Herbert Read Has a Perfect Moment; Charles Montague Approves a Failure to Hate, Duff Cooper Drills His Men

Just three brief notes today, a century back, in the few days’ breathing space between Passchendaele and Cambrai. First, Herbert Read, writing to Evelyn Roff, gives us a glimpse of what letters mean to the serving soldier–and also fine days, and respites after hard duty in the lines.

Today the post arrived just as Col and I were off for a ride. We read out letters–he had one of the right kind too–as we ambled along in the winter sunlight. Then we both laughed gladly and vowed we had never known such a perfect moment.

We are out of the line again, after another terrible week. We hope never to see this sector again. Expect to go back for a few weeks rest any day now. Then I will write to you. I feel too unsettled now–my present home a tent in an ocean of mud. I fear I was rather a dull fellow in my last letter[1]

 

Charles Montague, still working as a professional propagandist, sees what he has always seen, and will come to champion: the fact that the fighters failed to hate their enemy as much as some of their home-front compatriots… and will direct their ire elsewhere when they can. But this letter to his wife still frames the war in the old style, in which “honor” is valued and sport seems like a good analog; resistance or disillusion are not yet framed as such.

Nov. 14, 1917

Of the spirit of hatred and revenge there is quite extraordinarily little among soldiers who do the actual fighting—much less than among some foolish journalists who try to relieve their feelings that way. It seems a regular instinct among our men to make almost a pet of a German, once he has surrendered; they seem to regard him rather like a lost dog. After the war I believe there will be less ill-will against Germans in general among our returning soldiers than among any other equal number of men at home, just because hard fighting, man against man, tends to let off bitterness and make you regard your opponent as a kind of other side in an athletic contest. In intervals in some of our recent battles there have been quite exemplary spectacles of honourable fighting—stretcher-bearers of both sides, out in No Man’s Land in crowds, sorting out their respective wounded, and nobody firing a shot at them.[2]

 

Duff Cooper is yet to experience the killing, the oceans of mud, the hatred or its lack, the mercy or mercilessness… but he’s getting closer. Newly commissioned, he now has to actually lead men…

November 14, 1917 [Wellington Barracks]

My first day on the square. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. It was only a half day being Wednesday and we got off at eleven. Edward [Horner] has suddenly been recalled to France. He had leave till Saturday but had to go back at once.[3]

Since the experience of Duff Cooper and his beloved Diana Manning has been more or less completely defined by the suffering and death of close friends, it is only appropriate that this ominous news about Horner accompanies his belated milestone on the drill square…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience, 114.
  2. C.E.Montague, 197-198.
  3. Diaries, 60.

Lord Dunsany Gets Off with a Scratch–and a Jab; Patrick Shaw Stewart Thinks Big; Doctor Rivers Departs, and Just Possibly Worries About Sassoon’s Soul

Lord Dunsany‘s follow-up explains yesterday’s profuse profession: It didn’t end up being a “last letter”–but he had reason to think it might have been. In an envelope marked “Fit and Well,” Dunsany hastens to explain himself:

My Darling Mink,

It is your bad luck to get flattering expressions of devotion from me when I see something bad ahead as I thought I did last night. However, nothing bad came, though I am sick of this square peg in a round hole business, which is good for neither. I am excused all duty for forty-eight hours at least and I write this far enough from the Boche. I did not go sick but I started talking to an officer of the R.A.M.C., and before I knew where I was one of his orderlies had innoculated me in the chest with anti-tetanus serum which I enjoyed so much last time. I don’t know why unless that while crawling about I had stepped with my left hand into a coil of old barbed wire (British).

Every your loving,

Pony[1]

So Lord Dunsany has been on either a dangerous patrol or a raid–and all is not as well with his battalion as it recently seemed to be… but he had survived, and with nothing worse than illness, a cut hand, and a needle-jabbed chest. Not something, perhaps, for a young soldier who’s an old soldier to write home about, but Dunsany, though he is nearly forty, has seen little front-line action so far, and so he did indeed write home. Which says more about the Dunsany’s marriage than anything I’ve read yet.

 

Speaking of younger old soldiers, Patrick Shaw Stewart is once again a battalion commander. Which he jokes about in writing to Ronald Knox:

Meanwhile, Oc Asquith has gone on leave and left me in command, by Jove! No nonsense from the junior officers, I can tell you. My first action was to put myself in for immediate promotion to Lieutenant-Commander, sound, don’t you think? My second, to place a man who has just arrived from spending three years in England, more or less, and who is senior, not only to all my company commanders, but to myself, handsomely—to place him, I say, second in command of a company.[2]

That first bit must be a joke… but the second probably isn’t. It’s all upside down in France nowadays…

 

Thirdly, finally, and even more off-kilter, today, a century back was Doctor Rivers’s last day at Craiglockhart. If, that is, Pat Barker’s date-in-a-novel is correct. Then again, even if this was indeed his last day, the novel indulges in some minor fudging of dates, keeping Sassoon around for a last talk with his mentor and father-figure-hero when he was in fact on his way to London for a leave-between-the-Medical-Boards. This provides an opportunity, in the novel, for a last talk between hero doctor and poet patient, in which they discuss Lady Ottoline’s recent visit. Rivers, who will return for Sassoon’s Medical Board (as well he might, considering what happened last time) sees in Sassoon’s bitter summary of his discussion with Morrell less an insight about his sexuality (Barker assumes, quite logically, that Sassoon’s homosexuality was no secret from Rivers) than a new worry, namely that Sassoon’s “peace” with the war has left him dead inside:

…perhaps he’d just given up hope. At the back of Rivers’s mind was the fear that Craiglockhart had done to Sassoon what the Somme and Arras had failed to do. And if that were so, he couldn’t escape responsibility.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147-8.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 203.
  3. Regeneration, 220-1.

Wilfred Owen is Almost Ready to Leave; Siegfried Sassoon Fights to the Finish; Frederic Manning is Simply Finished

Frederic Manning‘s battle against alcoholism–although perhaps his “fighting retreat in the face of overwhelming alcoholism” would be a better metaphor–ended in defeat today, a century back. Manning’s C.O., Major Milner, “obviously hoping to save his subordinate from further embarrassment while allowing the army its due,” let Manning attempt the fig-leaf gesture of quitting before being fired.

2nd Lieut. Manning has submitted his resignation and if this is to be accepted I cannot see that any useful purpose will be served by again trying this officer.

2nd Lieut. Manning is a gentleman but apparently has no strength of will and is quite unsuitable as an officer.

This was kind, considering the circumstances, but there was no way around the M.O.’s report: “This officer is in a stupor, quite unfit for any duty evidently the result of a drinking bout.” Even if some honor is salvaged, it’s clearly the end of Manning’s military career.[1]

The more relevant question, perhaps, for Manning, was “and what next?” He’s out of a commission, but not free from conscription. It seems likely that Milner’s sympathy might save Manning more than mere pride, namely by making it more likely that he will be swept aside as a broken man best left in a backwater rather than sent directly back into combat–a private soldier once more–by way of punishment for his failures as an officer.

 

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon is fighting his own losing campaign to avoid seeing Lady Ottoline Morrell face to face before he faces his next Medical Board, at which he plans to conditionally abandon his allegiance to her cause.

My dear Ottoline, It would be jolly to see you but it seems a terrible long way for you to come, especially If you are rather broke, as I gather you and Philip generally are! However, if you decide to come, let me know what time you arrive.

I can’t see any way out of it except in France. Nothing definite has been heard from the War Office. They are very fed up with me here, as I was supposed to attend a Board last Tuesday, and didn’t go.

At least, today, he’s faced up to this and told Lady Ottoline about his erratic behavior. At least this helps to demonstrate, in a way, that he has been not so much erratic as consistently bifurcated (in an earlier era we would have lightly said “schizophrenic”) about his feelings on the war. He has reacted to the news of the Étaples mutiny and the role of the First Royal Welch in quelling it by writing another of his lacerating pro-troop, anti-leader poems.

Rivers thinks my ‘Fight to a Finish’ poem in the Cambridge Magazine very dangerous…

 

Fight to a Finish

The boys came back. Bands played and flags were flying,
And Yellow-Pressmen thronged the sunlit street
To cheer the soldiers who’d refrained from dying.
And hear the music of returning feet.
‘Of all the thrills and ardours War has brought.
This moment is the finest.’ (So they thought.)

Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob.
Grim Fusiliers broke ranks with glint of steel.
At last the boys had found a cushy job.

I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal;
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear those Junkers out of Parliament.[2]

 

This really should almost be dangerous–in wartime, with no great freedom of speech permitted, he has once again written a fantasy in which the violence of the front lines is visited on the hypocrites at home. This time, however, it’s not a third-person wish, involving the impersonal violence of a newfangled tank. This time it’s Mad Jack himself who wants to lead his favored men, his crack bombing team, on a raid on his own national legislature.

I wonder how much confidence Rivers has that this make-up Medical Board next month will go well?

 

If Wilfred Owen knows anything of his friend’s state of mind, he still probably wouldn’t mention it in a letter home to his mother, to whom he famously tells most things… but not all. Naturally, his thoughts turn to his own Medical Board, and what it might mean for him.

Monday

It seems really likely that I shall be evacuated on Tuesday. Some time ago the Grays made me promise to stay 2 or 3 days with them before leaving Edinburgh. I am going there this afternoon, & if they ask me again, I may stay one day in order to get my picture done. Sassoon is anxious for me to spend a day or two of my 3 weeks with some people at a Manor near Oxford.

Ah, now there is another aspect of his new friendship that Owen is keeping from his mother. The manor in question is Garsington Manor, home of Phillip and Lady Ottoline Morrell.

I have not made up my mind. We went to the Astronomer’s yesterday, & saw the moon.

