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

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

Roker, Sunderland, 11 June 1917

Dearest Vera —

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

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

Edward[1]

 

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

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

11 June 1917

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

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

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

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

Rondels

1. Letters

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

2. Shortage

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

3. Paean

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

4. Strafe (1)

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

5. Strafe (2)

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

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

With best wishes; Yours sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]

 

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Robert Frost on Edward Thomas: It Was Beautiful as He Did It; Vera Brittain Recommits; Kate Luard on Kindness and Courage

Vera Brittain‘s recent thoughts about her future–and about Victor Richardson–are not yet settled. It occurred to her almost immediately that she might come home in order to turn her service into a more personal form of sacrifice–but she is not yet ready to give up her service with the V.A.D. In a letter of today, a century back, to her brother Edward she reacts to new details of Victor’s wounding, but we also learn that she has recommitted to her nursing job.

Malta, 27 April 1917

…I am so longing to hear more details about Victor, whether he is soon likely to be out of danger & whether his eyesight can be saved. Some member of the family sent me a cable after yours to say ‘Head wound improving. Recommended Military Cross.’ It would be so splendid if he could get the latter — some small compensation for all that he has lost. He will indeed have bridged that gulf between you which made him so miserable; do you remember that evening when we all dined at the Coventry Restaurant & he would hardly speak because he felt the difference between you so acutely. I always thought he would rise to the occasion in the end; when nervous & sensitive people can once make up their minds to a thing they usually do it supremely well; the fear is only beforehand. I feel a little  sad, perhaps, to think that Roland, the bravest of the brave, alone of you three has no decoration, & lies beneath His Cross instead of wearing it. But He would have been the last to grudge them to you, & after all His courage
needed no guarantees.

… None of you have mentioned at all anything about [Victor’s] reason being affected, so I am hoping it is not, though unfortunately it is a characteristic of so many head wounds, though sometimes only temporally…

I do wish I could see & talk to him, but am afraid it is not likely yet (though in this world of vicissitudes anything may happen) as I have just signed on again to-day. Now that I have served so long I feel very unwilling to break my service even for a little time, as continuous service in these days, when so many people who started nursing got bored & left it off, is an honourable & in many ways an advantageous thing, & of course even the least little interval breaks it, spoiling one’s record & cancelling the past. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one can’t come to England for a little time without breaking it. There may be ways & means in the future of managing that…[1]

To these reasons–honor, service, and the possibility of losing her accumulated seniority–she will add that she suspects that exciting things will be happening in the Mediterranean…

 

I did promise that I would return to Kate Luard‘s diary in part to let her respond, as it were, to my complaints that unstinting praise of stoic suffering is in some way loosely aligned with the censorship of wartime dissent.

This is a little oblique, but more or less on point: suffering can also stimulate a humanity that ignores the very lines that define the war.

…In one ward there’s hardly a man with two legs; and when one Boche made a noise when he was being dressed, there was a chorus of encouragement from the British beds: ‘Hold on, Fritz, soon be done–be all right in a minute,’ regardless of any difficulty in language!

Or perhaps this scene is more fraught than it seems: would these men have no qualms about going out and doing to each other what they have already done, the same violence that landed them together in this hospital?

Next, Luard writes about the particularly “glorious boy” who is paralyzed. There seems to be some confusion or uncertainty about what X-rays might accomplish. It is painful to think that after being kept in the dark about his condition (as Victor Richardson has been), however briefly,  the paralyzed young officer is being offered false hope of recovery:

…The 6 ft. boy wounded in the spine with total paralysis below the chest was safely taken to the train this evening. When I told him he was going down to be X-rayed, he said, ‘That’ll be better than lying on my back all my life,’ and his eyes filled with tears. All these days he has never said one word of complaint or self-pity, though he knew his probable fate from the second day.

And finally, a pen portrait we might wish a little longer:

An Orderly who has been running the Marquee of 50 stretcher-cases without a Sister, has gone sick with trench fever. He leads one of the most Christlike lives I’ve ever seen; there is no other word for his selfless devotion, though he is comic beyond words in speech and appearance![2]

 

Finally, today, a few excerpts from Robert Frost’s letter to Helen Thomas.

Amherst Mass
April 27 1917

Dear Helen:

…People have been praised for self-possession in danger. I have heard Edward doubt if he was as brave as the bravest. But who was ever so completely himself right up to the verge of destruction, so sure of his thought, so sure of his word? He was the bravest and best and dearest man you and I have ever known…

I want to see him to tell him something. I want to tell him, what I think he liked to hear from me, that he was a poet…

It was beautiful as he did it, And I don’t suppose there is anything for us to do to show our admiration but to love him forever.

Robert[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 343-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 118-9.
  3. Elected Friends, 189-90.

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 Hermon’s Last Words; Edward Thomas Mourned; Olaf Stapledon and Kate Luard on the Edge of the New Slaughter

103 Inf. Bde.

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

You will know that you have the very deepest sympathy from all ranks in the brigade concerning the death of your husband. He had established himself as a very able & gallant commander in the Field & was recommended for promotion to command a Brigade.

On the morning of the 9th inst. about 5.30 a.m. an attack on a very large scale was launched on the German lines… The attack succeeded & about 6 a.m. your husband decided to move his Hd Qrs from our own trenches to one in the German line & follow up his Battn…

An enemy shrapnel bullet caught him as he was walking forward. It appears to have gone through the papers in his left top jacket pocket & killed him instantaneously. I am sending you the papers in a small parcel…

He was buried at Roclincourt as shown on attached map this afternoon about 3 p.m. I’ve seen his servant and he is looking after your husband’s kit…

This would be Gordon Buxton, known as “Buckin,” who had been Edward Hermon‘s manservant before the war and his batman throughout. He appears quite often in Hermon’s letters, although infrequently in the excerpts I chose to include here. “Buckin” will soon plant primroses around Hermon’s grave. He will survive the war and go on to raise a family in a cottage on the Hermon estate.

The brigadier’s letter continues:

I know that nothing I can say can be of any use to you…

I hope you may be given strength to bear your sorrow which I feel acutely (as I once told you) because I am responsible for his becoming an infantry C.O. I hope to write to you again later & you will of course let me know whether I can do anything for you. With deepest sympathy,

Yours very sincerely

H.E. Trevor.

The last words your husband said (as stated by his adjutant who was behind him) was ‘Go on’ to his Battalion.[1]

With the War Office swamped by casualty notifications from the attacking army, Ethel Hermon has yet to learn of her husband’s death.

 

Helen Thomas has, and although she will come to write voluminously about her last days with her husband, she will not write about her first days without him. But many people loved Edward Thomas, so, instead, their daughter Myfanwy and their friend Eleanor Farjeon will take up the thread of the lament on what I take to be today, a century back.

The day after, before arrangements were made for us to go to London to stay with Auntie Mary, I was looking at my favourite picture in a story book, an engraving which Bron had delicately coloured for me. Suddenly I ripped it out, screwed it up and flung it on the fire in a rage of tears–for what couldn’t possibly happen to us had happened. My father would never come back. Why had I only prayed for his safety crossing the stormy sea? No answer.[2]

And Farjeon:

At night in the cottage, among my ‘pretty things’, I wrote to Edward once more before I left; and when I posted my letter at Billingshurst Station I did not know that another was on its way to Gillman’s from Helen in High Beech, where she had received the news that broke her heart. I went blithely in ignorance to London, and in Fellows Road found an envelope addressed in Viola Meynell’s delicate hand. The family was sitting at the supper-table; still standing, I opened the letter.

