Carroll Carstairs Decorated in Retreat; Herbert Read: the Game is not Worth the Candle; Rowland Feilding: Another Life Well Snuffed Out

Not long ago we saw Carroll Carstairs to the Casualty Clearing Station with a raging fever that will carry him all the way to Blighty. As he lay there, thinking “[h]ow cool these sheets and how warm these blankets” he also fantasized about pinning on the “pretty ribbon” of the Military Cross he had earned during a desperate withdrawal near Cambrai. Today, a century back–in his absence–the award was paraded, along with four other officers of the 3rd Grenadier Guards, before their reserve billets in Arras.[1]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s letter of today, a century back, is the purest war story we’ve had in quite some time–and it, too, is a story of determined and courageous defense rather than aggressive valor.

January 10, 1918. Front Line, Lempire.

A few minutes before four o’clock this morning the enemy tried to raid one of my Lewis gun posts which is placed, necessarily in an isolated position, well out in Noman’s Land, about 150 yards in front of the fire-trench, in a sunken road which crosses both lines of trenches. The raiders came across the snow in the dark, camouflaged in white overalls.

In parenthesis, I may explain that while I have been away there have been two unfortunate cases of sentries mistaking wiring parties of the Divisional pioneer battalion for the enemy;—whether owing to the failure of the wiring parties to report properly before going out, or to overeagerness on the part of the sentries, I do not profess to know. No one was hurt on either occasion, but a good deal of fuss was made about it, our new Brigadier blaming the men who did the shooting—his own men—and saying so pretty forcibly.

When I first heard of this I thought that a mistake had been made—if for no other reason than that there would for a time at any rate be a disinclination on the part of sentries to shoot promptly, which might prove dangerous;—and that is what happened this morning.

The double sentries on duty in the sunken road heard, but in the darkness did not see, a movement in front of them. Hesitating to shoot, they challenged. The immediate reply was a volley of hand-grenades. Private Mayne, who had charge of the Lewis gun, was hit “all over,” in many parts, including the stomach. His left arm was reduced to pulp. Nevertheless, he struggled up, and leaning against the parapet, with his uninjured hand discharged a full magazine (forty-seven rounds) into the enemy, who broke, not a man reaching our trench. Then he collapsed and fell insensible across his gun. The second sentry’s foot was so badly shattered that it had to be amputated in the trench. The doctor has just told me that he performed this operation without chloroform, which was unnecessary owing to the man’s numbed condition, and that while he did it the man himself looked on, smoking a cigarette, and with true Irish courtesy thanked him for his kindness when it was over.

Words cannot express my feelings of admiration for Private Mayne’s magnificent act of gallantry, which I consider
well worthy of the V.C. It is, however, improbable that he will live to enjoy any decoration that may be conferred upon him.[2]

 

So one Irish soldier lies dying, and another has lost his foot–and who knows how many Germans were killed or wounded in the pointless raid, in January, months away from any possibility of “strategic” effect.

Could the war have gone otherwise?

Of course–and of course not. But it really does seem that this is the season of discontent among the more philosophically-minded officers of the B.E.F.–and not just Plowman, with his liberal political ties and pacifist past, or Sassoon, with his impulsiveness and sensitivity. Although career officers like Feilding may still generally confine their criticisms to aspects of the conduct of the war with which they themselves are familiar–the slack pioneers, the short-sighted brigadier–more and more “fighting officers” are turning against the entire war of attrition, now in its fourth bitter winter.

Herbert Read is a happier warrior than many, equipped as he is with a fondness for Nietzsche, an aptitude for small-unit warfare, and unusually deep reserves of mental fortitude. But though the tone is different and the protest oblique rather than direct, he is in more or less the same place, in terms of ethical calculation, as Sassoon and Plowman: the war of attrition is a foolish waste, and cannot be won by indefinite persistence. Courage notwithstanding and courtesy aside, Feilding’s two Irish sentries might agree.

Read’s letter to Evelyn Roff begins ordinarily enough, but soon works toward the somewhat surprising admission of his own public statement against the war.

We are midway through a long weary tour of trench duty. We do four days in the line and then four in support and four in reserve–and this sometimes for more than a month…

As a Company commander I get a much easier time in the line–no long dreadful night-watches. I manage to get a little reading done. I’ve just finished one of Conrad’s novels–Under Western Eyes. Like all Conrad’s it is extraordinarily vivid and a fine appreciation of life. You must read Conrad… Get hold of Lord Jim if you haven’t already read it. There’s a human hero for you…

I also managed to write a short article and send it on to the New Age…  I called it ‘Our Point of View and my chief points were:

a) That the means of war had become more portentous than the aim–i.e. that the game is not worth the candle.

b) That this had been realized by the fighting soldier and on that account has been, out here, an immense growth of pacifist opinion.

Of course, it might offend the Censor. But it is the truth. I know my men and the sincerity of their opinions. They know the impossibility of a knock-out blow and don’t quite see the use of another long year of agony. We could make terms now that would clear the way for the future. If, after all that Europe has endured, her people can’t realize their most intense ideal (Good-will)–then Humanity should be despaired of–should regard self-extinction as their only salvation. But I for one have faith, and faith born in the experience of war.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 150.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 246-7.
  3. The Contrary Experience, 116-7.

A Raid on Potatoes; A Pair of Tales, and a Book of Poems, In Memoriam

Still recovering from the fighting around the Menin Road, we will back into October with the Second Royal Welch, who lost around a third of their strength–including 60 dead–during their recent, nearly officer-less spell in the line. But a few days away from the front can make a huge difference, and if wartime traumas make lifelong memories, then there is another sense in which psychological recoveries, however shallow, must be very brief.

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle recounts the march into reserve, praises the dead, and moves on into the light humor of reserve-area hijinks. This bit sure sounds like it could feature Frank Richards, but if he is the signaller in question he forebears to confess in his own memoir:

October 1st.–Two signallers making a midnight-raid on sacks of newly-dug potatoes were thwarted by the watchful, voluble, and scarcely placable farmer.[1]

 

Otherwise, things are quiet, but we will observe the rite of the “Month Poem” in slightly heterodox fashion. In addition to a single poem, we have first a tale–The Tale–then a whole book of poems, and then one plucked from another sheaf.

I mention “The Tale” only because it is nominally a war story, and because it is by the notable friend-and-collaborator-of-Ford-Madox-Hueffer Joseph Conrad. Set at sea in the early months of the war and published this month, a century back, it’s a sea story, really, a spooky tale of uncertainty and human darkness that borrows the backdrop of 1914 and shares–more, perhaps, than Conrad’s tales usually caught the popular currents–the mood of the fall of 1917..

 

And we have a book of poems. It is always so very difficult to follow the experiences of the bereaved more than a few days or weeks past the telegram that tells of the death of their husband or son or lover. For a while there are dates to be had from letters of condolence and such, but then, usually, nothing. Long grieving, without much to shape it, and a slog through remaining responsibilities; too little distance and calm, yet, to reflect and write about who and what has been lost. So we have heard little of the afterlife of Edward Thomas, and it will be years before Helen–or Eleanor, or Myfanwy–writes of him. But his friends have not been idle, and this month, a century back, his Poems will be published, almost all of them for the first time.

But I couldn’t pick one of those–Adlestrop, the Great English Poem; or Lob, or As the Team’s Head Brass, or even the handful of frank war poems. Thomas can’t really be reduced to one poem, or a handful–and besides, the whole corpus only makes for a few hours’ ruminative reading. They’re all there, at the link above, and elsewhere on the web, and in Edna Longley’s excellent editions–all except, of course, for the poems sprung from the observations and jotted images in his “War Diary” between January and April, which are not, because he did not live to write them.

 

So for one poem for this month, we’ll go to one of several written in hospital by Ivor Gurney–and there’s an unusual Conrad-in-Scotland feel, here, from our gentle Severnside poet:

 

Hospital Pictures. No. (l) Ulysses

A soldier looked at me with blue hawk-eyes.
With kindly glances sorrow had made wise
And talked till all I’d ever read in books
Melted to ashes in his burning looks.
And poets I’d despise and craft of pen.
If, while he told his coloured wander-tales
Of Glasgow, Ypres, sea mist, spouting whales,
(Alive past words of power of writing men)
My heart had not exulted in his brave
Air of the wild woodland and sea-wave.
Or if, with each new sentence from his tongue
My high-triumphing spirit had not sung
As in some April when the world was young.

Bangour Hospital.Oct 1917.[2]

 

Well, no, not one poem, and not “I can’t pick just one Thomas poem”–I’ve changed my mind.

Since April and youth have been mentioned, and since it’s only a tough four lines, hovering between expansive eulogy and complete silence, and since the manuscript has so much blank space, we’ll close with this, the poem that will from now on, thanks to Thomas’s editors, be referred to as “In Memoriam (Easter, 1915).” Thomas’s working title, seen below, is much better–only the date:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should

Have gathered them and will do never again.

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford.

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 405.
  2. War Letters, 229.

Wilfred Owen on the Next War; Hugh Quigley Confronts the Landscape; Kate Luard Allows a Late Night; Herbert Read’s Mock(ing) Letter

Today, a century back, presents us with a broad range of experience in four snippets.

Wilfred Owen is still writing copiously: this time it is a long, poetry-enclosing letter to his mother, which begins in the old style of detailed reports on his doings, in this case a long description of a visit to the home of some decidedly fashionable Edinburgh householders. But he is soon on to his new topic–Siegfried Sassoon.

Many thanks for Father’s Views (of Aberystwyth). Wish I had his views of S.S. I will copy out one or two of my recent efforts in Sassoon’s manner.

Even without such a clue, identifying poems such as “The Next War” as being heavily influenced by Sassoon is shooting critical finish in the biographical barrel. Or, given the quotation that heads the poem, simply being handed a dead fish.

