George Coppard’s Military Medal, and Soup Ticket; Olaf Stapledon’s Transporting Domestic Scene

George Coppard brought his machine gun all the way to Cambrai, and his battered body back out of it, and to blighty. His officer knows that he was evacuated with a serious but not life-threatening wound, but not, perhaps, just how painful his recovery has been. Still, who wouldn’t want to receive such a note–as Coppard did today, a century back–to say nothing of its enclosure?

Dear Coppard,

Herewith I have great pleasure in enclosing your Soup Ticket. I have also great pleasure in informing you that you have been awarded the Military Medal. Please accept my heartiest congratulations…

W.D. Garbutt

The Soup ticket was a blue linen card, which read:

Your Commanding Officer and Brigade Commander have informed me that you have distinguished yourself by your conduct in the field.

I have read their report with much pleasure.

A B Scott
Major General
Commanding 12th Division[1]

 

Our only other bit today is a long letter from Olaf Stapledon to Agnes Miller, begun yesterday. The Friends Ambulance Unit is not your typical company–but neither is Stapledon your typical writer. This is a wonderfully detailed “characters of the company” piece, with something in common with every trench/dugout genre-painting-in-words as well as with the academic-studded salon world of Cynthia Asquith (whom we will read in two days’ time) or Ottoline Morrell.

But it is written by Olaf Stapledon (as I may have already mentioned once or twice) and so it is no pat pen-portrait or workmanlike sketch. By the end it will be a subtle response to Agnes’s questions about the justice of conscription and of pacifism–but that, perhaps, we will notice less than the fact that it is a beautiful lamp-lit fantasia, an act of teleportation by literary will. Read to the end, and find that Agnes herself has been summoned to view the scene, from all across the world, to witness the life of a group of men who will serve but not fight. And so it might feel that we, too, have been summoned, from over a century and back…

12 January 1918

. . . If you were here just now, sitting with me in this comparatively quiet corner of our billet, we would watch and listen together. Round the stove there is a ring of vigorous talkers all arguing rather flippantly about socialism. [Denis] Goodall, commonly called Saul, is the centre of it, and I fear he is doing no good to the cause with his flippancy and his knack of getting people’s backs up. But really he is sincere and kindly and clear-headed. At dinner today Saul was forcibly carried out because he was supposed to have purloined the cheese of another table. But look, beside me sits Richardson, the “Prof,” setting out on an evening of mathematical calculations, with his ears blocked with patent sound deadeners. Over in yon corner is a little quiet bridge party, smoking and talking softly together. Over on that bed (lower story) sits David Long formerly of Manchester University. He has settled down for a quiet read by the light of his hurricane lamp. That little fellow in the top bed squatting on his kit bag and writing, is Tom Ellis, one of the workshop staff. He comes from Manchester too, and speaks with a Manchester accent. He is almost deformed, & was once paralyzed on one side, but he is full of life and has a heart of gold. Funny lad! He sings musical songs in a piercing voice, and can be very rowdy and unrefined; yet he is passionately fond of Dickens and Shakespeare, and yesterday at our reading of “Othello” he took the title part, and did it really well. It was a revelation, such strong yet restrained feeling he put into it. On that other upper bed is little [John] Rees, the head of our motor stores department, a quiet but firm young person, rather aloof from the general ruck, a good Christian in all senses. He was Desdemona, but did not put enough expression into the part. Did you hear that cynical tenor laugh? That was Robertson the Scotch artist. He is behind the centre block of beds. Of him one feels that underneath layers and layers of woolly muddled thought and egotism there must really be some secret splendour of Life. I guess he is the laziest and most selfish of us all, but somehow one feels more sorry for him than angry with him, because of the said sadly overlaid splendour of love for pure beauty. Poor lonely fellow. He never gets to know anyone, simply because he affects a strange attitude of superior bantering. There in front us sits [Francis] Wetherall, the head mechanic and engineer, grey-haired, spectacled, reading some heavy tome on rationalism. He is a close man. No one knows much about him, save that he has a strong unrefined sense of humour, an astounding command of bad language when he is wrath, and a faculty for singing funny Irish songs. He does far more work than anyone else. He is never happy unless working or reading some scientific book. He wears a wedding ring and is a confirmed old bachelor. He is self-educated with a vast disorganised or rather ill-proportioned store of information and ideas about evolution and natural science. Here beside me,—no, beside you, who sit between him & me—sits Teddy. You know him. He is rather laboriously writing a letter, and now & then turning in our direction to ask for light upon nice points of syntax. Teddy is gradually beginning to take more interest in the great world. He regularly borrows my “Nation” (most glorious of all journals) and my “Common Sense.” Formerly his ideal seemed to be to keep clean and hale and full of the joy of pure life, and to be infinitely and unobtrusively kind to his neighbours. Now, he is more than that without having dropped any of that. Teddy’s only fault is a lack of push, not of strength, for he is as firm as a rock. Perhaps the push will come later. Anyhow lack push too, so I must not complain. Between you and the Prof sits Stap who has just had his hair cut very short and has suffered much chaff on the score of the visibility of a long scar that has been thereby laid bare on his head. “Daddy, what did you do in the great war?” “Look at my head, young man.” But alas it was only an artillery man’s boot! This same neighbour of yours is grimy, like the rest of us, and he is shy of sitting by you in such a grubby state. Otherwise he is much as you knew him, though (on dit) thinner. His right hand neighbour is the girl I think I see her sitting with her elbows on the table looking round at people with a curious, interested smile, her face lit by the hurricane lamp. I think I see her brows drawn together in a puzzled expression as she wonders exactly why each of these people is here and not in the trenches. They look a pretty healthy, sturdy lot, don’t they, and unashamed. Listen! There goes Harry Locke discussing Australian politics. I expect you would say he knows nothing about them. Perhaps, but I think he knows something about world politics, of which yours are a part. But goodnight now, dear Agnes. My pen is running dry, & it is bed time. . . .[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 132.
  2. Talking Across the World, 269-72.

Robert Graves Rattles a Poetic Sabre at Siegfried Sassoon; Ivor Gurney on Edward Thomas, but not Marion Scott

One sign of the strain in the friendship between Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon is that this letter sounds less like half of an epistolary dialogue than like a two-handed conversation between Graves and himself.