‘My darling Eleanor, I can hardly bear this for you . . .’

I made some sort of cry as I dropped the note. Somebody said, ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘Edward’, and went upstairs to my room where I went on standing in a state beyond feeling. The door opened and my mother came to me, and stood there with her mouth trembling and her eyes full of tears. I heard myself saying to her very clearly, ‘Mother, it was never as you feared with Edward and me’. I say I heard myself, for I seemed separated from my body’s movements and words and actions. I remember her saying, ‘Nellie—– ’ pleadingly. After a little while we went back to the dining-room, and I sat down with the others. I never forgot Harry’s quiet injunction the day our Father died: ‘We’ve got to eat, you know’: at times when I’ve known I mustn’t break down.[3]

 

It’s bad form, I know, to only touch on strategy for purposes of identifying bitter ironies. But despite the initial success of the Arras attack it must be put in the context of the larger allied plan for the Spring, known as the “Nivelle Offensive” for the French general now in control. The British attack is only a prelude to this coming, largely French effort, another clumsy smaller thrust in another one of the grandiose, arrows-on-large-scale-map plans that have bedeviled the war since von Schlieffen’s demise (which was, in fact, before the war, but then again that is the point). The stalemate will not be broken this Spring, and, just as the total human misery of Verdun far exceeded that of the Somme (but such sums are meaningless, in literature, too huge to weigh in balance and difficult to translate) the Aisne campaign will be a bigger disaster than the Arras offensive.

Olaf Stapledon of the Friends Ambulance Unit, attached to the French Army, is our only writer on the spot. They have been newly stationed in a village just outside Rheims. He writes, as always, to his fianceé, Agnes, in Australia.

Olaf Stapledon in 1917, in front of the Sunbeam ambulance

SSA 13
11 April 1917

…I am in a deserted château that is an aid post. Our people on duty there have stood us coffee and now I am squatting down to write a line on a piece of paper on my knee. This place was once a great private house with marble pillars and a huge conservatory. Now the whole thing has gone to decay though it has not been strafed at all. There is a pretty big bombardment going on and the whole place is shaking and clattering with the shock of very many guns…

We are living a funny sort of life at present, so ordinary in all outward appearance and yet it is one long excitement. In our village all is peaceful but–No, I had better not prattle, because of the censor…

You ask for photos. We are not allowed to send them, so whenever I get hold of any I send them by anyone who is going home on leave…. A snap of me standing in front of my car reading a letter from Dot is now on the way to you probably.[4]

 

 

And what does he have to look forward to? A little bit of what Kate Luard experienced today:

Wednesday, April 11th. Post just going. We began admitting, evacuating, operating at 1 a.m.

I could tell you for hours, stories of the men and the officers, brave, funny, tragic, ghastly, especially the first and the last, but they’ll be lost, because this kind of life allows only work and sleep… The moribund Ward is (fortunately) indescribable; about 25 have died there to-day…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 357-8.
  2. Under Storm's Wing, 301.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 260-1.
  4. Talking Across the World, 219-220.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 112.

Arras and After: Horrors All Day and All Night, and the Ripples of the Death of Edward Thomas

Easter Tuesday, April 10th. The 3rd Army went over the top yesterday and a wire came through by mid-day that we’d taken Vimy and 4,000 prisoners… The Cavalry are after them, and the Tanks leading the Infantry, and all is splendid, but here are horrors all day and all night.[1]

I didn’t have the heart to write about the actual battle of Arras, yesterday, but Kate Luard‘s assessment will do very well.

In tactical terms the battle was much more successful than previous efforts: the Canadians surged forward at Vimy Ridge, and massive concentrated artillery fire, carefully coordinated with the infantry, did a better job not just of killing the German defenders but of destroying barbed-wire obstacles ahead of the attacking infantry. So miles have been gained. But it will all amount to relatively little, once the dust settles: an advance, but, with the deep German defensive lines so well organized, nothing close to a breakthrough. Tens of thousands of Germans will die over the next few weeks, but so will a roughly equal number of British troops, and beyond the wasted battlefield there are still more trenches, studded with concrete pillboxes. Nor have the Germans been effectively “distracted” from defending against the next, horribly costly French offensive on the Aisne, soon to begin.

But here are horrors enough, anyway.

First, there is more death. Arthur James “Hamish” Mann turned twenty-one on the 5th; on the 6th he wrote The Great Dead; yesterday, leading his platoon, he was wounded in the assault; and today, a century back, he died as a result of his wounds.[2]

Victor Richardson lives. His left eye is gone and the bullet is still lodged in the right side of his skull. But he is alive, and slowly making his way–unconscious, one hopes–through the maze of Advanced Dressing Stations and Field Ambulances and Casualty Clearing Stations and Base Hospitals. It will be some days before word of his wound spreads as far as his school friend, Edward Brittain.

Bob Hermon is dead and buried, but the telegram will take two days more to arrive home, a cruel coda to his hundreds of steady, loving letters.

 

Which means we focus, today, on Edward Thomas. I’m not sure what day the telegram reached the house at High Beech–each of the sources I’ve consulted avoids the question, which suggests that it is not easily solved. It may have been tomorrow.

But it may have been today, a century back, that Helen Thomas learned her husband was dead.[3]

I wrote yesterday that Edward Thomas was killed instantly and with an eerie lack of visible violence: the sudden vacuum caused by the shell passing so close to his body stopped his heart, killing him without leaving a mark, without even breaking his pipe. We have learned to distrust stories of painless death–especially of a painless death as described by surviving comrades writing to the dead man’s loved ones. We can never approach the truth too closely, and certainly when the writing mind we know is gone and we must rely on new witnesses.

But in Thomas’s case there is a relic–his diary.

The National Library of Wales

Before they buried Edward Thomas, they removed his effects, notably the “war diary” he carried in his tunic pocket, and the papers tucked into it. These came home to Helen, and it was discovered that the pages had been creased by the pressure wave of the shell that killed him, leaving ridges like “ripples in standing water.”[4] These are just visible in the photograph at right. So the violent disturbance in the air that killed Edward Thomas left no mark on his body, but it did leave a mark on his words.

I am uncomfortable with this–not the object as historical point of reference, as a physical fact that can confirm a subjective account–but with the object as relic. It’s misleading. It’s a sentimental smoke screen, an irresistible metaphor, to see the blast wave over his handwriting and imagine it affecting its meaning.

But the blast wave couldn’t touch his words. I don’t mean that his words are immortal (they are, as far as that goes) but something like the opposite: they are fixed, because he is dead. This is or will be true of any writer, of any words, but if we allow ourselves special pleading for Edward Thomas it only makes the reality more painful: much of what we see on the rippled surface is not testimony or evidence or finished work or communications which served their purpose during his life–they are notes for future poems which, now that that blast has passed through them, will not be written.

The last pages of the diary include a few stray, undated lines:

The light of the new moon and every star

And no more singing for the bird…

I never understood quite what was meant by God…

Neuville in early morning … the beauty of this silent empty scene of no inhabitants and hid troops, but don’t know why I could have cried and didn’t.

Tucked into the diary was a photograph of Helen, an army pass, and a scrap of paper with a few addresses on one side and three lines of verse on the other:

Where any turn may lead to Heaven

Or any corner may hide Hell

Roads shining like river up hill after rain.[5]

 

So those are the last words: now comes intense grief, futile condolence, and memorial.