 

The Next War

War’s a joke for me and you,
Wile we know such dreams are true.
– Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,–
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,–
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for Life; not men, for flags.

If this poem still feels somehow light, despite the subject matter, it’s for a promising reason: Owen’s lyrical apprenticeship has left him ready to write fluid and pleasant verse, his prosodic skill a tool that may have surprising applications. Owen’s letter continues:

…I find it well received by the public and praised by Sassoon with no patronizing manner but as a musical achievement not possible to him. He is sending copies of the Hydra to Personages!

Last night I had a consultation with Dr. Brock from 11 to midnight!

I asked him (for the first time) when he meant to have me boarded. He said there were no instructions given to him yet; and wasn’t I quite happy where I am? Very well . . .

I still have disastrous dreams, but they are taking on a more civilian character, motor accidents and so on.[1]

He is on his way to recovery–and therefore the current slow course is judged to be best. This is very lucky for Owen, but one wonders exactly what these nightmares were like. He doesn’t tell his mother, of course, and he didn’t tell Sassoon. Is his sleep merely “disturbed,” as we would say? Or does he wake screaming, terrified, every night, several times, as was common at Craiglockhart? It’s hard to wangle a clear explanation of trauma, isn’t it…

 

Herbert Read, writing to–and to impress–Evelyn Roff, strikes another pose today, this time the sarcastically self-aware world-weary officer in repose. Well, no, not repose, exactly…

2.ix.17

We are now ‘enjoying’ a rest! That blessed word ‘rest’. It has terrors for us almost equal to any the line can produce. It means a constant scrubbing and polishing… a continual state of qui vive, for safety releases all kinds of horrors upon us: fellows with red hats and monocles who seldom molest us in our natural haunt…

And then there are the tasks, which Read writes with the same strenuous jauntiness, of drilling the troops, both slovenly veterans and raw recruits, back up to the standards of non-combat duty and, worse, of reading their letters:

…two or three weary subalterns have to wade through two or three hundred uninteresting letters every day. Comme ci: ‘Dear old pal–Just a line hoping as how you are in the pink of condition as this leaves me at present. Well, old pal, we are out of the line just now in a ruined village. The beer is rotten. With good luck we shall be over the top in a week or two, which means a gold stripe in Blighty or a landowner in France. Well, they say it’s all for little Belgium, so cheer up, says I: but wait till I gets hold of little Belgium.

From your old pal, Bill.

And so on…[2]

 

Kate Luard, too, has been enjoying a rest–or, at least, a few days without dire trouble. But this phase of the war presents very little of interest to a working nurse on an afternoon at liberty.

I went with P. for a walk and saw a great many Tanks in their lair; hideous frights they are – named Ethel, Effie, Ernest, etc.

With her own preferred leisure activities so curtailed, will she soften her administrative heart to others? Yes, of course–and with ulterior motives, too.

Sunday, September 2nd.

The weather has not cleared up enough yet for Active Operations, so we are still slack. General S. told me to-day the exact drop in the numbers of daily casualties, and it is a big one. We have a piano in our Mess salved from 44. It brings the M.O.’s and their friends in every evening about 9 p.m., which is really bed-time, but one mustn’t be too much of a Dragon in these hard times. And last night I let them keep it up till 10.30, as it was a good and cheery cover for some rather nasty shelling that was going on, and had been all day – on both sides and beyond us (behind us as we face the line). It went on all night too, and lots of casualties were brought in; 6 died here, besides the killed in the Camps. Of course in one interval he must needs turn up overhead too. I only slept about an hour all night.[3]

 

Finally, today, our second reading of Hugh Quigley, and the second one in which we must be led through the analysis of an experience without having read the details. But we are familiar, I think, with the war in general, and judging from that, this all seems to make very good sense indeed:

One can never decide definitely about anything there; there is not time, even, for decent thinking; always on the move should be our war-cry. I have seen a vast chunk of France now and I don’t feel inclined to enthuse about its beauty. The same monotony of streamless plains. A new brand of nostalgia enters the system: one longs for a purling brook, a clear lake, and a whole village. I have seen enough ruins to send our feather-brained sentimentalists into the last stages of delirium.

I am beginning to overcome the lice nuisance…

Quigley goes on to discuss his reading–Conrad–and to weigh the best philosophical approaches to a soldier’s life:

The Epicurean idea is the best: make the most of a good thing when you have it and let the future go to the devil. In fact, a Stoic-Epiucurean would have a glorious time just now, and the old Cynic antagonist fill the trenches to every one’s satisfaction; but the doubt arises, would he do for fighting? Too canny, perhaps; too bald in his perception of facts. The barbarian is the darkest fighter after all; he goes right at it…

On a roll, now, Quigley discusses H.G. Wells, wartime sunsets, memorial language, Corot, and, memorably, his impressions of the battlefield around Achiet-le-Petit:

…not a tree was visible anywhere, yet such a perfect gradation of soft greys from rose to pale blue as I have never seen or even dreamt. We seemed to enter a dim world of fairy, grey warriors going into a new Valhalla, where all harshness and ruggedness had been smoothed down into quiet loveliness, and a peaceful contentment taken the place of violent action; where the spirit could forget yearning and find its faintest desires broaden out into a graciousness as if heaven were earth, and earth a kindlier God. It was morning, morning in full summer, when we went there, and a veil of rose lay over the earth, touching a far town–Achiet-le-Grand–to a golden mystery of wall and tree, and outlining with silver the broad road that led from it in the direction of Bapaume.[4]

But now, I think, we can with rare precision discuss absence as well as presence. We can, that is, gather something of what Quigley has not read. He goes on to claim that he has “lost all taste for pure landscape”–yet still he describes it. He hasn’t seen the worst of war, but it is still striking to note what his description of the road to Bapaume lacks. We might compare it to Sassoon’s “Blighters,” the very poem which Vivian de Sola Pinto, himself approaching the line in France, had recently committed to memory :

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
“We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”
I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,”
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 490.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 107-8.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 155.
  4. Passchendaele and the Somme, 105-112.

Robert Graves Saves the Day… or the Day, at Least, Has Been Saved; Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon Are for the Birds; Richard Aldington Reads Frederic Manning; Edmund Blunden Blushes to His Boots; a Strange New Job for Charles Moncrieff

A six-writer-day today, but never fear: they’re mostly writing pithily.

First, it would seem that today, a century back, was the day that the raid of the 2/RWF was officially postponed. Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle confirms that the battalion has long resisted the bad plan, the likely waste of men, and the impossibility of digging in in ground that is awash in mud on the surface yet still frozen beneath. What the chronicle neglects to mention is that Robert Graves was the temporary CO during the last conference on the raid–in fact, Captain Graves is not mentioned at all, and, therefore, does not feature as the hero of the hour.

Instead, we get circumstantial confirmation today of the next milestone in Graves’s career. In Good-Bye to All That Graves notes a long night’s work, soon after his appearance at the raid conference, which ended in exhaustion and a diagnosis–from the very same writing Dr. Dunn who did not dwell upon his temporary command–of bronchitis. On the way out to the hospital, Graves sees a dead man–a suicide: “the miserable weather and fear of the impending attack were responsible for his death.”[1] Dunn confirms that on the 22nd the 2/RWF came out of the line and “one man had committed suicide” while over 130 had to be hospitalized for illnesses related to the weather.

So, while he doesn’t have the date to give in his memoir, it was therefore today, a century back, when Graves, relieved of his very temporary command, was one of the men sent down the line sick. It will be a long journey away for Graves, heading first for No. 8 hospital, Rouen, but not ending there…

And there is one more brutal note: one of the battalions of the relieving brigade inherited the poorly planned, postponed raid. When they launched it, “all went well until the raiders rose to their feet to make the assault, then they were raked by machine-guns and got no further.”[2]

No, no, one more note, before we leave the Royal Welch: today, a century back, the 2/RWF welcomed–perhaps not officially in exchange for Captain Graves, “a fine white goat from the Wynnstay Hills,” a gift from the reserve battalion back in Britain… Battalion parades have been sadly lacking in ceremony for quite some time, and will now be better fitted to honor Regimental Tradition…

 

I’ve been missing bashful Edmund Blunden, and there’s an anecdote that can be matched with today (via the Battalion Diary) which shows him at his bashfullest…

A thaw came on, and dirty rainstorms swept the bleak village ends. I felt how lucky I was to have received almost at that moment a pair of new and ponderous Wellingtons, though my size in boots was different; and in these I worked with Worley on a new plan for putting up barbed wire in a hurry, which we had ourselves pencilled out. The Divisional General rode by one morning as we were beginning, with our squad of learners, and when he returned we had put up quite a maze of rusty inconvenience. The good old Duke — no, the General — called me all trepidant to him, smiled, asked my age and service, liked the wire, and passed into the village. At lunch Harrison also smiled upon me. “Rabbit, I hear you were wiring this morning. . . . The General said you surprised him. He asked me, ‘Who was that subaltern in the extraordinary boots, Harrison? Well, he got up that wire very quick. We went down the street, and there wasn’t a yard of it: we came back and there was a real belt.’ — You’ve found another friend.” He began to laugh very heartily as he added: “Those boots, Rabbit!” This painful memory must be exorcised by being noted here. I presented my batman shortly afterward with a pair of new jack-boots.[3]

 

Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon are separated by eight years of age that, due to their different family circumstances, seem like twenty-five; one is–or could be, were it not for the war–a carefree youth, while the other is a long-burdened family man. They are very different in outlook, temperament, and artistic commitment… despite a few friends and acquaintances in common it’s hard to imagine them getting along very well at all.