11 January 1918

My dear Sassons

I’m sure if you bit old Flood’s ear nicely you could get leave to come to the wedding. Should be rather a rag as all the best sort of people will be there: no relations but a very few will be allowed to come on after the ceremony to drink champagne at the studio in Appletree Yard, only the elect people of God will be there… The date is fixed for January 23rd: meanwhile I have been to see Sir James Fowler re chests and so on and he says it’s no good my going on active service though my lungs are soundish. Says I’ll break down. So I stay back I suppose: it seems rather silly after all my sabre rattling: still I suppose it’s good news for Nancy…

I have just written a poem that Robbie says is a masterpiece. It seemed all right when I casually examined it the morning afterwards… I think it’s rather a hit… Called ‘The God Poetry.’..

Love

Robert.[1]

Does Graves suspect that Sassoon will not exert himself to come to the wedding? Wangling leave from Ireland might be a bit difficult even for a not-recent-ex-protester/hospitalized officer, and Sassoon has shown no inclination to want to come…

It’s tempting, then, to read Graves’s new ode to the power of poetry as a reminder to Sassoon of what binds them together–or should bind them together, in Graves’s view of things. But it’s not clear if he sent a copy of the poem with the letter or only mentioned it, to dangle before Graves. In any case, it can also read as an example of how different–despite their friendship and the mutual enthusiasm of 1916 to mid-1917–their approaches to poetry actually are.

Now I begin to know at last,
These nights when I sit down to rhyme,
The form and measure of that vast
God we call Poetry, he who stoops
And leaps me through his paper hoops
A little higher every time.

 

Tempts me to think I’ll grow a proper
Singing cricket or grass-hopper
Making prodigious jumps in air
While shaken crowds about me stare
Aghast, and I sing, growing bolder
To fly up on my master’s shoulder
Rustling the thick stands of his hair.

 

He is older than the seas,
Older than the plains and hills,
And older than the light that spills
From the sun’s hot wheel on these.
He wakes the gale that tears your trees,
He sings to you from window sills.

 

At you he roars, or he will coo,
He shouts and screams when hell is hot,
Riding on the shell and shot.
He smites you down, he succours you,
And where you seek him, he is not.

 

To-day I see he has two heads
Like Janus—calm, benignant, this;
That, grim and scowling: his beard spreads
From chin to chin: this god has power
Immeasurable at every hour:
He first taight lovers how to kiss,
He brings down sunshine after shower,
Thunder and hate are his also,
He is YES and he is NO.

 

The black beard spoke and said to me,
‘Human fraility though you be,
Yet shout and crack your whip, be harsh!
They’ll obey you in the end:
Hill and field, river and marsh
Shall obey you, hop and skip
At the terrour of your whip,
To your gales of anger bend.’

 

The pale beard spoke and said in turn
‘True: a prize goes to the stern,
But sing and laugh and easily run
Through the wide airs of my plain,
Bathe in my waters, drink my sun,
And draw my creatures with soft song;
They shall follow you along
Graciously with no doubt or pain.’

 

Then speaking from his double head
The glorious fearful monster said
‘I am YES and I am NO,
Black as pitch and white as snow,
Love me, hate me, reconcile
Hate with love, perfect with vile,
So equal justice shall be done
And life shared between moon and sun.
Nature for you shall curse or smile:
A poet you shall be, my son.’

 

While we are on the subjects of poetry, paeans thereto, and the mutual appreciation of war poets, Ivor Gurney wrote a very long letter today, a century back, to his friend and patroness Marion Scott. After the initial pleasantries, we’ll skip to the most relevant part–the part that puts his judgment years ahead of Graves’s:

11 January 1918

My Dear Friend: Your gift came today, received with pure pleasure and sincere thanks. It looks most fascinating, and will be read as soon as possible. The song is ready written out but must be tested on some piano.

And now I’m going through your long and most interesting letter…

Yes, Edward Thomas is a very poetic soul indeed, and English at the core. Please write about them. Haines knew him intimately, and talks of him a lot…

Interestingly, Scott seems to have tossed her own poems into the midst of a wide-ranging conversation on English poetry. I don’t know what they were like, good, bad, decent, or indifferent. As for Gurney, though he puts up a strong critical barrage, it proves to be a distraction or demonstration–he clearly doesn’t want to tell her what he thinks, which does not bode well…

About your work I am going to be simply honest. I don’t know what to say, and that’s true. Should you go on writing? Well, I care only for Music of strong individuality… It is the same with verse — I care only to hear what I could not do myself; I like what is beyond me.

But as to the use of making a body of English music there is no doubt, whether it has genius or not; but I, who am paralysed by doubt, before writing, as to whether it is worth while or no, cannot be expected to give advice. Literature? Now, could I — could I give any opinion? Can’t you ask Mr Dunhill, who must have read some things of the kind you mean? I am simply in the dark—dont know.

Consider what l am — the semi-invalid who tried to write and the fairly fit man totally out of touch with everything!!!

Your influence may be strong for good anyway, but you have a perfect right to please yourself, not ask hopeless, fed-up, people like myself…

I feel ashamed to close now, but even this must be paid for by writing illicitly tonight after Lights Out… It’s worth it.

You are a good friend indeed. Letters are not here what they are in France, but gratitude (I like G K Cs definition) has not become so dead in me that I am not glad to get your warm hearted vivid letters…

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 91.
  2. War Letters, 238-40.

Epilogue and End for John Lucy; Siegfried Sassoon Goes a-Hunting, and Confesses Cold Feet and Tight Nerves; Wilfred Owen Buys a Nice Table

If one were to suggest that this project might be losing its way, I would protest, and on the following two grounds. First, that its “way” was always to be determined by source-dowsing, as it were, and therefore there is no true path to stray from. We follow the wanderings of the writers we decided to read. Second, I would argue that whatever collective “way” does still exist now leads deliberately away from the war, because those soldier-writers who have survived into the dying days of 1917 intentionally keep their minds as far off the war as possible. And then I would concede that, yes, we’re wandering: there is little hope that the next big push will really be the one, and very little military aspiration left in the old soldiers’ writing. They are dispirited, and hunkering down for duration. And the irony, too, is beginning to turn: they have no idea how short that will be, and the strange form it will take.

But in any case, imaginary reader, don’t worry too much: today’s post will end bloodily and in a trench. But on the way there, today, a century back, we could hardly be less warlike.

