Olaf Stapledon Has a Succession of Thrills

It’s Olaf Stapledon‘s turn to paint a picture of the cold calm of February–for us and for Agnes Miller, on the far side of the world. All is quiet, but he does his best to provide a few thrills:

16 February 1918

Frost again, almost as hard as ever. Too cold to work on one’s car without grim determination and much pausing for swinging the arms, too cold to read or write in comfort, and often too cold in bed. Of course it’s not really as bad as that. Probably if it were a real hardship one would not grouse about it; but as it is just bad enough to annoy, one makes a song. One spends all day putting one’s hands into one’s pockets or blowing one’s fingers. I am busy at present. First, two fairly busy duty days, ending with a bus caked in frozen mud, then two days of work on the car badly behind time, then duty again. For real joy I recommend the washing of a frozen car with water that, instead of taking off the mud, covers it with a layer of glass almost instanter. And a wind like a thousand little safety-razor blades shot at you; and the old car valenced everywhere with icicles that grow visibly as you swill the water on. Altogether it was not a very successful washing, in spite of the liberal use of a screw driver to chip off the ice and mud. My last duty day was a busy one compared with what we sometimes have. In the night we had a gas alarm—all the sirens echoed down the valley in a most eerie fashion and people began getting out of their blankets and  investigating things and even putting on their masks. The four Englishmen, being a thoroughly sluggardly lot, lay abed hoping for the best. Needless to say the gas never came our way, & where it did go it hurt no one,—so our confidence was justified. When it was my turn to leave the place I started with two men in the car. We jogged along a hundred yards—Bang! not a gun, oh no far worse, a burst tyre, the first I have had for months. So out we got, Romney [George Fox] & I, and jacked up the hind leg of the old beast and changed the tyre; an ancient ragged relic it was. And the two “types” inside prattled and wanted to help; and other types passing begged for a lift and were sternly refused. Soon we were on the road again, but were presently held up by a big tourer that was frantically trying to turn around in a very narrow place. So we sat & watched, and evilly hoped that he would back too far and go over the edge for our amusement; but he didn’t. When the road was clear we toiled up the screened hill, picked up two sick men on the top, two more further on, and kept on picking up patients until we were full. It was just like a bus, an omnibus! There was ever so much traffic on the road, & we were late, so it was exciting winding in & out, blowing a feeble horn, shouting “Eéééé là bas!” and “À droit là!” and “Attention mon vieux,” or when necessary other things more powerful. . . . And then as luck would have it we came across an exceptional number of uncivilised American horses. (War horses all come from S. America.) They were being led in pairs. A large number of them took fright at us and flung about all over the place as we passed, so there was a glorious muddle. The air was a seething mass of horses’ heels, as the journalists might say! Said Romney, “By Jove, I swear I’ve never had such a succession of thrills!”[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 281-2.

Olaf Stapledon’s Little Twiddly Scrawls; Siegfried Sassoon’s Idyll Turns to Remorse; Edward Heron-Allen on Parade

Olaf Stapledon remains committed to the principle that the experiential gulf (not to mention the two hemispheres) that separates him from his beloved Agnes can best be bridged by creating familiarity with his circumstances. This letter isn’t quite up to his previous high standard of literary teleportation, but it operates on the same implicit premise: if I can write you into knowing the people I’m with, it will be like we are closer together…

SSA 13

4 February 1918

Yesterday I wrote you a scrap in a hurry; today I am beginning again or rather tonight, and under awkward circumstances, for I am at an aid post with three garrulous Englishmen and two garrulous Frenchmen. The latter have gone but the former remain. One of them is making cocoa, which is now an almost unheard of luxury. He is the well-bred and well-built younger [George Romney] Fox, our best runner, and a charming lad although he is a bit too pleased with himself. Another is one [William] Meredith, formerly in Cadbury’s works, a keen self-educating lad who suffers from two disadvantages, being neither of the well-to-do nor of the proper “working” class. He somehow always errs on the side of formality and over respectability; but he also is a good lad, a hard worker too. The third is the great and famous inhabitant of Liverpool, Alec Gunn, called the mitrailleuse on account of his endless rattle of talk. . . .

Goodnight. These silly little black twiddly scrawls that are our only lines of communication! Goodnight.[1]

It’s Stapledon’s gift–and his dogged project–to keep two hearts close together as their time apart stretches to many years.

 

And it’s Siegfried Sassoon‘s gift to house two different personalities within himself–Outdoor Sassoon (or George Sherston, the Fox-Hunting Man) and Indoor Sassoon, the poet. Today, however, he once again works from the outside in.

Hacked to meet—four miles from Limerick. Fine sunny morning. Rode Sheeby’s big bay mare…  [the fox] ran very twisting (a vixen). Slow hunting for about forty minutes, ran toward Limerick, and killed at a farm… A poorish day, but very jolly… Happy days.

Sassoon’s previous few days of “jolly” hunting produced poems that dwelt in the happy hunting grounds of his mind, keeping the war well in the background. But today this “jolly,” “happy” diary mood somehow twisted, vixen-like to produce a bloody, angry, haunted war poem in his old style.