But they are both poets of a traditional bent, both have always spent a great deal of time outdoors, and both are in France and yet away from their units and stuck in big impersonal situations (Thomas on temporary assignment as an orderly officer with a larger unit, Sassoon quarantined in Rouen’s huge base camp with measles). Both are pining for home–or action–and spring. And so their diaries, today, make for an uncomfortably close antiphony.

Sassoon: “My fifth night in this squalid little ‘compound’… Four of my fellow patients play cards all day; their talk is all the dullest obscenity.”

Thomas: “Cold and wet… Office work and maps. Court of Inquiry on gassing of 4 men. Am I to stay on here and do nothing but have cold feet…?”

So far, so similar. Sassoon is more histrionic, more misanthropic (for Thomas, despair is too serious a thing to leave at the mercy merely of uncongenial company) and keyed up to protest, while Thomas has yet to experience combat or intense danger, and does not associate his unit with an ideal of world-defying fellowship.

So Sassoon complains a bit more–and has more time on his hands to complain–and the rest of his diary entry for today rails against the stupidity (now a favorite word of Sassoon’s) of the war, the reduction of the soldier from “a noble figure” to “a writhing insect,” and the pointlessness of religion. Which eventually becomes a bit much even for Sassoon, and so he acknowledges that he is frustrated and angry, and writes that “such things come from a distempered brain: an infantry officer only sees the stupidest side of the War:”

Distempered indeed:

Yet I should loathe the very idea of returning to England without having been scarred and tortured once more. I suppose all this ‘emotional experierice’ (futile phrase) is of value. But it leads nowhere now (but to madness).

It’s very bad: Sassoon also quotes Conrad twice. And ironic, of course, that the 2/RWF, the unit to which he will be assigned once his measles are gone, was almost in action today–an action in which they would have been more like insects than heroes.

Thomas, in Arras, is pithier: “What is to be done?”

The complaints are only roughly parallel, but the two poets’ searchings for solace in today’s diary entries are very similar–they look to the birds. Thomas:

No thrushes, yet, but a chaffinch says “Chink” in the chestnut in our garden…[4]

And Sassoon:

There are miles of pine-woods on one side of the camp; I went a walk among the quiet sterns yesterday… The silence, and the clean air did me good… I can see God among the pine trees where birds are flitting and chirping.[5]

But for Sassoon–an infantry officer, as he reminds us–the straight line from birds to spring does not describe an uplifting course: spring means the Spring Offensive. Nevertheless, these poets are for the birds, and tomorrow they will remain closely attuned.

 

Richard Aldington wrote again to F.S. Flint today, and once again we find that while infantrymen suffer the casual cruelty of shelling, they are better positioned than most to administer the casual critical cruelty of criticism: a man who carries all his belongings makes serious choices when he chooses to read, or to withhold the space for reading. Aldington is yet to see the front line, and so he presumably has at least some time to read, and though he must carry his pack, he isn’t stripping it down to the barest trench-essentials…

The good news is that he has read a fellow Imagist, and a fellow Writer That We Read… the bad news for this letter’s recipient is that it’s not his best pal Franky Flint.

My dear Franky,

If I wished to torment you I could invent all sorts of terrifying yarns about the fate of your m.s. You are too sensitive about it. And in any case, know that I respect always poems & H.D.’s letters. Your manuscript is in my pack & will remain there until it is crushed by many route marches, when I will solemnly devote it to Vulcan…

Ah but Aldington is only twitting Flint, here. He has just written that he read and liked the poems; this letter, evidently, is gentle mockery for Flint’s having inquired too soon, showing anxiety before the appreciative return-letter could possibly reach him.

You fill me with nostalgia when you speak of your evenings with Yeats, discussing Claudel & Peguy & Gide. Why man alive, I could talk with battalions & battalions of men & not find one who had ever heard of Claudel or even of Yeats…

Have you seen Manning’s poems? You don’t mention them, so I imagine you haven’t. Some of them are really fine, some quite good, & a residue rotten; but there is enough good stuff in the book to make it quite worth while. You must get a copy when it comes out…[6]

Yes; Frederic Manning’s biography (in both senses) is such that I have more or less missed the writing and publication of his poems. Aldington mentioned the book in that recent letter (and he surely does rate the poetry above Flint’s) but it is striking that Manning, who moved in the literary world before the war but has had a checkered career in the army, somehow managed to get Eidola (1917) published early this year, when he spent most of the autumn on the Somme. But then again Ivor Gurney is attempting the same feat…

 

Finally, today, a brief update from Charles Scott Moncrieff:

22nd February, 1917

. . . A new and strange job. I relieved Campbell Johnson last night in the Command of a Prisoners of War Company and am in a very comfortable little hut with tables and chairs, china plates, a lamp, etc. Near my hut is a large cage containing 500 Germans—who do the most amazing amount of work in various ways, and seem clean and good and docile.[7]

A strange job indeed, but the comfort will matter: whether commanding the prisoners or returning to hospital[8] when his illness flares up, Moncrieff will have a great deal of time to himself. While our poets in the trenches struggle to commit anything to writing, he will be able to further the work he did during his leave in establishing himself as a critic and essayist.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 242-3.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 299-300.
  3. Undertones of War, 146.
  4. War Diaries, (Childhood), 163.
  5. Diaries, 133-4.
  6. Imagist Dialogues, 190-1.
  7. Diaries, 125.
  8. Scott Moncrieff's poor health, although he bears it stoically in his letters, might be looked upon as essential preparation for the major work he will one day take up...

Ford Madox Hueffer Entertains Joseph Conrad; the Charges Against Edwin Dyett

Grim business today, a century back. But first, a rollicking literary update.

Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), has a high reputation in Modernist circles, and with both an early interest in Tudor historical fiction and a Great Book worthy of BBC adaptation, he is not about to fall entirely out of popular memory. But in some circles, at least, he is an odd, difficult-to-place, odobenine figure, while his early collaborator, Joseph Conrad, is a lean hero, the master of the hard-hitting pre-cinematic novel of adventure. Well… yes. It’s a good thing Ford never set out to write something for Coppola and a better thing that Conrad did not pioneer the dense, destabilizing Modernist-subjective doorstop novel.

But back to today, a century back. Hueffer is once again ailing, and once again between gigs… but he’ll tell you all about it.

3/Attd IX Welch
No ii Red X Hospital
Rouen, 19.12.16

My dear:

It must be all of five months since I heard from you…

The trenches are not gay in this weather.

As for me, c’est fini de moi [I’m done], I believe, at least as far as fighting is concerned—my lungs are all charred up & gone—they appeared to be quite healed but exposure day after day has ended in the usual stretchers and ambulance trains—& this rather queer Rouen—wh. for its queerness wd. delight you—but I am too stupid to explain. But I saw the trésors[?] of Flaubert & the whole monument of Bouilhet thro’ the tail of the ambulance that brought me here, in the Rue Thiers.

I have been reading—rather deliriously—”Chance” since I have been in this nice kind place. The end is odd, you know, old boy. It’s like a bit of Maupassant tacked onto a Flaubert facade.

There are a few clustering ironies, here: that Conrad’s greatest novels (in the eyes of later critics) are behind him while Chance nevertheless will make his fortune, just as Hueffer, more or less broke, was blundering through the experiences which will produce his own masterpiece… and offers here a fairly perceptive critique of Chance‘s weaknesses…

Pardon me if that sounds inept: I think still a good deal about these things—but not cleverly I—And one lives under the shadow of G[ustave] F[laubert] here. After all you began yr. literary career here—and I jolly nearly ended mine here too—And I assure you I haven’t lost a jot of the immense wonder at the immensities you bring down onto paper. You are a blooming old Titan, really—or do I mean Nibelung? At any rate even in comparatively loose work like “Chance” there is a sense of cavernous gloom, lit up by sparks from pickaxes. But that’s stupid too. . . .

But this is rather queer: the last active military duty I performed was to mount guard over some wounded Germans in hospital huts. As I had to wait for some papers and it was snowing I went into a tent. I asked one of the prisoners—who was beautifully warm in bed, where he came from and what he did before the war. I was wet thro’ and coughing my head off—not in the least interested anyhow. So I don’t know where he came from—somewhere in Bavaria. But as for his occupation, he said, “Herr Offizier, Geisenhirt!” So there was our: “Excellency, a few goats!” quite startlingly jumped at me.

With thanks to the editor of Ford’s letters, I can explain: when Conrad and Ford were collaborating on Romance, Ford gave to a minor character hauled before a magistrate the words “Excellency, a few goats!” and Conrad found it uproarious, “genius.” So it’s an old joke, you see… and Ford was not a bad romancer…

And then, it may interest you to know, he smiled a fatuous and ecstatic peasant boy’s smile and remarked: “But it is heaven here!”

I suppose he took me to be friendly and benevolent,—but as things drag on & all one’s best friends go–(of fourteen who came out with me in July I am the only one here and of sixty who came from 3/W since, eleven are killed & one gets very fond of these poor boys!)—one gets a feeling of sombre resentment against the nightmare population that persists beyond No Man’s Land.

So do we make Ford an official exception to that majority of infantryman writer who profess not to hate the Germans when not actually engaged against them, or do we look to his paucity of actual front line trench service as an explanation for this deviation?

At any rate it is horrible—it arouses in me a rage unexpressed and not easily comprehensible—to see, or even to think about, the dead of one’s own regt, whether it is just the Tommies or the NCO’s or one’s fellow officers.

“Just the Tommies!”

But anyhow: the few goats turned up again!

However, perhaps all this does not interest you: I can’t tell. Since I have been out here this time I have not had one letter from one living soul. So one’s conviction does not get much from wh. to gain anything!

The M.O. who has just sounded my poor old lungs again says I am to be sent to Nice as soon as they can move me. God bless you, my dear, and may Xmas be a propitious season to all of you.