Wilfred Owen, for instance, is going antiquing:

Friday Night

Dearest Mother,

…I went to an Auction yesterday, & got an antique side table wondrous cheap. It will arrive addressed to Father at Station. A beautiful old piece—to be my Cottage sideboard. There were none but Dealers at this sale! They would double the price in their shop, I was told…

your W.E.O.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is out for blood, but in peacetime fashion:

Hunted Friday.

Good hunt from Trueleigh Osiers—forty-five minutes. Back to the Stone Staples and to Toddington. Rode Stamp’s old grey.[2]

After which he sat down to write to Robert Graves. And gradually, gradually, the war bleeds back in… until it’s everything again.

7 December

Dear Robert, I am having some leave and return to Litherland next Tuesday. I was passed General Service at Craiglockhart on November 26. The Board asked if I had changed my views on the war, and I said I hadn’t, which seemed to cause surprise. However Rivers obtained, previously, an assurance from a high quarter that no obstacles would be put in the way of my going back to the sausage machine.

I am not sure if I shall go up to this Poetry Show on Wednesday. It will be an awful bore, and means going up for the day from Liverpool. Bob Nichols came to Weirleigh for two nights and was charming. He is quite different when in town among a lot of people.

Ah, the poetry show. Despite surviving the first one, with Nichols, and despite the fact that this newly close friend is organizing the second one, Sassoon is planning to beg off. Typically, he was not direct about this to Nichols (or even explicit in this letter to Graves), who is still hoping that Sassoon will show up to play an agreeable second fiddle to himself in the “young war poets” category at what he hopes will be a notably star-studded charity reading.

Sassoon has a number of reasons for avoiding society, including shyness, laziness, paradoxical displeasure with social success,and  the awkwardness of having to explain the current status of his military career and feelings thereabout. And to come from Liverpool to London to read poetry for five minutes does indeed seem ridiculous… but it’s interesting that he couldn’t tell Nichols that. And less than surprising that Nichols might not understand: Sassoon, for all his flaws, writes to write; he writes as driven by his thoughts and passions, that is, and with a not-entirely-debauched sort of ambition. Nichols, it’s clear, has been bitten by the literary celebrity bug, and wants, unambiguously, to shine. He will be what he needs to be to do so.

Sassoon still wants to figure things out. And, to his credit, he is not willing to make peace with the war. He won’t move on and focus on a poetic career, with the war–and his relationship to it–unresolved. (He is, after all, a healthy young officer in uniform who has been insisting on going back to the front. Nichols has been discharged and Graves is in for the duration but with damaged lungs that will keep him from the front.)

But if Sassoon can’t figure everything out, then he would like, for the moment, to forget. He rides toward the war, or he rides against it.

I forgot the war to-day for fifty minutes when the hounds were running and I was taking the fences on a jolly old
grey horse.

But the safety curtain is always down and I can’t even dream about anything beyond this cursed inferno.

And then, in this letter to a trusted (more or less) friend and (more importantly) a fellow combatant, Sassoon is direct about another fear, the fear that’s always there, inseparable from that other ambition of facing the war and acquitting oneself honestly:

The air-raid on Thursday gave me an awful fright (I was at Half Moon Street). I don’t think I’ll be any good when I get to the war.

Yours S.S.[3]

 

Right–the war!

 

It would seem to be today, a century back, that brought an end to (the epilogue to) John Lucy‘s story. Still, after four days in close proximity to the Germans–sharing the same trench with only a barricade or “block” between them–he finds himself “queerly fascinated” and falls into an old soldier’s trap: trying to deter German belligerence through escalation. His men are being bombarded at close range by heavy German trench mortars–“pineapples”–to which he orders a response of “showers” of grenades.

My scheme did not work. The enemy stubbornly increased to rapid fire, and a bomb fight followed.

When his platoon runs low on ammunition, he orders a response of rifle fire, only, “So the affair simmered down.” Lucy, a responsible and practical officer, then orders a rifle inspection, because “such inspections retain a desirable normal atmosphere, and have a steadying effect.” But they also distract the platoon commanders conducting them. Lucy is telling off a man with a dirty rifle barrel when the next pineapple hits.

I saw my two feet above my head for a moment. I heard no explosion, but to myself I said: ‘This must be it.’ It was. I was benumbed, and I did not feel the slightest pain. Actually there were sixteen holes in me.

The bomb had landed behind the man Lucy was scolding, killing him. The sixteen fragments all passed through his body before wounding Lucy.

Part of my left buttock was blown away. A large lump of metal had passed through one thigh and bruised the other. Another piece was sticking in the bone of the side of my left knee. There were two wounds in my left arm, a small hole in my stomach, and my back was bleeding in a couple of places.

Only the stomach wound worries Lucy, but within a few hours an American doctor at a C.C.S. assures him not only that it is superficial but that he can rest easy in the knowledge that the American army will soon take care of the ongoing unpleasantness. With his revolver and his shredded greatcoat packed away as souvenirs, Lucy is evacuated by ambulance, next to a trembling and mute victim of “shell shock.” In the hospital, in Rouen, he will have a bed next to a man dying from a gangrenous wound in his back, and lie to him when the man asks him to look and see whether the wound is bad.

They took him out at night so that the other patients would not notice. He had died quietly. Alone.

The last dead man I saw in France.

But the writer survives. By the end of the month Lucy will be in England, out of danger, but neither out of pain or back home in Ireland. Each move opens his wounds. It’s a memoir worthy of the tired adjective “unflinching,” but it shrugs through the last pages quickly, and comes to this:

The war was over before they cured me.

I had seen the travail which God had given the sons of men to exercised therewith, and at the beginning of life it was proved to me that great calamity is man’s true touchstone.

THE END[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 515.
  2. Diaries, 197.
  3. Diaries, 196-7.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 386.

Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Wilfred Owen Writes to Siegfried Sassoon, Father-Confessor, Colonel, and Prophet; Lord Dunsany Dines with the Company

Today, a century back, two days after writing, then shelving a way-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen sat down once again to write… a still-pretty-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon. I don’t think it needs much more introduction (or commentary).

5 November 1917

Mahim, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury

This was not the photograph in question, but rather the Philpot portrait (Fitzwilliam Museum); but see below

My dear Sassoon,

When I had opened your envelope in a quiet comer of the Club Staircase, I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by’ (as you would recommend for such effusions) until I could think over the thing without grame.[1]

I have also waited for this photograph.

Show some rich anger if you will. I thank you; but not on this paper only, or in any writing. You gave—with what Christ, if he had known Latin & dealt in oxymoron, might have called Sinister Dexterity. I imagined you were entrusting me with some holy secret concerning yourself. A secret, however, it shall be until such time as I shall have climbed to the housetops, and you to the minarets of the world.