Myfanwy Thomas–Baba, the youngest of the three Thomas children–was six years old in 1917.

…on that bright April day after Easter, when mother was sewing and I was awkwardly filling in the pricked dots on a postcard with coloured wool, embroidering a wild duck to send to France, I saw the telegraph boy lean his red bicycle against the fence. Mother stood reading the message with a face of stone. ‘No answer’ came like a croak, and the boy rode away. Mother fetched our coats and we went shivering out into the sunny April afternoon. I clutched her hand, half-running to keep up with her quick firm step, glancing continually up at the graven face that did not turn to meet my look.

There were no children in the playground as we hurried to the post office, no calls which I could not have borne–for
although I knew the shouts of ‘Four Eyes’ were aimed at me, Mother also wore spectacles. I waited, with dry mouth and chilled heart, outside the post office, while wires were sent off to Mother’s sisters, to Granny and to Eleanor.[6]

 

Eleanor Farjeon is away from home, and will not receive that telegram until tomorrow. But she preserved not only the letter that was being written today, a century back, by Edward’s C.O.,–to Helen, of course–but also her own inaccurate memory of a tale (or accurate memory of an inaccurate tale) told to her soon after in a chance meeting.

Here, first, is the letter which Captain Lushington wrote to Helen today, a century back.

April 10th, 1917.

Dear Mrs. Thomas,

You will have heard by now from Mr. Thorburn of the death in action of your husband. I asked him to write immediately we knew about it yesterday, but delayed writing myself until the funeral, from which I have just returned.

I cannot express to you adequately in words how deep our sympathy is for you and your children in your great loss. These things go too deep for mere words. We, officers and men, all mourn our own loss. Your husband was very greatly loved in this battery, and his going has been a personal loss to each of us. He was rather older than most of the officers and we all looked up to him as the kind of father of our happy family.

He was always the same, quietly cheerful, and ready to do any job that was going with the same steadfast unassuming spirit. The day before his death we were rather heavily shelled and he had a very narrow shave. But he went about his work quite quietly and ordinarily as if nothing was happening. I wish I could convey to you the picture of him, a picture we had all learnt to love, of the old clay pipe, gum boots, oilskin coat, and steel helmet.

With regard to his actual death you have probably heard the details. It should be of some comfort to you to know that he died at a moment of victory from a direct hit by a shell, which must have killed him outright without giving him a chance to realise anything,—a gallant death for a very true and gallant gentleman.

We buried him in a little military cemetery a few hundred yards from the battery: the exact spot will be notified to you by the parson.

As we stood by his grave the sun came and the guns round seemed to stop firing for a short time. This typified to me what stood out most in your husband’s character—the spirit of quiet, sunny, unassuming cheerfulness…

Yours very sincerely,
Franklin Lushington
(Major Comdg. 244 Siege Battery, R.G.A.)

There is no reason to distrust this account–though it is almost painful to read how little the outward Edward Thomas, as eulogized by his commander, accords with the painfully introspective writer, determined not to succumb once again to depression, that we read. It’s a letter of condolence and praise–but at least it hints that Thomas was successful in keeping his demons under control, in being a good officer, in presenting a usefully cheerful disposition to the men with whom he shared his last months.

But if we were to mistrust it, then the existence of this alternate version, told to Farjeon in the coming weeks by a sergeant on leave whom she chanced to meet, raises familiar questions:

‘At the end of the day when the battle was over we had the Huns on the run, and the plain was full of our men shouting and singing and dancing. We thought we had won the war! Mr. Thomas came up from the dug-out behind his gun and leaned in the opening filling his clay pipe. One of the Huns turned as he was running and shot a stray shot, and Mr. Thomas fell. It was all over in an instant. I went out to the men and called, “Men, we’ve lost out best officer.” The cry went up—“Not Mr. Thomas?” and there was no more shouting that day…’

This was the story as nearly as I remember it in the Sergeant’s own words. But my memory had misled me about the stray shot, it was a stray shell. When Helen came to know Edward’s Captain, Franklin Lushington, he told her that as Edward stood by his dugout lighting his pipe all the Germans had retreated, but a last shell they sent over passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. ‘He told me,’ Helen writes, ‘there was no wound and his beloved body was not injured.

This was borne out by the fact that when the contents of his pockets were returned to me—a bundle of letters, a note-book and the Shakespeare Sonnets I had given him, they were all strangely creased as though subject to some terrible pressure, most strange to see. There was no wound or disfigurement at all. He just died standing there in the early morning after the battle.’ Captain Lushington told Helen that Edward could have had a job ‘back and safe, but he chose the dangerous front observation post.’

Farjeon, struggling to end her book about her friend, harks back to a letter Thomas wrote in December, just after he volunteered for immediate service in France:

We have beautiful clear weather and for a few days (at any rate) I can enjoy this flat shingle and the long rows of low huts &c enormously. Lydd itself a few 100 yds away is beautiful—an old group round a very tall church tower and a line of elm trees, the only tall things in all the marsh at all near to us. I find though that nobody else likes it as much.

Farjeon continued:

The news of his going went round among our friends. ‘He won’t come back you know,’ said Arnold Bax. It was what many of us felt.

Those who never knew him, in whose thoughts Edward may live as a man who died, unfulfilled, too soon, I would ask to read again attentively the last paragraph of the letter which came to us as the forerunner of his death. It is not a startling paragraph, and has none of the special beauties which he turned into poems when he stopped writing prose; but it expresses the daily bread of his life while he lived…

Edward lived thirty-nine years. In all of them he kept his senses fresh, and liked what he saw. He saw more than  anybody I ever knew, and he saw it day and night. The seasons and the weather never failed him. It made him wonderful to I walk with, and to talk with, and not to talk with. And when he was alone—as I think he loved best to be, except when Robert Frost increased what he saw and smelt and heard and felt and tasted—he walked with himself, with his eyes and his ears and his nostrils, and his long legs, and his big hands, in shape so strong, in touch so sensitive… he liked what he saw. And knew that nobody else liked it as much as he did.

 

It’s been almost three years since I began this odd project, and more than two since I began to read Edward Thomas seriously. All this time one of the strange regular disciplines of the project–never “revealing” anything that took place in the century after the “current” century-back date–helped to emotionally enmesh me in the lives of the writers. But none more than Thomas, and lately there has been a steadily increasing dread as, in footnote after footnote, I elided the full title of Eleanor Farjeon’s loving collection of letters and recollections, compiled and commented on long after the war.[7] Who was I fooling? What was I hoping to avoid? Now the ellipses only seem to have indicated the path of the shell, an inch away from the man…

Anyway. The footnote for the above paragraphs should read: “Eleanor Farjeon. Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, 231-2.”

 

 

Now two last words on Edward Thomas–first, a contemporary writer, then back to Eleanor, even though she has yet to learn of her beloved friend’s death.

Thomas features in Robert Macfarlane’s strange and often fascinating The Old Ways, a mix of travel book, essay collection, and memoir, with a chapter given over to a… creative… imagining of his last days. It closes thus:

What was Thomas seeing as he wrote those last verses in his Arras notebook? The old ways of the South Country, or the shell-swept support roads that wound to the front? Both, perhaps, folded together, the one kind of path having led its way to the other.[8]

 

Easter Monday

(In Memoriam E .T.)