 

Remorse

Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,—each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
‘Could anything be worse than this?’—he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees…
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs. ‘O hell!’
He thought—‘there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.[2]

 

Sassoon does this sort of thing very well. What should I add? Either you are pummeled by the force of the imagery and the rhythm of the verse into a sharper awareness of the horror of war, or you are put off by the oversimplifications that such a direct assault necessitates. Or both…

 

Finally–this is an awkward segue, given that this is an older man, safe at home, and very impressed with his own father’s deathless deeds–we mark a major change in the circumstances of Edward Heron-Allen. After several years (but only a few entries, here) of life as a not-so-young and slightly cracked home-front volunteer, he is now to begin life as an elderly subaltern: he began training with his very own platoon of Sussex volunteers, today, a century back, at Tunbridge Wells.

Here I am at the end of the first day and if it is all going to be like today it will be interesting…

Perhaps: but the diary is not–unless it can be excerpted for the purpose of not-so-gentle mockery. The ankle deep mud on the parade ground at Tunbridge Wells gave Heron-Allen “an idea of the state of things in Flanders…” except for the fact that in the very next sentence they give up bayonet training because it is “too filthy,” and have a lecture instead. Just like in Flanders.[3]

But we will look in on Heron-Allen as his time in training camp continues… it will get more interesting for him, and for us as well…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 280.
  2. Diaries, 209-10.
  3. Journal, 141-44.

Two Pacifists in Contemplation: Max Plowman on Bloody Murder, as Seen from England; Olaf Stapledon Organizes the Library

Max Plowman‘s letter to the pacifist leader Mrs. Pethick Lawrence began yesterday, a century back, as a thank-you note–she has evidently been providing moral support and advice– which also enclosed some news and also some (unidentified) verses of his own. But today he added a thoughtful few paragraphs on his thoughtlessness, namely his inability–and the  inability of soldiers generally–to consider the war as an ethical problem while actively engaged in fighting it. It’s only when returning that the soldier is ready to analyze–and protest.

Looking back I see this. When the average soldier says, as he almost invariably does, after his first “bad time” at the front “This isn’t war, it’s bloody murder”, he does so because he realises for the first time that he is not fighting man but that he is pitting his flesh & blood against killing-machinery. When a 9″ shell arrives from perhaps 2 miles away his most elementary sense of fairness is at once outraged…[1]

This seems right, of course, and it’s hard not to feel that it’s strange that it has taken Plowman so long to see it this way. And yet his conclusion is at once too materialist and too hopeful: he argues that since all men will come to hate war as an “outrage on humanity” then there is hope in the brutal industrialization of war. War is killing itself, and soon humanity will have done with it. But the irony will not break that way, will it…

 

Olaf Stapledon has never wavered in his pacifism, and–though manning an ambulance behind the lines (never mind in reserve) is not the same thing, when it comes to facing up to war’s industrial slaughter, as fighting in the trenches–he has remained steadfast in his belief that something of what he experiences can not only be understood, but also communicated, across a world-wide gulf.

SSA 13

3 February 1918

We have been on the move again, and are now settled down to the old old work. There is very little doing, but the moving is quite an affair, & I am on duty for two or three days also. This good old billet is a palace compared with our others, as it is a deserted farmhouse. But beds are scarce, and I have none, sleeping on the floor with a few rugs folded up to form a mattress, but I have got a good spot that is practically open air.

The last convoy to be here left the place in utter filth, but they left behind some excellent board-shelves which I have commandeered for the public library; and so I have been busy reorganising all the books and cataloguing, seizing the opportunity just now when all the books are in. Quite an undertaking, especially scolding people who have lost or ill-treated books. Tomorrow I shall not be here, so it had to be done today. Tomorrow I wear my good old tin hat again for the first time for two months. . . .[2]

Olaf Stapledon was not an unlikely pick to end up as what we might call a non-combatant combat librarian…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 96.
  2. Talking Across the World, 279.

Max Plowman Supported; Olaf Stapledon Stays the Course; the Master of Belhaven Mastered by Paperwork

Max Plowman, embarked, now, on his own odyssey of protest, is mustering support. Or, rather, he is thanking some of those who have already offered their support–in this case, Janet Upcott.

It was dear of you to write Janet & very kind of you to copy out Sassoon‘s letter for me. I’m very glad to have it… as Dorothy will tell you things have begun just as you prophesied….

Can it really be that Plowman has not read the famous letter of protest? I don’t know–it’s possible, but it seems likely that Upcott copied it out for him to refer to, and that his lack of reference to reading it for the first time indicates that he has in fact done so. Does he know, then, the manner of Sassoon’s subsequent apostasy?

The letter goes on to show how different Plowman’s situation is from Sassoon, and how different his motivations:

You & Mary are like Fairy Godmothers straight out of a Fairy Tale to us… And then you heap coals of fire on my head by saying that we lift you out of the world of material considerations & policies of caution. Dear Jane! You make me laugh!  …Passion & love, you can’t ultimately divide them I think. Is anybody’s consciousness utterly destroyed? That’s what it comes to. I don’t think so. I don’t think I believe in total damnation, though it may be so.

My love to you dear Janet.[1]

 

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, has had his raid. And when it was his show he didn’t mind cranking the mimeograph–or even doing his own colored-ink touch-ups. But when it’s a matter of bumff come down from up the chain of command…

I have turned into a Babu–I spend my whole time writing reports and organising things. It seems to get worse and worse. I have increased my office staff, and still we hardly get through the paper that comes by one despatch rider before another arrives…[2]

 

Finally, today, another charming letter from Olaf Stapledon to Agnes Miller. It shows many sides to Stapledon’s personality, not least a strong-to-the-point-of-foolishness liberal idealism, or the inability of a gentle soul to imagine the depravity of others. But who rates a perfect score in predicting political futures?