I wonder how I shall find you all. I shall be in a desperate excited state when I arrive…

But not so desperate as to make a beeline:

So, then, I may turn up on Tues. Night, or Wednesday Morning, or any day until Sat., for I want to stay on here a few days (if it won’t shorten the 3 weeks) to be able to return all my borrowed books, & make a graceful exit from  these scenes.

W.E.O. [3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.
  2. Diaries, 193-4.
  3. Collected Letters, 504.

Carroll Carstairs and Harry Patch Brave the Shells on the Way Out; Jack Martin Overhears a Grim Bargaining; R.A. Knox Finds Authority

Lately it seems that it is always night in the Salient, and that to survive a tour of a few days in its miserable morass is only to invite the special attentions of Nemesis on the march into reserve. Nevertheless, Carroll Carstairs’s memorable few days in the line came to a safe conclusion tonight, a century back:

That night I changed places with Knollys and the next night the Battalion was relieved by the 1st Essex (29th Division). These reliefs were devilish. The combination of black night, “uncertain” shelling, guides missing the way, duckboards along the routes shelled to bits in places making the going difficult, and feeling the responsibility of getting the men out without casualties—and something of the nightmare it was may be imagined. Those were days of open warfare as regards getting up to and back from the front line.

Slowly the men were assembled near Cannes Farm. A “whizz-bang” chipping its corner covered me with dust and plaster and my orderly thought I was a casualty.

With our backs to the enemy we moved in single file down the slippery duckboards. We reached White Hope Corner, where tea was served to the men. At Luneville Farm we entrained, and on the hard wood floor of my truck I slept the sleep of complete exhaustion. One hour in twenty-four had been my average in the line. At 5.40 a.m. we arrived at Proven. Dazed with insufficient rest I entered a world of endless slumber as I crawled into my sleeping bag.[1]

 

If Harry Patch’s memory served,[2] then he, too, was coming back out of the line tonight, a century back, marching along with the rest of his Lewis gun team. It would not end as well.

We were returning from the line, going back into reserve. It was a quiet night… It was always important to stick to communication trenches where you could, but, if there weren’t any, then you just went over the top in the open and took a chance. We’d stopped briefly as Bob was attending to the call of nature in a slight traverse, causing us to bunch up a little as we waited.

…I guess it was a whizz-bang that got us. The only thing I saw was a flash; I can’t recall any noise at all, but I certainly felt the concussion of that shell bursting, because I was taken off my feet and thrown to the ground. For a couple of minutes I couldn’t move…

I didn’t even know I was hit at first, but a growing pain told me otherwise…

Patch did his best to stop the bleeding from his stomach, but passed out. He was found by stretcher bearers and taken to a casualty clearing station, “where a doctor cleaned the wound of congealed blood and lice and put a clean white bandage on.” After that triage, Patch was no longer critical, and had to wait while doctors worked elsewhere, the shell splinter cooling inside his abdomen.[3]

 

Two more brief notices, today. First, Jack Martin once again makes us privy to the sort of negotiations that only take place at a certain level. We often see platoon and company commanders carrying out orders and, from time time time, we might see tight-lipped battalion commanders issuing the orders they know will get scores of their men killed. But as these units come in and out, mercilessly thrown back into the fray or spared for a slight respite, there is a constant negotiation going on at higher levels. The generals demand service, but no battalion can fight forever, and therefore a good commanding officer must be an advocate…

There is no doubting the seriousness of the situation for on the phone I overheard a most amazing conversation between our Brigadier and the Divisional Commander. The Brigadier was very firm in his insistence that our Infantry is thoroughly exhausted and totally unable to make any resistance if the Huns attacked. They would break right through our line if once they got beyond our artillery barrage, The Div. Commander tried his hardest to get the Brigadier to say that we can hold on for another twenty-four hours but General Towsey wouldn’t take the responsibility of making any such statement… When Gen. Towsey told him that the men could get neither rations nor water he merely replied, ‘Let them take the iron rations from the killed and wounded.’ This conversation lasted about half an hour and I expect it will result in a speedy relief…[4]

This conversation will be closely echoed half a world away and one world war on in James Jones’s The Thin Red Line.

 

Finally, today was a memorable day in the life of Ronnie Knox. The son of an Anglican bishop, a brilliant scholar in a brilliant family, precociously ascetic, Knox has been drawing closer and closer to Catholicism for years now. Helped along by the urgings his friend Charles Scott Moncrieff (but not, perhaps, by his former protege Harold Macmillan, who did not convert, and certainly not by his close friend Patrick Shaw Stewart, who did not manifest similar interests) Knox made the decision to formally convert, to the “lifelong disappointment and regret” of his family.

Yesterday, a century back, he thanked Moncrieff, sending him a card that read “Thank you awfully, yours affect. Ronnie.” Today, he took the plunge. Although he was not one of the bright young men who went to war (he considered himself barred from service by the nature of his vocation to the clergy), this friend-of-our-writers several times over was changed by it nevertheless, and it seems safe to assume that his search for what he considered the true faith was intensified by it.

He did not feel an special illumination, but he was so happy that he wanted to laugh out loud all through dinner in the refectory. He had found authority.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 110-11.
  2. And it would have had to serve some seventy years longer than most; but "it is quite possible," in the judgment of Richard Van Emden, that his battalion's few casualties for today included Patch's friends.
  3. The Last Fighting Tommy, 108-110.
  4. Sapper Martin, 108.
  5. Chasing Lost Time, 101-2; Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 131-2.

Siegfried Sassoon Bombs Busily Along; Charles Carrington’s Half-Conscious Nightmare; Alf Pollard Finds the Germans, and Loses Some Men; Vera Brittain’s Immense Fact and General Malaise

We are surrounded by the Battle of Arras. We’ll finish in Malta, where Vera Brittain waits for news, and most of the post will follow Siegfried Sassoon‘s latest turn as “Mad Jack” in the developing battle. But we’ll begin with two other members of the supporting cast, each within a few miles of Sassoon, and each sharing important aspects of his experience.

The Battle of Arras, now in its second week, is neither trench-warfare-as-usual nor a matter of major “over the top” assaults, those strange aberrations in military history in which lines of troops abandon their subterranean life in order to move over open country, their shoulders hunched against the shell fire. Instead we have something rather like the tough, ceaseless, street-by-street urban warfare of later wars, with the trenches and strongpoints standing in for ruined cities. The weather, a cruel abridgement of the recent turn toward spring, only increases the misery.

 

Charles Carrington has been in the battle since near the beginning, but he remembered tonight, a century back, as one of the worst:

After many exacting days and freezing nights we finished with a night attack against two German outposts on 16th April, the date of Nivelle’s offensive that was to have finished the war. Our petty skirmish was for us as deadly as the greatest battle was for him. Again it was dark and wet, with a drizzle that turned to snow until before dawn a blizzard was blowing. Two of our companies blundered into one another and opened fire. The assaulting party ran into uncut wire which they could not see. They dug themselves in and waited for dawn when the Germans cleverly slipped away. That night my horse, impressed for duty as a pack pony to carry ammunition to the front line, died of exposure and so, very nearly, did its master, to whom the whole episode was a half-conscious nightmare of fluttering trench-mortar bombs, the kind we called ‘grey pigeons’, coming down through driving snow…[1]

 

And Alf Pollard, back in the nick of time, is out in front of the battle, and looking for more of a fight. The Honourable Artillery Company are north and east of Arras, where the advance has already taken several lines of German trenches–but not yet the local section of the Hindenburg Line.

On the afternoon of the 16th, a Brigade Major carefully examined this trench system through his binoculars, and, failing to observe any signs of life, came to the conclusion that Fritz must have fallen back even further. He at once issued orders that patrols were to be sent out.

Pollard volunteers, and asks to take only four men, since he has more experience with small patrols and, like Sassoon, likes to gallivant more or less on his own. But he is required to take an unwieldy twelve, as per staff orders. The thirteen men set out after nightfall, in moonless, rainy darkness. Feeling their way slowly between Gavrelle and Oppy Wood, they eventually reached the German line without encountering any signs of life, noisily cut their way through the wire, and reached the parapet of the trench. Almost by chance Pollard discovers that they are at the entrance to an occupied German dugout–the trench system is strongly held, but the sentries are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, sheltering from the cold rain.

The patrol has achieved its object, so Pollard withdraws–only to discover, back in No Man’s Land, that one of his men is missing. Two others have been left holding a hole in another portion of No Man’s Land while the remaining eight are now told to wait for him on a small ridge between the lines. Pollard takes a runner and goes back to the edge of the German trenches to look for the missing man–and this time they are discovered.

Someone challenged me sharply from the trench. I spun round in time to see the flash of his rifle. I fired two shots and heard him yell as I hit him.

The firing gave the alarm. Men were appearing in the trench like magic. Reggie and I were caught like rats in a trap. It would have been impossible to have broken our way out through the wire without offering a sitting target to the enemy.

There was only one thing to do. I seized Reggie by the arm and ran. Down the parapet we fled was fast as our legs would take us. Star-shells were going up in all directions. By their light I could see that the trench was of a pattern known as island traversed. That meant that here were two trenches parallel with one another joined at short intervals by cross-cuts. At intervals along the parapet were squares of concrete which I knew to be machine-gun emplacements. I realised it was a position that would take a lot of capturing.

We must have covered well over a hundred yards before I spotted it. It was a miracle that I saw it at all–just a narrow gap in the wire entanglement left so that the holders of the trench could get out easily if they wished to. I darted into it with Reggie close on my heels. It zig-zagged through both lines of wire. In a moment we were free of our cage…

Pollard and Reggie crawl back toward their lines, now sheltered by the thick belts of wire. But when the firing drops, they know a German patrol is coming after them. Pollard outfoxes the patrol by sheltering under the wire–so close to the German lines that the Germans overlook them. This is one of the places where Pollard’s memoir feels indistinguishable from a boy’s story of play-war–he is thrilled at the success of this simple stratagem, hiding by the seeker’s home base.