 

There is indeed a slight resemblance between the heretical sun king and the rebel poet

Smile the penny! This Fact has not intensified my feelings for you by the least—the least grame. Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.

What’s that mathematically?

In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.

If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life–however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze. It is some consolation to know that Jupiter himself sometimes swims out of Ken!

If this sounds like a poem, that’s because it soon will be, a long effort entitled “This is the Track” and containing the lines:

To be a meteor, fast, eccentric, lone.
Lawless; in passage through all spheres.
Warning the earth of wider ways’, unknown
And rousing men with heavenly fears.

This marks the end of surely one of the most courageously sustained effusions that Sassoon has ever been subjected to. He must be writhing–and also flattered. Returning to the letter at hand, we find Owen, confident that his outburst of adoration will not have spoiled the friendship, returning to earthly matters:

To come back to our sheep, as the French never say, I have had a perfect little note from Robt. Ross, and have arranged a meeting at 12.30 on Nov. 9th. He mentioned staying at Half Moon St., but the house is full.

I have ordered several copies of Fairies & Fusiliers, but shall not buy all, in order to leave the book exposed on the Shrewsbury counters…

The connection between Sassoon and Owen is intense and important, even if it is not fully reciprocal. Sassoon esteems the young poet, and if he does not seems quite capable of intense warmth without intense passion, he clearly “values the relationship,” as we would say in our mercenary way. And Owen professes love for regard, friendship, and reading/editing/poetic fellowship–these things are the most important.

But Owen is not some blithe innocent or fashionably fancy-free poetic adventurer; he’s an ambitious poet, and Sassoon’s gift of entree into the literary world by means of associations with Roberts Ross and Graves is very welcome too… And it’s endearing that Owen reports his little scheme for drawing attention to Graves’s new book. With self-consciousness of his silliness, sure–but he still reports it.

Sassoon is a beloved friend–loudly and enthusiastically beloved, but still not the be-all-end-all. There is also Owen’s family, and the society of his many friends and contacts from his ergotherapeutic activities.

I am spending happy enough days with my Mother, but I can’t get sociable with my Father without going back on myself over ten years of thought.

What I most miss in Edinburgh (not Craiglockhart) is the conviviality of the Four Boys (L. vivere—to live) Someday, I must tell how we sang, shouted, whistled and danced through the dark lanes through Colinton; and how we laughed till the meteors showered around us, and we fell calm under the winter stars. And some of us saw the pathway of the spirits for the first time. And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so safe beneath us, we praised God with louder whistling; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.

Which, if the Bridge-players Craig & Lockhart could have seen, they would have called down the wrath of Jahveh, and buried us under the fires of the City you wot of.

This would appear to be one of the more open–though still oblique–references to homosexuality in Owen’s edited letters: the fire-buried city in question is surely Sodom, one of the two “Cities of the Plain” which another of our writers (and soon-to-be-path-crosser) will eventually choose as the euphemistic title of the fourth volume of the first English translation of the greatest French novel (or simply novel) then being written (or at any point). Got it?

To which also it is time you committed this letter. I wish you were less undemonstrative, for I have many.adjectives with which to qualify myself. As it is I can only say I am

Your proud friend,

Owen[2]

 

A much less dramatic/interesting/significant letter will play the “secondly, and anticlimactically” role, today. But Lord Dunsany‘s correspondence with Lady Beatrice is suddenly available these days, and perhaps we will wring some insights from it eventually. As it is, however, he seems a bit… aloof.

My Darling Mink,

The officers of D. Company gave me a dinner last night at the Club. We walked back  arm in arm with me in the middle, either to show that that was their natural and usual way of going home, not a necessity, or else to show that if ever I wanted help to get home after dinner, I should have it…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A helpful note from the editor explains that "SS cannot explain this word."
  2. Collected Letters, 504-6.
  3. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 146.

Robert Graves Responds to Siegfried Sassoon’s Latest Provocation, and Writes of Courage, Mutiny, and Fairy Teas; Vivian de Sola Pinto Gets a Blighty After a Bangalore; Frederic Manning’s Last Bender Begins

Siegfried Sassoon is still, technically, supposed to be recuperating from… some sort of mental or neurological condition related to outspokenness. But as he awaits a second chance at pleading himself fit for duty and putting his protest behind him, he seems to spend a great deal of time managing his friendships. Which would be easier if he didn’t have a habit of turning about face and writing cutting letters.

Robert Graves, who can often seem grandiose, unreasonable, and unreliable when telling his own story, comes off as measured, rational, and steadying when he writes to Sassoon.

My dear Sassons,

I don’t remember if I told you that I’ve managed to get struck off the Gibraltar draft and am now waiting orders for Egypt which may come in any time, and then I’ll still be a fortnight in England before going out–then once in Egypt I get a medical board and so on to the land of Canaan. My book is due this week or next…

Graves next passes on an interesting bit of gossip: he has just heard, by word of mouth from an old comrade, about the mutiny at Étaples. So the censorship holds. Graves–here’s an interesting twist on Regimental esprit de corps–is both sympathetic to the mutiny–“(you know how badly they are treated at the Bull Ring)”–and proud that the Royal Welch Fusiliers were considered steady enough to be called in to quell it:

Rather a compliment for the First Battalion being chosen, but rather a rotten job. . . .

Don’t be silly about being dotty: of course you’re sane. The only trouble is you’re too sane which is a great crime as bring dotty and much more difficult to deal with. That’s the meaning of an anti-war complex. You see what other folk don’t see about the rights and wrongs of the show. Personally I think you see too much.

One imagines Graves taking a deep breath before continuing his response to Sassoon’s letter.

About ‘good form’ and ‘acting like a gentleman’. You are purposely perverse in attributing those things to my lips. What I said was ‘The Bobbies and Tommies and so on, who are the exact people whom you wish to influence and save by all your powers, are just the people whose feelings you are going to hurt most by turning round in the middle of the war, after having made a definite contract, and saying “I’ve changed my mind…”

You can only command their respect by sharing all their miseries as far as you possibly can, being ready for pride’s sake to finish your contract whatever it costs you, yet all the time denouncing the principles you are being compelled to further. God know you have ‘done your bit’ as they say, but I believe in giving everything…

‘If you had real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce as you do.’ Sorry you think that of me–I should hate to think I’m a coward. I believe though in keeping to agreements…

It’s quite a letter. Graves segues to more news–the casualties in the 2nd Battalion at Polygon Wood (which Sassoon has learned of from Cotterill)–and then draws a line across the letter.