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now–
It was such a lovely morning.’ Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’

That Easter Monday was a day for praise.
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

Eleanor Farjeon[9]

No, now I’ve changed my mind–the last words today should be from Thomas himself, the last stanzas of Roads, to which the lines found on his body seem to allude:

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:
Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,
Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
and their brief multitude.[10]

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 110.
  2. Powell, A Deep Cry, 230.
  3. The artillery stayed in position as the infantry advanced, and with intact communications it's not impossible that a war office telegram could have been dispatched within thirty hours or so after an officer's death. Finding this death to be particularly upsetting--and well documented, and such a terrible loss to the many people who loved him and, yes, to English literature--I want to begin handling it today, anyway, and press on.
  4. Macfarlane, The Old Ways, 354.
  5. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  6. Under Storm's Wing, 300-1.
  7. It was mostly a question of the finality of the title, of course, but it was also, I realize, a matter of identifying with Farjeon. She knew him (and she was a very good writer), and she loved him, but he couldn't love her back.
  8. Macfarlane, The Old Ways, 355.
  9. Harvey, ed., Elected Friends, 20.
  10. Returning to these verses reminds me that I should thank Matthew Hollis, whose Now All Roads Lead to France has been invaluable--less a resource, for Thomas is so well documented, than a first primer on how to read his life and his writing.

Edwin Dyett is Shot at Dawn; D.H. Lawrence Yearns to Escape; Edward Thomas is Ready to be Judged Simply; Ford Madox Hueffer is a Bit Dotty

Can you picture that final scene? The prisoner tied to a stake; there was no need–he faced death fearlessly, but the cords cut him and he protested–his eyes bandaged, his identification disc suspended just over his left breast. The firing party, half-hidden in a trench. No time is wasted…

‘Well, boys, good-by! For God’s sake, shoot straight.’

Usually when a man dies, here, he moves forward out of the written realm, and comes back in pieces, reported or reconstructed by friends, comrades, or dutiful commanders. It’s not that different, then, with Dyett. It’s the deliberation of the thing that’s shocking–his last letter, written in full knowledge that he will be judicially murdered, by fellow British soldiers, in the morning. And then they did it. Dyett was twenty-one, and one of the last men to die as a direct result of the Battle of the Somme.

There were–there will be, in total–305 others killed in this way, but only a handful of them officers. Recent discussions of Dyett’s execution make much of the fact that Field Marshal Haig had become aware of “discontent” in the ranks about the fact that proportionally many more enlisted men were executed for desertion. But there is no evidence linking this to his decision to confirm Dyett’s sentence, nor that Dyett was a scapegoat for broad problems rather than a victim of local ill-will, happenstance, and his own failure not only to reach the front lines that day but to explain himself afterwards. And no matter what we might think of Haig, it seems far-fetched to imagine that he would imagine that many British soldiers would be pleased or placated to learn that an officer was shot just for being a poor officer. But somewhere in this there is vindictiveness, and cruelty, and violence applied as a crushing tourniquet to the wounds caused by prior violence.

The reason Dyett–who was not a writer of note–appears here is that he is the figure most responsible for the creation of Harry Penrose, the hero of A.P. Herbert’s novel The Secret Battle. Herbert, currently on leave in England, “may not have known personally that victim of shatteringly cruel circumstances,” but he will learn of the verdict and its execution when he returns to the Hawke Battalion of the Royal Naval Division in a few weeks and be “shaken… to the heart’s core.”

Herbert, hitherto best known as a writer for his contributions to Punch, will learn, from the “subdued talk about the case in the Division,” that there are more sides to the story, and that some officers, at least, considered the actions of the witnesses for the prosecution in Dyett’s court martial to have been vindictive, dishonorable, and cruel. What could have been done differently? Execution renders that question moot, but Herbert’s “distress of mind” will eventually lead to a probing and insightful work of fiction.[1].

But Dyett also left a family, the mother to whom he wrote, and his father, a naval officer, who was, naturally, shocked by the news of his son’s execution. But he did not go quietly into pain and shame–and just as Dyett was a rare officer executed, his father was a rare officer and gentleman bereaved. He could move the levers of British social power much better than most parents of executed men. One direct result of Dyett father’s efforts to clear his name will be the articles in John Bull, published next spring, that first brought public attention to these executions.

It is this ex-post-facto, muckraking newspaper report which I have quoted above. It also included the statement, gathered from a witness long after the events, that Dyett also said “Yes I can face this, but I couldn’t face the Boche.”

Did he? Or is this the “shot at dawn” version of the typical “he went bravely forward, and was killed instantly, and knew no pain” claim in so many letters of condolence. I am at a loss as to how to weigh such accounts, or what to make of Dyett’s awful, sad story. Given that Herbert’s novel does not closely follow his life and contains few dates, there will be few opportunities, if any, to take up Dyett’s afterlife in journalism and fiction. (The Secret Battle mixes, more than most, a story “based on” one man with the author’s own experiences, and Herbert sets the act of debatable cowardice later in the war.) There is a workmanlike book on his life and death which I have relied upon for these posts, and there is Herbert’s novel, written mostly in 1918, which I very much recommend. Without directly taking on the dire question of the “needs” of the military bureaucracy or the viciousness of any capital case, Herbert makes a more convincing argument for seeing a “cowardly” break-down as a symptom of very great courage pushed beyond its limits than any tribunal or careful historical reconsideration could.

And as for today, a century back, and the written scraps of the end of Dyett’s life, all we have are the Padre’s letter to his parents and a doctor’s note on the death warrant. Very different sorts of writing, really.

“His mind was as clear and thoughtful as anyone could wish; not a tremor or moment of fear” wrote the man who sat with him “for an hour” after his sentence was read out, and whom Dyett thanked in that last letter. And the doctor merely appended a note to the death warrant, after the affirmation that the sentence was “duly carried out at St. Firmin at 7.30am,” asserting, naturally, that “death was instantaneous.”

The War Diary of the Nelson Battalion makes no mention of the execution of one of its officers.[2]

 

Well. Courage–what it once meant, and what it might mean now–will continue to be a very prominent subject this year, one which Sassoon, Owen, Edwin Vaughan and others will return to again and again.

 

Oddly, today–but perhaps this is palliative happenstance–there are three notably undramatic letters from writers, each telling something different of their humdrum, stressful existence in wartime, yet away from guns fired in anger (or, more to the point, at people).

First, D.H. Lawrence wrote to Eddie Marsh from his pacifist’s retreat in Cornwall. Lawrence isn’t really a war writer at all, and yet his experience is broadly relevant to “our” writers, at least as a comparandum… so I will excerpt briefly from it, as a sort of flying reminder that some very significant writers sat out the war entirely, and dealt with the consequences.

5 Jan. 1917.

Dear Eddie—

It now behoves me to bestir myself, lest I find myself merely an ignominious dependent, so I come to you for advice. You know I finished a novel, “Women in Love,” which I know is a masterpiece;—but it seems it will not find a publisher. It is no good, I cannot get a single thing I write published in England…

I know it is no good writing for England any more. England wants soothing pap, and nothing else, for its literature; sweet innocent babe of a Britannia! Therefore I have got to get out some way or other. Do you think they would let me get to New York? I know I could make a living there…

As for the War, I don’t want even to mention it, it is such a nausea in my soul. We both want something new, not to have to do with this old mess at all.