20 January 1918

. . . The most thrilling subject now is the slow but steady evolution of the various nations & parties toward peace. One feels that there is now quite a new air about it all. Personally I greatly admire the Bolsheviks in spite of their oppression of their enemies. The hope of the future is with them. It is they that seem to have the courage and the faith. . . Peace is really coming at last. Then comes the beginning of real work at last. It will perhaps be an age of starvation and disorder and terror and misunderstanding and revolution, but it will be the age of the beginning of the new alignment of life, at least if we all try hard enough. . . .

Alas.

Would that he, too, had protested a bit more? But Stapledon now turns to the subject of his own writing, and what he hopes will be his first major work:

Lately I have been thinking with little content about “In a Glass Darkly” and planning out considerable additions to it, & alterations If I can get the additions adequately written the whole will be a far bigger thing than before, & actually a book. Was there ever a book that took so much re-writing? Indeed it has not been written, it has grown of its own accord & very spasmodically. I don’t know if I am doing right or wrong in giving so much time & thought to this one effort. I don’t know that I even care whether it is right or wrong. All I care is that the book when it is completed shall be sound. If in years to come the world (!) asks me “What did you do in the great war?” and I have to say, “I wrote a book” I don’t care for the world’s condemnation, nor for anybody’s…

But hope remains…

…the Idea is all that matters. And faith, I did not try to avoid the war so as to write a book. I did my best to get into the war while not betraying the Idea; and since the war would not have me on those terms more than as an ambulance driver— tant pis, and all the more obligation to serve directly the Idea by laborious thought & writing. . . .

The other evening we read “Twelfth Night” and I took Sir Toby Belch with much relish. We have some rather good readers amongst us, especially one [Frederick] Jeffrey who is called Amelia because (oh horrid pun!) when he first came to us he was sent as an orderly to an outstation where the drivers reported that he greatly “ameliorated” their lot! Amelia took Portia in “The Merchant of Venice,” and did it with much spirit and delicacy. He is a nice lad, but generally asleep. At present we are having an epidemic of slight illness, due probably to some bad food or other, or possibly to the rather foul atmosphere of the stable over which we live. In the evenings, what with the stable, tobacco, acetylene lamps, the stove, and forty or more men, and the necessity for keeping the two wee windows shut because of the light, we get up a fearsome fug.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 92-3.
  2. War Diary, 442.
  3. Talking Across the World, 273-4.

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

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

Dear Coppard,

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

W.D. Garbutt

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

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

I have read their report with much pleasure.

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

 

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

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

12 January 1918

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Carroll Carstairs Decorated in Retreat; Herbert Read: the Game is not Worth the Candle; Rowland Feilding: Another Life Well Snuffed Out

Not long ago we saw Carroll Carstairs to the Casualty Clearing Station with a raging fever that will carry him all the way to Blighty. As he lay there, thinking “[h]ow cool these sheets and how warm these blankets” he also fantasized about pinning on the “pretty ribbon” of the Military Cross he had earned during a desperate withdrawal near Cambrai. Today, a century back–in his absence–the award was paraded, along with four other officers of the 3rd Grenadier Guards, before their reserve billets in Arras.[1]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s letter of today, a century back, is the purest war story we’ve had in quite some time–and it, too, is a story of determined and courageous defense rather than aggressive valor.

January 10, 1918. Front Line, Lempire.

A few minutes before four o’clock this morning the enemy tried to raid one of my Lewis gun posts which is placed, necessarily in an isolated position, well out in Noman’s Land, about 150 yards in front of the fire-trench, in a sunken road which crosses both lines of trenches. The raiders came across the snow in the dark, camouflaged in white overalls.

In parenthesis, I may explain that while I have been away there have been two unfortunate cases of sentries mistaking wiring parties of the Divisional pioneer battalion for the enemy;—whether owing to the failure of the wiring parties to report properly before going out, or to overeagerness on the part of the sentries, I do not profess to know. No one was hurt on either occasion, but a good deal of fuss was made about it, our new Brigadier blaming the men who did the shooting—his own men—and saying so pretty forcibly.

When I first heard of this I thought that a mistake had been made—if for no other reason than that there would for a time at any rate be a disinclination on the part of sentries to shoot promptly, which might prove dangerous;—and that is what happened this morning.

The double sentries on duty in the sunken road heard, but in the darkness did not see, a movement in front of them. Hesitating to shoot, they challenged. The immediate reply was a volley of hand-grenades. Private Mayne, who had charge of the Lewis gun, was hit “all over,” in many parts, including the stomach. His left arm was reduced to pulp. Nevertheless, he struggled up, and leaning against the parapet, with his uninjured hand discharged a full magazine (forty-seven rounds) into the enemy, who broke, not a man reaching our trench. Then he collapsed and fell insensible across his gun. The second sentry’s foot was so badly shattered that it had to be amputated in the trench. The doctor has just told me that he performed this operation without chloroform, which was unnecessary owing to the man’s numbed condition, and that while he did it the man himself looked on, smoking a cigarette, and with true Irish courtesy thanked him for his kindness when it was over.

