Ivor Gurney Declares for a New War Poet; Siegfried Sassoon Declares for an End to the War

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott once again today, a century back, with thanks for all her help in preparing his poems for publication. But it’s his reading that he really wants, once again, to discuss–and today he is reading a contemporary writer of note:

12 June 1917 (P)

My Dear Friend

You, of all my friends, write the most interesting letters…

I see Siegfried Sassoon has published now. Do try to see it, and if you can do so, spot a poem on the subject of a man unconscious from the time of his being wounded till he was in train in Blighty: then recognizing what part of the scheme of things he saw by the advertisements. It is very good…

Will people continue to write letters when Peace comes…?

Peace

I’ll write no letters in that happy season
When Peace illumes the world like the Sun’s Lamp.
Laziness will be in part the reason.
But — shall I pay a penny for a stamp?

No, no, it cannot be! And if some female
Is soft enough of head to lose her heart
To Me, she’ll have to settle as to the Mail
And pay for both. I’m damned if I shall start!

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[1]

 

So here’s an unusual irony. As Gurney writes light-heartedly of peace and praises a fellow soldier’s poems, that soldier is planning his counter-attack on the war. Siegfried Sassoon spent the weekend at Garsington, the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, the most persistent anti-war voice among his friendly advisors. Today, back in London, she organized a lunch which included several of the most prominent dissenting voices in British politics: Morrell, H.W. Massingham, John Middleton Murry, and Bertrand Russell all lunched at the Eiffel Tower in Percy Street, an irresistible phalanx of advisors for the diffident poet and quondam hero of the trenches.

In the Memoir, which plays down Lady Ottoline’s influence (Sassoon is willing to portray himself as easily influenced, but he seems to prefer that Great Men do the influencing, and not eccentric noblewomen), it is Massingham/Markington who puts Sassoon/Sherston in the way of “Thornton Tyrrell,” i.e. Bertrand Russell.

‘You know him by name, I suppose?’

I was compelled to admit that I didn’t. Markington handed me Who’s Who and began to write a letter while I made myself acquainted with the details of Tyrrell’s biographical abridgment, which indicated that he was a pretty tough proposition. To put it plainly he was an eminent mathematician, philosopher, and physicist…

Most eminent. And now, too, the “great brain” of the anti-war movement.

In the Memoir, Sherston is soon taking tea with Tyrell, and angling for a place at his feet.

He asked for details of my career in the Army, and soon I was rambling on in my naturally inconsequent style. Tyrrell said very little, his object being to size me up. Having got my mind warmed up, I began to give him a few of my notions about the larger aspects of the War. But he interrupted my ‘and after what Markington told me the other day, I must say’, with ‘Never mind about what Markington told you. It amounts to this, doesn’t it — that you have ceased to believe what you are told about the objects for which you supposed yourself to be fighting?’ I replied that it did boil down to something like that, and it seemed to me a bloody shame, the troops getting killed all the time while people at home humbugged themselves into believing that everyone in the trenches enjoyed it.

Tyrrell poured me out a second cup of tea and suggested that I should write out a short personal statement based on my conviction that the War was being unnecessarily prolonged by the refusal of the Allies to publish their War Aims. When I had done this we could discuss the next step to be taken. ‘Naturally I should help you in every way possible,’ he said. ‘I have always regarded all wars as acts of criminal folly, and my hatred of this one has often made life seem almost unendurable. But hatred makes one vital, and without it one loses energy. ‘Keep vital’ is a more important axiom than ‘love your neighbour.’ This act of yours, if you stick to it, will probably land you in prison. Don’t let that discourage you.  You will be more alive in prison than you would be in the trenches.’

Mistaking this last remark for a joke, I laughed, rather half-heartedly. ‘No; I mean that seriously.’ he said. ‘By thinking independently and acting fearlessly on your moral convictions you are serving the world better than you would do by matching with the unthinking majority who are suffering and dying at the front because they believe what they have been told to believe…'[2]

So it goes for the angry, gentle, biddable George Sherston. In reality, a team of influential friends–we might call them co-conspirators–is nudging the diffident young officer and promising new pawn/defector toward his epistolary semi-martyrdom. Siegfried Sassoon may not have been an assertive man in such contexts, but neither was he a passive dupe. The rage is his, and the urge to make some sort of protest.

But his friends–or his friends and their friends, who flock, now, to this decorated, presentable, and writerly young officer because he represents an irresistible opportunity–give him the hard shove he needs. After all, his feelings toward the war began to turn more than a year ago when David Thomas was killed, and, without assiduous “help” he might drift from portrait-sitting into privately disillusioned cadet-training…

There is no time to waste, and Sassoon got to work. It was probably tonight, a century back, that another strange crossing of paths took place:

With [Middleton Murray] and Katherine Mansfield (of whose great talent as a story-writer I was still unaware) I spent a self-conscious sultry evening in a candle-lighted room in South Kensington. He was sympathetic and helpful in clarifying my statement and reducing it to a more condensed form. Katherine Mansfield was almost silent. The only thing I can remember her saying was ‘Do you ever think about anything except the war?” Nothing now remained but to make a fair copy and take it to Bertrand Russell, who had undertaken to act as my impresario…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 166-8.
  2. Complete Memoirs, 476-9.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

A Black Day for the Master of Belhaven; Charles Moncrieff is Up on Poetry; Wilfred Owen is Not in Amiens; Ivor Gurney on Russian Lit, and Art, and Life…

The Master of Belhaven‘s suspicion, yesterday, that the German artillery has his battery taped to the yard is confirmed today, a century back.

Zillebeke, 5th June, 1917

A black day. A and B Batteries have been shelled all day, and it is still going on now at 11 p.m. Ellis, my best subaltern, as been mortally wounded in the head by a piece of a 5.9. As for the battery position, it has practically ceased to exist. They have put several hundreds of 5.9’s right into the gun-line and blown up hundreds of rounds of ammunition. At 7 o’clock this evening I went over to the guns to see what the damage was, but the guns are so covered up with earth and bits of wreckage that it is impossible to see if they are damaged… at this rate we shall soon be very short of both horses and men.[1]

There are no surprise attacks on any sort of scale, any more, and the Germans are doing what they can to blunt the force of the coming British assault at Messines. They don’t know exactly when it will take place, but they know where, and that it will be soon…

 

Our other three brief notes today are from men who are well out of it.

First, Wilfred Owen wrote a postcard to his mother, today, a century back, from the 41st Stationary Hospital–and not from Amiens, pictured on the card.

A similar postcard…

3 June 1917

Am not here—no move yet—quite happy—you have some erroneous ideas about my state of health! I have a chum here—glorious in my eyes for having hob-nobbed with Ian Hay…

Things are vastly improving now in the management of this Hydro![2]

Ian Hay, a.k.a. John Hay Beith, author of The First hundred Thousand, would be a very relevant author to mention, since he wrote the mid-war book about Kitchener’s Army. But I’ve made precious little use of it here…

So forgive me if I succumb to a common weakness and add two more brief and undramatic bits which appeal to me because they show–and more to the point than an excerpt from Ian Hay, whose style and approach did not influence the poets–what other writers our writers were reading…

 

Charles Moncrieff, abed since almost losing his life and his leg at Arras, gives us our first clear indication of something that, had I been more timely in adopting his diaries, would have been obvious before: he will be very closely connected to our circle of war poets.

In Hospital,
5th June, 1917.

Thanks for The Times, which tantum vidi, as the wrapper was just off as it reached me…

This is a terrible morning, very hot, and people sweeping the floor all the time which drives me perfectly mad. I heard about Sorley from Robert Graves, himself an admirable young poet. He is the son of old A. P. Graves who was a school inspector and wrote Father O’Flynn[3]

 

And Ivor Gurney too reads on, though in great isolation. F.W. Harvey’s long imprisonment has deprived him of his one literary friend among his fellow-soldiers (yesterday’s portion of this letter to Marion Scott mentioned how much he would like to discuss Harvey’s book, just published though he is in absentia in Germany, with the author) and Gurney plows a lonely furrow through the classics…

Next Day.

They say Fritz has retreated again, and if this is so, more marching, more road making, short rations again. May General Russky be right about victory coming by Autumn.

There is heavy historical irony there, of course, given Russia’s state. But Gurney is off onto Russian literature, and never mind the solidity of the Eastern Front.

“The Cossacks” is a fine book, too small to be a great one — but accurate and life like. One cant help thinking that such a life us going on there, while in the Victorian books one is continually reminded of the fact that “this is not Life but only a description”. And by such gentlemanly people too!

I will take a huge dose of Russian stuff apres le guerre…

How often, I wonder, did Thackeray really look at life? He shows at his best in the “book of Snobs” and “Travels and Sketches” (is it?) — things related more to books and form than actuality. In fact he was an artist at one remove from things; the opposite of W H Davies in “The Autobiography of a Supertramp”, that most fascinating of records…

Brahms music at its not-best shows the same thing also — the mind of a man as satisfied in his study as in the open air. There are not many things that make worthy art. They are: Nature, Homelife (with which is mixed up Firelight in Winter, joy of companionship etc.) The intangible Hope (which means all music only can hope to express). Thoughts on Death and Fate. And there are no more. It is right, as R[obert]L[ouis]S[tevrenson] wrote, for a young man consciously and of purpose to regard his attempts as Art only, but this is a half stage, and should soon end, if the young man has anything to say.

End of the Treatise: Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 301-2.
  2. Collected Letters, 466.
  3. Diaries, 135.
  4. War Letters, 165-6.