I have got enough money to take us to America, if we could go fairly soon. You know they gave me total exemption from military service on score of health. Or do you think I might get some little job, away off in one of the Pacific Islands, where we could both live in peace? I don’t want to have anything to do whatsoever with quarrelling nations. If I could have some little peaceful job to do, I would do it and be thankful. But not in England—I couldn’t stand it.

Perhaps you will think this all vague and foolish. I merely want you to tell me if you think I could carry it out at all.

Yours

D. H. Lawrence.[3]

 

And Edward Thomas, a man with dependents, less money, health problems that could probably have disqualified him, and a healthy loathing for war and militarism… has overcome all these obstacles to become a willing–even, by some accounts, a proud–officer in the Royal Artillery. He reports on his circumstances, today, to his old friend Gordon Bottomley.

5 January 1917 244 Siege Battery, Tin Town, Lydd, Kent

My dear Gordon,

I haven’t long to wait. We go out at the end of the month with six-inch howitzers & I am just going home for my last leave. Then tomorrow week we leave here for Codford on Salisbury Plain to get our guns & stores.

Well, there is not much to say except that I hope we shall often meet again & after a not very long interval. We have done our shooting & except for the critical audience I did not mind it at all. It is amusing to be a ‘Young Officer’ hauled over the coals by the Commandant for a quite imaginary offence. It will be a change to be in France & be judged simply by what one does or doesn’t do. I have a good pair of field glasses & my ears can stand the racket, so I can only fail because I couldn’t succeed. I have practically no chance of promotion.

I shall first handle a Section of two guns & take it in turns to go to the trenches to observe.

Give my love to Emily.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas 2nd Lieut.[4]

Thomas will head from Lydd to London, spending the first night of his mobilization leave with his parents in London.

 

Thomas is alone in looking forward to his next experience–and in asking nothing of his influential friend. Third and last of the great English writers writing, today, is Ford Madox Hueffer, to his old pal (and national propaganda chief) C.F.G. Masterman:

No. II Red X Hospital
Rouen, BEF, 5.1.17

My dear C. F. G.,

I haven’t written before, partly because of unsettlement & partly because I have been too ill for some time to write cheerfully—& I am tired of writing uncheerfully.

I got to the base camp & was greeted with the news that I was re-attached to the IX Welch—wh., I am informed, was meant amiably!—But it did not seem to me to be very tactful; for, if that particular C. O. didn’t want me, I still more actively didn’t want that C. O. So I protested rather vigourously, though unofficially. En attendant they—I don’t really know who, as things are confused here—gave me various polyglot jobs that rather amused me—writing proclamations in French about thefts of rations issued to H. B. M.’s forces & mounting guards over German sick. In the meantime my lungs intervened, wh. is not to be wondered at as what I was doing meant getting wet thro’ & coming in to write for a couple of hours in a stifling room, often getting wet through some more & then sleeping in a dripping hut. So, when it came to being really examined my lungs were found to be in a devil of a way…

The lungs are almost certainly bad enough, as he asserts. Ford is in poor shape physically, but he has a strange (given the rest of his personality) and very great pride in his presence at France. Not that he is not looking forward to a rest cure in the south of France, where sand and casinos replace mud and bombardments.

And yet I think we can trust Ford a certain way, too, on his other more or less disabling problem: the psychological after-effects of bombardment. His “hell of a funk,” below, is increasingly recognized as shell shock–a serious condition rather than a short-term indication of nervous damage or, worse, weakness. In another generation it will be “combat fatigue,” and then PTSD. Here it is in its literary infancy, as it were…

Such is my short & simple story: I think I shall be sent to Menton pretty soon & I shd. be fairly contented if I didn’t chafe at the inactivity. But of course I couldn’t very well be active even at writing proclamations because all day I am as stupid as an owl & all night I lie awake & perceive the ward full of Huns of forbidding aspect—except when they give me a sleeping draft.

I am in short rather ill still & sometimes doubt my own sanity–indeed, quite frequently I do. I suppose that, really, the Somme was a pretty severe ordeal, though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time. Now, however, I find myself suddenly waking up in a hell of a funk—& going on being in a hell of a funk till morning. And that is pretty well the condition of a number of men here. I wonder what the effect of it will be on us all, after the war–& on national life and the like. I fancy amenity of manners will suffer a good deal–for most of us who were once civil spoken enough have become arrogant fit intolerant…

If I only had a pen & could still use it & it wasn’t war time & I wasn’t a bit dotty, I wd. shew you, my dear, what I cd. do as a political writer!

…Well, God bless you, mon vieux! May MCMXVII give you all you want. Give my love to Lucy fit thank her, will you, for her p.c. What nice kids! I wish I had a son.

Yrs.[5]

Hm. Someone should write a thumping great modernist novel on this sort of theme, with, let’s say, a brilliant, corpulent, shell-shocked officer (and, naturally, a beautiful and brilliant younger woman) at its heart.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Pound, A. P. Herbert, 53.
  2. Death for Desertion, 77-81.
  3. A Number of People, 230-1.
  4. Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 276-77.
  5. Letters, 81-3.

Winston Churchill, Late to the Wake

Raymond Asquith has been dead for two and a half months. His friends were numerous–Winchester friends, Balliol friends, fellow members of the social set known as the Coterie–and many of them have written to his widow Katherine. But some haven’t yet been able to steel themselves to that task.

We’ll turn over today to Asquith’s… political friend Winston Churchill. Curiously, this former naval person (and recent desultory Western Front battalion commander) writes to the widow just as her father-in-law’s long-beleaguered government is finally collapsing.

I really could not bring myself to write to you before. The uselessness of anything I could say pressed so upon me that I thought I would wait till later on. But you will have to understand how profoundly and keenly I sympathise with you in your unspeakable sorrow, and how truly I grieve myself for the loss of my brilliant hero-friend.

I always had an intense admiration for Raymond, and also a warm affection for him; and both were old established ties… I remember so vividly the last time I saw him–at Montreuil in early May. We sat or strolled for two hours on the old ramparts in bright sunshine, and talked about the war, about the coming offensive, about his son, about all sorts of things. I like to dwell on these war-time memories. These gallant charming figures that flash and gleam amid the carnage–always so superior to it, masters of their souls, disdainful of death and suffering–are an inspiration and an example to all. And he was one of the very best. He did everything easily–I never remember anyone who seemed so independent of worldly or physical things: and yet he enjoyed everything and had an appreciation of life and letters and men and women, and manners and customs refined and subtle to the last degree. Oh how unbearable it must be for you to have lost him! How vain must these and all other words be to ease your grief.

Still you will be brave, you will try like him to smile at fate, and meet it on equal terms. You will remember how many friends you have, and think of the days to come when your little boy will revive his image and carry into the forefront of his country’s service the name that all will honour.[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Raymond Asquith, Life and Letters, 15.

Phillip Maddison Follows a Coffin; Vera Brittain’s Adventure Abroad Begins; Bimbo Tennant’s Grave; Arthur Graeme West Against the War

London was waking up this morning to the aftermath one of the worst zeppelin raids of the war. Henry Williamson, omnivorous novelist of the war’s notable actions, made use of this event to secure an awkward rapprochement between Phillip Maddison and his father–and to kill off Lily Cornford, the girl who was not good enough for him (socially) and too good for him (morally).

This morning, a century back, Phillip saw the twenty-two coffins of the German air crew, accompanied by an RFC honor guard, and fell in behind, reflecting on what has become a touchstone text of the novel.