Words cannot express my feelings of admiration for Private Mayne’s magnificent act of gallantry, which I consider
well worthy of the V.C. It is, however, improbable that he will live to enjoy any decoration that may be conferred upon him.[2]

 

So one Irish soldier lies dying, and another has lost his foot–and who knows how many Germans were killed or wounded in the pointless raid, in January, months away from any possibility of “strategic” effect.

Could the war have gone otherwise?

Of course–and of course not. But it really does seem that this is the season of discontent among the more philosophically-minded officers of the B.E.F.–and not just Plowman, with his liberal political ties and pacifist past, or Sassoon, with his impulsiveness and sensitivity. Although career officers like Feilding may still generally confine their criticisms to aspects of the conduct of the war with which they themselves are familiar–the slack pioneers, the short-sighted brigadier–more and more “fighting officers” are turning against the entire war of attrition, now in its fourth bitter winter.

Herbert Read is a happier warrior than many, equipped as he is with a fondness for Nietzsche, an aptitude for small-unit warfare, and unusually deep reserves of mental fortitude. But though the tone is different and the protest oblique rather than direct, he is in more or less the same place, in terms of ethical calculation, as Sassoon and Plowman: the war of attrition is a foolish waste, and cannot be won by indefinite persistence. Courage notwithstanding and courtesy aside, Feilding’s two Irish sentries might agree.

Read’s letter to Evelyn Roff begins ordinarily enough, but soon works toward the somewhat surprising admission of his own public statement against the war.

We are midway through a long weary tour of trench duty. We do four days in the line and then four in support and four in reserve–and this sometimes for more than a month…

As a Company commander I get a much easier time in the line–no long dreadful night-watches. I manage to get a little reading done. I’ve just finished one of Conrad’s novels–Under Western Eyes. Like all Conrad’s it is extraordinarily vivid and a fine appreciation of life. You must read Conrad… Get hold of Lord Jim if you haven’t already read it. There’s a human hero for you…

I also managed to write a short article and send it on to the New Age…  I called it ‘Our Point of View and my chief points were:

a) That the means of war had become more portentous than the aim–i.e. that the game is not worth the candle.

b) That this had been realized by the fighting soldier and on that account has been, out here, an immense growth of pacifist opinion.

Of course, it might offend the Censor. But it is the truth. I know my men and the sincerity of their opinions. They know the impossibility of a knock-out blow and don’t quite see the use of another long year of agony. We could make terms now that would clear the way for the future. If, after all that Europe has endured, her people can’t realize their most intense ideal (Good-will)–then Humanity should be despaired of–should regard self-extinction as their only salvation. But I for one have faith, and faith born in the experience of war.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 150.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 246-7.
  3. The Contrary Experience, 116-7.

Olaf Stapledon Plays Defense; Duff Cooper Takes the Last Blow

The antipodean mails have caught up with Olaf Stapledon, leaving him to respond to two very different letters from his beloved, Agnes Miller. First the personal, then the political:

. . . In one you talked about our inevitable drifting apart in all this absence; and all that you said was wise and comforting, and rests on the solid base rock of our now-long-standing love. It will all come right when we meet. Meanwhile let us always be frank and say just what we feel, so that we may know where we are, nicht war? Naturally I also have ups and downs of feeling. Life would be unendurable if one were always at the excruciating zenith of feeling. In the absence of summer the little beasts hibernate, to save themselves for keener living when the sun returns. With us also there must needs be much hibernating of the keen spirit of “being in love.” Be sure it will wake again in full vigour when the time comes…

As for the second letter, Stapledon’s rehearsal of his motivations and justifications is especially interesting in light of Max Plowman‘s recent deliberations:

In one letter you talked about the FAU and my relations with it… As to the whole question of my being in the F.A.U. here is a summary of the matter: I joined largely because I was in a hurry to get out & do something, partly because I was nearing pacifism. (I was practically promised a commission before joining the FAU. There was not much question of pacifism at first.) My pacifism strengthened itself in the Unit, till now it is pretty firm. It is of course a compromising sort of idea in my case—simply “I’ll do all that the state commands save whatever seems utterly wrong.” If everyone were ready to do this work & no more there would be no war. That seems to me the reasonable and—what shall I say?–the gentlest course. And I do hold that reasonableness and gentleness are the qualities most needed today. Of courage and masterfulness the world has already shown itself to have a glorious sufficiency. Anyhow here I am in the middle course, the compromise, by no means contented with it, but aware that if I were to  take either of the other two courses it would be less from a sense of duty than from the longing to be out of an uncomfortable position. . . .

Haste now. Love me. I cannot change from loving you, in spite of all hibernating.

Your own

Olaf Stapledon[1]

 

And in London, the weight of the war comes home again. Duff Cooper‘s diary records his shrinking circle’s latest loss:

I dined at the Ritz in Lionel [Tennyson]’s sitting room. It was a bachelor party. I arrived first, then Michael. We had to wait some time for William Rawle who was the fourth. He came at last and said ‘I’m sorry I’m late. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been killed.’ I felt stunned. This is the last blow. Lionel, Michael and William were all sad but none of them could have felt what I did. I courted forgetfulness in champagne but didn’t get much comfort.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 267-8.
  2. Diaries, 63.