Yrs.

It is not much use writing to me because, after Nice, I shall very likely be transferred to one of the regular Bns. in the East or some other non-pulmnonary district of the war—but wireless me a kind thought.[1]

Ford is jesting there, at the end. A romantic jeu d’esprit, that friends might be able to reach each other wirelessly at any moment anywhere, interrupting whatever experience is actually occurring with half-baked thoughts and tenth-hand witticisms…  what a joint twitter feed these two might have managed. Or not.

In any case, yes: Ford Madox Hueffer’s lungs have been recognized as too damaged for front-line service, and so the obscure and punishing wheels of military bureaucracy have sent him to winter in the south of France…

 

 

Back in November, I first mentioned the case of Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, the officer of the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division who apparently broke down–and disappeared–during the last major action of the Somme battle. He turned up two days after he had been expected in the front lines, rejoining his battalion behind the lines after having entirely missed the fighting. He was then arrested. Dyett’s experience–in Gallipoli, on the Somme, and, now, in the hands of British military justice–will be drawn upon by his fellow R.N.D. officer A.P. Herbert in his The Secret Battle.

For a month, it would seem, various authorities deliberated. But today, a century back, the first papers were filed.

The accused, Temporary Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Leopold Arthur Dyett RNVR, an officer of the Nelson Battalion, 63rd Division, is charged when on active service deserting His Majesty’s Service

in that he

in the field on the 13th November 1916, when it was his duty to join his battalion, which was engaged in operations against the Enemy, did not do so, and remained absent from his battalion until placed under arrest at Englbelmer on the 15th November 1916.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 78-80.
  2. Sellers, Death for Desertion, 30.

The Everlasting Terror Revisited; Robert Graves Fails to Smell a Rat, David Jones Draws a Brace of Them

Today we have a few notes for November, a revisited poem-of-the-month (with almost-apt month-dated illustrations), and then an amusing incident placed by its memoir-writer/protagonist back in the spring, but plausibly relocated by his nephew/biographer to today, a century back. Right, then.

First, Henry Williamson, who has done little this year but be ill and attend various training courses, was promoted to full lieutenant today, a century back. This was presumably on the basis of accumulating seniority or to balance out the ratio of ranks in a unit–a common practice–as he as not spent enoughactive time with the Machine Gun Corps to win himself a promotion on merit.[1] Williamson missed the Somme–although he will write Phillip Maddison into the thick of it–but for many, July 1st continues to overshadow November 1st.

Noel Hodgson‘s posthumous book Verse and Prose in Peace and War will be published this month and sell out almost immediately. Before Action, with its quiet, pious tone and dramatic biographical note–the poet asks God for courage just before the attack in which he and nearly twenty thousand others will be killed–will become one of the best-known poems of the war.

Also in the press this month, appearing in the Hueffer-founded English Review (alongside new work by Ford’s friend Joseph Conrad) is the first major poem by J.A. Ackerley. “The Everlasting Terror” was written literally on the eve of the Somme battle (follow the link for my earlier commentary) but it was then dedicated to Ackerley’s friend Bobby Soames, who died during the first minutes of the attack. Ackerley’s dramatic, iambic half-satire is worth reading again, now, long months into the battle it anticipated–once for the writing and again for the reading, as it were. But skipping it to get to the amusing Graves anecdote below is certainly permissible…

 

The Everlasting Terror

To Bobby

By J. R. Ackerley

For fourteen years since I began
I learnt to be a gentleman,
I learnt that two and two made four
And all the other college lore,
That all that’s good and right and fit
Was copied in the Holy Writ,
That rape was wrong and murder worse
Than stealing money from a purse,
That if your neighbour caused you pain
You turned the other cheek again,
And vaguely did I learn the rhyme
“Oh give us peace, Lord, in our time,
And grant us Peace in Heaven as well.
And save our souls from fire in Hell”;
So since the day that I began
I learnt to be a gentleman.

jones-11-16c

One of several sketches by David Jones dated November, 1916

But when I’d turned nineteen and more
I took my righteousness to War.
The one thing that I can’t recall
Is why I went to war at all;
I wasn’t brave, nor coward quite,
But still I went, and I was right.

But now I’m nearly twenty-two
And hale as any one of you;
I’ve killed more men than I can tell
And been through many forms of Hell,
And now I come to think of it
They tell you in the Holy Writ
That Hell’s a place of misery
Where Laughter stands in pillory
And Vice and Hunger walk abroad
And breed contagion ‘gainst the Lord.
Well, p’r’aps it is, but all the same,
It heals the halt, the blind, the lame,
It takes and tramples down your pride
And sin and vainness fall beside,
It turns you out a better fool
Than you were taught to be at school,
And, what the Bible does not tell.
It gives you gentleness as well.

Oh, God! I’ve heard the screams of men
In suffering beyond our ken.
And shuddered at the thought that I
Might scream as well if I should die.
I’ve seen them crushed or torn to bits, —
Oh, iron tears you where it hits!
And when the flag of Dawn unfurls
They cry — not God’s name, but their girls’.
Whose shades, perhaps, like Night’s cool breath,
Are present on that field of death.
And sit and weep and tend them there,
God’s halo blazing round their hair.
“Thou shalt not kill.” But in the grime
Of smoke and blood and smell of lime
Which creeping men have scattered round
A blood-disfigured piece of ground.
When Time weighs on you like a ton,
And Terror makes your water run,
And earth and sky are red with flame,
And Death is standing there to claim
His toll among you, when the hour
Arrives when you must show your power
And take your little fighting chance.
Get up and out and so advance,
When crimson swims before your eyes
And in your mouth strange oaths arise,
Then something in you seems to break
And thoughts you never dreamt of wake
Upon your brain and drive you on.
So that you stab till life is gone,
So that you throttle, shoot or stick,
A shrinking man and don’t feel sick
Nor feel one little jot of shame;
My God, but it’s a bloody game!

jones-11-16Oh yes, I’ve seen it all and more.
And felt the knocker on Death’s door;
I’ve been wherever Satan takes you,
And Hell is good, because it makes you.
As long as you’re a man, I say,
The “gentle” part will find its way
And catch you up like all the rest —
For love I give the Tommy best!
No need to learn of Christ’s Temptation
There’s gentleness in all creation.
It’s born in you like seeds in pears.
It ups and takes you unawares.
It’s Christ again, the real Lover
And not the corpse we languish over.
It makes us see, our vision clearer;
When Christ is in us He is dearer,
We love Him when we understand
That each of us may hold His hand.
May walk with Him by day or night
In meditation towards the light;
It’s better far than paying shillings
For paper books with rusty fillings
Which say eternal punishment
Is due to those poor men who’ve spent
Their lives in gambling, drinking, whoring,
As though there were some angel scoring
Black marks against you for your sins
And he who gets the least marks wins.
This was a word Christ never sent,
This talk of awful punishment;
You’re born into a world of sin
Which Jesus’ touch will guide you in,
And when you die your soul returns
To Christ again, with all its burns,
In all its little nakedness,
In tears, in sorrow, to confess
That it has failed as those before
To walk quite straight from door to door:
And Christ will sigh instead of kiss,
And Hell and punishment are this.

And so through all my life and days,
In all my walks, through all my ways.
The lasting terror of the war
Will live with me for evermore.
Of all the pals whom I have missed
There’s one, I know, whom Christ has kissed,
And in his memory I’ll find
The sweetness of the bitter rind —
Of lonely life in front of me
And terror’s sleepless memory.

 

Sweetness, terror, death, rats… perhaps it’s fortunate that R.P. Graves argues that one of the funnier set pieces in Good-Bye to All That actually took place today, a century back, and not at Eastertide. It may never have happened, of course–it’s a Graves anecdote–and it is probably exaggerated for effect. But this does seem to be a mostly-true story, supported as it is by a reference in the diary of A.P. Graves (Robert’s father, the biographer’s great-uncle).[2]

The tale takes place on Good Friday, when Graves was home on leave and suffering severely from toothache. Or so he remembers, but that pain may be the factor that encouraged the relocation of the story, since Graves is even now, in November, weakened by the chest wound he sustained in July. It might seem unlikely to move a memory by half a year–and to the other side of a very great trauma–just because one remembers that it involved church and some sort of physical pain, but then again I can’t see why Graves would have done so deliberately.

In any event, here is some good comedy, c. 1916: the generational conflict, the experiential gulf, the classics, and the sweating misery of the hapless youth.

So, whether it was Good Friday or All-Saints Day (on which A.P. Graves confessed to his diary that he was worried about his son’s exertions and his chest wound), young Captain Graves fell victim to a proper ambush, resulting in his last visit to church.[3] He was asked to come to an early church service but begged off, unaware that his parents were luring him forward into an untenable position. They then opened up a flanking fire of guilt on the distracted subaltern:

I smelt no rat, beyond a slight suspicion that they were anxious to show me off in church wearing my battle-stained officer’s uniform. But my toothache got the better of me and arguments arose at the breakfast-table, during which I said things that angered my father and grieved my mother.