Duff Cooper Gets the Call; Henry Williamson is Laid Low; C.E. Montague Draws Strength From Hardy; Woolf Praises Sassoon; Francis Ledwidge Gropes Toward God; Isaac Rosenberg Lifts His Eyes to the Larks

I don’t mean to make fun of Duff Cooper–he is a capable man, and not nearly as daffy as he sounds in his journal–but, until today, all we’ve heard of his recent decision to take an Army commission is that is seemed to yield positive short-term results in his endless pursuit of Diana Manners. Ah–but has he forgotten the other woman in his life? Yes, yes he has.

In the afternoon Mother telephoned. She has found about my prospects of joining the army. She is naturally much upset–it is most awkward.[1]

 

Nor did I set out to make fun of Henry Williamson, today, but this disjunction between diary and novel is… also pretty funny:

Thursday, 31 May. Kicked on head by Tommy.

The editors add, helpfully, that “Tommy was a mule.” Which, given that Williamson is a mule-riding Transport Officer–and despite the fact that he describes stubborn men as “mules”–should probably be taken literally, and not as a slight on the stubborn character of some insubordinate “Tommy Atkins.”[2]

In the novel, instead of this misadventure, Phillip Maddison attend a conference held by Captain Hobart in which he is initiated into further tactical secrets of the coming Messines Ridge attack. There is much admiration expressed for General Plumer, the rare innovator among the British senior officers and the man most responsible for the novel use of what are essentially early modern siege warfare tactics scaled up by several orders of magnitude and undertaken over the course of many months: there will be some very big mines. Which, of course, were top secret at the time.

After the conference Phillip goes walkabout, as he so often does. Leaving his work to his sergeant, Phillip strolls past signs and organizational tapes and models and remarks on the fact that every possible preparation for the coming attack has been carefully thought out. He is then struck by the idea that if such detailed tactical information were to be passed on to the men of the Machine Gun Company, surely it would be a good thing for morale, and who better to lecture them than himself…[3]

 

But today is a busy day, and with those bits of silliness out of the way we can move toward a few more formal literary accomplishments.

First, I’d offer this definition of a worthy novel: a book that can offer intellectual and emotional support to a reader burdened by cares and mired in doubt, yet far from any easy resonance with its subject matter. We have a nomination, then, today, from C.E. Montague, writing to his wife:

May 31, 1917

A man here has got The Return of the Native and I borrowed it last night and read the first few pages again. How wonderful they are—I do believe the finest opening ever written for a novel of that kind. I shall try, at odd times, to read on. There is something massive and hill-like about Hardy which makes him good to read during this passing madness of the world—he helps one to feel what a mass of durable things in human nature as well as in other ‘nature’ are going on all right, all the time, and will be there to come back to when the evil time is overpast.[4]

 

Time in its dogged unidirectionality is a strange thing. Thomas Hardy has held out an austere kind of hope to many of our writers, and his approval meant more to Siegfried Sassoon than that of any writer… but if one were to try to sell an unacquainted reader on the merits of Sassoon’s poetry today, a more powerful endorsement might be felt to come from a review of his verses that was published today, a century back, in the Times Literary Supplement:

…the beauty in them, though fitful, is of the individual, indefinable kind which comes, we know not how, to make lines such as we read over each time with a renewed delight that after one comes the other.[5]

Thus Virginia Woolf on The Old Huntsman and Other Poems.

 

We also have a relative rarity, today: a long letter from Francis Ledwidge. Written from reserve billets in France, to Katherine Tynan, it shows Ledwidge in the thick of the action and, characteristically, able to wring beauty from the terror and violence of his surroundings.

I would have written to thank you for the sweets, only that lately we were unsettled, wandering to and fro between the firing-line and resting billets immediately behind. This letter is ante-dated by two hours, but before midnight we may be wandering in single and slow file, with the reserve line two or three hundred yards behind the fire trench. We are under an hour’s notice. Entering and leaving the line is most exciting, as we are usually but about thirty yards from the enemy, and you can scarcely understand how bright the nights are made by his rockets. These are in continual ascent and descent from dusk to dawn, making a beautiful Crescent from Switzerland to the sea. There are white lights, green, and red, and whiter, bursting into red and changing again, and blue bursting into purple drops and reds fading into green. It is all like the end of a beautiful world. It is only horrible when you remember that every colour is a signal to waiting reinforcements or artillery, and, God help us if we are caught in the open, for then up go a thousand reds, and hundreds of rifles and machine-guns are emptied against us, and all amongst us shells of every calibre are thrown, shouting destruction and death. We can do nothing but fling ourselves into the first shell-hole and wonder as we wait where we will be hit. But why all this

I am indeed glad to think you are preparing another book of verse. Will you really allow me to review it? I don’t want money for doing it. The honour would be more worth than money…

A. E. sets me thinking of things long forgotten, and Lord Dunsany of gorgeous Eastern tapestry and carpets. Do you get such impressions from the books you love? I met a traveller in Naples who told me that he never read Andrew Marvell but he remembered a dunce’s cap and a fishing-rod he had when a boy, and never could trace the train of thought far enough back to discover where the connection lay. I am writing odd things in a little book whenever I can. Just now I am engaged in a poem about the Lanawn Shee, who, you remember, is really the Irish Muse. One who sees her is doomed to sing. She is very close to you. I am writing it in the traditional style of the ‘Silk of the Kine.’

Here are the opening verses:

Powdered and perfumed the full bee
Winged heavily across the clover,
And where the hills were dim with dew,
Purple and blue the West looked over…

There is some more of this exercise in willful aestheticism, but Ledwidge also includes a finished poem in a very different vein:

 

Ascension Thursday, 1917

Lord, Thou hast left Thy footprints in the rocks,
That we may know the way to follow Thee,
But there are wide lands opened out between
Thy Olivet and my Gethsemane.

And oftentimes I make the night afraid,
Crying for lost hands when the dark is deep,
And strive to reach the sheltering of Thy love
Where Thou art herd among Thy folded sheep.

Thou wilt not ever thus, O Lord, allow
My feet to wander when the sun is set,
But through the darkness, let me still behold
The stony bye-ways up to Olivet.

 

Yet neither Sassoon nor Ledwidge can lay claim to the most important poetic reference point of today. Isaac Rosenberg wrote recently to Gordon Bottomley (the letter was posted today, a century back) about a number of things, including his new work alongside the Royal Engineers, putting out barbed wire at night. The letter mentions both Dead Man’s Dump and Daughters of War, and also seems to indicate that he has completed “Returning, We Hear the Larks,” a poem which can speak for itself, about many things, not least that a poet walking in the shadow of the valley of death who chooses not to look to God might also look to nature–even here–and then, through nature’s verse-entwined messengers, to poetry.

Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl’s dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 54.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 157.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 144-5.
  4. C. E. Montague, 161.
  5. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 360.
  6. I'm not entirely convinced by Moorcroft Wilson's dating of the poem to May 1917, but it seems plausible... and this is a poem that can't be left to slip through the cracks entirely...

Alfred Hale Gets Buttoned Up Right; Isaac Rosenberg Posts a Powerful Horror; Siegfried Sassoon Has a Volume of his Own; Wilfred Owen is Nervy in Limbo

Alfred Hale managed to get to sleep on his first night in camp, but he also managed to sleep with the wrong group of recruits–men of a higher fitness classification than he. He is, however, still in better shape than his poorer comrades: last night he had paid for dinner and a shave–his first correct guess at camp conditions, as the men scraping away with cold water over a tin basin at 6:30 soon discovered. One more paragraph, then, with Hale and his exquisite decline into the indignities of army life, before his memory blurs from specific mornings into the general daily tribulations of Thetford.

But, as I say, we went on parade that morning in companies at 7.30. Owing to my mistake of the night before, I found myself among the B2 men and after the parade was over was duly drilled with them by the sergeant with the loud bullying voice whose help I had so rashly invoked the night before. Before the drill began we were inspected by an officer… He said nothing to me, but as soon as his back was turned a corporal beckoned me out of the line and buttoned an unnoticed button of my tunic up for me in a sort of awestruck way. I felt much as a small boy would feel whose mother had taken his hat off for him on entering a church.

After cutting a “figure of fun” in drill, Hale is released for breakfast, and manages to find his own proper company, under the rule of a more kindly sergeant. But he is still in the army…[1]

 

Isaac Rosenberg is an inconsistent letter-writer. Not just in terms of the flow of correspondence–that too, but a nearly penniless private will generally not write as often as a well-heeled officer–but in tone as well. A recent letter to Eddie Marsh was couched in grand terms, high-flying and allusive; today’s effort is grammatically sketchy and must be one of the few letters to end up in Marsh’s inbox that mentions, in passing, running a wagon over corpses–Rosenberg has completed a draft of Dead Man’s Dump.

My Dear Marsh,

We are camping in the woods now and are living great. My feet are almost healed now and my list of complaints has dwindled down to almost invisibility. Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I dont think what Ive written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it I’ll make it fine. Bottomley told me he had some very old poems in The Annual but of course its too bulky to send out here. Your extract from his ‘Atlantis’ is real Bottomleyian. The young Oxford poets you showed my things to Ive never come across yet, and I ll soon begin to think myself a poet if my things get admired so.

Im writing to my sister to send you the lines as she will type several copies

Yours sincerely

I R

I trust the colonial office agrees with you.[2]

It probably doesn’t, but the patron’s patron–Churchill–will be back doing war work soon enough.

So this letter is on the way, but Marsh’s thoughts today were surely with a more intimate protégé: it was today, a century back, that Siegfried Sassoon‘s The Old Huntsman was at last published.

 

Finally, there is Wilfred Owen‘s letter to his sister Mary. It begins ordinarily enough, with social banter and a list of new acquaintances. Wilfred entertains hopes of making useful publishing connections among these new friends… the 13th Casualty Clearing Station would seem to be a strange place to network, but there it is.