Christmas 1917: Melancholy Milestone, Vicarious Joy, and Less Unhappy Than I Thought

It’s a complicated Christmas, 1917. Several of our writers–including Cynthia Asquith, with whom we’ll start, and Vera Brittain, whose long, sad day will come last–will dwell on the same themes of unsettled traditions and mixed memories.

It’s not simply the quandary of being caught between an instinct for celebration and the need to use a family occasion to grieve and lament for those who have been lost, but also a problem that has grown with this long, static war: if Christmas used to be a trigger for happy memories and the balm of reenacting old joys, there are now three Christmases for which the boys have not been home; three Christmases tinged with that same sickly feeling of mixed emotions, and the fear that absent loved ones may at any moment turn out to be permanently absent. For those who have lost brothers, lovers, sons, or husbands, Christmas may now provoke sharp memories of painful and bereft Christmases past.

 

It’s a very complicated Christmas at the Asquiths. Cynthia Asquith learned last night from her father-in-law, the former Prime Minister, that his son “Oc”–her husband’s sole surviving brother–has been dangerously wounded.

What bad luck! And it sounds bad, too—compound fracture of both bones above the ankle: P.M. wrote, ‘However, they hope to be able to save his foot’. I do hope he won’t lose it.

I packed up parcels after tea, and after dinner we had the usual bedroom marauding parties, but none of us had the heart for any of the time-honoured stocking jokes . . . once the old passage seemed so impregnated with darling Ego and Yvo.

Yes, if she sounds less than horrified about the serious wound to her brother-in-law, that might be because she is in her mother’s house, and both her brothers are dead.

Christmas has become a melancholy milestone for us, but luckily the men of this house-party (who are all under six years) take a glorious joy in all the old rites. Michael was the most satisfactory Christmas child imaginable: he refused to have the fire in his bedroom lit because he was afraid Father Christmas might bum his toes coming down the chimney. Bibs was wonderful with her presents—one for every servant and all beautifully done up in fancy paper and labelled. She kept putting the wrong parcels in the various stockings, so our labours lasted far into the night. I had a sad little hair-combing with Letty. She has been so valiant this year—no breakdown like last Christmas Eve and energising all day over the house decorations. My heart aches for my little John: one turns for salvation to the nursery and that is ‘the most unkindest cut of all’.

And this morning?

Tuesday, 25th December

Nurse called me at 7.30 to see Michael opening his parcels: the vicarious enjoyment was very great. Most of the family went to early service. I joined them at a late breakfast. Found a gorgeous enamel fountain pen from Freyberg. Great excitement over an anonymous present to Bibs—a lovely, and very costly-looking star-sapphire Grenadier badge brooch…[1]

And where is papa? With the artillery in Flanders:

The Major asked what the men would like for their Christmas dinner: we had expected that they would choose either geese or turkeys, but we were completely wrong; our sergeant-major reported that there was a very strong feeling in favour of sucking pigs, and a party was sent out from the wagon line to search the farms of Flanders for a sufficient supply of these delectable animals.[2]

 

Let’s take a quick tour of some of our main characters, now:

 

Robert Graves took a short leave for Christmas, and was able to be with his intended: the Nicholsons were at their house in Wales, near Harlech, and only a few hours’ journey from Rhyl. The wedding is now planned for about a month hence…[3]

 

Rowland Feilding is home, with Edith and their four daughters, aged about one to thirteen–there will be no need to write a war letter to his wife today.

And a very blurry picture of Blunden at the signal school at Mont des Cats

 

 

Edmund Blunden is away from his beloved battalion, a home away from home. He is on a less-than-thrilling signal course, tramping around in the snow and learning about German wireless procedures.

 

 

Wilfred Owen, quite busy with a hotel-full of reserve officers, will tell his sister–while thanking her for her gift and apologizing for not yet sending one to her–that he had

a very mopish Christmas. The C.O. held an orderly Room for punishments in the morning—a thing forbidden in King’s Regulations on Christmas Day—and strafed right & left, above & below…[4]

 

As for Siegfried Sassoon, he has been mopish for a while now, but he enjoys moping more than most. At least, he doesn’t sound too displeased with his Christmas:

Christmas Day (Litherland)

Alone in the hut, after a day of golf at Formby, in fine, cold weather; dine to-night with Colonel Jones Williams and family at Crosby.[5]

 

Back, then, to the front, where the Master of Belhaven is (tremendously) better prepared than he was yesterday:

Our fourth War Christmas, and a typical Christmas Day, snow everywhere…  The men on my H.Q. had a tremendous dinner with six turkeys and a bottle of stout a man, which I provided… We had a tremendous dinner with five French officers; it was really overpowering, as I had only four of my own… the doctor and I had to do all the talking…[6]

 

Carroll Carstairs will recall a similar scene in the mess of the 3rd Grenadier Guards:

Christmas night. Champagne was drunk by the Battalion Headquarters mess. We became flushed and merry—purely artificially so—all very jolly.[7]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary-in-letters has lapsed during her posting to a new hospital, but a Christmas letter to her father survives:

My darling father,

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own troupe and the rivalry is keen. We three sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers. We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3[rd] D[ragoon] G[uard]s and 2nd Black Watch & others. Each concert party has its ‘Star Girl’ marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall. Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely stockings & high heels![8]

 

As for Jack Martin, Christmas came early, and so today, in the line, he was grateful for a faint echo of the famous truce of yesteryear:

Today has been beautiful and very quiet. Our guns have fired a few rounds but the Italians and Austrians have religiously abstained from any act of warfare…[9]

 

Olaf Stapledon surely wrote something to Agnes Miller, but the letter seems not to have survived. But Agnes herself isn’t pulling any punches: it may be Christmas, but it’s still only a few days after the vote on conscription.