Once the patrol returns to its trenches, Pollard and Reggie meet up with the main group of their own patrol on the little ridge. They return to their own lines and all is well–the German line has been located and confirmed as being in an active state of defense, and Pollard, his eyes on bigger prizes, casually notes that they “gave me a bar to my Military Cross for that show.”

But this is sketchy sort of decoration, despite Pollard’s relish in describing his exploit. “He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line,” as the citation will read–apparently all the other patrols sent out failed to find the Germans. But there is no mention in Pollard’s account of the missing man. Worse, he does mention that he simply forgot to pick up the two others who had been left on their own, and these are later learned to have been found by the German patrol that Pollard and the runner eluded. One was killed, another was taken prisoner, and the original man seems to have remained missing–not the most successful of all patrols.[2]

 

The action of today, a century back–a “bombing stunt” along the tunnels and trenches of the Hindenburg Line, fills an entire chapter of Siegfried Sassoon‘s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. So we’ll read it instead in its entirety in its first written form, his diary of tonight, a century back:

April 16

At 3 a.m. the attack began on Fontaine-les-Croisilles. I sat in the First Cameronians H.Q. down in the tunnel until nearly 6, when I was told to despatch twenty-five bombers to help their B. Company in the Hindenburg front line. I took them up myself and got there just as they had been badly driven back after taking several hundred yards of the trench. They seemed to have run out of bombs, failing to block the trench etc, and were in a state of wind-up. However the sun was shining, and the trench was not so difficult to deal with as I had expected.

My party (from A. Company) were in a very jaded condition owing to the perfectly bloody time they’ve been having lately, but they pulled themselves together fine and we soon had the Bosches checked and pushed them back nearly four hundred yards. When we’d been there about twenty-five minutes I got a sniper’s bullet through the shoulder and was no good for about a quarter of an hour. Luckily it didn’t bleed much. Afterwards the rest of our men came up and the Cameronians were recalled, leaving me to deal with the show with about seventy men and a
fair amount of bombs, but no Lewis-guns.

I was just preparing to start bombing up the trench again when a message camp from Colonel Chaplin [of the Cameronians] saying we must not advance any more owing to the people on each side having failed to advance, and ordering me to come away, as he was sending someone up to take over. I left the trench about 9.45. Got wound seen to at our Aid Post in the tunnel, walked to Hénin—and was told to walk on to Boyelles. Got there very beat, having foot-slogged about four kilometres through mud. Was put on a motor-bus and jolted for an hour and a half to Warlencourt (20th Casualty Clearing Station) and told to expect to go to England. Written about 7.30 p.m. with rain pelting on the roof and wind very cold. I hate to think of the poor old Battalion being relieved on such a night after the ghastly discomforts of the last six days. The only blessing is that our losses have been very slight. Only about a dozen of my party to-day—most of them slight. No one killed. My wound is hurting like hell, the tetanus injection has made me very chilly and queer, and I am half-dead for lack of sleep, sitting in a chair in my same old clothes—puttees and all—and not having been offered even a wash. Never mind—‘For I’ve sped through O Life! O Sun!'[3]

And so the diary ends, for today. Sassoon is once again a hero, and he is wounded, and, managing to ride the falling edge of adrenaline and the rising tide of pain and exhaustion, he is writer enough to smoothly end the diary with an appropriate quotation, from Robert Graves‘s “Escape.” But what has this action-packed account omitted, and what has it emphasized?

The main points are confirmed by another writer in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–as are the two necessary interpretive conclusions:

April 16th–At 3.A.M. the attack of two days ago was repeated… This was another dud show… Sassoon, a very stout man, was wounded in Tunnel Trench: his craving to renew the attack was not allowed.[4]

Sassoon was very brave, once again, and once again unnecessarily aggressive. We’ve seen enough of his moody self-doubt and in the diary to recognize that he is not playing a role, here–or not playing it in any dishonesty to himself, if that makes any sense. If it’s a performance, as all social endeavors to some degree are, then it’s all method…

Whatever Sassoon’s thoughts about the war, whatever his feelings about the wrecked bodies he has passed to get to this point, the battalion commands his loyalty, and his responsibility is to lead. He doesn’t talk about his men often–it seems like a dubious cliché, but I do think this burden of leadership was assumed, in both senses, by men of his social position, right along with the code of behavior that forbade complaining about it–but whenever he does it is clear that he is highly motivated by his determination to do right by them. If physically leading the way and taking the greatest risks is not always quite a satisfactory answer to the entire question, well, neither was it a bad start. Tonight, a century back, Frank Richards spoke to

an old soldier and one of the few survivors of old B Company who had taken part in the bombing raid. He said, ‘God strike me pink, Dick, it would have done your eyes good to have seen young Sassoon in that bombing stunt… It was a bloody treat to see the way he took the lead. He was the best officer I have seen in the line or out since Mr. Fletcher… If he don’t get the Victoria Cross for this stunt I’m a bloody Dutchman…”[5]

A good officer–and a fox hunting man with a Dutchman’s name.

Siegfried has been absurdly fortunate: not only is he safely wounded, but none of his men are killed or badly hurt. And the chance he wanted so badly fell into his lap, and he took it… it almost seems as if the half-committed pacifist, half-despairing lost boy of the last few months stamped his foot in willful insistence until the war begrudgingly gave him exactly what he wanted…  But the rough narrative of a successful fight won’t remain the full story–it’s only the brassy initial theme, and the undertones and variations won’t stay silent for very long. The war has given him horror, too, and no sure solace: if death-defying aggression can salve his conscience now, the memory of it will not last forever. Does Sassoon recognize this as clearly as he recognizes his good luck in merely not being killed?

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t. Given the constraints of this project and the length of his memoir, there’s no real way to take it on here, except to point out to readers this excellent opportunity to see what “voice” can do–or, rather, how much an author’s control of irony and tone from his secure position of future knowledge can influence our sense of the meaning of events, even if they are, in terms of factual detail, recounted fairly faithfully. Sassoon will not pretend to understand the mood that produced this bombing stunt, nor will he condemn it. But he does deflate his own heroics with more jabs than are strictly necessary.

Some very brief excerpts, then, beginning when Sassoon goes ahead of his own men and meets up with a corporal of the Cameronians, the unit which he is meant to support:

(Looking back on that emergency… I find some difficulty in believing that I was there at all.) For about ten minutes we dodged and stumbled up a narrow winding trench…

…we went round the next bay. There my adventurous ardour experienced a sobering shock. A fair-haired Scotch private was lying at the side of the trench in a pool of his own blood… I slung a couple of combat at our invisible enemies, receiving in replay an egg-bomb, which exploded harmlessly behind me. After that I went bombing busily along, while the corporal (more artful and efficient than I was) dodged in and out of the saps–a precaution which I should have forgotten… in this manner [we] arrived at our objective without getting more than a few glimpses of retreating field-grey figures. I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business. This, curiously enough, was the first time either of us had spoken since we met.

Does the skill of the self-satire make us forget the blood? Is it lurid, absurd? Is it remarkable that the clueless toff is good at bombing Germans out of their trenches, or only that he is such a clueless toff in the first place, and can’t provide a more conventionally meaningful narrative? (Or is that the point, that this sense of boyish silliness can’t coexist in the same rational narrative as the suffering and death from which it is inextricable? Where are the bodies? Who are the men killed or wounded by Sassoon’s bombs? Can they really exist in a story that plays alliteration for laughs and turns men hunting other men into figures of drawing room comedy?)

Ignoring Jeeves, Bertie trips blithely on:

The whole affair had been so easy that I felt like pushing on… I thought what a queer state of things it all was, and then decided to take a peep at the surrounding country. This was a mistake which ought to have put an end to my terrestrial adventures, for no sooner had I popped my silly head out of the sap than I felt a stupendous blow in the back between my shoulders…

Sassoon comes to, and finds his own sergeant binding a neat bullet wound. (And I am reminded that Sassoon himself will note that he felt as if he were being ministered to by a well-trained servant, a characterization which no doubt prompted my Wodehouse reference, above.)

After a short spell of being deflated and sorry for myself, I began to feel rabidly heroical again, but in a slightly different style, since I was now a wounded hero, with my arm in a superfluous sling…

So, overly enthusiastic heroism? Proper, “very stout” aggression?

But what if it tips over into something else? The Sassoon of the diary doesn’t seem to realize that charging on, shot through the shoulder, beyond his objective–the very act that got him in hot water over the summer–is close to crazy. He will, though…

It did not occur to me that anything else was happening on Allenby’s Army Front except my own little show…[6]

 

Far away from all this, Vera Brittain is busy with her duties as a nurse in Malta, but she has also been pining, restive. Malta was a charming and wonderful novelty, her first experience of foreign living. But it’s also a base hospital on a safe island–demanding work, but far from the center of the action. The mails are slow, and her conversations with Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow lag weeks behind their actions. She cannot know whether they have been involved in the spring offensive. She is neither near the front nor near the young men she feels most close to.

When she picked up her diary today, a century back, for the first time in many weeks, it was to report her reawakening wanderlust:

April 16th Malta

Had a short letter from Miss Lorimer to say she is going out as an orderly to one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Salonika. I want to go there more than ever.[7]

And then she wrote to Geoffrey Thurlow, who–though she cannot know this–has missed the initial Arras attack, but is about to be thrown in to the next desperate effort to shove the Germans back just a little bit more.

Malta, 16 April 1917

You are really a good correspondent; Mother says you are ‘most faithful’ to her too. Not like Victor, whose letters are few & far between, & very short when they do come. To me, at any rate, he conveys most by what he leaves unsaid. I have been rather anxious about him this last week, for last time I heard of his whereabouts he was at Arras, & I feel sure he must have been in the great battle–which at present we here only know of as an immense Fact, shorn of all its details. I hope you didn’t get into, even the fringe of it.

