Alas for class bias and the preservation of sources. Can it be that the slumming Lord was really accepted so readily among the “we” of the other orderlies? I don’t even know whether there were middle class volunteers in Lindsay’s unit… it’s hard to know which stereotype/guess is more appropriate here: the lord who takes any action as his due and can thus naturally throw in with the working men when he so chooses, or the idiot aristocrat who indulges in a sort of cosplay class slumming and imagines that he is accepted by “ordinary” men…

He recognizes, now, that there is “prejudice” in his view of nurses. But does he recognize that he himself might be prejudged as an over-luggaged, under-hardened amateur distraction to those who do the real work while he luxuriates in a newly-adopted identity?

Why is it that so bitter a prejudice exists against them? I don’t fancy it is jealousy for there is no conflict or competition as our duties scarcely overlap–neither is there this kind of hostility on the hospital ships or ambulances or base hospitals. In all these the nurses show their authority much more than their status justifies, but they are not looked upon as unwelcome or harsh agents.

It is in the CCS at or close to the line that the patients themselves are so unsympathetic to the nurses and the nurses retaliate on the orderlies. Among their luggage were vermilion parasols and tennis racquets. What do they expect to find here?

Again once wonders whether the parasols really existed–and, if they did, if they were at all common. One wonders as well if Lindsay realizes how much sport is being doggedly pursued by the officers and men in their rotations out of the trenches. Still, there is a valid distinction here: women are expected in hospitals, but not in the casualty clearing stations.

A valid distinction, and yet, in today’s diary entry, it is over-topped by a mountainous molehill of sheer smallness:

Tuesday, 6 July 1915

Lieutenant Dawson told me that the sisters are at liberty to use the theatres as a sitting and serving room. It is therefore quite natural that they should look upon my colleague Gray and myself as interlopers. But we have had our revenge; Gray made a wonderful mattress for the operating table, a paragon in mattresses–thin yet feeling thick, hard yet feeling soft, narrow but conveying the impression of breadth, and into the bargain, light clean and graceful.

Alright, then: from the jaunty tone it seems that he is making light of the situation. And yet this is not friendly self-mockery. It seems more like a petty man enjoying a petty squabble. Score one for the boys’ bunk!

These good ladies set out to make a duplicate and produced a heavy hillocky macadamised switchback. They realised their discomfiture and appealed to us for help. We put their tumuli under the field fracture box–the closest substitute for a traction engine, and this morning the mountain ranges had vanished only to reappear when they tried to squeeze the thing into an ill-designed pillow case.

Score one for team orderlies! One last bit I can’t resist:

Assisted at the operation on a RFA man, for removal of two cists below right eyebrow, very bad case. Thirty-five minutes, no ophthalmic instruments available; those which should have come had been omitted by oversight[2] at home.[3]

 

And finally, here’s something that’s not funny: there was another accident today, a century back, at the 47th Division Bomb School. Edward Hermon had survived a faulty fuse almost unscathed, but a former student now instructing was not so lucky:

I am sorry to say that one of my former pupils killed himself the other day, teaching a regimental class. I gather he threw a bomb and it didn’t explode. He went and picked it up and threw it again and it didn’t go off, and he again went and picked it up and it exploded in his hand killing him instantly. He was such a nice boy called Wood… it was pure stupidity or carelessness…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 217-8.
  2. Can he really...? No. He is blind to such awful puns!
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 18-20.
  4. For Love and Courage, 62.