The Master of Belhaven Has Great Fun; Rudyard Kipling Tries Out a Jest; Isaac Rosenberg in the Gloomiest Depths

We have a jarring triple contrast for today, a century back–a diary entry and two letters, each in a very different mood and aspect.

We begin, wrong-footedly, with the comic relief. The Master of Belhaven is nothing if not a sportsman. But those Germans, on the other hand, they really do put up a poor show…

I walked over to Welch’s detached section with him in the afternoon. He lent me a gun and we put up quite a lot of partridges. The birds are very wild now, and we did not get any. However, it was great fun. The Hun, who is no sportsman, amused himself by putting out shrapnel not far off, but they were too high to be at all dangerous.[1]


Then it’s an abrupt and painful transition from a colonel with the leisure to shoot (at) partridges on a lark–and the good breeding to forgive the birds of the battle zone their wildness–to a private with very much less in the way of time and sport and fun. Isaac Rosenberg, is less interested in the birds of No Man’s Land than most of our poets are–but he’s a dab hand with the rats.

Dear Mr Bottomley

I do not know when I begin a letter whether to plunge right to the depths into the gloomiest of Byronic misanthropy (as indeed, my inclination pushes me to,) or be nice and placid & acquiescent about things. I know if I didn’t explain myself properly Id only appear weak & stupid, & as the situation does not give me the chance to explain myself, it must be left unexplained just yet, at least…

I have been transfered… my own Batt is broken up & what was left of them mixed with other Battalions… Poetry has gone right out of me I get no chance to even think of it. My ‘Unicorn’ is dead, & it will need a powerful Messiah to breathe life into its nostrils. I could more easily draw than write but the weather is too cold for that, if I did get the time… Thank you for what you say about my ‘Kolue’ speech. If the war does not damage me completely Ill beat that yet.

Yours sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[2]8.

These sorts of bulletins–“it’s miserable, but let us hold onto hope”–are the best Rosenberg has been able to manage, of late. But if poetry really has been driven right out of him then he is, at least, still holding on to the last fragments he was able to produce before his transfer… we shall see them soon.


Speaking of production, here’s a strange one. Rudyard Kipling and several cronies have recently decided to begin the distinctly sui generis (and extremely English) project of composing a sham fifth book of Horatian odes. In this letter to C. R. L. Fletcher, then, we might expect to find Kipling in his mode of master yarn-spinner–and we do. He is excited by the game, there is a burst of creativity couched in hale-fellow encouragements… but it’s not all fun and games.

Bateman’s, Burwash, Sussex

Feb. 17.1918.

Dear Fletcher

…I think highly of any good “fake” and the idea of the original M.S.–of a decent rich brown tinct–is very fine indeed. Thus are Immortal Works built up! ‘Only hope we’ll have some paper left after the war! Facsimiles cost like sin: but I foresee an edition de luxe in the years to come!

And I think too the notion of fresh hands in the game is fun. We oughtn’t to keep the fun to ourselves…

All good luck be with you.



This selection of the letter more or less captures the tone. He is writing, again, about the project of composing odes in the style of Horace and rendering them in Latin. And that’s not all. He is thinking, too, about that collection of short ancient verses known to classicists (and well-educated 19th century Englishmen more generally) as the Greek Anthology. The anthology is rich in epitaphs, and Kipling has been mulling these over. There is a post-script–and it doesn’t sound like a joke.

P.S. How does this go into Greek. It’s out of the sepulchral unchristian epigrams of the missing parts of the Anthology:

On an R. A. Subaltern

Death fell upon my Son from out of the skies while
he was laughing, they tell me, at some jest. Would
I had known what it was. It would serve me through
the years when I shall not laugh.

The grammar is mixed I think.[3]

The striking thing is that this epigram–which Kipling proposes, perhaps jokingly, to render into Greek–is not at all lighthearted. It’s a suitably stoic ancient-style epigram, one that would fit well, perhaps, with what the mourners on the hither side of the generational gulf might want their public sentiments about their “fallen” sons to sound like. Which is why this epigram, published later in revised form, is often presented as if it is written by Kipling about his boy Jack. And, of course, how could his only son be entirely absent from his mind? But there is no mention of Jack, here–instead it is the classical heritage, on the one hand, and the Royal Artillery (Jack Kipling was an infantry officer) on the other…


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 457.
  2. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 117-
  3. Letters, IV, 483-4.

Rowland Feilding and the Admonitory Death of Private Mayne; A Mining Disaster in Staffordshire; Siegfried Sassoon Suspicious in Peace of Mind, C.E. Montague Melancholy at Football; Rudyard Kipling Hatches an Ode-iferous Plot

This is one of those days of discombobulated experience–but it’s hard not to feel that there is some link between all these different disasters, impression, and feelings. The war is everywhere…

Rowland Feilding‘s thoughts are dwelling on the repulse of a German raid by one of his Lewis gunners, a swift and savage burst of violence on a generally quiet front. When the action occurred, two days ago, Feilding was bracketed, here, by protesting young officers. He would never himself step away from the narrow passage of duty and make a public protest… and yet, in his letter to his wife of today, a century back, he makes it clear how much he–a middle-aged battalion commander with Regular army experience–loathes the way the higher-ups (be they no higher than Division, a mere two steps up the ladder, since he commands his own battalion) are disconnected from the experience of the soldiers. Once more the scarlet tabs of the staff officer begin to seem like a bright badge of moral cowardice…

January 12, 1918. Fillers Faucon

The incident of the morning before last had so filled me with pride of the battalion that I confess I have been aghast at receiving—instead of any acknowledgment of the successful and heroic repulse of the German raiders by Private Mayne and his companion—the following memorandum, which has been circulated in the Division.

I quote from memory:

“Another instance has occurred of an enemy patrol reaching within bombing distance of our line. This must not occur again. Our patrols must meet the enemy patrols boldly in Noman’s Land,” etc., etc., etc.

How simple and how grand it sounds! I think I can see the writer, with his scarlet tabs, seated in his nice office 7 or 8 miles behind the line, penning this pompous admonition.

So Private Mayne, it seems, will go unrecognized and unrewarded–In the meantime he has died, and I can only
say, “God rest his soul”![1]

There is a note that Private Mayne–Private Joseph Mayne, of Ardcumber, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, son of James and Mary–was mentioned posthumously in despatches. This, short of the V.C., was the most recognition a dead soldier could hope for (strange phrase, that). And a private–an Irish private–killed in a small action, on the defensive was never going to receive any major reward, even though his heroic gallantry in manning his gun after his body had been mutilated by German grenades surely saved the lives of several of his comrades.


And at the Podmore Hill Colliery, in Staffordshire, today, a century back, an accumulation of coal dust and “firedamp”–methane–exploded, ripping through coal seams worked by several hundred men. Rescue efforts were unavailing and the final toll will prove to be 156 miners–men and boys. This was the third deadly explosion in the mine, and the second in three years. Wilfred Owen will read of the disaster, naturally, and he will choose to write about it as well, unable not to conflate the sudden death of so many by fire and gas (and some of them very young) with the horrors of the war itself. And, by the time Miners is complete, it will be one of his most wide-open poems, in terms of historical experience and deliberate reaching toward the universal… the miners are seen not only as soldiers, but as in some sense linked even with the ancient life whose remains they are harvesting at such peril so far below the ground, and with the years to come, which they will not see.


News of this disaster–but what are 156 poor men against the daily toll of the war?–will spread slowly, and so we see several of our writers merely going about their business.

For Siegfried Sassoon, this business now is a numb and pleasant–suspiciously numb and pleasant–idyll. It is almost as if he is being visited by a premonition of the mining disaster, in all its frank horror and heavy symbolic weight.

January 12

Peace of mind; freedom from all care; the jollity of health and good companions. What more can one ask for? But it is a drugged peace, that will not think, dares not think. I am home again in the ranks of youth–the company of death. The barrack clock strikes eleven on a frosty night. ‘Another night; another day’.[2]


C.E. Montague–a man of something near to an opposite temperament from Sassoon’s–is feeling much the same way:

On January 12, Montague was back at Rollencourt. There was a pause in operations, and he played ‘a good game of football’; but was ‘intensely melancholy, these days’, over the public situation. ‘Now’, he says, ‘is the time to learn and practise fortitude, but it is hard.’[3]


But life persists, and pastimes persist. Montague plays football, Sassoon will go hunting when he can, and Rudyard Kipling–who, whenever he makes a brief appearance in a Great War history, is generally depicted as utterly destroyed by the death of his son–continues to bear up as best he can. He is at work–naturally–on a collaborative project involving Horace. Not to translate him, study him, or make the great Roman poet somehow applicable to Britain’s war effort, but rather to concoct a spurious, tongue-in-cheek Fifth Book of Odes. (Horace wrote four.) In Latin. Is there satirical intent? Sure. Is it, or was it ever, broadly accessible? Perhaps a bit more back then, but, really… not so much.

Jan 12.1918

Dear Fletcher:

I am, as you know, no scholar when it comes to the Latin but I think it’s lovely… I think this is going to be glorious larks!

…I’ve got a new Fifth Booker whereof Hankinson Ma. is preparing the translation. It came out in the Times ever so long ago under the title The Pro-Consuls but I perceive now that Horace wrote it. Rather a big effort for him
and on a higher plane than usual – unless he’d been deliberately flattering some friend in the Government. I’ll send it along.

Ever yours

Rudyard Kipling[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 246-8.
  2. Diaries, 203.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 200.
  4. Letters, IV, 479-80.

Another Last Hurrah for Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and Ten Pounds of Distance; Ivor Gurney is to Convalesce; Edward Brittain is Bound for Italy

Today, a century back, was a day of departures.

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen spent a last evening together at the Conservative Club before Owen left to begin his leave and eventual return to duty. Sassoon will remember a hilarious evening of bad poetry–but that was last week. What Owen will remember is an inspirationally amicable meeting with an awkward post-script. Sassoon left him at the club–curfew at the hospital, after all, while Owen was going directly to a night train en route to Shrewsbury–with a sealed envelope, to be opened only after they parted.