That is well put. For us the immense fact remains, outlined or obscured by clouds of innumerable details… but we still have to make a story.

I have been off-duty for a day or two with a bad throat & general malaise, but am back again to-night. I am beginning to be glad that I came out when I did, and not straight into the kind of weather that is just beginning. The nights are still quite cool but the days are getting very hot . . . The sirocco is blowing to-night in a hateful way, rushing down the stone verandah, & making the doors & shutters creak & groan. To me this particular wind always seems fraught with sinister things; it hides the stars, so that the night is as black as ink, & makes the men peevish & sends their temperatures up.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 144-5.
  2. Fire-Eater, 203-9.
  3. Diaries, 155-6.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 329.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 227.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 440-5.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 339.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 334-5.

The Needs of the Bureaucracy Will Punish Rowland Feilding’s Compassion and Send Two Poets–Edmund Blunden and Edward Thomas–to Moulder in an Office

If one thread ties together these three reports of today, a century back, it is that the military bureaucracy is a friend to no man. We can circle around the basic question of motivation–this war being so awful, and so unnatural, why and how did all these soldiers stay the course?–throughout years of diligent reading without finding any satisfactory route to an answer. But most approaches will touch on the importance of leadership, of camaraderie, and of the hope that the war’s evident brutality is not the end of the story–that humanity and kindness remain, despite the bayonets, booby-traps, and clouds of poison gas.

It is difficult, then, to be transferred before friendships can take hold, to be separated from a unit and a trusted leader on the inscrutable whims of the bureaucracy, and to be told that accepting a gesture of mercy in order to save your subordinate friends is a punishable act.

First, Rowland Feilding, writing to his wife–and carefully including the relevant documentation.

February 26, 1917 Curragh Camp (Locre),

There is a sequel to the affair of the 19th. It has been suggested that the so-called “armistice” constituted a breach of the order which forbids fraternization. The incident unfortunately occurred right on the top of a memorandum dealing with the subject, and worded as follows:

1. A case has recently occurred in another part of the line in which the enemy are reported to have been allowed to approach our lines and remove the bodies of some of their dead.

Whilst doing this he was probably able to secure useful information as to the state of our wire and the ground in its vicinity, and in any case he was permitted to deprive us of what may have been a valuable identification.

2. The Divisional Commander wishes it to be dearly understood by all ranks that any understanding with the enemy of this or any other description is strictly forbidden.

We have to deal with a treacherous and unscrupulous foe, who, from the commencement of the present war, has repeatedly proved himself unworthy of the slightest confidence. No communication is to be held with him without definite instructions from Divisional Headquarters, and any attempts on his part to fraternize with our own troops is to be instantly repressed.

3. Commanding Officers are to take steps to ensure that all ranks under their command are acquainted with these instructions.

In the event of any infringement of them, disciplinary action is to be taken.

As a matter of fact I had not seen this memorandum, which arrived when I was away from the battalion. God knows whether I should have acted differently had I done so! Anyway, a Court of Enquiry is to be convened, to decide whether we did fraternize or not, and orders still more stringent than that which I have quoted have been issued.

In future, if fifty of our wounded are lying in Noman’s Land, they are (as before) to remain there till dark, when we may get them in if we can; but no assistance, tacit or otherwise, is to be accepted from the enemy. Ruthlessness is to be the order of the day. Frightfulness is to be our watchword. Sportsmanship, chivalry, pity—all the qualities which Englishmen used to pride themselves in possessing—are to be scrapped.

In short, our methods henceforth are to be strictly Prussian; those very methods to abolish which we claim to be fighting this war.

And all because the enemy took toll for his generosity the other day.

It is beautiful and sunny and warm to-day.[1]

It is common for men–even lieutenant-colonels–to rail against a bureaucracy that sends down haughty orders out of sympathy with the realities of the trenches. But it is quite another thing for a man like Feilding to suggest that the root motivations of officers like himself–the essential English honorable self-image, as invoked in calls to go to war in the first place–are being destroyed by its own leadership.

 

In a quieter way, the same senders-of-orders are separating Edmund Blunden from that which he most values. His battalion has just marched to new positions in the Ypres salient, which are bad enough.

A reconnaisance of the trenches which we were to hold came next. They were those on a rising ground in Sanctuary Wood, near Hill 60, and were indifferently known as Torr Tops, Mount Sorrel, and Observatory Ridge. On arriving in the wood, we found it an unprepossessing one — “What about Thiepval?” said Sergeant Ashford to me as we moved taciturnly up the duckboards, not the imagined communication trench. “Looks exactly the same.” The scene was deathly, and if we had known then the German points of vantage we should have disliked it still more.

But now their commander, Col. Harrison, who had stuck his neck out to prevent the implementation of destructive orders, is paying the price for his free-speaking.

Meeting me outside a high red house in Kruisstraat, Harrison walked along the road to tell me his news, and his face was overcast. He was ordered to return to England, and at once. I had no difficulty in connecting this disaster with the frequent contests of opinion between him and our old master at the brigade office.[2] But more followed. He had arranged that I was to go to Brigade as intelligence officer; the General had previously worried him to let me go, and now he thought it would do me good. These facts caused the Ypres-Comines Canal, over which our short walk led us, to look particularly desolate and gray. That night Harrison went his way, and I reported anxiously at the seat of terror in the Ramparts; the battalion relieved in wild blackness on Observatory Ridge. It had hardly taken over the trenches when a fierce brief bout of shelling fell upon Valley Cottages, the foolish wreckage used as battalion headquarters, and among the victims was our kind, witty, and fearless Sergeant Major Daniels. He was struck in the head, and being carried away to the casualty clearing station in Vlamertinghe white mill, lived a day or two and said good-bye to Harrison, who heard of the bad business in time to see him once more.[3]

This is an ominous coincidence–which is to say it is a sad coincidence which Blunden has given its full effect as an omen of his impending separation. One might point out that his parting from the battalion is both less sudden and less final than violent death, but even to allow events–the “disaster” and the “bad business”–to express the analogy is something of a strong statement from Blunden.

 

And now Blunden–despite and because of his many months of good service with his unit–will be in the same spot that Edward Thomas is: safer and spared the physical rigors of regular work, but cut off from friends and companions, alienated within the too-big-for-comfort world of higher-echelon office work. We will continue to read a lot of Thomas, so his long catching-us-up letter to his old friend Gordon Bottomley may function as a welcome review.

26 February 1917

My dear Gordon,

The gramophone here was playing ‘Anitra’s Dance’ & other things from Grieg yesterday—-& in the evening one Officer (named Berrington) was talking about Georgian Poets. So at last I will write a little. It isn’t all Grieg & Poetry here. The old city I am in was shelled today. The village I went to for some map work was under shell & machine gun fire, & returning I was within 3 yards of being shot by one of our own guns. Worst of all was the din between 8.15 & 9.00 this morning when our Artillery was covering a raid—the prisoners arrived by 10. I can’t pretend to enjoy it, but it does not interfere with the use of fieldglasses & compass though it stops conversation!

It was not our Corps that was doing it so we felt no special interest.

My address is 244 Siege Battery but for the present I am 3 miles away at the headquarters of a Heavy Artillery Group to which I have been lent. Before coming here I did a little firing & more observing & plenty of supervision of digging in & other preparations. Observing is what I like & I am very anxious to get back to a more physically active  life than I lead here as a sort of Adjutant.

We have been out a month but it took us over a week to crawl up to the front on snowy roads & sleeping in trains & tents & other cold places. But I enjoyed most of it. I like the country we are in. It is open hilly chalk country with great ploughed fields & a few copses on the hilltops. The ruined villages of brick & thatch & soft white stone have been beautiful. Of course one does not stroll about here, but the incidental walks to Observation Posts or up to see my battery are often very pleasant, both in the frost & in the sunny weather which has begun at last…

One gets—I mean I get—along moderately well, or even more, with all sorts of uncongenial people, & I have nothing to complain of except lack of letters & parcels. They take a week to come out, & we had none for 3 weeks. So far I have not met anyone I know among all the officers I say good morning to in these streets or out in the country. In a month or so we shall be too busy to think about anything else, but at present we are comparatively quiet just here.Give my love to Emily & to Lascelles when you see him

Yours ever Edward Thomas[4]

Thomas affects a moderated tone out of consideration for his friend. It would be awkward to bring Bottomley through all the ups and downs of his experience when he has heard little or nothing of his friend in weeks. No friend of Thomas, after all, is reading him as steadily as we are–the daily diary and the frequent letters. So Thomas features in this letter the incidents that have shocked him and that will play well at home–being three yards from the muzzle, for instance–but he passes lightly by the real threats to his well-being: no really congenial company, no walking and no exercise. And not to mention the muzzles facing the other way… what is looming depression on when a few weeks will bring battle? An open question…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 157.
  2. Blunden will remove this line.
  3. Undertones of War, 147.
  4. The Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 277-78.

Ivor Gurney: New Bard of the Barracks-Room; Francis Ledwidge Is In France and Isn’t; Edwin Vaughan Knows Fear and Grows Venturesome

Francis Ledwidge is enduring his first winter in the trenches France, and he faces the task like a true poet. A true poet of one particular, fiercely rooted sort. Tell us, Francis, about your experiences, and about the trenches:

In France

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

February 3rd, 1917.

Before we get to Ivor Gurney‘s letter, we should catch up with Edwin Vaughan, prodigy of bathos. Since he joined his battalion while it was in rest, he still awaits his first trip up the line. Yesterday, a century back, he prepared for this momentous step:

Although the morning was spent in final packing, I did not feel at all excited; I think it was the long waiting that calmed me down, for we did not parade until 5 p.m…

But fate had another anticlimax in store, although one that Vaughan did not protest too much. While the battalion was indeed going into trenches, he learned that his company would be the one in reserve, in charge of rations and unlikely to face hostile action. Anticlimax, yes, but at least a gentle immersion into danger.