Two lines in the letter are of particular note. First, though Owen is at a forward hospital in France and not among “nerve” specialist, we have what I can’t help but see as an early example of a coming common theme, namely the all-powerfulness of psychiatrists.

…The Nerve Specialist is a kind of wizard, who mesmerises when he likes: a famous man. He is a friend of Dr. Keeble and the Reading Botany People!

You must not entertain the least concern about me because I am here. I certainly was shaky when I first arrived. But today Dr. Browne was hammering at my knees without any response whatever. (At first I used to execute the High Kick whenever he touched them) i.e. Reflex Actions quite normal.

So Owen believes himself to be improving. But what was the cause of his affliction?

You know it was not the Bosche that worked me up, nor the explosives, but it was living so long by poor old Cock Robin (as we used to call-2/Lt. Gaukroger), who lay not only near by, but in various places around and about, if you understand. I hope you don’t!

That would be the second weighty line. It is the same incident which he described in the long letter to his mother about his traumatic tour in the front line–but it is described with one crucial difference. At first it seemed that Lt. Gaukroger had been buried, “covered with earth,” near where Owen had to shelter. Now it would seem that his comrade’s dismembered remains had been scattered about.

I have no intimation at all about my next move.

Meanwhile I have superb weather, sociably-possible friends, great blue bowls of yellow Mayflower, baths and bed ad lib. Soon I shall have Letters from Home.

Your own W.E.O. x[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 52-4.
  2. Collected Works, 316.
  3. Collected Letters, 455-6.

Alf Pollard Summons the Band; Wilfred Owen is Possibly a Little Mad; Ivor Gurney Rates the War Poets; Vera Brittain Knows it is Very Difficult to Know What is the Right Thing to Do

The Honourable Artillery Company are back in rest, and resting on their considerable recent laurels. In Alf Pollard‘s memoirs, the mood of Boy’s Own boyishness persists. Today is his birthday and–on a dare–he requests that the Divisional Band be sent to serenade him. It is–and this being the Royal Naval Division, the Royal Marines Band arrives to play a long, formal concert. Pollard will have leave soon, so that he might disperse his high spirits elsewhere…

 

Wilfred Owen, meanwhile, remains near the line, but not in it, hospitalized due to the effects of shell shock. But it is hard to ascertain the state of his “nerves” in medical terms. His own bewilderment–manifesting in these letters as bemused confidence that everything will work out fine, soon–makes it difficult to tell whether he is under observation or suspicion. Is he still at the CCS because the doctors want to see whether he will improve away from the trenches or need further treatment Blighty, or because the fact of his being “shell-shocked” is in doubt?

4 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

My own dear Mother,

I have been expecting every day to be moved from here, but nothing happens; only a great calm happiness. We are a cheery crowd here this time, and I like everyone as a great & interesting fellow. Some of us have been sent down here as a little mad. Possibly I am among them. One man in particular is supposed to be a Brain Case. He is a Trinity College (Oxford) boy, and a nephew of Sir Frederick Treves;[1] and is going to get damages from his C.O. for libel or something of that sort; with Sir Frederick & F. E. Smith to back him up!! The chief arguments of his denouncers are (1) that he had an original Scheme for making a haul of German Prisoners, and (2) he happened to read the Bible. He is, of course, perfectly sane, but may be sent to England!

…I have no news, but that it has been splendidly hot lately, & we have been living the lounging, irresponsible life of a hydro. It will not last long for some of us…

Always your lovingest W.E.O. x[2]

 

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott today–a long, rambling, literary letter that seems intended to cheer her amidst a renewed bout of illness. And he must also thank her for a gift of books, including the most recent collection of Yeats’s poetry–a gift too precious for his state:

…this morning “Responsibilities” has turned up. It is too generous of you really, and of course far too good a book to keep out here; so that directly I think they have put me on a draft I will send it back to you. The glance at it seems to show it an immensely interesting book, obscure, and unaccountably failing and only just failing to be great poetry time after time. What will the next one be like? Is it Transition or the end of him? After the War I shall be only too pleased to resume possession, but as to taking it up the line that is not possible…

The Herrick poem is very beautiful, and makes me long for the time when after a long tramp out towards round and about Staunton and Corse — on the way to Jagged Malvern, I shall return tired and full of memories to set up singing in my mind — and then Mr Herrick, we shall collaborate to some purpose.

But there are more up-to-date things to read, too: our war poetry serpent now begins to nibble on its own tail. In fact, it’s a pretty big bite:

Also another kind friend has sent me “Soldier Poets”, in which there is precious little of value but much of interest. Julian Grenfell’s “Into Battle” is of course easily the best. Geoffrey Howard’s “Without Shedding of Blood,” E. MelboumesBefore Action”, “Back to Rest”. Victor Ratcliffe’s “Optimism”. Robertson’s “We shall drink”. Sorleys translation from “Faust”. The curiously alive and unequal “Charge at Neuve-Chapelle.” The last two verses of “To My People” of Wilkinson’s. (Have you seen any verse by a man named Sassoon? I remember having seen quite good stuff.)

This is a poet’s assessment, I think, not a soldier-poet’s, and still less a poet-historian’s. Gurney, humble private of the Gloucesters, is neither amazed nor offended by the war-worship of the aristocratic cavalryman, and he has kind words for other poems, both forgotten and remembered, here. Noel Hodgson–that would be “E. Melbourne”–writes a more self-consciously refined sort of verse than Gurney, but it’s not surprising his sure hand and quiet tone would appeal to him.

It’s the last name that comes as a surprising non-sequitur: Siegfried Sassoon is not in Soldier Poets, and The Old Huntsman is still days away from publication. So Gurney has seen one of the handful of recent poems that Sassoon has placed in magazines, and seen his promise immediately…

And as for his own?

You may send my things to Erskine Macdonald if you wish. The “Poetry Review” is a first rate pusher. Why cannot I write now? Dont know, but I believe after this long frowst and feed up, the line will give me beacoup ideas… In future however, I refuse absolutely to have any parcels sent. It is absurd and impossible to ask for them. And now the warm weather has come, we shall do very well.

We’ll see about that!

…O Robert Ross or whatever his name is—the Poetry Review man — is all bosh. Pope or Gray in the solidity of his good lines — ungoverned transcendability. A type of a different kind from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, but no better. Give me Walt Whitman…

It’s difficult to follow Gurney here, but one joke, at least, is on him. Robbie Ross is one of the main reasons he has had the chance to see “any verse by a man named Sassoon.” London literary connections are very important, and this Gloucestershire lad lacks them. He owes Marion Scott a very great deal indeed…

Tomorrow I start training, a good thing. You get frightfully slack doing nothing:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

Finally, today, in a letter to her mother, Vera Brittain reaffirms her new course.

Malta, 4 May 1917

When your letter Came saying how you wished I was in England to comfort Edward because of Victor, I felt rather mean in signing on again & being unable to be of use at home for 6 months at least, but when I got your cables saying that Geoffrey was killed, I knew that I must try to come home if possible, for I know that I can comfort him as no one else can. I am coming partly for your sake when he goes out again, partly because I may be of more help to Victor than any of you know, but chiefly for Edward, for I hope to get home before he goes out again . . .

Vera’s decision is complex. It’s not only a matter of what she wants to do, or even of the tug between ordinary selfish desires and what she wants to want to do–that noble, sacrificial self-image that is so important for her as for so many other Brooke-reading children of 1914. It’s also the fact that, although she may preside over the battered, shrinking cult of Roland, she is not, in her family’s eyes, a Romantic priestess… she is an unmarried young woman, with a duty to support her family. She has kicked against these restraints, but now she does not deny them:

Anyone–or no one–could take my place here, whereas nobody else could take my place with Edward or you or Victor, so after I had thought it out for a long time I felt you had the first claim. It is very difficult sometimes to know what is the right thing to do, but at least I know in this case that I am not making your need of me an excuse to go home, for since I intend to go on nursing till the War ends I would rather do it with this unit than anywhere; I love the system of this hospital, I have made many good friends… I don’t intend to leave the service for good, only for a little, time; after which I shall join up again all being well . . .

It seems terribly hard that Victor should be blinded & Geoffrey killed within a few weeks of each other; poor Edward must feel that there is no one left of his generation…

It is another case of ‘whom the Gods love’; I feel as though all the people I love are too splendid to last & that is why I lose them…

Goodbye–I hope I shall see you not long after you get this. I feel I must try to be of some use to the living since I can’t be of any use to the dead.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sir Frederick Treves (1853-1923), Sergeant-Surgeon to King Edward VII.
  2. Collected Letters, 454-5.
  3. War Letters, 159-61.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 349-50.

Alf Pollard’s Enthusiasm for the Game; Isaac Rosenberg’s Aching Feet; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Summoned; Wilfred Own Describes His Longest Tour

We have four letters today, in more or less a representative distribution: two to mother, one to a patron, and one to a comrade.

But the first letter-to-mum is an unusual one, from an unusual (here, at least) writer. Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. have a lull in the action today, and he is able to fill mater in on his latest doings.

Dearest Ladybird,

Here we are again, out once more. I have had some most interesting and exciting times since last writing, including going over the top again. I am once more in charge of the Company as the man senior to me got laid out with a bullet. I shall probably be a Captain again in a day or two but one never knows as somebody else senior may be sent along. You see, the present arrangement of the government is that all promotions are by seniority irrespective of fighting qualities. So really one has no chance of being more than a Second Lieutenant whatever one does. However I don’t care a bit what rank I am.