Owen, naturally, waited no more than a minute or two. He hoped, perhaps, to be in possession of some grave confidence or juicy secret. Instead, he was in possession of a ten pound note and a suggestion that he use it to enjoy his leave.

I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by.’[1]

The groan is generally interpreted as being directed at the money, or the assumptions that preceded such a gift. It is a strange situation, surely: Sassoon is wealthy and his wartime activities were never curtailed for want of funds; Owen is not, and could indeed use the sum to enjoy his leave, but while friends might ask each other for loans–even “loans” that will not be repaid–this unsolicited parting gift would have felt more like a tip than a favor. Owen is not in immediate need, and so a gift of money implies an assumption of social inequity. At least I think that’s how the class system worked in such a case.

But the groan could just as well be for the general inadequacy of the letter, its mere friendliness when Owen might have hoped for something more passionate. But he is not offended, really, it’s the groan of a joke gone wrong, not of agony and betrayal. The best evidence for this will be Owen’s very passionate reply–but, as he writes above, his first draft (the “gourd, a Gothic vacuum” is a reference to the bad poetry they have been mocking together) was not fit for sending…[2]

It’s an amusing coincidence, then, that the Cambridge Magazine of today, a century back, carried “The Wooden Cross,” one of Sassoon’s less satisfactory attempts at a memorial poem, written for his old hunting friend Gordon Harbord. Harbord, neither intellectual nor literary, had old claims on Sassoon’s affections–and that was a friendship that would never have included an unsolicited bank note in a sealed envelope…


Ivor Gurney, also near Edinburgh, is also leaving–or, at least, it was today, a century back, that he got the news:

3 November 1917

My Dear Friend: Well, to business, (probable.) Chuck out — Tuesday. London 7.30. High Wycombe, Friday Morning. Gloucester Sat: night (as late as can be.)

There’s a bit of luck; owing to slight indigestion (presumably due to gas; wink, wink!) I am to go to Command Depot for two months — a sort of Con: Camp in Khaki. I hope they will keep me for two months, and then of course, if the indigestion isn’t cured……….

This can be read as a Conspiracy to Malinger, but it needn’t be. Gurney is an old soldier, now, and certainly in no hurry to rush back for a winter at the front, what with his weak stomach (never mind his troubled “nerves”) and his ability to serve the army elsewhere, in his capacity as Convalescent Accompanist.

And, perhaps, get a little time to compose…

No, the song is not done, when I’m with you perhaps. Two months Con Camp! O Composition…

with best wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]


Finally, today, a date of which I’m not terribly sure–Vera Brittain remembers it, however, and probably with good reason, and apparently because it was the date she received a letter from her brother, not far away in the Salient:

But on November 3rd, when the Flanders offensive was subsiding dismally into the mud and Edward was daily expected home on leave, a brief, mysterious note came from him, written in the vaguely remembered Latin of the Sixth Form at Uppingham:

Hanc epistolam in lingua Latina male conscripta…

It is with a frustrated humility that I insert that ellipsis: Vera Brittain copied out the whole Latin letter. I can’t unpack it all, anyway, but the beginning reads: “This letter, written in bad Latin…”

It’s a creative attempt to foil the censors, but rather a silly one. If the idea is to keep classified information from the Germans, doubting their ability as Classicists hardly seems the wisest choice. Edward does, however, use further circumlocution (so to speak) to hint at the crucial news, and Vera is able to figure it out. But before she fully absorbs the significance of the letter, she turns it into the means of settling a score:

Calling desperately upon the elusive shades of Pass Mods, I managed to gather from this letter that Edward’s battalion had been ordered to join the British and French Divisions being sent from France under Lord Plumer and General Fayolle to reinforce the Italian Army. When I had recovered a little from the shock, I took his note to the C. of E. padre, a burly, rubicund individual whose manner to V.A.D.S was that of the family butler engaging the youngest between-maid, and with innocent eyes asked him to translate. As I had suspected, he had not the remotest idea where to begin, and after much protest about the thinness of the notepaper, and the illegibility of Edward’s clear handwriting, he was obliged, to my secret triumph, to confess his ignorance…

After putting one over on the hapless clergyman, she reflects on what the transfer might mean.

Well, it does make it necessary to mention, very much in passing, another of 1917’s major strategic developments.[4] The Italians have lately come close to collapsing under a strong Austro-German offensive, which is now threatening the Veneto. But, as always, “close” means little: winter is coming, and the Germans, perturbed by the tactical success around Ypres and the arrival of the Americans, are withdrawing their troops from the Italian front to send them to France. Italy will not collapse entirely under merely Austrian pressure, but the allies must go and show the flag, regardless.

For Vera Brittain, however, the calculus was more simple: Edward will be safer–probably–but farther away.

Although I was glad that Edward had left the Salient, I couldn’t help being disappointed that he was going so far away after I had manoeuvred myself, as I had hoped, permanently near him for the duration of our wartime lives.

“Half the point of being in France seems to be gone,” I told my family, “ and I didn’t realise until I heard he was
going how much I had . . . looked forward to seeing him walk up this road one day to see me. But I want you to try
and not worry about him more because he is there . . . no one who has not been out here has any idea how fed-up everyone is with France and with the same few miles of ground that have been solidly fought over for three years. There is a more sporting chance anywhere than here. Of course there has been great talk about the migration . . . and all the men whose units are going are very pleased.”[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 504-5.
  2. See Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 279-80.
  3. War Letters, 230.
  4. It seems that I may have succeeded in entirely avoiding mention of the Russian Revolution--it does crop up in the seventh paragraph or so of Gurney's letters, from time to time, but I often trim those. This is not simple negligence but rather a decision born out of a combination of despair at giving a decent big picture view along with all these closeups and a commitment to the principle that, in this sort of project, things should only matter to readers if and when they matter to the writers.
  5. Testament of Youth, 390-1.

Robert Graves is Headed Back to France, and Siegfried Sassoon is Bereft; A Painful Initiation for Edwin Vaughan

There’s a bit of a muddle today about the whereabouts of Robert Graves, the sort of thing that could (should?) be dismissed as being of only “academic” relevance. But since I’m not terribly sure what that semi-slur means anymore, and since this entire project is an exercise in calendrical close-reading, it must be worth doing. At least a little!

Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his diary for today, a century back, that “Robert left for France to-day with nine other officers,” but the sources drawn on by Graves’s nephew and biographer suggest that he left camp yesterday, and spent his embarkation leave visiting friends and family. R.P. Graves has made some mistakes on dates before, but I think he’s likely to be in the right on this one, which would mean that Sassoon has either misdated his journal or is actually describing yesterday’s departure from Litherland. But I’m not sure why he would do that… in any event, it’s impossible to figure this out without violating my own rules on looking ahead. Suffice it to say that the different sources are quite entangled, and seem to lean on each other rather than on a foundation of fact… ah, the lures of textual criticism.

Whatever the case, the Two Fusiliers are once more separated, and certainly by today, a century back, Graves has left the Royal Welch depot en route for France. He either is or has been at home, in Wimbledon, and thence off to spend a day of his seventy-two hours of “last leave” at Charterhouse, visiting Peter Johnstone, the “Dick” of his schoolboy obsession.[1] Sassoon, interestingly, has taken it upon himself to see Graves’s recent poems printed–a rare instance of deliberate care-taking and non-self-centered behavior on Sassoon’s part.

This little pamphlet of verse he is getting out will keep his mind occupied and take away a little of the blankness of going out for the third time. We have had more than six weeks here together. Lucky to get that in these uncertain times. I wonder if he will really get killed this time. One never expects anything else, so perhaps the green of summer will bring relief. I don’t think it will. I don’t, I don’t. It was a raw drizzling day—suitable for the event.

Suitable–and yet recollections of the event differ in more than dates–and in less, too, in a way. Graves and Sassoon can surely be trusted to recall things that happened to them, and yet both imply that Graves went straight from Litherland to France (without explicitly stating so). In Sassoon’s fictionalized account of their parting in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, “David Cromlech”

…butted his way along the crowded platform with shoulders hunched, collar turned up to his ears and hands plunged in pockets. A certain philosophic finality was combined with the fidgety out-of-luck look which was not unusual with him. “I’ve reduced my kit to a minimum this time. No revolver. I’ve worked it out that the chances are five to one against my ever using it,” he remarked, as he stood shuffling his feet to try and keep them warm. He hadn’t explained how he’d worked the chances out, but he was always fond of a formula. Then the train began to move and he climbed awkwardly into his compartment. “Give my love to old Joe when you get to the First Battalion,” was my final effort at heartiness. He nodded with a crooked smile. Going our for the third time was a rotten business and his face showed it.

“I ought to be going with him,” I thought…[2]

In Good-Bye to All That the scene is quite similar:

I went back an old soldier, as my kit and baggage proved. I had reduced my original Christmas tree to a pocket-torch with a fourteen-day battery, and a pair of insulated wire-cutters strong enough to cut German wire (the ordinary Army issue would cut only British wire).

Graves also takes along the pack and clothes of an enlisted man, since Germans snipers will target conspicuous officers, and confirms that, having lost his revolver when wounded, he has not bought another–he plans to carry a rifle, should he be called upon to attack.

I also took a Shakespeare and a Bible… a Catullus and a Lucretius in Latin; and two light-weight folding canvas arm-chairs…

I commanded a draft of ten young officers. Young officers, at this period, were expected… to be roistering blades over wine and women. These ten did their best. Three of them got venereal diseases at the Rouen Blue Lamp They were strictly brought-up Welsh boys of the professional classes, had never hitherto visited a brothel, and knew nothing about prophylactics…[3]

The two writers having been there, and the two agreeing…  and yet R.P. Graves seems quite certain that Robert Graves was at liberty today and tomorrow, and left–without any mention of nine other officers–from Waterloo Station on the 22nd.