With little chance of being killed–or of discovering that he isn’t mentally tough enough for the ordeal of bombardment–Vaughan’s diary fills once again with lesser evils. Hatwell, the company commander Vaughan has quickly learned to detest, is quick to turn their simple supply mission into a fiasco. He goes up with the ration party, but fails to issue contingent orders to his platoon commanders, and there is complete confusion as elements of the party get lost, run into frightened French soldiers they can hardly communicate with, argue with them about their duties, get lost again, and then learn, once Hatwell returns, that their quarters had been moved and thus there is more marching ahead.

I was too utterly lost in bewilderment at my first night in the trenches. It was so eerie and dull, no lights, no shots or shells, no raids or mines–just darkness, duckboards and rations…

At the end of the long night there is little to be done:

I issued rum to the troops, then to myself, and turned in–still marveling at the ridiculous attempt at warfare I had just witnessed.

That was last night. Today, however, a century back, Vaughan is disconcerted to be reminded of his status as a newcomer.

On comparing notes with the others, I found that I was the only one who had been at all at a loss the night before…

And tonight it will be Vaughan’s turn to go up to the line himslef. His honesty and careful attention to detail in his diary make him a very fine writer–as far along in the recording of experience as he is short of actual experience.

At 6 p.m. Thomas and I set out with the Company to carry the rations up the line… as I walked beside Thomas I had no qualms of fear, when he said in a low voice, ‘If they start shelling, we will have to split up….’

At that, my teeth started to chatter, and I had to stop talking, for my voice trembled so. I don’t think I was really frightened physically, but there was a curious dread of the unknown and an excitement of the imagination. As we marched down the exposed lonely road to the communication trench, I heard in the far distance a curious musical moan which with a gradually changing key came nearer and nearer until, immediately overhead, it made a noise like an emptying drain and then died away. I asked Tommy what that was and he replied ‘Oh! Just one for the back areas.’ ‘One what?; ‘Shell, of course!’ So I had heard my first shell, and it was quite pretty…

At first I was afraid to leave the vicinity of the trench lest any danger should catch me in the open, but after a while I grew more venturesome and went across with Johnny to a belt of broken wire around which the snow was uneven, with scattered rubbish. Here we found the grave of a Frenchman, with the equipment lying beside it, from which I collected the rapier-bayonet as a souvenir. Then we played about in the snow, exploring dumps and shell-holes and graves until an hour later when the troops returned and we marched back…[1]

It remains for us to guess: is this the absurd–but natural–combination of fear and exhilaration which rules front-line life, as tightening fear and careless abandon slosh in turn through the stressed nervous system, or is it another literary anticipation of an ironic twist?

And is it similarly twisted, on my part, to be more worried for Vaughan when he is larking about in the snow than when he is creeping up toward the line–or is it merely the product of long reading in these sorts of books?

 

Finally today, just a bit more from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott, enlarging on his quick pen-portraits of the men in his section–enlarging, most agreeably, into verse:

3 February 1917

My Dear Friend: The boys are nearly all asleep — eight of us in a room, say, 14 feet by ten, with a large stack of wood, a fireplace and equipment. Outside it is bitterly cold; in here, not so bad; and good companionship hides many things. A miner, an engineer, a drapers assistant, a grocer, an Inland Revenuist, and a musician among
them…

Firelight

Silent, bathed in firelight, in dusky light and gloom
The boys squeeze together in the smoky dirty room.
Crowded around the fireplace, a thing of bricks and tin
They watch the shifting embers, till the good dreams enter in

That fill the low hovel with blossoms fresh with dew
And blue sky and white cloud that sail the clear air through.
They talk of daffodillies and the blue bells skiey beds
Till silence thrills with music at the things they have said.

And yet, they have no skill of words, whose eyes glow so deep.
They wait for night and silence and the strange power of Sleep,
To light them and drift them like sea birds over the sea
Where some day I shall walk again, and they walk with me.

The letter gets even better:

But O, cleaning up! I suppose I get as much Hell as any one in the army; and although I give the same time to rubbing and polishing as any of the others, the results — I will freely confess it — are not all they might be. Today there was an inspection by the Colonel. I waited trembling, knowing that there was six weeks of hospital and soft-job dirt and rust not yet all off; no, not by a long way. I stood there, a sheep among the goats (no, vice versa) and waited the bolt and thunder. Round came He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Looked at me, hesitated, looked again, hesitated, and was called off by the R.S.M.[2] who was afterwards heard telling the Colonel (a few paces away from me) “A Good man, sir, quite all right. Quite a good man, sir, but he’s a musician, and doesn’t seem able to get himself clean.” When the aforesaid RSM came round for a back view, he chuckled, and said “Ah Gurney, I am afraid we shall never make a soldier of you.”

It is a good thing they are being converted to this way of thought at last; it has taken a long time. Anyway the R.S.M. is a brick, and deserves a Triolet.

He backed me up once;
I shall never forget it.
I’m a fool and a dunce
He backed me up once
If theres rust I shall get it
Your soul, you may bet it
Yes, all sorts [and in?] tons. . . .
He backed me up once
I shall never forget it.

(Triolet form quite forgotten. Please let me have it.)

…Fire went out long ago, while I was hammering out “Firelight”. It is too cold to think, write or read. Then sleep. O if I could but dream such things as would mean escape for me. But I never dream, one way or the other; Please excuse writing:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

If Gurney can be a little frightening in his more extreme emotional states, he is really very winning as a lovable “parade’s despair,” playing the role of a hapless but well-looked-after private even while demonstrating how prolific and unusual he is: he can toss off verse–light verse, yes, but what of it?–and sharp, funny little vignettes with great facility and a graceful but nonetheless thoroughgoing empathy. So here’s to the kind RSM, and the deep-eyed, silent men of the infantry…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 21-22.
  2. Regimental Sergeant Major--an enlisted man of the highest rank, his dignity, as opposed to that of a private soldier, utterly Olympian.
  3. War Letters, 125-7.

Christmas in Belgium with Rowland Feilding and Edmund Blunden; in France with Phillip Maddison and Richard Aldington and Kipling’s Irish Guards; Frederic Manning Returns; David Jones Reflects on the Year; Christmas Day with Edward Thomas and Family

Christmas is a busy day, here: not only is it a major holiday whose traditionally-associated sentiments take on heavy overtones in wartime, but the shadow of the first year’s Christmas truce will continue to cast a shadow either hopeful, dismal, or bitterly ironic over any thoughts of peace or Christian fellowship. Also, it’s a major holiday with a fixed date, so everyone remembers where they were, and my cup runneth over. We’ll work our way back from the front, more or less, beginning in the front-line trenches of the Salient and ending with the Thomas family, in Essex.

 

First, then, is Rowland Feilding: whose activities today–as a commanding officer, a host, a listener at a thunderous Christmas concert, an officer in a devoutly Catholic regiment, and an English gentleman with time and a gun on his hands–pretty much run the gamut:

Christmas Day, 1916.

Facing Messines— Wytschaete Ridge (Cooker Farm).

…Though this is Christmas Day, things have not been as quiet as they might have been, and though we have not suffered, I fancy the battalion on our right has done so to some extent. In fact, as I passed along their fire-trench, I saw them at work, digging out some poor fellows who had been buried by a trench-mortar bomb.

This evening since dark, for a couple of hours, the Germans have been bombarding some place behind us with
heavy shells. The battery from which the fire is coming is so far away that I cannot even faintly hear the report of the guns while I am in the open trench, though, from the dug-out from which I now write, I can just distinguish it,
transmitted through the medium of the ground. I hear the shells at a great altitude overhead rushing through the air. The sound of each continues for nearly a minute, the noise increasing to its maximum, then dying away, till I hear the dull muffled thud of the burst some miles behind our line. The shells are passing over at the rate of more
than one a minute.

This morning I was first visited by the Brigadier, who went on to wish the men in the fire-trench “as happy a
Christmas as possible under the circumstances.” Then the Divisional Commander came, accompanied by his A.D.C., who was carrying round the General’s visiting book for signature. This contained many interesting names. I
also had several other visitors.

When I had finished with my callers I went out with my little 45 gun to see if I could kill a pheasant. I got one, which we had for lunch. My servant Glover acts keeper on these occasions. I need scarcely say that I cannot spare time for shooting pheasants, and to-day was my first attempt, but the other officers go out, especially one—a stout Dublin lawyer in private life—who is a very good shot. He went out yesterday, and before starting consulted Glover, who at once brightened up, and said: “If you want a couple of birds for your Christmas dinner, sir, I can put you on to a certainty, if you don’t get shot yourself.” He took him and they got two. To-day, Glover took me to the same place:—but it turned out to be no spot to linger in:—a medley of unhealthily new shell-holes, under full view of the Germans. Certainly a good place for pheasants: but imagine what correspondence and courts-martial there would be if a casualty took place under such circumstances, and it became known!

I have now put that locality out of bounds, pheasants or no pheasants.

The Chaplain came up and said Mass for the men this morning. I was prevented from going at the last moment by the Divisional Commander’s visit, but it must have been an impressive sight. . The men manning the fire-trench of course could not attend, but it was not a case of driving the rest;—rather indeed of keeping them away. The intensity of their religion is something quite remarkable, and I had under-estimated it.

The service was held in the open—not more than 500 yards from the German line, in a depression in the ground
below the skeleton buildings known as Shamus Farm. Though the place is concealed from the enemy by an intervening ridge, promiscuous bits do come over, and I debated within my mind for some time whether to allow it. In the end, expecting perhaps a hundred men, I consented. But though, like most soldiers, and many others, they will shirk fatigues if they get the chance, these men will not shirk what they consider to be their religious duties, and about 300 turned up.