I had a most exciting adventure in a Hun trench the other day. I cut through their wire and got into their trench thinking it was unoccupied, but soon discovered it was full of Huns and consequently had to beat a hasty retreat. I got out all right fortunately. I heard a rumour that the Brigadier has recommended me for a bar to my M.C. in consequence of this little business so if you keep your eyes glued on the paper you may shortly see my name in it. Don’t think I have been taking any unnecessary risks because I have not. I have merely done what I have been asked to do.

Well, dear old lady…

Best of spirits and having a good time. By the way, I gave killed another Hun. Hurrah!

Well, cheerioh!

This letter is one of the few Pollard takes the trouble to preserve, and he does so with an explanatory comment, namely

…because it throws such a clear light on my attitude towards war… I thoroughly enjoyed going into action… People tell me I must have a kink in my nature; that my zest to be in the forefront of the battle was unnatural. I do not agree with them…[1]

No, he assures us, he is merely very highly motivated to win the war, and believes that the British Army can, and soon. If this is a gambit to convince those horrified by enthusiasm for killing into accepting what we might term the “realism” of his statements, it’s not a very good one.

Yes, it’s a war, and it is much more deeply illogical to believe that your side is in the right and yet still hope to bring about a satisfying conclusion without violence. But this is a pacifist’s dilemma, and it doesn’t explain the enthusiasm for personal violence. Invoking the common terminology of war and sport–“keen to win”–does nothing to show that there is some moral through-line from the young officer excited to get his name in the paper for killing people and the responsible adult who seeks to defeat German militarism and liberate France and Belgium, accepting that there will be a price to pay for this, in blood.

Then there is the question of the “kink.” I don’t think a discursus into human evolutionary biology and the sociology of violence is necessary here, but it’s tempting… Briefly (and sloppily), this is indeed a “kink…” and yet it is quite natural. Most of us are by nature (as well as nurture) horrified by direct physical violence unless driven to it by some extreme emotion–terror, jealousy, even rage have some clear evolutionary benefits. But we don’t generally kill without passion–we could hardly have evolved in small, cooperative groups otherwise. And yet, some people lack this inhibition… some of them may become violent sociopaths or psychopaths, others may lead normal lives unless they are at some point given a handful of weapons and asked to go and hunt down other people, for God and for Country. Presumably their sang froid during hunting for food over the thousands of generations of Prehistory preserved their genes despite their danger to the group–after all, they win decorations and bounties get their names preserved among the valorous…

Apologies for the fast-and-loose “science” without careful hypothesis or actual evidence, which is , of course, not science at all. But I do think a glance at the animal and the “early man” beneath the recently-civilized human being yields plausible explanations… What put me in mind of this, actually, was Pollard’s choice of the phrase “forefront of the battle.” This was probably borrowed, perhaps at some remove, from translations of ancient epic: nothing could be more Homeric than the idea that the best men–those who are the leaders of contingents, those who earn fame and glory and prizes–fight literally before (i.e. “in front of”) the rest of the men in the battle, those lesser men who prefer less direct, less deadly, missile-weapon-oriented conflict.

Pollard is not insane, nor is his happy warrior pose “unnatural,” but he is very unusual: he has the mentality of a Homeric hero, someone who values glory–“winning”–so highly that the taking of lives doesn’t really enter into the moral calculus, even though they recognize that in other contexts killing is wrong. Although Pollard is capable of recognizing the brutality and sadness of war, he is also more than capable of forgetting it. He does not see the unavailing suffering of other men as detracting from the meaningfulness of glory or the positive valence of skillful, violent action–and this, now, is beginning to put him at odds with several writers more prominent in this project.[2]

But we can continue to explore this attitude in subsequent posts. Pollard’s letter is also included in the memoir at this point because he wishes to connect his realistic “attitude towards war” with his exceptional talent for it. He can’t really claim to be modest, but he can argue that what he does next is all in the service of winning (which he could have phrased as “ending”) the war…

 

We followed several units-with-writers during the attack of the 23rd, and of course failed to discuss many others. One of these was the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, badly mauled during the advance. Two of the remaining “Argonauts” of the Gallipoli expedition are still with the Division–Bernard Freyberg now commands a brigade, while Arthur “Oc” Asquith, Raymond‘s younger brother, commanded the Hood battalion in the assault, leading it close behind the British barrage in the assault on Gavrelle. The attack was successful, but at the cost of nearly 200 casualties, including seven officers killed outright. Today, a century back, Asquith wrote to his old comrade Patrick Shaw Stewart. Shaw Stewart had schemed successfully to leave his cushy post in the East to return to the battalion, and danger. But there has been rather a long interlude, spent largely in futile pursuit of the divine Diana, followed by a stint on a refresher course at Le Touquet. Now he is summoned directly.

My dear Patsy,

Come as soon as you can. I lost 3 Company C.O.s the day before yesterday.

Love, yrs Oc.[3]

 

Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother. It was his first letter in a long while, and in it he describes the longest, hardest time of his service in France (we have drawn on this letter already). The 2nd Manchesters, down on the southern part of the British line, made an assault more than two weeks ago, before Owen had rejoined from hospital. Since then they have not been in an attack, but–no doubt due to the concentration of force for the Battle of Arras–they have remained an awfully long time in front-line trenches.

25 April 1917  A. Coy., My Cellar

My own dearest Mother,

Immediately after I sent my last letter, more than a fortnight ago, we were rushed up into the Line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench…

The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole…

This we have already read–but it is worth re-reading, as Owen will be dealing with the after-effects for a long time to come.[4]

 

And finally, today, and we get a rare update from Isaac Rosenberg, writing to Eddie Marsh:

My Dear Marsh,

My sister wrote me you have been getting more of my ‘Moses’. It is hardy of you, indeed, to spread it about; and I certainly would be distressed if I were the cause of a war in England; seeing what warfare means here. But it greatly pleases me, none the less, that this child of my brain, should be seen and perhaps his beauties be discovered. His creator is in sadder plight; the harsh and unlovely times have made his mistress, the flighty Muse, abscond and elope with luckier rivals, but surely I shall hunt her and chase her somewhere into the summer and sweeter times. Anyway this is a strong hope; Lately I have not been very happy, being in torture with my feet again. The coldness of the weather and the weight of my boots have put my feet in a rotten state. My address is different now

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon
120th Brigade Works Coy
B.E.F.

There is more excitement now, but though I enjoy this, my feet cause me great suffering and my strength is hardly equal to what is required.

I hear pretty often from G Bottomley and his letters are like a handshake: and passages are splendid pieces of  writing. Have you seen Trevellyans ‘Annual’ which G.B. writes me of.

Rosenberg is a strange bird, and this is a strange letter. He writes to thank Marsh for any efforts he might be making on behalf of his poetry–“Moses” is conceived of as a major work. But the affectation of ease and middle class bonhomie and faux-classicism sits oddly alongside of the infantryman’s complaints about his feet… although surely Rosenberg knows this. So what is he up to?

Perhaps not much, other than making clear a fairly obvious fact: privates in labor battalions can’t do much to improve their large-scale literary undertakings, but hope to keep up their tenuous connections to the world of literary patronage nonetheless. Alas, too, that his connection to Gordon Bottomley came so recently–the “Annual” which Rosenberg is rather obviously hoping to have sent to him is the same publication for which Eleanor Farjeon edited eighteen poems by “Edward Eastaway.”

Do write me when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 199-200.
  2. Which is not to say that Pollard wouldn't have held the more popular belief in 1917--he would have, by far. War heroes are popular; they always have been, and even if 1916 and 1917 and the Western Front were, to mangle some metaphors, the cradle of the grave of that illusion--even if skepticism about the virtues of violence will grow in the aftermath of this war, and remain higher than before it--the idea that talented warriors should be praised was many times more popular than the idea that they should protest the pointless murder they were involved in both perpetuating and risking. (And then, of course, there is Siegfried Sassoon, who wants to win a medal for just the sort of stunt Pollard describes, and also thinks that the war is pointless murder...
  3. Jebb, Edwardian Meteor, 226.
  4. Collected Letters, 452-3.
  5. Collected Works, 315-6.

Henry Williamson Unwrites His Lone Patrol; Edward Thomas Opens Himself Up to Frost; Charles Scott Moncrieff Amidst the Peasantry; Ivor Gurney’s Gloucesters Come Upon an Old Friend; Siegfried Sassoon Swears a New Fealty

Today is thick with poets; but today’s post is also a reminder of the entanglement of different forms and genres. Before the three poets, two litterateurs of different accomplishments–and, along the way, two comminglings of history and fiction…

Charles Scott Moncrieff is back in Doullens, a century back, and delights in describing the local grotesques:

2nd April, 1917

I write this by the stove in the bedroom of an aged woman. We have just arrived in the village where I was in hospital a twelvemonth ago. We halted yesterday near the main town of these parts, into which I walked in the afternoon. . . .

We dined at the Hotel des Quatre Fils Aymon, where the host—a very large man like Bigoudin in Locke’s book—stands by the sideboard and ladles out soup to a frantic waiter who resembles Professor Harvey Littlejohn…

My hostess is very old and sunken and is crouching over the other side of the stove telling her beads and looking up dully over my shoulder at the snow. She is a pleasant spectacle after a terrible old woman with a mad daughter, on whom one of my platoons was billeted last night. She refused to sign the statutory declaration to claim no damages on the grounds that she had not had time to see whether there had been any. I stood there while she peeled potatoes angrily over a pail of water, slicing them again and again to get to the  end of black eyes and worm holes—the daughter sat with twitching hands and feet on the stove, interjecting very savage observations—at last the old one said, “I never do sign and I never will.”[1]

 

Henry Williamson, meanwhile, reports to his mother on his position–the dotted letter code indicates Croiselles–and on his observation of a local attack.