As it so often happens, it’s the apparently-more-secure flank that suddenly gives in:

At last, on her account alone–because she took no active part in the argument, just looking sad and only officially siding with my father–I consented to come with them…

Then a ring came at the door. The proprietor of a neighboring bath-chair business was waiting with a bath-chair. He explained that, as he had previously told my mother, they could not spare a man to take it to church, being seriously under-staffed because of the War… For the moment I thought that it had been a very generous thought on my mother’s on my behalf but, ill as I felt, I could surely manage to reach the church, about half a mile away, without such a parade of infirmity.[4] I forgot my father’s gout and also forgot that passage in Herodotus about the two dutiful sons who yoked themselves to an ox-cart, pulled their mother, the priestess, to the Temple and were oddly used by Solon, in a conversation with King Croesus, as a symbol of ultimate human happiness.[5]

When I realized what I was in for, I could only laugh. Then down came my mother with her prayer-book, veil and deep religious look, and I could not spoil the day for her. I took hold of the beastly vehicle without a word; my father appeared in a top-hat and his better carpet-slippers and hoisted himself in; we set off. The bath-chair needed oiling badly; also, one tyre kept coming unstuck and winding itself around the axle…

Reader, they made it. It turned out to be a three-hour service led by an obnoxiously proud (to Graves, at least) priest. The grumpy captain beside his proud parents whiled away the long hours composing Latin epigrams in mockery of the prelate…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 80.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 163.
  3. Other than weddings and military "church parades" he adds, perhaps to emphasize his veracity.
  4. This detail supports the chest-wound-not-toothache hypothesis.
  5. Would that we could delve into this myth, which Graves raises but does not seem to wield--these are proud and strong young men who are spared, in the logic of the gods, the pain that awaits them in life...
  6. Good-Bye to All That, 199-200.

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 Military Medal for Lady Feilding; Ford Madox Hueffer on Dawn, and Shells, and Fear, and Nervous Strain

Dorothie Feilding is by all accounts brave. Except by her own, which is conventionally modest in a uniquely daffy way. We are reading her letters home, calculated to not terrify, usually by turning severe scares into adventures viewed from safety. And she knows–as we know–that the press, both official (i.e. propaganda-compliant) and unofficial (she is a titled lady, a celebrity, a star of the society pages) loves nothing more than an aristocratic hero, unless it’s a marriageable aristocratic heroine. So we take note today of another decoration present to Lady Feilding cum grano salis, but also with renewed appreciation for a woman who, however silly she makes herself out to be–Diddles and Winkie ate too many chocolate creams for brekker!–left a life of balls and country weekends and safe-as-houses charity work to drive an ambulance through artillery barrages and unperturbably minister to shattered men and machines.

Getting a tin cross from a dear old Belgian king is all very well, but today, a century back, Lady Feilding was at Windsor Castle where she was presented with a decoration that was rather less grand, but surely more meaningful. Feilding is the first British woman to receive the Military Medal, a new decoration for non-officers which explicitly recognized “bravery in the field under fire.” Although thousands of enlisted men had already won the award, the implication of the king’s action is clear: this is not a vague foreign honor, a recognition for being a well-known, well-born, well-respected volunteer–it’s a military medal for valor. Letters of recommendation… are letters of recommendation–but still:

Sir,

I have the honour to submit for your consideration the services rendered by Lady Dorothie Feilding to the unit under my command, with a view to their adequate recognition…

Dr Jellett’s services have already been recognised and I venture to submit that those of Lady Dorothie Feilding should in like manner be rewarded.

The circumstances are peculiar in that, this being an isolated unit, no medical organisation existed for clearing casualties other than this voluntary one and owing to indifferent means of communication etc, it was necessary for the ambulance to be in close touch with the guns when in action. Lady Dorothie Feilding was thus frequently exposed to risks which probably no other woman has undergone.

She has always displayed a devotion to duty and a contempt of danger which has been a source of admiration to all…

This theme–that Feilding, because of her gender, is an exemplar and an inspiration, not simply a very brave ambulance volunteer–is repeated.

It is indeed impossible to overestimate the moral effect of her courage and self sacrifice and in an official letter it is proving difficult to do justice to either[1]

 

With a grind of the gears we change course, heading into the bumptious storm of dripping verbiage that is Ford Madox Hueffer. There has been a certain mystery to his whereabouts, but now he has definitely surfaced. He is back with his battalion, which has moved to the Ypres Salient, and, today (and tomorrow), he most definitely has time to write.

First, with dawn, a mock hymn. Mock not in the sense of toying lightly with the tradition–Hueffer does nothing lightly, really, and certainly not his Catholicism (he might treat it cavalierly, but that is a very different matter for an old Tory!)–but in mockery of the civilian. Ford is not yet a year in uniform, but he has almost two months on the Somme, now, as well as the experience of shell shock: he is a soldier, now. And he has been a professional writer in the fray for many years–he’s not about to to dig in quietly and scribble, with a view to a future novel or memoir. Well, that too. But he has quite a bit to write.

This particular poem is a shout across the experiential gulf. Greeting the dawn in Flanders, and taking the words of an early Latin hymn for his title, Ford appears to wryly salute those English civilians still abed, ignorant of the great and horrible experience of war.

A SOLIS ORTUS CARDINE

Oh, quiet peoples sleeping bed by bed
Beneath grey roof-trees in the glimmering West,
We who can see the silver grey and red
Rise over No Man’s Land—salute your rest.

Oh, quiet comrades, sleeping in the clay
Beneath a turmoil you need no more mark,
We who have lived through yet another day
Salute your graves at setting in of dark.

And rising from your beds or from the clay
You, dead, or far from lines of slain and slayers,
Thro’ your eternal or your finite day
Give us your prayers!

A nice twist, worthy of (or purloined from) Hardy‘s Satires of Circumstance: the only comrades he recognizes in England are those asleep in beds of clay. The prayers of the civilian are not worth asking for. But the dead…

 

But Ford Madox not-yet-Ford contains multitudes, if only briefly–they all come tumbling out onto the page. A day or two ago he had begun a rambling letter to Joseph Conrad which he continued today, a century back.

My dear Conrad:

…we have a very big artillery strafe on—not, of course as big as others I have experienced—but still very big. I happened to be in the very middle—the centre of a circle—of H. A. and quite close to a converted, naval how[itzer]…  I did not notice that it was raining and suddenly and automatically I got under the table on the way to my tin hat…

Well I was under the table and frightened out of my life—so indeed was the other man with me. There was shelling just overhead—apparently thousands of shells bursting for miles around and overhead. I was convinced that it was all up with the XIX Div. because the Huns had got note of a new & absolutely devilish shell or gun.

It was of course thunder. It completely extinguished the sound of the heavy art[iller]y, and even the how[itzer] about 50 yds. away was inaudible during the actual peals and sounded like stage thunder in the intervals. Of course we were in the very vortex of the storm, the lightning being followed by thunder before one cd. count two—but there we were right among the guns too…

This, by the way, is all very believable. I have questioned aspects of Ford’s autobiography, but he will be subjected to numerous aspersions about his courage and service which take up the fact that his colonel kept him from the front lines, giving him transport jobs and the like. Such jobs were certainly safer during attacks (witness, e.g., the recent survivals of Blunden and Sassoon) but they were often as dangerous–or more dangerous–than front line duty in a quiescent sector. Located among the artillery, Ford/Hueffer the infantry officer is caught up in the artillery war, and very much more likely to be blown up than a prudent platoon commander up in trenches.

The letter goes on to discuss praise from the French over his recently-translated propaganda writing, fame and ambition, literary goals, etc. He’s holding out for that staff job… and forgetting, it would seem, to mention his recent experience of being blown through the air by a shell. Although–and isn’t this just like him–he makes a precise observation of the way shell shock really works even as he accidentally undermines the story he will tell about his more conventionally dramatic experience. A near-miss and heavy concussion will cause “shell shock,” to be sure, but many more men will suffer significant psychological wounds inflicted by long exposure to shelling. These manifest through a gradual degrading of their nervous system, but the symptoms can often be concealed until some seemingly minor bombardment causes a breakdown.

I have been for six weeks continuously within reach of German missiles &. altho’ one gets absolutely to ignore them, consciously, I imagine that subconsciously one is suffering. I know that if one of the cooks suddenly opens, with a hammer, a chest close at hand, one jumps in a way one doesn’t use when the “dirt” is coming over fairly heavily.

The continuation of today, a century back, now picks up the thread. Conrad and Hueffer had collaborated in the past, and these letters have the feel of a writer bequeathing his experiential notes to a trusted co-worker. An executor, if necessary.

9/Welch, 19th Div,
B. E. F.
6.9.16

My dear,

I will continue, “for yr information and necessary action, please,” my notes upon sounds.

In woody country heavy artillery makes most noise, because of the echoes—and most prolonged in a diluted way. On marshland—like the Romney Marsh—the sound seems alarmingly close: I have seldom heard the Hun artillery in the middle of a strafe except on marshy land. The sound, not the diluted sound, is also at its longest in the air.

On dry down land the sound is much sharper; it hits you & shakes you. On clay land it shakes the ground & shakes you thro’ the ground…

In hot, dry weather, sounds give me a headache—over the brows & across the skull, inside, like migraine. In wet weather one minds them less, tho’ dampness of the air makes them seem nearer.

Shells falling on a church: these make a huge “corump” sound, followed by a noise like crockery falling off a tray—as the roof tiles fall off. If the roof is not tiled you can hear the stained glass, sifting mechanically until the next shell. (Heard in a church square, on each occasion, about 90 yds away). Screams of women penetrate all these sounds—but I do not find that they agitate me as they have done at home. (Women in cellars round the square. Oneself running thro’ fast)

Ford, not surprisingly, is also good on the way in which expectation inevitably mediates experience:

Emotions again: I saw two men and three mules (the first time I saw a casualty) killed by one shell. A piece the size of a pair of corsets went clear thro’ one man, the other just fell–the mules hardly any visible mark. These things gave me no emotion at all—they seemed obvious, rather as it wd. be. A great many patients on stretchers—a thousand or so in a long stream is very depressing–but, I fancy, mostly because one thinks one will be going back into it. . .