…A Happy Christmas to you, dear, in your far away village or barns or car, wherever you are.

If only you were here! …this is the fourth Christmas… without you… It surely must be the last…

It seems that everything works up all through the year towards Christmas & one counts the waiting of all the past year at Christmas & the sum of it is very great. . . .

The result of the Referendum has left many a tear of desperation in train. I forget the figures, but the main fact is that there is a very much larger majority for no than there was last year. I feel a terrible outsider because I cannot take it to heart like all my friends…

The sad part about it is that those gaps will be filled by men who are not the right ones to go—married men, & boys & families who have already done their bit—the willing ones. That is the wicked part about not having conscription. They may bring it in compulsorily yet—but then the fat will be in the fire!

…You would have voted against it, would you not? Your ‘no’ would have been the outcome of very different thinkings to the no of 99 per cent of the Victors in our Referendum, but the result is the same. There is the pity of it. The Quakers stuck to their no. Mother is one of their black sheep.[10]

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain. There is an evocative and deeply sad section of her memoir, Testament of Youth, set at Christmas, 1917. But after reading it over several times, it seems a bit fishy, in terms of the exact timing. I’m not alleging any malfeasance greater than the “telescoping” that many memoir writers indulge in, but if it’s done for effect, and if we care about the day-to-day timing of “history,” then we might well ask–and why, then, are these changes made? And for what effect?

Except for the weather it didn’t seem much like Christmas, with no Roland or Victor or Geoffrey to buy presents for, and Edward so far away that the chance of anything reaching him within a week of the proper time was discouragingly remote. Wartime Christmases anyhow had long lost their novelty, but Mary and I got up early all the same and made shopping expeditions to the village, walking back in pitch darkness through the frozen mud laden with fruit and sweets and gaudy decorations. Christmas Day itself was less unhappy than I had expected, for after a tea-party with the men in my ward, I spent the evening warmly and sleepily at a concert given by the convalescents from the two next-door huts, of which Hope Milroy was now in charge by day.

My own tea-party had to be brief because of another Corporal Smith — though of a type very different from that of the first mortally ill man that I had seen at the Devonshire Hospital — who was rapidly dying of phthisis.

Thus the transition from a melancholy but warm Christmas day to a dismal night of suffering and death. But note the lack of chronological specificity in the transition. That is, she doesn’t say that her own tea party was also to take place Christmas night, but rather implies it… does she telescope all the way to New Year’s Day?

Soon, in any case, Corporal Smith will die:

The traditional only son of a widow, who had been sent for from England, he was one of those grateful, sweet-tempered patients whom it was torture to be unable to save. As he and 1917 ebbed away together, I couldn’t rest even though the surviving gassed cases had gone to England and the convoys had suddenly ceased, but hovered ail night between the stove and the foot of his bed, waiting for the inevitable dawn which would steal greyly around the folded screens. Only once, for ten minutes, did I forsake the self-imposed futility of watching the losing struggle, when Edward’s Christmas letter, written on December 22nd, came out of a snowstorm to remind me that love still existed, quick and warm, in a world dominated by winter and death.

So here is the real Christmas gift. And yet it can hardly have arrived on Christmas. Three days would be good time–but quite reasonable–for a letter from the trenches in France to England. But from the new Italian front to a hospital in France? And she has just commented that she would expect it to take a week for her letter to get to him…

But here in her chronology–whether she remembers it as Christmas or she knows that it must have been a few days later and she is merely prolonging the “scene” for effect–comes Edward’s fond, but distant greetings…

“To-night I owe you a long letter… I am so thankful for your letters — they are now as before the greatest help in the whole world. . . . I don’t know whether I am glad to be here or not — it sounds strange but it’s quite true; I was glad to leave the unpleasant region we were in not far from you and the novelty was good for a time but yet in a way it is all the same because there is no known future and the end is not yet, though, on the face of things at present, there is perhaps more chance of return…

“It seems so much more than two years ago since Roland was killed — to-morrow and Monday I will think of you whenever I can and our love of him may lessen the miles between us.”

And that is how the strange, syncopated blow falls on the reader. I almost missed it: it has been two years since Roland died–two years and two days, for us–but the reader of the memoir would pass from then to there in an hour, or else in a few days of casual reading. Vera Brittain has seen fit to let the anniversary of the worst Christmas pass by unremembered, until she reads the letter.

She includes one more line from her brother’s letter, before bringing us back to the here and now (whenever, precisely, that is):

“What a long war this is! It seems wonderful to have lived so long through it when everyone else is dead.

“Good night, dear dear child.”

It must have been very soon afterwards that Corporal Smith died. His mother, a little woman in rusty black, wept quietly and controlledly beside him when the final struggle for breath began; she gave us no trouble even when Mary replied “Yes, quite sure,” to her final piteous inquiry. After I had taken her through the bitter, snowy darkness to the night superintendent’s bunk, Mary and I laid out the boy’s wasted body. His rapid death had been due, we were told, to an over-conscientious determination to endure; he had refused to complain until too late.