However, with the exception of a German shrapnel which burst harmlessly about a hundred yards away during the service, all went well…

In the evening I went round and wished the men—scarcely a Merry Christmas, but good luck in the New Year, and may they never have to spend another Christmas in the front line! This meant much repetition on my part, passing from one fire-bay to another, but I was amply rewarded. It is a treat to hear these men open out, and their manners are always perfect…

They are all going to have their Christmas dinner on the 30th, after we get out.[1]

 

From Edmund Blunden, whose battalion is in reserve rather than the front line, we get two accounts of the day’s festivities. The first, from a letter to his mother, radiates bluff good cheer:

We had Church on Christmas morning and dealt with the usual hymns in the best style. The Swains’ Vigil, or While Shepherds Watched, was favourably received–especially at the back part of the room. After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day–truly Gargantuan scenes were witnessed.[2]

And the second, worked over for memoir, well… it has basically the same facts and much the same spirit:

To our pleasure, we were back in a camp in the woods by Elverdinghe to celebrate Christmas. The snow was crystal-clean, the trees filigreed and golden. It was a place that retained its boorish loneliness though hundreds were there: it had the suggestion of Teniers. Harrison’s Christmas was appreciated by his followers perhaps more than by himself. He held a Church Parade and, while officiating, reading a Lesson or so, was interrupted by the band, which somehow mistook its cue. The Colonel is thought to have said: “Hold your b——- noise ” on this contretemps, which did not damp the ardour of the congregation, especially the back part of the room, as they thundered out “While Shepherds Watched.” After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day, and the Colonel visited all the men at their Christmas dinner. At each hut he was required by tradition to perfect the joy of his stalwarts by drinking some specially and cunningly provided liquid, varying with each company, and “in a mug.” He got round, but it was almost as much as intrepidity could accomplish.[3]

 

Neither of these witnesses has much to say about the food, good or bad. But in fiction, as in our recent reports from the home front, it remains a prominent theme.

In Richard Aldington‘s absolutely-no-spoilers-in-the-title novel, the protagonist, Winterbourne, has just reached France–in lockstep with his creator, as often happens in these first-war-novels. It will be hard to track Winterbourne’s progress once he (and Aldington) begin the enlisted man’s slog in and out of the line, in which days and dates are rarely remembered. But today, well…

They passed Christmas Day at the Base. The English newspapers, which they easily obtained a day or two late, were filled with glowing accounts of the efforts and expense made to give the troops a real hearty Christmas dinner. The men had looked forward to this. They ate their meals in huts which were decorated with holly for the occasion. The Christmas dinner turned out to be stewed bully beef and about two square inches of cold Christmas pudding per man. The other men in Winterbourne’s tent were furious. Their perpetual grumbling annoyed him and he attacked them:

‘Why fuss so much over a little charity? Why let them salve their consciences so easily? In any case, they probably meant well. Can’t you see that drafts at the Base are nobody’s children? The stuff’s gone to the men in the line, who deserve it far more than we do. We haven’t done anything yet. Or it’s been embezzled. Anyway, what does it matter? You didn’t join the Army for a bit of pudding and a Christmas cracker, did you?’

They were silent, unable to understand his contempt. Of course, he was unjust. They were simply grown children, angry at being defrauded of a promised treat. They could not understand his deeper rage. Any more than they could have understood his emotion each night when ‘Last Post’ was blown. The bugler was an artist and produced the most wonderful effect of melancholy as he blew the call–which in the Army serves for sleep and death–over the immense silent camp. Forty thousand men lying down to sleep–and in six months how many would be alive? The bugler seemed to know it, and prolonged the shrill, melancholy notes–‘last post! last post!’–with an extraordinary effect of pathos. ‘Last post! Last post!’ Winterbourne listened for it each night. Sometimes the melancholy was almost soothing, sometimes it was intolerable…[4]

 

Speaking of fictional protagonists, Phillip Maddison is back in France. While his alter ego, Henry Williamson, remains in England, Phillip’s training as a transport officer with a Machine Gun Company (supplying this quintessentially 20th-century weapon with ammunition requires a great deal of timeless expertise with mules) has been completed, and he was in the line on the Ancre by mid-December. Williamson then writes up this fete:

The company came out of the line on Christmas Eve, reaching Colincamps in the small hours of Christmas Day. There had been talk of an extra special Christmas dinner for the men; really good rations were to be issued this year, said the A.S.C., with a surprise for each man. The good ration turned out to be frozen pork and dried vegetables. These, boiled up together, were followed by a small slice of gritty Christmas pudding, and then the surprise–a ration cracker bonbon for each man, containing a paper cap.

Thus 1916 closes, at least in this novel–cold, gritty, and mean. (Aldington would do the same, but his story is too close to the beginning. There is innocence yet, with Winterbourne utterly acquainted with the line and therefore still amenable to romantic notions such as melancholy, or the indulgent belief that his “deeper” rage is really any different from that of his less sensitive comrades…)

But Williamson rarely misses a chance for symbolic site-citing, so Phillip Maddison takes one more ride on the Somme front.

In the afternoon Phillip rode down to Albert. The leaning Virgin upon the Campanile of the ruined red-brick basilica brought many memories… and helped him to see life clearly against a background of death. But O, how lonely was life after all…

It goes downhill from here. (Metaphorically. If the ground sloped down east of Albert things would have gone differently.) Phillip rides out to the Old Front Line of July 1st (when he was wounded–in reality, Williamson missed the battle of the Somme) and then heads up Mash Valley, amongst the relics.

A brass buckle; fragment of leather; skull with curls matted upon it… everywhere the dead merged with the ground… he was lost, helplessly, in chalky waste… Was this litter of burst and broken sandbags, collapsed and spilled, the trench where he had clambered out on that summer morning? This the wicker pigeon cage carried by Pimm, lying near a scatter of ribs, and, immediately by the handle, a cluster of tiny white finger and knuckle bones? … Was that his pelvis bone, in which three small coins, a franc and two 10-centime pieces, had been embedded by the shell explosion?. He felt the scar in his buttock tingling as he stood beside what was left of Pimm; and closing his eyes, gave the emptiness of himself to prayer…

Anguish rose in him… His mother’s face came to him, while he thought that the spirit of a million unhappy homes and found its final devastation in this land of the loveless. He went back the way he had come…[5]

 

Rarely does Henry Williamson fall into line with Rudyard Kipling. And yet today they are almost of a mood. Kipling, in his role as Official Chronicler of the Second Battalion Irish Guards, reports on the Christmas festivities with the grim frankness of an old soldier rather than the lofty perspective of a Bard of Empire.

Whether this was the vilest of all their War Christmases for the Battalion is an open question. There was nothing to do except put out chilly wire and carry stuff. A couple of men were killed that day and one wounded by shells, and another laying sand-bags round the shaft of a dug-out tripped on a telephone wire, fell down the shaft and broke his neck. Accidents in the front line always carry more weight than any three legitimate casualties, for the absurd, but quite comprehensible, reason that they might have happened in civilian life — are outrages, as it were, by the Domestic Fates instead of by the God of War.

This would be a decidedly unmiraculous Christmas, then. But the peripatetic following paragraph goes a long way toward recovering the diversity of experience of even one day on one sector of the front.

The growing quiet on the sector for days past had led people to expect attempts at fraternization on Christmas. Two “short but very severe bombardments ” by our Artillery on Christmas morning cauterized that idea; but a Hun officer, with the methodical stupidity of his breed, needs must choose the top of his own front-line parapet on Christmas Day whence to sketch our trench, thus combining religious principles with reconnaissance, and — a single stiff figure exposed from head to foot — was shot. So passed Christmas of ’16 for the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards. It had opened with Captain Young of No. 1 Company finding, when he woke in his dug-out, “a stocking stuffed with sweets and the like, a present from the N.C.O.’s and the men of his Company.”[6]

 

Back in London, another novelist of combat, Frederic Manning, is going in the opposite direction as Aldington. Like his protagonist, Bourne, he is a lance-corporal who has been recommended for a commission. Unlike Bourne, he is alive; he is also concealing a checkered past, including a blown first chance at a commission.

On Christmas day 1916 Manning, now a lance corporal, arrived in London on leave. He had applied for a commission in November and was awaiting orders to go to an Officers Cadet Battalion. It was in this application that he had altered his age and his religion. He also stated that he had “now outgrown the asthma” which had afflicted him as a youth. This too was untrue…  Included in Manning’s application was an affidavit from his mother agreeing to the false birth date and stating (wrongly) that “although my son was born in Australia he has been living in England for the past 18 years’’…

But he’s an educated man, who finished a long stint as a private and corporal without dishonor. An officer he will be…[7]

 

Penultimately, we have a letter from David Jones, who will become the author of the formidable In Parenthesis but has not yet found anything like that complex, intense, bewildering voice. Looking back on 1916, he is at once a veteran infantryman, with a wound and Mametz Wood behind him, and a very young man writing a self-consciously old-soldiery letter (to his vicar, although it will later be edited by his father and published).

This Christmas 1916 completed my first year of ‘life in Flanders’. A year ago I was just beginning to enter into the full realization of what war means to the ‘foot-slogger’–the common-place private of the infantry of the Line. The beginning of 1916 was, I think, a time of hope and looking forward to all of us, military and civil–both in Flanders and Britain. We all talked with great confidence and enthusiasm of the ‘Great Push’. We thought, at least most of us, that most likely 1916 would see the triumph of the Entente over the war lords of Odin. I remember quite well sitting in a very wet and particularly bad trench in the noted Richebourg sector with a chum. We were both very cold and very wet; our rations, such as they were, had unfortunately been dropped into the mud in the communication trench, so that, on the whole, the situation was far from what the official report would call ‘satisfactory’. After reviewing the situation with as much philosophy and as little pessimism as was possible, we both decided that the war could not possibly last another winter…

Ah, but are we downhearted?

