The Master of Belhaven Returns to His Guns; Edwin Vaughan Continues On; The Meaning of Gordon Harbord; Frank Richards on Leave

Two dispatches from the Ypres Salient today are quite similar. First, the Master of Belhaven‘s battery has been sent back into the firing line, and the recent German shelling has left both physical and psychological scars.

After four nights’ rest in the wagon-lines, we have returned to our position in the Valley of the Shadow. It gave me the usual reception–a salvo of gas-shells landing within 50 yards of us just as we reached the guns. I found the sergeant who had been left in charge of the guns in a horrid state of nerves. He says they have been shelled all the time and gassed every night for at least five hours at a time. There certainly are a lot of new and large holes everywhere; however, that what is to be expected in this charming spot…[1]

 

Though still in the rear, Edwin Vaughan‘s day today is very much a day after action.

August 14 The others were all astir and excitedly examining the walls and roof which were literally riddled with shrapnel. Each of us had had a miraculous escape. Over each bed was a hole through which had passed shrapnel and had any of the others been sitting up they would have been hit. A chunk had gone through my valise and would have gone through me had I been in bed. Three separate chunks must have missed my head by inches, for the biscuit tin, tobacco tin, whisky bottles and a Tommy’s cooker on the table were all smashed to bits.

The papers showed that one man was an HQ man, the other a sergeant from the Trench Mortars. His papers were chiefly indecent postcards and we had just burnt them when the padre came in. I handed him the remainder of the effects, put on some dry pyjamas and went to bed.

From dawn onwards we received a constant stream of visitors to whom we displayed our shell-splintered hut with great pride, enjoying considerable notoriety. Then after lunch we packed up, and taking various little zigzag roads in an easterly direction for about two miles, we found ourselves at Dambre Farm near Vlamertinghe. Here we marched into a little field furrowed with deep channels full of water with knolls and shell-holes everywhere, and a few leaky old tents into which we crammed the troops who were in a rotten temper—induced chiefly by the rain.

Two miles further east is, here and now, a significant descent toward the infernal regions. Once again Vaughan is scrupulously honest about his own fear–and his comrades’.

Bennett now went back to ‘C’ Company and the remaining four of us took one tent and settled down to a terrible night of anticipation. After dawdling over a miserable dinner, we lay on the ground wrapped in our oilsheets and listened to the rain beating on the tent and the booming of the guns. We talked a bit and drank a lot until Radcliffe fell into a nasty mood. He said that we were all implying that he had windup; then he told us one at a time and all together that we had windup. Finally he cried and said we were all brave boys and none of us had windup. Then he went to sleep.[2]

 

Nothing much happened to Siegfried Sassoon today, as far as I can tell. Perhaps he played golf and read and walked, and enjoyed a chat with Dr. Rivers in the evening. But two significant things are going to happen soon: he will learn that he has lost one friend, and he will gain another. The lost friend is Gordon Harbord, a captain in the Field Artillery, who was killed today, a century back, in Flanders. They had been fox hunting buddies–Sassoon and Harbord and Harbord’s brother Geoff hunted together frequently in the years leading up to the war–and they had kept in touch with frequent letters ever since.

Despite–or because of–the fact that Harbord was not a comrade in arms or a fellow poet or in any way connected to the turmoil of Sassoon’s disillusionment, heroism, protest, and capitulation, this death will affect Sassoon more than almost any other. And yet we have very little to read about this reaction (Sassoon will find out about Harbord’s death in about a week, and there is at least one dated poem). This is largely due to an interesting authorial choice: in Sherston’s” memoirs George Sherston has no family, yet he loses one of his closest pre-war friends, Steven Colwood, in the autumn of 1915–at precisely the same time that the real Hamo Sassoon was killed. The prewar Colwood is closely based on Harbord, and the date of his death is the only significant departure from reality. It is, in fact, one of the most important deviations from Sassoon’s actual experience in the fictionalized memoir, and this gives Harbord the status of a sort of surrogate brother. But with “Colwood” having been killed off long before August 1917, there will be an absence now where Sherston–enthralled with his new father figure–should soon be mourning the death of his “brother.”

 

We’ll stay with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, now, and touch briefly in Belgium, England, and South Wales in noting a curious coincidence which might just be a slight mistake or fib. Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the 2/R.W.F. includes a brief anecdote from a “senior N.C.O.” who went on leave today, a century back–the night before the battalion began to move from rest billets on the coast toward the Salient. It’s a good one-liner:

He was asked, after his return, what it was like at home. “I don’t know,” he said, “I got drunk the night I arrived, and was back in France again before I got sober.”[3]

Could this have been Frank Richards? Richards is an Old Soldier–a prewar regular who rejoined just after war was declared–but one who avoided promotion, so he’s not an N.C.O. Furthermore, in his memory (far from infallible) he went on leave not the night before but the very night the battalion went into the line–which would be tomorrow. And then there’s the fact that, in his own telling, he deviated from precisely the behavior described above. So perhaps this is just a coincidence, then, rather than a near miss/crossing of paths of two different tales stemming from the same source:

On the night the Battalion went in the line I went on leave. It was eighteen months since I had the last one and as usual I made the most of it. I didn’t spend the whole of it in pubs: I spent two days going for long tramps in the mountains, which I thoroughly enjoyed after being so long in a flat country… This time every man of military age I met wanted to shake hands with me and also ask my advice on how to evade military service, or, if they were forced to go, which would be the best corps to join that would keep them away from the firing line…[4]

So even the toughest miner-turned-soldier has taken to walking the hills of Wales for peace of mind and advising a sort of resistance. He writes with a touch of sardonic contempt instead of martyrous outrage–but otherwise it would seem that the officers and men are not as far apart as they are sometimes portrayed…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 366.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 192-3.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 374.
  4. Old Soldiers Never Die, 243-4.

Ralph Hamilton Holds the Line Against Madness; Edmund Blunden Goes to the Movies; Alfred Hale Goes on Leave; Ivor Gurney Has Songs to Write, Afterwards; Pat Barker’s “Toby’s Room”

We have a disparate day, today, from writers behind the Ypres battle and elsewhere.

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, has kept a diary throughout his long years of service. While he often uses it as an outlet for the grumbling that a field officer cannot openly indulge in, it has generally been emotionally restrained–he reports fear and misery rather than expressing them. Now, however, the diary is becoming a surprisingly affecting record of the cumulative psychological toll of Passchendaele–and of a unit commander’s responsibilities.

…Another man has gone off his head, but I have refused to allow him to leave the guns. It is simply a matter of everyone having to control their nerves. I am very sorry for this man, but if the idea once gets about that a man can get out of this hell by letting go of his nerves, Heaven help us.[1]

 

This was nearly Edmund Blunden‘s condition over the last few days–but now the irony of proximity takes over. The 11th Royal Sussex had been scheduled to return to the front lines after only the briefest “rest” back by the canal banks, but these orders were abruptly canceled and the battalion was allowed to sleep all day before being sent back to Poperinghe. By tonight, a century back, Blunden was not amidst shattered bodies in a muddy dugout, but rather in the cinema, where Charlie Chaplin played while German shells and bombs fell, disregarded, nearby.[2]

Charlie Chaplin doesn’t fit that well with the rural peace/deadly trenches antitheses of Blunden’s memoir, but he nevertheless observed the way in which the war’s tentacles were beginning to reach further and further into the rear.

And even our pastoral retreat is now being visited at night by aircraft well accustomed to the art of murdering sleep, if not life. Out of the line was out of the line in 1916, but we are older now.[3]

 

Also relieved of duty today, a century back, after a harrowing ordeal–training camp, in his case–was Alfred Hale:

…on the afternoon of Friday, 3 August, I was off as soon as I could, lunching in the town… The fact is I was more than merely ‘fed up’ with things. If I had not been able to get away into the quiet just then, I am sure I should have had a nervous breakdown. I was simply at the end of my tether with all I had gone through in the past three months or so.[4]

 

Ivor Gurney, meanwhile, continues his correspondence with Marion Scott about his upcoming book… but that doesn’t mean he has stopped writing, or, or that matter, reading poetry likely to encourage his own work. We work back a few days, now, as this first letter was written on July 31st–there was a bit too much else going on that day:

My Dear Friend:

I think you have done very well, and hope you have enjoyed the wangling, (as is not improbable, I think.) They are
good terms for a first book…

It is good news that you have Sassoon’s book; which sounded interesting and sincere. Please tell me about it.