There, and none too subtle, is the message: another year, another day, another death–and why do we not complain, why do we not protest? Whence (and wherefore) any help for our plight?

And then, softly, Brittain turns back to a much more traditional Christmas, a moment out of Dickens, with a slight uncanny tinge of Rilke.

When the orderlies had carried him away, we sat shivering over the stove and discussed in whispers the prospect of a future life; that old discussion, the answer to which three of the four with whom I had most often shared it had now discovered for themselves — or not, as the case might be. But on night-duty many things appeared possible which were quite improbable by day; there seemed, that midnight, to be strange whispers in the snow-laden silence, and the beating of invisible wings about us in the dimly lighted ward.[11]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 384.
  2. Moments of Memory, 310.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 190.
  4. Collected Letters, 519.
  5. Diaries, 198.
  6. War Diary, 422-7.
  7. A Generation Missing, 146-7.
  8. Unknown Warriors, 205.
  9. Sapper Martin, 156.
  10. Talking Across the World, 263-4.
  11. Testament of Youth, 396-9.

Olaf’s Agnes Votes Yes; So Too Does the Graves Family; Wilfred Owen Awaits Poets’ Books, and Letters

Olaf Stapledon has written several letters to Agnes Miller over the past few days about his disillusion and despair. He is both contemptuous of the home island he is leaving–the complacency, the luxury, the hypocrisy–and frustrated at the sadness that his once again leaving it for ambulance work at the front is causing.

But he has also discussed a bitter and uncomfortable irony: that his service in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit was accepted long ago, when Britain had a volunteer army, and then grandfathered in after conscription. But now a schoolfellow–and fellow pacifist–who holds precisely the same views has no such option available to him and, instead of laborious and dangerous service at the front, is languishing at Wormwood Scrubs. This must be an evil. Australia, meanwhile, is to vote on the question of conscription. Agnes’s letter to him is written just after his, and yet it will be read only months after…

18 December 1917

Thursday Conscription Referendum. Everything is in a turmoil about that. Public meetings pro & anti everywhere, eggs & other missiles in constant use, papers full of it. Trams full of argumentative people. Posters everywhere. I am going to vote yes.[1]

And months later each will learn of the other’s position. As Olaf recently wrote, they can hardly part, since they have really yet to meet, as lovers.

 

Robert Graves, suddenly, has similar obstacles to face, but his are right before him, and eminently conquerable. Today he and Nancy Nicholson told their families of their plans to marry.

…on Tuesday the 18th, Nancy, her parents, and her brother Kit all came to lunch at Red Branch House. Nancy had defied convention by arriving not in a skirt but in the trousers of her land-girl’s ‘uniform’, of which she was immensely proud; but Alfred accepted this tolerantly, and wrote in his diary that evening that ‘Nancy grows on one’, and that it had been ‘a delightful party. Mr. N. most witty and charming, Mrs. N. a very capable and wise woman’.
When the other Nicholsons had departed, Nancy stayed on for tea, ‘and then went off with Robby into town carrying part of his baggages. Before this John came in and announced their engagement as Cupid. Robby threw the family ring, the ancient Eagle, with “Catch” and she caught on and caught it.’ Later that day, Robert and Nancy broke the news of their engagement to her parents… [2]

A good catch; but not everything will go so smoothly.

 

Wilfred Owen has no such weighty matters on his mind–just a few of his favorite things: Christmas, poetry, and friendship…

My dearest Mother,

…If you hold to giving me a present this is what I most want: Tides, Poems by John Drinkwater…

Siegfried is going out next week, but may stay in Ireland on the way. He feels like a condemned man, with just time to put things straight. One of his last deeds here is causing Robert Nichols (of the Ardours & Endurances) to write to me, and befriend me. I await Nichols’s letter with much wonder…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 261-2.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 189.
  3. Collected Letters, 516-7.

Ford Madox Hueffer’s Last Prayer to Viola Hunt; Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson Are Engaged; Edward Brittain Turns to The Loom; The Master of Belhaven Wines and Dines; Patrick Shaw Stewart Visits the New Brigadier

Ford Madox Hueffer‘s not-quite-marriage to Viola Hunt is on the rocks, but that does not preclude grand Late Romantic gestures. Today is his birthday–his forty-forth–and Hunt sent him “a box of preserved fruits & some vests & plants & tablecloths.” Her did her one better, sending a “lovely” poem… and then slashed a remainder mark across the romantic gesture by assuring her that the poem is not a heartfelt communication to her, but the result of a mere poetic game of bouts rimés, in which he tosses off poetry at short order to a given rhyme scheme. This, alas, is not only rather mean of Ford, but highly probable.

So, dear reader, try not to get too weepy–it’s just a game![1]

 

One Last Prayer

Let me wait, my dear,
One more day,
Let me linger near,
Let me stay.
Do not bar the gate or draw the blind
Or lock the door that yields,
Dear, be kind!

I have only you beneath the skies
To rest my eyes
From the cruel green of the fields
And the cold, white seas
And the weary hills
And the naked trees.
I have known the hundred ills
Of the hated wars.
Do not close the bars,
Or draw the blind.
I have only you beneath the stars:
Dear, be kind!