Below the line comes literary gossip, an awkward “thanks awfully”–a twenty-pound loan seems to have come along with Sassoon’s insulting letter–and a final bit of news that is impossibly unwarlike:

This afternoon, after a busy morning with the Fusiliers, I am going down to Rhyl for the Fairies, not the fairies with rouged lips and peroxide hair but the real fairies: the colonel’s kids have invited me to a special nursery tea and tiddlywinks. It’s going to be great fun. They call me Georgy Giraffe and consider that I must be a damn sight finer fellow than their father who is only 5′ 6″ tall.

Goodbye

God bless you

Robert[1]

 

After such a letter between two of our central figures, updates on two peripheral ones will seem an anticlimax. But the war goes on, and any night in the war of attrition can be a turning point for those on the spot of a bombardment or a raid.

Vivian de Sola Pinto has been in the line near Gouzeaucourt for a month, now, with a Kitchener’s Army battalion of the R.W.F., and he has just been given a dicey task. A “Bangalore Torpedo”–a “new toy” of the “Brass Hats” (which gives us a fair idea of where this is heading!)–has been dropped in No Man’s Land, and Pinto is ordered to take a patrol out to retrieve it. The “torpedo” is a long explosive-filled pipe designed to blow a deep tunnel-like opening into the enemy’s wire obstacles. It is, like so many new toys, dangerous and unwieldy.

But Pinto, fortunately, will not even get as far as being blown up mid-salvage:

…shortly after 10 p.m. (in army language 2200) I crawled into no-man’s-land with a dozen men, including one of our sergeants and a corporal from the party which had dumped the torpedo It was a very dark mild night and a little soft rain was falling. Corporal Jenkins had just whispered to me, ‘I think it was somewhere about here,’ when a German flare went up and heavy machine-gun fire opened on us from several directions. We flung ourselves on our faces and I felt a sharp stab in my right forearm. It was clear that Jerry knew where we were and that the immediate task before me was to get my party out of the trap before they were all killed or captured…. three of our men were dead and most of the rest were wounded. Amid a hail of bullets we managed somehow to get the whole party back to our wire. This was a nightmare experience as we had to make several journeys to carry the dead men and help the wounded…

My right arm was now bleeding profusely, but I tied my handkerchief round it and did my best to help with my left. At last I found myself sitting exhausted on the fire-step in our front line and trying to tell Captain B—— what had happened. Then I lost consciousness and knew nothing till I was awakened by a severe jolting and realized that once more I was on a stretcher and being carried to an advanced dressing station. There they… extracted the bullet from my arm.

When I awoke I found my arm in a sling, was told that the bone was splintered and that I had a nice Blighty…[2]

Pinto will reach Camberwell General just in time for the next Zeppelin raid…

 

And, finally–though this occurred in the evening, well before Pinto’s bloody patrol–Frederic Manning was absent from his battalion’s mess tonight, a century back, in Cork. Given his recent drinking bouts and near-total collapse, this was rather worrisome to his commander, one Major E.F. Milner…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 85-6.
  2. The City That Shone, 208-9.
  3. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.

Alfred Hale Cuts His Teeth on Army Toffee; Jack Martin Admires a Model; Edwin Vaughan on a Long Day’s Journey; Eddie, Bobbie and Ottoline Advise Siegfried Sassoon

I’m going to wager that readers are willing to go through three of our peripheral writers before finding out what Siegfried Sassoon has been up to.

 

Jack Martin‘s diary has been intermittent of late, and, to be frank, a bit boring. But kudos to the young signalman today, a century back, for catching on to a new theme of ours:

Received a parcel of books from Elsie and resumed my office of distributing librarian. The field in which we lives slopes downwards  towards Flêtre and at the bottom of the dip a Hants Corporal is making a model of the ground over which the next advance is to be made by our Brigade. It is really a work of art consisting of only earth, bits of stick and pieces of stone and wire. All the trenches, both ours and the enemy’s, are shown, the whole model being constructed from a large-scale map.[1]

 

And how is the emphatically middle-aged Alfred Hale doing in camp?

10 July: chocolate and other things of a kind fit to make a supper off had run out at the canteen. My weekly parcel of food had not arrived. So while the officers sat down to a good late dinner, I had nothing to eat of an evening but penny bars of toffee. Began to break my false teeth in consequence, as the said bars were very hard to bite.[2]

 

And, from Edwin Vaughan we have a model “battalion on the march” piece. I’ve cut the “diary” down a bit, but I’ve had to keep most of it so that we can trudge a long through the uphills and downs of this brutal but typical day afoot.

July 10

Marched out in high spirits at 10 a.m., the only drawback being the fact that we were carrying a blanket each and the sun was very hot. The troops sang heartily and unceasingly during the first hour as we swung down sunken country lanes and through deserted, battered hamlets. Song after song was started and taken up by the whole Company, Cole and Taylor being the leading choristers.

Towards the end of the second hour the sweat began to pour and the spirits to flag. A few of the old crocks like Bishop and Dredge were limping markedly and rifles began to shift restlessly from shoulder to shoulder. The singing died away completely and at once we began to get busy. Up and down the ranks we went, joking, encouraging and cursing. I could hear Radcliffe’s voice singing a forlorn solo in front and Harding was already carrying two rifles. Ewing had sent his horse to the rear of the Company and was trying to pull the leading platoon together. We managed to keep every man in his place until the next halt when we flopped out by the roadside.

We had to enforce rigid discipline to keep the waterbottles corked and several names had been taken before we fell in. We moved off with the crocks weeded out and placed in rear of the Company, and a song was started in the leading platoons. This soon died away, however, and the step broke. Soon we came upon a man from ‘B’ Company sitting by the roadside, then some of ‘A’ and more ‘B’, and then there was a sudden rush from our platoons as men fell out to join them. We pounced at once upon them and cursed them back into the ranks, but the effect was heartbreaking and our work was doubled. I finished that hour carrying an additional pack and two rifles while the other officers were doing more or less the same. Three packs were slung from Porky’s saddle and a limping soldier grasped each stirrup.