Nicholson,[5] I should say, may become a big man someday. He is new and speaks of real things, and has the knack of saying much with few words — a vital test. The difficulty with myself is that, once in England and once with a healthy mind, I shall forever chuck the Muse of Verse, (if she was ever mine to chuck) and grind hard at Music…

Not that he will forsake verse entirely. In a letter of the same day to Herbert Howells, Gurney looks forward to setting war poetry to music:

By Heaven, though, what stuff there will be to set apres la guerre! What Names! Brooke, Sorley (I have not read him), Katharine Tynan, Nicholson, Sassoon, Gibson, John Freeman, Laurence Binyon, F W Harvey, Masefield, and ……………..(but not for me,) Gurney . . . . apres la guerre, toujours I’apres!

But apres la guerre is far away–and in fact, the war is coming closer, now. Gurney has moved, he writes to a flat land dotted with windmills…

3 August 1917 Tuesday

My Dear Friend: It is certain you must have heard the guns lately, for they have been labouring terribly, and you should hear them as well as we can hear.

But it is M[achine]. G[un]. mechanism which has up till now engaged my attention, not the dodging of shells. However, we can hardly remain neutral, as this is probably the Big Push…

All best wishes from your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[6]

 

Finally, in keeping with our inconstant attention to fiction, today is a good day to make mention of another trilogy of novels by Pat Barker. Toby’s Room, which follows Life Class, follows a group of young art students as their lives unfold during the war. The talented draughtswoman Elinor Brooke has studied under Henry Tonks, a famous (“real life”) artist and teacher who was known to many of our writers, and she will become involved in the pioneering–and often disastrous–efforts to develop facial prostheses for maimed soldiers. But at this point in the story Elinor is living at home while her only brother Toby–with whom she is very close, too close–is fighting in Flanders. Today, a century back, however, Elinor goes to stay near Lewes for a few days with her friend Vanessa Bell–“and her sister, Mrs. Woolf.”[7]

The Life Class trilogy is less intensely related to the material of this project than the Regneration trilogy (this is saying nothing at all!) but Toby’s Room is an arresting novel deeply embedded both in the Great War World and the slightly wider world of early Modernist literature and art. The visit to Lewes is a bit of a wink, since Barker draws on the work of Virginia Woolf (the title, aspects of the subject, and the feel of the writing echo Woolf’s Jacob’s Room), but in terms of the central characters and some aspects of the passions that drive their actions, the book seems to draw on the life and relationships of one of our regular writers…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 359.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 77.
  3. Undertones of War, 229.
  4. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 103.
  5. Surely Robert Nichols?
  6. War Letters, 179-83.
  7. Barker, Toby's Room, 75.

Francis Ledwidge Dreams of Ireland; Hedd Wyn in the Salient

We take what may be a very welcome break from the travails of Siegfried Sassoon, today, for a letter from Francis Ledwidge to Katharine Tynan, the prolific and well-connected Irish writer. Tynan has just sent Ledwidge Lord Edward: a Study in Romance, her recent book on Edward Fitzgerald, the 18th century Irish nationalist. This book must have resonated strongly for Ledwidge, so soon after the Easter Rising, and in writing his thanks Ledwidge stints nothing of his talent for the lyrical evocation of Ireland:

20th July 1917

We have just returned from the line after an unusually long time. It was very exciting this time, as we had to contend with gas, lachrymatory shells, and other devices new and horrible. It will be worse soon. The camp we are in at present might be in Tir-na-n’Og,[1] it is pitched amid such splendours. There is barley and rye just entering harvest days of gold, and meadow-sweet rippling, and where a little inn named In Den Neerloop holds its gable up to the swallows, bluebells and goldilocks swing their splendid censers. There is a wood hard by where hips glisten like little sparks, and just at the edge of it mealey leaves sway like green fire. I will hunt for a secret place in that wood to read Lord Edward. I anticipate beautiful moments.

I daresay you have left Meath and are back again in the brown wilds of Connaught. I would give £100 for two days in Ireland with nothing to do but ramble on from one delight to another. I am entitled to a leave now, but I’m afraid there are many before my name in the list. Special leaves are granted, and I have to finish a book for the autumn. But, more particularly, I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknahama. You have no idea of how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. Say a prayer that I may get this leave, and give as a condition my punctual return and sojourn till the war is over. It is midnight now and the glow-worms are out. It is quiet in camp but the far night is loud with our guns bombarding the positions we must soon fight for.[2]

This is wishful thinking, alas–but I don’t think Ledwidge really has any hope that somehow he, an ordinary infantryman, will be given special leave when his book comes out. And even if his own turn for leave is not too far off, the wistfulness of this letter is sharpened by the sure knowledge that there will be battle before there is any leave. That is the preparatory bombardment for the Third Battle of Ypres that mutters through the night…

 

A bombardment which Hedd Wyn too will soon be hearing. He has now joined the 15th Royal Welsh–the very same battalion as David Jones.[3] The 15th had been in rest but have now finished their march to the front, reaching–naturally–“Dublin Camp” on the banks of the Yser Canal…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The legendary "Land of Youth."
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 185-6.
  3. I have only just, very belatedly, realized this fact--there are so many writers and so many battalion numbers that I had been ignoring the homunculus who had been repeatedly suggesting that "15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers" was awfully familiar. It seems to be an overlooked overlapping of two sympathetic writers, unbeknownst to each other... I will write more about it in a few days.

Wilfred Owen in Hampshire; Herbert Read Reads a Novel, and Writes a Journal, and Looks Forward to Death or Glory

First, a brief update from Wilfred Owen, now a patient at the famously nasty military hospital at Netley, near Southampton Owen refers to its enormous main building as “The Bungalow,” but he is relatively lucky in being assigned to the Welsh Hospital, which is essentially a complex of huts out back. Blighty is nice, but he continues to hope, above all things, for home leave.

Sunday Mng. Welsh Hospital, Netley, Hampshire

I shall have to stay here a week or so. Visitors are allowed in the afternoons, but you will of course wait till I get my 3 Weeks at home. We are on Southampton Water, pleasantly placed, but not so lovely a coast as Etretat. The Town is not far off, & we are allowed to go in. Hope you had my Telegram. Nothing to write about now. I am in too receptive a mood to speak at all about the other side the seamy side of the Manche. I just wander about absorbing Hampshire.[1]

 

Our only other communication today is a rather more complex missive from the front, from Herbert Read to Evelyn Roff. In just a few pages, written from a reserve billet between spells of trench duty, Read manages to touch on writing and reading, the meanings of art and the possibility of death in war…

17.vi.17

One item of news I must not forget to tell you. Aylwin came. I read it (in the trenches, of all incongruous places) and it conquered me…

Read goes on to compare the now-obscure 1899 novel to The House of Seven Gables and Wuthering Heights. Once his literary analysis is completed, a new paragraph launches into a discussion of his own recent writing. This is an overdue reminder of a development I haven’t had precise enough dates to be able to cover: Read had been very busy during his long absence from the trenches, and is now editing (and writing much of) his own Modernist periodical, Arts and Letters. He preens a bit for Roff, and soon moves from barely concealed pride to open fishing for compliments:

Shall I ever make a reviewer (vide Portrait of the Artist)?

…I was a little doubtful about the second poem…

It’s hard not to imagine an eye-roll. But Read is both a capable poet and a perceptive reviewer–for which you must take my word, for the time being.

From there, Read’s discussion of Modernism gains confidence until it ends in an abrupt segue that could stand for the strange fascination of the trench-letter-genre in general:

…It is one of my aims–to restore poetry to its true rôle of a spoken art. The music of words–the linking of sounds… unity of action. Each poem should be exact… The fact of emotion unites the art to life. Any ‘idea’, i.e. ethical or critical, or philosophy should only be basic–ground from which the beauty springs. Or perhaps the unifying principle of a man’s art viewed as a whole.

I’ve been chosen for a death or glory job soon to come off. I am very glad–glad in the first place because it gives me the first chance I’ve had of doing something–glad in the second place because it means that others recognize that I’m of the clan that don’t care a damn for anything.

All the same I intend to ‘come through’ as full of life as anything.[2]

So the next volume of Arts and Letters–and the sound of poetry and the emotional unity of art–will have to wait until this next raid or patrol comes off. If it comes off.

What’s strange here, to me at least, is that the serious, learned talk of the meaning of art has the effect of undermining the youthfully bluff claim that he is eager to risk his life in a coming action. Read[3] side by side as he wrote them, the three paragraphs seem like a too-strenuous declaration of multiple self-definitions… as he protests we realize the improbability or their being conjoined in the same person: Herbert Read cares a great deal for art, and he also cares for nothing, and he also wants very much to survive the quotidian brutality of some trench “stunt.”

And yet he really does mean more or less what he says. It’s all that Nietzsche: paradox is possible, death is acceptable, and glory, really, is the goal…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 470.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 98-9.
  3. The past verb, not the writer/officer!