Dear Mother,

Just a short epistle to let you know I received your letter dated 28 March. Yes you are quite right about my destination but you may get a letter with this one that will show you the change.

I watched an attack at 5 oclock this morning. The warfare has changed a lot–of course we are only scrapping their rearguards & their artillery is only a few guns here & there. Well we got past all the defensive ridges, like the downs, now, & on this hill I stood on I could see for scores of miles: it was like standing on the Salt Box Hill & seeing the green country for miles away–it is quite possible to side right up to the Bosche outposts here without knowing where they are.

Well I watched our men going forward at dawn–I was only an interested spectator you see, as I had news of an attack & went up to watch it. The guns gave the village below us hell for a time & then the men went forward, & there was little fire & an hour afterwards I saw two prisoners wounded & looking very white coming in, & then ten others. So I tied my horse up & stealthily crept up to the village & couldn’t see a dam thing. So I went on for a mile or so and to my great surprise & fear I saw a lot of Bosche with machine guns about 150 yds away!!!

And I gave myself up for lost but went on a bit further and found myself in a big trench system with noone about–suddenly it struck me I was in the ‘Hindenburg Line‘![2] And I was!!! I can tell you I felt rather windy & started to go back–on the way back I got two Bosche bombs ready to throw as I was unarmed but I didn’t see a dam thing. I got back to the village after 8 hours away and found my horse frantic with hunger.

I reported my observations to the [——-] and one might hear further you never know. And the best part is that if I had known that the Bosche was there I wouldn’t have gone for £10000 but I believed all the time that he was miles away!!![3]

Only with Henry Williamson would we look to an absence in fiction to query a presence in a “historical document” such as this letter, and yet even though his long novel features a number of escapades which he didn’t make–indeed, several solo rambles into danger just like the one he describes here–there is nothing in the early April scenes of Love and the Loveless that fits the bill. Otherwise, we find what we might expect in a more sober romancer: the booby-trapped piano appears, for instance, but as a “story” that was then current not something the author vouches for. (And it’s better told: of course it must be a specific note that is wired… although a specific chord would be better–perhaps the 7th chord towards the end of “victor-i-ous” in “God Save the King?”)

It seems safe to conclude that, while Williamson may well have witnessed an advance in these confused post-withdrawal pre-Arras weeks, he didn’t really stumble into the German lines and make a narrow escape, borrowed bombs clutched in sweating palms… German grenades appear in the novel, too, but only as potential souvenirs that Phillip Maddison discovers and covets. It is good to be remembered that when a young soldier brags, truth can be less truthy than fiction.

 

Another writer who will straddle the divide between memoir and fiction (or, rather, who putters happily down both carriageways) is Siegfried Sassoon. Today, at least, his various accounts of himself march neatly in step: the “good old 2nd Battalion” reached Corbie, today, on their march to the front, and everything is looking up…

After they had arrived and settled their men–it was an easy march–Ralph Greaves (“Wilmot” in “Sherston’s” memoirs) played a piano he found in their billets while the others drank bad champagne. But this “convivial evening” was over all too quickly–in the morning they will march on north.[4] Nevertheless, tonight, a century back becomes the scene of a set-piece in Sassoon/Sherston’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, as Sassoon introduces the major “characters” of the 2nd Battalion. These include not only “Munro”–the very Dr. Dunn who will compile The War the Infantry Knew–but also “Leake,” the company commander who is no sooner introduced as a hostile Regular Army snob than he and “Sherston” stumble away from the sing-along “sholemnly” swearing eternal friendship. So Siegfried Sassoon is among friends once more…[5]

 

And now to the pure poets. First, Ivor Gurney, who writes (to Marion Scott, as always) of beauty and music and, for once, of a decent burial.

My Dear Friend:

Tin whistles and mouth organs still going hard, and we waiting for dinner and moving afterwards, for a company of ours took two more villages last night, and we shift also of course. We have been hard worked, but still and all the same, this open country work is far preferable to trench life. This place is quite pretty, very pretty; and this morning I saw, at first dawn, one mystical star hanging over a line of black wood on the sky-line; surely one of the most beautiful things on earth.

I hope by the time this letter gets to you you will be trotting about in real Spring sunlight; it is cold here as yet, but no man may foretell of April’s whims.

I told you of the death, a little time back of one of our most looked to corporals. Well, that was before the advance. About a fortnight after the movement started, we heard his grave had been discovered; and after tea one evening the whole company (that was fit) went down for a service there. Quite a fine little wooden cross had been erected there: the Germans had done well: it was better than we ourselves would have given him; and on the cross was
“Hier ruht ein tapferer Englander, Richard Rhodes”, and the date.

Strange to find chivalry in sight of the destruction we had left behind us; but so it was. They must have loved his beauty, or he must have lived a little for such a tribute. But he was brave, and his air always gallant and gay for all his few inches. Always I admired him and his indestructibility of energy and wonderful eyes.[6]

 

Finally, another beautiful, introspective letter from Edward Thomas. Still possessed of both some free time and the near-certain knowledge that things will shortly be much busier, he writes to Robert Frost–and he strives to make the most of it. This is an “update” letter, yes, but it is also what all good personal writing should be–rigorously true to the present moment. And it is fascinating–to me, at least!–to re-read events–or, rather, to read re-written events–from Thomas’s life. Some of these things he has described to his diary, his mother, his wife, Eleanor Farjeon, and his son Merfyn. Will they look different with a few more days’ hindsight, and written as they are to his poetic heart’s companion, his bluff, keeper-challenging American friend?

Beaurains

2 April 1917

My dear Robert,

I heard that the mails have been lost several times lately at sea. I thought I had better make another shot at you. This is another penultimate letter. Things are closely impending now and will have happened before you get this and you will know all about it then, so I will not try to tell you what they are, especially as I could not get them past the censor.

I have seen some new things since I wrote last and had much and worse things to endure which do not become less terrible in anticipation but are less terrible once I am in the midst of them. Jagged gables at dawn when you are cold and tired out look a thousand times worse from their connection with a certain kind of enemy shell that has made them look like that, so that every time I see them I half think I hear the moan of the approaching and hovering shell and the black grisly flap that it seems to make as it bursts. I see and hear more than I did because changed conditions compel us to go up to the very front among the infantry to do our observation and we spend nights without shelter in the mud chiefly in waiting for morning and the arrival of the relief. It is a 24 hours job and takes more to recover from. But it is far as yet from being unendurable. The unendurable thing was having to climb up the inside of a chimney that was being shelled. I gave up. It was impossible and I knew it. Yet I went up to the beastly place and had 4 shell bursts very close. I decided that I would go back. As a matter of fact I had no light and no information about the method of getting up so that all the screwing up I had given myself would in any case have been futile. It was just another experience like the gamekeeper,—but it was far less on my mind, because the practical result of my failure was nil and I now see far more from the ground level than I could have seen then from 200 feet up the factory chimney.

Well, that answers the questions. Although he is less schooled in latter-day Thomas-lore than I am, Edward Thomas is still Edward Thomas, and remembers his own memories well–including the stand-off with the keeper. The time he, Thomas, shrank from conflict despite being in the right, when the belligerent Frost stood firm and was ready to risk violence in a quiet English wood…

Otherwise I have done all the things so far asked of me without making any mess and I have mingled satisfaction with dissatisfaction in about the usual proportion, comfort and discomfort. There are so many things to enjoy and if I remember rightly not more to regret than say a year or ten years ago. I think I get surer of some primitive things that one has got to get sure of, about oneself and other people, and I think this is not due simply to being older. In short, I am glad I came out and I think less about return than I thought I should—partly no doubt I inhibit the idea of return. I only think by flashes of the things at home that I used to enjoy and should again. I enjoy many of them out here when the sun shines and at early morning and late afternoon. I doubt if anybody here thinks less of home than I do and yet I doubt if anybody loves it more.

But why should I be explaining myself at such length and not leave you to do the explaining?

We have shifted lately from the edge of a small city out to a still more ruinous village. The planks and beams of the ruins keep us warm in a house that has not had an actual hit except by fragments. We live in comparative comfort, eat luxuriously from parcels sent from London or brought up from places well behind the lines, and sleep dry and warm as a rule. We expect soon to have to live in damp clay pits for safety. There are some random shots but as a rule you know when to expect trouble, and you can feel quite safe close to a place that is clearly dangerous. We work or make others work practically all day with no rests or holidays, but often we have a quiet evening and can talk or write letters or listen to the gramophone playing ‘John Peel’ and worse things far. People are mostly friendly and warm, however uncongenial. I am more than .ten years older than 4 of the other 5 officers. They are 19, 20, 25, 26 and 33 years old. Those of 25 and up regard me as very old. I don’t know if the two boys do—I get on better with them: in a sort of way we are fond of one another—I like to see them come in of a night back from some job and I believe they like to see me. What more should anyone want?

I revert for 10 minutes every night by reading Shakespeare’s Tragedies in bed with a pipe before I blow the candle out. Otherwise I do nothing that I used to do except eat and sleep: I mean when I am not alone. Funny world. What a thing it is. And I hear nothing of you. Yet you are no more like an American in a book than you were 25 years ago. You are doing the unchanged things that I cannot or dare not think of except in flashes. I don’t have memories except such as are involved in the impressions as I see or hear things about me. But if I went on writing like this I should make you think I was as damnably introspective as ever and practised the art too. Goodnight to you and Elinor and all.

Remember I am in 244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France and am and shall remain 2nd Lieut. Edward Thomas

Yours ever[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 126.
  2. This is the extent of Williamson's belated self-censorship, which surely wouldn't fly if his letters were being read by other censors.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 107-9.
  4. The War the Infantry Knew, 308.
  5. Diaries, 148; Complete Memoirs, 412-17.
  6. War Letters, 152. I was not able to trace this corporal, although I gave the effort only a few moments, alas...
  7. Selected Letters, 160-2.