17/12/17

 

Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson are at a much earlier stage of their romance–more first prayer than last–but today, a century back, they took a big step forward. They have been discussing their future at great length during their long weekend together, and now it is settled: they must marry. Robert’s biographer R.P. Graves explains:

…they ‘decided to get married at once’. Nancy evidently ‘attached no importance to the ceremony’, and Robert was bound to agree with her. Luckily for him, however, Nancy also said that ‘she did not want to disappoint her father’. At that stage in his life Robert very much desired the approval both of his family and his friends; and it is highly unlikely that the man who talked to Sassoon about ‘acting like a gentleman’ could have seriously contemplated ‘living in sin’ with this girl of eighteen…

But although Graves is due back in Wales to take up his military duties once again, they decided–either from some point of tactics or, perhaps, or simple pusillanimity– to wait to tell the family. Today the Graves family will celebrate… Robert’s brother Charles’s winning of a Classical Exhibition[2] to St John’s College, Oxford.[3]

 

Speaking of educated/aspirational youth, there’s a letter of today, a century back, from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera which touches on a topic that Graves has often discussed. Brittain is reading one of the big books of the year–and perhaps the most scandalous (if we are not inclined to find militarist–or pacifist–screeds scandalous on their political principles).

Italy, 17 December 1917

…We got out of the line alright and are in quite decent billets… I am trying to read The Loom of Youth which is excellent but I am only progressing slowly at present: it is a bit exaggerated but otherwise a very reasonable portrayal of the public school. Victor would have liked it immensely as it very largely expresses his opinions.[4]

What’s interesting about this is that Alec Waugh’s book is not just a critical-satirical book about Public Schools–it’s also a gay love story. But I haven’t actually read the book, and I have no idea how clear that might be to someone “progressing slowly” through it.

It’s tempting to think that Edward is trying to tell his sister something… but I doubt it. If he were, he might mention Geoffrey Thurlow, his intimate friend, rather than Victor Richardson, the school friend who later ardently courted Vera and whom she briefly planned to marry. And also, even if he were trying to hint at secret desires of his own, it would surely sail over her head. The former provincial young lady knows things now–many valuable things–that she hadn’t known before; she knows all about love and loss and what the war does to the minds and bodies of the boys who go to fight it… but she hasn’t learned much about the love that dare not speak its name.

 

All of this is very interesting, of course, but I am once again neglecting the war. Quickly, then, to the Master of Belhaven, upon whose semi-martial doings we must keep half an eye, and then on to the Naval Division.

Yesterday, a century back, Ralph Hamilton pulled off a difficult feat: giving decent entertainment to the officers of a nearby French battery. Luckily, his own officers had recently scored some new opera records in Amiens, so after a dinner for twelve, “which was rather a strain on our resources… we had a two hours’ Grand Opera concert, which was a great success.” After hypothesizing that war “must have been very dull before the days of gramophones,” Hamilton reports a return engagement for today.

Alas–the British are at a disadvantage in two crucial areas: cookery and artillery.

They did us very well… They took us to see their 75’s, and even took the whole thing to pieces to show us the mechanism… The gun is far in advance of ours, much lighter, far simpler and stronger. I have never been able to understand why we did not adopt it at the beginning of the war…

But Hamilton has talked shopped before telling us of the dinner.

…we sat down over twenty. It was a regular feast that lasted for two hours. Their cook was a chef in a French restaurant before the war…

Hamilton even managed the reciprocal speech-making, his French lubricated by “a little good red wine.” Returning home he discovered that he and five of his officers have been mentioned in dispatches– “so we have not done so badly after all.”[5]

 

This is the pleasant side of the war of attrition. But there is also discomfort.

Patrick Shaw Stewart has now found his battalion–and it is all “his,” on a temporary basis, once more–probably about as swiftly as his parting letter found Lady Desborough.[6] Today, a century back, she wrote back:

Patrick darlingest, How I loved your adorable letter from the train, and how above all I loved you. And blessed you for holding on in trust through all the frozen time–never, never fretting… How I shall miss you, how I love you.”

But Patrick was back to writing to Diana Manners, the woman he can’t give up and who is, now that all Englishwoman are equidistantly out of reach, just as reachable as any of the others. She won’t hear his proposals and protestations, but perhaps she will accept this sort of daily diary.

Today I rode again towards the front, a martyr to duty, having evolved a new system of leading my horse the first mile, thus becoming almost entirely thawed before making myself immobile… had an amusing first interview with Oc as Brigadier, in the course of which I took a very fair luncheon off him…

Alcohol and fur are the twin secrets of winter campaigning.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, Dual Life, II, 563 n31.
  2. A partial merit-based scholarship, in American parlance.
  3. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 189.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 385.
  5. War Diary, 423-4.
  6. Although I wrote about his departure and arrival yesterday, the journey must have taken about three days, so he would have left--and written from the train to the coast--on or about the 13th.
  7. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 237-8. I am not confident of the dates in Jebb, which are not supported by a critical apparatus. He lists today, a century back, as the day Asquith was wounded, but Sellers's The Hood Battalion, 282, has the 20th, and yet has his promotion to brigadier as tomorrow, when it does seem clear that he was already brigadier--or functioning as brigadier--today, a century back. My best guess is that Asquith is the brigadier now in effect, but will officially take the position tomorrow, and be wounded on the 20th, so I will mention it then.