Vera Brittain and the Troop Train, then London and the War Unreal; A Disastrous Day for the Second Royal Welch

Vera Brittain‘s homeward journey has been, for the last few days, something like a maniacally condensed version of the Grand Tour. But she left Paris late last night; and today, a century back, she is back in the war.

May 27th

Woke up at 5.0 when train stopped at Amiens. Seething crowd of British and French officers and soldiers, most of them in a trench-state. Thought of Roland, Edward and Geoffrey as having been here; don’t think Victor ever was. Felt very near the war…

Brittain and the young nurses in the Red Cross train are cheered by young British troops, headed for the front–an experience which will shortly give rise to a poem:

The Troop Train

(France, 1917)

As we came down from Amiens,
And they went up the line,
They waved their careless hands to us,
And cheered the Red Cross sign.

And often I have wondered since,
Repicturing that train,
How many of those laughing souls
Came down the line again.

 

A predictable–which is to say irresistible–spark for the Romantic imagination. Or the realist, really–what else is there to think of, knowing what she knows and having seen what she has seen of soldiers’ bodies, as she passes so briefly through the central rail junction of the British Western Front?

A few hours later, after detraining and embarking in Boulogne, she is disorientingly far from the war once again:

…The white cliffs seemed to appear very quickly; it seemed like a dream to be seeing them again, or else a dream that I had ever left them…

One more quick train and she was in her parents’ new London flat by supper-time.

…pausing only to learn that Victor was still alive and still progressing, I threw off my dilapidated garments and jumped into a hot bath…

After supper I settled down luxuriously to smoke–a new habit originally acquired as a means of defence against the insect life in Malta–and to talk to my father about the hazards and adventures of my journey home. My parents took a gratifying pleasure in my assumption of worldly wisdom and the sophistication of the lighted cigarette…

Sitting before the open French windows of the big drawing-room, I looked out upon the peaceful, darkening square with a sense of unbelievable repose. Between the flats and the turmoil of London lay a long unspoilt area of wooded parkland; the great trees stretched eastward as far as I could see. Hidden by the cool green of their new spring foliage, innumerable birds twittered softly on the topmost branches. The War with its guns and submarines, its death and grief and cruel mutilations, might have been as innocuous and unreal as time and the smooth, patriotic selections of school history-books had made the Napoleonic campaigns of a century ago.[1]

A challenge to literature, then… and to the history-book-compilers of the future.

And naturally I can’t resist picking up on the “century ago.” So, a century from Waterloo to the Western Front–how much progress have we made? Since this whole project is, in a sense, an attempt to address the broader question of writing about war, it doesn’t make much sense to attempt an answer here. And on the narrower question of history textbooks I have little to add. The average American school child learns precious little about World War One, given the shorter participation of the United States and the war’s location in between the Civil War (about which the American schoolchild may still learn lies and obfuscations, especially about the racial terror of its aftermath) and the ever-fascinating and morally unambiguous Second World War.

Still, it is surely correct to say that the history books are aware that making war “innocuous” is a disservice to, among other capitalizable abstractions, History, Humanity, and Truth, and that, compared to the books of a century back, there is less knee-jerk glorification of all things warlike and far more attention to the human costs of war. And it is also correct to say that this has something to do with the efforts of Vera Brittain, Siegfried Sassoon and the rest…

But are we doing well enough? Will any aged eminences send satisfactory praise for our rendering of all that is cruel and despicable about what we have done in the past?

Well, well. But Vera Brittain didn’t come home to muse on the ironic dislocations of physical and temporal proximity–she came home to help her family, and to be with Victor. Visiting hours begin tomorrow.

 

That troop train was too far from the front–by a day’s military logistics or so–for the Tommies waving to the Red Cross nurses to be thrown into the meat grinder today. So it’s a poetic near-miss, as it were, for a crossing of the paths of Vera Brittain and the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were already at the front and bound for the offensive, today, on a stubborn sector of the Hindenburg Line.

Siegfried Sassoon‘s day, though he can’t know it, is nevertheless wracked by a particularly vicious irony of proximity. He is in green and pleasant environs, not only unspoilt by the war but far from any direct reminders of it. And not so very far away, many of his comrades are being shot down in another futile attack.

It was on 1.55 on what was a beautiful, sunny Whitsun in Picardie, with “the fallow” of No Man’s Land “gay with yellow and gold,” that the barrage opened up. The assault was impossibly well-named for a descent from pastoral sweetness into military disaster: A and C companies of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers attacked from “Plum Lane” toward a section of “Tunnel Trench.”

C Company’s commander, T.R. Conning, led the assault. He “chaffed the stiff-limbed and the laggards, and gave some of them a hand to climb out.” But the wire was thicker than expected and barrage lifted too quickly–and without doing significant damage to the Germans in Tunnel Trench or the machine guns supporting them. Within minutes, 165 men of the 2nd Royal Welch were hit. About half of these were killed, and ten of the 11 officers who had gone over the top were casualties. The dead included both Conning and E.L. Orme (“Dunning” and “Ormand” in the memoir), both particular friends of Siegfried Sassoon.[2]

Sassoon is in Sussex, lolling uneasily about Chapelwood Manor, and thus in ignorance of the planned attack.

There were times when I felt perversely indignant at the “cushiness” of my convalescent existence. These reactions were mostly caused by the few letters which came to me from the front. One of Joe Dottrell’s hastily pencilled notes could make me unreasonably hostile… and inarticulately unfriendly.

Dottrell/Cottrell, the quartermaster, had written to Sassoon recently about the death of “Young Brock,” i.e. Lt. Brocklebank, his hunting friend, and he will shortly write again about today’s slaughter, spurring a deeper bitterness with his details of this “hopeless failure” and its cost.[3]

For Frank Richards–who adds the detail, unreported in Dunn’s chronicle, that Dr. Dunn himself spent the afternoon “wandering about No Man’s Land” under fire,aiding the wounded–this “disastrous day for all concerned” provided a retrospective irony rather than a simultaneous one. Captain Radford, the only officer in the attack still alive and unwounded, saw Richards that evening and remarked “Well, Richards, only you, Sergeant Owens and I are left out of that tug-of-war team of the day before yesterday.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 353-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the infantry Knew, 349-54.
  3. Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, 468.
  4. It was actually three days earlier, an error of Richards' memory. Old Soldiers Never Die, 238.

Ethel Hermon Gets the Telegram; The Best of Servants Writes in Sorrow; Eleanor Farjeon and Helen Thomas Come Together in Grief; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon on the Eve of the Attack

Today is a pause in the fighting–for us, anyway–as the push at Arras resumes, but without any of our writers on the front lines.

But it’s a bad day at home in England, another day of shock and grief.

Edward “Robert” Hermon

Today, a century back, it was Ethel Hermon’s turn to see the post boy’s bicycle. The War Office telegram, at right, begins “Deeply regret to inform you…”

Her husband’s commanding officer’s letter will reach her soon, providing context and detail, if little consolation. Eventually there will be relics,  a posthumous decoration (the DSO), and other letters of praise that may for a brief moment lighten the load of grief.

From what little we know of Ethel Hermon–there is only that one letter, which she wrote, in ignorance of his death, yesterday, to show her reciprocal affection, and to stand ironically for all the time she spent praying for his safety–I can’t imagine much solace coming from any source, except perhaps one.

Gordon Buxton had worked for the family for several years before the war, as Robert Hermon’s manservant. Buxton–known as “Buckin”–had volunteered when his “master’s” Yeomanry unit was called up at the beginning of the war. Buckin stayed with Hermon when he transferred to the infantry, serving all the while as his soldier-servant, or “batman.” Buckin’s family live on the Hermon’s estate, and he has been the only man close to Robert that Ethel herself knows well.

Yesterday, Buckin wrote to his former mistress. It’s a very long letter, as Bucking struggles to express how he feels and repeatedly hopes that he can come and condole with Mrs. Hermon in person:

My dear Madam, it is impossible for me to express in my letter my deepest and heartfelt sympathy for you in your terrible loss. I have prayed to God to comfort you. I have thought of you night & day since I found the poor dear Colonel, oh dear it is too awful. I feel broken-hearted and I don’t know how to write this letter…

Gordon Buxton–“Buckin”

We buried the dear Colonel in the military cemetery in the village close to the trenches yesterday afternoon at 3 o’clock… We had a nice little service & after everybody had gone I lingered by the grave of my dear master & friend…

I never thought I should lose him but it is you & the dear children that I am thinking of all day & night. He died a brave soldier’s death. I have got the gold disc & chain which the Colonel wore round his neck. I hope I didn’t do wrong in taking it off but I thought you would like it…

Well dear Madam I am afraid I haven’t explained things very well but I feel lost, I shall never be happy until I have been home to see you…

I will now await your orders.