Last of all walked Phillip, feeling lost, wondering if the spirits of the dead men were lingering in the autumn air, looking down, faintly curious, at the poor little bodies below. Was Lily there, too? He felt that the dead would not be angry, nor would they know any more fear. If only he could write poetry in which his feelings, and the scenes he had known, would live forever, like Julian Grenfell’s poem.[1]

But he can’t, and, inasmuch as Williamson’s hard-driven and haphazardly-elaborated themes can be summarized, the death of Lily and Phillip’s segue away from a period of Grenfell-idealizing (in which, not coincidentally, he performs bravely under fire on the Somme after several early instances of experiencing panic under fire) into a more introspective mode. We’ll pick up Phillip’s story in the next volume, when he is in France once more.

 

In a truer but somewhat attenuated incidence of historical irony, the raid qualified as something like a near miss for Vera Brittain. Yesterday she had bid farewell to her mother and brother in Camberwell before setting off for her eponymous liner. As her brother Edward will write, bombs fell on the site of their goodbyes not twenty-four hours after she had left to brave the threat of German submarines for hazardous service abroad: “The windows of the White Horse were smashed–just where Mother and I passed that morning after saying good-bye to you.”

We have come as far as air raids and U-boats: Julian Grenfell and the heroic tradition be damned, there is no need to go “Into Battle–” modern war will come to you.

And yet, if War brings movement and new opportunity–combined with manageable levels of danger and deprivation–it is not going to shake entirely free of its long conceptual partnership with Romance. Today is also the beginning of an adventure for a young woman who, for all the misery of hospital service and the death of her beloved, has been sheltered from both the terrors and the freedoms that 20th century war can bring… Malta is very far from Buxton.

Sunday September 24th Britannic

First thing in the morning Gower & I wandered over the ship, exploring the lower wards. A hospital ship is a very wonderful thing, but when I saw the swinging iron cots & realised the stuffiness of the lower decks even when empty, I was thankful that fate had not ordered me to serve on a hospital ship. We heard during the morning that our voyage was going to be much longer than we had hitherto supposed, for the Britannic, being too large to put in at Malta, would go straight to Mudros…

I felt no especial pang when I saw England disappear; it was all part of the hard path which I have assigned to myself to tread. So that my chief sentiments were much those of Roland’s verse written from my point of view (how truly prophetic He did not know) & which came into my mind as I stood on the boat deck–

I walk alone, although the way is long,
And with gaunt briars & nettles overgrown;
Though little feet are frail, in purpose strong
I walk alone.

And again I had that very strong feeling that in spite of the long distance that there was to be between me & all the people I loved, I was not really going very far away, and that no separation, so long as those who were separated were still on earth, could be so very great.[2]

Ah, but she is being brave. Looking back, Brittain will admit to terror.

Now that the perils of the sea were really at hand, the terror that had hung over me since I volunteered for foreign service and for one grim second had gripped me by the throat when Betty told me that we were going to Malta, somehow seemed less imminent. The expensive equipment of our cabins was illogically reassuring; those polished tables and bevelled mirrors looked so inappropriate for the bottom of the sea… it was difficult on so warm and calm an evening to convince one’s self that at any moment might come a loud explosion, followed by a cold, choky death in the smooth black water…[3]

 

This is a young imagination, only–although the threat of submarines is all too real. But young Bim Tennant, as polished and bevelled a young man as any mother could wish for, is really dead.

Today, a century back, his hasty grave was consolidated by the survivors of his battalion. His commanding officer’s letter to the family is the first of many letters of condolence which Lady Glenconner will receive and later excerpt in her memoir:

… We all loved him, and his loss is terrible. Please accept my deepest sympathy. His Company was holding a sap occupied by Germans and ourselves, a block separated the two. Bim was sniping when he was killed absolutely instantaneously by a German sniper. His body is buried in a cemetery near Guillemont. The grave is close to that of Raymond Asquith, and we are placing a Cross upon it and railing it round to-day. Forgive this scribble, we are still in action, and attack again to-morrow morning. Bim was such a gallant boy.

Yours very sincerely,

Henry Seymour,

Lt.-Col., 4th Batt. Grenadier Guards.[4]

 

Perhaps, with Bimbo Tennant dead and buried and the Somme not yet behind us, this is a good time to turn to an officer-writer I’ve been neglecting. Arthur Graeme West is as near to the temperamental opposite of Bim as we are likely to find. A gentle, quiet, middle-class Public Schoolboy, West had gone to Balliol and taken an interest in modern philosophy and radical politics. After some soul-searching he had tried for a commission in 1914, but was turned down, like so many others, due to poor eyesight. But the Public Schools Battalion accepted him, and he saw the trenches in 1915, including hard fighting over the winter of 1915-16. Not much of his writing from this period, however, is available, and so we met him only briefly in the spring.

It was then that West was commissioned and trained as an officer, despite his increasingly strong feeling that the war was inexcusable murder. And so, ironically, he missed the slaughter of his old unit on the Somme. He arrived in France earlier this month, an unwilling subaltern of the 6th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and we will now begin to have somewhat regular reports on his feelings and doings.

West is hard to get a handle on–in part because of the vexed nature of the publication of his writing–but by now he is certainly firm in his central conviction: that war is wrong, its evils mitigated neither by heroism nor by the stoic virtues of sacrifice and endurance.

How can a man with such views lead other men? It’s hard to tell; for the time being he works through his problem as if it were his problem alone.

Sunday, Sept. 24th 1916. A Tent.

I am very unhappy. I wish to make clear to myself why, and to thrash out what my desires really tend to.

I am unhappier than I ever was last year, and this not only because I have been separated from my friends or because I am simply more tired of the war.

It is because my whole outlook towards the thing has altered. I endured what I did endure last year patiently, believing I was doing a right and reasonable thing. I had not thought out the position of the pacifist and the conscientious objector, I was always sympathetic to these people, but never considered whether my place ought not been rather among them than where I actually was. Then I came back to England feeling rather like the noble crusader or explorer who has given up much for his friend but who is not going to be sentimental or overbearing about it, though he regards himself as somehow different from and above those who have not endured as he has done…

“This war is trivial, for all its vastness,” says B. Russell, and so I feel. I am being pained, bored, and maddened—and to what end? It is the uselessness of it that annoys me. I had once regarded it as inevitable; now I don’t believe it was, and had I been in full possession of my reasoning powers when the war began, I would never have joined the Army. To have taken a stand against the whole thing, against the very conception of force, even when employed against force, would have really been my happier and truer course.

The war so filled up my perspective at first that I could not see anything close because of it: most people are still like that…

Most men fight, if not happily, at any rate patiently, sure of the necessity and usefulness of their work. So did I
once! Now it all looks to me so absurd and brutal that I can only force myself to continue in a kind of dream-state;
I hypnotise myself to undergo it…

Even granting it was necessary to resist Germany by arms at the beginning—and this I have yet most carefully to examine—why go on?

Can no peace be concluded?

Is it not known to both armies that each is utterly weary and heartsick?

Of course it is. Then why, in God’s name, go on?

…The argument drawn from the sufferings of the men in the trenches, from the almost universal sacrifices to duty, are not valid against this. Endurance is hard, but not meritorious simply because it is endurance. We are confronted with two sets of martyrs here–those of the trenches, and those of the tribunal and the civil prison, and not by any means are the former necessarily in the right.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 446.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 328-9.
  3. Testament of Youth, 295-6.
  4. Memoir, 238.
  5. Diary..., 109-11.