The solution must be either that R.P. Graves has goofed (possible; I don’t have his sources) or that both Robert Graves and Sassoon are somewhat mistaken at least in the details of their memory. It’s funny, but the very fact that both Graves and Sassoon have a group of precisely ten officers seems to undermine their “facts:” surely one is the source for the other, and the source may be corrupt, for all that it is the remembering mind of the man who was there. The influence may even flow from one to the other and then back again… R.P. Graves, moreover, has dated family papers to support his view, which can be ranged directly against Sassoon’s diary.

For my part (heretical historian and narrative enthusiast that I am) the most convincing item is neither date nor document but rather the fact that both Graves and Sassoon seem to draw a straight line from Litherland to France in order to underscore a literary purpose.

Sassoon’s account in the Memoirs of seeing “Cromlech” off and thinking that he too should be in France is immediately followed by more idle dreaming about a hunt (outdoor Sassoon, pre-war Sassoon, mindless Sassoon, binary vision, etc.) and a scene in which he goes back to his hut and reads a Danish newspaper article questioning the conduct of the war–has this become a war of mutual aggression rather than a war in defense of Belgium?

A good question… but he had actually read the article in question on January 4th. The Memoir runs so close to his experience that even the wary reader would (and generally should) like to take it as a version of reality… but sometimes it’s a set-up, and dates are no more sacred than other facts, when it comes to “fictionalization:” this section is a dramatization not of January 20th, 1917, but of “George Sherston’s” change of heart, c. January 1917. His friend’s return to the line is paired with an eye-opening bit of reading to express two sides of the same particular sort of “disillusionment” that propels him back toward the war rather than away from it…

And Graves, for his part, is hurrying himself back to France because there are no particular comic episodes to wring from his family this time around, and because part of the effect of his anecdote of the Blue Lamp–the nastiness of the war in its seemingly cynical treatment of foolish young men–depends on the nine young officers (of the “Welsh… professional classes”) taking their chapel-bred virginity straight to the flesh-pots. Presumably they, too, spent a few days with their family before mustering again in London or Southampton.

But let’s get back to Sassoon’s diary. The change of mood may be emphasized by arrangement in the fictionalized memoir, but it was real, today, a century back:

No hunting to-morrow as it has been freezing all the week. And Robert’s gone.

April will come again, and sunrays be shafting among the hazels and beeches, and birds be flitting low and startled, and shallow brooks be juggling with the glitter of noon. Slowly the big white clouds will sail across to Lebanon and its blue-green slopes. And all the music of the earth and of men’s hearts must be destroyed, because man desires only the things that he had put behind him—killing, and the pride of women with child by a warrior. O their gluttonous eyes: I think they love war, for all their lamenting over the sons and lovers.When I go out again I will be mad as ever. And the others will laugh at my secret frenzy. But the loveliness of earth will be a torment and a sweet tumult in my heart. And I shall be longing for the humility of green fields and quiet woods. I shall be longing for lonely hills and skies flushed with morning glory. And nights that were one rich chord that echoes and murmurs from a thousand strings, and fades not, until the stars go out and the birds begin their merry jargon in thicket and garden.[4]

No hope for the war, but hope for poetry still.


Meanwhile, in France, Edwin Vaughan has been racking up behind-the-lines experiences. He has been thoroughly disappointed in his company and his company commander (“Lieutenant Hatwell… very small and quite inefficient, though full of bounce and bluff”) and he found a likeable fellow officer only to realize that he is a drunk. And today, a century back, Vaughan went through another rite of passage of the less-than-upper-class volunteer officer.

There was a football match at Sorel today: the mess was riding over en bloc, and although I had never been on a horse before, I did not like to refuse…

There followed half an hour of agony whilst Fat Dolly lumbered after the other horses, with me clinging to the saddle and swaying from side to side. I was a very unhappy spectator of the match…

Strangely, Vaughan’s major complaint after the ride was of a pounding headache; the usual complaints after a long first ride situate themselves somewhat lower…[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 167.
  2. Complete Memoirs, 392-3.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 235-6.
  4. Diaries, 121-2.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 10-12.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References and Footnotes

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

Mametz Wood “In Parenthesis:” David Jones’s Masterpiece and the Martyrdom of the Welsh

Mametz Wood from RWF history

Mametz Wood, in a contemporary map reproduced in the Regimental History of the Royal Welsh

Yesterday, a century back, the 38th Division was once again marshaled for an attack on Mametz Wood. This thick little forest, the largest wood on the Somme front, was now nearly a salient in the British line, and the higher-ups on the General Staff considered its capture to be essential to the next phase of the Somme battle, namely the assault on the second German defensive system (or “German 2nd Line,” as it is marked at right).

This time the 115th Brigade–with Llewelyn Wyn Griffith on brigade staff–was in reserve, while the 113th and 114th Brigades attacked.

The 113th Brigade, made up of four Kitchener’s Army battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, would have the left flank of the attack, coming north from the bottom center of the map at right.

David Jones’s 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers will be in support, while the 16th and 14th battalions lead the way. The plan is much the same as it was during the disastrous attack on the seventh, the primary difference being that more troops are concentrated on a narrower frontage. The Germans will be better prepared, too, and the Welsh will have to attack across several hundred yards of open ground–ground that still slants uphill into the guns of the wood is and now strewn with the bodies of their countrymen. There is some hope that the artillery coordination will be better.


Mametz, July 1916; the metal roller is at bottom left

Around noon, yesterday, the 15th RWF marched up through the ruined village of Mametz, where Jones was struck by the sight of a huge metal roller sitting amidst the rubble (see the photograph at right).

For some two hours they had waited in the recently-German-held Dantzig Trench, before learning that the attack had been called off. Griffith, back at headquarters with the reserve brigade, knew at once that this was a mere twelve-hours’ postponement, but this information does not seem to have gotten to Jones’s battalion. Shouldering their eighty pounds of kit, the fifteenth marched back again to the rear, through clogged communications trenches, a process that took the rest of the day and lasted into the night. Then, before they could sleep, they were ordered back up, and back up they marched. And so

it was not until dawn on the 10th July that the flower of young Wales stood up to the machine-guns, with a success that astonished all who knew the ground.[1]

The attack began at 4.15 a.m. Leading the brigade’s assault on the southern tip of the wood (the 114th Brigade was to the right) was Lieutenant-Colonel Carden of the 16th Royal Welch, a man whom even the straight-laced Regimental history describes as “a gifted leader with a touch of fanaticism.” Waving a handkerchief on the end of his walking stick so as to be visible to his men, he walked forward from their assembly trenches, down into the gully (or “nullah,” a British Indian Army term) and up the gentle slope toward the woods. He was shot, fell, got up, continued, and was shot again and killed on the edge of the wood. Yet some of the men of the 16th reached the wood, now being pounded by the carefully-prepared artillery program. The surviving German defenders of a trench at the front of the wood surrendered, but many machine guns continued to fire from both flanks.

Meanwhile, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers had moved up into their assembly positions.


I believe that I once intended to hash out In Parenthesis day by day, to make something of the most difficult, most unusual, and most rewarding poem of the war.

Youthful folly. In Parenthesis is a masterpiece–a minor great work, or a great minor work, or some such thing. It’s also a terrible thicket of concentrated strangeness, intense mental experience, and deep allusion, intertwined–to bring us to the point–with precise details pertaining to David Jones’s experiences as an infantryman. And by tomorrow the poem will be over. So now or never.

The difficulty of the poem is, in a sense, easiest to deal with today. The fragmented Modernist narrative (“stream of consciousness” is a familiar term, but not quite right here–these are freshets, sinkholes, torrents and and sudden splashes, rather than a continuous stream) doesn’t need to be placed in its literary context because its lived context fits the form so well: fragmentation is, here, now, the chaos of battle. Battle is always experienced as a series of actions rather than a continuous state, and memory makes of it a number of searing fragments, often with the order jumbled and gaps of uncertain size between. There is no “better” way for the mind, in mortal terror, and the body, desperately aroused, to record it.

So we’ll leave aside the question of whether In Parenthesis doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and only coincidentally shares with its climactic Part 7 the senseless confusion of not just any battle but a crowded battle in a dense wood, or whether Jones has shaped his artistic choices to the nature of this most intense of his wartime experiences. It doesn’t matter. I’ll try to do what I generally do here: present the writing–be it straightforward memoir or Modernist Epic–link it to other histories of the day’s events, and comment where it might be useful.

Part 7 begins–and here is Jones in a nutshell–with a subtitle that references both the Passion and Lewis Carroll, an epigram from a medieval Welsh elegy, and three biblical allusions, two of them in Latin.

The Welsh poem, Y Gododdin, is referenced throughout In Parenthesis, and serves (this will be the first of dozens of oversimplifications today, for which I will apologize just this once) both to make the Welsh soldiers of the poem more Welsh–many of the 15th, and Jones himself, were London born and bred, of Welsh descent, but not steeped in the Welsh language or its folklore–and to open up their experience to other times. This project is in chronological lockstep with the past–one hundred years to the day–but Jones was determined both to include the specificities of his experience–numbers, map references, minutes, minute parts of complex machines and organizations–and to write this experience as if it were fully consubstantial with the experiences of the distant past, especially that of other soldiers. Jones’s project is both catholic and Catholic, and more than any other writing of the war it demands both that the instant of experience be recognized and that, in the eye of God, at least, it cannot exist: this experience is eternally and completely shared.

(Some of this garbled paean will, I hope, be borne out by the quotations below.)

And that subtitle? If Jones sounds over-serious then I have done a bad job explaining him. There is nothing more serious than war and death and religion–which is why no frame of reference is denied to the poem. “The Five Unmistakeable Marks” of Part 7 identify both Lewis Carroll’s Snark and the stigmata of Christ. Metaphorically, at least, this will be a sacrifice of the innocent.