Richard Aldington’s Glad Young April Day; Siegfried Sassoon, Three Fellows, and a Four-Footed Friend, the Morning After; Ivor Gurney on Morale; Edward Thomas’s Calendrical Heresy

This is going to be a cruel month. We’ll begin with a “month poem” from one of our writers who will be on the outskirts of the worst fighting. Others will be in it: the Battle of Arras, the first intense fighting since the Somme petered out in November, is due in only a week.

I

When I rose up in the morning
In a ruined town in France,
I heard the sparrows twitter
In gardens bare and grey
And watched the sunbeams dance.

O glad young April day!

II

When I lie down this evening
In a damp cellar of France
I’ll hear the big guns booming
By bare and blasted lanes,
And watch the shrapnel dance.

O wild sad April rains!

Richard Aldington[1]

 

For Siegfried Sassoon, the month began with nothing more cruel than a hangover and a goat. Today is the last day in rest billets at the unlovely Camp 13 for the 2nd Royal Welsh, and their unwilling replacement officer is beginning to warm to his fellows.

Last night Sassoon and three comrades had gone to Amiens for a bath and a good dinner at the Godbert—-“a cheerful experience, anyhow.” This morning they[2] posed with the regimental mascot (at right). Sassoon, at right seems to have maintained his good cheer, despite having consumed

2 John Collins   1 Japanese ditto.   1 Oyster cocktail

1 Sherry and Bitters.   Pommard Eclatante, trois verres.

1 Benedictine.

In spite of hankerings for “the good old 1st Battalion…” I was now beginning to identify myself with the equally “good old 2nd Battalion.”[3]

 

Ivor Gurney, still writing regularly to Marion Scott to discuss the editing of his poetry, is also maintaining relatively good spirits.

1 April 1917

My Dear Friend: This is the right day for such a business, if it were not so bitter, and surely a fest-day should not be so dull? Well, here it is, and fatigues are over, and this queer billet echoes and reechoes with the sound of tin whistles and mouth organs, just issued; and the lilt of some Scottish tunes our crack players are rollicking through make life a little alive and worth living…

But it is not an easy life, nor is the task of maintaining morale several years into a frustrated and stagnated war a light one. Exhaustion weighs on the mind as well as the body.

We have not had so bad a time lately, nothing like trench conditions, at any rate, though hard work and not enough food (or at any rate, food not seeming enough) have made us all weak, and upset our insides. I should put this down to the peculiarities of my own stupid constitution, did not men of farming and similar trades also complain. I believe a great deal is due to the dulness of the life, which makes every one look to meals more than ordinary; but anyway they are bound to work us; it being as certain as anything that only going keeps us going. We should all relapse into neurasthenia were we not driven. Considering everything, especially the callousness to certain things such a life must develop, the men are marvellously good to one another, and surely much finer than ever they were, bless em…

The baccy parcel arived last night, and we were all most grateful; everybody was short or bankrupt; and the cigar things were most grateful to us stranded wretches. (They are singing “Annie Laurie”. O the joy of it!)

I fear I can send you no money yet, but if you would send the paper covered National Song Book, and the small, selected Browning in Walter Scotts edition they would be most useful. The latter is 1/6 I believe. I believe “The Spirit of Man” is sucked dry for me, and my thirst for good verse, and short, is very strong.

Marion Scott had also reported to Gurney on a recent performance of his songs. Without access to a piano in the trenches (pace Henry Williamson and his two pianos–but those were booby trapped anyway) he has turned from musical composition to verse. But now, amidst the ruins of the German retreat, Gurney consoles himself with his own songs.

The day has been springlike on the whole, and last nights sky was gloriously tragic; I sang “In Flanders” to myself, facing the West, alone in a lately ruined house, spoiled by that unutterable thoroughness of the German destruction; and was somewhat comforted thereby. That has all been said for me in “In Flanders”…

But for Gurney, mad north by the west country, “In Flanders” can always mean “In Gloucestershire.”

The scene of “In Flanders” is obviously Coopers Hill. O times! O saisons, O chateaux!

Goodbye for now: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[4]

 

Edward Thomas, too, begins the month in relative ease, quiet, and lengthy letter-writing.

…a beautiful serene clear morning with larks at 5.15 and blackbirds at 6… All day sat writing letters to Helen, Father and Mother by the fire and censoring men’s letters etc…[5]

To Helen, first, with a plain but absorbing tale of his night’s doings:

Arras, 1 April 1917

Dearest,

Now the night is over I will tell you all about it before I go to bed, if I do go! I feel so cheerful for several reasons of which I will give you two. Firstly, I found a letter from you waiting for me when I returned at 7 a.m. Secondly, I found the car waiting for me as soon as I was clear of B., which was most cheering to a tired and overladen officer and four telephonists still more overladen.

Well, I didn’t have much of the fire. I just waited to hear that the working party was only going to carry up the stuff, which they did, and to do the work today or some other time soon. I had to decide to let them carry the heavy stuff (too heavy for them to carry through a sticky trench) along the crest which was being swept by machine guns from time to time. Which they did and luckily came to no harm. I went off to the cellar, leaving two telephonists to take their instrument off the wire and see that the wire on to the cellar was all right. The cellar was full of smoke, except the lowest twofeet of it, so that we (the two other telephonists and I) had to crouch or lie. Then shells began to fall in the direction of the O.P. In two hours the other telephonists had not arrived. I thought they had lost their way in the moonlight among the wire and ruins andtrenches of B. or had been wounded—or perhaps the working party had had a casualty. So I sent back the other two telephonists to see if they had left the O.P. I had thought myself rather clever—or rather I was very much relieved—to find my way in the moonlight.

Then, later, after learning that the lines are cut,

…I dozed for one hour or two, dreaming of being court-martialled, till up I got and had a quiet journey. The moon had gone and left all the stars and not a cloud. I was sure of my way by the Plough. But it was dirty and tiring, for I had on vest | shirt | two waistcoats | tunic | one Tommy’s leather waistcoat | British warm | and waterproof.

Only two or three shells came over and I found the telephonists dozing and there in a clay corner we dozed and smoked till daybreak. More heavy shells arrived well away from us. They moan and then savagely stop moaning as they strike the ground with a flap. They are 5.9s or Five Nines as we call them.—I had not been wanted on the telephone so all is well. Day broke clear and white and a lark rose at 5.15. Blackbirds began to sing at 6 and a yellowhammer. I got up and slopped through the trench and looked at the view over to the Hun, a perfect simple view of three ridges, with a village and line of trees on the first, a clump on the second and clumps and lines on the furthest, all looking almost purple and brown like heather in the dawn. Easter Sunday—a lovely clear
high dawn.

Strangely, it is not Easter at all. Thomas is, somehow, off by a week in terms of the liturgical calendar. He is not a religious man–in fact he is more or less and atheist, or rather a quiet but firm non-believer–but it’s still rather odd that he’s made this mistake. Wouldn’t the battery have special arrangements for church parade? Perhaps not.

He’s a quite fellow, but surely not so insular that he won’t notice the mistake or be put right by one of his fellow officers.

After more description of the end of his all-night duty, Thomas brings the letter slowly to a close.

Now everybody has breakfasted. There has been a shower and the sun has returned but among the clouds. I am not very sleepy yet, but just enjoying having nothing to do which is supposed to be the privilege of the day after the O.P.—that is in these peaceful days. You are having a fine Easter, I hope, as we are, though not a warm one yet. I like hearing of your days with Baba and Bronwen and Joy, and of Mervyn’s ride with Ernest, and intended ride to
Jesse’s…

Rubin has set the gramophone to ‘In Cellar Cool’. But everything, gramophone or not, out here forbids memories such as you have been writing. Memories I have but they are mixed up with my thoughts and feelings in B. or when I hear the blackbirds or when the old dog bangs the table leg with his tail or lies with his brains wasting in his skull. You must not therefore expect me to say anything outright. It is not my way, is it?

No, I’m sure she doesn’t. But surely she might wish it…

Now I must write and remind Mother she has sent only the inessential part of my mapcase, the waterproof cover for it.

A happy Easter! Goodbye

Edwy

The letter to his mother is less fulsome–perhaps it is more dutiful, perhaps he wrote to Helen in the jittering excitement of having survived his long night’s journey and is now “crashing”–but it does go beyond the merely parcel-related to gently take up two opposed themes: the destruction of war, and the coming of spring flowers.

The day has kept fine on the whole and if it were a little warmer it would be good Easter weather, fresh, and bright. Only I feel cold after sitting out all night as stout as a market woman with so many clothes on. My servant is washing for me out in the yard and the clothes are blowing on the line just beside the motor car which shines in the sun. The aeroplanes are buzzing overhead and as I sit by an open wood fire it is more like a scene in a small country inn at home than anything else except that one of our guns rattles all the windows.every now and then. We get good fires here with the boards and beams of ruined houses all round us. The servants will bum anything if you let them and I have just been lecturing mine on the evil of burning things that still serve the purpose for which they were made. The waste is indescribable. It would be interesting to compare the way the Germans spend their substance. The deep dug-outs they make are far beyond ours in strength and workmanship. We make them just as much as they do but we make wretched things skimped in work and materials so far as I have seen. The thing that is to shelter us in the battle is being made now in a hurry anyhow without any expert advice except that of a thatcher from Norfolk.