When we dropped exhausted into the edge of a cornfield, Ewing came down the column telling the troops that we were almost at our destination. This cheered them somewhat, and when we got on to the road again all eyes were fixed on the horizon where our village was due to appear. Cresting the hill ten minutes later we saw a small village a mile ahead, and a quiver of relief ran down the column; on reaching it, however, we found that it was in ruins and a notice board proclaimed it to be Monchy-au-Bois.

A cyclist met us here and reported to each company commander that the Brigadier was waiting just ahead to see us march past. So we bucked up the troops a bit and swung past him in great style, only to fall to pieces again on
emerging from the village on to the open plains. The whole Battalion was now silent, and everywhere could be seen the strained looks, bent shoulders and straggling sections that denote whacked troops. And thus we crawled across the plain for another 20 minutes, when suddenly from No 13 platoon the voice of Private Cole arose in a lovely and very vulgar song: after a few lines. Corporal McKay joined in, then Taylor and Kent and a few more until the whole Company was roaring out the song with their last breaths.

The effect was magical for the whole Battalion pricked up its ears and after a few shudders and syncopations, shook down to a good stride and curled steadily along the winding roads until we reached a charming cluster of trees, through which shone the red roofs of Berles-au-Bois.

A burst of cheering rose from the troops at the sight of the quartermaster sergeants who were waiting for us on the road…[3]

 

I’m very glad for this next letter. Eddie Marsh has been with us since the beginning, but always in the wings, as it were. He is the center of several networks of great importance to this project–of the young painters and poets, of gay literary London, of a social network that connects many promising young men with the center (or the periphery, this last year) of great power. But we don’t get to see much direct evidence of why he has so many friends and why he seems to play a consistently positive role in their lives and literary developments. But this letter to Siegfried Sassoon: shows all of that, and through it, I think, we may get a clearer concise view of what Siegfried Sassoon was in 1917 than we can even through the stereoscopy of his own writings. He is good and honorable, and foolish and headstrong and self-centered, yet easy to influence if only gently.

10 July 1917
5 Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn

My dear Siegfried,

Thank you very much for telling me what you’ve done. Of course I’m sorry about it, as you expect. As a non-combatant, I should have no sort of right to blame you, even if I wanted to. But I do think you’re intellectually wrong—on the facts. We agree that our motives for going to war were not aggressive or acquisitive to start with, and I cannot myself see that they have changed. And it does seem strange to me that you should come to the conclusion that they have, at the very moment when the detached Americans have at last decided that they must
come in to safeguard the future of liberty and democracy—and when the demoralised Russian Army seem—after having been bitten with your view—to have seen that they must go on fighting for the sake of their freedom.

I cannot myself see any future for decent civilisation if the end of the war is to leave the Prussian autocracy in any position of credit arid trust.

But now dear boy you have thrown your die, and it’s too late to argue these points. One thing I do beg of you. Don’t be more of a martyr than you can help! You have made your protest, and everyone who knows that you aren’t the sort of fellow to do it for a stunt must profoundly admire your courage in doing it. But for God’s sake stop there. I don’t in the least know what ‘They’ are likely to say or do—but if you find you have a choice between acceptance and further revolt, accept. And don’t proselytise. Nothing that you can do will really affect the situation; we have to win the war (you must see that) and it’s best that we should do it without more waste and friction than are necessary.

Yours

Eddie

Marsh is writing, in other words–and it must be in other words, for a clear statement of the obstacles he faces would cause Sassoon to put his head down and butt–to make sure that Sassoon’s protest remains nothing more than a misguided romantic gesture. In which, ironically, it has a great deal in common with other actions by brave and idealistic young men over the last few years. Sassoon has written that he knows what he is letting himself in for–prison and blustering threats of a firing squad. But if he could clearly imagine that happening–just as he can’t imagine his own martyrdom in barbed wire and shrapnel very clearly, no matter how beautifully he rages and mourns–then he would write about it differently. He is young and foolish, still.

But the most important unspoken element in Marsh’s letter comes from his deep experience of military bureaucracy (he is, after all, Churchill’s secretary). It is, again, as foolish to imagine a young knight waving a sword and successfully defying the entire German war machine as it is to imagine on infantry lieutenant forcing the War Office into a position it does not want to take. Sassoon might be gambling on the machine’s slow stupidity making a martyr out of them, but if he was, he shouldn’t have told his friends. Marsh, Robert Graves, and others are acting now–betraying their friend and protecting him–to shunt the would-be confrontation into an empty corner of the military mind.

And Graves, though impetuous, can also be a ruthless tactician. He quickly notified Bobbie Hanmer, a handsome, non-intellectual fellow officer of whom Sassoon was fond, surely so that Sassoon would be reminded what the loss of his friends’ respect might entail. Hanmer’s letter to Sassoon was likely also sent today, a century back:

Tuesday

1 War Hospital, Block C 11, Reading

My dear old Sassons, What is this damned nonsense I hear from Robert Graves that you have refused to do any more soldiering? For Heaven’s sake man don’t be such a fool. Don’t disgrace yourself and think of us before you do anything so mad. How do you propose to get out of the Army for the first thing? You are under age and will only have to join the ranks unless you become a Conscientious Objector, which pray Heaven you never will.

Let me have a line soon, Yours ever Robert H. Hanmer.

Will Sassoon’s morale be able to weather such bombardment? Perhaps, but the supporting fire he is receiving seems as if it would be far less effective, and he may find himself advancing almost alone… which is, of course, how he likes to do things, although others do tend to follow. Anyway, here is some of that supporting barrage, in the form of a recent letter from Lady Ottoline Morrell:

Garsington

I saw Bertie [Russell] in London yesterday and he showed me your statement which I thought extraordinarily good. It really couldn’t have beep better, I thought. Very condensed and said all that’s necessary. It is tremendously fine of you doing it. You will have a hard time of it, and people are sure to say all sorts of foolish things. They always do—but nothing of that sort can really tarnish or dim the value and splendour of such a True Act…

It is beastly being a woman and sitting still, irritating. Sometimes I feel I must go but and do something outrageous.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 85.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 96.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 175-6.
  4. Diaries, 178-9.

Edward Brittain Faces Another July First; Rowland Feilding and La Belle France; Robert Graves on the Isle of Wight–and What is Siegfried Sassoon Up To?

Now that Edward Hermon is dead, Rowland Feilding is probably our most consistently uxorious writer. He writes faithfully and fully, concealing nothing of his feelings or–once the demands of military secrecy are met–of the danger that he is (or has recently been) in. But today, a century back, he is safely in the rear… and he has something else to confess, namely a raging crush on a local girl.