Please accept my very deepest sympathy in your great sorrow. I do hope they will grant me leave.

I am your obedient servant,

Buxton

Parsing the British class system is always difficult, especially for a yank a century on, and while I want to say that this is not a good time to point to the stresses in the system that sort of evasion seems akin to the cant of politicians who refuse to talk about their awful policies in the days of grief that follow the events that show how destructive those policies are.

An awkward analogy: this is not a question of destruction or of outright awfulness. Gordon Buxton, by all accounts, seems to be a man who has found a satisfactory place in an unjust system, and it would be odd, just now, to mount a protest against the class system and the privileges of officers.[1] Which in this case extends to him, and which is why I interrupted to point out the language of his letter: he will get leave, not on his own schedule but as a sort of compassionate leave for his “master”‘s wife’s benefit. It’s not striking that a man who was in service in the Hermon household would appeal for orders to his dead master’s wife–what’s striking is that the officers of the brigade who are charged with seeing to Hermon’s burial and effects also take it as a matter of a course. Private Buxton may be a soldier in the B.E.F., but he is being seconded for special duty to a widow in Sussex.

Today, a century back, in any event, Buxton wrote a letter to his own wife. It may be that she took it to Mrs. Hermon, for it ended up in the same archive. It is long and heartfelt and not only gives Buckin more voice but provides perhaps the most affecting description of the moments after Hermon’s death.

My darling sweet Marie

You have heard the sad news by now, poor Mrs Hermon whatever will she do… I wanted to go ‘over the top’ with him but he wouldn’t let me…

But he hadn’t gone long before I was over the top myself & I hadn’t gone far before I met one of our men who told me the Colonel had been killed. I looked around for a long time before I found him, he was then quite dead, oh my darling I did not know what to do, it upset me so. I feel I have lost a good Master & Friend…

I am all right but very sick at heart. Goodbye my sweetheart.

With my fondest love & kisses to everybody,

Ever your loving Freddie.[2]

 

And that’s as close as we can come to the people who loved Edward Hermon, and their loss. With Edward Thomas, we are more fortunate–a strange way of putting that we have more terribly painful things to read. The most moving part of Helen Thomas’s own writing about Edward came in the section of her book that described his parting(s) in December and January, and the miraculous Christmas in between. I chopped those sections up, trying to leave a sense of how they read while obscuring what pervades the chapter–the retrospective knowledge that he will not come back. If they didn’t read well then, perhaps another try now…

But today Helen Thomas is still awash in almost mute grief, and it is up to Eleanor Farjeon–who so strangely and fairly and beautifully loved Edward Thomas with a hopeless passion, but loved his wife and children too, and was loved by them in return–to write of their pain. Helen had come to London to spend a night with her sister, and was going back now to the family’s home in High Beech. By telegram, Eleanor arranged to meet her at the Liverpool Street Station ticket barrier.

I was waiting for her there when she arrived, not with the laughing face and hurrying steps with which she always ran a little to a meeting. She was very pale, said ‘Eleanor’ in a faint voice as we passed through, and found a corner seat in a carriage. She sat in it, and I by her, between her pale face and the incoming travellers. We held each other’s hands. Suddenly in a great burst came her sobs and tears. ‘Don’t let me cry, don’t let me cry,’ she sobbed. I put my arms round her and held her while she wept, and nobody looked. Presently she whispered, ‘I asked you to come because I thought I could comfort you—oh Eleanor, you’ll have to comfort me.’

I stayed in High Beech, for the next two weeks. I slept with her. Grief like hers was shattering thousands of homes all over the world, but I had never before been identified with such grief. My own seemed to be obliterated in it. I took responsibility, as best I could, for the house and children; the meals and shopping, and whatever has to be thought of in a home. After a fortnight Irene, Helen’s elder sister came, and I went back to Fellows Road.[3]

 

And tomorrow the war will continue. Two of our poets are still pushing forward today, a century back, some 40 miles or so apart as the storm crow flies.

 

Siegfried Sassoon and the 2nd Royal Welch came up behind a brigade attack in the battle of Arras, and saw British corpses–and a tank carcass–strewn around the first defenses of the Hindenburg line. Tomorrow’s attack will find the battalion still in reserve, but ever closer to the fight.[4]

 

And Wilfred Owen, part of a brigade that is feeling forward in confused conditions near St. Quentin, is warned, together with the rest of the 2nd Manchesters, that they will attack at 4 A.M. tomorrow.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Buxton will get a second chance to use his own voice, just below, in a private letter to his own wife which contradicts nothing of the sincerity of his grief and the bonds of love that held these people together despite their rigidly unequal status. But then again that letter too ended up in the Hermon archive, and would have passed out of the battalion only after being read by another officer.
  2. For Love and Courage, 352-5.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 261.
  4. Diaries, 154.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.

Edward Thomas: To Imagine England is… Impossible; A Birthday Headache for Wilfred Owen; Why, There Goes Kate Luard, Out for a Promenade!

Edward Thomas‘s letter to his wife Helen picks up today after fading out last night, a century back.

Now I am back (Sunday the 18th) from the O.P., dirty and tired… But here’s your letter and Eleanor’s parcel. Alas! the letter you wrote at Hatch never came. So I have lost at least one in this blank week.

Well, it has been a pleasant 24 hours. One of the pretty things was to drive over an old green track running straight across No Man’s Land and of course ending altogether in the trenches.

Another pretty thing is the blue silent clear water of parts of the citadel moat, fed from chalk streams, but full of skeletons of small trees–some parts of the moat are osier and ‘palm’ (sallow) and there the water is stagnant and muddy. You walk alongside under enormous old ramparts of earth faced with stone and brick. There are trees, 70 or 80 years old, growing in the moat and just reaching the top. Well, what if there are? My dearest, if it weren’t for these things I shouldn’t be really alive. Actually now I hear a lark singing above the street as well as slops splashing out. And you must not convince yourself you are merely waiting, you know. You must have often been content or happy at Ivy’s if you can think of it, and however well life goes in war or peace, one doesn’t get more than that, when you come to think of it, though of course I know you want more, and so do I…

I wonder when Easter is. I thought of Easter when yesterday was so warm…

Goodbye. Harry’s idiotic remarks were about leave; where as I told you there is no leave at all in this Army except sick leave. I don’t want leave. I would rather stay out till they don’t want me any more. I couldn’t bear to come home and return here.

Goodbye. I hope all goes well.

There are few more difficult (or more intrusive) tasks for the literary commentator than trying to see inside of a marriage–a relationship millions of words deep–through a few tired words committed to paper in one moment. But if his stark preference against leave–surely in part a forceful puncturing of any unrealistic hope that he might get leave before the coming battle–seems cruel, there is gentleness and love again in the signature. It feels more than pro forma to write

All and always yours

Edwy[1]

And to Eleanor Farjeon:

March 18

My dear Eleanor, Your parcel has come and the Hun has retired. Those are the latest things. The stupid F and M directed the parcel to me as R.F.A. so of course the Army wouldn’t hear of it, but apparently G for F did the trick.

That would be Fortnum and Mason, Royal Field Artillery, and Royal Garrison Artillery…

And it brought a letter too, which of course was what I liked best, even tho I had one the day before yesterday. Oh, and I found the one I thought I had lost. The Hun has gone back though, which of course is not really good or bad news, but pleases me because we shan’t fight the battle in a city. I dreaded that. And now I shall be in a dug-out near that ghastly village over there that I told you of

But as I say it’s a lovely day—I have at last got my old artist boots and am perfectly comfortable for the first time out here—and I have done 2 shoots and am due for a few idle hours. Now the larks shall have No Man’s Land and the pairs of magpies no longer run any risk—they didn’t know they did before. And the bat can go to sleep again in his shed till it is settled spring.

I am so glad about your cottage and garden. They sound just the perfection of what I am keeping entirely out of my mind now. It is easier to imagine our orchard restored to its orchardliness; for we shall certainly leave it and go up closer. To imagine England is as impossible as to eat your parcel on March 3…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[2]

These are, on the whole, upbeat letters; brave faces. And I will only undermine them the slightest bit with this quotation from his diary for today, a century back:

I could hear a lark till the Archies drowned it. Fired 600 rounds and got tired eyes and ears.[3]

 

Our second of three dispatches, today, a century back, is Wilfred Owen‘s tale of his tumble. Or, rather, the tale of its concussive aftermath:

My dearest Mother,

I am in a hospital bed, (for the first time in life…)

After falling into that hole (which I believe was a shell-hole in a floor, laying open a deep cellar) I felt nothing more than a headache, for 3 days; and went up to the front in the usual way—or nearly the usual way, for I felt too weak to wrestle with the mud, and sneaked along the top, snapping my fingers at a clumsy sniper. When I got back I developed a high fever, vomited strenuously, and long, and was seized with muscular pains. The night before last I was sent to a shanty a bit further back, & yesterday motored on to this Field Hospital, called Casualty Clearing Station  It is nowhere in particular that I know…

It is in the hamlet of Le Quesnoy-en-Santerre, as a footnote informs us.