And the quotations?

Picture 156

The Manuscript of the beginning of Part VII, from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Invenimus eam in campus silvae–“We have come up on it in the fields of the woods.” Simple scene-setting, and gentle irony, for in the Psalms (131.6), what they have found is the tabernacle of the lord, not bloody battle.

The next line takes care of that: “and under every green tree.” This, again, means nothing without vast reading or studious legwork (or, yes, the internet–although there are many good secondary sources, several of which I will cite below). It references II Kings 12:10, where the Israelites sacrifice their children to foreign gods. Five little words, slid in at the beginning here, which align Jones’s work with the poetry of protest that has, a century back, hardly begun to be written. This is no jaunty “someone had blundered,” but a swift blow with all the driving power of both Testaments behind it: you are killing your children in vain.

The third quotation is from Lamentations (2.12, also part of the Good Friday service) and is even more devastating: although Jones draws it from the arid Latin, the ruthlessly keening old Hebrew poem describes children dying “like soldiers” in their mothers’ arms.

And so we have come five lines into a thirty-five page section of the poem. I will have to pick up the pace just a bit.

There is another prefatory section, an acknowledgement of the role of memory in artistic creation–“spilled bitterness, unmeasured, poured-out… demoniac-pouring.” This is fair warning and fertile ground, but not something that we, tied to the day, a century back, can deal with here.

Picture 053

David Jones’s handwritten map, with annotations

Finally, then, the subjects: “In the Little Hours they sing the Song of Degrees.” So “they”–the eternal/mythic/epic soldiers who are also the men of Number 6 Platoon, B Company, 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers–begin both the liturgical day and July 10th, 1916. They are in Queen’s Nullah, across from the southwestern edge of the Wood. Jones, an artist before he was a poet, drew the map at right, using the trench maps (the reference numbers can be seen at the top), with the Nullah at the bottom.

The horror begins immediately: this assembly-place is obvious, and has been used before. German shells are dropping all around, and a man is hit:

He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things.

The first “he” would seem to be Private John Ball, our protagonist, our David-Jones-in-the-Poem. The “him” is Aneirin Leiws “spilled there… who sleeps in Arthur’s lap” and will soon draw a brief spurt of allusive elegy.

Other men come upon the shattered corpse and weep “for the pity of it all.”

Ball/Jones eventually gets “his stuff reasonably assembled” and joined “the rest of the platoon belly-hugged the high embankment going up steep into thin mist at past four o’clock of a fine summer morning.”

So, then, fifteen minutes to go.

While “Private 25201 Ball pressed his body into the earth and the white chalk womb to mother him,” The colonel, J.C. Bell in life, Colonel Dell in the book (how like Sassoon this rhymed fictionalization of Royal Welch officers is), chats coolly with another officer.

But they already look at their watches and it is zero minus seven minutes.

Alright. I think I’ve demonstrated what can be done with interspersing commentary, matching the minutiae of battle-chronicle to the intimate twistings of Jones’s poem. But chronology will bend and shatter when they go forward (it is reasserted much later on), and I don’t think there are any arguments that can be made for the greatness–or even the necessity-to-any-certain-subject–of certain poems that can’t be nullified, defeated, or improved upon by lengthy quotation. So, here is an infantryman’s terror before the assault:[2]

Racked out to another turn of the screw
the acceleration heightens;
the sensibility of these instruments to register,
needle dithers disorientate.
The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers—you
simply can’t take any more in.
And the surfeit of fear steadies to dumb incognition, so that
when they give the order to move upward to align with ‘A’,
hugged already just under the lip of the acclivity inches below
where his traversing machine-guns perforate to powder
white creatures of chalk pounded
and the world crumbled away
and get ready to advance.

Two minutes, one minute–and then the advance. For a few pages we float amidst the disordered thoughts of John Ball and his comrades, and in and out of history and legend and myth.

But in amongst it all are Jones’s memories: As the 14th Battalion advanced, directly ahead of him, they sang “Jesu Lover of My Soul.”

And if the more literal/less literary-minded reader might begin to object to the poetical smearing of fact into impression, here is how the Regimental History describes the advance:

The approach to the wood was a ghastly affair… there was a general state of pandemonium… the most terrible “mix-up” I have ever seen.

Soon, the 15th are ordered to advance. Here, in the poem, Malory’s knightly host and Kitchener’s army advance together:

Tunicled functionaries signify and clear-voiced heralds cry
and leg it to a safe distance:
leave fairway for the Paladins, and Roland throws a kiss–
they’ve nabbed his batty for the moppers-up
                     and Mr. Jenkins takes them over
and don’t bunch on the left
for Christ’s sake.

“Batty” is one of the many Cockney slang expressions for a friend (or, in American military parlance, “buddy”). Roland is the hero of the Chanson de Roland, the Medieval French epic. Mr. Jenkins is the kind, decent platoon commander. And the “tunicled” higher-ups, it seems, will not be coming forward–at least not yet.

Mr. Jenkins leads them out of the trench in the hollow and down into the unbelievably long (at least 400 yards) open-field advance to the woods:

Every one of these, stood, separate, upright, above ground,
blinkt to the broad light
risen dry mouthed from the chalk…
moved in open order and keeping admirable formation
and at the high-port position
walking in the morning on the flat roof of the world

There remains hope, in each man’s mind, that somehow they will be spared. After all, death is always around, but rarely strikes–has never yet struck the mind that thinks the thought. Jones wrenches the ancient personification of death as a battle goddess through the language of St. Francis and into something new and harrowing:

But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.
By one and one the line gaps, where her fancy will–howsoever they may howl for their virginity
she holds them–who impinge less on space
sink limply to a heap
nourish a lesser category of being
like those other who fructify the land
like Tristram…

or all of them in shaft-shade
at straight Thermopylae…

    Jonathan my lovely one…


So the Royal Welch are joined by the battle heroes of the mythic Middle Ages, and the Bible, and Greek History.

But how intolerably bright the morning is where we who are alive and remain, walk lifted up, carried forward by an effective word.

And, after several more pages of intensely envisioned movement, they have crossed the open ground and almost reached the now-taken German trench at the edge of the wood.

Mr Jenkins half inclined his head to them – he walked just
barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of
Private Ball.

He makes the conventional sign
and there is the deeply inward effort of spent men who would
make response for him,
and take it at the double.
He sinks on one knee
and now on the other,
his upper body tilts in rigid inclination
this way and back;
weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,
swings like a pendulum
and the clock run down.
Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,
clampt unkindly over lip and chin
nor no ventaille to this darkening
and masked face lifts to grope the air
and so disconsolate;
enfeebled fingering at a paltry strap—
buckle holds,
holds him blind against the morning.
Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella
–where it rises to his wire—and Sergeant T. Quilter takes

And so Mr Jenkins–Oliver, the beloved companion of Roland, but also Lieutenant R.G. Rees, son of Cordelia Rees, of 21, Woodland Way, Mitcham, Surrey, and the late Rev. William Rees, aged 25[3]–is killed.


A composite map from one of the stalwarts in the Great War Forum, with the modern memorial site indicated in the lower right.

Now they enter the trench at the edge of the wood.

The southern part of Mametz Wood–as far as the first “ride,” or cleared path (see the map at right, where the dashed lines of the rides are clear)–was now held by elements of several jumbled battalions.

Mametz Wood was a real wood. A hunting preserve before the war, it had not been cleared of underbrush for more than two years, nor–lying until recently between the German first and second lines–had it been shelled into oblivion. Instead, shelling had brought down a large number of trees, which became entangled with the thick underbrush and proliferating brambles.

Again, the Regimental Records vouch for the chaos, here:

All went into the wood, and naturally enough, once the troops reached the thick tangle, control became extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Wyn Griffith will describe the wood, too, giving us a middle ground between reportage and poetry:

My first acquaintance with the stubborn nature of the undergrowth came when I attempted to leave the main ride to escape a heavy shelling. I could not push through it, and had to return to the ride. Years of neglect had turned the wood into a formidable barrier, a mile deep. Heavy shelling of the southern end had beaten down some of the young growth, but it had also thrown trees and large branches into a barricade. Equipment, ammunition, rolls of barbed wire, tins of food, gas-helmets and rifles were lying about everywhere. There were more corpses than men, but there were worse sights than corpses.[4]


Jones’s Frontispiece for In Parenthesis

Back in the poem–and in the German trench–we see some these worse sights:

the sun-lit chalk is everywhere absorbing fresh stains.
Dark gobbets stiffen skewered to revetment-hurdles and dyed garments strung-up for a sign; but the sun shines also
on the living
and on Private Watcyn, who wears a strange look under his iron brim, like a small child caught at some bravado in a garden…


Mametz Wood itself beckons. Sergeant Quilter gathers the jumbled survivors of the platoon and leads them forward:

So these nineteen deploy
between the rowan and the hazel,
go forward to the deeper shades.

Again, historical precision anchors us to this time and place even as the boundaries of time and place grow hazy:

It was largely his machine guns in Acid Copse that did it, and our own heavies firing by map reference, with all lines phut and no reliable liaison.[5]

Much happens as the day draws on. The Regimental History records that the 15th Battalion was withdrawn, then sent in again, as more senior officers arrived on the scene and tried to makes sense of the battle in the wood. Nothing quite so clear happens in the poem. There are glimpses of German prisoners coming back; Sgt. Quilter is mortally wounded in the belly; another man–possibly Dai Greatcoat, who earlier in the poem makes a prodigious epic boast–is hit lower down (the bullet would seem to destroy his groin, or castrate him); the number of men still holding some semblance of the line, firing at invisible Germans, dwindles. Pages and pages.

Mametz Wood from RWF history, croppedThe careening literary references are interspersed with map references: a captain arrives and has the survivors dig in on the line of V, Y, O, and K (see the map at right, again): the 15th RWF now hold the second ride and the left flank of the wood, and have bombed the Germans out of the trenches on the left, but the northern extremities are still in enemy hands.