June 30, 1917. Bollezeele (near Zeggers Cappel).

I am getting rather bitten with agriculture. No wonder these peasants get rich;—or, if they do not (and I really do
not know), I should say there must be something radically wrong with the whole system of land tenure in this country. They are the most industrious and the thriftiest people I have ever seen…

I am sure it must be impossille for those who have not seen it to realize what cultivation means in France and Belgium, or to picture the seas of corn and potatoes and roots, extending as far as the eye can reach and further; the forests of hops, weedless; without a barren patch or a neglected spot anywhere. In the farm where I am billeted there is a farm-hand—a girl of about eighteen. She sleeps on the straw, on the floor of a stable. She is up, bursting with life and spirits, each morning at five o’clock; and she works, at top pressure, without ceasing, till dark. Then she returns to her straw. She is slim, but has the strength of an average man. She handles the farm horses with a single rein (attached to one ring of the bit only), and by word of mouth. Apparently, she neither eats nor drinks.

It is the “manure” season. That is to say, it is the time of year when they carry out the loathsome liquid accumulation of the past twelve months and spread it over the fields, and so wrapt up is this girl in the work, that you would think she revelled in it.

She moves always at the double—whether through the chicken run, whence every bird flies scared and panic-stricken at her wild approach, or through the manure heap (for she never goes round it). Each time I pass her she
looks up with full face and a cheery grin. I don’t suppose she ever washes, and she must reek of manure, but she fascinates me because of her extraordinary vitality. It is quite exciting to watch her at her work.

But, as I look upon her, I despair of the English as an agricultural nation.[1]

 

Before returning to France we need to visit the Isle of Wight, where Robert Graves has recently been ensconced in a Victorian palace (it was one of Queen Victoria’s retreats) to convalesce at his leisure. His ailments are quite real–exhaustion, damaged lungs, and semi-undiagnosed shell shock–but, as he tells the story, he is still eager to enjoy himself.

Along with several new compatriots, Graves founded “The Albert Edward Society,” a college-style faux secret society in “mock honour” of the prince consort. They ate strawberries and drank wine, “sang bawdy songs” and otherwise celebrated their being alive to celebrate bygone days–Graves, after all, is impetuous, irrepressible, creative, and twenty-one years old.

In Good-Bye to All That he calls the society the “Royal Albert Society” and gives several more examples of concurrent high jinks and clevernesses, including changing the labels on the paintings in the gallery, dressing up a piece of driftwood as a drowned sailor, and defending the society from boorish intrusion by outdoing all the efforts of the intruders at telling filthy stories. Which makes a lousy anecdote, since Graves is not at liberty to repeat the story he told to win the day… his point, however, is that he is no longer quite the prude he once was.

In keeping with the guiding principle of his memoir, Graves also throws in entertaining stories that chime with perceived reading-public interests and drops whatever names he can. Therefore he mentions A.A. Milne (slightingly) and he tells of his interactions with a curious colony of French Benedictines in exile on the island who strike him as urbane and humane, despite not keeping poetry in their library. Graves has the sad task of describing to one of these monks what his native Béthune looks like now. And, as if in an echo of the several young Anglican officers who have become Catholics or are moving in that direction, Graves claims that these interactions–and his general esteem, pace the skill with filthy stories, for the monastic life–brought him some way in a similar direction: “Catholicism ceased to repel me.” Which is vintage Graves, whether or not the self-centeredness and backhanded snark are intended…[2]

Graves’s letters from this period, however, mostly concern his efforts to advance his poetry and that of his friends.

30 June 1917
Osborne, Isle of Wight

Dear old Sassons,

Without doubt a great poem: poor little Orme, he’d have been awfully pleased with it. The simple effect would be strengthened by a more regular sweep in the first half of each verse: as it stands it would worry people who didn’t know much about poetry: it breaks the flow of sense.

Trusting to your good nature I’ve pencilled in some tentative suggestions…

Mindful of my constant impositions on the patience of others, I will not excerpt from the individual word-queries and quibbles of scansion that Graves then lists…

…I know you’ll forgive these remarks, because you’ve patched up poems for me before now. And without my corrections it is a great poem, so you needn’t notice them…

Robbie has my Fairies and Fusiliers manuscript if you happen to be in town and want to see what I’ve been at.

Best love

Robert

And then–this very same day, a century back–Graves received a letter from Sassoon which seems to have given a general sketch of his intention to protest against the war. Graves will spend a good deal of time in his memoir emphasizing Sassoon’s poor health–exhaustion, shell shock, general malaise. But this sounds like how he has been feeling at this time. Sassoon himself has hardly made any physical complaints, and sees himself as aggravated and motivated rather than ill. The two men may, of course, have reasons to differ about the etiology of Sassoon’s intent to protest…. but I would not be surprised if the (lost) letter to Graves read something like Sassoon’s fictionalized account of this period:

Back at Butley, I had fully a fortnight in which to take life easily before tackling ‘wilful defiance of military authority’. I was, of course, compelled to lead a double life, and the longer it lasted the less I liked it… it wasn’t easy to sustain the evangelistic individuality which I’d worked myself up to in London. Outwardly those last days of June progressed with nostalgic serenity. I say nostalgic, because in my weaker moods I longed for the peace of mind which could have allowed me to enjoy having tea out in the garden on fine afternoons. But it was no use trying to dope my disquiet with Trollope’s novels or any of my favourite books. The purgatory I’d let myself in for always came between me and the pages; there was no escape for me now…[3]

No, no escape. But he was only passive north-by-northwest, as the warning-shot letter to Graves demonstrates.

Graves wrote back, clearly alarmed, but neither aware that Sassoon has actually written his protest and set the wheels in motion to have it read out in the House of Commons, nor that he had not yet actually published it.

It is only too much like Sassoon to do what he has in fact done: taken several steps toward dramatic action, then wandered off with the act uncompleted, the rebellion hanging fire but liable to set itself off at any time. Graves seems to suspect something like this:

I have just posted a letter I wrote this morning but your new one has come. Look here, why don’t you come and see me down here…

I want to know what characteristic devilment this is. Are you standing as a pacifist MP? That’s the most characteristic thing I can think of next to your bombing Lloyd George.