…but I may be evacuated to Amiens, if my case lasts long enough. For I began to get right again immediately after getting into these sheets ‘that soon smooth away trouble.’ The physician handed me over to the surgeon. But my head is not broken or even cut in any way. My temperature etc. may not have had any relation to the knock, and the first doctor said he only hoped it had. Anyhow it was normal yesterday…

And then a snide comment about the nurses:

Sometimes a Sister blows in to this ward, and flutes a bit on a high voice, or pegs around on a high heel, but we are really attended by orderlies, who are fresh & clean, and much preferable, being not only serener and sensibler, but also private soldiers with no airs of authority about ’em. Rather the other way.

All my kit and belongings have come down with me, including 55 francs, much mud, and Pte. Heath.

Alas! I’ve had no letter for about 5 days…

…ever, Wilfred x[4]

Further evidence of Owen’s concussion is that he couldn’t remember the date–which was, in fact, his twenty-fourth birthday… I’m worried about whether the chocolates he specifically didn’t ask for may be lost now that he is away from his battalion…

 

And finally, today, a welcome calm before the storm. Kate Luard, has been very busy preparing her new CCS for the coming battle. But she is always one for a ramble–she likes the walks, the fresh air, the flowers, the interactions with the French peasants, and the semblance of grand-touristical normality–especially when that can be stretched to include her curiosity about mighty examples of ordnance. And Sister Luard is not entirely without vanity–it is good to be recognized as one of the few women skilled, persistent, and courageous enough to brave all the barriers that are meant to keep the fairer sex far from the fighting men.

Sunday, March 18th, We worked all the morning and all knocked off at lunch to-day as it was a dazzling day… It seemed a good chance to do some exploring if we’re going to be busy, so G. and R. and I armed ourselves with our identity discs and gas-helmets, and my field glasses and a map and some chocolate and biscuits (as S. and I used to do at Barlin), and set off East. We went through three villages, all packed with men doing the four days in and four days out of the trenches, and at the third village, we asked a woman if she could give us some coffee. She did, with zeal, and refused to be paid, and then came a stroke of luck I’ve been looking for all through this War. I asked her if there were any ‘Grandmothers’ about. ‘Yes,’ said little Louise of 13 eagerly, ‘there is one,’ and she took us to it. There was the painted monster with a team of R.M.A.[5] and a R.M.A. officer, who was most kind and introduced us to his little pet, with the enormous shells in a row alongside.

He told us the Germans had gone back 5 miles in the night… [and] said the cavalry were out now.

The village had been shelled until up to yesterday. We were in the region where you hear the men say after you’ve passed, ‘Why, they’re English!'[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters to Helen, 84-7. ivy is Ivy Ransome, a friend of the family (and wife of the writer Arthur Ransome) who seems to have been invaluable as Helen struggled with Edward's absence.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas...255-6.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 171.
  4. Collected Letters, 443.
  5. Royal Marine Artillery, to complete today's set.
  6. Unknown Warriors, 101.

Rowland Feilding Faces the Brass; Richard Aldington’s Odd Worms and Epitaphs; Edward Thomas Has a Birthday; Kate Luard is Back in Action

Those Great War generals are all bastards, right? They are donkeys sending lions over the top in pointless, badly-planned, unsupported raids, then spinning the results into victories in the press and lying to the staff so the same murderous tactics are inflicted on the poor bloody infantry again and again. Right? Well, no. Not all of them.

March 3, 1917. Derry Huts {near Dranoutre)

The Battalion Commanders were sent for this morning, to meet General Plumer, the Second (i.e. my) Army Commander, at Brigade Headquarters. We went in one by one, and had a tête-à-tête conversation with him.

When my turn came I found only Colonel Monck-Mason (temporarily commanding the Brigade during the Brigadier’s absence) and the Army Commander in the room.

The latter was very friendly, and very human. That is one of his many admirable qualities. He takes the trouble to know even his Battalion Commanders, and for this and other reasons has earned great confidence among the  troops of his army.

After shaking hands, he referred to the raid of February 19.

Rowland Feilding, competent and painstaking battalion commander, is about to get raked over the coals, it would seem.

He expressed the opinion that there should have been a preliminary bombardment by artillery, and asked me why this had not been done. Obviously, I could not enter into explanations, but he quickly turned to Colonel Monck-Mason, who replied that the trenches were too close together for that.

“Then,” said the General, “you should have had a trench-mortar bombardment.” Then he turned to me and said: “ I know all about your having asked for a Stokes mortar bombardment: General Pereira has told me.”

I felt I could see General Pereira telling him this, and explaining that it was he who had refused it; blaming himself, in fact, for the failure of the raid. Now, that is just Pereira all over, and I repeat it that you may know the man, and understand why every officer and soldier of his Brigade swears by him.

As one of my brother C.O.’s once said to me: “You know, if he trusts you, that he will defend you, and that no one will be allowed to belittle you except across his mangled corpse.” And the feeling in regard to Plumer among the fighting troops—I do not speak for his Staff who no doubt feel this also—is much the same.

We came here yesterday, into Brigade Reserve, to find that the enemy had been shelling the place with high explosive and gas, which latter still hangs heavily on the ground. One shell hit the house where my headquarters are, but the family (mother, baby and all) still cling on.

General Sir Herbert Plumer

(Midnight) I have just got my leave.[1]

Some small wartime tragedies, then, are not compounded by their sequels.

But Feilding is unusually fortunate in his generals, and not only the honorable and loyal Pereira: General Sir Herbert Plumer is one of the more unprepossessing generals the British have, but he is also the most innovative–a term which, though a shibboleth of our current culture, feels strange in its application to a Great War general. As it should, for it was an unusual trait among the many well-bred cavalry generals still struggling to cope with the reality of deep defense systems and the deeper realities of attrition. But Plumer has been thinking differently and, as we can see today, he is listening to the officers in the front lines. And even as they spoke, in fact, he is planning a major operation unlike any yet attempted on the Western Front…

 

To sing us back into the daily routine we have the matter-of-fact choral/chronicle voice of Dr. Dunn’s history of the 2/RWF. But today the chronicle is nearly as poetical as our poets. The battalion, long in the line and proud of its practical mien, does not neglect to notice the birds and the ruins:

March 3rd.–There is a coating of ice on still water. Today’s is the second great flight of starlings and of crows since we came here. Do French crows, like Scotch crows, start housekeeping on the first Sunday in March? We have scraped together a trench strength of 450 by taking in the Drums and other details usually left out. We marched by Eclusier. Near Feuillères a whizz-bang had stuck in the stem of a tree, projecting fore and aft. Enough of Clery is standing to make it ghostly. A village razed is not so sad to see as roofless, windowless, sagging walls; they give one creeps at night. On the wreck of one house a cat sat and blinked listlessly as we marched through…[2]

 

I know I shouldn’t pile relatively uneventful writings atop each other–especially when we still have “welcome back” and “happy birthday” entries to get to–but I can’t resist this letter of Richard Aldington‘s to F.S. Flint. Aldington is eager to be a good modernist: sentimental, but not. And in expressing his general indifference to the killing of older men (Aldington is twenty-four), he surprises with a more-than-modern bit of slang:

3/3/17
My dear Franky,

I emerged from several yards of mud to find among others your excellent & heartening letter. After a night in a somewhat lousy dug-out your poems were like sprays of fresh lilac & your unpublished letter a healthy dung-hill…

I got your parcel several days ago–of course just before we moved, so I had to eat the cake wolfishly in a single evening, instead of making it last it [sic] week. All the same I enjoyed it. Please thank your wife for her trouble…

During a recent thaw in a certain trench there was discovered a rough wooden cross. I scraped the mud off it & on it was written in indelible pencil the following–“here lies [sic] the remains of two unknown British soldiers. Heroes both!”

The next day about a mile from the same point I examined (as I always do if possible) another grave. On it was a little metal plate: “Ein unbekannte Deutsche soldat” [An unknown German soldier]. I thought of my friend Jacques Viguelle lying far away & of another friend Sergeant Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. I wonder if I shall ever see his grave…

I hope this talk of “worms & epitaphs” doesn’t depress you, but you know my mania for necrology. All wasted youth, broken hope, lost effort touches me deeply–and–you will think me very inhuman–I don’t mind when I see older men “clipped” & hear them moaning–it’s the boys, the dear heart of youth stabbed–that’s what hurts.