Nearly a year has rolled by… although the Bosch [sic] is very far from being completely smashed, we have shown him in every way that he is, as a Tommy would say, ‘up against it’…

Jones then wanders into descriptions of behind-the-lines life, going for the comfortable genre-painting picture (see Blunden’s reference to Teniers, above) of British bonhomie in snug billets… it is almost as if he has forgotten the worst. But he hasn’t… he’s just not that writer yet…

Well of course one could go on writing for ever about life out here, but I think I must really finish here for the present. Give my kindest regards to everybody whom I know. Like yourselves at home, we have to live in hope that 1917 may see the end of the struggle–but of course to discuss the ‘duration of the war’ is worse than futile. So au revoir.

Yours very sincerely,

David Jones[8]

 

Rarely is there a good opportunity to get a child’s perspective on the war. But today we have the memories of Myfanwy Thomas–“Baba,” to friends and family–written down long after. Baba is six, this Christmas, the morning after her father, Edward Thomas, unexpectedly came home.

An almost unbearable suspense and excitement–should I ever get to sleep that Christmas Eve? Because if Father Christmas found me awake, there would be an empty stocking. Sleep must have come, for I awoke in the white darkness of the early morning and crept from the cosy warmth to the foot of the bed to feel the glorious bulging stocking hanging there, with a trumpet lolling over the top. Daddy was already downstairs, greatcoat over pyjamas, brewing tea; and when he carried up the tray of steaming cups, Bronwen, Merfyn and I all squeezed into their big bed to open our treasures. Stockings never had the proper presents in them, but exciting little oddments, all done up in crisp tissue paper, a painting book, crayons, bags of sweets, white sugar mice with pink eyes and string tails, a Russian lady of bright painted wood, containing a smaller and she a smaller still until there were five Russian ladies and one tiny Russian baby at the end…  Merfyn’s stocking had… a mouth organ. Besides the mouth organ was an assortment of BDV cigarettes with their beautiful silk ‘cards’, shaving soap, a comb for his springy-curls, which I so much envied and loved to brush, and to see the curls spring back again. Bronwen’s stocking had delicious grownup things like tiny bottles of scent, emery boards for her nails, sketch pad and Venus pencils, hair ribbons and lacey hankie. This year Merfyn immediately played ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ and ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’. I still had a doll’s tiny feeding bottle to unwrap, and a grey clockwork mouse which Daddy wound up. Mother, and we girls obligingly screamed as it scurried over the floor. Second cups of tea were brought and then we dressed hurriedly and ate a quick breakfast, for there on chairs and stools were our five piles of ‘proper’ presents in their brown paper or Christmas wrappings. Mother had dressed me a doll and had made several outfits, including a schoolgirl’s with gym tunic, white blouse and tie. I hastily admired the tiny trousseau, undid the buttons and fastenings, and dressed the doll in an old baby dress of mine. Wrapping her up in a grubby shawl, I tucked her up in the doll’s bed which I found inside another parcel.

In a huge parcel of presents beautifully wrapped in pretty paper and with tinselled ribbon, Eleanor Farjeon had sent Edward a large box of crystallized fruits, for he had an insatiable sweet tooth; but alas, they all–pears, apricots, greengages and cherries–tasted strongly of varnish…  Bronwen crouched over the fire, crunching nuts and reading Girl of the Limberlost. While I was helping Mother to lay the tea in the kitchen, with crackers by each plate, there was a sudden quiet in the little parlour and when it was time to call the others to tea, there was a Christmas tree, its coloured candles lit, and decorated with the most wonderful things I had ever seen: tinsel and spun glass ornaments glittering in the candle-light, and at the top a beautiful fairy, sparkling and smiling and waving her wand. What a Christmas! Never before had I seen a Christmas tree. Merfyn had dug it up from the forest some days before, and it had been carefully hidden in the wood-shed.

After I had been allowed to blow out the red, green and white stubs of the candles, and the lamp was lit in the sitting room, the fire made up with wood collected from the forest, the family contentedly reading, crunching nuts or peeling oranges…  Mother read me several poems from The Golden Staircase, the fat anthology given to me by my father; and then I sat on his knee while he sang my favourite Welsh song, ‘Gweneth gwyn’, and romping ones he had sung in camp and which were easy to learn. Now I stood on a chair by the window, the curtains not yet drawn, feeling the magic of Christmas, my father’s large, strong hand on my shoulder, looking out into the white, still forest, straining with my short-sighted eyes behind the small spectacles, hoping to see perhaps the deer with antlered heads and pricked ears, and whispering ‘Shall we see any? Are they out there? Are they cold and frightened? I wish I could see some,’ or even just one. ’ The cosy lamplight, the rising flames of the fire, my father’s hand: safe, warm and content…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 136-9.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 69.
  3. Undertones of War, 132.
  4. Death of a Hero, 236-7.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 103-4.
  6. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 108-9.
  7. Marwil, Frederic Manning, 177; see also Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 126.
  8. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 141-4.
  9. Under Storm's Wing, 292-5.

Ivor Gurney on the Soundscape of War; Edmund Blunden on Shattered Thiepval and the Horrors of the Schwaben Redoubt

Ivor Gurney is one of a bevy of war poets, here–but he is the only serious musician/composer whom we regularly read. His letter of today, a century back to Herbert Howells foregrounds his sensitivity to sound:

All nonsense about the rhythm of war! Dr Davies has said that the noise of the guns etc etc. But then, it is only what one expects him to say. Some of the guns have a fine noise; but nearly all is of an insensate fury — too savage and assertive to be majestic. The noise of a Minnie hitting the ground is of a most horrid nature. One does not realise how sensitive the earth is. A “dud” shell may be felt easily a half-mile away. And then the outburst of a minnie explosion! The earth spouts up to a great height, and dugouts rock. It is a horrid sensation to hear a shell coming over you. If it is anywhere near, one feels it in the back of the neck, until it bursts, perhaps 25 yards behind, or even 50. Up till now however, we have not experienced the biggest shells; that being a pleasure to come.

A mine explosion is like a minnie-concussion many times magnified. The ground jumps exactly like a nervy person in a fright, the dugouts rock and the candles fall. Our Co. has gained a piece of parchment for steady behaviour in trying circumstances of the sort. (An uncommon honour.)

Well, perhaps everyone–all but the cursed dullards–feel such things intensely; the noise of the guns is beyond mudic. The horrible nakedness of standing under Very lights–pistol-fired parachute flares–is another subject which elicits very similar responses from many different men. The flares cast a wobbling light over no man’s land for a long minute or two, during which any movement may be visible to enemy snipers, spotters, or machine-gunners. One must stay absolutely still:

Very lights are very beautiful affairs, especially the German, which glide up in a perfect arc, and burn perfectly also. It is embarrassing to be in No Man’s Land waiting for one to fall, as it seems, on top of you. To stand up at wiring, like living pictures, is more interesting than amusing, when Very lights begin to fly.[1]

 

Our second poet, today, is once more in the thick of it. Edmund Blunden‘s battalion of the Royal Sussex is still reeling from their attack on Stuff Trench, but after only a brief rest they must take their turn once again.

I should note here that the accuracy of Blunden’s memory (and/or note-taking) is generally borne out by a close comparison of Undertones with the battalion War Diary: a great many of his specific memories can be verified, at the right place and the right time. But there are exceptions, and he has jumbled his chronology a bit just now.

In the memoir, the action at Stuff trench is followed by a period of rear-area rest at Senlis, while a tour of line-holding is described afterwards. The battalion diary, however, shows that the harrowing relief described below took place tonight, a century back, and not after the rest at Senlis. So we will flip back a few pages in the memoir when Blunden gets there in a few days, and today we skip ahead to stay in place, as it were…

Blunden is no romancer; he’s a pastoral poet without any great inclination for the uncanny or the Gothic. But a writer of memoir must write his life, and some material insists on preserving its own lineaments–or “cerements,” would it be?–of genre:

We took over that deathtrap known as the Schwaben Redoubt, the way to which lay through the fallen fortress of Thiepval. One had heard the worst accounts of the place, and they were true. Crossing the Ancre again at Black Horse Bridge, one went up through the scanty skeleton houses of Authuille, and climbing the dirty little road over the steep bank, one immediately entered the land of despair. Bodies, bodies and their useless gear heaped the gross waste ground; the slimy road was soon only a mud track which passed a whitish tumulus of ruin with lurking entrances, some spikes that had been pine trees, a bricked cellar or two, then died out. The village pond, so blue on the map, had completely disappeared. The Ligne de Pommiers had been grubbed up. The shell holes were mostly small lakes of what was no doubt merely rusty water, but had a red and foul semblance of blood. Paths glistened weakly from tenable point to point. Of the dead, one was conspicuous. He was a Scotch soldier, and was kneeling, facing east, so that one could scarcely credit death in him; he was seen at some little distance from the usual tracks, and no one had much time in Thiepval just then for sightseeing or burying. Death could not kneel so, I thought, and approaching I ascertained with a sudden shrivelling of spirit that Death could and did.

Beyond the area called Thiepval on the map a trench called St. Martin’s Lane led forward; unhappy he who got into it! It was blasted out into a shapeless gully by intense bombardment, and pools of mortar-like mud filled most of it. A few duck-boards lay half submerged along the parapet, and these were perforce used by our companies, and ferociously shelled at moments by the enemy. The wooden track ended, and then the men fought their way on through the gluey morass, until not one or two were reduced to tears and impotent wild cries to God. They were not yet at the worst of their duty, for the Schwaben Redoubt was an almost obliterated cocoon of trenches in which mud, and death, and life were much the same thing — and there the deep dugouts, which faced the German guns, were cancerous with torn bodies, and to pass an entrance was to gulp poison; in one place a corpse had apparently been thrust in to stop up a doorway’s dangerous displacement, and an arm swung stupidly. Men of the next battalion were found in mud up to the armpits, and their fate was not spoken of; those who found them could not get them out.