And so, naturally, from noise and shells to wounds and suffering. Which leads Ford at last to his own hospitalization. I’m still not sure when it occurred, or how long it was, but it seems to have happened at some point in August. This scene will reappear, somewhat altered, in Ford’s war novel:

When I was in hospital a man three beds from me died very hard, blood passing thro’ bandages and he himself crying perpetually, “Faith! Faith! Faith!” It was very disagreeable as long as he had a chance of life—but one lost all interest and forgot him when one heard he had none.

Fear;

This of course is the devil–& worst because it is so very capricious. Yesterday I was buying–or rather not buying–flypapers in a shop under a heap of rubbish. The woman was laughing & saying that all the flies came from England. A shell landed in the chateau into whose wall the shop was built. One Tommie said, “Crumpl” Another: “Bugger the flies” & slapped himself. The woman—about thirty, quick, & rather jewish–went on laughing. I said, “Mais je vous assure, Madame, qu’il n y a plus comme ça de mouches chez nous.” [I assure you, madame, that we don’t have more flies than this.] No interruption, emotion, vexed at getting no flypapers. Subconscious emotion, thank God the damn thing’s burst.”

Yet today, passing the place, I wanted to gallop past it & positively trembled on my horse. Of course I cdnt. gallop because there were Tommies in the street.

Writer to writer, man to man, on fear (which of course also is to say “on courage”) and the sounds of war.

There are two more letters which show the writer’s mind from slightly different angles at this same point in time. First, to Lucy Masterman:

9/Wclch, 19/Divn.
B. E. F, France
6.9.16

Dearest Lucy,

Why does nobody write to me? Does one so quickly become a ghost, alas!

I have had nothing for a week but notes from V[iolet Hunt] deploring the fact that I have lost my bicycle & the like–wh. of course takes one’s mind off oneself–& before then no one wrote to me for ever so long except French ministers of sorts. We are in a h-ll of a noise, just now—my hand is shaking badly—our guns are too inconsiderate—they pop up out of baby’s rattles & tea cosy & shake the rats thro’ the earth….[2]

More whining to his women friends, but the same note on noise–Ford would choose to write during a bombardment!

I am also amused that the great modernist goes in for the oldest established metaphor–a “hell” of a noise–but demurely dashes out one of the letters…

Finally, there is also a letter of the same date from the prolific Hueffer to his mother. This one does not dwell on the capricious of fear but rather has him “perfectly well… & for the time, perfectly safe.”

Lies![3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 159-60.
  2. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 71-5.
  3. War Prose, 225. Another letter to his mother, undated--conspiracy!--but placed by Saunders in "c. late August" does refer to a prior "shaking up." This, too, sounds like his alleged late July shell shock, now adjusted downward in severity for maternal consumption...

Siegfried Sassoon Arrives in Oxford, A Stretcher Case; Ford Madox Ford Makes a Fib, and We Spot a Shaky Case of Shell Shock

Siegfried Sassoon has returned once more to England’s shores. He has not been blessed, exactly, with a blighty one, but he is home nevertheless. And once the bureaucracy has borne one as far as Blighty, it will let him bide, even if he is swiftly cured from his illness.

August 2

Reached Southampton about noon. Got on train and came to Oxford about 4 p.m.—No 3. General Service Hospital at Somerville College. Paradise.

The identical paradise that Vera Brittain forsook last spring, to find her own way into the military hospital system. But Sassoon has lived a charmed life so far, as he admits: A riding accident spares him 1915’s battles, German companies flee from him while British batteries hold their fire, these heroics get him held back from the slaughter-scapes of High Wood, and now an infection whisks him more or less painlessly from the fringes of the Somme to the groves of Academe.

Strange thing getting landed at Cambridge in August 1915 and Oxford in August 1916.

Indeed. Lest we hypothesize that Sassoon was not yet contemplating a fictionalization/novelization of his war, his diary now slips easily into the 3rd person:

Lying in a hospital train on his way to London he looks out at the hot August landscape of Hampshire, the flat green and dun-coloured fields—the advertisements of Lung-Tonic and Liver Pills—the cows—neat villas, and sluggish waterways all these came on him in an irresistible delight, at the pale gold of the wheat-fields and the faded green of the hazy muffled woods on the low hills.

“He” will make use of these observations very shortly, in a poem entitled “Stretcher Case:”

He woke; the clank and racket of the train
Kept time with angry throbbings in his brain.
Then for a while he lapsed and drowsed again.

At last he lifted his bewildered eyes
And blinked, and rolled them sidelong; hills and skies,
Heavily wooded, hot with August haze,
And, slipping backward, golden for his gaze,
Acres of harvest.

Feebly now he drags
Exhausted ego back from glooms and quags
And blasting tumult, terror, hurtling glare,
To calm and brightness, havens of sweet air.
He sighed, confused; then drew a cautious breath;
This level journeying was no ride through death.
‘If I were dead,’ he mused, ‘there’d be no thinking—
Only some plunging underworld of sinking,
And hueless, shifting welter where I’d drown.’

Then he remembered that his name was Brown.

But was he back in Blighty? Slow he turned,
Till in his heart thanksgiving leapt and burned.
There shone the blue serene, the prosperous land,
Trees, cows and hedges; skipping these, he scanned
Large, friendly names, that change not with the year,
Lung Tonic, Mustard, Liver Pills and Beer

Hm. Are these humdrum advertising signs only welcome signals of normalcy? The English Countryside is still absolutely “good;” poetry has not undergone that much of a revolution (nor will it ever). But the human impositions on that world are no longer mere… impositions. Can we read these not just as soothing tonics to the soldier’s bilious psyche, but as signals of inattention, signposts of the experiential gulf?

Perhaps I am getting us ahead of ourselves, but I do think the ambiguity is there. There is license, and distance: the “Brown” of the poem shares Sassoon’s view, but not necessarily his views. If he–wounded, we would assume, not simply ill–rejoices in thanksgiving at seeing the green and well-advertised land, I think we might still exercise our reader’s distance, and wonder if he will find Blighty truly serene, and truly to his liking. He awakes from a bad dream and black thoughts, and seems to forget them. but do we? We certainly haven’t been brought up to ignore a nightmare of death as drowning…

To bolster my terribly bold reading, here is the rest of the diary entry:

People wave to the Red Cross train–grateful stay-at-homes–even a middle-aged man, cycling along a dusty road in straw hat and blue serge clothes; takes one hand off handlebars to wave feeble and jocular gratitude. And the soul of the officer glows with fiery passion as he thinks ‘All this I’ve been fighting for; and now I’m safe home again I begin to think it was worth while’. And he wondered how he could avoid being sent out again…

Well, that’s one type of ambiguity, for certain.

…No need to think of another winter in the trenches, doomed though I am to endure it. Good enough to enjoy the late summer and autumn. And then, who cares?[1]

 

Second-and-last, today, an interesting problem has arisen. In my grand old calendar for this project there is a note to discuss Ford Madox Hueffer‘s reading, since he gives today’s date as the day he was reading a particular book. But in comparing a few accounts of these days and weeks in a few different books, I’ve stumbled on several discrepancies. So today, instead of playing double-reader and literary enthusiast, there is some wearisome historical sleuthing to do.

It seems to be the case that Ford/Hueffer was tossed about by a shell, concussed, and suffered memory loss soon after his arrival on the Somme. Or so he said, repeatedly: there are a number of references in his writings, and some include reference to “July.” His most prominent biographer, Max Saunders, suggests the date of the 28th/29th, although if he has a specific rationale other than the terminus post quem of a July 28th letter that doesn’t mention the shelling, he is not explicit about it.[2]

But this doesn’t match with a different date mentioned by Ford in a (very interesting) piece which appears in another book edited by Saunders. Ford wrote about what he was reading while on the Somme, specifically The Red Badge of Courage, several of his friend Joseph Conrad’s books, and Henry James’s What Maisie Knew. The piece, “Literary Causeries: IV: Escape…,”[3] emphasizes how strong an effect literature can have over the mind: Ford finds when interrupted in the middle of reading Crane that he had expected the soldiers on the hillside to be wearing blue and grey, not khaki. And yet at the same time Ford asserts that he can tie these moments when the literary world and the real world were both so vivid to specific days, dates Ford claims that he remembers because of details like a battalion move. One of these is August 2nd, 1916, when he writes that his battalion was “in and around the town of Albert.”

There’s a problem with asserting the July 28th/29th date for the epoch-making, fiction-shaping memory loss, and then also including Ford’s claim that he has a very sharp memory of reading a particular book in a particular place four or five days later. Saunders, in the footnotes in the Dual Life, relies on an earlier biographer who viewed these records, and then hazards a guess based on fictional descriptions and other, later writings by Ford.[4] Not having all the books at my disposal, I went to the Battalion War Diary, which Saunders, writing before the internet had yielded up such bounty, did not consult. Alas, the 9th Welch (as they style themselves) did not keep elaborate records: most days are recorded in a line or two, and their diary does not record the names of officers wounded, as others do. Still it offers us essentially incontrovertible place-date connections.[5]

The War Diary does not disprove the idea of Ford being wounded on the 28th or 29th. In fact it gives it some circumstantial support: there was a small-scale attack planned for the 28th, then called off when “great artillery activity commenced.”[6] The diary is somewhat defensive, as it was not much to the credit of the battalion (although, from another point of view, much to the credit of its officers) that they did not leave their trenches to attempt a planned attack. The next day, the 29th, the Germans again shelled the Welch positions during the afternoon, when they were preparing to be relieved by the 10th Royal Warwickshires. It is perfectly possible that Hueffer/Ford, then assigned to the transport, could have been hit, especially on the 29th, when he would have been even more likely to be up close to the line, assisting in the relief. But there is no direct evidence–and, really, a local bombardment on the trenches need not have anything to do with a bombardment by heavier, longer-range guns on the support lines, where Hueffer/Ford was stationed.