Yours,

R

But the alarm has only begun to ring, as Graves’s post-script–as usual, critical of a mutual friend–shows:

I’ve also written on Sorley. Bob Nichols of course is not Sorley but he’s next best, a devout admirer.

I’ve a copy of my new poems here.[4]

So Graves is alerted… but has not not yet leapt into action. He will act, and soon–as a loyal friend, if not always a true one.

 

The idea of the protest, remember, is to stop the madness. Edward Brittain has just returned to it. And he too writes two letters, today, both to his sister Vera.

France, 30 June 1917

I have arrived at the transport lines and shall be starting for the trenches in half an hour or so. The battalion is apparently just at the place where one would wish it wasn’t, as the papers have not failed to mention the place every day for the last week or so…

Opposite Lens, in other words, where the British staff is convinced that a hasty offensive might unseat “demoralised” the German defenders.

And not only is Brittain’s new battalion in the area of contemplated operations–it is slated to attack. An entire year–less about ten hours–after his wounding, after months and months of rehabilitation, and waiting, and training, he is suddenly thrust back into the very forefront of the war.

France, 30 June 1917
A dug-out

8.45 p.m.

The unexpected has happened again and I am in for another July 1st. If it should be that ‘Ere the sun swings his noonday sword’ I must say goodbye to all of this — then good-bye. You know that, as I promised, I will try to come back if I am killed.

It is all very sudden and it is bad luck that I am here in time, but still it must be. All the love there is in life or death to you, dear child.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 197-8. This, too, must put one in mind of The Spanish Farm Trilogy--but there, it being a (good) novel, the "girl" is a woman with a spirit to match her physical energy, and a full life half-hidden from (and imagined by) the decorous English officer...
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 175; Good-Bye to All That, 250-4.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 488-9.
  4. In Broken Images, 71-2.
  5. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 362-3.

A Bloody Raid with Edwin Vaughan; Alfred Hale Doubles his Buckets; Siegfried Sassoon is One Step Closer to Revolt

Today was a tale of two raids for Edwin Vaughan. In the first, which seems to have occurred in the wee hours of the 3rd, he led his platoon out, scared off the Germans holding an advanced post, and then, with two fellow officers, “linked arms and with revolvers drawn marched up the road with all the swagger of the Three Musketeers.” Secure in their control of No Man’s Land, they then destroyed a rifle pit constructed by the Germans and “walked back in blobs, talking and laughing, for we felt that we had done a good night’s work and were entitled to treat No Man’s Land as our own preserve.”

Vaughan’s morale is so high–he is so eager to perform, to get the requested prisoner and present him to the General–that he plans to go out with the other platoon slated for tonight’s raid, “as a spectator,” just as one of his fellow “musketeers” had done for him. But he changes his mind: “Berry had been drinking…His party made a terrible din going out, and they appeared to me so unfitted to carry out a raid that I decided not to accompany them but to follow after a few minutes.”

Before he can, however, the raid goes awry–not, apparently, because of the drunk officer, but because of a “half-mad” sergeant. Vaughan recounts what the subaltern, Berry, told him:

He gave me his account of the fiasco in a high-pitched, almost hysterical voice. Having passed unmolested through the wire gap which I had reported, he had gone ahead with Sergeant Corbett, the half-mad fellow whom I had picked up at Eclulsier. They were walking warily along, when, long before they reached the post which I had indicated as they enemy post they had heard voices on their immediate left. Perceiving an occupied post Berry halted to bring up the platoon, but Corbett had sprung forward on to the parapet. The sentry yelled ‘Halte! Wer da?’ and answering ‘Anglais! You bastards!’ Corbett had promptly bayoneted him. The post was full of Boche, who for the moment were motionless with surprise. Disregarding them, Corbett grabbed the equipment of the dead man, dragged him on to the top, smacked his face and then kicked him back into the trench. Meanwhile the German officer drew his revolver and shot Corbett in the side…  The platoon raced back in utter confusion as the first flare went up, and Betty could do nothing but follow… I did not envy him his interview with the CO…[1]

 

If a madman going haywire with a bayonet–perhaps psychotically unhinged, certainly also suffering from combat-related mental illness–might represent one extreme of the Great War experience, Alfred Hale here presents a more common, but far less frequently recorded ordeal:

3 June. Mr Weir, a Royal Defence Corps man, considered my hauling of buckets of water from the tanks by the wooden hangar to the Officers’ Mess to be very good for my muscles… I was afraid that I could only haul one bucket at a time: but Mr Weir explained to me that if I could bring myself to haul the two buckets together, one in each hand, I would find that they would balance one another and that I should get on far better. He was right…[2]

 

And if Siegfried Sassoon–who might have a safe job training the likes of Hale and never again have to either lead a raid in “Mad Jack” mode or deal with the horror that follows actions like those perpetrated by the murderous Sergeant Corbett–has been tempted, recently to accept a long-term reprieve from the war. But today, a century back, might well have been the very day that he was tipped over into a firm resolve to rebel. He received another letter, today, from Joe Cottrell, his old friend the quartermaster, and it contained the details of the bloody, pointless action of the 27th. Two more of Sassoon’s friends are dead.

In the fictionalized memoir, a confrontation between “George Sherston” and “Lady Asterisk” (Lady Brassey) reminds us of what the fundamental, inevitable context of all this is for Sassoon/Sherston: it’s not a matter of Hale vs. Corbett; it’s a matter of soldiers who are suffering (as well as those who will come to suffer, as the war drags on) and civilians who refuse to even try to comprehend what the “sacrifice” of the troops really entails.

Viewed broadmindedly, the attack had been quite a commonplace fragment of the War… None of the bodies had been brought in… Dottrell had seen Ormand a day or two before the show, “He looked pretty depressed, though outwardly as jolly as ever.” Dunning had been the first to leave our trench; had shouted “Cheerio” and been killed at once. Dottrell thanked me for the box of kippers…

Lady Asterisk happened to be in the in the room when I opened the letter. With a sense of self-pitying indignation I blurted out my unpleasant information. Her tired eyes showed that the shock had brought the War close to her, but while I was adding a few details her face became self-defensively serene. “But they are safe and happy now,” she said. I did not doubt her sincerity, and perhaps they were happy now. All the same, I was incapable of accepting the deaths of Ormand and Dunning and the others in that spirit…[3]

If encounters like this only open small, temporary holes in the spiritual armor of the elderly, upper classes in England, Sassoon is going to have to give them a sharper shock…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 142-7.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale. 93.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 469-70.