Throughout this last phase of the poem there is a widening of the mythic scope. Where else would men ancient and medieval enter, in their mortal terror, but a perilous wood?

But we will end with details that overlap precisely with Jones’s experience. Night begins to fall. The Royal Welch are ordered to dig in, to hold the line. Then, after dark, the orders come once more to advance:

At 21.35 hrs units concerned will move forward and clear his area of his personnel. There will be adequate artillery support.

And now no view of him whether he makes a sally, no possibility of informed action nor certain knowing whether he gives or turns to stand…grope in extended line of platoon through nether glooms … warily circumambulate malignant miraged obstacles, walk confidently into hard junk. Solid things dissolve, and vapours ape substantiality.

A flare goes up, and more horrors:

And the severed head of ’72 Morgan
its visage grins like the Cheshire cat
and full grimly.

And midnight passes…


We will pick up the end of the poem tomorrow, but we touch wood now with the history:

But night fell on the most bewildering state of affairs. No one could either see or move… There was… a great deal of wild firing through the night, and the relief of troops by the 115th Brigade was not possible until the morning.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Up to Mametz, 207.
  2. Apologies for ineptitude, but I don't know how to get the poem formatted correctly. I've preserved line breaks, but have not figured out how to preserve the indents that help shape of this closer to conventional verse-form...
  3. CWGC
  4. Up to Mametz, 209-210.
  5. We will have more on this "friendly fire" problem tomorrow.
  6. Ward, Regimental Records, 204-9. In addition to In Parenthesis, easily available thanks to an NYRB Classics reissue, I have drawn on Thomas Dilworth's work, particularly Reading David Jones, 80ff, and David Jones in the Great War. See also Remembering the Battle of Mametz Wood and this.

The Third Day: More Futile Attacks; Siegfried Sassoon Moves Up, and Marks his Progress with a Poem; Vera Brittain Calls on the Leightons; Ford Madox Ford Playfully Attacks in French (and Latin); Edward Thomas Braves “The Gallows;” Alan Seeger Goes Forward

George Coppard, whose work with the powerful but unwieldy Vickers machine gun keeps him in a defensive posture, has a very good view of the developing battlefield. The great attack, the unprecedented slaughter, is past, now, but the Big Push grinds on in a cascade of local attacks, most of them aimed at the first day’s objectives. Coppard will watch, now, as new troops are thrown against the German lines at the northern edge of the battle.

On July 3rd the Queen’s and the Royal West Kents attacked the German lines in our sector. Crossing the corpse-strewn No Man’s Land towards the black enemy wire, draped with dead Tommies, they met fierce machine-gun fire, and were completely repulsed. Many walking wounded who managed to struggle back filtered down our trench towards Aveluy Wood. I remember one youngster asking me to bandage him up. His right wrist had been lacerated by a large piece of shrapnel and the hand was hanging by a few sinews. The initial shock must have stifled the pain and he was almost cheery. “I’ve got a Blighty at last,” he said…[1]


I didn’t mention Roland Leighton on the first day of the Somme, but he was very much on Vera Brittain‘s mind as she realized that her brother was in combat. Would she lose her brother as she had lost his best friend, her fiancé? Roland was on Edward’s mind as well. The two had been close friends, and even the always-awkward overtaking of their friendship by the romance between sister and friend had not altered Edward’s regard for him. But would the diffident, music-loving Edward meet the standard of heroic expectation that Roland set upon himself? Could he succeed in battle when the great Roland, the Lancelot of their little group, was been uselessly shot down on an ordinary night’s trench relief?

But Vera isn’t thinking of heroism, surely, now–only of life and death. When she was called to the phone on Boxing Day she had expected nothing but joyful news. Now she could reasonably expect the very worst.

July 3rd

Had a half-day… & went down to see the Leightons–there had been no news of Edward all through this terrible week-end, and I could endure no longer without having them to talk to.[2]

Is this apotropaic magic? Does Vera hope that if she goes to the center of suffering, no further suffering can reach her there? Well, she will not have long to wait, for news.


Alas that I only recently stumbled upon the letters of Ben Keeling, for he writes beautifully. This is from a letter dated tomorrow, a century back, and thus describes tonight:

Last night I saw, I think, the most symbolical scene of warfare which I have ever come across. As I turned a corner of a trench with a young officer we suddenly faced a fair expanse of ground over which the contour lines enabled us to look. The horizon was near only three hundred yards or so away topped by an avenue of trees, bare and shell-stricken on the right, the end nearest the firing-line, and gradually becoming more leafy as we looked to the left. On the extreme right the scene ended in the hummocks, holes, and gradual slope upwards of one of the big mine craters. The dominating colour of the ground was white. Trenches, shell holes, and mine upheavals had torn up the chalk from below the surface soil, but there was a solid mass of scarlet poppies in the middle of the picture, contrasting wonderfully with the white and grey ground and the yellowish background of an early twilight sky. I shall never forget the vision of beauty and desolation which I saw in a flash that moment.[3]


Siegfried Sassoon of the First Royal Welch Fusiliers is watching the same sunset, a century back. It’s been a slow day, suitable for such observations. But tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow, the Welch will join the battle.

July 3, 11.15 a.m.

Greaves, self and party left Kingston Road at 6.45 a.m. The battalion assembled at 71 North and we marched across to a point north-west of Camoy where the 22nd Brigade concentrated. The four battalions piled arms and lay down in an open grassy hollow south of the Camoy-Mametz road, with a fine view of the British and (late) Bosche lines where the 91st Brigade attacked on Saturday, about Six hundred yards away. Everyone very cheery–no officer-casualties yet…

5.45 p.m. Everyone has been dozing in the sun all day…  As I dozed I could hear the men all round talking about the things they’d looted from the Bosche trenches.

Evening falls calm and hazy; an orange sunset, blurred at the last. At 8.15 I’m looking down from the hill, a tangle of long grass and thistles and some small white weed like tiny cow parsley. The four battalions are in four groups…

Sassoon’s brigade has earned its lazy day: at 9.15 p.m. they began their march forward, heavily laden with barbed wire and ammunition. But Sassoon had some creative energy to spare, and in that spare hour, a century back, he turned the diary’s poetical field notes into verse:


At Carnoy

Down in the hollow there’s the whole Brigade
Camped in four groups: through twilight falling slow
I hear a sound of mouth-organs, ill-played,
And murmur of voices, gruff, confused, and low.
Crouched among thistle-tufts I’ve watched the glow
Of a blurred orange sunset flare and fade;
And I’m content. To-morrow we must go
To take some cursèd Wood… O world God made![4]



A well-schooled writer would end the post there, I imagine. So this next bit is a terrible indulgence; the focus should be on the battle–but I can’t resist. Edward Thomas and Ford Madox Hueffer–both belated volunteers, both professional writers much older than most of their new comrades, whose work is only beginning to receive the appreciation it deserves–both wrote poems today, from the shattering safety of England.

And beneath these structural similarities the two are, like their poems, utterly unalike. Thomas is the unhappy family man, quiet, depressive, devoted to his friends and his countryside; Ford the larger-than-life literary brawler and loose-liver… both men know misery and irony and do not shrink from it. But could they handle it any differently?


The Silver Music

In Chepstow stands a castle—
My love and I went there.
The foxgloves on the wall all heard
Her footsteps on the stair.

The sun was high in heaven,
And the perfume in the air
Came from purple cat’s-valerian…
But her footsteps on the stair
Made a sound like silver music
Through the perfume in the air.

Oh I’m weary for the castle,
And I’m weary for the Wye;
And the flowered walls are purple,
And the purple walls are high,
And above the cat’s-valerian
The foxgloves brush the sky.
But I must plod along the road
That leads to Germany.

And another soldier fellow
Shall come courting of my dear;
And it’s I shall not be with her
With my lips beside her ear.
For it’s he shall walk beside her
In the perfume of the air
To the silver, silver music
Of her footstep on the stair.

Not only did Ford write such tripping love lyrics today, a century back, but he was also playing an elaborate game with a fellow orderly-room officer, H. C. James. Do you doubt the Latin acumen of our classically-schooled Englishmen? Well, you may doubt further, if you wish–stories of games played and attempts made do not always show the failed efforts and tend to make even quick and shoddy attempts seem like sustained efforts… But this is still impressive.

I’ll let Max Saunders, Ford’s biographer, explain, and strive to contextualize:

…the game was constructed as a military joke. Captain James listed the rhyme-words as if they were privates requiring disciplinary action (‘49522 Pte. Eyes 49642 Pte. Skies’, and so on).

Ford wrote the poem to the desired rhymes, and then passed the result to Captain James, who translated it into Latin.

The date is given as 3 July 1916, two days after the bloodiest battle in English military history. If they had any sense then of the scale of the Battle of the Somme, and yet could, divert themselves so light-heartedly, it was perhaps because they knew they would themselves soon be fighting on the Somme. One could read it as a
mad denial of war’s insanity, or as a typically Fordian fascination with how expressive a stiff-upper-lip expressionlessness could be. Readers of Parade’s End will recognize how, after that experience, Ford was to re-imagine the inventing of these ‘rough products’ in the coruscatingly produced, surreally insane scene in No More Parades in which Tietjens tries to distract the enervated Captain McKechnie and himself with bouts rimés just after a bombardment, and McKechnie offers to turn his sonnets into Latin hexameters in three minutes.[5]

Actually, I’ve included that quotation just to admit into this project a writer whose prose sesquipedalianly produces more spell-checkingly flagged adverbial phrases than I do. But this is to be expected from a man making his meals off of the spell-binding and nearly-unreadable writing of Ford. The scene in the novel is set rather later…


So, while one writer tosses off collaborative verse in linguistic triplicate, another sits down to wrestle with power and ugliness in the bright summer sunlight.