Cheer-o, old boy.

Keep the home fires burning – with your m.s.s.

Richard[3]

 

And, as promised, two brief observances. One, ironically, jollier than the other:

Edward Thomas is thirty-nine today, but the vagaries of the post have brought him nothing, and he perhaps feels justified, then, in omitting to mention the occasion or to write more than the minimum:

No post. Morning dull spent in office. But afternoon with Colonel to Achicourt to see O.P.s and then to new battery positions… saw my new quarters to be. Wrote to Mother and Helen…[4]

Finally, today, Kate Luard, the Nursing Sister, is back at the front. She arrived yesterday in a new camp at Warlencourt, behind the Arras front after a rough ride over terrible roads. The situation was primitive, and dangerous, and her great pleasure at the prospect of confronting these difficulties comes through in her writing:

This area hums with work… The Colonel has made a little compound for us, walled in with canvas all round… the kitchen is not finished yet and the Nissen hut not up, so we slept on stretchers in the Mess Hut of another C.C.S. just over the road…

Sister R. and I are going to search the country round for a cottage to take our laundry, and to look for possibilities of milk, eggs, and butter, as we are ten miles from shops.

A place a mile away is shelled every day, and they once had to evacuate the patients in the C.C.S. across the road for shelling. The guns sound very close, and last night one heard again the big shells reverberating through the air as they travelled. The German retirement will make a difference here. There was a very sharp frost again last night and it was hard, or rather impossible, to get warm.

If her further descriptions of the dumps and the road work were not enough, the fact that there is another several-hundred-bed Casualty Clearing Station just across the road clearly indicates that action is expected nearby. But there are also the guns: tomorrow’s diary describes tonight, a century back

We were cosily tucked up in bed with dozens of blankets, and our oil stoves burning in our canvas huts and I’d just put my lamp out, when big enemy shells came whizzing overhead from two directions. They burst a long way past us, but made a tremendous noise being fired (from a big naval gun they run up close to their line), and loud screams overhead. Our 9.2’s and 12-inch in the wood here kept it up all night with lions’ roars.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 163-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 301-2.
  3. Imagist Dialogues, 193-4.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 167.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 96.

Robert Frost’s Mountain Interval, a Darkling Edward Thomas and the Missing Thrush; Siegfried Sassoon Anticipates the Blackbirds; Ivor Gurney on His Monument and His Prisoner Pal; Rowland Feilding Bangs the Gong

If you can hold on through the moody poets and sentimental verse, today, there is a bracing bit of trench doggerel waiting at the end…

First, though, Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon continue to record their adjacent poetic vigils. Sassoon, near Rouen:

February 23

The stillness of the pine-tree’s is queer. They stand like blue-green walls fifty or sixty feet high with the white sky beyond and above. They seem to be keeping quite still, waiting for the war to end. This afternoon, off the road by the training-ground, I found an alley leading downhill to a big shuttered red house that overlooks the valley and the distant wall of hills. It was so quiet along, the paths with.green moss growing-under the pine-stems. And chiffchaffs and tits chattering; and some Frenchmen chopping timber in a brown copse down below. It might almost have been England (though I don’t know what difference that would make).

Now that’s a striking parenthesis. Doesn’t the English countryside make all the difference? It was supposed to. The first time I read this next bit I missed the slide from observation to anticipation, but that makes all the difference too, in February, in France:

I could hear a dog barking in the stable-yard, a cow lowing, and hens clucking. These homely things come strangely when one is up to the neck in camps and suchlike. And it is good to think of spring being near, and daylight at 6 o’clock soon. Blackbirds scolding among bushes in gardens, and red sunsets fading low down, and the smell of late March, and daffodils shining in the dusk and the orchard grass.[1]

 

And now Thomas, in too February a mood to summon the sights and sounds of spring:

Chaffinch sand once… Partridges twanging in fields…

For a moment, there, I thought I had made an epochal literary discovery–until I realized that chaffinches and chiff-chaffs are not, in fact, the same bird. Nowhere close! Still, the poets are making similar observations…

Thomas’s eye is drawn, next, to human things–he is inspecting the “sordid ruin of an estaminet” in which some men are billeted, and he includes a long list of the litter to be found therein. The men he hardly seems to see, although they are there, but they are natural (as it were) to the scene of a much-shelled ruin. What strikes him later is the presence–and absence–of the birds.

2 owls in garden at 6. The shelling must have slaughtered many jackdaws but has made home for many more.

So while Sassoon anticipates the absent blackbirds, Thomas notes–as we will see, in a moment–their absence only after he notes the absence of birds that, seasonally speaking, might have been there. Owls, blackbirds, jackdaws…

Thomas does not have evening duties, and so he girds himself now to write a letter that he has probably been brooding over for some time. I wondered recently how it was that he could claim not to have read Robert Frost’s “Mountain Interval.” It seems that Thomas may have been carefully correct in his statement: he read all but the final poem before he left England, so he hadn’t “read it” in the sense of having not completely finished it. Until today:

Finished Frost’s ‘Mountain Interval’. Wrote to Frost.[2]

The letter:

My dear Robert,

It is going to be harder than ever for us to talk, I suppose. I did write you a week or so back after I first went & had a look round in the trenches… Well, I have read “Snow” today & that puts me on to you. I liked it. You go in for ‘not too much’ in a different sense from Horace’s yet your ‘not too much’ is just as necessary. But I can’t read much…

Is this loyal brevity? Terse praise? Something of a slap in the face? Exhaustion preventing a decent concealment of his adverse reaction?

I don’t know. And any letter from a soldier so new to the war zone will soon turn to describing “what it’s like.” But it is still hard not to see this quick transition as carrying the force of “no time for that sort of poetry now–I am almost in action, not reflection.”

We are living in rather a palace–a very cold dark palace–about 2000 yards from the Hun, in a city which is more than half in ruins already… I woke last night thinking I heard someone knocking excitedly at a door nearby. But I am persuaded now it was only a machine gun…

But I am very anxious to go back soon to my battery. They are only 3 miles away & when I walk over to see them it is something like going home…

A wan effort, so far, and now Thomas musters some intellectual effort in order to avoid offending Frost–to send the message that he misses him, that he wishes he could write a better letter.

You know that life is in so strange that I am only half myself & the half that knows England & you is obediently asleep for a time. Do you believe me? It seems that I have sent it to sleep to make life endurable–more than endurable, really enjoyable in a way. But with the people I meet I am suppressing practically everything (without difficulty tho not without pain). I reserve all criticism just as I reserve all description. If I come back I shall boast of the book I did not write in this ruined city…

This is plaintive, a depressive writer’s twist on all the other versions of “if I should die” that are to be found in soldiers’ letters. And a little afterthought dash of humor will not sweeten the absence of the birds:

I daren’t tell a neutral more than that it is a small cathedral city. It is beautiful chalk country all round. What puzzles me is that I haven’t heard a thrush sing yet, & of course not a blackbird.

Do you write when you can to 244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France, if only because I am probably the only man in A[rras] who has read “Mountain Interval.’ My love to you all.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Sassoon imagines the blackbirds, soon; Thomas only imagines the slaughtered jackdaws…

 

One reason–though not the foremost–for the trough in the friendship between Frost and Thomas is that Thomas suspects that Frost is not exerting himself to get his (Thomas’s) book published in America. Ivor Gurney, in this way at least, is more fortunate in his friends. He writes once again to Marion Scott, who is almost solely responsible for the fact that his poems will soon be published.

Those whose interest in Gurney and his waxing poetic skills has been well-piqued should read on; others might want to skim his remarkably clear and brief poetic mission statement (the numbered list, below) and skip to the end…

23 February 1917

My Dear Friend: Soon we are to be at work again — after the Rest — that is we go into trenches; for myself there are not many regrets, for Resting is a tiring business; and though being shelled is not pleasant, yet the escape from death gives in itself some slight interest in life. Anyway, Spring’s first signs cannot be so far off now, and the cold relaxes a little…

Gurney then launches into the minutiae of proof-reading, answering Scott’s questions about his upcoming first boom of verse. But the specific leads to the general, and this major statement of purpose:

What I want to do with this book is

(1) To leave something definite behind if I am knocked out
(2) To say out what Gloucester is, and is to me; and so to make Gloucester people think about their county
(3) To have some good stuff in it, whatever one might say about the whole.
(4) To make people realise a little what the ordinary life is.

Anyway it was good fun, writing; and gave me something to do. “Hail and Farewell’ I think will stand; it is impossible for me to try and perfect these things, save after 6 months of life in peace and beauty…

From his book his thoughts turn to death, via Scott’s news of the death of a friend (from cancer, even in wartime) to thoughts of his own lost friend, Will Harvey, Gloucester poet, decorated front fighter, and German prisoner, and from there, well, where else but England?