This is a grim foretaste of the horrors of 1917. Although it could hardly get worse than this (hardly, but it will) Blunden avoids the strange juxtapositions no less than the horrors themselves. Now, like some sort of Monty Python apparition of the Upper Classes, a bizarre divisional general stumbles into the bloody carnival. “Harrison” is Blunden’s boss, the battalion’s commanding officer, and thus one of the general’s more significant underlings.

Harrison had his headquarters at the Thiepval end of St. Martin’s Lane, and, while the place was deep down and even decorated with German drawings, its use was suspected by the enemy, whose shells fell nightly with sudden terrifying smash on the roof and in the trench at the exits. He had a lantern put out in the night, to guide those who made the awful journey from the line; it took an experienced messenger four or five hours to come and return. The nights were long, but he could not sleep; ordering me to watch, he might lie down for a time, but, if a messenger came and spoke with me, he was ever ready with the instruction wanted. His face was red and pallid with the strain; he struggled round the line in the early morning, and on return would find the General paying a call, with “Well, Harrison, the air of Thiepval is most bracing.”

In saying this, the General was perfectly serious, and he was not less so in many other remarks of a more military and not less tangential kind, which caused Harrison to carry with him habitually a letter of resignation. One day some unexpected and desperate order led to the delivery of this letter. “No, Harrison,” piped the now amazed General, “no, I shall not look at it. I shall put it in my breeches pocket”; and the event ended in Harrison’s gaining his point and a personal anecdote of the General which never failed to charm. But the background of such things was a filthy, mortifying, and most lonely acre,[2] where a village had been, and where still a shattered foundation of bricks or the stump of an apple tree, or even a leaf or two of ivy might be found — at your own risk.

But this is a walk-on, and soon we are–as we must be–back in the empty battlefield. It’s the scenery that’s the star of the show, now, and the players’ brief hours are once again to be largely subterranean, nocturnal…

Of all the strange artifices of war, Thiepval was then a huge and bewildering repository. The old German front line west of it still retained its outline, after the torrents of explosive which it had swallowed month after month. Steel rails and concrete had there been used with that remorseless logic which might be called large imagination, had been combined and fixed, reduplicated and thickened, until the trench was as solid as a pyramid. In front of it here and there were concealed concrete emplacements, formerly in the weeds and flowers of No Man’s Land; beneath it, where now our reserve company lived, were tremendous dugouts, arranged even in two stories, and in the lower story of one of these was a little door in the wall. Opening, one went steadily descending along dark galleries, soon discovering that the stacks of boxes which seemed to go on forever were boxes of explosive; then one arrived at two deep well shafts, with windlasses and buckets ready, but at that point it seemed as if one’s duty lay rather upstairs. This mine would have in due course hurled the British line over the Ancre. In another great dugout were elaborate surgical appliances and medical supplies; another, again, was a kind of quartermaster’s store, in which, although in one of the crushed staircases were some corpses not to be meddled with, one stood and turned over great heaps of new, smart, but now inapplicable German greatcoats, or tins of preserved meat with Russian labels (I tried it, but made no converts), or heavy packages of ration tobacco which extremest want would not force us to approve — and egg bombs japanned black, and “windy bombs” with their bat handles and porcelain buttons, and maps in violet and green and scarlet, and letters in slant hand with many an exclamation mark, and black and gold helmets with cubist camouflaging, and horsehide packs, and leather-faced respirators, all in one plethora and miscellany, bloodstained here and there. The smell of the German dugouts was peculiar to them, heavy and clothy.

There was, moreover, one vault here which was arrayed with mirrors, no doubt collected from the chateau whose white ruin still revealed the interior of a cellar, and on which an image of the Virgin was standing in the sullen daylight. One could find books in Thiepval; I am guilty of taking my copy of Ferdinand Von Freiligrath’s bombastic poems from that uncatalogued library. But it is time to return from these abysmal peregrinations to the world up aloft, where still in outlying pits a minenwerfer or two (without its team) thrusts up its steel mouth toward the old British line, where the ration party uses the “dry places” in the mud — those bemired carcasses which have not yet ceased to serve “the great adventure” — and the passer-by hates the plosh of the whizzing fuse-top into the much worse than the fierce darts of the shrapnel itself; where men howl out angry imprecation at officers whom they love; where our poor half-wit and battalion joke, whom red tape will not let us send away, is running out above the Schwaben half naked, slobbering, and yet at times aware that he is not in his perfect mind.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 111-13.
  2. Revised to read, in an odd touch of the nearly-romantic, "a most lonely world's end."
  3. Undertones of War, 112-16.

The Royal Welch in the Somme Mud; Rowland Feilding Takes to the Irish

Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch were holding a debatable bit of line near Combles, albeit one with distractingly winsome toponyms: “Hazy Trench,” “Misty Trench,” and others “were figments of the Staff imagination, but the names had a colloquial use in pointing out the whereabouts of the groups of shell-holes that served the Germans well for concealment and defence.”[1] Frank Richards, still a signaler with the battalion, is full of anecdotes about this period, including tales of how he founnd a body in a tree, was impressed with the cool courage of the hated bully of an officer he calls “The Peer,” and heard a story about a group of enlisted men driving a coward–but one of their own–out into shell-fire… but I since I can’t really affix any of these to a particular date, I will refer the interested reader to pages 206 and following of Old Soldiers Never Die.

With not much going on elsewhere, we can catch up with Rowland Feilding, today. We’ll go back more than a week, and get in step with his own game of epistolary catch-up. Feilding remains a faithful correspondent, but since taking over command of a battalion–the 6th Connaught Rangers–he has had less time for long descriptive letters to his wife. We don’t, perhaps, know Feilding all that intimately, but I hope readers will have a sense of his careful probity, his concern for unbiased observation–of himself as well as others–and what probably seemed to his fellow officers to be a slight stiffness or formality of manner.

October 17, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

I feel, though I have written many letters, that I have told you really very little about the battalion I am commanding.
But now that I have got to know it, and to be proud of it, I think I must try and give you some idea of the people I am with, and the atmosphere I live in.

First of all, then, I find both officers and men magnificent—plucky and patient, keen and cheerful. Since I came here I have introduced gradually many innovations—notions I learnt from the Guards. I have tightened up the discipline a lot. Inferior men might have resented it; yet I have not once encountered from any rank anything but the most loyal and whole-hearted co-operation.

These Irishmen have, in fact, shown themselves the easiest of men to lead; though I have an idea, as I said once before, that they would be difficult to drive. I have heard it said, and have always believed, that there is no such thing as a “bounder” in Scotland, and I think I have learnt here that the same may with truth be said of Ireland. The result is that the officers’ messes of the Division, though they include many diamonds in the rough, are pleasant places to live in—full of good will and good cheer. Among my lot I have a successful trainer of race-horses, an M.F.H., an actor, a barrister, a squireen or two, a ranker from the Grenadiers, a banker, a quartermaster from the 9th Lancers, a doctor from Newfoundland;—members, in short, of many professions; a lot of boys too young to have professions:—and a Nationalist M.P. is coming!

I feel particularly pleased with them all to-day. The fact is that the very right and proper policy of the Brigadier, and of the whole Brigade, of tormenting the enemy, is beginning to take effect, with the result that the latter, yesterday, broke away from his previously peaceful habits, and retaliated. Indeed, he seemed considerably annoyed, and pounded our front line severely with heavy trench mortars, etc., and the area, generally, with artillery. He blew in a considerable length of our breastworks, and altogether, for some hours, was very nasty.

But the officers and platoon sergeants handled the men cleverly, with the almost miraculous result that the casualties were so trifling as not to count. As soon as it was dark all set to work to repair the damage, and, though the Germans used their machine-guns freely, the men laughed, and went on filling sandbags. One or two wags amused themselves by signalling the “misses” with their shovels—as they do on the range; and by daylight the trenches were again presentable.

This morning all was quiet once more, and the sun was shining. The men were in the best of spirits, with grins
on the faces of most of them. They knew they had done well; and in spite of a large number of direct hits on the fire-trench, and many more close shaves, the casualty list had totalled only four wounded, three of them slightly. Such is the glorious uncertainty of shell and trench-mortar fire! This morning one of my corporals killed a German and wounded another in Noman’s Land. The latter crawled back towards his line, and, as he neared it, three of his friends came out after him. My men then acted in a manner which would perhaps nowadays be regarded as quixotic, so relaxed—thanks to our opponents—have the rules of this game of war become.

They did not shoot.

It’s always interesting to get a report from the front lines on the state of attritional warfare–and very intersting that the Brigade-level “hate” brought retaliation in kind, but not a total abandonment of humane (and, strictly speaking, un-[total]-warlike) behavior between infantrymen.

Do I have only a thin excuse to work in this nine-day-old letter on a slow day? Sure; but Feilding wrote another one, and now we find out a little more about what it’s like for an English officer to command an Irish Nationalist politician in an Irish battalion in an English brigade of the British Army during a European war:

October 26, 1916. Butterfly Farm (in Brigade Reserve).

Stephen Gwynn arrived to-day. He has just been in to lunch. He is the very antithesis of the Irish politician as popularly represented by the Tory School. He is old for a Company Commander—fifty-two. All the more sporting therefore to have come out in that capacity, especially since he seems to have had a hard tussle with the War Office Authorities before they would consent to send him.

A promising beginning? We’ll hear more from Feilding about Gwynn soon, but it’s worth noting the rarity of this situation: only five Nationalist M.P.s (apparently) served during the war. A small world indeed, so it’s not surprising to learn that Gwynn had collaborated with his late friend and colleague Tom Kettle on both a book of ballads and a recruiting drive.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 268.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 127-9.