The Gallows

There was a weasel lived in the sun
With all his family,
Till a keeper shot him with his gun
And hung him up on a tree,
Where he swings in the wind and rain,
In the sun and in the snow,
Without pleasure, without pain,
On the dead oak tree bough.

There was a crow who was no sleeper,
But a thief and a murderer
Till a very late hour; and this keeper
Made him one of the things that were,
To hang and flap in rain and wind,
In the sun and in the snow.
There are no more sins to be sinned
On the dead oak tree bough.

There was a magpie, too,
Had a long tongue and a long tail;
He could talk and do–
But what did that avail?
He, too, flaps in the wind and rain
Alongside weasel and crow,
Without pleasure, without pain,
On the dead oak tree bough.

And many other beasts
And birds, skin, bone, and feather,
Have been taken from their feasts
And hung up there together,
To swing and have endless leisure
In the sun and in the snow,
Without pain, without pleasure,
On the dead oak tree bough.

This is a tremendous poem. First, I will slyly keep my contextualizing hands clean once again and let the formidable Edna Longley do the dirty work: “Even if it is probably too soon for him to have grasped the enormity of the Somme… The Gallows turns a familiar rural image into a powerful fable of mass slaughter.”

That “probably” should be a “surely–” or else that “grasped” should be understood as highly intuitive rather than a matter of confessed understanding. The great poets–and if we will allow that quiet poets can be great, then I begin to think that Thomas has a real claim–tend to get credit, even from professed rationalists, for being in mystical communion with the spirit of their times, far ahead of wandering newspapermen and hapless historians. If Vergil can encapsulate Rome’s greatness and rottenness in a mere twelve books and young Auden can call us to order on September 1st, 1939, then it’s no great trick, is it, to anticipate the casualty lists in the Times by a few days?

But that’s not what’s going on here, really. Thomas has had problems with gamekeepers before–he referred to one as “a policeman god,” a keeper of order grotesquely swollen in power–and we needn’t make this one into a crypto-German machine gunner to understand that the man with a gun who makes living creatures into “things that were” is the enemy. Thomas loved the natural countryside, but more Englishmen–or more wealthy Englishmen–loved to hunt over it, and they set their keepers on their competitors, human and otherwise. This is not a compromise that Thomas seems any longer inclined to accept, now that he has decided to fight. Instead, while Ford uses light verse to keep things light, Thomas goes to the heart of the Hardy-predicted predicament: “Thomas uses folksong structures to transmute anger into cosmic irony.”[6]

As to the horrifying image of mangled animals festooned on trees, it may well be a common one (I am far from an English countryman) but it was latterly given pride of place in the most gripping of Great War fictions, Pat Barker’s Regeneration. I don’t know if Barker was prompted by this poem, but her use of this image in the book (which I will try to work in, here, next year) seems to me to speak to Thomas, as if to say “Yes, indeed, this is a war poem, but from a poet who has yet to go to war. Think what might happen when a man who has been there and seen men-made-things hanging on the barbed wire comes home to see the keeper’s gallows?”


But I should bring us back to France. To the French Foreign Legion, in fact, which is moving forward to attack on the southern front of the Somme battle. Alan Seeger‘s regiment “moved toward Assevillers” this afternoon, a century back, and took over front-line positions “at nightfall.” Tomorrow, for this experienced and hard-bitten unit, death or glory.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 82-4.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 326.
  3. Keeling Letters and Recollections, 299-300.
  4. Diaries, 85-7.
  5. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, A Dual Life, 492.
  6. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 307-8.
  7. Letters and Diary, 212-213.

Roland Leighton is Far Away from Vera Brittain Now–and Distant; Raymond Asquith on Bombs and Bridge; A Dogfight and a Sniper Joke; A New Reader for Isaac Rosenberg

A shifty sort of day today, a century back. Several of our soldiers, taken together, seem uneasy in their writing. Those headed toward the maelstrom eye it warily–but we also have a joke, a spectacle of sinister beauty, and that nagging sense of the stretching, slipping self, as the strain of attrition drags young men further away from who they were before the trenches.

Raymond Asquith–as yet unblooded–writes to his wife Katherine:

This morning we did a little practical bombing. I threw some live bombs for the first time. It is rather exciting at first as the fragments fly back a good way, and also you never feel quite sure that some clumsy lout next to you won’t drop his bomb on the ground in the excitement of the contest.

Yes, “exciting” would be the properly blasé term. Here’s a terrible thought: Asquith got through his first “bomb practice” unscathed, but a great many others have not (see the “accidents” tag). I have generally assumed that the army’s heroic/conservative disdain for sensible precautions–combined with the sloppiness that comes with rapid expansion and the adaptation of new weapons–is responsible for the unfortunate frequency of casualties. But perhaps there are those who view these casualties as having some redeeming value: if inexperienced men–and there are so many battalions entirely composed, now, of inexperienced men–must go straight from basic training to the trenches, perhaps they be eager fools when they must first assess the attritional dangers there. They may becareless about snipers, eager to watch the first Minnies coming over, etc. Perhaps if they have seen men maimed, or blinded, or killed by this new, ubiquitous trench weapon they will be more careful?

Well. Raymond Asquith restores his spirits with a country stroll:

“Presently I went for a walk” and got on to a small hill covered with turning birch trees from which one could see a great way over flat plains with poplars on the horizon and a large misty cathedral in the middle distance looking rather massive and mysterious under a stormy and sinister sky. Coming back I got soaked to the skin.

Irony everywhere, right? (Write?) The romantic walk spoiled. And now to reading. Among the least surprising things to learn is that Asquith might prefer a Latin poet to a modern novelist:

No, my pretty, don’t send me any book by Conrad, however good, I couldn’t bear it. It gives me a sick headache even to write the man’s name. And as a matter of fact I never seem to read anything except an ode of Horace now and then…  I play bridge a good deal, latterly with my customary good fortune. Yesterday I won 200 francs. . .[1]


A joke from Edward Hermon:

We heard a very good story against the Staff the other day. A Turkish sniper was caught & interrogated & he told them that he got 3d for every man he shot, 6d for every N.C.O. & on a sliding scale. Then they said ‘What do you get for a Staff officer?’ & he said ’28 days confinement to Barracks’!! It’s very easy to criticize a huntsman but the poor old Staff do come in for a good deal of criticism…[2]


Amusing. And our aerial spectacle is described by the Master of Belhaven:

To-day I have seen a wonderful but terrible sight. A real aeroplane battle in the blue sky, just above my head. About midday one of the new German fighting planes came over, some 5,000 feet up. He was at once attacked by three of our machines. For a quarter of an our they manoeuvred over each other, circling round and round just like birds. It was a fine day and with a bright sky, and through my glasses I could see the heads of the airmen. They were firing their machine-guns all the time and seemed to be so close to each other that they almost touched. Suddenly we saw the Hun turn over and begin to fall. He came down in a small spiral, head down, and falling at a terrific pace. But. even so, he seemed to take hours to reach the ground.

As he got near the earth he seemed to be falling faster and faster till, at the end. it looked as if he were falling like a stone. He fell about a mile from here and crashed on top of a dug-out, killing three of our infantry who were inside.[3]


Isaac Rosenberg is short on both patrons and dated material. Today, however, the two conjoin. Rosenberg had had a gentle falling out with Eddie Marsh–who, after all, has been most preoccupied with his literary executor’s duties following the death of Rupert Brooke. Then he–Rosenberg–had recently chosen the army as the only sure path out of frank dependency on either fickle patrons or his impoverished family. But Marsh has worked back around to his erstwhile protegé, and recently wrote to Lascelles Abercrombie–influential poet, friend of Thomas and the Georgians–reminding him to read Rosenberg’s recent work, which Marsh had sent him.

Today, a century back, Abercrombie wrote to Marsh that he “went all hot with shame, to think how I’d clean forgot him.” This is something of a chance, now. Rosenberg had long admired Abercrombie’s work, and might well unbend from his usual stubborn response to real criticism. But will the established poet have kind words for him?[4]

Yes, and soon. But although it might not be too late for the poetry, it’s too late for the struggling artist who would rather not see war. Nothing now will undo Rosenberg’s decision to enlist.


Finally, Roland Leighton breaks his silence. He had written Vera Brittain a series of short notes around the time of Loos–during the worst of which his battalion was in reserve–and now, for two weeks, nothing at all. This lapse has perhaps been softened for her by her exhausting new posting at Camberwell Hospital–she had less time to brood, or to strain at dwelling with him int he trenches. But Vera is still suffering from the lack of attention, and has not failed to prod him toward more attentiveness.

This recent letter, a romantic, semi-despairing appeal to life in all its changeability, has not, alas, elicited the response she would like. Roland’s famous reserve is in full effect, and the reserves are sniping. They had pledged to stay close, and remain true. But Roland does not feel like being forthcoming, and he has metamorphoses on his mind.

France, 3 November 1915

‘Occasionally I wonder if the person I am writing to is really there–‘

He has certainly not shown himself very much lately, has he? It seems so long since I wrote to you last–I have never yet addressed a letter to Camberwell in fact. I can scarcely realise that you are there, there in a world of long wards and silent footed nurses and bitter, clean smells and an appalling whiteness in everything. I wonder if your metamorphosis has been as complete as my own. I feel a barbarian, a wild man of the woods, stiff, narrowed, practical, an incipient martinet perhaps—not at all the kind of person who would be associated with prizes on Speech Day, or poetry, or dilettante classicism. I wonder what the Dons of Merton would say to me now, or if I could ever waste my time on Demosthenes again. One should go to Oxford first and see the world afterwards: when one has looked from the mountain top it is hard to stay contentedly in the valley.