I wonder how FWH has got on in his prison lately . . . My thoughts of England are first and foremost of the line of Cotswold ending with Bredon Hill, near Tewkesbury, and seen with him. Or the blue Malvems seen at a queer angle, from the hayfield, talking when War seemed imminent, and the whole air seemed charged with fateful beauty. For illness I can feel strong sympathy, but Death means not much to me. Either I do not care much, or care a great deal and am not separated…

This is one of those days where there is no way to keep up with Gurney. We’ll note these scattershot thoughts on such little matters as the Gloucestershire of the Mind which sustains him, and friendship, and the ubiquity of death in wartime…

A few more corrections and details follow, and then Gurney pauses, sniffs, and senses an omission (here, too, for I have avoided discussing the details of Gurney and Scott’s relationship; I still need to learn more).

It sometimes puzzles me what you find to interest you in my letters, since what is not verse, is either about verse or myself. You support all this very bravely, and deserve better things: but so much it means to me to cling to verse, the one interest (now cafe au lait is not possible) left to me in life, and so good to talk about it, that I fear you will have to suffer yet more.

All I can think of is — What an unholy waste of time this is, what a lot I have to learn…

As for my comrades — after the war I can be interesting about them, but not yet. Goodness knows I am fond of them — some of them; but I cling to life by deliberately trying to lose myself in my thoughts of other things; trusting to some innate pluck in me to save me at moments when pluck is wanted. This is not the way to make a soldier of oneself — just the opposite in fact; and increasing sensibility must balance the advantage gained by concentration of thought on other things. But though I were sure of saving my life if I altered, and losing it did I not, still I should be the same, having set all on the future.

Forgive all this egotism, and may your book and you progress cheerily. Continue, flourish and triumph, and put up a little longer with my cockeyed epistles. With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

Although he dates the first of these two poems “January 1917,” both were included in today’s letter to Scott. The first is strong, but sentimental–one Gloucestershire soldier’s paean to another. The second is very strange. Very charming, that is, but strange to find here.

Afterglow        to FWH

Out of the smoke and dust of the little room.
With teatalk loud and laughter of happy boys,
I passed into the dusk. Suddenly the noise
Ceased with a shock; left me alone in the gloom,
To wonder at the miracle hanging high
Tangled in twigs, the silver crescent clear —
Time passed from mind. Time died; and then we were
Once more together, in quiet, you and I.
The elms with arms of love wrapped us in shade.
That watched the ecstatic West with one desire.
One soul uprapt; and still another fire
Consumed us, and our joy yet greater made —
That Bach should sing for us; mix us in one
The joy of firelight and the sunken sun.

Praise

O Friends of mine, if men mock at my name.
Say “Children loved him”.
Since by that word you will have far removed him
From any bitter shame.[4]

I don’t doubt they did. But what children, here? I wish I knew more…

 

And finally, today, Rowland Feilding is waiting for the other shoe to drop after the failed raid and informal armistice of last week. He may even be trying to edge out from underneath that dropping shoe. In the meantime, some light verse:

February 23, 1917. Curragh Camp (Locre).

The battalion is out of the trenches for eight days. The weather has completely changed, and there is a dense fog, which is almost constant.

I have applied for twenty-one days’ leave, to which I am entitled. I feel I want a little time and opportunity to
freshen up.

I found the following poetic effort, the other day, posted up by the gas gong at S[trong].P[oint]. 10.

To H.M. Troops

If the German gas you smell.
Bang this gong like blazing hell.
Put on your helmet.
Load your gun,
And prepare to meet
The ruddy Hun.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 134-5.
  2. War Diaries, (Childhood), 163-4.
  3. Elected Friends, 179-80.
  4. War Letters, 136-9.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 157.

J.R. Ackerley’s Brother Returns; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Lines, and Face to Face with a Spectre; Ivor Gurney Conjures Three, and Thanks Several Handfuls; Rowland Feilding is Witness to an Execution; Seventeen Letters for Edward Thomas; Siegfried Sassoon Curses Fate, and Departs

It’s another busy day, a century back, with one small sad action in the line and poetry behind it from Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, who today leaves for the front once again.

But first, I did something odd in yesterday’s post. J.R. Ackerley writes the section of his memoir leading up to his brother’s role in the assault on Boom Ravine with heavy, ominous foreshadowing. The exchanged watches, the vision of unstrapping the watch from a dead wrist. Reading it, I was sure Pete Ackerley would die, so I wrote it up that way.

And for some hours, yesterday, a century back, Joe Ackerley seems to have believed that his brother was indeed dead. Then late reports came in that Pete was wounded, but Joe could do nothing. What was one wounded subaltern? The senior officers around him were busy attending to the tactical problems raised by the little raid,

And my brother was lying out wounded in no man’s land, and might have been the merest litter left about after a riotous party, for all the interest the Brigadier, the Colonel, or the Major evinced in his fate. And I did nothing either…

For several hours–and several pages–Ackerley wrestles with the question of what to do. His memory of this horrible time is so patchy that it is almost blank. Did he bravely go out into the open to look for his brother? Were the callous senior officers trying to allow him unofficially, heroically, to rescue his wounded brother? He’s not sure. Was he about to be a hero, or was he being a humbug?

Ackerley is not even sure if he was there, when his brother, finally, crawled back into the trench, wounded in the leg, not dangerously, hoping for another crack at the Huns. Pete Ackerley was sent back with a nice Blighty one, and spoke well of his brother at home. Joe Ackerley concludes the episode–written as the certain loss of a brother undone almost after the fact by a carelessly non-ruinous fate–by noting that “whatever happened I never recovered my watch.”

 

Hard on the heels of this strange account–but there’s a lot I want to cover, today–we have another trench baptism. Late last night, hours after coming up into the front line for the first time, Edwin Vaughan had toured the trenches with another officer, watching the men at work. There–and not for the first time–Vaughan’s anxiety washed over and eroded his heaped-up contempt, leaving him chastened. He may despise the officers and men when in billets, but he was impressed with their professionalism amidst the dangers of the fire trenches at night. Early this morning, after a fitful, drink-induced nap, he took his first turn on duty.

…as my sergeant did not arrive, I went out alone into the trench, where the eerie influences of the night descended up on me. It was deathly still, the mud, the smell of earth, the ragged sandbags, the gruesome litter numbed my brain; a cold fear chilled my spine and set my teeth chattering. I stood shaking and gazing horrified into the darkness, thinking: ‘this is war! and I am in the firing line!’ Then in a panic I set off down the trench. Reaching the first corner I drew back sharply and my heart stood still, for under the trenchboard bridge I saw a dark form pressed against the side of the trench.

In horror I glued my eyes upon it; the light was growing stronger, and it was quite distinct. And now I thought I saw a stealthy movement. Drawing my revolver and with just my head round the bend, I challenged it in a low voice. There was no reply… with my gun well forward I advanced and prodded–an old greatcoat hung on the trench side.

My relief at this anticlimax cheered me somewhat…

Anticlimax–as well as a suspiciously dense conglomeration of typical trench incidents–is Vaughan’s hallmark. But there is a different sort of anticlimax at 8 a.m., when his loathed Company Commander, Hatwell, wakes him under pretext of seeing the lovely morning but really “because he was jealous of my being asleep.”

And right after the beautiful morning? Hatwell gives Vaughan an ugly task: seeing to the burial of several nearby corpses.

Lying flat on their backs, with marble faces rigid and calm, their khaki lightly covered with frost, some with no wound visible, some with blood clotted on their clothes, one with a perfectly black face, they lay at attention staring up into the heavens. This was my first sight of dead men and I was surprised that it didn’t upset me. Only the one with the black face has stayed with me.[1] The thick, slightly curled lips, fleshy acquiline nose, cap-comforter pulled well down over his head and the big glassy eyes have become stamped on my brain.

In the afternoon, Vaughan experiences his first bombardment, rather confusingly described. Although he is in a deep dugout, he sees “the trench wall opposite” blow up and then a dud shell land “on the parados,” which would usually be directly over his head as he shelters in a dugout. These are trench mortars, as he explains:

…very destructive projectiles… their effect is so devastating and demoralizing that whenever they are used we inform our artillery who plaster the enemy lines heavily in retaliation. The idea is that their infantry will know that every time the mortars are used, they will catch out for it…

Vaughan’s first full day in the line is completed by a near miss from a German sniper–“my slip was an act of Providence–” and a failed attempt, after dark, to bury the nearby corpses. The ground is frozen, and they are left under a blanket…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers, is an excellent correspondent both because he has pledged to tell his wife everything and because, despite his responsibilities, he is a sharp observer, and his anecdotes are pointed. Some small tragedies need little elaboration.