Bimbo Tennant’s Shoot-Out in Gas Alley

gas-alleycrop

The scrap of nowhere, northeast of Delville Wood, where Bim Tennant died. “Gas Alley” is the trench that runs across the center of the map, from southwest (where the transition from blue to red marks the ownership of the trench as of a few days ago) to the northeast.

The Somme battle was in a lull between major attacks today, a century back. The 4th Grenadiers had been sent up yesterday to help prepare the way for the next stab at the third German line. North of Ginchy, between Longueval toward Flers, there was a tangle of trenches where an earlier push had entered the German lines and then been halted.

The Grenadiers did not go “over the top” yesterday as Bimbo Tennant had expected, but found more painstaking work before them. They had to fight sideways through a trench system, up communications trenches that had been blocked by the German defenders, who then withdrew and lay in ambush.

This was work for Grenadiers indeed. But when Tennant’s friend and company commander Captain Spencer-Churchill[1] went over to try to connect “Gas Alley” with the next bit of trench, he was hit by snipers and wounded.

Tennant, cropped

Edward Wyndham Tennant, by John Singer Sargent, 1915

 

Bim Tennant was less fortunate. Left behind in Gas Alley, he took it upon himself to respond to the short-range Germans sniping, and “occupied his time in shooting at the enemy. Apparently, there was some movement by the Germans which led him to shoot with his revolver, and a moment later he fell dead, shot through the head by one of the enemy’s snipers.”[2]

 

Lady Glenconner (née Pamela Wyndham), was a much-beloved mother. We have so many of Bim’s letters to her, with her loving commentary, and the two seem to have been the best of friends. If there was ever a cross word, it was not preserved.

It seems cruel, in any case, to speculate: Lady Glenconner is a mother of dead children. In the spring she lost an infant far too young to speak, and in the beginning of Autumn, now, she has lost her eldest, all of nineteen years old, the boy who always wrote so sweetly of his love for her.

She will publish his poems and his letters, a continuation of their joint effort, in life. And more: the Sargent drawing Bim had wanted for the frontispiece of a little volume of poems will now be the frontispiece of his mother’s Memoir of his brief life. Productive in grief, Lady Glenconner will also publish many of Bim’s earliest poems and letters to her–overpoweringly sentimental and desperately sad proof of a little boy’s love for his beautiful, loving mother.

I have written before about the difficulty of integrating the writing of grief-stricken parents into this polyphonic project–grief-stricken mothers, for the most part. Lady Glenconner, however, writes sparingly in her own voice, and says much of what she would say in quotation–of young Bim above all. She means to show not only his love of her, but his love of life–both not to be doubted–and also, with some of the poems, his claim to poetic talent.

I’m not sure what to do but include some of what she preserved, here and over the coming days. It’s heartbreaking and, I hope, raw. I’ll close with something of hers, of his (if that makes sense).

But first, one mourner to begin the condoling: Osbert Sitwell, a friend and comrade who had made himself a family friend, is perhaps best positioned to call across the unfathomable gulf that now separates Bim and his mother,

I, though I only have known Bim for two years, feel a gap which can never be filled; I shall always feel the gratitude for his friendship. I am sure he faced death with the marvellous vitality, courage, and love of beautiful ideas and things that always actuated him. His only sorrow in death would be your sorrow, and that of those who loved him. You were always his one thought, and he would never even smoke, because he had promised you, once, not to. He was convinced of a future life. I am sure that a vitality such as his can never be wasted.

It was this same note–Christian, gentle, uplifting–that Lady Glenconner used when it came time for the abrupt transition from the letters of the living boy to the memorials of the dead officer.

The posthumous chapter begins with this epigraph:

“‘Out on thee, Death,’ Justice and Pity said,
‘Why take the young, and let the old go free?’
‘Religion is the worship of the dead,’
Death answered, ‘know ye not? more foolish ye.
How could Below look upward to Above
Did not these die, whom Gods and Mothers love?'”

F. W. Bain

Then there is a brief quotation from Tennyson–“That death whose truer nature is Onward. . . “–and Lady Glenconner’s brief confirmation of what every reader must already know:

On the 22nd September, 1916, Bim went on.[3]

But what could be as sad as this?bimbo-tennants-dedication-to-moth

References and Footnotes

  1. Edward George, I believe, a cousin at some distance to Winston.
  2. The Grenadier Guards in the Great War, II, 137.
  3. Memoir, 237-9.

Raymond Asquith Mourned and Remembered; Ford Madox Hueffer in the Light of the Moon

It has been two days since the assault of the 15th, which we can now describe as the opening of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. C.E. Montague continues to roam the margins of the recent battlefield.

Sept. 17.–To outskirts of Martinpuich. Many of our dead on ridge. More Germans in sunken lane under trees. Millions of flies black on them. Blackened faces. Open eyes staring up at sky as if asking whether there is any god anywhere.[1]

Some, of course, asked this question from their living lips, or from their quick and nimble pens. But Raymond Asquith–or those who loved him, at least, were spared this after-fate. Asquith was buried in a British cemetery just behind the lines, the day he died, under a heavy German bombardment.

Rumor flew, once, to the wives and mothers of slain soldiers, but in modern war she makes her way slowly back through the ruinous aftermath of a battle, trudging down communications trenches into a day or two of bureaucratic limbo. Then after this first slow progress she bursts like a MIRV, speeding grief to all those who might feel it most.

I don’t know when, exactly, Katherine Asquith received the telegram, but today is likely. As for how she took this worst of news, we have the testimony of Diana Manners, her friend and her husband’s Coterie-mate. Asquith’s last letter, it seems, was to Diana rather than to Katherine. Written literally on the eve of battle, it did not overstate his chances in the coming attack. Perhaps Asquith needed to worry someone other than his wife, or perhaps a letter to Katherine is lost. Perhaps, too, he was just being realistic–seventeen officers in his battalion were killed or wounded on the 15th.[2]

But whatever his reasons, the dark tone of that last letter had left Diana Manners terrified.

She did not often pray, but she spent much of the next two days on her knees, once in church before a lighted candle. Her state was so desperate that it was almost a relief when the news arrived. The pain, she said, was physical: ‘a sensation never before felt… my brain is revolving so fast, screaming “Raymond killed, my divine Raymond killed” over and over again… I have lost with him my energy and hope and all that blinds one to life’s horror. I loved him a little better than any living soul and the near future seems unfaceable.’

But Raymond wasn’t her husband, and there were other bright and dashing men among her intimate friends. Manners immediately rushed to Mells, where she found her old friend Katherine Asquith “crouched in a dark room,” “too dead a thing to seek death, only craving to die from numbness.”[3]

There she cared for her friend as best she could, but with death as with life, rivalry. Soon the widow’s superior mourning rights would begin to chafe the never-exceeded Diana, and the two women separated. Manners had her work as a nurse and Katherine Asquith had her children, and despair had, eventually, to be turned aside.

A sampling, now, of the eulogies.

First, Maurice Baring, of the coterie and the Royal Flying Corps, who gives our grounding in today, a century back.

On the 17th, while I was showing a party of Russians round the Aerodrome, someone casually told me that Raymond Asquith had been killed.

εἶπέ τις, Ἡράκλειτε, τεὸν μόρον[4]

That is,

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

Baring turns next to the implicit question that the death of a promising man raises:

What a waste people said, when they thought of his brilliant brain, his radiant wit, his mastery of language, his solid scholarship, and all his rare gifts. But it wasn’t a waste, and never for one moment did I think so.