I am glad you had some violets. I have not seen any, nor primroses, nor celandines, not even a dandelion . . . It will be nice to have the kind of Easter weather it is good to sow seeds in. Nice for us, too. Goodbye.Ever your loving son

Edwy[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I am pretty sure--but by no means entirely certain--that the inspirational April is this year, a century back.
  2. Sassoon writes that "Binge Owen" accompanied him, Greaves, and Conning; but the officer in the center of the picture is Coster, not Owen.
  3. Diaries, 146-7. The War the Infantry Knew, 307-8.
  4. War Letters, 150-1.
  5. War Diary (Childhood), 174.
  6. Selected Letters, 157-60.

Ivor Gurney Longs for England–and Germany; Henry Williamson is All Over the Place

Henry Williamson writes a long and exceptionally rambling letter to his mother today, a century back. Some excerpts:

Dear Mum,

Excuse this bad writing, but I’ve been hit again, ever so slightly in the right thumb, so I’ve been wounded twice in this little campaign. It was a crump that burst near me and killed my horse & dented my hat, but didn’t hit me except in the thumb, & has only caused a little cut 1 inch long on the inside of the bone. My arm is quite OK now & neither is bad enough for hospital…

We are as far behind at present as you are from Whitefoot Lane & when we go in I stop behind with the mules & go up over shell plastered roads with the waggons. I have been on the gun bit owing to shellshock & nervous exhaustion (10 days fighting is no joke for anyone…)

I can tell you its nice to be here–altho the Ger has cut down trees, blown up each house, poisoned wells, etc etc etc… most of his stoves were done in, but mine wasn’t, but a nice little egg bomb was up the chimney ready for the first fire!! I’ve kept it as a souvenir. He had a piano or two down his dugouts, each one connected to a mine!!!

…Well, am just going to have tea, so will close. Thanks for books & pyjamas & toffee. Can you manage to send me a large cake for the mess… & a box or two of biscuits or shortbreads… Please send Motor Cycling & Motor Cycle & an occasional Daily Mail…

Will you send some Bachelor buttons and take my tunic to the CSSA & have an open collar put in instead of that stand up one and tell them to let it out down the back… Dont forget as I  may be home soon for a staff job…

Love to all, Harry.[1]

To review:

  1. A second scratch for Lt. Williamson is much discussed. There is no sense that he might want to omit any mention of–let alone self-mockingly downplay–such a minor injury.
  2. He is well, but he also considers himself shell-shocked–not concussed per se, but suffering from the neurological and/or psychological aftereffects of prolonged exposure to artillery. This is certainly possible, but this is very much the boy who cried wolf.
  3. He has a comfy dugout, despite or because of his suspiciously complete knowledge of German booby traps. But s a transport officer in the Machine Gun Corps, he would not be likely to be the first or second or tenth officer to check a certain spot for booby-traps. Finding them as he claims to have done is not impossible, but it’s not likely.
  4. He wears his pyjamas every night, which points more to the comfy than the shocking aspects of working in support of more advanced troops.
  5. He is in perpetual need of motoring mags and biscuits.
  6. And lastly, with those tailoring instructions, we are reminded that he is both dandified and delusional. It has hardly been a fortnight since Williamson was called on the carpet, with a hangover, accused of basic incompetence, and left convinced he would be fired from his relatively safe job with the transport. This tailoring assignment for poor old mum is a rank fantasy… He is not getting a staff appointment…

 

Ivor Gurney, humble private and laborer, has bigger things on his mind: battle draws near, as does the publication of his first book of verse. For once he is the more focused of our daily selection of letter-writers.

29 March 1917

My Dear Friend: It is too dangerous to move towards my valise, where your letter lies, there being too many men looking for seats, and the fire being too comfortable…

This, it would seem, is Gurney’s excuse for conducting only a general–and rather grumpy–discussion of his poetry. Which we’ll skip…

Well what thundering interesting things are happening now! O if I but knew German! Lots of newspapers, some quite late have come my way; and a book of short stories about Military Life—supposed to be humorous “Simpllicimus” “Berliner Tageblatt” etc etc. There is no room for souvenirs, as the opportunities for getting them later will probably be only too numerous. You cannot imagine the amount of work behind his lines; he must have worked very hard…

Let’s compare our two writers.

Henry Williamson is a fanciful youth, a dyed-in-the-wool spinner of tales, and so the German lines become a cheerfully Gothic obstacle course, full of wired-up pianos which don’t trouble him in the least. He is also, incredibly, a full lieutenant in charge of a number of grown men, solely responsible for keeping other grown men supplied with the necessary ammunition.

Ivor Gurney, five years older, is a private whose battalion has worked for months as ready labor for the engineers. Not only is he unable to lard his letters with tall tales (the censor would know, and he would be embarrassed) but he can neither load up on souvenirs nor fail to notice the salient fact about the German lines: these trenches and dugouts–the ones abandoned for a better-sited line fortified completely and at leisure–are still much better than the British lines he has worked so hard to improve.

Nor is he likely to hate or disrespect his enemy. Gurney has not been in a major battle, nor has he suffered the very worst of attritional trench-holding. But he is nearing a full year in France, and few of our writers could claim as complete an identification with the “Tommy” experience. He sees the Germans opposite as fellow front-fighters, rather than enemies.

Our mails arrive very well still. I hope they will continue to bring your letters, though my replies may be short and infrequent. I enclose something, which looks like a complete description of a German private but dont know. I found also about a dozen p[ost]c[ards]s, one of Nuremburg, which provoked sadness that we must never visit Germany. Anyway the place I want to visit now is Blighty. “Blighty is the place for me” as the song says. Goodbye, Good health and Good luck:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[2]

A melancholy souvenir.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 104-5.
  2. War Letters, 146-147.

Ivor Gurney Absolves Himself of Half the Blame; Edward Thomas Discourses to His Son, and Friend; Edward Hermon on War’s Delightful Uncertainties; A Saucy Note for Jack Martin; Alphabet Soup with Kate Luard

None of our writers yet know the exact date of the coming offensive–and they can assume that the terrible weather and the operational wrench tossed in the works by the German withdrawal will delay it at least a bit more–but there is a growing sense that they may be only days away from the end of a winter which, for all its miseries, has seen men killed only by the handfuls and dozens, for the most part, and not by the thousands.

Girding for battle, then, we have five writers to read today–two provide lengthy and rather weighty letters, but we also have some lighter fare along the way…

 

Ivor Gurney, wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back. Scott is at once his friend and benefactress; she has put his songs before an audience, published his music, lectured on his poetry, helped him at every stage, and now is in the last stages of preparing his first book of poems for the press. As the editor of those poems, she has become less and less like a patron or facilitator and more and more like a partner: Gurney’s moods are changeable, his spelling and punctuation are shaky, and his ability to focus on revising his poems while serving as an infantryman is, rather understandably, limited. He is fortunate that his friend is both skilled and willing to edit with sensitivity, cleaning up his verse without heavy-handedly blotting out his oddities–and he is wise enough (or, again, fortunate) to recognize this.

23 March 1917

My Dear Friend: Things are beginning to move, and no one knows when may come the next opportunity for writing. I have just received your letter of March 11th… Do not consult me about these things, but do as your far more experienced judgement may lead you…

A frequent topic in these letters is Scott’s ill-health. She has a number of ongoing medical problems and has been very sick two different times in recent months, and Gurney, though sympathetic, often struggles to find a way to express his sympathy. Today an obvious path is open: he can share her joy at resuming music:

And it is good news that you are able to play sonatas again, and with a sympathetic pianist. It gives me a feeling of sharing your good-fortune to read of it; may your strength increase and give you hours a day of it…

One parcel of yours I have received — not yet the other. All the letters have arrived and all given pleasure. O to return to England and my friends! Such joys are there as are dangerous to imagine at present; not all at once will my mind and body become sound, but it cannot be so very very long before Joy becomes “used to me”…

The new state of things entered upon by the German retreat may mean little letter writing. This is the reason why I hasten to reply, though never have I felt more acutely the inadequacy of words. Last night and this afternoon have been so beautiful that my mind has been filled with Blighty thoughts. But consider what a queer past I have to look back on! Either I am a great musician or a chronic neurastheniac!

That’s a line worth remarking on. Many of our writers are in a similar position in that they sense the war will be the making or breaking of their literary ambitions, and yet few have struggled mentally and emotionally as much as Gurney has. The war is an intensifier–double or nothing, death or great beauty.

There is nothing outside it, for the visible world is hardly to be seen by me unless music hallows my spirit with  beauty and toughens it by the necessary work.

And yet Gurney is consistently grateful about another thing the war has done for him: throwing him among all sorts of men has cured him of much of his social awkwardness, at least among men. Suffering together has made a feeling of brotherhood possible.

You will be glad to hear however that as a personality I am rather popular in my company. It pleases me this, as so I know myself nearer Walt Whitmans perfect man; equal to shepherd and President; equal and familiar. O the joy to be able to go into a little Cotswold inn and drop into conversation with the nearest man! And that, compared with my tongue-tied shyness of 3 years ago. And if not here, then in the Shades I will be friends with men contemptuous of the fate to which some Power has doomed them, jovially drinking in some phantom pub over doubtful takes[1] and unprintable denunciation of the Infernal NCOs.

We’ve seen something like this before (not that I can currently place it, mind)–a soldier so pleased to belong that he humorously, but with real feeling, extends the dream of post-war camaraderie even to otherworldly environs. Gurney is then once again reminded that he is neglecting a different category of friend:

You patient correspondent, though you make no complaint, how should you not be tired of the continual self-analysis which makes up the bulk of my letters! And yet those letters are the safety-valves of my discomfort. It is a cheap amusement—grumbling—pleasing the writer and leaving the reader to read or not as she pleases. I
absolve myself therefore from half the blame, take the other half if you please.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

…Goodbye and many sonatas. Unless I write very soon, more verse-books off:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s latest letter to his wife Ethel picks up in the middle of a joint reminiscence about old holidays, but it is nevertheless overshadowed by the coming offensive.