So it’s possible. I don’t know if these records influenced the conclusions of Saunders and his predecessor biographers, or what pertinent information I may be missing. What is not possible is that Ford would find himself today, a century back, reading What Maisie Knew near Albert. His battalion had already marched through Albert and Amiens on the 31st, and were in rest billets at Béhencourt, several miles further back. So Ford claims to remember a date, in error, after what Saunders claims is the date that Ford claimed he lost his memory. Got it? Ford, of course, doesn’t ever write of losing his memory while specifying the precise date on which this occurred. Different moods…

On the balance, Saunders may be right and Ford–in his assertion that on August 2nd and 5th he was with his battalion, reading–is probably wrong. (I wonder if we shall find that Ford has mistaken a month, somehow, from his notes). One way to suss this out would be to try to find records of his medical travails. In a letter of September 7th, Ford will describe a bleak comedic interlude of being bounced around between various units which are not able to treat a man suffering from anterograde amnesia and dental pain, and the only hard information that he gives is not quite right.In the letter, he is shuttled between a Field Ambulance and CCS #36. Later, he will write this:

After I was blown up at Bécourt-Bécordel in ’16 and, having lost my memory, lay in the Casualty Clearing Station in Corbie, with the enemy planes dropping bombs all over it and the dead Red Cross nurses being carried past my bed, I used to worry agonisingly about what my name could be…[7]

But CCS #36 isn’t in Corbie–CCS 5 and 21 were; CCS 36 was in Heilly, a few miles to the north, and much closer to the position of his battalion. So perhaps he was indeed blown up on the 29th and then, two days later, when his battalion marched back into reserve, sent to various medical facilities, including CCS #36. Perhaps he was in both places, and confused. Yet it still seems fair to ask if there really dead Red Cross nurses carried past his bed… that detail, I believe, also appears in his fictional version of events. Will fiction-rooted-in-experience leak back into memory?[8]

It’s hard to tell, and not really a question for today (a century back), both because it is beyond our brief and because I have run out of time to research. But if anyone has a quick line to a source with Red Cross casualties–most medical records from the Great War are long gone, but the killing of female nurses by enemy bombs was not a common occurrence–I would appreciate knowing about it.

It seems pretty clear is that Ford’s recollection of reading James today, a century back, is incorrect, and thus this probably shouldn’t have been left un-footnoted in Saunders’ edition of War Prose. Ford is something of a knowing charlatan, but I haven’t read much that calls into question the “essential truth” (if we may) of his fictions about the Great War. Of course you can’t take your complaints about dating and CCS-numbering to the reading of a great Modernist novel starring a man named Tietjens, not Hueffer or Ford, but this does cast somewhat grave–and Graves-like–doubts on Ford’s veracity about his war experience, on which some of the positive reception of his novel rests.

And then there is Saunders. I was inclined to let him off easy on his assertion of July 28th-29th. I was pleased, after all, to find the date and to get a chance to write a little about Parade’s End, which is a fantastic book and–if I am to get it in here–needs dates to be connected to its scenes.

But I just ran down one more book, and now I fear that I have been had. The letter of July 28th which Saunders uses is to Lucy Masterman, but there are two more letters to her dated–by Richard Ludwig, editor of the published Letters–as “[August?]” and placed before another one dated the 23rd. One of these makes light of a near-miss, but neither make mention of being tossed about by a shell, or traumatized or concussed in any way. Time passes in these letters–they certainly do not read as if they were both written in close succession in the third week in August. By the 23rd Ford and his battalion have moved from France to Flanders and he is dating very cogent letters… so where is our “three weeks” of lying about in hospitals and struggling with memory problems?

Saunders makes no reference to these two letters, and then he dwells on the alleged “three weeks simply erased from his life” after July 29th, and suggests that this period was central to Ford’s identity and his development of new literary techniques.[9] I, too, want to verify (more or less) and date (I like dates!) this important Great War Literature Experience–and I appreciate the instinct to make literary hay with it–but there are a number of reasons, now, to doubt the specifics that Ford provided, after the fact, about these weeks on the Somme. Saunders is either sloppy or disingenuous, which is a little too much like Ford’s sloppy disingenuousness.

To be sure, it’s not that I think Ford is a despicable liar, nor that I’m sure that he is unduly dramatizing his war, as many of his detractors have been. He was over forty, and he went into the infantry, and to France. The trauma, I think, is real. Mostly real. Anyone with weeks near the lines might be shell-shocked. But it’s not, er, good to go about asserting dates and numbers that are in fact incorrect, and these alleged three weeks are going to be hard to find in the near future, I suspect…

So today, a century back, I’m not sure if Ford was lying abed with symptoms of psychological trauma. He may have been, but it seems very unlikely. And he certainly wasn’t reading Henry James on a hill near Albert…

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 100-101.
  2. See Saunders, ed., War Prose, 3-4, and Ford Madox Ford, A Dual Life, II, 2.
  3. Spoiler alert: Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (Paris) (9 March 19--), pp 3, 11; collected in War Prose, 231-2.
  4. Some method! Since I don't have all the books before me either, I can't exactly cast stones, although I can certainly cast bloggy aspersions on authors of actual books, who should be held to higher standards. Having just discovered the discrepancy while preparing this post, I don't have the time to get all the books and figure it out, and time will move on. But all praise to the National Archives for peddling well-digitized war records at reasonably prices...
  5. Incontrovertible in that it is a contemporary record, and also "official" and in the keeping of several people who share responsibilities--it is counter-signed, etc. But I would trust most dated, contemporary records, even without the stamp of official stamps: Harold Macmillan, for instance, noted today, a century back, that he was reading A Winter's Tale today, a century back. (Webb, From Downing Street, 220.)
  6. Page 67 of the Battalion War Diary, as available on line from the National Archives.
  7. Saunders, A Dual Life, II, 2,3. See also War Prose, 4-5.
  8. There are other details of post shell-shock hospital trauma that appear in the novel and which Saunders would trace to Ford's "Corbie-phobia" and his late July/early August experiences, including another Helleresque raving patient-in-the-next bed (see Sassoon's experience). But these should probably be "rejected" as fictional, now. Rather, they should be recognized for what they always have been: not disguised autobiography but fiction that draws heavily on war experience...
  9. Dual Life, II, 2.

The Day Before: Siegfried Sassoon, Noel Hodgson, J.R. Ackerley, George Coppard and Others Await the Attack; Edmund Blunden on the Battle of the Boar’s Head; Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson Addresses His People Before the Great Offensive

Today, a century back, was the last day before the storm broke. The bombardment that had begun on the 24th continued, and many of the German defenders in their positions on the Somme front had been killed, wounded, or driven mad by the incessant pounding. Many–but not nearly enough: these were well-wired, deep-dug, many-layered positions that generally stood on higher ground than the British lines, commanding No Man’s Land with interlocking fields of fire. Many of the men who sheltered in them were sheltered well: in deep fortified dug-outs they waited for the barrage to lift, for their first chance to fire back.

If the Germans waited, uncertain of the battle’s timing, most of the British officers knew that the next morning would bring the decisive minutes of the campaign–even, perhaps, of the entire war.

And here, tomorrow will bring, well, a lot of stuff. So, faithful readers, be forewarned: I’ve decided to break up tomorrow into four separate (but still lengthy) posts; the first will go up over night, the second at 7:30, etc.

 

The 9th Devons “spent the last day resting in the wood.” They took communion from the battalion chaplain, Ernest Crosse; then the officers sat around a fire singing and swapping stories.

Before they left for the line the men were issued with sandwiches and told to make sure their water bottles were full, but they were strictly forbidden to eat the sandwiches or drink the water on the way to the line. Watering points were provided along the route and the sandwiches would be their breakfast: a long day lay ahead of them, and it was something to do in the final hours.

They left the wood at 10.30pm, 22 officers and 753 men, leaving the rest in reserve. Noel Hodgson was with his bombers. It would be their task to ‘mop up’ after the first lines of the attack, dealing with pockets of resistance and strongpoints, and countering enemy bombers and machine guns. Hodgson, as bombing officer, answered directly to Lieutenant Colonel Storey and had his own copy of battalion orders.

…The front line trench had been badly damaged by enemy shelling in the last few days, forcing a late change of plan. Instead of using it, the 9th Devons and 2nd Borders on their left, further up on the hill, would advance from new forming-up positions in the reserve trenches. This possibility had always been envisaged. It was safer, given the accurate fire the Germans regularly directed into the front line. The disadvantage was that the two battalions now had 250 yards of extra ground to cross.

The change also caused some confusion and delay as the carefully planned timings and routes through the trenches no longer applied, but by 2.35am everyone was in place with a few hours ahead to snatch whatever sleep they could. Gaps had been cut in the wire over the previous three nights, and once the men were in position, bridges and trench ladders were put in place.[1]

 

But we get ahead of ourselves. Back to the morning before–today, a century back, and Siegfried Sassoon, whose battalion is going back instead of forward.

This morning warm and breezy. We go down to Kingston Road. Jordan and self out cutting, wire from 10.30 to 11.30. No one noticed us. Pleasant trenches; mustard, charlock and white weeds growing across the trenches. Another dead man lying on the firing-step. News of M.C. before lunch… Battle begins tomorrow. C. Company dispersed on carrying-parties etc. Gibson’s face in the first grey of dawn when he found me alone at wire-cutting. Brow and eyes good: rest of face weak: Jaunty-fag-smoking demeanour under fire.[2]

“News of M.C.:” Sassoon has been awarded the Military Cross for his courage and initiative in the aftermath of the failed raid of May 25th.