Have been very busy lately as Adjutant, during the absence of the latter. It is a job I like very much; but it doesn’t give you much time for anything else. Hence in part my extreme busy-ness. I haven’t had time to write to anyone for ages, and have in fact left Mother letterless for a whole month, and other people more so. It is late & I am very sleepy. We go back into the trenches tomorrow.[5]

Ah–“sorry, lass,, but you know I’ve left mother letterless as well, so…” This is bad–very bad! Roland is busy, and he is at war, but… there’s always time for a brief note, even for trench-fighting Adjutants. A sad boy–a boy fighting himself or in low spirits or staving off depression–lurks behind that second paragraph.

The real Roland–even the one who should be japing and declaiming about his second year at Merton but is instead running the daily business of a battalion, the boy who has prematurely grown up–is much more present in the first. To build yourself a mountain (an inverted trench no less) from which to despise the lost vale of Oxford is too transparent. He is angry, for some reason–there are many good ones–and he wants to be alone.[6]

So Roland throws more distance between Vera and himself–making her an antiseptic-stained motherly nurse, and denying that he was ever that admirable “dilettante” schoolboy she was first drawn too. Oh, but this is harsh!

But he is writing from a trench, trying to express a clogged clump of different feelings. He is stalled, and trapped, cheated of consummating his relationship with Vera, of shining at Oxford, of heroics at Loos… of everything but the certainty of a miserable winter and the likelihood of being wounded or killed. And he hasn’t done a great job of explaining this, of appealing for sympathy. Vera would be boundlessly sympathetic, if she could hear the appeal. But he should realize that she won’t: even if she notices the pleading petulance of the attack on Oxford, Vera is still enamored of Roland’s mother–so she will miss that jibe–and she is not likely to see what we might, and remember to credit him for his physical frustrations as well…

This is the sort of letter that will provoke a spat, the young lovers’ first “real quarrel.”[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 209.
  2. For Love and Courage, 126.
  3. War Diary, 99.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 281.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 182-3.
  6. One possible reason--a very plausible close-reading (which I came across here--about halfway down the essay, at note 79--on the testamentofyouth blog) is that the thought of Vera's nursing experience now intensifying is frustrating specifically because she will now have great intimacy with the bodies of many young soldiers--but not his. Sexual frustration, then, would be behind both the dwelling on the clean and starched nurse, far from her muddy fiancé, and the sudden reference to himself as a "wild man."
  7. Testament of Youth, 214.

Wilfred Owen on an Artists’ Private’s Life; More Royalty Spotting; Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s Serious Reading

Wilfred Owen updates his mother today, a century back:

Sunday [2 November 1913] Tavistock Square

Dearest Mother,

I have no post-cards, hence another letter, simply to say that the Second Inoculation has taken mildly enough. It was done at midday yesterday: there was enough pain to justify a morning in bed! This time one of my ‘friends’ did a faint.  It must be pure nerves: the ‘poison’ can’t invade the system in half-a-minute…

I spend a good part of my leisure polishing my buttons and badges. It is a frightful bore. Can this explain the military oath—‘Dash my buttons!’? This morning I have massaged my new boots with Castor Oil. We were told to pour it inside the boot! The stench resulting is perhaps the very first inconvenience I have yet endured.

Well, soldier, there is nothing more important than taking care of your feet. Observe! And, when you can, report.

By way of preface to this next paragraph I should note that all this attention to his kit is not so much dandyism or physical amour propre (not that Owen is entirely innocent of either) as it is residual excitement about the newness of the army combined with the family class obsession. Should he succeed in the Artists’–and thus win his commission–he will succeed in confirming the gentlemanly status his mother has always coveted for him. And you must look the part.

I have bought my swagger cane, and now feel perfectly normal in Khaki. Apart from the treasonable unlawfulness of appearing in mufti, I should feel positively ill at ease in it. No collar & tie means an economy of dressing-time; but it is paid for by the puttees, which… are difficult to arrange neatly. I wear the trousers bagged below the knee; but such as care to buy breeches may dress in cavalry style. In the Inns of Court no one wears the khaki provided but buys officer’s stuffs, (without stripes of course.) There is a pretty general feeling of contempt for the Inns of Court among our men, that may be founded on envy. We are forbidden to wear waterproofs or Burberrys or mufflers or brown boots—by a special Battalion Order! So far, then, our chiefest cares have been frivolous details of this sort, but there is a stem time coming—in Camp. There is a story that three men deserted from Camp. They were not shot at dawn, but simply excluded from Commissions…

If only this Life went on indefinitely I should be well pleased. It is really no great strain to strut round the gardens of a West-end square for six or seven hours a day. Walking abroad, one is the admiration of all little boys, and meets an approving glance from every eye of eld. I sometimes amuse myself by sternly contemplating the civilian dress of apparent Slackers. They return a shifty enough expression. When I clamp-clump-clamp-clumped into the Poetry Bookshop on Thursday, the poetic ladies were not a little surprised…

Swagger cane indeed. This is a bit of a silly letter, yet it’s also a good reminder of the dual purpose of military dress. Well, the triplex purpose, if one assumes that wearing a simple tunic and wrapping the lower legs in long strips of cloth (‘puttees’) is also done for practical reasons: the soldiers are rendered similar to each other (i.e. ‘uniform’) and set apart from the civilian world. And then of course there are all these little regimental differences: the Inns of Court? Those barrister-types are too posh, already aping the officers they will become. Then again, ordinary regiments are too slack–the Artists’ have it just right…

In an addendum dated tomorrow, a soldier’s proper thanks and more Bookshop-centric news:

Monday. The Parcel came-this morning. The handkerchiefs were just in time, and the chocs I seized with schoolboyish relish!

….Sgt. Knight has charge of us now—the county cricketer: do Father, or Colin know of his renown? There is a legend that our Doctor attended the King. Certainly he belongs to a noble Order, K.C.B. or something. There seem no Artists whatever among us!

This morning I was talking to a recruit of a Henry Irving countenance, who persists in wearing long strands of hair visible in front of the Cap. He has been ‘ticked-off’ four or five times for it; but is not yet shot at dawn.

This is new-soldier rhetoric. Those who have been to France, and know how busily the BEF has been shooting (at dawn, yes) soldiers who break down or run, will drop this little phrase from the jocular sections of their vocabulary.

I am fairly close cropped…

I found a room… right opposite the Poetry Bookshop! A plain enough affair—candlelight—no bath—and so on; but there is a coffee-shop underneath…[1]


But speaking of the King and his doctors (we were, there, briefly), we’ve been waiting with bated breath to discover the result of HM’s quickly-hushed-up accident. In short, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. In fact, it was a positive development, overall: the King having been so manifestly in harm’s way–suffering at least some danger from the mud–puts him a slight step closer to the old battlefield kings of the middle ages. Which is the point of largely symbolic leadership, after all.

Edward Hermon was a near eye-witness:

It is bad luck about the King. His horse came over backwards with him & I heard he had a rib broken but am not sure.[2] I was standing in the road as he left the first parade on the way to the second & he passed me quite close & then I went to a corner where I had some men & was just getting them mounted when to my horror I saw the Royal Car coming towards me as hard as it could go… I thought H.M. was lying back very far in his car & I knew he couldn’t have fulfilled his programme but I thought it was perhaps the wet that had stopped things… I did not hear until later in the day that he had had an accident.[3]

Kathleen Luard, with her hands rather more full, is less bothered by a riding accident. She does, however, approve of the King’s son, the future Edward VIII:

Tuesday, November 2nd

It has rained again all day without stopping. We are wondering who had been sent to the Château to nurse a certain august patient. The ‘damned good boy’ (Prince of Wales) has made himself a great name with everybody. They all call him ‘a stout fellow.’ He visits dug-outs when they’re being heavily shelled, and when he at last says, “I think we’ll go back now, the rapidly ageing officer in charge of him heaves a sigh of relief and gets him away…[4]


Finally, today, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, erstwhile habitué of as many balls and weekend parties as could be crammed into his schedule, is doing his best to keep up his social life. Yesterday he wrote to Raymond Asquith, leader of the Coterie; today he writes to his school mate Julian Grenfell‘s mother, Lady Desborough, thus uniting both famous high society cliques all in a day (or two’s) correspondence.

Part of the reason the two groups garnered so much attention was that they were unusually open to intellectual endeavor–or, at least wit. Much of high society limited itself to sport and nightlife, but the Souls and the Coterie carried books about. Which many of them could read, and discuss, while the rest made a point of affecting to pretend to.

And odd letter, then, reporting to one’s dead friend’s mother on one’s reading. But it is impressively varied:

I have read Lord Ormont and Redgauntlet and Lavengro and Finlay’s Greece under the Romans, and
Mademoiselle de Maupin, and Hewlett’s Open Country, and some Herodotus, and some Lucretius, and
re-read The Egoist, arid I am reading Bosanquet’s Theory of the State, and Macaulay’s History, and
Love and Mr Lewisham, also I have read some Gibbon, and Guy and Pauline. I sustained my opinion of The Egoist (which is an exalted one) very completely in re-reading. I have now lent it to a Frenchman who thinks he knows English well, with malicious joy.

Is he showing off? Yes. But is it impressive anyway? Yes. Novels, historical romances, histories… and that would be Herodotus in Greek and Lucretius in Latin, thank you very much. And The Egoist? Not, alas, the seminal Modernist periodical to which several of our writers have contributed, but rather the Meredith novel…[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 363-5.
  2. A pelvis, in fact, which sounds a good deal more painful.
  3. For Love and Courage, 125.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 29.
  5. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 152-4.

The Death of Hamo Sassoon–and “Stephen Colwood;” Patrick Shaw-Stewart on Plum Cakes and Footballs; Vera Brittain’s “To Monseigneur;” Lord Crawford: Terrific Has Been the Failure of Women

sassoon to my brother

From the Dictionary of National Biography

Siegfried Sassoon‘s younger brother Hamo died today, a century back, from wounds sustained on the 28th. The news will reach his older brother in a few days, and he will write about it over the coming weeks and years.

Typically, Sassoon will write about it several different ways, none of them direct. First, he will soon produce a “curiously impersonal” poem (at right), which plods diligently in the footsteps of Brooke.