Raymond’s service at the front was the crown and purpose of his life. A purpose fulfilled to a noble close. He loved being in the Army as much as he had hated being at the Bar. He went on with his life in the Army where he had left it off at Oxford, and he died in a second miraculous spring; and by being in the Army and being what he was, and doing what he did, in the way he did it, he made it a little easier for us to win the war.[5]

The epilogue to the Life and Letters volume includes passed-along praise from Asquith’s men. His batman, the unforenamed Needham,

added in a letter to Katharine that ‘such coolness under shell fire as Mr. Asquith displayed would be difficult to equal’. The tributes that were paid to his courage and sang-froid were by no means confined to the privileged circle in which so much of his life had been spent. Another private soldier in his platoon wrote home to an old schoolmaster at Walworth Vicarage in south London: ‘There is not one of us who would not have changed places with him if we had thought that he would have lived, for he was one of the finest men who ever wore the King’s uniform, and he did not know what fear was…’

 

One by one, their friends gathered themselves and wrote to Katherine:

Baring dared–I think that’s the right word–to argue at once for a meaningful death: “R. having gone will make it more difficult for everyone who knew him to bear the war—and yet, dearest Katharine, I feel his death to be the most triumphant of all his brilliant achievements . . . only there is no one who ever lived who will be so much missed.”

Winston Churchill took months to write–out of an excess of emotion, he claimed, rather than a refusal to face a difficult task. He walks the line between acknowledging loss and asserting consolation with a bit more grace:

I always had an intense admiration for Raymond, and also a warm affection for him; and both were old established ties… These gallant charming figures that flash and gleam amid the carnage–always so superior to it, masters of their souls, disdainful of death and suffering–are an inspiration and an example to all. And he was one of the very best.[6]

Aubrey Herbert managed a more human tone, and addressed not only the loss of Raymond–“A great bit of our life has gone with Raymond, the bit that was full of light”[7]–but also the coming and continuing suffering of his widow: “It is always best to be brave, and now there is nothing else, but who has had to give what you have given?”

Who else? Let’s see: John Buchan will break into his own memoir to write an extended eulogy for Asquith. It squeaks a bit on the highest notes–one imagines Asquith chortling in Elysion to hear himself compared to a Byzantine object stripped of ornament and revealed as a Phidias–but then comes back down to praise a man recognizable from his letters: “He disliked emotion, not because he felt lightly but because he felt deeply… War meant to him the shattering of every taste and interest, but he did not hesitate.”[8] Buchan goes on to praise his “perfect lucidity of mind and precision of phrase” and “pale grace.” “Our roll of honour is long, but it holds no nobler figure.[8]

But I think I will give the last word on Raymond Asquith to Diana Manners. In some ways, at least, each loved the other best. For her this was “…the worst of all our losses… By his death everything changed, except the war that ground its blind murderous treadmill round and round without retreat or advance, with no sign of the beginning of the end.”[10]

 

I have exhausted us with condolence, I think, and yet it feels, even a century on, like grim and unrewarding reading. In our pale, century-gone following-up, there is also nothing to do but be brave, in a small way, and keep reading. So it falls to Ford Madox Hueffer–a most unlikely candidate for the offering of oblique solace–to provide the “moving on” poem.

First, though, a quick note. There was too much, two days ago, to discuss the dated manuscript of an essay on war writing, which he called “A Day of Battle,” appropriately enough (although he was in the Salient, and knew nothing of the Guards at Flers-Courcelette). Which is a shame, because it is very much on point. Ford has been prolific of late, and in several genres, but I realized to my surprise that his essay’s opening claim is actually accurate: “I have asked myself continuously why I can write nothing… about the psychology of the Active Service of which I have seen my share. And why cannot I even evoke pictures of the Somme or the flat lands around Ploegsteert?…”

This is a problem for a novelist, naturally. Ford’s first attempt at a war novel, entitled “True Love & a GCM,” features a protagonist, Morton, who suffers from memory problems after being concussed by a shell and is stuck with the battalion transport when he would prefer either to be in the trenches or on the staff… a familiar-sounding chap. And today, a century back, in the novel’s chronology, Morton gets a whiff of gas from a German gas shell that lands nearby–I do not know if this is a “real” date or not.[11]

But if it was, it didn’t stop Ford from writing another strange and winsome poem which parlays the ironic contrast of trenches and conventional poetic effects into a wistful (but also somewhat ungainly–can poetry lumber and still be wistful?) love poem:

 

Clair de Lune

I

I should like to imagine
A moonlight in which there would be no machine-guns!
For, it is possible
To come out of a trench or a hut or a tent or a church all in ruins:
To see the black perspective of long avenues
All silent.
The white strips of sky
At the sides, cut by the poplar trunks:
The white strips of sky
Above, diminishing–
The silence and blackness of the avenue
Enclosed by immensities of space
Spreading away
Over No Man’s Land. . . .
For a minute . . .
For ten . . .
There will be no star shells
But the untroubled stars,
There will be no Very light
But the light of the quiet moon Like a swan. And silence. . . .

Then, far away to the right thro’ the moonbeams “Wukka Wukka” will go the machine-guns,
And, far away to the left
Wukka Wukka.
And sharply,
Wuk . . . Wuk. . . and then silence
For a space in the clear of the moon.

II

I should like to imagine
A moonlight in which the machine-guns of trouble
Will be silent. . . .

Do you remember, my dear,
Long ago, on the cliffs, in the moonlight,
Looking over to Flatholme
We sat. . . . Long ago! . . .
And the things that you told me . . . .
Little things in the clear of the moon,
The little, sad things of a life. . . .

We shall do it again
Full surely,
Sitting still, looking over at Flatholme.

Then, far away to the right
Shall sound the Machine Guns of trouble
Wukka-wukka!
And, far away to the left, under Flatholme,
Wukka-wuk! . . .

I wonder, my dear, can you stick it?
As we should say: “Stick it, the Welch!”
In the dark of the moon,
Going over. . . .

Nieppe, near Plugstreet, 17/9/16

References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C.E. Montague, 143.
  2. I have depended for my Asquith narrative on the published Life and Letters, which mentions the last letter to Manners but does not include it. Which is very curious, but I do not know why.
  3. Ziegler, Diana Cooper, 78. This probably occurred a day or two hence, given that Ziegler allows two days after receiving Asquith's letter of the 14th before she heard the news. But surely Manners would have learned not long after the official telegram was sent to Mells--she was in London and knew many people with War Office or Grenadier Guards connections
  4. The epigram continues: ἐς δέ με δάκρυ ἤγαγεν, ἐμνήσθην δ᾽ ὁσσάκις ἀμφότεροι. Really, this is kind of an annoying move, because even in an ideal world of Asquiths and Shaw-Stewarts and shell-hole-Aeschylus-readers like Macmillan, pretty much everyone still had to look up Greek. Latin tags? Well, hey, maybe, because even the non-classicists had to absorb a few dozen in school. But not Greek. While this bit of Callimachus is very well known, it was surely very much better known to the vast majority of Baring and Asquith's contemporaries in its English translation. So I will break in with William Johnson Cory's chiming couplet.
  5. Baring, R.F.C.H.Q., 178-9.
  6. A Deep Cry, 151.
  7. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 185.
  8. Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  9. Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  10. Autobiography, 149.
  11. War Prose, 36, 128.