 

rqg1-4Noel Hodgson and his friends had written “last letters” a few days before, when the attack had been planned for the 29th. So too had Rob Gilson, whose 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment (The Cambridge Regiment) will go forward in the morning. But Gilson found time, today, to send one of the famous Field Service Post Cards–seen at right[3]–as a last reassurance. Today, a century back, he is “quite well.”

J.R. Ackerley, whose battalion–the 8th East Surreys–was also slated to attack in the first waves, chose not to write home. One of his friends and fellow-subalterns wrote a letter proclaiming himself well, and post-dated it to July 2nd.

This, surely, was to tempt Nemesis, and Ackerley questioned the point of a “last letter:” the gap, the lag, would always be there, and no letter could really prove its writer to be still alive. Why try so sincerely to allay small measures of worry when it would do nothing to change the bare fact of life or death, and when any such efforts would be drowned in the accompanying infinities of grief.

Instead of writing, Ackerley “read Conrad’s Lord Jim for the fifth time.”[4]

 

George Coppard has already assured us that he and his battalion weren’t much for writing. But he remembered the night’s march very well:

On the night of 30 June the 37th Machine Gun Company rested in a field near Albert. A fierce bombardment of the German lines was going on. We were in the area of the big guns… They were underneath camouflage nets and looked huge, bigger than anything we’d seen before…[5]

And Edmund Blunden, to his frustration, has only a back seat to a sideshow. North of the Somme, there was a large diversionary attack on the Boar’s Head salient. Would this serve to confuse the German staff tomorrow, when the movement of reserves and ammunition supplies must be decided upon?

June 30, 1916

At the moment of the attack my platoon was in a familiar strong point on the La Bassee Road, called Port Arthur, two hundred yards in rear of our foremost breastwork. Sergeant Garton and myself obliged the men to withdraw into the cellars, and waited ourselves on the fire step in the failing darkness. Mad ideas of British supremacy flared in me as the quiet sky behind us awoke in a crescent of baying flashes, a half-moon of avenging fires; but those ideas sank instantly, for the sky before us awoke in like fashion, and another equal half-moon of punishing lightnings burst, with the innumerable high voices of machine guns like the spirits of madness in alarm shrilling above the tempest blast of explosion. A minute more, and a torrent of shells was screeching into Port Arthur; we had been in no doubt about this attention, for the place was an obvious “immediate reserve”; we (it was our good fortune) went below. The brickwork of the cellar cracked under one or two direct hits, but stood. Presently the gunners switched away, and we went out again into the summer morning, with an airplane or two arriving on bright wings.

There was not much shelling now, but machine guns continued to fire in a ragged way; no news came. My expectation was that we should be called up to reenforce, but no news came. At last a small straggling group of those unfortunate selected soldiers blundered dazedly round the trench corner into Port Arthur, and lay down in the first shelter available, among them Sergeant Compton, a brave and brilliant young fellow. All too eagerly I asked him, as I brought out to the sweating and twitching wretches whatever refreshment my dugout held, “What things were like”; in a great and angry groan he broke out,”Don’t ask me — it’s terrible, O God ” Then, after a moment, talking loud and fast: “We were in the third line. I came to a traverse, got out of the trench, and peeped; there was a Fritz creeping round the next traverse. I threw a bomb in; it hit the trench side and rolled just under his head; he looked down to see what it was . . .” He presently said that the attack had failed. Of his party, none had returned without bullet holes in their caps, uniforms, or equipment; one Single was already exhibiting his twice-perforated mess tin with his usual dejected wit. In No Man’s Land a deep wide dike had been met with, not previously observed or considered as an obstacle, which had given the German machine guns hideously simple targets; of those who crossed, most died against the uncut wire, including our colonel’s brother. A trench had been dug across No Man’s Land at heavy cost. So the attack on Boar’s Head closed, and so closed the admirable life of many a Sussex worthy.

Even now, we apprehended that a fresh forlorn hope might be demanded of the brigade.

At the risk–nay, the utter certainty–of sidetracking an excellent writer with an unnecessary learned digression, I want to point out how apt this reference is. A “forlorn hope” is not a “foolish expectation” or “sadly mistaken wish” but a corrption of the Dutch for a “lost troop.” As a technical term of Early Modern siege warfare, it refers to a unit–usually volunteers–who lead the attack on a fortress, usually by storming a breach. They are not expected to survive, since they will draw the fire of the prepared defenders. But in doing so, they will open the way for another storming party which may succeed while the defenders reload…

What the brigade felt was summed up by some sentry who, asked by the General next morning what he thought of the attack, answered in the roundest fashion, “Like a butcher’s shop.” Our own trenches had been knocked silly, and all the area of attack had been turned into an Aceldama. Every prominent point behind, Factory Trench, Chocolate Menier Corner, and so on, was now unkindly ploughed up with heavy shells. Roads and tracks were blocked and exposed. The communique that morning, when in the far and as yet strange-seeming south a holocaust was roaring, like our own extended for mile upon mile, referred to the Boar’s Head massacre somehow thus:

“East of Richebourg a strong raiding party penetrated the enemy’s third line.”

Perhaps, too, it claimed prisoners; for we were told that three Germans had found their way “to the Divisional Cage.”

Explanations followed. Our affair had been a cat’s-paw, a “holding attack” to keep German guns and troops from the Somme. This purpose, previously concealed from us with success, was unachieved, for just as our main artillery pulled out southward after the battle, so did the German; and only a battalion or two of reserve infantry was needed by them to secure their harmless little salient. The explanations were almost as infuriating to the troops as the attack itself… and deep down in the survivors there grew a bitterness of waste…

But in the spirit of the thing, we should sweep this direct testimony of the failed “cat’s paw” under the rug. However disillusioning, the Battle of the Boar’s Head can’t escape its destiny: from conception to execution–and even in its literary re-purposing, though to different effect–it was always a diversion, a feint, a flam-tap of history before the great crash of cymbals. “The bitterness of waste” is retrospection, which is out of bounds.[6] Today, a century back, is about tomorrow.

 

So back then to fiction: Phillip Maddison will be in the thick of it tomorrow–being fictional makes it easier to experience (and survive) several of the great British assaults in succession. On battle’s eve, he marches up…

The night of 30 June was fine in the valley of the Ancre, and fairly quiet. Cries of water-fowl came through the darkness as the column halted in the traffic congestion.

The last hues of sunset were congealed upon the north-west rim of the earth above which arose a steely haze of light. Phillip wondered, as he leaned on his rifle, if this was the glow of the midnight sun, the distant rays in space rising millions of miles beyond the horizon of the battlefield. How small it must all seem to the sun, which had looked upon so much life and death on the planet. Everything was vast to one human brain, but to the sun, how small…

Where was God in the actual scheme of things? His Son had failed to alter the scheme… It was all right for Father Aloysius to talk; but it was a fairy story.

He quivered with terror of death, waiting to enter the dead town of Albert…

The platoon marched straight on, passing under the red-brick mass of high walls and shattered roof above which the Golden Virgin leaned down from the campanile, high over the street, gleaming in every gun-flash…

“With so much stuff going over, it will be a cake-walk,” said the Adjutant to Phillip…[7]

 

From skepticism and foreshadowing, then, we will go back to the Traditional Voice, on what in some ways is its last day of unquestioned ascendancy.[8]

Lieutenant Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson, MC does not, in verse at least, entertain any of the same doubts. His 8th West Yorkshires moved up tonight to assault trenches opposite Thiepval, and today, a century back, he wrote this “last letter” in verse:

To My People Before The Great Offensive

Dark with uncertainty of doubtful doom
The future looms across the path we tread;
Yet, undismayed we gaze athwart the gloom,
Prophetically tinged with hectic red.
The mutterings of conflict, sullen, deep,
Surge over homes where hopeless tears are shed,
And ravens their ill-omened vigils keep
O’er legions dead.

But louder, deeper, fiercer still shall be
The turmoil and the rush of furious feet,
The roar of war shall roll from sea to sea,
And on the sea, where fleet engages fleet.
The fortunate who can, unharmed, depart
From that last field where Right and Wrong shall meet.
If then, amidst some millions more, this heart
Should cease to beat,—

Mourn not for me too sadly; I have been,
For months of an exalted life, a King;
Peer for these months of those whose graves grow green
Where’er the borders of our empire fling
Their mighty arms. And if the crown is death,
Death while I’m fighting for my home and king,
Thank God the son who drew from you his breath
To death could bring

A not entirely worthless sacrifice,
Because of those brief months when life meant more
Than selfish pleasures. Grudge not then the price,
But say, “Our country in the storm of war
Has found him fit to fight and die for her,”
And lift your heads in pride for evermore.
But when the leaves the evening breezes stir
Close not the door.

For if there’s any consciousness to follow
The deep, deep slumber that we know as Death,
If Death and Life are not all vain and hollow,
If Life is more than so much indrawn breath,
Then in the hush of twilight I shall come—
One with immortal Life, that knows not Death
But ever changes form—I shall come home;
Although, beneath

A wooden cross the clay that once was I
Has ta’en its ancient earthy form anew.
But listen to the wind that hurries by,
To all the Song of Life for tones you knew.
For in the voice of birds, the scent of flowers,
The evening silence and the falling dew,
Through every throbbing pulse of nature’s powers
I’ll speak to you.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 193-4.
  2. Diaries, 82.
  3. From the Trinity College Cambridge Library (spoilers abound).
  4. Parker, Ackerley, 23.
  5. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 79.
  6. I am trying, you see, to work through all my most egregious mixed metaphors, in preparation for the grim task of writing up the Big Push...
  7. The Golden Virgin, 271-3.
  8. But not really. I am compelled to remind everyone that, even as the tide of disillusionment and disenchantment will begin to rise sharply, here, as the Somme attack founders, the public face of "poetry" and "war literature" will remain largely positive, patriotic, and traditional for more than a decade to come.