…I fear those old days are gone for ever now… Let’s hope our next trip will be one here to see the result of the war with the Chugs.

Of course, by now you know more about the German retirement than I do, really, as you have had one more Times than I have…

According to the papers he is retiring there so that, if any preparations have been made by us for the much-talked-about spring offensive, we may have to start again… & in the meantime his submarines will sink all our ships. However the best-laid plans often go wrong…

War is one of those delightful uncertainties that a very small thing may completely upset. It is all most awfully interesting & I hope I shall see the end. I often long for the time when one will be able to read the history of the early phases & know why he didn’t do some of the many things that he ought to have done.

I got three delightful letters from the Chugs too, today. I wish I had time to answer them. Thank dear little Mary for her nice message & her letter too. I am so pleased to hear she sat on her pony so well when it fell down!

Goodnight my darling.[3]

 

Before we get to two letters from Edward Thomas–I know I have been including a great deal of his writing, but these show a different aspect of his personality–let’s do two brief bits of comic relief, one intentional and one rather by-the-way.

We haven’t heard from Jack Martin much–his diary has been sparse, as he seems to be in low spirits. I don’t know him well enough to suspect any particular mood (or mood disorder), but he seems to be suffering from the general malaise common to men who are excited to reach the front and then find not the thrill and terror of battle but the long slog of living and working in miserable winter conditions. His diary only springs to life when he can report letters from home or another test of wills with his commanding officer and sparring partner Lieutenant Buchanan. But today a bit of light comedy flutters out from an unsolicited parcel, in a moment much more redolent of 1915 and the heyday of Kitchener’s army than this tense muddy month, a century back:

23.3.17

Arrived at Dickebusch safely. Had a parcel from Lil containing a body belt folded up just as she had bought it. When I unfolded it a piece of paper dropped out–I picked it up and read this:

Miss Dulcie Bennett

111 Mansfield Road

Nottingham

Wishes the boy who receives this belt the best of luck and a safe return to Blighty. XXXX for luck

Oh, Dulcinea, I am no Don Quixote so I vulgarly displayed your missive to other eyes and there was quite a competition between several fellows as to who should have it and write to you…[4]

 

And I can’t resist the beginning of Kate Luard‘s diary for today, a century back. If we often look for “found poetry” hidden in the prose of our writers, today this old campaigner provides us a found nonsense-alphabet-jingle:

The three C.O.’s of the three C.C.S’s here were summoned to 3rd Army H.Q. to-day to a Conference with the D.M.S…[5]

 

Lastly, Edward Thomas, thrice. I absolve all readers not lavishly endowed with free time or particularly interested in a writer’s fine-grained choices from reading any further. It’s too much!

Or not… Well, we’ll begin with an excerpt from his diary, and then proceed to excerpts from two different letters.

Frosty clear. Ploughs going up over crest towards Beaurains. Rubin back from F. O. P. believes in God and tackles me about atheism–thinks marvellous escapes are ordained. But I say so are the marvellous escapes of certain telegraph posts, houses, etc.[6]

Next, a letter to his old friend Gordon Bottomley which does something rather odd: Thomas reviews the salient experiences and most striking sights of recent days (many of which we’ve read about) but he does so in a hurried, unliterary fashion. Usually the letters are more considered, more elaborate than the diary, but not here.

23 March
My dear Gordon,

I will write again while I can a little. Things are moving now & we move too. I have not long come back from 24 hours in our new front line. It was dirty wet & cold & I could only stand & mark the flashes of enemy guns at night, which was my business. Afterwards I slept 16 hours for the first time in my life. It taught me several things that others knew before. It made me cease to be alarmed by shells that could not harm me, for example, though they came over 20 or 30 a minute all night. They were flying home to a village that we used to fire at till this last move, a fascinating ghostly village of stark trees & ruins which I shall probably soon be sleeping in. It was beautiful coming down to the city in sunshine & seeing the old ruined Town Hall like a thick white smoke just beginning to curl. Crossing the old No Man’s Land crowded like a race course after a race, I couldn’t take seriously the few small shells thrown at the working parties. Oh, I did eat & rest & sleep…

Yesterday it was sunny & mild. Today it is cold & snows at times…

Is this sort of rote reporting motivated only by a sense of duty to an old friend? But Thomas does work around to some more intimate issues of the sort that once sustained his letters to Bottomley.

…Fear too, I have discovered—to that point where the worst moment is when you find you have survived & that all your fear was useless. You screw yourself up for a second to bear anything & nothing comes—except a curious disappointment which I suppose is also relief. Sometimes at night I have been in this state a hundred times, but partly through inexperience, not knowing what might mean harm. Still, I shall never like the shell that flaps as it falls, or the one that suddenly bounces into hearing & in a second is bursting far off—no sooner does it open the gate than it is right in the door, or even the small one that complains & whimpers & is called a ‘pipsqueak’ or a ‘whizzbang’, & flies into that ghastly village all night long like flights of humming birds.

Ah–and he is working on refining his descriptions of the shells. Through music, next, and friendship, the letter finally turns to his poetry–only to dodge, at the end, from success back toward despair.

…I conclude I don’t quite want friends here. I should be too introspective or too happy to meet the circumstance. And yet all sorts of things do make me happy—villages, the city in ruins, the larks in the bloody dirty dawn, the partridges, the magpies floating about among shellfire & once a bat, & a hundred different houses, in city, suburb, & village.

I hear now that America wants my verses & Poetry has taken some. Frost wants me to surrender my pseudonymity but I am not doing so. Of course I can’t think of writing here & only keep the briefest of diaries…

I haven’t met anybody out here yet who connected me with home. I don’t think of home. I never did have pictures on the wall since I was 1.

Goodbye. My love to Emily. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[7]

 

Last, today, Thomas’s letter to his son, Merfyn, now a teenager but working full time as an apprentice at a bus works. Is it his age that accounts for the formality of the letter, or the gaps in his relationship with his father, so often depressed or working away. And yes, he misspells his son’s name, sort of–the name is Welsh, so the “f” sounds as a “v,” anyway:

244 Siege Battery, 23 March 1917

My dear Mervyn,

I brought back a letter from you in the mail bags today and also a new battery for my torch. Thank you very much… It is most useful in crossing this dark street when crowded with lorries or columns of horses and limbers and on all sorts of occasions.

I was so glad to hear from you and how much you were earning for Mother as well as yourself. At the same time I am more anxious for you to learn than to earn at present and I hope you will soon be moved to a new shop.

But Merfyn will soon be eighteen, and in England, a century back, work is no longer the thing that most defines a man’s estate.

You haven’t found an O.T.C. yet, have you? I wish you could, though I hope you will not have to go further than that for a long time. I don’t think war would trouble you. I see lots of infantrymen no bigger or older than you. There was one machine gunner doing duty over the parapet the other night when I was in the very very front trench. He had to stand up there behind his gun watching for an hour. Then he was relieved and made some tea for me and himself and turned into his comic little shanty and slept till the next relief. He looked ever so much older as well as dirtier when morning came. He was a very nice bright Scotch boy. Well, I expect you could do just the same. His officer was the same age and very much like him so that I think he had to look unduly severe to show the distinction…

These, of course, are new thoughts, different thoughts, experiences filtered–and this is very rare, in what we read of Thomas–through the lens of fatherhood. But very strangely, Thomas segues from this paternal mode into a comparison of himself and his son. He had recently faced the task of climbing an enormous chimney for observation purposes, and backed down. Now he wonders if his boy could have done better.

I wonder could you climb that chimney? There were iron rings all the way up and I knew one was loose, but I didn’t know which. One bad feature was that you were always hanging out a bit, because the chimney tapered. It has been hit three times but only with small stuff. Now I suppose it is likely to survive as the enemy is farther off.

Even more strangely, he takes what might seem an offhand (to anyone not risking shellfire on a daily basis) approach to a completely fundamental question:

The crossroads round it became known as Windy Comer because everybody ‘got the wind up’ as he came near it. Thousands had to go that way and yet very few were injured and only about two killed. Isn’t it wonderful how some men get hit and some don’t. But it is the same with trees and houses, so that I don’t see why it makes some people ‘believe in God’. It is a good thing to believe. I think brave people all believe something and I daresay they are not so likely to be killed as those who don’t believe and are not so brave…

But then the formality–a certain awkwardness, at least–creeps back in, and Thomas begins to deluge his son with questions:

…It is going to be Spring soon. Are you glad? Are you often happy and usually contented, and if not contented, not often in despair? Try never to let despair at any rate make you idle or careless; But be as idle and careless as you can when you are happy and the chance comes. If you are troubled, remember that you can do what perhaps nobody else will be able to do for Mother and Bronwen and Baba: only don’t let that make you anxious either. All will come well if you keep honest and kind.Upon my word, this sounds like a sermon and I do hate sermons, of which it is not true to say that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is more easy to give a sermon than to receive.

Which is why, perhaps, he decides to close by giving something not every father can give–this sort of evocative, quietly emotional writing:

Do you have time to read now? I only read for ten minutes in bed, Shakespeare’s sonnets, with a pipe which I smoke about a quarter through and then put out the light and forget the flash of guns across the street and the rattle of the windows, everything except the thud of a shell in the marsh behind, but that seems to have stopped now. Goodnight.

Ever your loving

Daddy[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. As printed, but surely "tales" is intended?
  2. War Letters, 144-5.
  3. For Love and Courage, 342-3.
  4. Sapper Martin, 53-4.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 103.
  6. War Diary (Childhood), 172.
  7. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 278-280.
  8. Selected Letters, 151-3.