Why? Well, the poet and his brother were not close, as adults. But still–this was his brother, only a year younger, the constant companion of his childhood. Nothing more than two bland stanzas of mourning leading to tepid inspiration?

As usual, Siegfried Sassoon is suppressing emotion. It must mean something more than this, but to address that “something” in writing he will have to make some decisions. First of all, he must situate himself. Is he the pleasant, bluff, cricketer and hunter–the “outdoor” Sassoon? Or is he the sensitive late Romantic, the closeted gay man, the nervous, thinking, feeling, poet?

Excepting that the “outdoor” Sassoon doesn’t write poetry, “To My Brother” sounds a heck of a lot as if it were written by him. A poem not unbecoming one of our Guardsmen or professional regimental soldiers with a bit of a flare for rhyme.

The “indoor” Sassoon is quiet, as of yet. Meeting Robbie Ross and Edmund Gosse will help him along, but the first really big collision–the hurtling-into-friendship with another Royal Welch officer, that friendship’s clutching embrace and Sassoon’s rebounded course, trajectory altered–is still in the future. (But hardly more than a few days in the future–stay tuned!)

For years to come, Sassoon will speak about his own losses only through the experiences of the “outdoor” Sassoon. Who–as you may remember–has had his witness of the war transparently protected via transformation into “George Sherston.” Sherston is Sassoon, and yet he isn’t–their military experiences will move in much closer lock-step than, say, Henry Williamson and Phillip Maddison. But he created his alter ego not only as a non-poet, but with a drastically revised family. Mother and brothers are removed, leaving only an aunt, a pale, pleasant leftover from a second-rate nineteenth century novel, to raise “George.”

So, if your “memoir”-self lacks a brother, how will you mourn him? By, it seems, killing off a stand-in. Jean Moorcroft Wilson suggests that the death of the “Stephen Colwood” character at roughly this point in the narrative–though he appears otherwise to be based on a man who died much later in the war–represents the death of Hamo.[1]

This makes sense. But it doesn’t reveal much. Sassoon, training near Cambridge, has a special friend in camp: his own “Dick,” a beloved, beautiful fellow officer (the friendship is chaste, any sexual element unspoken and probably not reciprocated) who is the center of his social life.

Brave, innocent Dick must now stand very still and dully reflect the loss that will, otherwise, take some time to sink in:

September arrived, and we were both expecting to get a week’s leave. (It was known as ‘last leave’.) One morning Dick came into the hut with a telegram which he handed me. It happened that I was orderly officer that day. Being orderly officer meant a day of dull perfunctory duties, such as turning out the guard, inspecting the prisoners in the guard-room, the cookhouses, the canteen, and everything else in the Camp. When I opened my telegram the orderly sergeant was waiting outside for me; we were due for a tour of the men’s huts while they were having their midday meal. The telegram was signed Colwood; it informed me that Stephen had been killed in action. But the orderly sergeant was waiting, and away we went walking briskly, over the grit and gravel. At each hut he opened the door and shouted “Shun!” The clatter and chatter ceased and all I had to ask was “Any complaints?” There were no complaints, and off we went to the next hut. It was queer to be doing it, with that dazed feeling and the telegram in my pocket. … I showed Dick the telegram when I returned.

I had seen Stephen when he was on leave in the spring, and he had written to me only a week ago. Reading the Roll of Honour in the daily paper wasn’t the same thing as this. Looking at Dick’s blank face I became aware that he would never see Stephen now, and the meaning of the telegram became clear to me.[2]

But this passage Sassoon will not write for years. Numbness, or an inability to process a loss that is at once primal and distant, best explains his tepid reaction to the death of his brother.


It is November, already, and time for a poem-of-the-month. This one–written sometime this month, in London, by Vera Brittain–requires prefatory apology. The tone of her recent letters to Roland has grown worshipful. And, more worryingly, it has done so even as his once-assiduous attention to their correspondence has swiftly faded.

Still, the title of this poem is at least slightly less creepy than it seems: “Monseigneur,” i.e. “my lord,” is his Uppingham School nickname. It was probably wryly given, expressing both fondness for the boy who swept up all the school’s honors and irritation at the reserve that made him seem so haughty.

Still, and no matter how much we might blame Traditional Poetic Diction or the baleful sacrificial influence of Brooke, when a poet abases herself so completely before her object, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

To Monseigneur

(R.A.L., Lieutenant, Worcesters)

None shall dispute Your kingship, nor declare
Another could have held the place You hold,
For though he brought me finer gifts than gold,
And laid before my feet his heat made bare
Of all but love for me, and sighed despair
If I but feigned my favours to withhold,
And would repudiate as sadly cold
The proud and lofty manner that You wear

He would not be my pure and stainless knight
Of heart without reproach or hint of fear,
Who walks unscathed amid War’s sordid ways
By base desire or bloodshed’s grim delight,
But ever holds his hero’s honour dear–
Roland of Roncevalles in modern days.

With death and poetry disposed of, we can now proceed to the matter that has, surely, been occupying all idle minds: the scandal in No. 12 CCS, grimly exposed by one Lance-Corporal Lord Crawford.

Monday, 1 November 1915

Second day of the crisis. At 10.30pm, Evans, Bunn, the night orderly, and I, were summoned to the DMS office where we were separately examined by General Porter. He is much grieved, very angry too that a member of his personal staff should have so grossly disregarded discipline and propriety. One at least of our nurses will disappear. There should be a clean sweep. I told the colonel today that, had it not been for the women, none of these scandals would have occurred–for there would have been no inducement for these nocturnal visits and we ourselves would have stopped the gambling and liquor.

I was about to break in with dutiful outrage and a reminder to read carefully: note, friends, the way the benighted Lord lays all responsibility for “inducement” to sin at the feet of the daughters of Eve… But, really, I can just let him continue.

But our establishment is ruled by women and terrific has been their failure. I reminded the colonel that four months or more ago when he projected No. 2, I warned him, from the experience of officers’ hospitals at home, that he would find this class of patient difficult to control and that they would give an immense amount of extra and needless work to the staff. He differed from me on the ground that, here in France, they would be under military and not civilian control. How wrong his forecast was, how correct was mine. He sees it now. He means to rectify matters.[3]

Sure, nurses and officers should not be getting drunk and, one assumes, fooling around. But the grave overreaction makes it abundantly clear how difficult it must be to have a Lord as a corporal, complimenting himself and admonishing his superiors in prim, short little sentences. Ugh. Well, at least the threat of Creeping Gynocracy in the BEF has been averted.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart can be a cruel snob. But all of our writers have letters that show their faults, and others that show their charms. For Shaw-Stewart, his letters to “Dear,” his childhood nurse, put him in a lovely soft light. Rarely has the gift of a parcel to the troops been so nobly recompensed with an enduring account of its glorious end:

I never told you properly the noble history of your last cake, one of the glorified currant loaf kind with a crust (which keeps them fresh as new-mown hay). General Birdwood was doing temporary Commander-in-Chief in between Sir Ian and Sir Charles Monro, and invited himself to tea with the French General. The latter was in despair at not having anything sufficiently “serious” to offer an English General for tea—knowing that we tend to make a meal of it—and I stepped into the breach with the offer of my “plum cake” (an adopted French word pronounced “ploom kak”) which had then just arrived. It made a noble show in the middle of the table and had the greatest success.

“Is this from France?” asked General Birdwood, between two mouthfuls. “No, it is the gift of Capitaine Stuart,” said General Brulard. “From Scotland, sir,” said I, amid loud cheers. So the cake had really a worthy fate.

A cynic might note that Ploom Kaks from Scotland being delivered to Gallipoli is all well and good, but not perhaps the best use of national resources.

Shaw-Stewart was evidently catching up on his writing, for he also spent time today, a century back, reaching out to that inter-generational high society linchpin Raymond Asquith. The two have much–besides so many friends–in common: their middle class birth and wealthier friends, their scholarship and intellectual achievements left behind in favor of business and the law. But they are not fast friends–Asquith, I think, is too old and too forbidding for that. Shaw-Stewart fills him in on the situation in Gallipoli, touching nicely upon certain themes–“gentlemanly” endurance, self-deprecating association with the military Great, and a faux-self-deprecating intention to resume serious reading. Funny–Asquith just started up again with Horace.

I am bound to admit that the autumn, after a spasm of wind and a shower or two, has settled down to as divine a season as you could well choose (if any one in their senses ever did choose such a thing) for living in the open. We are preparing for the winter after our kind: the British have imported about a dozen footballs, and the French about 3000 bullet-and-rain-proof huts.

This is a very good line, but only an accidentally prescient one: the footballs are not famous yet.

By the grace of God my own lot is cast with the latter, and I am living like a fair imitation of a gentleman in a little wooden cubicle with a tin roof, where the fleas are dying out as the weather cools, and the rats and mice have not yet assumed really serious proportions. My functions, too, are of the most gentlemanly: I seldom speak to any one under the rank of a colonel, and do not disguise my preference for Major-Generals. A pleasant life, if smacking slightly of eternity, and an unparalleled opportunity for becoming Better Read.[4]

Finally, a new hope with the new month. The constant talk of leave is, again, a sign that there are no plans for any offensives in late autumn, and no expectation of great German movements. Soon Osbert will get to haunt Lady Glenconner’s salon, etc.

Edward Hermon, however, has an even greater joy awaiting him on or about his expected leave–but a tough joy to time precisely. His wife Edith has been pregnant since the beginning of his deployment.

Time’s nearly up & I do so hope you won’t have to wait that extra fortnight… My leaves start on a Friday & one is back the following Sat. morning at daybreak. The trains get into Victoria at 3 a.m.!! It’s an awful hour.

I got another lovely letter from you today & I unpacked two boxes of socks, about 50 pairs; these will be much appreciated…[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 205-7.
  2. Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, 242-3.
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 75-6.
  4. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 151-2.
  5. For Love and Courage, 124.