February 15, 1917. Facing Spanbroekmolen (Fort Victoria).

Here we are in the trenches again.

This morning, in daylight, a German came running across Noman’s Land with his hands up, and was shot by his own people just as he reached our wire. We shall get his body in to-night.

Ivan Garvey, who commands the Company holding the line at the point where it happened, says that three of his men immediately came rushing along the trench to tell him, and that when he went to the spot he found the platoon gazing over the parapet at the dead German. Some of them wanted to go and fetch him in then and there, but Garvey naturally did not allow that.[3]

 

Edward Thomas has been reading the letters written by his men, working to set up the battery, practicing. Today there was a training “shoot,” then more preparatory work in the afternoon. For several days his comrades have been grating on him, and he has seemed to take solace in his observations of the natural world:  “Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw, lovely white puffs of shrapnel round planes high up…” Well, then: not so much nature reigning alone, but nature in her new context: “Dead campion umbels and grass rustling on my helmet through trenches.”

But this evening, a century back, brought relief and connection: the first post delivery since the battery embarked for France.

Letters arrived at 6. We sorted them and then spent an hour silently reading. 750 letters for me; 17 for me–from Helen, the children, father, mother, Eleanor, Freeman, Mrs. Freeman, Guthrie, Vernon and Haines.[4]

 

And Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back. He lays the counter-Brookean sonnet sequence aside in order to address her requests for material for his first book of poetry, which she is preparing. The preface is rather fulsome, and shows one side of Gurney’s personality in full effect: he is effusive, generous, taking delight in being comically expansive.

15 February 1917 (P)

Preface

This book stands dedicated to one only of my friends, but there are many others to whom I would willingly dedicate singly and in state, if that did not mean the writing of 40 books of verse and dedications; a terrible thing for all concerned . . . So that under the single name and sign of homage and affection, I would desire such readers as come to me to add also—To my Father and Mother; F W Harvey, (also a Gloucestershire Lad;) Miss Marion Scott, whose criticism has been so useful, and she so kind; in spite of my continued refusal to alter a word of anything. The Vicar of Twigworth; H.N. Howells, (and this is not the last time you will hear of him;) Mr Hilaire Belloc, whose “Path to Rome” has been my trench companion, with the “Spirit of Man” ; Mr Wilfred Gibson, author of “Friends” , a great little book; many others also; including Shakespeare and Bach, both friends of mine; and last but not least — 5 Platoon, B Co, 2/5 Glosters; who so often have wondered whether I were crazy or not. Let them draw their own conclusions now, for the writing pf this book it was that so distracted me. . . . This is a long list, and even now does not include old Mrs Poyner that was so jolly and long-suffering; not my boat “Dorothy” now idle in the mud; though a poet sung of her full of glory at Framilode.

Even as I write the list becomes fuller, further extended, yet a soldier must face pain and so it remains shorter by far than might be. I fear that those who buy the book (or, even, borrow) to get information about the Second-Fifth will be disappointed. Most of the book is concerned with a person named Myself, and the rest with my county, Gloucester, that whether I die or live stays always with me; — being so beautiful in itself, so full of memories;  whose people are so good to be friends with, so easy-going and so frank.

Some of the aforementioned people I have never had good fortune enough to meet in the flesh, but that was not my fault. I hope they will forgive my using their names without permission. Ah, would they only retaliate in kind! That is however not likely, as I never was famous, and a Common Private makes but little show. All the verses were written in France, and in sound of the guns, save only two or three earlier pieces. May well be indulgent to one who thought of them so often, and whose images of beauty in the mind were always of Gloucester, county of Cotswold and Severn, and a plain rich blossomy and sweet of air — as the wise Romans knew, that made their homes in exile by the brown river, watching the further bank for signs of war.

And that’s not all, folks–Gurney has a ballad in him, today:

Compree. Ballad also
Ballad of the Three Spectres

As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee.
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.

The first said, “Heres a right brave soldier
That walks the darky unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher.
And laughing at a Nice Blighty.

The second, “Read his face, old comrade.
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow.
Then look his last on Picardie.

Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
“He’ll stay untouched till the War’s last dawning.
Then live one hour of agony.

Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one — two — three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.

Not so bad eh?

By Gum, what will All the Good People of Gloster think of the Ugly Duckling they have hatched? There will be Some Surprise, what with one thing and another if the Tome appears. Roll on that time as soon as possible. Good luck with the Flu:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[5]

It’s difficult with Gurney, moody (i.e. mentally unstable) as he is–sometimes his letters seem to lay bare his suffering, to be uncertain records of his uncertain emotional terrain. But it’s reductive to insist that everything is about his mental state. He is a very good writer, and that requires–of course–embodying multiplicity, even contradiction. Or, simply, complexity–there’s nothing impossible or contradictory about what he has written. He is excited at the prospect of his first book, and he has, lately, found a new way to speak for the common soldiers… and yet he lives always under the grim little open end of his spectral “ballad:” for every death he dodges, many more possible deaths await, every day of the war, all the way until that last day’s dawning–and then a few hours more.

 

Finally, today, our foremost Fusilier is going back to the front. After an unhappy few months in camp near Liverpool and a whirlwind last few days of leave in London, Siegfried Sassoon began the freighted journey once more. Today, a century back, he left London for a base depot in France–and he described the experience, we will not be surprised to learn, more than once:

On February 15th I was at Waterloo for the noontide leave train (or, to be exact, the leave train the wrong way round). My mother was there to see the last of me, and Robbie had shepherded me to the station. My one desire was to have no feelings about anything. As we paced the platform I remarked to Robbie that the train was quite an old friend as this was the fourth time I had travelled by it. When it at length began to move, their faces kept up the usual forlorn pretence of looking bright. With the egotism of youth I couldn’t help wondering what they said to one another about me after they had turned away from the vanishing train…[6]

Ah but that is all retrospect. Here is the day’s diary, and a poem–with all thoughts forward and not a mention of mother or mentor bereft on the platform:

15 February

Left Waterloo 12 noon. Irish Hussar in carriage. Sunshine at Southampton…

Left London feeling nervous and rattled; but the worried feeling wears off once aboard the Archangel.

And as it does, Sassoon settles from the personal into the observational.

People seem to become happy in a bovine way as soon as they are relieved of all responsibility for the future. Soldiers going to the War are beasts of burden, probably condemned to death. They are not their own masters in any way except in their unconquerable souls.

Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear ‘they begin to ‘buck’ themselves up’. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way out of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles—nay, rewards them for their acquiescence with actual money and medals. But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market.[7] Hence their happiness. They have no worries because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight–of the enemy. They are not ‘going out’ to do things, but to have things done to them.

Not to make too much of one line, but this is the essence of Sassoon’s change of heart about the war, and it will be reflected in the change in the poetry as well. War, and poetry, once celebrated deeds. Now, in a latter-day phrase, men don’t do deeds, they are drafted into the galleys, shipped out like cabbages to become the subjects of passive suffering…

Finally, there is a poem of today’s journey which takes a step down the angry road that Sassoon has just sketched out:

Life-Belts (Southampton to Havre)

The Boat begins to throb; the Docks slide past;
And soldiers stop their chattering; mute and grave;
Doomed to the Push, they think ‘We’re off at last!’
Then, like the wash and welter of a wave,
Comfortless War breaks into each blind brain.
Swamping the hopes they’ve hugged to carry abroad;
And half-recovering, they must grope again
For some girl-face, or guess what pay they’ll hoard
To start a home with, while they’re out in France.
For, after all, each lad has got his chance
Of seeing the end. Like life-belts in a wreck,
They clutch at gentle plans—pathetic schemes
For peace next year. Meanwhile I pace the deck
And curse the Fate that lours above their dreams.[8]

Sassoon is speaking against “comfortless war,” now, and emphasizing the helplessness of these soldiers to influence the chances of their own survival.

A step toward protest, perhaps, but one expressed in a fairly traditional idiom. Any soldier–any human being–from any era may curse fate and still feel themselves to possess a fairly free hand for heroic self-fashioning. If this sort of poem is going to shock its readers out of the assumption that this war is, if not Great, at least generally noble and worthwhile, that hand of fate–in the person of British staff plans and German bombardments–will have to do more than merely lour

References and Footnotes

  1. Another indication that this "diary" is (re-)written after the fact.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 30-34.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 150.
  4. War Letters (Childhood), 162.
  5. War Letters, 133-5.
  6. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  7. A phrase he took up in the memoir, moving it backwards a few days into a conversation with Lady Ottoline Morrell.
  8. Diaries, 131-2.